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  • Artistic Concepts in Games

    - Bret Wardle
  •  I've been following the ongoing debate about whether video games are art, and listening to the discussion has made me realize that perhaps a more important topic for developers to discuss is the artistic principles of video games.

    This article does not delve into whether games are art, but simply discusses the use of artistic principles in games, both those that are unique to games as well as those that are just as relevant in other mediums. When we consider the history of games as a visual art, it helps designers to learn to use classical artistic concepts to push the emotion of a game.

    A History From the Beginning: 1962
    For the purpose of this conversation we are going to consider the beginning of video games 1962: the release of Spacewar! Around that same time, digital art was making its first appearance as well. The first exhibit of all computer-generated artwork was held at a private art gallery in 1965. At that point computer-generated art was a hard-coded program that forced a plotter to make designs on paper. It was obviously not the digital media we think of today.

    Some of those computer-generated artists are considered visionaries, much like the early game creators. Vera Molnar, for example, is one of the early artists whose computer-generated works are what made her widely know. Creating early computer art was more a matter of knowing how to manipulate numbers and algorithms than anything that resembled "art" at the time.

    Computer games were the same way. The developers were simply manipulating the machine's ability to handle math. This manipulation resulted in the display of spaceships, which the users could in turn control.

    Even with games in their early form, there was discussion of visual appeal. For example, Spacewar! at one point was adapted to feature a true representation of the night sky because the randomly generated star field annoyed some of the developers.

    The developers were so excited about what they were accomplishing with computers, they generally didn't consider the aesthetics. Although it may have been a stretch for the computing power of the time, those developers could have applied their techniques to games. It's curious how much more emotion we might have seen in some of those early games had the artistic intention been there.

    In 1972 Magnavox released the Odyssey home game system. Once again, the artistic medium was secondary, but it was there nonetheless.

    The Odyssey system shipped with plastic overlays to put on the TV screen to simulate color and complex shapes. It was this representation that helped the players grasp what they were playing. Without these overlays, we may not have immediately understood that a game of baseball was what was on the screen. But once the color of the grass starts contrasting with the dirt, and once we see the familiar diamond shape, the game becomes instantly recognizable. It's this recognition that started the consumer demand for games.

    The next major breakthrough for art in games was the release of the Atari 2600 home system. The system featured a groundbreaking 128 bytes of RAM and a 1.19MHz processor.


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