Game Design as Make-Believe (4): Fictional Worlds
Wednesday, 12 May 2010
Based upon part four of the Mimesis as Make-Believe serial.
When one plays most videogames there is a tacit understanding that one is entering into a fictional world – the term virtual world, is often deployed to mean exactly this. It is self-evident that this also happens when one plays a tabletop role-playing game, the play of which is precisely concerned with conceiving of a fictional world and taking actions within it. The same is true of boardgames: players of a game of Cluedo enter into a fictional world in which they are attempting to solve a mystery. It is even true of the more abstract games – players of Jenga enter a fictional world in which (rather arbitrarily!) the player sitting to the left of the player who collapses the tower is declared victorious.
According to Walton's theory, the appreciator of a painting or the viewer of a movie plays a game of make-believe with the relevant prop or props, and thereby enters into a fictional world. Walton also identifies a separate fictional world – the world of the prop, known as the work world – which can be considered to consist of those fictional truths which must apply in all the fictional worlds that the individual appreciators or players experience with that work. In the context of games, the work world is that which is present for all players; the environment and its interactions for videogames, or the pieces and rules for a boardgame, the essential principle at work remains the same.
Walton also talks of authorised games in the context of representations: those games which correspond to the presumed intentions of the artist, generally speaking. This authority is attained via the background of understanding and is essentially social in nature. We can say that if one plays along with the spirit of an artwork, story and so forth, one is playing the authorised game. Otherwise, one's interaction with any given representation (including a game) is considered an unofficial game. These games are still perfectly legitimate activities – there is nothing illicit involved in playing one – but they are to be considered essentially distinct from the authorised game as they go beyond what is conventionally licensed by the work in question.
It is easy to extend this idea into boardgames and tabletop games in general: if one “plays by the rules”, one is participating in an authorised game. Pragmatically, however, the rules of hobbygames can be complex enough that most players are unknowingly playing an unofficial game anyway. When I used to play on the tournament circuit for Magic: The Gathering, I was often struck by how many players did not fully understand the rules (having learned principally from another player and not by processing the rules themselves). For much of the play, this didn't matter, but because my tournament deck was extremely technical it was often involved in rules disputes that showed up the other players' misunderstandings of the basic mechanics of the game. If one is willing to take into account the near ubiquitous habit of adding house rules to boardgames, the normal experiences of hobbygame players with respect to the boardgames they play is essentially dominated by unofficial games.
Yet in videogames, as Miguel Sicart and Jesper Juul have noted, it seems that the rules are definitively enforced and not subject to change. Are the play activities conducted in videogames always, therefore, authorised games? They are not. An initial point to address it that it is quite possible to change the rules of a videogame: this happens in MMOs all the time as a result of discussions between the players and the developers, and it also happens without the developer's consent. Within a week of release, there was a “trainer” produced for my game Ghost Master that allowed players to circumvent the progress mechanics, thus producing an unofficial game. I do not believe (contrary to Sicart) that this was in some sense illicit: in a solo game, why shouldn't the player alter the mechanics for their own enjoyment?
There are other ways in which the videogame play experience can become unofficial in Walton's sense. The authorised game associated with any given videogame is arguably the one in which the player pushes through to completion. But the vast majority of players do not do this, they play until they lose interest, or until it gets too hard, and then give up. There is a sense in which this truncated version of the play is another instance of unofficial games – in the fictional world these players enter, there is no resolution, yet in the work world of the game that resolution is eternally transfixed. (Compare the person who doesn't read the last chapter of a book, knowing it will end in tragedy, and decides in their fictional world of the book it will not end this way). Additionally, we should take into account the wilful or accidental distortion of the play activities of a videogame, such as the middle-aged man whom was brought in to blind test Midtown Madness and drove around the town following the traffic signals and ignoring the races declaring it was “a great game”. Maybe so, but the man in question was certainly playing an unofficial game!
The fictional worlds that players engage with are as distinct from the work worlds of games as the fictional worlds of art and stories are from the corresponding work worlds. The variety of unofficial games that are available to be played is vast, and from the point of view of the game designer the appeal of any game can be seen to escalate in proportion to the possibility of unofficial games. The Grand Theft Auto games (such as San Andreas, pictured above) have enjoyed phenomenal success because the authorised game – the game corresponding to the story spine – is essentially optional. A vast number of players simply mess around in the world, making their own unofficial games, assuming a significant degree of control over the fictional world of their play. Similarly, a boardgame that supports many variations (explicitly or otherwise) stands to gain significant appeal.
Appreciating that the player of a game enters into their own fictional world (and not into the work world of the game that the developer has constructed) gets to the heart of the player experience. This is true even in MMOs, where other players have influence in the player's fictional world. Each player is still, nonetheless, in their own personal fictional world when they play the game. Walton says that we essentially live in the worlds of our games, despite knowing they are not real. He is talking about the games of make-believe we play with art and stories, but it is just as true (and indeed, more obviously so) in the fictional worlds of literal games. He notes: “True, these worlds are merely fictional... But from inside they seem actual.” They have the power to carry us away, and in this lies the power of representation of all kinds to marshal the human imagination.
Next week: Participation
"players of Jenga enter a fictional world in which (rather arbitrarily!) the player sitting to the left of the player who collapses the tower is declared victorious."
I have never heard this rule before. Regardless, I find it hard to wrap my head around the concept that something as abstract as "You are victorious!" can be interpreted as a "world". Of course to understand your philosophy here I'll have to, but I think that's getting away from the concept of a "virtual world" as it is usually understood. You also seem to be stretching the term "unofficial game" to mean many different things which don't seem like they fit so neatly into Walton's system. I'll get back to that in a minute (especially regarding your Midtown Madness example), because I have a lot of questions.
Is the "work world" created by the rules of a game distinct from the "work world" created by its story and theming? For instance, if a game is rethemed without changing any rules, has the work world changed? You probably would say it has, because a substantial part of the experience is made up of what the props look like and the story they evoke. But consider that many very abstract games have very loose themes or stories grafted on top, which are not even considered while the game is in play. So let's say there's a board game in two almost-identical editions, where the instruction manual of each gives a different backstory for the game. Is it the same world?
More importantly, what if the kind of experience you're having switches in the middle? The cutscenes of a videogame will often have very different rules than the gameplay. Are we moving from one authorized game to another unrelated one as we pass from game to cutscene?
You know, I play a lot of board games and I'm generally more interested in the themes than other people are. When we play the great game Power Struggle, for instance, I always try to think of myself (as the theme strongly suggests) as a corrupt businessman, and view all my actions in that light. This game of make-believe ensures that I have a good time regardless of how the board game plays out. But other players who are more abstract-minded will be looking at the cubes as cubes rather than workers, and the possible actions as rules rather than acts of corruption. So am I playing an unofficial game in believing I'm an executive, or are they playing an unofficial game in believing that they're not?
In the Only a Game blog, we've been discussing the idea of continuity, and its lack of support by Walton's system (at least as you have been describing it). I'd like to continue that discussion here a bit, based on your suggestion that a player who stops in the middle is in some sense playing an unofficial game. Let's consider three cases:
1. A player starts a game and plays through the whole first level, which has a cutscene before it and after it and has a boss fight at its end and just generally works as a cohesive experience without the need for continuation. The player then decides that the game is too hard, and that he will therefore not play the rest. If I've not misread you, you would call this an unofficial game.
2. A comics reader buys an issue of a comic, and decides that it's too expensive to keep going so he won't read any more. You have insisted on the other blog that each issue has its own work world, so this reader is playing an authorized game.
Before I get to the third scenario, let's consider how this might not be a contradiction. One possibility which jumps to mind is that the way a work is packaged matters. So if the first level of that game was a demo which ended there, the player would have played the authorized game. And if the comic had been part of a larger collection, then the reader would have been playing an unofficial game by stopping there. It is socially accepted (and therefore fictionally true) that when you start experiencing a work you will follow through to the end of its volume, even though this is frequently not done even with noninteractive media.
3. You read the first story in a book of short stories. Unless you then proceed to read the rest, in the proper order, you are playing an unofficial game of make-believe. Why? Because if packaging matters, then we have to look at the whole book as one game of make-believe. It is socially accepted, and therefore fictionally true, that anyone who plays the game of reading a book is going to read through to the end of the volume, in order. If that's the case, then do we have to say that all the stories are set in the same world, and resolve all contradictions? :D
Now, about that Midtown Madness experience being an "unofficial game". I don't see how that could possibly be right. The player imagined that he was in the world of the game. He imagined that by pressing buttons on a controller, he was driving a car. He was working entirely within the rules that the game had set up for his imagination. But he didn't follow the mission, you say. Well, so what?
Are you saying that gameplay is only authorized when it fits into the plot? So in Zelda, Link smashing pots is an unofficial game? Or maybe we could go even farther. If you sit in one place for any longer than it would make sense for the character to sit, you're playing an unofficial game. And then I have to ask how the heck an authorized game of make-believe can even exist in a videogame. Does it really suit the story to have some bad-ass fighter character start out struggling to throw a punch?
Posted by: Mory Buckman | Wednesday, 12 May 2010 at 14:10
Mory: Thanks for extending our discussion to this post. I hope it's clear that I wrote this post *before* our previous discussion and did not have time to rework it in the light of some points which settled out, so there are likely to be some incongruities.
"I find it hard to wrap my head around the concept that something as abstract as "You are victorious!" can be interpreted as a 'world'."
Think of "fictional world" as meaning "complex of fictional truths, which prescribe specific imaginings". It is in this sense which I am claiming Jenga produces a fictional world.
The best comparison in the case of Jenga might be that of a child's doll. Playing with the doll, they enter into a fictional world. This, I hope, is clear. The Jenga instance is parallel but of course is radically less defined. It has, essentially, only functional truths and little or no representational truths.
I chose Jenga precisely because I felt it was a suitable boundary case.
"Of course to understand your philosophy here I'll have to, but I think that's getting away from the concept of a 'virtual world' as it is usually understood."
I am claiming 'virtual worlds' (as the term is usually used) are a subset of fictional worlds. But not all fictional worlds necessarily qualify as virtual worlds. I am not claiming that the fictional world associated with a game of Jenga is virtual in the sense this is usually used, nor do I wish to be distracted with specifying precisely what *does* count as a virtual world. :)
"Is the 'work world' created by the rules of a game distinct from the 'work world' created by its story and theming?"
This is a great question! My instinct here is that every work world is distinct, no matter what you change. The US and the UK editions of Monopoly have different street names etc. (also, slightly different Chance/Community Chest cards). These are two different work worlds. Similarly, the 1933 and 1935 editions of Monopoly have the same fictional elements (I think) but slightly different rules. Thus, once again, different work worlds.
But of course I distinguish between functional and representational elements (only the latter being strictly part of Walton's system). You could easily say the work world of a game has a functional work world and a representational work world, and make comparisons between these elements. I don't think this will create insurmountable problems, but there may be interpretational issues surrounding boundaries between functional and representational issues (as they blur in some cases).
"So let's say there's a board game in two almost-identical editions, where the instruction manual of each gives a different backstory for the game. Is it the same world?"
Definitely not. Different representation, different work world. But the functional work world is the same in both cases.
An alternative route is to deny that the functional elements constitute a world at all. But since they generate fictional truths, I believe they *can* be construed as a world - albeit a kind of world very different from representational work worlds. But I believe Walton's system extends to interpreting sports (and I believe he *intends* this possibility), and as such it seems we must recognise functional work worlds for this to track.
"More importantly, what if the kind of experience you're having switches in the middle? The cutscenes of a videogame will often have very different rules than the gameplay. Are we moving from one authorized game to another unrelated one as we pass from game to cutscene?"
Isn't this the same as, say, when a movie switches between animation and live action? A change in the representational "rules" don't necessarily mean you should take it as a separate artwork. You *can*, because you as the appreciator get to decide which artwork you're engaging with.
Cconsider, in the case of videogames, the case of the player who skips all the cutscenes, and does not consider them part of her game of make-believe - this *doesn't* mean they are excluded from the work world, which has interpreted properties either irrespective of individual fictional worlds the player 'enters' into, or comprised of the overlap between all those individual worlds.
"This game of make-believe ensures that I have a good time regardless of how the board game plays out. But other players who are more abstract-minded will be looking at the cubes as cubes rather than workers, and the possible actions as rules rather than acts of corruption. So am I playing an unofficial game in believing I'm an executive, or are they playing an unofficial game in believing that they're not?"
This is another great question! If they are not taking into account the representational elements, I would argue that it is they who are playing an unofficial game with respect to the game as a whole (although, remember, there is nothing illicit with unofficial games, and many are perfectly natural and normal).
However, they could argue that they are simply not playing the representational game at all, and they are playing the authorised functional game, i.e. they're just not engaging with the representational game. So they can easily make a case that what they are doing is *an* authorised game, they are simply "opting out" of the representation.
(And incidentally, like you, I always like to enjoy the representational elements of a boardgame - and often, completing my own "story" in my game of make-believe becomes more important than the functional goal of winning! It's a reason why a purely abstract game, like Chequers, doesn't enormously interest me, as it is reduced to a purely functional game).
This line or reasoning suggests that in games we have at least three authorised games in each instance - the representational and the functional "authorised game" taken on its own, and the game in which both are authorised. But one could argue that since the work as a whole includes both elements, the "authorised game" must include both. I don't see any compelling reason to decide between these interpretations though.
"...based on your suggestion that a player who stops in the middle is in some sense playing an unofficial game."
Here I am cross-pollinating Miguel Sicart's philosophy with Walton's, and after our discussion I am not so sure this is a clever thing to do! :) But I'll respond all the same...
"1. A player starts a game and plays through the whole first level, which has a cutscene before it and after it and has a boss fight at its end and just generally works as a cohesive experience without the need for continuation. The player then decides that the game is too hard, and that he will therefore not play the rest. If I've not misread you, you would call this an unofficial game."
If the work world of the videogame is taken to entail an intent to complete (which Sicart argues in "The Ethics of Compuiter Games"), then yes, it follows its an unofficial game if you stop - relative to the complete game.
But in the case you give above, the player has decided to play that smaller section in its own right. With respect to that portion of the game, it is a perfectly authorised game. It is only an unofficial game with respect to the game as a whole.
Similarly, I prefer to play demos rather than complete games. I play the authorised game of make-believe for the demo. But that, of course, is not quite the same as the authorised game of make-believe for the game as a whole. You concede this point yourself in your comment.
"2. A comics reader buys an issue of a comic, and decides that it's too expensive to keep going so he won't read any more. You have insisted on the other blog that each issue has its own work world, so this reader is playing an authorized game."
Yes, with respect to that issue that is an authorised game.
"And if the comic had been part of a larger collection, then the reader would have been playing an unofficial game by stopping there."
An unofficial game with the collection - still an authorised game for the individual issue. The game of make-believe you are playing depends upon which props you are playing with. If you read one issue, only that prop counts for your game of make-believe, which is thus authorised in respect of that issue (even if it is unofficial with respect to the collection). But you don't have to play with the collection as a whole, just as one can perform a scene of a Shakespeare play out of the context of the whole play and it is still an artwork in its own right (with its own authorised game of make-believe).
"It is socially accepted (and therefore fictionally true) that when you start experiencing a work you will follow through to the end of its volume, even though this is frequently not done even with noninteractive media."
You are making the case here that there is a principle of generation (socially-rooted) which validates treating an entire work as a whole. I broadly agree - and Sicart argues this is a kind of duty in respect of videogames to finish them (which I'm making use of, but find questionable in some ways).
I don't think this framework precludes alternative authorised games based on shorter components of a larger work, since the boundaries between artworks are often quite soft and subjective. Such a principle of generation would only apply to the work as a whole; it could not extend to a "smaller" component of the artwork and compel one to play a different kind of game of make-believe, since for the smaller component the "end" is very different than for the whole.
"3. You read the first story in a book of short stories. Unless you then proceed to read the rest, in the proper order, you are playing an unofficial game of make-believe."
My general argument still holds that it is up to the appreciator to decide which prop they are engaging with.
I can (and have) performed Hamlet's Soliloquy without performing the whole of Hamlet. That's an artwork in its own right, a prop for a specific game of make-believe, irrespective of the fact that it is also a small part of a much larger artwork - the play of Hamlet. And of course, because the fictional truths are different in both cases the work world is very different... It is not given when I perform Hamlet's Soliloquy that I am the Prince of Denmark, only that I am a tortured soul wrestling with whether it is better to take action on the one hand or to give up, and perhaps even to commit suicide. It's a powerful piece of prose, and it can serve as a prop without the rest of the trappings of Hamlet.
So it is in the case of the short stories. You can read a single short story and play the authorised game of make-believe for that story even without the rest of the stories.
In fact, in the case of short stories, the fact they are collected together probably *doesn't* mean they all share a work world. Although some short story collections do belong to a common fictional world, a lot do not. In any given issue of New Worlds magazine, there are half a dozen short stories, each of which has its own distinct work world.
To extend this argument the other way, you *could* choose to say that a Library has a work world associated with it which entails *all* the fictional truths of *all* the books it holds ("packaging matters"!), but I think we would comfortably admit this was deep into the territory covered by Walton's silly questions (perhaps, we might say, "an entire Library is a silly prop").
"If that's the case, then do we have to say that all the stories are set in the same world, and resolve all contradictions? :D"
Because you end this wry sentence with "resolve all contradictions", I think it's clear that you already sense that we are in silly question territory. ;) So again, I would say that to treat distinct short stories as being one prop is a silly game. It could be a fun game, but it will be a silly one with respects to the props we throw together in such an ad hoc fashion. :)
But I think it's worth mentioning that there are perfectly normal unofficial games which throw together content in this way. The authorised game for "Shrek" plays an unofficial game with the content of all fairy tale stories - an unofficial game that a great many other stories also play.
"Now, about that Midtown Madness experience being an 'unofficial game'... But he didn't follow the mission, you say. Well, so what?"
It's a fair challenge. My argument here is that no matter how much fun this guy was having, the way he was using this prop was not the authorised game for it. As a street racer, the authorised game for it was to race. To not race was an unofficial game with respect to Midtown Madness as a game. When people talk about Midtown Madness, they talk about it as a racing game. They do not talk about it as a traffic simulation. It can be used that way (as this man did) but to play in this way is not an authorised game.
(If you want to argue that it should be, I'd tend to agree - but I don't get to set the social rules of the community of game players and game makers!)
Another instance might throw this into relief (or it might simply confuse the matter, but I'll try it anyway!). Camping is generally discouraged in online racing games. In fact, it's positively abominated. Nothing in such games stops you from camping, but players who do so in multiplayer are attacked for it. I am arguing, with some ambivalence, that the authorised game for the multiplayer modes of such online racers does not include camping, and that camping is an aspect of an unofficial game.
And one more. It's great fun, we assume, for the streaker to run onto the pitch of the football match (at least until they get tazed) but surely streaking is an unofficial game to play with a football. :)
"Are you saying that gameplay is only authorized when it fits into the plot? So in Zelda, Link smashing pots is an unofficial game?"
No, I'd say smashing pots is part of the authorised game for Zelda. Everyone expects this to happen. But it would be an unofficial game if they decided that their avatar was afraid of swords and thus unable to pick up the Master Sword. :) Everything compatible with the flow of the game (story and otherwise) can be authorised, but anything that blocks the conclusion is unofficial with respect to the game as a whole, at least following this Sicart-influenced line of argument.
The Sunday driver in "Midtown Madness" blocked the conclusion of the game by not racing. The Xiphophobic Link blocked the conclusion of the game by not taking the Master Sword. The pot-smashing Link, or the Link who spent a lot of time standing around doing nothing, in no way transgressed the authorised game as far as I can see. In a videogame, we are *not* constrained to act in a manner consistent with the fictional world *by design*.
One *could* make an exception here for a "role-playing" instance of an MMO where there *is* a definite sense in which playing "in character" is part of the authorised game, and those players who step out of that fantasy are playing an unofficial game (and in this case, that unofficial game might also be illicit, since there is an explicit social rule in place that is being broken).
An interesting question for me is the scope that the developers have afforded for mischief. In "Halo: Combat Evolved", my first game ended rather rapidly as I shot at the captain on the bridge, and thus had everyone turn against me as their enemy. This completely shut down the rest of the game story (and gameplay) and my game ended rather abruptly, about 20 minutes into it. But it was nonetheless an authorised game for Halo, because it was there by design. Which shows just how varied the authorised games for a videogame can be compared, say, to the authorised games for a book! :)
In this respect, I wonder if I am wrong to suggest that GTA supports many unofficial games, so much as to suggest that GTA contains a vast variety of authorised games. But I think, perhaps, that there is still an assumption among both the player and the developer that players will be playing the missions and the side missions in a GTA game, and if this is so, then my studies of game players suggest the vast majority of GTA players are indeed engaged in unofficial games of a grand variety, and the strength of this format of game is precisely its ability to support this. Once again, issues of interpretation are in play.
"And then I have to ask how the heck an authorized game of make-believe can even exist in a videogame. Does it really suit the story to have some bad-ass fighter character start out struggling to throw a punch?"
Surely a silly question. :) The conflicts between functional and representational pressures in videogames create all manner of silly questions, of course, and some of them are hilariously ridiculous, but I don't think this shuts down the idea of an authorised game of make-believe. An authorised game of make-believe is any that can be reasonably anticipated to take place using that game as a prop.
Incompetent level 1 heroes are there by design; they are part of the authorised games, no matter how many silly questions they throw up. But xiphophobic Link is surely an unofficial game with respect to how a Zelda game is presumed to be played... Don't you agree?
Many thanks for thrashing out our earlier discussion in the context of this piece. It needs someone to kick the tyres. ;)
Posted by: Chris | Thursday, 13 May 2010 at 11:27
Before posting, I should have reread part 3 of this serial. I had forgotten about the "functional"/"representational" terminology, which led to some confusion. The point I was trying to make about the incompetent fighter was that someone who is playing a game for the second time may start out playing "in character", that is, having the sort of skill one would expect from the character he's playing. But a new player would not, which puts the functional authorized game in mild contradiction with the representational authorized game. And since this post referred to both kinds of "authorized game" with one term, I thought this example would reveal a problem with the way you were adapting Walton to videogames. But the idea you suggest here shows that there was never any contradiction:
"This line or reasoning suggests that in games we have at least three authorised games in each instance - the representational and the functional "authorised game" taken on its own, and the game in which both are authorised."
I apologize for not remembering what you had said previously.
Posted by: Mory Buckman | Thursday, 13 May 2010 at 13:57
Mory: no problem! Walton's theory is not so trivial in itself; adapting it to games has made it even more complex! :) Thanks for your efforts to stay abreast of it all, and to scrutinise my ideas. It is appreciated.
Posted by: Chris | Thursday, 20 May 2010 at 10:41