At this point I’d like to take a brief diversion to go into the whole “can games be art?” thing. This may seem like a strange topic to cover in the middle of some heftier design principles. It’s also one of those tired old arguments that have been going on for years now, so why waste our time retreading old ground? I have a few reasons for including this in the syllabus, and you are free to debate the merits and drawbacks of its inclusion in this course.
The first reason for this topic is that for the next few weeks we’ll be talking about the whole concept of “fun” and how to make games more enjoyable. For most practicing game designers, this is their prime directive: Take This Game And Make It Fun. Before we go down that road, I want to make it clear that fun is not the only purpose of game design, and in fact that some games can be critically successful in their design goals even if they are not particularly “fun” in the way that most games are.
Second, as a debate that has been going on for ages, I want those who are new to the party to get a basic grounding in the debate. It’s one of those things that will certainly come up in conversation among designers from time to time, and I want the novices among you to be prepared to enter that discussion. For those of you who are quite familiar with this already, I hope to up the ante so that we can all proceed in these discussions at a higher level of discourse.
Third, so-called “art games” – that is, games that are made primarily for the purpose of artistic expression (as opposed to entertainment) – are reaching a critical mass. There are a lot of very talented people doing very interesting things in this space right now. A lot of art games are very simple and small in scope, made by a single person in a relatively short period of time. A lot of potential avenues are yet to be explored. This makes art games a wonderful opportunity for those who are looking to establish themselves as game designers.
And finally, I know just enough about art history and art criticism to be dangerous. I am therefore driven, to an extent, to talk about an area of personal interest… even though I acknowledge that it will undoubtedly get me into trouble at some point.
For those paying close attention, I recently changed my Twitter username from @ai864 to @IanSchreiber, after urging from co-author Brenda Brathwaite (@bbrathwaite). The theory is that my actual name will be easier to remember… provided people learn to spell it correctly. Keep in mind, for those of you who tweet about this course regularly.
Here are a small selection of the answers to the mini-challenge from last time (identify a physical sport with a feedback loop, and propose a rule change to eliminate it):
- 8-ball (pocket billiards): Negative feedback loop is that the more of your own balls you sink, the fewer legal targets you have. Rule change: sunk balls are reset on the table, first to sink any seven of their balls can attempt to sink the 8-ball for the win. Alternate rule change: after failing to sink a ball, opponent automatically gets a point.
- Martial arts, boxing, and similar: Positive feedback loop is that the more you injure your opponent, the less likely they are to retaliate. Rule change: wait a day between rounds. (Impractical perhaps, although it would probably cut down on serious injury.)
- Soccer, Basketball, and most other team sports: Negative feedback loop where after scoring, the ball is given to the other team. Rule change: after scoring, use a “jump ball” or equivalent to give both teams an equal chance to reclaim the ball.
- Croquet: Positive feedback loop is that you get bonus swings for hitting wickets. Rule change: make the bonus swings optional, keep track of total number of swings throughout the game, lowest number of swings wins.
- Most professional sports: Positive feedback loop is that a team that wins a lot gets more money (from fans, sponsorships, etc.), which lets them buy better players, which makes it more likely they will continue to win. Rule change: not given. (This is actually a real struggle with some professional sports, because it is more exciting to watch a game if you feel like both teams have a chance to win. In the real world, some proposals to fix this include drafts and salary caps. Sports that don’t do something to prevent this feedback loop tend to lose popularity. I’m looking at you, American Baseball.)
- Cycling, auto racing, and similar: Negative feedback loop is the ability to draft behind the person in front of you, letting you save energy so that you can overtake them later. Rule change: race in a vacuum. (Very funny, wise guy.)
Due to the positive response from Monday, I’ll continue putting the readings up front. Go do these now:
- Challenges for Game Designers, Chapter 17 (Games as Art)
- A Theory of Fun for Game Design, Chapter 12 (Taking Their Rightful Place), if you chose to acquire this book.
- Understanding Comics, Chapter 7 (The Six Steps), if you chose to acquire this book.
What is Art?
Understanding Comics is, as you may have seen, a comic book about the art form of comic books. If you have read Chapter 7, you will immediately see a number of parallels between comic book art and game design… aside from the public image problem that both have of being “not serious” and “just for kids.”
McCloud starts off by making an attempt to define “art” as anything that is not done for the intent of survival or reproduction. Most students I’ve talked to think this is an overly broad definition, but of course few can offer anything better. For what it’s worth, if you accept this definition, then “games are art” is not a difficult leap – after all, when you’re deeply concentrating on clearing the next Left 4 Dead level, or considering your next move in a game of Chess, you are probably not doing much to aid in either your real-world survival or reproduction (unless you play Chess in a uniquely erotic way, in which case I really do not need to hear about it).
I’ve heard the definition of art as something that is communicative and transformative. This is also overly broad, but also clearly includes games.
Dictionary.com defines art as the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance. By that definition, a game with lots of “eye candy,” or a game that is more than “just a game” for any reason, can be considered art.
Wikipedia defines art as the process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions. Games have formal elements that can be deliberately designed. Games can appeal to senses, obviously, through their visual properties if nothing else. Games can also appeal to emotions – two oft-cited examples from the video game world are the death of Floyd in Planetfall and the death of Aerith in Final Fantasy VII, although notice how emotional some people can get even by watching a sports game on television, or how many friendships and romantic relationships have ended over a game of Diplomacy.
My intent is not to define the term art; it is about as difficult and about as fruitless as the quest to define the word game. Rather, my point is that no matter what definition of “art” you find, it does not seem particularly difficult to include games within that definition.
Why the problem, then?
If games fit any reasonable definition of “art” that we can think of, you might wonder why this is even a debate. Why the claims, real or imagined, that “games cannot be art”?
Here it is useful to make a distinction between just plain old “art” and the more highbrow “fine art” or “high art” – the kind of timeless art that captures and communicates the essence of the human experience. Shakespeare. Da Vinci. Monet. That kind of thing. The argument, then, might not be that games are not “art” in the sense that they can be purposefully and deliberately crafted, but rather that games cannot reach the status of “high art” due to something inherent in the medium.
I won’t say much about this because it is largely covered in Clint Hocking’s essay On Authorship in Games, which he generously gave permission to reprint in the Challenges text.
At any rate, if you’re noticing a theme in the readings, you can see where I personally stand on the issue. We may not have the game equivalent of Mona Lisa or Citizen Kane yet, but that just means an opportunity. So, let us move past this. Let’s assume for the moment that games can be a valid medium for artistic expression, and start talking about how one might go about doing so.
I wanted to make two key points in reference to the reading in Understanding Comics. The first was McCloud’s definition of art, above. The second is the six layers of art:
- Idea/Purpose. What is the message to be expressed, the seed of an idea for a story that must be told? Why are you creating a work of art at all?
- Form. What artistic medium will you use to express your message? Oil paints? Sculpture? Interpretive dance? Comic books? Games?
- Idiom. What McCloud calls idiom is more commonly called genre when referring to games. First-person shooter, real-time strategy, vehicle simulation, MMORPG, and so on (or for board games: resource management games, roll-and-move track games, trivia games, dice games, tile-laying games, gambling games…).
- Structure. In stories, this is the basic plot arc, characters, and other building blocks. In games, we might call this the “core mechanics” of the game. What are the structural components that form the core of the user/viewer/player experience?
- Craft. In comic books, this includes how well a story is told. With games, it is the ability to make your rules and play experience streamlined and natural, so that the players are not struggling with the rules but rather enjoying the play.
- Surface. This is the outer-layer experience: the colors, sounds, visuals, beauty, attention to the details that are immediately sensed. The “eye candy” of the piece.
McCloud notes that a typical comic book viewer experiences a work from the surface inward. First you see the surface; then, looking deeper, you enjoy the story. Looking even further, you can see the ideas behind the story, and perhaps appreciate a groundbreaking artist even if their drawing quality isn’t as high as you’d like. With even more study, you can see divisions between different genres and styles, and even understand the reason why certain story elements or other conventions occur within a genre. Looking ever deeper, you can eventually gain an appreciation for the medium of comic books, understanding the ways that make it unique as an art form; and, you can see the ideas behind a work, the purpose behind what is essentially timeless literature.
You might notice that this all applies to games as well.
McCloud also notes that, while a work is encountered from the “outside in” it is still created from the “inside out” – the creator must first choose an idea and a form and then choose an idiom within that form, before ever putting pen to paper. These choices might be deliberate or they might be made rashly or emotionally, but they must be decided first. Then the structure must be defined; then the details fleshed out in craft; and finally the surface must be created.
Does this sound familiar? It should. It is, for the most part, a restatement of the MDA Framework.
Actually, I think of McCloud’s six steps as an extension of MDA. Mechanics are roughly equivalent to McCloud’s Structure; Dynamics are analogous to Craft; and Aesthetics are similar to Surface. It’s not a direct parallel, but it is close. In both cases, the consumer is concerned with the surface, while the true artist looks toward the inner core of the artistic process.
Towards an Artistic Process
If MDA represents the outer three layers of a piece of art, how do we represent the inner three layers? To answer this, we again turn to McCloud’s model.
McCloud takes one additional, important step behind LeBlanc et al. He states that while works are experienced from the outside in and created from the inside out, artists and other creators follow a process of learning from the outside in.
Think about it. What was your first “Great Idea” for a game? It probably concerned the surface characteristics of a game that you liked. “It’ll be just like Pac-Man meets Space Invaders. Only better!” Many people start out by “modding” a game that they like, taking existing gameplay and simply changing some of the surface characteristics – changing the appearance of characters in a game, reskinning everything so that instead of Marines Shooting Aliens In Space, the game now looks like Wizards Battling Dragons In The Mountains. Same mechanics, same dynamics, different surface.
And then what happened? Maybe you played enough games to see past the surface, to see that some games with dragons and fireballs and wizards are fun but others are not, and that the difference comes not from the story or the genre but from the gameplay. And you start to see the different types of play, and which types are and aren’t fun. With further experience and study you can get a good feel for what kinds of mechanics lead to compelling gameplay. And maybe that’s all you want or need, to become an established designer who is known for making games in established genres that are fun.
But if you look a little past that, you’ll start asking: where do genres come from? Who decides that a certain set of core mechanics can be copied from game to game, with variations, and that this particular set of mechanics creates good gameplay? How are new genres created? Is there a process for doing what no one else has done before, finding an elusive set of compelling mechanics that have not been discovered yet? And you could become renowned for creating one or more new genres of gameplay. You may or may not be able to take those genres and polish them as far as they can go, but you can create something that other people can take, those who work closer to the surface, who can then use your core ideas and perfect them.
Is that all you can do? It is probably more than any of us would aspire to in our lifetimes. And yet, you might wonder if there is something more. And there are two paths to explore: Idea and Form.
If you explore form, you can push the boundaries of the medium. What are games capable of? Can they generate emotions in the player (other than adrenaline rush and power fantasy)? What kinds of things can be expressed through games better than any other artistic medium? How can you use games in ways that the medium has not been used before – not just new gameplay styles, and not just new ways to have fun, but as a means of expression or transformation in the player? Can you change someone’s mind? Can you change their life? Can you touch them in ways that a painting or movie cannot? How? And then you create experimental work, probably very small games, that explore some aspect of what games as a medium can and can’t do. These games might not be particularly interesting or compelling to a wide audience, but they will give a lot of ideas to others who work within the medium, who can then use your experiments and modify them to express their own meaningful ideas.
If you explore idea/purpose, you instead have a message you want to communicate to the world, and you have chosen games as your preferred method of expression. Here, the challenge is to communicate in a medium where the player, and not the designer, is in control of the experience. You must use every trick you know in order to provide meaning through gameplay. What ideas do you want to express? What deep meaning exists in your life, that you want to share?
Lots of questions, few answers…
You might be wondering at this point if I have any answers at all about how to do this. I do not, but this is because of the nature of art.
This course is concerned primarily with the outer three layers of the art of game design: Mechanics, Dynamics and Aesthetics (or if you prefer, Structure, Craft and Surface). Teaching you how to make compelling games by creating their rules is already a daunting task for a ten-week course; teaching you to create new genres or to push the boundaries of the medium are a bit much.
But beyond that, as McCloud says, the inner three layers can’t be learned from a class or a book. To reach an understanding of the inner core of an art form, you will have to spend your entire career, maybe 20 or 30 years or more, working towards this on your own. And that’s only if you want to. You may have no interest in this, and that is perfectly okay. The world may need more people pushing the boundaries of games as an artistic medium… but the world still needs some good games, too. Only you know how far you can or want to take your art. It is not my place to tell you, but rather to point you to a road map that will let you get where you want to go.
And now, a little art history.
This is the part that always gets me into trouble, because a lot of people are mistrustful and cynical of contemporary art. Some guy calling himself an “artist” can poop in a tin can and sell it to an art gallery for 20,000 Euros, and the rest of us wonder how we can get people to pay us that much for our own excrement. This is art? And if so… is this what games aspire to be? It helps to take a step back and look at how we got this way, because games fit in quite nicely with contemporary art, and we should really understand why.
Let’s take a trip back to the Renaissance, when painting was elevated to an art form. At that time, art was supposed to be a faithful representation of the world; the picture frame could be thought of as a window through which you could view this other reality. The more realistic a piece of art depicted a scene, the better the artist. Judging art was as simple as seeing how lifelike it was – simple! And then around the 1890s, the photographic camera was invented and it ruined everything.
Now, with photographs being able to create a 100% perfect reproduction, the old form of art suddenly became obsolete. Painters had to ask themselves the question: what now?
The artist Wassily Kandinsky, followed by many others, started by asking if art could be its own object, rather than a representation of something else: what if a canvas is a “screen” rather than a “window” or “mirror”? And thus came what is now called abstract art, art that is not symbolic or representative of anything except itself.
How do you judge this kind of art? How can you tell an artist that is genuinely talented and inspired, from a poser who just flings paint randomly at a canvas and waits for undeserved accolades?
The influential critic Clement Greenberg offered a solution: judge art purely on its aesthetic value. Technical execution is king. The artist is the creator, and a good artwork should provide the same aesthetic value, regardless of who, if anyone, is viewing it. Greenberg formalized what is now referred to as “modern art” (modern here refers to a specific time period in the general range of 1910 through 1950, and is not to be confused with contemporary art which is the art of today).
Over the next few decades, the art world experienced a rejection of Greenbergian formalism, insisting that art should not be passive but interactive; it should be a dialogue between artist and viewer; art is allowed to have multiple interpretations; art should carry meaning. This era was referred to as “postmodern” art.
During the 1960s and 70s especially, art ran into a potential problem: it became a hot commodity and suddenly big-name artists were worth a lot of money. (I hear you saying: gosh, we should all have such “problems.”) Still, a lot of artists felt their work was being devalued in the sense that they made it for a purpose and instead it was being treated as a commodity. The work is not as important as the name attached to it. And while it was nice for some artists to earn a healthy living, it was at the cost of “selling out”… something that no all artists were willing to compromise on.
Now look at games. Does any of this sound familiar?
How do we judge games? Numeric review scores. Technical execution. Critical praise for the audio or graphics. Game reviews give “fun” a rating from 1 to 5, implying that what is fun for the reviewer will be equally fun for every reader. The current state of game critique is the equivalent of Greenbergian formalism. We are, apparently, stuck in an odd time warp that takes us back to 1930.
Are games more Modern or Postmodern? Are they passive, or interactive? Do games produce different play experiences for different individuals, or does a game provide the same experience for everyone? Do games simply carry visuals, or are they capable of carrying a greater meaning embedded in their mechanics? You may disagree, but I see games as very much of a Postmodern art form. I hope that some day, game reviewers start looking at games in this light.
What about money? Games are definitely suffering the “problem” of being commoditized. The video game industry exceeds $20 Billion per year these days. I don’t have any figures for the board game industry, but given how many millions of copies of Scrabble and Monopoly are sold each year, I’d imagine it is significant. Most major studios exist to make games that make money, and sometimes developers must compromise between their desire to make something unique and something that will sell.
What is the point of all of this? Simply that if this is an area of interest for you, it is worth your time to study art history. The world of art critics and art historians already figured out how to judge if something is “art” or not, back in 1917 when Duchamp signed a pseudonym to a urinal and called it art. In fact, while many developers imagine the art world snobbily refusing to acknowledge games as worthy of attention, this is just fantasy; the reality is that games have been on the radar of art critics for awhile now. My own literature search turned up articles as early as 1994 (this was a year before the first PlayStation was released, mind you). In all of the cases I could find – and I’m talking peer-reviewed academic art journals – not only are video games being analyzed, but there is an implicit assumption that games are art. I did not find any articles that wasted any time defending games as a means of artistic expression; it was an a priori assumption. Let’s get over our delusions of persecution, then, and make some art.
What are Art Games?
How does one go about designing a game that is artistic in its purpose rather than purely entertainment-driven? This really depends on what counts as “art,” as there are many games out there already that are primarily made as a form of expression. As you’ll see, they fall into several categories. There may be other categories I am missing here… partly because there are undoubtedly games that could be called “art” that I have not yet seen, and partly because this is a largely unexplored space. But these should give you some starting points.
I’ll give you a few games to play. Go ahead and play them first, if you can. Then, read down for further discussion. The following games are all playable in just a few minutes, usually five or less. Those that take longer, will at least give you the general idea of gameplay right away, and you can play them for longer or not. Play some or all, as your time allows.
- Passage and/or Gravitation, by Jason Rohrer. (5 and 8 minute play times, respectively.)
- The Marriage, by Rod Humble. (Playable in just a few minutes.)
- Stars Over Half-Moon Bay, by Rod Humble. (Playable in just a few minutes.)
- September 12, by Gonzalo Frasca. (Plays indefinitely, but the mechanics are simple and immediately apparent within the first minute or two.)
- Samorost, by Amanita. (Takes awhile to play through completely.)
- Cloud, by Jenova Chen. (Takes awhile to play to completion, but it shows you the major mechanics in the first level, which only takes a few minutes)
The question of whether games can be “art” will continue to be debated for some time, I’d imagine. For our purposes, it is a rather fruitless debate; if you are interested in making an artistic expression through the medium of games, then do so.
Studying art and the artistic process further can be useful to game designers. If you’re wondering what to do after this course ends, that is one of many potential avenues you can explore to deepen your understanding of design.
Even if you are not looking to be an artiste, you may still be creating art in a sense, and it is good to understand a little bit of what art is and what artists do. As Koster says in today’s Theory of Fun reading:
“Most importantly, games and their designers need to acknowledge that there is no distinction between art and entertainment… all art and all entertainment are posing problems to the audience. All art and all entertainment are prodding us toward greater understanding of the chaotic patterns we see swirl around us. Art and entertainment are not terms of type – they are terms of intensity.”
Now, About Those Playings…
By looking at some of the games that seem to be referenced a lot in discussions of art, we can get some clues about how we might go about creating our own artistic statements through gameplay. I should be clear that what follows are my own personal interpretations of these works, and your experiences (and the artists’ intent) may vary. I do not see this as a problem; Postmodern art allows for multiple interpretations and multiple layers of meaning.
Samorost is “art” mostly in the visual sense. It is like an interactive painting: very pleasant graphics, and a nice form of exploration. The creators are going for a particular visual reaction in the player.
Cloud takes this a step further, deliberately trying to create an emotional response in the viewer (specifically, the emotion of childlike wonder when gazing up at the clouds). Some of my students have found it coming off a bit heavy-handed in this department, and I remind them that this was an exploratory work that was trying to answer the question of whether games could induce emotion at all, so one can expect it to be a little wide of the mark.
Passage and Gravitation both express a specific idea or feeling (that of death and dying, or parenthood, respectively). Rohrer took his own emotions and did his best to translate them directly into gameplay. The difference between these games and Cloud is that Cloud’s goal is to create an emotion; with Passage and Gravitation, the goal is self-expression of the creator’s emotions.
The Marriage is similar to Rohrer’s work, but The Marriage is expressing an idea rather than an emotion (specifically, Humble is attempting to detail the mechanics behind a long-term relationship, hence the title).
September 12 also expresses an idea (mainly, that declaring war on terror is a flawed concept), but it takes things one step further. While Humble’s and Rohrer’s work is simply an expression of the artist’s ideas and emotions, September 12 is an attempt to persuade the audience. This is not exploration, but rhetoric, making it slightly different in purpose than the others.
Stars Over Half-Moon Bay is similar to The Marriage in that it is expressing an idea (in this case, it is making some statements on the creative process and how you start with an open sky of possibilities, then things get cloudy as you enter this mysterious process of creativity and innovation, and at the end things crystallize and you put together the pieces to make something permanent. As game designers and other artists struggle with the creative process, Stars is a bit more “meta” than The Marriage. While The Marriage could theoretically speak to an audience of anyone who wants to understand long-term relationships, Stars is speaking directly to an audience of other game designers on the challenges of their medium.
Looking at these in the context of McCloud’s six steps, we can see some patterns emerging. Here are some potential starting points for art games:
- Use games as a medium of self-expression (“Idea/Purpose”). You might express a feeling, an idea, or an ideology. You may simply be presenting your expression, or actually persuading the audience to your point of view. For emotional expression, start with the Aesthetics (in the MDA sense) and work backwards: what emotion do you want the player to feel, what Dynamics would cause that emotion, and finally what Mechanics can create that kind of play? For expression of ideas, remember that games are systems; find the systems behind the ideas that you want to express, and then find the gameplay inherent in those systems. (I should mention my co-author’s series of games in progress, including Train, which are exploring the systems behind human atrocity. Unfortunately these games are non-digital and therefore I cannot simply give you a link to play them. But I did want to point them out, lest anyone think that only video games are capable of being artistic.)
- Use games to explore the limitations of games-as-artistic-medium (“Form”). In this case, start with a question: can games do X (whatever “X” is)? Then, try to answer that question by designing a game that tries to do X.
- Create a traditional work of art, with interactive game-like elements (“Surface”). In this case your creative process may be different than that of game design.
Are there other artistic works you can do in the other steps? I think there are, but we have not heavily explored them yet.
Today I offer a choice of designs, based not on experience level (I must admit that most of us are novices in this area, even if we are experienced game designers) but on area of interest. Here are four options, all inspired by the “non-digital shorts” at the end of the Challenges chapter:
Option 1 (Creating emotions): Design a non-digital game that introduces children to the concept of grief. Post the rules and required components. If desired, also include commentary on how you approached this problem and why you think your game does (or does not) succeed.
Option 2 (Persuasion): Modify the board game RISK to advocate world peace. Post your changes to the original rules. If desired, also include commentary on what you were trying to do, whether you think you were successful, and why or why not.
Option 3 (Exploring the boundaries of games): Design a game that has intentionally incomplete rules, requiring player authorship of rules during the play of the game in order for it to be playable. Post your (incomplete) rules.
Option 4 (Exploring the nature of the medium): Choose a digital game that you consider to be artistic and inspiring. Create the rules for a non-digital version of it. Note how the difference in medium affects the experience; think about what kinds of artistic ideas are best expressed in digital or non-digital form. Post your rules, plus commentary.
Choose whichever of these most interests you, and make a post in the relevant forum. I have created one discussion area for each of these four options. Make your post before the next scheduled lesson here: on or before Monday, July 20, noon GMT. Then, offer constructive feedback to at least three other posts in the same forum (that is, with the same interest area as you). Do this on or before Thursday, July 23, noon GMT.
Call for Content
Do you have an “art game” that you have played, that is not mentioned in this lesson or in the Challenges book? Post it, along with a link and brief summary, to the course Wiki under the “Art Game” section. (If you are not registered for this course but still want to contribute, leave it in the comments here or post it to Twitter with the #GDCU tag, and I or someone else will add it.)
Come up with a core concept for any kind of artistic game that can be expressed in 135 characters or less. Post it to Twitter with the #GDCU tag. One concept per person, please! Tweet before July 20, noon GMT.