When Christopher Ault, associate professor in the interactive multimedia department at the College of New Jersey, thinks back on his youth in Houston, Texas, he remembers his gaming arcade of choice in a shopping mall in the suburban town of Woodland. Like so many teens in the post-baby boomer age group, he would gather as many quarters as possible, hop on his bike, and pedal to the arcade to play that early generation of video games — especially “Defender.” “We’d stay until our quarters ran out,” Ault says.
It never occurred to him that a couple of decades later, he would be teaching college-level courses in video games — more formally called interactive media. The curriculum covers not just how to create and distribute them, but also studies on the sociology and psychology of interactive media, as well as a range of issues raised by video games, including their influence on social life, communication, and thinking skills.
“I must confess that, when I was playing games as a 10-year-old, I wasn’t thinking that far ahead, but it’s been fascinating to watch (this evolution),” Ault says. “The games I played at the time were impossibly simple, but we didn’t know that. They were also perfectly entertaining, immersive, and addictive, in spite of the fact that they were so crude.”
“When I listen to my students talking about games today, they’re talking about something so different,” he adds. “They talk about and analyze games the ways people in our generation talk about novels and films. (With today’s games) it’s not just about blowing things up, there are stories and characters involved, all the things we associate with traditional art forms, like books and film.”
Ault was turning all of these thoughts over in his head when the idea of an exhibit came to mind: a survey of not only the history of games, but the history of the visuals associated with interactive media as well. The result is “A Palette of Pixels: The Evolving Art of Video Games,” on view at the College of New Jersey’s Art Gallery, through Sunday, December 13.
This groundbreaking exhibit explores video games as a medium of artistic expression and communication, and features concept art, sketches, and sculptures from video games, as well as interactive game stations. Ault curated “A Palette of Pixels,” with assistance from several students in the interactive multimedia program, especially TCNJ senior Dominic Portera, who has served as curatorial assistant. Ault says TCNJ art gallery director Emily Croll has also been indispensable in putting this exhibit together.
Games to be highlighted in the exhibition include “The Banner Saga,” “Bioshock,” “The Dream Machine,” “Flower,” “God of War,” “Journey,” Katamari Damacy,” “Metamorphabet,” “Okami,” Spate,” and more.
In conjunction with the exhibition, TCNJ’s music department will present a concert, “Pixel Music: Video Game Soundtracks in Concert,” on Friday, October 30, at 8 p.m. in the Kendall Main Stage Theater. Led by conductor David Vickerman, assistant professor of music and director of bands at TCNJ, the concert will feature music from a variety of well known video games, performed by TCNJ’s Wind Ensemble and the TCNJ Chorale.
Guest conductor will be Gerard K. Marino, noted principal composer for Sony PlayStation’s “God of War” series of games, the first of which won the Interactive Academy Award for Best Score. Marino’s orchestral suite of his “God of War” themes has been performed around the world by renowned orchestras, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the National Symphony.
Also on October 30, at 12:30 p.m. in the Mayo Concert Hall in the Music Building, Marino will speak at a free, public lecture, “Press Play: Inside the Music of Video Games,” discussing his compositional process for writing music for video games and media, and how this differs from other genres. He will be joined by Cecil Kim, the lead concept artist for the “God of War” series.
“It’s the kind of crazy, cross-disciplinary event we do here at TCNJ,” Ault says. “David (Vickerman) overheard that we were working on this exhibition and thought it would be great if we could tie in a musical element. He and all our students grew up with games, and the music that goes with games is as much of a touchstone as the graphics and the story. He had this great idea to bring in Gerard Marino, the composer for ‘God of War,’ which is one of the most famous games of its era.”
“Gerard is coming to conduct his original works with the wind ensemble, and he’s bringing in his lead artist Cecil Kim,” Ault adds. “For the lecture, Cecil will talk about his art and the collaborative process, plus, Cecil’s work is featured in the exhibition.”
“A Palette of Pixels” looks back over the last 30-plus years of video games — from old arcade and Atari games to new indie games available through the App Store — and considers the varied approaches game-makers have utilized for visual expression and communication within the medium.
Early designers had ambitious visions for their games, as evidenced by their often elaborate marketing and packaging, but they were constrained by the technology of the time when it came to translating that vision to the screen.
“What we’re trying to explore is the various ways game designers have taken to putting visuals on the screen that convey a certain message or story,” Ault says. “At first we were focused on current times, today’s technology, (in which) all kinds of people can make games and get their visions on the computer screen, which is fascinating. But I wanted to go back 30 years and explore the early game designers, who had the same vision and imagination (as today’s designers) and wanted to get their vision on the screen.”
“Unfortunately, they were tied down to the technology, so it was a creative puzzle to work within this technological constraint and get something on the screen that was fun to play — and those games were fun to play and fun to look at as well,” he adds. “They managed to squeeze a lot of story into a small screen with a limited color palette and a bunch of blocky pixels to work with.”
Early games tantalized young players with sumptuous images of hunky heroes, sultry heroines, exotic creatures, and landscapes, which graced the games’ packaging, as well as the game consoles and cabinets in the arcades. Ault says he is delighted to be able to include some of this early box and arcade art in “A Palette of Pixels,” especially eight original drawings and paintings by Steve Hendricks, created for Atari games in the early 1980s.
“It was impossible to put a graphically realistic world on the screen, so what they did was to conjure up this world on the other medium, like the boxes that lined the store shelves,” Ault says. “As a kid, I was fascinated but also somewhat frustrated; the paintings were so elaborate and fantastic, but the actual game in the machine couldn’t live up (to this imagery), so there was this disconnect.”
“Emily Croll managed to track down this original Atari artwork, to a collector (Ian Baronofsky), who has graciously agreed to part with this work for the first time, and we are very fortunate to have it,” Ault says. “When people of a certain generation see this, they’ll go back to those feelings of enchantment when they saw this stuff on the shelves 35 years ago.”
The exhibit is divided into three eras, beginning with this very early era of video games. It then fast forwards to the 2000s, when technology had caught up with the designers’ visions. In this transitional time, a skilled designer could put almost anything imagined on the screen, but only if they had access to the tools, money, and distribution networks of the established studios.
“The designers were working for these big studios, and so there was a high bar for entry,” Ault says. “Also, the tools were very technical, not user-friendly, so you needed specialized training. If you were lucky enough to work as a game artist, you had these great tools and big budgets, but it was hard to gain access to this system, similar to the experience of working for big record companies and major movie studios.”
Now, just as the existence of an indie music and film world has leveled the creative playing field for musicians and filmmakers, gaming has become an independent entity, wide open for skilled and imaginative designers. This current timeframe represents the third era of the exhibit.
“(In this third era) there were these powerful but user-friendly tools that anybody could have access to, and the products became digital, they didn’t fill up shelf space in a store,” Ault says. “If you made the games, you could distribute them yourself on the Internet. It was so empowering to the artists and designers, (all this) greatly enhanced the individual’s creativity and design. People who had some understanding of computer programming — but hadn’t studied it formally — could create graphically rich 3D games and express their visions and ideas.”
Describing himself as a professor, writer, composer, animator, and all-around techno-tinkerer, Ault lived in Detroit as a child, where his father was a management consultant for General Motors, and his mother a homemaker who dabbled in painting. The family later moved to Houston.
Ault earned a bachelor’s degree from the honors program at the University of Texas in 1994, and a master’s degree (2003) from the pioneering Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University. Before coming to TCNJ, Ault was a researcher and an adjunct professor with ITP.
In addition to “A Palette of Pixels,” Ault curated “Illuminating Data: Visualizing the Information that Moves Our World,” which was on view at the TCNJ art gallery in spring, 2012.
“I happily made a career not picking one thing in particular, but the common denominator is technology,” Ault says of his varied interests. “In a way, that’s how we designed the interactive multimedia program at TCNJ. It’s multi-disciplinary: it’s for writers, artists, designers, and musicians, and it’s linked together by a common interest in technology.”
A Palette of Pixels: The Evolving Art of Video Games, TCNJ Art Gallery, Art and Interactive Media Building, College of New Jersey, 2000 Pennington Road, Ewing. Through Sunday, December 13, Tuesday through Thursday, noon to 7 p.m., Sunday, 1 to 3 p.m. Free. tcnjartgallery.tcnj.edu or 609-771-2633.
Pixel Music: Video Game Soundtracks in Concert, TCNJ Wind Ensemble and Chorale, Mayo Concert Hall, College of New Jersey. Conducted by David Vickerman and Gerard K. Marino. Friday, October 30, 7:30 p.m. $15, general admission; $10 faculty/alumni/senior citizens, $5 students. bit.ly/1LiPZoR.
Press Play: Inside the Music of Video Games, Mayo Concert Hall. Friday, October 30, 12:30 p.m. featuring Gerard K. Marino and Cecil Kim. Free, no ticket required. tcnjcenterforthearts.tcnj.edu/brown-bag-series.
#b#More Video Gaming#/b#
The College of New Jersey will continue examining the history of video games with a talk and a new Sarnoff Collection exhibition opening on Wednesday, November 4. Both are free
Dr. Arthur Molella, director emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, will talk on the birth of video games and Ralph Baer, often called the father of home video games. The presentation is in Roscoe West Hall at 5 p.m.
The opening of “Computer Fun for the Whole Family: Video Games and the Sarnoff Collection” follows Molella’s talk. The exhibition reflects RCA’s recognition of the potentials of producing electronic games for the general public in the late 1960s. The exhibition includes the opportunity to examine vintage RCA computers and test vintage games. The exhibition is located on the second floor of Roscoe West Hall.
www.tcnj.edu/sarnoff or 609-771-2633.