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Ecologies of Play

This is an extended reply to a comment raised in connection with Are Videogames Made of Rules? If you haven’t read this earlier piece, you might want to start there.

BloxelsDear Bart,

What is it that we take a rule to be? Is it a wording, is it a practice, is it a formal constraint? This ambiguity about what we mean by ‘rule’ lies at the heart of the difference between the argument I developed in Are Videogames Made of Rules? and the counter-argument you provided at length in the comments. What I hope to do here is clarify my position by responding to your extremely detailed counter, and hopefully shed some light on what it might mean for anything to be ‘made of rules’.

I always appreciate it when you engage with my arguments because you have an unswerving desire to take off all the panelling and poke around with the interior workings. Sometimes, you even put it back together again afterwards! I wish peer reviewers were as interested in engaging with my arguments as you are, but alas the practices of the academy have strayed about as far from virtuous discourse as could be imagined.

Let me break down your observations and respond to different points one at a time, in the hope that this will bring out the points of interest in both our positions.

1. You’re answering your question as though it was being stated as ‘Are games made entirely of rules?’

I don't think this is quite right: no-one makes that particular claim, which is clearly excessive. But you’re correct that there is another aspect of the claim that ought to be unveiled. I don’t think the missing term is ‘entirely’ but perhaps ‘fundamentally’. If games were ‘fundamentally made of rules’ it would mean that everything game-like was comprised of rules (plus whatever else those rules worked on, including such diverse things as players, dice, polygonal models, tensor arrays and so forth). My claim here is that this is only true in so much as the fundamental (=impossible to remove) element of elements are translatable into rules. That still gives a special status for rules – but that status ceases to be ontological (i.e. about the nature of the existence of games). This point is so subtle I didn’t draw attention to it, since I really didn’t think anyone was going to engage with this piece. But I was apparently mistaken!

2. You discuss ‘games’ as though this is synonymous with examples of individual games, but ‘games’ and ‘a game’ are significantly different in the context of your question.

This is such a clever observation it may exceed my ability to do it justice! Broadly, you are correct to say this but my usage is not accidental, it is merely not explained in this piece. ‘Games’ for me is a term that broadly means [Superset(game)]. I don't have time here to expand this point (although I will return to this later this year…) beyond saying that ‘games’ for me is just a term for the set of all sets of whatever is called ‘a game’. But your objection still has bite: that superset can’t be directly identified with individual games, which are ‘merely’ elements in that superset. But, and here’s the key point, the superset is not amenable to access in any other way since it inherently denies the attempts at unification implicit to every attempt to provide a master definition of ‘game’. I ought to be more careful about how I draw those lines, and I thank you for making me think about this more carefully.

3. There’s an elision of important differences going on in your argument between the nature of a game meant to be played by people sitting in a room together with the human rulesmaster and a game meant to be played by strangers separated in time and space from each other and from a potentially non-human rulesmaster.

Here we may disagree. I accept the broad point, in that the possibility space of the former is on-paper much larger than the latter, but how locked down or open a game is to on-the-fly modification isn’t necessarily a function of tabletop versus otherwise. MUDs are the obvious examples of videogames with far more variability than any non-RPG tabletop game.

So I don't think I’m eliding those differences, as I don’t see this split in quite the same way. But you are surely correct that the subtleties of distinction here are something I largely brush under the carpet for brevity. But that’s what comments like yours are so good at teasing out of the woodwork!

On to your commentaries on my objections:

But games (as generally understood) do include rules of play as a required feature for comprehensible interaction with a product intended to entertain, so in that sense, games are made of rules.

I don’t think that can be right... the presence of rules is no evidence of constitution. Every car ships with a manual but you would not be tempted to say an automobile was ‘made of instructions’. This may sound flippant, but the point is not: I am saying rules are intimately tied to games as a discourse involved in their play. That discourse has most force in its role of helping players acquire (or apply) the player practices required to play any game artefact in the manner ‘intended’. But just because of this, I am suggesting that those player practices are constitutive of games; the rules are the helpful discourse surrounding those practices, but are not constitutive, per se.

...your question refers to ‘games’ in the plural, and your argument points out (correctly, I think) that games as an ecosystem for playing certainly do seem to include components that aren’t just about dictating how to play. But an ecosystem for play is certainly not the same thing as a game, which is the direct experience that will be had by most persons engaging in structured play.

This is a fascinating claim in itself, and I love the whole idea of ‘an ecosystem for playing’, which you derive from my arguments. Miguel Sicart, in Play Matters, also talks about ecologies of play (drawing against actor-network theory), and it is one of the more engaging aspects of his book. This distinction between ‘games’ (as an ecosystem for playing) and ‘a game’ is extremely subtle and intriguing. As a game designer, I am always trying to leverage my experience as a play ecologist, and vice versa! The ecosystem for playing could be taken as the set of all player practices plus the set of all toys or components that can be played with – and that is a very different way of thinking about games and play than attempting to found an ironclad definition.

…’a game,’ for most individual games, can perhaps fairly be said to be ‘made of rules’ in that formal rules comprise a good majority of the stuff that defines that particular game.

Here I am obligated to explain why treating player practices as constitutive is a more robust interpretation than treating rules as such. And the clearest answer I can offer is that any player can learn to play any game without any access to the rules, provided another player is available to induct them into the practices of the game. The fewer new practices they must acquire, the easier this is.

For a tabletop game, the rulebook this set of practices eventually becomes can be seen as a static snapshot of the player practices of the design team in respect of the game, discussing how their game is played. That each group of players will inevitably vary those player practices is one of the reasons I am suggesting we treat player practices as constitutive of games rather than rules, because the rules as written remain the same but the games being played with those rules can be quite diverse – even if all you take into account is the differences in interpretation and not greater variations like house rules. I don’t think any two groups of players engaging with a Fantasy Flight game are playing the same way, as the rules often leave open a certain number of ambiguous points that the players have to negotiate and settle on their own.

For videogames, the distance between the rules and the player practices is even greater and we have two possible claims for what the rules might be: they could be the game design documentation (in so much as it is accurate to the game artefact) or they could be the programmed code of that artefact. I hope it’s clear that the former option won’t hold up. Most game design documentation is only a scaffold (albeit a tremendously helpful one – it’s one of the two things my company has specialised in producing). The latter option is more challenging to refute. My claim here is that programmed code constitutes rules for the computer but not for the player. This is one sense in which “Videogames are made of rules” – but since the computer does not play the game we must at least concede that this sense is substantially different from what that phrase would usually be taken to mean.

Now the program code is an important part of any videogame. In this piece, it is ‘what the players play with’, like the board and pawns and cards are ‘what the players play with’ at the tabletop. But I am claiming it is misleading to say “videogames are made of rules” because my general argument about what “games are made of” applies to videogames too. The rules in a tabletop game are a translation of the player practices; the programmed rules in a videogame are also a translation of this kind – indeed, multiple translations: the programmer translates the intended player practices and artefactual properties into symbolic code, then the compiler translates that into machine code. The machine code is a set of rules for the computer, of course, but not in any game-significant sense. Because of the translations, I say that the developers of a game are players-by-proxy in the game that all players play with a videogame artefact. That might be the most revolutionary claim I’m making here – and I don't expect many people to follow me on this. But I do want to assert the validity of this understanding.

I wonder whether considering this argument – being clear about whether your assertion refers to ‘games’ or ‘a game’ – might help to strengthen your argument.

This is one of the most intriguing assertions in your comment, one that builds on this distinction between ‘play ecosystems’ and individual game experiences. But I hope it’s clear that individual game experiences are comprised of player practices and the artefacts played with just as much as play ecosystems are. What the play ecosystem has over and above this are the development circumstances that place additional constraints upon what can be played. The play ecosystem offers a more complete picture – but I still contend my argument applies to those individual play experiences as well.

If your goal is to argue that any randomly-selected individual game is mostly not made of rules, I think that’s going to be much the harder (and more interesting) sell.

I hope in the preceding remarks I have had a reasonable shot at making that sale! I appreciate that no-one is obligated to follow me into my rabbit hole… but anyone who does will not find anything substantially out of place with my way of arranging things. And it gives a much clearer perspective on both ‘games’ and any particular ‘game’ by entirely setting aside individual definitions of ‘game’ as merely aesthetic statements (as I introduced many years back now with Implicit Game Aesthetics).

Now we come to a specific objection that requires some redirect...

Your arguments use D&D (more generally, pre-video tabletop games) as an example, and that’s fair; it’s a game, but it has a large quantity of input supplied on the spot from human players. But you then use D&D as a template for judging other games, and because they also have human input you conclude that all games are like D&D (because all games have human input) and thus all games, like D&D, are mostly not ‘made of’ rules.

I don’t think this is quite the line my argument is developed upon, but it is a clear point in my argument where additional clarification is required. The point is not about the near infinite agency of tabletop RPGs – if it were, everything would be a pale shadow of that. The point about D&D I was making here is that the ways that it was played were not specified by the rules at all, but grew out of different cultures of play (different player practices). Thus contemporary tabletop RPGs descend from the role-play lineage that stresses the taking on of a fictional role, and some computer RPGs are, at the very least, inspired by this style of play. Conversely, roguelike games descend from the rule-play, dungeon bash approach which was all about murderizing monsters for treasure (an approach that was also more likely to engage with permanent death, a feature the roguelikes have tended to inherit). These wildly different play cultures, the player practices of which continue to have lineage descendants even now, were not in any way specified by the rules of D&D.

You might want to object that this is a special case, that the play of videogames is more tightly constrained by the programmed artefact, and hence the rules. But that’s not exactly what you find when you look. Spawn camping is not prevented by any formal rules of online games, it is a normative constraint of the community of players. We can express that as a rule – but it is not manifested as a rule in that community but as a practice. Players know what not to do and why – but ask them to put that into words (to translate it into rules) and you will get myriad versions. The practices are consistent. The rule is an afterthought.

What about single player games? Let’s take a classic style Resident Evil. It is in no way part of the rules of these games that two players pad pass (“you do the fighting”), or that you creep save by returning often to the safe room, or that you speed run and never save. Those are the actual player practices. They are informed by the construction of the programmed artefact, of course, but my claim is that it is what players actually do – both with and against the intentions of the developer – that constitutes the games being played with Resident Evil.

Now for the crucial finishing move: the construction of the programmed artefact is also a product of player practices, those acquired by the developer from other games that they then conserve and modify to make their own game. That Resident Evil can be translated into rules is an undeniable fact. My claim is only that it is the player practices that comprise the game – both as-played, and as-made. Any rules we would care to state are best understood as translations of those player practices.

This is the line of argument I'm developing here. It’s subtle, and it won’t appeal to everyone. But it is an extremely robust position.

Humans in a room together can make up a lot of things as they go. But to deliver the required perception of fairness (which I know is a whole other subject of interest to you), a game must be defined as composed mostly of rules that are stable, that are enforced equitably for all players, and that can be applied automatically by a computer program. (See ‘code is law.’) The farther you go from humans-in-a-room to MMORPG, the more that individual game is indeed ‘made of rules,’ because it has to be in order to achieve its intended function. The more that players are separated and unable to agree on rules ad hoc, the more the rules must be codified and enforced as written... and thus the greater percentage of ‘the game’ is constituted by the rules.

My claim is that this perception of fairness is rooted in normative practices that are translatable into rules but are neither enforced nor learned not practiced as rules in any tangible sense of this term. Yes, the programmed artefact is a key part of the propagation and enforcement of those practices. But the artefact is a translation of the normative practices imagined by the developers translated into ‘computer rules’ (code), which are not game rules in any viable sense, and they are only ‘law’ by analogy to physical laws, which are only ‘law’ by analogy in the first place! The players learn these practices from either direct engagement with the artefact itself, or from reading translations into rules in FAQs, wikis etc. The artefact is immutable under standard conditions, sure, but it is not made of rules – or at least, not in the sense of game rules. It is made of machine code, which are rules for computers, but these rules are not even remotely like game rules, and no FAQ, wiki, or player can give a translation of these that would make sense of their actual play.

You make one final point of great interest...

I further suspect that it’s acceptable to think that most games are made mostly of rules as a requirement for recognizability. I love Minecraft’s emergent outcomes probably more than most gamers. But I can still think it’s made mostly of rules or else it wouldn't be recognizable as Minecraft.

Here, you make a fascinating deeper claim – that it is the rules that constitute the identity of the game. I have great sympathy for this claim. But if you accept my argument that any attempt to describe Minecraft in rules is only a translation of its player practices, this point becomes the observation that it is the specific constraints upon which player practices develop – and the affordances these permit, upon which the player practices diversify – that constitute the identify of a game. And here, expressed in this arcane yet salient fashion, lies the very possibility of saying that something is “basically the same game.”

I thank you enormously for your deep engagement with my argument. I hope in developing a reply, you can see why your argument could not be persuasive for me. But it is more than entertaining for me to engage in these deep discussions: it helps me clarify what it is that I mean to say. And that is invaluable.

With grateful thanks,

Chris.

Further discussion on these points is always welcome, so feel free to share your perspective in the comments.


What Are Little Games Made Of...?

Wooden Game PartsGenuinely surprised and delighted by the response last week’s Are Videogames Made of Rules? produced. I really expected it to sink without a trace. The discussions, which you can follow in the comments, have exceeded my available time – but I am not done talking about this by a long shot! I am planning some follow up pieces to explore some of the issues raised, but they will have to wait until later in the year.

Briefly, however, I’d like to stress that this is one of those pieces where I am arguing against myself – I had previously advanced a view that the fundamental building blocks of games were rules, and this included videogames (the algorithms of which can be understood as rules). Now that people such as Paul Gestwicki, Raph Koster, Chris De Leon, Patrick Davis, Bart Stewart, Petri Lankoski‏, and others have thrown in on the issue, I see there is much further to take this argument – both in terms of clarifying and solidifying its original direction, and in terms of important tangents as well.

A new serial is about to start over at Only a Game, but once that is wrangled I’ll definitely return to this issue and take it further. Many thanks to everyone who has waded in thus far!


Are Videogames Made of Rules?

World OptionsDoes it make sense to say that videogames are made of rules? We might say that about boardgames or playground games, but even in these cases it’s not clear ‘rules’ are enough. Ultimately, is there anything that underpins all kinds of games and gives them something like ‘atoms’, or is the whole notion of a some common element lying beneath all games suspect?

Since Minecraft appeared in 2009, game developers have been becoming far more open to the idea of letting players control their own play experience. One of the distinctive features of Mojang’s all-conquering sandbox is the freedom the player has to determine the regime that governs their player experience – just building, exploring without monsters, struggle to survive, pursue adventure, and so forth. While options go back to the early strategy videogames, who inherit the flexibility of their tabletop predecessors, Minecraft's choices go further, changing the fundamental nature of the games being played. This has been a trend far wider than any one game: Bethesda’s Oblivion in 2006 ruffled some players’ feathers by providing a difficulty slider that could be changed whenever the player wanted, even if this voided all challenge as a result. This concept of player-controlled difficulty (which differs from choosing a difficulty at the start of a game that you must then abide by) has become increasingly widespread, for all that certain games, such as Vlambeer’s Nuclear Throne, build their player experience upon a static – and wickedly high! – degree of challenge.
 
As an example of these general trends in game design becoming more pervasive, consider 2012’s co-op pirate RPG Windward. At the start of each game, a screen appears (pictured above) from which the player decides upon the set up of the overarching conditions for what is about to be played. They can select whether other players can bring in already powered-up ships from other worlds, whether items scale-down to the level of the current area to keep the game challenging, choose whether the factions are already at war, determine the degree of the restrictions on capturing towns, and set their own difficulty level by tuning the strength of enemy ships and the pacing of combat. These choices are framed as ‘Options’. But clearly these decisions alter the rules of the game about to be played, and do so to a degree that in the 1980s and 90s would have been inconceivable to the videogame community.
 
Giving players control of fundamental aspects of how a game plays is a relatively new phenomenon, perhaps little more than a century old. Late Victorian boardgames and early twentieth century tabletop games offered variations in the rulebook that are equivalent to the options in a game like Windward or Minecraft. In tabletop games, what became known around the sixties as ‘house rules’ have always existed: players alter certain rules of a game they’ve been taught to satisfy their own player experience, then teach those rules to others. It is this that has created a great many of the established card games, as well as variations of many other games such as mah jong (the British version, for instance, has a concept of ‘special hands’ wildly alien to the traditional Chinese game). As already mentioned, early strategy videogames inherited some of this flexibility, but they kept the core idea of a tactical or strategic battle challenge and never flirted with, for instance, removing combat and letting the player simply explore. It is that kind of radical shift in the players’ choices that Minecraft pioneers.
 
Jesper Juul and Miguel Sicart asserted in the 2000s and 2010s that one of the unique qualities of videogames is the inflexibility of their rules. I have argued against that: as a relic of 8-but computer gaming, I’m extremely comfortable with changing the rules of games – I peeked and poked a great many games on the Commodore 64, for instance, usually to make it more plausible to complete them in something less than geological time. It is easier to change the rules of most videogames than, say, a professional sport. Also, I’d like to note that personally I'm thrilled when people hack my own games for their satisfaction, even when it breaks the experience I intended (trainers for Ghost Master, for instance): it shows they care about the game I made.
 
Of course, multiplayer online games – whether World of Warcraft or Pokémon GO – have tighter security. Players of the former, however, can appeal to Blizzard for desired changes to the rules with at least some possibility of being heard, while players of the latter are out of luck: Niantic have their hands full just keeping the 65 million player infrastructure working. Nonetheless, it cannot be considered a conceptual tenet of videogames that their rules are fixed, as Juul and Sicart suggest. Honestly, I don’t think there is anything ontologically unique about videogames... their apparent uniqueness says more about their players’ aesthetic values than the artefacts in question. If you are unconvinced, try comparing Sega’s electro-mechanical arcade games of the sixties with early arcade videogames in the next decade.
 
Now it makes a certain kind of logical sense to say a boardgame is ‘made of rules’ and that understanding can be extended to videogames. As I have suggested many time before, the game design practices of early videogames descended directly from those of tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons or the Avalon Hill strategy games. But there is a cost to this description: the material components of those tabletop games are not made of rules... rules may constrain what appears on a D&D character sheet up to a point, but there is much that goes on in that regard which cannot reasonably be considered ‘rules’ – the description of the character for a start. An attempt to make rules the ‘atoms’ of games will come up against these loose ends, as well as the unavoidable fact that a polyhedral die is not a rule, for all that rules can be related to them.
 
The same problem extends to videogames. Suppose we try to accept the crude analogy that a game’s code is its ‘rules’. We are already on shaky ground when we think of a polygonal texture (which is part of the game’s code) as a ‘rule’. Moreover, just like dice are not rules, a game controller is not a rule, nor is a video display, an audio speaker, text duplicated in EFIGS languages, or the bits and bytes of a save game. There is much more to a game than the parts that lend themselves to being described in rules, however broadly we construe that term.
 
The unavoidable conclusion is, unless we take a very narrow view of what counts as a ‘game’ (and many do just this...), we must concede that games are not made of rules. Indeed, perhaps a better way of understanding the relationship between rules and games is not that rules are constitutive of games but that the constraints upon play within games can be readily expressed in a verbal translation we call ‘a rule’. In other words, rules can be understood as a translation of the practices that make up a game, and this includes both player practices (things the players do) and creator practices (such as those that lead to executable code in a videogame).
 
In tabletop games, this process of translating the play of a game into written rules was precisely how game designers both formalised what happened in the game they were creating, and later communicated that experience to its eventual players. Prototypes, however, rarely required written rules to be played, so these usually came later. Rulebooks were thus both ‘analogue game code’ and a tutorial – usually a very bad one. But the game itself, however that term is understood, consisted of players exercising player practices with the material components of the game (up to and including physical spaces, written descriptions, air modulated into words etc.).
 
Importantly, the actual player practices of the pre-videogame era differed from group to group, not just because of intentional ‘house rules’ but because the rulebook was already an imprecise translation of the creators’ player practices, and this brought in all the problems of translation. As the Italians say, “all translation is betrayal.” So the ‘game’ of Dungeons & Dragons from this perspective was not equivalent to the rulebook but rather the set of all player practices from all the groups that played it, which is why the same rulebook could inspire such radically different videogame lineages as the rule-play focussed Rogue-likes on the one hand or the role-play focussed The Elder Scrolls series on the other.
 
When we come to videogames, the most significant change is that one of the players is a computer or, perhaps more convincingly, the creators of the game artefact are surrogate players in every game played with it. I speak of ‘the game artefact’ here to preserve the idea that the games played are those conducted by the players engaging with the game artefact, which constrains that play in certain ways, but which can never entirely be in control of the games that happen when those artefacts are put into the hands of actual players (hence the concept of metagames). The game artefact is what links creators of any game artefact with their eventual players, and in videogames the computer device (console, PC, smartphone etc.) serves as a local proxy for those creators, echoing their intentions in so much as they are not modified by the players, hardware problems, porting coders etc. Because computers are such reliable mediators in this regard, rulebooks (manuals) have fallen by the wayside, along with the very need to express the player practices through translation into verbal rules.
 
Except, then we come to Minecraft’s regimes of play, Oblivion’s difficulty slider, or Windward’s ‘options’ – and these are rules once more, because there is a necessary translation without which the player could not understand what they were selecting. Go back to the wordings in the screenshot of Windward above: these precisely-termed ‘options’ patiently explain what checking a box will cause to happen. And these ‘options’ are rules, just like those in a tabletop rulebook. What they are not, of course, is atomic to the play of any of these games, since what makes possible any game (however that term is understood) is not so much the rules as it is the kind of being that has the capacity to play in the first place. A kind of being like humans, dogs, and birds that imagines itself in a world.
 
Games are not made of rules at all: games are made of players and the things they play with. Rules are simply one especially significant manner that players – including those particularly special players, the creator of any given game artefact – use to communicate their player practices to one another. But there is no atomic element at the base of all play and all games, neither rules, nor ‘ludemes’, nor mechanics, nor code... Play is the interrelation of beings who have the capacity to imagine with a world that permits them to exercise that faculty. If games are anything in relation to rules, they are the forms of play that are best suited to having the practices of their players translated into words.
 
Agree? Disagree? Comments are always welcome!

Alone, Unknown, and Unguarded: Learning from MUDs

Over at Only a Game today, a discussion of three kinds of anonymity – alone, unknown, and unguarded – that compares the original online worlds of MUDs to Twitter and Facebook. Here’s an extract:

The MUD was the direct precursor to Facebook and Twitter, which descend from earlier copies of the chatroom concept, such as AOL’s offering, which lacked the fictional world but kept the name. Yet abuse in MUDs was comparatively rare, and rapidly resolved by Wizards whenever it occurred. Anonymity may still have fostered abuse, but the systems were in place in MUDs both to guard against it, and to discourage it from happening in the first place. The most effective deterrent against online abuse is community – and the MUDs fostered this far more than the latest digital public spaces.

You can read the entirety of Lessons from the MUD over at Only a Game.


The Gamification of Games

Over at Only a Game today, a discussion of cyborg tenacity that includes discussion of Pokémon Go and Xbox’s Gamescore. Here’s an extract:

Gamification risks stultification because the game developer (or behavioural engineer) is specifying what is being learned, and there is no engagement of the will of the player (or employee). Submission is the inevitable outcome of this failure to create a common vision. What’s more, through mandatory achievements and scoring systems like Xbox’s Gamerscore we have witnessed the gamification of games... an emphasis on cyber-submission over the more engaging alternatives. This state of affairs is now endemic in software design: what is Twitter and Facebook’s Follow counters if not an invitation to judge quantity over quality?

You can read the entirety of Tenacity and the Domination of Things over at Only a Game.


Brian Green on Online Anonymity

Over on Psychochild’s Blog, Brian Green has a fantastic four part series exploring the relationship between privacy and anonymity, and arguing against the idea that removing anonymity would address the problem – both because this means giving up privacy, which we value, and because it is not practical to do so. Highly recommended reading for game designers and anyone interested in online abuse and privacy:

  • Part 1 looks at the relationship between privacy and anonymity, and the key questions about anonymity.
  • Part 2 examines the harms entailed in removing anonymity.
  • Part 3 makes the case for the impossibility for enforcing public identity and restricting anonymity.
  • Part 4 looks at dealing with the problems of online behaviour, and the changes that might be required.

You can read some brief responses from me over at Only a Game, and I shall respond in full in about two weeks time with a piece entitled Lessons from the MUD. Watch this space!


The Meaning of Play: International Hobo US Tour 2017

Play.Jan RasiewiczDelighted to announce that I am on a five State tour of the US this April, with four speaking engagements open to the public. I shall be presenting at four university campuses in Indiana, Texas, California, and Utah with an hour long presentation on The Meaning of Play. Most of the venues are open to the general public, so even if you're not a student at the universities in question you'd be more than welcome to come along.

My topic for this tour is The Meaning of Play, an imaginative voyage through five hundred million years of play, using the latest empirical and philosophical research to trace the aesthetic motives that inspire beings to pursue play, and the lineages connecting the different kinds of play that these motives brought about. The journey will look at the aesthetic motives of the first multi-cellular life forms back in the Cambrian, how early wolves created new meanings for play a million years ago, the relationship between games today and games five millennia in the past, and how humans continue to create new and different means to – and meanings of – play.

Here are all the places you can catch me this April. Some details are still being confirmed and will be updated soon, so watch this space!

Tuesday 4th April: Indiana University, Bloomington, IN

Franklin Hall Commons, 1 pm 
Open to all

Thursday 6th April: Texas A&M, College Station, TX

Langford B Geren Auditorium, 7:45 pm
Open to all

Sunday 9th April: Laguna College of Art and Design, CA

Studio 5, Big Bend Campus, 2825 Laguna Canyon Rd, 1pm 
Open to all

Wednesday 12th April: University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT

EAE Games Studio, Building 72, Level 2, 5 pm
Open to all

With thanks to Erlend Grefsrud for goading me into this title. The opening image is Play by Jan Rasiewicz, which I found here at his site, Rasko Fine Art. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.

Cross-posted from Only a Game.


The Liberation of Games Will Not Be Streamed on Twitch

Not TwitchedGames are about choices! Games are about challenge! Games are about avatars! So many banners line the battlefield of games, so many visions of “what games are”. Yet no-one who attempts to boil down games into a simple formula preserves everything that everyone loves about games, and that means games are always far beyond what you think they are.

Conventional thinking about games has crystallised into certain dogmas, sometimes stated, sometimes merely implied, that attempt to control the phenomena of games through the simple means of declaring what they are or are not. We should be suspicious of this, but not (as the academics say) because it is ‘essentialist’ but because we should never confuse our aesthetic values for anything fundamentally necessary – even though, as Kant observed centuries ago, we all desperately want to do this, whether for ‘art’ or for ‘games’.

Whatever you single out as essential to games will necessarily reflect your aesthetic values for play. That is no bad thing – appreciating any of the aesthetic experiences of life is a practice we ought to treasure, because it illuminates a certain joy we take in living, and that is always a precious thing. The problem is, we think our aesthetics can be applied to others. Kant noted that when we find a great artwork, we feel that our judgement should apply to everyone – and thus are often scornful of those who don’t accord with our own judgement. The same is true about games, where our aesthetic judgements are sometimes shored up by all sorts of strange methods, including invoking psychology as a weird source of authority (as if psychologists could somehow show what was really art or really a game...).

Three of my own bugbears about this phenomena will help illustrate my point, starting with the famous Sid Meier misquote that “a game...” (or, as he appears to actually have said, “a good game”) “...is a series of interesting choices.” Who doesn't love an interesting choice, you might ask? Aren’t the best examples of games built around providing meaningful choices? It’s true that evocative choices are one of the ways that games satisfy players, but we ought to be careful about confusing a way games engage players for the way games engage players.

Games are about choices in about the same way that action movies are about weaponry. Yes, firearms are a staple of the genre, but films like Deepwater Horizon or, long before that, The Towering Inferno are still blistering action movies (quite literally in these cases!) without a shot ever being fired. Similarly, games supporting meaningful choices can be great experiences, and can offer many rewarding moments. Yet zero player games like ProgressQuest are still fun, despite offering no choices whatsoever. Along similar lines, many Japanese RPGs craft the play experience so tightly that almost no meaningful choices are offered, yet the genre is still wildly popular, and not just in Japan (indeed, the design of BioWare games have increasingly cross-pollinated the Western and Japanese RPG lineages).

Then there is our relationship to our avatars. Katherine Isbister, whose work I greatly admire, claims we have a deeper bond with our game characters than with characters from other media that are ‘not interactive’, owing to what psychologists have called para-social relationships. Already, a massive assumption has been made here that clouds the water. For my five year old son, the Marvel comics I read to him provide the same interactive capacities as the videogames we play, at least in terms of what happens afterwards, when he is playing games about them. This is not just true for a child’s imagination, though: for many cosplayers, the same expanded scope of interaction applies. (If this feels odd because it looks at play ‘outside the game’, recall that while we are watching a movie our bond to the characters on screen can be immensely strong; the idea of a stronger bond with a videogame avatar is already founded upon thinking outside the game, at the draw of returning to playing.) The games we play with media never quite stay inside the lines we draw for them, and para-social connections are generated by nearly every medium.

Besides, do we really bond with game avatars (or at least, the digital dolls representing them) more than the protagonists of books, films and television shows? Harry Potter or Darth Vader are more beloved than any game character, so it would seem this is not the case. Our attachments to the dolls we play with in videogames feel more intense while the game has us in its grip, but the relationship tails off dramatically afterwards (not to mention that a TV ‘boxed set’ can hold us in its grip just as effectively as a videogame). Note that we never play a game the second time in the same way; we don’t recreate our previous avatars ever, no matter how much we loved them. Conversely, other media characters are eternal – and gain tangibly from it in terms of their appeal. It’s not a coincidence that cosplayers favour Japanese RPG characters, which are closer in form to the older forms of media. The shared point of reference among the wider community makes a huge difference in such matters.

Then there’s the psychological concept of flow, which many people have suggested is central to games, and allegedly keeps us engaged through a tight balance between the level of challenge and our own abilities. Yet this phenomena (while an authentic part of animal psychology) has little to do with the appeal of tabletop RPGs, exploration games, walking sims, nor most boardgames. To understand flow is to appreciate the ways a certain kind of game elicits our intense involvement, but it would be utterly futile to make this a skeleton key for game design. If we consider survival-horror games as just one clear example, it should be clear that remaining within the ‘flow channel’, where our skills match the challenges, is a terrible description of the enjoyment on offer. Most players of these games are avoiding challenge to conserve limited resources, and anxiety in these cases is not a sign that the game has ceased to be fun but the very root of our enjoyment.

Flow was the psychological secret of the arcade, the essence of the intense involvement of the coin op that was initially predicated upon forcing the player to fail against rising levels of challenge. That made a great deal of sense in the commercial situation of that time, where games had to be designed to facilitate coin drops, and so shorter, more intense play experiences were the order of business (at least until the first ‘microtransaction’ games like Gauntlet, which threw away the concept of one coin, one game). But the arcade is only part of the story of videogames, and we should never forget that the medium descends from both coin ops and tabletop role-playing games – and only one of these lineages is about flow. The other is about immersive presence, that capacity to enter another world that is also in no way the hallmark of games, let alone videogames, which did not even originate it!

Whenever you make a box and say “this, this is what games are!” I will show what you excluded and why others love those games just as much. This was the reason I had to disavow ‘games’, to deny myself any capacity to define “what games are” in order to try and understand everything games can be, which is always more than you think. This is the reason that I now argue for a liberation of games, a break from the tradition of trying to lay out definite boundaries for games or, for that matter for art – not to forbid such definitions, but to embrace them all in all their confused glory!

The liberation of games means no one can chisel the agenda for play in stone. Everyone’s aesthetic values have meaning, even those we hate, and there’s nothing to gain from denying this diversity, this wild landscape of play. I revel in this chaos because it is the only honest way to love games: no-one is mistaken in laying out their boundary conditions for what games are, but everyone who thinks they can defend games from a border they have drawn is deeply confused about what they are doing.

This is the ultimate truth about games: nobody owns them, not gamers, nor social justice warriors, nor governments, nor corporations – no-one. Games and art are bigger that any fragment of culture, greater than any definition, and beyond even our species. The liberation of games means accepting everyone’s unique view of games, whether or not we agree with it. This is not easy. But it’s the only way to allow games to truly be everything they can be.

With apologies to the incomparable Gil Scott-Heron.


Prezi: No-one Plays Alone

For those of you who have brought a suitable device to DiGRA-FDG (and for those not able to make the conference), here's my Prezi for No-one Plays Alone

The timeline in particularly has a lot to offer an errant explorer... go take a look!

Looking for research partners!

I'm always looking for people with similar research interests for possible collaboration on papers, contributions to edited volumes, or possible formation of new sub-disciplines. Please get in touch using the Contact link if your research interests are in any of the following areas:

  • Player Practices: my main Game Studies research subject right now, and I'm interested in allying with anyone who broadly agrees with the following statements, regardless of how they choose to describe their research:
    "no player can play or design a game in complete isolation from the practices of others"
    "an artefactual reading of a game is always an incomplete reading"

    "the history of games is the history of the way players engaged with them" or equivalently "emulation is at-best reincarnation"
  • Philosophy of Imagination: also interested in anyone applying Walton's make-believe theory (or another theory of representation) to any and all aspects of human life. This was the background to my 'imaginative investigations' i.e. the trilogy Imaginary Games, The Mythology of Evolution, and Chaos Ethics. If your work crosses over anywhere near mine here, I'm interested in talking to you.
  • Multiverse/Pluriverse/Ecology of Practices: related to the above, I'd love to hook up with researchers who are pursuing Stengers' ecology of practices, William James' pluriverse/multiverse, or anything similar to my adaptation of Moorcock's multiverse to ethics and politics. If you are working on ways to understand our diversity of being as a manifold of practices or an inclusive set of mythos, please get in touch.

Many thanks to everyone who came to my talk!


No-one Plays Alone (DiGRA/FDG 2016)

Here’s the abstract for the paper I’m presenting for DiGRA/FDG at Abertay University in Scotland in August. The paper is entitled ‘No-one Plays Alone’. Special thanks to Dan Cook for setting this one in motion with me – you are quoted extensively in it!

The discourses around games have tended to focus upon either their artefactual qualities or the phenomenological experience of play. In both cases, games are primarily to be understood singularly. An alternative approach, related to Foucault’s archaeological methods, is to focus upon the manner in which games share player practices with earlier games. This technique can be applied to all eras of games, and is not merely restricted to videogames – indeed, a significant proportion of the player practices of videogames descend directly from the player practices of tabletop games, especially in terms of the progenitive role of tabletop role-playing games for contemporary digital entertainment. Such player practices can be broadly understood in terms of interface (how the player engages with the game), world (what the player imagines is happening), or the agency practices that connect the interface and the world.

Three propositions concerning the relationships between fictional setting and designed rule systems within games are explored, the last of which stresses the idea that ‘no-one plays alone’ i.e. that all play entails continuity of its practices over and above variation of those practices. These propositions are used to demonstrate three aesthetic flaws that are peculiar to, or particularly relevant for, videogames. This in turn leads to a discussion of the ways that commercially successful games have always proceeded by leveraging the existing networks of practice. The result is an alternative perspective for game design, game scholarship, or game critique, one that foregrounds the role of player practices.

Keywords: player practices, aesthetics, play aesthetics, games, fiction, rules, lineages