12 min read

How video game developers score art grants

More and more games are being partially or fully funded by grants from the NEA, the NEH, and state arts councils. WE share tips on how funding is secured, and what projects seem to find favor.

In 2011, the United States National Endowment for the Arts announced an expansion of its media development grant that included games and other interactive works of art. While the gaming public took this as an opportunity to pontificate about the width and breadth of the definition of games as art, game developers who also had a foot in academia or in the fine arts paid close attention.

They recognized something that they and their colleagues from other artistic disciplines had known for decades---grants were another way to sustain and fund their work.

Four years in, the program looks to be a success at helping experimental game models reach audiences, It's a good time for developers to explore whether public grants might be a viable path for their  games, and how they would go about securing one.

Foundational knowledge

To start off, it's important to be mindful of what this kind of government money is. It's not the sort of  tax credit that the ESA and many game companies have been lobbying for for decades. It's money provided by the government meant to fund the creation of a specific work after the completion of a rigorous application and panel process .

In the United States, such grants can come from the Federal level through the National Endowment of the Arts or the National Endowment for the Humanities, or at the state level through projects like the California Arts Council. Other countries have programs like the Canadian Media Arts fund, which can act in a slightly more commercial fashion by helping sustain small businesses. In Europe, arts funding is filtered through various ministries of culture or publicly owned TV stations.

Victoria Hutter, a spokesperson for the National Endowment of the Arts, explains that the decision to add games to their list of eligible projects came in 2011 as a response to changes in the tools artists were using, and changes in how the public was consuming art. "It was decided that the arts endowment would broaden the category of media art from its traditional focus on radio and television," she explains, "to help ensure that the NEA was being responsive to changes in the field, and to help ensure the public had an opportunity to experience art from their computers to their mobiles."

"They want to see that you're committed to the idea, that you've thought it through and have a solid plan."

This focus on the public underpins the NEA's criteria for what games are eligible for the program. "We're interested in developing work that has a broad public impact, that can reach a lot of people, that is accessible, so it's something people can get to easily," says Hutter. Game designers who've interacted with the NEA said that this criteria defined the focus of their games and how they would execute their goals.

While artistic merit is obviously one of the big questions panelists are asked to evaluate, this focus on the public interest is an anchor for the games and interactive technologies the program has successfully funded. These range from the City of Sacramento's art project to combine computer generated environments with real neighborhoods, to Games for Change's Half the Sky Facebook game, to the USC Experimental Game Division's Walden, based on the works of Henry David Thoreau. Half the Sky received a $75,000 in 2012 from the National Endowment for the arts, while Walden received a $40,000 grant in 2012 and another $40,000 in 2015. 

Academic alignment

Tracy Fullerton is Walden's lead designer and the head of the USC Games Division. As a developer who's transitioned from the commercial to the artistic space, Fullerton has thoughts both on the process of creating Walden and why a Federal Grant was vital for her to bring it to life. She reassures anyone daunted by the process of dealing with government bureaucracy that the process of getting a grant can seem more similar to pitching a publisher then say, applying for a scholarship.

"They have webinars that explain how to apply," says Fullerton. "It's a lot of paperwork, but pretty straightforward. They want to know what your intent is, and how you plan to execute on that intent. Then they'll need letters of reference from advisors, and people who'll help you make this the best project it could be."

"They want to see that you're committed to the idea, that you've thought it through and have a solid plan, and that you're in a position to execute it in a way that brings it to the public and really makes a difference."

For Walden---a game that Hutter says was one of the projects the NEA was most excited about---Fullerton explains that her intent wasn't just to make a game celebrating an American author, but one that spoke to the themes of his work and communicates how they're still relevant to our times. "What's so interesting about Thoreau is he was writing at a time when trains and the telegraph were coming in, linking small towns and big cities, she says. "So much of his writing is about how the world is speeding up. 'We're now living on railroad time,' he wrote. We would call it internet time."

"He is talking about how we have to slow our lives down, to create a relationship with nature. Some of his research into plants and animals is used today to understand how global warming is affecting specific environments. That's what I wanted to do with the game, was to have something that created for the player a balance they needed to walk, the balance of a well-lived life."

Nonprofit expertise

The fact that Fullerton's work is tied to a university helped her get a grant. The NEA's nonprofit requirements mean that they frequently work with universities, arts programs, schools, theater troupes, and so on. But the nonprofit world isn't just about schools and independent artists, it's also about cause-driven funding. That's what led to the grant awarded to Games for Change's 2013 game Half the Sky. 

Half the Sky, created in partnership with Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn's book and documentary, was Games for Change's biggest endeavor to date when they sought funding from the NEA, explains President Asi Burak. With an approximately $1.3 Million budget, they also received grants from the Ford Foundation and other arts institutions, building the game on their experience both from the games world and their experience with nonprofit projects. Despite the massive undertaking, Burak says working with government funding is "relatively straightforward, once you actually secure the funding."

Since the literal end-goal of the funding isn't profits, shares, or any kind of hard sales goal, Burak says the greater effort comes in securing the funding by properly filing for grants and building relationships to bring the game to life. "Grant writing at that level is not something that game makers are used to doing. That;s a skill in itself, to make a very elaborate argument and to target the things that those in public funding really care about."

"When people try to come to us and ask for help, sometimes we're also helping with the grant writing, because it's something we do as a nonprofit. It's important to know there's no way these grants will be accepted if they're not written properly."

"It's important to know there's no way these grants will be accepted if they're not written properly."

Grants are awarded after a panel of experts---including, as Burak says, a 'layperson,' someone who's there to speak for the public--who review the game and decide if it meets the criteria. So when Burak speaks of relationship-building in the nonprofit space, he's not exactly talking about making friends with an associate producer at a publisher who can slip your game ahead of the queue.

Burak speaks fervently of  needing champions, both outside the panel process and with people on the panel, who understand the value of games and can communicate that value to traditional arts experts who don't necessarily understand it. "There's one or two people there that, whether it's because they are playing games, or because something clicks with them, they get it, and they sometimes need to almost walk with you inside the organization to convince everybody else, who are still in the rigid pre-existing structures for media. You can't evaluate games like you would evaluate other mediums, it's completely different."

Burak also takes a moment to point out the struggle these champions face when they have to answer to Congress. For decades, politicians have pointed to arts funding as a prime example of so-called wasteful spending, framing anything that doesn't fit in a patriotic wrapper as something that can be excised for efficiency. One of the champions Burak cites is John Sharp, an associate Professor at Parsons at the New School in New York City, whose background was in arts history before he entered game design. 

Sharp's work, which covers the intersection of the games and the traditional arts , has placed him on panels for multiple grants, including ones for publicly funded games. His outlook on the process is a bit more practical, stating up front that you need to be prepared to deal with bureaucracy, and a system that treats your work almost like science funding---an alternate take on that view of that public-mindedness from before. "I'm glad there's funding available in those areas," he says. "but I think projects wind up being a bit more compromised by that process, and you end up having to jump through a few more hoops and maybe your wilder ideas aren't gonna receive federal funding. Maybe that's kinda to be expected."

While praising the fact that Fullerton's Walden was able to land a grant, he suspects that something like Anna Anthropy's Queers in Love at the End of the World---without a Smithsonian-friendly American history vibe---might not get that funding. Sharp's advice as a panelist: shape your game as best you can to fit the grant, government or otherwise, that you're aiming for. "You're better off finding the right grant or fellowship for the project you want to do."

As a historian, Sharp tempers his discussions of compromises and struggles to find funding with the weight of art history and how grants and commissions fit into a large vision of artistic development. Trying to pin down the idea of a game for the public, he evokes the spirit of the Northern Italian Renaissance, when painters like DaVinci and Michelangelo were commissioned by noble families and the church to create art that not only defined an era, but built communities and shaped schools and disciplines we still draw on today.

But as a historian and an artist who has worked with the government, Sharp also looks to recent history as well. His own work with the Georgia State Government wound up serving the creation of tax credits and angel investment programs, but in discussing the Works Project Administration of the 1930's as part of The New Deal, Sharp hammers home that public funding for the arts wasn't just about intangible benefits, it was about revitalization. "It was kind of an amazing amazing project that's hard to imagine happening today in the current political climate," he says. "Suddenly what was a broken down building gets rebuilt and its lobbies are full of murals. Or there's a new statue out front, or there's a new beautiful landscape around it. The most tangible benefit is, it puts money in people's pockets, it gives people jobs, and that's how it was sold."

"There was that the assumption was that money that goes into people's pockets is gonna come back out, and pay other people for food and services and products and so on."

Thinking about the Big Picture

We've written before on Gamasutra about the struggles of the 2+ year gap from going Indie to publishing your first game, and while the process that Fullerton and Sharp describe right now is still limited in its capacity, Fullerton emphasizes that this is a process that helped her make the transition from commercial developer to independent designer, and execute an idea seven years in the making.

By begriming to think about games funding grants and games funding spaces in the way we do the arts district of North Hollywood or the Spearmint tower in Baltimore, a model begins to emerge for a process that can be support independent designers---fostering talent and preserving communities that flow in and out of the commercial development world.

It is a model that's under assault. Sharp and Fullerton both note that in countries like Europe, where government arts funding was basically the foundation for media production, fiscally conservative pressure has reduced funding for projects that used to supply independent art houses with films, photography and fine art from across the globe. In the United States, the NEA has faced constant budgetary pressure. But in spite of all this, it is a historically sound model both for the production of art that is historically recognized, and that serves as an inspiration that would lead to the success of commercial projects. (Just look at the developers who cited the work of Tale of Tales as an inspiration for their commercial titles.

The path to securing public funding for any artistic project is a long and hard road, but as those who have walked it have shown, it is a worthy one. Works from the WPA are still preserved today in the Library of Congress and studied in colleges across the globe. As the NEA itself has said for decades, Art Works---and maybe it's possible it can work for you. 

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