Aim for Purposeful Artistry, or “Just Be Games”?

Jay Barnson recently wrote Art. Or Not. He drew some parallels between science fiction and indie games. He talked about how older pulp fiction was how many great authors got their start, and some of their short stories became culturally relevant, and some of the authors became bigger names.

If I understand his argument correctly, he believes that they created art without specifically trying to do so, that the designation of artistry came later, after the authors tried to create good reads for the buying public.

The point is… many of the “classics” – the “masterpieces” that are held in such high regard today were simply yarns spun to pay the rent by these authors. Between a combination of good writing, good editing, a story that resonated with the audience, and possibly a healthy dose of good luck, these stories and serialized novels went on to become standards of excellence in their respective genres. The authors certainly did their best to make a great story, but I doubt they set forth with a prevailing desire to create “Art.”

Now, he separates “art” from capital-A “Art” without explaining too much about what he means, but I think it is safe to say that there’s a judgment call being made here on what he thinks counts as legitimate art versus art made out as more important than it really is.

In any case, while Barnson says he isn’t opposed to games having deeper meaning, he is concerned that indies are aiming to make games that are less like games and more like other, more traditionally accepted art as an attempt to make games relevant to critics, such as the late Roger Ebert, who is infamous for declaring that games can never be an art form unless they become more like movies.

Creating great art is difficult, no matter what the medium, but I don’t believe there are any problems with people trying to create art out of game mechanics.

I think one of the things that is difficult as an indie game developer trying to make culturally important works is that there is a perception that games are supposed to be fun, time-wasting playthings for children. To purposely make games that aren’t meant to be fun is hard for a lot of people to get their heads around. Games that aren’t fun sound like bad games to many players.

If you expect to play a game like Brenda Romero’s Train and think you’ll have the type of entertaining experience as when playing Ticket to Ride, you are going to be incredibly disappointed.

But the idea that video games can be more than merely fun is not a new one. Chris Crawford once gave a GDC talk about how, at a higher abstraction, entertainment is what games should aspire to. Fun is just one way to entertain.

As for aiming for art as opposed to letting “games be games”, why does it matter what purpose someone has for creating a game? Why does it matter who they try to please? If you’re an indie, who do you have to answer to but yourself?

F. Scott Fitzgerald was once quoted as saying “An author ought to write for the youth of his own generation, the critics of the next, and the schoolmasters of ever afterward.” He wasn’t writing to make money and leaving the question of his artistry to others.

So what about the idea that you don’t purposely try to create art, that it merely become so later? I don’t think it is necessarily the best way to go if you want to use the medium of games to create art. And some people specifically want to use the medium of games to create art. Or Art.

I’m with Jay on the idea that games are their own medium, that you don’t have to try to make them seem like other types of art. Games have their own strengths, and ignoring them would be much like how early filmmakers tried to record live theatre productions and not realizing how much more they could aspire to.

If you’re trying to make a commercially successful game, go ahead and try to please people, specifically your customers. But in most other endeavors, trying to please other people is a sure-fire way to kill what you’re trying to do with compromises.

If the creator of a game designs it to be art, it’s hard for me to argue that they are not trying to please their true audience.

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