20 September 2012

Art and the Future of Games

“There is nothing more potentially damaging than the sort of violence [young people] are being exposed to, be it in movies, be it in console games they're playing," Andrew Scipione, an Australian police commissioner told the Sydney Telegraph earlier this year.

The perception that video gaming leads to violence is a naturally a hotly contested one with surveys supporting both the proponents of that view and those who point to statistics such the lessening in violent crime in the United States over the last several years.

Several months ago the Guardian wrote an article entitled ‘Somalia video games boom dents al-Shabaab recruitment.’ This feature, which examined the trend of teenagers in the war torn state turning to games instead of the militants.

The final quote of the piece - "many of my friends are unlucky and have taken part in the violence in the country. Some of them have died. Others are carrying guns around. In some ways, video games have saved my life,” by 15 year old Ali Abdi highlights that gaming can be extraordinarily beneficial in the right circumstances.

Much of the argument over violence in games revolves around their status, which is to say, are they works of art or are they merely entertainment products?

I suppose this depends on your definition of games and of art,” says Mike of Psychotic PSoftware. 

“I decided in my naivety that games contained real art and fine art was defined as just a catalyst for a reaction in its recipient. It needed its own name and that was that. This kept things simple for a while... until games started doing what I’d previously seen fine Art profess to do.

“I defy you to play Journey or Passage without shades of “what’s it all about” creeping in.

“When galloping those great plains of Shadow of the Colossus, having taken yet another great and innocent life, surely only a certified psychopath would not take that deliberately drawn out time to just once reflect on the essence of what they’re doing in terms of right and wrong.”
Shadow of the Colossus: held by many to be an example of pure videogame art. 
Another unlikely franchise to force players to ponder the actions they perform is actually Game Freak’s Pokémon Black and White. In those titles the antagonist, simply known as N, wishes to free all Pokémon from what he considers human slavery, an idea brought about years of (deliberate) exposure to abused and neglected creatures. As the supposed ‘hero’ (or heroine) you endeavour to stop him and have no choice in the matter if you wish to progress.

This subversion of the typical role into which games cast players – the effective support, by the gamer, of a form of thraldom – is arguably one of the strongest arguments to be made that games can tell stories that, if nothing else, can make you think. While that not might make them art there are compelling arguments to suggest they fit neatly into that field of human achievement.

“Games are probably the best form of art,” says Ryan Watkins. “Because they move you, they teach you, you can live a whole other person’s life even if it’s condensed down. Games can give you any and all emotions not just one. Games can tell you any story and you will see it exactly how the creators wanted you to see it in every way.”

This is often true, many games offer fixed camera angles at certain points to highlight precisely what you’re meant to be looking at, while the cutscenes or cinematics are almost universally designed with a single viewing angle in mind, leaving players, more often than not, unable to move the camera during these moments of pause between regular gameplay. 

Yet as in film often the most memorable narrative threads and story telling props are left for you to discover. Irrational Games’ Bioshock was uniquely adept at this, and needed to be given the nature of the game’s silent protagonist.

While those missions not directly revolving around the main story are sometimes the most memorable and often include plot details that would otherwise be missed entirely. The Lair of the Shadow Broker DLC (downloadable content) for BioWare’s Mass Effect 2 is one of the most highly regarded sections of the title.

But as DLC it was not included in the game when it originally released and revealed information which would otherwise not have been known, emails for instance showing that one of the characters was incapable of pregnancy.

It is to BioWare’s credit that gamers felt the need to read the in game emails and spotted this titbit.
Yet there is, of course, more to games and art than narrative.

“I believe that some games are art,” says 2PaperDolls’ Paddy Bass, who contends that the nature of the games determines whether it qualifies for that label. “I believe some are sport... Some are simply entertainment. I think that’s one of the big issues the game industry seems to constantly have. It wants to be categorised in with everything else.

“We need to accept that games like any medium traverse a huge amount of content - Some is there purely to make you sit up and admire the explosions, other will make you contemplate life and death... Some are just fun to play and don’t necessarily fit into any box.”

This is a point of view shared by Andrea Ravenet, the vice president of 2PapaerDolls, “as if you can pigeon-hole human expression into any one category.  Games have become another channel of expression.  Is dance sport?  Is it art?  Is it expression?  Can it not be all at once?” she suggests.

Fifth Column Games’ co-founder Andrew Marsh is somewhat more emphatic. 

“Games are absolutely an art form,” Marsh states. “Games can be beautiful, aesthetic, emotional, expressive, engaging, and graceful; they can be significant. The issue isn't if games are an art form, it is if there are any [such things as] good art... and... no, not really.

“The issue with games is that they are extraordinarily difficult to make. They require a unique combination of craft, creativity, math, and complexity management. They mix user experience with abstract concepts like fun and charm, and add in deep technical difficulty. They are interactive, they are complex, and they are expensive.

“When we do create art, which we do from time to time, technology often swallows it. What should become a timeless classic becomes dated and unintuitive,” he says pointing to Star Control 2, some would argue that Halo: Combat Evolved – the game that defined the original Xbox upon its release 11 years ago – is another.
“I can hardly be upset about progress but it does contribute to the problem,” Marsh adds.

Primož Vovk of Emberheart Games is largely in agreement with Marsh commenting “whenever I get myself in one of these debates I ask myself over and over ‘What is Art exactly?’ Yes, games definitely are form of art in my opinion because it’s the result of hard work - it’s the composition of art, sound and interaction. Take LIMBO for example - if that’s not [a work] of art then I don’t know what is.”

Here Marsh diverges from Vovk onto somewhat less optimistic viewpoints. His impression of games as art forms does not come entirely without caveats, commenting, as many have, on the lack – either real or imagined – of will to take risks and evolve that exists today in the games industry, particularly on console where he and other co-founders of Fifth Column started in the industry.

“Finally, I would say that we are currently experiencing a dark age in video games. We're mired with commercialism and mediocrity. Metrics have replaced passion, addiction has replaced engagement, and imitation has replaced innovation. 

“Success has little proportion to quality, and worst of all it's working,” he claims. “We have more users and more money than ever before, and I don't see everyone getting altruistic all at once.

“But, what do we expect. Video games are, what, 50 years old? We have a long way to go and that's the way it's supposed to be. Have you ever listened to a Gregorian chant or seen a movie from the 20s? If those are art then so is Dig Dug.”

Dig Dug, an arcade game developed by Namco (now Namco Bandai) which involved the elimination of underground monsters by inflating them until they popped, was released thirty years ago. 1982 also saw the release of the Commodore 64, one of the very first home consoles.

In the intervening decades games and the video game industry have evolved in almost every conceivable way. From the North American crash of 1983 to 1985 to the entrance of Sony and Microsoft to the console market in 1995 and 2001 respectively and the departure of Sega from that same space and the emergence of the social and casual gaming sectors (though the history of the industry during this period as well as the companies mentioned is far more complicated). 

Despite the turbulence which has rocked gaming over the year and the challenges that face – the shift from retail to digital for example – developers seem almost universally positive concerning the direction in which the games industry is headed.

“Games are played anywhere and at any time,” says Geraldo Nascimento of Plumbee. “[To the extent] that it's difficult to predict what will happen 10 years from now.

“I would assume that there will be even more channels of distribution than today and a variety of devices where you can play games, like wearable consoles. I'm sure it'll also be a healthier industry.”

Marsh cautions that the games industry, like any creative field, “goes in waves. Small teams need to stay way ahead in creativity to make up for their lack of polish and complexity. When there are large shifts in the space, like recently from console to social and casual, small teams can create a lot of interesting and fun games quickly.

“Pretty soon after though, larger developers, aided by improvements in hardware and tools, are going to come in and raise the quality bar out of reach of the small teams.”

Sometimes the established players simply buy out those new developers that are daring to branch out into new spaces – as seen in EA’s $750 million purchase of casual games maker Popcap.

“It (the games industry) will be bigger,” Watkins believes. “In pretty much every way you can think of. There's going to be more people making games, more people buying them, more people selling them and most importantly more people playing them.”

We are on the cusp of a new console generation with the Wii U launching in November which will be followed by the new Xbox – possibly in the autumn of next year or the spring of 2014 – while Sony next console is likely to see an autumn 2013 release (at least if the current crop of rumours are to be believed).

Yet the established console makers are not the only shows in town. The Ouya and the Oculus Rift – both the result of crowd funding on Kickstarter – potentially hold great opportunities for the developers willing to exploit them.

The Ouya, a Google Android based console, will sell for just $99 and is designed to be fully hackable. Potentially allowing for dozens of old games to remade and played by a new generation of gamer – which while technically illegal will be difficult to prevent on the system.

While the Oculus Rift may yet make a Star Trek like holodeck a reality. By wearing specially designed goggles players will be transported into virtual reality environments, an improvement on the virtual reality games that have been created for years – EyePet being an example.

Apple TV and ever more sophisticated internet enabled Smart TVs will also increasingly challenge the traditional console for dominance in the living rooms.

“I think it [the Ouya] can be a viable and interesting product,” says the Polish developer who prefers to go by name Koobismo, “especially if its creators put some effort into promoting the console as a dock for indie projects.

“This is connected to what I’ve said earlier – I can definitely see interest niches being a big thing in the future, if their budgeting is handled correctly, and Ouya could – just could, not sure if they’re willing to – become a good platform for many of them. Know your limits, know your audience... And love your audience. So they can love you back. That’s how niches work.”

As for the games industry in a decade’s time?

There will be “no more zombies,” Mike comments. “They’ll all be sick to the back teeth of zombies... and as a big (Dawn of the Dead director George) Romero fan, to me that’s always going to be a bad thing.”


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