Described as "an audiovisual wilderness exploration game/plaything", Proteus is hauntingly reminiscent of certain retro-games, yet stunningly unlike anything you’ve seen or heard before. I caught up with Ed Key, one half of the team behind it, as he was moving house and asked him about the incredible world he is creating with musician David Kanaga.
Chris Bateman: Proteus, for anyone who hasn't played it, is a game of pure exploration – the tasks in it are thinned down to the point of being very nearly non-existent. Clearly, this is by design – you’ve mentioned before how the character of the play changed when you experimented with goals (what psychologists call ‘overjustification’). I’m curious as to how you came to commit to such a wonderfully thin play experience.
Ed Key: That’s interesting that you bring up ‘overjustification’ – I’d heard about it a while ago but not really thought about it in relation to Proteus. It makes a lot of sense in that context! I can't quite put my finger on why I think this, but I’m not sure it’s the whole story: it seems like there’s a distinct feeling of exploring a world where you have neither clear goals nor any indication of where the limits of the world are. One thing that we’ve avoided is any internal system to tell the player how many animals or events are yet to be discovered.
Chris: That’s become the norm, of course, thanks to Achievements and the like, so you take something of a risk pushing against that trend (albeit an admirable risk!).
Ed: Right, precisely because of achievements! It is a risky move, but it prevents any sort of “checklist” behaviour, even though that would have a certain primal satisfaction for the player. For me this is in tune with how we approach reality outside of games, whether it’s a scientific or creative endeavour.
Chris: So instead of explicit rewards, you have more implicit pleasures from the environment – and especially in the music.
Ed: The idea of a link between surroundings and music arose in the first few emails David and I exchanged. At first I wasn't sure if this was enough to hold people’s interest but it seemed to work well enough! I’m a great believer in not adding things if they don't “stick”, and since things like inventory mechanics and survival stats seemed to reduce the sense of immersion, I always removed what little I added. Instead we aiming for a density and variety of encounters and interactions using only the “move” and “look” verbs.
Chris: That’s one of the things I truly admire about the game, although I can’t imagine it began that way! Your old tumblr website mentions a project entitled Draco as an offshoot of Proteus that “might not go anywhere”. Did you originally plan Draco, and then found that the world you were creating was interesting in its own right? Or did you set off to sculpt Proteus, and considered Draco as a possible way to apply it?
Ed: Draco is one of several small prototypes I've made since starting Proteus that are also about exploring a landscape. These are mostly turn-based and heading towards something more about survival than just experience, playing with things that didn't fit in Proteus. The oil to Proteus's water.
Chris: Can you say anything more?
Chris: Wow, I can immediately see a connection between that and the classic Mike Singleton game, The Lords of Midnight! Were you a ZX Spectrum gamer? Was Proteus influenced by early art/games like Deux Ex Machina (1984) or Psychedelia (1984), or early playground worlds like Mercenary (1985)?
Ed: Well, I grew up with a Spectrum but didn’t play any of those at the time. One game that seems like it would fit in that list that I did play was Captain Blood. Fantastically surreal, very French game about exploring a universe and talking to aliens.
Chris: Yes, the magazines loved Captain Blood, but I never managed to find a copy myself, alas. Which other games would you say directly inspired Proteus?
Ed: I don’t think I could point to any direct inspirations in games. I’ve always been drawn to portrayals of nature in games, from Monkey Island, Morrowind, Minecraft, etc, but it’s more of a general osmosis than building on any existing game.
Chris: I think that’s a common experience. The designers who can cite specific influences, like Anna Anthropy, seem to be the exception rather than the rule. What about the abstract art style? Surely that has an 8-bit influence.
Ed: I think growing up with 8-bit games informed that. Since starting on Proteus I learnt a lot about colour theory and abstraction in the fine art world, but I’m still learning.
Chris: You cite as inspiration the work of one of the Taoist philosophers, Master Zhuang, and you’re also friends with one of the British druids. I wondered about how these mythological themes fed into Proteus, and whether you see it as having a mythic dimension. Proteus almost seems to be a love poem to the natural world (including, to some extent, humans) – the sort of thing that can be found in great abundance in Chinese and Japanese poetry. Is there a conscious connection here?
Ed: Definitely! Proteus is absolutely a kind of wordless poem about the world and a certain way of looking at things. David and I had lots of long philosophical discussions over Skype about modes of experience, how meaning arises, and that sort of thing. Another big influence, especially on David’s side, is “A Voyage To Arcturus” by David Lindsay.
Chris: I know the book although I’ve never read it – it’s considered to be hugely influential, though, as it was published way back in 1920. Tolkien was supposedly a fan.
Ed: Yes, it’s this totally unique proto-sci-fi philosophical adventure story about a journey to another planet where the hero grows and sheds different sensory organs as he travels through different regions. It also features two new primary colours (jale and ulfire) and a Primer-like timetravel paradox.
Chris: You call it a game/plaything – are you uncomfortable considering it a game/artwork? Did you feel you had to qualify “game” because so many gamers expect goals and challenges when they hear that word?
Ed: These days I’m less shy about calling it a game than I used to be. I’ll definitely qualify it with some extra verbiage if the situation seems to warrant it, as I don’t want people to go into it thinking it’s something that it’s not, but I’m now pretty happy with saying it’s a game, especially as I’ve had so many votes of confidence since then.
Chris: Personally I don’t even see it as that close to the boundaries, to be honest – there is a definite game-like structure in operation, and tangible (yet subtle!) rewards in the soundscape (I always stop to chase a magic frog!). But people can be terribly protective of the term ‘game’ and can get quite angry about violations of their notions of gameness.
Ed: In a way it doesn't matter – for the most part I find the “what is a game” discussions pretty tedious and limiting. Most of the time these articles boil down to the author’s personal preference, and maybe some kind of anxiety about the status of the medium.
Chris: This was precisely the thrust of my Implicit Game Aesthetics serial, which excavates aesthetic value judgements in people’s definitions of the word ‘game’. The blurring of the boundaries of gameness is not something new, as something like Deus Ex Machina on the Spectrum showed. The magazines refused to give it a review score, and the same happened with Geoff Crammond’s The Sentinel (1986) even though these days no-one would doubt for a moment that it was a game.
Ed: Yes, there have always been “games that aren't really games”, like Cowboys and Indians and Snakes and Ladders. Maybe even the more free-form D&D style “isn't a game”.
Chris: I prefer to go the other way on this and throw the term as wide as possible. If freeform role-playing games aren’t games then I may never have played a game in my life, since that is how I try to play in all game worlds!
Ed: Probably the main reason for calling it a game is that it’s a nice short word that doesn’t sound too overblown, compared with “ambient experience” or whatever.
Chris: Yes, and Proteus is extremely rich in ambient experience. For anyone such as myself who is open to its low-res visual aesthetic, it’s stunningly beautiful. When I played the latest build for the first time, I cried. Now admittedly I’m an old softy and it doesn't take much to make be blubber, but I've never had a videogame reduce me to tears just because it was so beautiful. I wonder – do you really appreciate just how special Proteus is?
Ed: Wow! I guess I’ve realised that a lot of people really like it!
Chris: Doug Wilson over at ITU Copenhagen has also heaped praise on it, and suggested that it's an important title – I heartily agree with him.
Ed: Doug has definitely been tireless about spreading the love for it.
Chris: I refer to Proteus in a forthcoming paper on game aesthetics alongside artistically motivated games such as The Graveyard and Journey – have you ever seen yourself as an artist or a creator of art?
Ed: As someone who’s lived with this thing for over three years as it slowly grew, it’s really hard to have an objective view of it, but I’m proud that we stuck to our principles and created something with very few compromises. In that sense I do have to consider it “art”, even though the word has some baggage attached – going back to the whole “are games art” debate that was so fashionable recently.
Chris: I hope that my philosophy book Imaginary Games is the nail in the coffin of the counter-arguments to games qualifying for artistic status – but perhaps a lively argument never dies! What about your contribution to this, though: are you comfortable having made something that is going to be used to help defend games as an artistic medium?
Ed: I’m definitely happy with Proteus finding a use in that way!
You can learn more about Proteus and preorder for access to the latest builds at Visitproteus.com.
Miguel Sicart is a researcher at the Centre for Computer Games Research in Copenhagen, with a special interest in ethics. After reading his book, The Ethics of Computer Games, I wrote to him to ask him about his thoughts and theories. This is the last of four dialogues edited from transcripts of our discussions.
Chris: One of your ethical videogame forms – closed mirroring – derives its ethical relevance from allowing the player ethical reflection but denying them ethical agency. (They can think about what they are doing, but they don't have complete freedom to choose how to act). Isn't this exactly the situation of someone viewing a movie? They have ethical reflection, but no ethical agency. So isn't this kind of videogame ethics applicable to wider media studies (or rather, isn't ethics in conventional media studies applicable to this kind of videogame)?
Miguel: Indeed, closed mirroring is very closed to other media. However, the fact that the game is interactive (or ergodic), is what makes closed mirroring interesting: it is not that in Manhunt the player has to commit those hideous acts, it's that these acts are the perfect strategy, and it is rewarded with points. I am not sure I made the point this clear in the book, but that is what I mean.
Chris: You briefly mention the idea that a game such as Manhunt might become ethically illegitimate a priori as a result of players finding its content distasteful. This was certainly my situation in this case – I was not going to support this game by playing it – although I'm open to your claim that if you do engage with it on its own terms it can produce an interesting ethical situation. Both Hume and Walton raise the point that we may refuse to appreciate an artistic work if it offends us morally. (Walton suggests that there are not good grounds for deciding whether interpretive questions are independent of moral issues or whether moral considerations sometimes have interpretive consequences).
Miguel: Right. I think art and games (if they are different) both create this ethical subject or agent. But I also try to say that ultimately, the moral agent we are outside the game decides if we are willing to participate in the experience, and therefore we can chose not to play if our values are challenged in such a way in which we think that playing a game will not help us develop our values as human beings (as you can read, I am a virtue ethicist also in my "personal life"). I think that even in play, our values are ultimately deciding what type of activities we want to engage with, and how.
Chris: Sure, but you seem willing to set aside the normal ethical considerations in the context of a game – but then, why not also in a film (especially in the case of the parallel with closed mirroring)? Or, for that matter, in the case of any artwork? Surely the circumstances around some art (including games) are such that they can reasonably take precedence over the ethics relating to the player-subject (or art-subject)?
Miguel: I think this is, of course, applicable to all arts. Reports from the Marina Abramovich exhibition in New York seem to confirm this (some audience members leaving or not participating in the performances). As much as I admire Abramovich's work, when I had the opportunity of seeing it live I decided not to attend, since I think that is beyond what I'd like to witness.
Chris: I always find it interesting when people face this limitation – I face it all the time, there are many things I don't want to experience (including Manhunt!) and often I feel that the decisions involved are ethical. And it makes me wonder about some of the things that people watch on the Internet, which of course can be sensationally tasteless. Do you think the Internet has created a certain amount of moral ambivalence towards spectacle, or simply acted as a spotlight to bring this part of human nature more clearly into focus? Would you compare the more grotesque side of the Internet to, say, the Roman Colosseum?
Miguel: Well, yes, but I'd say it's a needed Colosseum. I don't mean to be a puritan – I like the idea that there is a lot of filth on the Internet, since I don't need to consume it. Of course, with the obvious limits of what is illegal. So the Internet is just a massive improvement on what has always existed, which is the human compulsion to show, document, perform and explore not only virtues, but vices, and not always for catharsis. I would personally think less of humans if we were not compelled to these explorations. Historically, nothing good comes out of repression and censorship.
Chris: Do you see the Internet as presenting a new moral challenge, or just changed the focus on existing ethical issues?
Miguel: What I find interesting about the Internet is how it actually has forced many of us, and here I mean users more than scholars or ethicists, to reflect about the morality of deeply important things like identity, self, community, privacy, and so on. I am not so sure the Internet has created moral ambivalence, or at least not exclusively – it has also created great communities around values, nettiquete, fostered hacker ethics...
Chris: So you choose to emphasise the positive aspects of the Internet, and let its more unsavoury aspects hide in the shadows?
Miguel: Well it is true that the Internet, like many other visual media, feasts on corpses. But as you rightly put it, it is the Colosseum, and while there is always the risk of falling into the "bread and circus" rhetoric and social dynamics, I have, by the end of the day, a highly positive vision of what the Internet, even the filthy one, has done for our moral condition.
Chris: Going back to your concept of closed-mirroring structures, I've used this idea here elsewhere to refute the claim that videogames cannot have authorial intent; it is clear that games with a closed mirroring ethics must have authorial intent.
Miguel: Yes, I wholly subscribe to this point of view.
Chris: Your ludic hermeneutic circle strikes me as being only tenuously claimed to be game-related. Heidegger's work on the hermeneutic circle uses it for interpretation of all situations... surely the ludic hermenutic circle is just an artificially constrained subset of this? And as such, is it not just the hermeneutic circle as applied to games, and not an identifiably separate concept in itself? (This for me strengthens, not weakens, its relevance).
Miguel: Well, you are totally right. As much as I am not that fond of Heidegger, I would say that the hermeneutic circle can be used in all situations of being, and therefore the ludic one is only a subset of a larger hermeneutic process. However, it is an interesting subset, since it is tied to the particular subject that plays the game – that is, the hermeneutic experience of a game can be "performed" by both a player and a non-player, and that is what makes some game interpretations both wrong and possible (like the interpretation of games as fostering violent behaviour, I'd say).
Chris: Doesn't this extend to other kinds of art? Professor Kendall Walton has demonstrated how representation art can be understood as a prop in a game of make-believe – and as such, they are all social. Where there is an artist there is an audience, and vice versa! You can play in private, but you cannot play alone!
Miguel: I am not very familiar with Walton's work, but it certainly sounds Gadamerian! I'm not sure I'd agree with the statement that all representational art are games – I am very comfortable thinking that there are artistic expressions or experiences, some of which are games, rather than making games such a powerful category. Play, though, is a whole different story. All art invokes play. But not all play involves games, of course.
Chris: Well Walton uses game in the specific context of "games of make-believe", such as those that children play, and this is very compatible with my own perspective on play and games, which is heavily influenced by Roger Caillois. Being French, Caillois had the same word, "Jeu", for both game and play, and along similar lines I tend to think that any structured play activity can be considered a game.
Miguel: I agree to some extent – but still, I think one thing is play and another games. Also, a lot of play is not "gamey", and a lot of games are not playful, so the distinction between both is, to me, needed. I guess the reason why Scandinavian game scholars like to distinguish both is linguistic. In Danish, Swedish and Norwegian, there is a word for (child)play, "leg"("lek" in Swedish), while "spil" covers, well, goal-oriented ludic activities, such as games. Both are incompatible and map quite well to paidea and ludus. Having these words, I think, gives an almost natural tendency to distinguish between games and non-games, and hence the need for defining games.
Chris: This is really interesting! And I can see why this would make it hard to think of something as a "game" if it wasn't goal-oriented. The same tendency creeps into English (it's essentially the reason why Roger Ebert denies games can be art), but because it is not explicit it seems to lead to more arguments! I don't believe that we'll settle disputes of this kind by any kind of debate over boundary conditions, my personal preference these days is to just throw the term open to its widest context, as Caillois did! We can always define terms explicitly when we need extra clarity.
Miguel: Exactly! But also, as a closing statement, I just want to insist that discussing the nature of games as ethically or aesthetically relevant needs to have more subtlety. There is something about the ethics of systems, and the ethics of games as objects, but by the end of the day, a game is played by players performing, and therefore we should maybe start talking more than about the ethics of games, about the ethics of (game)play. But that is, of course, a subject for another book.
With thanks to Miguel.
Miguel Sicart is a researcher at the Centre for Computer Games Research in Copenhagen, with a special interest in ethics. After reading his book, The Ethics of Computer Games, I wrote to him to ask him about his thoughts and theories. This is the third of four dialogues edited from transcripts of our discussions.
Chris: Your approach the ethics of videogames from the perspective of virtue ethics, partly by converting Bartle's player types into virtues... I'm wary of the idea that virtues derived from play needs represent universal virtues in the context of play; this is perhaps the least well attended part of your thesis, although you recognize that "player virtues" is one of the more sketchily developed parts of your theory.
Miguel: The whole virtues approach, as rich as it is, makes me think how much work I have left to do. There needs to be a better description of the values of play.
Chris: I think you sell yourself a little short here. While I agree, you don't reach the goal of a complete virtue ethics of play, I don't think it is plausible that you as an individual could be in a position to derive such a thing. Surely by its very nature a virtue ethics of play (whether of videogames or games as a whole) must be derived in part from observation and discussion with players?
Miguel: I know some of the fine philosophers working with Philip Brey at the University of Twente are working towards a Virtue Ethics of Technology, and I think their work will take on this challenge in a much better way than mine.
Chris: Brey's work looks at the role of technology in society, and indeed it must, since ethics are a socially embodied phenomena – even Kant's ethical system admits this, despite the way it is sometimes used as a "sausage machine" to crank out ethical rules (something I believe Kant would have been quite offended by!).
Miguel: I agree, especially with your understanding of Kant.
Chris: You suggest that there is an ethical obligation for players to engage in the wider community surrounding any given game. On the one hand, I'm open to this appeal - but there's nothing in Ethics of Computer Games that serves as a justification of this as far as I can tell.
Miguel: Well I think what makes games unique is that most types of play are not solitary. I would even boldly claim that no player is alone, because no act of play is solitary. A specific instance of play, a game, can be played solitary, but play is always something done as a part of a community, within a community.
Chris: I completely agree with this claim... Like many game designers I have spent many years thinking of game rules as disembodied abstractions. But in fact, the rules of our games – including (or indeed especially!) our videogames – have a strong social aspect to them. No videogame appears in a vaccuum... they are all influenced and inspired by other instances that went before. Wittgenstein's argument against private language applies to games as well – since it is, as Saul Kripke observes, a proscription against private rules. Rules, and therefore games, must be social.
Miguel: Yes, and it's easy to see the social element of games. We brag about our teams results, we look for the eyes of the audience when we perform a feat, we even lower our head in shame when we lose. Unlike other arts (or maybe not – but that's another discussion), play and therefore games are social.
Miguel: Well as I said before, digital games are unique because of their solitary play. What I tried to do in my work is connect the player of a solitary game with the larger community of play. I don't think we play alone – even if there were not trends like achievements, and gamertags, I think people still would discuss their games in magazines, fanzines, bulletin boards, IRC, and what not.
Chris: I agree, although my reasons may differ! Games only make sense in a social context.
Miguel: Yes, play has always been towards a community, and therefore my requirement of community-membership as a crucial part of being an ethical player. In fact, I would say that it would be non-virtuous (and therefore unethical) not to participate in this communities of play.
Chris: You say this quite explicitly in the book, as I recall! I found this a fascinating claim, even seeing the line of reasoning that produces it. It suggests that there is something fundamentally unethical about playing a game in perfect isolation, and never even discussing it with anyone else.
And this is a fascinating assertion because it flies in the face of everything people usually think about videogames!
Miguel: Well, I always thought that this would be the most provoking statement in the book, yet it didn't create any controversy - maybe I was just explicit about an obvious fact, that we all play "together"?
Chris: I found it to be incredibly provoking, personally – the idea that there might be an argument that would make playing alone unethical in some sense continues to fascinates me! I feel there are many players who would find it quite outrageous, so perhaps there is a furore-in-waiting over this issue that just hasn't caught you up yet...! Presumably you wouldn't go so far as to make claims as to which parts of the community one had an obligation to interact with? As long as one is connected to a games community, there is in effect a virtue to be found? Or do you disagree?
Miguel: Well, this is a difficult question. I'd start by saying that belonging to a community is better than perfect isolation. But communities are also structured around values. So there is obviously a problem in engaging with cheating, or piracy-based communities.
Chris: Well pirates still have their own values – look at the use of the terms "seed" and "leech" in filesharing, and the moral implications therein. If you follow the kind of reading Julius Kovesi gives to moral notions, words like this betray the presence of some kind of moral principle, even though the pirates obviously violate many moral principles that other people uphold.
Miguel: The fact that a player belongs to a community, while good, does not mean that the player, or the community, is virtuous. Racist or sexist games build communities around them, only those communities are less than virtuous, yet a player of those games would show a ludic virtue by engaging with those communities... Anyhow, without complicating matters, yes, players just need to engage with other players, regardless of where and how, in order to be virtuous players.
Chris: You mentioned cheats as well as pirates... Personally I'm quite in support of cheating communities for videogames! My games are often hacked and I have no objection to players making trainers and the like to adapt their play closer to their preferences... If commercial considerations didn't intervene, I would love to support this kind of freedom to adapt my games in a more direct fashion – but realistically, it's almost always going to fall to the hacker community to customize videogames after release.
Miguel: I think it's interesting to think how much creators think about their games as objects for hacking – how much they understand that the object, the game, is just the beginning of something else, an activity and an experience of which players are an integral part, not only as consumers but as producers. In my opinion, the attempt of having authorship models on game design, from indies to Sid Meier, is a very limiting approach, and one that can potentially lead to the wrong type of game experiences.
Chris: Well the idea of "game designer as author" is misleading anyway – it gives a very mistaken impression of what the job entails. If the game designer is a programmer, they can make a solo project which they could be author of, like Andy Schatz and Monaco, and very small team can be in a similar position, but for the big game projects there is no-one close to the role of "author" or "director" to point to as having authority. So being against authorship in commercial games development is a little like being against round triangles!
Miguel: In ethical terms, what concerns me is that the game designer as author implies the designer as authority, which limits the ethical agency of players, and therefore prevents them from developing their values. So yes, I am against authorship – or only in favour of radical authorship, like in the case of abusive games where the designer intentionally tests the player's limits.
Chris: Incidentally, in my research into game players, I was surprised just how often games that I had always thought of as expressly "single player" turned out to be the nexus of a small community of friends. Final Fantasy, in particular, was a game franchise that I found players who said they didn't especially want to play that particular game, but they and their friends all played it together, and it became a hub for their conversations and personal competitions - how fast can you level up? Where did you get such-and-such an item? I wasn't quite expecting to find this, but not that I have seen it, it seems so obvious! Shigeru Miyamoto has even said recently that the original Legend of Zelda was built with this kind of community activity in mind.
Miguel: I think my understanding of communities of play comes from my youth. When I was a kid, my friends and me we all had different computers, from Amstrad to Commodore to Spectrum and MSX. It was not always possible to check out the best games for other platforms in our computers, so what we did was, when one of us got a new, cool game, we'd all gather up and play it together. For me, as a kid, single player games did not exist – one controlled the game, but we all played. And, more importantly, we all discussed the game afterwards – not the gaming session only, but the game itself – even how to modify it! So for me, since I was a kid, play was something that made you belong to a community, regardless on how you played (alone, or multiplayer).
Next week: Morality and New Media
Miguel Sicart is a researcher at the Centre for Computer Games Research in Copenhagen, with a special interest in ethics. After reading his book, The Ethics of Computer Games, I wrote to him to ask him about his thoughts and theories. This is the second of four dialogues edited from transcripts of our discussions.
Miguel: Another distinguishing mark of computer games is that they afford interesting solitary play. I know this has been tried in both card games and role-playing scenarios, but never to the extent that computer games allow.
Chris: I would say boardgames do in fact afford excellent solitary play, and have done for many years – you just need to look for the right games! The Statis Pro sporting simulations are a classic example (created in 1970), and more recently games like Arkham Horror, Aliens and La Havre all work well in single player variants. There are also, of course, solo gamebooks, such as the popular Fighting Fantasy line (from 1980 onwards).
Miguel: Being a board-and-role playing gamer myself, I can only agree with your statement: solitary play has been possible for a long time outside the box. However, if I may pick on your wording, you say that these games "work well". Indeed, Arkham Horror single player is not the same experience, it's not as satisfactory, as the multiplayer version. There is something about the game design that makes it possible, yet not optimal, to play the single player.
Chris: Well the other examples are perhaps stronger in this regard – La Havre and Aliens both play well in single player. And honestly, I'm not sure at a mechanical level Arkham Horror works badly in solo play (especially if you take a "party" of investigators)... it's just a lot more fun with more
people. But for most people this is true of all games – even single player computer games.
Miguel: I guess we won't agree on this one either!
Chris: Well I suspect the majority of hobby gamers would side with you on this one! But I know there are players out there who do play board games alone, especially teenagers... it would be interesting to study this more closely. In the case of both this issue (solitary play) and the previous issue (blackbox rules), it strikes me that the hallmarks of computer games are more distinctions of degree than of kind. Would you agree?
Miguel: Yes, there are no strong ontological differences between digital and non-digital games.
Chris: Why do you think solitary play is important, and what's the connection with the blackboxing of the rules?
Miguel: Solitary play questions the importance of the social in the construction of values and ethical experiences. And blackboxing brings forth the importance of design as a moral activity, and as a tool for creating value-inscribed systems. Of course, this is not new, as non-digital games are also designed ethical systems. However, the fact that computer games present themselves in that way to players (as blackboxes from which rules/meaning ought to be derived), is significant for the study of morality in games.
Chris: When you say that solitary play questions the importance of the social in the construction of values and ethical experiences, I have to think of the parallel with books. Does the fact we read on our own cause us to question the social element in the construction of our values? Isn't the author – like the game developer – always a silent partner in this process?
Miguel: Well, we read on our own, but certainly not alone, or isolated. I've been re-reading El Quijote (or Quixote, as Anglo Saxons like to put it!), and it surprised me once again how much of the book is intended to act as a conversation for readers. I mean, it is not talking to one reader, but to a community of readers. Reading in itself, the act of experiencing a book's pleasures, is a solitary act, but it is not an individualist act. Much like single-player computer games. As for the author, again, the authorial fallacy concerns me a bit – I'd say, again tapping on close reading, that we read primarily a text, and when we recur to the "author" (or developer) to explain something, we are already bringing in the social aspect, which is different from the solitary experience – a experience that needs no other to be plentiful.
Chris: I'm not suggesting authorial intent has any primacy, but – however indirectly – the creator of any artwork necessarily has a role in the experiences people have with it. They are, as I put it earlier, "a silent partner". This is very different to, say, turning to a living author or developer for explanation of some finer point, as even a dead author still fulfils the kind of role I'm gesturing at... they are "in the background" of the artwork.
Miguel: But even if I accepted this position, I would still have some problems giving the author any kind of moral ascendancy over the actions of the player (but not over the design of the game)..
Chris: The design of the game necessarily gives the developer scope over the actions of the player. There's nothing the players can do that didn't have to be covered in the design and implementation of the game itself. I don't see this as moral ascendancy – just a pragmatic assessment of the
necessities involved in making games. If you want the player to have the room to explore their ethics within the play, the game has to be designed to allow this – although it doesn't have to be expressly designed with this intent, of course. Everything comes at a cost, especially player agency.
Miguel: I suppose if we accept that most play in digital games is instrumental play (as in many other games, of course), maybe the designer as this "silent partner" is well justified. But then again, instrumental play is not very virtuous, in my opinion
Chris: By "instrumental play" I suppose you mean where the play is a means to an end, rather than an end in itself, as in a serious game which seeks to train the player. It strikes me as not that easy to separate these. I mean, even with fine art the experience of appreciation can have an instrumental element without denying the intrinsic value of the artwork.
Miguel: I agree that aesthetic appreciation can have some kind of instrumental element. What I refer to with the idea of instrumental play is the current trend to favour "gameness" over playfulness in games, at least to a certain extent, or how digital games are about achievements and victory more than about play itself. If we take a popular extreme now: the idea that adding rewards to certain activities ties service design to game design (the whole debate on external rewards elsewhere than in games) is a symptom of how we tend to think that games are about the goals.
Chris: I've argued against this myself. As powerful as rewards are for structuring play, there's always a danger of overjustification. The process of play is as important – sometimes more important – than the goals.
Miguel: Yes, I think games are mostly about performative play – the act of playing. The beauty of the discussions in Diplomacy, the pleasure of gravity control in Half-Life 2, the sensational vertigo of hopping through portals in Portal … none of them are "rewarded", but they are what makes those games excel. In this sense, I would claim that the ethics, and the aesthetics of games have to be localized in the performance of play, and therefore in the way designers encourage those performances.
Chris: Going back to the question of the distinctions between boardgames and videogames in terms of ethics, it seems to me that anything possible in a videogame is in principle convertible to a hobbygame/boardgame context. You lose the direct, live control of the avatar (i.e. you must switch to turn-based), but this should not have any effect on the ethical dimension of the play generated.
Miguel: I think that even in the case of indirect control of the avatar, there are things that are unique of computer games. Space, and the importance of the virtual space, is one of them. Moreso, the importance of artificial agents, or how some AIs can be used to embody values (like the buddies in Far Cry 2), is also unique to digital games. And in the case of multiplayer games, I think that asynchronous multiplayer games such as Facebook games could be potentially used to explore areas of moral game design that we haven't explored yet, and that could be very unique to computer games.
Chris: It strikes me that the main reason The Ethics of Computer Games demarcates videogames from other kind of games is that they provide more direct and accessible opportunities for exploring ethics in play. And while I'd argue that a tabletop role-playing game has significant potential in this regard, I wouldn't deny that videogames present a different set of possibilities. Your theory is geared specifically at those possibilities, even if it can also be applied in a wider context.
Miguel: Well to summarise my position, I think there are a number of things in computers (networking, blackboxing, solitary play) that make some ethical issues occur more frequently in computer games than in other types of games, and therefore we need a theory that also takes these unique elements into consideration.
Chris: I suppose I'm not disputing the merits of looking at computer games in isolation for an ethical theory – if only because the field of games is too vast and diverse to be considered as a whole these days – but it seemed to me that your work jumped to the conclusion that computer games could be treated distinctly almost as a premise. But then the actual ideas you present readily apply to a great many other kinds of game. I suppose this struck me as rather odd.
Miguel: Well, I think that there's also another purpose in my approach: opening the study of digital games for Computer Ethics, but that has more to do with another game, academic politics, than with the nature of games themselves.
Next week: Game Ethics
Miguel Sicart is a researcher at the Centre for Computer Games Research in Copenhagen, with a special interest in ethics. After reading his book, The Ethics of Computer Games, I wrote to him to ask him about his thoughts and theories. This is the first of four dialogues edited from transcripts of our discussions.
Chris Bateman: I'd like to start by saying how much I enjoyed The Ethics of Computer Games, but to also challenge the idea that this was all you were developing. While it may have been necessary to restrict your scope to computer games as a pragmatic concern, it looks to me that you're essentially suggesting an ethics of games in a wider context.
Miguel Sicart: Well, I think it is very positive that my theory applies to any game. In general, I agree - the explanation of the ethics of computer games can only work if it explains the ethics of games. However, I think there are elements that computer games have that make them ethically unique.
Chris: Yes, you mention in the book that computer games "bring forth new possibilities and demands that are significant for the ethical construction of the experience of the game"... I found that slightly dubious. There is no possible ethical situation a videogame might provide that could not equally be presented in a tabletop RPG via verbal descriptions and written rules, and in many cases an equivalent board game could also be constructed that would pose functionally the same issues.
Miguel: Well, lately I've been playing Call of Prypyat, and I've been fascinated by how the experience of the game, in terms of morality, is unlike anything I've experienced in role-playing games, or board games.
Chris: Well new experiences aside, what do you think is actually distinct about videogames – what is there about that kind of games that you think is impossible in other forms?
Miguel: Well for one thing there's the blackboxing of the rules. As opposed to most conventional board and role-playing games, most of the rules of a computer game can only be deducted from play. It is possible to start playing a computer game without knowing the rules, and deduct them. In fact, for many players a part of playing a digital game is to deduct the rules.
Chris: It's true that many computer games do not include adequate manuals describing the rules (Yehuda Berlinger argues the developer ought to expose those rules to the player, and I tend to feel he has a point). But those rules still exist and are specified. They exist in documentation or minds of the game development team. In a sense, even though they are not physically present at the time, the player learns the rules from the development team, in a manner not dissimilar to how most people learn boardgames - by being taught.
Miguel: As much as I agree with Yehuda Berlinger and you that rules should be disclosed (I like this wording more than exposing, since it keeps my dear blackboxing metaphor somewhat still present), I am not certain it is an ought. I feel that to be too imperative a requirement.
Chris: Yehuda argued for the imperative in this regard; personally, I just see it as a politeness I would like to encourage.
Miguel: Personally I would encourage the developer to disclose the rules provided in that disclosure the experience of the game will not be affected. I believe some games gain from having hidden rules, ones that even expert players struggle to learn about. That gain, provided it is designed for, should be respected.
Chris: Of course! I'm not suggesting voiding all secrets, just sharing the "basic rules". Also, I think making the decision to share the rules encourages the developer to ensure those rules are coherent, so intending to share the mechanics in itself could ultimately prove beneficial for the game design itself.
Miguel: You suggested earlier that the rules exist in the minds of the development team... Perhaps it's my past in literary studies, but thinking that we can backtrack to "the author", for meaning or for constitution that the rules exist, is a very unsettling position. Technically, I agree with your point: the rules exist in the minds of the developers. However, I'd argue that in this day of player-centred design, players learn the rules from the game, and not from the development team
Chris: Sure. But as someone who has had to work on the problem of how the game teaches the rules to the player (as both a designer and a writer), I'm acutely aware that even though we may not be physically present when the player learns, we're still in the role of teacher a lot of the time. And it's extremely challenging to teach in absentia. The only thing that makes it easier is the common conventions that are already available – and I would argue that these are socially embedded, just as language is.
Miguel: I tend to follow the close reading school, so anything outside the text, in this case the game, is metaphor to me and not a valid argument – I don't know what the development team may know, but I know, and can prove, what the game wants me to do. I think the process of dialogue with developers happens only on games other than mainstream commercial games.
Chris: Well in MMOs, the process of dialogue with the developer is quite explicit – the community campaigns for specific changes and so forth. And as commercial videogames become increasingly sensitive to the role of the community in their success, this becomes more and more important. I don't think commercial developers have the luxury to guess about their players any more, especially when they can ask.
Miguel: I agree in the increasing role of the community in game development – and therefore, I'd say, the increasing importance of the value of social play. However, I think that the player learns from the behaviours of the system, more than from the authoritative figure of the designer.
Chris: Absolutely! My claim is that the designer and writer must create a system to teach the player. But my point is that this process is easier if they make use of the existing conventions in games... it is these conventions that, like language, are socially embedded. The further the game strays from familiar "rules", the harder will be the task of teaching the game... So where you say "the player learns from the system" I am saying "the player has always already learned a set of game rules". Large swathes of the rules are socially embodied in the game playing community as a whole – something you allude to in your reference to phronesis i.e. the "practical wisdom" of playing games (what I call game literacy).
Miguel: I'd agree to a certain extent in your analogy of phronesis and game literacy, but phronesis includes, by definition, morality and moral thinking, while literacy doesn't. I could worry if you insist on making them equivalent
Chris: Well I wouldn't want to make those terms synonyms, but I would say without the game literacy you couldn't engage in the kind of moral thinking that you advocate in The Ethics of Computer Games.
Miguel: Good point. Yes, ludic phronesis requires game literacy (which I guess is the idea I tried to communicate when writing about how phronesis develops with time), and therefore are connected.
Chris: My view of this issue of rules is that individual games may embed the specific game rules of a particular era or tradition (like the game over of an arcade game, or pressing start to pause a console game, or ASWD for movement on PC) or they may contain wholly unique rules, but the majority of the rules are socially embedded and simply instantiated in the games, in the same way the words and grammar of a language are socially embedded and simply instantiated in any given text. And in both cases, the conventions change over time and from culture to culture – the culture of FPS games is not the culture of platform games, for instance.
Miguel: This is somewhat beside the point for me: players find the logic of the game, not of the designer. The canon of game design literature would argue that the designer is there precisely to make a system that teaches the player how to play – not via the designer, but via the system itself. The system is the player's source for the rules of the game.
Chris: Yes, I don't disagree. Rather than learning how to play from an authoritative figure, I mean that both the game designer and the player share in a socially embedded collection of game rules, the "language" of the culture of videogames. The system is only properly interpretable within the culture of games.
Miguel: I am not sure how major this point is, but I am intuitively sure that it is the focus on the designer-player conversation what creates aesthetic experiences, and therefore it is a bit precious to me to make the finer points here. My general position is that of the close reading school: everything outside of the game or text is a metaphor, and can be ignored.
Chris: I suppose because I am picking out a background of understanding in the form of a "culture of game rules", it seems to me that the blackboxing of rules is less significant than it may seem at first glance, especially since the trend in commercially successful games (both casual games, and those targeting what I might call the mid-market like Modern Warfare) is to be quite explicit with the rules of play. The role of puzzles is becoming less commercially significant.
Miguel: Well, it depends on how we understand blackboxing: the rules that govern combat in World of Warcraft are extremely complex, yet parts of it are transparent – for usability purposes. So learning the rules is less and less important, I'll give you that, but I'd argue that's because the computer is taking more and more over in the initial stages of playing a game and learning how to play it, easing the communication of the rules to the player.
Chris: You mentioned before about the role of hidden rules. I would be tempted to say that the computer game is operating more like a puzzle than a game (per se) when it expects deduction of rules from the player.
Miguel: I think the analogy with the puzzle is only partially right: in simple computer games, I'd agree with it, but on complex games with simulations of plausible environments, I think much of the learning process of the rules is channelled through the assumption that there is a human, embodied being playing the game. We never need to learn the gravity rules in Half-Life 2: we know them, and then we are given a tool to tinker with them. Simulation-heavy games are, in this sense, particular in the way they use assumed player embodied/cultural knowledge to communicate the basic rules. I guess I could even argue that these games are significantly different that puzzles, but that's for another discussion.
Next week: Solitary Play
Back in July 2008, I ranted that a game isn’t a series of interesting decisions (contra to the famous Sid Meier quote). Later that year, in November, emotions in games expert Nicole Lazzaro and I struck up a conversation over email on the subject of choices and play while we were working on a book project. The following is a restructured transcript of our discussion.
Chris Bateman: Nicole, in your chapter for the book you claimed that there is a strategic game that players of slot machines engage in, when they try to pick the right machine. Do you really believe there’s strategy at work here?
Nicole Lazzaro: The players in Vegas that I've interviewed absolutely do. (I had to sneak a camera in under my coat!) Likewise the floor managers adjust the odds for different machines. The ones on the end have different settings than the ones in the middle. The reason there is a rolling jackpot above many banks of machines is that players will choose a machine that has not won in a while, “because the odds are better.” But in truth the odds of winning are the same. Like Bejeweled, players engage in a tight activity loop each time they go through an emotion cycle from hope to anticipation to seeing if they won. The simplicity of the choice tightens the activity loop and makes it more immersive.
Chris: It feels to me that you're reaching to maintain the illusion of omnipresent choice behind the pleasures of gambling.
Nicole: From my perspective, we see slot machines evolving and adding new features to create more engagement by adding other layers of fun. Players decide how many lines to play before they spin and often choose when to stop the wheel(s). More choices in the bonus rounds, more lights and video and so forth – I do think that choice is important in slot machine gambling.
Chris: I’m not convinced, personally. Consider this thought experiment: at a particular company, once per month, an employee is picked out of the tombola to win a prize. This lottery produces all the major emotions of play – excitement, fiero (i.e. triumph over adversity), even frustration and potentially relief – but it involves no choices whatsoever. Games of pure chance (Roger Caillois' alea) are not dependent upon choice, although games designed to leverage it still benefit from adding in choice as a mechanic.
Nicole: I see that the play in a lottery as a one-choice game, like rolling a dice. Players make the choice to enter (make a move) and how often. They often develop rituals such as blowing on the dice to improve their odds.
Chris: If they buy a ticket, sure – but in my thought experiment, there was no choice to enter, remember? They joined the company, the lottery comes as a consequence of employment in the company. You can't claim that the decision to join the company was a decision to enter the lottery because that choice was not part of their decision to join the company (they might not even have known!) Yet there is the lottery, offering excitement and fiero to them with no choices.
Nicole: Without a choice to enter (or in this case join the company) it's less exciting. But more exciting than joining the company without a lottery, I suppose. In lotteries, people have more fun when they can choose the number they play. They buy multiple tickets and fold up the corners of their business cards to increase their odds. They also play more on “lucky days,” as in “Wow, congratulations on that success! You should go play the lottery today.”
Chris: I suspect if you researched this, the excitement would be proportional to the prize to be won, and not on the existence or absence of a choice to enter…
Nicole: My point is just that there is a role for choice, even in gambling.
Chris: yes, I certainly agree that choice adds to the fun. I guess I’m just challenging you to admit that there is play beyond choice…
Nicole: Can there be play without choice? I doubt it. Making choices is a core element to fun.
Chris: I suppose I would reverse this claim – it seems clear to me that there is play without choice... the playground slide is the clearest example. You can claim that the decision to ride the slide is a choice, but clearly people decide to do anything they do, so this isn't much of a boundary condition as it is tautological. Or you can claim that the slide isn't play, but really, do you want to do this? What do children do in the playground if they don't play?
Nicole: The slide is certainly play. A playground slide to me is pure Easy Fun, exploration and just for the sheer fun of interacting with it. Like a wii-mote or the Danger Sidekick cell phone, it's simply fun to use without a goal. All of these respond to player’s actions.
Chris: But what kind of decision can there be in the case of the slide? The choice interpretation is easier if you treat the playground as one game with choices within it – do I ride the tilt-a-whirl or the slide? – but it becomes weaker the fewer things in the playground... when you get to just a slide, is choosing to walk to the playground really the choice that makes the slide into a play activity? It seems to me that one can imagine play without choices easily enough.
Nicole: Play without choice feels more like a movie than a game to me. Plus, on the slide players decide which way to go down, and how to move their bodies for each turn. Slides are more fun for those who are still mastering basic body coordination.
Chris: Well a slide or a rollercoaster feels more like a game than a movie to me. I wouldn't call either of them games – but I would call them play. But even in the case of games, I would say there can be games without choice – rhythm-action games, for instance. Dance Dance Revolution or Space Channel 5 offers the player no decisions at all (except, perhaps, the option to fail!) and neither do the cruder prototypes for this play, such as Dragon's Lair – that certainly feels more like a movie than a game!
Nicole: I see the nature of most interactions as choices, with movies offering little interaction and so lack choices. Slides are interactive with the player's body in ways that movies are not. Easy Fun contains a lot of free form play (like watching Sims in the pool and so forth). Dance Dance Revolution requires that the player choose what pad to step on at what moment.
Chris: Well what about memory games such as Simon – there's no choice in this game. It doesn't need it. Challenging one's memory is fun (for some but not all players). Simon doesn't need choice for its play.
Nicole: Perhaps we are diverging here because of our definition of “choice”?
Chris: Yes, I'm certain of it. I'm using “choice” as a synonym for “decision”, which then becomes “activation of the orbito-frontal cortex”... you use it in a much wider context. A lot of the things that you call choices don’t seem like decisions to me, and hence the essential disagreement.
by choice you mean a decision that requires the weighing of
Chris: Yes, that's precisely what that particular brain region does, so that's what the term has come to mean for me. I think it's what a lot of people mean when they invoke the Sid Meier quote too.
Nicole: Well in something like Dance Dance Revolution and Simon there may not be heavy strategy, but there is choice. The choices that offer deep decision making map to what I call Hard Fun, and that requires strategy and the weighing of alternatives. Like a good game of chess there are a number of possible moves that affect later gameplay. However, it's not the only way people enjoy games. There are choices around exploration, imagination, and role-play; what I call Easy Fun. Whereas any music and matching game (including slot machines!) creates engagement through a rhythm of choices that I call Serious Fun. Lastly games such as Farmville and Restaurant City on Facebook and other social platforms create engagement because they offer the excuse to interact with friends.
Chris: It does seem like you use 'choice' in a very wide scope, especially compared to my use of 'decision' – which clearly fits into your concept of Hard Fun. I'm rather on my own on this issue, incidentally – I think I'm the only person insane enough to attempt to defend the idea that there can be games without decisions (or play without decisions). But it comes down to where you choose to put your linguistic boundary fences – it's not an objective problem in any sense of the word!
touch of insanity is important for any industry pioneer. I think I was
the only person insane enough to turn the camera around and research
games by watching player faces. The major reason I self-financed the
Four Keys to Fun was to kick start the conversation. It is only by
working together that we develop the tools and language about what
makes games so engaging. By exploring these linguistic boundaries we
develop a deeper understanding of games.
Chris: What are you researching right now?
Nicole: My next research project involves our upcoming iPhone game Tilt: Flip’s Adventure in 1.5 Dimensions. Reducing choice often increases the fun, so for this game I intentionally reduced the decision space to where the character has only four places to be and the game has no buttons. Like Bejeweled and Tetris the basic challenge for every game designer is making simple decisions fun. That’s what I like about designing casual games: the simple choices players make need to have emergent qualities – sometimes this is strategy, sometimes it is the pure joy of using the controls.
You can learn more about Nicole and Chris’
perspective on games in the book Beyond Game
Design: Nine Steps Towards Better Videogames, published by Charles River Media, which
contains chapters by other games
industry veterans such as Noah Falstein, Sheri Grainer Ray and
Dylan Cuthbert has been working in videogames for more than twenty years. He started his career at Argonaut, where amongst other things he made the original Star Fox game on the SNES with Nintendo. After working with Sony of America and Sony Japan, he eventually founded his own Kyoto-based developer, Q-Games, one of the few studios in the world to combine Japanese and international talent under one roof. Working closely with both Nintendo and Sony, Dylan’s company has worked on all manner of unusual projects, such as the audio visualisation applications on the Sony PS3 (the “earth from space” is a particular favourite at ihobo). I caught up with Dylan to ask him about his company’s PixelJunk brand, which has already attained something of a cult status.
Chris Bateman: I understand the PixelJunk series was created
to explore what could be done with traditional two-dimensional gameplay on a high
definition screen. What motivated you to explore this?
Dylan Cuthbert: I grew up learning to program and develop games on the very first 8-bit computers like the Sinclair ZX-81 and Spectrum. The sheer range of ideas and games back then was great! People didn't care so much about how the games looked, so it let people experiment a lot more in the systems that make a game interesting. I grew up with all that and started feeling that the games I was seeing around me weren't showing the sheer breadth of creativity that existed back in those 8-bit days.
So, I started PixelJunk to explore what else could be done with 2d, but on top of that I wanted to bring modern technology to the table, and with the advance of HDTV and, more importantly HDMI (that gave us a digital signal and proper colours at last!) we had the chance to do something new again in the 2d arena.
Chris: With the first game, PixelJunk Racers, you had a variety of challenges based around slot car racing, and the second game, PixelJunk Monsters, was a neatly polished tower defence game. What attracted you to the Tower Defence genre?
Dylan: I have always been a huge RTS fan, since the days of Dune and the very first Command and Conquer. Even now I play Red Alert 3 every lunchtime without fail with anyone who is willing to be beaten here at work! What I saw in Tower Defence games was a chance to bring RTS’s to the regular, casual gaming public in a way that it hadn't been brought to them before. Right from the start I made it a character based game, and had elements like the dancing to upgrade your towers, and the dropping of coins, all of which worked to give casual players a comfortable interface for what is actually quite a hardcore game. I think this is why casual players and hardcore players alike really enjoy Monsters.
Chris: Then we come to PixelJunk Eden. The aesthetic behind this game is quite unique, with the strange animated plantlife that serve as platforms, and a trippy electronica score. Which came first, the visuals or the audio?
Dylan: The visuals came first – Baiyon showed some of his art and immediately one of the pictures leaped out at me, and that was a strange collage of spacey plant-life. From that picture we iterated and evolved the look of Eden. The music came in a bit later, although we were already playing it alongside our earliest demos of the game.
Chris: At heart, Eden is a platform game, but it doesn't play anything like a traditional 2D platformer. Did you begin with the idea to make a 2D platform game, and then come up with the idea for collecting pollen to open seeds that grow new plants for you to jump to, or did the idea for the platform elements come later, after you'd tried some other ideas involving the seeds and plants?
Dylan: I don't like doing anything too conventional, and we started with a jumping "spider" because I wanted to make a game with elements of an old ZX Spectrum game called Bugaboo the Flea that I really liked.
Chris: Bugaboo was never on sale in the States, I think, but it was a big hit in its day in Europe, getting rave reviews back in 1983. Anyone who had a ZX Spectrum tends to remember it.
Dylan: As we implemented the jumping spider idea we
found that as the screen got more crowded with plants the spider would keep
hitting them, so that's when we introduced the grip mechanic to let the player
decide when he wants to just go right on through a plant. We already had
floating "prowlers" in the game right from our very first demo and
smashing them to generate pollen was also in there from an early point, but the
auto-filling of seeds happened quite late on in the project. Initially we
just had it so you had to collect the pollen as your score, but then it struck
us that it would be very fluid looking to have the pollen fly to the nearest
seeds around you, overflowing to fill the seeds near them etc.
Chris: One of the unique aspects of the platform play of Eden is the fact you have access at all times to both jumping and spinning on thread, a form of rope mechanics. Was there ever any idea of using the 'ropes' without jumping, or the jumping without the 'ropes'?
Dylan: Initially there wasn't a rope (or silk as we call it) but it was one of the earliest things we added along with the grip mechanic as we iterated the game mechanics and play-tested the game. It just felt natural to have the silk in the game. We did do some tests around that point where we removed the silk, but it steadily became integral to the game, especially when we introduced the mechanic that it can destroy the weaker prowlers and collect pollen.
Chris: It’s interesting that you added that later, since spinning to pop prowlers and collect pollen is a basic tactic in the finished game.
Dylan: As I say, we have a very iterative design process.
Chris: The Grimps,
the cute avatars in the game, were apparently a last minute addition. What did
you have before, and how did they come to be added?
Dylan: We had a nondescript "blob" and an odd elephant-like creature that stood on its hind legs. Luckily we settled on the Grimps and I am really happy with the way their "floppy horns" flap around when you are jumping here and there.
Chris: PixelJunk Eden is a lot of fun single player, but you also have a
three player co-op mode. PixelJunk
Monsters also plays in a great two player co-op mode – which my wife loves,
much to my surprise. Is co-operative play something you were keen to explore in
the PixelJunk games?
Dylan: Co-operative play is great fun, for Racers of course there is no co-operative play, but I think with Monsters we started realizing how much fun co-op was so we will always try to implement it if we can. We have received lots of mails from couples, fathers & daughters and so on, who have all really enjoyed playing our games together.
Chris: In the three player mode of Eden, the players get penalised heavily if one of them falls off, as the camera often follows the falling grimp, "popping" the others and causing a loss of pollen. It forces players to work as a team, but it also frustrates players who aren't used to working in this way. Was there an internal logic behind this design choice? (And what is the logic behind the camera behaviour?)
Dylan: We fixed the camera logic in the patch in January, so now it simply follows the highest player on the screen. Initially we were trying something more complicated because sometimes a leap of faith was required sideways or downwards and the camera wouldn't follow them. But in the end of the day that motion appears to feel more natural so we simplified it, so now the camera will stay with the players that are highest on the screen, just make sure you grip something.
Chris: That was one of several fixes in your recent update for PixelJunk Eden. Another was making the game easier by slowing the rate that time ticks down, and giving more time for collecting the big crystals. Was this in response to criticisms the game had received for being too tight on the time requirements?
Dylan: Well, the game was a little too difficult so we softened it up slightly; at least the hardcore gamers got their fun out of it before we did that! I personally enjoy it more at the original hard setting but I'm a bit of an old-school hard-core gamer and sometimes I forget that (laugh)!
Chris: PixelJunk Eden has been entered into this year's Independent Games Festival – I’m not certain, but I think this is the first PS3 exclusive to make it into this competition. How do you feel about Eden being in the IGF?
Dylan: Well, Flow and Everyday Shooter before they were moved to PS3 both won the IGF in several categories so I think it's pretty cool. PSN is still a fairly new service and it is giving a lot of power to indie devs such as ourselves. We've also been nominated for the GDC Choice awards.
Chris: So what do you have planned for the fourth PixelJunk game?
Dylan: Something interesting! It's still secret
but it will be something that invokes old memories yet has something completely
new and unused before in it too.
You can vote for PixelJunk Eden in the IGF Audience Awards, but the voting ends on Friday 20th March so get your skates on! All the PixelJunk games are available exclusively from the PS3’s online store.
For some time now, I’ve been less-than-subtly pressuring Sheri Graner Ray into blogging, and this year she has finally thrown her hat into the ring with a new blog, FEM IRL (female in real life). To celebrate, I decided to interview Sheri about her career in videogames, and why the industry is still struggling to understand the benefits of gender-inclusive game design.
Chris Bateman: You've worked for some of the major companies in the games industry, including EA, Origin, and Sony. At some point, you became the de facto spokesperson for women in the games industry – how did that happen?
Sheri Graner Ray: I’ve always like games – both table top and computer games – and I consider myself to be a pretty typical girl. So I didn’t understand why there weren’t more women playing computer games. Out of curiosity I began to do a little research. It quickly became very apparent that as an industry we were making some pretty major mistakes that actively kept women out of our games.
So, thinking the industry would want to know how to make more money, I began to talk about what I’d discovered. Imagine my surprise when, instead of a positive response, I was greeted with derision – one guy actually stood up in the middle of a talk I was giving at GDC (CGDC back then) and started calling me names.
Chris: How rude!
Sheri: Well I guess I’m just stubborn because instead of dissuading me, this behaviour just made me more determined to get the word out. So, I guess basically I’m just a game designer that can’t keep quiet when I think we, as an industry, are making big mistakes!
Chris: Well since then there has been significant progress, hasn’t there?
Female players now make up 40% of the market for games, and 25% of the console
market. That's a huge step up from where we were, say, ten years ago.
Sheri: Oh please be careful with those numbers! I hear them so often now and usually it’s from publishers patting themselves on the back saying “See? Our game audience is now 40% female. We can relax now and not change a thing!”
Chris: So you don’t think there’s been an improvement?
Sheri: There’s definitely been an improvement, but like most lies, damned lies and statistics, the numbers are very misleading. The reason these numbers look so good is it’s an average – the traditional game market is still less than 20% female. However, the “casual” game market is 70% female. Average those and you get 40% female audience over all. But that does not mean 40% of the players of Gears of War are female!
Chris: But if the casual games market is doing so well courting female
players, what’s the problem?
Sheri: Most of the development capital is still in the traditional titles, and these are still missing out on a huge chunk of the market.
Chris: By traditional titles, do you mean console videogames?
Sheri: Mostly, but don’t forget that MMOs are still focused mostly on the PC market. By the traditional titles, I mean all the big titles – it’s where the money is and where the best jobs can be found. If we continue to keep women out of those titles, we will continue to keep them out of the industry and the industry overall will suffer for it.
Chris: Is there still a fundamental misunderstanding about women gamers, in
that people think you need to make games especially for them? I ask, because
it's becoming clear that huge brands like Final
Fantasy (which has sold 85 million games across all its iterations) and Mario (201 million games) – not to
mention The Sims (100 million) – have
all succeeded in part because they appeal to both men and women.
Sheri: The game industry has long been looking for the “silver bullet” that one magic title that all women will play. They thought they had it with the “pink” Barbie games. Then they thought they had it with the Sims games. Currently they think they have it with the “casual” online games. Each of these categories of games has made money, but each time it results in the same thing, the entire market of “women” is re-categorized as one genre.
Chris: As if people can’t get their head around the idea that there might be
as much diversity among female players as there is in male players… Although
sometimes I wonder if the industry has even got their head around the diversity
of male players, to be honest!
Sheri: If anyone is familiar with the history of the women’s suffrage movement, you will see some surprising similarities with the way the games industry looks at female players. One of the big “fears” about giving women the right to vote was that they would become one huge homogeneous voting bloc that could, in theory, control the outcome of every single vote. Of course, this proved to be completely untrue as, lo and behold, women did not all believe the same thing, want the same thing, nor vote the same way. Thus, there was no monolithic voting bloc that upset all politics as we know it.
It’s the same in
games. There is no, one monolithic audience called “Women” who all want exactly
the same thing in games. It actually is one million markets… each one with its
own tastes and wants in entertainment. The only thing these markets share in common
is a particular chromosomal make-up!
Chris: But you’re not saying that you can’t target a specific female demographic?
Sheri: No, of course not – the female market is certainly a valid market for
making targeted products for: the romance book market has figured this out, as
has Hollywood, with the “chick flicks”. However, you can’t just say “this is
for women.” You have to categorize and analyze your target demographic just as
you would for any other demographic. You need to say, “this is for women
between the ages of 10-18 who like backpacking, camping and other outdoor
recreational activities” or you need to say, “This is for men, ages 25-50 who
live in suburban areas, are college educated, and own at least one classic
The better you can
define your market, the better you can pinpoint what that market wants, what
they need and how you can the better
target your product to them… regardless of gender!
Chris: We recently processed the data on people's favourite games from our last player study and found that role-playing games are hugely popular with both men and women – 20% of the male players and 20% of the female players surveyed listed RPGs among their three favourite games, more than any other genre. And this wasn't just Final Fantasy but also the Elder Scrolls gamesand even older games like Baldur's Gate – all beloved by both male and female players. Why do you think RPGs have such cross-gender appeal?
Sheri: I think it’s because they provide the more flexible play styles. In other words, they appeal to a broad demographic because more people can find their preferred play style in them.
Chris: Another thing the player study showed up was that while first person shooters were hugely popular among the male gamers (about as popular as RPGs), they didn't interest the female players at all. And in fact, RPGs and RPG-like games that used guns like Deus Ex and Fallout rated okay with male players but not with female players. Do you think there's something about guns that female players find off-putting, or is it just that fantasy settings are generally more appealing to them?
Sheri: Neither. I think you’ll find that the vast majority of female players have never tried a FPS. So to say they inherently don’t like them is a bit like saying female don’t like the food served in strip clubs. How can you know that? Very few women go there!
Chris: But there are women who play and love FPS’s, of course.
Sheri: Well I should give my disclaimer here! When I say something is “female” or “male” I mean it is predominantly a trait of that gender. It is not exclusively that gender. Everything is a bell curve and there are people who fall in all areas of that curve. If you are female and a lover of FPS, then the generalisation is obviously not pertaining to you.
Chris: But you agree there’s a disparity of some kind here.
Sheri: I would say it has nothing to do with the guns or the violence. All research I’ve done has shown that girls have no problem with violence. What they do have a problem with is violence for violence sake. In other words, violence isn’t bad because it’s “icky” but because it’s boring.
Chris: Happy to beat someone up as long as there’s a reason for it!
Sheri: Something like that. I suspect the reason few women play FPS games has less to do with the guns or the violence and more to do with the barriers to access in the titles today. Inherently weak stories (which mean little reason for the violence), male-only avatars or female avatars that are hyper-sexualized, a focus on head-to-head competition, punishment for error models... all these kinds of things are less appealing to most women, and therefore are barriers to access for the titles.
Chris: What about the Grand Theft Auto games? Although these were marginally more popular with male players, an awfully large number of female players rate one of these games as a personal favourite, especially San Andreas. Is part of the appeal here that Rockstar North (I still think of them as DMA design, I confess!) just make really fun virtual worlds to play in?
Sheri: The GTA games are open, virtual worlds thus, much like the RPGs we
talked about earlier, appeal to more people because more play styles are able
to be expressed. It’s a bit like the difference between a playground and a single
theme park ride. You can do what you want in a playground. With a lone themepark ride,
it’s a one trick pony.
Chris: It seems to me, looking at the games that have been succeeding in the wake of what you might call "the casual revolution" that part of the success of the casual games movement has been that games are being designed either for female players, or at least in a way that doesn't exclude them. I look at the huge success of hidden object games like Mystery Case Files, for instance, and think: these were made for a female audience!
Sheri: I agree. However, please be careful by calling them “female games.” As
I mentioned before, there are as many different wants and needs in games as
there are women, so we must be careful categorizing anything as “for a female
audience” Note that we don’t call regular games “for a young male audience.” We
say the “Traditional” audience and all assume it’s young males ages 12-21. We
need to come up with terms that are more specific to the demographic than
“female audience” if we want to avoid the problems the “pink games” had back in
Chris: Is this perhaps the secret to Nintendo’s recent success? When I look at the games that Nintendo have been selling in huge numbers, it seems clear that female consumers are part of the equation – I'm thinking specifically of Nintendogs (22 million), Brain Age (17 million), Wii Fit (14 million) and Animal Crossing (11 million). None of these games appeal solely to women, but it's hard not to imagine that a large number of women have bought them, and Nintendo's marketing reinforces that impression.
Sheri: Yes! These games are successful because they target other demographics
beyond the “traditional” game demographic. It is about time the game industry
figured out they can make games for other demographics and be successful.
Chris: Do you think we're heading for parity in the market – an even split between male and female players?
Sheri: I hope so. We aren’t there yet. As stated above, the “40% of gamers are
female” number is quite misleading. We still put the majority of our money into
developing titles for that one single demographic: young white males. And, with
the exception of the Wii, most console titles are still aimed squarely at that
market. The game industry has to come to realize two things. Firstly, the
female market is not a single monolithic market and secondly, they can access a
huge number of new players by addressing barriers in their current titles. If
both these problems can be overcome then we will begin to see parity.
Chris: Even though the female players are only 25% of the PS3 and Xbox 360 market, that's still more than 12 million players. When you think that selling a million is still considered a success in our industry, doesn't it seem like there's a lost opportunity here?
Sheri: Of course. The industry needs to look at their titles and address
barriers to access and they can begin to reach more players. And not just
female players, either but other minorities as well. There is still a huge
untapped market out there. We’re effectively throwing money away!
Chris: Why do you think the console market has a smaller share of female players?
Sheri: For two reasons. Firstly, they are risk adverse. Come on now, if your
job depended on selling 2 million units of a game, which would you want? A game
that is just like the last game you sold 2 million units of – that you are
comfortable with the concepts, the channels, the retail strategy for? Or some
new game that you don’t really understand, don’t necessarily know the channel
for and can’t really put numbers to. Obviously, you are going to go with what
you know. However, that’s leaving a huge amount of money on the table.
Chris: And secondly?
Sheri: The industry continues to produce games without thought to barriers to access. Because some of the current games are selling in good numbers, few people think to look at what might be built into the games that might be keeping other markets from interacting with the product. The bikini-clad, heavy bosomed woman on the cover sells to that post-pubescent boy… marketing departments don’t even consider the fact that if a woman isn’t going to want to pick up the box, she isn’t going to buy the game for herself.
Chris: I think most marketing departments fear that changing the appeal of the
box designs to allow for a female audience will weaken the appeal to the young
male audience they are so intently focussed upon.
Sheri: So in the name of “it’s worked before", the industry as a whole continues to slam the door in the face of a number of markets that are tech savvy and have large amounts of disposable income to spend.
Chris: Well it’s clearly not a clever strategy, but it’s safe, and large corporations come to rely upon the safe options.
Sheri: Right up to the point they declare bankruptcy because some more agile
competitor beat them to the punch on a new opportunity!
Chris: It’s a crazy business! If you could change one aspect of the games industry's development culture to make it easier for companies to profit from this large pool of female players with a love of games and money to spend, what would it be?
Sheri: The recruiting attitude and hiring practices of the industry,
definitely. This sounds very strange, I know, but our industry has terrible hiring habits. We put ads in
places only game industry folks will see, thus we advertise to the same people
again and again. We refuse to consider skill sets, only experience, so, once
again, we only hire from those who have been hired before, and when we interview, we send the candidate
through a full round of interviews with each team member, telling the team
“tell us if you like this person” –
which translates to “is this person just like you?”
We never hire outside
our comfort zone. Thus, we end up a very homogeneous work place. We are an
industry of young white guys making games for… surprise! Young white guys!
Chris: But it has to change at some point. Every other successful industry
eventually hurdled these kinds of barriers.
Sheri: I think the biggest change will come from diversifying our work force. To do this, we have to actively recruit in non-traditional places, be willing to look at skill sets rather than explicit experience, and support those organizations that do outreach and mentoring for minority groups in the industry. If we want to build diverse products that reach broad, diverse audiences, then our workforce has to reflect that.
One of the best aspects of working on
the new book, Beyond Game Design, was the chance
to work with some of the great names of the videogames industry. Noah Falstein,
who writes the bookend chapter which ties it all together, has had a career
that would be the envy of any game designer, having worked for some of the most
innovative and influential developers in the history of videogames, including
seminal arcade developer, Williams Electronics, and the king of adventure
games, LucasArts. During our email discussions while working on the book, this
anecdote came up; I thought I would share it with the few surviving adventure
Ron [Gilbert] managed to forget the origin of the insult swordfighting idea [in The Secret of Monkey Island], not surprisingly as it meant more to me than to him, and of course I wanted to grab all the credit I could! The full story is pretty amusing.
We'd collaborated on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and one of my contributions to that game was a boxing mini-game that Indy uses in his college (a scene with the college boxing ring was actually in the script we used as our Brand Bible, but it was cut from the movie) and then we used the same interface to fight various Nazi guards as I mentioned later in the chapter. I borrowed Sid Meier's swordfighting system from his original Pirates! game, figuring it would be disguised enough in the boxing game that no-one would mind, but somehow neglected to mention that to Ron.
Then Ron was working on Monkey Island and came to me one day with the idea, “You know, I was thinking that boxing interface you came up with would make a fantastic Pirate Swordfighting interface.” So I had to confess, and as often happens in brainstorming, the pressure of having to come up with a replacement actually pushed us into an even better idea, via The Princess Bride first swordfight scene as an inspiration. The real crowning touch, though, was the idea of having the climactic fight with the Swordmaster involve different insults, letting the player realize that they could re-use specific rejoinders to match the new insults. That bit was not my idea - I'm not sure who came up with it, but I think Hal Barwood and Orson Scott Card did most of the insult writing.
More ramblings from the Beyond Game Design authors in the months to come.