Insert Coin For Art

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Insert Coin For Art

Insert Coin For Art…


Every week I write a new article for members of our four Facebook art communities, The Artists Exchange, The Artists Directory, The Artists Lounge, and The Artist Hangout. This week we take a look back in history to see how video games not only shaped a generation of a certain age but have contributed to art history too. Retro video games are one of my passions outside of art, so this article is very dear to my heart and my art!

Art, Technology and Me…

For me, art has always been part of my life. I didn’t have any idea when I was five that I wanted to become an artist, I don’t think at that time I knew what day of the week it was let alone what I wanted to do when I grew up. But I would draw and paint, and I was the only kid in the class who looked forward to field trips to the art museum. I was fascinated, I was hooked by the colours and the different styles hanging on the walls.

I remember writing a story in school about Van Gogh, I was about 6-years old and I remember the teacher saying that it was too brutal to read out loud. I may have made the ear incident into a slightly bigger thing than it really was. I had a really vivid imagination, it also included a leg and an arm as I recall.

School days were something I didn’t really get along with, there were only ever three lessons I would be guaranteed to turn up to. Art, Computer Studies, and drama. I think the latter was because I really got on well with the teacher and she would ask me to go and make her a cup of tea and I could have one too. It was the trust she showed to me in giving me that task that made me feel very special, I was the chosen one. Not sure how that would be viewed today, she would be either fired or be challenged because she was putting me in danger from boiling water.

Things back then were definitely different to how things are today, back then I had all the confidence in the world, I just wasn’t into academia. Yet here I am today and some of my day to day life is spent in education and spending time in a university or giving a keynote to educators or anyone crazy enough to pay to come and hear me speak. Sometimes about cyber stuff, sometimes about art, sometimes about education.

If you have never had the pleasure or misfortune to come and listen to me, the conversation always turns to art. I don’t do PowerPoint, I do masterpieces. You think I’m kidding. I can turn a conversation about the Millennium bug into a history lesson about Rembrandt and a hundred reasons why people should buy from independent artists. Rembrandt doesn’t need the money. I have a unique set of skills they say. Others think I’m maybe on a certain spectrum.

It was only once I had left school that I realised I needed to learn, the problem was that by then I had to pay to learn. There were no free passes, no internet, and throughout my adult life I have dipped in and out of learning, I have had to.

As an artist, learning never stops. For those who don’t know me, I am an artist and have been creating art professionally for more than 30 years, along with what some folk call a regular career. Except for my other careers can hardly be called regular. More on that another time though, maybe.

But my art career is my first career love. My passion, it’s never been just a hobby or something I was simply only interested in, not since my school days anyway. Some might say art is my obsession just behind my daughter, my wife, and my dogs, and even way ahead of technology. So this week you will see how my very different worlds and interests interlink, and you might just find the subject of technology and art, and video games, a little more interesting too, because they really do all have moments of cross over.

Mountain artwork, commodore amiga art, mark Taylor
My recent "Mountains" artwork recreated on a Commodore Amiga!


Loose Change…

Shuffle around in your pocket for loose change, finally, you find some spare quarters hiding in the stitching and you insert them into the slot. Suddenly the world explodes in colour and a satisfying thud sound emanates from a small door below, your senses tingle with anticipation. I’m not talking about arcade games though, you didn’t win a prize on a claw grabber machine, I’m talking about art.

It’s an interesting concept, can we just insert a few coins in a machine and have it provide us with a masterpiece? I’m sure such a machine would be a phenomenal hit with the right marketing and if it is located in the right space. Maybe the likes of Banksy would provide one-off miniature works for people to find. Or at least I was sure it was a genius idea waiting for someone to develop it until I carried out some research online. I have never seen one in the flesh, or tin or whatever they are made of.

Such a simple concept you would think that art vending machines would be everywhere bringing art and joy into a mostly grey world filled with political drama and war. You would think I was talking about the days of the Cold War, but alas these modern times can feel equally as bleak as some of those earlier days.

This simple concept has been done already so you would have thought that these machines would be located in every art museum. History books and science fiction told us that we would by now be owners of flying cars and that by 1984 governments around the world would be using cameras to spy on their citizens, and I guess they were partly right.
There are companies who already provide refurbished cigarette vending machines to dispense art instead of smoky sticks and sugar rushes that line up in the hallways and corridors of every public space. I’m just not so sure that vending art is ever going to be as popular as vending sugary snacks. Perhaps the bottom line on snacks is so temptingly higher.

The one company that offers a vending machine to do just this here in the UK doesn’t look like its website has been updated since 2017. I worry that this great idea has been tried and has already failed. But thankfully hope is not lost. There does seem to be a niche scene in other parts of the world where companies and individuals are making them available, and in one case which I found at this link here,  the proceeds support the local art scene. The concept for this scheme was based on art vending machines in big cities across Germany. So why aren’t there more of these machines?

They are a little like lost Renoir’s, you know they are hiding somewhere but finding them is hard. With so many talented artists creating miniature works these days, the two just seem to have a fit. What if we inserted some money into a machine and we were guaranteed a one of a kind piece of art in miniature form. I can’t believe there’s not a huge market for these, after all, there is a huge market for the machines to vend snacks and plastic toys.
Surely more people must want to be part of collecting art in this way? I would be feeding coins in by the bucket, my walls would be fuller than they already are and we would see money heading towards local arts groups.

Art-O-Mat is another organisation which has more than a few of these machines out in the field and you can find them right here. From what I could see on their website it looks like these machines are based in the USA.

Whatever older vending machines dispensed, the machines themselves were often a work of art and many had eye-catching designs. I remember going to a local pub when I turned 18 (that’s when you can legally drink in the UK, and I might have been 18… depends who’s asking) and I remember thinking wow, look at that thing. It sold cigarettes but the graphics were really cool. I wanted to start smoking. Also of note… I finally gave up more than 6-months ago. If I can do it, you really can too!

It was like an adult amusement arcade machine but instead of 8-bit graphics, the machine pumped out cigarettes to anyone it could. They have since been banned from vending cigarettes in many places and regions but there was just no way for a busy pub owner or their staff to police who made a purchase. That’s also why so many kids I grew up with were intent on going to the pub, they could buy cigarettes without being challenged about their age. I like to think I went for the art displayed on the machine but it might have had more to do with beer and whiskey.

What struck me about the vending machines and the designs were the likenesses to machines I was more familiar with. Arcade games which required you to feed money into the slot to get gobbled up, or shot by an alien. Repeatedly, over and over again.

The reason I was familiar with those machines wasn’t that I was addicted to the games, I was, but because I was also addicted to the art that appeared on the side of the cabinets and on the posters that announced new arrivals. On screen, the graphics weren’t quite so great. You had to imagine that the eight by eight-pixel monoblock was a tank or a spaceship, but the art on the side of the cabinets was impressive. For a ten or eleven-year-old it was phenomenally impressive. It was really like a young person’s equivalent of walking around an art museum. Today I often visit a museum where these machines are the exhibits, I kid you not and yes, it makes me feel old.

Back then, amusement or video game arcades were springing up everywhere, even in the local fish and chip shop where I would spend lunchtimes and the money to buy lunch, playing Pac Man and Galaga. It was a joyous era of beeps and pings and artwork on the cabinets which could never be replicated in the video game which played through a CRT (Cathode Ray Tube) monitor. We just didn’t know what high definition was.

It was a cacophony of computer chips attempting to push out a recognisable tune, and it was a showcase of the weird and the wonderful. Blocks of colour jumping about on screen. Just how designers came up with the game plots, I have no idea because most of them looked exactly the same. I must have played 30-versions of Pong before I realised they weren’t even from the same manufacturer. Those were the things that would really burst your bubble of dreams as a kid, as did losing a life on Space Invaders and not having another coin.

I have been into video games ever since I first played Computer Space in the ’70s, and I owned pretty much every home computer model between the early eighties and even into the late nineties. At one time I had even made a sort of semi-decent living writing games, but my passion has always been in computer art. I may have at one time even been referred to as an original geek.

My first job in a retail environment to cover my tuition fees and to get beer tokens for the weekend was given to me on the back of showing them what I was capable of when I used a really low powered computer to create art. The work was the Mona Lisa, only it was created with letters and characters. I have no idea why they gave me a job, that piece wasn’t even my best work at the time. I recreated it again last year on my decades-old Commodore Amiga!

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Mona Lisa - Recreated on the Commodore Amiga!

For years I would sit in my bedroom and create graphics, more often for businesses my father was involved with but occasionally for video games. Then I got a real job as my parents called it, settled into a normal career and went to college in the evenings.

It was at college I studied business and later on I took art, before many years later studying orthopaedic science. It was in the little time I got in between selling high-end audio and video and learning in a classroom when I would continue to create video game graphics and art. I was officially working on digital art even before Warhol. The passion though had gripped me, but it had started way before even then. My art career started literally with a tiny white dot that went for a walk and became a line.

In the beginning…

Many of the younger generations will be forgiven for thinking that the first video games console was the PC or the PlayStation, or even the Nintendo Entertainment System, in fact, to find the seeds and not just the roots of video games, one needs to travel back to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a student named Steve Russell, the year, 1962. 

In computer labs full of white-coat wearing bearded computer scientists, the first video game was born, Computer Space. In a world where any computers needed a room the size of a large house, the technology relied on valves and vacuum tubes, and some advanced programming needed to be done and so it was. Two-line drawn spacecraft went head to head and took the available technology to its most upper limits and our imaginations into the deepest depths of space and intergalactic battles between good and evil. Okay, they were just white lines, but we all had very good imaginations back then, we had to have.

Space War made an impact and became the defacto extracurricular activity for students and academics. Among those students was a young Nolan Bushnell who, shortly after graduating from the University of Utah, (big shout out there to my Utah friends) decided to build his own version of Space War which he would call Computer Space. You can find out more the “The International Computer Museum” at this link right here

Unlike the original version, this version wouldn’t require a mainframe computer. Using the electronics skills he had learned whilst in university, Bushnell assembled just the absolute minimum of hardware and hooked it up to a 19-inch black-and-white TV. Bushnell was one of the pioneers of modern day genius.

With this new portability, Bushnell realised that the machines could be mass produced and could also be operated with the insertion of a coin. He set them up in bars and amusement arcades and tried to convince an as yet undeveloped industry to produce 1500 of them.
No one was interested beyond the first 1500 machines which Bushnell had convinced a single manufacturer to create because they just didn’t know what they were. They saw no obvious sales market outside of the computer lab geeks and some thought that the machines would be stolen for the 19-inch TV set each contained.

When players inserted their coins they would be met with reams of instructions and options screens so the market was indeed limited to those who would stay the course and learn how to play it. You had to be totally committed. Computer Space eventually went away, but that didn’t put Nolan off.

A simpler game would be more likely to attract customers who at the time were not players. The simpler game would be based on a sport called tennis which two-players would bounce a ball off two bats on either side of the screen. Once your opponent missed the return, you would score a point. Beep, boop. I know you remember playing this too right? Well, if you are viewing on a desktop based browser you can replay it on the dedicated Pong website right here

In 1972, Bushnell named his company Atari, and produced its first ever video game which was called Pong which was located in Andy Capp’s Tavern, Sunnyvale, California. The rest, as they say, is history. The dawn of the modern day video game was finally here. I was three years old and hadn’t got a clue about any of this until I was about five or six. Imagine a 3-year-old who didn’t own a tablet PC.

As Atari expanded, more staff who had the required skills were needed and amongst them a seventeen-year-old dropout by the name of Steve Jobs who was then hired in 1974.
Jobs would often call on his friend Steve Wozniak whenever he hit technical problems that couldn’t be sorted out and eventually after a period of being smuggled into Atari by Jobs, Wozniak was formally hired and became an official employee of the Atari business.
Wozniak and Jobs worked in Jobs’ garage each weekend on another project which was a small computer which would be called the Apple I, not particularly powerful but the people who saw it thought it was something quite special. 

It was Steve Jobs who thought that their new venture would make money, so Wozniak worked on the technical side of the operation, it was Jobs’ task to come up with a way to make the Apple-Computer even more appealing to a much wider audience.

More people joined his and Wozniak’s growing business and more robust power supply was created, as was a stylish new case for what would become known as the Apple II Computer. The Apple brand was officially born and with it, the personal computer industry too.
If Apple were to grow though they would need investment. Jobs asked his old friend Bushnell if he wanted to become involved in his new venture but Bushnell declined the offer. He had his own plans for his company Atari, which included releasing a home version of Pong.

Magnavox a US-based Electronics Company who had been working quietly in the background on their Magnavox Odyssey prototype and who also along with many others released a version of Pong in 1972, were joining the game. But it would be 1974 when Bushnell released the official version of Pong to the world for home use.

Technically superior to the Magnavox, Bushnell’s machine didn’t take off until 1975, and suddenly every electronics manufacturer wanted in on this new TV games revolution. By the end of 1976, more than 20-manufacturers were trying to outdo each other with technically advanced machines but a company by the name of Fairchild went a step further and produced one so technically advanced the user could swap out games using interchangeable cartridges. It was literally a game changer. I know that was a really bad pun, but it is 3:22am as I write this.

Not to be outdone, Bushnell had one of those hold my beer moments and went another step further. Welcome to the Atari 2600 VCS, with colour graphics and sound, and a promise of a wealth of games cartridges from the actual manufacturers of all those great arcade games becoming so popular in arcades and bars.

The Atari VCS 2600 was expensive to produce and Atari didn’t have the finances to produce and market on the scale that would be needed. Bushnell scouted around for investors and Warner Communications offered to buy up the project and the operation, although a takeover wasn’t in Bushnell’s original plan. Arguments between Bushnell and Warner frequently occurred.

With Apple making personal computers and doing particularly well, Bushnell now wanted in on the home computer market too after passing up the opportunity to be at the forefront with Jobs and Apple. Bushnell wanted his Atari 800 ­to be everything that the Apple II was not. So with this in mind, he designed it with enhanced graphics and sound capabilities which made it not only suitable for business, but for the games market too. Indeed it was more successful in the games market than it was for business.

Apple was encouraging the market of coders to write software for their machine but Bushnell’s 800 would be closed to that market and software would be produced only by Atari which was probably the start of its downfall. Apple’s software catalogue had grown considerably and included several business programs which were seen as must-haves. The Atari 800 was left on the fringes and out in the cold. You can see the Atari 800 at this website right here

The closed development policy hadn’t been the idea of Bushnell though and one of the many arguments with Warner Communications at the time was about just this, Bushnell needed them to change their policy, and he wanted them to also reduce the cost of the Atari 2600 VCS. Warner didn’t agree with Bushnell and so Bushnell stepped away from Atari.

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Retro Computers and the birth of digital art!

In the UK

In the UK the video games scene was initially seen as a fad, with many of the pong TV games available and parents never could quite seem to justify the best part of a hundred or so pounds on a dedicated games machine which would take over the main and often only TV set in the house. On top of that, the cartridge-based games were expensive. Remember that this was back in the day where anything involving electronics was still relatively new.

By 1979 children across the UK and me included were dreaming of the day we would own an Atari 2600 VCS. Since the company called Taito had released Space Invaders in 1978, having the arcade at home was not just a fun idea, but would give many children an insight into how presenting a good business case would secure them a shiny new home computer.

I tried to convince my parents to buy me one by explaining that it would be cheaper for them to have a machine at home rather than put coins into a machine in an arcade. That fell flat and they weren’t convinced. A few months later I told them that I didn’t want to get left behind in my education. I did it, I pulled the "ace" card out of the hat. They mistakenly thought I would become a cash-rich programmer of computers. I did eventually, but I was never rich.

Having a games machine such as the VCS was one thing, but already those bigger, better, shiny, new personal computers were being imported into the UK. The Apple II and Atari 800, and the Commodore PET all in one computer was becoming popular. But as far as parents knew, those computers were strictly off-limits and deemed only suitable for high-end businesses and universities, they weren’t for kids and were at the time, considered purchases even for large corporations.

For the cost of a brand new fitted kitchen, one could purchase the Atari 800, the alternative was to buy a computer in kit form for around £200 (UK). One year after the VCS appeared under the family Christmas tree, I found a kit in the same space on the 25th December 1980. The kit was the Sinclair ZX80, a small white plastic case with a touch-sensitive keyboard, it was hardly a games machine, but this is where my art career would really begin.

It would be another two-years before I would own a ZX81, which was released in 1981, and the Sinclair ZX-Spectrum which was released in 1982, wouldn’t get near me until a little while after its initial release. You can find an entire Wikipedia article on the ZX81 right here,  which was also marketed as the Timex Sinclair 1000, and 1500 in the USA. 

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The Commodore 64 Personal Computer. EPIC! Copyright Commodore

Mainstream Gaming for the Masses and the real introduction of video game art...

If there was a specific point at the time that gaming was introduced to the masses it would have been at the time of the Atari VCS. As time moved on and the home computer market grew, users wanted more and more, no longer were single 8x8 blocks of single colour enough. Consoles had for the past few years taken a back-seat as the personal computer was easier to prepare a business case for to the parents, many personal computers were handed over under the guise of helping them with their homework, and of course they never really did.

In 1985 things would change again when a company who once produced playing cards and hand-held electronic games, produced the Nintendo Entertainment System in the USA.  With titles like Super Mario World and Legend of Zelda, the NES was released to a new and eager audience.

Mario, of course, had been around before in a game released back in 1981, called Donkey Kong. Legend has it that the original game was to be called Monkey Kong but a misprint on a memo resulted in a last-minute name change.

The alternative version of the myth was that there was no such memo, the games creator saw the lead character of Kong as being stubborn rather than evil, and browsing through a translation dictionary the only word which described such stubbornness was Donkey. 

Whichever is the truest record determined that Donkey Kong would go on to be one of the most popular video games in history and it also introduced the world to Mario some four years before Mario would get his own title when he appeared in Super Mario World.

Donkey Kong is where graphics started to become more engaging, and the historical use of cut-scenes was introduced to the game playing world between levels. These are something that will be familiar to players of today and where much of the finest video game artwork can now be seen. Some cut scenes take hundreds of hours and hundreds of people, techies, and actors to create, and a budget of millions of dollars.

The art of Donkey Kong became as iconic as the game itself with images of Donkey Kong and Mario appearing everywhere from cereal boxes to school lunch boxes and the images even inspired street art to appear in Paris in 2015 by an artist named Jace. There’s a great article about that right here

In 1989 it seemed as if Nintendo were unstoppable and they released an 8-bit hand-held which would be known as the Game Boy. Its sales didn’t initially come from Nintendo’s earlier Mario games though, it was from Alexey Pajitnov’s Russian game called Tetris.
What made Tetris so unique wasn’t necessarily its unique gameplay, but it was the first entertainment software to be exported from the USSR to the USA.

The real beauty of Tetris though was its use of tetrominoes, a four-element special case of polyominoes which had been used in popular puzzles since at least 1907, however, even the enumeration of pentominoes is dated back to antiquity.

Tetris is a game where you have to complete solid horizontal lines from falling blocks of various shapes and has been a staple of any video games collection since 1984. It is a type of game which transcends culture and language, anyone can pick up Tetris and immediately start playing. More recently a visual treat and update appeared for the PlayStation 4 and offered players the opportunity to play Tetris in Virtual Reality. The game itself is a work of visual and audible art.

Blocks appear from nowhere and can be rotated in different directions and it is those blocks which have inspired artwork from installation art projects such as LummoBlocks which really made art installations interactive. You can read more about that project right here

Sergej Hein an animator and motion designer incorporated the blocks in Berlin Block Tetris, creating an impressive piece using Adobes After Effects. The piece served as a commentary on the design of former socialist building designs in architecture. You can read more and see the video right here

Tetris has even spawned modular seating concepts which can be easily stacked and reconfigured, a nod to creating order out of versatile shapes. Aimed at children, the goal was to help children work together and develop critical thinking skills.

The art of video games…

Whilst there are more than a few games which have inspired new forms of artwork, there are many more artworks inspired by games. Anyone who has spent time and consumed hours of playing Final Fantasy will tell you that the visuals in the modern iterations of this epic role-playing game, RPG for short, are perhaps some of the finest examples of artwork dominating the current crop of video games. Personally, I think there are even better demonstrations of art in video games such as the ones shown on this website right here.

Back in 2012, the Smithsonian exhibited the Art of Video Games at the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum. Whilst the exhibits offered playable experiences of the medium, the fact that this event happened at all was seen at the time as being an institutional endorsement of the medium as an art form. You can see the exhibition trailer right here

What was more obvious to those visiting the exhibit at the time was its lack of overly formal curatorial intervention, preferring instead a crowd-sourced approach to the exhibits. Also obvious was the fact that many who visited were taken in by the exhibitions a title which may have suggested that an exhibition of the mediums advances in graphics would be the focal point.

It was precisely the interactivity of the exhibits which provided a potential for storytelling but the key message from this exhibition at the time was to put video games on an art map and start a debate. It did.

The Guardian newspapers art critic Jonathan Jones said back in 2015 “that if games are art, they remain aligned with old-fashioned Renaissance ideals of realism and linear perspective”. 

Games definitely offer the viewer with a unique fusion of interactivity and visual art design, and again in 2015, even The Tate joined the debate with collaboration through the ever-popular video game, Minecraft.

Another interesting story in the defence of art within games can be found in an older Guardian piece right here. This is where you will find the observation that video game art returns us to that first Impressionist exhibition”, where the critic Louis Leroy, cruelly lampooned the works on display as “uncultured blobs of paint on dirty canvases.”  The debate was back at the time heated and continues to be even to this very day. There’s another interesting article right here.  

But there is a world of art within modern video games and increasingly, video games are becoming the theme for particular pieces of art and art installations. Today, enough of high culture's gatekeepers have grown up around video games, so art and installations no longer have to always sneak past them in the same way that they once did.

Gaming and art in 2019 are experiencing a moment of convergence. New games are released in similar ways to artworks and at similar events, to those, we see in the broader art world. A pre-release party for a triple ‘A’ title is just as likely to be filled with people sipping fine wines and discussing the aesthetics of any particular work as they would when attending any gallery showing a retrospective.

The Museum of Contemporary Art has previously held pop-up exhibits showcasing video games and mixing those exhibits with a broader collection of artworks and the events have been very similar to any other art event.  Whilst some would morally condemn the video game medium as showcasing violence and gore or just being simplistic distractions, others suggest that games are the convenient bipartisan scapegoat which causes the moral decay of children. But don’t we sometimes see some of that in artworks too?

Perhaps with artworks being more static they appear less violent and it also comes down to how we interpret art, but some other differences between violence and gore in games and art can be implied. However, we have to be mindful that video games do have age ratings in most countries whereas artworks don’t. Ultimately, it’s difficult to police and even harder to prove that someone under the age rating has played a game rated for someone older, there’s also a question around appropriate supervision or lack of it in some cases, though not an excuse for all.

There are others who will defend the right of games to be classified as art to the highest level, as the Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert found out when he wrote an article and declared that video games would never be art. Just a few short months later and with more than 5,000 comments on his post suggesting otherwise, Ebert was forced to make a ‘U’ turn and later wrote what was at least a half-hearted attempt at an apology.

Whether or not you personally believe games are good for society or not, there is no denying that video games require ever-growing numbers of artists to create them. At one time sat in a bedroom on a cold winter’s evening I would tap away at a keyboard producing code and creating graphics from 8x8 blocks. Today hundreds of artists are involved in the making of the biggest titles, and not just artists, but animators, actors and actresses, and those who pen the narrative for any games story. All of those artists, authors, designers and creatives, rely on the industry to keep them employed.

The industry for video games is significant and contributes to the economic growth of communities and entire nations. In 2017, the industry made $116 billion which was a 10.9% growth over the previous year. Before that growth was at around 10% year on year and is expected to reach $180.1 billion by 2021. Impressive numbers, and plenty of opportunities for creatives to become involved.

Celebrities usually more familiar to us through their film roles have taken acting and voice-over work in the games industry and it’s not unusual to see ‘A’ list celebrities in the credits of each game.

Kiefer Sutherland voiced the character ‘Snake’ in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, George Takei formerly of Star Trek fame was chosen for the game Red Alert 3, and Liam Neeson who was attracted to the compelling story behind Fallout 3.

Many performing artists took more obvious roles in games, Andy Warhol made an appearance in The Sims along with Avril Lavigne and Phil Collins appeared as himself in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories.

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The classic Atari Paddle Controller I recreated using an old Atari 400 computer!

But is it really art?

Whilst the games themselves can arguably take their place in the art world, the playing of them has never been a candidate to receive any kind of serious status within the arts. Video games though are performative in themselves, perhaps because the players are the viewers just as one would see looking at art within a gallery, only they are also interacting with the characters and scenes.

It comes back to the question that always gets asked, “Is it art?” which is usually asked in response to a single artwork whose artistic status is in dispute. Perhaps one way to view this is to assess whether or not a story can be told through visual representation and/or it provokes an emotional response not present before the art was seen. There will always be something that some call art and others call out. Digital art is art, yet so many still say that digital has no place in the arts. I hear this and have heard this for years as primarily being a digital artist, it is only recently where there has been slightly more acceptance and much of that is down to the works of Warhol and the exhibitions in major galleries.

We take the view that animators are artists if they work for Disney, so why do we then ask the question oppositely, when an artist who has animated or produced some static background images for a video game if it is not made by Disney? PR, prestige, and perception may be.

Some of those games developers themselves do not see their games as an art form. Others suggest that games should be seen if they are to be seen as anything art related, as being more akin to a play or a film. Some games are less game-like and more experience like today. When it comes to describing video games as an art form in whatever way, one would expect some controversial rebuttal of the notion.

Some modern games take the theme and plot of a film and expand on it. A 90-minute film might translate into 20-hours of gameplay, often even more. So this provides an opportunity when it is done well, for the producer to expand on the film and fill in the missing backstories. Some films are based on the worlds within games, it’s just that not many games inspired films or shows do this very well and when they get it wrong, it just adds more weight to the critic's voice.

Whichever way you view video games there is no doubt that there are at least some elements that anyone would have to agree have characteristics of the arts within them.
Regular readers will be aware that I am an 8-bit purist who prefers to recreate retro computer graphics using the same technology as I did in 1981 and onwards in my retro computer inspired artworks. I have a niche market for those works which do not generally go on public display as many have been created for private commissions, or historically have been. I do plan on getting some of these works shown though soon. We should be celebrating the era that started a new art form which some people will have never have known a world without.

There is another reason I have been reluctant to publicly display my 8-bit works, and that is because of the stigma associated with art which is built with 0’s and 1’s. Some people can’t fall in love with a pixel-based image in the way that they can with say a Matisse. There are still many people who believe that art only equates to a brush and canvas, but the reality is that to be a digital artist really does need the same skills as we would use when creating traditional art. Digital art is not done because it’s a cheap medium or because it is quick or easy. Some of my works have cost me significantly more to produce than some of my traditional canvases, and it’s not always quick unless two to three hundred hours spent on a piece that uses hundreds of layers is quick. Is it easy? No. There is often a steep learning curve that becomes even steeper the more in-depth you go. Any professional digital artist will tell you the same thing as will any traditional artist who has transitioned across or tried the medium out.

Maybe games are nothing more than entertainment to some people, but even the Supreme Court afforded legal protection of video games as being creative works. Maybe they are too disruptive, maybe they do not fall into a particular box as easily as modernism or cubism, or any of the other art movements but that doesn’t mean they’re not art.

Emerging art forms depend upon existing communities for recognition and legitimation, even as they compete with those incumbents for ideological and material support. Games have faced suspicion from critics of established media, just as film, television, and comics were once doubted. We are though finally seeing a sway in thinking and I have helped a number of traditional artist friend’s move into the digital art space over the last few years and I don’t think any of them would suggest that this has been an easy transition.

So maybe one day we will see the re-emergence of amusement arcades and we will see those vending machines lined up, each serving different miniature art forms. Perhaps we won’t, but there is absolutely no doubt that technology will start to play an even bigger role in the arts in the next few years even in just making the arts more accessible. Video games aren’t just art, they are an entire culture.

Traditional amusement arcade, retro video games, retro games, arcade, mark taylor, beechhouse media,
Traditional Amusement Arcade. Oh, the memories!

Want to learn more about the art behind video games?

Here are some of the best places to build up knowledge and learn more about the art of video games and the art that sits within them.

Art on display at the Royal Academy…

Eric Ravilious (1903 – 1942) created a work entitled Amusement Arcade as part of his 1938 High Street series of works. You can view the work on display at the Royal Academy or click on this link right here

You can also view the photographic work “KISS” Young Lady in Amusement Arcade, Williamson, West Virginia, 1979, by Bill Burke, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum or by clicking the link right here

Both of these pieces are either before and from the dawn of video games, but both use the amusement arcade as an element within the subject matter. There are many works that have surprisingly featured the era of gaming and arcades as the subject matter which demonstrates even further that the link between art and the amusement business isn’t something that is entirely new, and there are some significant works of art from the early days of Coney Island too, the birthplace of the amusement park.

Twin Galaxies…

Twin Galaxies is perhaps the mecca for video games enthusiasts and has an in-depth article on the subject of whether or not video games are classed as art. You can read the article right here

Arcade Blogger…

There is an entire industry that preserves the games and the cabinets along with the associated artwork and one of the best sites I have ever come across for knowledgeable insight is Arcade Blogger. There are also plenty of videos with arcade raids, where fans and collectors treasure hunt for the rarest machines. You can lose yourself for a few hours at least going through this site by Tony Temple, it’s a regular read for me. You can find the site right here

Arcade Attack…

There is more information and knowledge sharing of the subject over at Arcade Attack and there are some great podcasts to listen to too right here

For Amusement Only…

For Amusement Only: the life and death of the American Arcade is another interesting read that distinguishes the differences between the original arcades and the likes of Dave and Busters. Authenticity is a hard nut to crack, but this is a good summary of the issues that saw an era almost end to make way for businesses that offered nostalgia instead. The article is right here

The Arcade Club…

If you are in the UK, the Yorkshire city of Leeds is one of my occasional haunts where a healthy three floors of old, vintage, and modern-day arcade machines are set on free play. My advice if you do go is to make a day of it and take up the special offer on the full access pass. There is a significant difference between The Arcade Club and many others who offer arcade experiences, in that Arcade Club is much more reminiscent of the arcades that many 40-50-year-olds would have visited in their younger days. You can view their website right here

Side Art and Marquees…

There is a healthy business for the supply of authentic side art to adorn the cabinets of self-build projects and indeed this is where I still continue to make some sales to those who like me, are crazy enough to build their own arcade machine. Search for side art on the internet and you will see a range of vinyl decals for arcade machines, some of which can be eye-wateringly expensive, especially when it is for a bespoke cabinet. Good quality custom reproduction side art is always professionally screen printed often using the exact same processes as the original arcade manufacturers would have used. In the USA, there are companies such as Quarter Arcade which you can find here, and whose work always impresses me whenever I see it, as do the images produced by This Old Game which you can find here

Self and custom build cabinets…

I took the plunge a few years ago to build my own arcade machine which is a bar top as I don’t currently have space in my studio for anything bigger. There are many websites online that will provide you with the plans to create an arcade machine yourself, and they aren’t that difficult to build, there is also plenty of online help in forums and groups.

You can buy the controls, marquees, kits, and original CRT monitors, from the many suppliers around the world. My only advice is to make sure that what you are buying is upgradeable in the future because once the bug has bitten, it refuses to let go and it can become an expensive passion. If you think art supplies can be expensive, get into arcade machines and then reconsider the cost of art supplies.

Price wise, a good pre-built arcade machine with a selection of legal games (licensed original ROMS from the original games) will set you back in the region of anywhere between $1000 - $2000, roughly the same prices in UK pounds, and even the bar top machines run at around the same price. 

You can get cheaper machines but you do get what you pay for and there are many that have illegal ROMS installed. You can also pick them up on eBay, and there are some original machines still in working order out there, but some of the rarer ones will cost you upwards of many thousands of pounds/dollars. My advice if you want one of the originals is to look at Tony Temple’s site, join a community and go on an arcade raid.

My own build started out costing towards the lower end at just under £1,000, it took me around 4-weeks to build in my spare time, but since then it has had multiple upgrades and a new PC which runs multiple emulators, surround sound, and has more than a thousand licensed ROMs from the original arcade games. I still haven’t fully completed the bezel around the screen but that is on the to-do list. Ultimately my goal will be to make some space and go with a full upright custom build with a fully restored original cabinet, I just need to convince the wife that these really are time machines.

More art…

If you want to see some more arcade art on different products, Classic Arcade Art can be found here, and there is some gorgeous 3D arcade art at 8Bit Boutique which you can find right here.  There are some absolutely stunning diorama box art examples which would certainly take up less space than a machine.

If you want to find out more about retro gaming, Wikipedia has a useful entry full of useful links to retro games sites, and for some of the other exhibitions that have taken place all over the world. You can find the entry right here. There is also an entry within Wikipedia that goes into some detail about video games as an art form and you can find the article right here.  

You may remember a while back that I also wrote an article about the use of artificial intelligence in creating art and if you missed it, you can read the article right here.

YouTube...

YouTube is synonymous with gaming and there are many channels that showcase older games as well as the latest hits, and I just wanted to give a shout out to a fellow Brit by the name of Daniel Watterson who has recently started his own gaming channel on the platform. Daniel, I wish you all the very best with this new venture and look forward to seeing some of the older games and the art within gaming soon! You can check out Daniel's Facebook page right here and his YouTube channel right here.

Have Fun…

Video games, amusement arcades, whether you would describe them as works of art or not have indeed inspired a huge market for those seeking nostalgia and they have also inspired many, many artworks. Today I have given you only a small taste of video game art history, every game has its own unique history and some of them have some rather interesting and chequered backstories too.

If you are interested in video game art, there is no end of inspiration to be found online even if you want to have a go at creating it. It’s a niche market that continues to grow with a generation for fortysomethings right now but also a new generation of millennials who want to know more about where video games began. I feel lucky to have been born at a time that allowed me to experience its birth. Game on folks!

Did you have a favourite game that you played by feeding it coins? Are you surprised to find that an entire art history has emerged from the subject? Do you still have a sneaky game of Pac Man? If so I would love to hear what you still play! And also, would you like to see another article looking a little more closely at the art and artists involved in creating some of the silk-screen images used on the game cabinets? As always, let me know!

And finally, let me know too if you would like to see some of my pixel art and video games inspired artworks! It's about time some of them saw the light of day, and if you have any, let's see those too!

About Mark…

I am an artist and blogger and live in Staffordshire, England. You can purchase my art through my Fine Art America store or my Pixels site here: https://10-mark-taylor.pixels.com  
Any art sold through Fine Art America and Pixels contribute to the ongoing costs of running and developing this website. You can also view my portfolio website at https://beechhousemedia.com

You can also follow me on Facebook at https://facebook.com/beechhousemedia where you will also find regular free reference photos of interesting subjects and places I visit. You can also follow me on Twitter @beechhouseart and on Pinterest at https://pinterest.com/beechhousemedia

If you would like to support the upkeep of this site or maybe just buy me a coffee, you can do so right here

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