The art of gaming
RIP Snakes and Ladders and Monopoly. Your place is in the bottom drawer of the holiday bach for dusting off in power cuts. You're passe. And no one ever called you art. Design perhaps, but not in the league of video games which appear in an exhibition at The Dowse, Arcade: Homegrown Video Games, and, opening at Te Papa in December, Game Masters.
Video gaming, says Leanne Wickham, the curator of Arcade, is possibly the fastest-growing form of mass art in the world.
Whatever its aesthetic credentials, video gaming is a big industry. In New Zealand this image-reliant business it is worth $150 million, estimated to rise to more than $192 million by 2015. Worldwide, gaming is already a $US74 billion industry, larger than music and movie box office. By 2015 it expected to hit $90 billion.
Stephen Knightly, director of games studio inGame and chairman of the New Zealand Game Developers Association, says there are nearly 400 people developing video games for a living in New Zealand, twice as many as there were two years ago. Sidhe, in Wellington - maker of Shatter, featured in Games Masters - is the country's largest games studio with a staff of more than 80, down from a high of 120 a few years ago, largely a consequence of moving from a console "games factory for hire" to self-publishing smartphone and online games and using outside skills.
There are big games businesses and successful one-man businesses. In theory anyone can join in. Distance is no barrier to international sales. Video games can be created in the lounge, with luck, sold over the internet and played on the run. No wonder the industry is spawning such breathtaking statistics. But is it necessarily art, good or bad?
Wickham believes game visuals could be emerging as art "in the same way as film in the 1950s and 1960s. It started out with little boxes you moved around the screen, the Pac-Man days. Now there are such sophisticated techniques and design tools.The Dowse has a design background and this is another version of design."
Wickham wasn't a great games aficionado before she curated Arcade which focusses on 15 New Zealand games. Her research uncovered some odd facts about who does play. Almost twice as many adult women play video games as boys 17 or younger. Almost half of all players are women, possibly more aware of the graphics than teenage boys. The average age of players - 34 - is not as young as might be imagined. But, not surprisingly, 95 percent of children aged six to 15 play compared with 41 percent of people 51 or older.
Wickham says games allow women, or anyone "to play in a pretend world in the same way as a movie takes you to that other place."
Sometimes that place is one with artistic aspirations. That's not surprising, says Knightly, when 40 percent of the people employed in the gaming industry are artists, many of them conventionally trained in art schools. The rest are computer whizzes.
"The video games industry is full of really smart people, with the creativity of the film sector and the technical ability of the IT sector."
He believes, in the world of art, video games "face the same challenges as every new art medium has experienced, like photography as art." But, he says, video gaming is now able to "stand on its own merits". Part of the art of games is that they are inherently "interesting and fun and can create an emotional reaction in people, or say something about how the world works.
"What is uniquely powerful to video games is allowing people to experiment with the world. You can have beautiful art, photography and music in games as well, art at all levels."
Games also spawn not only merchandise in the way movies have done but a multitude of other indisputably creative endeavours. The Boston-based Video Games Orchestra, resoundingly sold out when it played game soundtracks in Wellington's Town Hall in 2009.
Music from New Zealand bands is integral to Knightly's new game Music Manager, featured in Arcade. It was created to give players an online experience of managing their own band - saying something about how the world works, the art of calling the tune.
Art, history and interaction feature in the upcoming Te Papa exhibition which looks at three decades of popular work from influential game designers such as Peter Molyneux, Warren Spector, Tim Schafer and Hideo Kojima. The exhibition will include a purpose-built "gaming universe" so people can experience original game artwork as well as interviews with designers and interactive displays. .
Visitors will be able, for example, to play Yu Suzuki's full-body 1980s arcade game, or take a dance challenge in Alex Rigopulous and Eran Egozy's Dance Central 2, or try Firemint's Real racing 2.
Kristelle Plimmer is concept developer for Games Master. Plimmer says video games have invaded everyday life since decades ago when they were standard in fish 'n chip shops . Even people who say they don't play probably do - Angry Birds on their smartphone, for example.
"It's one of those things that's all-pervasive, taking over the culture, the art they make, the styles of cartooning and drawing they use. It's pretty much a global phenomenon, people not watching television but turning on a game console." The visuals, she says migrate to fashion and advertising, in the same way as the 1999 movie The Matrix made long black coats fashionable. Computer games are reflected in fashion's abstract patterns and pop-art colours.
If video games are art, nothing comes prettier than James Brown's game Ancient Frog, explored in The Dowse exhibition. Brown is currently adapting it for the new Microsoft Windows 8. It features gorgeous frogs in gorgeous watery places that need to be trickily guided to an elusive fly.
Brown, with a background in computer programming for big organisations in Britain, is now a lone game producer who came here for a better life, and knowing computer games can be made anywhere.
The verdant images in Ancient Frog come from his own photography of frog-friendly lilly pads and other greenery that took his fancy when he was wandering around in the New Zealand wild. The images, he says, involve a mix of techniques, the various components all atmospherically layered and lit. "The background, leaves and rocks are photography and the frogs are hand-drawn."
Brown had the idea for game in mind when he arrived here five years ago and intended to "get together with an artist and bang it into shape, but the further I went with it the more I thought I didn't need another artist."
The game's watery images are beautiful but Brown is not sure if that makes it art.
"Discussion on whether it's possible for games to be art gets people heated," he says. "I'm happy to describe it as a craft. There are things you need to do to make it look right. If someone wants to say it's art, I'm happy, but you can measure craft, whether it's well-executed and achieves what you set out to do. Art can be a bit more elusive.
"It's important to show it as art, though, put it in front of people and make them consider it in a different way."
Ancient Frog has won Brown several international awards including a prize of $50,000. It hasn't, he says, made him a fortune, "but it has been enough to give up the day job.
"The timing was good. The iPhone version was released at the point the iPhone was taking off. There was a gold-rush for games in the early years of the iPhone, up until the end of 2009 which is fizzling out. There were people who got money quickly and had a pretty easy ride."
The present climate, he says, is good for small development teams, and app stores put games in front of a mass market of computer device users who wouldn't necessarily have pursued them a few years ago. He sells Ancient Frog through several platforms, including the Apple App Store, which takes 30 percent. The rest "trickles through" to him in royalties.
"Part of the good timing was that it was early days of the Apple App Store [which opened in 2008] and it was easier to stand out. What stands out is what they feature and it did well because it looks very different. It looks good and it's non-threatening, not violent or controversial."
Of course not every designer longs for their work to be called art or design, not every game is non-violent, and not every gamer is an effervescent kid or a housewife with time to play. The industry' products have their addicts, and an unwelcome association with a few truly nefarious characters, mass-killer Anders Breivik for one. Knightly says Breivik's decision to kill people came before he decided playing World of Warcraft for a year was a good way to practice for it. "He was screwed already."
Modern games can be highly educational. Plimmer says Game Masters both to informs and explores how games can be used for good. Many already are. SPARX, developed at Auckland University is intended to help teenagers with depression as effectively as counselling and results of a positive trial were published in the British Medical Journal this year. MiniMinos teaches children the virtues of being a good citizens and recycling. Knightly's company specialises in corporate training games and other "serious" games like one commissioned for Auckland University Medical School to test students' diagnostic skills.
Arcade: Home Grown Video Games is at The Dowse until March 3 next year.
Game Masters is open at Te Papa from December 15 to April 28 next year.
The Dominion Post