Game Design Thinking

(Game) Design Is Not Art, But It Can Be

Where does this comes from? Eames interview

A few days ago, I was reading ‘What Is Your Definition Of Design, Monsieur Eames?’, a Q&A session in which designer and architect Charles Eames succinctly answers a series of questions about design, art and life. I highly recommend you to go and read the Q&A whenever you can, it’ll take you about 5 minutes.

One of the questions (and the one which inspires this blog post) was: ‘Is Design an expression of art?’. The first part of the answer by Charles Eames was: ‘I would rather say it’s an expression of purpose.’ Purpose, not art. That really unsettled me, since I’ve always thought not only of games as art, but of game design specifically as a mixture of science and art. I will reserve the second part of Charles Eames’ answer for later, for when (I hope) my main point is already delivered.

What defines art?

So, what is art? How can one define what qualifies as art and what does not? This is a deep question, way beyond what I intend to explore in this blog post. According to Oxford Languages, art is:

the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.

 

At first, it looks like I’m contradicting myself. Game design entails creativity and imagination. Game design usually (if not always) have a visual component and finally, a game design is mostly concerned with creating beauty and emotional power. So, all items on the checklist are there…but that’s not the end of the story.

What is the primary goal of game design?

As Charles Eames pointed out, design is an expression of purpose. Even in the first question, Eames define design as ‘a plan for arranging elements to accomplish a particular purpose.’ Game design is no different than other design fields in which the main purpose of the designer should be to take into consideration the constraints in order to achieve a previously define objective. For example, a designer creating a chair needs to consider a variety of constraints, like its selling price, the materials available and many others to achieve a specific goal, that could be creating the most affordable gaming chair. The same goes for an architect. An architect must consider physical constraints like available space, gravity, materials; as well as laws guiding the construction, and many other constraints in order to, for example, design a luxury house.

 

Game designers are tasked to take elements (parts, mechanics, systems, etc.) and arranging them in novel (or not) ways to accomplish a particular purpose. This purpose usually entails an emotional component from the players’ perspective, namely, what emotions we want to convey to players. But between that emotion that we want to convey and actually generating it, there are a lot of things that a game designer must consider first. Feedback, fun, agency, player learning, mental models, cognitive load, and many more. We have all these tools and measurements at the service of our purpose.

Why is game design not art?

So, if everything seems to fall into place, why is game design not art? Well, in my opinion a game design by itself is difficult to judge as ‘a piece of art’. This would be similar as if we considered a movie script or a music sheet a piece of art (on their own). They are a part in a bigger scheme that becomes a piece of art (movies and a song). When we put everything together, we have a piece of art.

To be fair, Charles Eames also addressed this problem in the second part of his answer. About the question if design is an expression of art, he complemented with” ‘It may, if it is good enough, later be judged as art.’ And that’s the key. Later in game design means when the game is already implemented. It doesn’t matter if you are making a video game or a tabletop game, your design will need at least some kind of 2D or 3D art, but also code if you are making a video game and materials for the pieces if you are making a tabletop game… and even that sounds like an oversimplification. In the end, your game design needs to first become a game first, to later, if it’s good enough, be judged as art. You can’t judge your game design in isolation and it’s impossible to judge that it’s art if the game is not developed, tested and published. Game development is an iterative process and the quality of the design is only proven when it’s implemented.

 

By the way, yes, I do consider games as art, and even beyond art, but this is a discussion for another occasion.

Conclusion

Now, I know that many products are considered art by themselves. In his book ‘Emotional Design’, Don Norman cover various product designs that can be considered art. I know that many screenwriters have their opinion on some scripts so well written that are just a piece of art, something to be admired.

 

What’s your opinion? Which game design is so good, so emotionally powerful in your opinion, that can be considered as art?