GameScenes is conducting a series of interviews with artists, critics, curators, and gallery owners operating in the field of Game Art, as part of an ongoing investigation of the social history of this fascinating artworld. Our goal is to illustrate the genesis and evolution of a phenomenon that changed the way game-based art is being created, experienced, and discussed today.
When did artists begin to use video games as a means of expression, as a "raw material" to create art?
Many regard Orhan Kipcak’s ArsDoom debut at Ars Electronica in Linz as the breakthrough for a cross-media set of practices otherwise known as Game Art. Obviously, videogame-based artistic interventions did exist before ArsDoom. In fact, artists have been tinkering with the playful medium since its first appearance, in the early 1970s. However, these modifications and experiments were not "officially" recognized by the Artworld as such, that is, as forms of art. At that time, the boundaries between game players and artists were porous, undetermined. Unsurprisingly, Anne-Marie Schleiner's exhibition Cracking the Maze: Game Plug-ins and Patches as Hacker Art (1999) - one of the first milestones of Game Art history - featured not only artists but also regular players who hacked and modified games. In some cases, the outcomes were indistinguishable.
This does not come as a surprise, considering that early artistic experiments did not significantly differ from the hacks and mods created by players around the world. Thanks to the proliferation of first-person shooters (FPS), players used tools and editors to create new levels, characters, and maps that expanded the game world. Several artists used the same tools to create artistic projects that are now regarded as the first manifestations of Game Art.
This account, however, is partial, as it underplays the role played by home and microcomputers in the early 1980s. Companies such as Amstrad, Sinclair, Commodore and Atari introduced computers that became extremely popular in Europe and in the United States. Unlike game consoles, these affordable and inexpensive machines were programmable, customizable, and relatively powerful. Moreover, their popularity transcended gamers and bedroom coders. Several contemporary artists started to use these devices to make art. One of those avant-garde artists was Andy Warhol.
In an interview published on Amiga World (February 1986), Warhol discusses the impact of the Commodore Amiga on the artworld. His comments on the future of computers as artistic tools are prophetic:
- “Do you think that computers will play a larger and larger role in art?” The interviewer asks.
- “Huh, yeah, I think after graffiti art, they probably will. When the machine comes out fast enough. It will probably take over from the graffiti kids.”
Andy Warhol paints Debbie Harry on an Amiga at the Commodore Amiga product launch press conference in 1985.
But not even Warhol realized that the new digital graffiti generation was already active. Their playground was not the art gallery or the museum, but the online demoscene. In the recently published Kunst, Code und Maschine. Die Ästhetik der Computer-Demoszene (Transcript Verlag), Daniel Botz discusses the artistic implications of the demoscene. Created for the specific goal of sharing pirated copies of videogames, the demoscene quickly evolved into a kind of geographically distributed creative lab, an incubator for new digital aesthetics. Different cracking groups from all over the world – but mostly concentrated in Europe - competed against each other to break the copy protections and share the new games as quickly as possible. The crackers added a short intro, also known as cracktro, to the pirated game. This short animation displayed flashy effects meant to showcase their programming skills. These coders created “impossible” things considering the the available resources and by doing so they unleashed a bew form of competitive art practice within their community. The cracktro was, simultaneously, the artist’s signature and its artwork: in this case, the map and the territory coincided. The animated intro was both a demonstration of skills (the cracker's) and power (the machine's). These early demos and animations can be regarded as the prehistory of Game Art as cracking and animation are practices of game modification with overtly aesthetic ambitions. Later on, these animations evolved into independent demos, and many of the demoscenes players became game designers.
In September 2011, Mathias Jansson talked to Daniel Botz about the early demoscene and its artistic implications.
Commodore 64 Crack Intro compilation
GameScenes: When did the demoscene start and why?
Daniel Botz: The first demos appeared between 1985/1986 within the European cracker scene. They were produced with the Commodore 64 home computer. Visually, they did not differ very much from the usual intros which were linked to cracked games and usually consisted of colorful logotypes, scroll messages and simple effects like moving rasterbars. But the "stand-alone" demos always offered an extra functionality to be worth being spreaded alongside the pirated games via the mail and BBS network of the cracker scene.
This functionality could be a musical soundtrack separated from a game to be enjoyed without having to play all the levels, it could be a self-drawn picture, which always needed to come in an executable format to be displayed, or maybe an unseen effect of the computer's video hardware. Examples of the latter include removing the sideborders of the C64 screen to expand the display area, drawing scroll messages with screen-size letters or applying all kinds of wave and distortion movement to the graphical content.
Who created these demos?
Daniel Botz: With the development of these effect-oriented programming techniques many people who used to crack games specialized in democoding. Other scene members never had a background in the illegal cracker scene, like for example the British Compunet-scene which was based on an UK-wide network service or amateur coders who used to publish their productions in computer magazines. But still in the Amiga 500 scene of the early 1990s it was common for the big cracker organisations like Red Sector Inc., Alpha Flight, Anarchy or Crystal to employ more or less independent teams of coders and artists for making demos under their group label.
And what was the purpose? Was it artistic or was it a way to show the world how skilled you were on programming and manipulate the hardware?
Daniel Botz: The original purpose of a demo can be characterized as digital graffiti, leaving colorful footprints inside the traffic of electronic goods. It was an adolescent form of self-expression behind the handle of a "computer hacker" and at the same time a subcultural set of aesthetic practice which grounded in the cracker scene. While computer game piracy undermined the economic power of the software manufacturers, democoding questioned the computer industry's cultural dominance. In the end, both an employed game developer at a big company and a kid who bought the computer had to use the same set of machine instructions, the same color palette and the same pixel matrix of the hardware. This encouraged the teenager amateurs to challenge the media industry not only by reverse engineering their products but also by "We can do it better!".
Megademo 3 to Amiga 500
GameScenes: What about the aesthetics of the demoscene? Were the demos connected to the ArtWorld at all? Where did the demoscene artists find their inspirations?
Daniel Botz: In the beginning of the demoscene there was almost no awareness of artistic concepts nor attitudes, be it through academic studies or artistic self-reflection. Program routines, musical compositions and pixel drawings were judged by technical skills. Adapted motifs were found in popular culture, for example movie posters, record sleeves, comic drawings or paintings by fantasy illustrators. But with the decline of the illegal scene, scrolltexts and disk magazines, the communication channels of the crackers, lost their function of announcing cracks and greeting or insulting other groups.
This content was replaced by a vital discourse about artistic quality and the need for aesthetic innovation, which made clear that while there is an certain agreement upon what is called a demo, there are totally different approaches to art and design within the demoscene. Thus, scene communication serves as a way of scene-inherent art criticism, which always tries to determine the parameters for a form of design which has no purpose outside itself. Still, demo coders draw their inspirations from popular media, for example computer games, movies and music videos but the more self-reflective the demoscene got in the last ten years with sceners growing up, joining university studies and connecting in Internet forums, the more it is being discussed whether a computer demo could be a piece of art itself.
Related: Demoscene @ Rhizome
Text by Mathias Jansson
Editing: Matteo Bittanti