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World's biggest board game expo Essen Spiel admits using AI artwork but claims “protection of artists rights has priority for us”

Newly created mascot Meeps is nowhere to be seen.

Image credit: Essen Spiel/Merz Verlag

Update October 4th: Merz Verlag provided Dicebreaker with a brief statement, quoted below. The original article follows.

"We are aware of this topic and will evaluate it in detail after the show. Right now please understand that we cannot answer your questions at this moment, as we have a lot to do to get the show started today," said a representative for Merz Verlag.

"Regarding the questions about Meeps and timing, I can tell you quickly that the marketing campaign [containing AI artwork] has been created way before we had the idea to create a mascot. The idea of Meeps had nothing to do with the marketing campaign and vice versa."

Essen Spiel has admitted to using artwork generated by AI and large language model (LLM) software for marketing material promoting its 2023 board game exposition, the largest of its kind in the world and a massive destination for tabletop companies across the world.

First reported by BoardGameWire, Spiel’s parent company Merz Verlag said that it wanted to understand the full capabilities of AI and LLM algorithms before adding that “the protection of artists rights has priority for us”. The artwork in question appears on digital tickets, Essen Spiel’s mobile app, and physical posters promoting the expo that will take place in Messe Essen starting October 5th.

Merz Verlag’s representative told Board Game Wire that a partner agency was tapped to create the artwork, which depicts families and couples with frankly terrifying smiles playing board games with warped proportions, and that they “liked the style.” The company did not know which algorithms the agency used or whether they sought the consent of artists whose work was fed into the learning model. Dicebreaker reached out to Merz Verlag for comment but did not hear back before publication.

Images: Essen Spiel/Merz Verlag

As nearly 200,000 people prepare to attend the year’s largest board game trade show and convention, the tabletop hobby only recently learned that FryxGames and Stronghold Games used similar AI and LLM-generated artwork for the latest Terraforming Mars expansion. Despite a large critical backlash and condemnation from the public, the Kickstarter campaign raised over $2.2 million from more than 16,000 individual backers.

As with much of the use of AI and LLM-generated artwork, public criticism hinges on the fact that these models rely on colossal amounts of artwork and images to be fed into the algorithm - overwhelming without the consent of the original illustrators and artists and with no system for compensating them. Additionally, many fear a wide scale adoption of algorithmically generated artwork would kill opportunities for independent and contract artists in an already precarious field.

Spiel recently hired a new managing director, Carol Rapp, whojoins Florian Hess and replaces the recently retired Dominique Metzler on the trade show’s directorial team. This will be Rapp’s first Spiel in the new role, but she has spent the majority of her professional career handling marketing and events for tabletop companies such as Asmodee.

MTG meets OATH in this beautiful strategy board gameWatch on YouTube

Spiel announced the creation of a new official mascot, Meeps, in July of this year. The yellow and orange-striped kitten was created by Michael Menzel, who provided illustrations for Adventures of Robin Hood and Legends of Andor, and Spiel ran a public contest to name the critter. Meeps cannot be seen anywhere in promotional or marketing material, either physical or on their website and digital expo app.

Seemingly, Meeps has been unceremoniously swept under the metaphorical rug in favour of these creepy AI-generated families and their wonky, malformed dice. Neither Spiel nor Merz Verlag have published a statement on their public-facing social media and other platforms. The show begins on Thursday, and the companies may be hoping the news fades away before crowds arrive at the convention’s front door.

Update: This article correctly lists the current and now-retired members of Merz Verlag's directorial team.

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