Next Gen Art Event: Putting games in galleries

A new spin on the question of 'are games art?'

It feels at once natural and bizarre to see Thatgamecompany's Flower on display in a prestigious art gallery. Natural because its beautiful, unconventional design has long made it the worthy poster child of the 'art game' movement; bizarre because, unfortunately, it's still so rare for curators of art to take notice of video games at all, let alone to give one such pride of place.

At the Fries Museum in Leeuwarden, The Netherlands, such prejudices seem to have been dispelled. Their New Horizons exhibition celebrates the power of the virtual landscape, displaying videos, concept drawings and promotional pieces from a variety of video games alongside the work of prominent artists such as Jennifer Steinbeck, Harun Farocki and Cory Arcangel.

The exhibition finds wonder in even the most seemingly mainstream and consumer-focused of games, encouraging visitors to view them in a new light. Screenshot prints of the multiplayer maps of Battlefield 4, with all soldiers and action absent, are strangely haunting and affecting when taken out of their usual context. The reality-bending gameplay of Portal seems that much more thoughtful when shown alongside the influential impossible spaces of M.C. Escher.

It's one of two exhibitions held as part of the new annual Next Gen Art Event, which also features talks and workshops by leading developers. It's a celebration of art in video games, and video games as art.

Leeuwarden, capital city of the Friesland province of The Netherlands, makes for a wonderful setting, with its winding canals and impressive architecture. In 2018 it will be one of the EU's European Capitals of Culture, having won the honour in 2013 despite competition from its more populous and influential neighbours. The title has already brought extra funding for the arts, allowing for the creation of new events such as the NGAE.

For the inaugural event in November 2014, an encouraging number of studios contribute their work. The second exhibition, more publicly visible as a large installation in a nearby shopping mall, features art from sources as diverse as Irrational Games, Oddworld Inhabitants and Capcom. Many pieces were printed especially for the show, and advanced printing techniques (including several works reproduced, remarkably, on solid aluminium panels) bring them to eye-poppingly vibrant life. A stand-out feature of the exhibition is 'The Art of Naughty Dog', a touring collection celebrating the studio's 30 years in the industry - at one end, the bleak landscapes of The Last Of Us, at the other the cheesy grin of Crash Bandicoot.

"One thing we've always talked about at BioWare is how to get concept art and environmental art in a gallery," says Derek Watts, art director for the Mass Effect franchise, standing next to an impressive lithograph of fan-favourite character Garrus. He's one of the speakers at the event, giving talks on the process of creating iconic series protagonist Commander Shepard.

He's joined by Mike Lester, systems engineer at Thatgamecompany, speaking about the balance in games of art and tech, and Naughty Dog concept artists John Sweeney and Nick Gindraux, explaining their respective methods and the sometimes surprising details of modern digital painting. Their audiences consist largely of Dutch students eager to enter the games industry, whose infectious enthusiasm makes it clear that these established developers are their rock stars. The Q&A sessions stretch past their scheduled time as the amount of eager hands in the air seems to grow rather than shrink. They eventually end, but the questions don't - attendees form a line to talk to the speakers one-on-one, asking for more personalised advice. This is the next generation of games developers, and they're wearing their passion for video game art firmly on their sleeves. They certainly take it seriously, and there's a palpable sense of excitement that the NGAE takes it seriously too.

Lester even manages to gather a spontaneous entourage of European indie developers, including members of Team Reptile, the studio behind surprise hits Megabyte Punch and Lethal League. One man, an artist for Skylanders Trap Team developers Beenox, has travelled across the border from Belgium to attend.

""The Netherlands isn't known for having a particularly large game dev community, and I like the idea of starting at the student level to help get it going"

I ask Lester what made him want to participate in the event. "The students, and the location," he answers. "The Netherlands isn't known for having a particularly large game dev community, and I like the idea of starting at the student level to help get it going."

Did he feel, with his talk, that he'd contributed to that goal?

"I liked being able to connect with the students," he says. "I feel like they really heard my message."

A unique feature of the event is undoubtedly a dinner held for guests and press at local Michelin-star restaurant Eindeloos. Each course is hand-crafted by the head chef in tribute to each of the speakers' games - a starter including edible flowers representing Flower, for Lester; a diverse selection of mushrooms evoking the 'Clicker' enemies of The Last Of Us for Sweeney and Gindraux; and a course sculpted and arranged to resemble the architecture of Mass Effect, for Derek Watts. Quite possibly the first ever instance of games as art as food.

The event as a whole feels like a rarity, as much for its approach as for its content. It's easy for those within the industry to internalise outside attitudes towards gaming, to accept the narrative that games are an inherently inferior form of art. At the NGAE, games are given absolutely equal footing. To a significant degree that's due to organisers Tim Laning and Maarten Brands.

Laning is a developer and a co-owner at Grendel Games, a local studio specialising in what he dubs 'serious games', games with important medical, rehabilitative or educational functions. His work includes Gryphon Rider, for Kinect, designed to help children whose balance has become impaired due to serious illnesses or disorders, and OmNomNom, which aims to fight childhood obesity. It's natural, then, that he would see huge cultural value in video games as a whole.

"Pre-production art and in-game art never get the exposure they deserve outside of their context, besides the occasional special edition art booklet," says Laning. "I decided it was time to organize an event that celebrates the ideas, creativity and image quality of video game art and how that relates to modern- and established art."

Brands is CEO of Cook & Becker, a company specialising in selling high quality prints of video game art. Many of the pieces on display were printed under the direction of him and his team, and a reverence for video game art is core to his business.

"We founded the company especially with the idea that artists and studios in the games industry play such a big part in shaping our visual culture that they should have a more prominent position within the wider contemporary art world"

"We founded the company especially with the idea that artists and studios in the games industry play such a big part in shaping our visual culture that they should have a more prominent position within the wider contemporary art world," explains Brands. "That means taking game art more seriously, chasing iconic designs from our industry and showcasing it at art fairs,museums, wherever we can."

Events like this will find it difficult to gain traction, however, unless the industry gets behind them. There's a feeling, among the organisers, speakers and attendees I talk to, that publishers and developers bear a new responsibility to support efforts like these.

"As long as the general public has the perception that game art only consists of elves, scantily clad female assassins and space marines instead of architecture, unique landscapes and a deep appreciation of colour, lighting and shape design, it won't receive that serious appreciation on a wider scale," says Laning.

"We need to continue to organize and promote more events like this one," agrees Watts. "It's up to the video game industry to present games as serious art."

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Latest comments (11)

Maarten Brands Director, Cook & Becker7 years ago
It was great to have you at the event Robin. Hopefully until next year!

In case anyone is looking for more pictures of the two shows, they can be found here

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Maarten Brands on 12th January 2015 12:39pm

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Darren Adams Managing Director, ChaosTrend7 years ago
I think historically, video games main issue in the argument for inclusion into the world of art is their functionality.

Most art has no function and that is almost a prerequisite to some people for something to be called 'Art'. I had this discussion about motor vehicles (specifically high performance cars) a while back and the person in question (who was a traditional artist) dismissed them because they "Did something" so therefore could not be art. Even though some of the cars were beautiful to look at and had awesome lines and details which screamed art.

It is good to know that people are starting to take games serious as art, because to me it is potentially the highest form of art you can find in the world.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Darren Adams on 12th January 2015 4:03pm

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This could be a event to celebrate games as art annually
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Show all comments (11)
Maarten Brands Director, Cook & Becker7 years ago
The distinction between what is design or craftsmanship (objects with function) and art seems to blur. Antiques (almost always 'design') and other art have always been shown at the same types of museums and venues and are covered by the same type of media. Contemporary design and art is overlapping even more because many contemporary artists work in both fields and a younger demographic is less dogmatic about definitions. It doesn't hurt that design exhibitions about architecture, fashion, jewelry and design are popular so visual arts museums are eager to host these as well.

Personally I think games straddle this niche between art and design really nicely and there are examples of both.
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Maarten Brands Director, Cook & Becker7 years ago
Having something like this annually is the plan.
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Chris Payne Managing Director & Founder, Quantum Soup Studios7 years ago
This sounds fantastic! I hope the new museum of games in Nottingham can host similar events.
Also seems like a great way to introduce non-gamers to the medium without the intimidation factor of actually having to play them :)
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Russ Cogman Senior Game Artist, Serious Games International7 years ago
From the Oxford English Dictionary:
"art: The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power"
All videogames are an artform, even the crassest iPhone rip-off. To declare otherwise is an act of elitism and snobbery. I hope that more events like this can help dispel the negative opinions.
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Marty Howe Director, Figurehead Studios7 years ago
What video games do you think are art? and why.

I'm trying to come up with some, and Half Life 2 and Mass Effect 2 spring to mind. Maybe Fez?
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Emily Rose Artist 7 years ago
This is wonderful, events like this and Distant Worlds make me look forward to the future of gaming artistry.

@Russ , That definition is interesting, I wonder how "primarily" is defined when looking at games as art..
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Russ Cogman Senior Game Artist, Serious Games International7 years ago
In this instance, "primarily" could be taken to mean as traditionally or "what people are used to or expect". The fact is books, theatre, dance and film are all accepted as art. None of those hang in a gallery or could be properly appreciated without seeing in context. Also, like video games, most are poor and would not qualify as good or high art.

Ultimately art is always in the eye of the beholder. To my eye, video games are the most exciting thing to happen to the art world in decades. They just don't know it yet.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Russ Cogman on 14th January 2015 9:54am

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Marty Howe Director, Figurehead Studios7 years ago
Ultimately art is always in the eye of the beholder

No its not. Art is universally accepted. Do you mean, beauty is in the eye of the beholder?

If i write music, its crap. If John Lennon writes music. its art. If you and me make a movie with a camcorder, its crap, but if Martin Scorsese makes a movie. its art. If I write a novel, its crap, but if Stephen King writes one, its art. Are you getting my point?

"Art" is creating something 'above and beyond' what people traditionally expect (as you said above) Anyone can make a 3D scene, take a screenshot, and stick it on a gallery wall. Anyone.

The totality of a video game, should be art, not just how it looks. For example, story, plot, characters, sound, music, presentation, pacing , flow etc. These all add up to make it a piece of art.

So, most games are not Art. Only a select few are (hence my question in my previous post, which no one has answered yet)

I think the games industry needs to get better at making games, before we're considered Art.
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