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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!


Neuromythology for Game Design

Brain-as-circuits Is dopamine about reward? Is oxytocin the 'love drug'? How should game designers conceptualise neurobiology – should they even be paddling in this pool?

For quite a while now I've taken an interest in what neuroscientists can teach game designers. In the full knowledge that some of the things I convey will soon be invalidated, I have proceeded to dabble. But I am not a neurobiologist (or not yet, anyway) and many have advised me to leave it to those within the field. For me, this is the wrong way to relate to the sciences: experimental findings do not propagate by accurate description but by metaphors, what I have called (after Mary Midgley) 'myths'  – and neurobiologists are no more trained in practical mythology than game designers are in neuroscience. Tinkering with conceptual schemes and abstract theories is philosophy, but as with much that is philosophical it is not just philosophers who do it. If the choice of ‘myth’ as a term sounds inflammatory, it’s because we now have a tendency to think of myth as a synonym for ‘falsehood’, but this view conceals a highly mythic view on truth, one in definite need of critique.

What I'm calling the 'myths' of the sciences are related to what Kuhn called 'paradigms' and (more loosely) what Foucault called 'épistème', which is a culturally wider concept. Kuhn's paradigms are collections of beliefs and assumptions that make a particular kind of research possible, while the myths of the sciences are metaphorical shorthand intended to capture essential ideas. Mythologies are to paradigms what headlines are to events – the short version, with all the benefits and risks that entails. If you don't think of headlines as mythic or metaphorical, consider that 'Williams Smashes Record' does not involve any literal act of destruction, and that acts of recording are tangential to what we mean by a 'record' in sports.

Because of the role of metaphor in both myths and headlines, these abbreviated ideas have implications beyond what is intended. As I outline in The Mythology of Evolution, a myth like 'the selfish gene' not only serves to explicate a scientific concept (the gene-centric view in this case) it necessarily carries further baggage that is often unintended, or smuggled in as if it were empirically grounded. In the case of the myth of 'the selfish gene,' two examples are the assumption that our genetic history made us selfish (Dawkins is clear that the converse is the case) and the idea that our genes control us (which Dawkins deploys rhetorically, and misleadingly). These kinds of myths are thus never neutral conveyors of ideas but rather an aggregate of background assumptions that may or may not correspond to the research, with the power to both persuade and deceive. Researchers deploy these myths out of necessity – to communicate complex experimental results to the public, of course, but also to make their own discourse tractable. It is no use bemoaning mythology as unnecessary: on the contrary, there is no way of researching – indeed, of living! – without myths. The problem isn’t that we use myths, it’s that we aren’t sufficiently critical of the ones we do use.

In neurobiology, some myths are explanatory shorthand ('headline fodder') while others are conceptual tools. The idea that oxytocin is 'the love drug' is the former – it is rarely mentioned in the literature of this science, and mainly appears in news stories about this particular chemical. As with all such myths, it is both helpful and misleading, but its accessibility trumps all other concerns most of the time. The idea of dopamine as a reward chemical (which I have propagated on the back of its extensive use within the neuroscience community) is a great example of a conceptual tool. Thinking in this way links up dopamine's role in both motivation and learning in a succinct fashion, and until very recently this myth was part of the regular currency of neuroscientists. However, a few scant months after submitting my PhD Publication thesis (which used this myth) a paper was published by John Salamone and Mercè Correa which asked for a fundamental shift in the mythology of dopamine.

Salamone and Correa recognize the role of myths in the sciences but call them 'stories', which is a less inflammatory myth-about-myths that invites different kinds of misunderstandings. They propose that the myth of dopamine as reward has wandered too far from the evidence and needs to be retired. Their principle claims are firstly that 'reward' is too ambiguous a term that invites multiple readings and misreadings, and secondly that the reward mythology overlooks the role of dopamine in aversive behaviours that do not seem to make sense in the context of 'reward'. On the latter count, I largely support them – depending on how dopamine-as-reward is deployed, it will tend to gloss over its role in motivating avoidance. But on the former I am less keen to lend them my support. What I want to do here is defend dopamine-as-reward, not as superior to the newly emerging consensus myth, but as a still perfectly usable shorthand in certain contexts – including game design.

The new myth that Salamone and Correa support does not originate with them and has been gaining currency for a while now. Rather than mythologizing dopamine as reward, it talks about the chemical in terms of motivation. The argument goes that 'reward' implies pleasure, but that the evidence points to opioids as the underpinning of pleasure not dopamine. (Note that the nucleus accumbens is still a principal site of this pleasure effect, as per the old 'pleasure centre' mythology, but dopamine was the wrong neurotransmitter.) Thus dopamine-as-motivation, opioids-as-pleasure – or as Kent Berridge suggested from 1996 onwards, dopamine for wanting and opioids as liking. I like this myth a great deal – it captures a lot of contemporary neurobiological evidence very succinctly, and Salamone and Correa include this as one of a host of alternative sets of terms that have been fielded. Yet it is difficult to see this revised myth as a definitive replacement of its predecessor since the literature on dopamine has for some time been able to make use of their 'new' mythology of dopamine-as -motivation without having to give up the 'old' mythology of reward.

For example, in 2001 Steven Hyman and Robert Malenka recognised ‘rewarding’ as meaning ‘intrinsically positive’ but also draw attention to the distinction between ‘liking’ and ‘wanting’ (discussed below), in the context of work by Terry Robinson and Kent Berridge as early as 1993. They point out that the role of dopamine “is not simply to signal reward”, but they don’t back off from the dopamine-as-reward myth all the same. Similarly, Morten Kringelbach in 2005 associates the orbito-frontal cortex (which is closely tied to mesolimbic dopamine) with representing “the wanting and liking aspects of reward”, a position that straddles the old and new mythologies. Kringelbach also writes (with Berridge) in 2009 that reward can be decomposed into wanting, liking, and learning elements, linking the ‘wanting’ to mesolimbic dopamine and the ‘liking’ to forebrain opioids. Dopamine-as-reward has coexisted with dopamine-as-motivation for the last two decades, and as such Salamone and Correa’s proposal is not so much a paradigm shift as it is a cleaning house.

So should we abandon dopamine-as-reward and adopt 'wanting and liking' instead? Well that depends on what you're trying to discuss. Certainly, I see broad discussions in several fields taking on 'wanting and liking' as their guiding myth, and I will be experimenting with this conceptual framework in my work on play. But what this myth lacks that the reward myth had is a combination of motivation and learning, which is also mediated by dopamine (with the striatum coming into focus as a key site in the rather complex networks of the brain). Motivation does not imply learning, but reward actually does imply this. As Salamone and Correa suggest "the term reward has meaning as a synonym for 'reinforcer'" but "there is no consistent scientific meaning of 'reward' when used to describe a neurobiological process". They see this as a bad thing – among neuroscientists that might indeed be a decisive point. I don't think it's decisive for game designers, though, for whom the learning myth remains potent and very effective for thinking about certain kinds of design. I may have argued against this mythology at times, but only in pursuit of rhetorical diversity.

Because games, via the progress structures pioneered by Dungeons & Dragons, use B.F. Skinner's schedules of reinforcement as a key generator and maintainer of motivation, the notion of 'reward' remains extremely salient to game design. Salamone and Correa's objection that reward lacks a consistent meaning in neurobiology only goes so far here. Thinking of 'reinforcers' instead or 'reward' is less clear in the context of game design, because calling a level up, a cut scene, or a new toy a reinforcer doesn't express the player's relationship with the game anywhere near as well, and aversive reinforcement is not currently a major issue in the design of games. (It's an open question whether it should be...). Indeed, when looking at the role of explicit narrative in motivating the player via curiosity, the 'reinforcer' concept is nowhere near as helpful. Either Biederman & Vessel's 'interest' or Noel Carroll's question-and-answer 'erotetic narrative' give clearer guidance on the relevant design problems.

Salamone and Correa could be correct that associating dopamine with hedonia (that is, the feeling of pleasure) is a mistake, but actually I'm not yet convinced of this. The thing is, the association of opioids and 'liking' does not count out the possibility of there being parallel pleasures of 'wanting'. Indeed, as a play researcher my suspicion is that Paul Ekman's sensory pleasures can be understood as emotions of 'liking' while his satisfaction and fiero (triumph over adversity) can be understood as emotions of 'wanting'. No-one who had enjoyed a videogame in the hot-and-hard manner of the Conqueror play style would liken the experience of triumph with the pleasures of eating food! Indeed, there's a very interesting question raised here as to distinctions between aesthetic preferences for things like food, music, and art styles ('liking') and psychological preferences for failure-before-victory or compulsive reward structures ('wanting') that could be used to enforce Ebert's Fence against competitive and addictive games, and exclude them from the category of 'art'. I wouldn't want to do this personally – but it's a fascinating door to have sprung open all the same!

What this discussion highlights is the strange inter-disciplinary space we now find ourselves within, where each research domain has its own specialty but where the mythologies that are effective within each domain can be different without contradiction. This is because the myths we live by are not, and never have been, matters of fact – and neither can our mythologies simply be replaced by facts. Without the mythologies that justify them, there are no facts, as Nietzsche shrewdly observed. This is not, however, the same as claiming there are no facts. It is merely the long overdue recognition that objective facts are in an odd sense oxymoronic since all claimed facts are assertions in relation to specific evidence. No-one has the odd power to step outside of their world and check the facts directly, as was implied by Plato’s highly influential myth of the cave. Asserting facts is always a matter of building an evidential case. The sciences, far from repudiating this state of affairs, are the clearest example of it.


Four Questions

Over the past four weeks on ihobo, I’ve been asking some questions that push against contentious issues in games. These were all written with a dash of bluster to try and provoke discussion – in at least one case, I may have overcooked it. Here are the questions:

  • Is Gordon Freeman a Character? (25th September): this concerns what we mean by a game character, and what we want out of characters in games. The contested camps are arranged around narrative vs. agency.
  • Is a Jigsaw Puzzle a Game? (2nd October): this one concerns our understanding of both games and puzzles, and the relationship between the two. The disputes concern different conceptions of ‘game’.
  • Is Fiction Just a Wrapper for Games? (9th October): a new rant on an old chestnut, it’s akin to the classic narratology vs. ludology battle (or fiction vs. function) and also player-centric vs. object-centric game studies (or player vs. system). Great reply by Danc on this one!
  • Is the Interface the Game? (16th October): this concerns the importance of the interface in games, something Graeme Kirkpatrick has championed. But do we really appreciate how wide reaching the effects of game interfaces are?

Hope you’ve enjoyed these rant-flavoured ponderings. I’ll be taking my usual break from blogging in November but there’ll be more nonsense at ihobo from December.


Is the Interface the Game?

Periodic Table of Controllers Marshall McLuhan famously claimed “the medium is the message” – does this mean that for videogames ‘the interface is the game’?

McLuhan's point was that every medium takes its own unique form that is intricately entwined with the content being delivered, and that radically changes how that content is understood. This drew attention to the essential characteristics of different kinds of media, since in McLuhan's view a medium can control “the scale and form of human association and action”. For movies, he suggested that their very nature played with concepts of speed and time, making configuration more prominent than in, say, novels. His concept of ‘medium’ was also extremely broad – he suggested a light bulb was a medium without content that still changed human interactions, creating spaces otherwise unusable at night such that “a light bulb creates an environment by its mere presence.”

Applying McLuhan's insight to games, one possible interpretation is that ‘the interface is the game’. Thus whatever the content of a fighting game, the medium creates a social or personal status contest between direct or indirect competitors over their ability to operate the controls. An MMO configures large number of players into a community who interact solely (or at least primarily) via their own personal projection of the fictional world of the game. A touch screen puzzle game isolates its players from the world around them via the kinaesthetic interaction of stroking and prodding the device in their hands – a different consequence from a console or arcade implementation of the same game, which more explicitly invites observers to vicariously participate in the experience. In the case of the dancing game, this spectator role is even more explicit because the interface now presses the entire body of its players into its service.

Developing his aesthetic theory of games, Graeme Kirkpatrick expressly draws attention to this kinaesthetic dimension of videogame play, and the extent to which the control devices have been systematically ignored in the study of games. While this falls short of McLuhan's broad perspective (which focuses upon the social reconfigurations wrought by media technology) it moves in a similar direction – and is a perfect fit to the adage ‘the interface is the game’. However, for Kirkpatrick, the interface is only ever kinaesthetic – the imaginative experience is only a wrapper to be removed (as I critiqued last week). This simultaneously goes too far and not far enough – it foregrounds an extremely important part of fighting, shooting, and other fast-paced games that is indeed often overlooked, namely kinaesthetic control-device manipulation. Scholars interested in games do not, as Kirkpatrick justly accuses, pay enough attention to this aspect of videogame play.

However, it must be noted that Kirkpatrick's form theory ties the aesthetic experience of videogame play to the mastery of interfaces. This offers valuable insight into certain kinds of play that are control-focussed – and not just in videogames. Pinball tables are perfectly suited to the kind of understanding form theory offers, for instance, and also fit Kirkpatrick's observation that an entire generation of young boys grew up “dancing with their hands.” Elsewhere, however it begins to seem less plausible, especially in games that allow time for decisions, such as turn-based strategy games, point-and-click adventures, or explorers that are not challenge-focussed such as Noctis or Proteus. Here we need a different understanding of ‘the interface is the game’ where ‘interface’ is not just referring to control devices but the entire conceptual ontology of the fictional world of the game.

Some examples will help clarify this point. Although its implementation could certainly be more user-friendly, Noctis has an interface designed for cataloguing (fictional) astronomical objects. The player sees themselves as explorer, but acts as record keeper as part of a (badly connected, alas) community of record keepers. Turn-based strategy games traditionally have an interface that rests upon the player imagining perfect control over numerous things that could not plausibly be controlled in the equivalent situation outside of a game – they sell a fantasy of control closely related to Alaisdair MacIntyre's myth of managerial effectiveness. Games like Proteus and Dear Esther subvert the interface of the FPS by using identical control schemes that are stripped of guns and weaponry. The message of these thin play games is not so much the interface as what has been removed from it – and what this then allows to be foregrounded. This is still very much in the spirit of McLuhan's ‘the medium is the message’, but it is a long way from what Kirkpatrick's form theory is best suited to describing.

There is indeed a sense in which the interface is the game, but this ‘interface’ (much like McLuhan's wide reading of ‘medium’) is more than just the control devices. The interface is what connects players to the fictional world of the game – and via this, to one another in Miguel Sicart's ‘virtuous community of players’. It is what we denote by the phrase ‘avatar’ which must (as I argue in Imaginary Games) be something other than the character model (what I call the avatar-doll) since the avatar as a concept need not be depicted. Indeed, in most text adventures it was never represented, not even verbally. The interface is something akin to Huizinga’s magic circle (at least as Salen and Zimmerman have this), or perhaps it would be better to say it is the site of this rather porous boundary between fictional worlds.

‘The interface is the game’ means that the game is more than an object – it is a point of connection, a rhizome (as Deleuze and Guattari have it) that lies out of sight, under the figurative ground, connecting game designers, hardware designers, silicon chips, software routines, critics, players, FAQ writers, and more besides into a subtle network of connections. The interface is our way in – but into more than just the fictional world that the game represents. It is our way into something very real yet totally imaginary, something more than an individual game experience but substantially less than a totality. In the medium of games, the message always has more to it than meets the eye – or the hand. Yes, the interface is the game, but both entail far more than they seem.