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The Art of Gaming

Todays videogames are visually slick, but are they venturing into the realm of fine art? Janet Hetherington takes a look at how videogame art is jumping off the screen and into the gallery. Includes a QuickTime clip!

Videogames as art: Prize Budget for Boys makes digital pop by canonizing pop icons. PacMondrian takes the classic arcade game Pac-Man and combines it with Piet Mondrians work. Courtesy of PBFB.

If you have the QuickTime plug-in, you can view a clip from each film by simply clicking the image.

Art can be defined as the production, expression or realm of what is beautiful. It can also be described as objects subject to aesthetic criteria. Today, some of the most recent additions to the world of art are coming from an unexpected source videogames.

Artist Andy Warhol first took everyday things and raised them to a new level of artistic awareness in the 1960s. In his book, American Vision, Robert Hughes wrote, He first exhibited in an art gallery in 1962, when the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles showed his 32 Campbell's Soup Cans, 1961-62. From then on, most of Warhols best work was done over a span of about six years, finishing in 1968, when he was shot. And it all flowed from one central insight: that in a culture glutted with information, where most people experience most things at second or third hand through TV and print, through images that become banal and disassociated by repeated again and again and again, there is role for affect-less art.

Jason Della Rocca of International Game Developers Assoc. sees games as a work of art because its components are artful and they are filled with human expression and experience.

Todays artists are again looking to pop culture for inspiration, and videogames are providing that inspiration. Interestingly enough, videogames appear to be as interactive in art as they are in play.

Games are unique in that the components that make up a game are all art/artful (i.e., story, music, voice acting, code, etc.), and a game as a whole is a work of art. Games are an extremely powerful medium for human expression and experience, says Jason Della Rocca, exec director, International Game Developers Assoc. (IGDA).

Cracking the Code

In a recent exhibition at the InterAccess Electronic Media Arts Centre in Toronto called Controller: Artists Crack The Game Code (Feb. 24-March 25, 2006), five artists modified videogames by exploiting glitches in the code, adding or removing elements in the game and isolating specific visual components. By hacking the game code, these works questioned the latent meaning of the gaming language who designs the software and for what end, who is controlling whom?

In the exhibition, the artists used recognizable gaming icons to add bizarre twists to familiar territory. In Myfanwy Ashmores mario trilogy, viewers were invited to play three hacked versions of the original Super Mario Brothers game.

Anita Fontaine + Yumi-co's CuteXdoom created a game installation that explored the modern cultures addiction to cuteness. The mission was to become a member of the toy-worshipping Yumi-co cult and gain access to the exclusive temple-quarters. It ran within the game Unreal Tournament 2003.

At the recent Controller: Artists Crack The Game Code exhibition, Anita Fontaine + Yumi-co showed CuteXdoom, a game installation that explored modern cultures addiction to cuteness. Courtesy of Dave Kemp.

Apollo Shrapnel Part 1 and Restless < Wrath were two previously unseen works of Tasman Richardsons Atari glitch video series. These videos explored abstract color and form through captures of Atari game manipulations.

Prepared PlayStation by RSG (Alexander Galloway, assistant professor in the Department of Culture and Communication at New York University) was an installation using three scenes inside the game Tony Hawk's Underground 2. Using unmodified versions of the PlayStation game, this work exploited bugs and glitches in the code to create jolting game loops. Videogames were the content of the work; no additional footage or editing was used. After being prepared, the game played itself perpetually.

PacMondrian and Calderoids by Prize Budget for Boys comprised custom-designed arcade cabinets that take classic arcade games Pac-Man and Asteroids and combine them with the work of famous artists Piet Mondrian and Alexander Calder.

Our motto is Lets Play Art! says Neil Hennessy, Prize Budget for Boys. Given that art has always been what we do with our excess energy, we like how videogame art makes us reflect on all art as something we play with; not just passively viewing, listening, or consuming, but actively playing.

Hennessy acknowledges a connection to videogame art and the work of Andy Warhol. We're actually using Andy Warhols work itself in a game we're releasing soon called I Shot Andy Warhols Empire, Hennessy says. It's a light-gun game where you have to shoot at Andy Warhols reflection, which only appears a couple of times during his eight-hour movie of the Empire State building when he changes the film. The most boring movie ever made is now the most boring videogame ever made! We also have a game called Claes OldenBurgerTime in the works, so well have two pop art videogames.

Lets Play Art! is Prize Budget for Boys motto. Above is Calderoids, which marries the game Asteroids with the mobile art of Alexander Calder. Courtesy of PBFB. Photo: Jason Krygier-Baum.

By using widely acknowledged masterpieces of western art as structural elements in our games, we demonstrate that the distinction between fine art and videogames is arbitrary and ultimately meaningless, Hennessey says. We've often called our work Digital Pop since we're canonizing digital pop icons like Mario and Ms. Pac-Man the same way Andy Warhol anointed film icons like Elvis and Marilyn Monroe.

Into the Pixel

While the Controller show explored the interactive cultural aspects of videogame art, the Into the Pixel juried exhibition casts a keen eye on the artistic merit of such art. Into the Pixel 2006, now in its third year, will premiere May 10 to 12, 2006, at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in the Los Angeles Convention Center Concourse Foyer.

Into the Pixel (ITP) is curated by experts from art museums, cutting-edge galleries and interactive industry veterans. Some were skeptical when they first took on the task.

The juried exhibition, Into the Pixel, now in its third year, casts a keen eye on the artistic merits of gaming art. Above is Chicago Train Grave from the game Strangleholdby Stephan Martiniere. © Midway Games. Courtesy of I

"When Kevin Salatino (curator of prints and drawings at LACMA) asked me to be on the Into the Pixel jury for the 2005 competition, I thought he had lost his aesthetic mind and I said as much in a slightly less polite way, says ITP juror Louis Marchesano, collections curator, prints and drawings, Getty Research Institute. Its an odd thing to judge static images that were, for the most part, taken from videogames.

And then the other problem: is it art? Marchesano asks. I decided not to be pedantic and take the images at face value and judge them from my perspective as a curator. I look at composition, color, and line, as well as the disposition of characters not to mention a bunch of other issues. What I found were images that were sometimes poetic, sometimes nostalgic, and sometimes downright brilliant.

Some works seemed to evoke more traditional paintings or drawings, while some effects were more sculptural or digital, notes ITP juror Cynthia Burlingham, deputy director of collections, UCLA Hammer Museum Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts.

The Into the Pixel exhibition comes at an interesting time in contemporary art, where fine artists are utilizing imagery and concepts from videogames into their work, comments ITP juror Caryn Coleman, co-owner and director, sixspace and Usually this influence stems from the generation who have grown up with gaming culture, and it can manifest itself into more traditional fine-art forms such as sculpture, paintings, and multi-media installations.

Into the Pixel allows viewers to become familiar with the art that stems directly from the videogames of today and winds up influencing the fine art realm. Titans Head by Eduardo Gonzalez is from God of War. © SCEA. Co

Jurying Into the Pixel gave me the opportunity to familiarize myself with the art that stems directly from the videogames of today and is, thus, influencing the fine art realm. Coleman says. Coming at it from an art background, my interest lies in the finished product: How does the piece work? How is it composed? Does it aesthetically stand up to what I see in my everyday work environment as a gallerist? What I found was that, yes it can. Whether or not digital/game art will be accepted into the contemporary artwork will depend entirely on the context in which it is presented. Given this right context, I do not see why talented gaming artists couldnt emerge successfully as fine artists.

Videogame art relies as much on the method of creation as a mastery of effects. I once swore I would never use a computer to produce art that the fidelity and feedback and creative process of my beloved traditional materials could never be matched by what was then an admittedly fairly crude contraption (this was way back in 1996 after all), says ITP juror Ryan Church, freelance concept artist and former senior art director, Industrial Light and Magic. Now I can't see working any other way. The computer as an art, design and illustration tool is a huge leap forward for artists looking to work in a media which has virtually no limitations on creativity or potential.

ITP juror and artist Ryan Church once swore he would never use a computer to produce art and now he can't see working any other way. For him, the computer has virtually no limitations on creativity or potential.

Videogame artists are only now beginning to receive the recognition they deserve. Few can have failed to notice that stunning graphic content is driving next-generation games, says ITP juror Tim Langdell, lecturer at the University of Southern California and chairman, EDGE Games. This has led to an extremely high caliber of artist being attracted to the game industry artists whose work rivals that in any other medium. The quality of game art has been a tremendous inspiration to my university students who are excited to see games now as a clear art form in themselves, and a domain where they can potentially excel to widespread acclaim.

Exhibitions also offer the public to see the work and talent that goes into creating the videogames they enjoy. Each year the game industry continues to attract incredible artistic talent from around the globe. Yet much of the work created by these artists goes into the preproduction process and is rarely seen in its original form by the art-loving public, comments ITP juror Lorne Lanning, president/creative director, Oddworld Inhabitants. Thats why Into the Pixel is an exciting opportunity. It allows the artistic works to be seen and judged by the artistic merits of the creators and not by the commercial success that is all too often mistaken for quality in our mass-market medium.

Iconic Images

For many videogame players, seeing images from their favorite games brings back pleasant memories, and they proudly wear the images on apparel like t-shirts. Videogame art is wearable art.


Characters like Pac-Man have infiltrated our society observes Darren Orr of Spy Post, which worked on TV spot Pac-Man Mexican Puppet Show. Courtesy of Spy Post; Client/Product: Turner/GameTap; Ad Agency: Mullen.

Characters like Pac-Man influence and infiltrate so many different things in our society even kids whove never seen the original game know who Pac-Man is, says Darren Orr, co-founder/lead artist, Spy Post, whose company worked on a TV spot for GameTap called, Pac-Man Mexican Puppet Show.

Videogames have become such a huge source of entertainment in our world. Like movies and music, they are part of our day-to-day life. Characters exist separately from their original source, and with videogame characters, much like cartoon characters, they are so simple to reproduce and use on different mediums that they are an easily marketed item. Plus, in the case of the older characters, they carry a huge nostalgia value.

Gamers go nutty over this stuff, says Jason Della Rocca, IDGA executive director. My Kochamara (one of the bosses from Psychonauts) t-shirt is my most prized article of clothing!

However, when it comes to what turns videogames into art, the answer is a little more Zen. Interactivity and player engagement are what make a game a game, Della Roca says. Some would say that a game is not art unless it is being played that the art is co-authored by the player.

Janet Hetherington is a freelance writer and cartoonist. She shares a studio in Ottawa, Canada with artist Ronn Sutton and a ginger cat, Heidi.

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