What we call ‘gameplay’ concerns the aesthetic qualities of the function of games, and only those games which have sufficiently rich and intrusive functions can have an aesthetics of play worth talking about. However, these gameplay-rich games are not the only kinds of games, and there is no need to erect a boundary between them and other forms of play.
I approach game aesthetics following the make-believe theory of representation developed by Professor Kendall Walton, which states that representational art is continuous (but more sophisticated than) children’s games of make-believe. When we look at a painting – say, Van Gogh’sStarry Night – we play a game of make-believe with it in which it is prescribed we imagine certain things (such as that we are looking at a star-filled night sky). When we play a boardgame like Monopoly we play a game of make-believe with it in which it is prescribed we imagine that we are property tycoons. When we play a videogame like Pac-man it is prescribed we imagine that we are an abstract yellow blob with an insatiable appetite for dots. All of these statements concern games played with specific representations – the painting, the board and cards, and the digital images respectively. There is a well-established discourse about the aesthetics of representations, but when I talk of ‘game aesthetics’ this is only a small part of what I mean.
‘Aesthetics’ is not, you may be surprised to learn, a particularly unified field. In his address to the American Society for Aesthetics in 2007, Walton notes that aesthetics wasn’t unified by a central question in the way that ethics is unified by “How to live?”, the question the Greek philosophers asked that served as the stepping point for Western moral philosophy. Rather, Walton suggests that the field of aesthetics is marked by its boundaries and not by its centre, in a manner similar to philosophy of science, observing that philosophers in that latter field don’t waste much time arguing about what qualifies as ‘science’ as they have so many other interesting matters to pursue. He quotes Georges Santayana’s comment that “the group of activities we can call aesthetics is a motley one, created by certain historic and literary accidents.” Aesthetics is something to do with art, perhaps, but, as Walton quips: “It's that darn concept of art that has made it so hard to understand art – and lots of other things as well.” One of those ‘other things’ is games.
In my adaptation of Walton’s theory to games in Imaginary Games, I distinguish between the functional and representational elements of games (in the wide sense of this term, that accepts children’s games of make-believe as a starting point for understanding what we mean by ‘games’), a division that can be crudely considered parallel to Juul's distinction between rules and fiction in games. The representational elements of paintings, sculptures, movies and so forth are what is conventionally captured by the term ‘art’, and I make the further claim that games also have these representational elements and qualify as ‘art’. However, there is also a functional aspect to all representations. It is functional of paintings that we hang them on a wall to look at them (we don’t usually hold them in our hands, as we do with graphic novels). It is functional of movies that we watch them in a cavernous dark chamber with other people, even though it doesn't significantly change the representational content of a movie if we instead watch at home on our sofa with a TV. It is functional of what we conventionally call games that we have more agency with these artworks than we do in paintings or movies – although sometimes (as with Snakes and Ladders) this agency is illusory.
Game aesthetics concerns not only the representations used in games but also the functional aspects of those representations and the relationship between the two. For the purposes of game aesthetics it doesn’t matter how much agency the player has but it does matter how the functional aspect of the game that provides that agency (or illusion therein) relates to the representation. Since the game of make-believe we play with a painting is still a game of some kind, having agency isn’t a requirement for games in the wide-sense, but as it happens this is also (arguably) true in the narrow sense. Games can be functionally complex without the player being given any agency at all.
Consider as an example of this strange phenomena Eric Fredricksen’s marvellous parody of massively multiplayer games, Progress Quest (2002). Even the illusion of agency is stripped from this game, within which the player’s character grows in power and acquires ever more ludicrously entitled equipment (such as an “Unearthly Spangle of Happiness” or “Impressive Diamond Mail Vambraces”) without the player doing anything. Character advancement in this game is automatic – yet players still manage to enjoy the games functional aspects, in part because of its parodic qualities, which ridicule the tedium of grinding in the games it mocks, but in part because its text representation is intrinsically rewarding for much the same reasons that these kinds of text representation are rewarding in role-playing games and multi-user domains. It seems that getting cool-sounding stuff is fun, at least to some players, even if they don't have to do anything to get it. Progress Quest becomes boring, as other videogames often do, when the mechanics that support the functional play become obvious and thus feel repetitive. In the meantime, it manages to entertain much as a slot machine can – random occurrences patterned into seemingly meaningful outcomes.
Although Progress Quest is functional in my sense, it is not richly or deeply functional. Walton makes the point that representational art is more intrusive on the games of make-believe we play with them than (say) a stick used as a prop in a child’s game of make-believe. Precisely what we value about a painting is that it guides our imaginings in particular ways. Similarly, the functional elements of games can become intrusive – as they do in many videogames. The games of Sid Meier are valued by certain players precisely because their mechanics are intrusive upon the play experience, far more so than their representations, which tend to be bland. Conversely, the appeal of the first person shooter genre prior to Modern Warfare was in part because the mechanics supported the representations unobtrusively – players didn’t, in general, think about the functional aspects of these games because they were engaged with the representational aspects of running around with a gun shooting people. This suited some players radically better than others, however.
Gamer hobbyists, those players who buy and play many videogames (or boardgames) sometimes state that “gameplay is everything”, or make sophisticated arguments that veil this kind of assertion in a cloak of righteous sophistry. The aesthetic implication of this kind of claim in my terms is that what is experientially valuable about videogame or boardgame play is functional, not representational. Furthermore, the confusing term ‘gameplay’ does not denote a single element of the functional aspects of play, but several overlapping concepts including (but not restricted to) rewarding decisions (cf. Sid Meier), challenges and victory, the mastery of systems, and meaningful agency. Each of these is a functional aesthetic of play or a game aesthetic, although this is far from a complete list of all the current or possible game aesthetics. Anyone who views Progress Quest positively as a play experience isn’t reaching that conclusion by applying any of these criteria.
Game aesthetics (or the aesthetics of play) isn’t new so much as it has been the concealed condition of our discourse on the value of games. My goal, therefore, isn’t to create a new field so much as to identify what parts of the game design and game studies discussions were always already a form of game aesthetics, whether in terms of representation, function or the confluence of the two. So far, “game aesthetics” has tended to mean just representational aesthetics applied to games, but we can and should take this further. I will know I have succeeded when some part of the discourse on videogames discontinues the boundary debates concerning what qualifies as a ‘game’ in favour of engaging in critical discussion of those games that are functionally or representationally interesting, and the reasons why they are of interest (i.e. what makes for “great games”) – something presaged by Ian Bogost and others. My specific distinction between function and representation (essentially parallel to Juul’s rules and fiction) isn’t anywhere near as important in this regard as the discussions I hope they – or something like them – might foster.
The opening image is by Suzanne Maestri-Walters as part of her popart collection, which I found on her website, One Girl Creative. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.