Game talkA 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 »

Game talkOscar 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 »

Game talkThe 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

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.

Game talkAm 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.

Mar 162011

At GDC, there was a Game Design Challenge (I’ve participated in one of these, in the distant past!). This year the topic was religion. And you’re going to need to know everything about what happened to make sense of this post. 🙂

Jason Rohrer won the challenge, with a game that was a Minecraft mod with very particular rules. The big rule to know about is that it’s a game played sequentially, with the world having persistence, so that each player gets to see the remnants of what the previous player left behind, but with no explanation. This is supposed to engender the sort of mystery that in real world leads to myths and thence religions.

A video of the entire challenge:

Game Design Challenge 2011 on YouTube

Side note: I actually received a “miracle” during this process, and then it was taken from me for the purposes of keeping score, something which I felt was rather gamificationy. 🙂

In any case, since then, Chain World, the winning idea, has morphed a bit, with the privilege of playing the mod next going to a bidder for charity.

Which then led to some tweeting back and forth about whether this was in the spirit of the idea, including heated remarks and comments from Jason himself. It even led to a Gamasutra article on it all.

And just now I stumbled across a blog post that links the arguments I make about authorial intent and games as art in A Theory of Fun for Game Design to the controversy:

This morning I found myself reading the tail-end of Raph Koster’s A Theory of Fun For Game Design. I found a lot to love about the book, but one of the things that persistently bothered me was his insistence on value and meaning being bestowed by authorial intent…

…It’s fascinating to me that with an extremely simple ruleset and a modded copy of someone else’s sandbox game, [Jason] managed to generate something that’s simultaneously a reflection on continuity (I’d actually dispute that the game OR its reception is much of a reflection on religion) and a medium in its own right…

…Jason Rohrer’s reaction was excellent. He has encouraged whoever ends up with Chain World to NOT pass it on to the next person in the chain… it’s more a declaration about what he feels is valuable about the whole project than an attempt to reassert authorial control on a ruleset that he created…

…To my mind, it’s that kind of thinking about author-ity that will lead games/videogames to fulfill their potential rather than the call-to-arms for authorial intention on which Koster closes his otherwise excellent book.

Mollusk Gone Bad: Chain World as Medium, Intent.

Fighting words!

Most modern theories of art hold that all forms of art and all media are interactive, that there is an implicit conversation between any audience (despite the original roots of the word in just “listening”) and any creator — that the act of interpreting the work even in the most shallow way means that there is a collaborative construction of the work.

So I don’t actually hold with the idea that games are somehow special in that regard. They are more interactive than many. But frankly, they are less interactive than many forms of performance art. A concert where the audience sings back unpredictable stuff, or a comedy show being heckled, are arguably *more* interactive than a game.

That leads me to conclude that Jason, through his surrender of authorial intent, is actually imposing authorial intent. “Asserting what he feels is valuable about the project” is exactly expressing authorial intent, and is in fact often the worst-regarded form of it in many art circles: telling the audience HOW they are “properly” supposed to enjoy the art.

I don’t actually have any issue with telling people they are playing a game “wrong,” even though it is futile. Once it exists as an artifact, then the designer’s opinion shouldn’t be significantly more privileged than anyone else’s except insofar as it provides additional insights into ways to interact with the work. I only start to worry when the author(s) start getting obnoxious about it, which Jason is definitely not doing.

For what it’s worth, I think that authorial intent in games, and especially in art games or what Bogost calls proceduralist games, is expressed via the rule constructs that are conveyed and (usually) enforced by the code. Because of the unique nature of working in rulesets as a medium, we typically see two sorts of generalized approaches:

1) prescriptive rulesets, wherein the choice of what to leave out and what to include in the rules effectively conveys a message. SimCity was accused of this despite its goal of being descriptive, and September 12th is probably the canonical example. The Marriage is another good art game example; the dynamics that exist between the “husband” and “wife” certainly lean one towards specific ways of interpreting the meaning in the rulesets.

2) descriptive rulesets, which present the mathematical framework, and then leave the judgement up to the player as to how to approach the problem sets that the rules implicitly pose. I would put Chain World in this category, and Sleep is Death as well, but not Passage.

I would also say that MMOs and multiplayer games in general have a very natural affinity for this end of the spectrum, and I’ll go so far as to assert that all the virtual worlds I have worked on have explicitly had that quality of being a “medium” that the blog post suggests, because virtual worlds in general encourage a sort of player generativity far beyond what we see in single-player environments or even “team sport” style games.

Needless to say these are points on a spectrum. At the descriptive end, no author(s) can claim to truly have an unbiased and objective ruleset and still have a game, I suspect. Chain World includes some assumptions that convey to us some of how Jason thinks about the problem he is modeling — indeed, at the GDC session, he walked us through exactly those assumptions — and this leads to his having shaped perhaps not the possibility space of reactions, but certainly at least the probability space thereof.

On the other extreme, of course, the fact that the audience is a participant in the process means that prescriptive rulesets are just about always subverted in some fashion; a classic early example would be the pro-peace graffitti in Counterstrike mods, which were done as part of a guerrilla art project!

It is as yet early days for the art game movement (and I do term it a movement).  Making prescriptive games *intentionally* is hard enough right now. I very much applaud those who set out intending to create provocative descriptive rulesets (though in the MMO world, we get called “ant farmers” for attempting to do so).

(Ironically, Jason has told me more than once that some of his own exploration of these issues was inspired by the very passages that the blog post author cites in my book, and I happen to know that Rod Humble got going in this direction also in part because of my prompting. Such a small community…)

In any case, I do think that people *set out* to create such rulesets, with intention. And whether they do it singly or as a team, I can’t help but call that an authorial impulse.

Game talkArt game “My Divorce”

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Aug 162010

It’s a response to Rod Humble’s The Marriage. It seems to have a bit more of a specific “moral” than Rod’s game, according to the author:

My experience (and intention) shows that the game can only be won by constantly focusing on the “children”, often at some sacrifice to the parents.

My Divorce: A computer game by Brett Douville

The game is directly inspired by The Marriage, using basically the same art treatment, similar controls, and so on.

[via @bbrathwaite]

Game talkMailbagA few interesting links

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Aug 162010

Just got back from vacation! I had a lovely time. I also had some interesting stuff sent to me, which has piled up in the mailbox. So here’s a couple of interesting links.

The editors hope to attract a wide range of writing to Metaverse Creativity, including ideas about artificial-intelligence systems, landscaping, zoological and biological creations, and even virtual-world fashion design. Second Life’s relations to psychology, law, and technology are another focus. Plans for MC‘s first issue include a piece on how technological prostheses—beginning with the telescope—have altered human perceptions. Another article explains what neuroscience reveals about the benefits of the kinds of brain plasticity that simulation in virtual worlds can enhance, while a third edges up demurely on love in Second Life with a take on virtual-world adaptations of Korean romantic puppetry.

Avatars as Editors – PageView – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

If I can meet my kickstarter goal of $5000, phase 1 of my trip will commence. Starting in Korea, where I currently reside, I will fly to Vietnam, and explore Southeast Asia via land travel (bus, train, walking) over a period of 4-5 months: Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar.

I will then venture into China, and make my way towards the coast, where I will depart for Japan sometime in the Spring, in time for the planting season, where I will most likely spend some time volunteering on organic farms. I’m scheduling about 6 months for the whole trip…

If I can meet my $5000 kickstarter goal, that should cover most of my expenses through Southeast Asia, Japan and China. I would like to make at least two games for each country I visit, so we’re looking at probably 10-15 games. There’s no cookie-cutter mold for the games, though, so it will also depend on the size and scope of each individual game.

Game talkMessages in mechanics

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Jun 232010

Gamasutra has published an opinion piece by a Christian pop culture critic that is perceptive and cogent. In it, Richard Clark argues that games that place storytelling in a privileged position in the game design need to be judged by the same sort of critical and moral standards as we judge storytelling in any other medium.

I agree, of course as those who have read the book and blog know; that said, Clark seems to give a pass to games whose experience is more centered on mechanics:

Not all games call for these kinds of questions. Games like Tetris, Peggle, Torchlight, and Doodle Jump make a deliberate attempt to place gameplay first. The story and characters truly are intended to be containers for game play elements.

I think there are implicit lessons to be derived from mechanics too. So I am not inclined to give any games a pass on serious critical thought, regardless of whether they are heavy on story or not!

Is Loved less to be analyzed because it lacks cutscenes or detailed characters? Check out the comments on the review over at Casual Gameplay and see what you think (and if you haven’t played the game — be sure to play it with the sound on). Note how the game mechanics and content alter as you play based on mechanical choices. And notice how the fundamental questions the games raises are based on a mechanic: the choice to obey or not.

Times have definitely changed though — the comment thread on the Gamasutra piece is running heavily in favor of the article, which I don’t think would have been the case five years ago. Hopefully, we see the sophistication level of game critiques — and game content! — continue to increase as we think more about what we do.