The 8-Bit Effect

What does it mean to be the first generation to have grown up with videogames? How does it effect our view of the world? What does it mean for the art we create?

8 BIT, a new documentary that premiered at MoMA yesterday, aims to answer these questions with tons of interesting examples (and a few not so much) of games and home computers colliding with art. We see Treewave mic a dot matrix printer as part of a live concert (sounds great, honest). We hear Cory Arcangel hilariously describe the not-so-subtle differences between the Commodore 64, Atari 2600, and NES sound chips (NES sounds “happy”, C64 rivals a Moog, 2600 is so harsh you wouldn’t wish it on an enemy). Bubblyfish talks about teenage girls who aren’t interested in games getting into Game Boys as part of a music education program. And, of course, we hear Nullsleep, Bitshifter, and many others lay down the law, making wicked hot chiptunes with those very same Game Boys. (Can’t wait for the Blip Festival!)

Why obsessive music making with old school game gear? Ed Halter explains:

When you hear a certain kind of 8-bit sound for a certain generation of people, that will evoke childhood. And so when an artist uses that, now it has all that meaning invested in it.

Emotional resonance is part of it, but it’s clear that musicians also choose “obsolete” gaming devices because they are limiting, both in input capacity and sound production capability. And it’s those very limitations that force them to be creative in ways they never imagined before.

Notice anything about these examples? They’re all audio. And that’s what surprised me most about 8 BIT: it focuses a good deal more on music than visual art — the opposite of what I expected. Heck, even the history lesson that opens the film leads us from the origins of videogames to cracking game copy protection to the demo scene to repurposing game devices to make music. That suited me (and the rest of my party) just fine, but I suppose some could come away disappointed.

This isn’t to say that visual work is forgotten, though. Folks like Mary Flanagan, Paul Johnson, Eddo Stern, and John Simon all get their due. Along with expected mentions of work like Machinima and Velvet Strike.

The capacity crowd was on point, cheering the cast of characters (most of whom were in attendance) as they were announced prior to the screening and providing a good two minutes of applause as the credits rolled. All in all, it was a fantastic time and one of those documentaries that is right there with classics like Style Wars and Triumph of the Nerds in capturing the early years of a stunningly creative subculture. Let’s hope it gets broader play.

For more, watch the 8 BIT trailer and visit the movie site. If you happen to be in the NYC area, there’s a second screening this Wednesday, October 11.

We last talked about the chiptune scene in Challenging Gameboy Music.

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