A relatively new service called Kickstarter, which describes itself as a funding platform for artists. Writers, filmmakers, musicians, and other creators can post projects to the site with attached budgets, which visitors can fund via pledges. If the budget is met within the specified time, the project gets funded. Otherwise, all funds are returned to the patrons, like a challenge grant. Often, creators provide incentives for contributions of different levels, offering special editions, custom runs, concept art, or other exclusive materials for patrons at higher contribution levels.

A number of game projects have found their way onto Kickstarter, including Mark Essen’s successful bid to update his game Flywrench for the Independent Game Festival, and Borut Pfeifer’s active effort to fund his new game about the 2009 Iranian elections.

A website that helps turn anybody into an arts patron is a lovely idea, and I want to embrace the idea of Kickstarter. But instead, I can only muster an ambiguous sense of self-loathing over the idea of art being fundable on spec in the first place.

Projects like the record company trying to offload stock before their warehouse downsizes, or the many musicians trying to fund a recording session or a short-run of CDs, or even Essen’s revision of Flywrench are not art projects, they are mechanical ones. They are pragmatic. There’s no risk and no creativity involved. This is not a criticism: they are arguably the most compelling projects to fund, since the stakes are low and the outcome is clear.

It is tempting to view Kickstarter as just a “democratized” arts patronage system, whereby the closed system of gallery commissions are released into the equitable rainbow of populism. It sure sounds good, especially in that Silicon Valley way, whereby cultural contribution is a matter of boxed up, templated facility rather than messy, dangerous creativity.

But I wonder, can art be run like a business loan or a farmers market? Doesn’t there have to be some conceptual and personal risk involved? Is it even sensical to say “I want to plumb the black depths of human sorrow, and I can do it for $5,000, and if you contribute $200, I’ll send you a sketch of me in a deep evening funk drinking bourbon out of a Denny’s mug.”? Imagine if Brenda Brathwaite had put her game Train up on Kickstarter. It would have seemed a parody of itself. “I will make a boardgame about complicity and regret in the Holocaust. I need $2,000 to buy wooden Jews and a Nazi typewriter.”

Far from supporting the culture industry, Kickstarter goes one step further: it turns expression into public commodity speculation. Once everyone was a consumer. Now everyone can be an angel investor. How long until someone starts up Hedgestarter, a site for trading Kickstarter derivatives?

published October 15, 2009


  1. rafi

    Sellaband actually gives a potential financial return on investment and so feels more to me like an anyone can be an investor scenario. But what’s wrong with that anyway?

    I understand where you’re coming from on KS but I think it’s mitigated by the fact that unless a person has already given generously, repeatedly, they’re unlikely to have built up a following to pull off asking for support.

    And because we live in a world where middlemen and gatekeepers are falling by the wayside, artists will probably need to get over the icky-ness of directly asking people to support their projects.

    We just recently started using kickstarter to test it out, though we were already doing something similar with a producer page on our site where people had incentives to kick in money to help fund our projects. Perhaps this doesn’t feel noble to you… We’ve been making our videos for over three years and will continue to do so regardless of how much we can raise in support but certainly everyday money problems sap our time. This is a simple matter of being able to create more and allowing those of our fans who are able to help to do so – with benefits for them along the way.

  2. Ian Bogost

    Artists should certainly learn how to approach the support for their work in new ways—they should also invent new ways. But the notion of funding eliminating risk in art is disturbing. Art is risky in a way that business isn’t; it’s not a risk of markets, but a risk of ideas, of personal exposure, of laying something bare. The Kickstarter projects that start from square one are destined never to become art, it seems to me. They are statements of the form “I’d want to want to make art,” and money doesn’t solve that problem.

  3. Will Hankinson

    Ideally it would work more like Daniel Benmergui’s Today I Die, which is “ad-free thanks to an unusual individual.”

    If a “regular” Flash game has an expected earn-out of somewhere around $5k to $25k (depending on scope), why not see if there’s enough interest in releasing the game ad-free?

    I’ve also thought of releasing a game with a donation box: donate $1 and you’ll never see another ad in the game. Donate $50 and you can turn off ads for the entire world for the next 24 hours, replaced by a similar message: “This game is ad-free today due to the generosity of (patron name).”

  4. Ian Bogost

    Right, Dan’s game is a good example of ordinary, “natural” patronage. Your ideas about Flash game ads are interesting too. Note that what distinguishes both is that both Dan and yourself pursue ideas first, because you want to, or because you must. That’s quite different from the “I might be inspired by $n+1.”

  5. Mark N.

    You seem to be seeing Kickstarter as a replacement for self-funding, and assume that without it, that’d be the outcome. But in a lot of cases, isn’t it going to end up being a replacement for venture capitalists, private patrons, or angel investors? If Borut Pfeiffer wasn’t going the Kickstart route, for example, a more normal way of funding development of a game idea would be to: recruit VCs, find a wealthy patron, or try to sell a big studio like EA on the idea? Wouldn’t those three routes all be clearly worse?

  6. Ian Bogost

    Mark, I don’t think so. Investment implies *financial* return. Art doesn’t operate like that. Patronage is done for the sake of the work and its culture, not social capital and absurdist kickbacks, even if there are often social benefits to formal arts funding.

    As for alternatives for Borut and people like him, there’s always the one wherein he just makes the game, because if he doesn’t he’ll lose his mind.

  7. Mark N.

    I guess as a statement about how the art world generally operates, I disagree that patronage is done “for the sake of the work and its culture” most commonly. The gallery/show scene is a culture industry, and the parts that aren’t motivated by financial profit, are mainly playing a status game. I’d personally be much happier seeing an artist I like taking money from some people on the internet in return for some mostly harmless perks, than seeing them sell their soul to a $100/ticket Black Tie Opening Gala, or deal with some well-connected gallery owner. The latter degrades the art a lot more, I think.

  8. Ian Bogost

    Mark, I think you’ve lost me. What you describe isn’t how most art works, at all. It’s the way most patronage works, but art still often comes from people who want to create it, who have skin in the game.

  9. Mark N.

    I agree that totally DIY, self-funded, take-money-from-nobody approaches, where the artist bears all the risk and has no external pressure compromising his vision, are the most authentic. But if someone is going to take money up front from some source, I guess I don’t see why you find Kickstarter uniquely problematic. If anything, it seems less problematic to me than the more common/traditional funding sources are.

  10. Jason Scott

    Hey, Ian.

    So, does my Kickstarter project fall under what you’d like to see in action?


    I am indicating I will use the money to fund my living expenses while doing as much creative, historical and speaking work as possible, and in return all the stuff I do is open-content. I added rewards, but mostly as incentive to get a “product” for heavy investment, even though the product is generally available through other channels. I also commit to letting people know about what I’ve been up to and how things are going.

  11. Ian Bogost

    Hey Jason. I just saw your project on Kickstarter yesterday as it happens.

    I should clarify that I don’t have some sort of a checklist of requirements that allow me to form a yay or nay opinion about a Kickstarter project. But if I had to boil it down to one criterion, it might be infatuation. Good art, good work in general, needs to be done mostly because whomever is doing it couldn’t imagine doing otherwise. Art in particular has to eat at the creator, it has to beg to come out. Those projects that want Kickstarter to underwrite desire as well as risk seem the most troubling to me.

    In your case, you have a long and proven track record actually doing computer history, often at the expense of your own health and sanity. That’s more than enough evidence of blind zeal in my book.

  12. Rafi

    Why such a narrow and tragic view of what art has to be? I imagine you must have greatly sympathized with Salieri when you watched Amadeus.

    Do you consider any motion pictures to be works of art? Or are they all tainted by the necessity of compromise, money, and collaborations of people with various levels of passion.

  13. Ian Bogost

    Rafi, I give art a very wide latitude. But I can’t call something art that strives to cover its ass entirely, to remove all risk in the way that many Kickstarter projects do. Startup companies are more likely art than many of these efforts, which amount to “Inspire me by giving me money.”

  14. Keith Nemitz

    Ian, you have a very romantic concept of art, which I admire, but more practically, especially with collaborative art, money can cover parts of a project the artist(s) can’t. Not every great work can be made by one person, nor can one person always attract a full team to produce a work.

    For myself, I engineer code, design gameplay, write narrative, handle some audio and imagery, but still need to hire other skills to complete a game: art direction, voice acting, testing. I think Kickstarter could be very helpful to enable competency for parts of a work outside the makers’ capabilities.

  15. Ian Bogost

    Keith, I worry that you and others have misunderstood me. Of course money is useful and necessary for many things. But to say that art demands something irreducible to funding in its molten center, at its start, that does not relate to economy—that’s something different.