Post AHoG musings

28 February, 2010 (08:08) | Games, Life | By: Olivier

The Art History of Games symposium’s days 2 and 3 were extremely interesting. Full of insightful and thought-provoking commentary on games. It was really impossible to transcribe the talks with fidelity. So I didn’t try, just soaked it up and took the time to digest it all. Now that the dust has settled a bit in my mind, here’s what I’m left with:

- Just like nobody agrees on a universal definition of art, nobody can agree on a universal definition of games. But a lot of people pretend otherwise…

- On one side you have those arguing for “purity” as Jesper Juul would say. People focusing on the gameplay, the system, the rules. People who passionately believe the soul of games resides in their systemic heart, on the processing side, and that all the other elements attached to it are negligible, uninteresting fluff. Jason Rohrer is a good representative of people trying to define games this way (check out his latest manifesto in my previous post!), but really most of the indies fall in this camp. This explains why their games all look and sound like crap, stuck in 8 bit land (with the occasional exception): because to them it’s not interesting, it’s not what games are about. Fantastic gameplay, poor aesthetics. All substance, no form.

- On the other side you have people defending a formalist view of games. People mainly concerned about the aesthetics of games in a broad sense (visuals and sounds but also theme or story) and what happens there. Ideally, they would like to rid video games of their “gameness”, hoping to find something new if only they could manage to free them of the tyranny of rules. Tale of Tales (ToT) are the perfect representatives for this side of the argument. It’s a very minority view in the landscape but an interesting one as it’s the polar opposite of the first one. All about the form, not the substance.

- In the middle, you have the folks working on the big AAA blockbusters (or enjoying them) who don’t really seem to be questioning what they are doing: no deep reflection on substance (as to them it’s simply about entertainment) and mostly a “more is better” approach to form. Since that’s what has been working in the marketplace and raking in the money, it’s good enough for them.

- So all these people are coming up with definitions of games that fit their beliefs and they often aggressively attack people not working from the same set of assumptions. For proof, just look at the flack ToT or Jason are receiving from some quarters…

- There also seems to be a lot of confusion from everyone between two conversations: “what is a game” and “what tends to make a *good* game”.

- Of course both the “games as substance” and the “games as form” sides are wrong, or rather, they are both right. You cannot separate a game from its form: even something as abstract as “The Marriage” has a form (if only its title), and that form builds meaning for the player just like the system does. You also cannot separate a game from its rules, even if these rules are minimalistic or changing. And the interaction with those rules is really what makes games unique. However, the aesthetics are really what hooks most people in and what they respond to on an emotional level: by now one would think that the AAA industry has amply proven this point…

So in conclusion, I will argue that the focus of games should be the subjective experience they induce in the player and that many things contribute to that experience: the system *and* its form (which are inseparable), the player’s subjectivity, the (optional) other player’s actions, the context in which they approach the game…
Which is why I can’t agree with games being defined as objects excluding the player.
Which is why I can only come up with a very loose definition of games and I think that’s okay.

There’s a lot of dogmatism going around right now and we seem to be short on tolerance. Let’s just hope this situation reverts itself soon so we can go back to exploring the full range of what games could be. Peacefully and without prejudice.


Comment from Harold
Time February 28, 2010 at 10:21 am

IMO, dogmatism and polarization are rampant when things are getting academic and in some way, elitist.

I agree with your definition! This system/form subjective balance or sweet spot seems to be the thing to achieve. I think I would emphasize more the system today than form (I’d never go the 8 bit way though). But maybe it would be the opposite in three years! And it would be okay.

The AAA industry is way too busy to add more to the uber classic teenager fantasy form while keeping players in with simple rules and artificial challenges. It works a few weeks in the charts, with massive marketing. The sustainability of this business model is showing serious signs of fatigue :-)

Comment from Charles
Time February 28, 2010 at 7:23 pm

I think that you mis-characterize the position of people in the first group. As card carrying member of the ’substance over form’ crowd I’d like to point out that while we might talk a tough game, our argument with the people on the ‘other side’ is not that games shouldn’t have any ‘form’, to use your parlance. Speaking for myself, at least, I can tell you that there are plenty of games where part of what I love about them is their visual elegance or their clever audio design. There are games I admire simply for how their menus are animated!

The argument with the ‘other side’, the ‘formalists’ as you call them, isn’t so much whether the substance or the form of games is more important. You described their position as wanting to “rid games of their gameness” and end the “tyranny of rules”, and I think that’s more the point of friction. If you don’t like rules or winning and losing that’s fine, and if you don’t like games that’s also fine, but then why are you at a conference about games? Showing up and saying that games shouldn’t have rules is like going to a symphony and complaining that orchestras have violins. It’s okay to not like violins but if you take them out of the orchestra then you’re not making it into something better, you’re making it into something different!

The point is, if you don’t like orchestras then don’t go to the symphony.

Comment from Olivier
Time March 1, 2010 at 6:42 am

Welcome Charles and thanks for standing up for the “substance over form” tribe!

Sorry if I have mis-represented your position: it was not my intent and I’ll readily admit it can sometimes be hard to understand what the argument exactly is among all of the posturing and confusion. I certainly didn’t mean to imply that your camp was trying to make games without form but simply that it’s of so little importance to them as to be almost irrelevant. By pushing the logic to its extreme I might have caricatured your stance, just like I did with the formalist’s side: I’m not convinced ToT really want to free themselves of all rules. If you take away the rhetoric and posturing to only look at their work, it appears they only want to free themselves of a certain set of rules while focusing strongly on aesthetics. After all, The Path has those golden flowery things to collect, movement and ending conditions. Vanitas has unlockable stars. Everything they did so far had rules of some fashion.

So if rules are the precondition to games why would your side insist that what they are doing is “something else” (thus pushing them into the clever and absurd Notgames stance they took at AHoG)? I suspect it’s because you go beyond that and argue that games must have a specific subset of rules in order to be games: you are narrowing down the definition to suit your belief. For instance, I wouldn’t be surprised if you felt that a game needs challenge to be a game. And I’m afraid that’s where the confusion between “what is a game” and “what is a good game” begins…

Both are interesting discussions but we can’t hope to answer them properly if we start by restricting the field of inquiry to whatever we fancy. We need to be more open minded than that.

So in the end, the question is not so much about whether you enjoy some formal elements in some games (you do) or if ToT is really making games without rules (they’re not). The question is how do we define games? This is where the real battle is taking place. To me both sides are trying to pigeonhole games into a narrow definition that suits whatever they are most interested in. Mostly substance on one side (and a very specific definition of substance at that), mostly form on the other side.

Games have changed a lot with the advent of computers and the internet and I can’t help but think it is premature to lock down their definition so tightly. I believe the field would be richer if everyone could experiment without fear of being cast as “ungames” by a given faction.

Maybe Vanitas falls short because it lacks winning conditions and maybe vvvvvv falls short because it doesn’t appeal to the senses. Maybe. But both are games and the more different the things we try, the more we will learn collectively.

Make games, not war. What can I say: I am an eternal utopian! ;)

Comment from FatMat
Time March 2, 2010 at 7:46 am

In my opinion you stress a very good point. An issue not only related to the academic or elitist treatment of game, but to every game theory whatsoever. A game’s issue that appears every time we try to put games into theory.

Here’s what i think : if we want to deploy a knowledge about games, we need objective components that we describe, analyze, and so on. If we look at games this way, as you say, we can choose between the substantial aspects of the game (the rules, the algorithm) behind the representation or the superficial aspect of the game (what we can see on screen).

It is true that we can have the same games (aka the same rules or the same game-play) with only slight modifications in sounds or graphics. Think about all the clone games that once existed in the arcades. The same games with only superficial modifications at the iconic level.
Nevertheless the graphical or narrative components of the game can’t be ignored now. Even if we take all the clones in the arcade, they usually share some properties, being games about agression, aliens, shooting and things like that. So it is clear that most games work integrating both the system of rules and the representation. Then, as you say, both approaches are correct. One cannot eliminate the other.

But we can go one step further. Is this objective description of the games components (rules, representation) satisfactory ? For sure it focuses on things that we can describe with objectivity.
But what remains hidden in those descriptions of the rules or the representational side of games is precisely the subjective part of the experience. What is it to play a game or a videogame ?

I do totally agree with the idea that games are “the subjective experience they induce in the player”.
It happens that in french, we have only one word “le jeu” for two words in english “play” and “game”. Play leans toward the subjective part, the activity, the experience, game toward the objective part, the rule set.

As a consequence i disagree with a sentence like “If you don’t like rules or winning and losing that’s fine, and if you don’t like games that’s also fine, but then why are you at a conference about games?” Ok, games may always have rules, but play don’t. When I play with my daughter, she can decide to be a tiger, and a few minutes later another animal and so on. Where are the rules ? We change them on the fly, as the play goes. And it is play, and it is fun. It is “un jeu”. Remember the paida vs ludus in the Caillois model. Caillois is right recognizing the importance of the paida, non formal play.

Maybe videogames do always have rules. But they must not be considered outside the realm of play. Because we play them, and that’s where the experience is.

More over, we all know that the experience of the game cannot be reduced to the gameplay or iconic component. Think about the very different ways players can find satisfaction in the same game. The experience of play is what a player builds with the game, but cannot be reduced to its objective components.

So we have a real issue here. Building an objective theory of games, we tend naturally to focus on objectively describable aspects of games and to forget about the essential aspect – the subjective side of play, the very diverse ways players connect with the game.
And how can we successfully describe those experiences of play ? It is not as easy as analyzing the system of rules or the events on screen. We need to rely on introspection, which is not a method at all.

So what is a theory of games that does not forget the essential ?

Comment from Olivier
Time March 4, 2010 at 8:56 am

To use the MDA framework’s terminology, we could say the rules are M, the subjective experiencing of the game happens in D and the form is A. We have years of practice from the other arts to analyze and talk about A. We’re starting to evolve a coherent discourse about M. But the most intractable problem is with D because it’s always changing and it’s so highly subjective. Not only is each played session different from the other but the player(s) come(s) to the game with his/their personal subjectivity and context that affects it. And even if you could do that you would *still* need to discuss how all three spaces M, D and A relate to each other…

So I agree it’s a difficult problem for game studies but it’s also what, in my eyes, makes it an art.

However we still disagree on your use of unstructured, “paidian” play as being devoid of rules: when your daughter decides to be a tiger, she still has to deal with the rules of her own body to represent that tiger and you accept the rule that she can be a tiger if she says so.

There is no game without rules, just like there is no game without form and both of these should aim to shape the player’s subjective experience without which there is no game either.

In a perfect game, all these spaces are semantically aligned and balanced.

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