Do we make art games?

Without getting too deeply into the “ARE GAMES ART?!” non-debate, I’d like to cover why we don’t refer to our games as art games, or arthouse games.

Wikipedia (yeah research!) defines art games as “video game[s] that [are] designed to emphasize art or whose structure is intended to produce some kind of reaction in its audience.” While us attempting the former can be argued, there is no doubt for the latter as we are trying to induce some meaningful experience for the people playing our games – while trying our best to not rely on emotional appeal for our impact.

Crying child
Less this…

…More this.

The goals of mindful xp are to make meaningful games, and central to this idea is that we’re using videogames as its own expressive medium – looking at our intents and purposes it’s no logical leap to say yeah, we’re an art game making group.

As a bit of background, for a long time while we pitched this project to the faculty in order to get the go-ahead to actually do this, we were confused for serious games, or newsgames, or simulation games. Not all of the faculty here at our school are that well-versed in games, so the closest approximations that they could make for our oddball project were related to previous projects done here (Peacemaker has its origins here as a student-led project). If we weren’t making games for fun or entertainment, and if we were trying to include meaning, then we were making serious games. But, the important distinction was that we didn’t want to create didactic works! Our intention wasn’t to educate, but to create poignancy through gameplay.

Man, that was a tough sell.

In any case, we still didn’t want to portray ourselves as making art games. So, why exactly do we shy away from the term?


Avoiding Connotations

Indie games (much less art games) have garnered a certain connotation within recent years. From my purely subjective viewpoint, because of the wider exposure of independent games, their explosion of growth, and because of the flourishing of games that try to go beyond just being fun, there’s been a visible backlash in the games community. Whether that’s an eye roll at another “boring art game” or vitriolic diatribes against elitist game creators, this kind of thinking pervades in the comment threads and forums of game websites. Is this representative of a greater societal anti-intellectualism? Or people, from time immemorial, hating egotistical artiste assholes who think they are better than everyone else? Or, maybe there isn’t a wider backlash, and its just a mass of individuals hating these games not because they are arty, but because they are not enjoyable to play.

We decided early on that our audience is not the Facebook moms that social game companies try appealing to, it isn’t the “core demographic” that AAA companies want in their pocket, but instead people who are literate in games, who play them, who know them – us, basically (it doesn’t exclude the earlier two, of course! I’m just saying we aren’t pointedly aiming at any really specific subset of the population outside of those playing games in whatever form).

Because our audience includes people who might be disinclined to play art games (or games touting meaning), we wanted to avoid the excess cultural baggage the term carries around. Is this something borne out of cowardice? Maybe! But more than being afraid of being part of some larger art game movement, we’re afraid of people not playing our games as a result of knee-jerk reactions to a term.


Avoiding Dichotomy

Tying back into the resentment some feel against art games, the inherent distinction that the term itself implies is that these games are art, and other games aren’t. This has no bearing on whatever the creators intended, but just how the semantics can work out.

We feel that calling our output art games erects unnecessary boundaries between us and the greater spectrum of games out there. It’s one thing to be given a classification by an outside source (we won’t bother to argue other people’s categorization of our output as much as we’ll argue against being labelled as boring games, or emo games), and quite another to adopt an identity.


I was fortunate enough to attend Indiecade last year, and in particular go to a panel called “Do Art Games Matter?” – the implication being that art games are now irrelevant in an age of acceptance(?) (which further brings into question why I’m even bothering writing this post…) There, Rod Humble, he of The Marriage, said very bluntly, “Art games won.”

In my mind, that cements our resolve to go without calling ourselves art game creators. Instead, we are simply game creators.