The Definition of an Art Form

“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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“Also, besides being effective artistically, I like to see if the ‘asset’ simply fits into the confines of the technical requirements of the game. Since this is interactive entertainment and there are hard limits to the art compared to other mediums, I really appreciate seeing a great piece of beautiful artwork or [an] effect that was created in such small confines of a game system.

“An example would be when many of my co-workers and I first saw the beginning of Metal Gear Solid 2, with Snake sneaking onto the ship in the hard rain, first in the cut scenes, and then watching it switch seamlessly in real time. All of us really thought it was exceptionally well done and were trying to figure out how that effect was created.”

The Game Cartoonist
art form: noun. An unconventional form or medium in which impulses regarded as artistic may be expressed. (Merriam-Webster Online.)

“I started doodling in the margins of my school work back in fifth grade,” says Mike Krahulik, the artistic half of web comic duo Tycho and Gabe (he’s Gabe) at Penny Arcade. “As time went on, I started paying more attention to the doodling than the work.”

Penny Arcade, the comic strip first appeared in 1998 on another gaming site, but was re-launched the following year at Penny Arcade, the website. Krahulik and Jerry Holkins (Tycho), the writer of Penny Arcade, have since produced a new comic every few days for the past seven years; created an educational campaign for the ESRB, the videogame ratings board; founded PAX, an annual consumer-oriented game convention; and created Child’s Play, a charity organization originally founded three years ago to equip the Seattle Children’s Hospital with toys and games for sick kids to play with. It has since grown exponentially, funneling more than $600,000 in donations to over 20 hospitals in North America last year alone.

They have also become the game industry’s most visible social critics holding developers, publishers and even fans to task through their satire for anti-consumer, anti-fun and anti-common sense tactics.

“DESIGN IS LAW!” Screams a Christ-like John Romero, in their second-ever comic strip, “John Romero – Artiste,” to a nonplussed sidewalk hot dog vendor, who replies: “Nice try John. No game, no wiener.”

As for who’s getting it right, making games that are not only good, but look good being good, Krahulik suggests it’s Final Fantasy creators Square Enix: “Square [Enix] never gets it wrong,” he says. “Even if the game play doesn’t knock me out, I never get tired of looking at a Square game.

“I [also] think the new look of Team Fortress is amazing. Valve took a big risk moving the game in that direction, but it works. I mean, it looks like a Pixar film!

“I’d love to see more developers forget about trying to make games photorealistic and instead focus on making them stylish. I’d rather look at a game like World of Warcraft than Vanguard.”

The Developer
art form: noun. The more or less established structure, pattern, or scheme followed in shaping an artistic work. (

“I’ve been playing videogames since I was 5 years old,” says Joseph Hatcher, of AGFRAG Entertainment Group. “When the movie Tron came out, that pretty much helped flip the switch in my head that made me want to make videogames growing up. I started designing my own videogames on paper as a kid (among other screwball inventions) and wanted to someday work for Nintendo, Sega, Electronic Arts or Atari.”

Hatcher’s career path followed an all-too-familiar trajectory: He holds a diploma in desktop publishing and design, but abandoned his post-graduate work, ultimately ending up with his long-sought career in gaming in 2004 as a tester for Electronic Arts.

He’s also an artist.

“I’ve been drawing since I was 3 or 4,” says Hatcher, “about the same time that I started reading. I did take a few art classes in grade school, but nothing major. I see or think of something, I draw it. I do want to learn how to draw human forms better. I can do it, but it takes me forever. The end result is more comic-bookish than real life. I’m self taught, highly determined and deeply passionate [about] accomplishing my goals. I love to learn. I apply what I learn to how I create.”

And he hopes that you will do the same.

Hatcher is applying his love of art, games and design to one of the most innovative games currently in development, Bob Ross’ The Joy of Painting for the Nintendo Wii.

“In Jan 2006 or so, [I] saw Bob Ross on TV and started checking out more Wii stuff, and it hit me that the Wiimote would be perfect for the game. … So, eventually in March 2006, I contacted Bob Ross Inc. about wanting the license to make games based on Bob Ross’ painting style. We came to an agreement and it’s been on a roll ever since.

“Bob Ross Inc. offers classes for people to become instructors, and the instructors offer classes to the average … person who wants to learn to paint like Bob Ross. Some of them, I’m sure, watched the TV show, got hooked, then just had to learn more and sought out an instructor. We are consulting with [the instructors] for the development of the game, and some of us are taking classes so we understand his style better.

“The Wiimote will be used just as if you were moving a paint brush doing one of Bob Ross’ movements for his paintings. The same movements you see him do on TV, we are doing our best to see what the Wiimote can do to match them.”

art form: noun. An activity or a piece of artistic work that can be regarded as a medium of artistic expression. (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition)

Art is about life. It attempts to explain, to create and to destroy; to make us better than we are, point out our flaws, our strengths – our essential humanity. But art is not created in a vacuum. All art takes from what has come before, and all artists, in sharing their experiences through their work, inevitably share with us the art they themselves have seen and appreciated; passing down, in essence, the art that has moved them and the art that has moved the artist who made the art that has moved them.

The final result is a distillation of humanity’s essence, filtered through the expressions of millions of creative souls who have inhabited the face of our planet since the dawn of time. Games, game art and game artists are no different.

“I try to take influence from as many different places as I can,” says Mike Krahulik. “I keep a folder on my computer, and whenever I stumble upon an image I like, I just toss it in there. Then, when I need some inspiration I just open it up.

“I honestly don’t collect much art. I have a few pieces from Stan Sakai and a couple from Stephen Silver. I do have tons of art books, though. I love hitting Barnes and Noble and buying the big picture books they always have in the discount section. You can grab huge books full of great photos and paintings for 10 bucks.

“I’d say my biggest influence is Stephen Silver. He’s an incredible character artist, and I’ve learned a lot just from looking at his work.”

“What I really love to do the most is CG lighting environments and assets,” says John Enricco, “and one of the lead artists that I worked with in the past said that the best CG lighters he knows are the ones that can paint … . Since then, I’ve been starting to get into digital painting for some of my personal projects. It’s inspiring to look at the past masters of painting in their use of color and shading (one of my favorites being the Dutch master Vermeer) and see something that you can incorporate digitally in both 2-D and 3-D work.

“I have a couple prints up on the walls: the Disney movie Mulan, ‘The Old Guitarist’ from Picasso’s blue period, and ‘Yellow, Red, Blue’ by Kandinsky, so my tastes are all over the place.

“The art assets that I create for my current project are guided by a couple of factors: an environment lead’s 3-D mock up, which shows the technical limits and art direction that is needed; conceptual sketches of a piece that a concept artist has iterated and fleshed out with the help of the Art Director and Lead Designer; or, if it’s a very realistic piece, some reference photos given as a guideline.

“An example would be a sailing boat that had a carved wooden mermaid on the bow. I could have more artistic freedom with the mermaid prop, but I would still need to create the other 90 percent [of] the ship to spec. … I feel I switch back and forth between trying to be an artist versus being more of an artisan; both have different challenges and artistic rewards.”

The Question
art form: noun. A form or medium of expression recognized as fine art. (Merriam-Webster Online)

“If games are not art,” asks Joseph Hatcher, “then why do so many people admire them, love them and have such great memories attached to them?

“What other media brings together painters, 2-D artists, 3-D artists, sculptors, 2-D animators, 3-D animators, programmers (they are code poets), musicians, composers, writers, etc. like videogames do? Videogames bring so many types of art into the same media for the observer to enjoy that they are a real sight to behold.

“All that hard work, all the creativity that those people pour into [games], all the beauty that ends up being displayed on the screen … the respect that’s deserved never really appears.”

“I think in some rare instances,” says John Enricco, who’s currently working on an as-yet unannounced title for Pandemic Studios, “videogames can come close to being an art form. But I think that our industry is still too young to consistently achieve that goal; the tech is too primitive, and we really don’t know what the ‘end all be all’ of our idiom is right now.

“I say give it 10-20 years with all of the tech advances and a more codified knowledge base and a deeper history, and I think you’ll start to see interactive entertainment hitting its stride and becoming a more and more a true art form.

“Hopefully, I’ll be there with everyone else, stretching and achieving that ideal.”

Mike Krahulik puts it more simply: “Of course videogames are an art form. They are created by artists. What else could they be?”

Russ Pitts is an Associate Editor for The Escapist. He also, when he was 12, had a chalk drawing of a covered wagon being attacked by Apache Indians on horseback featured in an art exhibit in the library of his home town. He cannot remember the title of the piece, but is sure his mother still has it, somewhere.

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