'A Journalistic Bent' is a regular column
in which our roving reporter takes a hard look at all the issues of gaming, games development, and the games themselves. In this week's column, we talk to UK-based video game art experimentalist Tom Betts.
On Generative Art
My first encounter with Tom Betts came about while I was researching an article about art and games. I wasn’t interested in the questions about what constitutes what, but simply in who was using videogame tech to make gallery-level art. Betts was one of those pioneers, and his experiments and attitudes impressed me with their playfulness and lack of pretension. He was clearly a gamer first, and not just an art school grad looking for something ‘contemporary’ to refashion in his own image.
Betts’ work, such as the Quake III
, have neatly toyed with the fringes of what games are for and how they impress us. In the case of the QQQ, the installation was a live Quake III
server plunged into psychedelia by Betts’ fiddling with the graphical code. Generative art, made by play, and by Id.
Tom Betts is a programmer for whom games and art are interchangeable. Or is that just my impression? Do projects like QQQ mean that Betts thinks that games and art should be interwoven with each other?
“Of course,” says Betts. “I would like to see a shelf where a game could still alongside Monet, Citizen Kane, Sgt Pepper and 1984 without anyone scoffing. All these mediums are art forms and benefit from being discussed as such. No one has any concerns about applying artisitic critique to film or music, so why should games be exempt? Equally the art and academic world can learn much from games, the culture is still so young that many academics and artists are really unaware of the impact it is having and the issues raised."
"It is hard to get games taken seriously, but a more artistic approach to production and critique will only help the medium to mature. With QQQ I tried to present several aspects of both art and games. The modified visuals referred to traditional painting, generative imagery and game iconography. It made non-gamers rethink their views of Quake and made gamers realise how the game could be deconstructed and expanded.”
Art-ing And Game-Ing
So just how important is being a gamer to who Tom Betts is?
“Pretty important and probably quite unavoidable. Like many kids of my generation I grew up with the ZX81, the spectrum, the Amiga, the Mac and finally the PC. I was always amazed by the idea that you could type in a game and then play it (I still am!) I count myself lucky that I have grown up alongside the increases in technology that trace the development of digital games and games platforms. It made it easier to follow what was happening, step by step, rather than having to decode the current level of complexity from scratch. One thing that early home computer games taught us is that we can make and change games ourselves and have a clearer understanding of how they are constructed. With the many levels of gloss and multimedia enhancement in games today its often hard to break apart the elements to understand what the game is actually trying to do.”
“Playing games to me is always half enjoyment and half analysis, I tend to 'grok' systems fairly quickly and then try to break them or exploit their flaws. Sometimes the exploits in a game actually make it more fun (rocket jumping anyone?) I am a avid supporter of really challenging games, that need real skill and even *gasp* /practice/ to beat. I love the shmup genre for its refusal to die, its ultra skilled players and its endless twitchy innovations. I love MMORPGs for their weird social environments and emergent human dramas. I love abstract games and indie games where people are producing great ideas with little care for commercial success. It's often the potential of what games can be rather than what they actually are at the moment that inspires me to make my own work and finish that last level in Ikaruga
This mention of indie games touches on something the Betts talks about regularly, and takes part in himself with games such as his shooter, Endless Fire
. Why is the indie games scene so important?
“Because the approach to making your own games is one of curiosity, invention and passion,” says Betts. “Rather than a bunch of passive consumers its nice to think that we can offer something back. Gamers are often quite creative people and the mainstream production model excludes most of them from taking part in the development of the medium. Indie games can't compete with the industry process and neither should they. They can offer the equivalent of independent film or music, a development space where radical innovation and artistic experimentation can exist. The mainstream usually cannot afford to take risks but indie gaming can (it has less to lose!)"
"I count mod teams, map makers, content creators and artists as part of this scene, not just programmer type dev teams. (Many of the innovations of today’s FPS came from community hacks). It’s a question of being involved in the medium but under your own control – many industry dev-team workers are stuck on terrible projects for 2 year long stretches, and hate it. Indie gaming doesn’t demand high budgets, just high ideals and high invention. Hopefully the growing success of online distribution systems and higher profile indie projects will boost the development of the scene in future years.”
And it’s clear that some elements of the industry are coming to similar conclusions, as this week’s announcement about XNA
suggests. Creative people need to be provided with the tools, and the more tools at their disposal, the more will be built.
Betts, meanwhile, will continue tinkering with his own interactive projects and archiving them at nullpointer.co.uk
: “[Nullpointer] is a long term laboratory for experimental digital art, focused for the most part on aspects of games and gaming culture,” explains Betts. “I’m a programmer (from the Spectrum days again) and feel that programming is a creative act and something that can be used as an artistic tool. I’m a self-taught flaky programmer and much of the work on the site came from hacks, intentional errors and just wrong programming. I wanted to use games technology to create art and explore the audiovisual boundaries of such programming."
"The projects I've developed usually lie somewhere between games, tools and AV art and I've been lucky enough to have shown work many times in the context of art galleries and festivals. In most cases I just want people to engage with the technology that surrounds them a little more to question how it effects them culturally and emotionally.”
All of which experimentation has stimulated Betts to start blogging, with his thoughts now finding regular expression on thinkinggames.co.uk
“Much of the work I did for the nullpointer projects led me to thinking and writing more about games and associated culture. I was getting stuck in a production/display cycle of making work without being able to think enough about it. At the same time I started doing more teaching and speaking about the development of games and art, so thinkinggames.co.uk is a research blog where I can sketch up my thoughts. I didn’t want to build a games news site, as there are many good examples already, so thinkinggames is updated semi-regularly with my own more theoretical observations and ideas."
"There are few spokespeople to represent gaming in an articulate, intelligent way and there is not enough good quality writing. I hope that my own writing can improve and help me in my teaching and personal projects. Unfortunately I feel that the common preconception of gaming as an immature media is often provided by the gaming world itself, with shallow reviews, little interesting debate and childish publicity.”
And that, I think, is something we all want to change. Tom Betts’ online portfolio can be found at codespace.co.uk
[Jim Rossignol is a freelance journalist based in the UK – his game journalism has appeared in PC Gamer UK, Edge and The London Times.]