Archive for the ‘Art’ Category


Do computer games even want to be art?

July 31, 2007

I’ve been considering whether to state my perspective on the ‘games as art’ debate that recently kicked off between Clive Barker and Roger Ebert (although I don’t think the two have actually engaged in conversation on teh subject). But a couple of blogs got me excited about the prospect again, this articulate critique of Ebert and this whimisical piece from Wired.

To be fair to Ebert, he is from a different generation, it’s not like I’d expect my grandad to apprecaite computer games, and most of my parents generation are also deeply ambivalent about the medium, so it’s difficult to expect him to back down at this stage.

That computer games have already crossed into the official medium of art has been acknowledged by neither Ebert or Barker, perhaps because on the global stage the 2004 Turner Prize entry by Langlands & Bell entitled ‘The House of Osama Bin Laden’ was a relatively minor event (read more about it here). It’s not as though one example of computer games as art will change the perception of the old guard, as anyone from the UK will tell you, the Turner Prize is as much an opportunity for the tabloids to vent their disapproval of contemporary art as it is the artworld to celebrate it. But undoubtedly fine arts courses across the world are rife with interactive 3D digital mediums and it is only a matter of time until the medium becomes part of the cannon.

I’m sure at this point Ebert would acknowledge all I’d said then smugly point out that the Turner Prize is not considered ‘high art’ or at least isn’t considered so by him. My first problem is that Ebert doesn’t explain what he means by high art and to be fair to him once again, Barker doesn’t define what he thinks art is either.

Ah, the eternal problem, art is all about taste, nobody can define what art is, it’s subjective etc. We all know that’s just not true, Bourdieu proved it in the 80s and despite the attempts of more recent writers to argue the contrary this argument holds about as much water as Duchamp’s urinal.

Gallery owners, the academy, art dealers etc. are hugely influential in deciding what constitutes art. Far from making people “more complex, thoughtful, insightful, witty, empathetic, intelligent, philosophical (and so on)” these are precisely the qualities many art appreciaters wish to be associated with, whether they truly possess these qualities or otherwise. The artworld is elitist, exclusive and very money driven so I’m not sure I’m keen to see computer games get co-opted into this particular fraternity.

The truth is that while the ‘interactive 3D medium’ will become a respected style in the art world in decades to some, computer games won’t, because they’re commodities and commodities only become art in rare circumstances, much like ‘primitive art’ where some pieces are considered gallery worthy and others only museum worthy (see books like The Social Life of Things and The Traffic in Culture for some good examples).

The debate then becomes not about high art or institutionalisation but how computer games stand in relation to other commodity ‘artforms’ like books, TV programs, films, paintings, sculptures etc. Currently they are probably at the bottom of the heap, with books at the top, the real challenge is to change this anachronism.

As far as I’m concerned I don’t want computer games to become art, look at literature, painting and sculpture there is a hardly a work of the last 50 years that is seen to compete with ‘the classics’. At least computer games are seen as progressive rather than soulsearching for some non-existent gold age, I don’t want to imagine the gamers of 2407 rhapsodising about Pacman and how the games of their day just can’t compare, I want them to be as excited about the latest releases as I am about Crysis or Spore now. I think it would be very unhealthy if computer games were considered art – it would only result in more boundaries being set in place just as the goal has become to break them.


Myth Making and the Everyday World of Warcraft

July 9, 2007


On his blog Bob Sutor is thinking about my suggestion that to be considered a virtual ‘world’ a 3D space needs to have a ‘mythology’.

‘Mythology’ is probably another one of those over-used words that I ususally try and avoid, let me try and clarify what I mean. I suppose ‘mythology’ is similar to values and meaning in some ways, but values and meanings are relatively static, it’s difficult to interact with values and meaning, you either agree with them or you don’t and if you don’t your attitude towards a given brand is, in all likelihood, going to be negative. I use the term mythology here to mean a set of contested values and meanings, a framework within which people can choose to identify with x instead of y or z. Given this framework ‘myths’ are better able to emerge through the virtual world population and create the dynamics around which societies are built – thus becoming virtual worlds rather than 3D interactive spaces.

For example in World of Warcraft there is a commonly held myth that Horde are more successful than Alliance in PvP scenarios and in Second Life the oft-blogged ‘flying penises’ are referred to by both player and non-players alike, despite this only occuring once to my knowledge, but it is representative of some kind of contestation over the meaning of Second Life. Both these examples show ways in which people attempt to understand the world they inhabit.

Richard Bartle’s player types and Hamlet Au’s attempts to categorise Secodn Life users tend to be resisted because they make explicit something that the inhabitants of these worlds prefer to explain through anecdotes and, well, ‘myth’. While it is true to say that all brands divide their users into ‘typologies’ brand users tend to share a set of values which diverge only in terms of demographic differences, in Second Life the notion of a Metaverse itself is contested.

But to get back to the issue of whether or not virtual worlds need ‘mythology’ let me be more specific, virtual worlds need a framework in which myth can evolve organically. World of Warcraft for example asks players to make a decision from the off about which side they’re going to be on, they’re immediately immersed in a cosmic battle (which only gets more complex as their exprience progresses). Similarly character classes, the bane of the experienced MMOer, act as a simple guide about how players would like to interact with the world. Second Life’s Orientation island could offer users avatars based on their in the virtual world, whether we’re talking, sex, teaching, building, researching etc. and give them pointers to places they should explore based on their interests. For example on The L Word orientation island users can choose an avatar in the form of characters from the show, asking them to make choices based on preferences – who I like, who I don’t like etc. This doesn’t necessarily involve roleplaying the character, but it does mean that users have to consider hwo other users might think of them.


The second part of this post is an example of how, what seems on the surface to be a typical game of pseudo-medieval good vs evil is at heart about making sense of a world that even the most experienced players have only a few years experience of and how these attempts themselves are contested.

World of Warcraft to the outsider is usually seen as a standard ‘fantasy’ computer game (often said with distaste), but as many games critics have pointed out, usually in a negative way, in WoW you’re not the hero, in fact the chances are you’re just another adventurer trying to make a living. In fact you might spend as much time dealing with the mundane issues of virtual life as killing demon lords (this Escapist article deals with precisely this issue).



Now I don’t normally go in for ‘computer games are like art’, because while they have aesthetic similarities, ‘art’ to me describes market value and the MMO market is a completely different animal to the art market. But I think these two paintings by Pieter Breugel, a 16th century Flemish artist, Peasant Kermis and Peasant Wedding are quite appropriate here. Both are incredibly rich images of everyday life, depicting working people rather than coutisans. The events shown taking place aren’t particularly dramatic but they are rich and fascinating all the same. WoW reminds me of these pictures because most players aren’t out bringing Gruul to his knees they’re doing fairly mundane things, completing little quests for NPCs, gathering materials for their crafting skill, hanging around postboxes in their underwear, dancing by the auction house, sitting on the cactus by the bank in Orgrimmar and so on. When I hear players talking about having to ‘grind’ it isn’t usually stated in a negative tone, rather it’s full of ambivalence; it’s not as bad as ‘work’ even if it isn’t the most fun activity. Some of these activities might be referred to as ’emergent gameplay’, but I think it deserves a more profound label, Ithink it deserves to be called culture. The people of WoW are transforming the materials available to them into meaningful activities, just like the two men in teh foreground of Peasant Wedding who have constructed a makeshift trestle from a barn door. The reason seemingly mundane activities in WoW are not considered as boring as their real-life counterparts is that they take place in a context of greater possibilities; the ever-present promise of acheivement, the irregular appearance of seasoned raiders arriving in twon dressed from head-to-toe in purples. For the everday folk of WoW the dayjob is framed by the excitement of the acheivements of others, that’s why multiplayer worlds can get away with the mundane while single player worlds struggle.


Old Skool Fantasy Post

June 26, 2007

Gamasutra have an iteresting article about failed games with a link to a series of fascinating blog posts by Joe Ludwig who worked on the never-released Middle-Earth Online. One thing in the article that stood out was a reference to a never-made Warhammer MMO (pre-Mythic’s WAR) which is described as having “…a darkly realistic style, something that hearkened back to Games Workshop’s earlier more baroque style.”Anyone who has read my earlier posts about artists that have influenced my own style will know that I’m a huge fan of John Blanche‘s and Ian Miller‘s work for Games Workshop.

I’m sure that the non-realistic, ‘cartoony’ style of World of Warcraft has had some influence on its popularity because it has such a recognisable style and is therefore more salient than games that aspire to photo-realism. While the early Warhammer style shares some similarities with WoW (WoW borrowed many of it’s aethetic flourishes) it was darker, more organic and grittier. Even the humans looked pretty monstrous and ‘corrupt’ and I’ve always felt that a game with this aesthetic would look stunning. In fact a Warhammer game with witch hunting, political and physical corruption and all the elements that were found in the roleplaying version of the game would be brilliant. I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that the Warhammer ‘world-story’ was a somewhat wasted on the wargame.

Look at these images below. Ok the quality of artwork may not be as polished as you would expect from a contemporary game release, but there is a raw style there: big shoulder pads; dramatic skies; impractical armour and weaponry; huge attention to detail etc.




Anyway, I was going to write a post based on this article from the Guardian gamesblog, but I managed to miss the radio show with Steve Jackson (Fighting Fantasy, as if you didn’t know) and Austin Grossman (Deus Ex). So I know that this blog gets a lot of views for the John Blanche post, so I’m going to treat everyone to some of his work from Steve Jackson’s epic Fighting Fantasy series Sorcery! truly the best FF books ever written and still immensely enjoyable to play today, combining the classic FF karma-free logic of un-deserved death with a cheat-frustrating magic system. Just imagine these images in 3D and if there are any modders reading this please make something that looks like this…






Brit Lane

February 13, 2007

Here’s the other ‘project’ that I was working on I mentioned in my last post. A recreation of Hogarth’s classic Gin Lane, but with Britney Spears in the role of ‘drunk mother dropping baby’ something she does pretty well in real life I understand.

In place of St Giles is a figurative version of LA, Kitson is on the left and Fred Segal in the background. Paris Hilton adopts the role of Grim Reaper, something I can imagine her taking to far too easily.

I’ve included a detail of the original Gin Lane for comparison.

Brit lanegin-lane.jpg


A Long Time Ago…

February 3, 2007

…having posted my last entry I sat down for a short session of World of Warcraft and when I looked up again it was January 24th 2007. Of course it was all for research purposes only and now I’m in a position where I have to try and edit my paper down from 14,000 to 10,000 words while adding a sizeable chunk in to interest an audience of market researchers. I’m almost regretting it now, WoW is not easy to distil into soundbites and clumsy brand analogies and I haven’t even experienced any high level content yet.

Anyway, enough moaning. I don’t think WoW would be top of anyone’s list of ‘dark’ MMORPGs, its ‘cartoony’ graphics still get stick despite its overwhelming success and before I started playing I was a little skeptical about them myself. Once you get in the game it all makes sense though. Maybe there is some truth to Ramachandran’s ‘Peak Shift’ theory and the increasing realism desired by so many games designers and players is actually counter to our instincts, or perhpas Blizzard have just done a really good job of designing graphics that won’t date as quick. Anyway, I’ve long been a fan of fantasy design that isn’t anchored in Vallejo-esque realism (see John Blanche and Ian Miller).

I managed to ink a bit of my ‘Wolves’ picture in the spare minutes I got between sleeping, eating, working, being nice to my girlfriend and WoWing. But the moments over for this one I’m afraid… perhaps one day I’ll come back to this, but for now I have another more pressing project.

Wolf Culture


Rough Stuff: Wolf Culture

October 15, 2006

A picture I started last week, but was unable to post because of too much work and, erm, World of Warcraft. I’m not going to get addicted, it’s for research only.

Not 100% sure if my bipedal wolves, with ‘primitive’ material culture ideas is working, but it’s more interesting than plain old fur and teeth wolves. If it looks crap when I’ve finished I’ll start again, and maybe try something a little more conventional. I have an alternate vision in my head I may sketch if I ever have the time.

The only bit I really like is the idea of wolves with early gunpowder weapons the ammo for which is predator’s canine teeth.


Influences: John Blanche

October 6, 2006

Yeah I was a Games Workshop geek as a teen, I only got over the shame of the whole thing a few years ago, and now I’ve embraced my misanthropic youthful past in a way that’s probably slightly unhealthy (I’ll come back to this at a later date).

John Blanche was so my favourite artist of the lot of them. His stuff was just so twisted and weird. It wasn’t striving for the ultra-photorealistic look of Boris Vallejo or the cheapo stuff you found in AD&D Monster Manuals, but some dream-like point between the two, highly stylised but with depth and detail that made it feel eerily real.

As with all artists, John’s style has developed over the course of his career, but when I encountered his work in the mid to late 80s it was going through a bit of a punk inspired phase. As he puts it in Ratspike (currently OOP, try Ebay):

“The first images of primal man would concern themselves with hunting scenes, heroic action, mighty beasts, death masks, war paint, fetishes and trophies. Today we see the same sorts of themes represented in punk haircuts, studded leather and even the imagery employed in films like Bladerunner and Aliens. This is the heritage of Western culture, and that is what I’m trying to tap when I paint”

I’d never seen fantasy art like it, it was by its nature cheesey but it seemed way less innocent than the Vallejos, Frazettas, Achilleos and all the TSR artists, it looked dangerous and therefore more exciting.

As I understand it John is still at Games Workshop as Art Director and is still painting, check out his website.

Below is what I believe is John’s defining piece, Amazonia Gothique. Okay, she’s still wearing clothing entirely impractical for battle in the traditional fantasy female style (check out the stilettoes) but at least she’s not some vacuous blond bimbo in a chainmail bikini.