GDC 2001: Matthew Wanlin's Journal (Day Three)
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  March 24: Day Three

   Well, the final day of the conference has arrived. I drove today, and it was a wonderful change to have thin, almost nonexistent Saturday morning traffic rather than the nauseously crowded commute ordeal of the last two days. We were earlier than usual, and the place seemed tired, devoid of people. You could feel the conference winding down to a close. But I had one more talk to attend, and I had high hopes for it.

Will Games Ever Become a Legitimate Art Form?

   The topic of this conference is of particular interest to me, as I consider myself a visual artist above all else, and I often wonder how I will fit into the gaming industry, if that is where I choose to go. Are video games art? While they obviously contain art, I can't honestly say that I consider many recent video game titles to be "art." Except maybe Silent Hill... I'll have to think about that one.

   Now, perhaps it is just me, but I've always felt that a man in a top hat deserves respect. So when Ernest Adams, founder of the International Game Developers Association and freelance game designer who has worked on everything from the IBM 360 mainframe to the PlayStation2, began to speak about games and art, he captured my undivided attention. He began by comparing games with the progression that movies have made over the last hundred years. Beginning as childish entertainment, they managed to make a transition to the big screen, and ultimately manifest into the film industry, and something which is most certainly an art.

Game Art
Ernest Adams

   Yet, film is all about narrative. It is completely linear, and not the least bit interactive, whereas a video game is totally interactive, and more often than not, non-linear to a degree. Both films and games, as well as books and musical CDs, belong to the literary arts. That is, the object you can hold in your hand is not the work of art in itself, but contains it. A film reel is not art. A VHS tape or plain bound book is not art. And neither is the CD or DVD containing a video game. What lies within, there lies the potential for creation, the potential to be art.

   But the fact remains that most games are not art. This may come from the "victory condition" - the goal that the player is aiming to achieve. As they work steadily towards a definite goal, it detracts from the game the ability to exist as art. Instead, the game must do as film or theater does, and express something. Not just game rules, but some true meaning. And, unfortunately, this means that in order to become art, games may have to place the element of "fun" as secondary, or even remove it completely. Art cannot just be entertaining, it must bear ideas, it must make people feel something.

   Video games can't simply exist as computerized versions of board games. And in order to make sure that it is possible for them to make a transition similar to film, we must change the way we look at them. We must treat them as art. Look at the Academy Awards, for example. Do we see technical awards such as sound producer and graphic coordinator highlighted? Of course not. they are either secondary awards passed off in a few minutes, or not presented at all. That's because the Academy Awards are about art. And yet, what is the driving concept behind video game awards? It is all the technical stuff. The programmers and the technicians are the big awards, while the elements which incorporate the artistic side of the game go largely unnoticed. While the technical side is not to be ignored either, we need gaming awards that focus on aesthetic content.

   Further, we need critics. Yes, every gaming magazine and website has a plethora of game reviewers, but that's not the same. Reviewers compare games to other games, and rate them as such. Critics evaluate these things in-depth, and should have a good understanding of what they are talking about, not just relying on their knowledge of other games. We need critics who treat games like films, as that is the only manner in which the overall quality of games is going to be raised.

   It took movies almost fifty years to truly manifest into the beginnings of an art form. Even if videogames can't move any faster than that, we are still talking about a relatively close transformation. I personally look forward to an artistic style to enter the world of gaming, and for names such as Sid Meier and American McGee to be as commonplace as Francis Ford Coppala and Stanley Kubrick.


   The 2001 Game Developers Conference gave me an insightful look at the world of game development. I met many influential people from the industry, got tons of great stuff, and made some connections which will hopefully come in handy again later in my own work. But most of all, I now look forward to returning to the conference, a year or two from now, as a part of the industry.

   I hope some of what interested me at the conference fascinated you as well, and that what was shown there gave you some insight into what happens behind a game's development process. Be sure to check out the rest of our GDC coverage for even more information on the show. You may also proceed to the Image Gallery, which is also available through the navigation menu or from the main GDC page. This gallery contains all the photographs you've seen in this journal, as well as some other shots I took around the conference.

   Any questions, comments or other correspondence is welcome, and should be sent to the email address below.

Matthew Wanlin

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