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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What is a Luxurious Video Game?

Over the last couple of months, I’ve reacquainted myself with magazines. The last time I really bought and went through them was in high school, particularly standby indulgences like the Gothic & Lolita Bible and FRUiTS, jealous of all the wonderful clothes and duping my guy friends to tell me they found Mana hot. Magazines were a portal into fantasy worlds of luxury, a place where everyone is styled and blissed to the point of looking purposefully bored. This experience would be out of my reach, unable to convince my parents that they should order some androgynous clothing off a website in a language they couldn’t understand. As an adult, the presence of luxury in the things I read now, about architecture, food, and of course, fashion, is omnipresent. It’s assumed you’re reading because you want to know what the best is, stewing in envy until you’ve consumed it. There is something a little more menacing about this, as these are sorts of objects and experiences I can witness at the mall or walking down the promenade of an affluent part of town. It’s so realized, obvious, like life doesn’t really make sense if it’s missing.

What luxury is to these fields of art is pretty clear, the materials or availability are rare, it’s in some way artisanal or uniquely made. That it costs a lot of money is a by-product rather than a telltale sign of luxury, though being able to discern that comes along with being socialized as a person of a certain affluence. Many of the art worlds are centered around the luxurious, with success tied to how your work fits into becoming a luxury product, accessible mainly to the rich before it can trickle down to the public. The prevalence of luxury in my magazines unnerves me; from the everything-grown-just-outside pâté at some restaurant-farm in upstate New York to modular incubator spaces that supply their own energy on the rooftops of Hong Kong, luxury is supposed to be the idea, what everyone is supposed to strive for, a vision for the future where the luxurious has become profane and there is some other trend to replace it. This isn’t completely damnable, as the 20th century did highlight anti-establishment art that sought to subvert the usual ways ideals were commodified, and with each passing generation we find stronger focuses on the low-brow and popular culture brought on by those practices.

Being someone associated with video games, naturally I asked myself “Well wait, what exactly is a luxurious video game?” I find this very specific to video games’ apparent immateriality, commonly thought of purely as a digital product. Sure, there are games that are more expensive than others, and some have collector’s editions, but these don’t really match up too much to the luxury in my magazines. There aren’t interviews about how one artist lovingly crafted this after a hike through Thailand, inspired by the nature, people, and culture, or something of the sort. Because they are digital, they aren’t often rare, rather easily duplicated; what was the difference between the Mass Effect 2 at the Smithsonian and the one in my Steam library? I mentioned this tension before when speaking to how expressive games are stuck in a weird place between art worlds and industry, that beyond out of print cartridges and limited print discs, we don’t really have a strong idea of what an artisanal game is. Are game engines ‘rare’ materials or creation methods? How do even begin to approach this sort of question?

Through comparison to other art forms, of course! Nathan Altice gave a talk a couple years ago comparing video games and fashion, finding the fashion industry to be a closer analogy than film’s (definitely watch it, was my favorite talk at that event). I was surprised to learn how fashion has such a similar contention with art vs commercialism that games does, down to the clothes are for buying and wearing, not for being looked at comment from a prominent fashion magazine editor. Nathan’s comparison takes us to the couture and ready to wear aspects of fashion, aspects that are seemingly missing in games. He compares smaller games made by independent auteurs for highly specific non-commercial audiences, his example being anna anthropy’s dys4ia, to function in a similar way that couture does, which is an article of clothing designed for one particular person’s body. Having made games for particular people before, Mainichi for my best friend and EAT for a past partner (Mission would be my ready to wear example), I can tell you that I’m not swimming in hundred of thousands of dollars and held in an industry-wide esteem that would support these endeavors. Nathan’s comparison reveals a couple things about how games block its own luxuriousness, first, by not realizing that custom tailored experiences (something I find in non-digital games) are valuable in and of themselves and can be personally made, and secondly, there isn’t something inherently damaging about a game that repels or doesn’t fit mainstream audiences. Many comments about my games are how much they are inaccessible to gamers with certain expectations of games, and also the locality and financial constraints of people being asked to use real money. I didn’t make Mission and EAT for every person on the planet, though people asked me for edits so they can play it, they are specifically for those who it’s geared towards: the affluent tech class gentrifying San Francisco and my ex who couldn’t understand the contexts of my financial struggles.

I would go one step further from this, challenging the assumption that games are something completely ephemeral through its digital form. Video games, all games really, require physical objects for us to actually interact with them, yet our analyses of games rarely include them. I’ve talked before about how video games ignore bodies in design and criticism, and this works into what could be seen as a luxurious game, highly specific physical interfaces with one crafted digital experience that speak to each other, instead of general hardware platforms housing many lowest common denominator games. Obviously this would be a huge undertaking, but isn’t that what all high-end products are like? When reading styling advice, there are parts of your closet that you’re fine with getting at Target and H&M and others you can plunk down for Burberry. We could see the the DIY games of the past few years as a sort of middle state between the Walmart and Alexander McQueen, speaking to a low-fi aesthetic that will pass by mainstream consumers of games and hit an alternative scene of players, but not necessarily made for a particular person or with particular hardware.

There is an obvious caveat about classism and wanting to resist anything that allows those with wealth to own a part of culture that others can’t access. This is mostly a thought experiment, but I’m curious to find out how to subvert this. My gut-instinct is to rail as hard against the anti-art sentiments that we find and get these sorts of experiences patroned by institutions so they remain accessible to others, or at least, have the funds made by couture pieces subsidize the ready to wear games of our future. If anything, it’s a nice way to frame a pressing art games problem, and really, a call for far more indulgent games than we are coming up with.

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Feelings about expressive games and museums

I remember the first time I saw my game in a museum. It was one of the few times I visited the south since I moved to the bay area, remembering how breathing is so laborious. It was the second time I went to Atlanta, the first during the 1996 Olympics when I was a child. Most of my memories of then are fuzzy, except for the distinct use of the color orange, from signs to the glorification of peaches to the clay in the earth. Everything feels like it moves slower, more paced that feels pretty emblematic of the south. This time, I was visiting an exhibit that had my first game in it, getting texts from my best friend pleading with me to consider moving there. It was in the back, on its own table and computer, and a plaque above with my name and bio. Surreal, as being in a gallery of any sort was never in my life plan. Finding my novel in Barnes & Noble maybe, but something I made being in a place for Art? This means something, right?

Besides writers, the artists I spent most of my life around up until a couple years ago were visual artists, and getting into a gallery, much less a museum, was a big deal to them. It’s how they would make their money, gain professional clout, and further their career as artists. After this show, my game went to other exhibits and galleries, sometimes with and sometimes without my knowledge. In the end, I don’t think I saw anything from my work being shown in those contexts; for one, like many other games, it didn’t suit traditional exhibition very well, as people would leave the game in the middle and there wouldn’t be an attendant to restart it, so visitors were approaching the game in ways I didn’t anticipate; as well, since you can download my game for free, it is approached as already owned by the public, and therefore that I didn’t need to get any benefit from the use of my game despite being celebrated as an artist and, last time I checked, artists needed money to live.

With the little funding there is for all arts, the amount dedicated for games more often goes to commercial digital ones and not to someone like me. It’s hard to feel like my work and experience isn’t exploited by arts and games institutions. The DIY spring centered around queer artists and the tools they used provided work for many events and spaces, and continues to be the example that games use to gain more cultural legitimacy in the arts and society overall. Yet we are not seeing particular success go to these artists, rather the use of their work for free with little benefits, with the ‘for exposure’ or ‘for the good of games’ excuses. What is going on here?

I think overall, work like mine straddles between worlds, and to be recognized, you need to be fully in one: either explicitly the old school art world, or in commercial game development. There are kinds of games that are legible to museums and art galleries, that get commissions and art world cachet that artists like me could really use to continue creating important work, but don’t and are largely disposed of in video game contexts. The work I’ll be citing is work I like and that excites me, and I’m not assuming that all of my art deserves a place in MoMA right meow. I’m more curious about how artists are partitioned from art and games worlds, and that there is a possibility that all the cultural clout radical artists have been doing for games might be contributing to their suppression.

Besides video games being put into an exhibit either on a console or computer or as video footage of them played on repeat (and often not in art wings but design ones), games take more digital art or conceptual performance art appearances that, overall, are more familiar to people who go to museums. These are games made pretty specifically for gallery use, like Eddo Stern’s Waco Resurrection and Mary Flanagan’s [giantJoystick], which have video games in them but also some other more approachable construction, mainly the absurd, to legitimize their existence in an art space. Or there are extremely high-production physical installations with gamey elements such as Nathalie Pozzi and Eric Zimmerman’s Interference or Heather Kelly, Lynn Hughes, and Cindy Poremba’s Joue le jeu/Play along, that are palatable in the other direction, unique non-video objects and experiences arranged by game design. There’s a more general heavy-handed trend to see play and video games as ways to attract young people and entertain them throughout the museum, much in line with all the efforts gamification has made to bluntly use game mechanics to make people do things. Very little credit is given to games and play on its own terms unless you are going through high-brow sensibilities and funding. These works don’t look like what video games are trying to celebrate as their art sector, yet these are the ones that are commissioned. So, what does this mean?

Leaning deep into my airchair, and knowing that arts funding isn’t going to reach people like me continuing on this trajectory of making small, weird digital games, it means there are two main directions for us to go in: embrace the museum and art world, and try to make games and experiences for those spaces so we are commissioned to create more games and sustain ourselves like other museum-/patron-dependent artists (not that this is some quick fix or The Answer, as all arts have problems) or to create another context for which people want to patron digital games as widely available experiences or as high-value objects that can easily sustain creators. There’s an argument that platforms like Patreon somewhat do this, however it is swept up in crowdfunding habits popularized by Kickstarter, where the most successful people funded are those who were doing already established conventional practices and now want to have money come from fans instead of companies. Or maybe itch.io, since it allows people to play games for free and to pay for them, however it is a free-for-all platform based around commercial distribution and, like Patreon, doesn’t have meaningful curation to have players approaching games as anything but commercial products. If we’re not to shoot for museums and to play into the art world as it is established, there has to be some other method of non-commercial support that isn’t completely reliant on government assistance that also curates and presents games in a purposeful way for visitors to engage with in a new context. I’m not pretending to have answers, just that a lot feels hollow about how games as a whole, the industry, fans, and art institutions interested in games, are treating game developers who strive for expression. Maybe the answer is leaving video games to be a forever commercial engine and moving to the art world proper, or finding someone in the position to a fund more spaces free of commercial pressures. One such space might be Babycastles and we might just need to see more like it and get them better funded. Either way, I find the lack of discussion and following action on supporting the arts hypocritical, since games relies so much on them to feel a sense of cultural legitimacy.

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