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Wrap-Up: SIGGRAPH 2009's Play For Games

Wrap-Up: SIGGRAPH 2009's Play For Games Exclusive

August 10, 2009 | By Stephen Jacobs

[Following his focus on Will Wright's keynote, academic Stephen Jacobs looks back at SIGGRAPH's 2009 visit to New Orleans and its increased focus on video games, highlighting two sessions discussing games as art and game art.]

This year marks an important, if quiet, landmark in games as an industry: the absorption of games into SIGGRAPH. For those readers who dont know, for 36 years, the annual conference of the Association of Computing Machinerys Special Interest Group in Graphics (ACM SIGGRAPH, for short) has been the leading conference in the field of computer graphics technologies.

While game designers and writers may have been less aware of the organization and conference, graphics programmers, animators and artists have been well aware of the impact the conference has on their fields. This is not to say that there hasnt been a small percentage of game-related content at SIGGRAPHs annual conference or across the community, but these have been the exception.

Likewise, much of SIGGRAPHs wide-ranging audience of 94,000 members has been unaware of the close relation the games industry has to their interests. As often happens, artificial silos have kept the groups apart. This began to change four years ago when SIGGRAPH tested the waters by offering The Sandbox Symposium, a smaller, co-located conference to begin bringing games to SIGGRAPH attendees.

This year, games moved into the conference full stream. Two social games ran through the conference for the first time, and a focus on games was printed as part of the program to draw attendees attention to the wide range of offerings across the event.

In addition to the expected computer graphics technical papers with games applications, a series of games papers, talks, panels and production sessions were held. SIGGRAPHs annual computer animation showcase was augmented by a real-time rendering section with live demos of game art and animation.

In addition, a game jam joined the popular Iron Man animation event known as FJORG (meaning that Ninjas were now seen prowling the halls with the popular animation competitions Viking bands).

SIGGRAPHs wide range of interactive arts exhibits were also the scene of games-like exhibitions and experimental games with new interfaces. (My personal favorite? The game that allowed you to use your stinky breath to kill off vampires and monsters with an intriguing WiiMote as breathalyzer controller. I was able to win without resorting to the stinkiest of breath enhancers, the dried squid.)

Game content and authorship was not ignored at SIGGRAPH either. Two sessions looked at these topics in depth:

The Art History of Games

Yes, but is it art? This question is eventually asked about all popular media like comics, film and (of course) games. As a lead-in to their upcoming event named as above, opening at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta Feb 4-6, John Sharp and Peter Weishar of Savannah College of Art and Design led an open, audience-interactive panel session discussing the ways in which games might (or might not) qualify as art.

The group went through a broad set of lenses through which games could be seen as art. Ive never met someone who said I loved Myst for the mini-puzzles said Weishar who compared the style of Myst with Japanese prints while discussing the wide range of art styles in games from The 7th Guest to Crysis.

Is it the environments of games, asked Bogost, and the ability to just take in the space itself? He pointed to the contemplative nature of games like those developed by Tale of Tales, and Thatgamecompany's Flower. He also brought up that players of some rich 3D games often wish they had more of a chance to explore the worlds they are in. He cited the complaints of some BioShock players who complained that the game kept them too busy shooting to appreciate the space the developers had created.

Sharp put forward that the art of games might be the game design -- the rule space itself. Examples he provided of games that de-emphasize the visual to emphasize the challenges put forward by the designers included Jason Rohrers pixilated, low-res games and Rod Humble's The Marriage with its simple, 2D, geometric pink and blue avatars.

Nietzsche asked us to look at the games extension into player space and performance, from examples as simple as Robbie Coopers portraits of deeply immersed players in his New York Times piece Gamer Faces to the Dance Dance Revolution players that perform the game with their backs to the screen, racking up high scores and stylized moves to the audience in front of which they play.

Other aspects of games the group touched on were spectatorship, individual authorship vs. small group or large-scale production teams, intended or unintended artifacts of the games technology, and their value as historical artifacts. The quick description above cant capture the lively presentation nor the engagement of the audience in the debates these questions raised (including the question Who cares if theyre art?) A visit to warm and sunny Atlanta this February is advised.

Building Story in Games: No Cut Scenes Required

The paired talks in this session, presented by Bob Nicoll and Danny Bilson did not focus on specific techniques of in-engine, scripted animation sequences. Instead they looked at the heart of how story in games (for those games that use stories, can work best.) Nicoll led off, asking the audience to rethink the standard three act structure story-based games often seek to emulate.

Nicoll pointed out that for years now film and television have been condensing the time devoted to first (story set-up and character introduction) and third (post climax wrap-up) to focus on the middle, where the bulk of the action happens. Except that in games, developers should write not what the character does, but what the player should experience as the character throughout the game.

In traditional narrative, the rule is Show, Dont tell said Nicoll. In video games, you tell and it's up to the player to show.

Billsons talk supported Nicolls, opening with a long, wide ranging animation of his upcoming game that took the audience through an evolutionary series of camps and landscapes of a post-apocalyptic environment that showed the escalation of the militaristic state of the games human civilization.

SIGGRAPH 2009 spanned five days and a vast cornucopia of topics directly and tangentially of interest to game developers and players alike. The growth of games as a piece of this key annual event for interactive graphics is assured, especially with its next two conferences.

SIGGRAPH 2010 in Los Angeles will directly follow Comic-Con in San Diego, and will continue to grow the games component of the conference. Still in the early planning stages, SIGGRAPH 2011 will be the first time the main SIGGRAPH conference leaves the continental US as it crosses the border to Vancouver. That citys strong game industry presence will ensure a games component there as well.

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