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Making Games Art: The Designers' Manifesto
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Making Games Art: The Designers' Manifesto

March 31, 2009 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 5 Next

Some Historical Context

But first some longer-term historical context, courtesy of John Sharp, the group's resident art history scholar:

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.

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 became recognized as a liberal art, a cultural form with potential to express a broad range of ideas, messages and aesthetic experiences.

The same circumstances exist today for games as it did for painting some four centuries ago -- just substitute computers for paint brushes.

So how can we accelerate this same transformation of game design into a recognized form of art? History teaches us that it will require the explicit efforts of those creating and passionate about game design, through the establishment of cultural structures and institutions.

For this to happen game publishers, the entire industry, the gaming audience, academia, mass media, and mass culture all need to embrace game designers as potential artists. But more so, game designers as individuals need to take the responsibility and deep risk to consider what they do art.

Game Designer as Artist? Really?

It's difficult to discuss the transformation of game design into an art form without first addressing basic terminology. This boils down to three key questions: What is a game designer? What is an artist? and What does it mean to be an artist in the context of game development?

Easy stuff.

What is a Game Designer?

A game designer creates the potential of a dynamic play experience through the creation of mechanics and a play space that receives one or more players. The game designer is the rule maker, the person who defines the mechanics and conceives of the environment in which the play experience takes place. While in some cases the game designer may manage the project, they are more likely to be part of a much larger team that produces the game according to their vision of the play experience.

Game development has more in common with software development (which it of course is) 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 do not see game design as an art. You just run some programs and slap at the keyboard for long enough, and a game pops out, right? Even the word "designer" implies craft, not art.

To see the game designer as an artist is to see them as the 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 or small group responsible for the game -- the show runner, to use TV parlance. Likewise, though a group of hundreds may have produced the game, it is the game designer who is ultimately accountable for the successes and failures of that game.

What is an Artist?

Tackling the definition of art is a fool's errand, but still some shared understanding of what it is to be an artist is necessary. The simplest way to consider this is to see an artist as a person who conceives of and executes an overriding vision that is manifest in an artwork. Artworks are created to convey meaning that otherwise cannot be expressed through words, through actions, or even another art form. The meaning of an artwork does not have to be solution-oriented nor productive, though it can be.

Artworks can have many kinds of meaning. 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. A hard line shouldn't be drawn between pure "art-games" -- Jason Rohrer's Passage or Ron Humble's The Marriage -- and well-crafted, sophisticated mainstream games -- Animal Crossing, Diner Dash, or Sid Meier's Civilization Revolution.

We see reason for society to value games as an art form capable of multiple forms of expression to varying audiences, just like film, painting and novels. We'll use the phrase "well-crafted, expressive games" to speak to the wide gamut of games we see as artful.

Jason Rohrer's Passage

What does it mean to be an artist in the context of games?

To determine how a game designer is an artist, we must first identify where the art lies in games. The place where most folks look, the visuals and sounds of a game, are of course not what is unique and most interesting about games. The art of games is found in the participatory play experience.

In this regard, games are perhaps akin to ballet or music written for orchestras. But there is an important distinction to be drawn here. Games differ from music or dance in that the game designer does not orchestrate. The game designer enables a play experience.

Games produce meaning, but in a very unique way, a way that no other medium can. Game design is a second-order discipline, which differs from most every other expressive medium. 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. Players create meaning through their actions within the play space created by the game designer. Within the space of possibility the game designer created, players can have a unique play experience enabled by the game designer.

This is the art of game design. It is a unique quality amongst the fine arts.

Now that we know exactly what art is, there are three significant problems that need to be overcome before well-crafted, expressive games can be promoted as such: The Image Problem, The Leadership Problem, and the Money Problem.

Article Start Previous Page 2 of 5 Next

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