Written by Vibhu Gairola
“But the founders told me that those skills could easily be learnt; they said that finding someone who has passion and experience with the video game arts community itself is harder… And now I manage a non-profit arts organisation with the help of an amazing team!”
As Toronto’s most vocal advocate for treating digital games as forms artistic and creative expression as opposed to mere commercial products, the Hand Eye Society has long maintained an emphasis on building a community of enthusiastic game-makers and creatives rather than on isolating the gaming community as a closed circle. Hand Eye formed in 2009 and fully incorporated in 2010, but Yee says that the founders were organising game-related activities as far back as 2006 in an effort to promote more access to video games and game literacy. To this date, little about the group’s mandate has changed, but the attention they’ve been getting definitely has.
“The level of public interest in Toronto is always very high,” Yee says. “Our challenge is providing ways for people to explore games in a safe environment where they don't feel like they’re entering some weird world where people are judging them for not being able to pick up a controller and play the latest game like a pro.” It’s not about the trendy, newly-released games that most people usually link with hardcore gamers either; in championing gaming as a mode of creative expression – rather than a competitive arena or just a consumable product – the Hand Eye Society aims to connect audiences with games that are as experiential and engaging as art and music.
“The language around who makes and who consumes video games is still very different compared to that in novel-writing or movie-making communities,” Yee explains. “At some point, video games get denigrated for being too commercial, aesthetically inferior or somehow damaging to the population, which is the same view society had of novels when they first became popular.” To combat that, Hand Eye often puts up the cheekily titled Game Curious workshops, which provide novices to the gaming world with access to games they’d probably never encounter otherwise.
One game that Yee enjoys connecting people with is a slice of life exercise where you get to operate a female character as she lives out a typical day in her Queen Street West neighbourhood, from getting coffee around the corner to going to work in a book store. “Toronto and Queen West have both changed so rapidly that when you play that particular game,” Yee says, “you’re actually playing with a part of Toronto itself that has stopped existing since the game was made.”
Yee says the Hand Eye Society’s cheery momentum depends largely on the many ways people can get involved. Paid memberships exist to support the organisation, but Yee’s team often engage in one-off collaborations with different arts companies or local game-makers as well; funding comes in on a project-by-project basis, and Yee often turns to the MANO/RAMO network for support. But more than anything, the fact that the organization has evolved well-past its founders into something self-sustainable is itself a clear indicator of their success.
“I think a lot of video game arts organisations are still being run by their founders since it’s still an emerging field,” Yee says. “But we’ve managed to flip to a bunch of a new people, and now the co-founders are in supporting roles. The energy you get from a team that’s still run by founders volunteering their time is different from the energy of new people who can still maintain the spirit of the organisation—that’s what you have to achieve if you truly want the organisation to outlive you.”