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Craftsmanship vs. art -- what are games?

Are games art? Is it okay if games aren't art? Developers including Kellee Santiago and Alex Evans debated what it would take for the medium to get there -- if it hasn't already.
Are games art? Is it okay if games aren't art? Developers including Kellee Santiago and Alex Evans debated what it would take for the medium to get there -- if it hasn't already. After the Sony press conference at Gamescom, the company assembled a panel of its developers on both sides of the question. Sony feels a strong need to promote artistic development, said its president of Worldwide Studios Shuhei Yoshida, who sat on the panel of creators. "I really admire those types of creative process, and I understand that it's really hard," he said. Perhaps the more interesting observation was brought forward by game director Gavin Moore, a 14-year veteran of the company who works at Sony's Japan Studio in Tokyo. Games are not art, he argued. "Games are craft, and it's a skill that you learn." However, that's not a negative view, he says -- particularly in Japan, where people spend their entire lives devoted to very specific forms of craftsmanship, it can be a very good thing. "Especially after I spent the last 10 years in Japan, and they have a thing called 'kodawari', where someone spends the whole of their life perfecting a skill," he said. That's how he sees himself and his team -- whom he immensely respects. He suggested, in fact, that the rest of is team would consider the question of whether or not they are artists, rather than craftsmen, offensive. Alex Evans, co-founder of LittleBigPlanet developer Media Molecule also considers himself a craftsman, not an artist, and doesn't see anything wrong with that distinction.
However, Moore conceded, "I think we will [become artists] exactly when we start growing up a little bit more, and we stop chasing that technology bubble to some extent -- we start thinking more about the emotions of our users." One such developer is Thatgamecompany co-founder Kellee Santiago, whose recent Journey was designed specifically to evoke new emotions in players. She sees the drive to art arising naturally out of the way designers look at the creative process these days. "Especially, as game makers, we're having conversations about how what we do in our games is affecting our players, and talking about it, and taking responsibility for it, and evolving through that process, and trying new things in games, and seeing if they work with our players." She said that today's indie games prove that these kind of emotions could have been evoked in the games of 20 years ago -- it wasn't technology that held people back, it was the maturation of the medium. "The conversation wasn't happening," said Santiago. Staunchly on the "art" side of the debate was Adam Volker, of animation and game house Moonbot Studios, which is working on a title for Sony's AR-driven Wonderbook called Diggs Nightcrawler. He said the question of whether games are art is simple for him to answer, personally, as he looks within himself. "Why you do it is what makes it an art form," he said. If you create games "because you can't do anything else", then you're there. In fact, he's reached the conclusion that "this medium is worth the rest of my life's exploration," he said, and that's what makes him confident it's an art form. However, said Evans, "it's so easy to lose sight why you started at the beginning" -- and Media Molecule had to have an internal game jam to find its inspiration again. That's where the idea for its newly-announced PlayStation Vita game, Tearaway, came from. On the other hand, he does feel that drive. LittleBigPlanet originally grew out of "a vision of explaining to everyone how games are made, like the Lego of games, before we even know what LittleBigPlanet was," he said. "The more we can demystify how games are made, the more people will connect with them," he said. "We're all creators whatever nationality we are. We live this, breathe it; we've been doing it for a long time and we love it," said Moore. "It's your personal drive that keeps you going." Whether or not games are art, why you create them, said Santiago, is clear. "There's no other reason than 'just because' -- because you love it, because you feel it's the right thing to do and this game needs to be made." Gamasutra is in Cologne, Germany this week covering GDC Europe. For more GDC Europe coverage, visit our official event page. (UBM TechWeb is parent to both Gamasutra and GDC events.)

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