‘That’s not real art’: Considering game theory, art, art theory, and video games

Dec 1, 17 • 5enses, Two-bit ColumnNo Comments

The author. Courtesy photo.

By Justin Agrell

The first game that blew my mind was “Doom.” If you’re unfamiliar with the game, it was one of the first 3-D computer games available for later DOS computer systems. (It also featured quite a lot of pixelated violence; it was the mid-’90s and I was a young boy, after all.) When I discovered “Doom,” my mind was transported there, to Mars, fighting Hell-demons. The visuals and speed of interaction were ground-breaking. Thinking back, it wasn’t books or music or paintings or film that gripped my interest so firmly. It was video games. You may dismiss or reject them as works of art, but stop and think about that for a second.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, some context.

My first passion was drawing. In elementary school I sketched throughout the day. At first my sloppy doodles littered whatever spare surface was available to me, hardly representing the nonsensical images in my mind. They were purely for my entertainment and to pass the time. As time progressed so did my skill, and by the end of the 5th grade I had reached the point of classmates paying me for sketches with their lunch money. When I think about art, I remember this time in my life.

OK, back to video games and art. When I first went to college, I wanted to create games but the concept of pursuing a career in the field was scoffed at. I was to become a mechanical engineer. I was to create useful and practical designs for the “real world.” It wasn’t long before I learned how unsatisfying that was for me. Mechanical engineering is not invention; there was no creativity. I was to be studying prefabricated materials’ tolerances and safety standards. My college was grooming me for foreman work regardless of my need for innovation.

I returned to the idea of game design and though it didn’t become a career path, it’s still my passion and hobby. Once a month, I host an event where we all bring our computers and play games throughout the day (Find out more at PPCGG.Com). I’ve learned programming and pixel art design in order to create my own free game. When I mention game development as my hobby, I often get mixed reactions. If I were to say I was writing music, drawing, or writing a story, there’d be little hesitation of acceptance and intrigue. The fact remains that I have to do all of those things to create a game. And, moreover, it has to be a game people want to play.

One of the most fascinating aspects of game development is that it’s one of, if not the only, art form that can “be wrong.” Mashing a piano, throwing paint on a canvas, filming nothing for hours can yield “bad” art, but it’s art all the same. (Indeed, people pay good money for lots of bad art.) When I’m at my computer preparing to code, it seems as though the machine is just waiting in anticipation of me to make the slightest mistake in order to tell me just how wrong I am. The only thing that comes close is writing — which has editors who are just as eager (Hi, Nicholas! [Editor’s Note: Hi, Justin!]). The artwork for a game must be formatted, framed, and moded. The music shortened, looped, and bitrated. The code must compile and the story must be coherent and flexible if it can be accepted at all. If not performed to strict specification, then it won’t run at all. There can be no presentation of the work.

I challenge you to embrace the effort and creativity required to develop a video game. Venture out and find one, new or old, and play it through to completion. Make sure to take the time to observe the artwork. Every object had to be made by hand, every sound created or recorded. Every second of play must be planned for and every interaction coded.

Seriously, take a minute to reflect on that. You might just find yourself impressed.


Justin Agrell has been a certified IT technician since 2005. He loves Linux, adventure motorcycling, and computer gaming. To get in touch, just email him at Justin@U4E.US.

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