Essays In Conversation 1: The Evolving Relationship Between Video Games and Photography

Though it waxes and wanes in public consciousness and gets called by different names (screenshots, virtual photography, or more recently, in-game photography) over the past decade there have been a whole host of artists who have explored video games through photography. My first project that combined the two was a series from 2001 which re-printed cryptic landscape images found on Everquest forums, after learning the reason one of my old friends had dropped out of high school was to play the game. Kent Sheely has also been exploring this far-flung cultural space for just about as long as anyone else.

After collaborating to curate a recent art show about video games and photography, titled Screen Knowledges, I had a moment where I realized what a long, winding trek it has been to get to this artwork in 2017. Given his status as one of the most veteran artists in this genre, I wanted to talk to Kent about the arc of his oeuvre and hear his thoughts about how the field has changed over the past years.

Eron: As of 2017 we both have been working with video game imagery and screenshots for over a decade. I was wondering what your first screenshot project was? Working together curating the Screen Knowledges art show made me realize I didn't know anything about it, or even what inspired you to make it.

Kent: That came about in college when I was still figuring out what direction I wanted my work to take, and I had been playing GTA San Andreas on the Xbox. That was the first game that I ever played that had a built in photo mode. It's for a mission in the game. You're supposed to kill someone and take a photo of the body, so it's only used for one instance, but it'll actually save photos to your Xbox hard drive. I figured that out. I didn't have a way to get the photos onto a computer, because I was just taking them through the Xbox, so I bought a video capture card just so I could get my screenshots out of GTA San Andreas. I think I ended up calling it Grand Theft Photo?

Eron: Was this for a class?

Kent: I ended up using it for a class, but it started out realizing that I could take photos inside this built virtual landscape. I gave up beating the game entirely. I just quit at that mission when I first got the camera and never looked back.

Eron: How did you end up showing it? Through video? Or did you make prints?

Kent: I made prints from the video capture, which is 480p or something on Xbox. They ended up really small, so they ended up looking like they're from a toy camera or something. But then later I got the same game for PC, so the captures that I was able to get were a lot higher quality. That led to me making an interactive version where I actually built like a custom (camera-shaped) controller for it, so you could take your own photos in the game, just by moving the controller around.

Eron: So like a motion sensitive thing?

Kent: It was actually a Wii remote inside of a camera body.

Eron: Oh, interesting. What camera did you use?

Kent: It was a fake camera. I just built it from PVC parts.

"The primary reason that I've been moving towards video is just because it's easier for me to share it."

Eron: Fast forward a decade, when we were selecting work for the show, you mentioned your work has tended towards video. A lot of other artists who work with video games are also moving towards using video as their primary medium of exploration. Why do you think you've been favoring video as a medium when you make art about video games?

Kent: I think I've been really motivated by the ease which video can be shared now. Especially through social media and Instagram. When I started out, I was coming at it from a photography background. The primary reason that I've been moving towards video is just because it's easier for me to share it.

Eron: Do you think that that has to do with the way the internet platforms have changed?

Kent: Yeah. It didn't use to be that easy to share things on the internet. Before YouTube especially, you would have to either have someone download the file or have them download a player to run it. It was really hard to share video work. More artists are sharing video rather than photo work and I think that it's probably a similar situation that I'm in, where I'm just always recording video clips when I'm playing the games. For me, publishing those short sketches is really satisfying to me. It helps me reach more focused goals. It's sort of the spaghetti method, but in a way, it pressures me into trying to look deeper at something, because once I share it, I want to push it further.

Eron: So much of the way we exist in images, both in art and online, is performative. It feels as though maybe there's something in video that seemingly more succinctly captures the performative context of video games?

Kent: Another thing I was thinking about was that video games are time-based media. So video, I think, more accurately emulates the way that we encounter video games. So it sort of lulls us into a false sense of security.

Eron: Yeah. One of the biggest issues about being a screenshot artist is we're almost inevitably genre-fied as 'screenshot’, right? People want to talk about the action of making a photo in a video game as the primary source of the content. Accessing any other content than that, is very, very hard in the face of this kind of incredibly aggressively avantgarde gesture of what might be seen as defying the video game. In a screenshot, there's no sound, no motion… No screen!

Whereas with video, you're right, there's this slippage. I can watch you playing a video game and fall into believing at some meta- level that, "Oh, this is you doing something in a video game that has meaning." Rather than, "Oh you took a video of a video game, therefore it has meaning."

Kent: Yeah. I still haven't really landed on any one answer for that. And there probably isn't one.

Eron: You make games as well, yes?

Kent: Yeah.

Eron: What was the first game you made?

Kent: The first complete game I ever made was probably in RPG Maker, which came out in like '95. I was probably like 12 or 13, I think, when I did that. But it was basically just fan art. It was a fan game for Dragonball Z or something, taking existing sprites and making my own story out of them.

Eron: Which isn't that dissimilar from what you're doing now…

Kent: Oh gosh, yeah. I think that may have been the first complete playable game that I made. I fucked around when I was a little kid in Q Basic and older programming. You know what? I made a "Choose Your Own Adventure" game when I was like nine!

Eron: Oh god.

Kent: Yeah, because I figured out how to do the GOTO structure. It was based on old text adventures and "Choose Your Own Adventure" books. I took the structure of "Choose Your Own Adventure," where the page is like a function in BASIC, and based it on that book structure. Did you ever play FlameWar Deluxe?

Eron: No.

Kent: The first Twine game I ever made. All the text came from a forum chat. It was a flame war that sparked as a result of ... oh my god, I can't even remember what game! It was completely unrelated. It started like a chat about Quake? And it turned into this geopolitical flame war that was the most expansive thing I'd ever seen.

You know how there's branching conversation paths that happen in chat? So I took node of that chat and made a Twine game where the objective is to get the most replies out of a thread by taking branching paths. One person says this, and your choices are the two people who replied to that.

Eron: You were basically are making art about something in the Trump era we now know to be a very real thing affecting the world! It puts you in the mindset of gaming a forum, which is incredibly interesting because the Russians do this to affect elections, GamerGate to influence the media, and Facebook to maximize their income.

Kent: Right. “How long can you keep people talking?” It's figuring out not what I (as a viewer/player) can do, but what moves I can make; what steps did this person take to push this further, advance the plot? It's making choices by proxy.

"'Flame War Deluxe' puts you in the mindset of gaming a forum - like the Russians do to affect elections, GamerGate to influence the media, and Facebook to maximize their income."

Eron: It's a psychological investigation, as well, like a good novel. A great novel doesn't just tell you what happened, it entices you into feeling why those choices happened.

Kent: There's some branching path of conversation that made this the biggest flame war ever. There's one branching path that has more comments, more discussion. But what led to that? It's sort of breaking down which comment pushed this forward. It is getting into the mind of gamers and people who instigate bullshit online. The other people you're playing with remain kind of untapped (as a subject). A lot of people, especially people who do screenshot photography, focus on the game world. I feel like they're kind of missing a layer that a lot of people don't tap into, and that's the real people that are behind the screens controlling these avatars.

Eron: There's so many kinds of photography that get subsumed into this dog-pile of "screenshot photography.” I don't like using that term because it's caught up in a specific idea of video games. I really prefer video game-related photography (or art). Work that doesn't take account of time or people often feels like it mindlessly believes the Wired Magazine 1997 version of Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” in an overly literal way.

There's so much that comes along with re-acknowledging the existence of time and people. It's fairly radical. Just acknowledging aging in fandom, the fact that people get older, change, make decisions they can’t take back, have to live with, is pretty radical.

Kent: We've evolved past the singular label of screenshot photography.

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Kommentare

Wonderful essay/conversation guys and what a wonderful quote by Kent, "We've evolved past the singular label of screenshot photography". Looking back over the years virtual/in-game/screenshot photography really has come a very long way from where it was. Video Game-Related Photography is a wonderful and fitting title for this beautiful genre indeed.

I can only imagine what it will be five or ten years from now.

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