Saturday's Tiny Thumbs Pop-Up Arcade Blurs the Line Between Video Games and Art

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Trailer for Super Hexagon, a new game by Terry Cavanagh.

Film. Literature. Music. Sculpture. All are considered art. But what separates them from their sibling medium, video games? It's a question that's being asked more frequently as a new generation of inventors write code that blurs the line between entertainment and philosophy. These indie, amateur and art games veer away from traditional brutal combat backdrops and dig into imagery and ideas more conducive to contemporary art.

A clutch of these designers are stationed right here in Dallas, in a collective called Tiny Thumbs. The group, composed mostly of UT Dallas Students, led by professors Bobby Frye and Kyle Kondas, takes it even further on Saturday, November 10, by converting CentralTrak into a 21st Century art installation: A pop-up video arcade.

Kondas sat down with me to chat about video games as an art medium at an Oak Lawn coffee shop. A mandatory meeting, since most of my gaming experience died with a flashing Nintendo screen.

He's eager. Fast. Possibly over-caffeinated, and downright contagious with his enthusiasm. His background lies in video art, he explains, but it's clear that he's also gifted with a mind for hard data -- a combination that makes him the perfect guide for these students, most of whom had never set foot in an art opening before taking his class, Games and Galleries.

The root idea for Saturday's format came from something Kondas found online, a group out of New York called Babycastles. It's a curated, rotating collection of indie and amateur video games that are presented in an old-school arcade format in an NYC basement. Also, they're awesome-looking. Some are positioned inside of refurbished coin-op cabinets, others play into actual three-dimensional puzzles. "There was one installation where people followed string around a room and found different gaming stations throughout," recalls Kondas.

These ideas spurred others, and similarly-oriented groups started popping up in other tech hubs around the country. Now, even Austin has one.

"In the last couple of years there's been a new genre of games coming out," explains Kondas. "They're not just first-person shooter, fight 'em; they're these art-aimed games that are so fun to play."

We navigate though a few. One, Terry Cavanagh's Super Hexagon, drags you into a radioactive, spinning kaleidoscope. It's hypnotic and addictive, but also oddly beautiful.

Most remove the traditional man vs. man conflict thread and replace it with puzzles, fluctuating images and wild, barreling flows of color. Many pay homage to gaming's origins, designed to resemble a polished 8-bit or Turbo Pascal type of aesthetic.

The format for Saturday is interesting: Five games will be featured, four will be in the main gallery space with some on monitors, hanging as canvases.

One, a game by Bennet Foddy called Pole Riders, will be projected big across a long wall. Back in a resident bedroom a canopy tent is being set up. Inside you'll find a game designed locally by Kondas' students (Spencer Evans, Skylar Rudin, Stephen Billingslea, Travis Ballard and Jainan Sankalia) called Constellations, which illuminates the interior of the structure. Players lay on their backs, staring up at the makeshift, moving planetarium from an air mattress, navigating the vastness of space with a PlayStation controller. You can locate favorite star formations, or build your own -- rearranging the universe's mysterious pockets and coordinates in the process. Meanwhile, you're serenaded by a calmingly meditative, tonal soundtrack.

"It's an arcade party," says Kondas. "We're hoping to bring a lot of people out and open the door for gamers to know more about the art world."

But it goes both ways. Tiny Thumbs also aspires to establish the cohesive value of this evolving form of interactive art. And since technology's role and impact in our daily lives has become an undeniable thesis for most relevant, working artists, video games are in a unique position to unite and express those concepts. Plus, they have the added benefit of being participatory. With Dallas serving double-duty as a Southern technology and art hub, the idea for a pop-up arcade gallery has almost limitless possibilities.

Saturday is a soft opening for the group, but they're already future-focused. Kondas and his co-organizer Bobby Frye would like to acquire a couple of old coin-op cabinets to dress up, fill with programs and install for gallery shows and events. (We'll keep you posted when that Kickstarter goes live.)

Until then, "we're trying to bridge the gap," notes Kondas. "Not all games are going to appeal to everybody, but there are certain types that will open that door and make people realize that this is a whole new medium that's out there."

Join Tiny Thumbs for Breaking Out, the experimental trial run of tech/art fusion on Saturday evening at CentralTrak. The arcade party runs from 5 to 8 p.m.

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