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Awkward late night thoughts about why I'm not an artist
Jon Blow makes me think about what I'm doing as a game designer. From what I can tell, he comes at games from a different set of values (For example, I preference systems of people over expressive puzzles). But I love that he is intentionally creating a game to be an intense point of distilled meaning. It is very different than how I approach things. I suspect his approach is inherently more friendly to history. He makes me think.

My games are not art
I make games. It is a sort of diarrhea. I wake up in the morning and the ideas flow. Blocking the act of creation induces pain. I strive for a certain excellence in the results that I may not always achieve, but at the end of the day satisfaction (but never satiety) occurs if I'm constantly making and releasing games.

Is there are larger burning signal? Not really. Instead the games I work on are a dartboard of studies. How do people cooperate? What are the richest dynamics can coax out of this old system? Or this new quirky system involving time, space, people and emotions? I find these questions deeply fascinating and games are my way exploring them. The game I create are perhaps best described as elegant, complete and hopefully intriguing petri-dishes. They are not a method of communicating or evoking a thing burning inside that needs to be shared.

Will any of my games be considered 'artistic'? Somehow I doubt that.

Action vs Reaction
I see most art as a reaction to the world. The artist sucking in the world and then expressing their reaction to it through art. Some yells 'This is me' or 'This is what I think" or "This is what you should think" or "I felt this and want to share." Art expresses a facet of the common human experience and in turn evokes a sense of connection and hopefully synthesis with the audience's existing experiences.

To be completely clear, this is my personal definition of the term "Art" and I have little interest in getting mired the infinite spirals of defining what "Art" means to everyone. I'm much more interested in the concept at the heart of this label. There are various intricately constructed theories that allow wiggle room for there to be more than this. Yet by and large, art that fails to evoke fails as art.

Can games be this evocative art? Sure. But on a personal level, I just not sure that is what I end up creating.

I make things that players do. This is different than art. A walk through the park is not art. A story or painting or documentary about that walk that packages up something magical and deeply human might be art. But the act of walking, the walk itself was just something that happened. Without reflection, it is just another walk. Just another human event in a world awash with human events.

You play Steambirds. Very rarely does that game confront the player and demand a reaction. Or for that matter, express a reaction beyond vague emotions that can be interpret in a thousand different ways. Some players feel bad about senseless war that pervades every moment of Steambirds: Survival. But most don't. It is as thought provoking as walking in the park. A thing you do. A moment in life.

To me there is nothing more beautiful than taking a walk through the local forest with the late sun streaming through whispering leaves. Throughout history, the natural reaction for observers of life is to take that moment and create art. When I paint, I so desperately want to capture that moment and share it. I wish my writing was better so I could describe the joy that comes from the simple act of smelling the dirt and loam and moss. I know the urges of the artist intimately.

Yet these are distinctly not the same urges I have as a game designer. With games, I seed new moments of life. I am motivated to empower someone to have a new experience as rich as walking in the park but unique and as special as the mathematical core mechanic that generates this delectable pocket universe.

Words fail me
I tend to think that neither art nor even language is built to talk about the nature of games. These are tools of description, not tools of being. They can document what has passed and they can fantasize about what could be. But they aren't really all that competent at discussing how to create a functional reality. That is the world of physics, mathematics, economics, social dynamics, psychology and portions of what we call game design.

I struggle with the language to even describe these thoughts. It is really such a simple idea. 'The being' vs the 'reaction to the being.' Yet the only way we can talk about the 'being' is to have a reaction and it is so easy to mistake that for the essence of the original moment.

An inedible finish
So the games I make are rarely evocative. They rarely share something personal about me. Or are universally meaningful. There is no authored transmission of the nuanced relationship between an elderly prisoner and the dreams of her younger self. Instead they are individual. Involving. Memorable. What is Triple Town really about? Playing Triple Town. For me, for now, that is enough.

Yet, such a contraption bores artists and lovers of art. Oh, an event. Dull. Stupid. Shallow. What is missing is the pre-chewing. And a little pre-digestion helps the organs of artistry do their job. Distilled packages of meaning are replicated, commented on, curated, displayed, distributed and transferred so easily. That's art.

A system that caused you (and only you) to die because you forgot to turn three degrees to the left and used a bomb instead of a shield is just a thing that seeds experiences. Perhaps it could be more in the hands of a talented artist whose turns the moment into a vivid story or image. In my world view, I consider that that the role of the player, not the designer.

All the best,
Sebastian Strandberg's profile photoJethro Larson's profile photoErik Schulz's profile photoKeith Burgun's profile photo
Even if you're not intending to transmit some deeper theme, you're still going to be expressing part of yourself in all the details of whatever you make. Art (to me) is self-expression, at least, intentional or not, and even things that aren't necessarily "artsy" could still fit that bill.

Edit: The third paragraph in particular is exactly why I would call it art.
+Sebastian Strandberg If creation and self expression is all that is needed for art then inventing a better ballbearing must also be art. :-) Perhaps the term becomes diluted?
+Daniel Cook Well, when you're inventing a better ball bearing you've actually got something utilitarian in mind, so there's not a lot of self-expression there.

When you're creating a new lamp though, things become more fuzzy.

A ball bearing doesn't really call for personal details.
To put it a different way, when you're making something like a ball bearing, you're designing something that can be evaluated objectively, when you're making a game or other art things, it can only be valued subjectively.

Art’s core function isn’t selfish. It’s generous. It’s about creating an experience. But it’s about making that experience meaningful for the player, not just in a pragmatic way, but personally through interpretation and play.

In many ways, I view you as a purist of your medium. You don’t need to step outside that purity to create meaningful experiences. Use the skills you have, the tools and knowledge at your disposal. Use your thoughts on conveying emotion via mechanics, use social ties and keep in mind what you want the player to experience.

You move me Dan, in so many ways. You are my mentor and friend. The Britannica Encyclopedia doesn't hold a candle to what I've learnt from you. You are beautiful and ahead of your time. And I still don’t understand a thing you say. But above all you are a great artist who will inspire many people in years to come.

I don't want to change you, there is nothing to change, takes one to know one. I just want to remind you that the sonic screwdriver is already in your belt!

Keep on trucking and I’m sure you will surprise yourself and move me terribly. And even then I'll still have something critical to say!
What has confused me about the whole "games as art" discussion is why people want games to be just art. Humans do many interesting and complicated things that are not particularly art: raising children, inventing machines, creating societies, etc. When I want to create art, I use whatever tools seem appropriate for that goal. When I want to make games, I'm doing something different.
This reminds me of the never-evending battle between communication design and fine art students at the local university of arts. While communication designers demand/put an explanation behind everything (= Jonathan Blow) the fine art students rather try to create spontaneous, emotional, unique experiences (a sole product of their experiences and inspiration). Is art and design the same or are these different? shows a somewhat similar conflict: Do we create for others or for ourselves? Does art exclude the audience? Does design require an audience? Does art exclude intent? Can art be design and design be art? What is "art" anyway?

People tried to answer these questions for ages and I don't believe in the existence of a "true answer" or that the search for an answer leads to fruitful discussions. Today "art" only seems to be an disguise for "I just wanted it to be that way (because of guts or some arbitrary rules)" which most people judge as an evasive/naive answer.
Games are especially strange since players aren't necessarily the audience.
Commendable humility, sir, and good points.

Jon's name is spelled without an 'H', fwiw.
Art for me is the solution you choose when presented with infinite possible solutions to a problem. That's why I love programming. Any none trivial program quickly diverges into a infinite possibility of choice.

Making a better ball bearing may be art. It depends on how much insight you have into the design of ball bearings. To a mechanical engineer it may be wondrous but to me I can only see one solution. IMO to really appreciate an art form you must have some understanding of the problem first.

"At last I have a landscape with olive trees, and also a new study of a starry sky. ... It’s not a return to the romantic or to religious ideas, no. However, by going the way of Delacroix, more than it seems, by color and a more determined drawing than trompe-l’oeil precision, one might express a country nature that is purer than the suburbs, the bars of Paris." van Gogh on The Starry Night

The unique thing about games is that they are not only art, but a medium for a player to express art through their gameplay.
A friend (+Francesco Capodieci) and I once idly tossed back and forth the idea of creating a computer game that, in theory, allows players to procedurally generate meaningful stories.

Think of it almost like The Sims, but where the tale is the focus. I still wonder if this could be done, and if so what stories we might tell. The most compelling thing about it to me is that presented with precisely identical input, three different people will receive three entirely different stories.
Very interesting! I was imagining something very vague—the idea being that if we draw everything in broad strokes, the imagination will fill in the details with stories that make sense. I think Frank was expecting something more detailed than that.
Personally, I find the only in-offensive definition of "art" to be "the product of human creativity". I think that your definition, Dan, is needlessly concerned with being "profound" or "deep". Regardless, it upsets me to know that you don't realize that your games are every bit as deep as Braid.

Your little section on Steambirds shows that you are getting hung up on theme. Theme is, as I think you know, totally subservient to the game. It is simply the mechanism by which the game is delivered; it is not the game itself. Games are inherently abstract and mechanical. What's nice is that everything in the universe is mechanical, though, so this is not really a limitation.

So - not that I consider it important, but the purely mechanical decision-making that takes place in say, Steambirds, IS profound. Wrapping one's mind around the abstract, physics-y, geometrical concepts in the game is every bit as profound, interesting, important, and is certainly expressing a facet of the "human experience".

All games are art, including yours, Dan, even by your own definition.
Triple town is not about playing Triple Town any more than Braid is about playing Braid.
+Keith Burgun I think it is profound and important in the same ways that sports are profound or exploring mathematical theorems is profound. I believe these rely on a rather different mechanism for impacting a person than say a painting by J. M. W. Turner. A painting and much of what we consider evocative art provokes a response independent of any sort of deep reading. You feel the brush strokes with little education...there is a universal stimuli encoded in the colors and motion.

A mathematical theorem has beauty only upon reflection. It exists, but is not inherently evocative. You can use and appreciate the utility of such a thing or a game for that matter for your entire life and never consider it to be more than 'an action that you do.'

You can build a game that seeks to communicate or evoke. But this isn't essential. It is fine to build hammers or ball bearings (or Drop 7) without requiring them being more than a worthwhile activity. Games can be and are part of the unexamined, unappreciated 99% of human culture. The process of living, the changing of the traffic lights, the daily coffee, the favorite meals cooked with a pinch of pepper...someone needs to devote their life to making this happen as well.

I do understand that you and some of the other commenters have a definition of "art" that is utterly different than what I'm trying to talk about. :) I'm not talking about the problem you are trying to personally solve. :)

My late night thoughts were more about me coming to the realization that I'm okay not making games that are evocative art. That isn't what drives me. It is not a goal that interests me. If the tools I make can be part of a million people's lives in positive, richly functional fashion, that is pretty darned amazing. I don't see this as art as I know it. I don't think of myself as an artist. Nor do I expect others to see me that way. Call me an engineer or a gardener or scientist or a maker of games. This is still worthy.

I've always had an uneasy frustration associated with the chatter about 'art games' and 'games as art'. I haven't really participated in that conversation since the topic fails to resonate with me. I could give two hoots about Art or being called an Artist or having a game in a Museum. And many of the discussions create an inherent value structure where I feel like I should be judging my works according to some external concept of artistic worth. That is very uncomfortable.

When I hear people talk passionately about their games as art, it finally clicked that they simply aren't motivated by the same things I am. And it is okay if I go my own way and make wonderful whirring widgets of culture creation. It doesn't hurt anyone and it makes me deeply happy.

No gin this time :)

Games can exist without being evocative. Being evocative is something extra that adds to the experience. I think most people find evocative experiences better than ones that are not. So if you have the capacity to add this to a game, why wouldn't you? Is there a reason to deprive the player of an emotional context? Can 'art' have a negative impact on a game?
>A painting and much of what we consider evocative art provokes a response independent of any sort of deep reading.

That's not true. Both games AND art (if you are classifying them separately) both require some background information, some knowledge to appreciate or to be "evocative". Plenty of what you or I might call evocative art would be completely lost on others. A really clear example would be things like opera or ballet - these aren't evocative at all to most Americans, because they don't have enough information.

There's no such thing as "inherently evocative". Things can only be evocative when they have a "meaning". "Meaning", when you boil it down, is always mechanical if you look deep enough.

Maybe I'm mistaking what you mean by evocative, because games evoke emotions from me all the time.
By creating the walk you are also creating the place to walk. The artistic aspect could come from how you design what the users experience when they walk and what that interaction means. But just facilitating users finding their own meaning is a noble goal too. Minecraft did that by just creating an expressive environment and letting people provide the meaning themselves.

Anyway, interesting read :)
+Felix Lee What more appropriate tool for art than games? Times are changing. Pop music has power, and poems do not. Poems might be better crafted than pop lyrics, but they do not have a passionate audience. Galleries won’t provide you a large audience, novels ...heh... hardly. Raise your hands if you have read Ulysses.

For me, if I want to create art with reach, this is my medium of choice. It combines some technique I already have (and some to learn) with something I have to express. But my lack of talent is compensated by a captive audience and next to zero competition. The interactive element of games and the audience participation just gives you an edge on what the other mediums offer. And gives you access to mix in the other pop medias should you fancy to use them.

I may drip some red wax on my manifesto on menstruation in order to infuriate +Daniel Cook on the weekends! But Contemporary/Pop Art came out of that need for more accessible mediums. It’s not like the common man can compete with Rembrandt or Mozart. Pop comes as an accessible, consumable and easily digested form of communication. Much like independent games have grown, so we have a playing ground, and audience who wants to hear one clear voice.

So... I got carried away as usual. I’m no writer :) More Gin waiter!

Dan is about something different to me and we have very different goals and motivations. But that's great because it allows ideas to cross pollinate. And if all people were the same, nobody would learn a damn thing.
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