Site-Specificity and Game Engines

FTP is an ongoing meetup and series of events at Phoenix, Leicester.

For our October session we looked at the use of game engines as a site for the production of artworks.

Below I will summarise some of the areas investigated and links to additional sources. As well as looking at the ways in which game engines are being used, we hoped to identify several strategies for accessing and exploring game engines.

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Photo by Juan Gomez on Unsplash

“Games are capable of great complexity and diversity. Their immersive, interactive and visceral nature allow them to create impact like no other artform.”
LA Game Space (

“The artists understood early on the transformative power of play, and began integrating it into their works for various purposes — escaping reality, social construction and transformation, subversion or as a criticism of game and play mechanisms themselves.”

Game engines can provide an interesting site for the creation and investigation of new modes of art making.

Game engines are the pieces of software created to build and run a game. In the past, access to game engines was more difficult, with software more restricted and expensive. In recent years this has flipped and there are many, industry-standard options available with no upfront licence costs. Unity, Unreal and CryEngine are all important examples. There are also, increasingly, alternate and experimental engines available with their own focuses and strengths. Bitsy and PICO-8/Voxatron are essentially examples of this.

Using a game engine to develop art, that might be engaged with in an exhibition context, or directly to the audience devices — offers unique opportunities (as with all media).

Game engines can be used to create interactive situations, simulations and VR projects. They can also be used as a tool for creating videos. This technique is known as machinima — particularly when using pre-made games and assets.

Creating work within a game engine also provides a unique set of platforms for publication. Unity makes it easy to create work that can be shared locally and online. is a key online resource that provides individual creators a place to publish work.

Game engines are often very good at simulating physical properties and interactions.

This can be employed to present something that might not be possible IRL but can be simulated. It can help a non-programmer find a solution. It can sometimes be simpler to create an game-based environment rather than creating specific programming to achieve an effect.

Games are created from rules. Using a game engine is an efficient way of creating an opportunity for the engagement with a rule-set and the creative play that is afforded by that.

Pippin Barr’s chess —

Baba is You —

As in much of Ian Cheng’s work, the game engine can be used as a method of creating a space for things to occur within, autonomously. The audience interacts with the piece much as they would a film, yet the events unfolding on the screen are the constant result of algorithms and programming — it is closer to watching a live stream.

There has always been a trend towards replicating the format of real world galleries within digital spaces. Recently this has been explored by the game Occupy White Walls, which uses the format of a MMO to put players in the role of gallerists.

At Two Queens, we recreated Leicester’s Cultural Quarter within a FPS game for the show LAN Party (2012). In this representation of the gallery space and neighboring cultural spaces, we were more interested in the collaborative aspects of building the space and occupying the representation within the same space.

A rich mod culture is always increasing the opportunity for artists to use existing game worlds creatively. Developers often provide the tools for users to make films within these worlds. Alan Butler’s On Exactitude In Science (2017) uses the world of GTAV to recreate the film Koyaanisqatsi (1982).

In Jon Rafman’s seminal Codes of Honor (2011) the narrative works across several distinct perspectives.

“In order to portray the tension between regret for the time spent playing without a visible legacy and nostalgia for the thrill of the game, I integrate three perspectives: i) a narrator in a virtual world who reminisces about his days as a pro-gamer, ii) a Chinatown Fair regular who recounts his greatest memory, and iii) classic cut-scenes from the games themselves. In this way, Codes of Honor moves through actual, virtual, and imaginary space and time.”
Jon Rafman,

Next month the session is about generative art. Details about the session can be found here.

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