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“Game Designer as Artist” 2008 Project Horseshoe Workgroup Report

January 19, 2009

The following report is presented for the first time here with the permission of Project Horseshoe, the invite-only conference that solves game design’s toughest problems. For three days, several groups of designers hole up in the Canyon of the Eagles in the middle of nowhere Texas. We eat too much food, play a lot of games, and work from early morning until late at night. It’s a brilliant experience that you must do if you are lucky enough to get an invite. Just imagine being in a room with some of the people on that list – an Infocom guy, the new Esquire genius, the creator of Club Penguin, and more. The report, along with others generated at the conference, will be available on the PH site soon.

“Game Designer as Artist” 2008 Project Horseshoe Workgroup Report

Written by John Sharp on behalf of the “The Play is the Thing” Workgroup:

  • Brenda Brathwaite, Savannah College of Art and Design
  • Jenny Brusk, Gotland University, Sweden
  • Wendy Despain, Quantum Content
  • David Fox, iWin
  • Olivier LeJade, Mekensleep, France
  • Steve Meretzky, YouPlus
  • Jeff Pobst, Hidden Path Games
  • Lance Priebe, Disney Online Studios
  • Jason Rohrer
  • John Sharp, Savannah College of Art and Design-Atlanta

I. Framing the Problem

As we see it, the problem is not that we don’t have games that are art, but that games aren’t seen as art. The same circumstances exist today for games as they did for painting some four centuries ago. Until the 16th century, painting was not considered an art in Western Europe. Though commercially and aesthetically appreciated by a certain portion of society, painting was viewed as a Mechanical Art- something made with the hands- rather than as a Liberal Art- something made first with the mind. In other words, painting was seen as craft. Substitute computers for paintbrushes, and you have roughly the same situation.

Look no further than your local newspaper’s coverage of games- more than likely, you will find games covered in the technology section, not the art section. In some cases, you might find coverage of games in a more general entertainment section next to reviews for toys, TV shows and Steven King novels. Games are either treated like an extension of computing technologies or as a form of entertainment, but seldom as a serious cultural form.

This undervaluing has had a real impact on the role of video and computer games as a cultural form. The moving image has both an art form (film) and a mass-market product (movies), and novels have both literature and fiction. But games are still just games- a mechanically produced form of mass-market entertainment with lots of cool technologies used to make them and to play them.

The transformation of painting into an art form culminated in Michelangelo. This was through a concerted effort of Michelangelo himself, his peers, art critics and patrons, and through the creation of a formalized concept of Art Schools. This did not happen overnight; it was a slow process unfolding over nearly a century. In the end, perceptions about painting changed, and it was recognized as a Liberal Art. And in the process, it became a medium recognized as capable of the expression of a broad range of ideas, messages and aesthetic experiences.

This group seeks this same transformation of game design into an established art form capable of providing an aesthetic experience and capable of addressing a wide range of ideas and messages in a medium-appropriate manner. This will require the explicit efforts of those creating and passionate about game design. It will also require collaborations with and the assistance of the press, academia, critics and many other organizations and institutions.

We have begun to map out the problems and potential solutions in this report.

II. The Basic Questions

It is difficult to discuss the transformation of game design into an art form without first addressing basic concepts. We can boil these down to four key questions: what is a game designer? what is an artist? what does it mean to be an artist in the context of game development? and what is unique about games as an art form?

What is a Game Designer?

In his essay,  “Formal Abstract Design Tools,” Doug Church provides this wonderful distillation of game design’s importance. From this passage you can also begin to grasp why it is so difficult make game design the tangible core of video and computer games:

“Design, on the other hand, is the least understood aspect of computer game creation. It actualizes vision, putting art, code, levels and sound together into what players experience, minute to minute. Clever code, beautiful art, and stunning levels don’t help if they’re never encountered. Design tasks determine player goals and pacing. The design is the game; without it you would have a CD full of data, but no experience.”

A game designer creates the potential for a dynamic play experience through the creation of a play space that receives one or more player and a set of actions permitted within this play space. The game designer is the rule maker, the person who constructs the rules, defines the mechanics, and conceives of the environment in which the play experience takes place. While in some cases the game designer may also create the game, they are more likely part of a much larger team that creates the game according to their vision of a play experience.

What is an Artist?

Tackling the definition of art is a fool’s errand for sure, but still, some shared understanding of what art is and what it is to be an artist is necessary. Artworks are created to convey meaning that otherwise cannot be expressed through words, through actions, or even another art form. An artist as a person who conceives of and executes an overriding vision that is manifest in an artwork.

Artworks can have many kinds of meaning. The meaning of an artwork does not have to be solution-oriented nor productive, though it can be. An artwork may be about evoking emotion, telling a story, inspiring new ways of thinking, challenging perceptions, inciting controversy, or adding to the techniques and style of the art form.

For the purposes of this report, we do not draw a hard line between art-games-Jason Rohrer’s Passage, Rod Humble’s The Marriage or Jonathan Blow’s Braid– and well-crafted, sophisticated mainstream games- Animal Crossing or Sid Meier’s Civilization Revolution. We see reason for society to value games as an art form capable of multiple modes of expression to a wide range of audiences, just like film, painting and novels. We’ll use the phrase, “well-crafted, expressive games” as a term encompassing the kinds of games this group wants to encourage.

What Does it Mean to be an Artist in the Context of Games?

Video game development has more in common with software development and film production than it does painting or sculpture. So how can a game designer be an artist? In the era of mechanical reproduction and large-scale production of modern media, it is easy to see why most people do not see game design as an art. The most famous games are heavily commercialized and often relate to an existing intellectual property; they are the digital version of  1970’s lunch boxes. Others draw high-profile criticism and tarnish the collective conscience as a whole. The perception that games are for children also weighs strongly against the cultural construction of art as a form of high culture consumable by those who have long since outgrown games. This is only a fraction of the entire market, however. Games have the same expressive range as film, novels and music.

To see the game designer as an artist is to see them as an Auteur in the tradition of film- the person who conceives of and oversees the execution of a vision. So for our purposes, the game designer is the individual who is responsible for the game. Though a group of 100+ may have produced the game, it is the game designer who is ultimately accountable for the successes and failures of that game.

What is Unique About Games as an Art Form?

Finally, we must identify where the art lies in games. The place where most people look, the visuals and sounds of a game, are of course not what is unique and most interesting about games, but what is most similar to other media.

The art of games is found in the participatory experience, otherwise called the play experience. Game designers create play experiences. The comparison might then be made to ballet or music written for orchestras or bands. There is an important distinction to be drawn here. Games differ from music or dance in that the game designer does not orchestrate the experience in a top-down manner that will be relatively uniform from performance to performance. Instead, game designers create the potential for play experiences through the creation of rules that players interpret and enact to have a unique play experience.

Where the audience for film, painting, ballet and music consume the art passively, the audience of games is required to actively engage, to become an integral part in determining the substance and quality of their play experience. Using a phrase borrowed from Greg Costikyan, games are systems for the creation of endogenous meaning. In other words, players create meaning through their actions within the play space created by the game designer.  Games produce meaning, but in a very unique way, in a way that no other medium can. Game design is a second-order discipline, which differs from most every other expressive medium.

Within the space of possibility the game designer creates, players can have a unique play experiences. This is the art of game design. It is a unique quality amongst the arts, and one that should be shared and nurtured as the preferred vantage point from which games are evaluated.

II. The Problems

What follows is a list of the problems this group identified as barriers to game design’s recognition as an art form. For each problem, we have outlined the basic issue and then put forth potential solutions, some of which we plan to put into action over the course of the next year. This list is of course not exhaustive, but it is a good start for constructively addressing the problems standing between game design and its potential as an expressive form.

Problem 1. We’ve got an image problem, people.

Games have an image problem. Gamers have an image problem. So why would we expect anything different for game designers? The games that get the most publicity tend to be the most violent, sexist and juvenile. The public perception of gamers (one not supported by current statistics) paints the picture of Doritos- and Mountain Dew-fueled teenage boys with violent, sexist and juvenile streaks.

Games are marketed in a way to serve this real but niche audience. In the process, this creates a public perception of a violent, sexist and juvenile game industry. Of course there are many, many games and gamers that do not fit this model, but they are not receiving the same amount of press. If you look at how film, music, novels, or most any other expressive form of culture are promoted, the problem becomes fairly clear. Film is not promoted on summer blockbusters and popcorn flicks alone. The entire range of films and movies are promoted to their audiences in very sophisticated, targeted ways.

The existence of “casual” games, the Wii, serious games, art-games, etc. have not put much of a dent in the problem. Part of the issue is that the AAA industry and the press that cover it do not recognize these other kinds of games as legitimate. For one thing, they have no incentive to change the way things have “always been” and tend to dig in their heels when change is suggested. They’re very much living in the now and don’t have a sense of history or destiny.

The history of video and computer games over the last 30+ years suggests games can be much more than violent, sexist and juvenile. There is very little historic knowledge of the history of video and computer games, in part because of the living-in-the-now culture and in part because of technical obsolescence built into modern computing.

Without access to a canon of respected works, it’s hard to establish a tradition of artistic intention in the history of games and hard to make an artistic work available to a wide audience for appreciation.

With all of this, it is not so surprising game designers and their work are not recognized in a positive light- if all game designers do is make this violent, sexist and juvenile stuff, why applaud them? In some ways, designers of video and computer games can rest easy. Outside a handful of well-known designers, even the most ardent fan doesn’t know who designed most titles.

This problem goes back quite far in the history of video games. The most famous example is Atari’s decision to stop crediting their game designers back in the late 1970’s. Ever since, getting game designers recognized outside of industry and the most locked-in fan base has been difficult. A handful of designers get their names out there, but more often than not, the game designer is just another part of the production team.

Solutions

There are a number of useful solutions, some already ongoing, some that can be borrowed from other media, and some that need to be started from scratch. An important step is largely a PR maneuver- change public perception of video and computer games as part of the larger continuum of games running from card and board games to game shows to sports, The seemingly obvious point here is that games have been part of our culture for as long as we’ve had culture, and that we can see them as something more than mindless entertainment for teenage boys.

The game industry can learn something from the transformation of graphic novels from something unheard of outside comic shops into a an accepted form of literature complete with its own section at Barnes & Noble and Border’s. Though graphic novels had been around for a while, it wasn’t until the last five or so years that they have been viewed as a legitimate art form. In many ways, Chip Kidd, the book designer and novelist, can be credited for this change in perception. Pantheon Graphic Novels published long-form works by Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes, two names well-known to indie comic fans, but virtual unknowns to most others. Kidd organized a tour to colleges and large cities where he served as moderator for events. By promoting the event using Kidd’s name as much as Ware’s and Clowes’, Pantheon was able to attract graphic designers as well as people interested in literature and fiction. Under Kidd’s guidance, Pantheon Graphic Novels has as well re-published seminal works by Charles Schultz and Art Spiegelman, among others. Through the impassioned yet market-wise work of Chip Kidd and Pantheon, graphic novels are now an established form of literature.

A similar tour for games could be a great tool. Finding a supporter of thoughtfully-crafted, expressive games who happens to be well regarded in another field could open new audiences. The initial tour should visit college campuses and large cities to maximize the likelihood of reaching the intended audience. Having a publisher or other party involved to fund the tour would be important, as would the ability to provide access to the games at the event and, best case, for purchase.

Academia can also be a fruitful collaborator in expanding our approach to design, production, criticism, reception and a more general positioning of games in society. Meaningful research is being done at game programs in universities around the world. The field of game studies is rich with work that provides games an air of cultural and expressive legitimacy. The work of James Paul Gee, Ian Bogost, Tracy Fullerton and Henry Jenkins, to name a few, have pushed games forward in a relatively short period of time.

Unfortunately, this work goes largely ignored outside the ivory tower as the game industry continues to be disdainful of academia. But there is so much that can be mined to help the cause. If ten game industry PR types brought ten game company CEOs to the Game Studies Download at GDC, we imagine some useful fodder would be found that could begin the transformation.

Making the rich history of video and computer games more easily accessible is something under way, but only in a fairly limited form. XBLA and Sony Live have both begun to publish classic titles, as has Nintendo for the Wii and DS; Namco and other companies from the golden era of arcades have re-released their games; Atari 2600 titles are available on a number of half-baked devices; and emulators exist for most every console of the last 30 years. Still, hard work is required just to access and play many seminal games. In most cases, it is beyond the means of anyone other than dedicated archivists and those with access to the few public collections.

A museum focused on games is another strong idea. Collections are forming at universities (University of Texas-Austin and Stanford University) and in museums like the American Museum for the Moving Image in New York City. But these are the exception, not the rule. A museum along the lines of the Experience Music Project in Seattle- an institution dedicated to the preservation, study and appreciation of rock music- should be developed for thoughtfully-crafted, expressive games.

Given that games are more suitable for play at home, this group considered ways to change perceptions of individuals playing games. Taking yet another cue from film, games need something akin to the Criterion Collection- an organization dedicated to the preservation, study and publishing of important titles that are released in elegant packaging.

This is more than just packaging, however. It is treating games with the respect given the best artworks from other mediums. A key component of all Criterion releases is the booklet included with the DVD that presents the history and a critical appraisal of the film. Games would greatly benefit from a similar treatment. A Criterion Collection of games would at once create a suitable aura of respect for seminal games and provide much-needed context for understanding and appreciating them as well.

Since at least the 16th century, the best way to trumpet an art form is to push the artist to the foreground- this was certainly part of the strategy used with painting and Michelangelo. To that end, it would be of great benefit to find ways to promote game designers who are creating thoughtfully-crafted, expressive games.

This group is working on such an award that will recognize important facets of game design, and designers who are producing the kinds of games we see as furthering the form of games. Certainly, there are more game awards out there than are needed, but there are few with both a reach inside the industry and outside to the fan base. What we want to create an award that leads by example, and in the process strengthens the position of game design and game designers alike by awarding thoughtfully-crafted, expressive practitioners.

The Spiel des Jahres, the German award for the best non-digital game of the year, is an excellent model of success. This award is respected by non-digital game press, publishers, designers and fans alike. As a result, winning the Spiel des Jahres is good for board games as a whole throughout Europe and increasingly in the United States. The award is part of a culture that prizes game design and game designers- something we very much would like to see in the United States for video and computer games.

Problem 2. It is difficult for Game Designers to thrive and be the keeper of the vision.

The road to Lead Game Designer is often long and tiring. And once there, it is difficult to garner the authority and respect to truly conceive of and see to completion a strong artistic vision.

A big barrier to gaining wider recognition for game designers is that many of the best and brightest are either worn down by the grind, by the incredibly limited range of genres that publishers are willing to take a chance on, and by the franchise-driven stasis that clogs up release schedules and limits opportunities for innovation.

Everything about the way the typical game development project unfolds devalues innovative design. The design process is geared toward meeting the bottom line, with more emphasis placed on meeting budgets and pushing technical boundaries than innovating experience or maximizing design criteria. There is little in the way of freedom for the design lead on a game project.

Getting to a point in your career where you can function as a lead game designer is daunting as well, often leading fresh talent to look elsewhere to satisfy their creative urges. Working up through the industry food chain can take years and years without any assurance of success. The game industry eats up hundreds and hundreds of eager, talented individuals and spits them out without tapping the potential of the gems in the rough. And it does not seem to care, either.

Going it alone can be a real challenge to create titles that can compete with games made by teams within larger companies, even the smaller teams. Supporting just four people for a year to work on a title will cost a minimum of $200,000 in most cases. This leads small development teams to take paying gigs on the side to subsidize their real work, and in the process, slowing the development of their games. Working as an individual requires even more constraints, leading to radical changes in lifestyle or filling the cracks in one’s life with the important work of game design and development.

The handful that make it through to Lead Game Designer have a difficult time holding onto the power of the vision holder. There are a number of reasons for this. For one, publishers often do not trust the lead game designer to keep true to their vision and stay on schedule and budget. Visions of Daikatana and more recently Spore serve as object lessons in why not to trust the game designer. Developers believe in product, not artworks- it is the game industry, not the game arts movement, they might say.

As the game industry grew, the average game production increased from one person handling design, programming, art and everything in between to teams of hundreds. In the process, the idea that there should be a single designer with a presiding vision was diluted. In its place, publishers favored “design by committee,” or even worse, “design by producer.”  Contrast this with the film industry, and the problem becomes apparent.

From within the development process, gaining the full respect of the team can be difficult. Game design is one of those jobs that everyone thinks they can do better. This leads to a lack of respect for the vision of the lead. In many cases, the lead is in part responsible for this dissent. Poor (or no) management skills plague leads. Being a lead is to be a boss, and all the vision in the world will not make up for bad communication skills and people skills. Being a lead is also about receiving, welcoming and encouraging feedback. Too many leads often discourage or altogether reject input, and in the process create unnecessary tension and animosity.

Adding to this is a clear standard for how to capture the vision of the game designer. Certainly there are some commonalities in how designers write documents and manage their design teams, but for every lead working in the field today, there is a different methodology. The film industry has a standardized process and set of roles for how screenplays look, the notation language of storyboards, and most every other facet of capturing the vision of filmmaking. Dance has Laban notation. Architecture has blueprints. The game industry is full of many one-off systems for making games. Without similar development of best practices, it will remain difficult to fully capture and hold the leader game designer’s vision.

Solutions

Again, we can look for solutions from within and outside the game industry. From within the game industry, we know money talks. Someone will make a breakthrough with an atypical thoughtfully-crafted, expressive game using the standard tools of the trade- and that title will change people’s thinking. Jonathan Blow’s Braid certainly should fit the bill, but thus far his doors are not being beat down by CEOs with suitcases full of money. Many hopes were placed on Spore, but thus far it seems it to have had the opposite effect.

Film, music, dance and theater all have figured out methods for allowing large groups to collaboratively work to fulfill a singular vision. Perhaps this is an unfair comparison, as these mediums have had relatively long periods of time to work out the kinks. So let’s use them as cheat sheets to figure out how to get there more quickly.

The current and next generation of game developers will need to work together to change the industry’s culture. This road starts in two places: IGDA and higher education. IGDA can continue to serve as an advocate of game developers while academia can train would-be developers and instill strong values relating to game design.

IGDA should take a leadership role in learning from other industries. It could facilitate the development of a special interest group or task forces devoted to evaluating on the one hand the working methods of successful game developers that prioritize game design, and on the other hand successful film, theater and dance companies to learn how they maintain the integrity of the artist’s vision. Over time, with efforts to codify a flexible but shared methodology, it should become easier for lead game designers to bring their visions to fruition.

In many ways, the solutions to these problems are in the hands of those yet to enter the workforce. The education of future game developers is a crucial factor in this. The many universities and colleges with game design, game art and game programming degrees and courses should embrace the idea of game design as the heart of the creation of games. Every game development student should take at least one course in game design so they can more clearly understand the craft and their part in creating play experiences. And designers should be trained in the soft skills required to manage and inspire a team to follow the primary vision.

Problem 3. Alternative Funding

In many ways, money is the root of the problem. There are very few ways to access the funding necessary to create well-crafted, expressive games suitable for the venues discussed in problem 4 below. Contrast this with the film industry where there are multiple ways to finance a film. As Greg Costikyan has made clear over the years, the AAA title industry is so entrenched in its high-budget ways that it is unlikely to change any time soon.

Approaching Gamestop, Best Buy, Toys-R-Us, Amazon.com and other mainstream outlets with thoughtfully-crafted, expressive titles is not really possible. XBLA, Sony Live, Wiiware and the iTunes App Store are outlets for games that otherwise couldn’t compete for shelf space, but they do not provide seed money in the vast majority of cases. Game portals like Manifesto Games, Kongregate and the like provide marketing and virtual shelf space, but not a lot more. The solo release of games using Paypal donations doesn’t scale well as most people view online content as naturally free. The “give them the game, sell them the coffee cup” method is not a reliable revenue stream either, as it requires that the game reach a critical mass before a sufficient amount of money is earned. In all of these models, the burden lies on the shoulders of the developer to take on the risk of funding development.

Solutions

Clearly, new forms of funding are needed. There are a number of solutions that can be borrowed from other parts of culture and tailored to the needs of game developers. Government funding, grants from corporations and non-profits, patronage, artist in residence programs, angel funders and venture capital firms are all viable alternates to funding.

Starting with industry, there are models in other mediums for companies getting involved in the funding of more artful, less commercial work. Film has Miramax, Fox Searchlight and Sony Picture Classics that all seek out, fund and publish riskier, more challenging films. The interesting thing with these three examples is that they are all owned by larger studios that release more commercial movies. The funds from the more commercial work fund the more challenging work. To be fair, these indie imprints are expected to turn a profit as well. We believe the game designers looking for this kind of opportunity would be more than happy to take on that responsibility.

The art world’s primary sources for funding are donations and grants. These come from a variety of sources: government agencies, private foundations, corporate foundations and philanthropists. In countries like France, Sweden and Canada, the government treats games like film and other art forms by providing grants and other opportunities for funding. In the United States, outside of tangential educational programs and serious games, this does not happen. The NEA should look to the programs in Canada and France for models of funding.

Non-profits like the Macarthur Foundation, the Warhol Foundation and the Thaw Charitable Trust all fund the arts in varying ways. Often, this is tied to museums and non-profit spaces (institutions that games do not have meaningful access to at this point). The Macarthur Foundation has shown a keen interest in games over the last few years, albeit more in the realm of education and serious games. Other foundations should be cultivated to see the value of thoughtfully-crafted, expressive games.

Corporate funding of games as an art form is not as far-fetched as it sounds. Companies like Nike, Adidas, Coca-Cola, Benetton and others have all funded artists to produce works. These companies of course see this as a form of marketing to the elite of the art and design worlds, but still, it is another source of funding.

Patronage of artists by wealthy individuals through stipends, commissions and other forms of funding may seem like an antiquated idea, but it is still a viable option. This requires the cultivation of art enthusiasts who are willing to recognize the expressive power of games. There are individuals who have made a good deal of money in the game industry and the technology sector who can be cultivated as private patrons to game designers and small development teams.

Universities and colleges with game development programs are a very real and viable source for funding through artist-in-residence programs. Schools like the Savannah College of Art and Design and Parsons the New School for Design have programs in place; it is a matter of institutional recognition of the value of a game designer spending a term working on a game project. In turn, the game designer would teach a class or otherwise enrich the experience of students.

The art world has a secret weapon they use to deal with the paperwork involved in securing and managing funding: the grant writer. These are people skilled at handling the red tape, keeping up with dates and speaking the language of the wide array of funding sources. They are worth their weight in gold. Game developers with an eye to art-games need these people to help make inroads into existing funding sources while new game-specific sources are developed.

Problem 4. There are few good venues, and too small an audience.

Part of the problem with creating well-crafted, expressive games is the lack of venues that can provide focused play experiences and public forums for evaluation and discussion. The web does this, yes, but there is something to be said for public contact with games, their creators, critics and other interested individuals.

The film industry has film festivals, art houses and the Sundance Channel and IFC; the art world has galleries, museums and biennales; music has small clubs and indie record stores. What do thoughtfully-crafted, expressive games have? The web and festivals based on film festival models, and not much more.

This problem has a flip side: the lack of an obvious market for thoughtfully-crafted, expressive games. When so many units of sequels can be moved to the complacent game buying market, why would anyone want to market to a better-educated audience with a different set of aesthetic priorities?

Solutions

Clearly, there is a need for new venues that break with the conventional view of games, and that can provide the proper context for playing, discussing and critiquing. All solutions to the venue and audience problem need to start with a reminder of what makes games unique: they are systems for generating play experiences. Games cannot be framed and hung on the wall and it completely bypasses the value of games to be screened at a set time for large audiences to sit and watch (unless sports strike anyone as a good model).

Something new is needed to properly provide appropriate venues for public game events. This is a big question- how do we create a public venue in which the interested public can play games? Having a room full of computers set up with a game on each does not solve the problem, as even the shortest games cannot be played fully in this context. Having games on only one or two computers limits exposure and rushes players to make room for others. For example, at the 2007 Montreal Games Summit, Jason Rohrer noted that many players did not “get” Passage because they felt too rushed to complete the five minute game! If a five minute long game is too expansive for the typical game festival set up, then there is a real problem.

One solution this group would like to consider is a public massive play session in the presence of the game designer. We imagine this happening at conferences and as specially-scheduled events. The audience would be encouraged to bring laptops, smartphones or handhelds or the venue would supply PCs or consoles. The session would provide the audience with cheat codes or modified versions of the game that allowed access to the portions the designer wanted to discuss. Following the play session, the designer would speak about their game, followed by a Q&A session. While this is not perfect, it seems to be well worth trying.

The play model would also work well for the public discussion of prototypes and in-production games by allowing the players and the designer to discuss what is now a shared and consumed experience. To gain ready acceptance, play sessions of this sort should be part of a festival along the lines of Sundance- an event known for bringing the best and brightest of the thoughtfully-crafted, expressive game community together in a single place. It is our hope to test this model at several conferences and events being organized by members of this workgroup.

Alternately, the current festivals could be refined to better support thoughtfully-crafted, expressive games. The Independent Games Festival, Indiecade the Experimental Games Workshop and the numerous regional and academic festivals should continue to explore new ways to present and critique games.

Problem 5. The middle ground of commentary is missing for games.

Most every medium has three levels of publication and press surrounding it. The broadest base includes publications that follow the industry’s release schedule, reviews new works and does gloss pieces as part of the promotion surrounding new works. The middle circle is still part of popular culture. It provides a more knowledgeable audience a more critical, reflective form of discourse including longer-term analysis and reflection. And the smallest circle is the work done by academics to study and reflect upon the medium from many vantage points- technical, social, artistic, ethnographic, etc. The game industry has the first circle in spades, and game studies is now an established part of academia. The middle circle of popular, thoughtful criticism is what is largely lacking for games.

One of the real problems is that the popular game press doesn’t know how to review anything but “hardcore” games. The language of the game press seems oddly limited to evaluations of whether or not a title is worth buying or not. Rating scales and discussion of graphics and technology override thoughtful discussion of game play.

Most every other medium today has a more comfortable and constructive relationship with academia than does the game industry. There is a palpable disdain for academia within the industry and a real apathy for more thoughtful cultural outlets like The New Yorker, let alone a game-centric publication along the lines of Cineaste (film) or The Believer (literature and culture in general). The closest thing to it is Greg Costikyan’s Play This Thing! Or Ian Bogost and Gonzalo Frasca’s Water Cooler Games, but these still fall far short of the reach of or respect given to Cineaste and The Believer.

Solutions

The best path to address this is to help create a middle-ground of thoughtful criticism on games that is located between the game press and its obsession with graphics and ratings systems, and game studies and the important work academics are doing to investigate and understand games.

We need a New York Review of Games. We need enlightened writers publishing through the New Yorker, Art Forum and Interview. We need thoughtful commentators on CNN, NBC, NPR, PBS, etc. We need a proactive effort on the part of media to put out positive stories about thoughtfully-crafted, expressive games and the culture around them.

The popular press is not the only path to create this middle ground of course. Blogs are an obvious outlet. Run by individuals or groups, blogs written by game designers within and without industry should take the lead here to talk about games in a more expansive way. Entries on topics other than games, to show that successful game designers think about and participate in aspects of culture besides games is a good start. This begins the process of locating games within the wider world of artistic culture, as something more than an outlet for mindless entertainment.

III. Conclusion

Over the last couple of months, there have been both signs of progress and painful setbacks in expanding and cementing the cultural understanding and acceptance of games. On one hand, there were the Time magazine recognition of Braid as the second best game of 2008; Esquire‘s “Best and Brightest” feature on Jason Rohrer; and the Wall Street Journal article on games as an art form featuring Jenova Chen and the forthcoming release of Flower.

On the other hand, a game like Little Big Planet, which was widely anticipated as a breakthrough title, is already gone from most store shelves not much more than a month following its release; and Spore, coming from the closest thing to a Game Auteur that the American industry has, has been largely viewed as a disappointment.

At the very least, we can be pleased that there are thoughtfully-crafted, expressive games being recognized, and that a conversation about them is underway in the popular press.

Throughout our weekend of discussion, we often circled back to questions of how we would know when games and game design had made the full transition to a publicly appreciated cultural form. Two milestones rang true for us: when a game designer wins a Macarthur Genius Grant, and when the Pulitzer Prize includes a set of categories for games. Can you see this happening during your career?

Time to get to work. We’ll see you at the Pulitzer Prize ceremony.

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. January 19, 2009 1:59 pm

    “The middle circle of popular, thoughtful criticism is what is largely lacking for games.”

    Clearly, Play This Thing ! needs more traffic.

  2. January 19, 2009 2:45 pm

    Actually PTT was regularly noted during our discussions.

  3. John Sharp permalink
    January 19, 2009 4:34 pm

    Play This Thing! was definitely on our minds, but it is speaking to the converted more than it is anyone else, don’t you think? The use of gamer jargon and the assumptions about game experiences are two factors that make Play This Thing! not quite what we would love to see help break through to the a more general but thoughtful audience.

  4. Malcolm permalink
    January 19, 2009 11:45 pm

    Is there a PDF or other distribution-friendly version of this report?

  5. January 20, 2009 12:01 am

    This is the kind of blog post I hoped to find when I first starting using an RSS reader. Awesome!

  6. January 20, 2009 9:55 am

    John’s explanation of “mechanical art” vs. “liberal art” helps me understand a major reason for the different attitude in the non-electronic games industry. (There’s next to no concern about whether games are “art”. ) People outside the video game industry see video games as primarily computer programming, that is, a mechanical art. (Yes, I know there can be creativity in programming, yet anything that a non-sentient 2009 computer can do–computers can write simple programs–must be largely mechanical.) Non-electronic games don’t require programming, don’t even require a lot of artwork, so it’s easy to think of them as liberal arts, as works of the mind of the designer.

    So is the answer to the problem to educate people that video games are not programming, that programming is merely a support activity? If so, we should call what video game people do “game creation”, not “game development”, because to computer people (and many others) outside the video game industry, “development” means programming, coding.

  7. January 20, 2009 5:12 pm

    There’s a lot that’s valuable in this article, but I believe there are also a few erroneous assumptions…

    1) Retailers and publishers won’t support quality content. -For several years (2001-2005), I offered distribution through Electronics Boutique for a slate of indie games, if one could be aggregated for retail. I was never able to find the dozen creatively meaningful indie games in a given year that I set as a baseline. At this point, I’m heavily involved in indie games, and there’s a lot more quality content, but most of it involves much lighter development, primarily Flash, than can be sold through physical retailers; online is where this distribution must happen. iPhone is opening up some quite interesting opportunities for art as well. Big motion picture studios initially loved indie films because they were cheap and popular; retailers and publisher likewise love cheap and popular content.

    2) Expensive development using mainstream game technology is viable as a medium for funded art. -I’d argue that some heavier games are indeed art, but the big budgets are best supported within conventional publishing. How would any funding entity know who to support as an artist in this? Simply bringing in an artist from another field to have work interpreted by a dev team seems doomed to failure, and the folks already working in big games are unlikely to be candidates.

    Additionally, a number of initiatives have tried to replicate movie-style funding for games, and none have come close to success.

    3) The problem is that games are not properly recognized in competitive or editorial contexts. -Well, I’m biased (as I work with Greg), but playthisthing.com gets the daily esoteric stuff quite well, and the Escapist does a nice job on lighter, but generally well written and knowledgeable coverage. Clearly, the endemic magazine business is dying/dead for games, although it’s little loss, as this country had little of quality in that area. I’m certain that if there’s a market for cineaste-like publication, Greg could easily create such a thing, but I honestly believe that playthisthing is the appropriate format for this era.

    There is an ongoing quest to find a way to present and play games in a physical social environment. The solution for this would be a great “special sauce” for any of a number of game-related businesses, not just this, so I think it’s probably not practical to assume that it can be the savior of games as art; when other entities with significant resources have not found an answer here yet.

    4) Games have an image problem. -Games _did_ have an image problem, but that’s really not true today. Games are very much socially acceptable, and “out of the basement.” Older academics probably still do have a problem with games, but that’s not the world most people live in, and eventually that generation will be replaced, but it’s unlikely to change its perspective in the meantime.

  8. jofsharp permalink
    January 20, 2009 10:46 pm

    @ Malcolm: There will be a PDF of this report on the Project Horseshoe site in the near future. We’ll try to post again here when it is available.

    @ Nathan: Thanks for the thoughtful comments. Since posting the report here, and sharing it with a few others, we’ve heard a couple of similar instances of near-distributions through larger retailers. We’ll need to make some revisions to that part of the report.

    Though I wrote up the report, I was relying heavily on the other group members’ opinions on the funding discussion. Maybe Brenda can comment on your points here?

    With your third point, I agree that the Escapist and Play This Thing! are valuable outlets, but they are still preaching to the converted, so to speak. I’ve had conversations with several people in the past in which the lack of a serious print outlet for game commentary is part of the problem. In some circles, print legitimates. I don’t agree, but it is probably part of the problem here. I would love for Greg to start a Cineaste-style publication. Nudge him for us, will you Nathan?

    Almost done responding. I’ve more than once heard people say, half jokingly, that we just need to wait for the old codgers to die off so we can get past apologist discussions of games. But maybe we can try to change minds rather than wait for the inevitable?

  9. jofsharp permalink
    January 20, 2009 10:50 pm

    @ Lewis: Glad you like the mechanical/liberal arts analogy. It really does fit I think.

    Nomenclature is part of the problem– developer has always struck me as an undervaluing description for what people making games do.

    I also think that many people undervalue the work done with computers in general, across the arts. Games are no different in this respect.

  10. January 21, 2009 4:10 pm

    I have, of course, fantasized in the past of creating a “Cahier du Jeux,” as it were, but it’s a daunting prospect. For one thing, it would need, I think, to be a full-color, glossy publication, since the videogame is (among other things) a visual medium, and one way of getting across its artistic value is through visuals. For another, it’s hard to see how you would get the sort of writers you want for such a publication without paying pretty high rates. So we’re talking about a fairly expensive undertaking, and it’s hard to see how a self-consciously intellectual publication at this kind of level would be a market success. We have to deal with the reality that we’re living in a deratiocinated society inherently hostile to intellectuals, not 1950s Paris.

    I agree that neither Play This Thing! nor The Escapist gets us there, although they have their value. PTT! isn’t even aiming at this, really; it self-consciously eschews the mainstream, for a start, which a publication (print or web) devoted to ‘games as art’ should not. It also self-consciously avoid the downbeat; my own tendency is to snarkiness and cynicism, and I’ve couched PTT! as something pointing to games worth playing precisely to force myself not to go there; its celebretory, in other words, more than genuinely critical. As for The Escapist, while I think the Themis crew had Cahier du Cinema in mind as one model, it’s always been built on a rather conventional print model; I get their editorial calendar every few months, which lists the themes they’re going for each week and invites writers to pitch articles on those themes. They’re feeding the content maw, but they aren’t necessarily fostering voices who have a project in mind, the creation of a body of work analyzing games from an artistic perspective. They do have a good stable of writers, of course.

    Jon Sharp may be right that print is still accorded more respect than the web, but this is the 21st century, and the web is probably where some kind of breakthrough will take place, rather than in a print publication.

    One approach might be to try to figure out why Cahier du Cinema had the impact it had, rather than try to replicate it in a more literal sense. I’m not sure I know, really.

  11. John Sharp permalink
    January 21, 2009 8:17 pm

    @ Greg: “Cahier du Jeux”– if only….

    Your comment about figuring out why Cahier du Cinema worked, or how Cineaste and Sight and Sound work today is an excellent idea.

  12. January 24, 2009 9:02 pm

    This topic actually combines well with the topic I participated in at the first Project Horseshoe in 2006, Legitimacy in Games (http://projecthorseshoe.com/ph06/ph06r6.htm)

    Our core issue was that games aren’t treated as a legitimate medium. I think that’s a bit more concrete than the “games as art” argument that tends to pop up. A lot of these issues relate directly to legitimacy: the perception of game developers and game players, the focus on money (because financial legitimacy is one of the few things we have currently), etc.

    Anyway, glad to see that someone else is trying to tackle this issue. I have an article coming up covering legitimacy from a game developer’s point of view. I wrote up another article to educate game players on RPGVault a while ago (http://rpgvault.ign.com/articles/807/807409p1.html). I think it’s a relevant issue for game developers to consider. There are a lot of upsides if we can attain legitimacy, such as a wider audience and the ability to do bigger projects motivated by something beyond profit motive.

  13. September 7, 2009 11:35 pm

    I’m a bit late to be commenting, but I was reminded of this report and couldn’t help but add a bit of finger crossing… the 2009 MacArthur awards are announced in a couple of weeks, and I think Jenova, Jonathan or Jason have as reasonable a shot at one as anyone else I know this year. ^_^

Trackbacks

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