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E for All 2008: Interview with Joseph Olin, President of The AIAS

One of the most prominently displayed and immediately visible aspects of E for All this year was the Into the Pixel gallery set up near the entrance of the expo. Organized and brought to the expo by the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences, Into the Pixel aims to offer video game artists the same recognition and higher art standing that traditional works are automatically afforded. Removed from immediate game notation and treated as such, it was easy to see why the AIAS, (and co-hosts ESA and PDC of LACMA), felt such an urge to promote these artists’ works. They are breathtaking, enthralling, and technically sound. It is in addition to their already impressive accomplishments as artists that they are also storytellers of video games. President of the AIAS, Joseph Olin, graciously sat down to chat about Into the Pixel and art in games with Joey and myself during the expo.

Jillian Werner: What exactly is your role with the gallery and the images on display?
Joseph Olin: Well the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences is the largest organization that represents game makers, publishers, technology companies, platform companies and independent game makers. As a way to help celebrate the 10th anniversary of E3, the ESA, which operates E3 and the Academy, and we’re trying to figure out a way to celebrate the great work of game makers in terms of the artists who basically power today’s games and are basically why we’re so compelled to be involved in these universes. And it was done as a one-off, but to make it different we would engage some of the curators of local museums that were reputed, La Getty and LACMA and the Hammer Museum. It was so successful and so popular that it’s been going on ever since, this is our sixth year. It is the only professionally curated exhibition of game makers’ art in the world and we get anywhere from 300-400 submissions from around the world. Our rotating panel of jurors takes a look at this and every year we take the best 16 as voted on by jury of the year and turn them into the fine art prints that are downstairs. They’re not being shown as nicely as I would hope at E for All, relative to what we do at E3, but tomorrow when they move those curtains, there’ll be a little more light on them.

Joey Samaniego: They look great. Did you have a hard time convincing the museums to get involved? Like you said, I had never heard of anything like this before.
JO: Actually, some of the people on the Princeton Drawings Council at LACMA were game makers. On the business side of the game publishing/game making community and they helped push them a little more and we donate money to them based on what we’re able to raise through Into the Pixel. So we do some public good and in the meantime it gives game artists a forum to show their wares in terms of their artistic chops. For the museum curators, they were blown away because they had no context, they don’t play games. I’m trying to teach these people about games and what makes games special and it’s like “What do you show these people?” so it was an educational process for them and certainly for our professional game makers who fill out the jury, they’re learning about art history. Some of the pieces that are selected are based on technique that goes back to the 1500s from artist such-and-such and it’s like “Who knows this stuff?” And they get to meet the artist for the first time after the selection is done and it’s like “Did you study so-and-so in art school?” and they respond “No,I didn’t go to art school” and it’s like “Oh.”

JW: They feel a little over prepared, then.
JO: I think it’s great. The museum curator’s job is to try to filter through and look for things of significance that go to the public volume of the artistic realm. With game art, it’s the same thing. There are certain things that are worth saving and preserving. Over time, we’ll see if those were the best decisions or not, but at least we’ll have some sort of public record and public archive of great work over a period of time. The fact that it comes from the process of making games in interactive entertainment is that, that is what it is for. There’s a whole part of the LACMA that talks about print making from the turn of the century. There were Toulouse Lautrec, basically created ads. That’s how he paid his rent or his wine bill. Moulin Rogue. Those are good things. Luckily, our game makers don’t need to do that.

JW: So when they’re exhibited, are they shown the same way we see them downstairs? With the game listed?
JO: For the most part, we do. We always give credit to the artist, we talk about the title that it is from. We are looking at ways to make it more of an interactive exhibit. Because in some cases when they take the digital file and turn them into prints, they change. What you see on screen isn’t necessarily the same as what the final output is. Not that it is bad, it is just that it is different. And the artists themselves are like “It’s like a having a newborn child.” But we say “it’s your work,” and they respond “but the textures are so different and the depth is different; the black is different.” It is because they are creating digitally for the most part. We have some screenshots for a couple years and we’ve had models, but for the most part, these are scrapbook digital composited images with 3-4 people working on them and it is just so different to see them flattened out into a print. We’re also thinking about having the games from where the images come from on display when we go outside of the game world and into the general world just to get some context.

JS: Yeah, as I was browsing, it was exciting to see the games I recognized, but there were some of them that I had no idea about what game it was from.
JO: Right. Henry Hatsworth was just announced. There are images that haven’t necessarily been put into a game yet.

JW: There are a couple that are from the same game. Are those typically the same artist working on different aspects of a game?
JO: In some cases, it was different artists from the same team. But all the work is judged blind. So, all you know is an art number and a title. If the title refers to a game, it is taken out. Some of our curators know the artists, so they will remove themselves from voting so there are no influences. The image works on its own and conveys a certain level of technique and emotion. And again, most museum curators, professionals don’t look at 300 images, they are studying and researching a piece that they’ve heard about and they finally get to come in and look at it for a couple of days and decide. We’re asking them to evaluate a lot of art in a short amount of time. We give them the ability to annotate and make notes so that they can refer back to it and then we can get them on the phone and in person and we have lively conversation as people debate what they like.

JS: I was looking at details about the Interactive Achievement Awards and I was really curious about the Hall of Fame and Lifetime Achievement Awards, in terms of who you’ve given them out to in the past and for what?
JO: Well, let’s see…our first was Shigeru Miyamoto. It’s sort of hard not to do something and not start with Mario. Yu Suzuki, Will Wright, John Carmack, Sid Meyer, Sakaguchi, the late Danny Button, Trip Hawkins. Our Lifetime Achievement Award winners were Howard Lincoln and Nakawa-san for Nintendo. Last year we gave one to Ken Kutaragi, Father of the Playstation. Every year there’s a group of the Academy’s Board Members who debate people’s careers and achievements and we make a selection to add someone to the hall of fame who is significant.

JW: Is that part of a special ceremony?
JO: It is part of the Interactive Achievements Awards ceremony.

JW: And there’re numerous media that come to that, not just video games. So you’re still getting their names out beyond just the games industry. That’s great. I did want to talk about games as art and where you stand with that, as it is kind of a big debate these days.
JO: I don’t know why. Truthfully, I don’t. I don’t believe that all video games are art. Probably the majority of them aren’t. They weren’t artistic endeavors even though there is a lot of art that is used to create a game, but I think that as a young medium, you know, we’re 30 years old, not particularly old relative to film or print, certainly to recorded music. Now we have a long way to go, but every year there are two are three titles that are emotionally important. They have story arc and narrative and make you think. Art is a singular expression and that’s Roger Ebert’s big thing. Well, there’s plenty of singular artists out there in the game making business so that every moment of the game is scripted and under his or her control. So I think we have some examples of that, certainly in Okami. You can be on the mechanic of using a brush in the game world. It’s the fact that its style and what it is trying to convey is really Clover’s team’s way of telling a fable and bringing it to the modern world. Certainly Kojima and Metal Gear Solid is a singular experience. Not for the faint of heart and not for the casual or newbie player because you’re never going to get anything out of the game. I think Katamari Damacy is definitely an art game. Even though it is very whimsical in terms of its nature, there is an emotional experience that happens because you’re smiling. When you go to museums, not every piece is there to make you...some of the pieces in the museum are there as historical pieces to show context to society and what people were thinking and what people’s values were. Others are there purely for the emotional moment of how you would feel.

JS: What about upcoming titles? Anything you’re really looking forward to?
JO: Pretty much everything, really.
JS & JW: *Chuckle*
JO: I think Dead Space is probably high on my list. I’m not as good at first-person shooters as I like to think I am but I like games that make me jump. Certainly Fallout 3 will be an undertaking. Resistance 2 will be great. I’m looking forward to the online co-operative play. I like playing in teams and I think it is a fun experience. WAR. The ability to talk and play is a nice play. I’m still playing The Blob from THQ because bouncing off the walls is a good thing.

JS: How many students do you have?
JO: We’re a professional organization so we’re strictly game makers. People call up and ask us what our course syllabus is. We really don’t teach courses. We try to help people with some curriculum and we sit on the board of some universities in order to help them in terms of how to evaluate game making programs and things like that but no, we don’t teach anything at the Academy per se. Maybe we should. It is a competitive environment and there is no singular path to becoming a game maker similar to the way that there is no singular path to becoming a filmmaker. Not everyone who goes to USC or UCLA film schools is going to be the next Oliver Stone or Steven Spielberg. But you learn about the craft of film making. But at that point you might end up becoming a grip because that is where the jobs are.

JW: So your bio mentioned that you had a hand in creating Lara Croft?
JO: Yea well, people always like to think that I created it and yes I’d like to take credit for it, my idea, one night over a couple pints of beer in Buringham England, we figured out we needed to do an adventure game with this buxom, large-polygon young woman, and that wasn’t how it happened. My role and responsibility was to try to determine the market for this title in the states and we all thought it would be, we thought it was a great game because of the overall nature of, not so much that it was a woman—because you couldn’t tell other than the cover art and such, after about ten minutes all you were worried about was am I going to survive the puzzles and such. It was the nature of our 3D engine technology and the art and the global design that made Tomb Raider a very fun game to play and very unique at its launch on the original Playstation. We knew it was going to be a hit, we just weren’t sure how big.
It was fun, and it was actually, I wouldn’t say a hard sell, because every game magazine out there wanted some sort of cover for Lara Croft because she was the most unique game character at the time versus any of the monsters or the Hulks or the Marvel characters and such, Street Fighter characters, it was a good opportunity and good timing.
The last iteration of Tomb Raider, just as a game player, I really liked a lot. Toby Gard and the Crystal Dynamics Team that did that game did a really good job on it.

JS: Do you have any favorites in the show downstairs?
JO: I’m no different than anyone else who looks at art, there’s things I like a lot more than others, but I certainly respect the talent of things...I like the Rapunzel from the almost soon-to-ship American McGee’s Alice, I certainly like Davidicus’ rockstar Moscow poster, because it just makes me want to go grab one of my guitars and rock out again. Right next to that piece is the MC Escher-esque Bioware from Sonic Dark Brotherhood, Henry Hatsworth, the little side-scroller right next to that is something I like…always like Viva Piñata from previous’ years’ connection; the piece from 300, the soldiers up on the uh,...I think that’s very strong; and then over on that wall there’s a black and white charcoal illustration of the keeper’s lab and laboratory, I actually bought that at auction for my office because I just like the fact that you’re peering through this basement window and here’s this guy who’s obviously probably pretty bent, sharpening something, and—he’s going to kill you, and you know, can you escape? It tells a whole story.

JS: Are most of these for auction afterward?
JO: We hold two auctions a year and we use the funds to actually fund the Into the Pixel production process because it costs money to do all these master prints and everything else.

JW: I noticed you don’t have the medium listed.
JO: We have in the past. It just depends. I mean, some of the pieces from earlier collections; we have a print of Kirby, you can find it on the website I think 2005, that was basically tile and mosaic and it weighed 300 pounds, it couldn’t be judged precise, so we had a photographer do a high-res shoot of it and gone forward from there. We’ve had sculpture, we’ve had pen and ink, we’ve had just screen grabs—the screen from Flow is directly from gameplay, last year we had a screen from Darwinia. The jurors are open to choose what they like, the artists are invited to participate on any level. Send us slides first, though.

JW: Well, how do you feel about fanart?
JO: I think it’s great. I don’t think we’re at a point where we want fanart, we’re looking to the professional game design and game art community first and foremost as far as Into the Pixel, but I think that most publishers and certainly most magazines are very appreciative of what players and fans of games are willing to do and how they express themselves.

JW: Even cosplay...
JO: Sure. Fans have been drawing about their favorite things long before games. Otherwise there wouldn’t have been Teen Beat and David Crosby.

Thank you to Joseph Olin for taking the time to speak with us, Debby Chen for coordinating, and everyone involved with Into the Pixel for sharing these wonderful works with us. Read more about and see more art from Into the Pixel at their website.

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