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February 2010
 
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Sat, Dec. 27th, 2008 02:49 am
Will the games boom birth a new art form?

This year, writes John Lanchester in the current London Review of Books, video games will earn more money in the UK than CD and DVD sales combined (£4.64 billion for games, £4.46 billion for all CD and DVD sales.) This was reflected in our flat this week; I bought a video game (for the Wii console I gave Hisae for Christmas) but certainly didn't buy any CDs or DVDs. I've learned how to find the music and films I'm interested in free online now, but I know that you can't fileshare playable Wii games. This is probably one good reason Nintendo are, per employee, the world's most profitable company. But it might also be a sign that video games are about to become an important art form in their own right.

This is Lanchester's theme: his article about games is entitled Is It Art? "It seems clear to me that by the time my children are adults," he writes, "video gaming will be a medium whose importance and cultural ubiquity are at least as great as that of film or television. Whether it will be an artistic medium of equivalent importance is less clear... The next decade or so is going to see the world of video games convulsed by battles between the moneymen and the artists; if the good guys win, or win enough of the time, we’re going to have a whole new art form."



Now, this fits into this week's Click Opera themes rather neatly: Wednesday's brief history of moral panics measured the vitality of media by how much they were getting blamed for corrupting youth, and concluded that the kind of censorship debates happening in other media at their peaks in past decades are happening in computer games now, making the medium "hot and dangerous".

The thing I brought back from my 1993 Japan trip that most influenced my future work wasn't a record or a film but a video game, a CD-ROM by artist Kuniyoshi Kaneko called Alice. It was basically just a house that you walked around, featuring paintings by Kaneko, Nino Rota-esque music, and puzzles you had to complete to shrink or grow, but I found the atmosphere fascinating. I especially liked the attic room, an interactive replica of Kaneko's studio, where you could leaf through 1940s copies of Vogue. Later, I'd become immersed in games like Parappa, Myst, Doom, Bugdom, Animal Crossing (over Hisae's shoulder). Our Wii will basically be for tennis and keeping fit until the February Euro-release of Fatal Frame 4.

Fatal Frame (also known as Zero: Tsukihami no Kamen, and subtitled for this fourth edition Mask of the Lunar Eclipse) is an atmospheric horror game in which you have to photograph ghosts in a haunted mansion on Rougetsu Island. Anne Laplantine and Xavier used to play the PlayStation version when I was round at their place, and I loved the Ringu-like atmosphere of the dark house. The Japanese website is pretty compelling stuff in its own right -- clicking around randomly in a foreign language only adds to the pleasurable disorientation, and the music sounds like Sakamoto's collaborations with Carsten Nicolai.



I find it wonderful that Fatal Frame is a game about taking photographs in beautiful, atmospheric surroundings, rather than shooting stuff or driving a car, but so far it's the exception rather than the rule. John Lanchester hits the nail on the head in his LRB piece when he raises what he calls "the c-word" -- creativity. It's creativity that will turn computer games into a real art form. Too many are still tasks-oriented rat-runs (press the button, get the reward) or Darwinian struggles in which the options are to kill or be killed. Personally, I'd like to see interesting purposelessness define games more in the future: liberation from the Pavlovian task-reward-level-up structure. Are computer games already an art form? I don't think so. Do they need to be? I think they do.

While we wait for the games themselves to get more creative, we can inject our own creativity into them. When my nephew Robbie was staying in Berlin this autumn -- and Robbie would rather make games at Rockstar than be a rock star -- he introduced me to the genre of machinima, "a sort of machine cinema made by sticking new dialogue over computer game scenarios". Lanchester cites the increasing capital costs of making new games as a barrier to their becoming artworks, but machinima is a cheap open architecture for creative content, a back door to user input. For now it's a hack, but it needn't always be.

Games are also meshing with social networking software, becoming more like places, or communities like Second Life. But a community isn't a work of art: for art you need the tightly-controlled vision of one or two highly original, driven independent producers. Now that computer games are bringing in more income than films and music combined, there's sure to be a rush of talented, ambitious and original people into the medium (along with the moral panics that help make their names). Full art status for games may be lurking just around the next cobwebbed corner.

50CommentReply

krskrft
krskrft
Sat, Dec. 27th, 2008 02:28 am (UTC)

I think the biggest hurdles thus far are, as you mentioned, the cost of making games, and as you didn't mention, the absolute top-down nature of the publishing/distribution process. For PC games, the latter isn't as big a problem, but when it comes to development of console games, the console manufacturers basically control, at all levels, what can or cannot be played on their systems. In that way, the video game world very much like TV right now, in that while you may manage to create the content (despite its great expense, depending on the scope of the project), you can't just come along and broadcast it wherever you like.

The latest generation of consoles, however, have also brought with them downloadable content capabilities, and the three major systems have introduced markets at which users can purchase more independent, homebrew style games. But even these DLC systems are beholden to the gatekeepers at the manufacturers for final say in whether something gets published/distributed via this tributary.

I would say that, right now, the path of least resistance is in independent PC game development. But for bottom-up "artistic" games to really flourish as a medium, enthusiasts are going to have to crack the consoles by demanding that manufacturers take a few steps back and open up the floodgates.

I think what we're looking at here is less a matter of making games more innovative, and more a matter of opening up means of production/publication/distribution. Innovation will certainly follow if the latter is achieved.


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(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand

krskrft
krskrft
Sat, Dec. 27th, 2008 02:34 am (UTC)

I should adjust my argument a little bit by saying that the video game world is very much like TV before the ubiquity of internet video. It seems as though video games, at least on the console end of things, are still stuck in a relatively conservative system.


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diesel_pioneer
diesel_pioneer
michael (lowercase M)
Sat, Dec. 27th, 2008 02:34 am (UTC)

I think there's a lovely heterogenous relationship between games as the act of playing, and the experience of art.. I've never been ardent videogamer, but by and large the ones that captivate me are the ones which have none of this narrative, task-reward structure. Which provide a framework for one's own games (for instance as a teen I once played GTA 3 for about half an hour just following people around, which in retrospect was, like, totally Vito Acconci) much as some broomsticks, chairs and a bedsheet could be a framework for childrens' games. Like much art that I enjoy, it's about using a framework to one's own ends.

There's also, I feel, been a strong craft element - creative, even? - to games of all kinds. I've seen some amazing chessboards, for instance, and some very fine rocking horses. These are archetypal forms which begin to sing in the hands of an appropriately creative person. Though I'm not so convinced video games can be a whole new artform per se, I do think there's huge potential for the exploration of the video game archetype in the hands of someone with interesting ideas.


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grzeg
grzeg
grzeg
Sat, Dec. 27th, 2008 03:03 am (UTC)

Many have already expounded on the “game-as-art”… I remember your highlights on Myst vis-à-vis Doom

Seeing passed the fact that most video games are consumer products for purchase, socio-cultural creative forces do exist – not only in making (including user-created content), but in playing video games: an entire generation has grown up immersed with playing video games – they do not read the instruction manual for a video game, they just begin playing and figure things out along the way. It’s the gamers’ mindset, a different way of learning and knowing than the previous linear cultural standard of consuming knowledge. Optimistically, it’s a way of knowing the world as a place of creation – rather than of consumption.

For better or worse, the new medium and art of video games is changing the way we think.


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krskrft
krskrft
Sat, Dec. 27th, 2008 04:02 am (UTC)





Just an example of how stultifying the process of publication/distribution can be to an independent artist: This guy made a full-length, old school RPG for the Nintendo DS that actually looks really, really great, certainly of publishable quality, and is now on a 100 day sit down protest because Nintendo refuses to sell him their software development kit, even though he apparently meets all of their requirements (including setting up his own development "business," renting out separate workspace, etc.) to do so.


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(Anonymous)
Sat, Dec. 27th, 2008 05:00 am (UTC)

Have you tried Portal? (http://orange.half-life2.com/portal.html) You have to navigate a maze using a portal-gun, which creates temporary holes in space. It's a good workout for your spatial brain muscles.


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kineticfactory
kineticfactory
this is not your sawtooth wave
Sat, Dec. 27th, 2008 01:32 pm (UTC)

Isn't Portal a first-person shooter?

I can't imagine Momus being into first-person shooting games (a case of aggressive normality if there ever was one), any more than I can imagine him hosting Top Gear.


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krskrft
krskrft
Sat, Dec. 27th, 2008 06:02 am (UTC)

but when examining whether games need to have rules or have a goal or have conflict, i think people tend to ignore the fact that games (non video!) tend to have rules and a goal and conflicts.

Well, and at the same time, rules are an inherent part of the actual coding of a game. Why try to deny or hide via some illusion that which is so foundational to the artwork itself?


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(Anonymous)
Sat, Dec. 27th, 2008 08:20 am (UTC)
look momus!

http://www.1up.com/do/newsStory?cId=3172059


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jermynsavile
jermynsavile
jermynsavile
Sat, Dec. 27th, 2008 10:47 am (UTC)

Film only became art for a short period when the money didn't understand or was willing to take risks with what the "creatives" were up to. Now, mostly, it isn't an art form at all. Painting and literature were both able to benefit from the fact that the person doing the creating didn't need large amounts of funding to do what they needed to do. A lot of interesting things were no doubt lost, but some managed to come through. The fact that art patrons tended to be individuals rather than institutions helped too (very little, if any, good art has ever been created because it's been commissioned by the Arts Council or Tate Modern).

Computer games are a corporate enterprise from the beginning - depending on large scale funding right from the off - and distribution chains are already established, corporate and "safety first" in approach. Already there are execs sitting in rooms asking whether this will play well to 16-year-old boys in Idaho and how to avoid the buyers at Walmart thinking it's too weird to stock.

I think the way that the business is run means that any truly creative impulse is unlikely to get through the big money filter. I hope I'm wrong, but don't care too much as I think that there is more than enough art out there already - I'm not sure we even need any more! The importance of creating new art lays with the people creating it, not the people who consume it - it shouldn't particularly matter to the consumers when something is produced, just that they have access to it.

But when computer games been around long enough and the people who played the games as kids become the adults "in charge" then the big media corporations will finally get on the boat and it'll be called "art" anyway, whether it is or it isn't. Same as all the old farts who now think that the greatest manifestation of 20th century culture is '60s and '70s rock music (Alan Yentob et al). It's about generational values, not the quality of what is being produced.

Incidentally, have you ever come across the work of Daniel Brown? It's interactive, and gently absorbing. He is also an interesting chap, aiming squarely towards "art" right from the start, and unconstrained by narrative and assumptions about how this medium should work. He also, since an accident a few years ago rendered him quadriplegic, has interesting things to say about how we deal with disability.


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krskrft
krskrft
Sat, Dec. 27th, 2008 11:07 am (UTC)

So "film" and "literature" are just large communities that either definitively are/aren't "art"? How do you figure?

I think the question of whether video games can or cannot be "art" is perhaps one of the most boring questions we could be asking. Because really what we mean when we ask "can they be art?" is "can they be loved and appreciated by respectable, worldly, intelligent people?" And at the end of the day, that's something I'd rather not see happen to video games.

I think this recent focus on video games as "art" is more of a professional debate among video game critics/reviewers, who see an emerging schism in their field between "serious criticism" and garden variety, consumer-oriented reviews. To that extent, the debate has some value as a way of distinguishing the role of critics. But for general purposes, I think the distinction is really quite tedious.


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(Anonymous)
Sat, Dec. 27th, 2008 11:11 am (UTC)
Let's go to Africa

One game I enjoyed much this year was Afrika for the Playstation 3. It never saw a release outside of Japan/China, but you can import it from websites like yesasia.com and the likes.

In Afrika, you play a photographer for National Geographic, and your working place is the African savannahs. The game not only simulates the African wildlife to a small degree, but also photography - to a higher degree. ISO levels focussing mode and so on are all adjustable. Lighting and shutter speed influence how your pictures will look like. It's really exciting!

You can use four different models of Sony's Alpha series, complete with different lenses et cetera. National Geographic will request specific photos with very specific conditions of you - shoot a group of giraffes against the setting African sun; get a picture of a baboon carrying a baby on its back - but the real fun comes from trying to shoot exciting photos.

You can see a few of the pics I took here (http://flickr.com/photos/24005787@N04/sets/72157607538507693/) and here (http://flickr.com/photos/24005787@N04/sets/72157607269604595/), on the Flickr I only got for these pictures.

It's great to see you embrace video games, by the way. The "Are games art?" thing got big about a year ago, it was kind of overdue for you to join in!

-r


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jimyojimbo
jimyojimbo
Dr Jim
Sat, Dec. 27th, 2008 11:38 am (UTC)

This video [from a TED talk on video games] (or more to the point, the short film the speaker presents), may be of interest to you.

http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/david_perry_on_videogames.html


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womanonfire
Auriea.
Sat, Dec. 27th, 2008 12:48 pm (UTC)
can of worms

The games/art debate that is going on in the games industry is largely a semantic one. It starts in interesting places but always ends in a dictionary, with people trying to define Games and to define Art. We have put forth the notion that video games are not games at all in the traditional sense and tried again and again to take a stand for the expansion and elevation of the games medium. We have called the things that we make games and been smacked down for it. We have also been embraced by the gaming community.

But...
After being involved with gamers/the game industry for going on 5 years now I've learned that it is not yet ready for artists. (the things you are pointing out lately make me think that maybe the day will come soon though.) Artists need freedom and room to roam, need to be able to expand paradigms till they break. The game industry is hugely conservative to spite how things may seem with the GTAs and blood + gore. Those who want to blow shit up are the conservatives. It is a money driven business and not much else. They think that art is a glossy layer which can be smeared on top of their tired shooter game (like Bioshock). Those who want beauty, slowness and simple enjoyment are the radicals. We want to see the game format evlove into something pluralistic, with many voices and activities, and many dreamworlds to inhabit. We are not alone in this, there are millions of people who find games exciting and intriguing for reasons like you mention who WANT to play games but cannot find content of any interest to them.

The console manufacturers are like major television networks lording over lucrative channels.
The big game companies are all sound and fury but with little heart to back it up.
There are few dissenting voices but they are getting louder. The "non-game" game may get its day. To do this the definition of game needs to be expanded, not protected. In the same way that there are no "non-film" films or "non-book" books there shouldn't be "non-games"

At Tale of Tales we are just 2 people with some funny ideas... We're autodidact and independent, we have little money and have yet to perfect our methods. we are terrrible at business apects. But we have written a manifesto ;) because we couldn't help ourselves.

So anyway,
Some games you might be interested in looking at (though not for Wii, unfortunately... except Calling but not much info is out there about it yet.)
- Linger In Shadows, video
- Jenova Chen/thatgamecompany, flOw(theres also a playable web version of this out there somewhere)
- Noby Noby Boy which is sort of Superflat ;)

I wish there were more story driven games that had an artistic slant (Façade springs to mind, not sure you'd like it.) Fatal Frame is a good one, I've always enjoyed that series. I hope that it doesn't lose you when it starts geting difficult to beat the ghosts. It uses a photography paradigm and looks fabulous but at its center its still, just a game.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Dec. 27th, 2008 01:56 pm (UTC)
Re: can of worms

Those who want to blow shit up are the conservatives... Those who want beauty, slowness and simple enjoyment are the radicals. We want to see the game format evolve into something pluralistic, with many voices and activities, and many dreamworlds to inhabit.

Just want to endorse these sentiments entirely!

I'll check out your recommendations now.


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Re: can of worms - (Anonymous) Expand

(Anonymous)
Sat, Dec. 27th, 2008 04:49 pm (UTC)
zelda link

dear momus

a friend of anne just sent her a youtube video link: an unplugged cover of "zelda wind waker". In the comments someone said "epic". I remembered you wrote something on my "family films" saying they were an "epic" work. So I come here on your page and find this today entry about video games. Although that I am happy that you discovered fatal frame with us, it's also part of a new film series I'm working on at the moment, mixing childhood films with my video games, including zelda and fatal frame. that's it.


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internought
internought
denial o'niall
Sat, Dec. 27th, 2008 05:10 pm (UTC)
I Fell In Love With The Majesty Of Colors

http://www.kongregate.com/games/GregoryWeir/the-majesty-of-colors

An excellent example of the artistic possibility of games, IMHO.


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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Dec. 27th, 2008 07:13 pm (UTC)

But the internet surely provides the perfect alternative medium for people to distribute whatever Java- or Flash-based "art games" they make, without the need for big development, distribution and promotion budgets, office rental, store rental, etc etc? And yet there doesn't seem to be much going on -- I don't see people blogging about some amazing new art game they've discovered. There aren't even decent sex games, as far as I can see.

I don't have a Safari menu for games; I don't think of that as something I want the web to give me, for some reason. And yet I will buy a console from time to time, and a game that offers something atmospheric and immersive, or some amazing interface advance like the directional, sonic, vibrating wifi Wii controller that can become a tennis racket or a knife or a baseball bat.

We haven't mentioned artists who've used computer games: Miltos Manetas and Cory Arcangel, for instance, or Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Pareno. But that stuff peaked approximately eight years ago, and the artists are now doing things in reaction against their computer game-influenced work. And I don't think, when we talk about computer games as art, we're talking about computer games copying the moments of art when art copies computer games. That would be like two mirrors facing each other.


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(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand

(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand