Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Grieg Art Gallery opening and lecture, University of Teesside

Middlesbrough, Teesside

University of Teesside logoThis week I was honored to be asked to say a few words at the opening of a new gallery of videogame art at my academic home, the University of Teesside. Thanks to the untiring efforts of Maggie Parker, a graduate student there, the university now has a place to show off some of the best of its work, and that of others in the northeast. The gallery is named for Bill Grieg, a former head of the Department of Mathematics at the university, who was instrumental in building up its reputation as acenter of excellence in computing.

I think things like art galleries are an important step in the advancement of our medium's cultural credibility -- see my remarks below. I also gave an open lecture on game design which was very well attended; I think about 150 people showed up.

Here is the text of my remarks at the gallery opening:

Good afternoon, and thank you. I'm honored to have been invited to speak at the opening of this gallery, and I would like to first offer my thanks to Maggie Parker for bringing me.

What I'd like to do is take a few minutes to give you the benefit of my thoughts as a longtime observer of games and game developers.

The first requirement of the artwork in a computer game is of course to serve the gameplay. In many games, where the gameplay is fast and furious, or in which it's abstract and artificial, the artwork need not be very sophisticated. But other games entertain by other means, and the graphics play an important part in creating the player's experience of a fantasy world.

Unfortunately, we often don't get the time to appreciate it as we would like. The process of gameplay doesn't always lend itself to aesthetic experience. We're often trying so hard to accomplish something that we don't have the time to admire the surroundings. And unlike a VCR or a DVD player, games don't usually offer a pause or freeze-frame feature. That's the first and most immediate benefit of this gallery: it gives us the chance to explore these images as creative works in their own right, separated from the context of winning and losing.

But there's a larger issue as well. With all the advertising, the press coverage, the blogs and the bulletin boards that surround the video game industry, it is easy to forget that the computer game is a creative medium, not a commercial market. There is nothing about the microprocessor or the monitor that requires games to be about shooting aliens or searching for treasure. And yet this is how video games are perceived by most people.

This problem has occurred before. In the 1950's, in the United States, comic books were labeled as, and indeed forced to be, nothing more than light entertainment for children. For thirty years, the potential of the comic book was unexplored because of this essential confusion between the medium itself and the content for which it was best known.

With the computer we can do much more than comics could ever do. What Escher did for two dimensions, we can do for three. What comics must do in single frames, we can do in continuous movement. What they must do silently, we can do with sound, and so on.

Yet video games still lag behind comics in the struggle for cultural acceptance. Comics are now recognized as an art form capable of producing serious works of literature. Video games are not. Yet.

Comic books only achieved their newfound respect when a few writers and artists had the courage to look beyond their traditional themes of saving the universe and fighting crime, and when a few others were willing to help publicize their achievement. And the same will be true for us. It is we, the pioneers in this medium, who must expand the frontiers of what it can be -- we who must change the preconceptions of those who would judge us -- we, who must correct the stereotype that we have wrought for ourselves.

Before we can do this, however, we must act as if we believe that games are an art form.

And that is why this gallery, and others like it, is an important step in the development of our medium. It gives us an opportunity to identify, and to publicize, the work of the best among us. To select these works not with the mindless democracy of the marketplace, but with the keen aesthetic judgment of the expert.

The people who establish art galleries are the philosopher-kings of their medium. They do not decide what is best on the basis of what the mob likes; they decide what is best on the basis of what seems best to them. This is a grave responsibility. There were times in the past when this authority was abused, or when it was so hidebound by tradition that it was incapable of recognizing important advances. Fortunately, I think that is unlikely to happen here. The people who have established this gallery have more in common with Joseph Turner than with Sir Joshua Reynolds.

So, as we examine the works on display today, let us also remember the larger implications of what it means to have a gallery of video game art. Whether you like or dislike an individual piece is not the issue. What is important is that this space is here, available to be a place where people can gather to experience, to analyze, and to debate, the nature and merits of video game art. And I believe that is beneficial to the game industry, industry, to students and teachers, and to society at large.

Let me offer you my congratulations and my thanks for having created it for us.