Game Philosophy Feed

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


Player Practices

Player Practices was one half of a special double serial in four parts running here at ihobo.com for the tin anniversary (celebrating ten years of my blogging). It ran in parallel with another serial, Foucault’s Archaeology, at Only a Game, from June 10th to July 1st 2015. Both serials were based upon the work of Michel Foucault whilst also touching upon themes from the first ten years of my blogs, particularly the work of Roger Caillois that formed the first blog serial I wrote.

The serial at Only a Game focussed upon Foucault’s ‘archaeological’ methods for analysing discourse, while the parallel serial here applied these methods to games and play. Each of the parts ends with a link to the next one, so to read the entire serial, simply click on the first link below, and then follow the "next" links to read on.

Here are the four parts of Player Practices:

  1. Game Paradigms
  2. Caillois’ Paradigms of Play
  3. The Three Discourses on Games
  4. The Liberation of Games

And here are the corresponding four parts of Foucault’s Archaeology:

  1. Paradigm and Episteme
  2. Discourse
  3. Contradictions
  4. Thresholds

Thanks to everyone who has spoken to me on, or about, my blogs over the last ten years, and if you enjoyed these serials, please leave a comment. Thank you!


Player Practices (4): The Liberation of Games

Despite the prevailing trends in games over the previous century producing a massive diversification of player practices, the discourses on games identified last week have insisted on asserting the artificial unity of the videogame or digital game, as opposed to ‘analogue’ games. This point needs drawing out in terms of the concept of player practices defined in terms of game paradigms (from the first part of this serial, and expanded in the second part, showing the character of these player practices in the mid-twentieth century). In so doing, I hope to make an argument that our very concept of ‘game’ is in urgent need of being liberating.

To begin with, it is useful to revisit the contradiction between ludology and narratology within game studies, as discussed last week. The final part of Foucault’s Archaeology discusses the thresholds that a discursive practice may or might not cross, passing into being an autonomous discursive formation at the beginning, through to becoming a knowledge practice, and perhaps a law-governed scientific practice, or even a formal practice. Yet despite the invocation of the suffix ‘-ology’, the hallmark of the sciences, neither narratology nor ludology have much prospect of crossing the threshold into scientificity as Foucault uses the term, which is not to say that these fields do not possess knowledge. It is to recognise that unlike atoms, plants, photons, animals, chemical compounds, electro-magnetism and gravity, games were never an isolatable object of study, and cannot be made to reliably speak for themselves.

In the discourse of game design, from which the other game discourses emerge, the idea of games as a self-contained system is established by the notion of the rules – the explicit object of discussion in game design. Whether we are talking about a boxed board game, an arcade cabinet, or a downloadable videogame, the ideal game implied by the stated rules is something that game design can and will talk about, but this discussion will tend to ignore actual played experiences. In the guise of ludology, a certain line of thought in game studies dogmatised this position in order to be able to talk about games as systems and not have to be weighed down with the messy problems entailed in the actual diversity of player practices and their associated events. Against this, game criticism swings to the furthest possible extreme, taking a single player’s events and experiences with a game and making those the object of discussion.

It may seem odd, given the apparent gap between these two positions, that I am suggesting they are part of the same discursive formation. Surely, even if game criticism emerges out of game studies, it has crossed Foucault’s threshold of positivity and become a new discursive practice? The question we have to ask is whether game studies and game criticism can make contradictory statements about the same object, or can mark out entirely different objects – and in this regard, it is fairly clear that neither situation applies. While the critic may allow a greater role for the player, and the ludologist may treat the game system as the dominant factor, both are talking about videogames and their players in the same general way, a manner conditioned by the design practices of the videogame industry, and thus also of the player practices it sustains.

The misleading factor here is that ludology is not game studies, but only a single thread within it – one that tends to give voice to the most dogmatically bullish positions. There are many alternative approaches within the field that are far closer in form to the practices of criticism. As a point of comparison, it is worth noting that a great many of the points raised by Brendan Keogh in Across Worlds and Bodies are identical to those I had made the same year in Fiction Denial and the Liberation of Games, a paper that is clearly part of the discourse of game studies. Our principle disagreement is that I do not accept the unification implied by the concept of ‘videogame’ – and here, it is me (not Brendan) who is breaking with the practices of game studies. Rather than game studies and game criticism being different discursive practices, they are more akin to different approaches within the same discursive formation – much like the intrinsic contradictions between systematic and methodical methods in Natural History.

The contradictory unity between the two more recent discourses on games are part of a single discursive formation for a simple reason: they both take as their exemplars, their genus of study, those games that are produced by multinational media corporations with gigantic development budgets. The AAA console game and its PC brothers (for they are surely not sisters) are the shared obsession between the vast majority of the both critics and scholars of games. Game design, on the other hand, is less affected by these big budget products because the rules of these games are not a great source of variation: they service player practices with the broadest possible appeal, which by necessity are constrained in terms of innovation (the FPS in particular is nearly as static as a sport at this point in time). Hence game designer’s love affair with ‘indie’ games – or rather, with the highly systemic game designs that cannot possess broad appeal precisely because their idiosyncratic designs are perfectly suited to an in-depth discussion in terms of rules.

I will not suggest that thinking in terms of player practices has the capacity to create a new discursive formation: this approach does not define entirely new objects or create new contradictions, it is only a divergent perspective that brings out different intuitions about games and their players. Anything I could say in terms of player practices can be translated into rules (for game design) or understood as systems (for ludology) or narratives (for narratology) or instantiated into individual cases (for game criticism). But thinking in terms of player practices emphasises the way that the design practices of, say, open world games descend directly from the player practices of tabletop role-playing games; the way the the design practice of ‘three lives’ in games descends from the player practices of the fairground sideshow with its ‘three tries’; the way console controller design practices descend from the player practices of pinball and electro-mechanical games; the way giant commercial FPS design practices descend from the player practices entailed in watching giant commercial action movies.

In this regard, I side with Keogh in recognising that as well as the lineage of games, the myriad entities artificially collected under the umbrella of ‘videogames’ share lineages with literature, theatre, film, and music. But I break with Keogh, with game criticism, game studies, and game design for that matter, in suggesting that we can’t keep imagining ‘videogame’ is an unproblematic generalisation that defines a defensible border. Many of us now understand this issue when it comes to abstractions like gender, which required a movement of liberation to shift prevailing dogmas. But everyone could benefit from seeing how this kind of critique of generalities applies in an even more staggering degree to play. The games we are playing with media these days will not sit quietly in the boxes we make for them. We urgently need a liberation of games to remind us that the diversity of games, of players, and of their practices, was never bound by the rules of discourse we imposed upon them.

Thank you for reading! More nonsense soon.