The new ecology of games

By Lucy Sollitt

In the UK, digital games are being increasingly recognised as a powerful expressive and immersive medium. They have become part of mainstream and popular culture, and as well as having their own maker and audience cultures, connections are increasingly being made across other cultural practices.

Recent developments in technology have brought about a tipping point where the opportunities for creation and distribution have greatly expanded; you no longer need to be part of a large studio or a programmer to make games. A richer ecology of games creation is emerging and it is driven by the intrinsic value of games, not necessarily profit.

This article looks at how games engines and online tools are being used by designers and artists to evolve the expressive potential and uses of the medium, and to reflect on games cultures more broadly.

The growth of games makers

In her book, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, Anna Anthropy shows how the billion-dollar video game industry we have today grew out of a relatively narrow group of people, largely white male engineers with the technical knowledge to programme computers. The games they created established a self-perpetuating model for the design, culture and — importantly sale — of games. They established an audience, mostly young and male, some of whom went on to make games themselves. Games such as first-person shooter Gears of War or action-adventure game Grand Theft Auto epitomise what is associated with this dominant model of creation and distribution. These video games began as experiments in technology and design, embedded in a sub-culture, but have since become high-budget franchises and a key part of how we think about games.

But since the outset, independent and hobbyist designers, as well as artists, have also been exploring the medium. There are many similarities between the approaches of these two groups. Both use the engines and culture of games to create new experiences and reflect on the medium. Both tend not to be driven by commercial imperatives (which is not to say that these creators do not want to be sustainable).

Initially, when code was largely owned by commercial game platforms, these small scale creators tended to focus on subverting and finding new uses for popular games, often intervening in the gaming environments to appropriate their structures and elements. For example, Joseph DeLappe’s Dead in Iraq (2006–2011) project is a durational intervention in the US Army recruiting game America’s Army. DeLappe types the names of dead US soldiers into the game’s chat function, disrupting normal game flow as a memorial and a cautionary gesture.

More recently, developments in technology mean that the opportunities for creation and distribution have expanded; you do not need to be part of a large studio or a programmer to create and distribute games. Game-making tools designed for people who aren’t professional coders have become widely accessible, and the internet has meant that independent games creators can self-publish online, bypassing traditional gatekeepers. In The Rise of Videogame Zinesters, Anthropy celebrates how the erosion of these barriers is bringing more voices into games creation and culture. As Corrado Morgana says, in Artists Re:thinking Games, the game patches and modifications of the past have opened the way to a range of new stories, applications, interventions, performances and installations.

Independent designers, hobbyists and artists are now able to make games and use games engines to make other things, which were previously prohibitively expensive and/or specialist. Unconstrained by the need to make profit, these creators have more freedom; they can take risks and experiment, drawing on their own experiences, skills and perspectives. They can create new uses and experiences, which are relevant to a more diverse range of people.

The new ecology

The ecology of games has scaled to a point where it can support multiple cultures and relationships with other cultural practices.

This is evident in the range of showcases and platforms for games, which reflect the range of creative practice taking place and serve a range of audiences. Online platforms vary from major publishers such as Apple and Sony Playstation to storefronts such as psn, Steam and itch.io. Then there are major, sales-focused expos such as Eurogamer, fan gatherings such as Comicon and the cosplay parade at the London Games Festival, maker-focused festivals such as Feral Vector, pop-up arcades such as The Awkward Arcade, and events and exhibitions at galleries and museums such as Lighthouse, Whitechapel, the V&A and Barbican. In addition, connections are increasingly being made across these showcases. Leftfield at London Games Festival is one example of how expos are beginning to include games by independent makers. The National Videogame Arcade, a family and public-orientated culture centre, and Now Play This festival bring game designers into a closer dialogue with cultural institutions. This kind of broad understanding of games is what we need.

While new and transformative games and uses of games engines can come from anywhere within the ecology — from a major studio to a hobbyist — it is arguably the broader skill sets and more independent creators involved in this richer ecology of games creation which has allowed games to become more broadly recognised as having a wide cultural relevance. Here are some examples of the range of creatives shaping the possibilities for games in the UK.

Games get personal

Jack King-Spooner is an independent games-maker based in Scotland. His games often tell personal stories drawn from his own experiences; Beeswing is one such game. Beeswing is set in rural Scotland. King-Spooner describes how it takes players into “a story about the past, about community and childhood, attachment and growing up”. King-Spooner made Beeswing using free software and successfully fundraised to meet his other costs on Kickstarter. Once made, Beeswing was cheap to buy online, ensuring a wide audience could access it and building fans for King-Spooner’s next project.

Performance artist and poet Harry Giles has been considering experiences such as anxiety through games such as Raiks. Giles describes the game as a “Scots fantasia”, featuring “kelpies, lost keys, mysteriously-lit underground caverns, boring work, panic attacks and red hair”. It’s written in Scots with English translation available. Giles made Raiks using Twine, free software designed so that it can be used by those with no programming skills. The game was sold with suggested prices based on the purchaser’s income. The accessible approach that King-Spooner and Giles take to distributing their games seems to reflect the independent and open spirit in which they create their games.

The concept of sharing, evident in King-Spooner and Giles’s approach to their games, is echoed by Panoramical, an album of interactive musical landscapes built on contributions from multiple games-makers, including UK game designer and curator George Buckenham. Game designer Ed Key, co-creator of award-winning game Proteus, has created his own label for his creations. The label, Twisted Tree, releases games made by or in collaboration with Key.

The skillsets shaping games

Megan Jayanth has achieved acclaim as a writer through her work on award-winning games. She worked on 80 Days, published by Inkle, a small games making studio. 80 Days was Time Magazine’s Game of the Year in 2014. Jayanth describes 80 Days as “a decolonised, steampunk adaptation of Verne’s adventure classic”. Inklewriter, a free online tool for other writers wanting to make interactive fiction, emerged out of 80 Days. Award-winning game Everybody’s Gone to Rapture by Chinese Room, a medium-sized commercial studio, is particularly distinguished by the artistry of the visual experience and the musical scores; perhaps not surprisingly, given that Chinese Room was co-founded by composer Jessica Curry and the visuals were created by artist Alex Grahame. Everybody’s Gone to Rapture is available on Steam and Playstation 4, and the scores can be listened to on Soundcloud and brought on iTunes or Amazon. Individual game designers such as Sophie Houlden and Kerry Turner are also shaping the way games are made. Kerry Turner started out by releasing experimental short games on her own website, The Rabbit Club. More recently, she has made games such as Heartwood, a collaboration with musician Dan Biddy, available on itch.io at a price decided by the user.

Games as tools and material

Artist film-maker, the late Harun Farocki, reflected on and explored the imagery of computer game animation as part of his practice. Parallel I-IV was recently exhibited at Whitechapel Gallery, and is a filmic installation showing the visual landscapes, rules and construction of games with the interactive elements removed. The gallery describes how the piece “took the viewer on an essayistic journey into the ‘peculiar physics’ of computer game space, reflecting on reality, representation and simulation”.

Artist duo Gibson Martelli have also been taking a playful look at ideas of the player, performer and visitor, addressing the position of the self in relation to technology. The audience experienced their virtual simulation Vermillion Lake by entering a full-scale physical replica of a trapper’s cabin in the Canadian Rockies. Video games techniques were used to take the audience on a journey through ambiguous topographies inspired by the Rockies. Through combining the physical and the virtual, Gibson Martelli played with our anticipations of different forms of reality.

Sculptors Julia Crabtree and William Evans worked with Mechatronic Library and Werkflow to repurpose games engine software as part of creating Critters, a simulation in which an object struggles to animate itself in an alien landscape. The virtual object, a recreation of a historic radio telescope in Cambridgeshire, has also been recreated as an 3D printed sculptural object which will be sold, in limited quantities. Through this process, the game engine has become a tool for sculpting and 3D-printing virtual objects. Somethin else has also explored repurposing the outcomes of its Papa Sagre game, developing a sophisticated binaural audio engine available for iOS, Papa Engine. The app has many potential applications and may be a particularly useful tool for people creating experiences with VR.

Systems with a social purpose

Having started out as a bedroom coder, Dan Marshall has gone on to on set up his own studio, Size Five. His humorous approach to games led to him being commissioned by Channel Four to create Privates, a free game designed to educate young people about sexually transmitted diseases. Taking shooter games as its inspiration, Privates entails tiny condom-hatted marines shooting sperm and STDs. Privates won a Children’s BAFTA.

Games and the creators of games have an inherently deep understanding of systems and systems architecture. This has been used to great effect in Play Your Place, an open source game in which players are invited to create imaginative visions for place-making through designing levels in the game. In doing so, the players are able to articulate community values and contribute to real-world planning. Play Your Place was first commissioned by Southend Council, and is a collaboration between artist Mary Flanagan and Furtherfield.

Wellcome Trust has been supporting games developers and publishers to make games as part of improving science and health research, and reaching new audiences. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice by Ninja Theory, is a great example of this. It explores the experience of psychosis. Ninja Theory worked with scientists and people who experience psychosis to bring this highly stigmatised and misunderstood condition to life, putting the player in the shoes of someone with psychosis.

Transformation

Digital games are an increasingly dynamic and diverse field of practice; this is disrupting mainstream assumptions about what games can be and how they can be accessed. Lines between games, interactive narratives and art are blurring. The complex ecology of activity and the plurality of creative approaches emerging is something to celebrate. It’s still early days for both digital games and games engines. The most important question to ask when approaching these new creations is not who made it, but what is transformative about this experience?

Edited by Eleanor Turney. With thanks to Paul Callaghan and Anna Scantlebury for their input.

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