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Insert Coin. Posted on 07/20/2001.

Last night I attended ArtCade (with, seemingly, no web presence) at SFMOMA, an exhibition and panel discussion on computer games and art. The exhibition aspect was pretty lame--a few old coinops (Breakout, Donkey Kong, Jr.), some 'artistic' computer games, and some shameless promotion for EA and UbiSoft, who underwrote the event. Of greater interest was the panel discussion, with Nolan Bushnell ("the father of the computer game"), Will Wright (creator of SimCity and The Sims and a very very very smart guy), Lev Manovich (slightly loopy Russian emigré professor of media studies at UCSD, author of The Language of New Media, which I believe I quite desperately want), and a photographer whose name escapes me and whose contributions were negligible at best.

Nolan gave the obligatory "history of video games" talk. Most interesting was that Pong was not technically a "computer game"--the machine wasn't a Von Neumann machine, as the microprocessor hadn't yet been invented; it instead used transistors to figure out the logic needed to play the game.

Lev's talk was delightfully manic and academic; the notes for it are here, and contain links to a number of interesting resources.

Will discussed a theory of psychological compression and decompression as a premise for his thoughts on audience engagement in art and computer games. He pointed out that, very generally, since the Renaissance fine art has moved from attempting to represent reality to further and further abstraction, and that, since the 70s, computer games have done the reverse. He contends that computer games are trying to represent reality too closely, not allowing the participant to feel as engaged in the play.

An interesting point that arose in the discussion was around what computer games could learn/borrow from contemporary art (touched on in Lev's notes under "Art and computer games: a one-way interaction"). The idea of having a computer game space utilize different visual styles to represent subjective states was a particularly nifty notion.

Issues around narrative weren't as well-addressed as I would have liked, but that was understandable given the time frame. Happily, just today I was reading blackbeltjones, and clicked a link to a new journal titled Game Studies, which starts off with two essays on stories in games...

Other deep-thought computer games links include Gamasutra, the library at Erasmatazz, and Eric Zimmerman's essays.

The bandwidth-laden might want to download the Pac Man Theme Techno Remix (supposedly by Orbital), a kick-ass piece of electronica happiness.

2 comments so far. Add a comment.

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I was there with Peter - thanks for the writeup - I didn't take the time. Last week there was a link for the event here,, I do believe, though it seems to be down now.

The other panelist was Margaret Crane, former artist in residence at Xerox PARC. Originally Brenda Laurel was billed for that spot; she didn't work out. Margaret comes from an art background and recently explored Tomb Raider from an artists perspective. There's probably valuable work to be done interpreting this omnipresent icon, but much of what she said seemed a slight Doug Coupland retread. Her most salient contributions were: celebrating "digital folk art created by adolescent boys" (fan created gamework and game art), the time she slipped up and somehow used the word "marketive" which I quickly wrote down thinking it might have powerful uses in the future, and the idea, during Q&A, that Art should serve as a surprise, versus the primary action of most computer simulations - targetting and anticipating us.

While I found that much of the panel was very intelligent and provocative, the ideas were largely familiar (that's probably a good measurement of conference saturation in a particular subject). Lev's stern but submersive wit was invaluable. Wil Wright never ever fails to amaze. And Nolan Bushnell is a historic figure, typifiying a best case American business man with his relentless hunger, wild (though plausible) ideas, and huge successes and failures.

Lev argued that games don't draw enough from modern art; I was wondering if he hadn't seen Rodney Greenblatt's work for PaRappa the Rapper, or the cell-shaded marvellousness of Jet Grind Radio. Admittedly, these games do not have much of a dour or brainy presence, marking much of a subjective state. Visually they are striking and provide a true alternative to the Diablo/Baldur's Gate graphics that Lev posted and lamented, and you could argue that Jet Grind Radio's cellshading does add an appropriate uneven quality to a game about lawbreaking.

Probably the best moment of the panel was Nolan posting a few graphics from Final Fantasy - overwraught computer-graphics smooth sci-fi-fantasy darkness involving a city with giant angel wings: "You can't say this isn't Art." I could almost hear the collective ribcages of most modern art critics swell and shudder.

Otherwise I enjoyed most the audience - a lively collection of smart folks who care to see games share a podium with other art forms. People I'd met in various walks of life - writing about games, making web sites, making CD-Roms - smart folks that I'd never seen gathered in one place before. I wish I would have gotten there earlier to mingle a little more. And I wish there would have been a mixer afterwards!

Thanks for the writeup and links Peter.

Posted by Justin Hall @ 07/25/2001 07:07 AM PST [link to this comment]

For more "making the video game industry" check out
Game Over by David Sheff. It's a very insightful and quite honest look into a little company called Nintendo.
Posted by David Reid @ 07/25/2001 12:17 PM PST [link to this comment]

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