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Game Designers and the Four Tribes of Artists
by Shay Pierce on 02/21/13 06:47:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


I sometimes feel that I have one foot in the AAA development world and one in the indie game development world. It gives me an interesting perspective on both sides...

A few days ago when Bungie did their first reveal of "Destiny", my friend and former co-worker Josh (who is working on Destiny) was expressing some frustration on Twitter. Josh is a big fan of indie games, and was frustrated because many of the indie game developers he respects were seemed to be expressing immediate disdain for the game. Here's a link to the Twitter conversation that ensued, which I found interesting.

I'm sure it's frustrating: he knows that there are innovative, brilliant people working on Destiny and that it's something beautiful and worth making. An incredible amount of talent and work is going into the game. Yet some people are poo-poo'ing it before they really even know what it is.

 I've certainly found that the "indie scene" can have a lot of overlap with "game snobbery". I tend to be very picky about games myself, though I mostly think it's because I've been playing games for so long that only the most innovative and novel games tend to surprise and interest me. But I don't really think of my taste in games as inherently "better" or "worse" than anyone else's, which I think saves me from actual snobbery; everyone has their own taste and everyone's taste evolves.

Greg Costikyan gave a talk once, and touched on this point; it was eye-opening for me and has always reminded me to keep an open mind about the massive breadth of our art form and the range of different tastes it can accomodate:

Part of my objective in general is to foster the aesthetic of a "broadminded gamer," able to see what people find appealing in any game; but that's because I'm a game designer and pretentious "ludeaste" (a word I just coined by analogy to cineaste). Most gamers prefer to find games that they like, and often look down on ones they don't, even if enjoyed by others. My games rock; your games suck, and never the twain shall meet. If you don't like Final Fantasy, you're obviously an idiot, or conversely, sucked in by the story and don't really understand what games are really about. This is a short-sighted view.

Since my Twitter exchange with Josh, I've been thinking a lot about Scott McCloud (the comic book creator/theorist) and his "4 tribes of artists". He lays out this theory in the book "Making Comics". Here's the best writeup I've found on this concept, and I encourage everyone to read it. Here's the core description of the four types:

The Classicists admire craftsmanship and mastery of the artform. Their goals include creating lasting works of art which adhere to traditional aesthetic principles. Perfection is impossible, but that doesn't mean they can't try for it. According to McCloud, their catch-word is beauty, and they are an extention of Jung's sensation archetype.

The Animists are interested in content. They aim for the clearest presentation of their story or ideas. To some extent the medium must always interfere with the message, but the animist's focus on the content means they try to make the form as transparent as they possibly can. Their catch-word is content, and McCloud considers them an extention of Jung's intuition archetype.

The Formalists are fascinated with their chosen medium's form. They create their art to explore its boundaries and contours, to learn what it can be capable of and how it works internally. Their works of art incorporate experiments, and they often double as analytical critics. Their catch-word is form, and in McCloud's scheme they correspond to Jung's thinking archetype.

The Iconoclasts value truth and experience in art. To them art must be authentic, must show life as it is. They take aim at artistic conventions that gloss over the imperfections and disappointments at life. Artists who speak of "honesty" or "rawness" are voicing iconoclastic ideas. Their catch-word is truth, and they are Jung's feeling archetype.

That article even touches on how the concept could be applied to digital games. But I don't think it goes far enough, and its fussing over "abdicating authorship" is, to me, beside the point of what games are. For discussions like this, I think it's best to avoid the authorship question because it leads us to discuss games as if they were a storytelling medium at their core, which they're not. Game design is better compared to a field like architecture - no one asks whether Frank Lloyd Wright was abdicating authorship by allowing people to move through his buildings however they wanted.

So I think I'll leave it as a challenge to the Gamasutra community: how would you classify different game designers within Scott McCloud's system, and why? (Remember that most artists have a "primary" and a "secondary" tendency - just like Jungian archetypes.)

In particular, does the "art/life" spectrum that McCloud defines exist in game design? If so, how would you characterize it? I feel like I intuitively understand what this spectrum is within gameplay, but I'm not yet able to define it precisely.

I'll start things off by defining Edmund McMillen (designer of Super Meat Boy and The Binding of Isaac) as an Animist first and an Iconoclast second: he cares about creating great Content prolifically; but he also has a strong need to express himself in a raw and True way. Meanwhile my friend Davey Wreden, creator of The Stanley Parable, might be a pure Formalist, focused on playing with the Form and exploring its boundaries... Hideo Kojima is probably at least partly a Formalist as well.

(For myself, so far all I've figured out that I'm at least partially a Formalist, which perhaps is obvious simply from the fact that I'm willing to think/write/talk about this stuff ad nauseum!)

Shay Pierce is a game designer and programmer from Austin, Texas who has developed games professionally for over nine years: first for large companies such as Blizzard and Midway, then on various mobile and social games. He did all design and coding on indie iOS puzzle game Connectrode, under the label of his micro-studio Deep Plaid Games, which continues to work quietly on a new indie game project. Shay also works as a freelance Gameplay Programmer on a variety of mobile and indie game projects.

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The problem is that game industry/culture are not balanced, all 4 are equal importance, looking only for one and ignoring the over make the art/craft poor. And most of the snobbery isn't about a fight about which one is important but the great imbalance we are stuck in. "Do we really need another brown shooter" you hear often, it's all about the diversity, we aren't there.

If you ask for honest answer i'm sure you will heard that is about "having content with the best craft in a surprising way that inspire great feeling". Ask yourself, are we there?

E McNeill
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I have some trouble with these quadrants. To me, the "Iconoclast" almost represents an entire other axis: how much people care about truth in their work. I see this as the measure of how "artistic" a work is (in a "high art" sense), and people can pursue that truth in myriad ways.

My own game, Auralux (, is highly Formalist in one way; it was created by examining a genre and trying to chisel away until only the core remained. But I'm not willing to give up my claim to artistic merit just because of the way the game was made. Another game I've prototype was all about content and so could be called Animist, but it, too, was aiming squarely at truth. The Classicists can share in this as well; can we really claim that there's no truth to be found in the realm of traditional aesthetic principles?

This concern with truth is, I think, the determinant between "high" and "low" art. That's only one of many axes on which we could plot games or designers.

Bart Stewart
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This "artistic tribes" categorization system seems to be about explaining motivation: among artists, why do some prefer to create certain kinds of things in certain ways?

The "unified model" of playstyles -- and gameplay, and game design styles -- I came up with (
tyles_a_.php) tried to get at the same question: what are the primary motivations that psychologists and game theorists have described?

So it's pretty tempting to me (and to McCloud, apparently) to see a parallel between the four artistic tribes and the four psychological/gamer styles.

sensation-seeking Artisan/Manipulator [Killer] -- Animist: make art for the thrill of the performance
security-seeking Guardian/Achiever -- Classicist: make art according to rules defined by authority
knowledge-seeking Rational/Explorer -- Formalist: make art to understand how art itself works
identity-seeking Idealist/Socializer -- Iconoclast: make art to reveal themselves and the observer

If the tribes follow the psychological pattern suggested above, Iconoclasts and Classicists will especially devalue each other as "hidebound" and "navel-gazing," while Animists and Formalists will particularly reject the other's style as "eccentric" and "mindless." I haven't listened to enough artists berate each other recently to verify or disprove this. ;)

Michael Joseph
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re: The Iconoclasts

reminds me of this article from io9 titled "The Strange, Secret Evolution of Babylon 5" where one of JMS' complaints about TV science fiction leading up to the creation of B5 was that it had "stalled in a state of suspended adolescence." I think that's where games are right now in this Tarantino era in terms of narrative and themes but with the additional "kids stuff" frenzied violence as well (which is ironically not suitable for children either). I hope I'm wrong about Destiny. But if not then your friend and former co-worker Josh is going to have to live with the fact that iconoclast types don't consider his product fit for adults. And maybe that will be news to him.

"While science fiction literature had long ago matured into a genre fit for adults, science fiction television had stalled in a state of suspended adolescence, dominated by cleanly defined heroes and villains, simplistic plots and storytelling that wrapped everything up neatly at the end of each episode."

Marvin Papin
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I don't like trying to take the easiest way to reach the result I expect. In that case, I think categorizing designers with discrete parameters instead of continuous encourage to focus on the main sides of them. However, every part of designer though can deeply change a game.

Personally, I design to make the player enjoy the game. With my technical background i care about management and how to make all the devs enjoy the development and bring their ideas but while keeping barely the same results. I'm deeply involved in the dev middles (tech, art). I want to innovate but keep standards the same time, bringing content but not to much to be efficient and so to match to the player feeling, make things clear in a level and hides things in another one, help the player and trap him... Shortly, just bring the player emotions and feelings, the satisfaction to have played a good game and think, "finnaly gaming industry is not dead". The only important parameter is OBJECTIVITY or how much a designer work for the player.

Would it be better if we try to make a chart with different data value like that :
and finally find a word for the global result.

But do not mind, i deeply respect the way you're thinking and i hope your capacity to be objective will bring you to great project.

Paul Laroquod
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Games *are* a storytelling medium at their core. As is architecture. Why does every building of any size have a foyer? Why not just have the front door lead right to the elevators? It's the most efficient design but pretty much nobody does this because it doesn't envision the building as a story. The same sorts of unforced mass conformity along certain narrative lines will and does occur in games and therefore fundamentality of storytelling (in *any* human-experiencing art form) can only be ignored at one's peril.

Shay Pierce
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This way of thinking is completely foreign to me. I'm pretty sure you're trying to hammer a couple of round pegs into a square hole (the square hole being, couching everything in terms of story).
There are a million different "lenses" to view games through (which is partly what my post is about); story is one of them but I wouldn't treat it as more important than any other.

Steven Christian
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Games are an art form, but a different once to cinema or writing, music or paint; often they encompass the lot; sometimes they are blatant money-grabbing schemes.
But at the end of the day, they should stop trying to be other things.
Games are games, and game designers..

Sorry I'm out of time for now :P

Nathan Ware
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It's funny to watch the comments fill up with the various tribes talking past each other with wildly different language. An iconoclast responds to a classicist, and nobody is really responding to eachother.

Michael J. had a very poignant comparison with our medium to the genre of science-fiction. We can think of AAA games as the part of our medium that caters to the lowest common denominator like television, while indie games and "serious games" find themselves having to carve out passionate niches like print authors do.

I think that game design, unlike most other mediums, has been incorporating scientific and and marketing and economic outlooks into the process of making toys before developers were ever focused wholeheartedly on making expressive experiences. Our "Formalists" are just beginning to explore what the "Classics" of our genre are. Our "Animists" have been entirely hindered in producing content by the medium they work in. And our "Iconoclasts" havent been able to make money expressing any emotion other than 'Power-hunger.'

We're finally getting to the point where developers have been trying to express more emotions than just fun and the 'perfect game' is no longer just the most addicting one, so maybe we finally have the chance to ask this question.

While we're still working out what to call our 4 categories of designers, i'd like to reference Stephen Montgomery's descriptions of Kiersey's 4 temperaments. They may give us direction.
Artisans are considered the playful, action-oriented temperament; Rationals are considered the engineering, technology-oriented temperament; Guardians are the steady, cornerstone-oriented temperament; and Idealists are considered the ethical, personality-oriented temperament.

Now, if we really want these names to be useful, they should convey some sort of prediction of what kind of game a developer favoring one personality would make, so a useful model would be to describe what each type would favor in game-design and what, when prompted, would they drop.
Here is where defining developer types gets dicey, because our developing medium (oh hey, I totally did not mean that pun, haha) is evolving to serve our established market, and our "Classicists" are making lots of money by establishing and perfecting the language and mechanics of Fun, and our "Formalists" have been exploring ways that their experiments can be turned into great and novel spectacles, and our "Iconoclasts" and "Animists" have been struggling against them at every turn to make less conservative and more expressive gameplay, and introduce more normal-life "realism".

If we were to try and translate these 4 types currently, more roles than game-design would have to be incorporated into especially the Formalist camp to make the pattern work. The Formal camp would be full of engine designers and console peripheral manufacturers and economic systems designers along with designers making games just because they have cool water effects. The Animists would include manipulative marketing-game designers and lore-masters along with many of the art-game and persuasive game designers. The Classical camp would be making the majority of polished derivative AAA games, as well as the indie developers who have been refining an hearkening back to old school fun. The Iconic camp is almost entirely made up of simulation game designers, as well as many indie designers who focus on capturing a more esoteric feeling.

We can sort of work with these categories, but they will all need updating when the era starts that technology-focused designers have reached a plateau of technically "better" game presentation, and focus on evolving and revolutionizing the way we approach and think about games more than the way we render them.

Iconoclasts could be redefined as Translators, game designers who do their best to express real-world experiences in their most honest forms, and may sacrifice cohesiveness for the chaos of real dynamics.

Classicists could be defined as Refiners, game designers who take the work of all other designers and refine its symmetry and beauty and create more palatable works.

Formalists could be redefined as Experimenters, game designers who mix and match dynamics and modes of interaction. They explore ways to show the world games they have never seen before.

Animists could be redefined as Messengers, game designers who want to convince their audience of a fundamental truth, and will sacrifice anything to help them take players along on that journey of discovery.

Maybe I should expand this comment into a blog post...

Shay Pierce
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Yes you should expand this into a blog post!

I think that AAA games are more like summer blockbuster movies than TV shows; I also think that casual Facebook games are more like cheap lowest-common-denominator TV shows. I also think those things are "Classicist" and "Animist" fields respectively... and neither is likely to show you something that surprises you. (Hence both being on the "Tradition" versus "Revolution" axis in McCloud's diagram.)

The tension between "simulationist" and "pure abstract fun" in game design might be an important spectrum here, but I don't feel that it captures the "life versus art" dichotomy perfectly... I still haven't defined this spectrum well in my head... definitely interested in more discussion!

You discuss a lot about technology and engineering - I want to focus this on the art/craft of game design, and I think that technology is relatively incidental to this... in fact I'd be happy if these definitions were broad enough to consider designers of board and card games on the same footing as the designers of video games. But of course technology will always be a factor, and perhaps I'm underestimating the role it can play.

I do mostly like your four ways of defining the four types at the end! But I feel like defining "Iconoclast" as someone whose need to express Truth basically leads them to only design games as hyper-accurate simulations, doesn't quite hit the mark... to me an Iconoclast wants to talk about things personal to them, and talk about things that the art form has usually avoided talking about, and confront things we're uncomfortable with. I think of Cactus as being very iconoclastic.

Brandon S
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Hm.. definitely think Scott model is a great idea and it apply to European art history and art tradition.. I do not believe it applicable to other human cultures though. The concept of pure aesthetic and separating expression from function to create meaning etc .Is completely alien idea to many African culture and non-European cultures . I studied and my own social-background and ancestors. i.e Something could have as much meaning as a Van Goh painting, but have everyday use community usage practical usage.(if gaming media had of developed in Africa some 200 years ago , Creators would not be struggling with trying to prove how meaningful is my activity . Since the meaning is inherit in it relationships to the community )So what was consider meaningful and ritual related to forming meaning are radically different and still radically different . Not sure where that would fit on the graph

There a classically designed object (There a clear design traditions to the object ), But it meaning is in direct relationships to the actual people around the object There Local community and only make sense to them . But the object is not concerned with looking like reality and almost never looks realistic , nor is the spectator around the object concerned with how realistic it is .If you take the object and put it in a British museum you lose all the meaning and value it held for that people .. Also had a completely different idea on what it meant to represent reality , they might go “The energy of a person “ . It’s meaning is directly related to it’s place in the ceremony ,the people , the musics

The object might relate to a concepts ,and the object could be expressed differently , but it nor real concern of how it expressed but how it fit the function in relationships to everything else in the society (music , people , the ceremony , the functional everyday usages)

Not sure where that would fit on the graph . But there a system of meaning at work would be produce a radically different design

Japan might be a better comparison since they have a Rigidity hierarchical formal traditions that close to art ...but the imitation of life angle is where we run into a problem

Buddhist cosmology Reality is Mind and Energy and the Physical reality is the illusion , Realism would be akin to something "suffering existence" .. having nothing to do with if the works looks like simulation of the physical reality ,completely divorced from that idea honestly

So..... I am guessing a mixture between a Classicist and an Animist and remove the Idea that Art Imitate life from the formula ? There is a abstract relationships to feeling and experiences ,but doesn't have to look like the physical world at all since it an illusion in Buddhist Cosmology . The Japanese can make simulation of a physical world (Sure ) but there no special value placed on it the way . Western culture seem to obsess over real and authenticity .

“The Iconoclasts value truth and experience in art. To them art must be authentic, must show life as it is. They take aim at artistic conventions that gloss over the imperfections and disappointments at life. Artists who speak of "honesty" or "rawness" are voicing iconoclastic ideas. Their catch-word is truth, and they are Jung's feeling archetype.”

Hm yeah that definitely something unique to a 18th century European cultural tradition of art struggling with the idea that Art Imitate life in a very literal sense .

Axel Cholewa
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I liked your article, probably I'm a formalist myself ;)

But I do not really understand the catch word "content". I understand that it's connected to story, characters and the like, but in my oppinion content is too general for a catch word. There can be musical content, graphical content and lots of other content. Story is just one of those.

I think a better catch word for Animists would be "motive". After all, a motive is what animates me.

Anyway, here's my try at "campfires and designers" (although I think one should rather categorize works than designers because the latter might change camps):

Kim Swift (Portal) - Formalist
Jonathan Blow (Braid) - Iconoclast/Formalist
Jenova Chen/Kelly Santiago (Journey) - Iconclast/Formalist
Casey Hudson (Mass Effect) - Classicist/Animist
Eric Chahi (Another World) - Animist
Eric Chahi (From Dust) - Formalist/Classicist
Michel Ansel (Beyond Good & Evil) - Animist/Classicits
Michel Ansel (Rayman Origins) - Classicist

Axel Cholewa
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And while I'm at it, I'd replace "beauty" by "perfection" as the Classicists' catch word.