Digital Environments Forum


The Digital Environments Forum (University of Melbourne) at AsiaTOPA featured a wide-ranging and stimulating discussion about the intersections between art, technology and gaming at the University of Melbourne. The AsiaTOPA festival in Melbourne showcases art and performance from Asia, and this event (a part of the ‘Sinofuturists’ theme at the festival) focused on the emergence of new trends in gaming technologies and the arts.

At this forum, a panel of academics, artists and game developers explored a range of issues: How do artists use gaming technology to create and deliver interactive experiences for gamers and viewers? How do game developers and narrative-creators negotiate the tension between the creator’s intended vision, and the goal of facilitating and maximising players’ agency and desire to shape their own narratives and experiences of the game? What does the emergence of artificial intelligence portend for the future of gaming? What role does culture play in the world of gaming? And, how does the world of cosplay deal with reservations about cultural appropriation? The speakers included University of Melbourne researchers Madeleine Antonellos and Eduardo Velloso, game-engine developer Alexander Swords, and Ashley Lee-Wong from digital studio Meta Objects. The audience comprised university students and a smattering of artists. The discussion was insightful and informative, and gaming enthusiasts as well as art lovers would have found the conversation stimulating.

Velloso led the panel discussion with provocative and probing questions about current issues and creative trends in gaming. One of the key issues that Velloso explored was the ongoing impact of overarching corporate-controlled commercial arrangements on existing and emerging game developer-artist collaborative endeavours. Control of technology and income streams continues to remain predominantly in the hands of large corporate game developers and, as such, game developer-artist collaborations primarily occur in mainstream organisations. However, new platforms, such as Sedition Art, do afford independent artists opportunities to engage with a broader audience, including independent programmers. Even so, the commercial and translational potential of these new platforms is yet to be realised.

Antonellos spoke about how the world of cosplay has been refashioned, as it were, by the emergence of social media. Technology has helped to popularise cosplay (which originated in Japan) and allowed cosplay performers to become celebrities in their own right, sometimes attracting the attention of the creators of the characters they impersonate. Technology has also increased the scrutiny of how performers play with identify and self-representation, sometimes leading to conflict and creative tension.

The discussion included some fascinating examples of artist-programmer collaboration. Wong shared clips of the work that her studio, Meta Objects, helped Chinese artist Lu Yang create. These clips showed how the games allude to and draw on Chinese and Indian mythological archetypes, concepts and stories. Wong’s commentary on the clips highlighted the cultural underpinnings of this body of work. Many of Yang’s games reflect the tensions between tradition and modernity (and materialism) in China. Wong also focused on the importance of the interactive element of the gaming experience. The programmer, Wong suggested, is not only a technician but also an artist. Immersive gaming experiences can enhance feelings of agency and control, and conceiving of and generating these experiences requires a mastery of the visual medium. Wong spoke about how Lu Yang has conceptualised gaming narratives and experiences that, while drawing on archetypal imagery, push the boundaries of form and space in gaming.

It was interesting to hear about how many game developers and artists-performers are honing in on the ethics of game development, in relation to issues such as cultural diversity and authenticity of experience. Swords particularly was very insightful about how writers and developers are becoming more conscientious, inclusive and aware of how culturally-informed predilections and predispositions can shape the way we make and promote particular kinds of narratives. He shared an example of how gamers use Discord, a chatroom for game developers, to get community feedback on issues (for example, cultural specificity and authenticity) that they might find challenging.

The world of gaming has evolved in ways that no one might have expected ten years ago. What might we see in the future? Well, it sounds like the democratising effect of increased participation in game development will lead to an efflorescence of diverse ideas and stories.


Arjun Rajkhowa

Author: Arjun Rajkhowa

Dr. Arjun Rajkhowa works in tertiary education in Melbourne. His research interests include policy; public health; media, culture and society; and human rights. He has volunteered in the community sector in Melbourne for several years. He can be contacted on Twitter at @ArjunRajkhowa.

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