Sunday, July 29, 2012

Game Design As Art

For years I've been both an artist and an RPG game designer, and as I see it, game design is just another artistic medium. When I draw a picture, I'm trying to depict a certain subject and convey a certain story or feeling, visually. When I design game mechanics, I'm trying to depict a certain subject and convey a certain story or feeling, through the experience that people will have when they play.

Yet for some reason, visual arts tend to be respected as the special creative expression of the artist, while the art of game design tends not to be granted a similar level of respect.

I've been thinking about this since Gary Gygax Day, when someone posted a quote from Gary where he criticized D&D 3.5 - and some of the reactions showed complete contempt for Gary as the ARTIST who created D&D. Imagine if someone took the Mona Lisa and modified it, and then when DaVinci complained he was told that it's none of his business. (I'm not comparing D&D to the Mona Lisa. I'm using the Mona Lisa as an example of a piece of visual art, simply because it's well known. The same principle that I'm trying to get at, here, would apply equally if someone modified a napkin doodle by your aunt Matilda).

I realize that the needs of tabletop role-play require additional GM input to a degree that looking at a picture doesn't, but still. If things were done to works of visual art analogous to what's commonly done to works of the art of game design, we would all be (rightly) appalled.

25 Comments:

At 11:26 AM, Blogger Scott M said...

Interesting thoughts, and I agree with you. A game system is very rarely a dry manual. Take Ken St. Andre's writing in Tunnels & Trolls. The tone, style and layout is all put together to create a specific 'feel' for the game.

 
At 12:43 PM, Blogger Jeff Dee said...

I think you're missing my point a bit, Scott. The "dry manual" portions of an RPG rulebook are every bit as much a work of art as the rest of it.

 
At 2:38 PM, Blogger Jeff Dee said...

This has got me thinking about a better analogy, and here's what I've come up with: composing music. A composer produces sheet music - which is really nothing but dry, mechanistic statistics. You only find out how good it is by *playing it*. And we grant composers respect as creative artists. Why not do the same for game designers?

 
At 9:54 PM, Blogger Guy Fullerton said...

"Imagine if someone took the Mona Lisa and modified it, and then when DaVinci complained he was told that it's none of his business."

What matters most: The Art or the Artist?

What if, after the Mona Lisa had been around a while and acquired many admirers, da Vinci modified it. Is this the fans' business, or not?

 
At 10:33 PM, Blogger Guy Fullerton said...

"And we grant composers respect as creative artists. Why not do the same for game designers?"

What benefit should this respect have afforded Gary Gygax when he criticized 3.5?

 
At 10:06 AM, Blogger Alexandre said...

But what if another, better gifted artist modified that music and came up with something much more interesting? Those who care for what the original composer wanted to say, will stick with the composer’s version. Those who – maybe – weren’t even around when the original composer created his music and grew up with a completely different idea of what “good music” is will stick with the new composer.
Actually, scratch that part where I say that the new version would be “more interesting”, let’s just say that it’s different and more adequate for new generations of tabletop gamers.
I’m not really sure I agree here. Visual arts are – to me, and I might be wrong – a different matter entirely from the game mechanics. A piece of visual arts is telling you how the artist feels about this subject. A game mechanics reflects a way for things that happen in real life to be portrayed in the game.
To make an example, artist 1’s subconscious sees dragons as evil beasts that predate and destroy, hostile and savage. And he’ll paint them that way. Artist 2 thinks that dragons are an ancient and wise race of very intelligent beasts, which have to resort to violence due to the fact that humans are bringing them to extinction. And his art will reflect this. There’s no “right” or “wrong” way between the two ways of painting. (I know that my example could be subject to many objections, bear with me, it’s the first example I could think of) But how do I “pretend” that my character is climbing? You may want to “convey” e determinate feeling with the mechanics you choose, but in this case maybe there IS a “right” or “wrong” way, and that is the way most players find to work out best. So if someone says:”This climbing thing is way too convoluted and doesn’t make sense. Let’s change it this way”, and the new way works “better” in terms of how easy it is to implement it and on how “good” the results are.
Thing is, when something becomes sort of “public”, and a wide user base starts making use of it, adaptations and changes will happen. Now, visual arts do not undergo this process because of their very nature. If I don’t like this artist’s idea of a dragon, I’ll simply stop caring for this artists rendition of dragons. But if I sort of enjoy these game mechanics, but not all of them, I’ll change those I don’t like and keep the rest.
In short, I’m not really sure that the two things can be compared, because one thing you only “see”, and the other thing you actually “use”.

 
At 10:06 AM, Blogger Alexandre said...

damn

sorry, when i wrote it in Word it had paragraphs...

 
At 9:09 AM, Blogger Jeff Dee said...

Guy Fullerton asked:
"What if, after the Mona Lisa had been around a while and acquired many admirers, da Vinci modified it. Is this the fans' business, or not?"

Merely *liking* something does not give a person ownership of that thing, or authority over it. Anyone can have a *opinion*, of course, but that doesn't impart ownership or authority either.

"What benefit should this respect have afforded Gary Gygax when he criticized 3.5?"

He shouldn't have been treated as an irrelevant nobody.

 
At 10:12 AM, Blogger Jeff Dee said...

(2-part response due to character limit):

Alexandre asked:
"But what if another, better gifted artist modified that music and came up with something (different and more adequate for new generations of tabletop gamers.)"

I'm saying that the opinion of the original creator isn't irrelevant.

"Visual arts are – to me, and I might be wrong – a different matter entirely from the game mechanics. A piece of visual arts is telling you how the artist feels about this subject. A game mechanics reflects a way for things that happen in real life to be portrayed in the game."

Yeah, I think you're wrong. A game mechanic tells you how the designer wanted the issues handled by that mechanic to play out in the game, which also affects his audience's feelings. There's a difference between looking at a picture and experiencing a game event, of course, but not a *relevant* difference.

"There’s no “right” or “wrong” way between the two ways of painting (...) But how do I “pretend” that my character is climbing? You may want to “convey” e determinate feeling with the mechanics you choose, but in this case maybe there IS a “right” or “wrong” way, and that is the way most players find to work out best."

If 'the way most players find to work out best' is the standard of "right" vs "wrong" game mechanics, then 'the way most observers find appealing' is the standard of "right" vs "wrong" painting.

Of course we DON'T apply such a standard, because there are multiple legitimate styles of painting that people don't all like equally. For example, there's 'baroque' and 'gothic'. There are also multiple legitimate artistic goals that people don't all like equally. Some like Edvard Munch's "The Scream" for the disturbing feelings it evokes. Others don't.

The same applies to game design. Some players prefer realistic mechanics. Some prefer mechanics tailored to a specific genre. Some prefer minimalistic mechanics. It's no different from the situation we find with regard to art.

Nevertheless, there are things that can be legitimately criticized about works of art, and with game design. In both cases, these are internal / contextual things. If you *meant* to paint a realistic picture of a bird for children, but you gave it ears and made it creepy, it's fair to say that you failed. Likewise, if you *meant* to write a set of minimalist rules for realistic spaceflight, but you include complex mechanics for pixie dust engines, you made a mistake.

 
At 10:12 AM, Blogger Jeff Dee said...

(part 2):

"So if someone says:”This climbing thing is way too convoluted and doesn’t make sense. Let’s change it this way”, and the new way works “better” in terms of how easy it is to implement it and on how “good” the results are."

That's not a meaningful difference between art and game design. One could also say, "This painting would be more effective if the light coming through the window were red", and change it, and even find a lot of people who agree the change is 'better'.

"Thing is, when something becomes sort of “public”, and a wide user base starts making use of it, adaptations and changes will happen. Now, visual arts do not undergo this process because of their very nature."

Correct! That doesn't mean that game design isn't an art form. It means that game design is an art form where the 'consumer' can easily fiddle with their own mass-produced copy.

"If I don’t like this artist’s idea of a dragon, I’ll simply stop caring for this artists rendition of dragons."

There are game designers whose work I dislike to the point where I avoid playing their games. What's the difference?

"But if I sort of enjoy these game mechanics, but not all of them, I’ll change those I don’t like and keep the rest."

Of course you will. That's the nature of the game design art form. The original designer is *still* an artist, and deserves to be recognized as such. Instead of saying, "I get to change these rules, so fuck the guy who created them - he's no artist", why not be *grateful* that you're allowed to play with the product of his artistry?

 
At 9:10 PM, Blogger Guy Fullerton said...

Ownership & authority over an artistic work doesn't seem relevant to the point. The original example was about Gygax's reactions to D&D 3.5, which he neither owned nor held authority over. Yet Gygax _still_ should have been granted more respect by the onlookers, right?

And since art transcends the artist (once it has been viewed/experienced by the public), why should the artist receive more respect than anyone else who has been moved by the work? Art has emergent properties, and affects people in ways no artist can fully anticipate. A piece of art may have a far-reaching legacy, or may form the foundation for relationships, scholarship, discourse, or other artistry. Visual arts really _do_ undergo adaptations (i.e., specific methods of use or interpretation) and changes (e.g., compositions, re-imaginings, or the visual equivalent of fan fiction).

Shouldn't someone who has been moved deeply by a given work be granted just as much respect when they express criticism/objection/shock over a change to that work?

"[Gygax] shouldn't have been treated as an irrelevant nobody."

I'm not sure which way to parse that. Is it that the negative treatment of Gygax should have been squelched, creating inaction where there was hostile action? Or is it that everybody's reaction toward his comments should have been turned up a couple notches toward positivity?

"If you *meant* to paint a realistic picture of a bird for children, but you gave it ears and made it creepy, it's fair to say that you failed. Likewise, if you *meant* to write a set of minimalist rules for realistic spaceflight, but you include complex mechanics for pixie dust engines, you made a mistake."

Is this enough moral license for an artist to change a work? Even if a broad legacy formed around the work before the artist found the time to change it?

 
At 12:21 AM, Blogger Jeff Dee said...

Guy Fullerton wrote:
"Ownership & authority over an artistic work doesn't seem relevant to the point. The original example was about Gygax's reactions to D&D 3.5, which he neither owned nor held authority over. Yet Gygax _still_ should have been granted more respect by the onlookers, right?"

Right. My comment about ownership and authority was a direct response to your question about whether it's any business of the *admirers*. You weren't asking about Gygax, who is NOT merely an 'admirer', but the creator of the original thing.

"And since art transcends the artist (once it has been viewed/experienced by the public), why should the artist receive more respect than anyone else who has been moved by the work?"

Um... because they created it? Because without them, it wouldn't exist? This is ethics 101.

"Art has emergent properties, and affects people in ways no artist can fully anticipate."

So does any other human endeavor. As a result, you're implying (intentionally or not) that nobody deserves any particular recognition or credit for ANYTHING that they do. Is that really what you think?

"Shouldn't someone who has been moved deeply by a given work be granted just as much respect when they express criticism/objection/shock over a change to that work?"

No.

"Is it that the negative treatment of Gygax should have been squelched, creating inaction where there was hostile action? Or is it that everybody's reaction toward his comments should have been turned up a couple notches toward positivity?"

My intended point is that those who think their emotional attachment to Gary Gygax' creation makes their opinions more deserving of respect than his are mistaken.

"Is this enough moral license for an artist to change a work?"

This was in response to a comment I made about legitimate ways in which a creative work can be objectively criticized. It was not intended as a statement of where an artist's moral license to change their own work comes from. An artist's moral license to change their own work comes from the fact that it is their own work.

"Even if a broad legacy formed around the work before the artist found the time to change it?"

Of course.

 
At 1:53 AM, Blogger Robin Irwin said...

One possible analogy is functional art: a game design is like a bridge...it gets you somewhere. It can be a aesthetically pleasing but there is no functional value unless it gets you across the river.

 
At 7:58 AM, Blogger Jeff Dee said...

Robin Irwin said:
"One possible analogy is functional art: a game design is like a bridge."

I don't agree with that analogy. Bridges are designed to work in the context of real-world physics. While tabletop RPG rules may attempt to 'simulate' real-world physics, they're designed to 'work' in the context of the player's imagination. Tabletop RPG design is therefor art, not engineering.

 
At 10:44 AM, Blogger Robin Irwin said...

That is why I use a simile instead of a metaphor. It seems to me that game design has elements of both art and engineering. We design computer programs, yet they do not exist in the physical world. And they are not generally considered "art". On the flip side, who ever heard of someone "designing" a poem? The game falls somewhere in between.

 
At 10:52 AM, Blogger Jeff Dee said...

Robin Irwin wrote:
"It seems to me that game design has elements of both art and engineering."

Painters use perspective and color theory. Does that mean painting 'falls somewhere between art and engineering' too?

I'd say no. Engineering can be used as a tool to help achieve artistic goals, but if the GOAL is artistic, then the product is art. And I submit that that's exactly where game design fits.

 
At 9:48 AM, Blogger Guy Fullerton said...

For now, ignore my point about respect for people who are deeply moved by a piece of art. I may come back to that later.

For now, I'm primarily interested in your example of Gygax deserving respect over his D&D 3.5 criticisms. And I apologize if my last post got a bit ahead of itself on that front. So coming back to what you said in the original post:

"I've been thinking about this since Gary Gygax Day, when someone posted a quote from Gary where he criticized D&D 3.5 - and some of the reactions showed complete contempt for Gary as the ARTIST who created D&D. Imagine if someone took the Mona Lisa and modified it, and then when DaVinci complained he was told that it's none of his business."

Why should Gygax's viewpoint about D&D 3.5 be granted any more respect than the viewpoints of D&D 3.5's target audience? Sure, he was the creator of _a_ D&D, but not _that_ D&D. That D&D wasn't made for him, he wasn't the owner of it (nor any other version of D&D), and he held no authority over it. So what is it about _that particular example_ that entitles Gygax to special respect? If Gygax had made similar criticisms about Runequest, d20 Modern, Amber diceless, or Marvel Super Heroes rpg, should those criticisms also have been granted special respect? Is it at all relevant that he was trying to promote some competing rpgs/products at the time he made his criticisms?

Once I understand why you feel his criticisms were deserving of respect (or at least deserving of a lack of derision), I can delve more deeply.

 
At 10:02 AM, Blogger Guy Fullerton said...

I should be clearer about one aspect of my question. I do realize that you said a partial answer earlier:

"Um... because they created it? Because without them, it wouldn't exist?""

I'm trying to figure out where the line is drawn. (Hence my question about other games.) For Gygax's criticisms to be granted respect, must the game be the same game _in name_, or is it sufficient for the games to share some of the same design DNA, and if so, is superficial resemblance enough?

And then how do we weigh the possibility ulterior motives in terms of the granting of respect?

 
At 10:50 AM, Blogger Alexandre said...

“The original designer is *still* an artist, and deserves to be recognized as such”
Oh, of course, I never meant to imply anything different, sorry if it seemed that way. My main point was that visual arts cannot be “fiddled” with, while game rules can. What I meant was:
No one in their right mind would think he is entitled to go to a museum, check out the paintings and say: hey, this painting sucks, I can do much better! And then proceed to disfigure the painting. Even the greatest artist that ever lived, one actually capable of greatly improving a painting, wouldn’t paint OVER that painting. He would paint a new painting and make it better.
But with game mechanics, players feel “entitled” to fiddle with the rules and change them as they prefer. It’s like everyone is an entitled douche who thinks he can do better.
Also, I’d like to sort of explain what MAY be the problem, and it’s probably my fault since English is not my mother tongue. You write:
“I've been thinking about this since Gary Gygax Day, when someone posted a quote from Gary where he criticized D&D 3.5 - and some of the reactions showed complete contempt for Gary as the ARTIST who created D&D.”
Here’s how I understood this passage: People were saying that Gygax is only an “artist” who has no reason to speak about game designs. He should worry about making pretty pictures and stay out of the game mechanics debate.
In the comments you write:
“The original designer is *still* an artist, and deserves to be recognized as such. Instead of saying, "I get to change these rules, so fuck the guy who created them - he's no artist"
So… were they complaining that he’s an artist or that he isn’t? Sorry, as I said English is not my main language so maybe I’m just making a mess with no good reason…
My point is: in MY mind, visual arts are meant to convey an idea; they are a “higher” art form than game mechanics. Game mechanics are only a mean to a much more… prosaic end. You say that I’m wrong on this and I sort of understand why you say so, your example on what could be defined as “right” or “wrong” in visual arts makes sense, but I just don’t consider visual arts on the same playing field with game mechanics. In a way, I think that visual arts are much more subjective than game mechanics. Then again, maybe you are right and my conception of this is mistaken, in which case it means that my idea of game mechanics is flawed anyway and therefore there’s not much sense for me to continue this discussion :P

 
At 10:49 PM, Blogger SkeleTony said...

While I don't think Gygax was an "irrelevant nobody", I do question his criticisms of D&D 3.0/3.5. I am not fan of ANY of D&D's systems (I would take Tunnels and Trolls or Runequest, two entirely different types of design philosophies, over D&D because both are much better designed.), but D&D 3.0/3.5 is to OD&D what modern CGI effects are to the old stop-motion animation effects. Sure the more 'primitive' games/effects have their own primitive charm and sure D&D 3.0/3.5 did not fix the most glaring issues with D&D (the AC/THAC0 system and 'fire and forget' magic system, the 'saving throw' nonsense and 'Hit points' mess...etc.). But the WoTC guys did as much as they could without stirring up the mob of angry nostalgia warriors who have to protest change every change they get.

 
At 4:21 PM, Blogger Ian Stewart said...

I'm not an artist myself, so I may be using the terms wrong here, but I think part of what differentiates RPGs from a great deal of other works is that they are, by their very nature, an interactive art. A good deal of the beauty of them is in the medium that needs to be participated in to be fully experienced. The flow of a well designed game mechanic will blend with the fluff to, ideally, make something better than the two parts individually.
That being said, I'm with Jeff Dee on his stance that the mechanics are a work of art as much as the visuals or writing. I'm quite partial to toolbox systems myself, and will happily read through tables and rules for entertainment. How the mechanics are used can greatly impact on how a system plays. I'd point to two games based off the same core mechanic adjusted to different needs to illustrate that, the first edition of Legend of the Five Rings and 7th Sea. Both use the "Roll and Keep" d10 mechanic, but the former has a brutally lethal combat mechanic that can lead easily to the death of PCs. This forms a key part of the game, that your character may be called on at any time to sacrifice their life, and it's as important to try and make their death have meaning as it is to keep them alive. That mechanic adds to the atmosphere of the game in a way that I think was sadly lacking is later, less lethal editions. 7th Sea, on the other hand, used the mechanic to create a fast flowing cinematic combat mechanic that intentionally suspended realism. The ease of taking down minor foes encouraged the PCs to dive into combat when outnumbered by minions, confident that their status as heroes would see them through such minor annoyances. Again, it added to the swashbuckling atmosphere of the game as was intended.

 
At 3:03 PM, Blogger Yulrath Ravein said...

I actually wrote a paper in school about how video games are an artistic medium, and argued that they could be considered the most effective of all artistic media.

 
At 3:38 AM, Blogger Tomáš Mariančík said...

I can't agree more with the idea that game design is a form of art. Although I don't know much about D&D specifically, I often like to claim myself that game design is form of art, although I more often talk about video game design, but it applies to card/board (cardboard? *giggles*) games as well.

In my view, art is a way of expressing someone's imagination, fantasy and ideas (though when you start believing that things you imagine are actually real... that's religion :D ), whether it's something visual, a melody or even a whole world that operates how you want it to. Art can take on many forms.

And designing games is a way to share these worlds with other people, sharing your imagination and creativity as you would do with paintings/drawings, writing or music for example (and many other forms).

These worlds can then "exist virtually" in other people's minds with the card games (and similar) as other people imagine them themselves or they can be made into a video game that people can interact with.

And I think that's what makes it a very powerful art form. Something like painting or music is in most cases static. You can observe or listen to it and it can create some sentiments in you, but it's just there. But with games you can interact and engage with them, it reacts to your actions in some way , by its own rules. Either by programmed behavior (in case of video game) or the game master. It's art form that's "alive" and perceived differently by people, which I think only makes it more beautiful.

But I also feel that there's rather lack of appreciation for games as an art form compared to paintings or photography for example.

I'm not sure why is that, I can only guess based on how some people seem to react to games. I encountered view that games are just silly thing for kids/teenagers to entertain them and unproductive loss of time.

It might be also that it's viewed as some kind of commercial thing that's just made to make money (although I guess you can say that for many films or songs as well) rather than something that can have some other values than entertainment.

Personally I appreciate the work of the authors and the artistic aspects of good games (in my case mostly video games).

And since I'm also involved in their production (like hobbyist until recently, starting as indie) I love to use game design to express and create the worlds and things I imagine and put them to life.

Moreover designing games often combines work of many different artists, from graphic designers, writers to musicians and I just find that beautiful about the whole thing, how it can unify all these forms of art into one interactive piece of work. :-)

 
At 7:09 PM, Blogger Tristan Begin said...

Didn't have time to read all these comments but to your earlier comment jeff about the manual I could not agree more, I'd say tgat the tutorial, wether it be in a video game or a board game is just as importany to the experience as the rest, if not more. As for the D&D thing with the artists criticism I'm noy familiar with what he was critisizing however, while its perfectly fine to state his opinion, I'd disagree that its lik the mona lisa because isn't D&D 3.5 a sequel to the first game and thus not the same game? It'd be more like someone else making art inspired by the mona lisa and thus be more or less none of davincis business since its no longer davincis original piece

 
At 10:01 AM, Blogger Jeff Dee said...

"...isn't D&D 3.5 a sequel to the first game and thus not the same game? It'd be more like someone else making art inspired by the mona lisa and thus be more or less none of davincis business.."

1) You found the place where the art analogy breaks down. Games aren't identical to art. And so, I think you'd have difficulty finding gamers who agree that D&D 3.5 is essentially *not the same game* as original D&D.

2) In fact the law recognizes the rights of an artist (AND writers) when it comes to what they call 'derivative works'. It IS DaVinci's business when some jackass makes a 'new' piece of art that's *clearly* based on his copyrighted work.

 

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