Q&A: Joseph Olin on the art of games

The D.I.C.E.-thrower and AIAS president is hoping his Into the Pixel exhibit will help settle the debate about games being artistic expression.


Joseph Olin
Joseph Olin

This week, Persuasive Games designer Ian Bogost appeared on The Colbert Report to defend video games as art. It was the latest public salvo in the ongoing battle by game designers, publishers, and enthusiasts to convince unbelievers that games are as artistic an expression as television, film, or painting.

One of the leaders in the games-as-art crusade has been Joseph Olin. Since he became head of the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences in 2003, he has led a Jack Valenti-esque effort to organize game developers into a body akin to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. The result has been the D.I.C.E. Summit, an exclusive annual confab of game development's leading lights and backdrop for the Interactive Achievement Awards, gaming's answer to the Oscars and Emmys.

Olin is also attempting to promote games as fine art. He helps organize and promote Into the Pixel, an exhibition that presents some of the most dynamic game concept art in a gallery setting. The exhibit's selections are made by a jury of mostly artists, and it was one of the less frantic highlights of the 2006 Electronic Entertainment Expo show floor.

"Piñata Cascade" Ryan Stevenson - Viva Piñata

Most recently, Into the Pixel was on display at the drastically overhauled 2007 E3 Media & Business Summit. There, the exhibit, which featured art from Half-Life 2: Episode Two, Guild Wars, Blacksite: Area 51, and Fable 2, enjoyed prime real estate next to the third-party publisher press conferences at the Fairmont Miramar. Now, with the games-as-art debate again in the forefront, GameSpot caught up with Olin to get his two cents and learn about Into the Pixel.

GS: So now you have selected this year's Into the Pixel exhibition, correct?

JO: We have our 16 new collection pieces for 2007.

GS: That's good through next June, right?

JO: Exactly. We are in process now of trying to create a list of venues after E3 to show gamers and consumers some of the talent from today's game makers.

GS: So do you view this exhibit as one would any other traveling art exhibition?

"Defeated Dragon"- Daniel Dociu - Guild Wars - Guild Wars

JO: Well, we didn't initially think of it that way. It was always a hope. The traditional E3 had been large compared to the new E3, since the Into the Pixel Gallery was positioned in a very public place within the [Los Angeles] Convention Center. We were averaging close to 150,000 people to look at the art over the last three years.

GS: The bar at the exhibit helped too.

JO: That and the fact that you had all this fantastic art around you. It made for a nice oasis within the stressful life of attending E3 and helped get the word out. But everyone who saw Into the Pixel was always so enamored with the art and said, "Well why don't you show it to more people in more places?" So we started to do that. And it's been at the Santa Fe Tech Museum and it was over at GameCity in the UK and another museum over there. And we are right now staging it for sure to be a key part of E for All. I give it an affectionate nickname of "Free for All" because whenever you invite a lot of gamers to play games for four days that's what it can become. But regardless of what you call it, it will be a good venue to show a game's underpinnings in this fabulous concept art.

GS: Now you mentioned it's all about getting the concept of games as art across. Obviously, the people who made these works are incredibly gifted. So why do you think so many people in the art establishment--and society as a whole--don't accept games as art?

"City 17" - Jeremy Bennett - Half-Life 2 Episode 2

JO: I don't think that there's a wall that we have to climb. We have more and more talented game makers who, as they have matured in the craft of making games, are able to imbue their games with more of the emotional elements that critics have often said is absent from interactive entertainment.

[BioWare copresidents] Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk have spoken out about how they believe that their games are artistic. I believe there are other examples--certainly Okami comes to mind--and a lot of the Final Fantasy series games have dramatic and emotional elements that rival any other artistic endeavor. Some critics have always said that for there to be art, there has to be a one-to-one relationship between the artist and the viewer or the participant, and I think we have that within games even though they are shared and played by many. If you play Metal Gear Solid, that's pretty much you as a player wrestling with the things that Kojima wants you encounter.

GS: I can't see how it can be more personal than being interactive.

JO: I think all of us owe it to each other to promote the fact that the craft of making games has as much artistry and any other medium. Each year, I think we have more and more examples to showcase this fact and showcase our games as art along with anything else.

GS: Do you think that it's going to be able to make the argument for games are art as games grow more visually complex with next-generation consoles and high-end PC graphics?

"Rabbids" - Florent Sacre - Rayman Raving Rabbids

JO: We're a visually driven species, and certainly our culture always drives us with what can be put on a screen or in front of us. I believe that the latest iteration of game technology allows much more complicated images and deeply involving environments to be constructed; I think that will help.

But I think that some of the things that game makers are as excited about are the underlying engineering feats that allow more captivating characters to be realized in real time. That means more dialogue, with more of the conventions that we like to use when we communicate with each other and have emotional connections as humans. I think that's a level that's really exciting. I mean, there's no doubt that you have an emotional point of acceleration when you are in battle, whether it's in Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion or Quake Wars. That's really exciting. But I think there's more to unleashing the depth of our emotional pallet than just a battle sequence. And I think that's the area that games will continue to be able to showcase more.

GS: I agree. Now, I studied film in college. And when film first came on the screen, in the early 20th century, people thought it was like some vaudeville offshoot and no one took it seriously at first. Then, when TV came along in the 1950s, it was considered a lesser medium until the mid-1970s. Now, both have been accepted as art, not only by the mainstream but by more refined artistic circles. Do you think that same evolution in perception will happen with games?

JO: Absolutely. And I think it is exactly that. It is an evolutionary process. It always seems to be the natural conflict that comes between generations of artistic groups. And I think that when you compare some of the young associate game directors, level designers, who are learning the craft now and you put them in conflict or context with senior game directors, you're just dealing with different backgrounds and upbringings.

"Speed Architecture" - Rita Linsley - Wipeout Pulse

For those of us who are still those baby boomers, television defined who we were. That defines our culture in so many ways. And for today's young adults and adolescents who will become game makers over the course of the next 10 years, I don't think you can say that television was the dominant medium of their time or defines them. It's either the Internet or it's just connected technology in general. That gives you a whole different background to think about how you would like to entertain people and what messages you'd like to use the medium to convey.

GS: So do you think it's just a generational thing? Like you said, you are a baby boomer, but a lot of these people who are pillorying the game industry in the press are also of your generation.

JO: Well, no, I think that there's a lot of my generation who have been recognized as some of the most brilliant minds in interactive entertainment over the course of their careers. So I don't think that it is specifically generational. But I do believe that people who have used games as a primary form of their personal entertainment and experience see it as the binding currency to create social groups as they grow up. That changes how you view the power of the medium. You take it for granted on the one hand, but you also see it as being able to lever it out much more.

So I don't think it's just age as an absolute, but it certainly doesn't hurt. I mean, there are republicans and democrats in their 30s and 40s who have played video games as part of their experience--some more, some less. I wish it was strictly just an age thing that way, you know, in another 20 years, we'd have gamers in the White House and up in Sacramento for sure. That said, Arnold has been in a few games. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines comes to mind.

GS: So, now tell me about...

JO: That was not art, by the way.

GS: Yeah, I'm not sure if Rise of the Machines would qualify. But how was the reception of Into the Pixel at this new E3? I know you had prime real estate, right next door to all the third-party press conferences.

JO: We certainly were able to talk about Into the Pixel with a lot of your colleagues from the press, and certainly, some of the companies whose artists had supported the program had never seen the actual final prints that are created from the digital files. So that was great. At the same time, I wouldn't have minded it being at Barker Hangar. We had sufficient space within there to set up the gallery and unfortunately we couldn't.

"In the Rain" - Cheol Joo Lee -Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War

Again, I think that it's one thing to be able to access Into the Pixel artwork via our Web site. Your readers and viewers can certainly go to intothepixel.com and grab a medium-resolution version of the art from the last two years and use it for a screensaver. But the art takes on a whole different dimension when you see it as a three-foot-by-four-foot print. The things that we're looking to overcome are some of the barriers of moving 64 pieces of art around the country to get it in front of as many people as possible.

But again, I don't think that's insurmountable; it's just back to logistics and planning. The success and the amount of the coverage that Into the Pixel has generated this year has had the positive impact of attracting some potential sponsors who would be interested in associating their companies with Into the Pixel and the game industry. So that's all very positive.

GS: So how is D.I.C.E '08 coming together?

JO: It's coming together. When D.I.C.E concluded last year, our dates were set for February 6, 7, and 8. We have a new venue. We are moving to the Red Rock Resort in Summerlin [a district of Las Vegas]. It is a very nice upgrade in terms of facilities. It allows us to do more things for our attendees that we weren't able to do before because of some physical limitations. Its technological base is much higher in terms of bandwidth and things that allow us to communicate more readily and show more things on screens.

And as far as our programming, I think that the positive feedback that was given by our attendees this year in our annual survey is going to direct us to try and add more sessions than what we did last year. I think we had 18 speakers last year. This year, I think it will probably be about 20 over the two-and-a-half days. We'll start making our announcements of speakers at the end of the summer.

GS: As far as the awards go, are you going to bring Jay Mohr back?

JO: Yes! I am pleased to say that Jay Mohr in the middle of the awards ceremony last year said, "You know, I want to keep doing this," and that's fine with us. He is very popular among our attendees. He had like a 95 percent approval rating.

GS: So he's basically your Billy Crystal, right?

JO: Yeah, I mean, he really gets it. He gets gamers. I think he walked that fine line between being humorous and trying to be entertaining without being disrespectful to the people in the room. And I think that's because he loves games. And the fact that he's actually funny, since we want the awards to be entertaining.

GS: Oh, absolutely. I don't know if you saw Jamie Kennedy emcee the Activision conference at E3, but that's a prime example of what happens when you have a comedian who doesn't get games host a game event.

JO: Yeah, I think it's tough. I'm not sure whether it was serendipity or just luck in terms of Jay getting it and wanting to do it. Certainly, the end result thing is that most of the people in the room are laughing for a of couple hours while they're watching their colleagues get their props.

GS: Pretty much. And as far as I know there was a little bit of controversy last year surrounding the awards. Are you planning any changes to the rules this year?

JO: We're planning to look for rules changes that make things more controversial.

Jay Mohr at the 2006 AIAS Awards.
Jay Mohr at the 2006 AIAS Awards.

GS: Ha!

JO: [Laughing] No, absolutely not. In fact, I would like to think that some of the issues that were raised last year may go away. I'm hoping that some of the publishers that weren't with us last year will be with us this year. Ultimately, the games that get requested by our peer judges, our panels of experts, is where it starts. So they're the ones who decide what they want to play, what they want to review, and how they want to review it. Their input is a critical part of how we look at the awards and our procedures each year.

We are looking to make some changes in terms of our awards process, in terms of membership and requiring membership. Also, more in terms of making sure that the definitions we give to all of our peer panels for their specific crafts are accurate and that we're recognizing the right things. I get a lot of ideas from our peer panelists on a matter of a daily basis sometimes, and I think that's great. It means that people are really behind making sure that we recognize great work and that we recognize the right things. And it's my job to respect that. We have decreased the number of awards the Academy has given out from 45 when I started in the middle of 2004. We're down to 30 now, and we're always looking to make sure that what we recognize is the right thing. We'll probably make some tweaks and make those announcements again in the fall when we start promoting the Interactive Achievement Award cycle.

But again, the Academy this year is really looking to try and create better paths of dialogue between it, as an organization representing game makers, and people who love games. And I think that most of our members really believe that their points of view--of what makes games great--is unique. It takes a lot of talent to make a game today, and they believe that until you've done that, you can't necessarily judge how great the work is and that their opinions really matter.

There's no doubt that if you look over the last 10 years of games that have been singled out by the Academy's members that the majority of them have had some level of commercial success. But there are also some that were never huge hits. I think it's important that people who love games check out some of the games that were finalists in categories and not necessarily the winner. I mean, if you look at our finalists for Game of the Year, there wasn't anything that you shouldn't have in your library there--if you're a fan of games.

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