Having a new PC installed, which has delayed this week’s post – it’ll be ready next week, and takes a sceptical look at the idea of a player’s Bill of Rights. Stay tuned!
Dear Miguel and Doug,
Treachery has long been an important aspect of competitive boardgames, but in videogames there seems to be far less betrayal between players. When treacherous play occurs in digital games, it is more likely to occur between the player and the game designer – who presumably enjoys imagining the schadenfreude they'd experience if they could watch their eventual ‘victim’! Except, as the two of you stress in your wonderful paper Now It’s Personal: On Abusive Game Design, certain players will actively enjoy and seek out the challenge this represents. There seems to be something of a paradox here, since not every way of increasing challenge will be welcomed even by those players who happily endure betrayal of this kind. Is it solely the pursuit of victory that makes treacherous play entertaining, or is there a strange pleasure to be taken from the act of being betrayed? My sense is that this goes beyond the desire to pursue conventional challenges and into the social dimensions of play.
It's been several years – and several additions to families – since we last corresponded (in the case of Miguel) or met (in the case of Doug), and I thought it would be interesting to resume our discussions with the additional perspectives we have since gained. You may recall, when the two of you wanted to include me in your list of ‘conservative’ game designers on the basis of my position in 21st Century Game Design, I was fairly incensed. The cause of my disgruntlement was that the core argument of that book was precisely that commercial developers should study and understand players in order to create games that meet those needs – even if those needs include frustration and betrayal that the majority of players would not enjoy! But I can see where the misunderstanding originates, since my friend Richard Boon and I do make a lot of arguments in that book for more forgiving design. I didn't at the time appreciate that this could be misconstrued as a universal argument for forgiving play, rather than a general argument in cases where forgiving play would be justified, such as most mass market games.
Treacherous play intrigues me because it skirts the boundaries of common assumptions about games. In 1975, Vincent Tsao published what I and many other boardgamers consider the pinnacle of entertaining treachery: Junta. The game, pictured above in the West End Games edition that helped popularize it a decade later, pits players against one another for control of a 'banana republic', siphoning foreign aid, setting up coups, and assassinating the president (who then returns as ‘the president's brother-in-law’). Interestingly, even though players know the game will be Machiavellian and highly treacherous, the anger evoked can still bleed out of the ‘magic circle’ and into everyday life. After several all-night games at university, the bickering and reprisals went on between friends long after the game was over – and in one case I felt so guilty about one key betrayal that it robbed me of any sense of triumph for winning.
This kind of treachery does occur in videogames as well, of course – in the early arcade, for instance, Joust and Gauntlet both incentivised players to betray at certain points despite being fundamentally co-operative games. However, the effect seems fairly trivial next to something like Junta, perhaps because the arcade’s kind of play was less overtly tied to imaginative role-play: the emotional impact of betrayal is less drastic, less far reaching without it. But the arcade was a more treacherous place to play in terms of the relationship between designer and player: the coins must flow, so the designer had few reasons to be nice. The difficulty ramped up rapidly, the games pulled unexpected upsets upon unwary players (particularly in the late 80’s and early 90’s) such that watching another player over their shoulder and learning what to expect was as much a part of the culture of play at that time as actually dropping your own coin in the slot.
One set of contemporary games that offer intriguing possibilities for betrayal are the New Super Mario Bros. titles on Wii and Wii U. More than any other multiplayer videogame I have seen, they allow players the opportunity to control difficulty (making play harder or easier) and simultaneously permit those with a wicked streak to enact spontaneous betrayal to a shocking degree. This is particular so on the Wii U where the touchscreen Boost Mode player can literally decide who lives and who dies by helping or hindering with their powers – which interestingly can generate the kind of deals and bargains typical of a game of Junta as players jockey for the touchscreen player's favour. Unlike other games I've mentioned, however, the same tools that allow for betrayal also permit an incredible softening of difficulty: a Boost Mode player can radically reduce challenge, if the players so desire, as can a cooperative team on the earlier Wii version. This capacity to adjust to the player's needs regarding difficulty has long been an aspect of computer RPG games, which become easier the more you grind and harder the quicker you press ahead, but even this lacks the fluidity of player response present in the multiplayer 2D Marios.
Of course, Mario was also an entry point for abusive games – you cite Kaizo Mario, for instance. But I think right from the beginning, with Donkey Kong, single player Mario games were already games of betrayal, or rather games that by design allowed the player to fail and feel able to blame that failure either on the designer or themselves, according to their inclination. The sensibilities of the arcade always skirted with something like betrayal, and even contemporary ‘official’ Mario games get close to a return to this in their final, always demanding worlds. Of course, this does not rise to the levels of your abusive play, but as the player faces down challenges that seem, initially at least, beyond mastery there is at least a liminal sense of betrayal, even if my more general term, ‘punishing’ is more appropriate in such cases.
The journey from arcade sensibilities to the contemporary trend for more forgiving play brings me back to 21st Century Game Design. At the time Richard and I wrote that manuscript, the casual revolution was only just happening – and mostly out of independent developers like PopCap. At International Hobo, we were working almost exclusively with console publishers at that time, and were constantly frustrated by the assumptions of challenge that would hit us like the proverbial brick wall on various projects. We continually pushed for new design elements and structures that would allow players better control over their experience. For instance, we advocated a fail-continue structure for games aiming for a broad market because using such an approach allowed for superior player autonomy: challenge-oriented players would not accept failure and would therefore fight on to beat each level, while other players need not be held up by bottlenecks in such a structure. We were refused every time – often with cries of “but then it’s not even a game!” In the decade since, every one of our suggestions has been implemented in a videogame, almost all of them by Nintendo, and almost all of them in games garnering higher sales than earlier, less forgiving titles. The aforementioned New Super Mario Bros. games are a case in point, since they do indeed offer fail-continue, and at the high watermark have sold almost 30 million units. Fail-continue does not, as we always insisted it wouldn’t, void challenge: it just allows less skilled players to avoid difficult choke points.
Unfortunately, we did not and could not anticipate the direction the market for videogames was going to go. We were correct that modelling players was going to be core to game design in the 21st century – what we got wrong was the idea that this would be grounded on understanding player needs. In fact, as ‘social’ games grew in commercial influence, the player models used were merely statistical aggregates of player behaviour – sufficient for optimizing profit, grossly inadequate for player satisfaction. These viral games on Facebook and elsewhere pioneered a new kind of treachery – one that was not about the pleasure taken from betrayal-through-play, but about manipulating the player into paying to obviate their dissatisfaction. And this is entirely contrary to the ideal of player satisfaction that Richard and I thought we were advocating, even though it is broadly consistent with the general position we presented on commercial game design back in the early 2000s. In any such cases, where betrayal serves a profit motive against the satisfaction of the player, I find it hard to offer any defence beyond the recognition that games, in the context of gambling, have long had something of this character.
I will not take any more of your time, nor hold out any expectation of explicit replies to this missive, but I wanted to try to keep the dialogue we had begun alive. It was a pleasure to meet you in Copenhagen, Doug, and a disappointment not to get to meet Miguel while I was there, but such are the vagaries of life. I have now rather given up hope of our paths crossing or re-crossing, but life is full of surprises.
May all your betrayals be playful,
Douglas has replied by Twitter (see the comments), Miguel has vouched to reply later this year.
No-one else has replied yet.
Your letter to me, The Game of Defining RPGs, was warmly received for many reasons, but not least of which was your willingness to play with my methods - to play my game, if you will. While others certainly read me, no-one has yet engaged with what I'm trying to do in philosophy of play so directly - and for this I am both honored and grateful. You've taken the idea of prop analysis I developed in exploring why The Hobbit movies produced such different aesthetic responses and applied this idea in a wider context. And in so doing you have brought me back to an old bugbear: genre, and specifically the meaning of 'RPG'.
This question of genre is as seriously contested as those concerning 'what is a game?' or 'what is art?' - and, I suspect, for the same reason! They all revolve around an attempt to erect boundary fences: a question that begins by seeming to ask 'what is to be included?' ends up tacitly being about what is to be excluded. It was thinking like this that led me to the kind of argumentation I put forward in Implicit Game Aesthetics, whereby the very attempt at exclusion could be taken as a sign for individual aesthetic values. By exposing those values, I hoped (and continue to hope!), we might see more clearly what we were talking about. The whole idea comes from Kendall Walton who deployed a similar argument in respect to art, joking that "it's that darn concept of art that has made it so hard to understand art."
Your idea in this letter is that we can use prop analysis in connection to specific genre terms to uncover which artworks are serving 'in the background' of the deployment of any given term. This is a brilliant move, and wholly in the spirit of Wittgenstein, whose philosophy is a common touchstone for both Walton and I. In effect, you're crossbreeding between the prop analytical method and the implicit game aethetics method - uncovering aesthetic values rooted less in phenomenal experience and more, as you suggest, in sentimental recollections. (This term 'sentimental' gives me pause, however, since it is so often used pejoratively, but I had best overlook this for now.)
As you suggest, 'RPG' is the locus of intense disagreements - and for precisely the reasons you identify: different props (i.e. different games, in this case) are being used to establish boundary criteria. But I must reject your suggestion that players of the original Dungeons & Dragons "should have the final word on what constitutes an RPG video game" - even though this temptingly offers me, as one such player, all the power! The trouble is, what digital games have inherited from D&D and its successors is too multifarious for it to possibly act as a backdoor arbitrator. As I outline in Imaginary Games, the entirety of contemporary videogames descends directly from D&D, and its elements can now be found everywhere from Call of Duty to FarmVille. The whole concept of an avatar - a singular character in a game with an identity relevant to play - arguably comes from D&D, although there are hints of it in earlier games such as Cluedo/Clue.
Furthermore, to give us grizzled tabletop veterans priority in debates about RPGs would be to substitute one set of disputes for another - since tabletop players are equally at war over their definitions! Not only are the 'essential' elements disputed, but vicious battles occur over 'how RPGs used to be played' i.e. over the meaning of 'old school' in the context of RPGs. These disputes occur because - surprise surprise! - there were many different ways these games were played at the beginning, and thus many rose-tinted recollections about a golden age that exists solely in memory. This conflict can be expressed in a rather simplified fashion as between adherents focussing on 'role-playing' and those focussing on 'game' (or, as it is sometimes impishly blushed, 'roll playing'). The essential question is whether their practices were about playing characters and thus about generating narrative (as it always was for me) or about simulation, challenge, and failure. Indeed, 'old school role-playing' is most often taken to mean absolutely enforced, dice-generated permadeath (as it is now called). Adherents to this style believe their play is more 'realistic', which is in itself a strange and fascinating claim, although beyond the scope of our discussion.
Part of the further problem here is that computer RPGs have two distinct lineages that branch away from tabletop - the Western RPGs, which result from directly adapting D&D game mechanics (e.g. Wizardry and also Alkalabeth and its descendants, the Ultima games), and the Japanese RPG which results from successfully copying that form in Japan (largely thanks to Henk Roger's Wizardry-inspired export The Black Onyx). Western players, then and now, prioritise agency above role-playing, and Western RPGs largely share this bias. Japanese players, then and now, tolerate greater mathematical content and prefer clearly defined roles (pre-established characters) - although this does not mean greater role-playing occurs in these games! Crucially, neither lineage is able to fully assimilate the 'role-playing' aspect of the tabletop RPG, because of the constraints of the computer format.
It is worth being clear that generating a character - valorised in the Western cRPG culture as an expression of agency - was not essential to the tabletop games. Some game systems (e.g. TSR's The Adventures of Indiana Jones), and even more individual scenarios, allocated specified characters to players, inviting players to take on that clearly-defined role. This may seem to resonate with the Japanese lineage - except in those games the developer did almost all of the role-playing when they sketched out the narrative during the early stages of the project. The players of the Japanese RPGs are left with limited opportunities to play as the roles given to them. And ironically, in the Western lineage the dominance of agency as an aesthetic value means that you can do 'anything' as long as it doesn't involve expressive character interactions (the quintessence of 'role-playing'), which cannot be easily modelled on computers. So neither lineage takes up the torch of the 'role-playing' aspect very effectively, and instead both follow on directly from the 'game' aspect of early RPGs.
Ultimately, invoking history to solve this debate will not work, and for similar reasons any hope of a genre taxonomy for games along the lines of the Linnean taxonomy of animals (as I once naively pursued) is utterly doomed! Descent in games is a fractured panoply of influences, and is never clear and direct except in the cases of the most blatant clones. It was for this reason that I decided when starting to teach about the history of games to use 'lineage' as a term that could be a kind of rhizome (obligatory nod to Deleuze and Guattari) as a partial solution to the problem. But of course, this sidesteps the truly Wittgensteinian problem of 'the meaning of a word is how it is used' - I'm focussing upon connectivity in the artefacts and ignoring how the community discusses the genre terms.
This is where you come in, with the parallel game - the game of defining RPGs - and your unique twist on my methods: to identify which specific games are serving as props in the background when genre terms are deployed. This can't end the disputes but it can certainly illuminate them by showing which specific games inspired the aesthetic values tacitly invoked to defend boundaries. Although, as my discussion of early tabletop reveals, this approach has to go beyond just the games as artefacts, since there is also the vital matter of the practices that defined play for each player community. For tabletop RPGs perhaps more than for their digital progeny, those practices were as diverse as the game systems on offer!
On the matter of your 'unsentimental RPGs', I am curious as to what you mean to connote with 'unsentimental'. I presume this is intended to stand against what used to be called 'romance' (not in the contemporary sense, of course!), as can still be seen in the title Romance of the Three Kingdoms, broadly meaning 'fantasy'. So does your 'unsentimental' mean something like 'unvarnished'? Writing this makes it quite clear to me that it is not so easy to qualify the property you want to mark... Is it an absence of sentimentality or a presence of unpleasant sentiment - perhaps an opening of emotional wounds in order to share the experience? Mainichi seems to fit clearly into the latter case. There appears to be something of a leaning towards the literary here, but 'literary' doesnt seem an appropriate adjective. I am frankly at a loss to suggest what is, so perhaps your 'unsentimental' is as good as anything, having the distinct merit of already being successfully deployed!
I wonder, then, whether Tale of Tale's Bientôt L'été would qualify as 'unsentimental'. On the surface, it could be objected that it doesn't have anything in common with computer RPGs - which is indeed the case. But it has rather a lot in common with tabletop RPGs that focus on the 'role-playing' and not the 'game'. It invites its players to play at being the broken lovers of its world - I have said of this in my critque, Almost Summer, "there is more of the authentic experience of role-play in Bientôt L'été’s flaws than in all of Bethesda’s perfections." This is my way of saying that for the practices of tabletop role-playing that I valorise, this digital game comes closest to participation in what I call 'role-playing'. Yet presumably you, drawing your usage of 'RPG' against the practices of Final Fantasy, would not be able to resolve this as an 'unsentimental RPG'. If so, perhaps the label could be widened even further (to admit more games) or tighened up (to narrow the focus for clarity). You seem especially focussed upon the sociological aspects of the games you mention - perhaps rather than unsentimentality it is sociological critique that interest you here?
Finally, you ask how we can nurture pioneering spirits without sounding like one is playing alone. The answer to this, I suspect, is that we can break with one community without becoming a hermit. There are always, after all, other lineages and other practices we can connect with - we do not even have to remain inside the practices and artefacts of games! When we want to draw attention to something new in games, we have the option to draw attention to values or movements from other media, for instance. It is quite unlikely that anything new will occur in a vacuum, and concommitantly likely that our appreciation of something new will be grounded in other practices. New directions in the worlds of art, to use Robert Hughes' memorable phrase, often involve 'the shock of the new' - but we recognise what is novel as a contrast against what is known. That means that each new direction is likely to connect to existing practices - even if only by rebelling against them. In this way, the idea that 'no-one plays alone' carries through, even with the most innovative of games.
With grateful thanks for your interest,
Jed has not replied yet.
No-one else has replied yet.
In an interview, the legendary film director John Ford made this remark:
It is wrong to liken a director to an author. He is more like an architect, if he is creative. An architect conceives his plans from given premises - the purpose of the building, its size, the terrain. If he is clever, he can do something creative within these limitations.
Even though it is a dangerous mistake to think of games designers as architects given the necessarily iterative aspects to software development, this idea applies equally well to commercial videogames. What we still seem to lack, alas, are visionaries like Ford or Kurasawa who can marry the challenges of the technologically-yoked commercial games industry with Ford's creativity-within-limitations.