Academia, Bauhaus, Postmoderism and Games
I’ve just finished reading Thierry de Duve’s piece “When Form Becomes Attitude and Beyond.” In a nutshell, de Duve targets three modes of art education, the Academic model, the Bauhaus model and the Postmodern model. Of the three, the Academic model is the oldest, one in which a talented apprentice works with a “master” to learn her field and attempt to imitate those before her before moving on and ultimately becoming an innovator.
- Academic Model: Talent-Meiter-Imitation (have talent, study the masters, see if you can do what they do)
- Bauhaus Model: Creativity-Medium-Invention (despite much hoopla, the school never created anyone as successful as its teachers)
- Postmodern Model: Attitude-Practice-Deconstruction (develop social or political stance, work, examine the work of others)
As a professor and a developer, this read was illuminating, if exaggerated, in its review and assessment of art education, and the ways that it has shifted in response to cultural changes and trends. I am gratified, however, that I don’t feel much like an academic, and I can identify with some of the frustrations de Duve identifies in institutional education. A fellow developer once said of me, “Oh my goodness. You’re an academic. Wait. No you’re not. You’re a game designer who teaches,” and it was then and is now a significant observation.
Before coming to teach, I spent 26 years making video games professionally. In that field, which even now has a dubious view of educational institutions offering degrees in the study of making games, the creativity-medium-invention and attitude-practice-deconstruction models often hold no water. Rather, there is only importance placed upon the “talent-meiter-immitation” model that is still in practice in the industry today. The only exception to this model is programming, which would likely have a hard time convincing the art world of its merit as anything more than a technical skill, anyway. (As a note, I don’t agree with that. I have seen plenty of programmers use code like an artist uses paint.)
In the game industry, talent is typically pulled up to development from a variety of places – college programs, friends of the developers and external individuals who have somehow managed to put together a portfolio of solid work. As they come in, these individuals, even the college graduates, are typically viewed as fresh and ill equipped to actually produce a game themselves. The industry – its processes and its growing body of knowledge – is a very closed place which in 1999 led one of its senior practitioners to lament this state and call for the establishment of “Formal Abstract Design Tools” (http://www.gamasutra.com/features/19990716/design_tools_01.htm). His call has been marginally successful. Slowly, we are developing a language, but shared knowledge between designers is still a rarity. Probably the most significant effort to date was Patterns in Game Design. If you don’t have it, you should. Another effort, Project Horseshoe, is tremendous but is accessible by invitation only.
The current process is this: practitioners of game design begin their career by working with a more senior game designer, often shadowing him or her for years before assuming the role the designer of any new project. After one or two projects have shipped (typically 4-6 years), the designer is allowed to lead the design of an expansion pack or sequel to an existing series of games. So, Bobsled Death becomes Bobsled Death: The Arctic Expansion, but the trend is clear. You have talent. You are expected to study the designs of the master of the form (Miyamoto, Meier, Moon, Knizia, Wright and whoever you’re presently working with), and then you imitate and add your own touch in a way that is relatively safe. We still use the term “apprentice”, we assign “mentors”, and our job ladder assumes a long trek. This old model works well for exceptionally risk averse publishers who are unwilling to invest $25M on unproven talent. And talent – not creativity – is valued. People demand to see games in your portfolio, proof that you can do what you say you can do. At the graduate level in my program, I look for proven talent in the games submitted to be for admission.
Anyone, I think, can be exposed to game design and learn the fundamentals of it, just like they could with any other form of art. However, there are fewer individuals who will take that information, internalize it and find a means to build upon the work of others or reinterpret the medium to approach the level of invention. It happens rarely in our industry, and when it does happen, everyone takes notice (Braid being a notable title this year).
I stated earlier that the game industry has a dubious view of education, and noted that I identified with some of these frustrations. As a practitioner first and an educator second, I have met individuals who have never practiced or truly studied the medium and yet teach those who hope to join the industry. I am saddened by that; it affects all students who study games. It cheapens the experience and lessens faith in those programs and those professors who have spent years studying the medium or practicing in industry (or some combination of the two). I have seen dozens of programs titled “Game Design” except they offer programming and art and no design at all. I have heard phenomenally foolish things uttered from podiums and twice read fiction about games that I have developed… and the fiction was in a text book.
In my program, I practice some mix of the three models listed at the beginning of this piece, but the Academic model takes a good 80% of the cake. The other 20% is pushing them to do wild stuff before they enter the industry which would likely fit the Bauhaus model.