Game Design Lineages

catacomb-3dLast year, I published my first paper with José Zagal, entitled Game Design Lineages: Minecraft’s Inventory. This is the finest academic games work I’ve been involved in, or (as I remarked to José) “the game studies paper I want to be buried with”. But what is a game design lineage and what does it have to do with game design? This piece explains my interest in the lineages of games and how it has informed, in some small but significant way, my professional work as a game designer and writer who will hit fifty published games this year.

Since at least 2011, I have been interested in improving historical research into game design – motivated by my own desire to continuously improve my game design skills, and also to contribute to the academic discussion that has grown up around games. Game studies, the field that engages with games as something worthy of research, has suffered from a number of problems in this regard including a widespread ignorance of the importance of history for understanding games as a creative form, and long standing prejudices that favour videogames over other forms of game. Indeed, until recently ‘game studies’ was a term that has primarily meant videogame studies. As a field, it tends to suffer from a widely held (but rarely spoken) conviction that it ought to be engaged in scientific research, and therefore history is a second class citizen in the academic games world. Yet no media studies field is a science, the methods of the sciences generally produce lacklustre results when applied to games, and historically-grounded discourse about games is arguably the pinnacle of scholarship in game studies right now – whether its focus is aesthetics, tracing relationships between games, or examining hardware constraints.

The earliest piece of mine to voice these views was The Constraint Histories of Digital Games, back in October 2011. It makes the following still-relevant observation about a key issue in historical research for games:

Attempts to provide a taxonomy of game genres founder on the lack of consistent criteria, and usually have to be arbitrarily assigned. Connecting ‘shooters’ into a lineage suggests scrolling shooters were direct influences on first person shooters, for instance. But there's no evidence suggesting Zaxxon has any connection with the design of DOOM, or that Space Invaders inspired Zaxxon. As a historical tool, genre categories can provide some useful connections – DOOM certainly did influence GoldenEye 007, for example – but genre cannot be used as a unifying framework for game history because the genre lineages are narrowly valid and do not constitute a complete description of game history.

In the six years since I wrote this, I can now strengthen this claim: Zaxxon belongs within the various arcade lineages of the late twentieth century that have tremendous influence upon games but that are radically distinct from the lineages that descend from tabletop role-playing games, which proliferated in the wake of 1974’s Dungeons & Dragons. Surprisingly, DOOM is a descendant of this latter lineage and not any of the arcade lineages, since it comes about from modifying the early dungeon crawler form typified by 1987’s seminal Dungeon Master, a form that inspired John Carmack to make Catacomb 3D (pictured above) and from this, mostly by raising the pace of play and switching fantasy weapons for guns, creating the FPS form as we now understand it.

In August 2016, I produced my most complete piece of historical work on games to date, a historical investigation of game inventories – the first part of which touches upon the roots of the FPS in the early dungeon crawlers that converted the dungeon adventures D&D had invented into digital forms. Last year, I worked with my good and excellent academic friend José Zagal to adapt this material into a paper, which we presented at DiGRA UK, just a short distance up the road from me at MediaCity in Salford. The paper contracts some of the historical detail in my original blog serial, but with José’s assistance the general method I was pursuing became more robust and clearly stated. The resulting paper, Game Design Lineages: Minecraft’s Inventory, is not yet included in DiGRA’s digital library but I have made it available in ResearchGate in the meantime (it is also headed to DiGRA’s Transactions journal at some point in the near future). This term ‘game design lineages’ is José’s suggested description for my general method. Here’s an explanation of the term from the paper:

In the context of game studies and game design we feel that little work has been done to explore how best to provide rich and deep insight such that game design knowledge can be understood, communicated, and possibly used, without losing the essential relationships required to make sense of the games in question. We offer the notion of the game design lineage as a means to partially address this challenge by contextualizing game systems within the player practices that provided both the environment that guided their implementation, and the background of understanding against which the game was encountered by its original players.

A game design lineage is rich description of the networks of connections between common designed elements… that is situated within an understanding of the context that conditioned the original design decisions that led to them, understood in terms of player practices. This perspective is important not only in terms of more accurately investigating the historical connectivity of games and their designs, but also because insights from the past remain useful in the future, and can explain problems that are currently misunderstood or taken for granted.

The paper focuses on three specific contexts by which lineages can be traced. Firstly, player practices, which as I have been uncovering through patient investigation (and more than a touch of philosophical influence) are the bedrock of the game design process and the origin of the interrelations between games that give us the genre terms that are themselves too vague to build historical accounts from (as discussed above). Player practices, and not rules as such, are fundamental to games, as I argue in Are Videogames Made of Rules?, since rules are better understood as a means of capturing such practices in words and specifying them more precisely. Material constraints include the kind of hardware issues that Ian Bogost and Nick Monfort engaged with in with Racing the Beam, as well as significant commercial considerations that I discuss often as a consultant but which the academic community around games has largely ignored. Finally, creator vision marks the ways that game designers and development teams subvert player practices and adapt to material constraints in new and innovative ways while still remaining embedded within the conservation of player practices. 

I had previously been discussing lineages in terms of Foucault’s work, especially The Archaeology of Knowledge, since his method and mine substantially overlap. I wrote about this in the ‘tin anniversary’ dual serials for my blogs, Foucault’s Archaeology and Player Practices. Disappointingly, Foucault scholars have blocked my attempts to turn this into a paper, requiring me to talk about power (the late Foucault’s obsession), and forcing me to withdraw from using Foucault as a reference at all. To be clear, Foucault’s methods in The Archaeology of Knowledge and mine overlap… I thought it prudent to draw attention to that, the academic community had other ideas, and I don’t have the patience or desire to persist with such a trivial aspect of my work. Easier all around to leave Foucault to the Foucauldians.

Dan Golding has had more success drawing on this angle without being required to talk about power, perhaps by getting at Foucault’s ideas indirectly via film historian Thomas Elsaesser. Dan presented his paper Lineages: Historicising the Videogame at the joint DiGRA-FDG conference in Dundee back in 2016, the same conference that I presented No-one Plays Alone, which has also not made it into the DiGRA library yet but had appeared in their Transactions (linked here). This is the paper that begins to develop the player practices concept, within which game design lineages has been conceived. I view Dan’s work as allied to mine (although he may not), and my means of combining the two methods goes via Walton’s prop theory, which I deployed in Imaginary Games (to very little influence in game studies). At the very least, Dan and I share a perception of the importance of history in understanding games and play, and agree that films and literature are part of the network of relations that have made videogames what they are.

The game design lineages method is the most viable historical research tool I’ve yet encountered for examining games and videogames, although it is only a part of the wider research project into player practices that I have been pursuing for much of the last decade. It began with Imaginary Games, applying Walton’s concept of props that prescribe certain imaginings to games, and then asking about the key props for videogames – such as inventories, maps, and save games, all of which condition the play of videogames in highly significant ways. This also brought out how videogames were dominated by two particular props – guns and goals – leading me to suggest (back in 2011) that authentic artistic innovation in these media would have to subvert the player practices surrounding these props, as Dear Esther, Proteus, and everything by Tale of Tales does to great effect.

As a commercial game designer, I have not had the luxury to explore such artistically-motivated concerns, but my player practices work has had another key influence upon me: it has united the otherwise disparate domains of marketing and game design. When I first pursued the research into play styles that became my book with Richard Boon, 21st Century Game Design, it was because of the recognition that marketing was valued more than game design – and with good cause (despite the abysmal state of understanding in games marketing departments...) since marketing expenditure is a much better predictor of eventual sales than anything else. That was why the original pamphlet for this research, which I gave out to (amongst other people) Eiji Aonuma, was subtitled How to Make Game Design as Important as Marketing. The point here is straightforward, but easily ignored: the conditions into which every game appears are set by the games that are already being played, and when this isn’t taken into account, there is a tendency to produce games that – whatever their merits – acquire no audience because they are either too hard to learn or do not offer an imaginative fantasy players will pay for. The conservation of player practices is the dominant flow of the commercial games market, and it is the major forks in this river that become labelled with genre terms.

When I started to give talks about the history of games, I began to see how interconnected their lineages were, and how genre emerges as a symptom of the conservation of player practices, which provides the bedrock for the craft of game design. We game designers do not build games from game-mechanical Lego bricks but from player practices we have learned by playing other games, often expressed in terms of rules or systems because we nerds are trained to think in such terms. Yet when you think about design in terms of player practices, game design lineages become not just a tool for historical investigations but yet another method for creating games, one that is informed by the knowledge that no-one plays alone. It is both these projects – historical research and creative game design – that I continue to vigorously pursue.

For further reading, please check out the papers Game Design Lineages: Minecraft’s Inventory and its predecessor No-one Plays Alone.


Discworld Noir Interview

dvn-fp2__bigOver at Adventure Gamers is a new interview with me talking about my first game as lead writer and designer, Discworld Noir. Here’s an extract:

Pretty sure every character in Noir that wasn't borrowed from the books (like Vimes, Gaspode, Death etc.) was invented by me. The one exception was Laredo Cronk, which was created by me at Terry's request. He loved Tomb Raider and wanted a Discworld pastiche of Lara, and I was happy to oblige! I had some fights with him about the names, but he had given me a broad licence to make a new cast for this one, owing to the concept being so original. I guess that makes me the only person other than Terry to have made Discworld characters... Hadn't really considered that before!

You can read the entirety of the Chris Bateman Discworld Noir interview over at Adventure Gamers.


The War on Game

An open letter to Raph Koster as part of the Republic of Bloggers.

Picasso GuernicaDear Raph,

What is the true definition of ‘game’? No, don't answer that. We both know why that question cannot possibly be resolved as long as it has that particular wording. But what if there was another way? What if there was something that could be truly and validly asserted about our definitions of ‘game’? If that were so, perhaps the war on ‘game’ that has so hurt our not-so-little community of players over the last decade could actually be ended, and peace restored.

You and I, I should like to note, are relics from an earlier era of games and game design – and both of us are caught in a certain tension between professional game design and the study of games and play. We are about three months apart in age; we both grew up as part of the second wave of tabletop RPG players; we both had our lives substantially and indelibly altered by MUDs; we were both becoming lead designers in the late 90s. You – enviably, in my view – got to work on the early MMOs, games that transitioned the MUDs to graphical forms and permanently altered the player practices of videogames as a result. I worked on a dying form – the point-and-click adventure – but as a result had the entirely enviable experience of having a not-yet-knighted Terry Pratchett as my first (and still utterly unparalleled) script editor, which I suspect did much to tie my career to game narrative, despite my certainty I was going to be known as a game designer.

Although in our exchanges I am usually sparring against your systems perspective on games, as game designers we have much in common. The design I’m most proud of, Ghost Master, which even won some small crumb of admiration from Will Wright, is entirely a systems game. Those systems are deployed in the service of a highly experiential form of play, but no-one who had truly mastered the game could doubt that it draws from complex, under-the-hood systems to generate both the experiential play and the highly demanding strategic challenges entailed in scoring the coveted ‘Triple Pumpkin’ medals. I argue against systems thinking not because it is incorrect but because when it is deployed as a doctrine it causes as much harm as good.

Of course, such is true whenever aesthetic values are set up as doctrine. In our previous exchange in the comments here you lament without malice the current domination of experiential, reader response aesthetic thinking about games. Your concern is that this downplays the role of the artefact – the game in at least one sense of the term – and in so doing it downplays the kinship between videogames, sports, and tabletop games. Here we are in full accord, for I have spent quite a while stressing this closeness of form myself (and not without considerable resistance from various parties who need not be identified). Again, our design practices were shaped by both tabletop games and MUDs – we could never deny the continuity there, no matter what others might decide ‘game’ means to them now.

I find it ironic that the experiential view could now now judged dominant from any perspective, since I had to argue so hard for a move towards this direction in the early 2000s. Game publishing (with which I might have had more experience than you owing to my ongoing status as ronin game designer) was disastrously fixated upon the aesthetics of challenge and victory even as the Wii was demonstrating that there was indeed a wider audience for games for whom ‘boss battle’ was a terrifyingly alien concept. I got into player satisfaction modelling precisely to break down this barrier – to make clear the different aesthetic values for play, and to try and resolve some of the industry’s gender issues by demonstrating that when it comes to the enjoyment of different styles of play, focussing on ‘male versus female’ is hopelessly misleading. (Yes, we found different distributions of play styles by gender – but more importantly we found the same range of play styles among all genders.) I never dreamt that moving away from the old regime could possibly obscure the importance of the game designer’s role in helping to craft game systems that can meet those needs (where this is possible, as is overwhelmingly but not uniformly the case). And yet as I find Miguel Sicart in one of his always-engaging books arguing that ‘game design is dead’ and taking his polemic against procedural rhetoric to a point that obscures even the merit of authorial intent for games, I can’t help but feel things have gone too far.

In my view, the war on ‘game’ that we were discussing in our previous exchange is not, as you suggest, concluded so much as it has entered into a period of trench warfare where the belligerent forces on either side lie in wait for their ‘enemy’ to make a move that they can respond to with excessive ire. It would be plausible to suggest this war could never be over, for all that reasonable folks such as yourself can extricate yourselves from it by “retreated to nonce terms despite the virtues of using the word ‘game’.” But I am not a reasonable fellow; I’m far too much of a dreamer, and I still think this war can be ended and our freedom to use the word ‘game’ without it being wielded as a weapon restored. This hope is grounded in the fact that all skirmishing sides in the war are still allied to our shared Enlightenment ideals of autonomy and self-governing freedom, and as such an accord that allowed all sides to preserve their aesthetic terrain should – at least in principle – restore detente.

This potential peace treaty is what for some time now I have been calling ‘The Liberation of Games’. It begins with my analysis of implicit game aesthetics, five years old now, in terms of drawing attention to the way definitions of games embed our aesthetic values. Your definitions were immensely useful in that research, and I thank you for them, because you so wonderfully embody the power of systems thinking for play (which, as you rightly attest, is allied to Sid Meier’s view that “a good game is a series of interesting choices”). To complete that research I had to disavow ‘game’, to stop having my own definition, and this is one way the Liberation of Games can happen. You achieve something similar by retreating to your ‘nonce terms’ ludic process (game experience) and ludic artefact (game object), with the parentheticals there provided only as a convenient translation for anyone new to this discussion. But of course, withdrawing from battle does not end the war as long as anyone else remains deployed. What we need is demilitarisation. How do we get it?

You gesture in the direction I claim is needed when you say “…‘game’ was never going to fit inside solely one definition”. That was what my implicit game aesthetics research was trying to highlight, and in a tangible sense what my earlier work in play style diversity had already highlighted: our different aesthetic values for play, all drawing against our common biological and psychological heritage – which is precisely why, as you attest, we can describe the consequences of game system design ‘atomically’ in so much as our responses to such systems are granular precisely where we too are granular i.e. in our emotional responses and cognitive capabilities. That ability to decompose the play experience and its relationship to designed features is precisely why games (whether as player practices or as artefacts) can be translated into rules, which are also ‘atomic’, even if (as I was arguing in Are Videogames Made of Rules?) it is problematic to treat rules as the fundamental atomic components of games. (You raise some interesting points about rules in your comment to that earlier piece, especially in the context of sport, but I shall skip over these here for brevity.)

The Liberation of Games as I have traced it begins with the acceptance of all definitions of games. Indeed, it is perhaps the sole requirement for this ‘liberation’ to occur. The best and only complete answer to the question of the definition of ‘game’ is the superset of all definitions of ‘game’. All those definitions are not equal, of course, but all the people providing them are – which is precisely why we must allow everyone the capacity to determine for themselves what is or is not a game. But we also have to acknowledge that what we are dealing with here is not ‘mere opinion’. The idea that what cannot be measured must be ignored is the ugliest of the simplifications bandied around as supposedly ‘scientific’ thinking. Our aesthetic experiences are the bedrock of our lives – there is nothing ‘mere’ about them. Indeed, rather than dismissing ‘mere opinion’ we ought to be engaging with the patterns that give it shape. Only that could be considered an authentic scientific response to encountering the diversity of our aesthetic values for play, values that we know exist and have meaning.

If this sounds trivial I would like to point out that liberty is never a small thing. People have been (and still are) harassed over their aesthetic values for play just as they have been (and still are) harassed over their gender and race. Indeed, these phenomena intersect to a rather frightening degree. That is why there is something tangible to be won from the Liberation of Games, even if my chosen title may sound flippant. (It is not, after all, the games themselves that stand to be liberated...) In addition to this political dimension, however, is the possibility of a restoration and expansion of dialogue between practitioners of the various game disciplines once ownership of ‘game’ yields to participation in an ecology of all possible ‘games’, which must surely then include a great many things few people currently include in their considerations. I may well agree with Caillois in considering theatrical plays a kind of game, but most cannot easily follow me on this path. With the Liberation of Games, such possibilities cannot be denied, yet no-one has to be interested in this or any other specific set of relationships within the landscape of play. That’s what liberty means: the freedom to be who you must be, and the freedom to not be what you cannot.

Our definitions – of game, or art, and more besides – cannot be right or wrong, they can only open or close the myriad available paths. The war over ‘game’ had us defending the passes, which inevitably meant a great many roads were closed to us. Opening them all is as simple (and yet as impossible) as acknowledging that only a set can include everything it needs to – game as artefact, as experience, as process, as story, as system, as victory, as puzzle, as decisions, as feedback, as lenses, as skill acquisition, as a theory of fun, as the elephant in the room, as the authorial expression of a designer, and as the free expression of a player. If it is still too early to be celebrating the Liberation of Games, it is not too soon to be striving for it.

Keep being the incredible person you have to be,

Chris.

The opening image is Picasso’s Guernica. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended.


Ecologies of Play

This is an extended reply to a comment raised in connection with Are Videogames Made of Rules? If you haven’t read this earlier piece, you might want to start there.

BloxelsDear Bart,

What is it that we take a rule to be? Is it a wording, is it a practice, is it a formal constraint? This ambiguity about what we mean by ‘rule’ lies at the heart of the difference between the argument I developed in Are Videogames Made of Rules? and the counter-argument you provided at length in the comments. What I hope to do here is clarify my position by responding to your extremely detailed counter, and hopefully shed some light on what it might mean for anything to be ‘made of rules’.

I always appreciate it when you engage with my arguments because you have an unswerving desire to take off all the panelling and poke around with the interior workings. Sometimes, you even put it back together again afterwards! I wish peer reviewers were as interested in engaging with my arguments as you are, but alas the practices of the academy have strayed about as far from virtuous discourse as could be imagined.

Let me break down your observations and respond to different points one at a time, in the hope that this will bring out the points of interest in both our positions.

1. You’re answering your question as though it was being stated as ‘Are games made entirely of rules?’

I don't think this is quite right: no-one makes that particular claim, which is clearly excessive. But you’re correct that there is another aspect of the claim that ought to be unveiled. I don’t think the missing term is ‘entirely’ but perhaps ‘fundamentally’. If games were ‘fundamentally made of rules’ it would mean that everything game-like was comprised of rules (plus whatever else those rules worked on, including such diverse things as players, dice, polygonal models, tensor arrays and so forth). My claim here is that this is only true in so much as the fundamental (=impossible to remove) element of elements are translatable into rules. That still gives a special status for rules – but that status ceases to be ontological (i.e. about the nature of the existence of games). This point is so subtle I didn’t draw attention to it, since I really didn’t think anyone was going to engage with this piece. But I was apparently mistaken!

2. You discuss ‘games’ as though this is synonymous with examples of individual games, but ‘games’ and ‘a game’ are significantly different in the context of your question.

This is such a clever observation it may exceed my ability to do it justice! Broadly, you are correct to say this but my usage is not accidental, it is merely not explained in this piece. ‘Games’ for me is a term that broadly means [Superset(game)]. I don't have time here to expand this point (although I will return to this later this year…) beyond saying that ‘games’ for me is just a term for the set of all sets of whatever is called ‘a game’. But your objection still has bite: that superset can’t be directly identified with individual games, which are ‘merely’ elements in that superset. But, and here’s the key point, the superset is not amenable to access in any other way since it inherently denies the attempts at unification implicit to every attempt to provide a master definition of ‘game’. I ought to be more careful about how I draw those lines, and I thank you for making me think about this more carefully.

3. There’s an elision of important differences going on in your argument between the nature of a game meant to be played by people sitting in a room together with the human rulesmaster and a game meant to be played by strangers separated in time and space from each other and from a potentially non-human rulesmaster.

Here we may disagree. I accept the broad point, in that the possibility space of the former is on-paper much larger than the latter, but how locked down or open a game is to on-the-fly modification isn’t necessarily a function of tabletop versus otherwise. MUDs are the obvious examples of videogames with far more variability than any non-RPG tabletop game.

So I don't think I’m eliding those differences, as I don’t see this split in quite the same way. But you are surely correct that the subtleties of distinction here are something I largely brush under the carpet for brevity. But that’s what comments like yours are so good at teasing out of the woodwork!

On to your commentaries on my objections:

But games (as generally understood) do include rules of play as a required feature for comprehensible interaction with a product intended to entertain, so in that sense, games are made of rules.

I don’t think that can be right... the presence of rules is no evidence of constitution. Every car ships with a manual but you would not be tempted to say an automobile was ‘made of instructions’. This may sound flippant, but the point is not: I am saying rules are intimately tied to games as a discourse involved in their play. That discourse has most force in its role of helping players acquire (or apply) the player practices required to play any game artefact in the manner ‘intended’. But just because of this, I am suggesting that those player practices are constitutive of games; the rules are the helpful discourse surrounding those practices, but are not constitutive, per se.

...your question refers to ‘games’ in the plural, and your argument points out (correctly, I think) that games as an ecosystem for playing certainly do seem to include components that aren’t just about dictating how to play. But an ecosystem for play is certainly not the same thing as a game, which is the direct experience that will be had by most persons engaging in structured play.

This is a fascinating claim in itself, and I love the whole idea of ‘an ecosystem for playing’, which you derive from my arguments. Miguel Sicart, in Play Matters, also talks about ecologies of play (drawing against actor-network theory), and it is one of the more engaging aspects of his book. This distinction between ‘games’ (as an ecosystem for playing) and ‘a game’ is extremely subtle and intriguing. As a game designer, I am always trying to leverage my experience as a play ecologist, and vice versa! The ecosystem for playing could be taken as the set of all player practices plus the set of all toys or components that can be played with – and that is a very different way of thinking about games and play than attempting to found an ironclad definition.

…’a game,’ for most individual games, can perhaps fairly be said to be ‘made of rules’ in that formal rules comprise a good majority of the stuff that defines that particular game.

Here I am obligated to explain why treating player practices as constitutive is a more robust interpretation than treating rules as such. And the clearest answer I can offer is that any player can learn to play any game without any access to the rules, provided another player is available to induct them into the practices of the game. The fewer new practices they must acquire, the easier this is.

For a tabletop game, the rulebook this set of practices eventually becomes can be seen as a static snapshot of the player practices of the design team in respect of the game, discussing how their game is played. That each group of players will inevitably vary those player practices is one of the reasons I am suggesting we treat player practices as constitutive of games rather than rules, because the rules as written remain the same but the games being played with those rules can be quite diverse – even if all you take into account is the differences in interpretation and not greater variations like house rules. I don’t think any two groups of players engaging with a Fantasy Flight game are playing the same way, as the rules often leave open a certain number of ambiguous points that the players have to negotiate and settle on their own.

For videogames, the distance between the rules and the player practices is even greater and we have two possible claims for what the rules might be: they could be the game design documentation (in so much as it is accurate to the game artefact) or they could be the programmed code of that artefact. I hope it’s clear that the former option won’t hold up. Most game design documentation is only a scaffold (albeit a tremendously helpful one – it’s one of the two things my company has specialised in producing). The latter option is more challenging to refute. My claim here is that programmed code constitutes rules for the computer but not for the player. This is one sense in which “Videogames are made of rules” – but since the computer does not play the game we must at least concede that this sense is substantially different from what that phrase would usually be taken to mean.

Now the program code is an important part of any videogame. In this piece, it is ‘what the players play with’, like the board and pawns and cards are ‘what the players play with’ at the tabletop. But I am claiming it is misleading to say “videogames are made of rules” because my general argument about what “games are made of” applies to videogames too. The rules in a tabletop game are a translation of the player practices; the programmed rules in a videogame are also a translation of this kind – indeed, multiple translations: the programmer translates the intended player practices and artefactual properties into symbolic code, then the compiler translates that into machine code. The machine code is a set of rules for the computer, of course, but not in any game-significant sense. Because of the translations, I say that the developers of a game are players-by-proxy in the game that all players play with a videogame artefact. That might be the most revolutionary claim I’m making here – and I don't expect many people to follow me on this. But I do want to assert the validity of this understanding.

I wonder whether considering this argument – being clear about whether your assertion refers to ‘games’ or ‘a game’ – might help to strengthen your argument.

This is one of the most intriguing assertions in your comment, one that builds on this distinction between ‘play ecosystems’ and individual game experiences. But I hope it’s clear that individual game experiences are comprised of player practices and the artefacts played with just as much as play ecosystems are. What the play ecosystem has over and above this are the development circumstances that place additional constraints upon what can be played. The play ecosystem offers a more complete picture – but I still contend my argument applies to those individual play experiences as well.

If your goal is to argue that any randomly-selected individual game is mostly not made of rules, I think that’s going to be much the harder (and more interesting) sell.

I hope in the preceding remarks I have had a reasonable shot at making that sale! I appreciate that no-one is obligated to follow me into my rabbit hole… but anyone who does will not find anything substantially out of place with my way of arranging things. And it gives a much clearer perspective on both ‘games’ and any particular ‘game’ by entirely setting aside individual definitions of ‘game’ as merely aesthetic statements (as I introduced many years back now with Implicit Game Aesthetics).

Now we come to a specific objection that requires some redirect...

Your arguments use D&D (more generally, pre-video tabletop games) as an example, and that’s fair; it’s a game, but it has a large quantity of input supplied on the spot from human players. But you then use D&D as a template for judging other games, and because they also have human input you conclude that all games are like D&D (because all games have human input) and thus all games, like D&D, are mostly not ‘made of’ rules.

I don’t think this is quite the line my argument is developed upon, but it is a clear point in my argument where additional clarification is required. The point is not about the near infinite agency of tabletop RPGs – if it were, everything would be a pale shadow of that. The point about D&D I was making here is that the ways that it was played were not specified by the rules at all, but grew out of different cultures of play (different player practices). Thus contemporary tabletop RPGs descend from the role-play lineage that stresses the taking on of a fictional role, and some computer RPGs are, at the very least, inspired by this style of play. Conversely, roguelike games descend from the rule-play, dungeon bash approach which was all about murderizing monsters for treasure (an approach that was also more likely to engage with permanent death, a feature the roguelikes have tended to inherit). These wildly different play cultures, the player practices of which continue to have lineage descendants even now, were not in any way specified by the rules of D&D.

You might want to object that this is a special case, that the play of videogames is more tightly constrained by the programmed artefact, and hence the rules. But that’s not exactly what you find when you look. Spawn camping is not prevented by any formal rules of online games, it is a normative constraint of the community of players. We can express that as a rule – but it is not manifested as a rule in that community but as a practice. Players know what not to do and why – but ask them to put that into words (to translate it into rules) and you will get myriad versions. The practices are consistent. The rule is an afterthought.

What about single player games? Let’s take a classic style Resident Evil. It is in no way part of the rules of these games that two players pad pass (“you do the fighting”), or that you creep save by returning often to the safe room, or that you speed run and never save. Those are the actual player practices. They are informed by the construction of the programmed artefact, of course, but my claim is that it is what players actually do – both with and against the intentions of the developer – that constitutes the games being played with Resident Evil.

Now for the crucial finishing move: the construction of the programmed artefact is also a product of player practices, those acquired by the developer from other games that they then conserve and modify to make their own game. That Resident Evil can be translated into rules is an undeniable fact. My claim is only that it is the player practices that comprise the game – both as-played, and as-made. Any rules we would care to state are best understood as translations of those player practices.

This is the line of argument I'm developing here. It’s subtle, and it won’t appeal to everyone. But it is an extremely robust position.

Humans in a room together can make up a lot of things as they go. But to deliver the required perception of fairness (which I know is a whole other subject of interest to you), a game must be defined as composed mostly of rules that are stable, that are enforced equitably for all players, and that can be applied automatically by a computer program. (See ‘code is law.’) The farther you go from humans-in-a-room to MMORPG, the more that individual game is indeed ‘made of rules,’ because it has to be in order to achieve its intended function. The more that players are separated and unable to agree on rules ad hoc, the more the rules must be codified and enforced as written... and thus the greater percentage of ‘the game’ is constituted by the rules.

My claim is that this perception of fairness is rooted in normative practices that are translatable into rules but are neither enforced nor learned not practiced as rules in any tangible sense of this term. Yes, the programmed artefact is a key part of the propagation and enforcement of those practices. But the artefact is a translation of the normative practices imagined by the developers translated into ‘computer rules’ (code), which are not game rules in any viable sense, and they are only ‘law’ by analogy to physical laws, which are only ‘law’ by analogy in the first place! The players learn these practices from either direct engagement with the artefact itself, or from reading translations into rules in FAQs, wikis etc. The artefact is immutable under standard conditions, sure, but it is not made of rules – or at least, not in the sense of game rules. It is made of machine code, which are rules for computers, but these rules are not even remotely like game rules, and no FAQ, wiki, or player can give a translation of these that would make sense of their actual play.

You make one final point of great interest...

I further suspect that it’s acceptable to think that most games are made mostly of rules as a requirement for recognizability. I love Minecraft’s emergent outcomes probably more than most gamers. But I can still think it’s made mostly of rules or else it wouldn't be recognizable as Minecraft.

Here, you make a fascinating deeper claim – that it is the rules that constitute the identity of the game. I have great sympathy for this claim. But if you accept my argument that any attempt to describe Minecraft in rules is only a translation of its player practices, this point becomes the observation that it is the specific constraints upon which player practices develop – and the affordances these permit, upon which the player practices diversify – that constitute the identify of a game. And here, expressed in this arcane yet salient fashion, lies the very possibility of saying that something is “basically the same game.”

I thank you enormously for your deep engagement with my argument. I hope in developing a reply, you can see why your argument could not be persuasive for me. But it is more than entertaining for me to engage in these deep discussions: it helps me clarify what it is that I mean to say. And that is invaluable.

With grateful thanks,

Chris.

Further discussion on these points is always welcome, so feel free to share your perspective in the comments.


What Are Little Games Made Of...?

Wooden Game PartsGenuinely surprised and delighted by the response last week’s Are Videogames Made of Rules? produced. I really expected it to sink without a trace. The discussions, which you can follow in the comments, have exceeded my available time – but I am not done talking about this by a long shot! I am planning some follow up pieces to explore some of the issues raised, but they will have to wait until later in the year.

Briefly, however, I’d like to stress that this is one of those pieces where I am arguing against myself – I had previously advanced a view that the fundamental building blocks of games were rules, and this included videogames (the algorithms of which can be understood as rules). Now that people such as Paul Gestwicki, Raph Koster, Chris De Leon, Patrick Davis, Bart Stewart, Petri Lankoski‏, and others have thrown in on the issue, I see there is much further to take this argument – both in terms of clarifying and solidifying its original direction, and in terms of important tangents as well.

A new serial is about to start over at Only a Game, but once that is wrangled I’ll definitely return to this issue and take it further. Many thanks to everyone who has waded in thus far!