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Looking at video games through the lens of Ludographer

It’s a rare honor to talk to an artist about their craft; it’s even rarer to talk to one whose art involves gaming. I am therefore thrilled to introduce you to Jonathan Abensur, the Creative Director at Ludographer.

A Ludographer is someone who through images, documents life within virtual games. The team at Ludographer strives to create an exhibiting platform for many of the images captured while exploring in-game worlds. They seek to capture images in ways that highlight the inner life, depth, and artistry depicted by the increasingly complex and visually arresting worlds we find in video games.

Join me for an absolutely fascinating talk with Jonathan Abensur about video games, art and passion.

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“Scatter” from Mass Effect 3 by Jonathan Abensur

Looking at your website, one can clearly see your love and dedication for the medium of video games. Where did this passion originate from?

“Even though I think passions are masterless, double-edged motivators. I think it’s fair to say that both Craig and I are at our core, passion-bound by all things visual and digitally game related. Without getting too heavy, I suppose a reason for this would be that since a young age we treated and respected virtual settings as mechanisms for escapism: a channel by which something unreal could be formed, discovered, shared and through that have a place in the world. I guess it also seemed amazing just how much freedom could be experienced in such restrictive environments.

Unfortunately, we came from a generation that understood games to be as limited as they were inconsequential. Thankfully however, games have become ever ingrained into our culture; their structure has become the subject of countless studies (with indicative results I’ll add) and cultural reference. So over the years, as our appreciation of the visual, the transporting and the experiential shifted to the conceptual, the cultural and to some extent, the philosophical. We arrived at Ludographer.”

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“Digital Whisp” from Deus Ex: Human Revolution by Jonathan Abensur

Being a video games photographer requires tremendous patience and skill. What is it about video games that inspire such dedication from you?

“In a Nutshell, Ludographer´s linchpin is the acceptance that virtual environments are as much an indication of life’s values as the world itself and vice-versa. This might seem a bold statement to some, yet in both instances we can see evidence of structure, rules, limitations and a collective perception of what goes and what doesn’t. Understandably, having this opinion justifies much of our commitment.

Furthermore, the vast array of information across platforms, genres and timelines - not to mention a plethora of personal experience being registered in these worlds - is a collective resource so vast that it seems wasteful not to offer outlets for it. To this end, we chose to conjoin our parallel passion and experience on photography to act as this outlet. We are bridging the process of image capture to that of play and interaction. Although we have just fairly recently begun our work, we are excited and motivated by the many individuals out there who appreciate the product of what we do and would likewise enjoy the opportunity to utilize some of their gaming experiences in a manner that reflects their personal relationship to it.”

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“Dragons Eye” from Dear Esther by Craig McInarlin

In your opinion, what is the importance of video games photography within the industry?

“When Craig and I were first discussing the idea of Ludographer, we understood that as a general concept, being a game photographer is much like being a wildlife, travel, or journal photographer. In essence: you wander the environment that you are placed in and either hunt for a premeditated moment and subject matter, or respond to the stimulants around you; cataloging your perspective as you do.

Commercially speaking, applications for the former are, to  extent, already in place: in-game images can be seen from editorial articles to advertisement campaigns. Of course, this does not mean there isn’t more to be developed in this regard; on the contrary it still remains fairly unknown as a process in itself. 

In terms of a more experimental Indie culture: applying the values and practice of photography on a digital plane is an act that bridges the virtual with the real. It is a creative practice in its own accord; with the process of image capture becoming the looking glass that one utilizes in order to tap in to the gaming context as a material to be explored and not just a finite end product. This facet of in-game photography in particular is important because it offers players not only the opportunity to visually highlight their personal experiences and perspectives, but also to express a critique through a creative medium. Ultimately, I would state in-game image capture to be an alternative form of play (hence our name - Ludographer) and we believe that an interesting movement has the potential to emerge from this: one that gives much freedom and agency to the players."

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“Aurora Nights” from The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim by Craig McInarlin

What is your opinion on video games as an art form?

"That’s a big question! I think to answer that, one has to get their hands dirty and tackle the definition of what an art form is.

Personally, I think that when we are referring to Art there are two primary camps: one that treats Art primarily as the process to mastery and one that prioritizes the redefinition of meaning. Whatever your inclination, however, what remains consistent is that every Art form needs pre-standing material from which to be developed – conceptual or tangible.

With that logic in mind, I think it’s fair to say that video games are primarily (and commercially) an Art form of mastery: with several highly talented and regularly practiced individuals merging practical skill and thought, to conceive dynamic worlds of structure, aesthetics and purpose.

On the other hand, the Indie sector is often seen taking on the risk of embracing a slippery Art form that seeks to re-contextualize the meaning of the material. Creating games, which might not hold mastery, (in a canonical sense) at their core, but more so the question. With its “aimless” sense of direction, Dear Esther is a clear and beautiful example of this: a self-referential game that touches profoundly on the notions of gaming, existence and purpose. 

Alas, because the interest in commercial success is understandably prime in most cases. Experimental game environments don’t often make light of day. Luckily, necessity breeds creativity and so we have faith that we will see more and more innovative work finding its way to the masses through various channels. Obsidian Entertainment’s ingenious approach to fund their more avant-garde developments such as Project Eternity, through player donations, is a glowing example of this. It is an insight that will hopefully encourage other projects to follow suit.”

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“Hollows” from Spec Ops: The Line by Craig McInarlin

Do you have any advice for gamers regarding taking better in game screenshots?

A question we get a lot regarding Ludographer is: where the difference lies in the process of our image captures in comparison to anyone else's ability to press the print-screen key. For which the answer will usually be: what is the difference between a professional photographer and an amateur - or in fact anyone else with a camera?

It’s fair to say both are rightfully in the business of capturing images, but ultimately one who dedicates their time and resources to perfecting the process will naturally produce work of higher quality and deeper insight: they will be consistent and achieve what they need not by chance or by emotion, but by design. Most people’s notion of a professional falls in to that framework.

So on that note, we would start by suggesting prospective ludographers (yep, I said that) to learn the basics of photography itself. Composition, intention, perspective is universal elements to image capture and portrayal. Knowing them is the difference between an image reflecting its intention and losing itself to ambiguity or the banal.

Secondly, we would encourage people to consider the material that is the game; not only as a concept but also as a program based on rules and causality. Luckily most games are based on a perception of physics that reflects our own world. So for example gravity and light do not physically exist in virtual environments, yet the effects are perceivable, present and usable. On the flip side, the beauty of games happens to also be their impartiality to those very rules that hold them together. As such: breaking the rules also justifies itself as a good use of the material. Incidentally it’s also a lot of the fun: part and parcel of how a ludographer plays.”

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What is Ludographer’s policy regarding the use of your work?

“How long is a piece of string? It really depends on what the nature of the usage would be. For most cases, we are content with  accreditation for the image and a link to our website blog. The usage of the work might also depend on whom the image was originally taken for. As exclusivity is a factor in a commercial environment, this is something we would have to take into consideration.

By the most part, however, our work is produced with the intention to be shared. So contacting us on the use of our work will most likely work out fine. Equally, any feedback on our work or exhibition requests are always encouraged and more so appreciated.”

Closing thoughts

I want to thank Jonathan for an extremely interesting and insightful interview and the Ludographer team for their striking art. I’m always looking forward to seeing what image they’ve captures next, the worlds they’ve explored and the moments they’ve immortalized. They kindly allow me to use their work on my blog, and for this, I am extremely grateful.

Do yourself a favor and check out their work.

Ludographer: Website| Twitter | Facebook | Flickr

I leave you with one of my favorite shots from Ludographer.

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“Plugged” from Deus Ex: Human Revolution by Jonathan Abensur

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