Games, Art, and Design

I feel like a tennis ball hit between the rackets of Art and Design. When first exploring critical theory and occupying myself with creative writing and art history, I wasn’t really aware of an art vs design divide. My first university major was Interior Design & Architecture which sparked my interest in spaces and how they influence us even as I moved over to literature and writing non-fiction. Creativity was creativity to me, no matter if it dealt with functional objects or ephemeral forms of expression. But the apparent antagonism between the fields is how they mutually substantiate each other, that is, a lot of what makes design, design, is that it isn’t art, and also the reverse. The main tension is between design as utility and art being for itself; what a creative work is and isn’t useful for defines a lot of the conventions and values shaped around it.


Games have become increasingly bizarre and sometimes alien to because of my inability to locate it in either art or design, despite practitioners citing the medium being both. I am thoroughly interdisciplinary in my practice, so on that level games has intrigued me as, at the very least, needing art and design to work together to produce interactive experiences. It implies that there is this false binary between the fields and something exists beyond them that takes what’s useful to craft experiences. Yet I find in typical game development the less glamorous aspects of art and design, an unflattering utilitarian assembly line in the name of fun the cuts out a lot of the creative process for the expressive qualities of the game. Conventional game making practices reduce both design and art to gears of producing products instead of linking them through a shared creative process. I reflect on this because of widespread recognition of games not being very well made outside of narrow set of expectations of gamers. In my time lecturing around New York City, I find that there is, at best, still a stalemate at how many people treat playing games as a part of their life that they do with other forms of artistic media or designed experiences. We see this tension in games people still poo-pooing a dead critic for saying games aren’t art while very willfully resisting being held accountable for actually impacting culture in any meaningful way except for the act passing time for its own sake. People in the field of games are simply defensive if not apathetic about this dissonance since, when we boil it down, so much of games evangelism is done out of nerds wanting to legitimize how much time and money they spend on a hobby.


Being both a critic and creator implores me to wonder how to do better. It’s not a secret that the exemplar of games as medium are still lacking in effect to other disciplines; I was just at a panel where politicians and heads of games companies constantly harped on games being important because they make the most amount of money out of other entertainment industries. Not that they challenge how we think, not that they open up new forms of expression, just simply at the bottom line they make money for capitalists. This isn’t new, I’m sure you can look up any talk or article in mainstream venues about the importance of games and the first line will be how much more money the games industry makes more than Hollywood.


Researching design and art practices leads me to believe games as a discipline needs an overhaul for how it frames the creative process. More specifically, game design is so narrow in focus and shaped by industrial standards that severely limits the range of output because it excises many opportunities for imagination and exploration.


Let’s zoom out of game design and look at design more generally. Design is better identified by its process rather than what it produces, since design firms like IDEO can apply their process to whatever they are working on and produce a large range of things, from objects to organizational structures to live experiences. They could even make a game if they felt so inclined, and how they would differs from how game designers typically look at it. I feel it is pretty apparent that people in game design saw these design firms in their nascency and borrowed many of the terms superficially but barely evolved any of them. Most of the design aspect of game design rests in prototyping and iteration, with research into audience and needs being handed down from marketing as a given. That is, people want to have fun and the people we want to reach typically play games a certain way. In other design processes, who an audience is exactly and what they need start out way more vague and are identified as part of the creative process. Games are incessantly narrow because of this need for a ‘fun’ product and developers pulling in a range of assumptions of how people want to engage with play. This goes hand-in-hand with why there isn’t a strong idea of how social impact games actually impact the world, because the creative process rarely includes actually finding out what people need. The assumption is that people ‘need’ to have fun, to be addicted, or whatever usual game design buzzword you can come up with. Weirdly, games try to use a utilitarian creation process to create self-described useless work, and aim for a very specific kind of uselessness. Imagine if we exploded play outside the confines of market understandings of what the general landscape of gamers want and applied a process with engaging local communities and current events. Imagine what games would look like if everyone wasn’t in a rush to be the next blockbuster and understand their worth mostly through that level of revenue. I honestly wonder if games as a discipline truly grasps experience in its totality instead of continually drawing from the same dry well.


Art is disciplined by this process into livestock, meant to not imagine but lend to this very particular line of uselessness. We do see individual artists express themselves through games enough that we can see a creative output that is unmistakably at work with life contexts outside of game industry. This divide and conquer use of design against art rarely allows creators to engage with topics without first serving this industrial notion of fun or a waste of time. With the rise of 21st century independent game development this impulse is getting pushed back, however even much of this work is unable to imagine itself further incorporating an artistic practice, since game development is long held to be a drawn out and financially draining process that result in this one shot to make it all back. While they do exist, so few games creators display a creative practice simply because of how few games they are able to work on in any given amount of time.


It is worth noting that both art and design share the need for a creative process, and that one does not need to separate them on the basis of convention. Games are in a unique position to reframe this creative process to not be so skewed towards design and art industrial standards and create an honestly new kind of engagement. Every creator will have a different process and we can engage with different contexts instead of being held hostage by the traditional model of being a games creator. I’m actually super surprised with how different the field of design looks from games, and it doesn’t surprise me that so-called games ambassadors took business by storm because of how secluded the practice is. In a time when we’re struggling to understand games’ place in shaping culture, I don’t think we can afford to take any assumptions that the game design field hands down to us for how to create work. The most obvious benefit is for the social impact sector, but also just for our personal fulfillment as expressive humans who have a wider range of emotions than the current landscape of games would lead us to believe.

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