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April 2010

Game Design as Make-Believe (2): Props

Based upon part two of the Mimesis as Make-Believe serial.

Modern-warfare-2 At the centre of the make-believe theory of representation is the concept of a prop. Any representation (a toy, a novel, an artwork, a game) can be understood as a prop, and people participating with such props are considered in Professor Walton's system to play a game of make-believe with it, such that it prescribes certain imaginings. In the context of game design as make-believe, game designers working with Walton's system are encouraged to think in terms of the props entailed in any game over and above the rules of the game (which we will look at next week). That is, this is a game design philosophy rooted in how a game affects the player's imagination not in terms of gameplay as this term is usually understood. This does not mean gameplay is irrelevant, of course, just that the make-believe aspects of play are usually backgrounded in discussions of game design, whereas in this approach they are brought into the clearer focus.

All games serve as representations of some kind, although sometimes the props involved prescribe very abstract imaginings. Tic-tac-toe, for instance begins with a hash mark grid which can be seen as a prop prescribing that the players imagine nine positions; an X prescribes that players imagine one player has taken a position, and an O does the same for the other player. Other props are more evocative: the plastic buildings in Monopoly and the wooden ones in Settlers of Catan serve similar roles, to prescribe the imagining that buildings have been built. The Cluedo board (Clue in the US) prescribes that players imagine their character is in a certain room of a mansion when their pawn-prop is in a particular part of the board-prop.

In many respects, the secret of Monopoly's success was the invention of toy money – i.e. prop money – and although they have no bearing on the play of the game, the murder weapon props in Cluedo are an important aspect of players enjoyment in this game. Similarly, the success of many modern boardgames, such as those made by Days of Wonder, can be ascribed (at least in part) to the superior quality of their props – an ongoing trend in the boardgame marketplace that is made apparent if one compares boardgames of the 70's, 80's, 90's and so forth against one another. Of course, there is a cost equation to consider too: counters, for instance, are wildly cheaper than wooden blocks as components. In a complex hobbygame, whose audience can be expected to be more imaginative, the use of counters suffices (e.g. Le Havre). In a mass market boardgame like Cluedo, the more literal props have a distinct edge. (Note, however, that the rather odd playing pieces in Monopoly appear to be a rare exception – when the player's piece is an iron it is not necessarily prescribed that players imagine that they are an iron in the fictional world of the game, although they are still prescribed to imagine that their playing piece is an iron).

The props of certain kinds of videogames operate in a similar space to hobbygames, specifically those in which there is no prop to imply the player's personal presence in the world (e.g. an avatar). Thus strategy games like Civilisation lie on a continuum with boardgames – unsurprising, given that this franchise was inspired by the boardgame of the same name. Strategy videogames in general require less imagination because they can show animated props, and also benefit from easier solo play, but there is a similar target audience and neither kind of game is in a position to rack up giant sales – the complexity of play requires too much imagination. The same claims can be made in respect of the relation between tabletop wargames and real time strategy videogames; the latter can reach a wider audience than the former because of the sophistication of the props (which can be seen fighting, rather than having to b imagined fighting), but the audience is still very heavily capped by the degree of imagination required to engage with the play of the game.

A huge leap in appeal occurs with videogames when there is a prop that prescribes that the player imagines that they are actually present in the fictional world of the game, i.e. in games with a specific avatar (indeed this term 'avatar' refers to the prop with which the player identifies). In a first person shooter, such as Modern Warfare 2 (pictured above), the player's gun is the most important prop because the perspective of these games means that the gun-prop implies the player's presence in the fictional world. All first person games rely on the graphical design of their weaponry (and often the hand and arms carrying them) to help the player imagine themselves in the world. Embodiment – the inclusion of a complete avatar model – is mere decoration in this regard, and for most of the audience this sort of detail adds very little to the game's appeal.

For driving videogames, an interesting situation occurs. In first person, the steering wheel, dashboard and rear view mirror props all serve a similar role to the gun in a shooter. Yet in third person, it is the car itself which prescribes that the player imagines themselves driving around in the world. These days, almost all racing games offer players their choice of view. In my estimation, the more imaginative players prefer third person (with its superior field of vision) while less imaginative players prefer first person because the difficulty of imagining one is driving the car is reduced. (I mean this only as a crude generalisation, however – plenty of imaginative people choose first person for various reasons).

Modern third person games, and indeed sprite-based 2D games both past and present, show the entire avatar as the key prop, with the ease of imagination varying in proportion to the quality of the animation of the avatar to some extent. There is a gainful parallel here between action figures and videogame avatars – both of which serve as props in very similar ways, but in the videogame the demands upon the imagination are considerably less than with the action figure. Children seem to have little difficulty deploying their imagination with action figures, but the older one gets the harder this seems to become until in adulthood the few people still enjoying action figures are often, not coincidentally, the kind of people who make and play games. In two decades of working within the games industry, I have never visited a game developer's office and not found action figures on someone's desk.

The apex of this use of props in videogames occurs when the avatar-prop represents the player explicitly – as with any game using a Mii or a similar custom avatar. Again, the benefit lies in reducing the demands on the player's imagination, but this benefit always comes at a cost in terms of the effort that must be expended to craft the personal avatar. The Wii managed to make this process simple and fun; earlier games with similar options required considerably more computer literacy in order to master the editing tools. (PlayStation Home carelessly excluded mass market players in precisely this way). The first person shooter genre from Doom onwards has commonly deployed a different strategy to the same effect – by not giving the avatar a name, or by naming it with a title (e.g. Master Chief), the player is invited to imagine themselves holding the gun directly. The same benefit accrues in a supremely cheap fashion to any game allowing the player to name the avatar personally, something Japanese game designers have been taking advantage of for many years. The custom name becomes a prop prescribing that the player (if they choose their own name) is in the fictional world of the game.

All this comes to a head in the problem of identification. The vast majority of videogames with an avatar use a white male character model, but in fact white males are not the majority of videogame players in the world. Dealing with gamer hobbyists, this is not much of an issue as they are generally imaginative enough to put themselves in anyone's shoes. But dealing with the mass market, it becomes more problematic: if the avatar is understood as a prop intended to prescribe that the player imagines they are in the fictional world of the game, a less imaginative player can be priced out by an avatar that bears absolutely no resemblance to them. Game designers – being highly imaginative people – all too frequently overlook this important psychological barrier, which contributes in some small degree to the exclusion of a great many mass market players from videogame play.

Next week: Principles of Generation

Ebert's Fence and Games as Art

Fence As many will be aware, in response to Kellee Santiago's TED talk defending games as art, Roger Ebert has kindly returned to the question of games as art on his blog. (Kellee's own response can be found on Kotaku). Mr. Ebert has attempted to erect a fence on the boundary of the art world which he claims videogames may never cross, or at least, will cross no time soon. But how well has he understood the nature of games, and more crucially, how well has he understood the nature of art?

Ebert's argument is centred upon the question of whether a goal-oriented activity can be art; whether the possibility of winning is an anathema to artistry. He also asserts (following a line traced through the Greek philosophers) that art “improves or alters nature through a passage through what we might call the artist's soul, or vision.” Finally, Ebert attempts to underline his case by derisively noting Kellee's mention of the facets of the modern videogame industry (Development, Finance, Publishing, Marketing, Education, and Executive Management) believing this makes his point. But here, Mr. Ebert has gone completely doolally – surely he recognises that these are the very same facets of the modern film industry? Where do you think videogames got its current business model from? Shame on him for such an asinine claim. The rest of his argument is far more pertinent.

There is a temptation, as Ebert observes, to think that this is simply a matter of semantics and thus not a big deal. This attitude embodies the widely reflected prejudice against philosophy. Ebert, thankfully, has some respect for the philosophical tradition and thus, I hope, would be open to the claims I will present here – although, of course, he will likely never read them. This is of no matter. What matters is that the debate about “games as art” is a question of the clarification of concepts, and as such is the proper domain of philosophy. Sadly, battlegrounds of this kind are all too often pursued dogmatically via the erection of boundaries such as Ebert's fence.

Can a goal-oriented activity constitute art? A murder mystery story invites the reader or viewer to figure out the murderer, and if they do, they can be said to win – even though a story is not normally thought of as a game. This analogy has some significance, since Mr. Ebert has given his endorsement to films of this form in the past. He might argue that this aspect of those movies was tangential, and that the artistry present in their representations bears more weight. This would effectively concede that videogames could be art, since the creativity of the artists and musicians who work on these projects can be considered apart from the goal-oriented elements of the games they work upon. If his fence doesn't keep out murder mysteries, videogames might also leap it.

Ebert's claim that by virtue of the fact they can be won games cannot be art is weakened by the murder mystery example but it is not overturned. In fact, Ebert has an important point that does indeed work against the conception of games as art: in so much as a player is in love with such-and-such a game because of the exhilaration, satisfaction and ecstasy it has evoked in them, the claim to artistry could be irreparably damaged. An argument that videogames should be considered under the remit of art cannot rest on the joy of victory that a player experiences when they win. Our comprehension of what is valuable about art cuts deeper than such blunt pleasures.

In James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce advances via his protagonist an argument concerning the nature of art in which that which provokes desire or loathing is improper art. Proper art, according to Joyce, “awakens, or ought to awaken, or induces, or ought to induce, an aesthetic stasis, an ideal pity, or an ideal terror, a stasis called forth prolonged and at last dissolved by... the rhythm of beauty.” Proper art is rare. Most art provokes either desire, which Joyce terms pornographic art, or induces loathing, which Joyce terms didactic art. Almost all videogames are pornographic, they provoke the desire for progress or victory, some are also didactic. Few are what Joyce terms proper art.

Few, but not none. Tale of Tales The Graveyard, which failed to make much of a stir among gamers because, frankly, it wasn't sufficiently pornographic in the game-sense, is a relatively clear cut case of games as art. Even Ebert would concede that The Graveyard is art – what he would not concede is that it is a game. He says that an “immersive game without points or rules... ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them.” The Graveyard fits his description, but I believe his claim that it is not a game is mistaken – most obviously in the fact that Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn, the artists who made The Graveyard, specifically call it a game.

Michaël and Auriea's vision inhabits this artistic videogame in precisely the manner that Ebert stresses is characteristic of art, and the same can be claimed albeit in an entirely different manner of the work of game designer Shigeru Miyamoto (Mario, Zelda etc.) and a few other talents working in videogames. I would even be willing to extend this claim into boardgames; there is a vision at work in the games of Reiner Knizia, for instance, that may seem worlds away from art as we usually conceive it but is nonetheless on a continuum with more recognisable artworks. Let's be honest, if a simple difficulty in appreciating the artistic dimensions of something were a barrier to it being considered art, a great deal of modern art would be excluded from consideration. All art requires an appreciator familiar to some extent with the forms and conventions of the relevant art form in order to fully appreciate it.

As a boundary case, The Graveyard serves an important role, but it would not convince Ebert because to him “game” means “goal-oriented activity” (specifically “activity that can be won”) and this game doesn't fit his definition. It is here that his case begins to unravel, for in so much as the artistry of The Graveyard is apparent it demonstrates an important problem with Ebert's fence. The murder mystery does not cease to be art for him because it can be won, so why should we exclude games with goal-oriented or Joycean pornographic elements such as winning? Star Wars was meant to sell merchandise – a pornographic purpose yet we can still admire its artistry. So too we can admire the artistry of videogames, even when they fall into improper art in Joyce's terms. Let us not forget: improper art is still art.

The foundation of this issue rests in our comprehension of a representation. Were he versed in videogame culture (and there is absolutely no reason he should be since it is not his chosen medium), Ebert would more clearly recognise the artistry of the representations at work in games, which display a creativity difficult to appreciate without considerable experience (what I term game literacy). But gamers attempting to defend games as art all too easily fall into defending their addiction to videogames instead of the medium as a whole, citing titles they thoroughly enjoyed as a strange kind of evidence. The defence of games as art can more gainfully commence with the observation that all representations, as philosopher of art Kendall Walton has noted, are at root a kind of game.

In Mimesis as Make-Believe, Professor Walton painstakingly documents the line that connects children's toys and games of make-believe on one end with the Cistene chapel, Michaleangelo's David and Van Gogh's Starry Night on the other. Our appreciation of representative art relies upon the games of make-believe we play with the works in question that allow us to interpret them. It is not a question of whether games are art at all – all art is a game, and thus videogames are merely a more recognisable instance of the play at the heart of art. (For more on both these points, see my current weekly serials on Walton's philosophical theory, and the parallel serial on how his theory adapts to game design). Roger Caillois similarly recognised the connection between mimesis and games, noting in particular that theatrical play was essentially a form of play – a connection preserved in the word we use to describe such a performance.

All the many activities I have discussed here – paintings, sculpture, theatre, movies, boardgames and videogames – are forms of play, and as Johan Huizinga remarked play is the root of culture. In attempting to exclude games from art, Ebert is perhaps (unknowingly) taking a stand against our cultural obsession with victory. Perhaps Ebert's fence is an attempt to exclude Joycean pornography from the world of art; this could be a worthwhile goal, however misguided the construction of this particular fence. But films are just as at risk from this pornographic fixation as videogames: are we so sure the Oscars don't denigrate films as an art form by reducing the merits of the medium to a mere competition? Aren't superior box office receipts still the principal measure of a movie's success?

Why erect a fence that attempts to cut off certain media from access to the domain of art – and with it the cultural esteem we have afforded to that which we deem worthy of the appellation “art”? Would it not be fairer to accept the role of play in culture, and the dependence of representational art upon games of make-believe? We justifiably admire the finest works of art that we use as props to play games of make-believe when those props are paintings, sculptures, plays and films. Many of us also admire the finest boardgames and videogames that we use as props in closely related make-believe play. Those of us of the latter view are concerned about this debate precisely because that which is excluded from “art” runs the risk of being excluded from respect.

Videogames, undoubtedly, still have a long way to go. For a start, we have almost no videogame critics of any merit, and the artistic achievements of the genre are buried under a mountain of trash. But of course, one might claim the same of novels and movies. Yet the potential of the form is still inescapably present, and the attempt to exclude this medium from cultural esteem embodied by Ebert's fence is unworthy of such a distinguished critic. I do not ask that Ebert changes his mind. I do not ask that he attempts to play videogames, for there aren't many he could appreciate and his critical talents are intimately wed to another medium. I merely thank him for taking this question seriously enough to write about it at all, and rest confidently in the belief that historians of art will ultimately knock down his fence, just as they have already done with the barrier earlier critics erected in a similarly mistaken attempt to exclude his beloved movies from respectability.

Please share your views on games as art or Ebert's fence in the comments, preferably politely.

Game Design as Make-Believe (1): Imagination

Based upon part one of the Mimesis as Make-Believe serial.

Wiitennis Game designers are tremendously imaginative people, and as such we often make a serious error in dealing with other players: the great majority of people have vastly more ordinary imaginations. This observation – which should be a truism given the popularity of predictable soap operas, 'reality' television, true stories and other down-to-earth entertainments – goes unnoticed so frequently that a great many imaginative people (both game designers and otherwise) find themselves expressing dismay that such-and-such a game is a commercial failure while yet another war-based first person shooter racks up mighty sales.

I first began to appreciate the idea that imagination was a talent in varying supply when I was a teenager, playing tabletop role-playing games every week. My older brother, whose physical skills outstrip mine in virtually every context, mentioned to me that he'd be interested in joining our games but he felt unable to do so when the entire game was verbal. If we would play with lead miniatures, say, to represent what was going on in the game, he would be up for it, but in the absence of this it would be too hard for him to keep up with what was going on. I didn't realise it at the time, but I was discovering an important facet of human imagination: the easier something is to imagine, the more people can participate.

This is the secret behind the success of World War II shooters (and indeed Modern Warfare), the reason for the popularity of games based around real cars, and a key aspect of the appeal of Wii Sports. Any game hoping for astronomical commercial success has an easier task if it minimises the amount of imagination required, and the more that such demands are reduced the larger an audience can be reached. Even the obvious exceptions often have mitigating circumstances: Pokémon is a rare case of a wildly successful imaginative franchise, but its popularity was greatly aided by the accompanying cartoon series which assisted players in visualisation. In general terms, you can count on the formula of 'greater imagination required, smaller numbers of players attracted'. (Note, however, that there is a psychological trade-off involved in the talent of imagining, and people who are highly imaginative generally suffer from other issues, frequently including problems with social integration).

If this claim concerning the limitations of imagination is valid, why are there so many science fiction and fantasy boardgames and videogames – not to mention so few successful “real world” tabletop role-playing games? There are several factors behind the success of genre fiction in the various games industries, but they all amount to a crossover in audience. As a crude approximation, one might say that the most imaginative people are able to play the most imaginative games (such as tabletop role-playing games), the middle tier is comfortable with the imagination entailed in science fiction, fantasy and horror and the control of a graphical avatar but struggle with the demands of a purely verbal game, while the least imaginative people require “real” content in their fiction and their games. Wii Sports succeeds not only because of its accessible interface, but because it reduces the degree of imagination required to play a videogame to the point that essentially anyone can play.

This sequence of posts, which is based upon a philosophy serial detailing the work of Professor Kendall Walton running in parallel on another of my blogs, takes the make-believe theory of representations and applies it to the field of game design. In brief, Walton's system can be summarised as stating that representations – including toys, novels, plays, movies, boardgames and videogames – can be understood as props which prescribe specific imaginings. A toy gun prescribes that we imagine it is a real gun. Hamlet prescribes that we imagine the Prince of Denmark grappling with a vexing dilemma. A game of Monopoly prescribes that we imagine a property investment battle. A game of Wii Sports prescribes that we imagine that we are playing tennis, bowling, golf etc. We play a game of make-believe with every kind of representation in which we enter into a fictional world implied by the prop in question.

By looking at game design from the perspective of the make-believe theory of representation, the objective is not to dictate how game design must be performed – there is no unified method for game design, and to seek one is a fool's errand. Rather, the goal is to offer a different way of thinking about the play of games (one inspired by Professor Walton's theory), and an approach to game design that recognises the role of imagination and the limitations this implies. Furthermore, since in Walton's system novels, movies and other stories are seen as props with which people play a game of make-believe, this perspective brings all forms of art under one roof, considering them all as games. This makes questions about the artistic status of videogames (for instance) entirely irrelevant, for all art is a form of game in Walton's theory.

Despite the observations made above, game design as make-believe is not intended as a system for designing mass market games requiring less imagination to play. The reality of the market for games of all kinds is that more imaginative games do achieve a measure of commercial success precisely because the more imaginative players spend more time and money playing games than less imaginative players, and this situation is unlikely to change. It is my hope that by presenting this unique perspective, game designers working at all corners of the market will find new ways to think about game design problems – whether they are aiming for a wide audience of limited imagination, or a smaller audience whose capacity for make-believe is practically unbounded.

Next week: Props

Next Week...

Running in parallel to the serial on Professor Kendall Walton's philosophy book Mimesis as Make-Believe over at Only a Game (which starts tomorrow), will be running its own serial: Game Design as Make-Believe. Beginning next Wednesday, these posts adapt Professor Walton's work to the design of videogames, boardgames and tabletop role-playing games. Each part mirrors a piece of the main serial, which will be cross-linked each week. You don't need to read both, but if you do you'll be sure to get the most out of the ideas being presented.