Opinion: Forget 'Games As Art' -- Try A New Approach

Gamasutra's Christian Nutt argues that the road to improving the cultural currency of games lies not in wishing you're making "art", but making small changes to improve products already in development.
[Gamasutra's Christian Nutt argues that the road to improving the cultural currency of games lies not in wishing you're making "art", but making small changes to improve products already in development.] The "games as art" debate is tiring me out. At GDC, after a tiring week, I was at a post-show party. Standing in a circle of developers, the topic arose naturally, as it does. I didn't catch the name of the guy who spoke up first, but I inwardly sighed as I realized that I was in for another completely naive discussion of the subject. There's nothing wrong with earnestness and naivete; it's just that there's something at least bordering on wrong with not harnessing this intellectual energy and actually turning it into something more meaningful. Jim Preston, in his Gamasutra essay cheekily entitled "The Arty Party", made light of game developers' pretensions towards art. But he also made a really relevant point that doesn't quite seem to be penetrating: "The problem with [the idea that there's an art establishment to aspire to] is that it isn't even remotely close to reflecting the state of art in 21st century America. To think that there is a single, generally agreed upon concept of art is to get it precisely backwards. Americans' attitude towards art is profoundly divided, disjointed and confused; and my message to gamers is to simply ignore the "is-it-art?" debate altogether." Gamasutra columnist Ian Bogost -- explicitly agreeing with Preston -- took this discussion a step further earlier this year by pointing out that in fine art, there are movements and schools, and that's the context in which art can be defined in games; he proposed a school called Proceduralist. Watch us wildly diverge from what developers generally seem to mean when they bring up the "games as art" thing. That's instructive. It illustrates that the creative impetus to create something worthwhile or more culturally relevant is actually a separate one from the simple concept of creating art -- as it should be. Shadow of the Colossus and Ico are two of the most reliably cited games when the discussion of games as art looms -- at least when we're talking about games produced by large, professional development studios. At this year's GDC when director Fumito Ueda was point-blank asked about that, he responded, "My team and I are making a game which is close to art -- that's what people say. Personally I don't think that way. We're making a game to entertain people. Sometimes my personality and my team's might be reflected on the game, and it might look like art, but it is a game to entertain people. That kind of feedback is welcome but it's not what I'm trying to achieve." Inclusive, Exclusive Before we abandon from the discussion of what's art and what is not art, it's worth looking at what some incredibly successful creators -- artists? -- have to say about the topic. More Ueda, from a Guardian interview: "If I was not in the games industry, I would want to become a classical artist. Though I regard not only games but also anything that expresses something -- be it films, novels or manga -- as forms of art." While that seems to contradict what's quoted above, it's interesting to think about what the difference between "forms of art" and "art" is. I think that's kind of where the crux of the argument lies, in a way. It's about the intent of a creative endeavor, versus the outcome. As Bogost pointed out in his Proceduralist piece, Dada artist "Marcel Duchamp made a urinal into art by putting it in a gallery rather than a restroom." If we put a copy of Postal 2 into a gallery, in other words, it becomes art. That may illustrate the meaninglessness of the question. Observing the most successful living artist in the world, Damien Hirst, offers up a lot of really fascinating ways to look at this sort of debate through. First, of course, is the news that he is an immense commercializer of his own work. Said Hirst, in an interview with the Guardian, "There is an attitude that you're not a real artist if you make money, if you're not starving in a garret with holes in your jeans. But me and Warhol and Picasso, we took on the commercial aspect of art. Goya, Rembrandt, Velasquez, all of those guys, they were all thinking about the commercial aspect of their work. It's art first though, money second. I've taken the risk that the art will outshine the money -- I think it will, I hope so." He would know. He sold a diamond-encrusted skull for £50 million in 2007 -- then approximately $100 million in U.S. dollars. The title of the work is "For the Love of God" -- which may imply it's the pretentiousness of the title, rather than the crassness of the actual item or its inherent commercialization that defines something as art. Columnist Germaine Greer writes about Hirst's spot paintings: "Hirst is quite frank about what he doesn't do. He doesn't paint his triumphantly vacuous spot paintings -- the best spot paintings by Damien Hirst are those painted by Rachel Howard. His undeniable genius consists in getting people to buy them. Damien Hirst is a brand, because the art form of the 21st century is marketing." These paintings were mass-produced in his studio by assistants. Few were painted by Hirst. Hundreds of them were sold to collectors. The most successful living artist is fundamentally concerned with commercializing his works; he creates broadly accessible and obvious products -- like paintings of colored dots, or the frankly banal diamond-encrusted skull -- and we're worrying about if we're producing "art"? It's probably time to let that word go; in 2009, it's more than reached its sell-by date. This may be why Brian Green, in his essay, attacked from the direction of "legitimacy" than the concept of "art" -- a much more useful distinction. Incredibly successful author Neil Gaiman isn't a big believer in there being much meaning in the fact that certain works are placed on pedestals and others in wire racks next to the checkout counter. Writes Gaiman, "I've never been convinced that there's any meaningful division between high culture and pop culture -- I think there's good stuff out there, and there's stuff that's not much good, and that Sturgeon's Law applies to high culture and popular culture: 90% of it will be crap, which means that 10% of it will be amazing." Of course, proponents of "games as art" will then point out that Neil Gaiman is a pop novelist. At which point I would ask if you the dialogue in your game is as good as the dialogue in Neil Gaiman's comics, and you'd accuse me of being a jerk and say "That's not the point!" and walk away from the discussion. So let's head that one off here -- it is the point. Finally, What I'm Proposing Now, if you're Jason Rohrer, or somebody working in a similar space, you can pretty much stop reading. Editorially, though, we tend to assume that most of the readers of Gamasutra work at studios, or at least, on essentially traditional video games. And that's who I'm addressing with this suggestion. Rather than worrying that you can't turn your licensed kids' platformer or space marine murder simulator into art, think about what you can do to make its creative palate a little bit more expansive; to make its characters and dialogue a little less stupid; to make more concessions to an audience just a smidge wider than your marketing-decreed target. A while ago I had the idea that making these small but potentially meaningful efforts on products already in the works will have a bigger impact than pining for an opportunity to make some grand gesture down the road somewhere. Fortunately, it didn't take me long to find a developer I knew well who'd already had practical experience doing just that. But first, a cautionary tale: this isn't always going to be easy. Another developer friend was working on a triple-A game for a major publisher. (The game's canceled now, but he's too busy on his next triple-A game for another major publisher to answer an irritating journalist friend's instant messages, so I can't reveal his identity, the publisher, or the project.) His (now canceled) game featured an average guy, searching for his wife after a major urban disaster, as its protagonist, alongside an average-looking woman in a supporting role. Word came back from marketing: make the guy beefier and more heroic; make the girl "Hollywood ugly" -- that is, a beautiful woman wearing glasses. The battle was essentially lost. If that happens to you, fight that, please. Do your best. That said, Double Fine Productions gameplay programmer Anna Kipnis has had some success in this vein, and I think it's one of the most promising stories I've heard in a long while. Brutal Legend may well be tangibly enriched for her efforts, and that means more, in some ways, than another 10 minute art indie on the web. "My basic point is that devs can have a tremendous impact on the game they're making -- and they shouldn't forget that," says Kipnis. When the game was first pitched internally at the studio, she was a bit worried that the "inclusive" Psychonauts was being supplanted by something with a more narrow appeal. Working within that context -- the big, cartoony, violent and willfully stupid world of a metal roadie played by Jack Black -- it might seem pointless to make the effort to bring more perspectives to bear. But according to Kipnis, "you have to be very constructive about it, and suggest solutions. So I said that maybe it would be rad to include things that didn't violate the metal setting, but still did something interesting in terms of gender culture." Like? "Ugly gals, important gal characters, smart gals, sinister gals... because that would be moving away from the stereotypical bikini-clad achetype of metal (and video games)." "It's really hard to purposely make a game that's going to appeal to women," admits Kipnis, "and isn't a wise undertaking," she adds. But adding unexpectedly rounded characters into an unwelcoming context far from hurts the game. Working within the context of Brutal Legend rather than trying to change it to something it's not, and working to improve an existing core gamer concept with richer, more complicated characters seems like a lot more practical of road towards improving the medium than most suggestions I've heard. As Kipnis says about Brutal Legend, "I wanted to feel proud of the risks we took with it. I think in order to make progress, you need to catch yourself when you're making 'safe' decisions." Brutal Legend is -- forgive me, Tim -- unlikely to be the kind of game that proponents of "games as art" look to as an obvious example of one that stretches the medium. But we've just revealed that it's developed in the kind of culture that allows for this subtle growth, the question -- what can developers can do to make games more relevant? -- changes entirely. Do what you can. In the comments for the article Making Games Art: Designers' Manifesto, the most recent feature article Gamasutra has run on "games as art", Eric Carr had something interesting to say: "I think we want to call games art to give meaning to them. We want them to have more substance and we're finding that too many people consider them to be just games without finding any deeper meaning. It is noble to want that to change. We want people to understand exactly what it is we do and why. But, why must it be art or not? What true difference does it make? If we make great things that people can experience and enjoy -- isn't that really the point?" Yes. That's the point. Now instead of talking about it, let's find the approach that actually works.

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