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Hermit Stage Complete!

Back to social media this June… it is not a transition I am looking forward to, but I’m sure it won’t be so bad once I get over the initial terror at reconnecting to the hive mind.

  • If you commented on either of my blogs, replying to you is my highest priority. Blogs before slogs.
  • If you messaged me on Twitter, I will get back to you, but please allow a few days as I haven’t even installed the app on my pocket robot yet.
  • If you commented on Google+, Chrome would have harassed me about it while I was using Gmail, which is another reminder that I should try and leave Gmail this Summer.
  • Shout out to everyone I met at DiGRA, which I really enjoyed in the end. My ten minute presentation ended up having half an hour, which was just long enough to have fun with it.
  • Apologies, but I doubt I will put my DiGRA presentation online, as it is incomplete without me talking over it. I continue to mull, though, and could be swayed…

What’s in store this June? Find out tomorrow…

Cross-posted from Only a Game.

The Dating Game (The Escapist)

Wendy has a new article up at The Escapist, tackling the thorny question of games versus films from a rather new angle: which is a better date? Here's an extract:

There are certainly some things games could do better than movies. Games could do a great job of helping two people get to know each other - social networking sites are already exploring this kind of territory. What celebrity are you most like? How does your booklist compare to your friend's? Surely game developers can mine this kind of personal trivia for more social fun.

You can read the entire article over at The Escapist. Wendy will also be part of a group panel about the same subject at this year's GDC, moderated by Dustin Clingman.

Roger Caillois' Patterns of Play

First published on Chris Bateman’s blog, Only A Game on 26th May 2006

In his 1958 book Les Jeux et Les Hommes (usually translated as Man, Play and Games), the noted sociologist and intellectual Roger Caillois introduced a terminology for considering patterns in games. He used the term 'game' in a very wide manner, applying it to all play activities. This is a partial consequence of his native language, French, where the term 'jeux' and 'jouer' express the concepts of both play and game in English.

Caillois' interest in games was sociological: the second half of Les Jeux et Les Hommes is a fascinating account of how societies relate to the patterns of play he identified, and is fascinating reading. However, the principle value of Caillois' work for modern game design is that his framework for considering games provides us a unique perspective for examining play.

The term 'patterns of play' was not used by Caillois, but I have coined it to provide a means to refer to the system. Caillois was keen to observe that it is not intended as a taxonomy.

The elements of the system are as follows. Firstly, there are four patterns of play:

Additionally, Caillois suggests that games can be considered to lie at various points on an axis between free creativity and rule-bound complexity:

Caillois' built upon prior work by Johan Huizinga, considered one of the founders of modern cultural history.

The Anarchy of Paidia

First published on Chris Bateman’s blog, Only A Game on 23rd December 2005

Where do games begin? In the anarchy of paidia, we play without rules and without limits. It is amusing, creative and chaotic, but it is also short lived, as when the natural play of a toy becomes formalised, it becomes a game. Children find paidia in every corner of their lives, while adults may struggle to ever make it back to a place where they will permit themselves the freedom to play. But if we can construct games that harness paidia, we might become able to make games for a wider audience than we ever thought possible.

In 1958, the eclectic intellectual Roger Caillois identified four patterns of play - Agon (competition), Alea (chance), Mimicry (simulation), and Ilinx (vertigo). Caillois was aware that these patterns did not cover the entire spectrum of play, but was working towards a sociological model, relating these games to the way societies are organised. Caillois' model for play also includes an axis of distinction, between the formal, rule-focused state of ludus and the anarchic state of spontaneous play he refers to as paidia. He describes paidia as follows:

[Games] can also be placed on a continuum between two opposite poles. At one extreme an almost indivisible principle, common to diversion, turbulence, free improvisation, and carefree gaiety is dominant. It manifests a kind of uncontrollable fantasy that can be designated by the term paidia. At the opposite extreme, this frolicsome and impulsive exuberance is almost entirely absorbed or disciplined by a complimentary, and in some respects inverse, tendency to its anarchic and capricious nature... I call this second component ludus.

(I conjugate 'ludus' to the adjective 'ludic', and 'paidia' to the adjective 'paidic'; I believe language is flexible enough to absorb my reckless conjugations.)

I have accused game designers of being remiss in overlooking the value of alea (games of chance) but we are, on the whole, prone to overlook paidia completely. This is not surprising: the game designer's craft is generally about producing the framework of play, which is to say the rules and abstractions that define the game world and its gameplay. In essence, the game designer works in the field of ludus, and this application of ludic elements is a contrary state of affairs to paidia.

One can see paidia most clearly when a group of children enter a garden, or a playground, or any similar place. In fact, for a child who is young enough, we see paidia wherever they are placed - although if parents and friends have not been careful in 'childproofing', tears may result. It begins with exploration, the examination of everything that the play space contains. The components of the play space can include physical objects (a ball, a stick, a daisy), physical spaces (an open field, a long path), logical spaces (the lines drawn out for a sporting match, for instance) and other people (typically a child's peer group). Different children will approach these potential toys in different ways.

In some respects, this moment is the purest expression of paidia, since the instant a course of action evolves, ludus begins to express itself. Indeed, play is arguably always on a journey from paidia to ludus, although it would be wrong to think that it cannot also travel back towards paidia - as when a group discard a tedious boardgame rule because it doesn't suit the way they want to play.

What may happen in our hypothetical playground? A child picks up the stick. It has heft and weight. They may begin to hit things with it (a form of ilinx), or they may see it as a sword and begin to act out a little fantasy (a form of mimicry). A daisy may invite a child to pull off its petals, one by one - perhaps chanting "he loves me, he loves me not" or some similar rhyme (a form of alea). A child in an open field may be filled with a spontaneous desire to run (especially downhill!), which might evolve into a form of agon if other children decide to join in with her running, or they may use the space to spin around rapidly (invoking ilinx). Lines on the ground may invite a child to try and walk and balance along them, or suggest simple games.

Some activities will prove more fun than others. Hitting objects with a stick is more fun if everyone around you is laughing about it, for instance. The infinite possibilities of paidia become mediated by the pragmatics of interaction. If the same group regularly return to the same playground, patterns of play will develop... expressions of ludus will gradually mediate the initial anarchy. Indeed, if the children have already learned simple games, they may turn straight to these ludic patterns (depending, of course, on their personality, mood and inclinations).

Pure paidia, then, is short lived - but the impulse for paidia can exert itself at all scales of ludus. Whenever we are given a set of rules for play, it can be fun to explore what happens when those rules are bent, overlooked, or replaced, although the group must be willing. The more that a form of play is repeated, the more likely it is to become more formally expressed - this is the journey from paidia towards ludic play - but paidia can re-exert itself as a temporary escape from the rules at any time.

The journey from paidia to ludus arguably culminates in sports - which are ludic patterns so formalised that there are professionals hired to enforce the rules (referees). Sports are so formal that they contain rituals such as anthem singing, coin tossing, employment drafts and so forth which have insinuated themselves into their ludic and social structure. As rituals that divert tribal conflict impulses into harmless agon, they are of enormous social significance.

Hobbygames can be more complex ludic structures than sports, but their cultural effects are limited because their appeal is constrained to those with a love of intricacy (in Temperament Theory, only those expressing the Rational pattern to some degree can deal with their complexity). Another key distinction here is that hobbygames are designed, whereas sports evolve from organic paidia. This in part explains why sports can have such esoteric rules. I love American football, but it's rules are the epitome of arcana, and the Offside rule in football (soccer to some) is famously obscure.

Raph Koster expressed his view that paidia activities generally have more rules not less:

Paidia generally "imports" rulesets derived from a vast array of cultural assumptions, whereas ludus games are ones that have been tightly defined down (and which nonetheless have an assortment of rules that are implied but not stated that are part of the cultural practice of game playing). A game of freeform roleplay (a paidia-mimicry game) is, to my mind, an incredibly difficult challenge involving the learning of and successful navigation of an enormous variety of rules that are no less strict for being unspoken. Often, it’s a process of defining the rules in accordance with cultural assumptions as you go... Our lives are constantly circumscribed by rules; paidia games are about learning what they are and modeling them.

I freely accept that for introverted people, the extroverted play of freeform roleplay can be a difficult social challenge. It is an example of how real world role-playing games help people develop their social skills (which supports Raph's view of games as learning mechanisms). However, the social rules Raph refers to still apply in ludic tabletop role-playing games: the freeform game is simply a small step back towards paidia.

The notion of social rules is an important topic in sociological fields such as social constructionism. But on examination these 'rules' are not necessarily ludic structures but rather patterns of distinction between what is normal or acceptable behaviour and what is abnormal or unacceptable. Few game rules take this form. Although I concur that we can model society as a game, I do not share Raph's view that paidia games are principally about learning or modelling social rules.

For instance, one of my favourite paidia games is Sink, immortalised in the pages of the Principia Discordia. This is a natural play activity which is enjoyed by children (and child-like adults) anywhere there is a large body of water: you throw something that floats into the water, then you attempt to sink it by throwing other stuff at it. Highly recommended! Children do not need to be taught the game, and the game has nothing to do with society, rather the play is the implicit consequence of its elements: a body of water, something that floats, and stones. This is the essence of pure paidia to my mind.

Another paidic activity I enjoy (and have mentioned here before) is making dams out of sand; once again, the play emerges naturally as an implicit consequence of the components of play - in this case, a stream and sand or mud. I am considering in the future hosting a game designer's retreat based on paidic beach activities: dams, sink and watching sandcastles destroyed by the encroaching tide. (I'm still looking for the right venue, and I have no idea who would be interested in participating. Still, even if its just myself and Corvus, I know we'll have fun).

Paidia need not be the provision of children - but when do adults permit themselves the freedom to engage in unadulterated play? I conjecture they do so when they feel safe. This is not only in the sense of physical safety (the absence of risk of injury) but also of psychological safety (the absence of risk of frustration or embarrassment, for instance). Some adults rarely if ever permit themselves such luxuries, but most can be coaxed.

I notice that those with a technical bent indulge in paidia when they get a new gadget. Although a small few will read manuals first, many will launch themselves into experimentation: what does this do? I wonder what happens if I do this? Is there a way I can do this? This is a form of paidia, at least until the structure of the device's interface or controls become apparent - until they learn to play the gadget's game.

The same thing happens when a player sits down at a videogame for the first time - but again, only if they feel safe to experiment. This safety can come from game literacy (experience with games), or from a friend or relative standing by to provide advice and support, or just from personal self confidence. Any budding game designer should spend the time to see people with very little videogame experience tackle a game for the first time. When a player begins to play, they commence with the paidia that evolves naturally from experimentation.

At GDC 2005, Ramon Romero of Microsoft's Games User Research showed footage of various random people playing games for the first time. I was particular touched by the middle aged man who drove around in Midtown Madness as if he was playing a driving simulator. "This is a great game", he said, as he stopped at a red light and waited for it to change. He had not interpreted the game world as a place exclusively for agon, but had instead automatically tended towards mimicry. What a shame that this particular game did not support this mode of play!

In our hypothetical playground, the children develop from pure paidia to some ludic elements in an organic fashion. In a game world, the transition from paidia to ludus is mediated by the game design. The player finds their avatar in a area with certain elements. The player experiments. If they are highly game literate, they may immediately know what to do, because most games are highly derivative of one another, but as a general case this is unusual.

Suppose the player comes across a ball as the first thing they find in the game world. They want to pick it up and throw it. But how do they do this? They experiment. They push buttons at random and see what happens. If the game is effective at supporting paidia, fun things will happen - they may or may not end up throwing the ball, depending upon the design of the game. They might find that one button causes them to roll on the ground, and this might be entertaining in itself. If throwing the ball is an easy action to deduce, they will eventually do it. If not, they may conclude that it cannot be done. Gradually, the player learns the game rules: ludus is enforced upon them. If throwing the ball is essential to progress, the player may have to be taught to throw it. The necessity of learning is a consequence of enforced ludus in this instance; in the real world, working out how to throw the ball would not be a factor - you'd just do it.

It follows, therefore, that to support paidia we need to encourage and allow for the player's capacity to experiment freely, and assist the player to express the most obvious implied actions for each game element. This is an unusual situation - a video game requires formal rules or procedures to exist, but if we want the player to play freely, we need to construct these rules in a form that supports self-expression (or the illusion of self-expression, created by anticipating the most likely free choices and implementing them). There are two principle ways I believe this can be achieved: simplicity and exhaustive attention to detail.

If the game is simple enough in its conception that free play is automatically supported, which arguably happens with Katamari Damacy, a form of paidia results. There is nothing especially complex to learn, so the player has the freedom to play (at least until the goal-orientation of the games' structure imposes). Lego Star Wars benefits similarly from its simplicity (it had to be simple if a parent and child were to play together; most parents are rubbish at games). The player does not actually have the freedom to do whatever they want, but rather the natural tendencies suggested by the game elements encourages the player to act in a manner consistent with the intended play. Both games are considerably more paidic than we have come to expect from the current games industry.

Alternatively, the makers of the game can invest the time and money to add additional play elements wherever they naturally occur. Part of the success of the recent Grand Theft Auto games is that attention has been paid to supporting the natural paidia of the environment. A taxi suggests the mimicry of being a taxi driver - so this behaviour is added. Bystanders and weapons suggest murderous carnage - and behaviour is added to the game to support this form of paidia (only suitable in a game!). Sadly, a great deal has been added with excessive emphasis on ludic fiero, so the appeal still has its limits, but nonetheless, the playground world that the team builds with each successive GTA iteration supports more and more paidia - more and more free play. This approach is devastatingly expensive, however.

There is nothing wrong with highly ludic games, and these will always have an audience, but if we truly wish to aspire to the mass market audience that upper market budgets imply we need to spend more design and implementation time focusing on the issues of minimising how much the player must learn and maximising how much the player can simply play. This involves simplifying the interface as much as is humanly possible and (possibly) the addition of intelligently organised context-sensitive elements. It may also involve adding behaviour to the game elements to support any obviously implied play actions - thus transforming the game world into a play world.

This latter process is not principally a (strategic) game design problem, but a (tactical) game tweaking problem ideally requiring observation of new players with the game (what we call blind testing). If you have ever wondered why certain hallowed game developers no longer seem as good as they once were, I suspect it is because they no longer have the money to pay for the expensive back end of the project - that process of tweaking which brings out the play world, and thus expands the appeal of the game beyond those with a taste for the ludic. Rockstar North has the money to do this (but strangely only do it with GTA games). Most companies can't afford it.

This is our dirty little secret that we're slightly reluctant to own up to: to make mass market games is expensive because it takes a lot of time and effort to tweak them sufficiently for Casual players to be able to enjoy the game. The Hardcore tolerate the rough edges, because they have the game literacy to push through it, and the games are more frequently designed to meet their play needs, while Casual players will stop playing when they cannot work out what is expected of them. The most important property a game developer can possess if they want to succeed in the upper market is good workflow. Good workflow means you can make changes faster, which means you can smooth the rough edges and enhance the inherent play of the game. Good game design is an asset to any project, but it is no substitute for good workflow because even the best game designer in the world does not wholly anticipate how all aspects of the game will work in practice.

Paidia, then, is the anarchic nebula from which all play originates. Paidia (for most players) is fun - it's the very definition of fun - but it is a short lived kind of fun... it is exuberant amusement, but it eventually gives way to ludus and to other kinds of fun. We need to recognise the sheer number of people who lack any kind of game literacy and for whom picking up a new game is not fun but instead is a baffling ordeal. I do not believe that video games are only for a certain type of person - I believe we can make video games for any and all people. But to do so we need to learn new skills... we need to learn how to support spontaneous play, to discover how to construct game worlds as play worlds, and to present the game so that the player's transition into ludus can be a journey from paidia, and not merely the process of patiently learning the ludic elements of the game.

Let us play...

The Complexity of Ludus

First published on Chris Bateman’s blog, Only A Game on 14th April 2006

What is ludus? What is a game? Are these two questions related? Is ludus synonymous with rules? What is the relationship between rules and games, and must games expressly possess rules? Because of the flexibility of language, these questions might not possess absolute answers. In tackling ludus, we have no choice but to indulge in philosophical discussions, because ludus exists in the abstract realm of ideas, and cannot be measured or otherwise objectively analysed. How then are we to understand ludus?

In 1958, the eclectic French intellectual Roger Caillois identified four patterns of play - Agon (competition), Alea (chance), Mimicry (simulation), and Ilinx (vertigo), about which I have written previously at some length. Caillois' model for play also includes an axis of distinction, between the anarchy of spontaneous play called paidia, and the more formal, rule-focused state he refers to as ludus. He describes ludus as follows:

A primary power of improvisation and joy, which I call paidia, is allied to the taste for gratuitous difficulty that i propose to call ludus, in order to encompass the various games to which, without exaggeration, a civilising quality can be attributed...

In general, the first manifestations of paidia have no name and could not have any, precisely because they are not part of any order, distinctive symbolism, or clearly differentiated life that would permit a vocabulary to consecrate their autonomy with a specific term. But as soon as conventions, techniques, and utensils emerge, the first games as such arise with them: e.g. leapfrog, hide and seek, kite-flying, teetotum, sliding, blindman's buff, and doll-play. At this point, the contradictory roads of agon, alea, mimicry and ilinx begin to bifurcate. At the same time, the pleasure experienced in solving a problem arbitrarily designed for this purpose also intervenes, so that reaching a solution has no other goal than personal satisfaction for its own sake.

This condition, which is ludus proper, is also reflected in different kinds of games, except for those which wholly depend upon the cast of a die. It is complementary to and a refinement of paidia, which it disciplines and enriches. It provides an occasion for training and normally leads to the acquisition of a special skill, a particular mastery of the operation of one or another contraption or the discovery of a satisfactory solution to problems of a more conventional type.

At this point we must pause and clarify that in talking about ludus here we are talking specifically of Caillios’ ludus; the term can and is applied by other people, and therefore like all words has diverse meanings and definitions. Here we are talking solely about what Caillois meant when he said ludus (or what we suppose that he meant), and looking at what this means in the context of the modern games industry.

A few key phrases are worth repeating, in order to understand what it was that Callois was speaking of:

  • Ludus implies "...a taste for gratuitous difficulty"
  • The early stages of ludus allow for "...the pleasure experienced in solving a problem arbitrarily designed... reaching a solution has no other goal than personal satisfaction for its own sake"
  • Ludus provides for "...the acquisition of a special skill, a particular mastery..."

Firstly, let us consider the idea that ludus implies intentional difficulty, because this is clearly stated. Why should this be so? A simple example will serve to elucidate. When children kick around a ball, this is paidia to Caillois; it has no explicit rules, and its play is defined by the inherent properties of kicking a ball. This is principally the physics of gravity, friction, and air resistance and so forth, all of which are implicit - properties of the universe - and not explicit - properties assigned by human agency.

However, suppose that they add to their play a single vertical post - perhaps it is a broom handle stuck into the ground - and begin to play in order to see who can hit the broomstick with the ball. Here, the task has been made harder - for it is clearly easier to hit a ball than it is to hit a specific target with a ball. This is what I believe Callois refers to when he talks of 'gratuitous difficulty': the addition of rules which by their very existence increase the difficulty of the play.

Of course, increasing difficulty can be fun. Following Csikszentmihalyi’s model of Flow, if the challenge is significantly less than capabilities, boredom results. Therefore, the addition of rules in this way (the application of ludus) can reduce boredom - it provides a sufficiently entertaining challenge. In adding such rules, however, especially in this early transition from paidia to ludus, it is important that the challenge remains attainable. If the goal were to kick the ball such that it would balance atop the broomstick, it would be beyond anyone’s realistic expectation to succeed, and frustration would naturally result.

In this way, then, we can see ludus as the tempering of paidia with restrictions such that a sufficient level of challenge is maintained. "Gratuitous difficulty" should not be interpreted as 'challenges beyond reasonable chance of success' but rather the imposition of sufficient difficulty as to render the activity rewarding.

This ties in with Caillois’ comment about "the pleasure experienced in solving a problem arbitrarily designed". This should not be taken to mean solely an intellectual problem (such as a crossword puzzle, or a chess game), but rather, a challenge of any kind, solved in the manner appropriate. The challenge of hitting the broomstick with a ball is a physical challenge requiring co-ordination of one’s feet, but it is still "a problem arbitrarily designed".

This then is why ludus leads to "the acquisition of a special skill, a particular mastery" - because any challenge thus constructed requires specific skills to resolve: in the case of the ball and the broomstick, the skills of ball control which are also the skills used in the game of football (soccer to some) and its derivatives. Similarly, the skills acquired in learning to play a game of Chess are the skills of state space searching, which are also used in chequers and in some games of solitaire.

Ludus can thus be seen as being a synonym for the explicit rules of a game, which include the rules by which play proceeds (or rather, the limits of what is allowed), the rules that define the goals of the game (or any scoring mechanism, which is merely a more complicated form of goal structure) and the rules which dictate the allowable properties of the components of play (the size and weight of a ball, or the dimensions of the playing field).

However, in the transition to the realm of videogames we are faced with a certain problem. We have thus far considered the qualities of play in paidia to be the implicit properties of the system involved - the physics of the ball, for instance - and only the human-applied rules which temper this basic behaviour qualify as part of the realm of ludus.

In a videogame, there are strictly no implicit qualities: the entire system is comprised of programming code, and are thus quite literally explicit. Should we therefore consider all aspects of a videogame to be ludus? I do not believe this is consistent with how Caillois employed the term.

Let us consider a specific example in the form of a generic platform game. The game consists of a world in which the player guides their avatar, primarily through the utility of a jump ability, and secondarily through the use of other abilities awarded through play. Their goal is the acquisition of certain tokens by one or more mechanisms. Enemies populate the world, and can interfere with the avatar’s activities.

Which of these elements fit the definition of ludus?

The avatar’s movement in the world, on foot or by jumping, are inherent abilities possessed throughout the game, and seem analogous to the basic abilities one might possess in the real world. In playing a game of jumping, such as hopscotch, we can scarcely consider the jumping to be part of the explicit rules - rather, it is part of the implicit substructure of the universe in which the game is played. I contend that these basic avatar abilities are similarly part of the implicit substructure of the game world. That these abilities were defined by human agency during the development of the game is tangential (in discussing hopscotch, we did not need to turn to discussion of God or natural selection in order to appreciate that jumping was an implicit property of the players).

The secondary abilities gained are similarly considered. When a player interacts with a ball, they have new abilities as a consequence of the properties of the ball, but the addition of the ball would not normally be considered ludus. The only exception to this might be if the ball was acquired as a consequence of an imposed rule - for instance, the player must jump and balance upon a stool in order to earn the right to kick the ball. We are here in a strange middle ground - since we must consider whether the abilities gained are gained by rule or simply emerge as a consequence of the world.

The goal, and the resultant play of collecting tokens, is the only element which we can unambiguously assign to rules, and hence to ludus. Here we see the embodiment of "gratuitous difficulty" for in the positions of the tokens the challenges have been laid out for the player to both find, and to solve.

The enemies are in a similarly ambiguous state as the secondary abilities. Should one consider these as implicit in the world, or explicit problems to overcome? In a real world setting, a game involving (say) catching butterflies would not consider the butterflies themselves to be a product of ludus, and the only ludic elements would therefore be any rules or restrictions applied (such as the rule that the person who collects the most butterflies wins). But on the other hand, if one were to construct a mechanical dog as a component in a game - perhaps one that snaps at passers by, and thus they are out - would we not consider this to be an added difficulty, and therefore a ludic element?

What is apparent in this consideration of the specifics of a typical platform game is that the boundary between ludus as Caillois defines it and the game world is extremely subjective. We know (or believe we know) how the real world is comprised and behaves - at least to a degree sufficient to play within it. But in a game world, the behaviour is defined by the developers of the software. To consider the abstractions of the game world as ludic elements is almost to suggest that God (or something equivalent) contributed ludic elements to the universe. But these are not the purpose of these elements (such as gravity) but rather these inherent elements are co-opted to play because they exist.

I wish to suggest, therefore, that we can choose to determine a distinction between the substructure of a game world - the physical laws of the world - and the infrastructure of the game rules - the rules of the game (or games) played within this world. This is a distinction between the nature of the game world, and the nature of the ludus (rules) of the game. Sadly, we can never draw this line precisely because the boundary between the structure of the game world and the rules of the games played within it is inherently ambiguous. But as Wittgenstein has suggested: "Many words in this sense then don’t have a strict meaning. But this is not a defect. To think it is would be like saying that the light of my reading lamp is no real light at all because it has no sharp boundary."

What does this mean for a highly abstracted game, such as a turn based strategy game? Here, the substructure of the game world is unlike the substructure of the real world. It consists, for instance, of a series of squares (or hexes et al) within which the components of the game are capable of moving about. Furthermore, are we to consider the properties of the individual units to be originating in ludus or in the game world? Since the individual units have natural properties, and these properties do not in themselves appear to comprise "problems arbitrarily designed" we might be tempted to exclude these from ludus. But in point of fact, the units in such a game can be seen as representing "problems arbitrarily designed". After all, in a game of Chess, do the problems inherent in each move not originate in the properties of the pieces?

Games of this style, therefore - such as Chess, turn-based strategy games, non-real time cRPGs, game-like simulations and so forth - should be considered highly ludic games. Their world is defined in a fashion in which it is much harder to separate the game world from the game rules (the ludus) and therefore we can choose to consider these to be wholly ludic in their construction.

What, then, makes the world of the platform game so different? I contend it is that the world resembles the world of our every day experience, and as such, we interpret those elements of the world which most strongly resemble the world of our experience as being part of the substructure of the game world. Why should we make such distinction? Because in paidia, we play freely because we subconsciously accept the properties of everyday life (such as movement, jumping, gravity), and even in a game world we can accept these things subconsciously if they resemble that with which we are most familiar.

We will never entirely eliminate the subjective element in distinguishing between the framework of the game world and the ludus of the game, but in tying the game world to the expectations for which we are biologically pre-programmed to accept, we can at least minimise the need to debate the boundary conditions. The behaviour of a car in a racing game can be considered substructural because it follows our expectation, while the conditions of the race itself are ludic; the behaviour of a unit in a strategy game is ludic because we must always learn explicitly what that behaviour might be, we can never imply it. Note here that the understanding of the behaviour of a car is a cultural artefact, and not a universal, which further underlines the subjectivity at the core of this distinction.

Ludus, therefore, in Caillois’ sense, is a measure of artificial complexity, and therefore of imposed challenge and difficulty. The more ludic a game, the more complex its components (and the more learning is implied), and the more difficult the play of the game. The more ludic a game, the more and different skills that might be learned - and perhaps too, the more intrinsic to the game these skills become.

When one masters a strategy game, one learns nothing of what is required to play a first person shooter, and vice versa, although of course the ludic elements of the continuum of games are so interbred as to provide more crossover than might perhaps be expected. To give a more specific example, learning the power sequences for specific pokémon provides no benefit when you play a different cRPG, despite the fact that there is considerable crossover in the basic mechanics of any given cRPGs. The ludus that defines each pokémon is specific to a pokémon game.

The least ludic games are therefore those whose substructure is most akin to our conventional reality, and the most are those which are comprised of many layers of rules and strictures. We might therefore consider the platform game to be quite low on the ludic scale, with a first person shooter perhaps being similarly light in its ludic components, while a cRPG is relatively high upon the ludic scale, and a typical strategy game higher still. Real time strategy games lurk in a middle ground, being highly ludic, but less complex than the turn based strategy games which disappear into an esoteric realm of their own construction.

And what of sporting games? These are highly ludic - but the barrier of learning their peculiar rules is usually mitigated by the fact that those that play the videogame versions are in general fully cognisant of these rules. Since we have been unable to eliminate the subjective effects of culture, one must be tempted to place these lower down the ludic scale than cRPGs and strategy games, since the rules of these games are practically a cultural inheritance. In this, as in any discussion of ludus, there is sufficient subjectivity as for debate to be both possible, and simultaneously quite unlikely to be productive.

Returning to Caillois, the following paragraph succinctly encapsulates the role of ludus:

What I call ludus stands for the specific element in play the impact and cultural creativity of which seems most impressive. It does not connote a psychological attitude as precise as that of agon, alea, mimicry or ilinx, but in disciplining the paidia, its general contribution is to give the fundamental categories of play their purity and excellence.

Indeed, this notion of purity is intimately intertwined with ludus, and those games which express ludus most strongly (including state space games such as Chess, and strategy games of all kinds) are in many respects pure games, or pure ludic games (which need not be a tautology). They barely contain the capacity for paidia at all, because they have no game world substructure, and it is here - in the implicit components of a world - that paidia thrives. They are so far up the ludic scale as to be all but incapable of paidia.

Ludus, as described by Caillois, is a measure of the complexity of a game system, and the challenges and difficulties inherent to those systems. Ludus refers to rules, and also to those abstract properties of systems which function as rules in defining the extent and nature of the interactions possible within the game space. Ludus is abstract and intellectual, whereas paidia is informal and visceral. Ludus describes that which we generally consider a game, whereas paidia describes that which we generally consider play.

Videogames can encapsulate both ends of this continuum. The ludic extreme has already been thoroughly explored, and arguably it is time for us to commit more certainly to exploring the other end of the scale, where paidia is dominant. But then again, the realm of ludus is so vast as to be effectively infinite, and perhaps we will never exhaust the possibilities inherent in the limitless realm of play defined by ludus.

The Challenge of Agon

First published on Chris Bateman’s blog, Only A Game on 14th March 2006

So central to the modern videogames industry is agon (competition) that many people consider ‘game’ to be almost synonymous with the notion of competitive play. We play to win, the presumption states, and this indeed describes a great many of our modern videogames. I hope that, by having looked at alea, mimicry, and ilinx before agon, I do not need to put forward the counter-argument (that there can be more to games than agon) and can instead focus on exploring the myriad complexities that this category of play entails.

Agon is one of four cross-cultural patterns of play identified by the noted intellectual Roger Caillois in 1958. Caillios was writing at a time before the hobbygames explosion of the 1970’s, before the proliferation of arcade game novelty in the 1980’s and long before the modern videogames market. Consequently, his descriptions of agon are focused on the nature of sports and contests of skill. He described agon as follows:

A whole group of games would seem to be competitive, that is to say, like a combat in which equality of chances is artificially created, in order that the adversaries should confront each other under ideal conditions, susceptible of giving precise and incontestable value to the winner’s triumph. It is therefore always a question of rivalry which hinges on a single quality (speed, endurance, strength, memory, skill, ingenuity, etc.), exercised, within defined limits and without outside assistance, in such a way that the winner appears to be better than the loser in a certain category of exploits.

Whereas Caillois’ other categories of play have not required significant revision to bring into clear focus with respect of modern games, agon requires some slight expansion. When Caillois was writing, the only reasonable form of agon was between two people in a specific challenge or sport. (One could include, perhaps, the agon between matador and bull in the bloodsport of bullfighting, but since Caillois was insistent in seeing agon as a fair contest between participants, I believe this would not qualify: the bull’s chance of survival is considerably less than that of the matador).

A computer game allows the player to engage in a game of agon versus a virtual opponent. This seems to evoke the same behaviour as facing a living opponent. Facing the game, the player first sizes up their capacity to compete. People who cannot throw do not, for instance, enjoy participating in field events based around throwing. Similarly, people who cannot operate a first person shooter (a style of game with a particularly codified form) do not play FPS games in an agonistic style. But those that have capabilities in a particular type of game frequently then enter the state of wishing to test themselves against a degree of challenge. This could be against other opponents - which is quite obviously a fit to Caillois’ agon - or it could be against pre-set challenges, such as the main gameplay of a single player game.

It is worth noting that contests of agon present themselves in certain distinct forms which are worth identifying briefly, if only to provide a wider foundation. Firstly, there are games of one versus one agon, such as a fighting game. Such games are the most intensely agonistic form, and most recognisably fit Caillois’ description of agon. Then, there are one versus many games, such as the FPS which (squad variants not withstanding) place a lone player in contest versus many opponents. Still, the underlying assumption is that the challenge has been balanced fairly (although pragmatically, few games are so well tweaked for this to emerge). Finally, many versus many games, such as strategy games when whole armies fight, which are akin to team-based sports which offer agon between equally matched sides. These distinctions, while notable, do not fundamentally alter the nature of agonistic play, although they may alter the appeal. Fighting games, FPS games and strategy games imply different audiences, with an affinity for challenge in the forms of fast reaction control skills, pathfinding & aiming or thoughtful complexity respectively being key distinctions.

The asymmetric case of the one versus many scenario is something that we are highly familiar with in videogames, but which might have seemed strange to Caillois. Even in the case of one versus one and many versus many we see asymmetry in games: playing a fighting game, it is not possible for the computer opponents to be a balanced challenge for all players. Instead, the game presents a variable degree of challenge; the player climbs the curve of difficulty inside the game. Similarly, a strategy game often has scenarios of increasing difficulty. Instead of presenting a perfectly balanced challenge, the game starts easily (in principle, at least - few games balance themselves to be sufficiently easy for all comers), and then increases the degree of challenge until the player encounters the biting point where they know they will have to perform at the best of their ability to achieve victory. This is when Caillois’ agon really takes hold: prior to this point, one might imagine the player’s actions have merely been training. There is a parallel in sport: an Olympic athlete must still rise through many qualifying rounds against opponents of differing capabilities until they find they are competing against competitors of their own calibre.

This rising challenge versus the player is intended, arguably, to ensure that at some point the player will face a challenge worthy of their abilities. I suggest, therefore, that we can consider there to be some relationship between fiero and agon. Fiero, the emotion Ekman identifies with triumph over adversity, is associated with the physical gesture of holding arms aloft in victory; it is something we can readily observe whenever an athlete wins a difficult game, or in sporting fans whenever their team scores. It is, I attest, intimately connected to agon.

Out of respect for Nicole Lazzaro, from whom I first learned of fiero, I am considering games which tap into this fiero-motivated reservoir of challenge to be games of hard agon (after Lazzaro’s Hard Fun emotional key). These games seem most popular with Hardcore gamers, although this is not to suggest that hard agon is not enjoyed by many Casual players (possibly younger males in particular, although this is far from proven). Fiero can be a tremendously rewarding emotion, and therefore can be a tremendously addictive emotion. Why else would certain players pit themselves against challenges of such depth of adversity that they must endure nearly constant frustration as they pursue with dogged determination the repetitious play intrinsic in most games of this kind? When victory is achieved, the fiero 'pays for' all the pain experienced on the way. Indeed, the greater the depths of pain endured, the larger the fiero for some players. (For others, and especially for more mature players, the residue of frustration reduces the fiero to less engaging relief).

Games of hard agon dare players to beat them. Some are so punishing in the demands they ask of their players, that they practically reach the boundaries of becoming an ordeal. But, provided the fiero payoff is there, ultimately, it becomes worthwhile. It is a drama which we are very familiar with - the Rocky films alone made millions out of their gradual descent into formulaic fiero fantasy.

I argue that many players often do not notice the (debatably) ramshackle design of many games because when a game is offering hard agon, shoddy game design (bad control mechanisms, poor mechanics etc.) are just friction adding to the frustrations which are endured on the path to victory. This places a much greater burden on games which do not use agon as part of their core play to have superior game design, delivering a smoother play to their audience.

At the opposite extreme to the trials of hard agon are those games which offer trivial victory over opponents. Some of these games are diluting the agonistic play with aleatory (random) elements. Consider for one example, a party game like Mario Party or Bishi Bashi. These are ostensibly games of agon - but are really a heady mix of agon and alea. It is not the chance to prove superiority versus one’s foes in these games which provides all the fun, but the random chaos of the mini-games. It is also possible to combine agon and mimicry. I presume part of the fun of a game like The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction (putting aside the ilinx inherent in mindless destruction briefly) comes partly from the illusion of power being supplied. The player is invited to enjoy being strong relative to their opponents - practically the opposite of the fiero-related enjoyment delivered by hard agon. [Note: I haven't actually played this game, so I may be incorrect in this assumption, and it's a safe bet it rapidly devolves into hard agon; first hand opinions and alternative examples welcomed.]

I propose to call these styles of play easy agon (again, in respectful reference to Nicole Lazzaro’s influential Four Keys model). These games are almost invariably drawing upon a mix of play elements, diluting agon with either alea, mimicry or ilinx in varying degrees. Some players may consider there to be little of interest in play when it has been made so unchallenging (perhaps reflecting the importance of fiero to such a person). I personally find nothing problematic in exploring such child-like escapism against virtual opponents. Such play is amusing and entertaining, and far more suitable for stress release than the tension of fiero.

The space that the player ends up within in respect of any given game of agon is determined almost entirely by the strength of the player (determined in part by their own abilities, in part by the game parametrics) relative to the strength of the opposition. Games of hard agon are at the very least evenly matched, and more commonly are biased against the player, so that the player must work even harder to win, and thus achieves an even greater payoff in fiero. Conversely, games of easy agon begin when the player’s strength is weighted higher than the opposition - indeed, these games are arguably at their most fun (and by fun in this case we mean the fun of amusement, not the fun of fiero) when the player is ludicrously overpowered with respect to their opponents. This was surely what made Rampage fun to play when it first came to the arcades, and I assume the recent Hulk game shares something of this feel in its early play.

Because it is the relative difficulty which determines which space the player is in (hard agon, through the "true agon" of equally matched opponents, and finally to easy agon), games can deliver both kinds of play by simply having a large enough range of difficulties. The Dynasty Warriors games in particular demonstrate this facet. On their high difficulty settings, these provide hordes of tough troops and even tougher officers which lure the player to overcome the odds stacked against them and earn fiero. On their lowest difficulty settings (and perhaps after some judicious powering up), the player can enjoy the feeling of effortlessly cutting down hundreds of enemy troops, and knocking enemy officers about the battlefield like they were mere stuffed toys. Both can be intoxicatingly entertaining, but in general terms, these two different settings appeal to different players. (My love of these games is perhaps rooted in the balance between the hard agon I used to enjoy as a teenager, and still have a certain nostalgia for, and the easy agon I find more suited to relaxation in my rapidly approaching middle age).

The implications for game design are that for games wishing to court a wide audience, there may be much value in beginning by balancing the game for easy agon. This is the harder task for almost all games; it is very easy to conceive of means to make a game harder, but generally difficult to conceive of means to make a given game easier without subtracting game mechanics (and thus changing the nature of the gameplay). However, I suspect that game designers who work on highly competitive games of hard agon might argue that balancing for hard agon is an equally challenging task, if for no other reason than the Hardcore audience for hard agon is extremely demanding and particular in their tastes. I welcome insights from people with practical experience in this area, as my own disenchantment with designing games of hard agon limits my knowledge of this particular field.

The nebulous notion of game difficulty seems to be important when considering agon, whereas this was largely unimportant to the other categories of play identified by Caillois. I used to believe that it was possible to build self-calibrating games that could adjust to match the level of difficulty desired by the player. However, it is becoming readily apparent that the level of difficulty desired by the player is not something we can presuppose. Some players want to be met at about their level of challenge (they desire "true agon"), some want to be met with very little level of challenge (desiring easy agon) and some secretly yearn to have the game beat them into a bloody pulp that they may later emerge victorious and aglow with fiero (desiring hard agon).

Perhaps it will be necessary for games with dynamic difficulty mechanisms to identify the player’s desire with respect to agonistic play from the onset. Sorter questions may be the easiest option; something like: "Do you want to: (1) Play for amusement (2) Face a reasonable degree of challenge (3) Triumph against overwhelming odds." Wrangling the language so that this can be presented to players without confusion is a difficult task, but I remain confident that sorter questions are a viable means by which we can establish the nature of play that the player desires. I am hopeful of a more elegant solution, but perhaps not any time soon.

FlowThe fact that different players desire to be in a different place with respect to the degree of challenge connects notably with the model of Flow. The flow channel (depicted), where abilities and challenge are equal, is an area, not a line. When ability outstrips challenge, boredom results, when challenge outstrips ability, anxiety results. Hard agon therefore lies near the top of the flow channel - where the player is close to their limits. Easy agon lies near the bottom of the flow channel - where the player faces just sufficient challenge to entertain. "True agon" lies in the centre of the flow channel. Perhaps finding means to chart a player's position in the flow channel will allow for an automated game balancing system in the future.

Agon is a noble pursuit; the desire to improve one’s abilities and to face others in competition in order to see who will emerge victorious is a motivating force behind all sports and many games. Videogames have expanded the remit of agon to include a wider array of challenges, beyond the central ground of equally matched opponents, and into asymmetries of ability that manipulate the emotions of their players, either through the addictive challenge of fiero, or the trivial escapism of amusement. As tools for entertainment, this blurring of the honourable challenge of agon is essentially harmless in videogames. Furthermore, it provides new opportunities to think about play - even the well-worn play of competition - and perhaps to explore new ways to bring that play to an even wider audience.

The Rituals of Alea

First published on Chris Bateman’s blog, Only A Game on 24th November 2005

Games designers have a tendency to overlook or dismiss alea (chance), although in cultural terms it is a highly significant class of games. The global video games industry has around $28,000 million turnover, whereas the global gambling industry is worth a staggering $1,098,000 million, forty times as much. And gambling is merely the most popular type of aleatory games; there are a wide variety of games of alea, and games incorporating aleatory elements.

Alea is one of four cross-cultural patterns of play identified by the noted intellectual Roger Caillois in 1958. He described alea as follows:

Alea is the Latin name for the game of dice. I have borrowed it to designate, in contrast to agon (games of competition), all games that are based on a decision independent of the player, an outcome over which he has no control, and in which winning is the result of fate rather than triumphing over an adversary. More properly, destiny is the sole artisan of victory, and where there is rivalry, what is meant is that the winner has been more favored by fortune than the loser. Perfect examples of this type are provided by the games of dice, roulette, heads or tails, baccara, lotteries etc. Here, not only does one refrain from trying to eliminate the injustice of chance, but rather it is the very capriciousness of chance that constitutes the unique appeal of the game.

Alea signifies and reveals the favour of destiny. The player is entirely passive; he does not deploy his resources, skill, muscles, or intelligence. All he need do is await, in hope and trembling, the cast of the die.

Anyone who has gambled will recognise this description; those who have never understood why people gamble will similarly struggle to understand alea. Indeed, many narrow minded intellectuals like to berate and belittle players of lotteries by calling such games "a tax on stupidity". Caillois' view on lotteries is rather that they provide hope to those whose prospects in any given culture are limited. He observes that there comes a point in a person's life when they recognise that they cannot change the circumstances of their birth nor the talents they have been given. If their talents do not correspond to a means to make their own fortune in any given culture (and different cultures value different traits in this regard), they may still hold out hope for a life changing miracle. As Caillois writes: "It is the [social] function of alea to always hold out hope of such a miracle."

Frustratingly, I do not know where I read about the little Satori of sports - that moment of consciousness destroying excitement when something might happen - when your team is close to being able to score, for instance. Time stops. Thought stops. (If you know the source of this reference - please let me know!) When a lottery player is still enjoying the experience of playing (rather than playing purely out of habit), the lottery draw is a similar little Satori experience. There is a genuine tension and excitement. In my view, the cost of a lottery ticket is quite low provided it is still giving you this little Satori experience - a ticket to a sporting event can cost you twenty to forty times as much, and generally only affords you two or three such experiences. Seen this way, a lottery ticket is good value.

There are many minor examples of alea in our daily lives that are not strictly based upon what is conventionally considered gambling, however. The excitement of unwrapping a mysterious present, checking the morning mail for something interesting, channel surfing, listening to the radio (hoping to hear a great song), unprotected sex, sticker collections (and their big brother trading card games), toy capsule dispensers and chocolate boxes all have a certain aleatory appeal. Indeed, in the UK one particular brand of chocolate known as Revels, which consists of half a dozen different chocolates with little more than luck to determine what you get, has identified that it's appeal lies in alea. A recent advertisement for Revels shows with two people playing a game of Russian roulette with a bag of chocolates - who will pull out the dreaded coffee chocolate...

During my case study interviews of players for the DGD1 audience model, I uncovered alea in another context - a context I was familiar with, but of which I had been previously quite dismissive. Tabletop role-playing games. For some time I had viewed RPGs as being at their core about role play - about playing characters. (About mimicry in terms of Caillois' categories of play). After publishing three conventional (and obscure) tabletop RPG systems, I was keen to develop a system that got to the core of what I valued in role-playing games. Working in concert with a good friend of mine, we eliminated aleatory elements completely and created the Contract system. Although I have a fondness for Contract (which is really just a formal take on freeform role-play), during the case studies I discovered just how important the aleatory elements of RPGs are to many players.

In brief, playing with dice is a satisfying component of the play experience for many players because of its aleatory appeal. In fact, in some cases, the slapdash game design of something like the original D&D actually adds a certain appeal. At least one person I interviewed lamented the rise of the D20 system because she liked playing with many different types of dice; the polyhedral zoo that accompanied classic D&D held a certain appeal.

The importance of the dice ritual in a tabletop RPG is in the sense of ownership over the narrative that it affords. When the game requires the player to make a dice roll, the progress of the narrative depends upon the player's action. They cannot influence it in direct terms, but in aleatory terms, they have control of fate. Computer RPGs do not capture this element at all, and hence have a tendency to devolve into ProgressQuest.

As a game designer, I could not understand why so many tabletop role-playing games were designed to give the player only a 20-30% chance of success in most tasks. Failure seemed like an inevitable consequence of such a design, which I chalked up to bad game design. In my own tabletop RPGs Avatar and Shifter, I instead made the chances of success tend to be quite high (80-100%) but provided an alternative aleatory element in the Criticals system, allowing players to succeed to wildly differing degrees. In this way, the alea was not will I succeed or fail, but can I succeed to a degree significant enough to impact the flow of the narrative.

However, what I was missing is how a low chance of success can in fact drive the narrative in positive ways. In the hands of a good Gamesmaster, a sequence of failed die rolls generates dramatic tension - that only the occasional die roll will result in success doesn't matter if the Gamesmaster is canny enough to turn the players failures into a heightening sense of drama. I still prefer my approach, but I at least appreciate why you might want to design it the other way.

One aleatory element that computer RPGs do possess to some degree is in the use of random treasure. Here, the players stake is their time which is gambled against getting something impressive out of the random treasure. It's an equipment lottery, if you will. But we have yet to find a way to build the rituals of diceplay into a cRPG - the ownership of the narrative that comes from throwing the dice is entirely absent from any such game I have seen.

It may be that we cannot transfer this function to video games, as pressing a button and getting a random number lacks the tactility and aleatory appeal of throwing dice. The player in such a situation feels that the computer is determining fate - they just get to tell it when it can start.

Indeed, transferring alea to video games is a challenge, because for alea to truly exist in a game the player must abandon the outcome to fate. But game-literate players have become spoiled. They have a tendency to view games as power fantasy wish fulfillment; an agonistic experience in which they will ultimately triumph. There's nothing wrong with this, but it does cause some players to insist on, for instance, control of the save mechanisms (so they can have complete ownership of their power fantasy) - and save mechanisms are the reason that video games don't do alea particularly well, because how can one appeal to fate if the outcome of a random event can merely be repeated until succeeded by reloading?

This is the reason that video games that incorporate alea necessarily override the players access to save mechanisms. Juiced is a car racing game which attempts to build gambling into the heart of the game structure. It largely fails because players of video games are conditioned to games letting them have their own way, and so the player sooner or later becomes compelled to circumvent the autosave mechanism, thus rendering the aleatory elements irrelevant. One could build alea into such a game - but it would have to be in the form of the potential for acquiring outrageous fortune (as in the cRPG treasure lottery), not in the potential for outrageous loss.

A more successful attempt to incorporate alea into a game can be found in my beloved Animal Crossing. In fact, this game is packed full of alea - checking the (random) items in the shop each day, fishing, looking for insects, seeking buried treasure and the monthly lottery are just a few of the ways the game leverages aleatory elements to create fun play. In all these instances, the player faces not the threat of loss, but the potential for something wonderful to happen by chance. However, in order to make this work, it is necessary for the player to be denied the capacity to reload an earlier save. I believe that there is absolutely nothing wrong with this - without it, there would be no Animal Crossing, and if denying game literate players their control freak needs creates new types of game then I say it's worth it.

Game designer bias against alea can be seen in numerous forms: Sid Meier's "a game is a series of interesting choices" which effectively denies games of pure chance status as games; the typical game designer's excessive love of games of pure ludic agon (Chess in particular, and turn based strategy games in general); Raph Koster's attempt to shoehorn chance into his Theory of Fun by considering it "learning about probability"; or even my own attempt to factor alea out of tabletop RPGs. It seems that games designers in general terms just don't want to connect with this extremely popular form of play.

I'm beginning to see evidence that the Rational temperament is a dominant pattern among games designers (my thanks to Noah Falstein for contributing his observations in this regard), and it does not really surprise me in this context that alea would be downplayed. The desire for total knowledge (and focus on learning) associated with this behavioural pattern is antithetical to the surrender to fate implied by alea - indeed, it is presumably not a coincidence that those who express the Rational temperament strongly tend towards secular humanism and other atheist belief systems - there may be a desire to deny the existence or value of fate entirely.

Personally, I have found alea most useful in designing card games and boardgames. This is because aleatory elements inherently reduce the dominance of agon - and I find that there are many players who are put off by directly agonistic (competitive) play. Games like Texas Hold 'em which strike a balance between agon and alea have a wider appeal because failure can be chalked up to bad luck (and not to personal inadequacy) - plus, of course, anyone can win. Indeed, the fact that pure alea gives everyone an equal chance of winning is the reason that we frequently encounter alea in games designed for small children, such as the card game Beggar My Neighbour, or Snakes/Chutes and Ladders, or the aleatory elements in Kirby Air Ride (which was certainly designed to cover a very wide age range).

The rituals of alea have such universal appeal because they are absolutely fair. In a game of pure agon, whomever is more skilled will win every time (all things being equal), but in a game of pure alea anyone can win, regardless of who they are, or what their skills might be. The greater the reward in a game of alea, the greater the appeal - hence the appeal of state, national and international lotteries, despite the fact that the jackpot of even a modest-sized lottery will set a person up for life. The size of the stake the player could lose may intensify the experience, but it is what can be won that entices, whether that reward is money, a unique gift, a nice chocolate or temporary ownership of the flow of the narrative. I believe that harnessing alea might be yet another way to potentially expand the appeal of video games to a much wider audience.

The Imagination of Mimicry

First published on Chris Bateman’s blog, Only A Game on 20th January 2006

Almost every videogame has elements of mimicry. When we sit down to play a game, we know that what is happening is not real; we suspend our disbelief in order to allow the game to sweep us away in its situation and world. The game is a tool for imagination - whether it is imagining that we are a heroic warrior-priestess, a gun-toting action hero, a hard-driven career woman or a fluffy animal. We do not usually consider this aspect of the game to be at the centre of the play, but are we being blinded by an excessive focus on challenge? Is mimicry more of a draw to play than we realise?

Mimicry is one of four cross-cultural patterns of play identified by the eclectic intellectual Roger Caillois in 1958. He described mimicry as follows:

All play presupposes the temporary acceptance, if not of an illusion (indeed this last word means nothing less than beginning a game: in-lusio), then at least of a closed conventional, and, in certain respects, imaginary universe. Play can consist not only of deploying actions or submitting to one's fate in an imaginary milieu, but of becoming an illusory character oneself, and of so behaving. One is thus confronted with a diverse series of manifestations, the common element of which is that the subject makes believe or makes others believe that he is someone other than himself. He forgets, disguises, or temporarily sheds his personality in order to feign another. I prefer to designate these phenomena by the term mimicry...

The pleasure lies in being or passing for another. But in games the basic intention is not that of deceiving the spectators. The child who is playing train may well refuse to kiss his father while saying to him that one does not embrace locomotives, but he is not trying to persuade his father that he is a real locomotive...

Mimicry is incessant invention. The rule of the game is unique: it consists in the actor's fascinating the spectator, while avoiding an error that might lead the spectator to break the spell. The spectator must lend himself to the illusion without first challenging the decor, mask, or artifice which for a given time he is asked to believe in as more real than reality itself.

Caillois was writing at a time before videogames, and his focus therefore was on conventional play activities, but mimicry is especially pertinent to digital entertainment. Where Caillois talks of the actor and the spectator, in a videogame these two roles can be the same person: the player is the actor in the sense that they control their avatar, but they are also the spectator as they are enjoying watching their avatar take actions.

The vast majority of modern videogames have a large component of mimicry. It added enormously to the appeal of a game like Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (although this game was designed and structured in such a hardcore, challenge-oriented fashion that it could never appeal just for its mimicry), it is probably the chief reason that World of Warcraft is now outpacing the Everquest brand in terms of subscribers, and it is perhaps the principal reason for the astronomical success of the recent Grand Theft Auto branded games.

The power of mimicry can be seen in the success of games for which this is the primary form of play. Sim City had impressive success for its day by offering the mimicry of building a working city, but was limited by its focus: although creating a city was entertaining, it didn't engage a great many players for an especially long time, in part because of its inherent complexity and emotional distance. In creating The Sims, Maxis offered a game of mimicry with a much wider appeal - and critically, a game with the potential to appeal to women.

It is not that mimicry appeals more to women than men, rather, it is that the types of mimicry that we are culturally indoctrinated into differ by gender. Boys tend stereotypically to play with toy cars and weapons - and games incorporating mimicry of vehicles and weapons tend to have an agonistic (competitive) bias. Girls tend stereotypically to play with figures (dollplay) and domestic situations (playing house). These play activities had not been provided as the focus of play prior to The Sims, because no-one had considered women a worthwhile target audience - thanks in part to gender biases in games industry employment. 10 million units and many satisfied customers later and (astonishingly) the industry still doesn't recognise the significance of mimicry to hitting a wide audience.

Nintendo, more than any other platform-license holder, seems to recognise the value of this type of play. Whereas Sony and Microsoft still remain focussed on challenge as the key drive in play, Nintendo have released games such as Animal Crossing, Doshin the Giant and Nintendogs, all of which supply their play primarily in mimicry. Nintendogs in particular is a game of pure mimicry - the joy of the game is pretending to be interacting with a real puppy. It's success is timely, however: earlier sprite-based pet simulators required more suspension of belief; Nintendogs leverages the improvements of graphics power (specifically: animation quality) to enhance mimicry.

There are many hardcore players (by which I mean, players for whom playing videogames is a lifestyle priority) who claim that graphics are irrelevant to good games. Such players are probably expressing their own bias towards ludic (formal & rule-driven) play. It is categorically not true of all people that graphics do not matter. In fact, the converse is indicated: as a mimicry enhancer, graphics are absolutely critical to the success of games in the mass market. However, most games fritter away their graphical advantages by delivering play in a more ludic and agonistic (competitive) context - thus appealing to the players for whom the improvements in graphics are at best an added bonus. That said, the step up in graphics between each generation is becoming rather marginal (games on the Xbox 360 look only marginally better than games on the Xbox to the average person): innovative play design is likely to become progressively more important.

Note that in supplying mimicry, photorealism need not be a prerequisite (although it seems to be the case that for the US market, photorealism might be preferred). Since mimicry is an imaginative process, the transformation into an experience of mimicry can originate in all manner of different art styles. Clearly Lego Star Wars is not realistic in its representation, but nonetheless one gets the emotional connection with the Star Wars characters portrayed quite successfully.

One can see this hinted at in Caillois' work. He considered theatre to be the ultimate formal expression of mimicry. He was writing in the 50's, so it wasn't that motion pictures didn't exist, but he recognised that the masks, disguises and tricks of the theatrical tradition were a more complete expression of the draw to mimicry (which uses imagination to suspend disbelief - what some might call immersion) than films which aim to minimise the suspension of disbelief. It is possible, however, that those who find imagination difficult in adulthood (and this may be the majority of people) may only be capable of enjoying mimicry when the leap of imagination is minimised through realism. Box office receipts certainly exceed theatrical receipts, although one cannot ignore the affect of marketing in this.

There are many aspects to the expression of mimicry in games, although in broad strokes they can be considered to belong to a small set of themes: games which facilitate performance, games which provide mimicry as a challenge and games which arguably more closely resemble toys (what we have termed toyplay games).

Games which facilitate performance tend to be online and multiplayer. After all, one must have an audience in order to perform, and although this is conceivable in a single player game (imagine a child performing for a parent, for instance) the commercial advantages are most significant when the volume of spectators becomes sufficiently large. This is readily apparent in World of Warcraft, which shrewdly included commands such as /dance which allow for anyone to enter into ad hoc performance. However, thus far these elements of mimicry have largely been incidental, and no-one has leveraged people's enjoyment of mimicry as a primary play element.

An example of a game which presents mimicry as a central challenge is the Tokyo Bus Guide games. These pose the player with a very specific challenge: become a bus conductor in the city of Tokyo. Although there is a mode in which the player steers the bus, the game comes into its own in the mode in which the player controls only the indicators, doors and tannoy system. In the play of this game, the player 'wins' by acting as a convincing bus conductor. They must stop the bus close to the passengers at the bus stop, indicate before pulling away - and don't forget to play an announcement so that the passengers know where the bus is going! Strangely compelling, the game is slightly too rigid for Western tastes, although the basic play can undoubtedly be exported in other ways.

Toyplay games are exemplified by Animal Crossing. The player is invited to play with the game elements however they wish. They are not placed in a structure which dictates goals and challenges to be overcome, rather they are placed in an imaginary world and empowered to play. There are small challenges in Animal Crossing, such as the fishing microgame and the (optional) daily hunt for buried treasure, but these are elective components in a game which has, as its central activity, the decoration and expansion of the player's house. There is also a secondary element which is interpersonal - the player lives in a town with animals who become the player's friends (albiet at a very low level of sophistication). This is a quintessential mimicry experience - much akin to playing with a dollshouse (play also leveraged by The Sims).

In recent years, the most successful commercial games have undoubtedly been the recent Grand Theft Auto games, notably Vice City (at least 11 million units) and San Andreas (at least 12 million units). Part of the appeal of these games is that the player is presented with a world to explore and play within, with an impressive lack of limitations relative to other games. Steal cars, beat up or run over pedestrians, knock over a liquor store and engage in a high speed police chase - these are the public face of the play of these games. But if one examines how people actually play the games, you will also find people driving around the cities for fun, getting dressed up and going out on a date (in San Andreas), and sitting on the beach, watching the sunset while the radio plays a nostalgic hit. These games deliver mimicry to a degree previously unrealised. However, Rockstar North achieved this only by virtue of game budgets on a scale previously unrealised.

It is an omnipresent fallacy within the games industry that it is necessary to spend ever more money in order to make profitable games. It is true that if you want to see sales figures on the scale of tens of millions you will need a big budget - either for development (GTA) or for marketing (The Sims). But many of the games which are afforded vast budgets have no potential to tap the higher sales figures. Any game, like God of War, Prince of Persia or Splinter Cell, which has challenge at the centre of its play is going to top out around three to five million units or so. Any mimicry included in these games is stifled by a structure which is anaethmatic to the play needs of a wider audience: a series of challenges which must be overcome to progress. Of course, five million units is still a good sales figure, but adding more money isn't going to grow the audiences of these games significantly, and at some point their budget is going to result in a loss.

Structure is the great empowerer of mimicry. The secret of GTA's success is a structure which allows the player to simply play. The challenges are there, when the player wishes to tackle them, but they are practically secondary to the world the player is invited to have fun within. (I would argue that the GTA games could be even more successful if the unlocking of new toys was separated from the challenges on the game spine, but this is debatable). We have termed these settings 'playground worlds' to reflect the focus on freedom of play. We will undoubtedly see more and more such worlds emerge - if the games industry is capable of recognising where it is succeeding, which most of the time it rather curiously is not.

The detailed graphics and animations that can facilitate mimicry are expensive, but games of mimicry need not be. Animal Crossing is a great example, as it uses rather dated graphics to limit its development cost. True, the audience for such a game is less that the audience for (say) GTA - but the economics of games simply require that games make more money than they cost to make. Nintendogs is another good example, enjoying popular success despite (I am assuming) excessive development costs.

I strongly believe there is a vast untapped market for games which present mimicry as their core play. Firstly, such games can invite the player to play in their own way and at their own pace. They need not place frustrations in the player's path and force the player to overcome them. This appeals to fiero-motivated players (those who thrive on triumph over adversity) but these do not appear to be in the majority. The worlds of these games do not need to be as large as a GTA world to support play - instead of large but emotionally empty worlds, they can be smaller but more emotionally invested world by allowing more player customisation, or by having non-player characters with personality.

In his book 'The Blockbuster Toy', Gene Del Vechio (a veteran marketer from major toy companies) provides eight different ways a toy can appeal to a child, all of which are based around his concept that a successful toy transforms the child in a manner which is emotionally on target. One of these is related to challenge and mastery, one is related to collecting (a form of play not covered by Caillois' model). The remaining six are all forms of mimicry, with themes such as creating (Sim City), nurturing (Nintendogs), emulation (Tokyo Bus Guide), friendship (Animal Crossing), story-emulation (film licenses such as Lego Star Wars) and experience (World of Warcraft).

Adult play is simply an extension of child play. Some of the themes and content may be expanded, of course. Sexual or intensely violent themes may emerge, and emulation of stories that have already been experienced may expand to full blown storyplay (the spontaneous creation of new stories). At its core, however, much of play is about imagination, and games of mimicry are tools for enhancing imagination and reducing the degree of suspension of disbelief required. Adults may no longer be able to create spontaneous play out of little plastic figures, but place them in a vivid digital world and suddenly they all become like little children, eager to indulge an imagination often desperate to escape from the confines of the mundane world.

Mimicry is a powerful tool for play, but it is one that until now games have often harnessed only tangentially. When we recognise just how powerful mimicry can be, when we get past merely shackling players to repetitive play by designing addictive play systems, or narrowly defining the world of games as those which supply fiero; when we watch how people play, and what they enjoy, perhaps then we will be ready to allow videogames to be all that they can be.

Imagination is unlimited. Games should be too.

The Joy of Ilinx

First published on Chris Bateman’s blog, Only A Game on 26th May 2006

Very little has been written about the ilinx (vertigo) of videogames, despite the fact it is an increasingly potent force in popular games. Ilinx is a pattern of play (identified by the noted sociologist Roger Caillois) associated with the momentary destruction of perception. It can be the vertigo of speed or of spinning, or it can be the intoxicating allure of petty destruction - of stomping on a sandcastle, for instance. As the graphical realism of videogames has increased, the potential for supplying the play of ilinx has similarly expanded.

Caillois identified four cross-cultural patterns of play in his 1958 book Les Jeux et Les Hommes (Man, Play and Games). He described ilinx as follows:

Ilinx. The last kind of game includes those which are based on the pursuit of vertigo and which consist of an attempt to momentarily destroy the stability of perception and inflict a kind of voluptuous panic upon an otherwise lucid mind. In all cases, it is a question of surrendering to a kind of spasm, seizure, or shock which destroys reality with sovereign brusqueness.

The disturbance that provokes vertigo is commonly sought for its own sake.

In early videogames, the graphical power was extremely limited, and it is arguably only recently that we have fully begun to explore the powerful effect of ilinx on players. It can be seen most clearly in any games with the illusion of speed, such as high speed racers like Need For Speed or Burnout, and also in snowboarding games such as 1080 and SSX. In these games, the sensation of high speed movement (which is often enhanced by special effects such as ‘speed haze’) serves to heighten the players enjoyment by artificially inducing a state of vertigo.

Of course, the vertigo we speak of here is not the nausea-inducing kind referred to in medical circles, but rather a vertiginous experience. A rollercoaster produces physical vertigo, but a video of a rollercoaster still produces a certain sensation akin to vertigo provided the viewer suspends their disbelief. Perhaps the clearest indication of this is the power of a car chase when seen on a cinema screen – we become swept away in the speed of the imagery. Physical vertigo is included in Caillois’ category of ilinx, but it can be extended to cover many peripheral situations, and it is these fringe cases that are perhaps most pertinent to videogames.

The videogames industry cannot deliver ilinx independently. Even a ride simulator which invokes vertigo is still drawing upon mimicry to achieve this affect. Ilinx, therefore, can best be understood in the context of videogames as an experience enhancer. Because mimicry is implicitly required for ilinx to function, it may be prudent to consider which of these two patterns of play is paramount for any given play: in a game such as Gran Turismo which identifies itself as 'the real driving simulator', authentic mimicry is given more weight than ilinx, whereas in a game such as Burnout, the ilinx of high speed movement is arguably more important than the simulation implied by mimicry. This can be considered a case of ilinx enhancing mimicry.

Ilinx can also be used to enhance agon (games of competition), although this is somewhat rarer as most games (Space Harrier not withstanding) can only achieve vertigo through mimicry; the game must simulate moving at high speed to induce vertigo states. Games which appear to use ilinx to enhance agon include the F-Zero games; the satisfaction (fiero) of winning a race in F-Zero is surely enhanced by the mad breakneck speed dash for the finish line - a few seconds of total consciousness destroying vertigo, followed by victory. It adds a degree of excitement to the experience, which heightens the eventual reward. Similarly, a game like 1080 Avalanche uses its ilinx to enhance the eventual payoff of victory: in the final avalanche levels, where the player is asked to escape from a rapidly looming wall of snow, the sense of vertigo achieved is almost palpable, and makes the eventual victory seem all the more sweet.

However, this is only part of the full scope of ilinx. Returning to Caillois' description of ilinx:

In parallel fashion, there is a vertigo of moral order, a transport that suddenly seizes the individual. This vertigo is readily linked to the desire for disorder and destruction, a drive which is normally repressed... In adults, nothing is more revealing of vertigo than the strange excitement that is felt in cutting down the tall prairie flowers with a switch, or in creating an avalanche of the snow on a rooftop, or, better, the intoxication that is experienced in military barracks - for example, in noisily banging garbage cans.

This aspect, which might be called destructive ilinx, correlates with the reckless abandon that is allowed by a game such as Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and its many relatives. I contend that one of the reasons the recent Grand Theft Auto games are so successful at tapping into this side of ilinx is that they are not wholly realistic... The tone of the games is realistic in a certain sense, and certainly they are drawing upon mimicry, but there is an unreal quality. This is expressed in part by the shrewd choice of a non-photorealistic art style, and also by the presence of 'game-like' elements in the game world, such as "power up" tokens. This is real, but it is also a game. That empowers the player to, for instance, go on a murderous killing rampage, and laugh as they do it. I do not believe there is anything morally wrong with this, and the unreal quality of the game facilitates this freedom to misbehave.

For instance, there is something inherently pleasing about having C.J. (the protagonist in San Andreas) parachute out of an airliner, touch down in front of his family home, mow someone down with a chainsaw, and then opting to stand there and watch the neighbours pass by and make comments about what just happened as if it was the most natural event imaginable. This is not an appeal to realism (a mimicry experience), but as a destructive ilinx experience - as is smashing up every piece of architecture in Blast Corps, Mercenaries, Rygar: the Legendary Adventure or Otogi: Myth of Demons, and perhaps even going on a tree-chopping rampage in Animal Crossing.

Part of the success of the recent Grand Theft Auto games is that they cast their net wide (a product of their not inconsiderable budget, in part, but also the sign of a team who work well together). For instance, these games deliver agon, mimicry, ilinx and even alea (gambling, discovery et al). The contribution of the ilinx elements of these games should not be underestimated, however: when a game can make a person laugh dynamically (that is, without a narrative set piece) it is tapping into something deeply human. The "game realism" (versus absolute realism) constantly tells the player "this is only a game, follow your impulses"... it allows for a guilt free release of destructive ilinx. This can be understood in terms of Huizinga’s Magic Circle: whatever happens inside the game space is not a part of everyday life, and normal considerations are temporarily suspended. Those who attempt to replicate GTA in more realistic tones should think twice about their approach.

It should also be noted that you don't need to be violent to appeal to destructive ilinx. The Katamari Damacy games are built upon the ilinx of rolling things up - you are "destroying" the environment, but not in an overtly violent fashion. Some adults scream when you pick them up, but most children laugh – it's good natured chaos, not bloody carnage, and as the tiny narrative elements underline, no-one gets hurt. And again, it can make you laugh, especially when you pick up (say) your first cat, or you become big enough for people to run away from you.

The presumption that agon (competition) is the central element of value in videogames places limits on what should be a limitless endeavour: the creation of new play. There will always be a place for games that prioritise agonistic concerns, but it is important to understand that there are more ways to engage a player than by competitive urges alone, and one of those ways is to tap into the creative destruction of ilinx.

The joy of ilinx is reckless abandon... it can be the vertigo of speed, or of wanton destruction; it need not be violent, but it is always irrepressible - the temporary abolishment of conscious thought. And video games are a wonderful place to explore this category of play, since one can surrender to ilinx in a game, and nobody gets hurt. Well, at the very least, nobody real. I believe we will see more and more ilinx in videogames over the coming years as we continue to explore the limitless domain of play.