Every man a Rembrandt

The title of this post was the motto of the “Craft Master paint-kit” – the first color-by-numbers product. Invented by Dan Robbins in 1950 (based on an idea from Leonardo DaVinci), these kits clearly filled a need, selling more than twelve million units in their first three years.

There is a recent – and to me much welcome – trend among computer game providers to update Robbins’ idea, rhetorically positioning the player as an artist. When you play “Guitar Hero” you are in the ostensible position of being a musician. “Spore” gives you an experience of designing your own fabulous creatures. “Little Big Planet” takes the ultimate rhetorical step and positions you as a designer of computer game levels.

All games like this have several things in common – they are fun to play, they are thought provoking in concept, and they are, at core, completely fake. I don’t mean “fake” in a bad way. I mean that they share a mandate to be consumer entertainment products, so their mission is to give you the illusion that you are engaging in an artistic process.

But it is only an illusion. When you peer even a little behind the scenes, you find that it’s all color-by-numbers: A team of talented people has carefully crafted a set of pathways for the player to take. Because that team has built a great deal of artfully concealed content beforehand, the experience of a player is really engaged in a kind of mix and match of work that has been done by others. This creates a feeling in the player of magical empowerment, so that every choice produces an interesting outcome.

When you play with “Spore”‘s creature creator, you can get some of the sense of this (although it’s fun to pretend otherwise). Behind the scenes, the folks at Maxis are simply providing menus of choices, and result of your decisions as a game player is essentially to fill out that menu. Those choices are used by the game engine to trigger and select amongst work that was already built by hard-working artists and animators.

Sure, you can create a ten legged creature in “Spore”, but your creation moves a lot like a four legged creature. Not surprising, since the movement you are seeing is (very brilliantly done) window dressing over a simple core template. The result is very different from what would be produced by, say, an animator from Weta lovingly working out the individual motion for each leg of a rampaging alien decipod.

I like this trend not because it is actually empowering (it isn’t) but because it might create some curiosity in the minds of consumers about the real thing. Playing “Guitar Hero” is not an actual experience with a musical instrument, but it might lead more than a few kids to pick up a guitar and check out what it’s like to truly master an instrument.

It may be illuminating to divide products into tools for real artistic creation, versus ersatz art, entertainment products that exist to provide an enjoyable fantasy of an artistic process. Anything you do with “Little Big Planet” or “Spore”, for all the apparent sophistication of the experience, is going to result in a characteristic aesthetic, since you are actually engaged in a – quite fun and engaging – process of shuffling around content that was already made by others.

Whereas real artist’s tools are often strikingly simple. A humble lump of clay is the most protean of tools. I’ve seen a talented artist pick up a piece of plasticine and proceed to create figures of heartbreaking beauty. The same sort of thing can happen with a six string guitar or a movie camera.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy playing “ersatz art” computer games. But give me a good mechanical pencil, a Pink Pearl eraser, and an 8½” &#215 11″ sheet of plain white paper, and I’m in heaven.

6 Responses to “Every man a Rembrandt”

  1. Craig says:

    You wrote that “Guitar Hero” is fake, but might lead some kids to try a real guitar. It took me a minute to realize that my recent conversation about this topic had not been with you! It was my friend Dan Weinreb (http://danweinreb.org/blog/) who visited us last weekend relating a conversation with someone from Harmonix regarding Rock Band. The upshot, as I remember it, is that they track these things with focus groups and user studies and there there is a significant portion of their players who do go on to make the transition from fake instruments to real ones.

    For anyone interested in delving into multi-legged creature technology, two SIGGRAPH papers of note: 2008 Hecker et al. on Spore and the 2009 Wampler/Popovic paper featuring a plausible pentapod run:

  2. Dean says:

    Having played hundreds of hours of Guitar Hero, I feel somewhat qualified to speak on this topic :) I play it for a somewhat different reason that most, at least anyone I know; during the winter, I workout on my treadmill and in order to pass the time quickly, I play Guitar Hero at the same time…a lot, and it works! Well enough, in fact, that I spend longer on the treadmill that I otherwise would.

    GH has an ability, I’ve not felt in other games, to make me feel like I”m really playing an instrument, even thought I know I’m just pressing buttons. Almost all other games, I feel like I’m playing a game, not so with GH, with it, I’m playing music; rather, I have the experience that I’m playing music. As an amateur musician, I understand the difference, but regardless, the experience is competent.

    Obviously, pushing buttons on a toy Guitar isn’t the same, but there are other musical skills being developed, such as timing. I have, on the other hand, had some tell me that playing the drums in these games is on par with playing real drums (lower complexity), especially learning to control two hands and a foot, all independently.

    Yes, they are fake, but in all the best ways…I’d never be able to play a real Guitar while biding my time on a treadmill.

  3. Andrew says:

    I agree that “Guitar hero” entertains people and leads kids to real instruments, or even practises people a lot. But i do not think that everyone can be Rembrandt. Games are supposed basically to relax most people, which makes them total different with art technics training. In my opinion, popular games always take balance between entertainment and art technics, meanwhile, hide something behind wonderful outcoming to make things easy and funny.

  4. troy says:


    Although it may seem an insurmountable task, and clearly you can’t do it on a treadmill… you should learn to play guitar… after the initial hurdle, it becomes much more compelling and is a much more useful skill in the long run… IMHO

  5. admin says:

    Now that’s an interesting thought – playing the guitar on a treadmill. Seems to me that managing to do both of those things at the same time would be quite a learning experience. :-)

  6. troy says:

    I’ve gotten (gotted?) pretty good playing the digeree doo on the treadmill, but, the guitar gets a little nasty covered in sweat…

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