Thursday, June 04, 2009

Videogaming in Visual Arts - by Wesley Auyeung

I grew up in a very diverse neighborhood. My street alone had three
Chinese families, three Indian families, one Italian family, one
Korean family, three Irish families and at least two or three Jewish
families. Approximately half of the students who attended my high
school were Asian (including Indian, Korean, Japanese, Filipino, and
Thai), and the other half of my school was comprised of kids of
various European heritages along with a few African American kids.
Growing up in this diverse environment not only helped me learn about
other cultures and beliefs, it also helped me learn about stereotypes
regarding my own culture.

For as long as I can remember, my friends would always say, "Man,
you are so Asian" whenever they caught me playing video games. I would
usually just laugh and shrug it off without giving it much thought,
but the stereotype seemed to follow me everywhere. As much as I
enjoyed spending time with my friends, they were not always available
to spend time with me. Thus, when I was alone I would resort to video
games to pass the time, never assuming that it could be turned into an
art form.

When I arrived in China, I was somewhat surprised by the amount of
time people spend playing video games. I had thought that Chinese
people, especially students, would be too busy with other obligations
that would keep them from having free time to play video games.
However, many observations I have made around Shanghai and other areas
of China have proven to me that the video game culture in China is far
more intense than the one in the U.S. to the point where video games
have become a part of Chinese culture, and many Chinese people, young
and old, reflect this notion with their video game habits.

Part of the reason this is so is because nearly all the latest
movies, video games, and music albums can be bought from one of the
street vendors selling pirated media. The prices of the fake DVDs and
video games are also much cheaper than their legitimate counterparts
while the quality remains comparable. And with such a tremendous
amount of pirated media, Chinese people have a huge selection of
affordable entertainment just waiting around the corner.

Another reason video games have become such a huge hit in China is
because the creation of online games has allowed gamers to interact
with other people while playing. Massively Multiplayer Online Role-
Playing Games, otherwise known as MMORPGs, have become the most
popular games amongst Chinese gamers according to The Eighth China
Online Game Market Survey (Tan). This genre of video games is mainly
played on computers because they require Internet connectivity for
players to play together online. The interaction that gamers
experience online can be addicting, and many times, Chinese gamers
become absorbed in the vast beautiful worlds that the creators of
these video games dream up and realize.

And it is no wonder that Chinese people spend so much time playing
video games since Chinese people have little else to do for
entertainment, at least within the confines of what is deemed
acceptable by society and what is not. Through talking to people who
grew up in China and know the culture, I learned that Chinese people
do not do the same things people elsewhere do for fun. Whereas many
people western countries enjoy going out to bars to have a drink or
perhaps to a club to meet people and dance, Chinese people tend to
enjoy staying home and spending time with family. Chinese culture in
addition to Confucianism views drinking and staying out late at night
as improper, thus many Chinese people tend to choose quieter forms of

The One Child Policy is another huge factor in the popularity and
assimilation of video games in Chinese culture. Since families are
officially only allowed one child, many of those children become very
lonely while growing up. Even though they have friends at school they
can play with, their friends will not always be available to keep them
company, thus video games provides a convenient outlet for children's
social needs in China.

But apart from being lonely, parents tend to spoil kids because of the
One Child Policy. Since parents can only have one child, they more
often than not cave into many of the child's requests. Thus, many kids
spend countless hours playing video games while they grow up because
their parents are reluctant to tell them no. Sometimes, parents even
use video games as incentives for their children to do certain things
such as performing well on exams. This method of rewarding children
with video games only further reinforces Chinese kids' video game

Video games have become so rooted in Chinese culture now that Chinese
artists have begun experimenting with video games as a medium of
expression. Artists like Feng Mengbo and Cao Fei have manipulated
games to include elements of their choice to express themselves. Much
of the work that they do is not done on their own since the amount of
work and time that goes into a video game can be quite a lot, but the
possibilities that they have with this medium are virtually endless.

Though video game art's beginnings are somewhat cloudy, many consider
Feng Mengbo to be the grandfather of video game art. Hailing from
Beijing, this video game fanatic utilizes interactive CD-ROMs in many
of his installations. "A primary reason for choosing the interactive
CD-ROM as a medium for artistic expression is grounded in the artist's
strong commitment to democratic populism. Video games are a source of
empowerment and participation for their youthful practitioners… The
versatility of the digital medium gives the audience freedom to
participate in the artwork itself, and the technical possibilities for
interaction by the artist and the user help to free the process of
making art from conventional linear narrative structures. For Feng
Mengbo, new technologies offer new ways of exploring human concerns
and returning to individuals the opportunity to imaginatively reshape
their own cultural participation." (Carter).

One of Feng Mengbo's more traditional pieces, entitled "My Private
Album" consisted of a set of images capturing various aspects of
Chinese Culture in the late twentieth century. The pictures were put
on a Macintosh computer hooked up to a projector. The projector shot
the images onto a screen enwrapped by curtains to give observers a
sense as if they were inside a movie theater. The installation was
interactive, and users could put the images in the order that they
wished to see them by using the keyboard and mouse on the computer.

Another piece by Feng Mengbo, called Q4U, is a little less traditional
than his "My Private Album" piece. In Q4U, Feng Mengbo takes the game
Quake III and places a model of himself as the protagonist of the
game. The model sports camouflage pants and a video camera, and the
point of the game is to go around killing other players for points
(Murray). The game itself was projected onto three large screens where
viewers could access the game and play other people, sometimes
including Feng Mengbo himself, via a broadband Internet connection

The Q4U piece was meant to reflect on relation between self-image and
militarism, which is something Feng Mengbo could relate to when he was
a child (Murray). The piece could also be seen as an indicator of how
teens sometimes base their reality on video games. Gamers sometimes
identify themselves with the protagonist of the game they are playing
and become obsessed with the idea of becoming more like the
protagonist as a result, which is why people often blame video games
for some of the teen violence that occurs on campuses across the
United States.

I feel that the most unique aspect of Feng Mengbo's Q4U, however, was
not the ideas it was trying to convey but the interaction his
installation had with his viewers. While many installations that
artists set up are interactive, few can achieve what video games can.
In Feng Mengbo's case he can allow his viewers to assume the identity
of almost anyone in the world. For Q4U, Feng Mengbo chose his own
identity for viewers to assume.

In comparison with more traditional mediums used by artists, video
games are usually much more interactive. Even compared to some more
contemporary mediums, such as performances, video games are still
somewhat more interactive than these mediums. But that's not to say
that video games are better. It only means that video games can
achieve what other mediums cannot, just as other mediums can allow the
artist to offer his or her viewers something video games cannot.

For instance, Zhang Huan, one of the major performance artists I
studied in Contemporary Art in China, sat on a toilet covered in a
sticky substance comprised primarily of honey. The performance lasted
for an hour, and by the time it was done flies covered Huan from head
to toe. The performance was a display of the living conditions that
many Chinese people experience throughout the country and their
ability to deal with these conditions.

The performance was interactive, but not to the same degree as Feng
Mengbo's Q4U. In performance art, artists choose whether or not to
interact with their viewers. But even if the performer chooses not to
interact with his viewers, there will still be some level of
interaction even if it is quite limited. The presence of the viewer
does affect the artist's performance in some way even if it is not

In Gerald (Gerry) Pryor's performances, he mainly uses body rubbings
on different mediums to produce different effects. In his performance
that we saw in class, he jogged around the room his performance was in
while viewers looked on. He told us that a small child kept shouting
during his performance, and he modified his performance slightly in
response to this child. Pryor also told us that his performances tend
to differ from place to place because the atmosphere is different and
nothing is ever quite the same. This is a perfect example of how
performance art is still interactive, even if the interaction is

But despite the interaction that video games offer as an artistic
medium, it is not all fun and games for artists working with video
games. It is almost impossible for an artist to finish an entire video
game himself, unless he already has a fundamental foundation set up
for him. In Feng Mengbo's case, he took the already existing game,
Quake III, and modified it so that he was in the game. Though his
piece was creative and influential, he did not create a whole new
game. He only modified parts of the game to express his ideas.

For some artists, they do not consider this to be a good practice. In
my interview with Ben Houge, I learned many things about the video
game industry and art in the industry. Ben has worked for various
video game corporations like Sierra and Ubisoft in their audio
division composing scores for hit games like the Leisure Suit Larry
series and Endwar. His view on Feng Mengbo is that the artist does not
truly create anything special. Feng Mengbo uses something called the
"Quake Engine" to produce his visual effects. This engine acts as a
real-time interpreter to code that Feng Mengbo throws in. After the
code is thrown in, the engine runs the commands according to what Feng
Mengbo inputted. Though this method of creating a video game is
efficient, Houge believes it limits the artist in what he can do since
the way the engine interprets the code might not be exactly how the
artist wants it. Even though the artist can modify the code to get the
engine to produce something as close to what he wants as possible, it
will probably not come out exactly the way he wants it. If this is the
case, crucial elements of his piece may be left out. This is a problem
that many artists working with video games encounter.

Cao Fei, who works with the online game Second Life, tries to solve
this problem with outsourcing. While this is a good idea, Houge
believes that Cao Fei is also limited by the tools she chooses to use.
Since she uses the Second Life program for many of her video game
applications, she is even further limited by her tools than Feng Menbo
is. She has even less control over what her character model looks like
and the environment that the character will be in since she relies on
the game's conventions and engine to get the job done.

Houge believes that artists should have a more profound understanding
of video games before they try to create art using video games. He
states, "If artists do not have a good understanding of the tools
that they use, then they will be limited by their knowledge." He
himself graduated with a degree in music composition, so much of his
understanding of digital audio is self-taught. After gaining a better
understanding of digital audio and its workings, Houge applied it to
video games through creating scores and figuring out the most
efficient way of storing the audio files he creates on the medium that
the video games will be presented on (usually a CD). However, he has
also done a few of his own, more personal, projects.

In his Kaleidoscope installation, Houge teamed up with Chen Hangfeng
to create an installation that would have a kaleidoscope effect on the
senses. The installation consisted of multiple microphones and cameras
that were positioned outside of a hexagonal room. The cameras were
linked to projectors that projected the feed onto every other wall in
the hexagonal room. The cameras had filters in front of them that
fractured the image, much like a kaleidoscope. In addition, each
camera had a motor that spun the camera in circles. The microphones
were positioned near the cameras and had 30 digital filters that would
only allow a specific pitch through. When inside the room, various
combinations of pitches could be heard while viewing the camera feed
creating a kaleidoscope effect on the eyes and ears.

I thought the installation was very interesting. Though the
installation itself had little to do with video games, it still
maintained the interactive property of most video games. The only real
difference between a video game and the installation was the user had
no way of directly manipulating the environment in the installation.
Ben and Chen Hangfeng were controlling everything in the installation
except for who was walking by the installation at any specific moment.

During the interview, Ben also talked about how games create a sense
of a real environment for the gamer, and how he hates the term "video
game art". He believes that the term "video game art" makes it seem as
if the people who create video games on an ordinary basis are not
already creating art. He also believes that many conventional artists,
and even some contemporary artists, are not open to the idea of
including video games as a medium for art. Aaajiao agreed with this
notion in our e-mail correspondence and stated that some of the most
prevalent challenges he faces is how other artists try to control the
overall concept of what is art and what is not.

This ties in heavily to the idea of interdisciplinary and how distinct
categories in art really no longer apply in the present day and age.
Contemporary art in China, though sometimes ethically questionable
(like Zhu Yu's alleged fetus feast), is comprised of many different
mediums. Video games are just one example, but contemporary Chinese
artists have used many other mediums that some have a tough time
accepting as art such as food, culture, engineering, etc.

People say that Feng Mengbo is the grandfather of video game art, but
is he really? People have been creating video games for at least
twenty years, and none of them were considered to be artists? Video
games have always been an art, only it was not until recently that
someone (like Feng Mengbo) decided to classify it as art and inject it
into the art world. The only real difference between Feng Mengbo and
"regular" video game programmers and creators is Feng Mengbo had a
message to convey with his video game applications and he put his
video games in art exhibitions as opposed to on store shelves.

Artists working with video games also face challenges within their own
medium. Much of the limitations that artists have when working with
video games depend on the current technology and the team they may be
working with. Visually, video games depend a lot on the efficiency of
the platform and media they are played and stored on, respectively.
With increasingly more advancements in technology, machines are
becoming more and more efficient at storing more data in smaller
chips. This allows programmers more room to work with more high
quality video and audio to give a more realistic experience for the

The team that the artist chooses to work with, if he needs one, also
limits the artist. Since the visual quality of the games depends on
the programmer's skill, the artist must choose his team wisely in
order to achieve the quality and precision that he desires. In
addition, going back to what Ben Houge had said, the artist himself
must have an understanding of the programming that goes into his video
game, so he can supervise his team and understand what they are doing.

Artists who use video games as a medium are considered
very innovative. I tend to disagree somewhat since I feel that video
games have always been an art, only now there is a deeper type of
creativity that goes on behind a video game designed by a self-
proclaimed artist. Video games that are made by commercial companies
tend to have straightforward goals in the games that do not mean much
in the context of society whereas artists who work with video games
try to express ideas through their games.

In my opinion, I think video games are a great medium for
art. I think if done right, a video game can allow a viewer to
understand the artist in a way that other mediums could not allow.
Instead of painting an autobiography, an artist can make a video game
based on his or her own life, so the viewer can virtually "walk" in
the artist's shoes. However, at the same time, I do not think that
video games should always strive to be realistic.

I believe that video games are better the further they are
from reality. I feel that that is the main point of creating a video
game, so that what would be considered fiction can still feel somewhat
real to the player or viewer of the game. The viewer can assume the
role of someone else for a little while and become absorbed into a
world they otherwise could not even dream of in some cases. In that
way, video games differ from other artistic mediums in that they can
make the unreal that much more real.

Works Cited

Carter, Curtis L. "On the Future of the Present: Art, Technology, and
Culture." Haggerty Museum: Current Exhibitions. 2 June 2009 <

"E-mail with aaaJiao." E-mail to the author. 3 June 2009.

"Interview with Ben Houge." Personal interview.

"Interview with ZeeZee Zhong." Personal interview.

Murray, Timothy. "Thinking Electronic Art Via Cornell's Goldsen
Archive of New Media Art." Pacific Rim. 2 June 2009 <

Tan, Joel. "MMORPG: The most favored game genre in China." Weblog
post. Every 6 Jan. 2009. 31 May 2009 <

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