Game Innovation Lab's Indie Tech Talk Explores "Conceptual Art as Technical Practice"

Game designer, programmer, educator, and conceptual artist Zach Gage sheds light on game creation

Dressed in a t-shirt, jeans, and bandanna, conceptual artist and game designer Zach Gage stepped into NYU-Poly’s Game Innovation Lab last Wednesday night to discuss what he termed “floaty conceptual stuff.” What he delivered -- to a standing-room-only audience -- was a candid exploration of his creative process, beginning with his admiration for Sol Lewitt’s “Sentences On Conceptual Art,” published in 1969.

Most important, he said, is Sentence #5: “Irrational thoughts should be followed absolutely and logically.” Gage said that this means “respecting inspiration and the subconscious mind in your work.” Gage follows several inspirations at once, using “tools that are just simple enough” to launch projects quickly without having to recode or optimize. “Working on your first game for two years is a stupid idea; I would never suggest that,” he said. Instead, he seeks the fastest route from creative impulse to end product, even if the result is a failure. “It’s important to be able to sit down and do something that sucks, because then you can throw it out and do something else.”

Gage’s past games include Lose/Lose, a Space Invaders-like game which gained online notoriety because it deleted files on players’ hard drives for each alien killed. He created it in three hours. He spent thirteen days on SpellTower, a popular word game that he built primarily to tinker with a genre he dislikes. Another, Ridiculous Fishing, took a few months of work followed by an unprecedented month of insane crunch time at the end, but the key, he said, was being able to say each day, “We can finish this tonight.”

“A lot of my work treats the internet like a place where we actually live,” Gage said. “The way we’re curious in games is very important to other things.”

Gage’s talk was the latest in the “Indie Tech Talks” series and culminated in a conversation with Hemisphere Games member and Computer Science and Engineering Professor Andy Nealen. Afterward attendees lingered, including entrepreneurs like Stuart Silverman, who is working with NYU-Poly’s DUMBO business incubator on a retail industry gamification startup. “I come to these things to gauge what the leading-edge guys are thinking,” he said.

Others were students, including Sheree Chang ‘14IDM, who attended with her Game Design Seminar classmates. “I was interested in [Gage’s comment] that you can use whatever language you like once you have the basics,” said Chang. “I learned that I don’t want to limit myself.”