Saturday, December 03, 2011

Aesthetics in the Classroom - Video Games and Importance of the Visual

(Wish I knew who to credit this image to!
If you discover it, let me know!)


It all started with an Artist of the Day that was about a video game.  I had been thinking I wanted to bring in topics that my students were interested in, but I think my hesitation was that I didn't know much about video games myself.

I have played "Bejeweled" and "Fruit Ninja" on my iPhone (don't laugh!), and when the Nintendo DS was out, I went through a phase of playing games that strengthened my frontal cortex (being the age I am and reading about the new brain science), but though I am aware that many games are out there, I really don't know much about them.  

Anyway, after the video was showed in class, one of the students made the comment that they didn't know that art was a part of the video game.  What?  Really???  How could they think that?  This was puzzling to me, so Kim (my student teacher) and I decided to have the theme for the next week be the art of video games.

Kim (with the help of her gaming boyfriend) selected the videos for the week.  The videos specifically featured information about how the artistic, cinematic, story, game play or sound was conceived and created to produce the games.  They were:
We showed the videos, Kim and I taking turns leading the classroom discussion after the viewing.  We asked if they liked the game, the responses varied.  Some liked the more fantasy or anime aesthetic, others the more realistic and dark environment aesthetic.  We talked to them about the cinematic aspect of the games - what was important about that?  They felt they were a part of the game.  I pointed out how the video gaming industry was booming and was a huge opportunity for artists, as well as the need for those artists to continually be coming up with new, fresh and divergent concepts for the games.  I asked why they got tired of games and wanted new ones:  they completed all of the levels, they got bored, they wanted something new.  

I prepared a short questionnaire for them to complete on Friday.  Here are the questions with a few of their responses:
  • Before we started looking at video games this week, did you think about the role art plays in it's creation?  Why or why not?
    • No, I never imagined how art worked in games, I just thought about technology.
    • Yes, but I thought teachers and adults didn't consider it art.
    • Well, I am not a big video person.  I seriously didn't know art was really involved in video games.
    • Even though I like for games to have good graphics, I never thought of the art because I just like for it to be fun.
    • I knew it took a lot of art, but whenever I play video games I always think about either how good or bad the graphics are, but I never really realized all the thought that went into it.
    • As far as marketing goes, I do consider the artwork.  I've never really thought about the effort and time it takes to create it.
    • Yes, because I've seen and researched character designs, weapon designs, and world designs for popular games I liked.
  • How important is the art in your enjoyment of a game?  Explain your opinion.
    • It is very important because I enjoy looking at the background and interacting with objects in the game.  
    • The art of the game is very important because it makes you feel like you're in the game.
    • Video games are fully visual experiences, and for the hardcore gamers especially, it has to be endlessly immersive for them.
    • Very.  Nobody wants to play a game with terrible scenery, bad graphics and unrealistic characters.
    • Very important.  If I don't like the art, I won't play it.  If everything is too dark, I can't play it.
    • Good art and graphics, I think, are sometimes even more important than the game itself.
    • The art is the greatest part since it is what pulls you in first and what captivates you throughout.
  • After we looked at the videos this week, do you think you will look at the artwork of games more closely?
    • Yes, because after this week I will be more into games than I was before.
    • Yes, actually I already do!
    • Just a bit, because I've always enjoyed observing aspects of the visual elements of my games.  
    • Maybe, only if it really amazes me.
    • Not more than I already do.  While art is important in video games, there are other things that are just as important, if not more.
    • Yes.  Some of the artwork from the videos has made me very interested in the field of graphic design.
  • What kind of artwork do you prefer in a video game?
    • I prefer artwork that looks realistic, but has the idea of fantasy.  It's cool to see something not in our physical world come to life.
    • I prefer video games that have more realistic art work.
    • EVERYTHING and ALL!  I have games ranging from anime style to Super Mario.  But I usually prefer cartoony because I have a 10 year old brother and realistically drawn games are usually rated Mature.
    • I guess I like realistic with fantasy!  It's a good combination!
    • I prefer artwork that relates to history, like in Assassin's Creed.  Certain fantasy-like artworks in a video game also look nice, as in Zelda.
    • Clear, crisp images/graphics like most of the PS3 games have.  Final Fantasy VII:  Crisis Core & Final Fantasy XIII are my favorite games.
One of my first thoughts, after reading through their responses, was that they are VERY articulate about what they like or don't like about video games!  Much more articulate than when they are addressing other forms of art like paintings, sculpture or installations.  Interesting.  Roughly half of the students didn't consider the art of the game before watching the videos for the week.  That surprised me a lot initially, but I can see how the "game" and the competitive aspects of speed and accuracy could command most of their attention.  What did please me was that after watching the videos, about 80% of them said they would be noticing the art of games after learning about what went into the production of them.  And, not very surprising, 62% preferred realistic artwork, 18% fantasy, 14% cartoon-like artwork and 6% anime/manga artwork.  With the resurgence of 3D movies and the availability of 3D televisions, the blurring between the virtual and real is becoming even blurrier!  They want those realistic experiences in which they feel they are a part of the game.

Certainly this generation of gamers is driving a billion dollar industry. With improved technology, the realism these games create is truly astounding.  As I was preparing this post, I decided to find out a little about the history of video games and stumbled on this video put up just yesterday that chronicles both the hardware and software from 1958-2011.  Six plus minutes long, it clearly shows the move from clunky controllers and pixelated game environments to body controlled games (Wii and Kinect) and amazing environments and characters.  I understood why some students thought the art in a game was just technology - you see those little Pac Men gobbling things up and they look like computer programmed characters.  Not very sophisticated, the early games had color and movement, but don't look very "artistic".  Where the artists stepped in along the video game timeline, I'm not quite sure, but now the games are produced like a full feature film with game designers, environmental art designers, character designers, writers, modelers, programmers and marketers.  Check out this website that lists the statistics of video game sales - unbelievable!

As I was cruising around the Internet looking at stuff, I found this blogpost that addresses the thorny topic of art and video games.  Apparently, Roger Ebert proclaimed that "video games can never be art".  The author of this blog, Dante Stack, believes (as I do) that video games are a new art form and could be THE art form of the gamer generation.  Hard to argue with.  And, as Mr. Stack points out in his post, this all gets back to what the definition of art is (enter the can of worms), etc., etc.  Perhaps one reason it might not be considered art is that it's not exclusive to the rich and powerful as "art" has often been over the last several thousand years or so.  What are some of the important aspects of art (the kind found in "the canon")?  Canonical Art is thought to be:
  • Powerful - But video games are powerful to the common man - they are democratic.  
  • Innovative - Technology is taking this art form of video games to an incredible level where reality and fantasy are blurred.  
  • Persuasive - Because we are in the explosion, it's difficult to know how this form of art is changing the workings of the human mind - there is much controversy about this.  I don't usually source Wikipedia, but they have an interesting page about science's study of the pros and cons of playing video games if you want to check it out.  So not only are we changed socially, we could be reframing the brain for the 21st century as well.
  • Beautiful - Whether you are a gamer or not, these characters and environments are undeniably lush and gorgeous.  Many of the games draw on aspects of art from other periods of art history such as the Renaissance and Leonardo da Vinci.
  • Intellectual - The games of today are multi-faceted and multi-layered.  They involve concentration, dexterity, skill, imagination and their own form of critical thinking skills.  
  • Pleasurable - Art through the ages has always had this element, whether it was created for love, religion or politics.  Video games have evolved to a level that connects with most of the senses:  physical, auditory and visual.  With 4D, the sense of smell is the only sense missing in these realistic environments.  
So....what am I thinking about all of this?  I'm thrilled.  I see evolutionary change happening right before my very eyes.  It takes me back to Captain Kirk's and the Starship Enterprise's mission, "to boldly to where no man has gone before"; that's where we are going.  I sent the preview of this post to Kim to see if she had anything to add, as the co-creator of our experience, and she sent me three links from the TED Talks that are powerful.  Get a cup of coffee, or a nice cold drink and settle down for a bit longer - these presentations are definitely worth the time.  
Gabe Zicherman - How games make kids smarter
How video games are an interactive form
Jane McGonigal - Gaming can make a better world
This week's activity has changed me.  In the end, I am truly inspired and encouraged.  I am a believer of the power of man, the power to reinvent himself yet again.  My own generation was a transformative one, living during civil rights movements, the Vietnam war, Woodstock, women's liberation and the power of peace and love.  This generation, the one I teach, is going to change the world in an unbelievable way.  I'm glad I will be able to see what they will do.