With the increase in Artificial Intelligence creating art – or deriving art from already created art – I’ve been thinking about craftsmanship. How – because of my age – I have learned a lot about art, design and photography the non-digital way. Taking a photo, for instance, was limited to a framework. Film grain, ISO, negative size, black and white or colour, exposure time, light conditions, development of negatives, paper stock quality, chemicals… you name it.

It would take hours, if not days, to get to see if the photo you took was any good.

Contrary to what you might think, this is not an “ok boomer” post, where everything was better in the past. It was different and it relied on different skills.

For photography, the limitations in the framework, the physical artifacts of photography, sometimes created amazing images that were unexpected and sometimes lovely.

The drawbacks were obviously physical as well, not to mention the health hazard of the chemicals and the post-photo lab headaches, or the horror stories of photographers not being careful and getting cancer in their fingertips or hands.

In general, my thoughts are these: there’s an expression and a sense of patience in physical frameworks, that digital frameworks lack. I appreciate those limitations. Most physical crafts lay bare the underlying mechanics of the craft as well.

Because I’m a UX designer and game designer, I’ll talk a bit about games and the craft of games, primarily board games.

In a physical game, the mechanics become clearer and more tangible than in a digital game. Not only do you need to write down the rules in a comprehensive way so that other players understand them, you also have to physically represent them in some way. This requires thought, analysis, and implementation.

While physical game design can almost never be as complex as digital game design, physical design, like painting and photography, exposes the bones of the craft. The basics. If your composition in a photo or negative is not what you want it to be, you only have a limited set of tools to fix it. You can cut the image, expose it differently, sharpen contrast, but you’re still stuck with the basic composition from when you took the image.

Why is this a good thing? Because it sharpens your skill in seeing what a good composition is to begin with. Even in digital crafts, knowing the basics is a good thing because it reduces the work you have to spend on a piece of art or a design. You have to learn how to mix the paint to keep the pigments lustrous. You have to understand how light affects a composition and how it impacts exposure time. You have to know what a resource does in a game loop for you to tweak it properly.

Game loops are the same. You can’t hide a bad game loop in physical games the same way you can in digital games. You can fancy it up with art and minis but a bad loop will still be a bad loop and a bad system will still be a bad system.

In digital games, the game mechanics can be hidden. The systems are opaque.

I think what I’m after is that basic skill that comes with having limitations. Stripping the mechanics down until there is nothing left to remove. I’ve found that digital expressions allow the artist or designer or what have you to hide clumsy expressions to a higher degree. I’ve done it myself.

My recommendation as an aging designer is to try and create physical art, games etc. now and again just to get a feel for the bare bones. Who knows? You might end up like me and like it.

Three books for game designers:

Challenges for Game Designers – Ian Schreiber, Brenda Romero
Game Design Workshop – Tracy Fullerton
Game Storming – James Macanufo, Sunni Brown