It Ain’t Art

One of the idle vanities of our profession is the belief that we are artists, that we game designers make art as we build our games. There are, of course, as many variations on this theme as there are game designers. Some designers insist that game design is art, but programming is not. Others define art more in terms of traditional art, and so restrict "art" to the graphics and music that accompany a game. Others use a definition of art so liberal as to insure that everybody associated with game development is an artiste ("programmers are artists! testers are artists! duplication machine techs are artists!")

There are larger issues here than personal vanity, issues that involve the essence of what we do. The resolving distinction, the acid test that reveals the true character of our industry, lies in the question of whether we make art or entertainment.

Now, before I give my answer to that question, I’d like to characterize the difference between art and entertainment. I can’t forge a precise definition, but I think that I can describe that difference extensively enough to give you a clear idea of my meaning.

One Man’s Definition
Art happens when lotsa middle-aged wimmen in long gowns and horned helmets sing real high-pitched, while dozens of guys in tuxedos saw on their fiddles, and one guy taps real light on a kettle drum. Art has pictures of plump nekkid ladies floating in the clouds, swathed in lotsa silk, with little cherubs holding the corners. Art has lotsa neat French words mixed in every now and then, words like "poulet chevalier".

Both entertainment and art are meant to evoke emotion, but art goes deeper and further into the human soul than entertainment. Art conveys joy where entertainment makes you laugh. Art has tragedy, where entertainment makes you sad. Art has passion; entertainment has sex. Art goes boom where entertainment goes pop.

Art requires a stronger sense of context than entertainment. Now, both art and entertainment work within a context; the conventions of any medium create an expressive shorthand that both artist and entertainer rely on. The crassest stand-up comedian knows that his audience understands what a punch line is, how soon they expect to reach it, and how simple it must be to be effective. But the contextual requirements of art are more stringent than those of entertainment. To really appreciate art, you need more background, more training. When was the last time you saw a college course listing for an "entertainment appreciation course"?

Thus, art tends to be more elitist than entertainment. It appeals to a smaller, more educated audience. Entertainment is for the masses and art is for the snobs.

Art is an expression by the artist; entertainment is an expression for the audience. The artist is primarily concerned with himself; the entertainer is primarily concerned with his audience. The artist seeks to express the truth within himself; the entertainer seeks to give the audience what it wants.

Entertainment is therefore intrinsically commercial and art is just as intrinsically noncommercial. You can sell entertainment and you can’t sell art. (It’s true that snobs will pay a lot of money for your art, but only after you’re dead.)

Having said this, I can now state that almost nothing in the computer game industry comprises art. We are an entertainment business. We give people what they want. I have never heard a publisher or producer say, "But Chris, is this change true to your vision for the product?" [Not strictly true; there was one publishing house executive who said such things, but she’s no longer employed in the industry. Does that surprise you?]

We make entertainment; we do not make art.
Yes, there have been many impressive moments in computer games, moments that tempt us to apply the label "art" to our games. The moment in Planetfall when Floyd the Robot sacrificed himself to save you. The similar experience in Wing Commander when your sidekick bid you goodbye and blew herself up in the midst of the Kilrathi. The magnificent artwork in King’s Quest V, the powerful music and storyline of Loom. Yes, there have been impressive moments in computer games, moments that do evoke genuine emotion, but that doesn’t make them art. My eyes dabbled up when little E.T. died, and I cheered when he recovered, but the movie wasn’t art. There are plenty of movies that are art, but their ability to evoke emotion is not what makes them art.

So What?
Here’s a possible counterpoint: "Who cares if it’s not art? After all, we’re in the business of making money and having fun, and the labels we use are without meaning. If we make people happy, enjoy ourselves, and make a good living, why do we need to worry about whether it’s art? Why can’t we just do our jobs?"

My answer to this argument is that there is indeed operational significance to the role of art in entertainment. Art is the wellspring of entertainment, the font of basic material that all entertainers use. Star Wars was based on a body of myth that had been polished over the course of centuries. The untrained rock guitarist may not know it, but the melodies, rythyms and basic structures that he learns by listening were developed and refined by artists such as Telemann, Vivaldi, and Bach. The cinematography of modern movies traces its heritage all the way back to the great classical painters of the Renaissance.

Entertainment needs art to provide it with fresh new ideas, new themes, new approaches. Art is the spawning ground for entertainment. Art is, in effect, the "R" side of "R&D" for our business. Indeed, we have already seen this process in the relationship between the videogame industry and the disk-based game industry.

A good rule of thumb in any fast-moving industry, and especially the high-tech world, is that 10% of industry revenues should be spent on R&D to maintain healthy growth. Now, most of this money should be on the "D" side what we developers do. But the industry still needs to devote a few percentage points to the "R" side of the business. But we don’t spend that much money on the artistic side of our business. We have no Xerox PARC, no Bell Labs, no university endowment for the pursuit of fundamental research in games. We don’t even fund projects that are too unconventional. For us, research is a matter of figuring out how to implement yesterday’s games on compact disk, only with more graphics, sound, and animation. That’s not research; that’s new and improved soap flakes.

It therefore behooves us to take a more serious look at our industry and our own design goals. Vainly declaring ourselves artists in the absence of any real artistic effort or achievement is an egoistic exercise that can only blind us to the need to correct our failures. Dismissing artistic endeavor as irrelevant to the needs of an expensive business is cynical and short-sighted. We are living off of our artistic capital now; unless we as an industry can muster the gumption to start generating some artistic income by devoting some fraction of our efforts towards truly artistic products, we will stagnate. And in any entertainment business, stagnation spells doom.