E3 2014: The iam8bit exhibit goes way beyond the future of video gaming

June 11, 2014 | 7:00 a.m.
Amanda White, left, and Jon M. Gibson are curators of the current iam8bit exhibition, "The Future of Gaming." (Cheryl A. Guerrero / Los Angeles Times)

Amanda White, left, and Jon M. Gibson are curators of the current iam8bit exhibition, “The Future of Gaming.” (Cheryl A. Guerrero / Los Angeles Times)

With the Electronic Entertainment Expo in town through Thursday, there’s lots of media attention focused on what’s next in video games. None of it, however, involves a man sporting vintage virtual reality headgear while being held to a chair by a mechanical cat.

That vision is hanging on the wall at Echo Park’s video game consulting firm-art gallery iam8bit. The Sunset Boulevard storefront space on Tuesday launched an exhibit dubbed “The Future of Gaming,” which features 13 works that see artists interpreting the dreams — or sometimes nightmares — of noted game designers.

Participating developers include Warren Spector of “Deus Ex” fame, “Grim Fandango” creator Tim Schafer and a co-founder of the local studio thatgamecompany, Kellee Santiago. The kid-friendly exhibit even features some of those making a splash at E3 this week, including Insomniac Games chief Ted Price, whose company’s “Sunset Overdrive” is a hyperactive mix of skateboarding and shooting due this fall for the Xbox One.

The image of the demented cat machine and virtual reality addict alluded to above is a painting by British illustrator Boneface, a work that interprets a vision of the future by David Smith, a co-founder of “Little Big Planet” studio Media Molecule. Smith’s prediction is borderline social commentary, one where game addiction is pervasive because digital worlds have become “slightly less depressing” than the real one.

Game fiends who are traversing the E3 halls of the Los Angeles Convention Center can probably relate, but curators and iam8bit partners Amanda White and Jon M. Gibson want the small exhibit to be something of an antidote to E3, North America’s largest video game trade show.

“The show is almost a response to that technology-based thinking of E3,” says White, 43. She and Gibson work closely with the game industry, having collaborated with clients such as Nintendo, Bethesda and more on events, marketing plans or fan-focused initiatives. They saw the exhibit, which runs through June 22, as more thoughtful counter-programming to E3.

“This is very emotional,” White says. “This is about humanity. This is about what our culture is going to be like. I don’t know if anyone is thinking of that kind of stuff on the E3 side of things.”

Members of the media listen to Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo game creator, director, producer, designer, and general manager, speak during a live interned press conferenced at E3.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Members of the media listen to Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo game creator, director, producer, designer, and general manager, speak during a live interned press conferenced at E3. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Though this year’s E3 carries an official slogan of “The future revealed,” one wouldn’t be out of line to note that what the conference dubs “the future” looks and sounds on the surface an awful lot like the present and recent past of gaming. There are plenty of oddities on the E3 floor, of course, but the mainstream game industry is reliant on action and gunplay.

“It’s still a gluttonously overbooked and overbaked ‘Call of Duty’ world,” Gibson explains.
In dreaming up the show, Gibson said they wanted designers to offer ideas that went beyond what’s typically viewed as the future of games. That meant no grand narratives about the joys of a virtual reality headset such as the Oculus Rift.

“That’s been the vision of the future of gaming for the last 30 years — virtual reality or ‘Star Wars’ chess, if you will,” says the 31-year-old Gibson. “There’s so much more to explore. We like the tangibility of things, just like everyone else, but experience is so much more broad than that. What are other ways to experience something?”

Creator Kim Swift, best known for her work on “Portal,” imagines a future where games come to life as projections, and voice and touch become the primary commands. Spector, who recently designed a pair of “Epic Mickey” games, dreams of interacting with artificial characters of “stunning believability” while Seth Killian, famed for his work on fighting games, views games as an “important way to learn about yourself.”

Crowds gather around a Destiny video game character at E3.  (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Crowds gather around a Destiny video game character at E3. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Photographer and visual artist Naomi White interpreted Killian’s quote with a scene that almost looks out a modern game. In it, a boy who appears to be in his teens stands in a swampy landscape, his controller plugged to a boulder with an urban skyline.

It’s a favorite of Amanda White’s. “He talks about games being a tool by which we can learn about the world, a tool by which we can learn about ourselves. What would be better than a game that teaches you about yourself?”

Not all are as serious. Schafer, known best for his humorous works with LucasArts and Double Fine, writes of a world where we “play games while floating naked in a tank of warm, sensory-depriving gelatin. Games will be distributed chemically, into the gelatin, and absorbed in the player’s skin.”

Illustrator Timothy J. Reynolds concocted an image of orange-filled tubes, the housing station for this game-infused gelatin. But there’s deeper meaning even in such silliness.

“I think the commonality [among the pieces] is that gaming will extend well beyond our current understanding of what gaming is,” says White. “It’s not going to be a thing where you sit down and play, even if it’s your phone or a TV. Gaming is going to exist in the world around us in ways we may or may not be aware of. Some of that is sinister.”

– Todd Martens | @toddmartens | @LATHeroComplex

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