Ecologies of Play

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,


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


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