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Academia, Bauhaus, Postmoderism and Games

January 17, 2009

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” ( 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.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. January 18, 2009 5:33 am

    Great article! I am currently considering what course to do at university at the moment (currently in Lower 6th) Is it true that a Game Design course is not regarded as a proper degree, even now?

    At the moment, I am leaning towards Computer Science with Mathematics as I enjoy programming, but will this mean I can never become a designer as I will have a programmer label attached to me?

  2. January 18, 2009 9:01 am

    @Thomas – No, you could pursue a true game design degree and get a gig as a game designer. Many of my students have now done just that, but be sure that you pick a school offering a track in true game design, if that’s your intent. Also, get fluent with code. It will make the difference when it comes to finding a job. Ian Schreiber posts here frequently, and his undergrad was in Computer Science (though I think he may have gone with game design if he had known of a viable program at the time).

  3. January 18, 2009 10:34 pm

    Interesting article Brenda. I was just thinking recently about how the mass of current game design literature is what the wider art field would call “Modern” (as opposed to Postmodern)– it attempts to break down the art into very particular design patterns, in much the same way as the structuralists attempted for literature in the early 20th century.

    I do not mean this as a criticism, I have a lot of sympathy for this approach, but I wonder how it makes us appear to the Postmodern art community. I wonder whether our preference for a structural understanding of games is connected to the computer programming background of many designers. (What would a postmodern approach to computer science be?)

    As for the state of games education, I find myself in a strange position. While I have sympathy for the view that games lecturers should have industry experience, I also know that I am fundamentally unsuited for such a career. Personality-wise, I am an academic, not a designer. My passion is to study, to theorise and to understand, not to work through the myriad of practical details involved in making a real game title. Myers-Briggs would say I am an INTP where most designers, I believe, are INTJ and ENTJ.

    I would like to think that academics such as myself still have a valuable contribution to the field and to the training of future designers. I am comforted that you might include me as one who (I hope I can say) has “truly studied” the field. I might suggest that designers need academics to encourage them to be reflective about their practice, to see the patterns rather than the details.

  4. Malcolm permalink
    January 18, 2009 11:34 pm

    I’m also a rather wary of the default assumption that the art equals the industry, as if the only end of game design education was a job at a big game company. I’m not saying that you are making this assumption, but it is widespread (and not just in the games industry). I mourn the devaluation of an academic education to mere “job training”. It shows very narrow, short-term thinking.

  5. January 19, 2009 7:28 am

    I try to avoid bringing “art” into discussions of game design, as the word means so many different things to so many people. If a significant number of people enjoy the game you made, you’ve succeeded, if not, you’ve failed, however it might be viewed as “art”. As Miyamoto says, game designers are entertainers.

    American colleges and universities are increasingly dominated by the idea that a teacher is primarily a “deliverer of content”, not actually a teacher–a teacher being someone who conveys the benefit of his or her experience to the student. Practitioners are not valued. (In fact, it’s hard to convince accreditation agencies that you can know something without having a degree in it.) In most “game design” classes you have a “teacher” (“academic” or otherwise) who has little or no actual experience of creating games, and that’s not seen as a problem!

    The typical consequence of “deliverer of content” is that the textbook is regarded as the “teacher” in a major sense, and assessment is a matter of regurgitating the content of the textbook, often in multiple choice tests. (Distance education exacerbates this tendency immensely.) If the teacher has no personal experience, how can he or she go beyond the content of the book (or of other written material, of course)? As “life is an essay test”, this is a very limited and unsatisfactory method, and the result is usually students who have put little thought and much memorization into the study of the topic. Insofar as game design is one of the quintessential realms of critical thinking, this standard method generally does next to nothing to develop game designers.

    (But notice, regurgitation on multiple choice tests is the easy way to teach; teaching critical thinking is *hard*.)

    In many endeavors related to game design, such as orchestral composition or fiction writing, there is no substitute for practice, lots of it. Beethoven did not write outstanding music to begin with. (Symphony#1 is opus 21, the seminal #3 is opus 55.) One of the rising stars of fantasy fiction, Brandon Sanderson (“Mistborn” trilogy, now completing the “Wheel of Time” because Robert Jordan passed away), wrote a dozen novels before he sold one, and apparently doesn’t expect to sell the remainder–he was *practicing*. Yes, the practice needs to be the right kind of practice, and that’s where the teacher-as-practitioner is immensely more likely to help the student than the teacher-as-academic. In a world where people want the “Easy Button”, instant gratification, a major task of a teacher is to persuade game design students to practice, and to recognize that what they do when they start out is unlikely to be professional-quality material. Moreover, the “design” must go all the way through, not the typical academic/game design book planning that results in lots of words and maybe an early prototype but no finished game. This is where the “academic” teacher can really hurt the student, if there’s no realization that planning a game is only the start of designing a game: the academic often hasn’t done it, and doesn’t realize how important it is, to take a game all the way through.

    An academic with no game design background might become a good game design teacher, if he or she practices designing games *a lot*.

    You can combine a good general education with “job training”, but that’s certainly not the direction that we’re going, in the US. A good thing about game design education is that being a well-rounded, educated person is just about a requirement for a game designer. And when you learn how to think critically, you can apply that to many endeavors.

    “A teacher is never a giver of truth – he is a guide, a pointer to the truth that each student must find for himself. A good teacher is merely a catalyst.” (Martial Arts quote)

  6. January 19, 2009 9:05 am

    @Malcolm – Inside the game community and particularly the game design community, there is not much discussion about whether we are modernist, postmodernist, structuralist or whatever. I’ve only ever been a part of a couple conversations of this type, both with an art historian who also happens to be a game designer. Independent of that, tho, there is increasingly a rising discussion about what makes games a unique medium from other mediums (the interactivity, of course). I think we do this because a) as we practice we simultaneously learn and explore and b) the regular calls for legislation remind us of what makes us different from things like movies, etc. There is also a group of designers who watch the polygon fueled festivals of processing power and grow increasingly frustrated that design is turning into a movie or that the visual arts side of the equation is leading the process.

    You raise an excellent point about the need for us to think about game education beyond the game industry. I often talk about that myself, and am surprised I completely forgot it here. When I study games with my students, I don’t leave a stone unturned – sports, reality shows with game components, plenty of unplugged stuff and, of course, video games.

    And, yes, there are a lot of amazing folks who study games and who are every bit as valuable as those who have practiced in the field. This is probably not a view everyone shares, but those of us who have crossed over discovered we had a whole lot to learn on this other side, and that years of industry game making developed certain patterns that may have inhibited us from seeing the true range of games. In fact, some of the sillier things I’ve heard at recent academic conferences have come from industry folks who are supposed to be the experts.

  7. January 19, 2009 9:12 am

    @Lewis – If the aim of the game designer is purely to entertain, then yes, he or she is an entertainer. I believe that game designers can use mechanics like an artist uses paint, though, and that we can create art, too. At Project Horseshoe, in fact, this was actually our group’s topic. The report is not yet posted, but will soon be, I suspect ( Historically, the role of the game designer has also been to teach and allow the players to practice and therefore become better, no?

  8. January 19, 2009 12:20 pm

    @Thomas: I started out in math/computer science (that’s what my BS is in). My first job was programming for a hospital database company. After four years I “broke in” as a gameplay programmer at a small studio. My second industry job was as a game designer. I would say it’s definitely possible to start in programming and end up in design (it’s harder to break in to the industry than to transition between fields, assuming you’ve got the requisite skills) and I would also say that the ability to program has been invaluable to me as a designer — it’s one thing to come up with a game idea, but another to implement a playable prototype on your own over a weekend.

    @Malcolm: Postmodern programming would be interesting, though postmodern Computer Science makes about as much sense as postmodern biology or physics — CS is still a science, hence the name.

    I don’t think that *industry* experience is necessarily required to teach game design, but I do think that *game design* experience should be required. How can you teach something that you’ve never done before, exactly? More importantly, what happens when a student asks you for advice in how to improve? In a lot of fields you can handwave through this, because there’s already a lot of documentation and you can lean heavily on the textbook and other resources; for game design, there aren’t really any books that would be considered the Bible. A lot of textbooks are utter crap. Even the one Brenda and I wrote, which I’d like to think was groundbreaking, really just scratches the surface.

    As for personality types… well, I’m ISTP, so make of that what you will. But I was always cynical of Myers-Briggs; I once tried removing all of the field-specific jargon from a description of MBTI types and a description of astrological signs, and couldn’t easily tell which was which.

    Yes, there’s more to life than getting a job in the game industry. On the other hand, probably about 95% of your students want nothing more than a job in the game industry, and they will want advice on how to get that job, and it would be immensely helpful if at least SOMEONE at your school can tell them from experience 🙂

    Also keep in mind that there is a difference between Game Development and Game Studies. If your passion is to study games rather than to create them, you fall into the latter category, and do not need experience from the former.

    @Lewis: Great point about authors. I forget who said it, but I remember hearing something to the effect that a professional author should be prepared to throw their first million words away. Makes me wonder how many games the budding designer should throw away…

  9. January 20, 2009 8:17 am

    @Ian: Throw away a million words: Jerry Pournelle (SF/fantasy writer, formerly space/tech/political writer). I don’t know that designers must throw away games, but they may have to give them away in limited contexts.

    @Brenda: Entertainment can also be art, they are not exclusive. However, I question whether those whose *primary* aim is to create art often succeed. So many people in the video game industry seem to be hung up on this “art” idea (you virtually never see it on the non-electronic games side, maybe because no one proposes legislation to censor or ban non-electronic games?). But the players don’t care whether it’s art, they care whether they enjoy it.

    “Modern art” (painting) is an example of people creating “art” that hardly anyone enjoys.

    Teaching is usually more effective if it is also entertaining. The dismal situation in the USA with educational games–we don’t even want to use the term, preferring to disguise it as part of “serious” games–shows what happens when teaching is consistently not enjoyable for the learners.

    Mozart and Beethoven were great artists, surely, but their objective was to make music that people were willing to pay for–to make money! “You can, for example, count on the fingers of both hands the number of musical compositions Mozart didn’t write for money, and negotiating with Beethoven was like trying to take a steak away from a hyena.” (Prof Robert Greenberg in “How to Listen to and Understand Great Music, 3rd Edition”.) This is especially illuminating in Mozart’s case, since he didn’t have to work at writing music, it just happened as he did other things!: “I write music like cows piss.” If his primary interest had been art, he’d have written a lot more music!

    (Btw, run that phrase about cows past 18 year olds. Most of them have never seen a cow urinate, so they don’t understand until you explain how cows seem to urinate without even noticing that they’re doing it.)

    Sigh, this lengthy discourse is why I try not to bring art into discussions of games! Btw, I am INTJ or ISTJ, depending on the test and the mood.

  10. January 20, 2009 1:55 pm

    @Lewis: I think it was Raph Koster who said that the difference between Entertainment and Art is simply a matter of degree.

    The point of “Modern Art” is not about enjoyment. This was actually the big transition that art made: from the mindset of “art should be nice and pretty and realistic” to “art should carry a message, even if that message is ugly and even if the art itself is ugly”. So the fact that not many people enjoy it is not surprising.

    Interestingly, we have the same debate with some games. Do games HAVE to be fun, or are we all still living in a Renaissance period where we see games solely as entertainment? Is it possible to have a game that is effective and compelling without being fun? Is “Disaffected!” a good game in spite of (or even because of) the fact that its interface is intentionally frustrating? Do you think “Passage” is a good game… and yet, do you think it’s “fun”?

    Just pointing out that not all game designers are doing this to make money… *particularly* those that claim they are making art.

    This lengthy discourse is why I deliberately bring art into discussions of games. I think it’s fascinating and there’s a lot we can learn from examining the art world 🙂

  11. January 20, 2009 6:41 pm

    @Ian: There is value perhaps in distinguishing two different meanings of “game design” 1) how a game works, and 2) how a game is made. The first is an examination of the structure of a game, how its means achieve its ends (or fail to). The second is about the practice of the designer in creating the game. So the MDA theory would be an example of the former and player-centric design an example of the latter.

    When you talk about the need for industry experience, you seem to be mostly referring to the latter — the need to be able to explain to students what processes will help them to design games. And in that case, I totally agree with you. I admit to being quite weak in this area, and it is my hope to get more experience to improve this aspect of my teaching.

    My own interest is primarily in the first definition — understanding how games work. In this case, I think the academic approach has more value.

  12. January 21, 2009 8:48 am

    @Ian. I never use the word “fun” about games themselves, preferring “enjoyment”. Many people enjoy playing chess but wouldn’t call it fun. *I* wouldn’t call Britannia fun, but clearly many people (of a certain mindset) enjoy playing–they find it fascinating, interesting, whatever. There is some positive emotional connection of some sort.

    “Fun” comes from the players’ interactions that may have little to do with what game they’re playing at the time. You have fun with people, not with a game.

    But players ought to enjoy playing the game in some way, fun or not. My criticism of modern art (and of certain kinds of modern music–some of the electronic stuff) is that the creators try to convince people that they “ought to” like it, because hardly anyone does “naturally”. (Charles Wuorinen comes to mind.) I don’t mean it has to be immediately enjoyable; some things must be given a chance.

    If you will, liking it becomes a construct of the mind (it is explained to you) rather than a result of some emotional connection with the art or music. If you have to tell people they ought to like whatever it is you’ve just created, haven’t you failed?

    I’m “morally certain” there’s a continuing discussion in art circles about whether art should stand on its own, or whether it is all right if it must be explained and people must be convinced to like it. A kind of Dionysian/Apollonian split. I’m ‘way on the first side, obviously. Which I suppose is surprising to me as I’m normally Apollonian.

    We can also say that in the long run what is regarded as “great art” can lose its luster. Louis Spohr was regarded as a great composer while alive. Now who has heard of him, and I have to say the few things I’ve heard that he composed have been very bland.


  1. Leapfroglog - links for 2009-04-10

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