A Blank Canvas

A Blank Canvas
The Definition of an Art Form

Russ Pitts | 17 Oct 2006 12:00
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"Videogames represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic."
- Roger Ebert

It's a chicken/egg question, from a certain point of view: Are games a form of art? The question can be (and usually is) reduced to semantics; what is art? Is the definition of art some communal thing, some mutually agreed-upon standard to which all things are held and by which art is judged? If so, who does the judging? One of us, or all of us?

Perhaps the definition of "art" is to be decided by those who make it. If so, one would have to consider the opinion of a very large number of people calling themselves "artists," who have studied art and how to make it, and are now making their living by applying what they've learned about art to the art making of videogames. And yet, there are some people who call themselves artists, who have been granted federal funds for the making of "art," and yet whose work has been widely vilified for not being anything closely resembling art. All of this seems to say that everyone has his own definition of art, and each definition rests in the mind of the beholder.

So, is it a problem of definition or a problem of perception? Perhaps it's both.

The history of game art is a lot like that of everything else related to videogames: People started making games, decided they needed art to go with games and hired artists to make it. When the art actually started appearing in the games things got interesting. And now that making art for games has become its own (lucrative) career niche, the potential for chaos and misunderstanding has snowballed into an ongoing debate from which none of us, it seems, will ever be able to extricate ourselves.

Not without help, anyway.

I recently spoke with three men who are deeply involved in both videogames and art. One is an actual artist working on actual games, the second is a cartoonist who makes art about games and the third is a developer working on a game which will ostensibly teach players how to make their own art. All three consider themselves "artists" and, to varying degrees, the work they produce "art."

The Game Artist
art form: noun. A creative activity or type of artistic expression that is intended to be beautiful or thought-provoking. (Encarta)

John Enricco has been working in games for about seven years, having gotten into the game industry in what he himself calls a "pretty roundabout" way.

"I never took any art classes," Enricco says. "But later on, as I was starting a master's degree program, I [became aware of] all of the exciting things happening in art and games. ... I decided to drop the degree and instead enroll in a computer animation/multimedia program in Pittsburgh, created a demo reel, graduated and was lucky enough to land a position in the games industry."

His first game (and still his favorite) was Volition's Freespace 2. "Volition took a big gamble hiring so many new artists at the time," he says, "but we were pretty excited working in the industry and on this title.

"Since it was a small team, we had a lot of say in the creation of the art, and all of us had a lot of different responsibilities. I went from working on the UI to creating the player's avatars to building ship models, and many of the other artists were doing similar things. The favorite part for me would have to be creating some of the capital ships and the interior loading screen of one of the alien vessels."

When asked what makes for successful game art, he replied: "What I think makes good game art 'good' is how it effectively solves some artistic and technical problems. One challenge is how good the game art establishes the art style or vision. I look at Okami and I am just floored at how they pulled off the simplicity (but not simplistic) [of the] Japanese calligraphy ink style. Everything is completely consistent, and it's so intuitive. When I see a group of three 'ink' brush strokes on screen, I know there is a mountain in the distance.

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