Art in Play

An Interview with John Sharp about games and art

John Sharp is a game designer, graphic designer, art historian and educator.  He is Associate Professor of Games and Learning in the School of Art, Media and Technology at Parsons The New School for Design. Along with Colleen Macklin, John co-directs PETLab (Prototyping, Education and Technology Lab), a research group focused on games and their design as a form of social discourse.
He has two published books, Works of Game: On the Aesthetics of Games and Art (The MIT Press, 2015) and Games, Design & Play: A Detailed Approach to Iterative Game Design (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2016) and two forthcoming books — Fun, Taste and Games (co-authored with David Thomas, 2017),  and Iterate: Ten Perspectives on Design and Failure (The MIT Press, co-authored with Colleen Macklin, 2018).

Alejandro Lozano is a Ph. D. candidate in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Salamanca (Spain). His main area of research is the aesthetics of digital and biotechnologies. He studies the aesthetics of videogame design as a part of his interest in new media. He is also a member of Zehn Games, a Spanish collective focused on the multidisciplinary study of video games and  the promotion of the Spanish developer’s scene.

Alejandro Lozano: Before getting into details, let’s start with a definitional question. What is your concept of aesthetic and how do you apply it to games when you connect them to art?


John Sharp: Aesthetics means a lot of things. It can refer to having your fingernails painted or to the visual appearance in visual arts. If you talk about it with animation students, they will talk about the aesthetics of a film and what they mean is the visual style. That is one part of aesthetics, but to me, aesthetics is the evaluation of experience and the value of a work of art. By extension that means some philosophical framework underlying and serving as a guide for both the way you focus your attention during the experience and also the things you value and the things you do not.

One of the things that drove me to write Works of Game was the misunderstanding of what aesthetics mean in video games, both for people working in the industry and for fans. I am thinking of the way they conceive the relationships of games and art, or better said, Art with capital A, that is art in the way it is traditionally seen in museums or galleries. There is a lot of misunderstanding. People use these words, aesthetics and art, to describe very different things. I also think that there is a similar scenario on the art side because the potential value of games as an expressive form is not entirely understood yet.


AL: It is true that aesthetics mean a lot of different things. In Philosophy it is usually related to perceptual and cognitive issues and the way we experience anything that surrounds us


JS: True. When I was doing my PhD in Art History back in the mid-90s, I was interested in phenomenology. What struck me is that it provided a very useful lens for thinking about one’s experience with art. I was impressed by Ortega y Gasset and Merleau Ponty’s perspectives. They worked on bridging gaps between the reality of what the thing is and the way it is perceived.


AL: In your book Works of Game (The MIT Press, 2015) you trace a distinction between different categories of games (from art). You distinguish between “Game Art”, “Artgames” and “Artist’s Games”. To some extent, art history has documented the first class, and we are familiar with it, but the other two concepts refer to works from the early 2000s onwards and introduce new insights. Could you explain the differences between artgames and artist’s games?


JS: The three categories are very similar to one another. Compared to the other two types, artgames is related to what we could consider almost a movement. With this one, I focus on a particular time and a particular set of works. It has a lot to do with the rise of indie games, and most of what I talk about with that category came out of the international independent games community that crystallised around the IndieCade festival and the Independent Games Festival inside of the Game Developers Conference. It was a moment and time where some creators brought to bear the basic conceptual tools of the videogame industry into what I call “the aesthetic of meaningful choice”. That is a way of understanding games as systems that can be played inside and enjoyed where their meaning emerges through the engagement with the form. Designers like Jonathan Blow, Jason Rohrer or Brenda Romero were bringing games to bear in what could be considered an artist’s perspective. For example, instead of making a game about space marines or wizards they wanted to make a game about depression.

To the game industry, this looked bizarre. To the fine art world, it was not bizarre but a boring thing because this approach was surpassed decades ago by other artists. In any case, the artgame moment started in the middle or late 2000s. Braid came out in 2008, Passage did it in 2007. Rod Humble presented The Marriage in 2007 too. These are perfect examples that fit into the artgames category.

Somehow, the artgame movement fizzled out around 2010 or 2011. A lot of the people that I included in that group are now working on different things and dealing with other topics. Daniel Bermengui, who created a game called Today I die about a woman in full depression, does not create that kind of games anymore but others like strategy-based ones. Jason Rohrer has moved on to games that involve gambling and real money. So I think that the Artgame moment has passed. Those artistic topics have become common place, so there isn’t the excitement around them there used to be. The cultural inheritance of artgames is probably present in movements like queer games or #altgames. Anna Anthropy’s work is a good example. She is exploring similar kinds of ideas and loosens it up in understanding what a game is, focusing less on interactivity and more on storytelling.

About the category of artist’s games, the people I mention there have a deep understanding of what games are and can be, but also have a sophisticated understanding of what art means in the 21st century. Mary Flannagan, Blast Theory, Nathalie Pozzi and Eric Zimmerman, I think that they all show a sophisticated approach to what happens when you use the media of games as an art form. Well… perhaps Nathalie is uncomfortable calling the work she does art, but I feel very comfortable calling it art, and many others feel that way. I think that all of these cases are the best examples because it is so obvious that what they do are games. They create simple, mechanical interactions that have evident win states. In sum, they work on all the things that game people tend to praise, and at the same time, they give a very unexpected form to this stuff. I think that what they do is related to the generation of creative processes and not only experiencing the work that they want to convey. To me, artist’s games are more about that sophistication in understanding what the fundamental qualities of a game are and understanding what it means to be an artist in the 21st century.


AL: In which way are games stimulating new questions or approaches for art history and art theory?


JS: The big issue that comes out of it has to be with the materiality of the work of art. What is the object when you are talking about a piece of software or a set of rules written on a sheet of paper? Take Sol Lewitt. Some of his works of art are essentially recipes for the creation of the work of art. From the museum point of view, the object could be the set of instructions. But if you take a look at the Dia Art Foundation here in New York, they usually have at least one or two walls on which these instructions have been executed, so these rules became material works that you can see and touch.

So where does the work of art exist? Is it in Sol Lewitt’s instructions or when they are materialised? Or is it simply inside our heads? These are the kind of questions that art historians and art critics have been dealing with for at least 40 years, and they come to the surface even more with games. Also, the complicating factor of games are players and the fact that the game is not going to play out the same way. You and I play differently, and in extreme cases, it could look like we are playing very different games. If we follow Sol Lewitt’s rules and create art on the wall the difference would not be that clear since our attention is driven more accurately by the set of instructions.

So one of the contributions that game can do to the history of art is related to the materiality of the work of art. Another question is related to thinking of games and play more broadly. I am thinking of the way Ted Purves uses George Simmel’s ideas around social form. Purves is a social practice artist and resurrected Simmel’s idea of social form. Take the example of a dinner party. You can portray it as a straightforward social event that involves different processes such as buying groceries, cooking, setting the table, having a conversation with the people when they arrive… If you look at a dinner party from a social form perspective, you focus on where you can put some pressure to reconsider the experience of that event. That is possible by changing a few things in those processes. Perhaps what I would decide to do without telling my guests why is to do everything walking backwards, bring the dishes to them in that way, speak putting my words in reverse order… I would do this in to critique or interrogate the particulars on how my behaviour would impact everyone else’s.

What interests me in the context of games is that they are the media of the social form. Take soccer as an example, which is a significant activity for people all around the world, and at the same time is a giant economic and political force. It impacts everything around us. If we look at soccer from the social form point of view, we can think of an artistic and poetical act to relocate this game which would consist of playing a match inside the Sistine Chapel. Or we could make some changes to the rules as in Monty Python’s sketch of the Philosopher’s World Cup. A soccer match would become the playground for the philosophical inquiry! Those would be social experiments based on the social form of football.

To me, that is the great potential of games because they allow doing that very easily. This trait is widely unrealized. There aren’t many people trying to use games in this manner. If I prepare a second edition of Works of Game I would like to speak more about this.


AL: When people talk about artistic games or artists making games it is usual to name a series of creators (AKA Indies), either working alone or in small collectives, that step outside of the mainstream sphere of commercial games.

Are game scholars creating an academic canon of games for game studies where indie games represent the most prominent category?


JS: Perhaps there are around a thousand game studies scholars out there, a large number of researchers in any case. All of them are looking at different facets of games from theoretical, engineering and historical points of view. In any case, there does not tend to be a lot of discussions within the game industry about what is the important thing to be studying. There are a lot of reasons for that. An obvious one is that the game industry is not funding game research. You can compare this situation with the scenario of the food industry or the medical industry, where there is a lot of money coming back across from industry into research that helps to set the tone for what is being studied.

Largely, the money funding game studies research is either coming from governments or private foundations, at least in the United States, and that contributes to set the focus on the value of games for educational purposes. In the US, that is probably the deepest pool of knowledge that is being built by game studies scholars. There isn’t a lot of money flooding towards the philosophical study of games or to explore the aesthetics of games. Here in the States, there is a little bit of money coming from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. There is also a bit of money coming from the Research Council of Canada, where the focus tends to be more on the social sciences perspective.

On the other hand, there is starting to be more scholars looking to the industry. Felan Parker [and collaborators Jennifer Whitson and Bart Simon] have been doing a good deal of research embedding themselves within the studios and doing research to understand their practices, like how indies deal with game making. I cannot think of any examples of scholars that have tried to embed themselves in large game companies like Valve or Blizzard. I believe that the large game industry is not that receptive, because they do not see the value of this scholarly research. They see themselves as an entertainment industry, and they do not mind if a few academics are theorizing out there or documenting their practices. Of course, there are people in the mainstream industry that care about these things. Brenda Romero, John Romero and Raph Koster, they all care about it a lot. At 2017 GDC, Laine Nooney gave a talk to game developers about how to better document their work so that future historians will be able to do their job easier. If we want the game industry to be taken seriously we need to do things like taking its history seriously.


AL: One of your next projects with David Thomas is a book called Fun, Taste and Games (to be published by the MIT Press). What about the fun of games? Until very recently we have taken for granted the idea that well designed games allow the player to experience many things, but in a way that can be considered fun. Usually, fun things are related with entertainment, enjoyment, and a pleasant flow of time.


JS: The way Thomas and I framed the title “Fun, Taste and Games” is essentially a play on the Kantian ideas about beauty, taste and art. These three things represented the core elements in aesthetics. Beauty for Kant worked as a primary directing principle for evaluating art, and fun plays that same role for play experiences. In the book, we discuss why Kant is problematic for different reasons. One of the things we focus on is his idea of disinterest related to art. The kind of relationship he thought one should have with art works (basically not wanting anything from it) is just nonsense, but there is still something there to think about with regards to style and the things that are beyond basic needs for subsistence. Things like wordplay while we are having a conversation, stitching details on the back pockets of our jeans… There is still a place for style and playfulness on top of utility.

What is the primary value that we look for in art experiences with game play? We think that it is fun. But we feel that fun is a dirty word for people. Fun is associated with things that are frivolous, or for children, or, as Huizinga put it, unproductive… those sorts of things, but something can be fun and useful. I think that fun is one of the many victims of capitalism. When you live in a world where your whole value system is based on materiality and productivity, fun obviously lies outside of it because it is not producing value in a material sense. But perhaps it creates value in an affective or emotional sense. So one of the things we try to say is that fun is okay and that we need to get a more sophisticated understanding of what exactly we mean by that word.

In the book, we present a theory of what the integral pieces of fun could be. There is a chapter where we give a short history of the idea of fun: where the word comes from, what it means for different cultures…etc. In another section, we look at what it means to have an aesthetic framework in the age of consumerism where things move quickly. Another chapter deals with what I mentioned above about the aesthetic of meaningful choice that for me comes from the Cold War times and disciplines like games theory, cybernetics, systems dynamics, computer science theory… all of them had an enormous impact on games as a whole. In sum, the book has different essays where we try to apply some of our ideas about the aesthetics of fun. We look at games like basketball, Portal 2, Monopoly, Minecraft and others for thinking about where the fun lies in them.


AL: Can you give us a few thoughts about the idea of taste applied to games?


JS: One of the things David Thomas and I talk about in Fun, Taste & Games are the layers of taste. There is taste in the kind of games we like to play that can be expressed in our favourite genres. Then, inside of genres, there is a playstyle taste: how do I like to play this kind of game? One of the essays in the book is about a co-op play experience in Portal 2 with me and a friend of mine’s teenager son. We had different ideas about how to play the game but it worked out very well. His playstyle was very active and exploratory. He liked wandering around shooting portals and jumping through them, while I opted to mentally solve the puzzle inside of my head before doing anything. So two different playstyles ended up complimenting each other.

So there is taste in games, taste in the way we like to play the games we prefer, and there is also what we could consider community values that inform which kind of games I might want to play and give signals about if it is okay to play them the way we like to. One of the essays in the book is about basketball. I have been a huge fan of basketball for the past 30 years, and I used to play a lot. I quit playing at some point largely because of the way I like to play and the way most people play it was so different. It could be said that my values did not match very well with those of the community, so eventually, I preferred to be more of a spectator of basketball than a player.

These are the three layers of taste (what you want to consume, how you want to consume it and the values that frame, colour and direct all of it). Taste is a huge issue and represents one of the big differentiators between the mainstream game industry and indie games. Indie games are a little bit more willing to accept a broader range of tastes both on the creators and the player’s side. The larger game industry tends to be more constrained in this sense. For the last 25 years we have not been able to escape from First Person Shooters, particularly if there are space marines involved. The mainstream industry is very conservative in the kinds of tastes they want to cover. By contrast, indie communities are a little bit more open to exploration and allow smaller taste communities to form within them. In sum, taste is where aesthetic frameworks become a reality, where they quit being theory and start to play out.