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The Arts

Joysticks Division

Video Games Inspire Music, Art in Third-Annual Festival

Jess Harvell

By Martin L. Johnson | Posted 8/13/2008

32 Bit Gen Gamer Festival features the Protomen, Year 200x, the Megas, This Place Is Haunted, Cheap Dinosaurs, Ultraball, and Entertainment System

6 p.m., Aug. 16 at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson

Chris Baines works at GameStop. He plays in a video-game music cover band called Entertainment System. And this Saturday, Aug. 16, he and his bandmates are host to 32 Bit Gen Gamer Festival, a seven-band video-game music and art festival at the Creative Alliance. "I've been into the video-game scene a very, very long time," says Baines, 26, an Annapolis native with a surfer haircut. "Pretty much everything I do right now is based off the video-game culture, the music, the games, and their influence."

Baines is just one of a growing number of musicians and artists who have latched onto video games, instead of clothing, music, or movies, as both a generational identity marker and an inspiration for a nascent creative culture that revolves around Mario, Zelda, Mega Man, and other digital characters from the 1980s and '90s. And at 32 Bit Gen, expect to see everything from the Nashville-based metal band the Protomen, which puts a fully costumed rock-opera tribute to Mega Man, to 8-bit Artist, who will be using street chalk to draw scenes from Nintendo games on the wall of the Patterson theater. In the last decade, producing art based on the images and soundtracks of video games has gone from novelty act to a lively, though still happily small, community.

J.D. DeCampos, rhythm guitarist for Entertainment System and another festival organizer, believes one of the principal appeals for video-game music is nostalgia. "There is a cultural impact just from the childhood thing, all us being raised on Nintendo," says DeCampos, still wearing a white shirt and tie from his day job at a hotel and sitting in a Harbor East coffee shop. "You listen to it, you get brought back to that moment. There's a real connectivity there, generation-wise."

Baines, who readily admits that his fandom is in some way an attempt to extend his own childhood, reports that much of the current video-game culture exists because fans are able to produce, or reproduce, the culture they experienced growing up. "A lot of people grew up with this in the '80s," he says. "But they're grown up now, and taking all the inspirations they had from this kind of thing and expressing them now that they're older and can do a lot more with it."

Although many video-game fans are also fans of anime and manga, Rex Anderson, Entertainment Systems' harmony guitarist, says that the music culture is important for video-game musicians, too. "It's an amalgamation of the metalhead kids and the rocker kids, like back in the '70s, [as seen in the 1999 movie] Detroit Rock City," he says. "It's mixed in now with the Pac-Man kids. It's kind of nice to see that after all these years of being scrambled that they come back to this shared experience."

While most of the origin myths of personal-computer hardware and software take place in Silicon Valley, video games, particularly in the '80s with the rise of the Nintendo home systems, owe much to Japanese pop culture. Although much of the artistry of the games went unrecognized by young game players, in recent years game creators, such as Nintendo auteur Shigeru Miyamoto, and composers, such as Nobuo Uematsu, who now has his own band that plays songs from his Final Fantasy games, have started to be recognized for their talents.

DeCampos feels that the cover bands merely pay homage to the source material. "If anyone puts on Flash Man or any of the Wily stage music, people immediately click right in," DeCampos says, referring to Mega Man games. "All the stuff that's being done artistically with it now is very viable and awesome. But, really, the source material is so strong that it's instantly implanted."

Unlike cover bands of pop artists, video-game cover bands don't have to worry about upsetting or competing with the real deal, and they have the luxury of inventing stage shows to accompany the music. DeCampos says that he called game companies asking to get clearance for their covers, but the lack of precedent for this type of permission, in addition to confusion about who owns the rights to the game music, meant that, for now, video-game cover bands do not need to worry about copyright violations. This might change if any one band becomes commercially successful, but that hasn't happened yet. And video-game bands have been featured in Nintendo Power magazine, which was until recently owned by Nintendo.

Although the more popular game soundtracks tend to get covered more often, Baines says that Entertainment System attempts to put a few obscure songs on each of its albums. The band started off learning the songs by ear, but for its latest album used a program called Guitar Pro, which automatically transcribes audio files. Baines says the band never runs out of songs to play or album ideas. "I have a list that keeps growing and growing," he says. "We can release an album every month and never run out of material for 30 or 40 years. We want to do a Halloween album, with all the scary songs, a Christmas album, with music from the ice levels of different games."

Although video-game covers are the stock-in-trade for most of these bands, a few, such as the Philadelphia-based one-man group Cheap Dinosaurs, play original music using sound-processing techniques from video-game machines in a subgenre of a subgenre commonly called chiptune. In addition to Cheap Dinosaurs, two other Pennsylvania bands--Ultraball, which plays short songs based on the characters in the Kanto region of Pokemon, and This Place Is Haunted, a band that was a strong influence on Entertainment System--also perform this weekend.

Anderson says the close-knit community has encouraged group shows such as 32 Bit Gen. "I've yet to run into a single artist in the video-game cover scene that was elitist," he says. "It's really come up in the past couple of years."

In Baltimore, Temp Sound Solutions has been covering video game music since the late '90s. More recently, pIENESS, which features Deidre Fischer singing original lyrics karaoke-style over video-game soundtracks, and Robby Rackleff, who as Blue Leader delivers prophetic and paranoid lectures on the history of video games as part of Wham City performances, have helped raise awareness of video-game culture locally.

Also scheduled to perform is the Michigan metal band Year 200X, which covers Nintendo game songs, and the California-based pop punk band the Megas, which places original lyrics about Mega Man on top of music, performed live, from the video game. Entertainment System also releases its third album on Saturday. While similar events quickly turn into multiday conventions, such as the Otakon festival in Baltimore last weekend, the organizers say they want to keep the 32 Bit Gen Gamer Fest, now in its third year, a one-day, music-focused event.

While this musical genre is as much about music as it is about gaming, Baines believes the growing popularity--and acceptance--of video games has encouraged its fans to embrace the world they were, and continue to be, immersed in at home. "Video games have turned into such a social gateway," he says. "They'll meet people online, play online, hang out in real life and make friends. Some of these people don't get out that much, they're not very social. But now they find all these people that come to these events that really have common interests. It's something that was never really an option for them before. Now that this scene has really exploded, the nerds are coming out of their house."

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