Interactive Funding: Grantmaking and Video Games

Abigail Guay

  • US computer and video game software sales totaled $11.7 billion in 2008.
  • Sixty-eight percent of American households play computer or video games.
  • Forty percent of all game players are women.
  • The average game player is thirty-five years old and has been playing video games for twelve years.
  • Twenty-five percent of Americans over the age of fifty play video games.

Source: The Entertainment Software Association1

Games: Defined

Throughout this article, I will use the term “game” as shorthand for an assortment of digital and hybrid digital-physical interactive mediums. IndieCade, a Los Angeles–based organization that creates promotional opportunities for small-scale, independent game designers, listed the following game categories in a recent call for submissions:

PC, browser-based, casual, puzzle, mobile, ARGs, Big Games and installation-based games (submitted via video if not playable on-site), mods (provided they conform to game engine licensing agreements), serious games, activist games, art games, virtual worlds and “sandbox” style games, and more. 2

“And more”! That’s right, first-person shooter games (Doom, the Halo series) and guitar simulations (Rock Band, Guitar Hero), though heavily marketed and commercially successful, comprise only a small portion of the creative output of game designers and developers. In the mix are independent game artists creating free, downloadable content; smaller commercial outfits like Her Interactive that are dedicated to positive and edifying content (in Her’s case, content for girls); and students and instructors affiliated with academic programs that are working to understand (and then explode) both the technical boundaries of games and their place in society. Some games, too, are physical enactments of digital scripts, impromptu performances that rely on cell phones, GPS, and other handheld devices to move people through real space in real time.

Games, all the genres on IndieCade’s submission list (and more!), are about possibility, the ability to interact with an immersive medium that, in turn, reacts to you. This article, too, is about possibility, about how this class of very new technologies relates to, informs, and, sometimes, is art. We will consider the aesthetic and conceptual potential of games, and we will look at foundations and NGOs that are exploring and pushing the civic capacity of games. Together, these considerations suggest a complicated, but fruitful relationship.

Are Games Art?

In an April 16, 2010, entry on his Chicago Sun-Times blog titled “Video Games Can Never Be Art,” Roger Ebert defends his position by picking apart a recorded presentation by Kellee Santiago of thatgamecompany. 3 Ebert encourages his readers to watch a video of the presentation he’s embedded in the blog. 4 Santiago’s arguments rely on some cringe-inducing art historical clichés and a wide-eyed reverence for the complex structure of games. Ebert’s arguments, on the other hand, make plain that he has probably never played a video game and that he’s been carrying his definition of art around since ca. 1960. The exercise is a he-said-she-said, a complex argument between two people who feel threatened by the same thing: the incredible proliferation and influence of games. Santiago would like to harness and direct the power and Ebert would like to do away with it altogether. Ebert is not going to win this one. (It should be noted that thatgamecompany’s business structure and the games they produce are considered avant-garde by their industry peers.)

In 2008, the Pew Internet and American Life Project released a survey, Teens, Video Games, and Civics and, with it, the following statistic: “Fully 97% of teens ages 12-17 play computer, web, portable, or console games.” 5 The teens surveyed represent an entire generation with a specific visual and behavioral vocabulary. A growing majority percentage of teens’ day-to-day and educational information gathering is through digital media, as are their social and leisure activities. And this phenomenon is by no means specific to youth. Facebook, the social networking site du jour, has over 700 million active members of all ages; and the Facebook application Farmville, a real-time farm-simulation game, has 75,469,379 users. 6

Games are a part of our culture, visual and otherwise, and increasingly they facilitate (and literally are) social activity. In this way, they have the same ability the arts have to engender change in education, health, and social justice. After talking to game makers and funders, however, I am not sure I believe that a conventional arts funding structure is appropriate for the array of digital interactive media I’ve grouped under the umbrella of games. Photography, video art, and emerging forms of music and dance are difficult enough to fund within many organizations’ arts grantmaking parameters; a game is an even more slippery fish when it comes to determining eligibility.

So, are games art? The answer, again: I’m not sure. Like art, games embody the graphic components of visual art, the movement of performance, the narrative of a play or novel, and, sometimes, the emotional thumbprint of a poem. They also draw from and critique society with effects that are poignant and at times controversial. On the other hand, many games are mass produced and football popular. Any fairly articulate and informed individual could build a convincing argument for either side (see Santiago and Ebert). For the sake of discussion, I’m going to ask for (and, for this article, provide) a suspension of judgment.

The Game Funders

The larger game-related grant programs are funded by the gaming industry. The AMD Foundation is the philanthropic branch of Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), a producer of graphics processors, computer and server platforms, and TV-to-PC technologies — all the little parcels of intelligence that contribute to the overall intelligence of your computers and mobile devices. Most AMD resources go to “Changing the Game,” an initiative that invests in technologies and programs designed to foster STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) learning and the widespread use of games with social content.

The other major player in game funding is the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), parent of the ESA Foundation. The ESA is a national, for-profit membership organization for video game publishers that acts as an industry resource — the statistics cited at the beginning of this article are from the association’s website — and lobbies for its constituents at both the state and national levels. They, too, focus their grantmaking on programs that contribute to the edification of America’s youth.

All in all, the activities of the ESA and AMD foundations are evidently designed to counter the most significant criticism waged against the industry, which is that games contribute to antisocial and violent behavior and, what’s more, have produced a generation of overweight, slack-jawed youth with frightfully truncated attention spans. This approach is more of a Band-Aid than a solution. Furthermore, as with any commercial or academic arena, it is important to have independent agencies/voices with the means to fund influential, corrective programs outside the mainstream agenda. And to this end, the National Center for Research in Advanced Information and Digital Technologies promises to be a major player.

Anne Murphy has made a name for herself as a Washington insider and a highly effective lobbyist for the arts and humanities. Earlier this year, the congressionally originated 501(c)(3) she will cochair — with Lawrence K. Grossman, the former president of both NBC News and PBS, and Newton N. Minnow, former head of the FCC — received a $500,000 congressional nest egg. The National Center for Research in Advanced Information and Digital Technologies, housed within the Department of Education, will act as a national trust to funnel federal funds into programs to help schools, libraries, and museums gain access to emerging digital technologies. From the group’s website:

The National Center’s goal is no less than to transform America’s education, workplace training, and lifelong learning through development and use of revolutionary advanced information technologies comparable to those that have already transformed the nation’s economy, its communications system, media, and the daily lives of its people. 7

Murphy and the other National Center advisers intend to build an agency on a par with the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, and for the full civic potential of these technologies — including, yes, games — to be realized, it is imperative that they make a committed push. In the meantime, several national foundations, including Pew, MacArthur, and Knight, are making grants to support game-related research and development. Although none of the following initiatives are originating in art programs, I offer them as examples of how games can be used to achieve a foundation’s mission.

In May of this year, Games for Change held its seventh annual festival in New York (with keynotes U.S. Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor), and in Boston, the Serious Games Initiative, with primary funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, staged the sixth annual Games for Health conference. These gatherings offer the most direct access (for anyone) to game makers, funders, and individuals who want to create and facilitate meaningful collaborations among these groups.

Games for Change is a nonprofit with the stated goal of harnessing “the extraordinary power of video games to address the most pressing issues of our day, including poverty, education, human rights, global conflict and climate change.” 8 The organization sponsors several ongoing programs, including “soup to nuts workshops on making social issue games,” consulting services, a collaborative social network, and a material-world network of regional funders. Games for Change’s flagship annual festival, like the other game-related conventions, encourages foundation participation and, each year, stages a session for grantmakers who want to either fund games or better understand how they might influence the field in the future.

The Serious Games Initiative is a program of the D.C.-based Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars and was created to address, through research, how game-based, virtual, and interactive technologies can be applied to policy and management issues in government and in public and private organizations. (Serious or nonentertainment games represent an important outgrowth of the video game industry, and the success of these games is due in large part to the activities of the initiative. A website called Social Impact Games acts as a public clearinghouse for games of this genre.) 9 The Games for Health conference addresses game-supported medical training, exercise (think Wii fit), and physical/cognitive therapy. It is one of a series of one- and two-day conferences held concurrently in Boston during what was billed as Games Beyond Entertainment Week. Other events will showcase, in the organizer’s words, “the edgier possibilities for videogames in today’s global economy.” 10

All of the preceding programs share a common ideology: they recognize the potential of video games to deliver edifying content to large segments of the population — and they are funding groups with the same perspective and/or the technical wherewithal to determine how this can happen. Because no one is entirely sure, not yet.

Games and the Arts

Presenting at “Cool Fusion,” a symposium on contemporary art and digital humanities hosted by Case Western Reserve University in January 2009, Anne Murphy described the mission of the then-unfunded National Center and suggested several potential program outcomes, including prototypes for game-based media like “academically vigorous virtual worlds as a new publication medium.” 11 To this end, the center will fund R&D and the processes associated with testing new prototype systems. It will also fund research to determine how best to build interest and expertise in new technologies, with the goal of encouraging widespread adoption. This latter funding goal, the building goal, is key. In the arts field especially, new and interactive media initiatives are not widely used or appreciated, and if the mission of your organization is to achieve maximum impact with available funds (whose isn’t?), we need to be collectively more savvy about funding programs with the built-in potential for distribution and influence. Of course this means more research, but why not involve the ESA or other game industry mainstays that know how to reach people who are interested in using game technologies? According to the statistics, that’s a lot of people.

Funding Individual Game Artists

Over the past decade, design software like Game Maker and Video Game Design Pro has enabled individuals to do alone what was once only possible with a large team of specialists. Like other artists, these independent designers/artists (they self-identify both ways) don’t make much money, or they make money by asking for donations on their websites or by charging small amounts for downloads. Sometimes, one of them will sell a design to a major distributor and become a millionaire. Funders should not be discouraged by this possibility (in the case of an individual designer or a design team). It is helpful to think of the game industry in terms of the recording industry, wherein there are large major labels, small indie labels, and individual artists with homemade websites or MySpace profiles. If you fund a project that gets picked up by a major label, you have funded something that will reach a large audience, while improving the economic prospects of the composer or musician.

Jason Rohrer is the poet laureate of independent game designers, a role he plays beautifully, although he did not ask for it. His quiet, minimalist games are about the big and small ways we look at the big and small things in our lives. His breakout game, Passage (2007), is a sweet, reflective simulation of in- and interdependence, of love and dying. It takes five minutes to play, always, and the playing field is only twelve pixels high. Following the same simple graphic format, Rohrer’s other games are meditations on guilt, immortality, and balancing creative work and family.

For seven years, Rohrer has supported his family, the primary source of his game content, as an independent game designer. Like his games, his lifestyle is minimal: the annual family budget is a startling $14,500 a year. All of Rohrer’s games are downloadable from his website, and because he is committed to providing free content, any fees he charges are associated with covering the cost of bandwidth. Rohrer is temporarily making ends meet through the generosity of a private patron who provides a $1,000/month no-strings-attached stipend; but he has looked into arts funding programs, the terms of which immediately struck him as square-peg-in-a-round-hole impossible. For one thing, his work is digital, and other than his computer and monthly Internet charges, he has no measurable expense except his time. (Time, in most instances, is not a popular budget line item on arts grant applications.) Additionally, games are intimate, interactive media and most are not designed for a static, public display. Nor can it be expected that a group will watch and enjoy a projected image of one or two individuals playing a game. In a November 2008 “Best and Brightest” profile of Rohrer for Esquire, Jason Fagone reiterates this essential point: “it’s hard to see the art in these games unless you play them and struggle with them and try to figure out what the games mean.” 12

Games can fit into existing funding categories like “new media” or “digital arts,” but to effectively fund them as visual art, composition, or performance, they will ultimately need their own category. Evaluators of this category will acknowledge the parameters of game play and the history of the form. And Rohrer and his peers — designers like Jonathan Blow, Cactus, and Mark Essen — will be part of this history.

The Funding Challenge

In 2007, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation president and CEO Alberto Ibargüen asked his staff to start researching how funds might be directed to support games. Jessica Goldfin, an associate in the organization’s journalism program, was asked to lead the effort. In 2009, the foundation awarded the first Knight News Game Award at the annual Games for Change conference, one outcome of its newly forged relationship with the NGO. Goldfin, who does not have a professional or social background in games, is passionate about Knight’s game initiative, but cautions funders who are considering taking on games. “Right now, it’s a big responsibility … Funders have to take it upon themselves to understand the uses of the medium.” 13 She notes that interested funders will be doing work not only for their organizations but also for the entire game field; because serious, civic, or art games are new to the game industry, there is no commercial model to boil down to a philanthropic counterpart. With this in mind, Goldfin is planning to “ninja it up and take advantage of the situation.” Who’s with her?

Abigail Guay is program manager at Grantmakers in the Arts.


  1. Entertainment Software Association:
  2. IndieCade:
  3. Roger Ebert, “Video Games Can Never Be Art,” Roger Ebert’s Journal (Chicago Sun Times), April 16, 2010:
  4. Kellee Santiago, “Are Video Games Art?” TEDxUSC, University of Southern California, March 23, 2009:!v=K9y6MYDSAww.
  5. Amanda Lenhart, Joseph Kahne, Ellen Middaugh, Alexandra Macgill, Chris Evans, and Jessica Vitak, Teens, Video Games, and Civics (Washington, DC: Pew Internet & American Life Project, 2008), 3.
  6. Facebook:
  7. Digital Promise:
  8. Games for Change:
  9. Social Impact Games:
  10. Games Beyond Entertainment Week:
  11. Anne Murphy, The National Center for Research in Advanced Information and Digital Technologies, “Cool Fusion,” Case Western Reserve University, January 24, 2009:
  12. Jason Fagone, “The Video-Game Programmer Saving Our 21st Century Souls,” Esquire, November 20, 2008:
  13. All quotes: interview with Jessica Goldfin, May 20, 2010.