[In a likely to be controversial manifesto, the veteran developers that cluster around the Project Horseshoe invitation only mini-conference have produced a list of problems -- and solutions -- for video games' continuing strides towards the pantheon of great art.]
Project Horseshoe is a unique conference that invites around 50 experienced game designers to huddle with scorpions and raccoons in the Texas wilderness and solve design's "toughest problems".
While this may sound like the basis for the next hit reality TV show, nobody usually gets voted off the compound. Instead, attendees break into workgroups and wrangle together presentations, reports, and action items intended to elevate and expand the profession and art of game design.
Conceived of and orchestrated by the legendary George "Fatman" Sanger, the third annual Project Horseshoe occurred this past November. One group met to discuss the most over-analyzed, utterly cliche, pathetic, hopeless, but still highly-relevant problems in game design: How can games be promoted as art?
The group consisted of Brenda Brathwaite (Chair and professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design and IGDA board member), Jenny Brusk (PhD candidate at Gotland University), Wendy Despain (of International Hobo), David Fox (co-founder of iWin.com), Olivier LeJade (design director of Mekensleep), Steve Meretzky (legendary Infocom designer, now at YouPlus), Jeff Pobst (executive producer at Hidden Path Games), Lance Priebe (Disney Online Studios), Jason Rohrer (renowned game artist and curator of arthousegames.com), and John Sharp (Professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design-Atlanta).
To most people in the world today, games are not art.
The 3D animation, orchestral soundtrack, or character design in games is often appreciated as art -- at least a low echelon of art similar to comic books. But rarely is the gameplay itself considered art. Game designers, as a whole, are not thought of as artists.
Look no further than your local newspaper's coverage of games -- more than likely, you have to look to the Technology section, not the Art section. In some cases, you might find coverage of games in a more general Entertainment section next to reviews for toys, TV shows, and Stephen King novels, but here we see games considered only as consumable pastimes, not as a serious cultural form. Games rarely grace the pages of middle-brow or high-brow publications.
In contrast, the moving image has both an art form (film) and a mass-market product (movies), painting has both fine art and commercial art, illustrated stories have both graphic novels and comic books, novels have both literature and pulp. But games are still just games -- a mechanically-produced form of mass-market entertainment with lots of cool technologies used to make them and play them.
The first question to ask, of course, is "Who cares?" Game designers already make good money just playing with play all day. Why be a prima donna whiner and blather about art? Do we really want game designers smashing their laptops on stage, slashing off their ears, or acting (even more) abusive at black tie galas?
The Horseshoe group believes that promoting games as art would ultimately make for a wider variety and greater depth of games. Games would have a cohesive polish and vision. Games could go beyond genres, appealing to a wider group that could explore new forms of play. They would have more significance to people, truly impacting more lives. And games would actually sell better and live longer lives because they'd be more essential to a wider swath of society.
To get a sense of where we want to go, we need only look to the slightly-younger medium of film. As outlined in books such as Peter Biskin's Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film, even though independent and arthouse film existed since the beginning of the medium, most movies with artistic intentions were appreciated only in obscurity.
It took the glamour of Robert Redford taking over the Sundance Festival, the marketing savvy of Miramax, and the commercial success of films such as Sex, Lies, and Videotape and Reservoir Dogs to create a thriving and ongoing market for artistic films and make the wider world sit up and appreciate certain films as art.
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?
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.
The Image Problem
Computer games have always had a major image problem. The games that get the most publicity tend to be the most violent, sexist, juvenile, and just plain dumb. The public perception of gamers, one not supported by current statistics, paints the picture of Doritos and Mountain Dew-fueled teenage boys with a violent, sexist, juvenile, and just plain dumb streak. So what image would you expect game designers to have (if they had one at all)?
Games are marketed in a way to serve this real but niche audience, creating in the process a public perception of a violent, sexist, juvenile and just plain dumb game industry. Of course there are many, many games and gamers that do not fit this model, but they are not receiving the same amount of press or promotion. If you look at how film, music, novels, or most any other expressive form of culture are promoted, the problem becomes fairly clear.
The existence of casual games, the Wii, serious games, art-games, etc. have not put much of a dent into the problem. Part of the problem here is that the AAA industry and the press that covers it don't recognize these other kinds of games as legitimate. In many cases, games are marketed and developed for a similarly stereotyped and narrow demographic.
The rich history of video and computer games over the last thirty years should be referenced to see that games can be much more than violent, sexist, juvenile and just plain dumb.
In part because of the living-in-the-now culture, in part because of technical obsolescence built into modern computing, there is very little historic knowledge of the history of video and computer games.
There are a number of useful solutions, some already in action, some that can be borrowed from other media, some that need to be put into place. An important step is largely a PR maneuver -- change public perception of video and computer games as part of the larger continuum of games running from card and board games to game shows to sports.
The point of this is to make the seemingly obvious point that games have been part of our culture for as long as we've had culture, and that we can see them as something more than mindless entertainment for teenage boys.
Making the rich history of video and computer games more easily accessible is something underway, but only in a fairly limited form. XBLA and the PlayStation Network have both begun to publish classic titles, as has Nintendo for the Wii and DS; Namco and other companies form the golden era of arcades have re-released their games; Atari 2600 titles are available on a number of half-baked devices; and emulators exist for most every console of the last 30 years.
Still, there are so many games that you must work hard to access and play; in most cases, it is beyond the means of anyone other than dedicated archivists and those with access to the few public collections.
Given that games are more suitable for play at home, and taking yet another cue from film, there would be huge value in something akin to the Criterion Collection -- an organization dedicated to the preservation and study of important titles that are released in elegant packages suitable for collecting.
This is more than just packaging. It is treating games with the respect given the best artworks from other mediums. A key component of all Criterion releases is the booklet included with the DVD that presents in a reader-friendly (not academic) voice the history and a critical appraisal of the film.
Another solution is to broaden game criticism's middle circle. Most every medium has three levels of publication and press surrounding it: the broadest includes publications that follow the industry's release schedule, reviews new works and does gloss pieces as part of the promotion surrounding new works.
The middle circle is a more critical, reflective form of discourse relating to the medium that provides longer-term critical analysis. And the smallest circle is the work done by academics to study and reflect upon the medium from many vantage points -- technical, social, artistic, ethnographic, etc.
The game industry has the first circle in spades, and game studies is quickly becoming a recognized part of academia. But the middle circle of popular, thoughtful criticism? Not so much. Film has publications like Cineaste, music Rolling Stone, and literature The Believer, but games do not have a smart, critical periodical.
Of course, there's some great work underway such as The Escapist, Rock Paper Shotgun, and Edge magazine. There are also insightful blogs such as Greg Costikyan's "Play This Thing!" or Ian Bogost's "Water Cooler Games." But there's no primary destination that has broken through beyond a small readership and made headway into the larger culture.
We need a New York Review of Games, we need enlightened writers publishing through the New Yorker, Art Forum and Interview, we need thoughtful commentators on PBS and CNN. We need a proactive effort on the part of media to get positive stories about thoughtfully-crafted, expressive games and the culture around them.
The Leadership Problem
The road to lead game designer is often long and tiring. And once there, it is difficult to garner the authority and respect to truly conceive of and see to completion a strong artistic vision.
A big barrier to gaining wider recognition for game designers is many of the best and brightest are worn down by the grind. Because publishers are as handcuffed by the image of games as everyone else, there's an incredibly limited range of genres publishers are willing to take a chance on. This creates a franchise-driven stasis that clogs up the release schedules and limits opportunities for innovation.
The typical game development process devalues design. Modern game development is geared toward meeting the bottom line, with more emphasis placed on budgets and technical boundaries than innovating or maximizing design criteria. There is little in the way of freedom for the design lead on a game project.
As such, fresh talent often looks elsewhere to satisfy their creative urges. The game industry eats up hundreds and hundreds of eager, talented individuals and spits them out without realizing the gems in that rough.
Going at it in "indie" fashion can be a real challenge, even on a smaller scale. Supporting just four people for a year to work on a title will cost a minimum of $200,000 in most cases, leading small development teams to take on paying gigs that back-burner their real work. Working alone requires even more constraints, leading to radical changes to lifestyle or filling the cracks in one's life with the important work of game design and development. More so, return on investment is difficult. See the Money Problem section, below.
The handful that make it through to lead game designer have a difficult time holding onto the power of the vision holder. There are a number of reasons for this, but primarily publishers do not trust the lead game designer to keep true to their vision and stay on schedule and budget. Visions of Daikatana and more recently Spore serve as object lessons in why not to trust the game designer. Publishers believe in product, not artwork. Additionally, publishers often fear giving lead designers too much credit or cache, lest they abandon ship and take their valuable name to another company.
From within the development process, gaining the full respect of the team can also be difficult. Game design is one of those jobs that everyone else thinks they can do better. This leads to a lack of respect for the vision of the lead. In many cases, the lead is in part responsible for this dissent. Often the most talented game design visionaries have poor (or no) management skills. Being a lead is to be a boss, and all the vision in the world will not make up for bad communication and people skills.
Adding to this is a clear standard for how to capture the vision of the game designer. Certainly there are some commonalities in how designers write documents and manage their design teams, but for every lead working in the field today, there is a different methodology.
The film industry has a standardized process and set of roles for how screenplays look, the notation language of storyboards, and most every other facet of capturing the vision of film-making. Dance had Laban notation. Architecture has blueprints. Without similar development of best practices, it will remain difficult to fully capture and hold the vision of the lead.
Film, music, dance, and theater have figured out methods for allowing large groups to collaboratively work to fulfill a singular vision. In some ways, this is an unfair comparison, as these mediums have had relatively long periods of time to work out the kinks. So let's use them as cheat sheets to figure out how to get there more quickly.
What is more likely, however, is for the next generation of game developers to work together to change the industry's culture. The road starts in two places: IGDA and higher education.
The IGDA can continue to serve as an advocate of game developers. The association should take a leadership role in learning from other industries. It could as well begin a program to evaluate the working methods of both successful and unsuccessful game developers and publish the results.
Over time, with efforts to codify a flexible but shared methodology, it should become easier for leads to lead and bring to fruition their vision. The IGDA with its Credits SIG can also help standardize the credit a lead designer earns, and make the designer's role clearer to those within and outside of the industry.
In many ways, the solutions to these problems are in the hands of those yet to enter the workforce. Academia can train would-be developers and in the process instill new values relating to game design.
The many universities and colleges with game design, art and programming degrees and courses should embrace the idea of game design as the heart of the creation of games. Every game development student should take at least one course in game design so they can more clearly understand the craft and their part in creating play experiences.
The Money Problem
As with many things, money is the root of this particular evil. There are very few ways to access the funding necessary to create well-crafted, expressive games. The AAA title industry is so entrenched in its high-budget ways that it is unlikely to change any time soon.
Approaching GameStop, Best Buy, Toys R Us, Amazon.com and other mainstream outlets with a new type of game is not really possible. XBLA, PlayStation Network, WiiWare, and the iPhone all provide outlets for games that otherwise couldn't compete for shelf space, but they do not provide seed money in the vast majority of cases.
Game portals like Manifesto Games, Kongregate and the like provide marketing and virtual shelf space, but not a lot more. Solo release of games using the PayPal donation doesn't scale well as most people view online content as naturally free.
The "give them the game, sell them the coffee cup" freemium method is not a reliable revenue stream, as it requires that the game catch on in a substantial way before a sufficient amount of money comes in. In all of these models, the burden lies on the shoulders of the developer to take on the risk of funding development.
This problem has a flip side: the lack of an obvious market for thoughtfully-crafted, expressive games. When so many units of sequels can be moved to the complacent game buying market, why would anyone want a better educated and highly critical audience?
New forms of funding could help spur a movement of artistic games. There are a number of solutions that can be borrowed from other parts of culture and tailored to the needs of game developers -- government funding, grants from corporations and non-profits, patronage, artist in residence programs, angel funders, and venture capital firms are all viable alternates to funding.
The art world's primary sources for funding are donations and grants. These come from a variety of sources: government agencies, private foundations, corporate foundations, and philanthropists. In countries like France and Canada, the government treats games like film and other art forms by providing grants and other opportunities for funding. In the United States, outside of tangential educational programs, this does not happen. The NEA should look to the programs in Canada and France for models of funding.
Jonathan Blow's Braid
But ultimately, artistic games need a market that appreciates and pays for them. Money talks. Someone will have to make a breakthrough with an atypical thoughtfully-crafted, expressive game using the standard tools of the trade.
Jonathan Blow's Braid may yet fit the bill -- though game execs are not exactly beating down his door trying to give him suitcases full of money. Many hopes were placed on Spore, but thus far it seems it has had the opposite effect.
There are models in other mediums for industry getting involved in the funding of more artful work. Film has Miramax, Fox Searchlight and Sony Picture Classics that all seek out, fund and publish riskier, more challenging films -- with a tremendous return on investment for a small percentage of hits.
A New "Play Session" Festival
How do we get tomorrow's thoughtfully-crafted, expressive genius-of-a-game to the wider world? How do we create a mature, intelligent, but still sexy gaming market?
We believe that a new type of venue is an important first step. As opposed to other art forms, there is a lack of venues for providing focused access to play, evaluate and discuss games in a public forum. Only a festival allows industry, wannabes, fans, and the media to converge with games and their creators.
The film industry has film festivals, art houses, the Sundance Channel and IFC; the art world has galleries, museums and biennials; music has SXSW, small clubs and indie record stores; literature has Oprah, BookTV, and in-store readings. What do thoughtfully-crafted, expressive games have? The Wild West of the web. Festivals such as IGF and Indiecade based on film festival models. XBLA (sort of). And Wal-Mart.
Existing events such as the Game Developer's Conference's Experimental Game Workshop and Jonathan Blow's Nuances of Design survey deserve great credit for making inroads towards legitimizing and promoting independent games, but they are not mainstream cultural events yet. Game festivals lack the expectation that officially selected titles will be bid on by a publisher. And few outside the industry know or care about them.
We believe there is a need for new venues that break with the conventional view of games, and that can provide the proper context for playing, discussing and critiquing. All solutions to the venue and audience problem need to start with a reminder of what makes games unique: they are systems for generating play experiences.
Games cannot be framed and hung on the wall and they cannot be screened at a set time for large audiences. Having a room full of kiosks set up and allowing people to play around with the game for five minutes does not solve the problem either, as even the shortest games cannot be played fully in this context.
One solution is a public massive play session in the presence of the game designer. We imagine this happening at game conferences and other events. The audience would be encouraged to bring laptops, smartphones or handhelds or the venue would supply PCs or consoles. The session would provide the audience with cheat codes or modified versions of the game that allowed access to portions the designer wanted to discuss. Following the play session, the designer would speak about their game, followed by a Q&A session.
Play sessions of this sort should be part of a festival along the lines of Sundance -- an event known for bringing the best and brightest of the thoughtfully-crafted, expressive game community together in a single place. Awards would be given out for various artistic categories. And those with funding (publishers) would have a one-stop-shop to snatch up the best and boldest games of tomorrow.
The members of the Project Horseshoe workgroup are embarking on the creation of such as festival. This April, the SCAD Game Developers eXchange Conference will attempt this format with one of Jason Rohrer's games. We invite any like-minded individuals to help organize this and other festivals. Where is our Robert Redford?
Art Is Coming
Ultimately, we feel that this shift is inevitable. Just as games have recently gone from basement antisocial angst to mass market phenomenon, so too shall certain thoughtfully-crafted, expressive games be promoted as art.
As more games like Braid are made and achieve critical and commercial success, as game journalism becomes smarter and more accessible, as game festivals become grand cultural events, the free world will start to take notice.