Craig Mathieson June 30, 2012
Video game designer Tim Schafer. Photo: Penny Stephens
Video games and their designers have taken on Hollywood proportions.
ONCE relegated to dingy arcades and rumpus rooms, the video game has culturally come of age.
In recent years, as the generations that played electronic games in the 1980s and 1990s introduced them to their children and the games spread to smartphones and tablets, the industry's financial clout has engendered first respect and now critical reappraisal.
At venues such as the Smithsonian in Washington, Paris' Grand Palais museum and Melbourne's own Australian Centre for the Moving Image, video games have been the subject of extensive retrospectives, examining their visual aesthetic, immersive qualities and designers' philosophies. In other words, your battered old PlayStation console has been curated.
If that makes for unexpected associations, then no one is complaining. At the official launch of ACMI's new exhibition, Game Masters, leading American game designer Tim Schafer found himself playing Real Racing with the Premier of Victoria, Ted Baillieu, who opened the impressive showcase.
The results of the car racing simulation were unclear, but as a photo op everyone was a winner.
''I love seeing that because it's a celebration of the positive side of games,'' says Schafer. ''When you do talk to politicians it's never about the creative side or how great they are, it's usually about violence and headline-grabbing stories, which are the least exciting side of games.''
Spread through an ACMI gallery that charts chronologically their development from the 20 cent piece-eating boxes of the 1970s to today's intricate simulations of the fantastic, Game Masters will run until October, serving as the 14th exhibition in the ongoing Melbourne Winter Masterpieces series.
While ACMI has staged previous games-related exhibitions, past Winter Masterpieces have all been cinematic, including 2007's Pixar: 20 years of Animation and 2010's Tim Burton: The Exhibition. The arrival of Game Masters is a reflection that even as the gaming industry has outgrown the movies as a business, it has taken on something of the Hollywood structure. There are gaming studios, blockbuster sequels, and famous designers.
The study of video games has also taken on auteur theory, the French cinema idea that posits the filmmaker's vision as a movie's defining element. Most of the 125 games in the exhibition - all of which visitors can actually play for the price of admission - are presented in terms of their creators and their distinct philosophies. You can learn about Japanese visionaries and idiosyncratic Czechs as you experience their wares.
''To me, games always meant going into a fantasy world and tapping into strange powers and being emotionally involved with the characters, just as in literature and film,'' explains Schafer, a 44-year-old San Francisco resident and lifelong gamer.
He made his name working at Star Wars creator George Lucas' LucasArts before starting his own independent game design company, Double Fine Productions, in 2000.
Quick-witted and starting to resemble hearty Shakespearean comic relief, Schafer is renowned for making best-selling games that make exceptional use of humour and unexpected creative elements. His 1998 adventure Grim Fandango combined film noir and Aztec cultural belief in the afterlife, while 2009's Brutal Legend employed comic Jack Black to voice a game that combined heavy metal music and fantasy adventure.
Schafer sees Game Masters not just as a chance to sum up the past but a springboard into the next age of gaming, where powerful hardware means that designers can explore virtually any direction if they are willing.
''Games have been around for 30 years but they're still tackling somewhat juvenile subjects,'' he says.
''The ultimate goal for me is that they would touch on the same topics as music and books. You can get a movie or book that covers nearly any aspect of life, and I believe that games can achieve that, too.''
Game Masters runs until October 28 at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. For more information see acmi.net.au.