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'Videogames and Art' Is Missing the Art

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Monday, Mar 31, 2014
For a medium that prides itself on pushing the visual edges, here we find exposition rather than fancy, and monochrome in place of color, words, yes, but no images.
cover art

Videogames and Art, Second Edition

Andy Clarke, Grethe Mitchell, editors

(Intellect; US: Jan 2014)

I usually avoid talking about the book review process as part of my reviews. I also try to avoid using “I”. But in this case, I find it necessary.


I had great hopes for Videogames and Art, edited by Andy Clarke and Grethe Mitchell and the editorial teams at Intellect and University of Chicago Press. The cover offered a promising abstract of wireframes and printed circuits with some sort of connected activity generating a mass of three-dimensional connective tissue spewing from the circuitry.
  
I was thinking this would book would include, alongside the essays, great images from popular games and interviews from the artists about their techniques, what inspired them, perhaps pages that show the building and rendering of a complex, and beautiful scene swiped like a painting from an intense action moment in Final Fantasy, Ryse or Assassin’s Creed. And then I opened the book and my disappointment mounted, page-by-page.


I was projecting the book I wanted to arrive. The book that did arrive produces much in the way of commentary, interview and academic reflection on video games and art, but for a medium that prides itself on pushing the visual edges in order to engage people in fanciful worlds of color and lushness, here we find exposition rather than fancy, and monochrome in place of color, words yes, but no images.


Is there something to be learned from Videogames and Art? Absolutely. Game designers share their thoughts in interviews. Human interface researchers share their analysis on what seems to work and not, in terms of technique and engagement, though the real value may be in the history of what worked in the past and what didn’t in games like Doom and Quake, and how the sophistication of those games led to the first surge in add-on video board purchases. Like many books that include academic reflections, many of the article are dated, written about games the youngest of today’s game designers may only know by word-of-mouth, if at all. Having a history, of course, isn’t a bad thing, especially for young people driven to invent the future.


However, Videogames and Art suffers from structural issues, like the lack of an index and arbitrary groupings of articles and interviews that don’t profit from an editorial massaging that would rationalize the various articles and create an overall position. Nor do the editors extract salient points to make the individual articles and sections more accessible.


By contrast, I received Yale University Press’s new book, Comics Art, by Paul Gravett (review forthcoming), which offers a completely different approach to a similar topic. This single person analysis uses large color images, and many finely wrought black-and-white illustrations, to support the points made by Gravett. Readers may disagree with him, or the choice of art he uses, but they cannot help but be intrigued by the well-researched, and on initial perusal, very readable volume. And Gravett pays homage to his topic with good notes and a thorough index.


Clarke and Mitchell were moving from the virtual to the static, and they do disservice to both. Great art has found a home in art books for decades, and the publishers fail there to leverage a tradition that should have been the model for Videogames and Art.


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