A Letter to Leigh

 Posted by (Visited 42115 times)  Game talk  Tagged with: , ,
Apr 092013

when people say games need objectives in order to be ‘games’, i wonder why ‘better understanding another human’ isn’t a valid ‘objective’

games need ‘challenges’ and ‘rules’, isn’t ’empathy’ a challenge, aren’t preconceptions of normativity a ‘rule’

–  Leigh Alexander writing on Twitter

Dear Leigh,

I have such a complicated emotional response to this. And I think you like getting letters, based on what I see on the Internet.

I would rate better understanding of another human and the challenge of empathy as bare minimum requirements for something reaching for art.

The assumptions underlying this question are the interesting thing. A game of bridge demands great understanding of another human, and great synchrony of thought. A huge number of the games of childhood are designed to teach empathy. We play games all the time in order to get to know people.

But that’s not what you really mean, is it. What you are really talking about is something else entirely.

The debates over “what is a game” have been going on for a long time now. They have an uncomfortably personal edge lately. We are seeing powerful works of art created in the digital medium. Further, they are deeply personal statements. And even further, many of these works are coming from groups that have been marginalized, oppressed, discriminated against.

Many of these works are brilliant.

The assumption implicit in what you’re saying is that a work’s formal structure isn’t as relevant as what it accomplishes. This is a completely valid point of view, but not, I think, all that useful for sorting something into a genre. But I accept that many simply don’t care about sorting that way.

But it also sort of implies that games with objectives and rules haven’t been reaching for these goals too. And that’s not only not true, but unjust to games’ expressive power.

What is reveals is a preference for the kinds of understanding you want, towards specific modes of conveying that understanding.

An aesthetic of unplayability

I have been fascinated lately by the fact that many art games accomplish their power and effect by subverting “gameness.” And what I mean by that is denying the player agency.

When we think about what makes a game, we almost always come back to some degree to interactivity. I’ve argued in the past that interactivity is hardly unique to games, and therefore can’t be used as the sole yardstick. But I sure wouldn’t try to classify something as a game that is non-interactive.

Historically, many signature emotional moments in game have been accomplished by using non-interactivity. When Floyd dies in Planetfall, we do not have control. People still rhapsodize over the death of Aeris in Final Fantasy VII. We did not have control.

More recently, I have seen the following currents develop:

  • The game which uses the fact of engaging with it at all to accomplish its effect. These games have complicity as their means of making a point. Brenda Romero’s Train is one such: a game whose only moral move is not to play, but of course stating the mechanic baldly reminds one of the line from the film Wargames. September 12th is another.

I think all of these games are awesome, and am humbled by them. But I also wonder about the overall aesthetic. I would pose the following questions to their creators:

  • Does choosing non-interactivity as the central defining characteristic effectively put you in a broadcasting position, and therefore turn the games into monologue rather than dialogue?
  • What does that mean for creators who outright state they are seeking to create empathy? Is dialogue not actually the best way to create empathy? If so, what are its weaknesses? Or is it that we cannot truly yet accomplish dialogue yet through our medium?
  • Does choosing to deny players agency mean that you are in effect giving up on whether game rules can accomplish your goals?
  • In effect, are all of these games subverting games themselves? Is it conscious? To what degree is the insistence that these are in fact games reflective of an ambivalent relationship to games?

I end up with these questions because these by and large feel like narrative moves, not game-like moves. Or perhaps, they feel game-like in the sense that I the player feel like I am being played, in the “are you playing games with me?” sense. They feel, in the end, like the twist ending, the O Henry moment, like it was all a dream. Like the ending of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, or John Cage’s 4’33”, something that should probably only be done once, marveled at, and then moved past.

The impositional narrative

Don’t get me wrong – something like the power of daily ritual, as displayed in Howling Dogs or Cart Life, is something that only this medium could do. The moment when you are a Tetris piece that does not fit, in Dys4ia, is something only our medium could do. I am not making an aesthetic judgement here about these tools; I am posing a craft question. I want to believe that despite the political layers that adhere to the discussion of this topic, that we are all craftspeople who care about the carpentry of what we do. We all need to reach our own accommodations and understand our own aesthetics.

Games have had an element of futility for a long time. Single-player games especially. The robots always won, in Robotron. The Space Invaders always conquered the earth. But at least we were able to make a go of it. The games themselves have different messages, but the aesthetic here says that we can’t make a go of it. It’s a rigged world. You can’t do better at Train. You can only do worse. The message of September 12 is “don’t play me.”

It’s probably me seeing things, but I can’t help but wonder to what degree the overall aesthetic in the art game community is a descendant of (bear with me) Super Mario. If there’s one overriding factor in the aesthetic of a Nintendo game, it’s control. Miyamoto is said to plan absolutely everything. Every outcome. Every permutation. Every possibility.

In this, the underlying fundamental kinship of the big AAA game and the arthouse darling Twine game is apparent. They are both more about the author than the player.

Are they games?

Can we, should we, do I, exclude these things from the realm of games? Not only do I not exclude them, I welcome and evangelize them and have been doing so for over a decade (despite what some say about me). But I actually think it’s the wrong question on many levels.

I wonder instead whether the work is trying to exclude itself from “gameyness.” By and large, these are games about people who lack power and lack control. The message gets across because games have always been about agency; gamers are used to having power and control, and to have the game itself deny it is a wake up slap across the face.

Effectively, these are games as rhetoric not games as dialectic, moving against the fundamental current of gameness. And the rhetorical move is “destroy everything,” as Porpentine put it in her GDC13 session with Terry Cavanaugh on indie games.

Overall, to me it feels like it speaks to a conflicted relationship with games. The creators of these works do not want to be excluded: it is their medium. At the same time, the aesthetic argues for un-gaming things.

Nor do I mean to pick on indies here; Warren Spector made a statement in his session about how “story is finally getting taken seriously” that was a moment of great cognitive dissonance for me. To me, it feels like story is all that gets taken seriously in AAA, certainly, and to a large degree in the art game and indie movements. And in AAA we have seen some moves lately that speak to a conflicted relationship there as well: No Russians using exactly the same rhetorical devices as the art games, Spec Ops: The Line, the arguably failed narrative line in Far Cry 3, even the discussions over violence in Bioshock Infinite.

Games are uncomfortable with themselves, and not just on the level of “what are our narratives.” But actually on the level of “what are games for?” We see our tools taken up by crass moves into marketing and monetization, we see the craft we developed being used for manipulation, and we start asking ourselves whether everything we do is manipulation, whether we are fundamentally crass.

I find myself cheering on the punk neon fringe. But I also find myself saying “please don’t destroy everything” because some people live in there, and it is always worth getting to know people, especially the ones not like you.

Ranting is not conversation

I was hesitant to write a lot of this down, because while many found this year’s GDC to be the most inclusive ever, I also was struck by the degree to which GDC time was spent not with “the good guys winning” but rather with good guys fighting good guys. I found myself cast as an excluder because I am interested in definitions, and I am sure this article will land me there again. (In fact, the height of cognitive dissonance was having a lovely conversation about design with Cara Ellison at a late night party – about many of these same topics, in fact; and finding myself sort-of-namechecked the next day when Anna Anthropy read a modified version of Cara’s poem “Romero’s Wives” aloud — a version filled with righteous anger that is impossible to quarrel with). I literally had one indie developer whose work I admire run away from me in the street.

On the political level, every word is charged. On the theoretical level, the pomo stream of thought says there are no boundaries. But in both cases, we see these tools turned again and again towards reinforcing labels, asserting identities. A monologue is implicitly reinforcing boundaries, just like defining a term is. None of what I have written in this little essay is about the messages in the works or about the games’ creators. But I fear it will be taken that way anyhow, just as my earlier writings on narrative and mechanics were taken. I find myself wanting to say sorry sorry sorry for — having an academic debate about minutiae of the structure of interaction?

But then we get something like the Experimental Gameplay Workshop, where everything we saw was actually about mechanics. Including mechanics that work to create empathy in profoundly non-narrative ways: Spaceteam, Searchlight, Ninja Shadow Warrior. I found it deeply inspiring in a way that the prevailing narrative of the conference was not quite. But I also recognize that I took away little understanding of people and a lot of understanding of math from most of the games presented, being as they were “about geometry” rather than “about empathy.”

All in all, I wonder whether fundamentally we as a community are doing a bit too much ranting. In the games and in the aesthetic and yes, from stage at GDC. Oh, I don’t mean in the literal sense of strident complaint. I mean in the metaphorical sense of holding forth. Games have had nothing to say for so long that I worry that we have collectively concluded that “saying something personal” is what makes them worthwhile art.

Ranting is a rhetorical device. It’s unidirectional. Yes, it’s all part of a larger conversation, of course. And sometimes we need to speak loudly to be heard, especially if we are from a marginalized group. But fundamentally it is hard to listen when everyone is loud, and the aesthetic of control is all about the player listening, and not getting to speak. Fundamentally, these design moves are about impositional narrative, not about the narrative the player constructs. Imposing a narrative, a norming, a worldview – I thought that is what we were ranting against. Running away from attempted engagement – I thought that is what we were ranting against.

The unique power of games, to me, lies in the conversation between player and designer. That happens to be my aesthetic. I often despair of whether games even have this power, because I have seen the way in which we end up having to retreat back to the comforts of other media. But to me, it still feels like a lodestone. I chase formalism in order to better understand the tools it affords because I already know how to write, I already know how to make music, I already know how to draw. I already know how to get a message across – except perhaps in this rambling mess of a post. 😉

So yes, Leigh, understanding other people is a challenge. Empathy is a goal. I’ve argued for them for a long time now myself. It is fantastic that we have the disparate points of view, the fresh voices, the outsider art, and all the rest of it.

But I also find myself looking to the future, where I hope the games have empathy for the player, rather than the other way around, because it is a far harder artistic, and empathic, challenge to understand an opposing point of view than it is to present one’s own. I’ll be entertained by a rant I agree with, and angered by a rant I don’t, but a debate is far more likely to change my mind. To me, this is why Cart Life deserved its win, the way it argues with itself.

So I guess my reply to those tweets is, “yeah, but I’d rather argue with a game than be told what to feel.” Because games are the only medium you can argue with – and maybe change the game’s mind.

Anyway, Leigh, this is the convo we didn’t get to have at GDC, and that didn’t fit in a tweet by about 2400 words. I think all of this – my craft questions, the general anger I see, all of it – is probably something that we as a craft and a community grow through. We just can’t quite tell how, just as a teenager can’t quite know the adult they will be. We’ll probably muddle through, and the debates — and even the anger — will be our tools for doing so.

I don’t claim to have answers on all this. Just a lot of questions. And the desire to express how conflicted I feel about it all.

See you at the next conference.


  78 Responses to “A Letter to Leigh”

  1. This needs a few re-reads and more time and consideration from me, but I think we agree in the fundamental — my favorite games are also conversations between player and designer. But I like this conversation because it’s an opportunity to experience someone else, whether that’s a small thought of theirs or their vision for a brand-new world and all of its systems.

    Even when I’m not allowed much agency, I’m in a conversation. Listening is an important part of conversing. And I think some of the games we’re discussing simply offer us new forms of agency that we haven’t seen before — the ability to pace ourselves through the conversation, to interpret, to choose points of empathy. These are meaningful choices that the system the author’s chosen makes available to me. If I play someone’s game, and I feel I have engaged with them, and I feel something in me move and respond, I feel I’ve had a conversation, an interactive experience.

    It’s not that I’m pressing for All Things Artful to be defined as “games.” It’s simply that I think the definition discussion distracts from the ways we see interactivity being able to give creative voice for so many. To allow them to have those conversations through a medium, and the medium is designed interaction. In other words, I don’t care what things are called, but I think all kinds of designed interaction can have a place at our table, can have things to teach us.

    I maintain some of the most powerful game experiences I’ve ever had, even within things that would definitely be conventionally categorize-able, are the times the game has taken my agency away. And for years the things we call “games” have simply given us the illusion of agency, anyway.

    So if we’re to dissemble the gamey-ness of some of these newer forms, it’s equally possible to go back and dissemble the gamey-ness of many of our sacred cows. Am I “playing”, or shooting all available targets to progress a linear narrative? How is, say, doing an MMO about ticking off fetch quests giving me agency, enabling me to have a conversation? How is it educational, playful, what kind of emotional response does it create?

    Anyway. I respect that the conversation about definitions matters to some people. For the moment, I simply think we have so much more to learn and gain by putting the controller down, for a minute, and listening; receiving rather than seizing agency, observing rather than acting. I think these are valid things to do in the field of designed interaction, I really do!

    Thank you for engaging me with such sincerity, Raph. I hope you know I continue to have a lot of admiration for your work and for your wisdom!

  2. What I don’t understand is the desire of some people to be classified as game creators, when the “game” part of what they make is by far the least interesting thing. These people are making wonderful art in a digital medium, which is a great thing to do.

    But they’re usually not doing anything interesting with rules, which are what uniquely distinguishes a game from any other medium. Their creation process has almost nothing in common with that of a tabletop RPG designer, for example. They’re far more similar to the artists who exhibit at Transmediale and other such festivals.

    Game design in the traditional sense is something unique and special, and I do slightly worry that it’s been gradually devalued and forgotten since videogames became popular.

  3. Oh, I had one more thought — I do think that just because something is truthful doesn’t make it inherently valuable is an interesting point to consider. There’s an incredible movement toward individualism in writing on all things, which I do definitely support in concept and occasionally experiment with participating in myself.

    But I don’t think it can exist, at least not as journalism/criticism formally, without the question ‘is it useful.’ I ask myself that about a lot of work I read and write. With games, the question of ‘is it useful’ is much harder to answer, since there are so many purposes for the medium, so much growth and change happening therein.

  4. A game will always contain a set of rules, despite “interactive experiences”, like Proteus, having seemingly very little to none. There is ‘always’ a set of rules to abide to: whether it means that you have the ability to push a button and move a character (basic) all the way to learning how to play all of the heroes in DOTA2 (more advanced). Either way, the player will self-generate a set of rules based on his experience with the game.

    Here are examples related to what I am saying: in Everquest, do you remember how you could level up your character by fighting, but you could also level up by doing quests? If you ever played the game early on, you may remember also that there were people that only leveled up their craftsmanship (e.g. tailoring or smithing). These types of people *did not* fight and raise their overall level characters. More examples: there were people whose sole role in the game were to make money teleporting people around, and then buying more gear. Also, there were people who decided to *only* organize raids of prime targets, to be a leader of sorts among the other players. Whether or not these were intended to be how people played Everquest 100% of the time is irrelevant. They were options available to the player, and the player took one or all of them.

    The players, themselves, have decided to play the game how they wanted to.

    Is this an overall success on behalf of the designer, or a failure in the scope of the project? If the ‘proper’ way for the player is to play only one way…?

    As a designer, does one want to force a set of arbitrary rules on a player for the sake of the game? For example, we have had many Final Fantasy games over the years — all of which have different fighting combos and techniques that we remember working and others not so much. Would you say that FF7 would have been better had it had a job system deployed unto it a la FFT? Perma-death?

    My opinion is: it doesn’t matter in regards to immersion, but it does matter in regards to destroying immersion.

    You can not force a player to be immersed in your set of rules, but you can certainly lock him out of trying something fun and new (and off the beaten path within the confines of the game itself).

  5. Even when I’m not allowed much agency, I’m in a conversation. Listening is an important part of conversing. And I think some of the games we’re discussing simply offer us new forms of agency that we haven’t seen before

    Agree! I hesitated a lot (like, overnight) before posting this, because I felt like many would not want to listen. I hope it is apparent that I have been making real concerted effort to do so.

    I disagree that these are new forms of agency that we haven’t seen before. We can pace ourselves through a book just fine, interpret, choose points of empathy. There have even been books which offer this sort of ludic choice moment.

    Really, though, I think we are talking about two levels of conversation. The level you are describing — engage with a work, react and change — that’s always been there and will never go away. I’m wondering more about the level that occurs within the work itself, because that’s sort of a special place for games (see, I’m avoiding the words “central” or “fundamental” or the like!)

    It’s not that I’m pressing for All Things Artful to be defined as “games.”

    Oh, I know. And really, the whole form of this, the letter thing, is a rhetorical move in itself. You’re hardly on the extremes of this yourself, and I am not trying to call you out.

    To allow them to have those conversations through a medium, and the medium is designed interaction. In other words, I don’t care what things are called, but I think all kinds of designed interaction can have a place at our table, can have things to teach us.

    And so do I. I absolutely think that a lot of people would be very unhappy to have their work relegated to “designed interaction” though, on a political implication level. I also absolutely think that “designed interaction” as a term isn’t all that useful for having specific kinds of craft discussions (though arguably extremely helpful for other specific kinds!).

    Basically, I suppose there’s a time and place for caring about what things are called.

    I maintain some of the most powerful game experiences I’ve ever had, even within things that would definitely be conventionally categorize-able, are the times the game has taken my agency away. And for years the things we call “games” have simply given us the illusion of agency, anyway.

    Me too! And the illusion of agency has been bugging me (and many others) for a long time, too. Hence the question, what does it mean that the thing that *feels* like it is close to the heart of what we do, is what prevailing currents pull us away from?

    Framed another way: can games matter? Or can then only matter when they cease being games?

  6. What I don’t understand is the desire of some people to be classified as game creators, when the “game” part of what they make is by far the least interesting thing. These people are making wonderful art in a digital medium, which is a great thing to do.

    Simply put, because there are those who exclude them from the community they love using the terms as a blunt weapon.

  7. Oh, I had one more thought — I do think that just because something is truthful doesn’t make it inherently valuable is an interesting point to consider. There’s an incredible movement toward individualism in writing on all things, which I do definitely support in concept and occasionally experiment with participating in myself.

    But I don’t think it can exist, at least not as journalism/criticism formally, without the question ‘is it useful.’ I ask myself that about a lot of work I read and write. With games, the question of ‘is it useful’ is much harder to answer, since there are so many purposes for the medium, so much growth and change happening therein.

    Ah, such an interesting point.

    Yeah, we’re in a confessional moment. The pendulum swings. When I was in college, we described the extremes of confessionalism as “me poetry” and we looked down on it with disdain (we fancied ourselves a literary movement, in our little five person workshop, you see). Not because the emotions expressed were invalid, but because it was hermetic, an inward gaze.

    Some time later, I wrote a poem with the line “when did saying something hard to admit become poetry?” and was brutalized in a workshop. “When was it EVER?” I was asked. Now, I meant hard to admit to the world, hard to admit to oneself, hard to admit in the worldview, hard to admit in the world. But the riposte question is extremely valid. There is nothing that privileges confessionalism, exposing the self, over other currents in art.

    For me, communicating with others ended up being the lodestone. Taking long views. Seeing context.

  8. A thought from a “meta” perspective. I became familiar with textual analysis recently, and I don’t typically see games run through this lens. This may just be that I’ve been reading too much philosophy lately, but it might help, I hope. Please tell me if I’m completely off base, but it seems this conversation is introducing additional definitional problems that are blind at the moment.

    A game, conversation, or any phenomena can take place outside of the space of the game/text itself, which we as the players, as the agents in the system, add onto it. For a simple example, my brother and I used to rock/paper/scissors to take turns at Mario. This can also be the conversation Leigh’s talking about. Much of this discussion about a conversation with the work seems to be meta-textual, and it’s sort of hard to address that when you’re conflating it with the text itself. It’s possible as authors, as designers, to influence the meta-textual experience of the work, for sure, but I see a hurdle in the discussion there.

    We can talk on the designer level about the systems, mechanics, and rules of the game, or on the artist level about the visual and narrative work. We can argue and debate for a decade(?) apparently about the ludo/narrative distinctions, but it seems to be what everyone’s aiming for is some sort of unified theory here of “game”. Until we have the concepts in common usage to make these distinctions, we’re just gonna keep tearing our hair out having these discussions, it seems. That’s why I always dug the idea of a game grammar. We’ll get there.

    Grammars, like most of the academic, tend to be a bit dispassionate, and that’s kind of painful in any artistic medium; causing all kinds of dissonance. Especially with the outpouring of passion with all the social justice work happening, all the experiences from the niches that have to be spoken. Keep stressing, it’s not a box, it’s not a label: it’s another way to gain a better understanding. Or so it seems to me.

  9. I would like to contrast “power” with “agency” because I don’t think agency is the right word. In traditional games, agency and power are one and the same – you can perform actions, so you can affect other agents(players). In the works you’ve mentioned, agency is used to play with feelings of disempowerment – whether inevitable failure, or inevitable triumph. The game may have very detailed, complex agency and still be disempowered at its core – which is why one of the first things players tend to do is to try to regain power by breaking the game.

    And as you point out, most video games are disempowered. What “art games” have done is not break with the tradition, but instead deconstruct it, lay it naked, so that one can no longer be illusioned into thinking that a game contains a conversation just because it has high agency. This is a huge, huge, bit of progress, because it means that we’re actually closer to what you wanted – to clarifying the differences between the two types of games and subsequently deciding with some intention which we’ll do, rather than muddling through thinking they’re one and the same.

  10. Agreed with everything you wrote, so take this tiny caveat for what it’s worth.

    The new crop of indie games have their roots more in adventure games than in Mario. The whole ‘you’ve shown you can do this, but now can you do THAT?’ style of play in Mario is almost entirely absent in most of the art games you mentioned. The way difficulty increases is a kind of authorial intent (Miyamoto playing with you, egging you on), but it’s primarily about your brain, your hands, your ability to pay attention to more than one thing at once, and all the rest. It’s like reading sheet music, where the first theme is a tutorial and then you’re wowed by all the variation and challenged to keep up.

    Playing a sonata doesn’t explicitly create empathy, but that doesn’t make it less artful and less meaningful. It’s just different. Non-narrative art is really great. We shouldn’t be so quick to write it off as a symptom of a technologically inferior era that we’ve all grown out of now.

  11. Games have had nothing to say for so long that I worry that we have collectively concluded that “saying something personal” is what makes them worthwhile art.

    Games have had nothing personal to say for so long that the need to expose our personal vulnerabilities and truths through the medium has exploded out of us. That doesn’t necessarily mean this is how we legitimize the medium as art, or, as with your poetry anecdote, that it is even a way to legitimize the medium as art.

    I empathize with your conflict on this trend: is the underlying implication that games that explore the relationship between player and creator in some nontrivial, emotionally charged manner, are better representatives of the power of the medium than those that don’t? Are games crafted with this explicit intent any more “art” than games that don’t explore morality or personal truths? I am torn on this regard. On one hand, I am happy to cast orcs as the Token Bad Guys in a fantasy setting where exploring the morality of the orc relationship is not the crux of the intended expression; on the other, I begrudge ham-fisted “solutions” that side-skirt a ripe moral conversation, such as not being able to kill children in Fallout 3. Who are we responsible to, such a case? Our players? Our pockets? The evolution of the medium?

    What does it mean to not have the conversation? Is it our responsibility to start the dialogue, and do our best to lead it, or are we happily ensconced in “just making games”?

    As choosing not to interact with a game is an expression of [lack of] agency, is choosing not to wrestle with a painful topic an expression of [lack of] maturity in creation?

    Thank you for the excellent post. These are the conversations we need to be having.

  12. I’d lean towards a fluid definition of this modality shift – a dinnertime conversation is a string of back-to-back statements that possibly reference each other. At some point when a speaker speaks too long and begins to overly reference themselves it becomes a monologue or takes “away” from the feeling of participation among the other speakers – but important points that further the dialogue may occur within this period.

    Also, I wonder if analogues can be made to other ‘less-than-everything-possible-by-said-media’ states within other media. Long moments of silence, deconstruction, or relatively still shots within a broadcast media for example. There can be a similar emotional tone: “stop interacting with the medium for a moment and feel this particular message”. The audience is held captive and given nothing to follow or be entertained with directly other than to ruminate on the lingering image or memory. It can be argued that this is a MORE interactive state (e.g. 4’33”) but imagine the equivalent at the dinner table – your companion is giving you a long sobbing explanation of their mourning state and then slumps in silence, no longer able to handle the weight of their own exposition.

    Maybe it’s not so much taking away the agency that is powerful but simply the change in modality (if this is so, going from no agency to agency could be shown to be just as powerful – imagine a movie that you watch up until Aeris dies and that’s the only moment where the movie waits for a response from its audience – saving her in exchange for some grand risk or sacrifice).

  13. I think these discussions of definitions come up occasionally with various artforms, when new wrinkles are added. I could see almost everything in this article(that is not exclusive to agency) being written about graffiti, for example. Graffiti breaks a lot of conventions, and often purposefully so, and one could therefore say it doesn’t match up perfectly with conventional definitions of art/painting. Art that is in part rebellion against tradition is still art.

    As far as agency goes, all games are an illusion. Just because a game makes you feel good, as if you’re in control, is at the very least as much a statement from the designers than a game that makes the player aware of their lack of agency. One could say that a game that doesn’t hide this lack of agency is being a bit more honest, or at the very least is causing the player to come face to face with what’s being done to them. A game that hides all of that is feigning agreement, instead of inspiring an argument. Bertolt Bretch, in his epic theater, had a similar idea about plays. He wanted plays to purposefully break immersion, to always remind the audience that they are watching a play, so that they will think critically about what is happening. A game is a set of rules that controls everything you can and cannot do. Deciding what the player can do, and what they cannot, is ultimately what it’s all about, no matter what game we’re talking about, We are seeing some games admit what’s up so that we may think more critically of them, and what variety of stories/emotions/experiences they can offer by manipulating these basic building blocks in various ways.

    Objection to these experiments with games do seem odd, as anyone who is a fan of the medium it seems should be celebrating the continuing branching out and diversification. It all helps to better understand, create, and enjoy games of all styles. The distinctions made through adherence to traditional beliefs seem completely unnecessary and only serve to create barriers between people and ideas.

  14. For the response to this article: https://twitter.com/auntiepixelante/status/321672810877575169 “running away from raph koster was one of my top gdc experiences of 2013” (it goes on from there)

    I find this whole post, especially when juxtaposed against the Twitter thread, just terribly heartbreaking.

  15. I mostly agree with you except for some of the stuff about Train. Besides not playing, another arguably moral move would be to work against the assumed goal of the game within the system provided. When I played Train at GDC this year no little yellow pawns died on my watch. Just saying.

  16. Ah, there’s more. https://twitter.com/auntiepixelante/status/321863619480522752 “should probably make a game about running away from raph koster” (thread continues)

  17. The problem I have with art games is that the symbolism is in the wrong place.

    In general, when people self-consciously create games to be art, they make the same mistakes as do people who self-consciously make games to educate: they latch onto the wrong symbols. They have token A represent this concept and token B represent that concept, then they marry them up using game rules in a way that says “see how this and that are connected”. This places the symbolism of the game – the part where the artistic payload is delivered – in the components that have least to do with what makes games be games.

    Games have tokens (nouns) and rules (verbs governing the nouns; sometimes, the verbs can also be nouns). Interactions between rules create sets of pressures: you have to manage resources, reputation, territory, risk, whatever. Interactions between pressures create gameplay: you have to decide whether the resources you hope to capture in a territorial gain and the reputation hit you’ll certainly take trying to capture them are going to satisfy your overall goals. Gameplay is what games have that nothing else has: it’s here where the symbolism has to lie if you want to talk about games as art. Anywhere else, it’s basically games being co-opted as other art. That’s why so many created-to-be-art games fail so badly as games: the imposition of symbolism in the tokens and rules fixes the pressures and gameplay that can result. The game ceases to be about the gameplay and becomes being about “let me beat you over the head with this clever metaphor”.

    It drives me to distraction when people ask questions such as “can games be art?” ALL games are art (well, all game designs are). They might not be good art, but they’re all art. People are just looking in the wrong place for that art.

    Games are systems for embodying potential experiences which, in the playing, are manifest as a series of events; players construct their own personal stories by selecting the significant (to them) events they have experienced. They get to choose the nature and direction of those personal stories through gameplay. Games are therefore machines for allowing players to create their own, personal stories. If you want to say anything to the players, that’s where you have to say it: in the gameplay. It’s the only place where games can say something that no other medium can, and it’s what makes games be games.

    You, as a player, have to make decisions; I, as a designer, get to establish what decisions you will have to make. Those decisions can – indeed must – involve questions that I myself either want to ask or want you to answer. The potential and actual consequences of those decisions, both in the game and on you personally (which is what Leigh was asking), cause you to reflect on them. That reflection is the art that games deliver.

  18. In order to get another view on the type of art games you describe you might wanna check out the script from my GDC talk (which was at the same time as the Experimental Gameplay Workshop):

    In it I present a different view on games, where the focus is one of creating presence. The basic premise is to see interaction as a something that transforms the player’s self and to do this using simple systems.

    If you use this line of thinking on the art games cited, I think they are put in a new light.

  19. There is a quest in an MMO (which one doesn’t matter, because many have similar issues) in which an enemy infiltrator leads you to attack a base under the pretense that it’s a dangerous military target rather than a peaceful civilian research facility.

    If you’re paying attention, you know early on that the infiltrator isn’t what she appears to be. But it doesn’t matter. You have no option to expose the infiltrator or deal with her yourself. All you can do is follow the storyline to the grand reveal where the infilitrator gives her, “aha! I tricked you into doing bad things!” speech, at which point she magically becomes a valid target.

    I avoid that quest. And I drop quests like it. It’s stupid, lazy, egotistical design. The writer assumes that the player will be blindsided, but there’s no exit ramp if you figure it out early.

    As a player, I have ultimate agency — I can take my ball and go home. And if you as designer are forcing me down the primrose path in service of your artistic statement, I’m highly likely to exercise that agency.

    Don’t Kobayashi Maru me, bro.

  20. […] See the article here: A Letter to Leigh […]

  21. Lots of people who write about games and who design games (myself included) have seen the endless examples of the sort of “righteous anger that is impossible to quarrel with” that Raph identified in Anna Anthropy’s poem. Often that anger is couched in reassurances that we should be striving towards conversation and open-minded approaches toward others. But the anger manifests itself in rants, public shaming of individuals who say something intolerant, and ultimately a sub-culture that embraces only those who are willing to take part in the anger and public shaming.

    Even a tolerant, thoughtful individual like Raph, risks being targeted by rants and public shaming if he dares to offer a criticism of those who are righteously angry.

    I’m from Mississippi, a place which is synonymous with intolerance. I know people who sometimes say things that make my stomach drop. My mouth dries out, and I think, “it’s you who is holding us down.” Some of these people are people I love. I can’t let their intolerances define them, because they are so much more than a set of political dispositions. They are people. That doesn’t mean that I have to accept their intolerances. It means that I should discuss the important things with them, without trying to tear them down. People are molded by other people, sometimes that means they were molded long ago, by someone with a harmful view of the world. If someone has been molded in a harmful way, condescension and shaming won’t help them. It will harden their molding.

    I know that this is true. I’ve seen moldings hardened my whole life. I promise this: kindless and understanding and conversation can soften them.

    For a long time, Leigh was one of the only prominent women writing about games. At least, she was the only highly visible one. Now there is a whole generation of writers with endlessly varied perspectives. Many of them have found a niche writing confessional material which draws from their experiences as a person who feels marginalized. Some of these same people make Twine games which deal thematically with their unique identities. Perhaps this is rooted in a desire to be understood.

    There are plenty of people who are interested in understanding. I am one of them. Raph is one of them.

    It will be very interesting to see if, after Raph has expressed himself here and asked for a conversation, the ones who have been angrily demanding conversation and understanding will demonstrate a willingness to understand his point of view.

    Or, maybe they’ll run away, laugh, and tweet about how boring he is.

    I have hope.

  22. “ranting is not conversation”

    wasn’t the angry poem done at a panel specifically designated as a ranting panel/event?

  23. Yes, it was. I am criticizing the notion of rant panels, basically.

    Edit: and I am not criticizing any one rant, most especially. As I said in the post, Cara’s poem/Anna’s version was “righteous anger and impossible to argue with.” I found it powerful and true.

  24. From reading a lot of the game stuff lately, it seems like developers have such an aversion to the word “toy” that it never enters the discussion even when it perfectly describes the creation. http://themess.com/gamestuff/2012/03/sandboxes-game-design-and-the-stigma-of-toy/

  25. […] Raph's Website » A Letter to Leigh […]

  26. […] every GDC the conversation about definitions blossoms once more. This time, it’s Raph Koster and Leigh Alexander heading the sides. It’s always a fun time to listen in and see what got […]

  27. […] tactic by trying to take power and thus agency away from something.) Of course, I also agree with Raph Koster and his worry that we might have decided that “‘saying something personal’ is what makes […]

  28. […] discussions about the uses and abuses of ‘formalism’ in games recently. For example, this article by Raph Koster and the reply by Robert Yang, and the very interesting discussion in the comments to the latter. I […]

  29. […] topic from another direction, that of designer’s intentions rather than critical commentary, Raph “A Theory Of Fun” Koster responds to tweets made by journalist Leigh Alexander, addressing the kinds of emotional understanding conveyed by numerous expressive and experimental […]

  30. […] has been a lot of talk about the definition of the word Game. Ralph Koster’s open letter to Leigh Alexander, Tadhg Kelly’s attempt to say that formalists are not the enemy or a lovely piece I stumbled […]

  31. […] finally got around to reading this post on Raph Koster’s blog. It’s powerful, thoughtful, and emotional. I’m not sure I […]

  32. […] response to a couple of my more widely-circulated recent tweets, Raph Koster prepared a considered response; the conversation he wishes we’d had at GDC, to be exact. It’s thought-provoking (and at the very least, shows we can have these conversations in […]

  33. My response – in short, Raph is wrong and right and everyone should play more Brogue: http://roguelikedeveloper.blogspot.com.au/2013/04/ggodbye.html

  34. […] This video by Matthias Worch is superb, an explanation of the communication gap that was exposed so sharply by “A Letter to Leigh.” […]

  35. […] response to Raph Koster’s letter to Leigh Alexander and its view of interactivity as a form of dialogue, Andrew Vanden Bossche wrote about “The […]

  36. […] questioned Alexander’s position with ‘A Letter to Leigh’, a lengthy and thoughtful analysis of what, for him, constitutes a ‘video game’. To Koster, […]

  37. […] on the bandwagon here and will also talk about what I think a game is.  Raph Koster wrote a post that spawned many many replies and, in general, a huge discussion on what games really are.  For […]

  38. […] Raph Koster discussed Train and suggested the only moral game-move one can make is not to play. I responded that the only moral move was to play Train, because only then could you experience its effect and place your own humanity at the center of the play experience. But then I had an interesting Twitter discussion with Brenda Romero (@br) about my take on Train. […]

  39. […] The increasing celebration of handmade, personal games that focus more on the act of honest creation than traditional “design wisdom” has caused some measure of uncertainty among veterans and purists. Earlier this week, in response to some Tweets I’d made in disdain for definitions, Raph Koster wrote me an open letter on his blog. […]

  40. […] игр Ральф Костер (Raph Koster) сказал в своём недавнем очерке, что игры это единственная среда, в которой можно […]

  41. […] think about and choose how the details connect. “Formalists” have been inclined to say this isn’t choice at all, but it is the kind of choice you make constantly while playing a Twine game or, more broadly, […]

  42. […] think about and choose how the details connect. “Formalists” have been inclined to say this isn’t choice at all, but it is the kind of choice you make constantly while playing a Twine game or, more broadly, […]

  43. […] finally got around to reading this post on Raph Koster’s blog. It’s powerful, thoughtful, and emotional. I’m not sure I […]

  44. […] you’ve got this old thought-framework of what interactivity means and the actual forms it takes via mechanics and systemic relationships. Interactivity to mean this and only this, however, is limiting in its description of a player’s […]

  45. […] about the value of interactivity and choice—or the illusion of choice—are hot topics of debate in the world of video games, but Maque finds them particularly interesting at the intersection of […]

  46. […] (2005) Anna Anthropy, “What Is It Good For?,” from Rise of the Videogame Zinesters (2012) Raph Koster, “A Letter to Leigh” (2013) Mattie Brice, “Triptychs” (2013) Robert Yang, “A Letter to a Letter” […]

  47. […] between game designers, spread out across three blog posts: Raph Koster’s blog post “A Letter to Leigh,” Mattie Brice’s blog post “Triptychs,” and Robert Yang’s blog post […]

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