Game Philosophy Feed

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.


Is Fiction Just a Wrapper for Games?

Minecraft Wrapping Paper A popular view of the role of fiction in games is that it is just wrapping paper, enticing the player to start playing before later being discarded as the 'real' game supersedes its mere trappings. This utterly misrepresents the experience of a great deal – perhaps even the vast majority – of players.

I've been told Markku Eskelinen advanced exactly this metaphor of wrapping paper in respect of the fiction of games. I shall call this the wrapping paper fallacy, since while it is true of some players playing some games, it is not true of all players nor of all games. An attempt to restrict the category of games to only those that fit this fallacy would be misguided, and fall under my critique of implicit game aesthetics. Rather than a systematic argument (such as the one I provided in Fiction Denial) what I want to offer here is an observational rebuttal to the fallacy by describing play situations that cannot plausibly be understood in this way.

Perhaps most significantly, the play of tabletop role-playing games is impossible to understand without reference to their fictional content, and it is implausible to suggest such games could be remounted in a different setting with impunity. In fact, the players of these games have strong aesthetic preferences for the kind of fictional worlds they want to play within, and only a tiny minority of tabletop gamers become drawn into the kind of systems-focus that 'discards the wrapping paper'. With freeform and other diceless forms, there is very little system to 'unwrap', which is to be expected in a game form so intimately wed to its fiction. Even considering computer RPGs, which do have systems that might be unwrapped, the fictional content is rarely if ever set aside. If the mechanics come to dominate the fiction, some players will view this with disappointment, some will happily engage with the systems while still enjoying the fiction, and some will have their play destroyed by the intrusion of the rules into their experience.

Similarly, in games that attempt to evoke fear it is implausible to view the fiction as a discardable wrapper since it is always involved in the desired experience. The rules can support the fiction – as Resident Evil's ammo, inventory, and save management mechanics all do – but it is ludicrous to suppose an 'unwrapped' survival-horror game satisfying its audience. Indeed, as current examples such as Amnesia (and older examples such as Clock Tower) demonstrate, the beneficial confluence between fiction and function has great power to enhance the players' experience within the fictional world of horror games, but they cannot do so in disregard to representation. The lamp-management of Amnesia relies precisely upon depiction to work – and this is far from a rare case in videogames. Any game aiming to evoke horror experiences necessarily depends upon its representational techniques, which could never be simply discarded without failing to satisfy the players they attract.

There are also those cases that are experiential in nature, for which mechanics beyond the interface contribute little of importance. The snowboarding game is a great example, particularly when played by those who don't really care if they win. SSX, for instance, provided a very satisfying simulation of mountain descent at speed – but this is not simulation in the game mechanical sense, but in the representational, theatrical sense. Fiction is essential to this experience, and only in the less popular 'trick' modes of such games is there any possibility of 'unwrapping'. Indeed, what would it mean to 'unwrap' the downhill descents? To think solely in terms of the branch points on the route, and to set aside the sensory experience entirely? It is not plausible to think that anyone could be engaged solely in the route-management aspect of a snowboarding game, since the vertiginous fiction of the snow-capped mountainside is precisely the main attraction.

Another example is the sports game, which relies for its appeal upon its fiction and the veracity of its content to the sports they are modelled upon. When a group of friends play 2-on-2 football with a FIFA videogame, it misdescribes their experience to suggest the representation is set aside so they can focus on the rules of football. This would be nonsense! Rather, the fact that it is fictional that your team is fighting for victory on a digital pitch is quintessential to the pleasure of such games. Even in the case of something like the Statis Pro tabletop sports games, which have game mechanics beyond the rules of the sport being simulated, the appeal is always that you are (fictionally) playing with real teams and real players. If you take off the wrapping paper, there is no reason to continue playing at all.

Rather than the image of the mechanics as a desirable present wrapped up in pretty but ultimately forgettable wrapping paper, a better point of reference in respect of the kinds of play described above (and many other instances) would be the relationship between representation and function in gallery artworks. The interest in the painting is primarily in what it represents – in the picture. Familiarity will allow the player of such an artwork to see past the fiction and enjoy unveiling the skills of the creator – Van Gogh's brush work, the pigmentation of the old masters, the impressionists' ability to imply through colour. But at no point does the fiction of the painting cease to matter. Indeed, it is this that the deeper understanding of a painting seeks to explore.

There are indeed some artworks that make the functional components more central to their experience – Jim Warren's Ripping sequence, for instance, or the blank canvases displayed in the Hayward Gallery's Invisible: Art of the Unseen exhibition. No doubt there are some appreciators of contemporary art who prefer such invention to more conventional paintings. But we should not confuse the tastes of a subset of those who appreciate art for the experiences of everyone who can enjoy a painting. The same is just of true of games. The wrapping paper fallacy makes a minority experience into a model for a vast and diverse landscape of play, a model that is much more parochial than its advocates tend to admit. Theorists of games need to spend much more time watching how people play and much less time treating their own experiences as universal. Only when we actually explore how games are played by everyone can game studies really claim to be studying games.


Is a Jigsaw Puzzle a Game?

Tetris Jigsaw Although we call them puzzles, is the play of a jigsaw best understood this way? Veli-Matti Karhulahti triumphantly declares in the title of his DiGRA 2013 paper "Puzzle is Not a Game!" Is he right?

The language surrounding games, puzzles, and play is always muddy. We call things 'puzzle games' that involve solving no puzzles, and other things 'adventure games' that primarily consist in puzzle-solving. Worse, arguments concerning artistically interesting games focus far to often on the asinine 'is this a game?' and not enough on why specific experiences of designed play are of interest. For these and many other reasons I have disavowed the word 'game' as the biggest barrier to understanding play, and suggest that attempts to define 'game' are more about the aesthetic values of the individual than anything more substantial (a position I outlined in Implicit Game Aesthetics).

One of the latest scholars to wade in on the terminology dispute, Veli-Matti Karhulahti, recognises the terms are problematic, but claims his approach is ontological and not terminological. Regrettably, Matti's ontology is grounded on the terminology of 'puzzle' and 'game', and thus fails to escape the contested language. I rather wish he had instead started from scratch with his terms, but it is at least clear what aesthetic value judgements are in play, and therefore how his claims should be interpreted. Matti lines up behind the conflict aesthetic citing Hans-Georg Gadamer's claim that games require "something else with which the player plays and which automatically responds to his move with a countermove." The space of play covered by the problem aesthetic is split by Matti – that which meet his criteria of 'puzzle' are not games, those that do are 'strategic challenge'. As the choice of the conflict aesthetic makes clear, Matti's games are necessarily challenges - which he views as a "vital constituent of games". We can clearly see where Matti wants to erect his boundaries, and what he is not currently prepared to consider as relevant.

At Philosophy of Play, Matti and I talked about puzzles and games in the context of my disavowal of games. He assures me that he “has a word” for imaginative play, such as children's games of make-believe, but he's not yet told me what it is, and this aspect of play is utterly absent in this paper. Games, to Matti (and to everyone operating under variations of the victory aesthetic) are simply challenges. His distinction between puzzle and game becomes grounded on an appeal to the claim that strategic challenges "entail configuring dynamics" while puzzles "entail configuring statics alone." Where Matti and I are in close agreement is in his assertion that "games and strategic challenges are rather processes than objects." The question I want to explore here is: shouldn't the play of jigsaw puzzles be understood as processes?

As a sceptic about whether ontology is seperable from language, my method shall be phenomenology. Matti's specific claim about jigsaw puzzles is as follows:

A jigsaw is a puzzle. The consequences of its configuration are determinate, for fitting puzzle piece A to spot B has always the same outcome: the piece fits of not, and if the piece fits, the system state alters into a more lucid picture. If the piece does not fit, the system state remains the same.

Unfortunately, this in no way describes the way the players of jigsaw puzzles undertake their solution. What's more, the consequences of combining two jigsaw pieces is indeterminate for a number of interesting reasons. The first involves the way that conventional jigsaw dies cut up the cardboard. It is not solely the correct pieces that can be fit together, and most 1,000 piece jigsaws produce apparently convincing false positives with serious implications for the processes entailed in solving them. The less colour variation in the image, the worse this problem becomes. Furthermore, for the players of jigsaws the meaning of a matched pair of pieces varies according to how complete the image is around the matched pieces: if the two are in isolation, the match provides no way to determine where it belongs, and may not even be helpful. Matti's description covers only the case of having an image fragment and successfully extending it – and this is a subset of all matches that will occur in any given play session with a jigsaw puzzle.

Although I have seen considerable variety of approach, two of the most general strategies for jigsaw solving are those my wife uses, and those that I use (which makes our co-operation with jigsaw a particularly rewarding play experience for both of us). My wife has an acute sense of colour and solves jigsaws by grouping pieces by their hue, then matching within colour groups before assembling the segments. This approach, which I'll call pieces-to-image has advantages when alignment occurs in certain patterns as joined clusters are less likely to produce false positives since multiple pieces are generally wed simultaneously – a kind of object-oriented approach. I have the opposite strategy, which I'll call image-to-piece: I start by looking at the box to identify specific features, then identify the components of those features, and then build them into the already completed parts of the jigsaw. Unlike my wife, I am usually looking to extend what is already attached – so the outer frame (the usual but not the only place to begin) becomes my scaffolding to attach to. My strategy is based upon leveraging my excellent eyesight, and I find it much more rewarding than other approaches. (If you approach jigsaws differently, please share your tactic in the comments – I love to discover new variations of play!).

One interesting consequence of my image-to-piece approach is that the location of the die cut radically affects the difficulty of the solution: jigsaw makers are brilliantly sadistic, making cuts that make two pieces appear to be radically distinct when in fact they belong next to each other. Because this also involves dividing areas of colour, it also has an effect on piece-to-image play, but it is far less frustrating for a player approaching a jigsaw this way because the details of the image aren't central to the method. A player who solved a jigsaw by the brute force method, as a computer would have to do, would be oblivious to these kind of issues, which makes me suspect the number of such players is rather small – although certain jigsaws, such as the infamous 'baked beans' jigsaw, or the Tetris jigsaw depicted above, may have no other practical solution since neither mine nor my wife's method can be effective in solving them. For this reason, my wife and I are incredibly selective about which images we choose, and not just for reasons of visual aesthetics. The aesthetic experience of our different ways of playing is what matters to us, much as with any game.

In a rather insightful section of his paper, Matti supposes that puzzles (in his sense) are characterised by their configuration never depending upon their form. There is a genuine spark of genius here – but unfortunately many of the things we call a puzzle are dramatically affected by form. Someone like my sister who learned to solve a Rubik's Cube kinaesthetically (by learning a process with her hands) could not easily apply the same technique to a digital version of the same puzzle, even though (mathematically) the solutions were the same: the digital version requires additional spatial skills my sister is not competent at. The same kind of argument can be made with digital jigsaws, for which many of the kinds of functionality my wife and I take for granted at the tabletop would either be different of impossible (depending, of course, upon how it had been implemented). This already suggests jigsaw puzzles are not puzzles in Matti's sense, and although solving them is a clear process I rather think they do not fit his concept of strategic challenge either. This point is even more apparent in the case of a mile-wide version of a tabletop jigsaw, the solution to which could not possibly resemble the kinds of tactics possible with easily held pieces!

All of this makes it sound as if Matti's paper is too flawed to be of value, but this is not so! It has strengths that shine through its limitations, and his discussion of the relationship between chess games and chess puzzles is the most insightful I have read on the subject. There is a fascinating account of a certain kind of puzzle buried inside, obscured by its claim to be talking about all puzzles. As my discussion of jigsaw puzzles stresses, the fact that puzzles involve 'configuring statics' is not enough to render all the things we call puzzles into mere (mathematical) objects. There is a process experience in the actual play of jigsaws, Sudoku, and crosswords (or at least, certain kinds of cryptic crosswords) that does not match Matti's model very well, and could be used to defend a claim that such puzzles are games, even in Matti's chosen sense. The conflict aesthetic could be applied to these kinds of puzzles: the 'battle' between puzzle-maker and puzzle-solvers is richer than might be seen when such things are judged purely on a theoretical basis.

Ultimately, this paper's problem comes from its title and framing argument being mounted upon the boundary disputes over 'puzzle' and 'game'. With this setup, it reads as disingenuous to claim that the author has no interest in engaging in terminological debate. The likely inference by the reader is that the ontological claims are supposed to resolve the dispute unequivocally (which I doubt Matti means to assert, since ontology can never provide this kind of service). Matti has suggested he'd like to see me get away from Walton: I'd like to see him get away from Crawford, and indeed away from the boundary disputes altogether. My disavowal of 'game' is one option for him to consider, but I invite him to discover another. He is exploring fascinating connections between puzzles and strategic or tactical play that warrant further investigation. I for one am excited to see how this avenue develops.


Is Gordon Freeman a Character?

Gordon Freeman Every poll asking gamers to rate the best videogame character is topped by Half-Life's Gordon Freeman. But is Gordon even a character, let alone the best that games have produced?

This question hinges upon what we mean by 'character', of course. The argument that Gordon qualifies – despite his lack of a clearly recognisable personality or identity – rests on the assumption that a player-character should be an empty shell for the player to inject themselves into. This is perhaps an expression of the agency aesthetic that valorises choice in games. Trouble is, player-as-Gordon has precious little choice because his world consists solely of puzzles to solve, things to crowbar, or things to kill. So if this is the relevant criterion, it doesn't seem like Gordon has the substance to back up his claim to supremacy with any kind of legitimacy beyond popular mandate.

Under this particular criterion, a playable GTA 'character' would seem to have an edge, unless the argument supposes that explicit character traits undermine player agency somehow. But again, this seems to be an argument that player-characters should be blank slates – and on this basis it would seem that a poll of 'best game characters' would be forced to consider supporting cast over lead characters (at least in an idealised perspective on the issue). Either way, Gordon's claim to be a character is weak, and his claim to be 'the best' game character is extremely tenuous. In a 2002 paper, James Newman suggests precisely this kind of 'vacancy' understanding of the player-character in videogames. He suggests that while in active control "the appearance of the player's character is of little or no consequence." Talking of Lara Croft in Tomb Raider games, Newman argues that "in playable game sequences... we don't have to think about her in terms of representational traits and appearance – we don't even have to think about 'her' at all." We've seen this argument before: it's precisely what I have lambasted as fiction denial.

I agree with Newman that player-characters under direct player control can be "conceived as capacity - as a set of characteristics", but this is not an admission that these capabilities do not constitute a character. No-one could seriously argue that Indiana Jones whip was not part of his character's identity, nor that Luke's lightsabre is not a part of his. Similarly, as the picture above emphasises, Gordon’s crowbar is a part of his ‘character’, such as it is. Action stories have always allowed the tools and capabilities of their heroes and villains to be conceived under the broad umbrella of 'character', as superhero stories make abundantly clear. As an example to underline this point consider that it would be decidedly out of character for James Bond to escape a jail cell using a paperclip and a piece of cheese, but entirely in-character for MacGyver to do so.

Newman suggests that we need to recognise the segmentation of videogames – they comprise of movies, menu screens, maps and so forth just as much as controlled play of a character model. Indeed, Newman is at his most brilliant in his suggestion that we recognise play need not be understood in terms of control. As he specifically observes, players can be engaged with a videogame even when they aren't in control, stating: "The pleasure of videogame play does not simply flow through the lead of a joystick." The trouble is, he then tries to suggest this segmentation can be used to compartmentalise character into sections absent of control, and reduce controlled play to one sensory mode, asserting that "the pleasures of videogame play are not principally visual, but rather kinaesthetic." Graeme Kirkpatrick argues the same – but it's an odd argument upon inspection since it only applies to some types of play and some types of game. The enjoyment of turn-based strategy is not kinaesthetic, and players of Res or Proteus must surely balk at the suggestion that the pleasures they are enjoying are not principally visual – unless, of course, it was to acknowledge how important sound is to these games.

The idea that segmentation of content eliminates character from control-based play faces serious issues when it is compared to other media. In an action movie, shall we say the hero only has character in dialogue scenes? That when a stunt person stands in for the actress that her character ceases to be in effect? That in a car chase we are not supposed to imagine the characters are within the car? The urge to reduce videogames to kinaesthetics is a strange kind or reductionism in that it is oblivious to the variety of player experiences, and particularly to imaginative experience. Just as we imagine the character in a film is present throughout the movie, many players imagine the character is present throughout the game – and they are not crazy to do so. This is a perfectly normal way to play a game, and for some players the imaginative experience is far more crucial than the kinaesthetics. That said, the kinaesthetics of play are all too often overlooked, and Newman and Kirkpatrick are an antidote to this blindness – indeed, the latter's aesthetic theory is perfectly suited to fill a gap in our appreciation of videogames as artworks. But only this one particular gap. The imaginative gap of fiction denial needs a different aesthetic theory, something closer to what I present in Imaginary Games.

Returning to the question of character, Newman's suggestion that Lara is not a character during controlled play seems implausible if imaginative experience is allowed to constitute play (as surely it must, or else diceless tabletop role-playing games become hard to explain). But his criticism lands squarely on Gordon's geeky shoulders, because Gordon – quite unlike Lara, as it happens – is never really a character in the conventional sense and is only ever his capabilities and a general impression supplied by the box art. (Gainful parallels can be made here with the covers of contemporary fantasy novels). Newman's argument is not as general as he suggests – it applies far less, for instance, to Shenmue's Ryo, whom the player is expected to embody in a far more personal, role-oriented fashion. Even outside of the formal advancement of the story or Ryo's fighting skills, his child-like love of capsule dispensers frequently bleeds into the player's own motives during play. His cry of "I love those!" often becomes mirrored in the player – there is more of a character in this trivial example than at any point in Half-Life!

'Characters' like Gordon Freeman can be understood as cyphers (trivial characters) for the player to imagine themselves inhabiting. This approach to game narrative fits an implied contract of play which favours letting the player act out in the game world however they wish (while practically constrained by the design of the game). But a different contract between game and player – such as that which Yu Suzuki attempted in Shenmue – implies very different notions of character in games. My colleague Ernest Adams recently completed a doctoral thesis, part of which argued for the benefits of an implicit contract between player and game that effectively acknowledges the idea of playing 'in-character'. Concepts such as these could lead to games with much richer player-characters who were far from mere cyphers. They might not knock Gordon off his pedestal, but they'd be far more effective at elevating the artistic status of videogames than any cypher.


The Interactivity of Non-Interactive Media

The Purple Rose of Cairo It has long been a commonplace that we can draw a clear line between games as ‘interactive’ media on the one hand, and 'non-interactive' narrative media such as books, television, and movies on the other. Indeed, this distinction is supposedly the reason that ‘videogame’ works as a category. I have long found this segregation misleading because it underestimates the interactivity of supposedly ‘static’ media and it overestimates the agency in most digital games.

The assumption behind this division is that the reader of the book or the watcher of a film has nothing to do but receive the content that has been constructed for them. This is not an adequate description of the phenomenology of these media. In fact, both the reader of the book and the watcher of the film are constantly throwing their mind around to interpret the content of the work in question, anticipating what might be about to happen, or reading between the lines and trying to establish details that are not specified by the artwork in question. We seem to view this as ‘non-interactive’ solely because the interaction in question does not have a measurable impact on the fictional world of the story. Yet it does have just such an impact within the head of the reader or viewer, and isn’t this actually the interesting part of our response to any artwork?

This creates a problem for the segregation since the vast majority of videogames equally provide interaction that does not have an impact on the fictional world of the game, except from the limited perspective of the player or anyone watching their specific play of that game. Take Halo: Combat Evolved as a simple example. There is one choice that the player can make that affects the story: you can open fire in the starship at the start of the game, bringing the entire story to a premature close. Alternatively, you can co-operate with the story and see it through to its entirely inevitable and pre-scripted conclusion. To take this ability to trigger a ‘false ending’ of the story of Halo as a decisive distinction between different kinds of media would be strange when we can trigger the same kind of false ending in, say Sam Raimi’s Army of Darkness, by selecting an option in the DVD to see deleted scenes and alternative endings. Yet the film is not interactive, the dogma states. I beg to differ. If this film’s DVD isn’t interactive, then neither is Halo, and I am willing to extend this claim as far as a screening of the film itself.

What makes Halo the game seem so interactive is that the player has a lot of immediate and shallow agency to affect how they kill lots of alien beings and negotiate a strictly linear sequence of locations. But this is all smoke and mirrors as far as the story is concerned – the player may feel that they are in control, but this is not much different from the way the rider of a ghost train is supposed to feel that they are in danger, even though they clearly are not. I am not against this experience – it is akin, in some ways, to the greater immediacy that rendering a novel as a movie produces. The interactivity of the novel’s ambiguities that originate in the verbal narrative are reduced in the conversion to film because the makers of the movie necessarily instantiate specific interpretative choices that reduce the level of interactivity with the fictional world in question, they make it more static and less dynamic. They make it less interactive, but they cannot render it non-interactive because no artwork could possibly be incapable of interaction and still be worth our attention!

I’d like to suggest that it is even possible to add the same kind of shallow agency to a novel or a film as we find in something like Halo. Suppose, for instance, that after each chapter or scene you draw an image that depicts the fictional content in question. You have tremendous apparent agency in how you draw these contents, but you cannot actually change the story by doing so (if you did, you would be playing a different game, something closer to fan fiction). The shallow agency of the reading-and-drawing game played with a novel is just like the shallow agency of Halo – it changes nothing, but gives you a greater sense of engagement with the fictional world in question.

To emphasise the idea that the segregation is misleadingly couched as all-or-nothing, consider many early adventure games that were structured as a series of linear puzzles. In these games you have the same shallow agency represented primarily by your ability to type ‘examine’, or your capacity to (seem to) move about the fictional world by typing ‘n’, ‘s’, ‘e’, and ‘w’. Indeed, Matti Karhulahti expressly argues that ‘examine’ can be used to detect a boundary of interactivity, a claim I argue against in “What are we playing with? Role-taking, role-play, and story-play with Tolkien’s Legendarium” (currently under review for the International Journal of Play). But is this enough to mark a segregation as vast as is being attempted? In a novel, we may not be able to shift our purported location by typing a cardinal direction or asking to ‘examine’, but nothing stops us flipping through pages to re-read the description of locations, objects, and characters when we desire the extra information. Why is this not considered interactive, yet the shallow agency of the adventure game is?

The point of this invective is simple: segregating videogames from other narrative media forms on the basis of a black-and-white interactive/non-interactive distinction obfuscates the interactive dimensions of supposedly ‘passive’ media and simultaneously valorises the importance of the agency in digital media, which is often incredibly shallow and trivial. The danger lies not only in misjudging the extent that narrative media engages our cognitive faculties but in mistakenly thinking that all kinds of digital game deserve to be treated collectively as a single well-defined category. They do not and cannot. A great many digital game genres are as different from each other as books, TV documentaries, and rock operas are from one another. Could we please stop pretending that the use of computers in play is a more important feature than the range of experiences that the play of media produces? It would be a more honest way to approach the gradations of interactivity that apply to every form of artwork.