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Games as art? These future developers really mean it

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People who argue that video games are art should stop referencing Shadow of the Colossus and instead look at what the folks at the University of California Los Angeles Game Lab are doing. Tucked away in the north end of campus, the academic program recently hosted its second-annual Game Art Festival. I made it out to closing night of the two-day event and was quite amazed to see the many directions the participants are taking the medium.

 
The UCLA Broad Art Center was the venue for a fascinating intersection of an art gallery and video arcade. Inside, the bare, white walls were illuminated by projectors showing experimental games that played off of familiar genres. I saw a text-based adventure called Maybe Make Some Change that was a sort of essay critique on the horrors of the current wars. Nearby was Discrimination Pong where the rules constantly changed and disadvantaged the darker paddle (see pictures at the end of the article). Waist-high, unpainted, wooden cabinets housed the computer towers and served as holders for the necessary mice, keyboards, and controllers. 
 
Across the room was Ultitsa Dimitrova, a grim game with a hand-drawn, ball-point-pen aesthetic that’s based on a true story: A young Russian boy, addicted to cigarettes, steals and hustles his way on the mean streets of St. Petersburg to feed his nicotine cravings. Watching this one had me unexpectedly more intrigued than the somewhat similar exploits of Niko Bellic in Grand Theft Auto IV, despite the astronomically higher production values of the latter.
 
Arcade cabinet backpackThen, I was distracted by the opportunity to play with the arcade-cabinet backpack…and roam around the gallery following the young student wearing it. 
 
To be honest, it was a little difficult to dissect the message, or even game mechanics, of all 50 pieces on display, but that’s OK. I wouldn’t go to a “regular” art gallery or arcade and expect to connect with every installation or machine. That would be silly.
 
Besides, the competing sounds and music from each station, combined with the bumping chiptunes the DJ was blasting from a pair of black, old-school Game Boys, gave the space a chaotic yet pleasantly nostalgic feel.
 
One way the organizers made sure to keep the event from becoming too exclusive, stuffy, and academic was to feature presentations, performances, and tournaments instead of talking-head panels and lectures.
 
Another way was to invite an array of local and student artists to show their work (and thesis projects). Not only were folks from UCLA present but so were some of their peers from nearby rival school University of Southern California. Local game artists as well as others (mostly students) from different states and countries also contributed pieces. 
 
“We try to find stuff that’s on the fringe of independent games and overlaps with art and fine-art games” said David Elliot, a production manager at the UCLAGL. “We try to promote games as an artistic medium, and so the festival is a showcase of what our vision of that actually means.” 
 
A good example would be Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth. This piece uses a Kinect camera to translate objects in real space, such as a small Play-Doh mountain, into a pixilated island on the screen. As the user manipulates the physical medium, the virtual space changes accordingly. 
 
Whereas several of the previously mentioned titles use interactive media as a forum for critique and self expression, others, like NTYBOME, try to push current technology in new and interesting ways. A similar example would be Flatland ARG!!!, which reinterprets a similarly named novel into a live-action role-playing game. To play, teams dressed in clunky, motion-tracked armor use special, Nerf-inspired weapons to fight and harvest augmented-reality resources in order to level up.
Flatland players
That one sounds much cooler than laser tag, even if the prerequisite costumes look pretty silly. The technology, however, is still a little ways off of designer Eddo Stern’s eventual goal of 10-person matches.
 
“Game art is an evolving medium,” said Diana Ford, a staff member at the UCLAGL and another production manager. “It’s fairly new in terms of being recognized as a field, so we’re just hoping that festivals like this will establish it as more of a theoretical, as well as practical, space for self expression.” 
 
I think they’re definitely on the right track. And for those who still feel the need to argue over whether games are art or not, consider what these folks are doing, and then please end your discussion.
 

Learn more about all of the featured games on the 2012 Game Art Festival website
 
Maybe Make Some Change
Maybe Make Some Change (playable here)
 
Discrimination Pong
Discrimination Pong (playable here)
 

Ultitsa Dimitrova (playable here)

Never Turn Your Back on Mother EarthNever Turn Your Back on Mother Earth (not pictured: corresponding, real-life Play-Doh mountain)

Cryptoid Blues
Cryptoid Blues was one of the games playable on the arcade-cabinet backpack.


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