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'Games as art' is good for business

Hand Eye Society executive director Jim Munroe says the industry's creatives and companies are after the same thing, just for different reasons

Like all commercial art forms, video games frequently find the "commercial" and the "art" aspects of the form coming into conflict. That which is artistically gratifying or ambitious is not always going to sell, and that which sells the most doesn't always have the highest artistic ambitions. But the two sides aren't explicitly antagonistic.

As the executive director of the Toronto-based non-profit Hand Eye Society, Jim Munroe's stated objective is to support games created first and foremost for art's sake, making converts of those who might have previously dismissed the medium's potential. That said, Munroe has found that promoting games as art has positive implications for games as commerce, as well.

"The industry is always trying to expand the market and find new audiences, so we find overlap sometimes with more industry-focused things because we're all making the same argument, that games are worth paying attention to by a mass audience, not just a niche audience," Munroe told GamesIndustry.biz last week.

"If movies had the same market dynamics as games, they would have a lot less cultural power and a lot less economic power."

Munroe has seen that symbiosis at work. Since the Hand Eye Society's founding in 2009, the organization's events have served as a launching pad for indie hits like Capy Games' Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, and Messhof's Nidhogg. Last year it held the inaugural Hand Eye Society Ball: A Fancy Video Game Party in the Art Gallery of Ontario as part of an ongoing effort to put unusual games in an unusual spaces. Munroe--who also served as the AGO's artist-in-residence for a term--said it benefitted the gallery to be seen as forward-thinking and pushing the boundaries a little, while the Hand Eye Society helped bring games into the country's most culturally hallowed venue. And there's a clear benefit for publishers if games can be shown in art galleries, even if their latest AAA blockbuster franchise isn't likely to be featured in an AGO exhibit anytime soon.

"If movies had the same market dynamics as games, they would have a lot less cultural power and a lot less economic power," Munroe said. "Throughout the decades, movies developed into a medium that had something for everybody. And it's absurd to imagine someone saying, 'I don't like movies.' Nobody says that. They might not like action movies or romances, but they might like art house movies, comedies, or whatever. There's something for everybody in terms of movies. It's a very, very small percentage of people that just don't like watching movies at all.

"And I feel like that's the route for games to go, and that route's carved out by people pushing the medium into new places, not just physically but thematically and tone-wise, creating different genres of games beyond replicating successes of the past. At some point, someone saying 'I don't like games' will sound absurd. But right now, that's something you hear from a lot of people because they tried a type of game and conflated that with all games."

It's a message that is increasingly garnering support from the industry. This year's Fancy Video Game Party will be held October 9 at the Masonic Temple in Toronto, and has drawn sponsorship from outfits like Ubisoft and Info-Tech Research Group.

"I understand the peculiar pleasure in loving a band that nobody else knows about, or whatever. There is a kind of individualist pleasure in that. But at the same time, in the big picture, culturally we have to much more to gain by this not being a niche thing..."

But Munroe knows the Hand Eye Society mission isn't universally accepted. He's seen a particular backlash among a segment of the audience to the broadening of what people consider games.

"I'm a bit of a contrarian myself, so I understand the peculiar pleasure in loving a band that nobody else knows about, or whatever. There is a kind of individualist pleasure in that," Munroe said. "But at the same time, in the big picture, culturally we have to much more to gain by this not being a niche thing... I don't see it as a tragedy. People can always move on to another more obscure art form and champion that. Certainly in my life that's what's happened with me if things get too mainstream."

Munroe said he spent several years writing and publishing graphic novels, and while comics aren't often viewed as high art just yet, they're still significantly further ahead than games when it comes to cultural acceptance, something that has tempered his enthusiasm for the form.

"As they've become more entrenched, I'm less likely to want to champion them because I feel like a lot of that work has already been done," Munroe said.

He can understand why the broadening of the audience might create friction. Those who have loved games for years probably remember when it wasn't as culturally acceptable, when there was a social sacrifice involved with being a gamer. For those long-time players, to have gaming suddenly celebrated and influenced by an outside world that previously shunned it could be similar to the long-suffering fanbase of a dreadful sports team resenting the influx of bandwagon jumpers that comes with a championship run.

"To me, the bandwagon jumpers and the dilettantes, whether or not they stay in games or are in it for 'the right reasons,' they can contribute something new," Munroe said. "They might not be in it six months from now, but it helps to agitate the stasis of games culture. To me that's exciting."

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