Videogames represent a new lively art, one appropriate for the digital age . They open up new aesthetic experiences and transform the computer screen into a realm of experimentation and innovation that is broadly accessible.
|Grand Theft Auto III Courtesy: Barbican Gallery, London|
Director, Corporate Studies Media Program, MIT
As we enter the twenty-first century, videogames have begun to dominate as the most compelling form of popular culture. More than just entertainment, videogames offer audiences a new relationship with the screen. They explore new social and spatial concepts, and are becoming the place where growing numbers of people spend much of their recreational time.
Game On clearly illustrates how far videogames have travelled in their short life time and how they have evolved both as a technology and as an art form. The exhibition too has travelled great distances since its debut at the Barbican Gallery, London, in 2002. It has toured the museums of the world, and returned to some cities for encores - testimony to the interest in the story of the rise of videogames. At each venue the exhibition has been updated to address the rapid change that defines the games industry. At the beginning its role was to help seed critical thinking around videogames. Today, it feeds the growing desire to better understand this exciting new art form.
Games need to be played to be experienced, and the curators of Game On offer a generous opportunity to play. As a rule the playable games are presented on their original hardware so that visitors have an 'authentic' experience. The feel of the original controllers - that critical point of tactile engagement between player and machine - are part of games history.
Beginning with the early history of videogames, the exhibition introduces two powerful forces that have driven the growth of the field: the 'hacker' mentality that takes delight in reconfiguring the possibilities of new technology; and the entertainment entrepreneur. It starts with Spacewar (1962), created by MIT Labs student Steve Russell and his group of friends, the Tech Model Railway Club (TMRC). Designed for the PDP-1 computer at MIT, Spacewar is considered the first computer game. However, although the computer was the size of a family car, it did not have sufficient processing power to support simultaneous two-player interaction. To make playing the game easier the TMRC made a pair of dedicated gaming controllers, another first in the history of games.
Nolan Bushnell, the man behind Atari and the development of the arcade game, loved Spacewar. As a student at Utah University he was one of the few privileged enough to have access to a PDP-1 to play the game. In 1972 Bushnell developed the first arcade game, Computer Space, which was a copy of Spacewar. However, the game failed to capture an audience largely because of the complex instructions required to play it. Bushnell did not repeat this mistake with his new company, Atari. The instruction for the company's breakthrough success, Pong, designed by Al Alcorn, was simply 'avoid missing ball for high score'. The mantra 'easy to play hard to master' became the winning formula that built an arcade empire.
|Pong Courtesy: Barbican Gallery, London|
Game On offers visitors an opportunity to play many original cabinet arcade classics from what is considered the golden age of arcade games. These include the popular space themed games such as Asteroids, Galaga, Galaxian, and Space Invaders. Also included in playable format is Donkey Kong, the first game by Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto, who is widely acknowledged as the first great videogame artist.
Pong's story continues in the exhibition through the development of Home Consoles. Atari's Pong owed much (some say everything) to Ralph Baer's Tennis for Two on the first home console, the Magnavox Odyssey (1972). The exhibition - documents consoles from the Brown Box prototype that Baer created in 1969 to the latest of the 'next' generation of networked home entertainment systems. Represented are the stories of major manufactures Atari, Nintendo, Sega, Microsoft and Sony.
The exhibition also includes the popular home PCs of the 1980s such as the Commodore 64, Apple II, and the Sinclair Spectrum. Home computers not only gave players the opportunity to play the latest commercially released games, but also enabled them to design their own games. Commercial games would be reconfigured for the different platforms, often with variable success. For example, Melbourne House's Street Hassle (1987), a well reviewed game on the Commodore 64 was less favourably regarded as Bad Street Brawler (1987) in its NES and short-lived Nintendo Power Glove formats.
|Sinc ZX81, Sinc Spec, Commodore 64 Courtesy: Barbican Gallery, London|
There is a marked difference of aims in the current generation of consoles. For example, the Xbox360 and the PlayStation3 offer complete home entertainment units that support music, movies, online access, as well as traditional and networked gameplay. On the other hand, Nintendo's pioneering Wii is focused on creating fresh kinds of gameplay and developing new audiences for videogames.
To illustrate the different types of videogame experiences, Game On borrows a classification system created by the Le Diberder brothers in their book L'Univers des jeux vidéo (1981), which divides videogames into three categories: Thought Games, Action Games, and Simulation Games. These broad fields help define the nature of player engagement from problem solving and strategic thinking, to twitch games that test the player's reflexes and mastery of the controls, to immersion in virtual environments. This section also links videogames to a rich prehistory of card and board games, penny arcades and pinball machines, military strategy games and pen and paper role playing games, as well as traditional sports. Each category is divided into 'families' that represent a vast spectrum of gameplay, from the early puzzle games such as Codebreakers to genre defining games such as the adventure game Zelda - Ocarina of Time, the simulation Populous, and the fighting game Street Fighter 2.
Game On also provides a behind-the- scenes look at how games are made and marketed. It profiles the studio development of several major works including Grand Theft Auto, The Sims, Tomb Raider, Pokémon, and Max Payne. The exhibition offers a glimpse of the different roles within the development team, showcasing in particular the design process from concept art to final game. Much harder to bring into the gallery is the programming that underlies them all. Videogames are algorithmic - so, when you look at Lara Croft or Max Payne in all their polygon glory, think of the mathematics that makes their adventures possible. Videogame design is an amazing blend of science and art by extremely talented teams that work together on a shared vision. This section reveals some of the processes involved in creating a videogame from character design to game environments.
|Tomb Raider Courtesy: Barbican Gallery, London|
Sound design for videogames is a new art form in itself. The sound of early 8-bit and 16-bit era games is very distinctive. It was wrestled from the primitive audio chips using programming language that enabled only a restricted number of notes to be played simultaneously. Processing power now enables videogames to feature both elaborate sound effects and proquality digital scores.
However, the non-linear world of games still presents challenges for composers as their scores must create atmosphere and drama in an environment founded on repetition and replay.
Game On includes a collection of historic music compilations from classic videogames, and scores by leading composers Koichi Sugiyama and Richard Jacques. The exhibition also explores how sound effects enrich the play experience, and the increasing importance of the relationship between videogames and popular music.
A growing part of the videogames story is the many lucrative licence agreements between the games and film industries. Originally this predominantly involved films being developed into games, but now the relationship is more fluid.
Today, game titles not only directly inspire films, they also form more elaborate relationships, such as the Matrix series and The Chronicles of Riddick releases in which different parts of an ongoing story are told across the films and games. There have been more Star Wars inspired games than films, ranging from Star Wars Cockpit (1983) arcade game to Stars War Galaxies (2003), a massive multiplayer online role playing game in which players co-habit the Star Wars universe.
The exhibition has a special focus on Japanese games designer Hideo Kojima, whose Metal Gear games offer a witty pastiche on the classic action film genre. It also profiles Rare's GoldenEye 007 for the Nintendo 64, a game that is both highly regarded as a significant work in the first person shooter genre, and fondly remembered for giving players a 'true' Bond action experience.
Game On also addresses the wider cultural and social resonance of videogames. Although produced all over the world, videogames - in contrast to films - are not generally considered to have a cultural role in reflecting a national identity. Rather, there is a belief that videogames have a more universal nature to their themes and attractions.
Japan, however, is recognised for its distinctive genre of videogames that draw on the respected Japanese arts of manga and anime for their design and inspiration. Japanese games have also offered the world unique gameplay experiences such as Dance Dance Revolution, Electroplankton, and Katamari Damacy. In featuring a selection of games from around the world, Game On asks if there are differing local sensibilities at work, and whether this is something that should be acknowledged and celebrated more broadly.
|Electroplankton Courtesy: Barbican Gallery, London|
In some areas of the media, and in the minds of some politicians, there is still a misconception that videogames are primarily a children's pastime. While there is no doubt that kids love videogames, the average age of gamers in Australia is 28 years!
Videogames offer a useful platform for independent learning and exploring, and they offer attainable challenges and fun environments to investigate. Game On addresses the early educational games for kids such as Sesame Street's Cookie Monster Munch, and looks at how these have evolved and increased the acceptance of videogames' potential as learning tools. The exhibition also provides a brief history of the rise of handheld games that took videogames into the playground and the back seat of the car.
Playing together has always been a fundamental appeal of videogames from the multiplayer Spacewar to the social environments of the arcades. The earliest home consoles supported multiplayer games, while the latest generation of consoles are designed for both lounge-room gaming with the family and playing across online networks.
From the early days of the internet gamers found ways to play games together electronically. Networked game play offers not just the pleasure of playing with other people but the opportunity to form social groups that are distributed globally. Counter-Strike and Team Fortress - two of the most famous game mods (modifications), created by players for players - reflect this desire for team games.
The pleasure of playing with others is central to the appeal of massive multiplayer online games which compel players to work together in groups and 'guilds' to successfully progress within the game. Moreover, multiple players bring not only unprogrammed levels of complexity to a game, they also offer companionship, competition, real drama and real support. The actions and inventions of other players make the designed game a far richer experience.
Although at the leading edge of graphics technology, videogames are a very young artform. Game On represents the full 45 years of videogame history, the first decade of which was limited to a small group of scientists and engineers in possession of very large computers. A popular analogy among the games industry likens the current youthful stage of videogame development as equivalent to the silent black and white era of the film industry. This comparison gives promise of a medium that is growing to its full potential, driven by extraordinarily creative people who are mostly unknown outside the videogame community.
|Final Fantasy VI Courtesy: Barbican Gallery, London |
In addition to presenting videogames as cultural objects, Game On also profiles some of the key artistic talent and processes involved in producing videogames, while providing visitors to the exhibition with an opportunity for some hands on action! In doing so, Game On fosters an understanding of videogames as an expressive medium, and celebrates the dynamic role of videogames within our visual culture.