Game Philosophy Feed

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.


Player Practices (3): The Three Discourses on Games


Sega PeriscopeWhen game studies was asserting itself as a new field in the late 1990s, it did so against a background where the primary discourse surrounding games at the time was not in any significant sense academic. The first discourse on games was pragmatic, and corresponds to what we now call game design, but it began long before this term gained its contemporary sense and content, in the manufacture of board games. This hit its stride in the nineteenth century, as the mass produced boardgame industry took over from the games for the moral instruction of children from the previous centuries. Both these game paradigms are related to the four that Caillois identified (discussed last week), combining elements from all four but belonging to none.

Commercial boardgames were competitive, but except in rare occasions they did not consist in a fair trial between competitors as is the case in Chess and Go/Weiqi. They used chance but in a frivolous manner quite removed from the surrender to fate – indeed, for many centuries they used a spinner known as a teetotum rather than dice in order to create conceptual distance from gambling. They had moments of vertiginous panic (e.g. landing on ‘Go to Jail’ in Monopoly) but only trivially. And they entailed simulation, pretending to represent within the world of the game, but at an extremely crude level.

The discourse of game design (as it would come to be known) did not primarily consist in talking about games, but about a different kind of statement: the rule. Indeed, by encoding their player practices as written rules with the aim of having new players learn those practices from written rules, the discourse of game design created the illusion that the rules were the game itself, rather than simply a formal expression of the practices of their play. Boardgames were the vanguard of this advance, which accelerated in the 1950s and 60s with the Avalon Hill wargames and their imitators, which had far more complex rules than anything previously in wide circulation. This was a significant paradigm shift in both the play (and discourse about) games.

At the same time, fairground entertainments were advancing in complexity and breaking from Caillois’ pattern of vertigo into an entirely new game paradigm. Developing out of bagatelle and other such games of chance (that were not strictly Caillois’ games of fate), pinball and pachinko – like boardgames – combined elements of the classical player practices to create a new game paradigm very different to what came before. These led directly to the electro-mechanical arcade games, for which Sega was a major creator, and thus to the videogame, which initially produced largely inferior electronic versions of what had been done mechanically in the preceding decade. There are numerous examples: the player practices of Midway's Sea Wolf from 1976 are directly inherited from Sega's electro-mechanical cabinet Periscope (pictured above), which was released exactly a decade earlier in 1966. The rise of diverse arcade cabinets in the 1960s represents another game paradigm shift, one that the digital arcade simply picked up, rather than initiated.

The third part of Foucault’s Archaeology explains that distinctions between discursive formations depend upon identifying contradictions, some of which are intrinsic – like the contradiction between rule-play and role-play that characterises the RPG game paradigm and its player practices (discussed at length in The Essence of RPGs). However, some are extrinsic and mark separation between one paradigm and another, like the contradiction between the rule-specification of the boardgame paradigm, and the experiential design of a pinball table. Indeed, in terms of discourse, what characterised the arcade game paradigm (which extends decades earlier than the videogame) was a general inability to talk about the design simply as a set of rules.

From pinball onwards, the rules were only a small part of the experience, which was sensory in ways that spanned tactile, audio, and visual. Designers of such games learned from playing each other’s games more than they learned by exchange of written rules, as the tabletop lineage did, especially with the advent of role-playing games in the 1970s. Thus by the 1980s we have, in addition to the four classical game paradigms that Caillois identified, an increasing number of additional paradigms in the cross-bred space between them (as indeed Caillois discussed and critiqued).

The second discourse on games arrives in the late 1990s, calling itself game studies. I suspect it would have called itself ‘game theory’ if economics had not already claimed that term for the mathematics of competition. It is marked, from the very beginning, by the need to distinguish itself from pre-existing discourses – and in particular to make a break from narratology and media studies, which were just starting to take an interest in videogames as they became more overtly narrative. This is a particularly intriguing situation from the perspective of Foucault’s archaeological techniques since the narratives studied in media studies are precisely the game paradigm that Caillois called mimicry – precisely the medium people struggle to accept as games for aesthetic reasons that I outlined in Implicit Game Aesthetics. So there is a certain irony to game studies not only positioning itself in conflict with the narrative game paradigm, but also in choosing as its object of study the videogame, thus unifying a diverse set of player practices that by Foucault’s methods should be considered distinct game paradigms.

Game studies, unlike game design, is a discursive formation that is not in any positive way influencing game paradigms. It is solely an observer, and exclusively of what it calls ‘videogames’ or ‘digital games’. This narrow focus is testified by its primary association calling itself ‘the Digital Game Research Association’. Even today, other kinds of games are treated as distinct objects of study – at this year’s DiGRA conference, the role-playing games summit does not even appear in the programme, and had its own separate timetable. The game studies journal Games and Culture rejects submissions that are clearly about games and culture if the games in question are not videogames. The official mythology of game studies is that videogames are a distinct and unique medium that must be treated separately from all others – including tabletop games, which at best are treated grudgingly as a distant influence. This is the digital exceptionalism that I have criticised repeatedly, and exposed by showing that player practices in videogames descend and directly relate to other game paradigms.

However, it is not other games that game studies is obsessed with keeping out, but those discourses that are concerned with the narrative game paradigm. Hence the famous ‘ludology vs. narratology’ debacle that is to game studies what Romulus and Remus are to the Roman Empire. The official story – if you talk to those allied with ludology, at least – is that ludology triumphed, by showing the uniqueness of the videogame. Foucault’s archaeology suggests a different understanding: game studies is underpinned by the intrinsic contradiction between ludology and narratology, the latter of which was never banished but simply driven underground by the reigning orthodoxy that insists videogames must be understood by borrowing scientific techniques and never by the methods of the humanities.

Ironically, when the third discourse on games arrives it too buys into digitial exceptionalism and presents the videogame as its object of study, in total disregard to the different game paradigms collected by the term ‘videogame’ and the myriad connections to other non-digital paradigms. As much as Brendan Keogh tries to paint game studies as predicating ‘videogames as games’ in his seminal essay Across Worlds and Bodies (as opposed to his battlecry for game criticism of understanding videogames as videogames) he lines up with game studies perfectly. He even uses references that are exactly the foundational matrix of game studies to emphasise his point. This third discourse is not a new discursive formation at all, but the uprising of the suppressed intrinsic contradiction between the sciences and the humanities within game studies, returning to take its vengeance.

Next week, the final part: The Liberation of Games


Player Practices (2): Caillois' Paradigms of Play

Roger CailloisMuch has been written on Caillois’ groundbreaking book, Les Jeux et Les Hommes (translated as Man, Play, and Games) – very little of it insightful. Indeed, within game studies, the majority of responses to Caillois do not obviously go beyond the introduction to the book, where Caillois explains the definition of play and games he is using to guide his enquiry. A few go as far as to engage in his framework, which considers four distinct patterns in play, but none actually take into account Caillois’ purpose in laying out these patterns, which is sociological, and forms the focus of the latter half of the book.

Caillois, following on from Huizinga who inspired him, is interested in how cultures organise themselves around different elements of play, and his four patterns are his framework for investigating this. He expressly disavowed that his patterns should be used as a taxonomy, a point constantly overlooked in discussions of Caillois within game studies, preferring to see his approach as designed to bring out certain intuitive points of focus in order to criticise (as Huizinga did before him) the decline of the play element in culture. In the context of this enquiry, however, our interest is not the general sociological patterns Caillois pursues but the way these patterns reflect game paradigms (as defined last week) at the time he was writing, namely 1958.

The idea behind a game paradigm is to produce a parallel with Kuhn’s paradigms, and Foucault’s discursive formations (explored in the second part of the Foucault’s Archaeology serial). In both cases, we are dealing with networks of practices and (especially for Foucault) relationships between statements. The statement works perfectly for Foucault’s analysis as a smallest unit of interest, but when it comes to games and play, we do not have an equivalent ‘smallest unit’ to turn to. The concept of a ‘ludeme’, both disparaged and developed by David Parlett, has to unify so many disparate things that it is more likely to be misleading than helpful; morpheme and phoneme in language (which the term is modelled on) have extremely distinct usage cases to define them, and the same is simply not true of the elements of games.

The statement works as Foucault’s foundation because it is an event, a claim that is enunciated in given circumstances, and the event can work as the smallest unit of anything we care to investigate (as Alfred North Whitehead realized), since it is transparent to whether our focus is a thought, an action, or a material object. What is more, any event in any game or play situation is a potential statement, something that can be stated as an observation about that play (“I won”) or about the conditions in any given play (“you can’t touch the ball with your hands”).

Caillois’ first pattern covers competitive games (what he calls agon after the Greek word for contest) and concerns the pursuit of victory under conditions of fair trial. This describes the game paradigm that has formed and been maintained for several millennia around sporting contests, with prevailing practices such as ‘sportsmanship’ and the pursuit of victory in competition. Sports, it is worth remembering, are a kind of game, one that has set itself apart from the others through a persistent glorification of physical prowess. Directly competitive mental competitions – Chess and Go/Weiqi, for instance – qualify as a closely related aspect of the same game paradigm, even though they could never be considered sport. In this regard, it is worth recognising that Foucault’s discursive formations are united by intrinsic contradictions (as we will see next week) and distinguished by those contradictions that cannot be resolved; in terms of competitive play, the difference between a sport and a game is purely internal to the paradigm in question.

As Bernard Suits shrewdly observed, competitive games are characterised to a great extent by constraints on what is allowed – golf would not work if you could use your hands to move the balls, for instance. What further characterises the game paradigm of competition are the regulatory events at the start and end: victory, that which allows us to state “I won!”, is the inescapable characteristic of competition, so much so that many whose play aesthetics prioritise this paradigm presume it is characteristic of all games. (This is the most basic mistake people make about games: to project their own aesthetic values as if they had objective weight – a point Kant links to all aesthetic experience).

The start is even more important to competition: players must begin with the same initial conditions in order for it to be judged fair, in the specific way this term is used in competitive games. Even when these conditions are inequal, as in the case of handicapping, the goal of the inequality is to adhere to ideals of equality, e.g. in horse racing when different racers are expected to carry different amounts of weight in order to give each competitor a purportedly equal chance of winning.

Caillois’ second pattern (named alea after the Latin for dice) concerns games of chance and fate, and constitutes a different game paradigm precisely because its conception of fairness is incompatible with that of competition: in games of chance, everyone has the same chance of winning not because of attempts to balance talent but because skill has no bearing on victory. This, for much of the history of mankind, has been precisely the appeal of gambling, it entails a surrender to fate, an acceptance of a powerlessness that might grant victory to anyone.

However, even by the time Caillois is writing, there were forces mutating this game paradigm, both in terms of the statements made about it (e.g. statistical analyses bringing skill into the previously sacred mystery of games of fate) and in terms of the composition of games (e.g. poker, which allows chance to be mediated through skillful reading of the other players). The ‘favour of the gods’, so long the mythology of gambling, is fading in what Max Weber termed ‘the disenchantment of the world’.

In Caillois’ third pattern (ilinx), the game paradigm is completely different as there is no role for victory at all, neither is there Suits’ voluntary acceptance of limitation to define challenges. This is the play of vertigo, which is exemplified in the fairground ride that uses dizzying speeds and centripetal accelerations to tap into excitement and fear. The event of consciousness-destroying panic constitutes this game paradigm, which many would dismiss as ‘not a game’ and thus miss how central the successors to this paradigm have become to videogames.

So too his fourth and final pattern, mimicry, whose exemplar of ‘play’ is the theatrical play that Caillois – unlike so many game scholars since – recognizes as a game paradigm radically distinct from the play of winning. It is precisely this contradiction, the fictional story against the functional state of winning, that half a century later will give rise to entirely new discursive formations about play.

Next week: The Three Discourses on Games


Player Practices (1): Game Paradigms

Dogs playingIts very name conjures up ideas of freedom and reckless abandon, yet how we play is never without limitations or methods – it is always conditioned by the circumstances within which it occurs. Even the other mammals recognise boundaries to their play, violations that will change the play of (say) two dogs from excited, friendly roughhousing into hostile snarling and bared teeth. But how can it be, if play is at root unshackled by the specifics of rules and systems, that play is never entirely free?

This four part serial runs in parallel to Foucault’s Archaeology, over on my original blog, Only a Game, to celebrate its ten year anniversary this July. Each of the four parts of Player Practices is linked to the corresponding part of the other serial, although it should be possible to follow this one on its own provided you’re not too concerned about the roots of the methods I am building upon. The purpose of this particular set of posts is to demonstrate how we can understand all play – whether with videogames, movies, boardgames, novels, RPGs, dogs, dice, or just our imagination – as player practices that form lineages of connectivity that thread together very different genres and media. Further, that these practices are linked to the discourses about play, such that even when the forms of discussion seem very different, they are still interconnected.

In the first part of Foucault’s Archaeology, I look at how the French philosopher-historian Michel Foucault overlaps the work of the US historian-philosopher Thomas Kuhn, who suggested that the sciences undergo periodic transformations he termed paradigm shifts. Kuhn’s paradigm (and Foucault’s historical a priori) specifies the conditions of knowledge within any given scientific discipline – and the equivalent concept in Foucault’s work specifies conditions of knowledge in any human field that can be understood as a network of related statements. He further argues that all knowledge can be understood in this way, and even leaves open the possibility that his methods could be applied to more disparate fields, such as artworks. Foucault clearly recognises the peculiarity of taking a technique originating in the analysis of discourse and applying it to the skills of, say, an artist:

In analysing a painting, one can reconstitute the latent discourse of the painter; one can try to recapture the murmur of his intentions, which are not transcribed into words, but into lines, surfaces, and colours; one can try to uncover the implicit philosophy that is supposed to form his view of the world... Archaeological analysis... would not set out to show that the painting is a certain way of ‘meaning’ or ‘saying’ that is peculiar in that it dispenses with words. It would try to show that, at least in one of its dimensions, it is discursive practice that is embodied in techniques and effects. In this sense, the painting is not a pure vision that must then be transcribed into the materiality of space; nor is it a naked gesture whose silent and eternally empty meanings must be freed from subsequent interpretations. It is shot through – and independently of scientific knowledge and philosophical themes – with the positivity of a knowledge.

What I am attempting in this serial is to pick up the possibilities that Foucault suggests could describe artworks and apply the same argument to games and play. Partly, this is because I have been able to defend the claim (in Imaginary Games and elsewhere) that games can never be excluded from the category of art, but partly it’s because play and games entail knowledge of various different kinds, and anywhere there is knowledge it is possible to apply Foucault’s method. This is a key point: it is the reason that game design is a viable discipline, but it is also important to recognise that the potential knowledge about play is in no way exhausted by game design – as game studies revealed, and as game criticism reveals again.

We have indeed witnessed, in the last fifty years or so, paradigm shifts (to use Kuhn's term, since it is more elegant than Foucault's) in the discourses surrounding games, a point that I will pick up and explore more closely in two weeks time. The possible knowledge we can have about games and play is nearly inexhaustible, and certainly capable of sustaining multiple discourses. But if this were all I wished to discuss, this serial would not significantly go beyond Foucault, who already explained how his ‘discursive formations’ describe any domain of knowledge. But just as he also suggests that painting et al can also be understand as a kind of discourse (or, better, a kind of knowledge) so it is with games and play themselves – quite apart from any discussions about it! But what, it is reasonable to ask at this point, what would a game paradigm be?

The answer, I suggest, has already been brilliantly traced by the work of another French intellectual, Roger Caillois, who is considered one of the founding voices clearing the path for game studies. I’ve already shown (in Beyond Game Design) how Caillios’ patterns of play can be seen as prescient observation of neurobiological patterns at a sociological level. But Caillois’ four patterns, which he stresses are not to be taken as either a taxonomy nor as exhaustive, also indicate four dominant game paradigms at the time he was writing – four networks of player practices, constraining both particular kinds of play, and the discourses that surround those forms of play. Examining these will suggest the validity of the idea of a game paradigm, and thus a shift between one way of playing and another.

Next week: Caillois' Patterns of Play


Mario Kart and the Cult of Originality

Mario Kart HistorySeveral years back, we had a chance to work with Supersonic, a British developer that everyone at International Hobo respected because they were responsible for one of our favourite multiplayer games of all time: Micro Machines 2: Turbo Tournament on the Sega Megadrive. Even better than this was the realization that the game we were being brought into was another game in the same style: it didn’t have the Micro Machines license, it was in full 3D rather than top down 2D, but it was clearly another link in the same chain. Supersonic, we discovered, had never lost their love for this kind of game, and had found a way to keep making them even when the publishers had forced them off the intellectual property. It could be complained that the new game, then called Toast but eventually released as Mashed, was not original. But to do so would be to miss precisely what was valuable in Supersonic’s custodianship of player practices – and the same argument that applies to Supersonic equally applies to Nintendo EAD Group 1 and Mario Kart.

Why would anyone question the value of Nintendo’s hugely popular Mario Kart franchise? The most likely reason for doing so is because of the assumption, common to critics in a great many media, that originality is the highest value of artworks and thus that works that lack it are in some way deficient. Let me call this the cult of originality. If I may abuse Robert Hughes phrase for the impact of modern art, critics are infatuated with the shock of the new. Now it is important to recognize that originality is indeed a genuine value in respect of artworks, yet it is in no way its sole value. Equally it is worth recognizing that while games have a conceptual claim to art (as I argue in Imaginary Games), they are also at an intersection of a great many human activities, including narrative and sports. The way we assess a game, therefore, might not be through a common set of critical practices. Indeed, if we want to fully appreciate games in all their diversity, it is necessary to understand that by collecting so many disparate things under the single banner of ‘game’, we distort a chaotic multiplicity into artificial unity.

Before seeing how this approach of deifying originality falls apart when considering Mario Kart, it is worth reiterating this claim. At the point that ‘games’ as a term become a unity, they have ceased to possess their individual character: it is the attempt to then impose unitary character back upon individual games that causes people to valorise some games and denigrate others by excluding them from the mantle of ‘game’. This is the argument I put forward in Implicit Game Aesthetics. When we accept instead the diversity of play, we find that inside the blanket category of games are things that resemble narrative artworks, things that resemble fairground sideshows, things that resemble representative art, things that resemble or represent sports – and we have an ever-growing need for a ‘liberation of games’ to break us out of the habit of seeing all these diverse activities and entities as subject to judgements of only one kind.

In the case of Mario Kart, we land somewhere between sports (that is, motor sports) and fairground rides (that is, bumper cars). Immediately, we are outside of the space where someone whose critical practices were learned in connection with books, films, or theatre – the narrative artworks – has firm footing. Since most critical practice has come down this path, and since alternative approaches like Ian Bogost’s Unit Operations are out of the conceptual grasp of the majority of game critics, Mario Kart comes into the space of art criticism like a cuttlefish at a flower show. Immediately, the critic who wishes to defend it must appeal to its inherent entertainment value – and for many with a penchant for criticism, this feels like selling out.

However, it should not. The aesthetic value of fairground rides lies precisely in their capacity to amuse, and if we were able to get past the barrier that the totalizing term ‘game’ inflicts upon us perhaps we would be unafraid to make this connection. My interest here, however, is not in the aesthetics of amusement but the conservation of player practices in sports and sport-like activities. For one of the aspects of sports that characterises them as such is that their player practices are strongly conserved. While the rules of sports do change, and occasionally the institutions governing sports split and create variant practices, the rate of change of player practices within sports is the lowest of all games. It is this continuity – this maintenance of tradition – that affords sports their cultural esteem, for if they were not stable in this way they would not persist long enough to establish themselves as national institutions.

Mario Kart, like a sport, has strongly conserved player practices. Across all eight iterations of the main franchise (ignoring the arcade cabinets Nintendo co-developed with Namco), the core of the game has persisted, and the player practices have thus obtained a constancy. The concept of a multi-race grand prix with power-ups to aid a racer – or inflict upon others! – and of power slides and hopping to assist with cornering remains the core of the titles in this series throughout. Over and above this is the idea of abstracting difficulty out by characterising three different speeds of race as 50cc, 100cc or 150cc i.e. of having engine size substitute for difficulty by recognising that faster races require greater skill to master. These establish a core suite of player practices that remain, sports-like, constant throughout the franchise.

This is not to say that the games do not change or develop. The original Super Mario Kart (1992) had grand prix races (then called Mario Kart GP) consisting of five consecutive races for each cup; this changed to four with Mario Kart 64 (1996) and has remained thus ever since, although the number of cups offered raised to eight with Mario Kart DS (2005). The selection of power ups has been adjusted, most notably by the inclusion of the dreaded Blue Shell with Mario Kart 64, and the Super Horn in Mario Kart 8 (2014) that at last offers a chance of defence against it. The role of the Coin has also been in constant flux throughout: core to the design of the first game, it did not return until Mario Kart Super Circuit (2001) on the GBA, then disappeared until Mario Kart 7 (2011) on the Wii, which seems to have reintegrated it with some permanency.

Super Circuit was the only title not developed by Nintendo’s EAD Group 1 studio, although Intelligent Systems (who made that particular game) have always been closely tied to EAD. Super Circuit is particular significant for its introduction of the concept of cups consisting of classic races, solidifying the continuity of player practices by making every previous game a potential participant in each new game. Players who engage in a contemporary Mario Kart are thus offered not only nostalgia but a chance to exercise their already learned player practices, allowing quicker mastery that is no less satisfying because of it. A gainful comparison could be made to the motor racer revisiting the same tracks each year, or the golfer who plays on classic golf courses.

With Mario Kart 8, the conservation of player practices takes an unusual twist, for thus far we have been talking about Nintendo EAD Group 1 acting as custodians solely for the player practices of the Mario Kart series. But with the DLC provided for the latest installment, we find the concept of classic tracks being extended to another, less successful Nintendo racing franchise: F-Zero, a series also created by EAD. The recent addition of the 200cc speed further takes the game closer into intersection with F-Zero, which always had speed as a core element in its concept. The result is that Nintendo EAD Group 1 are now the custodians not only of the player practices of Mario Kart, which they have faithfully maintained for more than twenty years, but also for F-Zero, which (uniquely) is being curated within Mario Kart itself.

The cult of originality, dutifully served by reviewers, critics, and gamers alike, misleads us into thinking that all that matters in videogames is breaking new ground. While inventiveness and creativity are undoubtedly values we should celebrate, we must not be fooled into thinking that this is all that could ever matter about games, or indeed any artwork. Whereas a painting can be viewed largely unchanged centuries after it was created, games cannot be played in the conditions they were first created ever again. Emulation is more reincarnation than preservation. As such, the capacity to maintain player practices, to act as custodians for an established form, is something also worth celebrating. There is even precedence for this in adaptations of books and plays that, while adding some new element or twist to their staging, remain faithful to the source materials. The theatre has long since thrived on this continuity of practice, and the same aesthetic principles can be applied to games. Mario Kart remains faithful to itself, and EAD – and Supersonic, for that matter – deserve praise for this achievement.

Dedicated to Supersonic, and also a friendly glove slap for Jed.


The Aesthetic Flaws of Games

Orbital EquationsMovies, books, and other narrative artworks have a well-established critical lexicon; while critics might not agree about any given example, they largely concur on how criticism of these forms should proceed. But what are the ways that a game can manifest aesthetic flaws, and how does this relate to classical art forms?

My basis for this enquiry are the three Rules of Game Worlds that I discussed in my blog-letter to Dan Cook last year. These were intended to be guidelines for creating game worlds – that is, principles for how the fictional world of a game (where its narratives will be set) connect with its mathematical systems (where its mechanics operate). However, I sense that these rules may have some formal depth to them, and indeed might have more general forms that could include other artworks. For now, let us accept them as descriptive ‘rules’, so they can guide an investigation into how games produce aesthetic flaws of kinds that other artworks simply do not.

The three Rules of Game Worlds are as follows:

  1. Setting and mechanics must accord.
  2. Any and all mechanical sub-worlds must merge with the game world.
  3. No-one plays alone.

Each of these can be used to reveal a specific kind of aesthetic flaw unique to games – and indeed, can reveal a schism between different aesthetic values for play that lead to different kinds of aesthetic flaw. This is key to what follows, for we must appreciate that ‘aesthetic flaw’ is not an absolute claim, nor is it ‘merely subjective’: an aesthetic flaw occurs between a game and its player as a direct result of a difference in values.

Ruptures

The first kind of flaw that can occur in the aesthetics of play is the one that has produced the most heat and least light in discussions of games. It is intimately tied up with the First Rule, that ‘setting and mechanics must accord’, or as I might equivalently say, in line with Jesper Juul, that the fiction and the rules must accord. Why does this constitute a rule?

The crucial point to understand is that the rules of a game, its mechanics and systems, are representations of a very particular kind – namely mathematical representations. This is important to appreciate, because we do not often acknowledge that numbers and formulae are at heart representative, despite this being well-established in broad strokes. The number 'three' is a representation of cardinality: every collection of three objects, like the three rules of game worlds, is thus represented by the number three. Similarly, the bell curve ‘shape’ we depict by graphing the Gaussian function of (say) two six-sided dice represents the distribution of results from such a roll. It is precisely because mathematics can and must represent that the sciences that deploy equations (such as physics) are able to derive formulae that represent phenomena like gravity and electrical flow.

But of course, every game is also a representation in the same way that other artworks are: using Kendall Walton’s terms, they are sensory depictions, like paintings, sculpture, and music, or narrations, like books, poetry and radio plays, or hybrids of the two, such as television, comics, and films. This is precisely where the trouble starts! Because whenever there are multiple forms of representation working together, there is the possibility of different aesthetic values about those kinds of representations clashing. This is precisely the problem at the root of the old narratology vs. ludology skirmish, and in contemporary fights over what is confusingly termed ‘formalism’ but which seems broadly equivalent to what is usually called ludology or ludocentrism or some other ludo-prefixed neologism.

A rupture occurs when a player is experiencing a game in one aesthetic mode, but their imaginary experience is interrupted by an intrusion in another mode – and there are two common examples. The first occurs for any player whose aesthetic values have formed around the mathematical representations of a game (broadly, the ludology position). Such players resent the inclusion of animated film clips (cut scenes or cinematics) in games since these elements do not form part of their aesthetic experience, per se. They cause a rupture in the mathematically-structured world they are enjoying by ‘forcing’ the player to operate in a narrative mode. Equivalently, a player whose experience was primarily within a depictive or narrative mode will experience a rupture whenever the mechanical system bluntly forces its way into awareness, for instance, by encouraging the player to make a decision with mechanical benefits that does not fit the imaginary world they were playing within.

Note that the same game could produce a rupture in opposing modes for different players, and that what constitutes an aesthetic flaw for someone coming from a ludology-style position could be an aesthetic strength for others: despite the interruption of the mechanical play, Final Fantasy games from VII onwards are enjoyed by many players precisely because of the extensive use of narrative cut scene rewards that heighten the sense of connection to the world for some players but that can rupture the game experience for others.

Inelegance

The second way that games can manifest aesthetic flaws relates to the Second Rule of Game Worlds, that every mechanical ‘sub-world’ must also align with the fictional world of the game. The point here is that for most games there is not simply one mechanical system feeding into the fictional experiences but rather many. As an extreme example, consider Cooking Mama with its disparate, mechanically unrelated cooking mini-games that are still united within a fictional narrative of cooking such-and-such a meal. Similarly, the classic Access Software games Beach Head and Raid Over Moscow, from 1983 and 84 respectively, consist of a linear sequence of self-contained sub-games with only the number of soldiers remaining carrying on from one stage to another. The component games do merge with a common fictional world - but this once-popular structure tends to feel uncomfortably clanky by contemporary standards.

Inelegance is perceived by players preferring the mathematical mode as a direct consequence of any discontinuity between sub-worlds, including but not restricted to the kind of examples already mentioned. When the systems themselves are the elements of primary importance to creating the fictional world of play, elegance is experienced if the core mechanics conspire to effortlessly deliver that world, to produce more from less. Many strategy games are afforded this praise, although the original Super Mario Bros. is an interesting example of elegance that does not primarily rest upon decision making. A design can be said to ‘lack elegance’, which is to say, expressive simplicity, whenever contrary conditions hold, which to be honest is the norm and not the exception in contemporary games.

Inelegance is thus the awareness of tension in the mechanical supports to a fictional game world, a sense that the pieces do not fit together like well-oiled cogs. There does not appear to be an equivalent problem for those experiencing a game in a narrative or depictive mode, although the excess of unrelated mechanics characterising inelegance is likely to cause a rupture in such a case, and inelegance may be experienced along with the rupture if the player has sufficient appreciation for mechanics.

Perplexity

The final kind of aesthetic flaw I want to draw attention to here is of a slightly different nature, and relates to the Third Rule: no-one plays alone. The essence of this rule is that an artefactual reading of games, treating them as isolated objects, is an incomplete reading of a game, because every game that has ever been made, or ever will be made, is situated in a network of player practices that prepare the player for that experience. The clearest example is with the first person shooter, the control scheme for which is so ingrained among the majority of contemporary players that games using a modified form of this scheme can generate aesthetic displeasure. This is what I am calling perplexity, the experience of re-learning what has already been learned differently, or learning under conditions of insufficient information e.g. a bad tutorial.

It is perhaps worth recognizing that many of the mathematical aesthetic persuasion are also lovers of puzzle-solving, the enjoyment of which occurs within the imagined world and not to any significant degree in the mechanics. The classic text adventure was enjoyed by many of the same players who enjoy complex strategy games. Such players will enjoy picking up a game and learning to play it without instruction because they possess what I term confusion endurance (see "Empirical Game Aesthetics", in the IEEE Handbook of Digital Games). However, such experiences are not what I am calling perplexity, and neither is being stuck on a puzzle usually an example of perplexity (unless the player knows what to do, but cannot comprehend how the game expects them to implement the required action).

Perplexity occurs because two sets of player practices – those of the player, and those of the game’s creators – have collided instead of aligning. The most typical example occurs when the people who make the game insufficiently address the monumental problem of teaching others to play (which is also the pragmatic reason that most mainstream videogames have very similar control schemes). An interesting case is Metroid Prime, which has a control scheme utterly different from other first person shooting games. Players who give up while learning the new scheme have experienced perplexity in my sense; those that master the practice required by this control scheme, on the other hand, are likely to appreciate its uniqueness.

Conclusion

These three aesthetic flaws – rupture, inelegance, and perplexity – are by no means a complete list of the ways in which a game and a player could be aesthetically misaligned. However, they serve to illustrate why certain arguments about games operate unproductively because they proceed from different aesthetic presumptions – typically a focus on the mathematical systems of the game, versus a focus upon the depictive or narrative aspects of its fictional world. There is no coherent argument for claiming superiority or even 'home field advantage' to these modes, because games operate uniquely from other media whichever aesthetic mode we consider. I hope this brief enquiry will provide some illumination on a subject that too often lapses into dogma, and illustrate once again the core principle of all my work in games, whether as researcher, philosopher, or game designer: play is a diverse activity, and its aesthetic appreciation can never be entirely collapsed into simple master principles.

Do you have anecdotes illustrating these aesthetic flaws from your own play with specific games? I’d love to hear about your thoughts and experiences in the comments.


Imagining Tolkien

My paper for the International Journal of Play is now in print and should be available by following the link for What are we playing with? Role-taking, role-play, and story-play with Tolkien’s legendarium.

And did I mention I’ve accepted a place on the editorial board of this journal? They’ve already treated me better than every other journal I’ve submitted to, and I love their inter-disciplinary focus.


The Value of Art

Over on the Sandbox Gamers site and cross-posted to Only a Game you’ll find the letter I wrote to a group of artists who were presenting at the Talbot Rice Gallery in Edinburgh. It’s entitled The Value of Art and explores the boundaries of both art and games, and the aesthetic values of both. I was scheduled to present to them, but the birth of my second son made that impossible so I wrote them a letter, and then read it out over a webcam (there’s a picture on the Sandbox site).

Replies welcome!