Grant Custer

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Screenshot vs artwork: games vs creative tools

I take a lot of inspiration from video games but I want to make creative tools. What’s the difference between a game and a creative tool?

One big difference seems to be the end goal: with a creative tool you make something you want to share outside of the tool. You export something, often an image or a text document. In a game, you’re normally working within the game world. Often you’re completing quests. For more creation-oriented games like Minecraft, you’re building something and you may even share your creation in the form of screenshots or recordings, but still there’s a sense that what you made belongs in the game world and is best experienced there.

Another big difference is primitives. In drawing and painting applications, you’re often working at a pretty low-level, defining shapes and colors and paths. In games, you’re often acting within a world using an avatar. It’s more like making scenes with dolls and action figures (or in Minecraft’s case, legos) than it is painting or drawing. The distinction seems to carry over pretty cleanly from the physical world. 3D graphics programs or game development tools like Unity possibly make things a little fuzzier, but even there I think the distinction between playing and creating can mostly be classified according to what level you’re intervening at.

There’s something of the idea of ownership in there as well. I know there’s been some work done in taking artistically composed screenshots of games. That feels like more of a collaboration to me, between the game creators and the artist staging the photos, versus an independent creative work. I know I’m not being technically rigorous in how I define this stuff, and there’s probably lots of great work that blurs and interrogates this kind of thing. I’m trying to write out my general feelings about the differences even if they’re not totally consistent or well-reasoned.

I’m interested in something like: ‘what does Minecraft look like if you can bring in your own blocks’? I know there’s a modding scene that gets at some of this, I did a little bit of work creating my own skins for games I played when I was yonger. It was kind of thrilling opening up and modifying the game files, seeing that it was all pieces put together. But yea, what if there was something where you could bring in things from the outside world (images) modify them in a ‘game-like’ manner, with the goal being an output (an image) that could go elsewhere (and that could feel whole into itself, not like a ‘screenshot of a game’)? Would that feel like a ‘creative tool’? Is it mostly a manner of framing? Can you use a bunch of game mechanics (and yes, I should be more concrete here, but later) in a creative tool just by making sure that those import and export actions are positioned as the main goal? Maybe?

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Grant Custer is a designer-programmer interested in alternative interfaces.

You can see work and inspiration in progress on my Feed and my alternative interface experiments on Constraint Systems. I’m happy to talk on Twitter, email: grantcuster at gmail dot com, or Mastodon. You can see a full list of projects on my Index.