Digital Craftsmanship: Fall 2012 VGDev Student Projects

Dec 31, 2012

“…Craftsmanship has been said to consist simply in the desire to do something well, for its own sake… The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world as through manual competence… seem to relieve [a person] of the felt need to offer interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on. Boasting is what a boy does, because he has no real effect in the world. But the tradesman must reckon with the infallible judgment of reality, where one’s failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away.”

-Matthew B. Crawford
Shop Class as Soulcraft

Crawford’s writing there is specifically intended about material, manual trades, and in fact I picked up his book to reflect on the modest electrical work that I do for pinball maintenance. However many of the qualities and practices that he praises about such endeavors applies equally, I believe, to digital craftsmanship. Some years ago, I even made the argument that videogame development had so much in common with shop class that we really ought to Learn it Like Woodworking – and my microtalk at IndieCade that year was to the same effect.

Although the resulting software exists only in a very abstract sense, as electronically encoded processes resulting in illusions of motion on a screen, there’s a concreteness to its existence, an undeniability as to whether or not it works as it seems it should. This is most clear at a technical level, in terms of whether the programming crashes or can accomplish the feats expected, though the concreteness extends into various other asset creation. This is true not only in their technical manifestation (formats, resolutions, triggers, audio compression and the like) but also in their need to coherently fit the roles and demands of the game’s direction: it’s not a picture for picture’s sake, but rather it’s a cactus because the game needed a cactus, or a 3D race car because the game needed a 3D race car.

We don’t typically think of building a spice rack as a primarily artistic activity, unless an unusual amount of care goes into its detail, instead we recognize it as assembling something to fulfill a specific purpose. It is a designed object, it is a crafted object, but it does not participate in the struggle to be recognized or thought of as art, except perhaps tangentially if it happens to wind up as a decoration in a live play. And likewise the birds in Fanboy were built not as a primarily artistic activity. They are designed, and they were crafted. They were assembled to fulfill a specific purpose. If the birds were material things they would be stage props, not museum sculptures.

Returning to the former point of technical manifestation: it wasn’t too long ago when images and audio were programmed directly as code rather than authored as external files – I grew up learning from then-outdated game programming books, and so spent some of my earliest videogame development time doing precisely that. Though there’s added convenience in the abstraction that goes on today, in importing common audiovisual formats, the resulting behavior in RAM isn’t so different; the image is in effect turned back into part of the code, or alternatively was just a very specifically formatted segment of code all along.

Here are the latest (as well as the older) projects created in the videogame “woodshop” that I helped established at Georgia Tech:

> > Play videogames made by Georgia Tech VGDev < <
It’s non-commercial student work, mostly self-taught, and mostly undergraduates. And I think: pretty nifty stuff.

If you’re interested in learning more about the founding principles and structure driving our club, perhaps with an eye toward starting up or adjusting a club of your own, check out: Establishing a Videogame Development Club

Here’s a video of alpha builds from this past semester’s games, just a few weeks older than the completed versions that we posted to the club’s site:

(The video is fairly long since I designed it to loop on TVs near our Fall Showcase, an event where passers-by could playtest current VGDev games, try older projects, or join our group.)

All music in the video was composed by VGDev members for use in VGDev games this semester. The full soundtrack is available.

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