How The Metagame cards went from a sports card-like to dictionary chic

Five years of Metagame card designs

Five years of Metagame card designs

Over the last five years, The Metagame has transformed from a conference game to a party game, from there to an artist’s project bound into a magazine and finally back to a rebooted party game. Along the way, the visual design of the game has undergone one major reboot, three format changes and innumerable small revisions. At each turn, with each change, the visual design of the game has always been central to the success of the game. This is the story of the game’s visual design over its five year evolution.


2010: The Metagame Conference Game
Local No. 12 began designing the Metagame as a conference game for the 2011 Game Developers Conference. This meant the cards had to work in a wide range of circumstances—people standing in hallways chatting, players seated before or after conference sessions, in the poor lighting of a bar, in parties at 3am. We also knew we’d be dealing with people who knew games inside and out. This audience already spent a good deal of time talking about games, so we wanted to think through how to present the game in a way that dovetailed into their existing interests and activities.

Mid-century baseball cards were a model for our early layouts

Mid-century baseball cards were a model for our early layouts

Early on in the project, we hit upon sports trading cards as a model. It made sense for the game in a number of ways. Since we were focused on videogames as the primary subject matter, the “facts + picture” model of trading cards worked well as a framework. In the case of baseball cards, the player’s name and likeness were the most important information, followed by their position and team. This suggested an information hierarchy for the Metagame game cards. We would feature the game’s title and an exemplary image, followed in importance by the publisher, developer, platform and date.

Summer 2010: the first playtested card design

Summer 2010: the first playtested card design

With this in mind, we began experimenting with the basic composition of the cards. We quickly came up with a design that included the game’s title, image and salient information for differentiating which particular version of the game was up for debate. We spent a lot of time thinking about what kinds of images should represent the games. We experimented with screenshots, game logos, even fan art. In the end, we used a mix of these to convey the spirit of the game, and to help those who might not know it identify the game. We liked a horizontal image orientation, which favored high-definition videogames, but also gave the cards a strong visual presence.

We began playtesting a horizontal design that allowed large images. During our first large-scale playtest was at IndieCade 2010, we quickly realized that playing cards are vertical for a reason—it is much easier for players to hold an ever-expanding number of cards this way. Just as important, that is what players expected from playing cards. So while we liked the look of the horizontal layout and its strong visual appeal, we realized we needed to revise the design to fit the format people were used to. This was a recurring theme in the design of the game—finding the right balance between the visual design, the communication design, the play experience and the traditions of card design.

Spring 2011: card layouts used at GDC 2011

Spring 2011: card layouts used at GDC 2011

We went through a series of additional revisions to slowly hone in on a look that read “trading card,” had a vertical composition, contained the correct information, and used a representative image that got across the gist of the game. Even after a lot of testing, we realized there were some problems with our design. For one, right-aligning the game titles didn’t work well with the typical way players fan out cards in their hands—the titles became partially obscured. So while it may have looked better to right-align the titles, it was more functional to have them left-aligned.

We also struggled with the “flavor” elements of the card borders. In order to maximize the size of the images and information, we pushed our borders past the ¼” safe zone recommended by printers. And as a result, the variation in cutting created visible inconsistencies that would have likely been hidden by a more generous border margin.


2012: Metagame Videogame Edition

2012: Illustrations for the Metagame Videogame Edition.

2012: Illustrations for the Metagame Videogame Edition.

The success of the Metagame at GDC 2011 lead us to run our first kickstarter campaign. We were overall happy with the look of the game, so we left the visual design more or less intact. We did make one substantial change to the comparison cards—we reversed out the text and background so the cards were white text on dark gray background. This gave the two decks more distinct looks. We also thought it gave the comparison cards a more cleaner, more designed look.

The main change came around the images on the game cards. Following the lead of collectible card games like Magic: The Gathering, we commissioned illustrations for each game card. We reached out to friends, colleagues and the internet to find a group of illustrators with a range of styles. We then let them pick from the list of games to pick their favorites. In the end, we had 20+ illustrators create the 100 images included in the Metagame Videogame Edition. These proved to be a real strength of the game, giving each card a distinct look within the more neutral look of the cards.


2013: Metagame Culture Edition

Fall 2011: Esopus #17 premieres “The Metagame (Culture Edition)”

Fall 2011: Esopus #17 premieres “The Metagame (Culture Edition)”

Later that year, Local No. 12 was approached by Tod Lippy of Esopus Magazine about doing an artist’s project. We quickly honed in on the idea of broadening the game to popular culture—film, music, art, literature, comics, architecture, fashion, product design, and of course, games. We also had to consider how to translate the game from a traditional card design to something that could be reduced in size to efficiently fit onto perforated sheets for binding into the magazine. So while the overall look-and-feel remained the same, there were innumerable design considerations around scaling down to a smaller, more narrow card size.

Regular-sized Videogame Edition cards on the left, the smaller Culture Edition cards on the right

Poker-sized Videogame Edition cards on the left, the smaller Culture Edition cards on the right

One substantial change was to change the text on the comparison cards to upper/lower type instead of all caps. We felt this gave a greater elegance to the typography. On the culture cards, we also removed the labels for the creators, date and medium. Given the wide range of content we were working with, there wasn’t the same consistency as before. This also freed up some much-needed space in the smaller card footprint.


2013 – 14: The Metagame reboot

Summer 2013: roughly 25% of the tested prototype designs

Summer 2013: roughly 25% of the tested prototype designs

Working on the Esopus Culture Edition got us excited about doing a commercial release of the broader culture edition of the game. We started by opening up everything about the game for conversation. Who will be our new audience? How would they best receive the information about the objects on the culture cards? How should we represent the objects? What will set the right tone for a broader audience?

We spent a good deal of time thinking through the pros and cons of photographs and illustrations. We eventually agreed on illustrations, and even more specifically, a single illustration style. We thought this was a good way to move away from the expectations of collectible card games, and toward a more mainstream approach to card game design.

Some of the more important conversations about the card design were with Max Temkin from Cards Against Humanity. He urged us to think about simplifying and streamlining the information on the culture cards in order to make them more accessible. This led to a long period of design explorations, prototyping and playtesting. We went through at least two dozen iterations that experimented with the arrangement of the elements, the typography and color palettes. For most of these, we produced prototype decks for playtesting and feedback.


2015: The Metagame.

Fall 2014: The final design for The Metagame cards

Fall 2014: The final design for The Metagame cards

After months of testing, we landed on the art direction for the game. We honed in on an approach to the culture cards that we think of as “dictionary chic”—a clean sans-serif, a pink accent color (a holdover from the original logo) and dark gray illustrations and descriptions. The opinion cards are all-cap white sans-serif on one of six colors. This rainbow of color provided the pop needed to brighten up the game.

Even with the art direction determined, and our first public images posted on our Kickstarter campaign, we continued to tinker with the point size of the culture card titles and text, the line breaks of each description, the color palette of the opinion cards and the colors of the card backs for the two decks. To insure they worked as stand-alone designs and functional playing cards, we ran dozens of playtests to see how players responded to the art direction and how well they functioned in a variety of contexts (conferences, bars, coffee shops, schools, kitchen tables, etc.).

We then entered the lengthy process of making sure our design translated cleanly to print: paper samples, press proofs, production samples (oh, so many production samples). Given the quiet nature of the design, getting all the details right were important: making sure the box was truly white, getting the alignment of the cards as consistent as possible, Making sure the opinion card fronts and backs were consistent in color, etc.

Looking back at the two conference games, one artist project and two boxed versions of The Metagame, we’re proud of our little game. With each change, the game’s visual design has gotten tighter and more focused. We hope you agree The Metagame—what we think of as the canonical version—has turned out well.

Mediums, Media, Culture and History

Albrecht Dürer, The Ravisher

Albrecht Dürer, The Ravisher. Baillieu Library Collection, The University of Melbourne

Last night, my Twitter feed burst with anger about The Entertainment Software Association’s position on the preservation of “abandoned” videogames. Apparently, the ESA, the trade association of the major videogame publishers, believes the preservation of “abandonware” videogames—games that are no longer supported, manufactured or otherwise published— is a form of hacking. And, in the ESA’s eyes, all hacking is a form of piracy.

Perhaps the greatest irony here is the use of the term, “hacking.” The logic I’m sure is to play on the negative connotations around black hat hacking—the kind that leads to databases full of credit cards being stolen and Sony’s email littering the internet. Hacking used to not mean internet malignancy, not by a longshot. Back in the 50s and 60s, to hack was to do something new and cool with technology—“expensive typewriter” was an early hack to make massive mainframe computers function as a typewriter, for example. It is this flavor of hacking that led to the creation of the earliest videogames. Spacewar!, for example, was a 1962 hack of the Digital Equipment Corporation’s PDP-1. Steve Russell and his friends built and iterated on the game, slowly pulling together their dogfight-in-space game. Before Spacewar!, there was Tennis for Two, Willy Higginbotham’s 1958 tennis game hack of an analog computer designed for simulating missile trajectories. And in 1952, A.S. Douglas created a Tic Tac Toe hack, OXO on the EDSAC. The big difference between mid-20th century hacking and the sad state of affairs today? Tic Tac Toe, Tennis for Two and Spacewar! were all created outside the confines of intellectual property laws and the tangled mess that is media-based creativity.

This is not a new problem. For as long as there has been mass-production, there have been attempts to protect creative work. The oldest example I know is from the early 16th century—the German artist, Albrecht Dürer. Dürers paintings were works in the medium of painting, while his prints were a form of proto-mediamass produced image products. His paintings were part of the ongoing dialog amongst Dürer, those who commissioned paintings from him, the institutions in which the paintings were hung, his fellow painters, those who wrote about his work, etc. In other words: the cultural infrastructure that swirled around his work. If you look at a book about the Northern Renaissance, youll quickly note a few things: there were only a few viable subjects (e.g. the Virgin Mary, baby Jesus, saints, portraits of the wealthy and powerful); many of the works are incredibly similar in composition, size color palette, painting technique, etc.; and Dürer seemed to be a trendsetter and follower all at once. This is how material culture always works: there are conceptual, formal and experiential expectations around what a medium is and isn’t good for (I talk about these ideas in more detail in the first chapter of Works of Game).

Dürer was nothing if shrewd. He was quick to adopt printmaking as a new outlet for his work. In printmaking, the artist found both a new audience and a means of self-promotion. He could create prints based on his paintings in order to spread word about them, and he could create original prints that could be sold to a less affluent audience. Soon enough, copies of his prints began to appear on the market without his authorization. He was outraged, and sought to protect his work and, in today’s terms, his brand. What we see happening with Dürer was the transition from a medium to media. Painting was a medium in the same way as sculpture and drawing. Because of the resources, time and skill it took produce a painting (or sculpture or drawing), copying was a concern. But with printmaking, where a single image could be reproduced hundreds of times in short order, the dissemination of works was much easier. Printmaking was a media, and therefore changed the ways artists thought about the intellectual property of their work.

Fast forward to the mid-to-late 20th century, and we see what in the past we might have called a medium immediately transform itself into media—software. Certainly, software wasn’t the first medium born into media status (film, television, radio), but the change in perceptions of software were swift and fairly merciless. By the 1970s, barely a decade into the commercially-viable life of computing, software was already a widget to be up-sold with computers. (Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” is a much more detailed and insightful exploration of the role of technology in changing perceptions about media. And McLuhan certainly has things to add on the subject as well.)

The main concern here is that the operations of creative culture, including the media products created by the members of the Entertainment Software Association, don’t really operate cleanly within the confines of intellectual property and copyright law. These things in fact push against the traditional ways culture is produced. It is a cycle of creation, inspiration, creation, inspiration, and on and on. A clear articulation of this is found in Kirby Ferguson’s “Everything is a Remix” series. Videogames are no different. Think no farther than the genre similarities we see with action-adventure games (who all seem to star variations on a unshaved white guy theme, or shooters with nearly interchangeable weapons, maps and bad guys). It is how culture works. The same happens with movies: how many super heroes will save the world and aging white guys will rescue their daughters this summer?

When trends and mediums pass, history becomes the way we preserve and remember what has come before. Often, this ends up feeding back into the current culture. Subculture fashion is an obvious example—80s recycling of the 50s, 90s recycling of the 70s, 00s recycling of the 80s, 10s recycling of the 90s. Videogames, particularly indie videogames is another, with the insatiable love for NES-era graphics and the never-ending stream of golden era arcade reboots. Videogames in particular and software more generally are challenging to preserve. Unlike Dürer’s paintings, you can’t simply put them up on the wall under controlled lighting and humidity and call it a day. The games require their platforms, period monitors, the parts to keep the platforms running, etc. For institutions like the Museum of the Moving Image and the National Museum of Play, which try to present games on their original platforms, there is untold work and expense to pull this off. It is easier to preserve the ROMs from old games that can be run on emulators. That’s what we had to do when we exhibited Spacewar! in the “Video Games Blast Off” exhibition at the Museum of the Moving image, as it was simply too costly to have a functioning PDP-1 (only one known in operation out at the Computer History Museum, itself made out of the parts of three machines), so we worked with a preservationist to create a facsimile of the computer’s hardware, and ran an emulator for game play. (Every other game in the show ran on its original hardware.)

But beyond the challenges in preserving videogames and their platforms, there is the lack of support around this work. Much of the cultural heritage field (e.g. art museums, the Smithsonian Institute, the Library of Congress, archeological and anthropological institutions, etc.) is viewed as important and thus worth the resources necessary to conduct the important preservation and historical research. Software preservation is far behind that of many other forms of material culture preservation, largely because sufficient philanthropic and public money isn’t being directed toward the ongoing efforts.You would think ESA would provide money toward these initiatives, or encourage its membership to do so. But thus far, that hasn’t been the case.

Given this, the bulk of the work to preserve the history of videogames comes from fan preservation efforts. These efforts rely on passion, disposable income, eBay, and more often than not, ROMs and platform emulators. And this is what the ESA is calling hacking, and therefore piracy. 

I realize I’m deeply biased in my opinions about the importance of material culture histories, but I find the ESA’s position to be ridiculous, callous, and so clearly about the profit margins of its membership that it barely merits mention. And if I think about it for a moment, there is nothing surprising about this. The videogame industry is deeply uninterested in its past for any reason other than mining the nostalgia of its fan base for profit. Though the fans place emphasis on the videogame portion of “videogame industry,” the companies producing the games clearly put industry first—they might as well be selling razor blades. For the large companies paying dues to the ESA, a game on an obsolete platform is irrelevant. Why care about something that can’t be monetized? Or more importantly, why allow anyone to play it until the port to the current generation of platforms is complete? The more easily players can access ROMs for abandonware, the less profit potential there is for the release of games on Steam and iOS.

This model is nothing new. Disney perfected it with the periodic re-release of its classic animated films, and the tightly-controlled release in emerging media and platforms. Disney, however, is wise enough to see the value in letting cultural heritage professionals do the work of preserving Mickey, Minnie, Cinderella and all those cats, dogs, mice and other creatures. Let’s hope the ESA and its membership eventually wake up to the fact they produce culture, not just products, and that they benefit from the preservation of their products by allowing them to be preserved and studied. 

What Yvonne Rainer taught me about experimental game design

Yvonne Rainer dancing

All the turbulence around games and the increasingly diverse range of opinion on what is or isn’t a game, and what does or doesn’t constitute game development leads me to a fairly basic question:

What do we mean when we talk about game design?

Is it the design of spaces of possibility defined by the mechanics and fueled by the goals to which they are applied?

Is it the use of participatory storytelling to deliver personal narratives?

Is it something more ethereal, like the creation of potential emotional states?

Is it a tool for self-exploration and expression?

The more diverse games become, the harder it is to see one “game design” that unites them all. As we’ve cycled through a variety of movements from artgames to notgames to queer games to altgames, each has brought its own claims on the medium of games, and in turn caused reactionary territorial defensiveness. Artgames suggested games could be more than entertainment; notgames challenged that games had to be competitive, goal-oriented and mechanically rich; queer games brought a whole new set of values, perspectives and stories to games; and most recently, altgames question the assumptions of what indie means, and how games can be a sustainable medium. With each of these, particularly the latter two, there are always power politics at play over whose voices are heard and celebrated, and who has access to infrastructure and thus audiences and resources. But in all four of these cases, considered from a practitioner perspective, these debates come down to what we mean when we talk about game design.

A couple weeks ago, I found a handle to these questions in an unexpected place: the minimalist choreography of Yvonne Rainer and her colleagues in the experimental dance world of early 1960s New York. Under the guidance of the dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, the musician and choreographer Robert Dunn and the musician and artist John Cage, dancers, filmmakers, musicians, writers and other artists explored what lay beyond the current state of dance. Rainer and the group of like-minded practitioners formed the Judson Dance Theater as a stance against the then-dominant modern dance typified in the work of Martha Graham. Though a departure from traditional ballet in subject matter, costume, set design and many other ways, Graham’s canonical modernism, typified in “Appalachian Spring,” also stayed firmly inside the boundaries of dance—highly stylized movement distinct from the movements of everyday life, the repetition of forms and movements, an overt sense of drama,  designed to accompany melodic scores, among other similarities.

Graham’s choreography represented all the problems with dance for Yvonne Rainer. To express her ideas, Rainer wrote the “No Manifesto”:

No to spectacle.

No to virtuosity.

No to transformations and magic and make-believe.

No to the glamour and transcendency of the star image.

No to the heroic.

No to the anti-heroic.

No to trash imagery.

No to involvement of performer or spectator.

No to style.

No to camp.

No to seduction of spectator by the wiles of the performer.

No to eccentricity.

No to moving or being moved.

Though it might seem otherwise, these ideas were not anti-formal; in fact, they were the opposite. They were deeply concerned with dance as a cultural form, despite the rejection of the pervading aesthetic of the time. Rainer sought to re-locate the intent of the choreographer from the traditions of dance as a professional practice isolated from life to what she called “ordinary dance.” This wasn’t a dismissal of dance as a medium; it was a reassessment of dance as a more-human scale medium concerned with the movement of the body and not the baroque, contrived movements of previous dance traditions.

At the heart of Rainer’s work is the question of intent: what does it mean to choreograph dance when so many of the traditions no longer apply?

The embodiment of these beliefs are found in “Trio A,” a minimalist dance choreographed in 1966, shortly after the manifesto was written. The six minute dance is made up of a sequence of non-repeating movements that draw on the movements our bodies make in the process of work, play and the mundane. Everyone had a virtuosity with these movements, but a virtuosity developed through living, and not through art.

“Trio A” had style—an anti-style, but a style, nonetheless. Walking, swinging arms idly, hopping, slouching shoulders, rolling over—the movements and gestures that we perform on a regular basis without a second thought—were invested with new meaning, a treated as the elements from which dance could be composed. The style emerged from the choices Rainer made in picking gestures and movements, and how they were sequenced together. The flatness of the dance is also a stylistic choice—to remove intonation and bombast, and replace them with quiet execution.

There was a craft here, too, without question—Judson dancers were notoriously rigorous. But it was toward a different end. It was just not the craft of precise execution of moves drawn from the formal canon of modern dance. It was a craft of seeing and thinking in new ways, and de-training the dancer to move in a new way, to consider a less adorned form of performance. It was a craft informed by art, writing, music, philosophy and many other external influences.

Judson Dance Theater

The dance establishment of the time—Martha Graham and other modernists—looked at Rainer and her performers and didn’t see dance at all. I think this is what people used to traditional games, and thus game design, think of when they look at altgames and queer games and notgames: some people standing around in a box and calling it a game. Though it has become something of a dirty word, these are formalist contestations around form, intent and craft.

Let’s pause for a moment and consider these three terms. Often a talisman used to trigger consternation amongst game developers and critics alike, form is just another word for medium: painting, sculpture, film, music, games. Intent speaks to what the artist wants to do with the medium: make money, express themselves, solve world hunger, participate in an ongoing dialog with other practitioners, etc. Craft then is the set of skills necessary to produce work within the given medium that meets the artist’s intentions.

When we talk about game design (or choreography) we are talking about the interplay of these three concepts. We all make assumptions around these, often in the context of our own values and tastes. Pervading opinions take hold and color the way we think about games and their design. Even (especially) indie games are prone to this, setting expectations for experimental approaches to gamemaking.

Indie gamemakers bring a particular set of sensibilities to the form of game, the most dominant being that when we say game, we really mean videogame. Along with this come the privileging of visual polish, mechanical representations of systems, play experiences polished through playtesting, among others. Chris Hecker’s Spy Party and Capybara Game’s Super Time Force represent two examples of this perspective on the form of games.

Along the margins, we see something quite different: personal expression, expanding the range of people who can see themselves in the games they play, pursuing stories drawn from life and fantasy rather than make believe. These lead to radically different kinds of games: Porpentine’s Howling Dogs and Liam Burke’s Dog Eat Dog, for example, that suggest new possibilities for games.

Artistic intent is realized through making, and making requires craft. Now, questions of craft come up with too much frequency around artgames and notgames and queer games and altgames. Certainly, many of the gamemakers within these loose communities of practice do seem suspicious of or uninterested in virtuoso gamemaking, at least in the traditional sense of programming, modeling photo-realistic worlds and game systems brought to a fine sheen through playtesting. That said, there is a deep sense of craft in artgames, notgames, altgames and queer games—on writing, on finding ways to express feelings and ideas that simply haven’t been done before with games, on making games out of “ordinary tools” like Twine or Gamemaker or the other more affordable and accessible tools, on exploring the possibilities of 3D worlds unburdened of guns, puzzles and loot.

We find Twine games like anna anthropy’s Queers In Love At The End Of the World—a 10-second Twine game contemplating the decision of how to engage with one’s partner at the edge of time. While its production wasn’t burdensome, the ideas and experience are nonetheless well-crafted and powerful. Or Robert Yang’s under appreciated Intimate, Infinite, a Unity-built meditation on Borge’s “Garden of Forking Paths.” The game has many of the trappings of a “AAA Indie” production—lush 3D environments, cinematic camera work, cut scenes—but the ways players engage is more cerebral, and less interaction-based.

Like Rainer, there is a certain re-training or de-training at play in these games. But there is also a shift away from the traditions of game development toward the craft skills of other mediums—writing, ‘zine-making, literature, theater, poetry, to name a few. So perhaps instead of de-training, it is better to consider altgames as a reimagining of game design.

All of which comes back around to the form of games. In order to realize the intentions and create new kinds of play for a new audience, games and their design must be reimagined around the intent of the artists, not the expectations of the players. From this broaden perspective, we comfortably locate Squinky’s Coffee: A Misunderstanding and Merrit Kopas’ Hugpunx inside our reimagined understanding of game design.

Rainer’s minimalism, once considered far removed from dance, is now an important pillar in the history of dance. But it took time and dedication. They were continually denied access to the world of modern dance because they didn’t seem to be creating or performing what passed for dance at the time. This put them outside the cultural, social and economic infrastructure of the dance community. So Rainer and her cohorts looked beyond dance for inspiration, and made their own space—the Judson Dance Theater—where they put on free or affordable performances and workshops.

Ultimately, by questioning the form of dance and what it means to choreograph, Rainer expanded the medium. Will the same be true of queer games and notgames and artgames and altgames? One thing is for sure: questioning what constitutes game design is essential to the medium of games, even if it feels like rejection to some, because it broadens the medium for us all.

All that was cited must be linked.

Though Works of Game isn’t quite out yet (updated street date seems to be March 23), I’ve received requests for links to the works I mention in the book. I’ve created a link list of the 98 paintings, sculptures, performances, installations and games I discuss in the book. Some, like NBA 2K 12 and Spelunky are mentioned in passing in the book. Others, like Wolfenstein 3D and Jet Set Willy are discussed due to their use to create other works. A good deal of them are either the subject of the essays or examples used to help us consider games and art in a new light.

It is a pretty amazing list when viewed like this; from Robert Rauschenberg to Super Mario Bros. with a few stops at Cory Arcangel, Mary Flanagan, Brenda Romero and Jonathan Blow on the way.

In any event, if you see any errors or dead links on the list, please reach out and I’ll fix as best I can.


Once the present, now history


I came home from the Game Developers Conference last week to discover a box full of copies of Works of Game. It was a strange sensation, holding the slim volume in my hand for the first time. Once the excitement of seeing the book in person passed, I began to ponder how, exactly, it took me half a decade to get from proposal to book. (According to my file backups, I began writing the proposal for Works of Game in December 2009, and turned in the final manuscript edits in October 2014, nearly five years later.)

The late 00s were an exciting time in indie games. Numerous breakout hits proved there was a path for indie success, IndieCade and the IGF were attracting huge crowds, and devs were making games that no one would have imagined a few years earlier. But through all this excitement, I noticed some problems. For one, there was the “are games art?” debate that kept popping up despite nearly everyone saying it was an irrelevant question. Coming from the world of art and art history, this conversation always caused my head to spin. More often than not, pronouncements on the subject were made from a point of abject naiveté about what it means to be “art,” to be an artist, and to be part of a subculture that creates, critiques and appreciates art. MOMA’s acquisition of games into the Architecture & Design department only fueled the fire of misinterpretation. Yes, Minecraft, Sim City and Passage had MOMA’s good housekeeping seal of approval, but from the same people who collect lamps and bowls for the museum, and not those who collect paintings and video art. And the Smithsonian’s “Art of Video Games” show toured to great praise, but it was at best vague in its pronouncements of games as art—here meaning well-made, popular media artifacts. And that supreme court decision? That gave games first amendment protections, but it didn’t suddenly declare games art anymore than the first amendment anoints the Beetle Bailey comic strip “Art.”

I also noticed that the contemporary art world, and more particularly the media art community, was largely uninterested in games. Though there have been close to 100 exhibitions around games in museums and galleries, games are mostly treated as either creativity exercises, toolsets with which to make artwork, or cultural tropes ripe for critiques of technology, media and, well, games. But in the post-object, post-conceptual space art now occupies, the ambivalence toward games struck me as a missed opportunity.

It dawned on me that I was in a fairly unique position with games and art—I was a card-carrying Art Historian (at least as far as Indiana University’s Art History department was concerned), an indie dev and a game studies scholar. I began to look more closely at the history of games and art, on the origins of the game industry’s “are games art?” questions, and immersed myself in “game art” (art made of games) and “artgames” (games with artistic intentions). I started giving talks like “Painting with Games: JODI, Julian Oliver and the technologies of game development” at DiGRA 2009, ”Art History for Game Devs” at GDC 2010 and “A Curiously Short History of Game Art”  at FDG 2012. With Ian Bogost and Michael Nitsche, I co-organized the Art History of Games symposium in 2010, and a smaller version in 2013 with Eddo Stern and Melanie Swalwell.

Artgames set the tone for certain corners of the indie scene from 2008 to 2010, receiving all sorts of recognition in the games press and festival circuit. But by 2013, the tide had turned, and it seemed like most of the usual suspects were no longer making work that fit the artgame bill. And examples of game art were few and far between since the heyday of the late 90s and early 00s. What were once of the moment were quickly becoming moments passed, in the process turning two-thirds of my book into a historical analysis. This bothered me, because I wanted the book to be part of an ongoing conversation, and not an art history book. But as much as I understood the artgames scene and the games it produced, and I understood game art and its role in contemporary art, there was still a lot I was sorting out. I was still making sense of what it meant to combine the values of contemporary art and games. I was still grappling with why contemporary art largely shunned games, but seemed to embrace ideas around play. I was still trying to decide what to call the works that met the values of both games and art. So I kept talking and playing and thinking and reading and writing my through these questions. The hardest question was what to call the works that met the values important to both art and game communities. The answer proved to be quite simple, once I found it—artist’s games.

While artgames and game art may be more or less things of the past, artist’s games continue to be made. Artists like Mary Flanagan, Blast Theory, the collaboration of Nathalie Pozzi and Eric Zimmerman, Eddo Stern, Pippin Barr, anna anthropy, Molleindustria and Porpentine continue to produce what are clearly artist’s games. We no longer have to lean on Marcel Duchamp for legitimacy for artistically-minded games (he isn’t that helpful, anyway). We’ve got anna and Paolo and Tale of Tales and Eddo and all the others.

As I entered the endgame of proofreading, citation-formatting and image-permission-hunting, I began noticing game-like structures in new corners of the contemporary art world. Seeming to hearken back to Fluxus event scores, Surrealist games, OULIPian constraints and Cage’s use of chance, there is a burgeoning space in performance-based and participatory cultural works. In choreography, theatre, and socially-based artworks, spectators become dancers, actors, singers, historic re-enactors, and players of all sorts through methods, systems, and instruction-based frameworks that share a great deal with games. 

Hopefully Works of Game can be a helpful contribution to making sense of the ways games and art overlap, and bring some clarity to the conversation. Give it a read if you have a chance, and let me know what you think. In the meantime, I’m starting on the next set of questions around play, art and structured participation beyond the screen and gallery. We’ll see if this project also progresses at a pace of 17 words a day.

Theme by Pexeto