Creating an innovative and original artistic idea is a somewhat daunting task for an artist. Many art students seek uniqueness in their work, but ultimately end up sticking with general artistic structure. Those that venture outside of their usual focus, with vision and direction, can achieve great things. I spoke with Jonathan Larkin, a Tufts University SMFA Graduate student, who wants to break down the creative boundaries of video game design. His goal is to explore more of an artistic form of video game design, while incorporating the more prevalent aspects of the genre, such as computer programming, human-computer interaction, and the incentive to play and compete.
Jon went to Princeton University for his undergraduate degree, where he studied Architecture and Visual Arts. Mainly concentrating on film and video in the visual arts department, he found himself combining the architectural aspects of his studio work with his art projects. While already taking five or more classes and having a demanding workload, Jon decided to fill up his schedule with some additional courses in drawing, sculpture and installation. My question to Jon was, “So you pretty much did everything, artistically speaking?” Looking nothing like your average art student, Jon smiled and shrugged his shoulders, “I never did performance; uh I did act in some of my movies, but I never did conceptual performance. Or Metal work.” Jon wanted to point out to me that, among all of the different art genres he explored; he enjoys interactive design the most, namely, video game development as a fine art. He stated, “I’m trying to pursue the video game genre as a vehicle for fine art, which I think raises a number of questions, such as why aren’t many mainstream games considered fine art, and why aren’t more people attempting to create games that are considered artistic? Interactive art has the potential to truly enrich the art theoretical discourse.” Jon has a very idealistic attitude when it comes to video game design and seems very optimistic in quest to grapple these questions.
Jon now attends Tufts University’s Master of Fine Arts program at the School Museum of Fine Arts, where he is taking courses in film, animation and video. I was wondering what made him switch from architecture to video game design, because to me they seemed very different. Sitting back in his chair, Jon answered assuredly, “I think video games let me combine the aspects of design from both visual arts, and architecture. I’ve learned and done just about everything I wanted to within architecture, and I don’t see myself doing conventional films anymore. I think it’s always good for an artist to reassess themselves, to push their own boundaries, and to be sure to enjoy what they are doing. ”
Jon appears to thrive in exploring new avenues, so it seems only natural for him to be interested in such unchartered territory as artistic video game design. In studying something that has really not been done yet, Jon wants to become a kind of pioneer for the video game genre. Looking deep in thought, Jon explains, “The video game is in the middle of an evolution, toward becoming part of a fine art medium. This evolution will have to catch up to the integration of video games into our daily lives, which is virtually complete.” In our discussion, with his hands on his lap and a grin on his face, Jon says that he believes that video games are a part of this generation and yet they don’t have a counterpart that is pushing them within a meaningful theoretical dialogue that is specific to the medium itself. “If I can be a part of shaping that dialogue, I would consider myself a meaningful artist.”
As a skeptic to the idea that video games might become an art form in the future, I asked Jon what he meant when he said that “the video game is in the middle of an evolution.” Jon said nothing but opened his Macbook and typed an address into the URL box. He then turned the screen to show me his latest game “Endless Migration.” He explained that he made the game for a design competition held by a video gaming website called Kongregate, in which developers were asked to make a game that considered the concept of ‘endurance’ in an innovative and meaningful way. In December 2009 he won the $10,000 grand prize for the game. I told Jon that I’m not a gamer and definitely not a video game critic, but that the game is honestly beautiful and so different from the few games that I have seen or played. The premise is that the gamer plays as a flock of Canada geese, flying south for the winter. On their trip, the player must dodge airplanes, blimps and tall buildings. If the birds hit one of the obstacles there is blood and feathers, which sounds unpleasant, but actually makes for a fun and enjoyable play. As I sit there testing his game, Jon explains, “It’s simple, and I like that. I wanted to play with the idea of the flock as a collective. The player controls the flock leader, but if he gets taken out, another goose flies up from the rear to take his place. The result is a sort of half-identification: you immediately conceptualize this bird as the extension of yourself, but really that extension isn’t tied to one particular object in the game environment.” Jon went on to admit, that he doesn’t necessarily consider “Endless Migration” to be the fine art game he’s looking for. But, he did exclaim, “My advisors liked it, so I’m pretty confident it’s a start.” The game’s subtle colors and overall idea is very intriguing. Plus an added bonus is, the catchy background music that swims out while you play was, you got it, made by Jon.