[In a likely to be controversial manifesto, the veteran developers that cluster around the Project Horseshoe invitation only mini-conference have produced a list of problems -- and solutions -- for video games' continuing strides towards the pantheon of great art.]
Project Horseshoe is a unique conference that invites around 50 experienced game designers to huddle with scorpions and raccoons in the Texas wilderness and solve design's "toughest problems".
While this may sound like the basis for the next hit reality TV show, nobody usually gets voted off the compound. Instead, attendees break into workgroups and wrangle together presentations, reports, and action items intended to elevate and expand the profession and art of game design.
Conceived of and orchestrated by the legendary George "Fatman" Sanger, the third annual Project Horseshoe occurred this past November. One group met to discuss the most over-analyzed, utterly cliche, pathetic, hopeless, but still highly-relevant problems in game design: How can games be promoted as art?
The group consisted of Brenda Brathwaite (Chair and professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design and IGDA board member), Jenny Brusk (PhD candidate at Gotland University), Wendy Despain (of International Hobo), David Fox (co-founder of iWin.com), Olivier LeJade (design director of Mekensleep), Steve Meretzky (legendary Infocom designer, now at YouPlus), Jeff Pobst (executive producer at Hidden Path Games), Lance Priebe (Disney Online Studios), Jason Rohrer (renowned game artist and curator of arthousegames.com), and John Sharp (Professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design-Atlanta).
To most people in the world today, games are not art.
The 3D animation, orchestral soundtrack, or character design in games is often appreciated as art -- at least a low echelon of art similar to comic books. But rarely is the gameplay itself considered art. Game designers, as a whole, are not thought of as artists.
Look no further than your local newspaper's coverage of games -- more than likely, you have to look to 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 Stephen King novels, but here we see games considered only as consumable pastimes, not as a serious cultural form. Games rarely grace the pages of middle-brow or high-brow publications.
In contrast, the moving image has both an art form (film) and a mass-market product (movies), painting has both fine art and commercial art, illustrated stories have both graphic novels and comic books, novels have both literature and pulp. But games are still just games -- a mechanically-produced form of mass-market entertainment with lots of cool technologies used to make them and play them.
The first question to ask, of course, is "Who cares?" Game designers already make good money just playing with play all day. Why be a prima donna whiner and blather about art? Do we really want game designers smashing their laptops on stage, slashing off their ears, or acting (even more) abusive at black tie galas?
The Horseshoe group believes that promoting games as art would ultimately make for a wider variety and greater depth of games. Games would have a cohesive polish and vision. Games could go beyond genres, appealing to a wider group that could explore new forms of play. They would have more significance to people, truly impacting more lives. And games would actually sell better and live longer lives because they'd be more essential to a wider swath of society.
To get a sense of where we want to go, we need only look to the slightly-younger medium of film. As outlined in books such as Peter Biskin's Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film, even though independent and arthouse film existed since the beginning of the medium, most movies with artistic intentions were appreciated only in obscurity.
It took the glamour of Robert Redford taking over the Sundance Festival, the marketing savvy of Miramax, and the commercial success of films such as Sex, Lies, and Videotape and Reservoir Dogs to create a thriving and ongoing market for artistic films and make the wider world sit up and appreciate certain films as art.