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When an Artist Creates Games
by Lorenzo Pigozzo on 07/17/14 06:53:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


This blog post has been reposted from Urustar website. You can find the original here.

Is game design different if an artist tries to make an interactive piece instead of when a developer makes art games? This is the question I’ve wondered about for a while. It’s not just a formal matter as it may seem, it’s about what’s worth to be defined as art in video gamesand what, well, it is not art and/or a video game at all.

One of my favourite video artists is Bill Viola, yeah, I’m not alone, he’s kind of a contemporary art star. From 2005 to 2007 he has developed with Tracy Fullerton and USC Game Innovation Lab a video game titled The Night Journey. Take a look at this 10-minute walk-through:

It reminded me in some way both Ed Key’s Proteus and thatgamecompany’s Journey, only… Well, quite different. There must be a reason why this art game got completely ignored, was it just a matter of bad timing for the game just didn’t even make it as a finalist at Independent Game Festival 2008? It makes you think how things have changed since then, doesn’t it? I still have some doubts about how the fact that this is a video game by an artist and not an art game by a video game developer could have influenced its tremendous lack of buzz, press coverage. I mean… This game doesn’t exist and it will never exist in game design history books even if it’s a quite interesting pioneering experiment, is it because nobody in the video game industry knows who Bill Viola is? Creating a community around the games you make is crucial and clearly this kind of job has never been made for The Night Journey, this may be one cause. On the other hand Bill Viola is not a niche artist nobody in the world knows, he represented US contemporary art more than once all around the world, he has been inside museums for way more than 30 years.

The thing is that museum audience and video games (even indie art games) audience are two completely different clusters of people. Maybe we’re just deceiving ourselves when we think the indie community as a community of people into art and all-round self-expression, inside the community there’s for sure a big interest into art games but that’s a niche inside the niche, and I’m afraid a lot of this people’s contact with contemporary art are only the digital interactive products such as the ones developed by Tale of TaleMolleindustria and so on. My point is: we keep talking about video games as art but there’s still this big gap between the video game world and the contemporary art world, we need to fill it. This is what I’m talking aboutI want more of Pippin Barr feat. Marina Abramović.

Pippin Barr and Marina Abramovic

The Artist is Present . A game by Pippin Barr feat Marina Abramović

Justin McElroy of Joystiq defined the difference between a game and an art game as “the same [as that] between a sculpture and a building. Though a building/game can be aesthetically pleasing, an art game/sculpture is using its very structure to produce some kind of reaction”.

 Intel, including 

a starting
 interactivity, visual

 early specification
touch stone
 in creating 
 game. [Tracy Fullerton, Reflections on The Night Journey: an Experimental Video Game, 2009 – download pdf


In 1998 I was 13 and someone was already trying to do such a thing, now I’m 29 and we’re just starting to see a growing audience for this kind of things. Going to game events and meetup is cool and useful, let’s invite people from adjacent world too, let’s be part of adjacent worlds ourselves. When an artist makes an art game we all should care because out of the box perspectives are what this medium needs more than ever.

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nicholas ralabate
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i thought the guy who made coin traps at lost levels was pretty cool. also at gdc 2013 they had a game expo at the lobby of the SFMOMA, mostly vanilla/paper but a definite mixing of cultures.

[edit] i actually think going the other way around (as game designer makes art) might be more powerful for stirring the pot. what installations are and what locative games are is blurring. and in some ways, game designers are less bound to fashion/patron. this is a good example:!game-show/crl2

Fabian Fischer
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I strongly recommend reading Derek Yu's blog for reasons as to why the artist should, in fact, be the artist and not the game designer:

Mutlu Isik
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Part of the problem is a misunderstanding of the term "art" in this context. No, I'm not trying to open up a debate about 'what is art?', that's not what I mean. It's just a matter of context. When we look at small indie teams, there's usually someone responsible for "art", but that's an industry term that refers to "art style". This is purely visual eye-candy. For example, we talk about "pixel art style".

But I don't think that's what the author means by "art" in this context. It's not just something visual. Art makes you think. Art asks difficult questions. Art is highly subjective and doesn't care about being popular. And that's why it's so difficult and rare to find art that touches you deeply.

Fabian Fischer
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If that's the case, the discussion is moot anyways. Every game designer is an artist, because he employs a creative process to produce a work.

Any more exclusive definition of the term "art" than "the result of a creative process with the intent of stimulating psychological needs" simply has to be arbitrary, subjective and therefore worthless in any sort of discussion.

Yes, by that definition Candy Crush is art, just as Half-Life or Civilization are. But that's okay, because "being art" is not a quality criterion in itself at all. There's good art and bad art.

Mutlu Isik
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Sorry, this is exactly the debate I was trying to avoid. Let's not try to define "what is art?", because we'll be here for a while.

I just wanted to point out a nomenclature issue, but I guess I didn't explain it right. In the video game industry "art" often refers to all "visual assets" in a game. For example, when we say "the game art looks great", what we really mean is just that the game looks good visually. But that's not what the author means in this context, so the term can be confusing.

Fabian Fischer
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Exactly, then what does he mean? If anything.

Lorenzo Pigozzo
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That, thanks Mutlu. I would like to avoid the "everything is art" thing, cultural values are always relative and there are major and minor arts. Art in this post refers to major arts and art as the cultural debate ongoing within contemporary museums and expositions, sorry to leave that implicit.

Christian Nutt
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@Fabian Fischer.

It's incredibly apparent what he means. He's talking about collaborating with people in the fine arts, who generally work outside of the game industry, to bring new perspectives to games.

He gives specific examples. If you're not familiar with the games or the body of work of the named individuals, Google is your friend.

Sam Stephens
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Are video games, or just games in general, art? I don't know. Certainly we can point to many individual products and say they're works of art, but is the actual concept of games and gameplay an artistic endeavor? The answer could arguably be yes if you perceive art as a product of a creative process and not as an object of engagement. However, the problem with trying to describe games as art is the baggage and connotations that come with it. It's true there is a lot of different ideas concerning what is art and what isn't among both highly knowledgable critics and laypeople. These ideas have generally never pertained to games and game studies throughout most of history. Art scholars have very little to say about Poker or baseball and most people don't consider them as art. They aren't aesthetic artifacts. I think that analyzing games not as art, but as a separate, though equally important human activity can help us to say a lot about games. After all, the cognition of playing a game is notably different than engaging with a piece of art. Starting from this point, we can work from the ground up to build a foundation before discussing whether or not that foundation is artistic.

Jake Frederick
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This seems to be a big part of the disconnect that occurs whenever discussions about the intersection of games and art come up. There appears to be a lack of understanding of the greater context of contemporary fine arts, in which games might simply be a chosen medium. There's certainly some grey area, but in general if an artist working in that context makes a game with the stated purpose of it being a work of art (or even if that purpose isn't explicitly stated, but the game clearly fits within a body of work), then clearly its "art" (whether you happen to find it interesting or engaging or not). Being an artist in this sense is not just a sort of vague ideal, its a chosen path with specific intention.

When you look at examples that have that paradigm inverted (the developer or developers set out to make a game, within the context of the games industry or subculture) where the artistic content (not necessarily just art assets, but thematic content, references, etc) is "injected" into the more traditional process of game development I'd say that the issue becomes slightly more murky, but contextually these types of works are "games" that may have stylistic tendencies resembling the fine arts.

The artist referenced in the article, Bill Viola, is quite well known for his work as a video artist. Just because he has a large body of work where video is the medium, it doesn't mean he's a filmmaker or that he has inclinations to create films in the traditional sense. He is an artist and that happens to be the medium he chose for that body of work. And each of those pieces is a work of art, not a "film".

I would put something like Braid in the second category I mentioned. Created as a game, but one that has a heavy injection of fine-arts leaning references. Much like a David Lynch movie is a film, not a work of video art like Bill Viola's work, but is clearly filled with reference and consideration beyond standard linear film narrative.

Ara Shirinian
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I have found the following structure of categories useful to distinguish creative works:

#1- art that is only observeable, not interact-able.
#2- interactive art that is not a game, for the purpose of communicating a message exclusive to what is accomplished in #3.
#3- video game, where the purpose is to present mechanical challenges/contests for the player to overcome.

We conflate 2 and 3 all the time, not only in discussion but also in the actual embodiement of developed products (as in, the same product can be trying to do 2 and 3 alternately or at the same time). "Story" games do 2 and 3 at the same time.

The problem is the authorship of the aesthetic component of each brings with it totally different demands and challenges, and these differences must be respected if one is to make full use of each medium. These are basically three different media. Since each can also utilize the same type of media (e.g. visual art), an artist exclusively trained in traditional art may have trouble appreciating the different cognitive considerations demanded separately by 2 and 3.

For example, aesthetic techniques that have good effect in #1 may be totally inappropriate in #3: An artist in cinema may use light and colors to convey a specific mood. But when attempting to do the same in #3, readability and playability must take priority consideration, among other things. You cannot light and color a video game like you do a movie, although this happens all the time. The result is often that the player cannot see things as well enough as they need to, so they get frustrated, or they experience fatigue from strolling about in a brown landscape for tens of hours.

Daniel Goffin
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Another difficulty that games in the context of contemporary art have is time.

Video and media art face the same issue since their inception. Compared to non-time based art they need considerably more time investment to understand, let alone appreciate. When visiting a museum or gallery you will witness that most visitors do not stay very long in one place to consume a video/film. Interactive media (such as games) raises the bar for consumption even higher because active involvement is necessary for the piece to work as it was designed.

I am sure that sooner or later we will have some examples of video-game-like contemporary art but I am not sure that many will be aware of that. Those interested in contemporary art may not even link it to games and those primarily interested in games may not see it as a worthy game.

Rilla Khaled gave a very interesting talk on this subject at this years A MAZE Festival. Unfortunately, I can not find a recording of it anywhere.

Hakim Boukellif
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"Artists" are not some social class whose creative output is decreed "art" by fiat. If games are art, then the people (creatively) involved in a game's development are artists and games are already part of the contemporary art world. That a gap exists between video games and many other forms of arts is unavoidable, both due to the nature of the medium and the cultural context the medium developed in, but it's not as if a gap like that is unique to games; for example, the gap between prose and performance art.

I agree that video games as a whole needs more creators that come from a wider range of cultural contexts than it does now and that can, of course, include people who are involved in others arts, but I don't think that bringing them in for the purpose of making games that more closely resemble preconceived notions of art is going to work out any better than bringing in Hollywood to make games that more closely resemble movies did.

Larry Carney
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It is hard to discuss this topic when the title is "When an Artist Creates Games" without delving into the state of modern "art" and "artists", except to say that I agree that if there is an audience for these products than I am happy for those who create them to be able to know have an audience for their products.