When the novel coronavirus hit Montreal and lockdown measures began, Maddy Mathews got into video games.
“I mean, one must do things to cope with having a lot of time,” said the artist, laughing at her choice of pandemic hobby.
Idle minds think alike, it seems, because video-game sales have mushroomed since the spring. In April, global game spending hit an all-time record; according to Nielsen SuperData, consumers dropped $10.5 billion US that month. Worldwide demand for PC, mobile and console games is still unusually high. Revenue for June hit $10.46 billion US, up nine per cent from the previous year. Per the Nielsen research, it was the second-highest monthly total since April.
The coronavirus pandemic is the easy explanation, with widespread lockdowns creating a bigger market for things best enjoyed in the great indoors — though Mathews’s interest in gaming is a smidge different from the norm.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, I was trying to play these old games,” said Mathews, who was working on her MFA at Concordia University when COVID-19 struck.
“But I don’t really care about actually winning or playing these games.”
Instead, she just wants to draw them, and she’s definitely not alone.
Plenty of artists borrow from video-game landscapes. In his 2012 series Rare Earth, American artist Mark Tribe mined first-person shooter games, taking screenshots of their more picturesque scenes and placing them next to images of real-life military scenes.
Jim Munroe, artist and co-founder of Toronto’s Hand Eye Society, dropped a law-abiding “Canadian tourist” character inside the world of Grand Theft Auto III. (That scenario played out in his 2003 short film, My Trip to Liberty City.)
Last summer, the TD Arts Wall in Toronto could have been mistaken for the world’s longest Twitch stream thanks to Wood Between Worlds, a piece by local art collective Public Studio, which lit up the corner of Bay and Queen streets from May to September 2019. The looping video mimics an “open world” video game.
‘I find them really relaxing’
While there are lots of examples of artists using game landscapes as inspiration, the subject matter still seems fresh. There’s an increasingly glitchy line between the virtual and real worlds, especially as the lockdown lifestyle pushes people to engage more with digital spaces. For some folks, those game environments are captivating, and they’re begging to be drawn or painted — if only for the joy of making art.
Mathews puts her favourite game sketches on Instagram: pencil-crayon drawings of random 8-bit environments. Like a lot of her past work, it’s big on nostalgia, though Mathews, 31, is technically too much of a ’90s kid to remember any of the titles she’s drawing: Cranston Manor (1981), Jenny of the Prairie (1983), Labyrinth of Crete (1982).
“I find them really relaxing,” she said. It’s a hobby — a break from her regular art practice and her coursework. “And I mean, that’s what video games are mostly for.”
Connor Kenney, 29, considers himself a lifelong gamer, but when he needs to unwind, he says he’s just as likely to paint. Kenney’s a resident of Wells, B.C., a town of some 200 people in the Cariboo Mountains. And for a little more than five years, he’s been making the most of his picturesque home base, learning how to paint en plein air with the guidance of another local artist.
“I just — I love painting landscapes,” said Kenney, who works at a local historical site by day. Still, at some point in 2017, he was desperate for a change of scenery.
“Basically, I got bored,” he said.
Without a vehicle, he was painting the same mountain ranges.
“So I was like, ‘Well, I have all these video games. And the technology has really expanded. So why don’t I just paint that?'”
Galleries catching on
Since then, games such as Fallout and Red Dead Redemption have been his means of travelling without travelling, and it’s a similar story for Clifford Kamppari-Miller, a web developer in Portland, Ore. Both men have work on display at the Penticton Art Gallery to Sept. 13 as part of an exhibition of game-inspired landscapes. (It’s called En Game Air — which doubles as the title of Kamppari-Miller’s blog.)
Neither he nor Kenney were aware of the other.
“I don’t really consider myself a painter,” Kamppari-Miller said. He’s more of a dedicated hobbyist, and started the habit when his son was born.
“At the time, it was hard to go anywhere,” he said. Even now, he keeps an easel by his gaming console.
“A lot of people play video games just to escape,” he continues. “This is a way to get the escapism of games, and also sort of develop a skill while doing it.”
Most of his favourite games boast photo-realistic environments. It’s the same for Kenney, though these graphics are a world away from the decades-old games Mathews loves. Depending on the title, both “en game air” painters can hike (or fly) through virtual landscapes, then tweak the settings so the light is as true-to-life as possible.
“I put my headphones on so I can hear the game sounds, like the wind and trees moving,” said Kenney. One added bonus: no bugs.
“Plein air painting’s all about the emotion that you’re feeling with the landscape,” he said. “So I try to encapsulate the feelings of these digital environments.”
If the idea of being moved by virtual vistas seems odd, it’s no joke to Aden Solway, co-curator of Let’s Play at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Over the summer, the live-streamed lecture series explored how video games shape culture (and vice versa). It wrapped Aug. 5.
According to Solway, game environments, like traditional landscapes, can “help sensitize or connect you to the world around you.” (Solway felt that way after playing A Short Hike, an indie game set in an abstracted Algonquin Park.)
Drawing on traditions of plein air painting
In the history of plein air painting — which became popular in the latter half of the 1800s — that sort of connection was key. “I think the impulse around people turning to plein air was because they were looking for ways in which they could get closer to something,” said Solway.
In part, it was about accurately capturing the light, the colour — the liveliness of nature.
“They wanted [the painting] to be more real, to retain the same sort of aura or sensibility as the landscape.”
This is a way to get the escapism of games, and also sort of develop a skill while doing it.– Clifford Kamppari-Miller, artist
To Kenney, that’s the thing.
“For me, video games are very real,” he said.
The emotions he experiences are real, he explains. For example, Firewatch is one of his favourite titles to paint; the game triggers dramatic memories of B.C. forest fires. And when he has a real-life connection to a game world, he wants to capture it.
Non-gamers might not understand, but that’s another reason why he paints.
“With the pandemic, and more people being at home and inside, [it’s] allowed a lot more people to dive into video games, and see that it’s not just this weird kind of geek culture that isn’t for everyone,” said Kenney.
“[The paintings] are a way to help that dialogue between non-gamers and gamers. To say, ‘Yeah, this is great art form. There’s lots of stuff in here and everyone should give it a try.'”