From Video Games to Video Art

William Lockett (New York University), ‘From Video Games to Video Art: Meta-gaming 8-bit from the Arcade Laboratory, circa 1983’

In 1980, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), Chicago, held an exhibition: “From Video Games to Video Art”. Thomas DeFanti and his collaborators (University of Illinois at Chicago) installed an 8-bit, real-time raster graphics generator built from ROM chips used in arcade cabinets. The exhibition was a spinoff from their efforts to build such a machine for the domestic market—a project that failed when Midway pulled funding for a Bally Arstrocade peripheral, the Z Box, that was to run DeFanti’s graphics programming language, Zgrass. The videogame market meltdown of 1983 put an end to all this.

Zgrass and the MCA show are part of an experimental game design scene that looked to the American video arcades of the early 1980s as a counterexample for game design practice. I argue that the child player was a standard object from which a model of the average player-user was extrapolated. Working primarily with DeFanti’s forgotten 1984 article, “The Mass Impact of Videogame Technology”, I show how Zgrass fits within a scene of late-stage experiments with arcade technology: namely, Timothy Skelly’s new-wave Reactor (1982) arcade cabinet and a child-friendly variant on the pin-ball machine, Bill Budge’s Pinball Construction Set (1983) for the Apple ][. I track instances of the term “meta-game” in writings by DeFanti, and in TV interviews with Budge, to show how these designers used arcade laboratories to test ways of managing the circuit between design, the child’s boredom, and the obsolescence rhythm of the gaming industry.

Boredom with arcade games was a major interruption in the dissemination of Cold War technology; it was also a lesson in the temporal logic of the user group. I show that Derrida elucidates this temporalizing movement of dissemination in his early work on Husserl’s Origin of Geometry and his late work on the gift—these aspects of Derrida’s oeuvre help us listen to these interruptions; to hear in their impetuousness a forgotten demand placed on capital and the welfare state to take responsibility for the gift of computation.

William Lockett is a PhD candidate in the department of Media, Culture, and Communication at NYU, where he teaches an undergraduate course on the history, culture, and industry of videogames. He is currently writing a genealogy of the personal computer based on the idea that the child was a standard object from which models of the average computer user were extrapolated. His PhD research focuses mainly on the American context, 1950 to 1980, but strives more generally for a sited, media-historical approach toward analyzing how late-capitalist governments and corporate product development processes treat public institutions as laboratories for experiments in means of disseminating, constructing and financializing a common ground of technological usability. His dissertation builds on his Masters research on experimental art games and phenomenology—undertaken in the department of Art History and Communication Studies, McGill University—by furthering his commitment to uncovering the centrality of the history of games to the history of computers. This early work appears in the proceeding of the Digital Games Research Association (DiGRA). Will’s research is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and by NYU Steinhardt’s LeBoff Fund.

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