Implicit Game Aesthetics (1): Crawford’s Taxonomy
Implicit Game Aesthetics (3): Koster’s Theory of Fun

Implicit Game Aesthetics (2): Costikyan’s Critical Language

ParanoiaGame designer Greg Costikyan is most famous for his work on the award-winning Paranoia tabletop role-playing game (1984), pictured left, and the valiant-but-doomed indie publisher Manifesto Games. In 1994 he published an article in the British role-playing journal Interactive Fantasy that was expressly intended as a rebuttal to Crawford's earlier presentation of his terminology in The Art of Computer Game Design (1984). Entitled “I Have No Words & I Must Design” (and available online at Costikyan's website), Costikyan's express goal is to move towards a common critical language – a project as urgently needed today as it was almost two decades ago. He presents the following definition:

A game is a form of art in which participants, termed players, make decisions in order to manage resources through game tokens in the pursuit of a goal.

Notice immediately that Costikyan wants to assert games as art, contra Crawford's distinction – this is an aesthetic value judgement, but about art rather than games, per se, and thus lies somewhat outside the scope of this discussion. He also adds the following remark:

What's key here? Goals. Opposition. Resource management. Information.

Despite the goal to push against Crawford's approach, Costikyan's definition is ultimately quite similar in its component aesthetic value judgements – although it does not create a hierarchical assemblage of priority between them, and in his subsidiary remarks Costikyan suggests a great deal of additional elements that "strengthen games" (we'll return to these points shortly, as they are highly relevant). Nonetheless, Costikyan's key constitutive elements of games embody two of the same value judgements as Crawford: the victory aesthetic (goals) and the conflict aesthetic (opposition). What Costikyan adds is "resource management and information", which are presented in the context of the player's need to make decisions. This corresponds to Sid Meier's aesthetic assertion that "a good game is a series of interesting choices", and can be understood as a decision aesthetic. There is some potential overlap with the previously mentioned agency aesthetic, but it may be prudent to treat these as different – in particular because agency tends to concern the fiction of the game, whereas decisions tend to concern the rules of the game (although the blurring between these two is unavoidable).

However, decision-making is a subset of problem-solving tasks that certain players relate to the concept of a game, and thus the decision aesthetic is part of a wider aesthetic of play. As Costikyan remarks in his countering of Crawford's suggestion that Zork (1977-79) is a puzzle and not a game:

Almost every game has some degree of puzzle-solving; even a pure military strategy game requires players to, e.g., solve the puzzle of making an optimum attack at this point with these units. In fact, if a game involves any kind of decision making, or trade-offs between different kinds of resources, people will treat these as "puzzle elements," trying to devise optimal solutions. Even in deathmatch play of a first-person shooter, players will seek to use cover and terrain for advantage – 'solving the puzzle' posed by the current positions of opponents and the nature of the surrounding environment, if you will. You can't extract puzzle from game entirely.

Thus even though Costikyan himself seems to favour putting emphasis on the decision process over the wider activity of puzzle-solving, there is a more general problem aesthetic that can be recognised – one that views all play as puzzles or problems to be resolved. The overlap with agency is somewhat obscured when the focus becomes problem-solving rather than decision-making: we can make a decision about what colour car to drive but this is not a problem that can be solved, except in the most contrived use of the word 'problem'.

Should Costikyan's flagging of resource management be taken as part of problem(or decision) aesthetics, or as a separate assertion? This is unclear. Focussing on resources invites the kinds of decisions that correspond generally to the problem aesthetic (i.e. the activation of the orbital-frontal cortex and the consequent release of the reward chemical dopamine). Yet decisions are also possible in other wide senses, and these rapidly converge on the aforementioned agency aesthetic. Perhaps these two are in some kind of tension – between the formal, rules-focussed slant of the resource decision or problem-solving process at one end and the informal, fiction-focussed bent that is often entailed in attributions of agency to a game. These problems will have to pursued at other times using different methods. However, it is quite plausible that what is being alluded to here is close to a systems aesthetic that we will see later with Raph Koster's and Dan Cook's approaches to defining games.

Crawford, responding to the places where Costikyan's definition diverges from his own suggests that the reference to tokens sounds like "a throwback to the days of boardgames" and the reference to resource management reflects "a strategy gamer's approach to the problem", although he does not ultimately find either problematic. It is interesting, however, that Crawford uses the term 'throwback', which involves a value judgement – as if Crawford believes that now videogames exist there is no place for boardgames. A great many boardgamers – including Costikyan and myself – would vehemently disagree with this assertion. Thus if Crawford is making a value judgement against a boardgame-inspired term, there seems to be a case that Costikyan is also advocating a tabletop aesthetic. This might amount to nothing more than the belief that the fundamental systems used in tabletop games are compatible with their counterparts in videogames, and this may in fact be a subtle variation on the decision aesthetic. Still, a tension between a videogame aesthetic and a tabletop aesthetic that prioritises one form of play over the other may be present in this kind of discourse. I will not dwell on these media-specific aesthetics, but it should be recognised that both these and genre-specific aesthetic stances can be found in most discussions about games.

Costikyan's approach becomes far wider when he looks at those things that "strengthen games". Although these do not form part of his definition of 'game', they still embed aesthetic value judgements. Costikyan draws attention to diplomacy, colour (meaning the fictional gloss layered over the raw game rules), simulation, variety of encounter, position identification, role-playing, socialisation, and narrative tension. These broadly divide into general aesthetic positions. Firstly, those game-strengthening possibilities that specifically concern the way that players interact with each other beyond conflict – diplomacy and socialisation in Costikyan's terms. This could be termed a social aesthetic (diplomacy, socialisation), and it is worth noting that Costikyan (like Crawford) wishes to make the conflict requirement necessary and the social aesthetic tangential. It would not be difficult to defend the social aesthetic over the conflict aesthetic – co-operative games can often be expressed in terms of conflict, but such arguments are generally sophistic. Like Crawford, Costikyan still has some hierarchical judgements on games embedded in his approach.

Secondly, those game-strengthening possibilities that rely on the fiction or the player's imaginative faculties – specifically colour, position identification and role-playing. This imaginative aesthetic can be found elsewhere: in Imaginary Games I go some way towards defending an aesthetic value judgement that places this at the root of all of our experiences of play, for instance, which reflects a long and slow transformation of my beliefs about games over the last decade. Costikyan's simulation probably also belongs in this category – he notes that "simulation is a way of providing color" and also that "it improves character identification", which seems consistent with this approach. Lastly, Costikyan asserts that games can be strengthened by variety of encounter and narrative tension, which are forms of an uncertainty aesthetic that we'll examine more closely later.

What is striking about Costikyan's approach, even allowing for the apparent precedence given to the kinds of aesthetic value judgements also found in Crawford, is that it is so wide reaching. Definition aside, Costikyan allows for an incredibly diverse range of aesthetics of play within his framework. He still wishes to mount his priorities in similar ways to Crawford – namely the prioritisation of the victory and the conflict aesthetic. There may be a psychological or neurobiological explanation for this in terms of gender, or more specifically, in terms of testosterone. This chemical is associated informally with the male gender, since it is the male sexual hormone and governs the development of male sexual traits, but it affects both genders in the same essential ways and women with high testosterone levels display the same psychological traits as high testosterone men. It is a hypothesis I am currently investigating as to whether the psychological implications of higher testosterone levels in terms of persistence, tolerance to frustration and consequent enjoyment of conflict will serve as an explanation for why certain game designers wish to single out victory and conflict as key to games, but it is my strong intuition that these two aesthetic positions are related to testosterone in some way.

Next week: Koster's Theory of Fun


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I think in the case of both Crawford and Costikyan their definitions are strongly influenced by a desire to carve out a discursive space for games that is separate and distinct from critical methodologies borrowed from other media. Partially I think it's because of an honest recognition that existing lit-crit tools were inadequate to discuss rule-based interactions, but also I think it was part of the 90's digital zeitgeist (which we still haven't fully escaped from) that was heavily invested in portraying new media as radically disruptive and transformative. (Cough ... gamification ... cough.) The future was going to be non-linear, interactive, rhizomatic ... . And so Crawford and Costikyan both put forward definitions that emphasize the apartness of the medium -- the critical rupture that videogames present.

By focusing their definitions on elements that are absent from most narrative forms -- goals, challenges, conflicts, competition -- they do succeed in carving out a distinct critical discourse for games. But at the expense, I think, of constructing a fairly narrow straightjacket on the sorts of play spaces that that critical discourse can address. In Callois' typology, they've drawn their circle tightly around agon -- leaving alea, ilinx, and mimicry largely outside. They're both good enough designers to realize that interesting forms of play lie beyond their definitions, but are too invested in othering traditional media to formally bridge the gap.

Excellent comment - I have nothing to add but my agreement.

I've been recently pondering whether it is the right thing to call games a medium. Maybe we are better off seeing them as sign systems or discourses about a fictional world. Because it looks like the same game can be presented through a wide range of media (thereby becoming subject to the options and limitations of the preferred medium).

On the other hand I do not really agree with the thought that narratives have no goals, challenges, conflict or competition. They may not have these in "interactive" forms, but still it is very hard to not notice the variety of goals, challenges, conflicts and competitions that story persons are subject to. Maybe calling these "intra-active" could be a way to express that these are present, but not open to manipulation.

The narratologist Bremond tried to figure what prevents a story from a premature ending. To get an idea, he analzyed many narratives and discovered that story persons are always choosing what's good for story progress when they arrive at decision-nodes. They could have opted to do what is not good for the story, that is, what would bring them to a premature ending. That's why he calls decision nodes the "areas of risk". However, that's where the author jumps in: he sees the author's role as one of creating the forces of necessity: An author creates the conditions that make the story persons chose what's good for story progression. This also makes their choices look logical, and not as something that simply looks like the author wanted it to happen like that. He calls this the illusion of fate, one of the most important skills that an author must possess in order to erase his traces.

In narratives the areas of risk are potential risks, because the author makes sure that the story persons choose what's good for story progress. But in video games they are real risks, because no matter how hard a designer pushes for necessity, a player may always try out something different. Maybe that's the biggest difference between intra and inter-active.

My 2 cents.

While the characters in a story present the illusion of working toward goals, I think it's important to distinguish the content of a work from the experience of engaging with it.

That said, I would agree that readers do have goals -- albeit not the same sort of goals that players have in a game. In playing a game, the player is directed to work toward a specific position of the game's state space -- the victory condition. In reading a story, the reader's interpretive decisions are governed by a desire to work toward positions in the text's interpretive space that maximize or minimize anticipation -- i.e. toward interpretations that deny or embrace closure. The result is a play experience in which certain interpretive "moves" are better than others without there being a single predetermined victory condition that the reader is struggling to achieve.

"It is a hypothesis I am currently investigating as to whether the psychological implications of higher testosterone levels in terms of persistence, tolerance to frustration and consequent enjoyment of conflict will serve as an explanation for why certain game designers wish to single out victory and conflict as key to games [...]."

I'd be really interested in hearing more about this, particularly since I find you have a track record of clear and thoughtful takes on these issues (I had certainly noticed that the kind of behavior pointed to as true gameplay in such cases frequently coincides strongly with male-coded behavior).

I've long been surprised by the fierceness with which definitions of "games" are put forward and hierarchies are built up between goal-oriented challenges and other forms of interactivity. It would be interesting to peek behind the curtains of the debate.

Even if you don't go into more detail, I look forward to your future posts in this series, and I'd like to thank you for giving the topic some thought!

Altugi: "I've been recently pondering whether it is the right thing to call games a medium... Because it looks like the same game can be presented through a wide range of media"

If I can abuse Marshall MacLuhan for a moment, "the medium is the message" and so for games "the interface is the design". So I'm not sure it's correct to claim that the *same game* can be presented through a wide range of media. This use of 'same game' is equivalent to the use of 'same story' that is used to suggest (say) Seven Samurai "is the same story" as Battle Beyond the Stars. This claim is false except from an extremely abstract concept of 'game'.

If we take an example of the boardgame Carcassonne and a videogame adaptation of Carcassone, is it really reasonable to say this is "the same game"? The aesthetic experience, for a start, is completely different - and as a matter of fact, in the case of how I play boardgames a videogame adaptation of Carcassonne *cannot* be the same game that I play, because my group perpetually tweaks rule-sets for its tastes. The fact that we can do this easily is an aspect of the boardgame Carcassonne that is absend in the videogame adaptation - as such, I'm inclined to say it's a different game.

Incidentally, the media in this case were boardgames and videogames. So I suppose I *agree* that we shouldn't think of 'game' as a medium. But boardgame and videogames are mediums to me.

"On the other hand I do not really agree with the thought that narratives have no goals, challenges, conflict or competition."

I quite agree. But then I see narrative as a type of game, so... :)

(I love your Bremond anecdote, by the way - this is a phenomena I have often pondered myself!)


Brian: I broadly agree with everything you say except your use of the term "victory condition" - when the goal state is, for instance, the death of the player character, it could be misrepresentative to call this 'victory'. :)

Guerric: Thanks for expressing an interest! I don't have much I can say right now but I have research funding in process for investigating this so I will have much more to say in the future! What I can say at this point is that the literature on testosterone identifies what is called "lack of frustration tolerance" with high testosterone levels, as well as persistance. My suspicion is that what is called 'lack of frustration tolerance' is an overt display of frustration and *not* (as is assumed) a lack of tolerance for frustration - the persistance angle, it seems to me just from my play studies, trumps the frustration such that individuals that (I am imputing) have high testosterone levels actually tolerate a great deal of frustration - they just don't keep it to themselves. :)

I hope to have a great deal more to say on this once the funding is in place and so forth.

Best wishes!

I've spent a lot of time thinking what separates decision-making from problem-solving. Obviously, given my theory that all decision-making is problem-solving, there were anamolies such as avatar creators, where, it was pretty clear it's fun to make decisions, but not quite obvious what's "problematic" about it. There were also other anomalies such as necessary decision-making that isn't really fun on its own, such as, main menu decisions.

In the end, I made two very important observations that provided answers:

1. when you solve a problem it ceases to be a problem and it becomes a tool

2. in situations where there is no clear explicit goal set and thus no meaning behind decisions, one can, and this is especially true for kids, imagine the problem for themselves and this way give meaning to otherwise meaningless decisions

So, regarding the first observation, consider that we walk every day. That's not a problem, even though there is decision-making involved. It was a problem back when we were young, but now, it's a tool. It's something we use to solve other problems.

In video games, main menu decisions are purely functional ones and there is supposed to be zero problem-solving involved. Similar goes for interface. We want these decisions to be made as easy as possible.

Now regarding the second observation, it explains why we sometimes take otherwise meaningless decisions so seriously. Avatar creators are fun despite lacking any sort of explicit goal simply because there is enough room to make up goals on our own terms. So, avatar creators become fun because we can set goals such as following:

1. make an avatar that looks like a celebrity
2. make an avatar that will be sexually appealing to you
3. make the ugliest avatar ever
4. make an avatar that fits this or that personality

These all lead to problem-solving, but a kind of problem-solving where you use your own instincts as a judgement rather than some other external object, such as game.

And so, it was pretty obvious to me that all interesting decision-making is problem-solving.

That said, there is no need for separation between "victory", "conflict" and "problem" aesthetic because they are pretty much the same thing, the problem-solving aesthetic. When you have a problem, you have a conflict, and when you solve a problem you have a victory.

Mirosurabu: this is an interesting approach to these issues that you present here! Thanks for 'showing your workings'. However, I think you underestimate the emotional distinctions between problems and decisions.

In the case of an aesthetic exercise such as avatar-doll creation your attempt to problematize this doesn't change the fact that the individual is free to change their terms at will; failure is impossible unless the person in question holds themselves to excessive account. This is very different to strict problem-solving in which it is possible to fail by not coming up with a solution. A problem gives players issues with confusion and boredom - an instance of aesthetic choice may involve decisions and artificial problems to solve, but it rarely presents confusion or boredom issues.

Finally, I don't agree that there is no need to separate victory, conflict and problem aesthetics - although I accept they are close. As we will get to in the final part, I contend different mechanisms for victory(-conflict) to problem aesthetics that would make these distinct. That some players - including, I presume, yourself, pursue victory via problem-solving doesn't change the fact there are those who pursue victory without it being expressly a problem to be solved. There are, I am claiming, strong biological reasons for these distinctions - and in that regard, watch this space. :)

Best wishes!

But my point is that these play activities (i.e. avatar creators) are enjoyed exactly because of problem-solving, even though it's a different kind of problem-solving. Don't you agree with this?

Regarding victory:

How can we experience victory unless we are certain that we've solved some kind of problem? Sure, there's room for superstition, but that's it.

Mirosurabu: it comes down to what you want to flag as problem-solving - you seem to want to be able to subsume many disparate activities under this flag, but I'm resistant to doing this.

In the case of victory, when one football team overcomes another I find thinking of this as a problem that has been solved quite a misleading way of expressing the situation! I recognise that you *can* reduce events in this way, but I don't think it's necessarily helpful to do so.

As for avatar-doll creators, I'm not comfortable viewing this as a form of problem-solving for the reasons I outlined earlier but I recognise that you could reduce them in this way.

It's not that I can't see how you could use problem-solving as a catch all category, it's than my interest is in nuance and diversity of play and this particular goal isn't served by grouping things under single headings. Solving my particular problem isn't helped by viewing all things as problem-solving, if you see what I mean. :)

Again, see the final part of Implicit Game Aesthetics which will run on May 30th for a clear statement of my position, and why I think it's useful to make these kinds of distinction.

All the best!

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