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The Art History... Of Games? A New Conference, Romero Explain
The Art History... Of Games? A New Conference, Romero Explain
February 5, 2010 | By Charles J. Pratt

February 5, 2010 | By Charles J. Pratt
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It may not be obvious that games have an "art history," or why there needs to be a conference that's entirely focused on that particular subject.

So, in their opening panel for the Art History of Games conference in Atlanta, Georgia, which Gamasutra will be covering in-depth, organizers Ian Bogost, Michael Nitsche, and John Sharp entertained those very questions as to why an art history of games is needed.

The overall event is a three-day public symposium in which, according to organizers, "members of the fields of game studies, art history and related areas of cultural studies gather to investigate games as an art form."

Also featured in the conference is the premiere of commissioned art games by Jason Rohrer, Tale of Tales and Nathalie Pozzi and Eric Zimmerman, of which there's more information available on the official Art History Of Games commissioned game site.

So, how about the concept of "an art history of games," and whether it's valid?

"It's interesting that we have to justify this question in the first place," said co-organizer, author and IGF Nuovo Award finalist Bogost (A Slow Year) in his opening remark.

Fellow organizer John Sharp added that the idea for the Art History of Games conference was to "start the process of looking at the question of art and games more closely."

They presented three ways of looking at the art of games. "Is the art of games found in the visual arts?" Sharp asked, adding, "Another place we can look is that the art of games is in their worlds. This lends itself to thinking of games as sculptural."

The speakers pointed out that, of course, games can also be enjoyed from a technical point of view. "We can appreciate all video games from the technical perspective," Bogost said, and noted wryly that "this is how we tend to market games."

"Finally, is the art of games in the game design?" Sharp asked. There are plenty of examples of beautifully designed game systems, as the game designer and art historian noted. "Basketball is a great example," he offered. "There's an abstract system, but the experience within that system can be quite magical."

None of these issues are clear-cut. Pointing to Rod Humble's art game The Marriage, Ian Bogost mused, "What if we stripped everything away? What would remain? What makes Wii Sports different from real tennis?"

Sharp laid out one final way that one could claim games are art. He pointed out that the act of play itself has creative aspects. "Is the art of games found in the player's performance?" he mused. "This suggests that the real power lies with the player rather than the designer."

Co-organizer Michael Nitsche added, "If we think that the art happens in the process of playing, then we have to look at the artist in front of the screen -- the Doom god or the SoulCalibur dancer."

There are other areas in which video games are perhaps underappreciated, said the panelists. Sharp pointed out that "you don't usually see games in a museum. A lot of our historical understanding of games comes from representations in art. There's a sort of paradox there."

But what's important, the trio concluded, is that these issues continue to be discussed out in the open, to improve the lot and standing of games alongside the medium's creative counterparts. As John Sharp offered in conclusion, "If we knew [the answers to all of these questions], we wouldn't have organized this symposium!"

With speakers spanning industry veterans like Brenda Brathwaite (Wizardry series) and newcomers like Jason Rohrer (Passage), as well as former id Software superstar and keen game historian John Romero, now of Slipgate Ironworks, those issues are sure to be discussed further.

[UPDATE: Vital to any art form is its living history -- embodied in the craftsmen and women who have pushed it forward. The development of games is no different.

So in his keynote address at the Art History of Games Conference, industry veteran John Romero -- formerly at id Software, involved in Doom and Quake, and now heading up MMO house Slipgate Ironworks -- talked about the masters of game design, and how the pioneers had some advantages over modern developers.

Romero started his talk by honoring some of the masters of the game industry that are still with us, or have recently passed on -- living notables like Nasir Gebelli and Bill Budge, and those not still with us like Dani Bunten Berry and Gunpei Yokoi.

"Our masters worked within a lot of constraints." Romero pointed out. "The Atari 2600 was created to play just two games. However, designers today are more constrained."

Romero then walked the audience through the history of the first-person shooter, the genre he helped to create with games like Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake. "The shooter genre exploded after the release of Quake," Romero said -- "and now our design patterns are being 'genre-fied'."

In fact, the id veteran noted, with today's expanding budgets and relatively mature mainstream game industry, opportunities for big-budget diversification are dwindling: "We have five or six types of games that are going to be funded."

Romero then turned to games on Facebook, saying that -- even in the nimbler areas like social gaming -- the same thing was happening with games like Farmville. He mused: "A publisher is going to look at the numbers for a game like Farmville, and say to a developer: 'That's what I want!'"

Continuing the theme of constraints, Romero said: "Another limitation we have are APIs... the more we put between us and the hardware, the more we're constrained."

But all is not lost -- in his final remarks, Romero noted that plenty was still possible in games, and called for students to go back and study the early masters of the game industry. He reminisced: "We need to go back to the beginning. There was unbridled creativity."

[Charles J Pratt is a freelance game designer and a researcher at NYU's new Game Center. He will be covering the Art History Of Games event for Gamasutra.]


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