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December 2011

Closed For Winter

Right, that's all from me for now! I'll probably putter in the comments for a bit longer, but otherwise I'm winding this blog up for the holidays. I'm off to Didcot tomorrow to present on Discworld Noir for AdventureX - the first ever time I'll have given a presentation on this game, which was my first as lead designer and script writer. If I don't see you there, have a wonderful winter festival of your choice and I'll return after the only slightly terrifying prospect of my fortieth birthday on 1st January. Farewell, godspeed and qapla'!

ihobo is back early next year.

Stories and Games

Stories and Games was a serial in three parts that ran here at from August 31st to September 28th 2016. It considers the relationship between stories and games when they are considered from the aesthetic perspective I explored in Imaginary Games. Each of the parts ends with a link to the next one, so to read the entire serial, simply click on the first link below, and then follow the “next” links to read on.

Here are the three parts:

  1. Stories and Games: Art
  2. Stories and Games: The Emotions of Play
  3. Stories and Games: Experiencing Fiction

If you enjoyed this serial, please leave a comment. Thank you!

Stories and Games (3): Experiencing Fiction

Missed the first two parts? Click here for Stories and Games (1): Art, or here for (2) The Emotions of Play.

realm-of-the-mad-god-classes Could games be the ultimate artworks? I've heard this view advanced on two distinct but related grounds. Firstly, there is the argument that because the player of game has the experience happen directly for them, games are superior works of art to other media like films and books where the experience is second hand. The trouble with this approach is that the reasons we esteem art have very little to do with whether the relevant experiences happen to us directly or not – if this were not the case, Shakespeare could only truly be appreciated by actors performing his plays, not by the audience. It may well be the case that in assessing games as artworks our direct participation is vital – but this is an artefact of how games work as artworks, not an argument that games must be superior artworks.

Equivalently, the fact that we directly see a painting whereas we only imagine the events when we read a book cannot be used to rank either paintings or books above or below one another as artworks, since the cultural esteem afforded to art accrues differently in different media, and the distinctions between the techniques of each medium are not reasons to rank one form of art above or below another. These kind of attempts to produce a hierarchy of artworks are wildly incoherent and are thankfully rarely attempted these days – although incredibly the eighteenth philosopher Immanuel Kant did provide just such a 'ladder of art' in his Critique of Judgment, admittedly as an aside in what is otherwise some impressive philosophical work. 

A stronger challenge in respect of the idea of games as the ultimate artworks focusses on the intensity of the associated experience, a viewpoint recently advanced by game designer Dan Cook on his Lost Garden blog in a piece entitled 'Shadow Emotions and Primary Emotions', which essentially argues that games are superior artworks to stories (although Dan’s argument is not actually mounted in those terms). What Dan calls 'primary emotions' are more-or-less what I have called the primal emotions of play, and he is correct to recognise that these are more "visceral". However, he also wants to say that these emotions are "more real", and here I have to take issue with his methodology. He says: "As a game designer, I can and have put the player in situation where they experience real loss. The best a movie or book can manage is evoking a shadow of loss", and "the feeling of victory in a game of Chess is real. The feeling of anger at a Counter-Strike camper is real and visceral."

Behind Dan's rhetoric lies the belief that the 'primary emotions', being both more intense and 'more real', are more significant than the 'shadow emotions' – the emotions of empathy and imagination. I'm certain many game designers and players would back Dan in this – but what he proposes is a potential disaster for the artistic validity of games as a medium, and I shall argue that he is mistaken about the reality of his 'primary emotions', and misguided in placing these on a higher pedestal than the empathic emotions.

In the make-believe theory of representation that Imaginary Games adapts to videogames, Kendall Walton calls our emotional responses in respect of fiction 'quasi-emotions', and this in many respects is equivalent to what Dan calls 'shadow emotions'. When we weep for the tragedy of a fictional character, we experience not pity, but an emotional response Walton would term quasi-pity. When we feel a sense of terror that the life of the protagonist is in danger we feel not fear, but quasi-fear. The emotions experienced in the context of fiction, as both Dan and Professor Walton would agree, are still physically manifested in the body and are real experiences, but they are not quite the same as the emotions we experience in connection with everyday life. The quasi-sadness we feel at the tragic death of Anna Karenina or Aeris is not the sadness we feel for the death of a relative. In this regard, Dan and Professor Walton are in agreement.

However, Dan oddly seems to believe that quasi-emotions are not, indeed cannot be, as intense as primal emotions – he remains "unimpressed" by his experience of  'shadow emotions'. This is slightly problematic for his argument since this it seems to be just a fact about Dan Cook, and not really anything deeper. For many humans, the intensity of quasi-emotions can equal or exceed the intensity of ‘real’ emotions – people can and do weep tears over films, books and plays, and indeed a great many more people are deeply emotionally connected to the fictional worlds of TV and film than are equivalently immersed in the fictional worlds of games. What's more, many people care more about these quasi-emotions than about 'real' emotional experiences they could have with the world around them – the fate of TV soap characters elicits more engagement and discussion than the fate of real individuals suffering in other nations, for instance, even when the latter are presented directly in news programmes.

The quasi-emotions evoked by fiction are intimately tied up with the esteem given to certain artworks, particularly books and films (this is somewhat less relevant to paintings and sculpture, but can still be a factor). What makes critics afford Hamlet the praise it justly receives is precisely the intensity of the quasi-emotions evoked by the play when it is performed well. For me personally, the most intensely memorable emotional experiences I've had in connection with games have been precisely in the context of quasi-emotions that were evoked during tabletop role-playing games. In so much as Dan's argument rests on the idea that 'shadow emotions' are weaker versions of 'primary emotions', his argument doesn't really stack up in practice, and it isn't necessarily helpful to the case for games as artworks since if games aren't effective at evoking quasi-emotions then some critics will be reluctant to recognise their merits as art. Ebert's fence, the argument the noted film critic advanced against games but later retracted, is largely of this nature.

The nub of Dan's argument rests on the intensity of emotional response evoked by permadeath, which he references in the context of Realm of the Mad God, a game service that his company Spry Fox runs (and which is pictured above):

Consider the sense of anguish that one feels when the character you've built up over many hours of dedicated play dies for all eternity. This system, permadeath, is quite uncommon in many modern games, but thousands of players go through the process everyday in the game Realm of the Mad God.... Despite the coldly mechanistic nature of the system, the player feels intense anguish. It is a raw, primordial thing that courses through your veins and makes breathing difficult. There is really nothing playful or distant about this emotion.

Thus, Dan ultimately concludes, the primal emotions of play are more significant than quasi-emotions and we should give up trying to get games to evoke the latter and concentrate on what games do best, namely triumph, excitement and anger. I have some sympathy for this view in so much as I do believe that when games try to be films it is usually a waste of resources, but I can only follow Dan so far down this path. The anguish of permadeath is inherently superior (Dan seems to say) than any quasi-emotion could ever be, and in part because it is real – but is it 'really' real, and how do we know? It won't do to rest on the intensity of the experience as proof of its reality, since Dan accedes that quasi-emotions are real experiences, and observation of people other than Dan shows that they have intense experiences in relation to fiction that could only be understood as quasi-emotions. Emotional intensity simply isn't proof of reality.

Consider some of the other examples Dan cites concerning 'real' primal emotions – victory in Chess and anger at a camper in Counter-Strike are also claimed as 'real'. But this can't be taken for granted, as can clearly be seen in the case of Counter-Strike. What is the hypothetical player angry about? That another player has transgressed the largely unwritten taboo against camping? Or that a fictional soldier stayed in the same fictional place and thus killed another fictional soldier? These are descriptions of the same event. If the latter is what's relevant, then this isn't anger but quasi-anger, because it is in connection with the contents of a fictional world. (It might not, however, be a 'shadow emotion' in Dan's sense because he seems to always take primal emotions to be primary). If the former, then the anger is in connection with the behaviour of the player of a game, and we usually don't allow the content of a game to be considered 'real'. If the anger at the player is real because the behaviour is real (they 'really did' camp, even though it was 'just in a game') are the quasi-emotions of biographical books and movies to be considered differently from those of pure fiction – after all, those events 'really did' happen?

Even the apparently simple case of victory at Chess is not clear cut. Is it triumph or quasi-triumph the player experiences when they win? Is there a difference, and how would we tell them apart? Again, because it is an emotional response to an entirely arbitrarily accepted set of conventions (the rules of chess) this is an emotional response in connection with fiction, albeit the functional fiction of a game not the narrative fiction of a story. We have a choice as to whether to consider this victory real, but not everyone will consider it so, since some will say "it's only a game" and therefore “doesn’t really matter”. If the case of victory in Chess doesn't seem ambiguous, consider the case of virtual money – are Zelda's ruppees a real currency? There is a strong inclination in most people to fence off what happens in games as being unreal, and because of this it won't do simply to assert that responses to games are real without advancing some actual (philosophical) argument in support of that interpretation.

The situation is even more confusing in the context of victory at sports, which is parallel to the Chess example. Most people would consider a sporting victory real, even though it occurs solely in the fiction of the game in question (e.g. football or decathlon). There's nothing empirical about a ball passing between goal posts that makes it a goal – it's solely the context of the game in question that it is considered a goal, and it's not a goal if it happens outside of that context. We don't often spot that sport has an important element of fiction, but when we critically consider our sports it becomes hard to deny.

I'm very reluctant to go down the route that says that emotions in response to the fiction of games are real while the emotions in response to the fiction of stories are 'not real', and not just because I believe stories are themselves a kind of game. The anger I feel at a player who betrays me in a game of Junta is not on the same footing as the anger I feel at a friend who betrays me in everyday life and, despite the intensity of experience, the former deserves to be considered quasi-anger. I have almost fallen out with my friends over this quasi-anger, but it is nonetheless an emotional response to a fictional experience we were participating in.

In the case of permadeath, the claim to reality goes precisely to the intensity (the "visceral" nature of the feelings) of the anguish felt – yet what exactly has the player lost? A save file that allowed them to access a fictional world. It doesn't have any meaning to anyone else but the individual in question, which is a signpost that their emotional feeling intimately involves fiction. If I experience the equivalent anguish to permadeath because Microsoft Word has crashed, taking with it days of work (something that happened to me many times in the 1990s), I can explain the (real?) reasons why that work has value to me: other people needed it to advance the project, and now I have to duplicate that work all over again. The sufferer of a permadeath experience has no way of demonstrating any equivalent real value – value that other people would recognise. It occurs in connection with the fictional world of the game Realm of the Mad God, and is thus quasi-anguish (a powerful blend of quasi-anger and quasi-sadness). If it were real, other people would be able to empathise with you – but the only ones who can do so are those who have prior (fictional) experiences of permadeath – and this circumstance meets both Dan's description of 'shadow emotions' and Professor Walton's description of quasi-emotions. It's not real – but it certainly is intense!

What Dan advances is a kind of aesthetic theory for games that might be called the primal aesthetic – the view that intensity of emotions are the hallmark of great art, or perhaps just of great games-as-art. The former is an impossible road to walk, since it makes rollercoasters and crashing productivity software into great artworks, something few if any people are going to want to back. But the latter route is viable – I don't hold this aesthetic viewpoint myself, since I believe game stories, and the quasi-emotions they evoke, can be even more engaging and interesting than the primal emotions of play, and thus hold to what I've called a fiction aesthetic for games, where the confluence of the fiction of the rules and the fiction of the world creates new kinds of artistic value.

But although Dan and I advance different aesthetic theories we both advance aesthetic theories of games-as-art. As such, the idea that games cannot be art is simply untenable. Not only are all artworks games, as I asserted in the first part of this series, but videogame critics have multiple aesthetic theories available, and no medium that supports a diversity of aesthetic judgement can plausibly be excluded from the cultural esteem we provide to those curious works of fiction we call art. If we can appreciate a human-made artefact like a videogame aesthetically as a game, how can games not be art?

The inspiration for this short series of posts, my philosophy of games book ‘Imaginary Games’ is available from and all good booksellers now.

Stories and Games (2): The Emotions of Play

Missed part one? Click here for Stories and Games (1): Art.

Skyrim Why are games fun, and are they fun in different ways to films and books? This can be a tricky question to explore since a great many of the games that get the most attention are actually part film and part game – they switch between interactive sections of gameplay and non-interactive movies. As I argued last week, those movies are still a kind of game, but they are a different kind of game and a different kind of art. There's a sense that a game with a lot of cut scenes is really a mixed media artwork, but as it happens this distinction is not necessarily useful. Plenty of modern art requires that the appreciator reads the descriptive card displayed alongside or at least knows the title, but we don't consider such artworks mixed media, and neither is the collision of text and image in a graphic novel considered problematic. It is already the case that much of contemporary art refuses to stay bounded in one clear medium, and we can scarcely be surprised that games do the same. Nonetheless, there is a powerful sense that the fun of a game and the fun of a story are different in some way. What is that distinction?

In my research into how and why people play games, I have (with the assistance of contemporary emotion researchers like Paul Ekman and, in the context of games, Nicole Lazzaro) identified a suite of emotions that could be called the emotions of play. What's more, by looking at the neurobiological foundations of these emotions, I have been able to tie this set of feelings into what I believe is a fairly coherent description of play, one that is described in some detail in Imaginary Games. At the root of the emotions of play are two sets of features in our brains (and indeed the brains of all mammals) and a corresponding collection of neurotransmitters – chemicals that relate to specific emotional states. There are also two additional features intimately connected with stories that are required to complete this picture since, as I have already suggested, all stories are also games, specifically, games of make-believe continuous with the kind of imaginary games that children play.

For games-as-games, putting aside the explicit elements of story and fiction for the time being, the first and arguably most important feature is the reward system of the brain (the nucleus accumbens and related brain structures, and the neurotransmitter dopamine). Without this biological heritage, there could be no concept of winning in games, and although not all games involve a win condition (tabletop role playing games in particular need not have one) we still tend to think of goal states and win conditions as quintessentially 'gamey'. The emotions that relate to these biological features are satisfaction and triumph – what emotion researchers call fiero, the sense of conquering adversity that causes you to punch the air or raise your hands above your head. Satisfaction is a small release of dopamine, and triumph a large spike of this reward chemical, which is why winning feels good, and why everyone likes to win.

Secondly, there is the fight-or-flight response, with its neurotransmitters epinephrine (commonly called 'adrenalin') and norepinephrine. This biological feature intimately involves stress – yet stress can be good fun. An action movie or a rollercoaster releases epinephrine, thus creating the experience of excitement, and although your body is in a state of stress this is generally experienced as fun. Of course, the rollercoaster may be an experience of fear, rather than excitement, if the amygdala (a tiny and biologically ancient brain structure) interprets danger in what's being experienced. Although not everyone enjoys being terrorised (some people will never get aboard a rollercoaster!), everyone enjoys excitement as long as it doesn't tip into fear, and both fear and excitement have the same chemical (epinephrine or adrenalin) at their root, which underpins the 'flight' part of fight-or-flight.

The 'fight' response relates to norepinephrine, which is experienced as emotional responses varying from mild frustration to blind fury – all being different degrees of anger. These emotional responses are vital to many games because, as I mentioned before, the experience of triumph requires a sense of adversity to overcome. Beating an easy game is not as rewarding as beating a tough game (even though many fewer players can beat a tough game). Therefore players who want to experience triumph – who want to conquer games for the dopamine-reward of doing so – have to experience frustration or anger beforehand. As it happens, many players (about 40% according to my research) do not enjoy being frustrated in this way, while some (about 20%) actively seek out the higher degrees of challenge that will frustrate them precisely because they want that big hit of dopamine for overcoming impossible odds. Testosterone – which is not gender-specific, but affects men and women in the same essential way – may be key to this distinction, since testosterone has been demonstrated to promote persistence, and without the desire to persevere no tough challenge is going to be beaten.

These two biological features – the reward system and the fight-or-flight response – represent what might be called the primal emotions of play. The biology concerned is truly ancient, and is found in almost all the multi-cellular life on our planet, and indeed the same biology is intimately involved in survival. Play, you could say, is a subversion of survival, at least in the terms I've outlined here. (I would avoid the temptation to call play 'practice for survival', however, since this predicates survival as the only important feature of life, and even for non-humans this simplification does not hold much water). The 'gamey' aspects of the games we play are all involved with these features – thrill-rides (excitement), games of chance (triumph), and games of competition (anger and triumph) are intimately associated with games and game design. Indeed, there is a myopic tendency in certain people to collapse play into just the quest for triumph (or, equivalently, the desire to overcome challenge), a simplification that probably reflects a preference for testosterone-dominated kinds of play.

Related to these primal emotions are the social emotions of play, including the closely related amusement and schadenfreude – the joy we take in the misfortune of others. Multiplayer games would be considerably less fun if we were not terribly entertained when disastrously bad things happen to the other players, and we laugh uproariously when we knock the other player's car off the track, or blow them up with a well placed grenade. These social emotions are not necessarily central to play, but they are important to our experience of play in practice, since competitive play in particular is enriched by our strange biological response to absurdity.

Play is more nuanced than just the primal and social emotional experiences, however, and a third biological feature relevant to both games and stories is the curiosity or interest mechanism discovered by Biederman and Vessel. When we encounter richly interpretable information, our brains release a chemical called endomorphin that ultimately triggers the reward centre and releases dopamine. Small amounts of endormorphin are associated with curiosity, or maintaining interest, while large amounts correspond to the emotion of wonder, which as Nicole Lazzaro points out is a full-body emotion just like triumph, the clear sign of which is the dropping open of the jaw. Games need this dimension as well as the primal emotions, otherwise we wouldn't keep playing. The joy of a game of exploration like Skyrim or a Zelda lies in part in indulging our curiosity. But stories also rely on this emotional response – what keeps us interested in the resolution of a film or book is precisely the intensity of engagement, as film-philosopher Noël Carroll has observed. When it comes to interest, games and stories are on equal footing.

Lastly, there is our natural ability to empathise, which connects to recently discovered mirror neurons. This feature of our biology is essential to understanding our ability to appreciate stories, since it is only be identifying or empathising with fictional characters that we become swept up in a narrative. Indeed, in many cases it's not clear that our interest would be held purely by our ability to interpret complex information that is associated with endomorphin if it were not also the case that we can imagine ourselves in the shoes of other people. Sometimes this is literal – many people do imagine themselves taking the role of the protagonist of a story. Sometimes, it is more indirect. Empathy is what we call our ability to care about the emotional states of other people, and because we are imaginative creatures our empathy extends to the fates of fictional people just as much (sometimes more!) than those of real people. A great many people tune in for the final episode of a TV show, while rather less care about real children dying in squalor in distant lands.

Thus the emotions of play consist of the primal emotions of excitement, fear, anger, satisfaction and triumph, the social emotions of amusement and schadenfreude, the powerful interest emotions of curiosity and wonder, and the emotions of imagination and empathy which include every possible emotion. Both games and stories make use of the interest emotions but we can say, crudely speaking, that games-as-games primarily leverage the primal and social emotions, while conversely, stories-as-stories leverage empathic emotions. These empathic emotions can include, oddly enough, all the primal and social emotions! We can experience schadenfreude when the hero kills villainous lackeys, fear when the heroine is in danger and triumph when victory is eventually achieved. Stories can get at the full emotional repertoire, whereas games-as-games focus more narrowly on the emotions of play.

Games are fun because the emotions of play provide access to a wide variety of pleasant experiences – some of which are attained via unpleasant experiences like anger and fear. Stories are fun because our imagination allows us to become swept up in the fate of fictional worlds. Both games and stories are also fun because they maintain our interest in various different ways. When it comes to videogames, which are often fun both as games and as stories, these two elements become intimately intertwined – the fictional world of the game is frequently vital to our enjoyment of that game, even though this isn't necessarily leveraging the primal emotions of play. Players of Skyrim or GTA, for instance, are not just enjoying their victory over the various challenges the games affords but are also enjoying entering the fictional world of the game. If this fiction were removed, the game simply would not be as much fun. Even an identical set of control challenges to that involved in (say) fighting a dragon would not be as emotionally involving as the fiction of fighting a dragon. This is a vital clue that the story of a game – its fiction – is just as important as the game mechanics – its rules.

Next week, the final part: Experiencing Fiction

The inspiration for this short series of posts, my philosophy of games book ‘Imaginary Games’ is available from and all good booksellers now.