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Game Designers and the Four Tribes of Artists

I ruminate on friction between AAA and indie developers, and whether Scott McCloud's four tribes of artists (Classicists, Animists, Formalists, and Iconoclasts) can be applied to the wildly different types of game-design auteurs that exist.

Shay Pierce, Blogger

February 21, 2013

6 Min Read

I sometimes feel that I have one foot in the AAA development world and one in the indie game development world. It gives me an interesting perspective on both sides...

A few days ago when Bungie did their first reveal of "Destiny", my friend and former co-worker Josh (who is working on Destiny) was expressing some frustration on Twitter. Josh is a big fan of indie games, and was frustrated because many of the indie game developers he respects were seemed to be expressing immediate disdain for the game. Here's a link to the Twitter conversation that ensued, which I found interesting.

I'm sure it's frustrating: he knows that there are innovative, brilliant people working on Destiny and that it's something beautiful and worth making. An incredible amount of talent and work is going into the game. Yet some people are poo-poo'ing it before they really even know what it is.

 I've certainly found that the "indie scene" can have a lot of overlap with "game snobbery". I tend to be very picky about games myself, though I mostly think it's because I've been playing games for so long that only the most innovative and novel games tend to surprise and interest me. But I don't really think of my taste in games as inherently "better" or "worse" than anyone else's, which I think saves me from actual snobbery; everyone has their own taste and everyone's taste evolves.

Greg Costikyan gave a talk once, and touched on this point; it was eye-opening for me and has always reminded me to keep an open mind about the massive breadth of our art form and the range of different tastes it can accomodate:

Part of my objective in general is to foster the aesthetic of a "broadminded gamer," able to see what people find appealing in any game; but that's because I'm a game designer and pretentious "ludeaste" (a word I just coined by analogy to cineaste). Most gamers prefer to find games that they like, and often look down on ones they don't, even if enjoyed by others. My games rock; your games suck, and never the twain shall meet. If you don't like Final Fantasy, you're obviously an idiot, or conversely, sucked in by the story and don't really understand what games are really about. This is a short-sighted view.

Since my Twitter exchange with Josh, I've been thinking a lot about Scott McCloud (the comic book creator/theorist) and his "4 tribes of artists". He lays out this theory in the book "Making Comics". Here's the best writeup I've found on this concept, and I encourage everyone to read it. Here's the core description of the four types:

The Classicists admire craftsmanship and mastery of the artform. Their goals include creating lasting works of art which adhere to traditional aesthetic principles. Perfection is impossible, but that doesn't mean they can't try for it. According to McCloud, their catch-word is beauty, and they are an extention of Jung's sensation archetype.

The Animists are interested in content. They aim for the clearest presentation of their story or ideas. To some extent the medium must always interfere with the message, but the animist's focus on the content means they try to make the form as transparent as they possibly can. Their catch-word is content, and McCloud considers them an extention of Jung's intuition archetype.

The Formalists are fascinated with their chosen medium's form. They create their art to explore its boundaries and contours, to learn what it can be capable of and how it works internally. Their works of art incorporate experiments, and they often double as analytical critics. Their catch-word is form, and in McCloud's scheme they correspond to Jung's thinking archetype.

The Iconoclasts value truth and experience in art. To them art must be authentic, must show life as it is. They take aim at artistic conventions that gloss over the imperfections and disappointments at life. Artists who speak of "honesty" or "rawness" are voicing iconoclastic ideas. Their catch-word is truth, and they are Jung's feeling archetype.

That article even touches on how the concept could be applied to digital games. But I don't think it goes far enough, and its fussing over "abdicating authorship" is, to me, beside the point of what games are. For discussions like this, I think it's best to avoid the authorship question because it leads us to discuss games as if they were a storytelling medium at their core, which they're not. Game design is better compared to a field like architecture - no one asks whether Frank Lloyd Wright was abdicating authorship by allowing people to move through his buildings however they wanted.

So I think I'll leave it as a challenge to the Gamasutra community: how would you classify different game designers within Scott McCloud's system, and why? (Remember that most artists have a "primary" and a "secondary" tendency - just like Jungian archetypes.)

In particular, does the "art/life" spectrum that McCloud defines exist in game design? If so, how would you characterize it? I feel like I intuitively understand what this spectrum is within gameplay, but I'm not yet able to define it precisely.

I'll start things off by defining Edmund McMillen (designer of Super Meat Boy and The Binding of Isaac) as an Animist first and an Iconoclast second: he cares about creating great Content prolifically; but he also has a strong need to express himself in a raw and True way. Meanwhile my friend Davey Wreden, creator of The Stanley Parable, might be a pure Formalist, focused on playing with the Form and exploring its boundaries... Hideo Kojima is probably at least partly a Formalist as well.

(For myself, so far all I've figured out that I'm at least partially a Formalist, which perhaps is obvious simply from the fact that I'm willing to think/write/talk about this stuff ad nauseum!)

Shay Pierce is a game designer and programmer from Austin, Texas who has developed games professionally for over nine years: first for large companies such as Blizzard and Midway, then on various mobile and social games. He did all design and coding on indie iOS puzzle game Connectrode, under the label of his micro-studio Deep Plaid Games, which continues to work quietly on a new indie game project. Shay also works as a freelance Gameplay Programmer on a variety of mobile and indie game projects.

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