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Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Game Design Is Art (Sort Of)...

This comes up from time to time, flaring like a grease fire and fizzling out again.  But while it lasts, the topic generates discussion and, occasionally, heated debate.  So in this spirit, we jump on board and pick that old scab again to ask...

Is tabletop game design really a form of art?  

On the one hand, we have the naysayers.  They object largely on grounds that it's pretentious.  Kind of like slam poets who read off their grocery list in a fast and dramatic voice and call it art or whatever.  I'm not slamming this poetry (ha!), only pointing out the position of the skeptics.  To them, game design is a technical act more closely aligned to engineering and meant to be FUN.

And they have a point.  Most traditional tabletop games are technical at their very core, even in the sort of rules-light stuff we develop.  We're really just tearing down the QUALITATIVE and reassembling it in a QUANTITATIVE form.  For instance, the idea that dragons breathe fire is qualitative and potentially artistic in nature (at least depending on what you do with it).  

But deciding that dragon's breath deals 3d6 dice of damage is inherently quantitative and represents a technical and simulationist expression for sure.  However (and the other shoe drops), it gets re-converted BACK INTO A QUALITATIVE EXPRESSION in the minds of the participants when these things are described during play...

In other words, it comes full circle, although this assumes that the game is not complete until it's actually PLAYED!

Now suppose you come up with an idea for a monster; something decidedly Lovecraftian or whatever.  What do you DO with this idea, and do any of them constitute actual art?   

Well, you can draw a picture of it (art), or write a story (also solidly in the art camp).  But what if you stat the thing for use in your favorite (or suitably home-brewed) RPG system?  

Is THIS art?  Why?  Or why not?  I mean, game rules here are a medium for CREATIVE SELF EXPRESSION.  Paint is a valid medium, and so is the written word.  But what about those numbers?  Or words written skillfully to describe people, places, and things in a fully realized fantasy world setting?  Do THEY count as valid art?

Or perhaps it's JUST the picture, or JUST the writing, but not the statistical representations.  Who knows...   

Now here's one.  What if the author(s) is trying to recreate the look and feel of the earliest games because they believe the amateur design contributed materially to the experience?  Here production goes beyond just choosing a font.  Each page is an illustration unto itself and carefully (and deliberately) crafted to visually elicit specific feelings and responses in the mind of the reader.

Is THIS art?  Even a form of visual art?  The above is somewhat autobiographical, but we have to admit that we've already drawn our own conclusions here, and WE say that game design is:

(1) A medium of creative self-expression

(2) That combines creative and technical writing with pictures

(3) To equip the reader(s) to play out their own adventures in the milieu and/or implied setting of the rulebook

(4) Where the ultimate expression is the gameplay session and any human interactions that results from it.

And that's it!  Game design is art (sort of).  It's a creative expression on the part of the designer, who is really just making a tool for OTHERS to use in THEIR OWN self-expression!

This combination of artistic and technical elements certainly muddies the water.  But so does the inherently COLLABORATIVE nature of the game designing process.  Frequently, it's several writers working together, often commissioning artwork and/or maps from yet other (talented and appreciated) individuals...  

It's a lot like movies.  Oh, and if we're going to call acting authentic art, then role-playing your favorite character is in the very least a form of creative expression!

Now, there are some who object to this over-analyzing of game elements (you might know a few).  But nothing we've said here is factually incorrect, and the fact is, game design DOES include artistic and creative elements in equal measure.  And it's hard NOT to assign "art" to the stuff of imagination, although not in the purest sense of the term.  It's really its own thing...  

Gaming (and game design, of course) is its own form of creative self-expression.  However, it's also a form of human interaction and the social contract, which further muddies the water.  So perhaps game design is an APPLICATION of art.  One that guides the creative impulse towards something collaborative, interactive, and fun!


  1. I always thought that it was. You play games designed by the masters, Cook, Moldvay, Gygax, etc. until you learn how to critique, how to tailor, how to tweak, and pretty soon, your own voice comes through. Your appreciation for the masters has only improved, so we go back to them again and again.

    A Great DM, or a great player, is an artist. He or she wasn't a natural, it is something that one has to seek to improve at, and the learning never stops. We are always seeking to improve our technique, and make our art more interesting, more engaging. When a really great game is going, when the players are no longer seeing the room that they are playing in, when the pace of play becomes fluid and everyone involved is engaged, that is when it is art. When you walk away from the table, and can smell the stench of a goblin den, feel the wonder of experiencing magic first hand, when we have such vivid memories of so many impossible things, then what else can you call it but art?