Art Sqool came out right toward the beginning of my second semester in graduate school. Unlike the game’s plucky little protagonist, Froshmin, who’s studying the visual arts, I’m studying poetry, and feeling terrified about it.
Art Sqool is a series of drawing prompts for Froshmin to work on while exploring his vast, colorful campus. Players will follow drawing prompts—such as draw a horse, or draw a shout—and return to class with their new art. An A.I. professor will grade the work and either give the player a new prompt or ask for the work to be redone. The game has a coddling tone to it, both in its visual and mechanical design. Froshmin’s campus is filled with pastel colors, little squiggles and simple shapes that make up school posters, trees and buildings. The entire campus is meant to be a work of art, both inspired and inspiring in turn, so much so that that Froshmin can find new colors and writing utensils to help him along his creative drawing path.
In reality, schools and colleges are tough, complex things that are important but difficult to talk about. We don’t know if Froshmin is among the many students who leave in massive amounts of debt. We don’t know where Froshmin comes from or the background they have. But the purpose of the game isn’t necessarily to remind us of the challenges students still face in entering and surviving higher education; Art Sqool wants to see if a computer can make someone more creative, whether a small videogame with 50 prompts can help in the same ways an actual art school can.
I am not a visual artist, by any stretch of the imagination, but I’ve dabbled in whittling, painting and even ceramics. I’ve found that I express myself best through writing, but I was excited to see whether a neural network could help me think with colors and shapes. One of the best things about Art Sqool is that it saves your art in a portfolio for you to see at any time. When I look at my own art, I see something reminiscent to how I drew as a child. When the professor asked me to draw an animal eating another animal, I tried to draw a dog eating a bird. I got a C. At another point, when I was starting to grow tired of doing art exercises, I experimented to see what would be acceptable and what wouldn’t. While the game indicates that each piece is graded for color, composition, linework and approach, it seems as though the letter grades themselves are arbitrary.
The computer told me to draw my favorite time. I decided to instead write the word “tea time” in purple font. When I handed it in, the professor gave me an F. Fortunately, there are no penalties to failing an assignment. Even coming back to the professor with a blank sheet doesn’t cause a problem. Instead, the professor will simply reassign the prompt. I failed multiple writing prompts. It seemed to dislike most of my drawings that were a little too literal, but even then I’m not entirely sure what caused an assignment to get an A or an F.
What I originally saw as bad art feels more like a cohesive picture of me. I clearly like squiggles, pinks and purples. What I lack in my ability to draw actual objects I gain in making abstract, colorful shapes. I also enjoy incorporating text into my pieces. Perhaps the professor could see my potential well before I ever could.
Art Sqool is what I wish school was actually like. It’s what many people idealize education to be like, though we know that that just isn’t the reality of it. I don’t know if Art Sqool made me more creative, as much as it made me appreciate the little bits of art I can make. And even when redoing a prompt frustrated me, I did try to take the time to reconsider what I could do.
By the end of the 50 prompts, Froshmin’s time at Art Sqool is over. I worried that because of my many failed attempts at art, my little character would be forced to leave the school, or have to take more time to complete it. But the game started up a synth-styled version of “Pomp and Circumstance” (a traditional song played at every graduation in the United States). The professor wishes Froshmin luck in the real world and that they’ll do fine. Froshmin asks “What if I don’t do fine?” and the professor reiterates its statement: “I’m sure you’ll do fine.”
There’s no avoiding the fact that the ivory tower and the white walls of the universities still need to be upended, questioned and recreated into something new. Even as someone who has willingly placed myself back into that institution, I know there are things that need to be fixed. Art Sqool may not offer immediate solutions to those problems, but it does provide a cheaper way to experiment and discover yourself without feeling the burden of actual grades and professors. Art Sqool wants us to put down the cynicism for a brief moment, and just create something, anything. And look at it. And be proud.
Shonté Daniels is a poet who occasionally writes about games. Her games writing has appeared in Kill Screen, Motherboard, Waypoint and elsewhere. Her poetry can be seen at Puerto del Sol, Baltimore Review, Phoebe, and others literary journals. Check out Shonte-Daniels.com for a full archive, or follow her for sporadic tweeting.