Monday, April 21, 2008

Any Insufficiently Understood Natural Phenomenon ...

... is indistinguishable from religion. My wife and I came up with this last week as a collorary to Clarke's famous law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Obligatory Pomo Disclaimer

In this blog I’m exploring various critical approaches to games and narratives. I think it’s worthwhile to state up front that the various frameworks I’m constructing are entirely subjective and provisional.

A lot of writing about games is essentialist in nature. Many books and articles start out with definitions: What is a game? What is a narrative? What is immersion? What is play? What is fun? The goal is almost always to establish some sort of critical high ground, to expose the fundamental structure underlying these various entities in order to privilege various modes of discourse. As Espen Aarseth writes in the introduction of Cybertext:

“To claim that there is no difference between games and narratives is to ignore essential qualities of both categories.”

This begs the question of whether games and narratives have “essential qualities” to begin with. It’s certainly possible to construct a critical framework that treats game and narrative as oil and water – fundamentally different in nature and impossible to fuse into a unified whole. But it’s also possible to construct other frameworks that allow both concepts to be smoothly integrated.

Which framework is correct? All of them, or none of them, depending on how you want to look at it. I find it useful to treat critical theories as tools, not truths. If you have two different wrenches, which one is “correct”? The question is meaningless. The only question is which one is the most useful for the current task at hand.

Friday, January 25, 2008

A Ludic Approach to Narrative

Over the last decade a minor war has raged over two different schools of videogame criticism: narratology and ludology. In a nutshell the argument boils down to which set of tools is most appropriate for taking apart games and seeing what makes them tick.

The narrative approach is to treat games as texts so that the critical apparatus of (post-)structuralism can be brought to bear in an effort to understand how games construct (or fail to construct) meaning. This approach is good for understanding how game stories work and how games inform and reflect wider society, but it’s turned out to be inadequate for getting at the rule-based interaction and kinesthetic flow that lies at the heart of the gaming experience.

The ludic approach takes the heart of the gaming experience as its starting place. It focuses on the formal and informal systems that games use to construct play spaces and the ways in which these systems can be navigated by players. This critical approach does a better job of getting at the heart of how games function as games, but has the unfortunate side effect of decoupling games from the rest of art and culture. Games become a “special case” with their own idiosyncratic critical theory.

The ramifications of this divide are not merely academic. Contemporary videogames are not autonomic formal systems like Chess or Go; they contain characters and stories and all the trappings of traditional narratives. One of the daily challenges faced by a working designer is how to integrate the narrative and ludic elements of the game into a coherent whole. Or, to put it more bluntly: How do I keep the player from skipping my cutscenes?

In the back and forth between narratology and ludology there have been two main approaches: analyzing games-as-narratives, and analyzing games-as-games. Interestingly enough, no one seems to have tried bridging the gap in the opposite direction, by analyzing narratives-as-games.

At first glance, this approach seems ludicrous (no pun intended). Literary critical theory goes back thousands of years. It is an ocean wide and deep with countless currents and eddies. Game theory, by contrast is a mere trickle. We’re still grappling with the basics of how to talk intelligently about games as games. How can we even begin to extend such an immature theory to encompass the tremendous sweep of narrative?

The key, I think, is to approach traditional board games and traditional prose as lying at opposite ends of an artistic continuum that runs through videogames, role-playing games, larps, happenings, and traditional theater. At one end you have activities that are almost purely ludic, and the other end you have activities that are almost purely narrative. The forms in the middle mix the ludic and the narrative to differing degrees. But, I would argue, even in a narrative form like the novel, a ludic element remains.

One of the core assumptions that most critics bring to videogame analysis is that games are interactive and stories are not. Jesper Juul states this thesis quite plainly in his 1998 paper “A Clash between Game and Narrative”:

“Computer games and narratives are very different phenomena. Two phenomena that fight each other. Two phenomena that you basically cannot have at the same time.”

I think that this core assumption is wrong. And not trivially wrong in the sense that it’s possible to construct “interactive fictions” or “hypertexts” that create an illusion of freedom for the reader. But fundamentally wrong because it overlooks the element of free play that exists even in the act of reading traditional linear fiction.

As I move forward with future posts I believe I can demonstrate that it is possible to approach narratives as games, and that certain curious artifacts of narrative structure are the direct result of the inescapable ludic elements of the traditional storytelling process. The goal is an integrated aesthetic for videogames that allows story and rules and level design to all be analyzed as building blocks in the construction of an integrated player experience.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

A Critique of A Theory of Fun for Game Design

I realize that I’m coming a bit late to the party. Raph Koster’s A Theory of Fun for Game Design came out in 2005 and it’s based on a talk he gave at the Austin GDC in 2003. Still, better late than never.

There’s a lot to like here. Raph’s writing is engaging, his illustrations are amusing, and his discussion of how the underlying structure of a game can be analyzed separately from its wrapper is informative and thought-provoking.

Unfortunately, I think his basic thesis about the nature of fun is wrong.

Raph argues that games are essentially teaching tools. Human beings enjoy learning new skills and new ways of looking at the world and games provide us the opportunity to practice these new survival techniques in a safe environment. Games are fun when they are teaching us things, and when they stop teaching us things, they stop being fun. Here’s a significant quote from the end of Chapter Three:

“The definition of a good game is therefore ‘one that teaches everything it has to offer before the player stops playing.’

“That’s what games are, in the end. Teachers. Fun is just another word for learning.”

The first problem with this definition of fun is that it’s very difficult to determine what many games are supposed to be teaching us. You can say that first person shooters are fun because people like learning how to aim at targets, but how does this analysis apply to games like mancala? Is it teaching us about counting? Warfare? Proportion? Pattern recognition? What?

You could answer that it teaches all of these things. If learning is inherently fun, what does it matter what’s being taught? The problem with this approach is that if you look hard enough at any activity you can come up with some way that you can learn from it. Sitting in a waiting room for hours teaches you about patience. Changing a flat tire teaches you about the physics of levers. Hitting your hand with a hammer teaches you not to hit your hand with a hammer.

If a “theory of fun” is going to be of value to a working designer it needs to make useful distinctions between what is fun and what is not fun. Mancala is fun, but it’s hard to articulate exactly what its teaching. Working page after page of long division problems is not fun, but it’s very clear what lesson is being taught. The fact that the theory can’t explain this discrepancy suggests that it’s somehow broken.

This brings us to second problem with the book’s definition of fun: A lot of the time learning is no fun at all.

Back when I was in college I took a course in fencing. The instructor, who was very good at his job, started the course with a firm grounding in the fundamentals, which, in the case of fencing, means footwork. For the first few weeks we didn’t even pick up a sword. We just practiced moving backwards and forwards in the proper stance and learning how to keep our center of gravity over our feet so we could quickly response to an attack. It was very instructive, very useful (in the long run) and intensely boring.

Learning is often boring. Memorizing the capitals of states. Practicing piano finger work. Reading critical theory. In fact, we’re so used to being bored when we learn something that it often comes as a pleasant shock on those rare occasions when it’s actually fun.

The third problem with A Theory of Fun is that, frankly, it just doesn’t square with my own experiences as a game player. Sometimes I enjoy mastering new skills and expanding my boundaries, but other times I just want to get into a familiar groove.

A few years ago I was playing a lot of Diablo II. I was working long hours and in the evening I just wanted a bit of mindless diversion. Now it’s possible to approach Diablo II as a strategic challenge – you can play an assassin or a sorceress and continually shift your tactics to adapt to each new set of monsters. But that’s not how I played it. I always played a barbarian and I always used a very particular build path that emphasized doing as much damage as possible as quickly as possible. The advantage of this particular build was that it was utterly mindless. No matter what enemy I was up against correct strategy was always the same: Run in, hit things. It was brain-dead, it was stupid, and it kept me entertained for several hundred hours at least. In fact, I never really got bored with it. If I had Diablo II installed on my laptop I'd probaby be playing it right now.

There have been lots of times I’ve played games just to get into that groove. I’ve spent hours skating idly around levels I’ve already mastered in Tony Hawk. I’ve spent hours cruising aimlessly in Grand Theft Auto. I’ve spent hours happily grinding in World of Warcraft.

In A Theory of Fun this approach to playing games is acknowledged but dismissed. For example, in Chapter Eight the following passage appears:

“And yet, people choose the same characters to play, over and over. I’ve got a friend who has played the big burly silent type in literally dozens of games over the decade I have known him. Never once has he been a vivacious small girl.

“Different games appeal to different personality types, and not just because particular problems appeal to certain brain types. It’s also because particular solutions appeal to particular brain types, and when we get a good thing going we’re not likely to change it. This is not a recipe for long-term success in a world that is constantly changing around us. Adaptability is key to survival.”

Notice what’s happening here. Because this particular player isn’t playing in a way that’s consistent with theory, he's doing it wrong.

A similar and stronger passage appears on the next page:

“Engaging in an activity that you have fully mastered, being in the zone, feeling the flow, can be a heady experience. And no one can deny the positive effects of meditation. That said, the point at which a player chooses to repeatedly play a game they have already mastered completely, just because they like to feel powerful, is the point that the game is betraying its own purpose. Games need to encourage you to move on. They are not there to fulfill power fantasies.

“Ah but it is seductive! Because games exist within the confines of ‘let’s pretend,’ they also offer a lack of consequences. They are libertine in their freedoms. They let you be a godlet. To the person that perhaps does not get enough sense of control in their real lives, the game may offer something rather … persuasive.

“Making you feel good about yourself in a pretend arena isn’t what games are for. Games are for offering challenges, so that you can then turn around and apply those techniques to real problems. Going back through defeated challenges in order to pass time isn’t a productive exercise of your brain’s abilities. Nonetheless, lots of people do it.”

This one passage undermines the thesis of the entire book. It’s a perfect example of the No True Scotsman logical fallacy:

Argument: “No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.”

Reply: “But my uncle Angus, who is a Scotsman, likes sugar with his porridge.”

Rebuttal: “Aye, but no TRUE Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.”


Argument: “Fun is just another word for learning.”

Reply: “Lots of people continue to play games even when they’re not learning anything.”

Rebuttal: “Well, they shouldn’t. That’s not what games are for.”

Fundamentally I think what’s wrong with A Theory of Fun is that it anchors its aesthetics of gameplay within the Aristotelian idea of mimesis: “The most beautiful colors, laid on confusedly, will not give as much pleasure as the chalk outline of a portrait.” In the Aristotelian tradition the worth of a work of art is determined by how well it relates to and informs our understanding of the real world.

I would argue that with non-mimetic art forms like games and music the enjoyment comes largely from the interplay of elements within the formal system itself and not from the relationship between the artwork and the real world. Constructing an aesthetics that puts real-world utility ahead of other considerations is missing the point and puts an artificial constraint on what constitutes an interesting play experience.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Are Rollercoasters Play?

It seems like a silly question. Rollercoasters are fun and exciting. They’re clearly entertainment. What difference does it make if they fit into some arbitrary definition of “play” or not?

Rollercoasters are interesting because they highlight an important characteristic of play: The ability to move freely within an abstract system of rules. As Huizinga says, “all play is a voluntary activity”. Play cannot exist without freedom. You can’t be forced to play. Once an activity is compulsory, the play value evaporates.

But, just as importantly, you can’t be forced while you play. Being able to choose whether to participate or not is one type of freedom. Being able to choose HOW you participate is a different kind of freedom. Both are essential for play to occur. Play requires both the construction of a microcosm and the ability to interact freely with the rules governing its existence.

When my daughter was younger she was very bossy. She liked playing pretend with Playmobil figures, and she liked having adults play with her, but she was very particular about what all the characters would do and say. A typical session would go something like this:

Me: “Okay, here comes the bear, walking through the forest!”

Her: “The bear’s not walking through the forest! He’s hiding behind a tree, waiting for the princess.”

Me: “Okay, I’m hiding behind a tree. There’s the princess! I jump out … ‘grrr, I’m going to eat you!’”

Her: “No, that’s not right! The bear wants to give the princess a ride.”

Me: “Uh … okay. The princess climbs on the bear’s back and we take off through the trees.”

Her: “Oh no, there’s an evil wizard up ahead.”

Me: “Grrr … I’ll protect you princess!”

Her: “No, you’re the wizard’s pet. You’re kidnapping me.”

Me: “Sigh … okay …."

My daughter was cute and all, but playing like this was really boring. We’d created a perfectly good microcosm, but only one of us had the freedom to explore it. My involvement was limited to acting out the script she had in her head. It was missing the sort of interactive give and take that occurs during really good games of make-believe.

You can observe this same dynamic in pen-and-paper RPGs. Players complain if the gamemaster engages in too much railroading, i.e. forcing them down a particular path in the adventure. The Queen of Elfland wants her crystal dagger back and you’re going to go get it for her whether you like it or not! It doesn’t matter how compelling the microcosm is, if the player’s aren’t free to explore it, play collapses.

Which brings us back to rollercoasters.

Rollercoasters are, literally, railroading. Once you’re on them you’re going where they want you to go. In fact, they often go where you don't want them to go … say, straight down a 300 foot drop that your lizard brain tells you will end in death. You have no freedom while you’re riding. They’re not play.

But they are fun.

It turns out there are lots of ways to have fun that don’t involve play. Riding a rollercoaster. Eating an excellent meal. Watching a sunset. Bungee-jumping off a bridge. In all these cases the pleasure is immediate and experiential. Rather than removing you from the real world, experiential pleasures anchor you more firmly in the immediacy of the moment.

Not only are rollercoasters not play, they’re actually the antithesis of play. Play is about the construction of an abstract microcosm and the freedom to explore it. Experiential pleasures are about the physical enjoyment of the fixed reality of the moment.

This distinction will become important when we look at the elements of play in traditional narrative.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Aristotle Was Wrong

The idea of the microcosm is also connected to the Aristotelian concept of mimesis. Mimesis means "representation" in Greek. Aristotle believed that in order for art to touch us we must be able to recognize the reality behind the representation:

"Thus the reason why men enjoy seeing a likeness is, that in contemplating it they find themselves learning or inferring, and saying perhaps, ‘Ah, that is he.'"

I actually think Aristotle is wrong here. There’s ample evidence that non-mimetic art forms – abstract painting, classical music – have the power to move us. Aristotle was limited by the fact that he lived at a time and a place with very particular tastes in art and he didn’t have the advantage of being able to draw on 2000 years of global culture while developing his aesthetic theories.

Some play microcosms are clearly mimetic. A group of kids running around in the backyard pretending to be cowboys have constructed an imaginary landscape that recapitulates certain aspects of the real world in a simplified and idealized form. A lot of the fun of make-believe derives from the feeling that you’re walking around in another person’s skin and seeing the world through his eyes.

But other microcosms are clearly not mimetic. Consider a game like Go. It’s theoretically possible to view it a game of Go as a metaphor for warfare, but virtually no one who plays Go approaches it that way. The fun of Go emerges from the interesting interactions generated by its abstract rule set, not because it recapitulates a real-world experience.

Most play involves a mix of mimetic and non-mimetic activities. There is a fantasy element that derives its power from its connection to the real world (as per Aristotle) and a "flow" element that derives its power from rule-based interactions.

(The term "flow" comes from Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s work on cognitive states.)

One problem we run up against when we try to talk about play is that western critical tradition is firmly rooted in Aristotle. We have an elaborate set of tools that can be used to take apart a piece of art and understand how it functions in relation to the real world. Terms like suspension of disbelief, characterization, catharsis, and authenticity all exist within a mimetic critical system where the value of a work is related to how well it approximates reality and illuminates the human condition.

Once we start talking about forms of play that are heavily non-mimetic – sports, board games, videogames, music – we run up against a wall. We lack the critical apparatus to get at the core experience of these activities. How do we talk intelligibly about the surge of emotion that flows from Ralph Vaughn William’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, or the kinesthetic rush of hitting a perfect trick combo in Tony Hawk? Instead the analysis is compelled to focus on the periphery of such works – the relationship between the Fantasia and Elizabethan music, for example, or the graphical quality of Tony Hawk.

When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And Aristotle is a very big hammer.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Lost in the Microcosm

In my previous post about Homo Ludens I made the point that all play involves the construction of a microcosm. I want to expand upon this idea a bit.

Simply put, a microcosm is a toy world. It operates under its own rules and logic, which may or may not approximate the way the real world behaves. Some entities within a microcosm may be represented by real objects (a pawn from a chess set, for example) while others may exist as pure abstractions (a child’s imaginary friend). But even when a real thing is incorporated into a microcosm, its real-world properties are trumped by the abstract functions assigned to it. In a game of chess it doesn’t matter if the pawns are ivory or wood or beer-bottle caps; their physical reality is immaterial to their “pawn-ness”.

The arbitrariness of the real-world components of a microcosm is related to Saussure’s observation that “the signifier is not the signified”. In semiotic terms, you could say that an actual soccer ball is a signifier for a signified abstract “ball entity” that exists within the microcosm of a soccer game.

(I should say as an aside that I’m not a big fan of semiotic analysis when it comes to videogames. It usually seems to revolve around how videogames relate to reality, dragging in Baudrillard’s notions of simulations and simulacra. As a working game designer I’m much more interested in how microcosms function in and of themselves, and much less interested in how that behavior translates into real-world meaning.)

One thing to note is the interesting real/abstract inversion between the signifier and the signified. In linguistics we’re used to thinking of the signifier as an abstraction and the signified as a real-world object. The classic example is the word “tree” and an actual tree. But when we start looking at play we discover many situations where real-world objects are used as signifiers for entities within the microcosm – poker chips, soccer balls, hopscotch squares. This holds true even for types of play beyond games:

“Pretend you’re a monster, Daddy!”