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March 2011

Towards Videogame Aesthetics III: Against Interpretation

Sontag Why is game aesthetics essential to establishing the status of games as art? The answer lies in the reasons why critical interpretation of art cannot be allowed to dominate discussions of any medium.

In 1964, literary theorist Susan Sontag (pictured) published an influential essay entitled 'Against Interpretation', which argued that the twentieth century was suffocating the power of art beneath an obsession with interpretation. Sontag suggested that art criticism had reached a situation whereby its process "excavates" an artwork in order to uncover meaning, and in doing so destroyed what was of value about the artwork. She called interpretation "the revenge of the intellect upon art", and sited the problem most firmly in literary criticism (her own field). It was her view that criticism undermined the capacity "real art has… to make us nervous", making it manageable. She stated: "By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art", and asserted that "the merit of these works certainly lies elsewhere than in their 'meanings'."

Although she was certainly not thinking about games as part of her criticism, it carries forward comfortably into that arena. The limp reviews that pass as standard in the context of digital games really do reduce these art works to content – namely feature lists and basic descriptions of play. Of course, many of the games being reviewed are also radically short of the high standards a critic like Sontag would require of "real art", but it certainly doesn't help our medium advance that we primarily treat digital games the same way we treat consumer electronics – in terms of the bells and whistles. Elegance in design is seldom if ever noticed, let alone encouraged. The absence of game aesthetics leads to an assessment of individual titles in terms of their most superficial features – it judges them in the way a teenager appraises an action movie, or a theme park ride. "That was fun! Let's do it again!" From the point of view of games as commercial objects, this is adequate. From the point of view of games as art, this is radically deficient.

Bogost's unit operations, as we saw last week, move past this shallow end of the pool by taking us into the possibility of applying an expanded version of literary theory to digital games – one small step for art criticism, one giant leap for the medium of games. But his approach is antithetical to Sontag's stance in 'Against Interpretation', which denies the supremacy of interpretation and baulks at its dominance in discussions of art. Bogost takes us a step closer to treating digital games as relevant cultural artefacts, but this is not enough to secure the status of digital games as art. We need a lot more, and in particular, we need at least one coherent account of game aesthetics. At the moment, we don't have any.

There is at least one thread of contemporary philosophy that might be used against such an argument. French philosopher Alain Badiou contends in Handbook of Inaesthetics that aesthetics is tied to what he called the 'classical schema' of art, and savages this approach by dismissing aesthetics as "the rules of liking". Certainly, this is a neat characterisation of what is involved in aesthetics, but Badiou's dismissive attitude in this regard is misguided. The exploration of the "rules of liking" is a perfectly valid philosophical activity, and to exclude it from consideration is to impoverish philosophy unnecessarily. Badiou's inaesthetics (which he claims is the only true connection there can be between philosophy and art) is intended to serve the purpose of keeping the truth of art in art itself, limiting philosophy of art to the sole goal of proclaiming the truth of art and to help in remaining faithful to those truths.

Badiou's 'truth', however, is very different from what most of us would consider 'truth' – I have great sympathy with his account, but it does need some debugging (although this is something to be pursued elsewhere and elsewhen). Badiou considers everything that takes place in ordinary life to be merely "opinion", and sees truth as something that pierces the circumstances (the state) of a situation via a specific event. Like Plato, Badiou prioritises an absolute truth, and risks dismissing anything less than this as irrelevant, and certainly as unimportant for philosophy. But this is to condemn philosophy to a permanent divorce from the everyday world. Like Mary Midgley before me, I see these kinds of attitudes as something of a betrayal of the potential of philosophy, which in its role of sorting out the "conceptual plumbing" (to use Midgley's memorable phrase) can help resolve confusions and disputes in the world at large. There is a place for the kind of philosophy Badiou proposes – but it cannot be allowed to destroy the utility of philosophy for life, nor can it be permitted to monopolise philosophical discourse.

But if Badiou is right that aesthetics is the "rules of liking", does this mean that it is a topic for science and not philosophy? I do not believe this approach can be correct either. Empirical science is concerned with testable models, drawing upon measurable data. While a science of aesthetics is certainly possible it will risk on the one hand bleaching out the diversity of aesthetic responses (which is a risk whenever statistics are deployed as a tool) and on the other falling into another kind of interpretation. We can imagine a statement such as "this painting is beautiful because these dimensions release endomorphins" – but really such a sentence describes the biology of aesthetic response. That certainly is a subject for science. But aesthetics in philosophy is the exploration of the space supported by such biology, and this is barely a topic for science at all. My own work investigating how and why we play games from a neurobiological perspective provides a foundation from which analytic philosophy could branch out into game aesthetics, but there must be a transition at some point from the empirical perspective to the reflective perspective of philosophy.

Yet for all his disdain for 'classical' philosophy of art, Badiou is not on an entirely different page from Sontag. Badiou wants his inaesthetics to show art 'as it is'. Sontag, similarly, states: "The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art – and, by analogy, our own experience – more, rather than less, real to us. The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means." This goal – showing art as what it is – is one which is supported by aesthetic discussions in philosophy of art, although it certainly shouldn't be assumed that this reflective process has any priority over art itself: it is and must be subordinate to art. This, perhaps, is precisely Badiou's claim. But he could not reach his conclusions concerning inaesthetics if he did not have the work of two millennia of philosophy of art to push against.

In the case of videogames, we do not have two thousand years of art philosophy to draw against – in fact, what we have is a widespread prejudice emerging from our philosophical, critical and cultural traditions that seeks to dismiss games as artistically significant. However, as I have continued to argue, if Kendall Walton's prop theory demonstrates that all art is a kind of game, this kind of exclusion must come to an end. We can hardly recognise that our great paintings, movies and symphonies can be seen as games of make-believe without acknowledging that games of all kinds are part of a continuum of artistic expression. If we are to show games as artworks in terms of being what they are (following Sontag and Badiou's arguments) we absolutely need an aesthetics of games that can extend the existing discourse concerning art to the aesthetic experiences of playing a game. This is what game aesthetics can and must do if we are to finally demolish Ebert's fence and secure the status of digital games as a viable, valuable and vibrant form of art.

More game aesthetics later this year!

Friends of ihobo

I have finally added a blog roll to the ihobo site, called ‘Friends of ihobo’, which you’ll see in the sidebar. Your site may already be listed – take a look! If it isn’t and you want it to be, check you meet the following three essential criteria:

  • You’re a friend of the company International Hobo Ltd, meaning you have (1) worked with us (2) hired us (3) been a regular here at for at least a year (4) are a fan of our games e.g. Ghost Master, Discworld Noir or (5) have been drinking with us .
  • I have some idea who you are i.e. I have had a conversation with you in blog comments, over email or in person.
  • You have a website that is expressly game related in some way – sorry, no non-game blogs in this particular blog roll.

If you qualify, please leave a comment with your link and I’ll add it to the list.

Thanks to everyone who has supported over the years, and especially to the venerable old guard who followed me here from my philosophy blog, Only a Game - you will earn double experience points for all your comments!

With infinite thanks,


Towards Videogame Aesthetics II: Unit Operations

ian_bogost What resources are currently available for developing videogame criticism or aesthetics? Although rather thin on the ground, there is not a complete vacuum, and one useful contribution can be found in the principles of unit operations.

In 2006, Ian Bogost published Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism, in which he develops a critical theory suitable for application to any medium – including (but not limited to) poetry, literature, cinema or digital games. The book has a reputation for being difficult – Bogost himself has remarked: "It is a hard book, and I am aware that some readers may not be prepared for it. But it's a hard topic... and I tried not to candy coat that challenge." How difficult any particular reader finds the book will depend upon their background: anyone who is unfamiliar with art criticism in general, who has no experience with philosophy, or who has little experience with computer science will easily become lost. But really, this isn't the biggest problem most people with an interest in videogames will face tackling the book; I suspect the biggest issue is that most people who are into videogames just do not care about the kind of criticism Bogost's book addresses.

An example will serve to illustrate. In a crucial chapter of the book, Bogost draws a line of connection between Charles Baudelaire's poem "À une passante" (1860), Charles Bukowski's poem "A woman on the street" (1996), Jean-Pierre Jeunet's film Amélie (2001) and Wil Wright' game The Sims: Hot Date (Maxis, 2001). He traces the connections between these artworks in terms of the theme of 'chance encounters', and the significance these hold for urban life, a phenomenon that has become established and then intensified over the same period of time as these source materials span. It's a masterful piece of literary criticism, able to take the principles of conventional literary theory and show how they can be applied to very different cultural artefacts. That it concludes on a videogame is Bogost's masterstroke – because by the time he reaches this part of his discussion his theme is already perfectly well established, and the move into digital media feels like a short step not a hop or a jump. The effortless of this thread underline's Bogost's core point – that videogames are just as suitable for cultural analysis as anything else.

To get to the point of being able to make comparisons such as this, Bogost builds a wide scaffold on a number of different foundations, such as Heidegger's Gestell ('enframing'), Spinoza's universal substance, Leibnitz's monads and especially Alain Badiou's ontology of sets, which in turn builds on the work of the mathematician Georg Cantor. A quick introduction to these philosophical concepts is provided in the early parts of the book, although anyone coming to them for the first time via Bogost is likely to be left dangling. It is the studious scholarship of Bogost's work which ironically acts as a barrier to selling his approach to a wider audience – it's not necessary to understand the foundations to live in this particular house. But Bogost's project is expressly about how that house came to be built, and it is only in reference to this framework that he discusses how to live in that house at all. This makes Bogost's unit operations a very hard sell to anyone who isn't coming from an academic background.

The 'unit operations' of the title refer to process steps – in fact, this is what the term means in chemical and industrial engineering (a point that might have argued against using it in this specific context). Bogost asserts that "any medium... can be read as a configurative system, an arrangement of discrete, interlocking units of expressive meaning." He calls the general instances of procedural expression unit operations, but also notes in passing at one point that they corresponds to literary critic Walter Benjamin's term motif – figures and tropes assembled into a framework or rule set. Bogost explicitly asserts the identity between Benjamin's motif and his own unit operation, and speaking for myself I found his book far easier to read when I opted to substitute "motif" for "unit operation" about half the times it appeared whilst still bearing in mind Bogost's intended terminology.

A unit operation, in the context of the system of cultural criticism sketched in this book, is thus a minimal component of meaning (or a "mode of meaning-making"), one which prefers to focus on discrete, disconnected actions over more deterministic or progressive systems. Part of Bogost's core argument rests on the claim that there are gains to be made in shifting away from a focus on system operations and towards unit operations, while recognising that "neither strategy is permanently detached from the other." This tension was never fully resolved for me – while I could see the thrust of Bogost's argument, I found it hard not to see unit operations itself as a form of system. But then, Bogost shows he is aware of this pressure, which likely cannot be entirely resolved.

One of the more interesting implications Bogost draws out of his approach is an analysis of the effect of simulation on personal subjectivity. Following media theorist Sherry Turkle, a compelling argument is developed that there is no possibility of a simulation that does not possess an ideology: "The objective simulation is a myth because games cannot help but carry the baggage of ideology." Turkle notes that when facing a particular simulation we can either buy into its assumptions (simulation resignation) or we can reject them (simulation denial), and Bogost develops this into what he calls (following a similar term from Derrida) "simulation fever", or perhaps more clearly, "simulation anxiety". A key opening in the possibilities for game criticism is opened in this space.

Simulation anxiety is a "nervous discomfort" caused by the disjunction between a game's model of real world situations and our interpretation of that model. Since what is being represented is often something we have our own ideas and opinions about, the gaps between these two models is the site of the tension that can lead to resignation or denial. Bogost convincingly argues that his idea of 'simulation fever' demonstrates that games allow us to "expose and explore complicated human conditions", and as such reading them purely as tools for entertainment is to radically underestimate the medium. I certainly agree with this claim.

However, there is a severe limit to Bogost's approach: it is guided by the principles of modern literary theory, and as such any aesthetic elements of his approach are limited to "aesthetic meaning", which is precisely what Bogost admits his approach to comparative videogame criticism is aiming at. But meaning, and the discussion of meanings, is far from the central focus of aesthetics. In fact, while future game critics will need to be able to discuss the meaning and context of games as cultural artefacts – a situation facilitated by Bogost's significant achievements in Unit Operations – this is almost entirely tangential to the pressing need I have claimed for game aesthetics. Such future critics may well make use of a unit operational perspective (or at the very least some similar mechanism for cross-cultural analysis) but without an aesthetic theory we will not have secured the case for games as artworks. We will simply have accepted them as one set of cultural artefacts amongst many.

Next week: Against Interpretation

BrainHex Succeeds Beyond Expectations

BrainHexInternational Hobo is pleased to announce the phenomenal success of their BrainHex player satisfaction model, which launched in August 2009 and received more responses in its first week than in the entire lifespan of its predecessor, DGD2. To date, the test has been taken by over 60,000 respondents, and the data is currently being analysed by the University of Saskatchewan. Multiple academic papers will be published later this year announcing the key findings of this research into how and why people play games.

Although data analysis has already begun, International Hobo will leave the BrainHex site up and running indefinitely, so that gamers can continue to take the test for their own enlightenment and amusement. It is possible that responses being collected now will still be used in future analyses.

We wish to thank everyone involved in the BrainHex project, especially Neil Bundy for his work on the test's backend code, Corvus Elrod for his work on the logos, Lennart Nacke and Regan Mandryk for their work on the statistical analysis, the countless people who helped publicise the test, and lastly the tens of thousands of players who provided the data. Thank you all!

Notice of Intention to Accept Paid Advertising

Dear ihobo readers,

I have recently been receiving a lot of requests to put advertising onto For the most part these have been things I wouldn't want to be involved in promoting, but recently I have received offers for paid advertising that is a logical fit to the website and I have been considering it. The money to be made in accepting these ads is exceptionally slender, but it would cover the costs of the web hosting involved in the various ihobo blogs if nothing else, and shouldn't be disruptive to readers as it would just mean additional boxes in the sidebar along with the links for my books.

However, since any blog is nothing without its readers I am writing to consult with you about this decision to accept paid advertising. If you have any thoughts on this matter, I will be happy to discuss this with you in the comments. If there are no objections, I will proceed with advertising in April 2011. I promise nothing that will play music at you, nothing that will demonically possess your cursor, and no pop-up ads of any kind! (I currently have no intention of accepting ads at my philosophy blog, but will continue to pimp my own books there).

Let me take this opportunity to thank everyone who reads ihobo for your support over the years, and I hope you will stick around in the years to come!

Chris Bateman
Creative Overlord, International Hobo Ltd.

Towards Videogame Aesthetics I: Aesthetic Concepts

pacman What would videogames aesthetics be like? Why don't we have something that fulfils this role already? And how would we get a theory that could plug this obvious gap in our understanding of games?

One of my philosophy projects this year is the adaptation and development of resources in philosophy of art to provide the foundation for game aesthetics. Let me be clear: I do not mean aesthetics of the art resources used in games, but an aesthetics of games as games. This will certainly involve the representational elements, such as the graphics in a videogame, or the design of pieces in a board game, but it must involve much more. There is an aesthetic experience within any game that relates to its functional elements, and it is this for which no theory currently exists.

While I expect this aesthetic theory will be most useful in the context of videogames, it is my claim that any theory of game aesthetics that does not apply to other kinds of games is inherently inadequate since (as I lured Miguel Sicart into admitting) there are no fundamentally insurmountable differences between digital games and other forms. Therefore, whatever this new theory is, it must work for board games, card games, tabletop role-playing games, and even children’s games of make-believe as well as for digital games. But the question of how to construct such an aesthetic theory is not an easy problem to crack – in part because, until the mid-twentieth century, aesthetics was overly focussed on the question of 'beauty'.

It was Frank Sibley in his 1964 paper 'Aesthetic Concepts' who set the stage for a new approach to philosophy of art, one that would be taken up by Kendall Walton and others and developed in new directions. Sibley suggested that the focus on 'beauty' as the sine qua non of aesthetics was too narrow, and that there were many other aesthetic dimensions of art that could be discussed – as indicated by terms such as 'unified', 'balanced', 'pretty' or 'dynamic'. Sibley suggested that aesthetic properties supervened on (i.e. depended upon) non-aesthetic properties. The latter could be determined by anyone – the position of features in a painting, the exact colour of a pigment, the frame rate of an animation – but the former required a "special sensitivity". This latter point has been disputed – but Sibley's general observation that aesthetic qualities are different in kind to non-aesthetic properties yet are intimately connected to them remains relevant.

Sibley's work has bearing on attempts to construct an aesthetics of games, because it points (in a manner relating to Wittgenstein's later philosophy) toward the connection between the words we use to express aesthetic ideas and the qualities we are noting that are of interest. It is my claim that because we can talk of a particular game being "well-paced", "frantic" or a "grind"; because we can describe a particular synthetic world as "immersive", "non-linear" or "dynamic"; because we can consider particular mechanics as "unbalanced", "forgiving" or "harsh" we already have the sign that a concept of game aesthetics is viable. Indeed, an informal aesthetic conception of play must already be at use in the popular following for games

In a ground-breaking paper entitled 'The Aesthetics of Gameplay: A Lexical Approach', Jose Zagal and Noriko Tomuro provide an account of a "popular aesthetics of gameplay" based on lexical analysis of amateur game reviews that clearly demonstrates aesthetic concepts in connection with gameplay –  specifically, in the case of this study, in the contexts of pacing, complexity, scope, demand and impact. Zagal and Tomuro show that the players at large already have aesthetic conceptions that they use to interpret games, albeit without the sophistication one might expect from critics working in other media. What we lack, and what I claim we need, is an aesthetic theory that will bear the weight of the terms we already use, that explain their relation and interrelation, and that will connect their usage to other art forms.

It would be easy to wonder what the point of this might be – after all, if we're already talking about game aesthetics, what do we need a theory for? There are at least three good answers to this question. Firstly, we need it for ourselves in order to ground the discourse that we are already having about games. In the absence of a firm (or at least viscous) foundation we risk talking past each other, or arguing about things that upon reflection might not be that important in the wider scheme of things. Secondly, we need it for our medium, in order to better understand what it is we do, how and why it works, and how it could be done better. Continuing to borrow from movie aesthetics and criticism will not help the artistic status of our medium, for to do so is to admit the insignificance of games as games. Lastly, and relatedly, we need it to validate out medium by positioning it in the wider discussions of art – to secure games as art in a manner that can no longer be argued against. I have already made a start on this epic task with my new book Imaginary Games, which is out early 2012, but there is still a great deal to be done.

At the moment, "videogame journalism" – except in very rare cases – does not rise to the level of art criticism. Hell, it doesn't even rise to the level of most film review. It is a tacky hodge-podge of consumer evaluations, feature lists and strident opinions in which videogame addicts bitch to one another about how things aren't exactly how they want them to be – despite the fact that the entire videogame industry is largely constructed to service precisely those self-absorbed narcissistic players who complain when games aren't exactly what they want them to be. Because of this, games which manage to reach a little bit further into interesting directions (or that reach out to a wider audience) rarely get a fair shake in videogame reviews. If your game isn't designed to push the buttons of gamers, good luck in review. Other than Kelly Heckman (who amongst her other talents is capable of reviewing children's games), I have met few game reviewers capable of serving the important community role of a reviewer – that is, a person who considers who might enjoy a particular game. Most game reviews begin with the assumption of an objective standard for evaluation, one that happens to correpond to the reviewers tastes.

So it seems we are not doing very well in the context of videogame reviews, let along videogame criticism. Possibly this points to the unlikelihood of ever getting to a better state of affairs, but I think perhaps it is merely a symptom of a medium which has skipped too rapidly up the commercial dimension and too slowly up the artistic dimensions. When videogames hit the mainstream – which, I might add, was almost instantly with early titles such as Pong (Atari 1972), Space Invaders (Taito, 1978) and Pac-man (Namco, 1980) – there was already a well established economic establishment driven by marketing concerns and saturating popular culture via television. We did not have the grace period that other media enjoyed to explore our artistry outside of the harsh lens of commercial concerns. What little improvement can be reported thus far can primarily be attributed to a stubborn guerrilla mentality in the indie "art games" community, and a tiny cadre of commercial developers being granted some freedom to explore the artistic potential of the medium.

An art criticism expressly intended for videogames – or a theory or theories of game aesthetics – is much more than we need to fix the problem with videogame reviews. But then, the problem with the poor quality of videogame reviews is a symptom of the low esteem paid to the form and its slavery to market economics, not a problem with the medium itself. This, I suspect, might fix itself the more that games move beyond the testosterone-dominated cul-de-sac that our commercial history has led us into. But perhaps even this problem could be expeditiously resolved if we had some help from philosophy of art to establish a framework for critical thinking in the context of play experiences. This process, as I hope to show in the weeks to come, has already begun. But we still have a long way to go. At the end of this road we should be able to talk about what is artistically interesting about games in many different contexts – which will certainly include the violent-competitive and strategic-calculative forms that currently dominate, but which might hopefully also include other aesthetic forms of play, the genesis of which may already have begun.

Next week: Unit Operations

What You Like and Dislike in Games

question_mark.ihobo What words do we use to discuss what we like and dislike about games? The words people use in specific contexts reveals something about their relationship with that aspect of life, and this is true of games as much as anything else.

What words would you use to describe what you like or dislike in the context of:

  • Game pacing, that is, the rate at which content is added to a game  e.g. “well-paced”, “slow” or a “grind”.
  • Virtual worlds, that is, the fictional worlds of games e.g. “beautiful”, “dark”, “dull” or “immersive”.
  • Mechanics, that is, the rules and systems of games e.g. “unbalanced”, “perfectly balanced” or “quirky”
  • Compulsiveness, that is, the extent to which a game captures and holds attention in the short or long term e.g. “addictive”, “compelling” or “replayable”.
  • Any other aspect of games I’ve not mentioned

Feel free to simply describe games you are currently playing or your favourite games in whatever words you choose – I’m interested in the words we already use to describe our play experiences, any anything in this respect could be useful.

Thanks for your assistance!

Spring News

I am back to blogging, albeit short on time as a result of the new baby! It’s a shame that I’ve had to miss GDC again, but then special circumstances apply. As a result of my new family situation, I may struggle to get game content together for ihobo for the next month, but I’ll try and find some time for a few brief thoughts if nothing else.

A few announcements…

  • MotorStorm Apocalypse (PS3) launches in about two weeks time. International Hobo has been working on the structural and narrative content of this game since pre-dev and it’s been fantastic watching the extremely talented team at Evolution Studios at work. Looking forward to seeing the finished game.
  • Green My Place, the serious game project that won a Learning Game Award last year, has launched. There are some fantastic minigames at this site, based on designs we provided to the project, and I’ve been really impressed with the way it’s come together over the last eighteen months. Casual game fans, check it out!
  • Also about to be released is Air Conflicts: Secret Wars (PS3, 360, PC), the last part of the Air Conflicts trilogy we’ve been working on for about five years. The story materials we developed for this arcade flight sim are really quite exceptional. Set in World War II, it tells the story of a smuggler pilot and her crew who become embroiled in the struggles of the resistance movements in Europe, with flashbacks to her father’s story as a pilot in the Great War. It may be the best game story we’ve ever made.
  • I’m also delighted to announce that Zero Books will be publishing my philosophy of games book Imaginary Games, probably in early 2012. This is the culmination of the Game Design as Make-Believe serial – thanks to everyone who supported this!
  • And of course, I now have a little baby son, Soren Albert Bateman!

Have fun everyone!