Spiel Essen, the world’s biggest board game fair, scraps using AI art to promote event after backlash last year, ongoing legal uncertainty

Spiel Essen, the world’s biggest board game fair, has stopped using AI generated images to market the event, citing criticism from industry professionals and consumers about last year’s campaign and ongoing uncertainties about the legality of the technology.

Publishers, artists and players took to social media and BoardGameGeek forums last October to condemn Spiel’s decision to use AI art across the tickets, posters and app for its 2023 event, which was attended by 193,000 people.

Those images drew scorn for their inclusion of widely-criticised AI art tics, such as six-fingered people and objects melting into one another, and many commentors questioned why Spiel could not have hired one of the hosts of artists within the board game industry to create the designs instead.

Much of the ire stemmed from the way AI generates images, with the most successful software relying on being fed huge quantities of publicly-available artwork – usually without the consent of the artists, or with any attempt to compensate them for using their work.

A spokesperson for Merz Verlag told BoardGameWire, “During the show, we actually did not hear much about it. The huge discussion was prior to the show when the [BoardGameWire] AI article went online.

“The online discussion was big, or semi big. We got feedback via mail, especially from artists exhibiting at Essen, saying, ‘Hey, we don’t like that’. Some American exhibitors also said ‘not the best choice maybe’, so we realized that there was a discussion going on about two weeks after putting the pictures online.

“And then, yes, we of course tackled that discussion, explained why we decided to use the images. And during Spiel it really slowed down, up to the point where everyone was only talking about Spiel and the games and the emotion.”

At the time Merz Verlag told BoardGameWire it was experimenting with AI “to comprehend its benefits but also its limits”, adding that “the protection of artists rights has priority for us” and that it had “liked the style” of the images developed by its partner agency.

That same partner agency – Spiel Essen’s sister company – has recently wrapped on a photoshoot for this year’s marketing images, which are expected to feature real people under some manner of filter. Those images are set to be revealed by Spiel next week.

Spiel Essen managing director Carol Rapp

Spiel Essen managing director Carol Rapp told BoardGameWire, “We had a big workshop in November when we discussed for the whole team – not only about that, but also about that. And at that point, we decided we need to have a different kind of campaign.

“…our idea was to create images that show the emotion, what Spiel is, and why it’s good to be there. That was all our intention, nobody thought about the backlash of AI.”

Describing the partner agency as “very creative”, she added, “For the new campaign shoot they came up with the ideas of how to highlight the emotions we want to show, cast the models, and created the assets seen on the pictures from scratch.”

The Merz Verlag spokesperson added that as well as the industry and consumer condemnation, the uncertainty around the legality of the technology was a driver of the decision to avoid AI art for this year’s event.

He said, “We have to keep in mind that there are ongoing uncertainties regarding laws and all that, things that we were not aware of in the beginning.

“The development of the new technology is discussed in law and society at the moment, so before that is finalised and there is a consensus found for renumeration, for acceptance and all that, we want to focus on the positive things and not create a new discussion. And then our agency had a great idea to still convey these emotions [without AI art].”

He added, “We are open for future ideas, we are open for new technologies and development of things. So AI – it’s here to stay, and we have to find a way to deal with it.

“But we realized it’s probably not our place as an event to make this decision. And that’s why we said ‘Yeah, let them figure it out, and if it’s cleared, we will see again’.

“But for this year, if we can get the same effect of great campaign pictures in a different way then we wanted to follow it.

“Of course, we heard the people, we heard the discussion, but it was not the only driver, it was a mixture with ‘Okay, now we think deeper, we take a deeper approach, a deeper look and rethink our ideas’.”

The White Castle — Photo Credit: Shei Santos

Illustrator Joan Guardiet, the artist for board game The White Castle, is currently working on a board game artist manifesto focused on challenging the use of Gen AI within the industry.

He told BoardGameWire, “The fact that Essen Spiel is willing to drastically change their approach to generative AI is really positive for the board game community.

“For a start, it shows that voicing our opinions, both as artists and consumers, can make a big difference. It also casts doubt on this idea of the ‘inevitability of AI’ – there are still important choices to be made.

“This is a good development and we can only hope that other boardgame companies and events see this as an example of how to avoid similar situations.

“Human-made art is core to the creation of board games. It gives depth and soul to projects, as well as rooting them in ideas or concepts that only exist in the creator’s mind beforehand.

“I also believe that giving away this part of the process to AI is turning our backs on creativity and new ideas.

“You only have to talk to developers to see that there are plenty of examples of games that have been improved in both production and theme thanks to the input of the illustrator or the graphic designer.”

The use of AI art in board games was thrust into the spotlight in September last year when it emerged FryxGames and Stronghold Games had used the technology in the development of the latest Terraforming Mars Kickstarter campaign, which raised more than $2.2m from over 19,000 backers.

Since then several board game publishers have actively announced they will not use AI art for their games.

Wingspan and Scythe publisher Stonemaier Games came out strongly against using AI in creative work, with co-founder Jamey Stegmaier telling BoardGameWire last month that his company wants “nothing to do with it”.

A month earlier Awaken Realms took down AI-generated promotional images for its Puerto Rico 1897 Special Edition crowdfunding campaign, after being contacted by the game’s licensor Ravensburger and told that AI art “cannot be used in any part of the art process for this Ravensburger game”.

This year’s Spiel Essen will run between October 3 and October 6 at the Messe Essen exhibition centre in Germany.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *