A Letter to Leigh

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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.

Continue reading »

Oscar bait

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Feb 282013

side_oscarHollywood just got done with its annual parade of self-congratulation. And I don’t mean that in a bad way — the Oscars may have originated as a marketing gimmick, but they are more than that. They serve as a way for creatives to honor creatives. And every year, movies are made which get called “Oscar bait” — films clearly made without much expectation of huge profits.

At a time when big game companies frequently speak in terms of “it it doesn’t make a million a day, or have a million players a day, it’s not worth making,” why do Hollywood studios keep making films that are small, play to small audiences, and aren’t anywhere near as profitable as a summer blockbuster? Wouldn’t it make sense to focus all your resources on the titles that have the highest ROI? While many small films have great profit margins, the absolute numbers are small, and thus there’s a large opportunity cost to doing the small movies.

Don’t worry, there’s a business reason. The logic goes something like this:

Continue reading »

Oct 102012

Here are the slides for the design track keynote I gave yesterday.

And here they are as a PDF. Edit: thanks to Alexandre Houdent for providing a version of the PDF that works on all OSes…

Among the topics: a recap of Theory of Fun, discussion of what I would change about it today, and all the thoughts it led me to: game grammar, games as art, games as math, the ethics of games, gamification, etc. With a dash of Classical philosophy.

I had the shakes bad before I started… but it felt like it came together in the end.

Apologies to anyone whose face I rendered unrecognizable. And the unlabelled woman is Jane McGonigal.

The press coverage so far:

A challenge for you all: can you name all these people without peeking at the slides? Continue reading »

The Gametrekking Omnibus

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Sep 252012

A long while ago, I pointed readers of the blog towards Freedom Bridge, a notgame about Freedom Bridge.

I also later mentioned that the creator was doing a Kickstarter to go off for a few years and live in Asia and make games like these about his experience.

I just got email from Jordan Magnuson letting me know that not only was the Kickstarter funded, but he’s done!

I just wanted to let you know that the project was successfully funded, and as of today, is officially concluded… I’ve released a downloadable collection of all my Gametrekking creations (along with a brief retrospective) at http://www.gametrekking.com/blog/the-gametrekking-omnibus-and-a-brief-retrospective

I have not been able to dive deeply into all of it yet, but what I have played can only be described as poetic.
I hesitate to say “enjoy!” — so let me rather say, go look, experience, and appreciate.

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Am I a game neoconservative?

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Aug 022011

I love arguing with Ian Bogost in public. 🙂

Every now and then someone objects to game design methods by arguing against “historical aberrance.” This line of reasoning claims that a particular trend is undesirable on the grounds that it is new and abnormal, unshared by historical precedent.

First, a few years ago Raph Koster invoked this argument about single player games. As Koster put it, “the entire video game industry’s history thus far has been an aberration. It has been a mutant monster only made possible by unconnected computers. … Historically speaking, single-player games are indeed an aberration.”

…following Koster’s retort, we could fault Heavy Rain for replacing human storytellers and listeners — who are good at making rapid judgments and improvisations based on different actions and their possible outcomes — and replacing them with a much coarser narrative simulation system that operates only according to the limited interpretations possible by a computer.

…Video games aren’t science. They are not a mystery of the universe that can be explained away via testable predictions and experimentation. We need to stop looking for answers

Gamasutra – Features – Persuasive Games: From Aberrance to Aesthetics.


Oddly, I am a fan of both Heavy Rain and Sleep is Death. The context of my original remark was at a business conference, not a design conference, and was aimed much more at shaking up preconceptions about the game industry than anything else.

I do believe firmly that single-player is fighting the tide, in that it works against some fundamental characteristics of the *real* canvas on which we work, which is the human brain. And I say this as a huge fan of single-player games. I think it is inevitable that single-player gaming drifts towards two poles: the interactive narrative and the puzzle, precisely because of this canvas. I also think it is inevitable that they will come to be wrapped, at all times, with multiplayer and social components — and I suspect that in the years since my original statement, this has gotten a lot less controversial than it once was!

That said, I will disagree with this statement: “Video games aren’t science. They are not a mystery of the universe that can be explained away via testable predictions and experimentation.”

I think they are, and this doesn’t preclude them also being an art. I think they are a mystery of the human brain that can be explained with greater knowledge of ourselves, and can have hypotheses proven or disproven by testable predictions and experimentation.

What’s more, I think that said predicting-and-hypothesizing is happening today at a very rapid pace, and that we are in fact learning more and more every day about an emerging science of game design.

The artists among us — a group in which I count myself! — can be and rightly should be troubled by this, because it evokes the spectre of a time when the market comes to be dominated by mathematically derived pablum designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator hindbrain triggers in our psychology, much like film (link, or see the orange-and-blue phenomenon) or music (see the soundwave analysis firms that predict hit-worthiness of music algorithmically) or graphic design or or or.

See, I am not advocating these positions. I am observing things, and arriving at conclusions. In fact, when I have engaged in advocacy, it has been to argue the case of art, for aesthetics, for broader influences and diversity — in fact, this exact topic is one I wrote about five years ago in a post called “The Algorithm or Art?” When I said at Project Horseshoe a few years ago that “I think games are math, and it worries me,” I really mean it.

I don’t think that greater understanding of color theory, golden sections, and perspective necessarily preclude there being art in the process of making paintings, though. It may well be that by taking up a given medium, though, we are choosing our shackles, choosing which constraints we limit ourselves with. Game grammar, theory of fun, social mechanics, etc, are just my attempt to explicate to myself, what the building blocks of this medium are.

That means I can enthusiastically sign on for Ian’s call “Let’s make games. Let’s make good ones. Let’s try to figure out what that means for each of us. Let’s help our colleagues and our players and our critics understand it.” But it also means that I disagree with Clive Bell, whom he cites at the end of the article, inasmuch as I do regard the tensile strength of clay as a essential and yes, exhaustible quality of the art made with said clay. My goal would be to turn that to strength rather than weakness.