Interview: Frank Lantz

Interview: Frank Lantz

Frank Lantz is a disarming figure. He has a serious face with the sharp severity of a Classical bust. This impression is almost immediately undercut by a welcoming enthusiasm and playful grin. The contrast between stoicism and ebullience is entirely fitting for a man of his experience and ambition. Lantz is creative director and co-founder of Area/Code, a ‘cross-media’ entertainment company behind Pac-Manhattan, Big Urban Game and the recently launched Code Of Everand.

He’s also the developer of superb iPhone puzzler Drop7 and an industry veteran of over twenty years, with stints including director of game design for Diner Dash-creator Gamelab. We met with Lantz at The Art History Of Games Symposium in Atlanta to talk about the relevance of art, his definition of games, and how the two vague notions will shape the future of the videogame industry.

The title of this symposium contains two largely undefined terms, ‘art’ and ‘game’, but you circumvented debate on them by saying games are aesthetic experiences. Why was that?
I’ve always felt that whole debate just isn’t that interesting or useful. When I say games are an aesthetic form, it’s a way of sidestepping the idea of art as a status bestowed on particularly awesome forms of culture. Like, Mona Lisa is art but some drawing you made on a napkin in a café while you were waiting for your girlfriend isn’t art. That’s what the structure of the museum, and to a certain degree art history, is about: filtering out those individual examples. I think it’s much better to just say something’s an aesthetic form.

If music is an aesthetic form, that means all songs are a work of art. The entire body of work of Abba is a work of pop art alongside Mozart and Jay-Z, John Zorn, Penderecki, Stockhausen, Black Sabbath – it’s just an art form. Once you let go of separating which example belongs and which don’t, then you can get down to the interesting part of aesthetics, which is just which ones we like and why. Like there’s good Dolly Parton and bad Dolly Parton. We can argue about that, and that’s cool. Those conversations are actually useful.

Those kinds of conversations become really personal.
It’s good that there is some art that has a particular tone that’s prickly and intellectual, and then there is pop culture that’s embracing convention and is really accessible, but still capable of being profound. The Wu-Tang clan can be profound. To me that’s where games exist. That’s why Doom doesn’t belong in the museum. It’s heavy metal. It’s rock and roll. You don’t put rock and roll in a museum, that’s just silly. We like going to the museum and we like rock and roll, we have both of those things in our lives. We don’t think of one as higher than the other.

Do you think there’s a jockeying for who gets to be the one to come up with the singular definition of what art is? As if everyone wants to be the dungeon master and to be able to set the limits?
I think that’s very insightful. And it’s fun. People are contesting these things because everyone’s got something different at stake. There are also people who have careers, we have academic careers, careers in the industry, and we have to carve up terrain and make sure we’re defending our territory.