Game Over: Art of the Video Game Generation

One is a respected, sophisticated form of self-expression; the other, a childish pastime. And yet, strangely enough, the worlds of art and video games are not as vastly dissimilar as one might think. Both seek to actively and visually engage the viewer, to affect him or her on a level that is capable of producing a powerful emotional (or at least recreational) response.

That is certainly the perspective of the Giant Robot gallery in San Francisco, which recently wrapped up its critically acclaimed exhibit GAME OVER: Art of the Video Game Generation. Format caught up with Giant Robot San Francisco’s manager, Luke Martinez, to discuss the cultural relevance of art and video games, the congruencies that exist between both, and the direction each will take as they continue to develop and evolve.

“I think video games and art are evolving towards each other in some ways, and it will be fascinating to see where they intersect.”

Format: What was the general concept behind the show, and where did it originate?
Luke: The concept behind the show was simply to showcase the influence that video games have had on everyone. For the artists, it was a chance to highlight that influence through all the various styles and mediums that each used. And for the viewers, it was an opportunity to instantly connect with those pieces, regardless of how you might feel about the artists or art in general. It’s video games, and that crosses so many lines that divide people – it really brings everyone together. And I think this show did that.

The show originated with Eric Nakamura (Giant Robot’s Owner and Founder) and myself. I was a big fan of the I AM 8-BIT show in LA, and I realized that there wasn’t anything else like that going on. I thought, ‘The Bay Area should have this, we can do this!’ And instead of confining it to only 8-Bit games, we opened it up to any video game influence. That made the show much deeper I think. So the opening was there, and we thought, ‘Yeah, let’s do this.’ So we got it in there, and the whole thing kind of rolled up like a Katamari Damacy ball — it just kept getting bigger and bigger, until there it was: the GAME OVER show.

Format: What has the show’s reception been like from the art and video game communities, respectively?
Luke: The reception has been largely positive. The art community, I think, was a little surprised by it, because we had a wide array of artists that don’t normally do ‘video game’ art, so it was eye-opening to see such artists openly expressing their admiration for video games. I think that connection was reinforced by this show – the relationship between video games and art, and the influence each has on the other. It’s important to note that the video game community loved the show, as there aren’t many like this at all. I’ve gotten many emails and read many comments from people who loved the pieces. Of course, there were the few ‘haters’ on the blogs, who found any excuse to condemn some pieces, but there will always be those people, especially when it comes to video games. Gamers, myself included, can be very picky and high-minded when it comes to our video games, especially when classic, beloved video games are involved. We had a few bloggers come to the opening from some very elite video games blogs, and they not only loved the show, they encouraged more like it to happen. To get those compliments, from guys who do nothing but sleep and eat video games, well, that was big.

Format: Walk us through and describe a few highlights of the exhibit.
Luke: One of the first highlights was the work by William Buzzell. He sent me three pieces, the first one about a week after I had sent out the invitation to the artists for the show – that’s how much of a gamer this guy is. He carved wood pieces out, painted each in detail and then created these huge art tributes to gaming. It’s unfortunate that most people only saw the images online, because in person, the 3-dimensional aspects of these pieces make them truly amazing works of video game art.

The artist Snaggs contributed a vinyl pillow that resembled a giant Laser Blast Atari video game. It’s unbelievable, completely hand sewn and just awesome.

Several artists did sets and series. Jesse LeDoux did a series on the evolution of video games through Pac-Man ghosts, with details of the era seen in the ghosts. Rob Sato did a series that’s a meditation on video game shooters, entitled First, Second, and Third Defeat. I think those are probably the darkest pieces of the show. PCP did a beautiful, fantastic piece on Ico, one of my favorite games, that just causes the viewer to stare at it forever, tracing out every detail…

Format: Culturally speaking, what has been the importance of video games to the last two or three generations?
Luke: Video games, first and foremost, are one of the things that have separated those generations from those of our grandparents and parents. Super Mario Brothers binds us together in a way. We can connect with others through our shared experiences with those games. Because we can identify with them, it allows us to identify with others who also have played those games. And I think that identification actually crosses cultures and borders. While there are still some games that only Japan gets while the rest of the world doesn’t, that is changing, so that soon we’ll all be playing the same games. Call it video game globalization.

Format: What was your own experience with video games growing up?
Luke: My dad introduced me to Atari, eventually came Nintendo, then Super Nintendo… My brother and sister and I were kids, so we immersed ourselves into video games. How could we not? They were fun, they were cool to look at, and all our friends were playing too. I have fond memories of those days – of blaming my siblings for me losing, of beating a game and feeling accomplished, of marveling at some new game’s graphics and game-play. And that’s basically it: video games are fun and cool to look at. If they weren’t, no one would still care about them. I’m still an avid gamer, although I’m mainly a PS3 player now. But the experience of playing video games as I grew up has definitely had a profound influence on who I am as a person, and in how I look at the world. And I think anyone in the same position who would say otherwise would probably be lying.

Format: What, in your opinion, is the relevance of video games to the art world and vice-versa? Has either directly inspired the other in any way?
Luke: There are definite connections between the art world and the video game world. Most of the big video games that come out now have art directors that are talented, knowledgeable artists. They could probably be fine artists or illustrators, but have gone the route of video games. That takes nothing away from them as artists, but allows us as gamers and lovers of art to be able to walk in their art. I was just watching a video online about how the art director of Dead Space took Gothic/16th Century architecture as an inspiration for the spaceship (the main setting) for that game. The lines between art and video games are definitely there, but I think that they’re small and easy enough for artists to cross over pretty easily. I think as these next generation platforms continue to push the graphics and game-play to uncharted levels, we’ll see more art in games, and more games in art.

Format: Art has the ability to make provocative social statements. Do you think video games, as a medium, have the potential to serve a similar function?
Luke: I think a perfect example of video games making a provocative social statement would be Bioshock, a game I’m playing currently on the PS3. The issues of unrestrained science, of blindly following orders, of deciding whether to harvest or save a little sister — these are all issues and questions that can cause the player to actually think in a way that goes beyond simply moving from point A to point B. Video games, like art, can give the viewer something different to think about, and can clearly make a statement about something, but ultimately the viewer has to come to their own conclusion on what the statement means for them. I think that video game makers are realizing they have that capability to make those kinds of statements, and foster those kinds of new thoughts, and I expect more games to do that in the near future. While art has but one opportunity to make that statement, when you look at it and take it in, video games have much more time and opportunity to really take viewers into a different world, and challenge their minds and make them think in a different way. Of course, it still has to be fun, but the more fun it is, the clearer the statement will become to the player.

Format: In your opinion, is it possible to consider a video game a work of art?
Luke: I can name several games right now that I think classify as works of art: Shadow of the Colossus, Okami, Katamari Damacy, Zelda: A Link to the Past, Bioshock… these games all are artistically beautiful, with game-play ranging from simple to complex, each drawing the viewer deeper in to their worlds. These constitute art to me because they represent an effort from their creators to envelop the viewer/player into an alternate reality. They represent an attempt to do something different, while so many games do the same thing. And they represent story telling at its finest (the Katamari one is debatable on that). In the end, isn’t that what art wants to do? Envelop the viewer in another world, do something different, and tell a story. Video games do that all the time, and when it is done exceptionally well, there’s your art. Frame it, put it on the wall.

Format: As time goes on, do you think technology will begin to play a larger role in the creation of art?
Luke: I think technology is already playing a larger role; there are many artists I deal with that are embracing technology and integrating it into their art. Of course, there will be artists that will rebel against that and choose to be traditionalist, but most art forms have that aspect — those that move forward, and those that hold back. Neither is better than the other, and as an audience, we’re lucky to get both. So, yeah, I think it’s inevitable that technology will play more of a role in art — it already does. Look at photography: years ago only a select few were shooting digital, now major photographers almost always shoot digital. It’s just the evolution of the art form, and I think video games and art are evolving towards each other in some ways, and it will be fascinating to see where they intersect.

Yang-Yi Goh

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