This interview has been edited for length and content, with intent to condense, while not rephrasing, points made within it.
Joseph Olin is a man you immediately want to impress. As the acting President of the Academy of the Interactive Arts and Sciences, he presides over the biggest organization gunning for the artistic expansion and evolution of the video game medium. Through their annual “Into the Pixel” art gallery of video game concept art, their founding the “Academy Awards of Video Games” (the Interactive Achievement Awards), and their funding of businesses and charities of similar cause, the man can be said to have the very future of video game’s artistic perception in his hands, and he couldn’t be more calm about it all.
Elder-Geek recently sat down with Joseph (our repeated references to him as ‘Mr. Olin’ got him in an embarrassed humor) on the last day of the E3 exhibition in Los Angeles, to discuss the latest “Into the Pixel” art exhibit out on the floor and the medium in general.
JO: The “Into the Pixel” art exhibit is the only professionally curated exhibit of art from games in the world. And it’s in our sixth year.
E-G: When you say “art from games,” does that include art from the development of video games? Or art inspired by video games?
JO: It’s art from the creative process of games. So from concept art, models, runtime images, anything that was used up through the game itself.
E-G: And that’s from any generation since you’ve started?
JO: It is actually really geared towards games that are in production, or recently published, or will be published in the near future. I think that it is interesting to give somebody the perspective of a piece of art from a game and then look at the game itself. For the first time in the six years of running the event, we have actually taken one of the images – which was from James Ellis, an artist from She Interactive in New Zealand – [an] abstract piece called “End of the World” from a game called Shattered. He actually said that Shattered hadn’t been shown before. Why don’t we put the game next to the art piece and give someone the opportunity to see how the art inspired the game? It’s sort of a world premier in interpretation of what the art from the game can mean to the person playing the game.
E-G: Have you received any notice from the art or video game community at large?
JO: The videogame community always responds very positively to “Into the Pixel” and I think that among the 60,000 people are here at this year’s E3, that’s important because they’re all a part of the game-making process. The most gratifying thing is that we announced this year’s collection on Monday and then posted the images on the intothepixel.com website, and had close to half a million unique visitors download images from the website, which, compared to a gallery showing at the Getty or that LACMA [Los Angeles County Museum of Art,] that would be more than double what they would get over a three-month run. So more people who don’t think of themselves as “art aficionados” have taken a click out of the very competitive web world to find our artists’ work. I mean, obviously within the scope of the web, where people have 10 and 20 and 30 billion hits, “Into the Pixel” is pretty small. But, nevertheless I think an audience of a few hundred thousand people is a pretty big thing to have for something as esoteric as the art from “Into the Pixel.”
GG: With so [many] games in production, how do you go about the selection process for “Into the Pixel?”
JO: Well, we’ve refined our process somewhat and we’ve finally resorted to using technology to help our jurors be able to evaluate and keep track of all the different submissions. It really is a three-month process. There are ebbs and floods, so we created a website where we were able to take all the art, post it, and allow all the jurors to individually soft-evaluate and make comments and share with each other their thoughts on the work. And, from the professional museum curator’s perspective, they do not look at art in bulk. A curator’s responsibility to add to the collection and preserve a body of art for the community at large… they’re looking at few pieces and they really look at them. They hang them. They talk about them. They research them. And I’m asking them to look at 300 pieces of art in a couple of days. So they [the jurors] were very helpful in helping us reshape how we evaluated things as the program has grown. So, they look at all the art. They start to mark it. They start to comment about things they like. They stake out things they really like. And then we put them all online, have a video conference. And there’s some actually some very lively discussions that are held and ultimately, 16 pieces are selected out of all the submissions.
GG: And this is on a yearly basis?
JO: Yes. I think the body of work on our servers right now is close to 1,000 pieces. And really some of the art [not shown in the exhibit] is equal to the selection that our jurors have made; and they recognize that, but, much in the same way the curator is well aware of the fact that there’s lots of art that we’d love to be able to have, that time, circumstance and budget or just space doesn’t allow us to do so. In fact, Dr. Kevin Salatina, whose our lead juror from Los Angeles County Museum of Art, was saying that less than 6% of the collection of the museum is ever shown, because they just don’t have enough space. Thankfully we don’t have that problem in our virtual world because we can just get another server for a few more dollars and we can put more art up. But, it’s still trying to [separate] that from our art historian’s perspective, from someone who studies art. They believe that the artists who make art for games and the processes of making games compelling are equal in talent to traditional artists. That’s great accolades.
E-G: Do you feel that video games have reached a point of admiration and respect from the artistic community?
JO: Well I certainly don’t personally believe that we have as a medium received the same treatment or the same recognition in terms of fine art. . . Be it, cinema, or independent television or literature or traditional art. But at the same time I think part of that is because of how the interactive entertainment industry started. . . out of arcades, college labs, the first home entertainment systems weren’t particularly “artistic.” But at the same time, I think that we have evolved, that technology has allowed creative people to express themselves to where it’s purely for the sake of creating an emotional relationship or an evocation that we can celebrate today.
One of the images in this year’s selection was called “Over Hill and Dale” from the game Flower, from ThatGameCompany. Quite frankly, I think Flower is an art game and it’s very much in a “zen mode.” It’s all about “be here now.” And in talking with Kelly Santiago who was one of the cofounders of ThatGameCompany and one of the designers/producers of Flower I asked her, (because last year we [originally] had a runtime image that was selected for the collection from Flower) “But this is concept art. Why didn’t you give me a runtime image?”
Kelly’s perspective was that it’s really hard because so much of what makes Flower special is that everything is happening live and animating itself. And you can’t really do that in a still frame of a runtime image. While [in] still painting, you’re actually able to show animation and show movement even easier than you are than taking an animated image and making it still. The image definitely work[ed] and it was something that was very popular among both among our professional artists and museum curators.
But we have other art games. Metal Gear Solid 4 to me is the equivalent to an independent film. It’s the battle of will between you and Kojima-san.
I think that if you look to RE5 [Resident Evil 5] even though it was made more broad with the inclusion of Sheva as a companion, you’ve always had certain themes. RE5 is all about the relationship between partners and what happens if you do trust, and what happens when you don’t. Not that it’s the driving theme, but it is a recurring theme that Sagakuchi-san wanted you to experience.
E-G: Two part question: You mentioned the difference between a running image and a concept image. Do you think there could be an evolution into the art exhibit where gameplay will be provided live in conjunction with art?
JO: Are you familiar with demos? [smiles] I think that, as a former coder, going back into the machine languages… there is art to code. Pure and simple… just the whole act of coding and how you code. But when you look at the art of creating a demo and in many cases it is an artistic expression… a singular expression for someone to create an image and a feeling in you just because they can and because they want to. And I think that’s more of a traditional perspective of the definition of what “art” is. And I think it’s a great example of that. And it’s not that I don’t think that can part of “Into the Pixel” … I think there’s probably a place for it, but as far as an organization I think who represents people who make interactive entertainment, that we need to figure out some way to incorporate demos as things as part of things that we recognize, because truly there is brilliant engineering talent creating brilliant art and I think that needs to be shown and celebrated, certainly in North America because there really isn’t [a demoscene] here.
E-G: I believe Western Europe has one of the biggest Demoscenes.
JO: Well, if you look at DICE or Digital Illusion, they’re all demo guys. That’s where they started by getting their coding jobs.
E-G: With the release of Flower and a lot of other games via downloadable media, do you think this access to a cheaper method of development will [allow] more games that have a more artistic vision?
JO: Absolutely. I think the nice thing about a more ubiquitous distribution is that it gives more people opportunities to exercise their creative voice. I think the challenge, of course, is that with any crowd, whether it’s a town square or “The App Store” it’s very difficult for someone to be heard or seen. And that will be the challenge for not only established game makers but up-and-coming game makers. If you told me there was a game on the app store that you liked, I would probably go and download it.
And I think that since we’re such a convenience [driven] society, especially in Western Europe and America, that we’re so spoiled to just getting what we want, when we want it for a price we’re willing to pay, that at some point games will evolve and technology will encourage more distribution and more convenience of what we want and when we want it. If you look at OnLive, the cloud-based service that they’ve shown at the GDC this year is a great example of that. Initially, I don’t know if it’s going to be as popular or if the adoption rate will be so huge… but we’ll get there. Because otherwise you wouldn’t have Showtime, HBO, Cinemax, and all these subscription services like Netflix where I want a smorgasbord of choices and options and an easy way to get them.
E-G: With developers following Nintendo’s suit of catering to a more casual audience, the industry has splintered into many different variables. Do you think the “Into the Pixel” exhibit selects more from specific game types?
JO: No, I think this year we have a broader reflection of that. Last year we had Professor Layton. This year we have Little Big Planet which is a very casual, player friendly experience. Even Shattered is a take on the side-scrolling shooter from the early 70’s. I think that it depends on the imagery and how the jury feels about it.
About 4 years ago, I spoke at a conference from the NTCA, the organization that represents television stations and television networks. One of the audience members, a network head, was asking “[can you] tell me about the people that play games?” My response back to her was “well, tell me about people that watch TV.” Because the audience is very comparable. There’s thousands of different audience segments that watch television. The same can be said about game players today… more so than in the past five years, partially because of Nintendo, partially because we’ve all gotten older and our children have all grown up playing games and some of them who are having children… their children are playing games. It’s just what you do. It’s a natural extension of entertainment and expression. The same way that if we have an entertainment economy that supports 300 channels on satellite television and thousands of channels on YouTube, I certainly think we can entertain 30 or 40 different genres within the interactive world.
E-G: How do you feel that this growing demographic of “Elder Gamers” fits into the current market?
JO: I’ve never thought that games should be an exclusionary form of entertainment. My children, when they were very young, back in the days when they considered Macintosh as a gaming platform for a brief shining moment, I was always playing with my kids, I would always have one of my sons on my lap. My oldest son would play a paint program on the Genesis. He could never save anything to it, but he would just spend hours drawing on the screen. Back then, people who tended to play games tend to be young males and all they wanted to do was play sports or action games. As they’ve gotten older they’ve had their own children / their own relationships… life experiences that give you a greater palette of emotion and of things you want to enjoy that game makers, as humans, have broadened what they can offer people as an entertainment experience.
Just five years ago… no YouTube, no Facebook… now people wonder “why do I have to sit through a 2hr. 20min. movie?” [laughs] Certainly I do! As far as games go: when I travel and meet adults with children and ask them if they have game systems and ask, “do you play with your son?”
“No. He always beats me.”
“Well. Of course he’s going to beat you! He has the reaction times of a 12-year old! But you really should be playing.” I say, “There is just a joy of the relationship that happens when playing.” I can always name a cooperative game that a son and a father can play or a mother and daughter.
E-G: It’s about the “act of playing” instead of “playing the specific game.”
JO: Exactly! And I think that’s why so many people readily gravitated over to the Wii since launch. Partially because Nintendo was very good in crafting the message of what exactly the benefit was with that system. You can play together and have fun. That’s something even I can understand. [chuckles]
E-G: Can we expect something else in addition [to Into the Pixel] from [the Academy]?
JO: Well, The Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences is approaching its 16th birthday. Our primary program is the Interactive Achievement Awards which are the Oscars for the videogames. Those are in their 13th year. In addition to videogame awards, we also host the Dystona Conference which is the premier gathering of game makers for an exchange of ideas and talk about creativity within the game world. We have a scholarship program. We have programs with the Guild Hall at SMU and with USC Innovation Labs. We keep busy trying to promote interactive entertainment as a vibrant, viable and integral part of everyone’s life.