Personal Investigation, Games as Art.

‘Play’ has always been part of human nature, spanning back beyond recorded history. I have recently touched upon the introduction of video games into our playtime, which comparatively is rather recent. Video games took ‘play’ from physical such as board games and beating eachother up, to virtual; something which has fascinated mankind to no end since their conception in the 1950’s. I’m going to be looking deeper into the visual side of games; how they have changed artistically over the years, and why they have changed at all. A question I would also like to look into is ‘are games art?’, a question which has been the centre of great debate for many years.

Technology is the obvious culprit for the progress of game development over the years. When the earliest games were created, technology meant that there were vast limitations placed on creativity and programming. Infact, games started out as little more than entertainment devices with no mind paid to visuals- it was largely the act of playing the game that was important, not how it looked in the process. The ‘first generation’ of games were simple black and white pixel images. You could tell what they’re meant to be, but no stylisation or imagination was put into visuals because technology didn’t stretch so far. Additionally these games were created by programmers, not artists. They had no interest in broadening the artistic scope of games, and this is assuming they could if they chose to. It was their job to make the game work- hard enough in itself, without considering game aesthetics.

As time moved on, so did computing technology. Along with it, graphical capabilities. Rather than the level of detail in games such as Pong or Spacewar!, colour began to emerge and the number of colours and pixels displayed began to increase. Consoles evolved to have between 2 and 8 colours, then 16 colours, 32 colours and more. This meant more vast and realistic colour palettes developed, finally giving programmers (artists generally didn’t exist at this time except for auxiliary art etc.) some artistic license. Generally up to the 3rd generation of games consoles- around the mid-80’s- games had these limited colour palettes, meaning games had fun and unusual colours. At this point in time, although technology clearly hindered artistic expression in games, I think it also served to force games to develop unusual art styles where this may not have happened if sufficient technology existed. For example, the 1985 title Super Mario Bros. features the albeit bizarrely coloured Mario (as a result of colour restrictions) in an environment of mixed orange/browns, blue, and vibrant green. Looking into the future at the more recent Mario games, how much really has the colour palette changed generally, aside from allowances made due to technical development? I believe the merchandise would have started out entirely differently if it wasn’t due to early restrictions in existence in the 80’s.

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‘3D’ games started emerging around the 1990’s, such as Wolfenstein 3D and Hovertank 3D, where games were not polygon based but used ray casting (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ray_casting) to create a sort of 3D pixel world;

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Still art and design was extremely restricted within games by technical limitations. Generally programmers were still in charge of the aesthetics of games, such as creating sprites and powerups. However, as graphics engines and consoles improved, programmers were required more and more to improve the visual side of games as well as how they worked, meaning that those with talent in such fields quickly saw themselves at the top. Very quickly however, as games became more complex, it was apparent that larger teams would be required to create successful games, and specific artists began to be employed alongside the developers and programmers. Still though, I don’t believe games were really seen as being art themselves. Indeed, there was an art to creating them, and art was created for them, but in themselves they were not art.

When polygonal 3D graphics emerged in games, things began to change slightly. In fact, the article on Wikipedia, ‘Video Games as an Art Form’, lists no games before 1981 and almost all of these games (except the game from ’81, Tempest) are polygon based games. The games listed have been considered art, or debated over for various reasons such as atmosphere, story, and ‘artistic expression’. For me, the real start of games becoming art is the sixth generation; that is, PS2, Xbox, Gamecube and the likes. As the game industry took its first tentative steps into the world of 3D artistic license exploded, and fun, quirky game graphics competed against the most realistic imagery ever created. The freedom available meant that artists were the driving force behind game development, and were responsible for creating such a diverse looking range of games on the market.

Realisation came that anything could be created, and new worlds and characters emerged that still hold their own now, and will for a long while in the future. The game I personally adore for being so outstanding in terms of creativity and innovation is by far Halo: Combat Evolved. The world design, character creation and style of the entire game was, at the time, unparalleled. Even today the Halo franchise is a bestseller and has only improved visually. Although gameplay in all the games has been questionable at times for its repetitiveness, I can’t help but marvel at how something that doesn’t exist in real life has been so believably created from nothing. Halo provides a great reference point that I have used in the past to illustrate the change in visual game technology from 2001 to now;

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As is clear to see, technology has allowed games not only to portray realism beautifully, but create whole new worlds. Water in-game has also become drastically more realistic so that it reflects light and is actually transparent, skyscapes have become real works of art, and surfaces have an astounding depth to them. Such things are possible due to particle effects, better systems to handle greater texture and poly budgets, improved lighting and so much more that I’m yet to understand and learn about. I think there are many visual aspects within a game that come together to make it an artistic creation; the combination of exquisite lighting comes together with textures, stunning colour palettes and modelling to create what is now seen as art in itself, without even considering the extensive design process.

There has been much debate over the value of games as art. No challenge has been put forward by critics denying that games have elements of art in the design etc., but as art themselves? My opinion admittedly has swung between the two opinions as I have written this post, because games are conceived using art, and art is created for promotion and the likes, but does this make games art? As I went on, my opinion however did very much agree that games are art, for the very reasons mentioned above. Critics have often claimed that games hold no place under the umbrella of ‘art’ like literature and film and painting, but why? Just as lighting, colour and form are used in painting and film, and story and character creation is used in literature, a visual and emotional immersive experience is created that holds the individual captive and takes them on a journey.

A particularly moving example for me is the game Zelda: Twilight Princess. I’d never played a Zelda game before Twilight Princess but I remember after playing it for hours on end and making my dad buy me the walkthrough guide because I’m super cheaty, I went to school and spent what must have been weeks daydreaming in class about the game. The music was stuck in my head and the phrase Ordinance Survey Map in geography reminded me of it constantly (Ordon Village!). The game was (and still is) a stunning creation that I believe is more than deserving of the title ‘art’. No film, book or painting has had such a profound effect on me as that, and I think it takes some serious mastery to do that to someone. At the end of the day, people can believe what they choose about the status of games in the art world, but to me games will always (at least visually) be considered works of art.

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