“Are games art?” has always seemed like a silly question to even ask. I’ve been to exhibits featuring an old toaster someone fired an arrow at — if that qualifies I’m comfortable suggesting that the definition is fairly broad.
But therein lies what is probably the best litmus test for art of any sort: Do you think it’s art?
Or, better yet: Did the person making it think it was art?
On any game I’ve worked on, I’ve thought it was art. Not art-art. Not I-dress-in-black-and-wear-a-beret art. Not frame-hanging-on-the-gallery-wall art. But “art”. I had something I wanted to get across, something I wanted you to experience.
Any time I meet another game designer, I hear a story of their childhood that sounds exactly like my own (only substituting different game names based on the age of the speaker), so I cannot imagine this is anything unique to me. After all, sitting at mom’s kitchen table typing “Dear Atari, I have an idea for a game” letters or working on alternate rules for Axis and Allies or laying out a new dungeon, what’s your motivation?
I want to create this new fun for you to experience….
I want to make the experience you have with this game seem more like really fighting the war….
I want to give you this adventure….
That in mind, I returned from AGDC a few weeks ago with a hint of sadness about where we are. I’m used to conferences being dominated by the current fad — that’s one of the reasons to go, to get a sense for how the tectonic plates are shifting. This year’s craze was clearly the coming deluge of “free” games with microtransaction models, the looming mass of Mafia Wars-es and FreeRealms-es and Restaurant City-s on the horizon. Hence, I expected a shift to this and a lot of “how-to” talks, just as “How to make a RTS”, became “How to make a MMO”, then “How to make a cell phone game”, then “How to make a console game”.
But that shift has always been more or less replacement — you were making this, you’re now making that. Different game, different considerations for its development, same fundamental motivation for making it. A shift there, a shift in motivation — that I wasn’t expecting.
So, it was a little surprising for me to hear speakers say things like “we don’t make games for ‘us’ anymore,” or “get used to making games you don’t like.” Or to attend talks that suggested ways to organize an interface — not to make it easier to use but instead to make purchases more tempting. Or to learn about design methodologies that begin with the question “how does this audience spend money?” Or to hear that, since you have no idea what your audience thinks is fun, the best way to make a good game is to run endless batteries of focus group sessions. Or to receive suggestions like “offer anything, you’ll be stunned at the stupid shit people will buy.”
Yeah. That all sounds great. Can’t wait….
I guess, in a way, it’s “nice” to see that this business has grown enough to merit corporations applying the “manufactured band” approach to games.
Still, it’s hard for me to imagine the next generation of designers at mom’s kitchen table right now, a tablet of graph paper and a copy of the Monster Manual in front of them, thinking, “How does my audience spend money?”