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The Art History... Of Games? A New Conference, Romero Explain
The Art History... Of Games? A New Conference, Romero Explain
February 5, 2010 | By Charles J. Pratt

February 5, 2010 | By Charles J. Pratt
More: Console/PC

It may not be obvious that games have an "art history," or why there needs to be a conference that's entirely focused on that particular subject.

So, in their opening panel for the Art History of Games conference in Atlanta, Georgia, which Gamasutra will be covering in-depth, organizers Ian Bogost, Michael Nitsche, and John Sharp entertained those very questions as to why an art history of games is needed.

The overall event is a three-day public symposium in which, according to organizers, "members of the fields of game studies, art history and related areas of cultural studies gather to investigate games as an art form."

Also featured in the conference is the premiere of commissioned art games by Jason Rohrer, Tale of Tales and Nathalie Pozzi and Eric Zimmerman, of which there's more information available on the official Art History Of Games commissioned game site.

So, how about the concept of "an art history of games," and whether it's valid?

"It's interesting that we have to justify this question in the first place," said co-organizer, author and IGF Nuovo Award finalist Bogost (A Slow Year) in his opening remark.

Fellow organizer John Sharp added that the idea for the Art History of Games conference was to "start the process of looking at the question of art and games more closely."

They presented three ways of looking at the art of games. "Is the art of games found in the visual arts?" Sharp asked, adding, "Another place we can look is that the art of games is in their worlds. This lends itself to thinking of games as sculptural."

The speakers pointed out that, of course, games can also be enjoyed from a technical point of view. "We can appreciate all video games from the technical perspective," Bogost said, and noted wryly that "this is how we tend to market games."

"Finally, is the art of games in the game design?" Sharp asked. There are plenty of examples of beautifully designed game systems, as the game designer and art historian noted. "Basketball is a great example," he offered. "There's an abstract system, but the experience within that system can be quite magical."

None of these issues are clear-cut. Pointing to Rod Humble's art game The Marriage, Ian Bogost mused, "What if we stripped everything away? What would remain? What makes Wii Sports different from real tennis?"

Sharp laid out one final way that one could claim games are art. He pointed out that the act of play itself has creative aspects. "Is the art of games found in the player's performance?" he mused. "This suggests that the real power lies with the player rather than the designer."

Co-organizer Michael Nitsche added, "If we think that the art happens in the process of playing, then we have to look at the artist in front of the screen -- the Doom god or the SoulCalibur dancer."

There are other areas in which video games are perhaps underappreciated, said the panelists. Sharp pointed out that "you don't usually see games in a museum. A lot of our historical understanding of games comes from representations in art. There's a sort of paradox there."

But what's important, the trio concluded, is that these issues continue to be discussed out in the open, to improve the lot and standing of games alongside the medium's creative counterparts. As John Sharp offered in conclusion, "If we knew [the answers to all of these questions], we wouldn't have organized this symposium!"

With speakers spanning industry veterans like Brenda Brathwaite (Wizardry series) and newcomers like Jason Rohrer (Passage), as well as former id Software superstar and keen game historian John Romero, now of Slipgate Ironworks, those issues are sure to be discussed further.

[UPDATE: Vital to any art form is its living history -- embodied in the craftsmen and women who have pushed it forward. The development of games is no different.

So in his keynote address at the Art History of Games Conference, industry veteran John Romero -- formerly at id Software, involved in Doom and Quake, and now heading up MMO house Slipgate Ironworks -- talked about the masters of game design, and how the pioneers had some advantages over modern developers.

Romero started his talk by honoring some of the masters of the game industry that are still with us, or have recently passed on -- living notables like Nasir Gebelli and Bill Budge, and those not still with us like Dani Bunten Berry and Gunpei Yokoi.

"Our masters worked within a lot of constraints." Romero pointed out. "The Atari 2600 was created to play just two games. However, designers today are more constrained."

Romero then walked the audience through the history of the first-person shooter, the genre he helped to create with games like Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake. "The shooter genre exploded after the release of Quake," Romero said -- "and now our design patterns are being 'genre-fied'."

In fact, the id veteran noted, with today's expanding budgets and relatively mature mainstream game industry, opportunities for big-budget diversification are dwindling: "We have five or six types of games that are going to be funded."

Romero then turned to games on Facebook, saying that -- even in the nimbler areas like social gaming -- the same thing was happening with games like Farmville. He mused: "A publisher is going to look at the numbers for a game like Farmville, and say to a developer: 'That's what I want!'"

Continuing the theme of constraints, Romero said: "Another limitation we have are APIs... the more we put between us and the hardware, the more we're constrained."

But all is not lost -- in his final remarks, Romero noted that plenty was still possible in games, and called for students to go back and study the early masters of the game industry. He reminisced: "We need to go back to the beginning. There was unbridled creativity."

[Charles J Pratt is a freelance game designer and a researcher at NYU's new Game Center. He will be covering the Art History Of Games event for Gamasutra.]

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Alex Covic
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It takes an Art Historian to tell parts of an (insecure?) industry that they are making Art (aside the obvious Donald Knuth "The Art of Programming" reference). I dwelled for 2 decades in Art History myself. I learned what sort of eggs Florentine Renaissance Painters prefered for creating the tint/colors. They did not think of themselves as chemists neither. The creative process can be applied to many aspects of this new art form.

This high profile conference is a great event. I never thought I would get to hear or see (upcoming videos) parts from it. It is important to document and preserve the knowledge of the early years of what one day may become a virtual world, created by engineers, but also created by visionaries, who view technology as their tools for their visions.

The early caveman made paintings on the walls of things they dreamed of. You, game developers, are doing the same thing with much more advanced tools. I call it Art.

Mauricio Giraldo
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I recently launched a personal project looking to visualize different events relevant to the history of videogames and the relations between them. I call it (not surprisingly) the videogame history timeline:

Hope you like it. I am working on putting more and more events daily.

Daniel Mafra
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Nice point Alex.

Depends on how one controls the tool and how one is not slave of the tools, seeing them (and being impressed by them) as the ultimate resource. When you go beyond the tools, what remain might be Art or a really mess.

John Petersen
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Oh I'm sure in time that the industry will convince everyone that video games are art and they'll have a place in the museums. But they are not art.

There is art in them, and they are artistic, and artists create them, but they are useless without the hardware and power needed to see them come to life.

If you took the mother board out of a pc and attatched it to the cover of the pc, hung it on a wall and then wrote "F'art" on a disc and attactched that to the rest of the conglomeration, then it would be art.

Any monkey, elephant, or seal can create art, even nature can create art, but they cannot create a videogame all on their own.

Maurício Gomes
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@John so, videogame are not art because you need the hardware?

Guess that cinema is no art, because you need projectors.

Guess that theatre is not art, because you need scenary and ilumination.

Tim Johnston
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I think John Romero's comments seem to echo the prevailing belief held by so many game developers now -- the "art" of games is being slowly squeezed out of the discipline of game development because of market/business force influence on what is commonly defined as interactive games. Profit motives place constraints on developers to favor the tried and true (meaning profitable) genres of games, and by doing so, indirectly defines the tools, knowledge and skillsets required to make a "game".

Consider the distinct difference between the mediums we have traditionally considered art (2D such as painting, drawing, 3D such as scultpure, motion/performance such as movies, stage performances, etc) and the interactive digital medium. Post modernism essentially marginalized traditional art mediums allowing artists to explore meaning in the abstract. This meant that an artist didnt need to be classically trained, to develop real physical skills, whether its drawing, or painting, or dance skills, etc. Their art achieved the pure separation of the message from the medium

Now, consider how HIGHLY technical and complex the process of developing interactive game media is. It takes a significant amount of time and energy to master the specific skillset(s) required to develop what we consider "games". Compare that to the fact that, someone can pick up a pencil, scribble all over a piece of paper in a random fashion, or collect garbage out of a dumpster, paste it on a piece of plywood and call it art.

But, imagine if ANYONE could download a piece of software that was so robust and intuitive that creating games became as organic a process as scribbling on a piece of paper with a pencil. Removing the highly technical and specialized skillset constraints on the medium would open the floodgates for unbridled creativity. It would also truly redefine what we traditionally define as "art" when it comes to interactive games.

Until commercial influence and thus technical requirements stop limiting/defining our collective definition of interactive "art", we wont see games in galleries, museums, or venues designed to allow the public to experience the medium in a non commercial way.

John Petersen
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Hey Hélder Gomes Filho,

How ya doin'?

You can do cinema and theatre without projectors, scenery and illumination.

The first movies were of lots of single pictures, the first plays were done in feilds.

But you can't play videogames any other way than what is available today.

The word "Art" means artificial. And though games seem to be artificial life, they're not because we can not physically go into the game. So it's not artificial life.

Edit: I do think that the code "the computer language" could be considered the true art of the video games, but I'm not sure. I think it needs to be bound by the earth. But don't quote me on that, it's only a thought.

Sharon Hoosein
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Plays still need actors. And a field. :P

Single pictures still need some sort of machine or person flipping them in order to produce the illusion of motion.

The word art does not mean artificial:

You cannot physically go into a painting, drawing, film or pretty much any non installation art.

As for whether or not code can be art, check out Golan Levin's work:

Maurício Gomes
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Actually, Art come from the latin Ars, while Technique, come from the greek Tecné.

Both Ars and Tecné means the same thing: A skill that a human have.

So, everything that you can do, ranging from coding, paint, 3D, to cooking, fighting, lockping, exploring, are both Art and Technique.

That stupid discussion of what is "art" or not, come from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when schools of art (that taught the six arts, and later cinema was added as the seventh) and schools of technique (engineering, crafting, architecture and law) were separated and named as such.

The discussion is actually nearly pointless. I don't even know why I came up to argue.

Maybe we need new words to define what some people want, like "something that can cause emotions" like some music, paintings, cinema, dance and games. And another word to define "objective skills not related to culture" or something like that.

Aaron Knafla
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I agree that crude folk art is easier to make than games. But, I'm not convinced the gap between the two is a huge chasm.

In fact, many (many) people could make a text adventure game with BASIC. It would be a video game. Perhaps a crude folk art quality video game; but a video game--nevertheless.

It's not as easy as picking up a pencil or throwing some trash; but it's not that hard to scratch the most superficial outer ring of programming--either.

Many people can write a simple video game if they really want to.

And, like drawing or painting, a person could grow from there and make more interesting and complex things...

On the subject of games as art: look around at the boring derivative garbage the music industry peddles as "art"; I'd argue that games maintain more credibility in the face of commercialization than most music does.

John Petersen
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Hello again Sharon,

Yes, plays need humans and so do movies, it's all about humans. They are tangible (You can touch them) they don't need a computer to make them live or better. They can exist in the world whether there's power or not. They are physical and have physical worth and that worth isn't dependant on whether you can play it on a computer or not. Code is worthless without what makes it work.

If a painting can't be touched when the power goes out, it's not art. And that's what I think is in part why videogames are'nt accepted as art. Another problem I see standing in the way is the tools used to create video games. They're perfect in every way, but they cannot be used without a computer or similar device, making them to inhuman. (robotic)

I think if video games could be played on a table top without power or computer, they may be able to be considered art, but it won't insure the title "art". I think they would simply be considered "games" and not art.

In my personal opinion for games to become art, the art has to be taken out of the game and put in a touchable form. And when i say touchable I mean the skin on my body touches the real object, not the code.

John Petersen
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@ Hélder Silvia Saint

It takes no human skill to tell a computer to create a non living object.

Maurício Gomes
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@John, of course, you just shout at it, and the game shows up by itself.

Maurício Gomes
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Alsp please, fix the name that you refered me, so I can delete this post here too.

John Petersen
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Yes, there is voice activation, but that's not what I'm saying and you know it.

With a computer, you don't have to physically draw and object although many people do, you simply push a button, or a set of buttons, that do the calculations and go through the physical motions of creating that object for you.

If you screw up a real peice of art that exists in our physical world, there is no back button. You'll have to go through a physical laboring process of adding material or taking away material to fix it. And you'll lose material in the process. Not so with computers.

Items created in a digital realm don't really exist (They're not tangible). But they can be made to exist if someone chooses to build one on their kitchen counter or wherever with materials found on/in/of the earth or outerspace or underwater, etc.

Art is a one of a kind physical object. But not all one of a kind physical objects are art. Art is also much more than that, but videogames will have to find away around one of a kind and physical.

There are several if not countless ways this can be done for video games. But the end result won't be the video game itself, it will be an object that represents the game.

However, the game could be made into a piece of art, but it'd probably be unplayable. But someone might be able to form this peice and make it playable, that is possible. The only problem then is there is only one of them. (But that's good from an art perspective) just not a videogame perspective.

Each person might be able to create their own piece of playable unique art. That's something to look into. But then the videogame itself wouldn't really be the art.

I think if you dig and dig and dig, there's a way. Whether it be the code that is hand written elegantly on parchment, or a melted disc of the game in the shape of something in the game.

Yeah, I would definitely consider starting with "The art of" approach.

Joshua Sterns
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Interesting opinoin John Petersen.

Is sound tangible? The old question comes to mind, "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" Based on your comments I can come to the conclusion that music is not art. Take away the ability to hear (hardware) and it's nothing.

I personally feel art is so subjective that it can be anything. Rather you can physical touch it or not. The experience is what counts for me. I look, touch, feel, hear, and speak art of all kinds. The hardware of a video game is simply the vessel for that particular artistic experience. Much like the projector for movies, or the paper for a drawing. I think the closest analogy for video games as art is puppetry. Players take a hold of digital strings and performs on a digital stage.

John Petersen
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Yep, and that's all it is is an opinion.

You know I know music is art. You can write music on paper. you write it on a rock, or in the sand or carve it in a tree. Music has already proven itself as tangible. And yes if a tree falls in the woods and no one is around it does make a sound.

I spoke to several well known artists sometime ago about videogames being art because I wanted to create art with a computer and they told me not to even bother, it wouldn't be considered art because it was made with a computer. And I told them that that doesn't seem right. They said it wasn't the same as art created with one's own two hands, that there's no loss other than time.

And I told them but there are beautiful pieces of art created with a computer, and they insisted they are not art because they did not do them by hand and they could be perfect everytime. It confused me for a long time too. And it's quite hard to explain.

But what I think it boils down to, is that it's not really human. A machine is doing the work for the human. There's no human connection (contact) between the human and the canvas. And it simply does not exist in the physical world.

Believe me, I really would like to say video games are art, because there are some really beautiful things in games that I consider art.

Maurício Gomes
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I disagree with you, to start like I said, the discussion if something is art or not is irrelevant.

Now we have the definition of "beauty art" that is what you are discussing (in fact what most people discuss here).

Yet, I think that games ARE a beauty art, I disagree with your argument because I see the comptuer as a tool, like the chisel in the hand of a sculptor. Or the instruments of a musician, they may be needed tools, but they are still tools.

Anything that a human make with the intention of conveying emotion or meaning to others in a non strictly didatic sense is beauty art. Games included.

John Petersen
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I think I figured it out... the reason videogames aren't accepted as art is because they're utilitarian.


Often, if the skill is being used in a functional object, people will consider it a craft instead of art, a suggestion which is highly disputed by many Contemporary Craft thinkers. Likewise, if the skill is being used in a commercial or industrial way it may be considered design instead of art, or contrariwise these may be defended as art forms, perhaps called applied art. Some thinkers, for instance, have argued that the difference between fine art and applied art has more to do with the actual function of the object than any clear definitional difference.[16] Art usually implies no function other than to convey or communicate an idea.

Christopher Wragg
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"And I told them but there are beautiful pieces of art created with a computer, and they insisted they are not art because they did not do them by hand and they could be perfect everytime. It confused me for a long time too. And it's quite hard to explain."

These people you refer to as "artists" have never touched 3D modelling, texturing, or well, anything in game space. So their total lack of understanding what is required to produce those "perfect" "not"-artworks, is totally understandable.

A computer does not create the art, no more than a pencil draws a picture, or a camera makes a film, they are both tools wielded by an artist. And digital copies of media are no less permanent than anything else (rocks, trees, paper are all destroyed with the passage of time).

By your logic there is no art, except sculpture, done only with the hands. Music is not because once it is sung it is gone, impermanent, and as soon as you record it, it loses it's artistic value, due to the use of a tool, and the fact it can now be reproduced. Neither is a painting, unless it's finger painting.

Your concept of human presence making the art is an old philosophical standpoint. That we as people imbue things with meaning and if we cannot interact with it in some physical way, it has no meaning. But all you need do is look at mind-body theory and look at the divisions there to know that such a standpoint has no real relevance to the arguement. As just as valid is the concept that if I can think about it, I imbue the object with meaning, even if it does not exist now, or is yet to exist, or will never exist.

As to "if a tree falls in the woods and no one is around it does make a sound." If you were to not contradict yourself your obvious response to this question should be, "no it does not, for we need to be there to hear it, as sound is defined by human presence"

On the whole they are just opinions, but you sir, are arguing an untenable position filled with contradictions.

John Petersen
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No, Christopher,

I know that when a tree falls it makes a sound, I've seen many tree's fall and they all made a sound.

My beleif is that art exists in the physical world. I can touch it and create it with natural materials. Or materials made from nature. I can't touch a horse or lava pit in a videogame with my hand.

And just so y'all know, I am researching this as we go along. So my opinion may change about certain things.

John Petersen
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Ok, so to continue where I left off earlier about why videogames may not be considered art by museums, there are so far 2/3 possible reasons:

1. They are Utilitarian: The rule of utility: the good is whatever brings the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people.

2. They are a functional object - Art usually implies no function other than to convey or communicate an idea.


3. Commercial or industrial use- Likewise, if the skill is being used in a commercial or industrial way it may be considered design instead of art, or contrariwise these may be defended as art forms, perhaps called applied art. Some thinkers, for instance, have argued that the difference between fine art and applied art has more to do with the actual function of the object than any clear definitional difference.[

Now, granted I do not know for sure whether or not this is true, but it seems very likely this might be part of the problem

Daniel Biesiada
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I absolutely agree with Romero. I even posted some rants on Gamasutra's blogging platform exactly on this subject:

Daniel Biesiada
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I cut the second copy of above post. Dunno why Gama published it twice. Can't delete it myself.

John Petersen
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Yes, we do need more unbridled creativity. To much of the same stuff over and over again.

edit- 3hours later

I was giving that some thought, and it may not be about creativity, because there's a a wealth of creativity going on. But only certain projects get chosen and it ain't because they're the most creative one's.

Maybe creative marketing.

Hillwins Lee
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Art is communication. Game is Art.