Apr 262013

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

“Talking to the Player – How Cultural Currents Shape and Level Design” | You Got Red On You.

In short, after seeing this, it feels like I have been arguing very much from a combination of the oral tradition and the digital culture — likely because of my background in online games. And the aesthetics of print culture are pretty much exactly the things I was commenting on seeing.

In fact, the latest two responses basically argue that games are print culture:

I wonder whether player agency, as we know it, this quality we assume games just naturally have, is actually an illusion.

Andrew Vanden Bossche

Raph’s analogy of games as conversation fails for the most part because it is so rare to see a game redesigned after the wide release…

Andrew Doull

This second quote is telling! I take patch cycles, community response, all that so much for granted that I had to stop and re-read that sentence because it didn’t make sense to me. And similarly, Andrew saying it is rare means that he’s not seeing the way in which games-as-a-service are not only taking over, but will soon be everything.

Worch leans towards print culture himself; the fact that Dishonored is on the agency end of the spectrum in his mind is very telling as well. There’s a certain assumption that being 3/4 of the way over on the spectrum is the default mode, sort of. But he does cover, as an appendix, the consideration of online games and similar emergent spaces — stay past the apparent ending.

For those just catching up on this whole thing, here’s every link I can find, in rough chronological order. Be sure to read the comments too, because it is there that the communication gap is most clearly exposed.

I am sure I missed more that are out there!

I am rather drifting away from this topic at this point, because I need to get this book revision done and get to working on making games. But I do want to leave some concluding personal thoughts on the table:

  • The discussion did, in fact, have all the signs of a culture clash. I wish it had focused early on on the actual culture clash, rather than conflating so many threads, but ah well.
  • I stand by the idea that we’re all being too quick to take something as an attack rather than a conversation.
  • I’m very thoroughly a product of print culture, myself. In fact, I am overeducated in it, with formal training in many of the arts. It is possible to have a foot in both camps.
  • Formalism isn’t going anywhere. But we who are interested in it can both fortify our work and avoid political implications by moving to new terminology.
  • Formalist approaches and reader-response type stuff can easily co-exist.
  • Whatever the current critical currents are, they will get turned over. Whatever current thought is, it’s not “the right answer.” I’ve seen them turn over too many times. 🙂
  • The increased diversity of voices in the game industry is an incredibly good thing.
  • I think the work being done by creators like Anna Anthropy, Porpentine, and so many others is brilliant, wonderful, and I don’t really care whether it’s “a game.” I don’t even care much whether a creator chooses to do their work on the print culture end of the spectrum, and when they do I am happy to listen. Since I do not want them to at all feel like I am attacking them, and in fact am a supporter of their work, I am simply going to refrain from critique or discussion that seems unwelcome, even though I really want to write about these games because I find them the most exciting stuff going on right now. Don’t expect me to stop linking to them though, because I really do want more people to see and play them.
  • I do care about craft elements like whether something is a ludic artifact, because it helps me (and others) make better games.

In the end, I think that despite so many people saying “this is a pointless conversation” that the opposite is true. I found it very stressful, but incredibly worthwhile.

Now, go watch Matt’s video, because it really does put all this is in a different light. I find it ironic that the talk was delivered during GDC, before any of this debate kicked off!

  15 Responses to “Worch explains (some of) the game culture wars”

  1. “Since I do not want them to at all feel like I am attacking them, and in fact am a supporter of their work, I am simply going to refrain from critique or discussion that seems unwelcome, even though I really want to write about these games because I find them the most exciting stuff going on right now.”

    Please, do not do this. You have your thoughts and they have theirs, as I have mine; sometimes our world view’s come into conflict. Do not silence yourself simply to avoid conflict, because that helps no one. Regardless of the (frankly, unnecessary) hostility and miscommunication involved, this entire discussion was excellent and all points of view were equally valid and equally heard. If we want to create an industry that is truly diverse, where we graciously and humbly accept with open arms any ideas and interpretations of our craft, then we need MORE challenging discussions like this. These are the things that move us forward.

  2. I am pretty sure I can talk about the larger issues without referencing specific work. 🙂

  3. At the risk of sounding like a pedant I could argue that that isn’t precisely true. An oft-spoken yet frequently forgotten truism about this industry is that it is very small. The current topic of the day will be heard, read, or discussed about by anyone with an interest in a very timely fashion. Referencing something in everything but name, when it will be almost immediately clear who and what you may be alluding to, is kind of a futile exercise. Some may even interpret that as insulting, which is what you hope to avoid, yes? I certainly might, were I on the receiving end. And to what purpose? At best it clouds the discussion unnecessarily, and at worst it does nothing at all.

    I have no hat in the arena, so I say this only as a very long time fan of you and your work. I greatly enjoy reading your thoughts and listening to your talks, and I would hate to see the candor of your work suffer, to my eyes, due to some self-imposed censorship. Perhaps I’m reading too much into that one line. I’m almost certainly being very selfish 🙂

  4. Impressive. Really well worth the time, and it played like a book that you can’t put down. 😉
    I have to agree with the 50-50 idea. But I don’t know what that means to him, and not sure even I have a real grasp of the numbers there.
    UO was always my favorite game. I’ve always wanted it done better, expanded in “procedural dialogue”. But a big part of that to also include more “monologue”. I think that’s what I wanted, anyways. Ya see, I always wanted more in-depth story behind the scenes, but I wanted to interact with that story in my own dialogue way. I had a web site up that attempted to make sense of the story that I hoped was behind the scenes, and hoped that in doing so I could interact with that story in some way that others may have missed, but really, with others at the same time. But it never really materialized, much to my sadness.

  5. Admittedly, the 50/50 ratio is a bit hazy because the numbers aren’t defined anywhere, and honestly, it’s mostly there because it ties well into the Homer research and helps to wrap up the talk. But if we want to use numbers, I can supply some reference for where – in my mind and without prejudice – the approximate distribution of Authored Meaning/Emergent Meaning lies in various games.

    Minecraft:10/90. Some might argue that it should be even more lopsided, since Minecraft is a platform for player expression and creativity. But I would argue 10% of authored meaning because the rules of the world (i.e. the guidelines that govern crafting) do express an opinion on what Minecraft is about, how easy/difficult certain things are to do etc. Of course 90% of Minecraft’s meaning emerge from the player’s interaction with the game.
    Dragon’s Lair: 99/1. That game is a deterministic finite automaton with minimal player contribution. It has a procedural story structure, but that structure can easily be mapped out on a whiteboard, and player contribution to the conversation is minimal.
    Far Cry 2: 25/75. At its very core, Far Cry 2 is the pre-authored story of how destabilizing a war-torn African country leads to the friendship to somebody who will ultimately betray you. But how the payer destabilizes this country, who that best friend is, and why you feel such a deep friendship with him/her are all very personal. The world is procedurally populated with characters (so your buddy is random), missions can be pulled by the player in various configurations and in different order (but there are regular choke points that get every player back on the same page), and becoming friend with your buddy all happens through gameplay (you fight alongside, get rescued, have to rescue him/her etc.) There is a lot of authorship in Far Cry 2 through the systems and how the game tackles the subject matter, but the game tries hard not to express an opinion at runtime: it establishes the procedural dialogue and then sees itself as a mediator/psychoanalyst, rather than a commentator.
    Uncharted 2: 80/20. The game is a pre-authored stream of consciousness that plays out the same way for everybody who plays it. Combat is interactive and personal, which is where the 20% of emergent meaning come from – but ultimately, the gameplay sections don’t lead to wildly different player stories. There are no ways for the player to express an opinion on who Nathan Drake is. Every section is predictable and inevitable (as I say in the lecture – you already know what will have happened). Nathan Drake is such a strong (and well executed) archetype that the game manages to pull this off, most players never question the sequential logic of the game progression.
    Dishonored: 50/50. I don’t know if Dishonored really is *the* standard for that golden(?) ratio, but it certainly strikes a good balance between player and designer story. The whole game is strongly and linearly structured: your missions are predetermined, as is the overall story progression. There are two different endings which reflect the way that the game is played, but both are different sides of the same coin, minted ahead of time by the designers. But within each mission, players have a large range of expression. There are differentiated system spaces inside the game’s overall possibility space (stealth vs combat, weapons vs supernatural abilities, lethal vs non-lethal etc.) Levels are circular and non-linear, goals can be completed in different ways. At the high level, Dishonored has a lot of authorship, but in the low-level interactions with the game – in the expression of who exactly Corvo is – the designers abdicate a lot of authorship to the player. The result is a predetermined story that is very personal to each player.

    I hope that sheds a bit more light into my thinking. I’m glad that you enjoyed my talk!

  6. Thanks Matthias for clearing that up.
    In that case, I would change my preferences much more strongly towards “dialogue”. I think I unknowingly said so in my previous comment when I said I wanted to dialogue with the monologue. And in my opinion, any game would be better off doing so. Especially games with social interactions (multiplayer), where identity and “self” are important to the player just because that’s the way we are.

  7. Sorry I’m late to the “party” and have read only part of all the articles and discussions on topic of games/not games, and some one might have already said it:
    In my opinion this very dispute started because most people have intuitive understanding of what games are from their childhood . Right, from the games we all played with our friends, parents or just alone with toys, environment and imagination. And in those games we were the actors and creators, not just listeners and spectators.
    And you can even do a mental exercise of ‘transferring’ a ‘video game’ into a reality and many things become more apparent. The distinction between say, a parent telling you a story about a knight and you sometimes having a say of what the knight would do and between you playing a knight with your friends tagging each other with wooden swords. I think every one can clearly say which one of these is a game. Even thought you might be the knight in your head in both cases.
    Is it ever a game when you are not an active participant? I guess it’s a game when, say, an older brother tells you exactly what to do and doesn’t let you ‘play around’ – its a bad game you don’t enjoy playing.
    And maybe more game creators (and I’m absolutely sure many do!) should look at simple games that exist outside of electronic devices, rather than at other videogames, books or movies.

  8. Or let me re-phrase it: the more active your role is – the more fun and engaging a real-life game becomes.

  9. […] talk has been reposted by Koster in the context of the ongoing debate on how games are / should be defined – but fortunately it is […]

  10. […] Digital Bards (Raph Koster / Raph Koster’s website)“The talk is indebted to Matt Worch’s GDC talk on oral and print culture, which I have showered praise on before. It takes quite a while on the history of authors pushing […]

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