February 5, 2014 10:22 AM | Staff
"It's a long game. There are so many forces moving concurrently to establish games as an artistic form," says Hand Eye Society executive director (and Unmanned scribe) Jim Munroe. "In many ways I would consider what we do as being analogous to the art cinema scene in decades past."
Now in its fifth year, the Toronto-based Hand Eye Society is a one-of-a-kind arts organization, designed to connect and promote the work of local game developers. Co-founded by Munroe and fellow Canadian devs Jon Mak (Sound Shapes), Jim McGinley (Depths to Which I Sink), Miguel Sternberg (They Bleed Pixels), Mare Sheppard and Raigan Burns (N), for years the Hand Eye Society has held game developer socials in the Parkdale area and participated in Toronto art events, with the goal of showcasing a different, less commercial approach to games.
"We wanted to do something with more of an arts and culture approach," Munroe tells Gamasutra. "By 2009 there was already a pretty strong local scene -- one of our founders, Jim McGinley, had been behind the Toronto Game Jam, which was one of the first really big jams, and we were also doing things like the Zine Fair. Hand Eye Society was a way to do more, to create the stuff we wanted to see."
Through its regular socials and other exhibitions, the Hand Eye Society became one of the first venues to showcase Superbrothers' Sword & Sworcery, Shawn McGrath's Dyad, and Messhof's widely celebrated Nidhogg, which displayed for a large public gathering at 2010's Nuit Blanche.
"We projected it onto an outdoor screen, and it was facing the second story of an adjacent building where people were lining up, and they were just entranced," Munroe recalls. "It's one thing to make a game that is interesting to play; it's another to make something that's captivating to watch -- especially for a general audience."
Much like art cinema movements helped to disabuse audiences of the idea that movies are inherently commercial, Munroe finds that art crowds are "validated, if anything" to see games in galleries and outdoor events.
"People are most often delighted to find games are more than what they thought, rather than feeling challenged by the idea," says Munroe. "Institutions are [often] a different story, but I find most people are excited to see games in art spaces."
One of the Hand Eye Society's other innovations is the Torontron, a retrofitted arcade cabinet stocked with a selection of locally-developed games. The cabinet was placed in bars, art galleries and exhibition spaces, where visitors can try out these home-grown arcade titles free of charge. The Torontron has inspired quite a few imitators, including a machine in Winnipeg (the Winnitron) and several throughout the United States (including California's Oak-U-Tron).
"In addition to sharing local games, it brings communities together," says Munroe, who oversaw the original Torontron cabinets alongside Jph Wacheski and Alex Jansen. "It's a great way to get together developers and makers of different skill sets since... well, you can't exactly move one of these things by yourself."
In the last year, the Hand Eye Society has moved away from holding socials to signal-boosting the community's work outside Toronto. As part of that, in the next few weeks the group will be hosting a massive anniversary party at the Art Gallery of Ontario -- one of Canada's premiere art establishments.
Dubbed the 'Fancy Video Game Party' and co-hosted with Wild Rumpus, the event is set to showcase recent works such as The Yawhg and Interstellar Selfie Station as well as large play spaces for spectator-friendly games like J.S. Joust.
"Having an event at the AGO is a big deal for us," Munroe says. "It's at the epicenter of Canadian arts and culture. We're a little less than a month out and public interest has been incredible."
The Fancy Video Game Party will take place on February 21st. The event is open to the public; tickets and more information can be found at the Art Gallery of Ontario's website.
[Kris Ligman wrote this article for sister site Gamasutra]