Game talkTwo cultures and games

 Posted by (Visited 14975 times)  Game talk
Jul 062012
 

In which I act like a crotchety old man urging the kids off my lawn.

Between this piece at Gamasutra by Neils Clark (and especially Keith Burgun‘s comments in the discussion thread), and this blog post that caught my eye, “Designing for Grace”, I am struck once again by the way in which the gap between two cultures is causing strife in the game design community.

I mean, take a look at what Jonas Kyratzes says in “Designing for Grace”:

To say that story is a form of feedback rather than a game mechanic is not so much to make an incorrect statement (well, it is, but let’s not go there now) as to make a statement about a different matter in a different language on a different planet in a different universe[emphasis mine]

Holy Cow. Talk about a culture gap. Now, he goes on to discuss what it is he aims for, which is “grace,” and which he defines as something very real, but that the engineering-minded cannot grasp.

This is temper-tantrum-inducing for me, because I have been working hard on being an artist for a period approximately equal to the time that Jonas Kyratzes has been alive.

But I have no beef with him overall, really, because Jonas Kyratzes is reaching for the value of games.

Oh but wait, let’s look over at Keith Burgun’s comments.

Raph’s theory of fun is not a theory. It’s an attempt, like so many game design books of our sad time, to wrap up the totality of videogames into some kind of all-inclusive “summary”.

The problem with all of these design books is that they are specifically NOT theories. They basically all say the same thing: “sometimes this works, sometimes this works, sometimes this works, I don’t know, just try some stuff.” …

There can not be any real game design theory until we’re prepared to divvy up “videogames” into smaller, useful categories. A contest is not the same as a fantasy simulator. A puzzle is not the same as interactive fiction. A toy is not a game.

Theory of Fun is ten years old. I would certainly hope that the field has developed since then. But clearly, I am not being engineering-minded enough.

It’s also a little grump-inducing to see this coming from someone who caused quite a stir with an article that essentially restates almost exactly something that Chris Crawford said thirty years ago.

But that’s OK, really, because at least Keith Burgun is trying hard to reach for the truth of games.

So look, I am not just trying to call out people who are poking at things I have said. This isn’t an act of defensiveness. It’s to point out that the more people fail to look beyond their entrenched viewpoints, the less likely we are to get at the truth or the value of things.

I submit that the issue is that some designers are thinking in terms of some fellow designers as “purely engineering-minded” and other designers are thinking of fellow designers as artsy freaks.

(And it is worth pointing out that this entire debate is also a tempest in a teacup as regards the larger game industry, which is mostly trying to just make enough money to pay the rent during a recession.)

I don’t know any “purely engineering-minded designers.” I definitely do not know any successful ones. If anything, design happens to be a profession that very strongly favors people who straddle disciplines, who can have an engineering mindset and an artistic one.

I also strongly agree with Keith’s statement that people seem to get offended when we point out that something is not a game. I like Anna Anthropy’s work, but I also try to be clear-eyed about the fact that a lot of Dys4ia could be built in PowerPoint and isn’t a game.That’s not a value judgement (edit: nor does it mean that as a whole, it’s not a game). My value judgement of the piece as a work of expressive art is pretty high.

The pendulum swings, in terms of culture.  That results in those of us who have pushed for the artistic mindset getting told that we are mechanistic engineering-mindset people. :) This is a sign of success for those who advocated for more art.

Of course, it also means that now we have hipstery, self-indulgent, artsy, self-referential, slight, pretentious work all over the place that people are claiming as the One True Way or the best way to push the boundaries of the field.

We’re also getting more done on the science front than ever before, leading to greater understanding of game mechanics and player psychology than ever before.

Of course, this also means unethical exploitative mindgames that sacrifice our audience to the almighty dollar.

Everyone is passionate about their poles, and from the opposite side the other end always looks like something puerile and evil. And yup, both ends have excesses.

I suggest that what needs to happen is that more people need to stand in the middle, a foot on each side. Narrative designers should try making a game with nothing but counters and dice and no story. System designers should try making a game that is about telling a story. Monetizers should try making something that people care deeply about. And (grump grump) all the theorists should try actually reading the theory that is already out there. :)

 

 

  75 Responses to “Two cultures and games”

  1. [D]esign happens to be a profession that very strongly favors people who straddle disciplines, who can have an engineering mindset and an artistic one.

    From the perspective of a designer/producer who was “trying to just make enough money to pay the rent:”

    Ramsay: In terms of product development, were you more driven by technological innovation like id Software or game design like John Romero? What was your focus?

    Daglow: John Carmack is only an acquaintance of mine, so I can’t comment beyond the fact that I think we perceived them as being technology-driven. John Romero is actually a good friend, who I like and respect a lot.

    I like being able to have both design innovation and technical innovation on any game. I always start with the goal to push the envelope at both ends. At the end of the day though, games have to be fun; any strategy that is not built on the idea of games being fun is a doomed strategy—no pun intended. All of the technology in the world and all of the design theory in the world would not have mattered if Doom was not fun. If you scratched John Romero from the equation, you’d lose a lot of technical expertise and design savvy there. And I think there’s no question that if you have real strength in both areas, it’s helpful. I think if you look at Brenda Brathwaite, who John is teamed up with now, she did not start out as a programmer, but over the years, she has acquired a tremendous amount of technical savvy. You can just see it in her work—the combination of understanding the tech along with the design.

  2. I find it really hard to respond to this; my statement about the different universes was honestly meant. The frustrating thing is, we do agree about quite a lot of issues, but it’s like we agree… at an angle. I just deleted a lengthy bit of text that I wrote because it basically reiterated a lot of what you said and yet somehow disagreed with something fundamental about your perspective anyway.

    I like Anna Anthropy’s work, but I also try to be clear-eyed about the fact that a lot of Dys4ia could be built in PowerPoint and isn’t a game.That’s not a value judgement. My value judgement of the piece as a work of expressive art is pretty high.

    The thing is, many of us are not convinced that
    a) making this distinction is useful
    b) making this distinction is valid.

    It’s not like those of us who are interested in talking about games in a different way reject mechanics or rationality. Anna Anthropy’s blog is full of excellent posts about the technical aspects of design. So it becomes very problematic when someone starts making statements in a quasi-scientific authoritative tone that exclude a work from the world of games simply because it doesn’t fit a certain set of criteria – especially when those criteria are relatively arbitrary. (The use of interactivity is absolutely central to dys4ia, for example. Maybe not the kind of interactivity you’re interested in, but it’s still interactivity and it’s still vital to the experience. As far as I’m concerned, that makes it a game.)

    There’s just too much dogma and not enough space for a variety of (contradictory, different) approaches. Not just approaches of design but approaches of thought and language. Most art forms have that, after all.

    And all the conflict and attempted imposing of ideas is not even necessary. I mean, look at two designers like myself and Michael Brough. Our approaches are radically, fundamentally different and yet we adore each other’s games – and do consider all of them to be games, making use of different aspects of the medium.

    I’m rambling and I fear that I haven’t really said anything that I didn’t say far more clearly in my blog post. So I’ll bugger off to bed now.

  3. […] had it up to here with you people and your intolerance of one another. Yes, you, game designers. In a recent blog post, Koster makes shame carrots at those on both sides of the science-versus-humanities schism in the […]

  4. I believe you when you say the statement was honestly meant. My intent was not to attack. I hope the gentle jabs I took at you were not taken the wrong way.

    Talking about the validity and the utility of the distinction is easy, and a discussion I embrace. But you said that it was like something from another universe… I honestly don’t think that I am being any more authoritative or declarative than those on “the other side.” So how do I, as someone who has always moved easily between discussing the art and discussing the mechanics, communicate the ideas to you if my position, which is largely a moderate one, is so alien?

    I’ll try anyway.

    The distinction has validity because games have never in history been defined solely by interactivity. There is no definition of game, from any scholar, that is that reductive. Not all definitions agree, but they nonetheless share this trait.

    The easiest way to sanity check this is to look at items that fit the proposed definition and see if you feel they are a game. I submit to you that many of the screens of Dys4ia have exactly the same functionality as a doorbell. My gut check is that a doorbell is not a game, and I suspect so is everyone else’s.

    There are artistic doorbells. There are doorbells that play lovely music, that trigger complex narrative door opening sequences, doorbells that express unique qualities of their author/designer/architect. There are probably doorbells out there that are High Art.

    This does not mean they are a game. It also does not mean that they are not deserving of respect, though, and at no moment am I implying they should be discounted of breaking great at what they are.

    But I do feel free to say they are lousy games, in the same way that I feel free to say that they are lousy novels.

    But why bother with the distinction?

    The distinction has utility because it makes it easier for us to discuss both interactivity as a quality, and game-ness as a quality. Both have formal structures; both have had quite a lot written about them; and both have differences that became clearer when you move them apart from one another.

    To give an example that is rit in your wheelhouse, since you are a filmmaker: Movies got better, not worse, as they moved away from theater. They still share “acting” in common, but anyone who has done both styles of acting can tell you that there are significant differences in how you approach citing for the stage versus film.

    Film had to break the bonds of theater to really grow in its own direction. I suggest to you that “notgames” are engaged in the process of breaking the bonds with games. But as there is not yet even a name for notgames, there is also no community other than the game community waiting for them. Yet. And that’s fine, it will come with time. People in games are not “kicking you out.”

    But people in games ARE engaged in a process of understanding games better, and many of the things they are learning are outright absent in notgames. Notgames do not have NP-hard problems or common brain hacks at their central core. Games do. Notgames do not involve the mastery of abstract systems of relationships. Games do. I don’t say that to be declarative, I say that because I have gone through every thing that has been called a game that I can think of, across pen and paper, tabletop, sports, role playing, social, playground, and video, and they ALL exhibit these qualities to the point where an exception is so clearly an outlier that I am happy to grant it it’s own unique category.

    This isn’t exclusionary. It is actually inclusionary, because it is (pace Wittgenstein) showing familial commonalities across a broader array of things than we usually consider.

    Note that is not just me. It’s disconnected efforts from people ranging from Frank Lantz (who used sports extensively as an example in his rant at GDC this year) to Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman to Joris Dormans, Dan Cook, Tadhg Kelly, Chris Crawford, Richard Garfield, Stone Librande, and on and on and on. We don’t all talk about this, we don’t all trade ideas, we’re not a clique, we don’t all know each other. But we are all touching the elephant, and we have each found enough pieces in common that there is something we can point at and say we are all describing the same thing, though often with varying terminology.

    Even more, at this point results are in from science in other fields (AI, cognitive psychology, mathematics) that validate what we fumbled our way to as practitioners.

    You say that the concern is “not enough space for contradictory approaches.” But that seems silly on the face of it. Who has drowned you (your side, rather) out? there is no Academy enforcing anything here. If anything, you have a strong movement behind you. In fact, the people who most advocate understanding how games work have also historically been the biggest champions of games as art, and are among your biggest cheerleaders.

    These understandings do not harm your case, they help it. Let me toot my own here for a moment and point out that game grammar — meaning, my game grammar specifically — led directly to Rod Humble creating The Marriage and putting out that mechanics as message idea out there in a big way. Ask him. Or ask Jason Rohrer about the degree to which the Theory of Fun influenced the creation of Passage. Ask Jon Blow what he thinks of the whole endeavor, for that matter, or about my lament about games being math.

    I don’t regard the game mechanics stuff as dogma. I regard it as science. Yes, that means it treats in absolutes, once we identify them. That is a characteristic of laws of reality — they are hard to contradict.

    Is labeling “gravity” necessary? Probably not to your goals. But absolutely, for physicists.

    To me, this is not a war. It is a dance. But that means both sides have to tango.

  5. I think some (most?) of the conflict comes from the shared digital medium. That is, Dys4ia is made with computer code and graphics, takes input and reacts in real-time, and offers a destination akin to an objective, just like “real” games (scare quotes because I’m still on the fence). When I sit down to make a “game”, I open up this common toolset with a certain mechanic or aesthetic in mind, and I’m not concerned with whether it ends up becoming a “real” game or not. If I end up with Dys4ia or Dear Esther or The Graveyard, I’ll happily consider that a success.

    I end up telling people that I “make games” because there’s no better term for it (“games and gamelike products”?). And most people, even those who prefer a more strict formal definition, have no trouble understanding what I mean. Nobody intuitively accepts an artistic doorbell as a game, perhaps because it lacks any sense of dynamism or progression or direction, but a random person sat in front of Dys4ia or Dear Esther would call it a game until you persuaded them to accept the more rigid definition. Seems like a lot of work to me.

    Fighting against common usage in language is almost always a losing battle; see what happened to “literally”. Why not try to win the war instead? Create a new term for a truly game-y game. I tend to create abstract mechanics-focused games myself, and I’ve been trying to find the right word for them, to no avail. Help me out?

  6. @Raph: So you’ve made it clear that you don’t view Dys4ia as a game, but is it a videogame? One could make a convincing argument that interactivity is the fundamental component of videogames, even if the same isn’t true for games in the more traditional sense of the word. Do current cultural expectations suggest that videogames aren’t just games, but something else entirely? Is this an important distinction to make?

  7. Hi Raph,

    I can agree with the complaint that a lot of books on game design purport themselves as theory books, when all they do it apply psychology and industry experience to our technical art.

    Game design is an art. Psychology is about all we have to gauge our ideas against. Our validation is playtesting.

    The process is clear as day, but engineering-oriented minds often resist this. They’re used to rigour – systems of logic. While most games are currently implemented via computer programming, my opinion is that game design belongs in Sociology and Humanities, or The Arts, not Computer Science.

    Rigorous definitions of games and game design haven’t yielded substantially practical results. We’re intuitive people. Concepts are developed rapidly, playtested, and refined. The greatest innovators in our field aren’t coming up with systems of logic, they’re coming up with new game mechanics and exploring them fully.

  8. E McNeill:

    Dys4ia is made with computer code and graphics, takes input and reacts in real-time, and offers a destination akin to an objective, just like “real” games (scare quotes because I’m still on the fence). When I sit down to make a “game”, I open up this common toolset with a certain mechanic or aesthetic in mind

    Ah, see, when I sit down to make a game, I might do so with cards or pen and paper or dice or stones — or people. This is one of the key points here. The fact that you are choosing a digital medium when you sit down to make “a game” is a CHOICE. The medium is not actually a unifying factor.

    I agree there is a common usage thing going on. But I also think it is far from settled. I do know that there’s no issues with common usage referring to football as a game, tic tac toe as a game, Pong as a game, D&D as a game, and Werewolf as a game. So there’s quite a lot of weight on the way that I am using the word. :)

    I tend to create abstract mechanics-focused games myself, and I’ve been trying to find the right word for them, to no avail. Help me out?

    These have historically and near universally been called “games.” Sometimes “abstract strategy games” or the like, in non-digital games.

  9. Alex:

    So you’ve made it clear that you don’t view Dys4ia as a game, but is it a videogame?

    Actually, I very carefully wrote (emphasis added here):

    a lot of Dys4ia could be built in PowerPoint and isn’t a game.

    and

    many of the screens of Dys4ia have exactly the same functionality as a doorbell

    That was on purpose, because I was not interested in the question of whether Dys4ia is a game or not. I honestly think that question applied piece by piece (or game by game, if you prefer!) is mostly a red herring.

    You can certainly make an argument that interactivity is a fundamental component of games. I would even agree with you. It’s just not the sole definitional component.

    If you make the argument that interactivity is the definitional component of “videogames” then you are essentially stating that an ebook reader loaded up with a computer manual is a game. It is interactive software, after all. So is a spreadsheet, and the installer for a game, and Google search, and, well, every piece of software ever written.

    So to me that’s a non-question. I immediately grant that Dear Esther is a work of interactive art and that its installer is not. I think the interesting question is actually what definitionally makes Dear Esther digital interactive art.

    Do current cultural expectations suggest that videogames aren’t just games, but something else entirely?

    No. Certainly not in the culture at large. In fact, one of the biggest barriers to the adoption of digital interactive art is likely to be the idea that they ARE games. It is more accurate to say they are LIKE games, and I suspect that if you take two solidly distinct examples (say, Tetris and the work of Zach Simpson, say) that you would likely get that from a layman.

    Is this an important distinction to make?

    It’s important only if you are interested in knowing more about what “it” is and how “it” works. One reason to want to know is in order to make “it” better.

    “It” could be either side of the fence, of course.

  10. Game design is an art. Psychology is about all we have to gauge our ideas against. Our validation is playtesting.

    I actually disagree with this. I suspect that, just as has been found with all other media & art forms, that there are in fact underlying “rules” that you can use to some degree predictively, and certainly analytically after the fact, to assess why something works.

    engineering-oriented minds often resist this

    Haha! This may be one of those cultural gaps! Engineering-minded people like playtesting MORE than design. In fact, if they could skip the design stage, they would. The engineering-minded people are the ones giving you the A/B test method of game development! I am pretty sure it was engineering-minded people who invented playtesting.

    Artsy minded people almost certainly said “but it’s my unique artistic expression! If you don’t like it, it’s because you don’t UNDERSTAND it!”

    my opinion is that game design belongs in Sociology and Humanities, or The Arts, not Computer Science.

    If I had to pick disciplines, I would put it in Psych and Math primarily, with strong minors in the arts. Comp Sci would not figure.

    Rigorous definitions of games and game design haven’t yielded substantially practical results.

    I actually think this is provably false.

    The greatest innovators in our field aren’t coming up with systems of logic, they’re coming up with new game mechanics

    A mechanic could be fruitfully defined as “a system of logic.” :)

  11. Most of this is fighting over the word “game”. Everybody wants to define it their way. It’s beyond dumb to keep attacking it from this vantage point.

    Raph, if you just pick a new word, these discussions will become infinitely less defensive and vastly more productive. If nothing else, I agree with @Alex’s inference that “videogame” and “game” do NOT mean the same thing to me, nor to most American people, and that “videogame” is NOT a subset (or superset) of “game”. Thus the whole thing is even more confusing.

    And it should be obvious why none of us are going to give up the term “game”. We are “game developers”, it’s our identity. Telling us we aren’t game developers, but “notgame” developers, is exceptionally insulting, and results in the defensive posts we see everywhere each time this comes up. I sure as hell am not giving up my job title “for the sake of science”. Why on earth would you even propose that?! Unless it’s to vindicate your belief about what games “should” be?

    Raph, if your real goal is to further the analysis of specific aspects of game design, then you should be pushing for new terms with specific definitions. This is what scientists and theoreticians of all types have done for a very long time.

    The term game should be seen about as often as the term “subconscious” is on psychology blogs (e.g. never, it’s too vague). “Game” will FOREVER be a term laden with contextual baggage that makes it imprecise. Deal with it! Please!

    If I read one more Gamasutra rant about why “game” should be defined a certain way, I’m going to scream. Stop wasting time, everybody, there’s a lot of work to be done.

    PS : same thing for “fun”

  12. (The above is mostly in reference to Raph and Jonas’s conversation here, btw. And I am also being mock-accusatory when suggesting Raph is trying to control what we perceive as “right” games, because I know that isn’t what he’s doing, but it’s the first thing that it looks like each time I see it come up: trying to drive mindset by acquisition of contested terminology.)

  13. Raph, if you just pick a new word, these discussions will become infinitely less defensive and vastly more productive

    A new word for something that is in the dictionary already? Really? And that has been used pretty consistently for hundreds of years across multiple languages?

    I’m not the one redefining here.

    I don’t actually have any real stake in “videogame.” Appropriate away. :)

    Telling us we aren’t game developers, but “notgame” developers, is exceptionally insulting

    That isn’t my term. It’s a term self-chosen by a subset of the group creating “digital interactive art pieces that look a lot like games.” Or whatever we or you choose to call them. I refer you back to the point about reading up on what i already out there.

    Forgive my renewed grumpiness, but… This entire reply seems to me to be exactly what I meant in my post. Nobody is saying you can’t have game developer as a job title. Nobody is taking anything away. I have made “digital art objects” too. I have also made games both digital and non.

    Saying “game” is imprecise is like saying “music” or “writing” are imprecise. Of course they are. It doesn’t mean you stop using the word and invent a new term to talk about something everyone sees when you point at it.

    It also doesn’t mean arguments over whether something is music are fruitless. Tiresome sometimes, I grant you. ;)

    Who exactly is actually attacking the position you hold? I just don’t see it. So much defensiveness when you could simply say “oh, he’s just using ‘game’ in a formal sense” and be done.

  14. Ah, just saw your follow up. Please take my grumpiness as a mock-rejoinder then. :)

  15. Welll… yes! A new term even though there is an old one. Three reasons why.

    1. There’s a reason psychologists don’t use “subconscious” anymore; it’s been given so many different overlapping definitions, from Jung on up, that it can’t be used without explicitly defining it before you use it each time, which is WORSE than just making a new word.

    2. There’s a reason we don’t call people “retarded” anymore. It upset people who had a stake in the care of the mentally challenged. It was too big of a time-waste to try to defend the term, even though it had a scientific definition (in the psychology community). Using it generated too much noise.

    3. The general dictionary definition of “game” is just “an activity that people participate in for fun”. The dictionary definition of “fun” uses near-synonyms of fun to describe it. So those words are in the dictionary, but they are clearly very ambiguous and you need to tighten them in order to use them, which is where the noise is coming in.

    I really do think the high road here is to give up these words and get new ones. You’re in a position to pretty much drive new terminology for a large subset of the blogosphere! (Many of your game grammar terms show up all over the place.) I would really be happy if you did this so that we can have discussions without all the defensiveness.

    (And sorry for the harshness of the first post, I only realized after I submitted that the tone was all wrong.)

  16. I suggest to you that “notgames” are engaged in the process of breaking the bonds with games. But as there is not yet even a name for notgames, there is also no community other than the game community waiting for them. Yet. And that’s fine, it will come with time. People in games are not “kicking you out.”

    Ah, but you see, I find the idea of “notgames” infinitely idiotic and completely alien to everything I’ve ever wanted to achieve as an artist working in the interactive medium. It’s not like film and theatre, it’s like pseudo-artistic European directors (fictional in this case, but such types exist) claiming that their movies are “notfilms” because they are unlike what Hollywood produces.

    Just because we’re not interested in focusing so much on the mechanics in the discourse (I hate that word) does not mean that we reject mechanics. In fact, I and many others love talking about mechanics – perhaps the difference is in how we perceive their function. I have the impression you think of game mechanics as something to be perfected, whereas we think of them more as a tool to be used for a variety of purposes.

    (Actually, there really is no “we” and “our” here. I can’t speak for anyone else.)

    But people in games ARE engaged in a process of understanding games better, and many of the things they are learning are outright absent in notgames. Notgames do not have NP-hard problems or common brain hacks at their central core. Games do. Notgames do not involve the mastery of abstract systems of relationships. Games do.

    Here’s what I mean by dogma, though: the enforcing of categories that don’t actually represent reality. As I said above, I hate notgames, and so do many of us who disagree with you. We are inspired by games, believe in games, make games. We believe games are an art form, not that they can be used to create one. Game mechanics are an essential part of what we do.

    I’d argue that trying to fit games into categories like “games” and “notgames” is not only destructive and (unintentionally) offensive, but also simply scientifically wrong. Interactive works occupy different points on a wide spectrum that can’t be easily or meaningfully divided. Just like linguistics have let go of the idea of a “proper” language or dialect, we need to let go of the idea of a “proper” game and just accept that “game” describes a complex field in which each work has a variety of elements in common.

    You say that the concern is “not enough space for contradictory approaches.” But that seems silly on the face of it. Who has drowned you (your side, rather) out?

    I don’t really have a side, and I think that’s the point. I’m not, to draw a parallel to politics, a game design nationalist. I don’t want a separate state for game designers and a separate state for notgame designers. I want a one-state solution in which the resulting state accepts multiple lifestyles for its citizens, including the right to mix up elements of those styles.

    I don’t regard the game mechanics stuff as dogma. I regard it as science. Yes, that means it treats in absolutes, once we identify them. That is a characteristic of laws of reality — they are hard to contradict.

    Is labeling “gravity” necessary? Probably not to your goals. But absolutely, for physicists.

    And that’s where I think you’re wrong. I think that when you hear “games are art” you hear “games can have an emotional impact” whereas I hear “the experience of each player is personal”. The very essence of stating that games are art is that there is no Unified Theory of Game Design. That’s the one thing the history of art clearly shows: people do not like the same things. Some people like Van Gogh, others hate him. The same style of painting, the very same paintings, make some people happy and other people retch.

    Gravity always works. There are no exceptions for people with a different taste in fundamental interactions. Thus our goal in analysing gravity is to find the one objective truth about it, to move from knowing 1% about it to knowing 100%. But no matter how much you know about painting, you’ll never paint something that pleases everyone. There’s an objective truth about how paint dries, but no objective truth about which colours are best. You can get really good at being Van Gogh, or really good at being Cézanne, or really good at being Thomas Cole, but you’ll never please everyone. Science has one clear goal, art has many contradictory ones. That’s what “games are art” really means to me.

    That’s not to say that there isn’t a great lot of technical things to investigate and learn. All art relies on technique. But in art there are different techniques, different purposes – it’s less a line from A to B than a giant tangled tree. Some people love Tetris. Some people hate Tetris. Extrapolate from there.

  17. As I see it, Raph likes games. He also likes lots and lots of things that aren’t games. He feels strongly that games have qualities that other things don’t have.

    Picture that we were closer to the birth of some new media, like motion pictures, and that at first everyone made comedies. In fact they called them Comedies. Later someone started to make tragedies. They are starting to get popularity, but people are calling them Comedies. “You know, the new Comedies that aren’t funny.” Obviously in my example people are getting media and genre confused. Which would never happen, right? Ever been to a comic book store? Did you find any that were “comic” aka “humorous” in nature? Or did they mostly have grown men in masks beating each other up?

    The way I see it Raph wants to defend the term game because games are important. I’m with you on this. Digital interactive art pieces are also important but resonate with me more like a movie or book would.

  18. Rik – I just feel like it’s a lost cause, and therefore a waste. There is nobody in game development with the clout to convince everybody what “the technical meaning of the term game” should be; it may happen over time but you can’t force language like that.

    Here’s maybe a better example of what I mean. I’m not a visual artist, but I know some great ones, and when they discuss the meaning of art, or whether such-and-such piece should really be considered a painting rather than an installation piece (say), they do it over a beer. It’s a chance to get to know each other as much as it is a true argument. They are sharing their viewpoints. That’s great! I’m not trying to say anybody should avoid “defining games” when they want to express themselves. It’s an efficient way to get your personal ideology across.

    However, when those same artists need to discuss something technical like how to draw a scene from a unique perspective, they avoid ambiguous terms like the plague. Engineers do this too.

    I feel like most of Raph’s blog is rather technical, discussing aspects of his chosen art form. That’s why I feel like Raph (and everybody else!) would get a lot more traction on these topics, and avoid unnecessary bad blood, by avoiding contentious AND ULTIMATELY IRRELEVANT terms, like the definition of “art”. Or, for heavens’ sake, “fun” or “game”.

    It’s pragmatic, and it might feel like giving up, but I really think it would help. I’m astonished at the amount of argument over these terms. And everybody seems to argue that their definition is the natural one that society already believes in, which just brings us right around back to the perspective problem. It’s just a waste of time when there’s so much else to work on.

    It doesn’t have to be anything too fancy. Raph’s technical definition could called an “rgame”. A made-up word has the amazingly useful feature that people don’t automatically assume they know what it means.

  19. @Jonas: Uhm, both posts? All I can find is your first post. Sorcery!

  20. Raph, you rock. Folks really do need see the value of creating games and worlds that are inclusive, rather than exclusive. Add as much variety as you have time for, rather than stubbornly assuming you audience doesn’t want or need any more. This seems reasonable to me, but a lot of companies, like you, are entrenched in “being right” that they don’t even consider adding content outside of their formula. SOE with EQ2 is a notable exception to this – that game really seems to be SOE’s guinea pig and the result is a very rich mmo experience for many player types.

  21. Raph, the “like you” in my last post is a typo. Posting from tablet while my wife drives us and our three crazy kids. Distractions make for incomplete thoughts! You are not entrenched in your views. :)

  22. There is nobody in game development with the clout to convince everybody what “the technical meaning of the term game” should be

    Raph explained that he’s already not alone. “[W]e are all touching the elephant, and we have each found enough pieces in common that there is something we can point at and say we are all describing the same thing, though often with varying terminology.”

    However, when those same artists need to discuss something technical like how to draw a scene from a unique perspective, they avoid ambiguous terms like the plague. Engineers do this too. […] That’s why I feel like Raph (and everybody else!) would get a lot more traction on these topics, and avoid unnecessary bad blood, by avoiding contentious AND ULTIMATELY IRRELEVANT terms, like the definition of “art”. Or, for heavens’ sake, “fun” or “game”.

    Do you know why other artists can avoid ambiguity? Because they’ve had many discussions about terminology over beers. For some, definition might be the goal, but for many others, the process of defining is what truly matters because through that process, shadowy figures in the darkness take shape. Where do you think “game grammar” came from? The language of game design is taking shape through discussions about what is art, what is a game, what is fun, in conjunction with discussions about the why, how, when, and where of design and the audiences whose needs which design seeks to address.

  23. Raph: (replying to #7)

    > Ah, see, when I sit down to make a game, I might do so with cards or pen and paper or dice or stones — or people. This is one of the key points here. The fact that you are choosing a digital medium when you sit down to make “a game” is a CHOICE. The medium is not actually a unifying factor.

    I originally accounted for nondigital elements in my “toolset”, but then lost that text while editing. My bad! But I will maintain that any list of elements in the medium of games (perhaps e.g. rules, feedback, dynamics, the magic circle) will show how easily “real” games can bleed into “notgames”. If I, a designer, can sit down to make something in this medium and not know whether it is a “real” game or a “notgame” suggests to me that the definitional separation isn’t worth fighting for. The lay person is going to call them all “game” whether we like it or not, and Steam will sell them side-by-side either way. It’s far easier for the theorists to adopt a new term than to get the public and the creators to abandon one that’s in use already.

    > I agree there is a common usage thing going on. But I also think it is far from settled. I do know that there’s no issues with common usage referring to football as a game, tic tac toe as a game, Pong as a game, D&D as a game, and Werewolf as a game. So there’s quite a lot of weight on the way that I am using the word. :)

    > … These have historically and near universally been called “games.” Sometimes “abstract strategy games” or the like, in non-digital games.

    Yes, all “real” games have been comfortably called games, but that’s not at issue. My argument is that the term is not being used so narrowly as that, and there are plenty of examples of things being called games that your definition would not include. It would be nice to have a term that *exclusively* referred to mechanics-focused strategy games, as opposed to
    Guitar Hero or paddycake or Proteus (or, for that matter, “mind games” or “Conway’s Game of Life” or “the Ultimatum Game”).

  24. Jonas,

    I appreciate the thoughtful reply!

    First off, I don’t mean to conflate your position with that of Tale of Tales or anyone else’s. I was really responding just to that one sentence (another universe, alien language, etc, that one), which struck me as deeply worrisome as a sign of a huge communication gap where I don’t think one should exist.

    I dislike that this thread has degenerated into arguing over the semantics, because my point was exactly the opposite: that it is entirely possible to come to greater understanding of the various positions, and that in fact everyone should try to. And to the degree that the terminology is getting in the way, then perhaps Eric is right and we should just start using nonce words to avoid the issue.

    I actually agree with most everything in your post. But you misread my position on “games are art” — I don’t define art as “emotional impact” for one thing. I also don’t define it solely based on personal experience (as I have said before, I regard all art as communication, and art and entertainment to be terms of intensity, and the line to be fuzzy, and art best defined by subjectivity of interpretation and complexity of message and quality of execution. I think this is actually relatively close to your position as you have expressed it here).

    But debates about the nature of art are beside the point, because my work on formal structures in games is not about art at all. It is about craft.

    “Gravity always works” or “games are models” in the sense that we know what paint is. We can debate whether a painting is good or not, and we can debate the line at which is crosses out of being a painting and into being something else — perhaps when lots of found objects are glued to it. But paint is itself the medium, and we know what painting is, and further, we can talk about brush types and brush strokes and layering methods and all the rest. We can have quite a sizable discussion about the craft of it without touching the question of whether it is Art.

    When I say that narrative is not a mechanic, I am doing so in the sense that I am saying “mise en scene is not a dolly shot” or “chiaroscuro is not the Golden Section” or “a boss monster is not a joystick.” I am trying to pin down technical craft terms.

    Those LEAD to value judgements — Dys4ia is a crappy doorbell — but they are craft judgements, not artistic ones. I am, to use your specific language, after the objective truth about how paint dries, not what colors are best.

    I suspect the disagreement lies over the question of what are the literal building blocks of the medium.

    My position is that there is a medium that is defined by the construction of abstract models with which (and through which) players interact, in order to arrive at mastery of the patterns those models express. I use the term “game” because that is what this has traditionally been called, though its use as an explicit medium for art is relatively recent. This medium therefore deals with abstract elements, which are made concrete in a variety of forms — physically with tokens, using people as tokens, held purely in the mind, or manifested electronically.

    Let’s call this medium Lude for short. It bleeds into its sister media in many ways, and Crawford in particular situates it on a tree that includes Puzzles, Stories, Simulations, and more. With Lude as a term and tool, I and many others have been able to dig down pretty deep into elements of craft. Said elements of craft (and art) include a lot of stuff that I suspect people care deeply about on all the extremes of the debate: issues of storytelling, issues of player psychology, and so on.

    In other words, I don’t much care whether some people love and other hate Tetris, as regards this particular issue. What I care about is that Tetris is a Lude, clearly and unequivocally, alongside Chess and Soccer and Magic: The Gathering and Werewolf and Tag.

    The positions of others, as I understand them, include a wide array of very different descriptions for something that may or may not include what I here term a Lude. What I have not seen — and it may be because I have not looked hard enough — is any sort of rigorous working out of what the formal structure of these other things are. In the process, though, the discussion is using a whole lot of words that I regard as terms of art, often in ways that sound like technical uses, and the terms are at this point quite politicized.

    So, I’m here talking about Ludes. And I feel comfortable saying that most of Dys4ia is not a Lude, and that cumulatively, it may not be a Lude though it is right on the edge; that Dear Esther by contrast, is a lot closer to being a Lude and may in fact be one though others disagree.

    Is this still language from another planet? I am unsure how to express it any other way, at this point. And I do quite passionately believe that the craft lessons that arise out of looking at how Ludes work can deeply inform the making of things both at the boundary of Ludes and that are clearly not Ludes. This because while Dys4ia may not be a Lude, it makes ample use of craft elements FROM Ludes. Being told that this approach is dogmatic and exclusionary (and “from another planet”) is what rubbed me wrong.

  25. Morgan Ramsay – Hopefully this isn’t beating a dead horse (and hopefully I’ve guessed how quoting works)

    Raph explained that he’s already not alone.

    He’s not alone at all, but even this thread shows that the group he’s referring is just one loud voice among many loud voices. They’re touching an elephant, but they’re far from being able to approach a real definition in my opinion. They haven’t touched the tusks yet.

    Do you know why other artists can avoid ambiguity? Because they’ve had many discussions about terminology over beers. For some, definition might be the goal, but for many others, the process of defining is what truly matters because through that process, shadowy figures in the darkness take shape.

    ARGH, you’re just proving Raph’s point here. The title of this blog post is “two cultures”, referring to a classic lecture that divided Western society into two cultures. The two cultures are the sciences and the humanities.

    You’re in the “humanities” culture on this topic. And you believe that exploring these terms is a primary key to unlocking design discoveries.

    I’m in the “sciences” category here, coming from a focus on psychology, and I think defining those terms is largely a waste of time.

    You sure as hell are not going to convince me, nor me you.

    HOWEVER, we can both do our work quite well, and both benefit from each other’s breakthroughs, as long as we aren’t butting heads continuously. TERMINOLOGY is where we’re butting heads.

    So what I’m advocating is that we agree that those general terms are part of the “humanities” culture. This I can imagine Raph using the term “game” when discussing the philosophical implication of what games are or what they morally should be, while using “rgame” to discuss his particular technical model of games. This would take a TON of hot air out of these discussions.

    Where do you think “game grammar” came from? The language of game design is taking shape through discussions about what is art, what is a game, what is fun, in conjunction with discussions about the why, how, when, and where of design and the audiences whose needs which design seeks to address.

    This again points to the culture gap. You assume that the technical concepts I was referring to (such as perspective, foreshortening, color mixing) came to existence because artists found them while exploring what it means to make art, or be artists, or something similar. My cultural perspective on this topic has me assume that these were based on observations and a workmanlike desire to elicit a specific response, regardless of what “art” means.

    Thankfully, it doesn’t matter who’s right! Those technical terms are COMPLETELY divorced from the meaning of art, and artists go to great lengths to make sure those terms DON’T carry a value judgement about “what art is”. (They do this after hundreds of years of seeing what happens if you don’t.) Thus we can discuss color theory without defining the “goals of painters in general”. That’s good, because after hundreds of years we still don’t have consensus on the goals of painters.

    On the other hand, I am not saying we should ignore the philosophical topics. We just can’t do that. “What is art” is still a serious question that haunts the artistic community to this day. As a trivial example, many graphic artists don’t believe comics are art. (At all!) This causes a dramatic rift and a lot of tension. It needs to be discussed and worked out.

    But it doesn’t need to impact our technical discussions. Once we have a hypothesis, the development of the model isn’t particularly related to the philosophical nature of fun, in my opinion. And I know your opinion differs, so that’s why I’m GIVING YOU the terms “game” and “art” and “fun”. Keep ‘em. Philosophize about them all you like.

    But many people, such as Raph, eventually “hop the cultural divide” and switch from talking about the nature of games to their specific technique for making games. And when you do that, I feel you should NOT try to use those same terms for your specific technical definition. Not yet. Maybe in 500 years. In the mean time, can’t you see the benefit of using a non-contentious term in order to get your technical idea across, so we can discuss its technical merits?

  26. Raph,

    If you don’t mind, let me further elaborate on why I hold the opinion I do.

    I’ve spent a lot of time figuring out mathematical ways of describing games. I’ve come up with markups which could be used to describe game mechanics. Several of my projects were designed entirely using these systems. No project was ever completed. One project was complete on paper, but a line of code was never written for it.

    I don’t believe games have anything to do with programming. In my opinion, a game design theorist is, as you correctly implied, thinking in terms of psychology and mathematics.

    If we’re talking purely on game design, then I agree that in-depth, technical analysis has yielded interesting results. That’s a no-brainer. However, either code or some other tedious process is unavoidable at this time. The faster I can get to the implementation, and the less I have to fit in my head, the better. It’s at this point that a lot of what I’ve read and practiced on game design and development go out the window and into the trash.

  27. The digital medium can deliver all sorts of experiences these days, even within the same engines, systems, and tool sets. I always resort to the seemingly blindingly obvious question “What experience are you trying to deliver?”. People on both sides of the extremes that you are talking about often fall down the rabbit hole of their own “cleverness” and loose sight of the fact that they are developing something that is intended to be experienced by others. There are plenty of examples of people doing that and still being very successful but it’s an incidental success. There isn’t really a right or wrong approach.

  28. Great discussion (except for where it digressed into pure semantics). I love the original post just because 1) I regard Theory of Fun as being incredibly important but very overlooked, and 2) I also am amazed sometimes at people making “bold strident new” claims about the medium that have been made decades or centuries earlier… This medium does have a history, and though it is scant compared to others, that’s all the less excuse for not exploring and learning it.

    Recently I blogged and tweeted about how Dear Esther is a good experience even though it’s a terrible game. I got into a Twitter argument that I think was a microcosm of this one… the other party didn’t like me making the distinction at all. I think that Jonas’ position is similar. What they really seem to be saying is: “Why even make any kind of value judgment about anything EXCEPT the overall experience?” I admit that judging the game part of Dear Esther at all is irrelevant; it’s like judging the realism of Swan Lake’s plot… it’s just incidental to what the work is really about, and obtuse to focus on it.

    And ultimately, yes, any creator must take a holistic view: what is the overall experience of engaging with this work? Whether you’re making Tetris or you’re making The Path, you’re doing it because your interested in making an experience for people to have. Does it really matter that much how that experience is achieved?

    Yes. As craftsmen in particular, this distinction is fantastically useful. Crafting good gameplay is an entire science unto itself, and an incredibly difficult one. For us creators at least, being able to recognize that there’s a Ludo spinning somewhere inside of Sword & Sworcery, and taking note of what it actually does and how it actually works, as well as how it relates to and interacts with the other parts of the work… This is all very important and very useful.

    (Specifically, S&S has one mechanical trick – increasing difficulty by reducing your hearts through the course of the game – which I hadn’t seen before, and which terrifically reinforced the emotional experience of watching your character deteriorate. Being able to recognize that mechanic and its impact is important as a craftsman… Though it’s one of the few game mechanics that can even be found in that “game.”)

    But I think that even for the players, being able to say more than “it was a great experience” is helpful. Obviously or we wouldn’t have distinct artistic media, much less genres within those media. We may find it a little too reductive to see a review rate “gameplay: 4; graphics: 10; overall: 8″… But there’s a reason these exist, it’s because different people like different things and they want to be able to recommend them to each other.

    I’ll always make this distinction. As far as semantics (how do I say “S&S was a terrible game” while saying that I still liked the experience overall?)… I think that saying “S&S was an enjoyable game even though it had terrible gameplay” is enough.

  29. I have been making the distinction between good game and good experience, and between game design and experience design, for many years now.

    I suspect that if you don’t make this distinction, console gaming throws you into utter despair for the future of the medium.

    A big part of why I use “game” for the Ludos is because experience design strikes me as primarily actually being built from other media that already have names: film, animation, sound design, music, architecture, etc.

    PS, while i appreciate the nod toTheory of Fun as overlooked, I have to say that it may be the single most widely read book on games ever, certainly in the top three. So overlooked is probably not the right word. :)

  30. I guess part of the problem is that computer games have, pretty much from the very beginning, been more than what you here termed a Lude, so when we say “game” many of us are referring to an experience that encompasses more (including more types of interactivity) than what you are referring to in your theoretical work.

    By your logic, most adventure games aren’t really games in a theoretical sense. But “game” as most of us use it is not a term based on theory but on history and convention; it’s the name of the medium we’re working in and the term that has been used to describe much of what inspires us. So being told that our works are not games (or even worse, notgames) naturally strikes us as unfair and wrong.

    So while it may be accurate to say that a work is not heavily based on “the act of solving statistically varied challenge situations presented by an opponent who may or may not be algorithmic within a framework that is a defined systemic model,” saying it is “not a game” is more problematic. (But then, the constant invention of new and increasingly more useless terms is a disease in many sciences, so I understand your reluctance to do so.)

    As for my comment about “different universes”, it is primarily aimed at the fact that so much of the discussion of games is entirely technical. I feel like we’ve confused the craft with the art. Don’t get me wrong, I have every respect for the craft. But the craft is limited because it doesn’t understand what I tried to describe as “grace”. For example: I spent years working in the local university’s Writing Center, teaching people how to write. I know how essential craft is to writing, but I also know that greatness can only come when you realize that doing something the craft says is wrong is actually the right way to go. Or take grammar – understanding grammar is essential to learning a language, but you’re only ever going to do something interesting with that language once you get to the point where you can not only ignore the grammar, but intentionally go against it. Sometimes it feels like we’re a community of painters who only talk about paint and never about painting, let alone inspiration or vision.

    Of course, you can logically respond by saying that you’re just trying to establish the language so we can get on with the art part. To which I might say that your dictionary is too prescriptive and not descriptive enough. Which leads us back to the issue of what you’re trying to describe in the first place.

    Maybe there’s something to this difference between prescription versus description. Maybe part of what I feel is that while your description of narrative can be useful in your specific definition of “game” as a theoretical term, it is next to useless for people actually making a game. No, that’s not it. It’s not useless to have this definition in your back pocket as a tool to work with; but I think it’s extremely limiting to have it in your mind as a principle, because it’s not a mindset that is conductive to creating art. But if your definition of narrative is to be used by game designers as a tool, is it not problematic if its definition of “game” is so narrow that it cannot describe many of the most interesting uses of interactive narrative?

    I feel like adding fifteen more layers to this conversation, but it might make my brain explode. Thank you for your thoughtful responses.

  31. […] Raph Koster has responded and an interesting discussion has resulted. While I stand by everything I said here, do note that […]

  32. I think some people would argue that “game experience design” or “video game experience design” is its own artistic pursuit that is more than the sum of the parts of the many crafts that comprise it. Perhaps you already agree with this though; I’m pretty sure I do.

    You’re right that your book is among the most read, but the fact is that I still don’t regard it as widely read, at least not among professional and indie game designers. (In other words there’s not enough serious reading going on at all among working designers, IMO.) And when it is read, it seems like its rarely agreed-with or even really understood. The line you quoted, of your book being dismissed because of a perception that it was trying to summarize all of videogames, seemed typical to me. People rejecting your book based on a rejection of the idea that fun can be defined is also extremely common; which I can understand but which I think is a misperception of the book’s real purpose. (And in the AAA industry, people rejecting the book because Raph Koster wrote it, is very common.)

  33. Personally, I prefer the term “play space”. It avoids a lot of the baggage associated with “game” … that it can be won, that it contains challenges to be overcome, that it needs to be fun, that mastery is the goal.

    Narrative is not a mechanic, but narratives HAVE mechanics. Narrative mechanics structure our play experiences differently than game mechanics do, but they do structure our play experiences. Navigating a narrative space like Dear Esther is a different sort of experience than blasting through a level of Halo. Normal narrative theory isn’t particularly good at analyzing a play space like Dear Esther where the chain of signifiers is constructed through an iterative process. One the cool things about videogames, about interactive play spaces, is that they’ve open up a whole new range of narrative mechanics to experiment with – new ways to construct meaningful experiences. And, hopefully, new ways to analyze them.

    I really don’t like the idea of boiling our medium (whatever its called) down to “mastery of abstract interactive models”. Yes, there is an abstract interactive model at the heart of Dear Esther, but it’s a trivial one, and mastering it plays a very small part in the experience. The same is true of Journey. There are some mechanics to master, but they’re extremely simple and mastering them is not an important part of the experience. What’s important is the way performing those mechanics shapes our emotional and narrative trajectory through the play space. Gaining energy by standing next to the other player isn’t a very interesting mechanic in terms of gameplay, but it’s an extremely interesting mechanic in terms of narrative. Similarly, my desire to play through a narrative of shared hardship influences my gameplay decisions. From moment to moment, I’m less interested in conquering and mastering Journey’s systems than I am in using those systems to structure emotionally satisfying juxtapositions of character and space.

  34. I guess part of the problem is that computer games have, pretty much from the very beginning, been more than what you here termed a Lude

    So have all games, actually. We have “games” like tea parties, playing house, etc; like idly throwing a ball at a wall over and over; like the Great Game of politics; like kriegspiel; solitaire; liminal stuff like sudoku; and so on, on and on. There’s plenty of liminal stuff.

    An analogy might be that we can point at “blue,” but in fact blue is defined very differently based on langauge, based on rpecision of measurement, and there are many shades of blue. But I can still mark out a rough area that lies at the “heart” of the blue fuzzy space.

    http://www.empiricalzeal.com/2012/06/05/the-crayola-fication-of-the-world-how-we-gave-colors-names-and-it-messed-with-our-brains-part-i/
    http://www.empiricalzeal.com/2012/06/11/the-crayola-fication-of-the-world-how-we-gave-colors-names-and-it-messed-with-our-brains-part-ii/

    “game” as most of us use it is not a term based on theory but on history and convention

    Agreed! It’s like saying “blue.” And I don’t expect everyone to switch over to using my definition of blue which involves a particular spectrum. It’s just handy when we want to discuss qualities of blue.

    If you go and read the listed articles, they mention that “the rainbow has seams,” as in “there are optimal ways to slice up the actually seamless spectrum” — and I suspect that the way I and others are slicing up “game” is similar. We are all slicing there because it is a logical place to slice.

    so much of the discussion of games is entirely technical. I feel like we’ve confused the craft with the art.

    I saw a similar comment in the thread on your blog, from Lith:

    the artistic side is languishing – atrophying, even.

    What we might call the formalist movement in games is actually very recent. My game grammar talk was 2004. There was MDA a couple of years before that, and Doug Church’s design patterns before that. Prior to that you have to go back to scattered antecedents like Crawford and Bartle. The explosion on the formalist side is really a phenomenon of the last five years.

    Which are also, in my opinion, the GREATEST era ever for the artistic side of games. I truly believe the formalist stuff PROMPTED the art game movement, along with ready availability of classic games via emulation.

    We used to have to rail for more art in games — go try looking at the older essays and presentations on this very site: http://www.raphkoster.com/gaming/index.shtml We were not railing against formalism. We were railing against commerce and against the notion that we as a medium were not capable of art.

    Right now is a Golden Age, a Renaissance of art in games. It is definitely not languishing or atrophying, or else this debate wouldn’t even be happening.

    I have a master of fine arts degree. I have been published as a poet, had my music broadcast on TV, spent hours sweating in an art studio, tacked up the posters I made for a friends’ theater production — believe me, I come from the art world, not the science world. I sort of feel like I came through the feelings you are having and am now on the other side. I take for granted that art matters. I take for granted what can be achieved. I take grace for granted, Jonas. I am not saying that art has to wait on craft — that’s nonsense. But now I want to be able to summon grace at will, tune it to awesome heights or tease nuance from it. And GREAT art — well, yeah, that usually does have a lot of craft foundation behind it.

    Maybe part of what I feel is that while your description of narrative can be useful in your specific definition of “game” as a theoretical term, it is next to useless for people actually making a game. No, that’s not it.

    FWIW, when game grammar was first put out there, designers said exactly that about it. — “not practical, intellectual masturbation.” But Rod Humble said “wait, mechanics alone can convey meaning?” and made The Marriage. I sketched out game grammar with Rod on a whiteboard in my office at SOE because we were working out a specific design problem of how to make crafting in EQ2 less dull. I am glad you backed off this point, because I have seen it in action.

    No, that’s not it. It’s not useless to have this definition in your back pocket as a tool to work with; but I think it’s extremely limiting to have it in your mind as a principle, because it’s not a mindset that is conductive to creating art.

    I think formalists in all media would disagree pretty strongly, from Modernist explorations of color theory as a motive force for art (Mondrian), to Brechtian theater, to every formalist poet who has ever written in metered verse — or for that matter in concrete poetry; or every musician who has ever sweated over tonality rather than melody. You’r ebasically repapitulating the old Apollonian and Dionysian debate here, and we all know it is a false dichotomy.

    if your definition of narrative is to be used by game designers as a tool, is it not problematic if its definition of “game” is so narrow that it cannot describe many of the most interesting uses of interactive narrative?

    Not at all! I used to work in interactive narrative back in grad school. It’s definitely a related field to games. But it is its own thing, and if I were to be writing articles about that, I would be insisting that “all you whippersnapper wannabes doing interactive narrative need to go read some goddamn Jay Bolter and if you haven’t booted up classic stuff in Storyspace in the last few months, you are failing to understand the context and history of what came before!” It’s still a lawn I am happy to chase kids off of, but it’s a different lawn. :)

    I have written about that stuff, in the past. http://www.raphkoster.com/gaming/narrativeenvironments.shtml and http://www.raphkoster.com/gaming/gdc_2002_Storytelling.htm for example.

    Look, I am a bit of a contrarian. Right now, we have a game culture that has two overriding preoccupations:

    – art, particularly narrative
    – data mining

    I am therefore pushing back on the first one by talking craft and systems; and on the second one by talking ethics and community and game quality.

    In the past, we had game cultures that were obsessed with other stuff. There was a period when it was all about fun fun fun. And I argued in favor of effects other than fun. I took the art position then.

    This doesn’t mean I am inconsistent; I actually think I have been pretty consistent over the years. :) It just means I am ornery about some things. Like I said, this is a pendulum. We’re actually in an upswing on art.

  35. Shay, fair enough, I have seen both those reactions plenty!.

    Fortunately an entire generation of developers coming out of school was forced to read it as coursework. I think I will win out in the long run. ;) Get ‘em while they’re young!

    As far as game experience sign being a different discipline… yes indeed. I have served on the awards panels for the AIAS for years, and we split out game design and game direction for this very reason. Ironically, I currently judge for the award that is for “game experience architecture”: game direction — this despite, I suspect, people’s presumption that I am purely craft-centered and would therefore be on the one about mechanics. :)

  36. Brian,

    Narrative is not a mechanic, but narratives HAVE mechanics

    Ouch. That phrase, right there, just resurrected ludology vs narratology in a big way. I mean, the latter half of that sentence kinda IS the definition of the actual field of narratology. (Not the game version, the real one).

    I suppose my blanket reply to what you said is “yeah, sure.” But that’s because we are talking from two completely different vantage points. You are taking an aesthetic critique position, you are using the language of literary analysis or art theory, and you are talking about a critical lens. I grant that lens total validity, and find it a fascinating one. It is a great way to talk about games, and also about way more than games. But I would counter with, as an example, the fact that the lens of sociology or economics is an equally valid way to look at say, online worlds, which are perhaps the epitome of “play space” in your terms. It’s just a lens. Both are and both are wrong depending on what journal you want to be published in.

    I am not taking an aesthetic critique position. I am taking a craft critique position. Right now, anyway.

    When Ian talks about videogames being a mess, he lists your position and mine among the different views. And he makes the point that these can all coexist and there is no need to try to reconcile them or to assert dominance of one over another. I happen to believe that most of the “objects” he discusses happen to be like the reflections of light or perturbations of water around something. I believe in the essentiality of something. Ian and you are philosophers. You’re more comfortable with treating mirages as real things than I am. :) (I say that jokingly and jocularly, mind you!).

  37. Raph,

    I’m talking from a craft critique position as well. Not “What does this game mean?” but “How do we go about constructing systems of meaning?” As I said in my previous post, gameplay mechanics carry narrative weight, and narrative elements structure gameplay choices. Dear Esther makes no sense if you analyze it purely as a gameplay system, and yet it works as an experience. To me, that means that our analytical tools are inadequate. It means that important elements of our craft are being neglected.

    I would also argue that believing in the essentialism of things is a poor way to approach empirical analysis. Empiricism isn’t about what determining what things ARE, it’s about constructing models of how they BEHAVE. I’m not really interested in staking out a position on what games are in essence, rather in constructing models that help us understand how they generate experiences in practice.

    I’ll certainly cop to the accusation that I’m comfortable with treating mirages as real. Although I would argue that ALL of our day-to-day experience is a mirage, a computationally convenient fiction generated by our brains from the sensory traces we receive from the real. “Table” is a theory we construct to explain a particular localized effect of particles and waves. Tables are mirages. They have no existence as objects, only as convenient conceptual frameworks for explaining certain moments within our lived experience.

    So when people argue about what a game (or a play space) is IN ESSENCE, I think that’s not a very useful argument to have. The question is, what work does that particular definition allow us to do? How do different definitions of game make it easier or harder to solve particular practical problems in the creation of interesting experiences for our audiences?

    Chris Bates just did a whole series of posts about this on his blog at International Hobo … .

  38. I know, I was in the comment thread there too. :)

    We aren’t really in very much disagreement here. Even our disagreement about essentialism is really a matter of degree. I am looking (and I emphasize, in THIS case, where I am doing formal analysis, not always) for how systems generate meaning.

  39. You made reference to ‘The Marriage’ a couple of times with regard to mechanics giving meaning, but I was just wondering if you considered that to be a game, or perhaps to be more specific, a lude?

  40. Right now is a Golden Age, a Renaissance of art in games. It is definitely not languishing or atrophying, or else this debate wouldn’t even be happening.

    I don’t think that it is atrophying, but I don’t think it’s all that healthy, either. The formalist movement in games may be recent, but the dominant language of game design has always been entirely technical, and even in the world of indie games the emphasis is still very much on the mechanical side of things – thus we get a lot of artistic “experiments” with form, but very little from any other direction. It’s like a bunch of first-year film students who have just discovered that you can play a film backwards. Innovation!

    So have all games, actually. We have “games” like tea parties, playing house, etc; like idly throwing a ball at a wall over and over; like the Great Game of politics; like kriegspiel; solitaire; liminal stuff like sudoku; and so on, on and on. There’s plenty of liminal stuff.

    Does that not raise the question of whether it is meaningful to label something as not being a game, then? Adventure games are a very useful example, I think. They are essential to the history of the computer game medium, but by your definition most of them aren’t games at all.

    I think formalists in all media would disagree pretty strongly, from Modernist explorations of color theory as a motive force for art (Mondrian), to Brechtian theater, to every formalist poet who has ever written in metered verse — or for that matter in concrete poetry; or every musician who has ever sweated over tonality rather than melody. You’r ebasically repapitulating the old Apollonian and Dionysian debate here, and we all know it is a false dichotomy.

    You’re right, I exaggerated. But I do see the language and thought in most game design debates as overly formalist; I don’t want this way of thinking to stop existing, but its dominance worries me.

    It’s definitely a related field to games. But it is its own thing

    I still have not seen any convincing reason to separate the two, except that it makes it easier to formulate theories.

    Look, I am a bit of a contrarian. Right now, we have a game culture that has two overriding preoccupations:

    – art, particularly narrative
    – data mining

    I’m not so sure we have any preoccupation with narrative or art; certainly not an adult one (there are exceptions, of course, some of them wonderful). We have the imitative let’s-pretend-this-is-a-movie stuff on the one hand and the art-school let’s-mess-around-with-form stuff on the other.

    OK, now I’m just being grumpy. But my problem is with this very division: “art” or “narrative” on the one hand, “game” on the other. There’s no difference between the game theorists and the notgames people, because they both believe in that separation; but I only see one medium.

  41. You’re in the “humanities” culture on this topic. And you believe that exploring these terms is a primary key to unlocking design discoveries. I’m in the “sciences” category here, coming from a focus on psychology, and I think defining those terms is largely a waste of time.

    I tried majoring in psychology, but I found psychology too “hipstery, self-indulgent, artsy, self-referential, slight, [and] pretentious.” A psychology professor once told me that she couldn’t offer any answers because there are none to be found in psychology. So, instead, I majored in communication science—the science of language, the science of behavior, the science of culture… the science of civilization—because this science offers rational truths. Having worked in applied communication (i.e., branding, marketing, public relations) for more than a decade, and in conjunction with my educational background and autodidactical learning of Dawkins-inspired memetics, I would most certainly disagree with your assessment of my position. In fact, I would counter that you are taking a artsy humanities approach albeit at a different angle than Raph. I would argue that your position effectively dismisses an entire body of scientific evidence that language shapes our world, our work, and our very identities.

  42. I think technically The Marriage is a “toy” — it does not have goals. You can play it as a game though. You can play any toy as a game…

  43. Replying out of order:

    thus we get a lot of artistic “experiments” with form, but very little from any other direction. It’s like a bunch of first-year film students who have just discovered that you can play a film backwards. Innovation!

    I’m not so sure we have any preoccupation with narrative or art; certainly not an adult one (there are exceptions, of course, some of them wonderful). We have the imitative let’s-pretend-this-is-a-movie stuff on the one hand and the art-school let’s-mess-around-with-form stuff on the other.

    I am in total agreement with you! I do think the art school stuff is heavily preoccupied with narrative, though. They’re all out there writing stories with profound points about loneliness. :) And needless to say, the AAA game obsession with storytelling is obvious.

    Does that not raise the question of whether it is meaningful to label something as not being a game, then? Adventure games are a very useful example, I think. They are essential to the history of the computer game medium, but by your definition most of them aren’t games at all.

    I actually think adventure games are liminal — some of them are games and some of them are actually a set of puzzles. Some of them are clearly not games at all, but rather hypertext.

    I see hypertext as essential to the history of the medium as well, and just about nobody labels that stuff games, and in fact, I suspect much of the narrativist game crowd doesn’t know much about it!

    I only see one medium.

    Let me reverse the question on you. How do you define this medium, then? Presumably you have some boundary in mind that prevents Dys4ia from being an opera and Tetris from being cuisine. :) What are the defining traits? And it’s fine if there is a set of traits, which no single work contains all of — I am fine if you arrive at a cloud of characteristics.

    I realize I am asking you a formalist question, which may sit wrong from the get-go!

  44. “Let me reverse the question on you. How do you define this medium, then?”

    I know this question wasn’t addressed to me, but I’m going to answer it anyway. :-)

    I define play as “free movement within a system of constraints” which is a slight modification of Salen and Zimmerman’s “free movement within a more rigid structure”. The constraints that define a play space are a mixture of internal and external constraints — the official rules of the game itself, as well as the player’s understanding of the rules, and the strategies that he uses to engage with them. In order for a system of constraints to structure a viable play space it needs to obey certain heuristics — for example, it needs to consistently offer the player a handful of choices, these choices need to vary over time, decisions made now need to affect what choices the player has in the future, and so on.

    A game is a play space where a specific goal is specified as part of the external constraints — get to the end of the level, get the highest score, etc. Traditionally games have also included an element of competition, but this gets muddled in the case of videogames where a variety of different active and passive challenges (as well as outright puzzles) are jumbled together in the player experience.

    And I like these definitions not because I think they describe what play and games are in an ontological sense, but because they give me useful answers when I’m trying to figure out how fix broken play spaces.

    (BTW, Raph, I agree that we’re not that far off from each other. I think we have similar goals and conclusions, we’re just approaching the question with slightly different formal frameworks.)

  45. I would like to add a note of support for creating a set of well defined terms which help to clarify discussions about how to craft games. I hope I am in the spirit of the discussion when I differentiate the craft of a game as a set of rules from the craft making the particular artifacts (be they cards/boards/pieces and rule books, or digital images/models/sounds and software programs).

    Actually, I think there is a lot of confluence of the two things. At least, that’s one possible explanation why people keep trying to bring up the medium of computer software as the new base definition for what constitutes a game, whereas Raph continually tries to emphasize that the medium is NOT the game. Now, Marshall McLuhan might have disagreed, so perhaps there are two ways to look at it, but perhaps it just takes extra care to notice the difference. In any case, I don’t think McLuhan was trying to argue his point literally, but mostly saying that the things you can say depend on the medium in which you say them, as each medium has limits to its expressive power.

    But maybe that’s something that deserves more attention. I think it would be a fair way to evaluation games: can a particular game be produced successfully in different media? Would the game be the same? If not, how different would it be? It’s important to think about how a medium distorts the message that it’s sending.

    I have to also say, though (and I stated as much on Jonas’s blog entry), that there are definitely different ways to go about arguing different points of view. And I think some people too easily fall into making emotional even mystical arguments, which is a kind of giving up. To say that two people are arguing from different universes is not helpful, and might even be dangerous. It contradicts reality. (Not to say reality is not open to some level of dispute, but to argue that there are multiple realities literally, and that different people inhabit different ones, is a fundamental statement of belief that has far-reaching consequences. It shouldn’t be stated lightly.)

    There is no such thing as perfect clarity, but there is definitely a continuum of clarity. There are ways to express ideas carefully, and there are other ways which are closer to incoherent noise. If people aren’t willing to submit their ideas to the rules of reasoned discourse, then obviously it is going to be difficult to bridge the chasms between different points of view. There has to be some willingness to not use cheap rhetorical tricks, and to call out authors to do resort to them.

    There is a definite resistance on the part of some people to the idea that games, or any art form, can or should be subjected to critical analysis, whether from an aesthetic or craft perspective. That’s a fundamental concern. I think that Raph believes that by trying to understand games (or other art) in quantitative as well as qualitative terms, game developers (not just designers, not just engineers) can make better games.

    There are countless valuable things to be learned from a good theoretical framework for game development. And like any framework, good terminology is not just desirable, it’s absolutely mandatory. Having a very clear, strict definition for the term “game” within that theory is essential. Feeling left out because that terms is not more inclusive doesn’t make any sense. The word “game” (like most non-technical words) has many meanings, and having one more will not harm anyone, as long as part of the definition includes the theoretical framework in which it is founded.

    Art objects which don’t fit the definition are not subject to analysis by the framework. But the dissenters don’t seem to want those objects to be subjected to that analysis in the first place!

  46. Jonas has a fair point, but I think the article of Raph’s that he criticized wasn’t properly appreciated.

    I disagree with the premise that games can exist without narrative, but that goes back into semantics about what constitutes narrative, or what constitutes a game.

    I think the salient point from Jonas’ article is that you can’t take a completely cold and mechanical stance when you make a game, and I wholeheartedly agree there. A game’s value is not calculable, it’s not as though you can say reward x percent of the time every y seconds for an action of z complexity and make the perfect game. A lot of games released recently try to work a formula like this, and that really shows through.

    But I think that Raph’s article actually works in support of that viewpoint. Raph’s article as I read it is not a guide on how to create a game. It’s a post-facto analysis of games. It’s important to be able to look, after the fact, at a game and appreciate it’s structure. But it makes some very useful analysis for games.

    Take a game like Diablo 3, which has been on my own mind lately. This is a game designed around replayability (you have to play the game 4 times at least to “complete” it), but it follows the structure noted in Raph’s final paragraphs to the letter. The frequent large interstitial narrative elements detract from the ultimate replayability of the game. This is unimportant for a game designed as an artistic exposition to be viewed once and then shelved until later when you want to be reminded of it. But for a game that’s built on being enjoyable for months repeatedly, it’s an important point to consider.

    That’s not to say that the story in Diablo 3 detracts from the game itself, just from its replayability. Perhaps a wise move might have been to maintain the entire story elements in the normal difficulty, but when forced to repeat the game in the more difficult levels, the narrative could have been replaced with more lasting feedback systems.

    A game like Dys4ia is not a game that someone will play more than once or twice. They won’t come home to relax in front of a game of Dys4ia, so the fact that any replay value it has is highly limited due to its design of highly limited inputs and disproportionately huge feedback is irrelevant. Raph’s article in no way states that this sort of game is bad, simply that this sort of game loses value once the feedback is expected.

    The article’s entire point was simply that narrative loses value as feedback when it’s expected. And my understanding of his point on Dys4ia in particular was that a very large proportion of the game was strictly narrative.

    I think it’s detrimental to say that those willing to admit that narrative can be evaluated separately from the elements that turn that narrative into a game are fundamentally different than those unwilling to do so.

    Raph didn’t say that Dys4ia was a powerpoint presentation. He said that many parts of it could be represented as such, and very importantly, some parts of it could not. It is this combination of narrative exposition and something else that turns the presentation from something done in powerpoint to something people might call a game.

    As per his article, the inputs and the problems are very limited with respect to the feedback. This means that once a player has played the game and remembers the story, replays of the game are not particularly fun. I don’t know that anyone would disagree with this.

    If a designer wants to create a game that is a profound artistic work, that’s entirely their prerogative. However if they want to make a profound artistic game that is played once, and then maybe again a few months later when it’s remembered they can use different devices than if they want to make a profound artistic game which keeps the player rapt night after night.

  47. @Robert Crouch

    “However if they want to make a profound artistic game that is played once, and then maybe again a few months later when it’s remembered they can use different devices than if they want to make a profound artistic game which keeps the player rapt night after night.”

    Putting the particular economics of games aside, keeping an audience rapt night after night would be a unusual goal for an artist. Yeah, nobody wants to play Dys4ia twice. Why would the author want me to play it twice? How many times does an author want me to reread their book?

  48. See, Consumatopia, that is the sort of comment that for me is evidence that a game like that is actually less game than story, and partakes more of other media than game.

    The greatest games in history ARE something we always find new things in, because they offer extraordinarily rich patterns and complexity and are different very time we come to them.

  49. And that’s the sort of response that convinces me that considering games and interactive non-games as two different art forms causes more confusion than it resolves.

    Why should greatness be the same as complexity? Why not authenticity, expressiveness, or “grace”?

    Deciding to make your work a game is to choose a means, not to choose an end. The designer should make a game if that facilitates their vision and goals. They should not alter their vision and goals because they decided to make a game. The same is true when we evaluate it as critics–we don’t decide whether it’s a “good game”, we decide whether it’s good art, game or not.

  50. It’s not that it can’t be grace or authenticity. It’s that the very analogy you used was equating the artistic value with that of a book, the consumption pattern with that of a book.

    And so when I hear that analogy I immediately go “odds are that this would have worked better as a book than a game.”

    Here, let me try to approach it from the other angle. If you strip off all the story — all writing, which we can identify as another medium in its own right; and all art — also another medium, so just replace stuff with plain circles and squares; all sounds & music, certainly all cutscenes — the medium of film and animation… Basically, for the sake of argument be a purist and admit nothing but rules…

    Take that which is left and ask yourself, why would you analogize it to a book? What would be its strengths and it’s weaknesses? How does it express meaning? What makes it good art?

    And importantly — how does it express grace? Authenticity?

    Now, that is a thought experiment. No games are that pure ever. Nor am i saying all games must be regarded in that way. But my point is that once you learn to see games this way, the analogies to other media sound hollow. Most specifically, you come to question the reliance on other media to do the artsy part for you.

    Again, I am not by any means saying there is not fruitful space out there where the game is secondary. There absolutely is. What I am saying is that in seeking to push boundaries, artists are taking the easy road by using the writing and the cutscenes and the music to deliver the artistic payload. And every time this is defended by saying “well, in this other medium it works this way” I say to myself “and you’re saying that because you are actually working primarily in that medium.” I am rarely wrong about it when I break down the experience of that game.

    From a craft POV it matters. I have very little to say about the game design of Dys4ia. I have plenty to say about the EXPERIENCE design of it. But I recognize that most experience design is lifted from other media.

    Mind you, those few game moments that are there are the best moments. I not saying toss the baby with the bath water.

    Sorry, you just caught me at a late night grumpy moment again too, and my statement was probably both an overreaction and vague.

    Here’s the dare: ask yourselves next time you rely on story, immersion, cinematics, characters, music, sound, whether you are using them as a copout because you could not figure out a way to accomplish the same effect with rules.

  51. Notgames isn’t a genre. It’s an approach. You’re hating something that doesn’t exist.

  52. all writing, which we can identify as another medium in its own right

    I completely disagree with that assessment. Game writing is not novel writing in the same way poetry is not prose. Games can do things with text that no novel ever can (and vice versa). You can’t separate the interactivity from the writing so easily.

    Try applying your logic to films. Are films a purely visual medium? Do only camera angles or shot lengths count as the essence of film? What about acting? (Does that belong to theatre?) What about music? (Is film music the same as other music?) What about dialogue and story? (Is a screenwriter the same as a novelist?) Is it a copout when a movie uses any of these tools instead of only using cinematic imagery? Because then we would have to get rid of most of our great film classics, or label them as “not films”.

  53. It’s that the very analogy you used was equating the artistic value with that of a book, the consumption pattern with that of a book.

    Whoa, whoa, I definitely didn’t do that. First, I’m not sure I’d call what I did an analogy. Robert was talking about “artistic games”, and made a conditional statement–if you want X, do Y. I pointed out that in the larger set that artistic games are a part of, art, most of the time X is not a goal.

    In any event, my point was not that “keeping an audience rapt night after night” is a bad goal, or even that it’s an unusual goal within the subset of art we call games, but it’s by no means an inevitable or natural goal in art broadly speaking, therefore we can’t assume that it’s somehow inevitable or natural to have that goal in the subset of art we call games. Especially when there are many software games–both tiny art projects and AAA commercial titles–that seem optimized for only one play.

    I could have deleted the last sentence @45 (the reference to books) without changing the meaning of my post. While the craft of game design has a lot to teach us about how much fun someone will have in multiple plays, none of that knowledge allows you to bridge the is-ought gap and claim that games necessarily should always be designed for multiple plays.

    I’m not “equating the artistic value with that of a book”, I’m pointing out that there’s nothing wrong with a game that has that same artistic value or intended consumption pattern. Not that I would deny that it’s an enlightening exercise, thought experiment, or dare to analyze an interactive object entirely as a set or rules, or to design a game that way. But something isn’t a “copout” or “taking the easy road” if it matches your goal and vision. An object of art doesn’t work “as a book” or “as a game”–it works as itself, whatever combination of book-like or game-like aspects it has.

  54. Nowhere did I say I hated notgames. Go back and reread!

  55. Jonas, I usually use dance as exactly that example.

    Games are compound media. They draw from many other media and forms, and then there is something irreducible without which it is something else.

    In the case of dance it is choreography. In the case of film, clearly without the camera there is no film.

    So yes, of course you write differently for stage vs screen vs novel. But they are are all clearly writing, working with words. A majority of the techniques carry over.

    All I am saying is that game writing while a subdiscipline of writing in its own right, is not the defining quality of games. The provocation equivalent for film would indeed be”what art can you make solely with the cinematography.”

    It’s just a provocation to try to push people out of the storytelling mindset. Consider it an exercise, not an aesthetic, if you prefer.

  56. That was aimed at Jonas.

  57. Consumatopia, clearly I was replying too late at night because I can’t find anything to disagree with in what you just said.

    Further, we are drifting into art critique and aesthetics rather than staying to the original topic. There is a great debate to have there, but we all know there is no right answer to it, just a lot of fun discussion.

    So it is my fault for conflating there.

    From a formal craft sense I regard the rules as the defining quality the way that cinematography is for film and choreography is for dance and words are for writing and so on. That doesn’t mean every game is rule-centered though.

    Because of that I bridle when I perceive dismissiveness of rules. And I also strongly advocate chasing artistic goals that use rules and use rules’ strengths. But that’s a value judgement that really is aesthetic, not craft-based.

    But by the light of day I was clearly reading too much into your post, and shouldn’t have gone there anyway because it’s really a different topic altogether. So I apologize to you & Jonas for poking the wrong hornet’s nest.

  58. Reading what I wrote again I can see it was a bit ambiguous the first time I wrote it. And I certainly did my fair share of misunderstanding your words.

    And, in an aggregate sense, I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing more advanced rule-centric game design from the field as a whole.

  59. All I am saying is that game writing while a subdiscipline of writing in its own right, is not the defining quality of games. The provocation equivalent for film would indeed be”what art can you make solely with the cinematography.”

    That raises two points:
    – If movies are defined by cinematography, why are games not defined by interactivity?
    – Films are compound media too, and yet we do not distinguish between “films” and “notfilms” on the basis of how important cinematography is to the overall work; we consider the other elements just as important. We don’t distinguish between “good film” and “good experience” because we see film as the compound medium.

    To a large degree, of course, this is a disagreement about terminology caused by the conflict between the historical definition of (computer) game and your specific definition.

  60. Using interactivity to define games immediately gives you a plethora of counterexamples, like the doorbell.

    From the player perspective, I really don’t grasp why there’s a conflict. In any given “game experience” there are game and non-game elements. Chess has a narrative element, explicit in the names of the pieces. Yahtzee follows a dramatic arc. You could make a movie out of Monopoly by shuffling the Chance and Community Chest together and dealing out the cards.

    It may be useful fof purposes of discussion to agree on definitions, but for the purposes of building the complete “game experience”, your most fertile ground is the region of synergy between art and science, rules and narrative. Sunder the two and your topsoil washes into the abyss.

    Or so it appears to a humble player.

  61. - If movies are defined by cinematography, why are games not defined by interactivity?

    Because interactivity alone as the defining quality would encompass everything interactive. It is easy to point at film and say “if it has cinematography, it’s a film” and be done. But the moment that you try doing that with the words “interactivity” and “game” instead of cinematography and film, I bet we can agree that it doesn’t really work as a useful definition.

    - Films are compound media too, and yet we do not distinguish between “films” and “notfilms” on the basis of how important cinematography is to the overall work; we consider the other elements just as important. We don’t distinguish between “good film” and “good experience” because we see film as the compound medium

    Indeed we don’t. But we do distinguish between good film and good cinematography. And that is exactly what i am trying to do when I say something is “a good experience but a bad game.”

    Please be aware that I am not at all saying that the other elements are not just as important. The way I think of it is much like an atom or a solar system. All the parts matter, but there is a sun at the center, or a nucleus. Take away the planets and it’s not a solar system anymore; take away the electrons and the atom cannot exist (well, unless it’s in a bond, but never mind that, it’s an analogy).

  62. It may be useful fof purposes of discussion to agree on definitions, but for the purposes of building the complete “game experience”, your most fertile ground is the region of synergy between art and science, rules and narrative.

    Completely agree.

    I think that a big part of the acrimony surrounding the debate is that each side perceives the other as in fact sundering the landscape. The experience-builders see the formalists as saying that the “dressing” does not matter. The formalists see the experience-builders creating experiences that lack any Lude element whatsoever and calling it a game.

  63. I think defining a doorbell as “interactive” is a mistake. Nobody says that. Nobody markets doorbells that way. Tape measures aren’t “interactive.” DVD case designers don’t think up ways for their product to be more “interactive.” Just because an object can be manipulated in the real world doesn’t make that object “interactive.” Your definition of “interactive” is overbroad.

    When anyone says that games are interactive, they’re specifically talking about video games. Tabletop games are not “interactive.” In a video-game context, interactivity refers to haptic human-computer interaction and the feedback generated by that communication process which we call “entertainment.”

  64. How do games relate to and compare to other mediums in terms of “purity”? How does peoples’ attention shift depending on the elements of other mediums present or dominant in a given work? These questions may provide objective considerations as to what games are and how they should be defined.

    I’ll start with some examples:

    – We consider visual art to have no musical elements

    – We consider music to have no visual elements

    – Although, to a limited extent, music can be mapped visually through musical notations or visual effects generated through wave form analysis

    – (Although, some will suggest that a piece of abstract art represents their favorite song. To each his own.)

    – Films generally include animated visuals accompanied by music, sound effects and narrative. Historically, animated visuals are the dominant trait of a film.

    Are visual art and music “pure” mediums, mutually exclusive of one another? Do we consider visual art to be something that is not accompanied at all by sound or music? Do we consider music or sounds to be things not accompanied at all by visuals? When a work is a blend of elements from otherwise mutually exclusive mediums, how important is “cohesion” amongst the elements present in the work?

    How dominant must individual elements be in a combined medium in order for a work to be considered as belonging in an art form of its own right? (How dominant are visuals, audio, narrative in films?)

    In film, visuals generally dominate over audio. Animated visuals are a key expectation of films. Is there a human bias toward visuals over audio?

    I’m not sure most people would consider their graphics plugins on their music player, even though they are animated visuals accompanied by sound, to be films. Now we can consider narrative as another essential component, although many abstract and experimental films circumvent this “requirement”.

    Are films simply non-interactive reality simulators, played from a fixed perspective? Again, there exist things which seem to defy this – ex: cartoons. If some form of realism must be present – again, how much? Your child may receive a picture book accompanied by an audio book. We’re lacking visual changes frequent enough to be perceived as being animated, so it’s not a film. However, we do have a conglomerate art form. Is the cohesion between the elements of what is heard and what is seen too little for these to be considered an art medium in its own right? “sound picture books”. Essentially, exuberant storyboards.

    At what point – qualitatively or quantitatively, if it is even possible to measure – does a conglomerate of art forms become an art form in its own right? Is it possible to say “how much” of a game, narrative, film, sound track, etc., anything is, or merely that something contains elements of those mediums at any given state of the work?

    Many are defining games simply as things which are interactive, but what in this universe is simply “interactive”, and does not require that there be something to interact with? Defining “interactive” as mutually exclusive to other mediums leads to a contradiction. It’s invalid.

    I believe humans have natural bias when it comes to which elements of an art form most easily appear dominant in a given work. I believe cohesion is an important part of establishing this bias – without a clear connection between how elements from one medium relate to elements of another medium, the barrier between mediums remains strong.

    Why is Super Mario Bros. not considered abstract art accompanied by sounds, music and “some” interaction between elements? I suspect that interactivity most easily dominates visuals, and visuals most easily dominate sounds.

    I would wager most people don’t play the game to “see” or “hear” what happens when they interact with it, but simply because the ability to interact is dominant and cohesive enough with the other art forms’ elements that it entices the human psyche to continue interacting. Rules and constraints in game mechanics become important at this point, as they are the chisels and hammers which define how dominant the interactive elements are over elements of other mediums at any given point in time – or state – of the work.

    When interactivity is sufficiently dominant over other mediums, people stop viewing games as visual art, a combination of sounds and music, or a narrative. They begin focusing on game mechanics. During times where interactivity is limited – RPGs often have lengthy narratives, some games focus a lot on visuals, others on an overall atmosphere – the experience temporarily stops being a game and becomes something else. This is when the concept of “state” in dynamic works becomes important.

    So what is a game? I say that’s something that depends on a work’s present state. At any given point in time, a work may or may not present game elements. From a statistical standpoint, I’m sure you’d find that where the opportunity to interact exists, humans are enticed by it and additional elements from other mediums become less important.

    Whenever interaction dominates over elements of other artistic mediums, we have a game.

    For brevity, I’ll stop here.

    Sorry if this seems like a sideline to this entire conversation, but I felt like there’s been a bit of going around in circles and I wanted to introduce something new.

  65. Oh I don’t know. I’d say that blackjack is interactive.

    Hit me.

    And if you lay a finger on that Jack of Spades on the bottom of the deck, I want to point out that my other hand is under the table. And I carry a 45.

  66. Keith Burgun needs to understand http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Family_resemblance and/or http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prototype_theory

    Actually, most engineers need to. We tend to strive for definitions where there may not be any good ones.

  67. There is something deeply troubling about this entire debate. Something about it brings out a real meanness and anger that I don’t entirely understand.

    While commenting on a different article about the same issue I referenced the discussion thread about this article as a good place to get started reading about the debate surrounding this issue.

    The author’s response? None, except for a series of condescending Twitter posts, snickering at me and calling the article gross.

    Why? I’m actually not sure – simply because the article starts from a different perspective? Personally, what I found valuable about this thread was how long and how civilly it managed to run for and I thought, regardless of perspective, there’s something of value for everyone in these 60-odd posts.

    Perhaps this is only possible due to the some combination of thoughtfulness and open-minded perspective of your initial article, comment thread moderation, or your continued participation in the thread, who knows. I just wish there were more places to discuss issues like this.

  68. Who’s got time to squabble when Raph’s serving up brain food? Too much of the Internet is a thought desert.

  69. @Yukon – I’ve got the time! Raph’s plate of brain food was really only the starting point for what made this article valuable. To me, the comments and debate afterward are just as valuable.

  70. I can agree with the complaint that a lot of books on game design purport themselves as theory books, when all they do it apply psychology and industry experience to our technical art.

  71. The essence of games is mastering challenges. We choose to play games because we want to master interesting challenges, not because we want a narrative. If we want a narrative, we choose films, novels, plays, what have you.

    Whoever says that Chess has narrative is missing the point by a huge margin because they don’t consider the fact (a very important fact mind you) that nobody with a desire to hear a story will ever pick Chess! These people, these folks who say that Chess has narrative, are not aware of the very simple observation that if you look at anything around you you can see a narrative. So yeah, Chess has narrative, but so does my poop!

    Again, people play games when they want to master a challenge. The story, the art, the aesthetics are there to make this essence more interesting and more worthwhile.

    If you’re going to argue that games are viable “storytelling medium” you gotta go beyond this shitty “Chess has narrative” argument.

  72. Also, nobody gives a fuck what art is meant to be or what are the intentions of the creators and whatnot. What’s important is what’s essential to the consumer; in case of video games — to the player.

    When I say “the essence of games is mastering challenges” I’m simply saying that people who choose to play games do so because they want to master challenges. This is very important. A video game might contain story, but the reason they decided to play it is not because they wanted a story, but because they wanted to master a challenge. Story is there to make that more interesting, nothing else.

    Mastering challenges, as you might have guessed by now, has absolutely nothing to do with narrative! It’s a mental process which is consumed with the question of “what is the best possible move I can make at this time, so that I can get closer to reaching the goal?”; whereas, in storytelling, the mental process is that which is consumed with the question of “how these events relate to my real life?”. The two CANCEL EACH OTHER. They cannot happily co-exist. It is however possibly, as it has been the case before, to mix together by separating them in two distinct mental threads. You play a game, then you watch a film, they play a game, then watch a film and so on.

  73. Actually, the thought process behind films and novels is more like “what’s gonna happen next? and what can possibly happen next?” than “how these events relate to my real life?”.

  74. […] See some of the ongoing debate on this in the comments of these articles: Designing for Grace, Two Cultures and Games, and What Is a Game? It Depends Who’s […]

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