As youngsters cease to dominate the market, Sean Dodson meets the new wave of artists intent on creating indy gamesSean Dodson
GuardianThe New Museum of Contemporary Art occupies three floors of very expensive real estate in lower Manhattan. It is the kind of place where you will see superstar artists, such as Jeff Koons or Bruce Nauman, in big solo shows. But in December, the 25 year old SoHo institution opened the city's first major exhibition of computer games. The opening night of Killer Instinct had all the noise and intensity of a seaside video arcade at high season, except that the audience was fast approaching 30.
"Computer games are now a fully-fledged part of adult life," explains Anne Barlow, the Glasgow-born curator who co-produced Killer Instinct with New York art critic Rachel Greene. "They're becoming part of our everyday existence and yet we rarely question them... What we want to see is games going beyond the stereotypical formats that have so far dominated."
Three days later, 20 doors down from the New Museum, protesters gather outside the office of Rockstar Games. The hundred or so Haitian-American activists echo Barlow's sentiments, although for quite different reasons. Rockstar is the publisher of Grand Theft Auto, the series of ultraviolent games that has sold over 11m copies worldwide. Led by the Rev Leslie Thomas, the activists accuse Rockstar of racism over the representation of Haitians in the game.
To both the protesters on the pavement and the curators inside the museum, computer games can be every bit as political - and controversial - as any other part of contemporary culture. And yet despite frequent reports that the games industry is now bigger than Hollywood - $27bn in worldwide sales in 2002, with a market growing 20% a year - exhibitions of computer games and protests about their content are as rare as discussions of Harry Potter on Late Review.
"There are some people who feel very strongly that games deserve to be treated with the same deadly seriousness that film and quality television receive," says Margaret Robertson, games editor of Edge, a monthly games magazine with a stylish and intelligent approach to game criticism. "There's another group of people who think games are simply entertainment that shouldn't be weighed down with rather pompous aspirations to artistic merit."
There are two assumptions behind this debate. Firstly, that the computer games industry is a young industry. Secondly, that the rump of the market is in sales to children and teenagers. These assumptions are wrong. Not only was the first computer game designed by the US military over 40 years ago, the last decade has witnessed an astonishing widening of their appeal. According to Nick Parker, an independent games analyst, the last decade has seen a shift in the demographics of computer games. In 1993 half of all UK computer games were sold to under 17s. In 2002 half of all games were sold to 18-25 year olds.
Furthermore, a recent survey commissioned by UK publisher Codemasters said under 18s now accounted for a mere 21% of sales. It also reported that nearly half of all UK gamers are in their twenties and 32% are now over 30. More research by UK media analysts Xtreme Information indicated that half of over-50 year olds who own a PC regularly play computer games. In the US, a poll released by the Entertainment Software Association found that the average age of gamers was 29.
But if the demographics of gamers are shifting, are computer games managing to keep pace? A glance at the current bestseller list would suggest not. The majority of computer games seem to be based in adolescence, with driving games, sports sims and movie tie-ins, such as Lord of the Rings, topping the charts.
"The biggest problem is the market," grumbles Charles Cecil of Revolution, which creates contemporary adventure games for a mature audience. He argues that the industry "does not seem to embrace products that are slightly off-the-wall. An art house movie can be made relatively inexpensively, an independent record can be made in a bedroom for next to nothing, but to write a videogame that has the production values that are acceptable to the market ... that's going to cost millions".
In the catalogue for the Barbican's influential Game On exhibition in 2002, Eric Zimmerman, a game developer and occasional academic, explored the idea that computer games were unique in mainstream culture because they had no credible independent scene. In an insightful essay, Zimmerman described how the games industry had fought its way out of the teenage bedroom only to find itself cast as an extremely conservative, "hit-driven business that is all centre and no margins".
But this could be about to change. Back at the opening of Killer Instinct, a new wave of game artists showed that independent games do exist. "If computer games are as big as Hollywood," offers Eddo Stern, an affable veteran of the Israeli Air Force, "then this is the art house scene". Stern is a member of C-Level, a cooperative of artists and programmers based in Los Angeles who are pioneering indy games. Stern describes Waco Resurrection as an interactive "documentary" set in the form of a first-person game that explores the events of the 1993 siege when the storming of the Texas compound by US agents caused the death of 80 cult members.
Stern says that Waco Resurrection is a documentary in the sense that it takes authentic footage from media coverage of the siege including vocal samples of leader David Koresh and recordings of his songs.
And then there is 9/11 Survivor, by Californian collective Kinematic. The game, which transports players inside the burning towers, provoked severe charges of bad taste when it was released for a brief period on the internet last year. "The artists responded that their goal was to reinterpret a historic moment by transplanting it to the medium with which they were most familiar: computer games," wrote the digital art critic Matthew Mirapaul in the New York Times. "In the process they are turning what has been a platform for pure fantasy into a medium for social realism."
Many indy games are just hacked versions of existing games - known as "mods" - that place a layer of new graphics over an existing game engine; 9/11 Survivor uses bestselling combat game Unreal Tournament 2003. But now an independent game engine called Torque, built by Oregon-based start-up Garage Games, is threatening to slash the cost of game production. Under the maxim "world domination through collaboration", the company publishes games under its own label and licenses the engine to other indies for as little as $100. It might sound like a cottage industry, but Garage Games has already established a community of over 40,000 members working on more than 1,000 game projects.
The first generation of indy games are confrontational affairs. But on the island of Gotland, 80km off Sweden's Baltic coast, two Brits, Alex Mayhew and Emma Westecott, are developing indy games that offer a more cerebral trip. The pair head up a game studio for Sweden's Interactive Institute, a public research centre that specialises in digital media. They are working with the Royal Shakespeare Company to produce a computer game of The Tempest and with avant-garde director Peter Greenaway to produce a game for his current project, The Tulse Luper Suitcases.
"Most games are constantly striving for some kind of ultra-reality as if that is the greatest achievement," says Mayhew. "Whereas for us, the greatest achievement is to trigger an emotional response just as if you were reading a novel."
So do we want this emotional response? After all, aren't games just simply games, a space where we go to play? Maybe, but computer games have evolved to differ from other types of games, because they use stories. The trouble is that although gamers are now a generation older, most of these stories are still being written for kids.