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Game On

Posted by Tambo On January - 13 - 2011

Videogaming has moved from teenage bedrooms to cultural spaces, says Tracey McGarrigan, but what can artists really learn from their computer consoles?

My first true love was a black plastic box. Launched in 1977, the Atari 2600 heralded the birth of home video games thanks to an invention called a CPU (central processing unit). This device meant owners could swap cartridge games whenever they wanted, with each game bringing new adventures and challenges. No more weekends in the arcades – now you could play at home which, for me, has always brought a more dynamic experience to game playing.

Visually, early games had black backgrounds with large coloured squares representing wizards, racing cars, spaceships…then, in 1983 the gaming industry crashed as manufacturers were producing quantity over quality. However, that year also saw the Famicon console (which became the Nintendo Entertainment System) released in Japan. Two years after, game designer Shigeru Miyamoto created Super Mario, a side-scrolling game that would revolutionise how games looked and were played. Nearly 30 years and seven generations of console later, advances in technology (particularly 3D graphics) mean that modern games are more like high definition Hollywood blockbusters in which you play the lead role.

My second love is visual art and performance. Unlike in games, I wasn’t always able to play the lead role but sharing my vision and creativity with others or being an integral part of a creative process used to be quite fulfilling. Recently however, I’ve found myself underwhelmed, sometimes as an artist but especially as an audience member. After much soul searching, research and countless hours playing on my Xbox, I have come to my conclusion: video games satisfy me in a way that visual art or performance never have. Games demonstrate many ways of developing an audience’s engagement, understanding and viewing that artists can use for inspiration or examples of good practice.

Similar to visual art, video games involve creative energy in their process however, the end results are displays of vision and dexterity combined with ongoing technological advances and interactive experiences currently found only within this art form. In some of the high profile modern games, from the first idea to the culmination can take around five years and sometimes involve hundreds of people to design the motion capture, write all the scripts, compose the music and sound effects, provide the technical artwork, levels and codes. Released earlier this year, Red Dead Redemption is an open world game (meaning the player can explore every inch of the environment with no invisible boundaries keeping you to a certain course) that has up to 1000 characters, each with their own names, dialogues and personalities whilst completing the story and the majority of side missions can take a gamer on average about 40 hours. Every tiny detail of the game is deliberately made to fully immerse the player in the world and story. Like many games, RDR has a built in tutorial system so you are taught over time, which controls to use in order to move your character or use/interact with items/weapons/maps or other characters. You are given space and time in order to learn an unfamiliar thing, which ultimately then allows you to take full control of your own experience. With online multiplayer options becoming more and more available, you can also play/share this experience with other people who you can influence/interact with from around the world. A gamer will have specific expectations as they press the start button regarding the aesthetics, content and overall experience whilst the makers of video games provide the player with the necessary tools to then navigate through the world or story they have created in the hope that they meet these expectations. The structure of this process and the emotional experience an audience can have as a result is something artists can adopt within their practice to make it as exciting, challenging and relevant as video games, to encourage participation from modern audiences whilst also changing attitudes.

Attitudes to gaming have certainly changed, mainly due to the birth of the Internet; according to data company GFK Chart-Track, £1.73 billion was spent in the UK on video games last year. To put it in context: that’s £500 million more than was spent on films. As the industry has grown from a focused market to the cultural mainstream, manufacturers are designing games targeting the casual/non-gamers with Nintendo again leading the way. Launched in 2006, the Wii console replaces traditional controllers with motion sensor remotes and now, 40% of all gamers are women. In fact according to the Entertainment Software Association, women over the age of 18 represent a greater portion of the game playing population (33%) than boys age 17 or younger (18%). Gaming is no longer a predominately an activity for single men locked away behind bedroom doors, but has become a popular social pastime.

Websites likes GirlGamersUK.com demonstrate how the modern gaming audience is being catered for. As well as having reviews, news and in depth articles from experienced male and female perspectives, GGUK highlights the fun and social side of gaming, including arts and crafts (fashion, food, sculpture, paintings etc). Editor Diane Hutchinson says: “We’ve noticed over recent years from following gaming culture, that video games don’t just stop at the controller. Gamers enjoy extending their love and passion of video games through art and culture.” This increased interest in gaming is reflected by the number of artists creating Game Art.

Matteo Bittani, editor of ‘Gamescenes: Art in the Age of Videogames’, defines Game Art as “Any art in which games played a significant role in the creation, production and/or display of the artwork. The resulting artwork can exist as a game, painting, photography, sound, animation, video, performance or gallery installation.” One piece I like is interdisciplinary artist Riley Harmon’s 2008 electronic sculpture ‘What It Is Without the Hand That Wields It’, where valves dispense fake blood each time a gamer dies, in a modified version of online game Counter-Strike. The trails left down the gallery wall create a physical record of ‘kills’, provoking thoughts about virtual and real deaths.

The combination of technology, gameplay and audience participation is familiar territory for Interactive media art group Blast Theory, whose projects blend real and virtual worlds where the work is personalised for each audience member. Their site-specific piece ‘Flypad’ allows the audience to create representations of themselves (known as an avatar). Tracked by 11 cameras, the players use footpads to guide their avatar through the space. The aim of the game is to make contact with other avatars that melt together to form one social body, growing larger and heavier until finally they hit the ground and the game is over.

Video games don’t need to find new ways of engaging with an audience but game designers and programmers continue to push technological boundaries to fully achieve their creative visions. Gamers want variety of play with innovative technology, storylines, soundtracks and artwork to provide them with an emotionally engaging experience either shared or individually. Game Art is a growing movement, with artists exploring the processes and practices of games within contemporary art and interactive performance, creating space for even demanding audience participation, resulting in the audience influencing the nature of the artwork directly or exploring and tailoring the artwork to suit themselves. It is my hope for the future that scholars, artists and gamers will cultivate, translate and celebrate the expressive power of video games in their practice with the aim of creating work that is truly innovative in its creation, delivery and reception therefore encouraging more people to find satisfaction within the arts.

This article was first published by ArtsProfessional Magazine, Issue 229, Nov. 2010. www.artsprofessional.co.uk


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