Gamescapes: Art in The World of Video Game Design

STIR delves into the elements that make video games a form of art, a medium that engages the audience in immersive experiences through visually exceptional storytelling.

by Shraddha Nair Published on : Jul 08, 2020

As of 2019, the video game industry was declared larger in fiscal value than the film and music industries combined. While the genre of games itself is as old as time, with the 'play' trait of human behaviour, video games have elevated the potential of gamified experiences. The universe of video games is vast and seemingly endless. The medium rejects boundaries of genre, taking inspiration from everywhere and producing experiences of everything. Its immense flexibility and diverse application demands our attention.

Video games retain a unique vantage point within the realm of art. It holds the capacity to be engaging, immersive, and meaningful while also being enjoyable. While video games are unmistakably a feat of design, the intuitive medium is an accessible art experience for everyone. Do we give it enough credit for this propensity? How can artists harness the form itself to tell stories that are relevant? Are video games the new media for discourse and dialogue?

Despite aspects of gamification seeping slowly into every facet of our lives, it very often goes quietly unrecognised. In this series we break down the qualities of this free-flowing medium, which make it noteworthy and relevant as a form of art today as well as for the world of tomorrow. We talk to creators across the world, exploring how video games can create empathy, build compassion, tell stories of the unheard, imagine our collective futures and make difficult conversations simple, plural and fun.

1. Gamescapes: Are video games contemporary art, too?

A frame from the popular game Celeste | Matt Makes Games | Celeste | STIRworld
A frame from the popular game Celeste Image Credit: Courtesy of Matt Makes Games

A newbie gamer takes a deep dive into the world of video games in a conversation with video game developer, curator and evangelist and founder of Hashstash, Yadu Rajiv. Rajiv shares his journey into this space and a handpicked list of his favourite video games! Apart from laying the groundwork for how they can be evaluated for their artistic ambitions, we also explore how video games tell stories and why they deserve to be given due credit as a noteworthy medium for storytelling. Here, we also look at how video games are being curated and collected into permanent collections of some of the largest museums in the world. As we review how this disruptive format can be examined critically, we also question - Are video games transformative in setting a precedent for how the future will study and share information?

2. Gamescapes: From India to America, video games are the new storytellers

‘Operation: Labrat’ is a game created by William J Holly using Bitsy | Operation: Labrat | William J Holly | STIRworld
Operation: Labrat is a game created by William J Holly using Bitsy Image Credit: Courtesy of William J Holly

What is art if not a form of storytelling? For more reasons than one, video game developers deserve to be viewed as not dissimilar to artists. They each have singular motivations for creating a distinct aesthetic in the way their games are experienced. A novel can be compelling and difficult to put down when the story is gripping. Video games take this a step further allowing the viewer to turn into a player, an agent within the game universe with the ability to guide the narrative. By inviting you into their world, video game creators encourage you to reclaim the experience. In a conversation with WJ Holly, a Bitsy game developer and Abiram Shanmugam, the founder of The Roots Collective, we investigate the capacity of video games to tell stories and become a tool for the dissemination of culture. Are video games the new books?

3. Gamescapes: American game developer ‘thatgamecompany’ talks about love

A still from 'Sky: Children Of The Light' | Sky: Children Of The Light | thatgamecompany | STIRworld
A still from Sky: Children Of The Light Image Credit: Courtesy of thatgamecompany

In an effort to break past the cliché that video games are a socially detached affair, we look at how video games can be not only a forum for collective experiences but also a space for fostering healthy and positive relationships. We talk to thatgamecompany, a BAFTA award-winning indie studio in California, which is re-inventing the way social frameworks exist within games. In an exciting interview with lead designer of their new game Sky: Children Of The Light, Atlas Chen discusses love, friendship and video games as a global equaliser. Digital interfaces might be a new development but games have long since been a method of communal engagement, bringing family and friends together for a game of cards or chess. Art holds the power to bring people together, can video games do so too?

4. Gamescapes: Indian video game developer Studio Oleomingus reconfigures history

A still from The Indifferent Wonder of an Edible Place, created with support from Phoenix, Leicester & VGA Chicago | The Indifferent Wonder of an Edible Place | Studio Oleomingus | STIRworld
A still from The Indifferent Wonder of an Edible Place, created with support from Phoenix, Leicester & VGA Chicago Image Credit: Courtesy of Studio Oleomingus

If art was a person, they would be a historian. Or an inventor. Or a fortune-teller. Or an anthropologist. Art is the documenter of the human condition. It remembers history, examines the present and foretells the future. Without too much effort, we might be able to compile a documentation of all of human history through the lens of art. We might even find, in this process, that art is able to guide us through a multi-faceted narrative, which shuns the disease of the single-story. In a similar vein, video games build platforms for players to relive history, have a conversation with it and imagine the future. We talk to Studio Oleomingus, discussing the immersive and interactive nature of video games as a tool for reclaiming colonised and controlled histories. Are video games an archive of culture?

5. Gamescapes: Encouraging empathy and creating compassion through video games

Gris is a game by Nomada Studio, which follows a girl through her journey of grief after losing her mother | Gamescapes | Nomada Studio | STIRworld
Gris is a game by Nomada Studio, which follows a girl through her journey of grief after losing her mother Image Credit: Shraddha Nair

The narrative of video games having a positive and healing effect on mental health is often suppressed, but we are here to break the misnomers and do away with the undeserved negative labels once and for all. The world of video games is vast, varied and full of emotional adventures. Video games can tell stories but also open its arms to invite you into the story as well. As a platform for artists, designers and creative people from across the globe, we almost never get the opportunity to see the experience from the other side of the table. To better understand the potential of positive influence of video game experiences, we spoke to people who felt it themselves. Did you know that there are some video games specifically created by researchers, which treat people with mental health conditions?

6. Gamescapes: Torpor confronts death via play using video games to see with new eyes

A still from the video game Torpor (2016) | Torpor | STIRworld
A still from the video game Torpor (2016) Image Credit: Team Torpor

Video game culture is often associated with violent games that emphasise death and killing. However, it actually signals a deeper curiosity we face as a humankind, one which desperately seeks to grapple with the complexities which shroud our own mortality. To ignore death, violence and murder in video games is like avoiding discussion of the same subjects within a painting or sculpture. The fascination continues, only the medium and material have grown new faces and forms. In an interview with the developers of Torpor, a duo who met online and later worked in collaboration at a game jam, we see how video games can actually function as a beautiful platform for a diverse range of difficult conversations. Torpor flips combat games on its head, investigating deeper implications of an act of killing, bringing to light questions of life, war and family.

7. Gamescapes: Anokhi Shah discusses the intersections of our material and virtual world through video games

Paw_cosm in VR; A curated exhibition at TIFA Working Studio | Cyberia | Anokhi Shah | STIRworld
Paw_cosm in VR; a curated exhibition at TIFA Working Studio Image Credit: Anokhi Shah

The video game industry is a dynamic space. From technology and art to film, sound and design, all threads seem to come together here in a knot. While we derive great pleasure from simple games like Candy Crush as well as complex universes within Minecraft, our seemingly senseless pastime is actually making way for new realties in our future. Studios are always in close engagement with technological developments, and those working in the industry of science and technology are very often either directly or indirectly contributing to video game experiences. In a conversation with curator, architect and new media entrepreneur Anokhi Shah, we explore the expansion of the human experience through the lens of mixed, augmented and virtual reality experiences. We still separate the 'virtual world' from the 'real world' with our words, but how defined are these boundaries? Is our reality growing to become one large video game?

8. Gamescapes: Cao Fei recalls RMB City, the virtual world, and its future

RMB City: A Second Life City Planning, a project by Cao Fei | RMB City | Cao Fei | STIRworld
RMB City: A Second Life City Planning, a project by Cao Fei Image Credit: Courtesyof Cao Fei, Vitamin Creative Space and Sprüth Magers

The world is slowly turning various interactions into experiences layered with elements of gamification. Why? Because it is fun, playful, interactive and effective. Digital architecture is slowly creating channels which pervade every facet of our lives. From building relationships, personal and professional, to having cultural experiences, the virtual lives we build for ourselves manifest in very real ways into our emotional and psychological experiences. They are no longer separate from our material existence, merely extensions of it. Today, there is very little we can do to escape it. Our realities in the near future are going to be guided by the aesthetics, mechanics and dynamics derived from video game media. What will this future look like? What will it feel like and what will we miss the most about 'real life'?

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About Author

Shraddha Nair

Shraddha Nair

Nair is a writer and curator based in Bengaluru, India. Her curatorial practice is a method by which she negotiates with and navigates the complexities of human behaviour, an interest which flows into her writing as well. She believes that art and collective experience hold immense capacity in the cultivation and development of action and emotion.

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