The #AltGames Manifesto Part 1: The Art World

Under that value system, important work like Anna Anthropy’s Queers In Love At The End Of the World would be worthless — take ten seconds to play it now and see what I mean. No, really. It lasts ten seconds. And it is perfect for it.
Zoe Quinn, “Punk Games”, Boing Boing

The #AltGames movement is, to me, a label given to the attempt to discover the artistic potential of game development tools. By ignoring all the rules and conventions about what a game is or how it should be made, by building something for its artistic worth rather than sales potential, perhaps creators can break new ground.

I want to write about this movement — I find it simultaneously fascinating, inspiring, and — if I’m honest — horrifying. First, however, we need some context. If you aspire to create Art using game development tools, you’re inadvertently stepping on the toes of people who are much, much better at this game than you are: The Art World. They clutch on to the right to call themselves the gatekeepers of what is and isn’t Art and it is my belief that, should it be proven that game technology can be used to produce Art, the ‘punks’ and ‘renegade’ creators who started all this will find it snatched away from them.

So, to begin with, I want to provide a little context about the Art World, and what the #AltGame movement is up against.

Art students are taught 4 fundamental lessons. The first, and least important, is how to draw and paint.

The second lesson is the history of art: Looking at how art changed over time as technical innovations allowed until eventually it was realised that the requirement for technical innovation to do something new became, itself, a dogma to be thrown off.

The third lesson was about making it in the art world, how, in reality, your future depends on your ability to market yourself to galleries and to collectors, not your skill: To turn yourself into a brand.

The fourth lesson is to realise that the purpose of achieving any level of technical ability in drawing and painting was merely to qualify you to call yourself an artist. You have to prove you understand the rules that you will spend the rest of your career breaking.

In the previous century Fine Artists began radically deconstructing art, just as the #AltGames movement today wants to deconstruct games. Perhaps the most well-known results of this effort is Equivalence VIII, otherwise known as “That pile of bricks”. For many, ‘radically deconstructing’ means ‘disappearing up one’s own arsehole’ but this is what art collectors and galleries are buying. Whether it’s Emperor’s New Clothes or Hugely Important is all a matter of perspective and probably depends on whether you have any actual hard cash invested in something Hugely Important. .

And this is the crux: The Art Industry works because each work of art is a singular, unique, one-off item. This is what gives it each work its inherent value. A successful artist only needs to sell a small number of pieces to a small number of suckers for a large amount of money to sustain themselves. Most will fail.

#AltGames, however, are a digital medium, infinitely reproducible and with a terrifyingly short life-expectancy before technology renders it unusable without technical hassle. No-one can buy an altgame as an investment for the future, and therefore genuine art collectors and galleries will never be interested.

Clearly for #AltGames to survive, another approach is required. Perhaps, in doing so, it could challenge the Art World itself. In part 2, I dig a little deeper.