The Gamification of Games

Over at Only a Game today, a discussion of cyborg tenacity that includes discussion of Pokémon Go and Xbox’s Gamescore. Here’s an extract:

Gamification risks stultification because the game developer (or behavioural engineer) is specifying what is being learned, and there is no engagement of the will of the player (or employee). Submission is the inevitable outcome of this failure to create a common vision. What’s more, through mandatory achievements and scoring systems like Xbox’s Gamerscore we have witnessed the gamification of games... an emphasis on cyber-submission over the more engaging alternatives. This state of affairs is now endemic in software design: what is Twitter and Facebook’s Follow counters if not an invitation to judge quantity over quality?

You can read the entirety of Tenacity and the Domination of Things over at Only a Game.


Brian Green on Online Anonymity

Over on Psychochild’s Blog, Brian Green has a fantastic four part series exploring the relationship between privacy and anonymity, and arguing against the idea that removing anonymity would address the problem – both because this means giving up privacy, which we value, and because it is not practical to do so. Highly recommended reading for game designers and anyone interested in online abuse and privacy:

  • Part 1 looks at the relationship between privacy and anonymity, and the key questions about anonymity.
  • Part 2 examines the harms entailed in removing anonymity.
  • Part 3 makes the case for the impossibility for enforcing public identity and restricting anonymity.
  • Part 4 looks at dealing with the problems of online behaviour, and the changes that might be required.

You can read some brief responses from me over at Only a Game, and I shall respond in full in about two weeks time with a piece entitled Lessons from the MUD. Watch this space!


The Greatest Detective Game Ever Made

LewtonOver at Kotaku, Paul Walker-Emig has a wonderful piece on my first game as lead designer and writer, Discworld Noir. It’s called Discworld Noir: The Greatest Detective Game Ever Made, which is very flattering, especially since (as Paul admits) this game is mostly unknown, or otherwise forgotten. Here’s an extract from the start of the piece:

The forgotten Discworld Noir’s greatness hangs on a simple design element: the notebook. All the other artefacts of the hardboiled detective are there in this noir-inflected take on Terry Pratchett’s Discworld: the trenchcoat and trilby protagonist Lewton wears, treading through the rain that forever hammers the streets; a femme fatale straight from the big book of archetypes; storylines and characters taken wholesale from the pages of Chandler and Hammett; a cool jazz soundtrack evocative of the golden age of the PI. But it is clues and deduction that define the detective. There is the notebook, and then everything else is superficial.

What’s more, Paul’s piece has flushed out some Discworld Noir fans from the woodwork! Here’s a tweet by Dave Gilbert* (The Shivah, The Blackwell Legacy, Emerald City Confidential) confessing that Noir was an influence:

Dave Gilbert Tweet

This means a great deal to me, not only because Dave is a brilliant indie developer, but because I’ve always lamented not having influenced anyone else’s design work. The notebook in Noir, as Paul draws out, was a a big moment for me as a game designer and narrative designer, and I was always disappointed that it sunk without a trace. It seems this was not the case!

You can read the entirety of Discworld Noir: The Greatest Detective Game Ever Made over at Kotaku.

*Not that Dave Gilbert, the other one with the really amazing indie career.


The Meaning of Play: International Hobo US Tour 2017

Play.Jan RasiewiczDelighted to announce that I am on a five State tour of the US this April, with four speaking engagements open to the public. I shall be presenting at four university campuses in Indiana, Texas, California, and Utah with an hour long presentation on The Meaning of Play. Most of the venues are open to the general public, so even if you're not a student at the universities in question you'd be more than welcome to come along.

My topic for this tour is The Meaning of Play, an imaginative voyage through five hundred million years of play, using the latest empirical and philosophical research to trace the aesthetic motives that inspire beings to pursue play, and the lineages connecting the different kinds of play that these motives brought about. The journey will look at the aesthetic motives of the first multi-cellular life forms back in the Cambrian, how early wolves created new meanings for play a million years ago, the relationship between games today and games five millennia in the past, and how humans continue to create new and different means to – and meanings of – play.

Here are all the places you can catch me this April. Some details are still being confirmed and will be updated soon, so watch this space!

Tuesday 4th April: Indiana University, Bloomington, IN

Franklin Hall Commons, 1 pm 
Open to all

Thursday 6th April: Texas A&M, College Station, TX

Langford B Geren Auditorium, 7:45 pm
Open to all

Sunday 9th April: Laguna College of Art and Design, CA

Studio 5, Big Bend Campus, 2825 Laguna Canyon Rd, 1pm 
Open to all

Wednesday 12th April: University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT

EAE Games Studio, Building 72, Level 2, 5 pm
Open to all

With thanks to Erlend Grefsrud for goading me into this title. The opening image is Play by Jan Rasiewicz, which I found here at his site, Rasko Fine Art. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.

Cross-posted from Only a Game.


Sunset

This is a critique, not a review. My review is: ‘if you care about artgames, you should buy and play this game’.

20160507203016_1The moment I finished playing Sunset, I went on to replay Façade, one of several games in 2005 to put artistic motivation firmly back into play for videogames, after languishing for decades out of anyone's concern. Façade was a landmark artgame: it reinvented the commercially dead adventure game genre as a means of delivering theatre, taking the one room, small cast format of an off-Broadway play and making it into a game. Sunset, released by Tale of Tales in 2015, revisits (probably inadvertently) the idea of taking cues from theatre while simultaneously developing something entirely original and unexpected. In so doing, it shows the remarkable distance artgames have travelled in just ten years.

Sunset is the most luxurious artgame to be released without a publisher, a testament to the capacity for crowdfunding to open up previously impossible development pathways and facilitate utterly original projects. This plush element could easily go unnoticed, but anyone who has worked in game development could not help but notice the clean, elegant interface. The control panel for the elevator that leads to the games’ apartment serves as a control panel, and from here an options screen that would be the envy of any indie game can be reached. To exit the game, you click a red button, and the panel slides across the screen; to confirm, you press red again, completely defending against accidental exit by moving the button between actions. Having played almost all of Tale of Tales previous games, this attention to small interface details immediately reveals the larger budget at work here.

Yet the interface is also feels like a site of tension... here, for the first time Michael and Auriea (the beating heart of Tale of Tales) accept the interface practices of gun games, two-handed, move and aim. True, an alternative is offered – but buried in the beautifully designed options such that anyone who might need it would likely lack the game literacy to find it. Thus, as with Dear Esther, we find ourselves in a first person shooter without guns – the derogatorily named ‘walking simulator’ insult-turned-banner-of-pride that serves as a perverse testament to the games industry’s utter dependence upon firearms and violence for producing commercial entertainment.

There are guns in Sunset, but you never see them. Indeed, this is a game that spectacularly eschews conventional spectacle. Throughout the games’ slowly-unfolding story, a civil war against a 1970s South American dictatorship is witnessed both from a distance – the sound of gunfire in the streets, an explosion at a neighbouring building – and from the intimate inside, since the player serves as maid to a key politician-turned-rebel. It is an ambitious, highly theatrical staging, and admirable when it works, which it does more often than not. As Emily Short comments of the narrative, however, it struggles with both its thematic focus and some occasionally muddy moments of exposition.

Yet to treat Sunset purely as a narrative game is to rob it of its greatest achievement, and perhaps also to misunderstand one of the layers of meaning wrapped up in its name. For while it is metaphorically concerned with the sunset on the Anchurian dictatorship, it is also at the same time quite literally concerned with sunsets, and every moment of the game occurs against one. In so doing, it takes one of the most tangential artefacts of commercial game design and makes it the star of the show; for it is not the protagonist, Angela Barnes, who can claim that title, but the most literal star in the game: the sun.

Ever since The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time in 1998, I have been revelling in virtual sunsets. The day-night cycle was ostensibly added for gameplay purposes, perhaps because most game designers (‘planners’ in Japan) have a slender appreciation of the power of visual aesthetics. Yet I can think of nothing more spectacular in 2004’s Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas than its sunsets, particularly because each region had its own colour scheme and painted the most glorious tableaux at the end of each day, burned into my memory far more deeply than its casual violence or lacklustre pastiche of John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood.

Time CollageIn Sunset, as the title makes clear, the sunset is the empress of its tiny world. Yet rather than gaze at the landscape, as I did in GTA or Ed Key and David Kanaga’s Proteus, Tale of Tales’ game populates its apartment setting with artworks – paintings, sculptures, tapestries. While lacking the palpable tangibility of real gallery works (you have never seen a Van Gogh painting if you have only seen a print, for the furrowed grooves of his brushwork is everything), the works the team of artists has produced for Sunset are perfectly suited for their milieu. They show up every subtle shift in tint and shade as the sun crosses the imagined sky, and as a player the option to turn on a lamp and further illumine each piece is an act of agency with astonishing aesthetic force. I spent several of my in-game days staring at a single work as it gave up its palette to me in silent joy.

These experiences go far beyond what an art museum has an opportunity to provide, and create an entirely new kind of play, what might be called a gallery game. In steadfast opposition to Michael and Auriea’s insistence that their later project, Cathedral in the Clouds is “not a game”, I shall view it as a sequel to Sunset. In so doing, I also hint at an important way that Sunset’s flawed narrative is essential to its function as a gallery game, since it creates the conditions for the ebb and flow of the artworks within the sculpted gallery-space it provides. This, as with Animal Crossing’s every-changing daily content, provided my most powerful reason to return day after day, and may also have dulled my enthusiasm in the latter half of my time playing, as the pieces gradually became boxed up and hidden. I played for just under ten hours in total. It took me seventeen months. Throughout, my experience was always changing, never compulsive, always compelling. Sunset has just what it needs to do what it does best.

Which brings me back to 2005. Although my respect for Façade will never dim, replaying it reminded me of its core problem: it’s frightfully overengineered. Its creators, Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern, called it an ‘AI game’, reflecting their pride in the artificial intelligence dramaturge they had created. I remember the GDC lecture on the design, and it was readily apparent at the time that this was not something anyone else could possibly have any reason to emulate. What’s more, the majority of the player experiences Façade produces could have been generated by a far simpler ‘classical’ narrative design. The genius of Façade was its taking influence from theatre, rather than film or other videogames, and this alone is more than enough to mark it out as a significant turning point for artgames, even if most of my plays of it feel remarkably similar.

Yet 2005 was not a banner year for artistically-motivated games just because of Façade, and among the other remarkable games that debuted that year was Tale of Tales’ first release, The Endless Forest. This unique ‘massively multiplayer screensaver’, which went on to inspire thatgamecompany’s Journey, created an entirely new concept, what might be called encounter games, that allowed players to meet and act out a role with no possibility of harm or competition. It was an idea they followed up with 2012’s Bientôt L’été, with their usual mixed degrees of success.

Sunset, once again, does not succeed on all counts, yet aims so much further beyond anything else I’ve seen attempted in the theatrical artgame genre that it is staggering that it came a mere decade after Façade. That alone would mark it as a phenomenal achievement. That it also contains an entirely original conception of a gallery artgame arguably renders it Tale of Tales magnum opus, and certainly places it far beyond the rather narrow achievements of most artistically-motivated games. Michael and Auriea’s work is not likely to be enjoyed by everyone, and most gamers will find nothing much to their taste in Sunset’s meanderings. Regardless, I find their gallery game to surpass several bricks-and-mortar galleries I’ve visited. I'm not sure I have a higher honour to bestow.


Games Industry Roundup

You’ll hear all sorts of crazy things coming out of the games industry at the moment, largely because the ‘social games’ bubble has burst, and so everyone’s talking VR, because that bubble is still being blown. No-one, in my view, has a clue about the shape of the market in 2 years time, let alone 10 years. But that doesn’t stop speculation. Here’s the best and worst of what’s out there, along with some annotations.

  • A must-read for indie developers is Dan Cook’s Autumn of Indie Game Markets over at Lost Garden. A brilliant and cogent summary of what has happened, and what we can expect to happen next. Don’t let the length put you off from reading this essential piece.
  • Dan quotes Will Wright’s remark that 2005-2008 was a ‘Cambrian explosion’ of videogames. But seriously, the videogame Cambrian explosion ran from 1980-1987. The key years were 1984-5. The last pivotal game was Dungeon Master in ’87, which helped turn D&D into the FPS.
  • Not many articles on VR capture my concerns about this market ‘opportunity’, but over on gamesindustry.biz Rob Fahey hits his mark once again in VR: There will be blood. (Thanks to Nicholas Lovell for bringing my attention to this one.)
  • As Dan pointed out, VR is an opportunity because investors are interested in it. That doesn’t make it a viable long-term market. I remember when episodic content was what investors wanted. Only one company (Telltale) made it work – and it certainly helped that all their staff were ex-LucasArts employees. Investors know nothing about games. But they do have money to burn…
  • Speaking of money to burn, check out this interview with Andrew Wilson, the current CEO of the once market-leading Electronic Arts, also the company that gave Will Wright his big break with, ahem, Raid on Bungling Bay (1984)*. Call me uncharitable if you must, but Wilson comes off as a steely eyed nutjob to me. Fortunately, I doubt his job has anything to do with productively influencing EA’s low-innovation, ultra-conservative business model.

*Actually, I really enjoyed this game, even though it was just about bombing blocky battleships with a blocky helicopter.


Save The Endless Forest

Endless Forest Skull DeerAlong with Façade and Shadow of the Colossus, Tale of Tales’ ‘massively multiplayer screensaver’ The Endless Forest was one of the key games that made 2005 such a banner year for artgames. It went on to inspire Jenova Chen’s team in the design of Journey, and remains one of the most innovative designs ever offered in games.

Now Michael and Auriea want to bring back their “whimsical online magical deer fantasy” – and they need our help to do it! Please consider donating to the IndieGoGo fund for The Endless Forest: Second Decade. The original game was a milestone in the artistic history of games, as well as one of the most fascinating and engaging aesthetic experiences ever to be offered on a computer.

There are just a few days left to contribute. Please help the forest live again!


The Liberation of Games Will Not Be Streamed on Twitch

Not TwitchedGames are about choices! Games are about challenge! Games are about avatars! So many banners line the battlefield of games, so many visions of “what games are”. Yet no-one who attempts to boil down games into a simple formula preserves everything that everyone loves about games, and that means games are always far beyond what you think they are.

Conventional thinking about games has crystallised into certain dogmas, sometimes stated, sometimes merely implied, that attempt to control the phenomena of games through the simple means of declaring what they are or are not. We should be suspicious of this, but not (as the academics say) because it is ‘essentialist’ but because we should never confuse our aesthetic values for anything fundamentally necessary – even though, as Kant observed centuries ago, we all desperately want to do this, whether for ‘art’ or for ‘games’.

Whatever you single out as essential to games will necessarily reflect your aesthetic values for play. That is no bad thing – appreciating any of the aesthetic experiences of life is a practice we ought to treasure, because it illuminates a certain joy we take in living, and that is always a precious thing. The problem is, we think our aesthetics can be applied to others. Kant noted that when we find a great artwork, we feel that our judgement should apply to everyone – and thus are often scornful of those who don’t accord with our own judgement. The same is true about games, where our aesthetic judgements are sometimes shored up by all sorts of strange methods, including invoking psychology as a weird source of authority (as if psychologists could somehow show what was really art or really a game...).

Three of my own bugbears about this phenomena will help illustrate my point, starting with the famous Sid Meier misquote that “a game...” (or, as he appears to actually have said, “a good game”) “...is a series of interesting choices.” Who doesn't love an interesting choice, you might ask? Aren’t the best examples of games built around providing meaningful choices? It’s true that evocative choices are one of the ways that games satisfy players, but we ought to be careful about confusing a way games engage players for the way games engage players.

Games are about choices in about the same way that action movies are about weaponry. Yes, firearms are a staple of the genre, but films like Deepwater Horizon or, long before that, The Towering Inferno are still blistering action movies (quite literally in these cases!) without a shot ever being fired. Similarly, games supporting meaningful choices can be great experiences, and can offer many rewarding moments. Yet zero player games like ProgressQuest are still fun, despite offering no choices whatsoever. Along similar lines, many Japanese RPGs craft the play experience so tightly that almost no meaningful choices are offered, yet the genre is still wildly popular, and not just in Japan (indeed, the design of BioWare games have increasingly cross-pollinated the Western and Japanese RPG lineages).

Then there is our relationship to our avatars. Katherine Isbister, whose work I greatly admire, claims we have a deeper bond with our game characters than with characters from other media that are ‘not interactive’, owing to what psychologists have called para-social relationships. Already, a massive assumption has been made here that clouds the water. For my five year old son, the Marvel comics I read to him provide the same interactive capacities as the videogames we play, at least in terms of what happens afterwards, when he is playing games about them. This is not just true for a child’s imagination, though: for many cosplayers, the same expanded scope of interaction applies. (If this feels odd because it looks at play ‘outside the game’, recall that while we are watching a movie our bond to the characters on screen can be immensely strong; the idea of a stronger bond with a videogame avatar is already founded upon thinking outside the game, at the draw of returning to playing.) The games we play with media never quite stay inside the lines we draw for them, and para-social connections are generated by nearly every medium.

Besides, do we really bond with game avatars (or at least, the digital dolls representing them) more than the protagonists of books, films and television shows? Harry Potter or Darth Vader are more beloved than any game character, so it would seem this is not the case. Our attachments to the dolls we play with in videogames feel more intense while the game has us in its grip, but the relationship tails off dramatically afterwards (not to mention that a TV ‘boxed set’ can hold us in its grip just as effectively as a videogame). Note that we never play a game the second time in the same way; we don’t recreate our previous avatars ever, no matter how much we loved them. Conversely, other media characters are eternal – and gain tangibly from it in terms of their appeal. It’s not a coincidence that cosplayers favour Japanese RPG characters, which are closer in form to the older forms of media. The shared point of reference among the wider community makes a huge difference in such matters.

Then there’s the psychological concept of flow, which many people have suggested is central to games, and allegedly keeps us engaged through a tight balance between the level of challenge and our own abilities. Yet this phenomena (while an authentic part of animal psychology) has little to do with the appeal of tabletop RPGs, exploration games, walking sims, nor most boardgames. To understand flow is to appreciate the ways a certain kind of game elicits our intense involvement, but it would be utterly futile to make this a skeleton key for game design. If we consider survival-horror games as just one clear example, it should be clear that remaining within the ‘flow channel’, where our skills match the challenges, is a terrible description of the enjoyment on offer. Most players of these games are avoiding challenge to conserve limited resources, and anxiety in these cases is not a sign that the game has ceased to be fun but the very root of our enjoyment.

Flow was the psychological secret of the arcade, the essence of the intense involvement of the coin op that was initially predicated upon forcing the player to fail against rising levels of challenge. That made a great deal of sense in the commercial situation of that time, where games had to be designed to facilitate coin drops, and so shorter, more intense play experiences were the order of business (at least until the first ‘microtransaction’ games like Gauntlet, which threw away the concept of one coin, one game). But the arcade is only part of the story of videogames, and we should never forget that the medium descends from both coin ops and tabletop role-playing games – and only one of these lineages is about flow. The other is about immersive presence, that capacity to enter another world that is also in no way the hallmark of games, let alone videogames, which did not even originate it!

Whenever you make a box and say “this, this is what games are!” I will show what you excluded and why others love those games just as much. This was the reason I had to disavow ‘games’, to deny myself any capacity to define “what games are” in order to try and understand everything games can be, which is always more than you think. This is the reason that I now argue for a liberation of games, a break from the tradition of trying to lay out definite boundaries for games or, for that matter for art – not to forbid such definitions, but to embrace them all in all their confused glory!

The liberation of games means no one can chisel the agenda for play in stone. Everyone’s aesthetic values have meaning, even those we hate, and there’s nothing to gain from denying this diversity, this wild landscape of play. I revel in this chaos because it is the only honest way to love games: no-one is mistaken in laying out their boundary conditions for what games are, but everyone who thinks they can defend games from a border they have drawn is deeply confused about what they are doing.

This is the ultimate truth about games: nobody owns them, not gamers, nor social justice warriors, nor governments, nor corporations – no-one. Games and art are bigger that any fragment of culture, greater than any definition, and beyond even our species. The liberation of games means accepting everyone’s unique view of games, whether or not we agree with it. This is not easy. But it’s the only way to allow games to truly be everything they can be.

With apologies to the incomparable Gil Scott-Heron.