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March 2012

What is Game Aesthetics?

atari_joystick What we call ‘gameplay’ concerns the aesthetic qualities of the function of games, and only those games which have sufficiently rich and intrusive functions can have an aesthetics of play worth talking about. However, these gameplay-rich games are not the only kinds of games, and there is no need to erect a boundary between them and other forms of play.

I approach game aesthetics following the make-believe theory of representation developed by Professor Kendall Walton, which states that representational art is continuous (but more sophisticated than) children’s games of make-believe. When we look at a painting – say, Van Gogh’sStarry Night – we play a game of make-believe with it in which it is prescribed we imagine certain things (such as that we are looking at a star-filled night sky). When we play a boardgame like Monopoly we play a game of make-believe with it in which it is prescribed we imagine that we are property tycoons. When we play a videogame like Pac-man it is prescribed we imagine that we are an abstract yellow blob with an insatiable appetite for dots. All of these statements concern games played with specific representations – the painting, the board and cards, and the digital images respectively. There is a well-established discourse about the aesthetics of representations, but when I talk of ‘game aesthetics’ this is only a small part of what I mean.

‘Aesthetics’ is not, you may be surprised to learn, a particularly unified field. In his address to the American Society for Aesthetics in 2007, Walton notes that aesthetics wasn’t unified by a central question in the way that ethics is unified by “How to live?”, the question the Greek philosophers asked that served as the stepping point for Western moral philosophy. Rather, Walton suggests that the field of aesthetics is marked by its boundaries and not by its centre, in a manner similar to philosophy of science, observing that philosophers in that latter field don’t waste much time arguing about what qualifies as ‘science’ as they have so many other interesting matters to pursue. He quotes Georges Santayana’s comment that “the group of activities we can call aesthetics is a motley one, created by certain historic and literary accidents.” Aesthetics is something to do with art, perhaps, but, as Walton quips: “It's that darn concept of art that has made it so hard to understand art – and lots of other things as well.” One of those ‘other things’ is games.

In my adaptation of Walton’s theory to games in Imaginary Games, I distinguish between the functional and representational elements of games (in the wide sense of this term, that accepts children’s games of make-believe as a starting point for understanding what we mean by  ‘games’), a division that can be crudely considered parallel to Juul's distinction between rules and fiction in games. The representational elements of paintings, sculptures, movies and so forth are what is conventionally captured by the term ‘art’, and I make the further claim that games also have these representational elements and qualify as ‘art’. However, there is also a functional aspect to all representations. It is functional of paintings that we hang them on a wall to look at them (we don’t usually hold them in our hands, as we do with graphic novels). It is functional of movies that we watch them in a cavernous dark chamber with other people, even though it doesn't significantly change the representational content of a movie if we instead watch at home on our sofa with a TV. It is functional of what we conventionally call games that we have more agency with these artworks than we do in paintings or movies – although sometimes (as with Snakes and Ladders) this agency is illusory.

Game aesthetics concerns not only the representations used in games but also the functional aspects of those representations and the relationship between the two. For the purposes of game aesthetics it doesn’t matter how much agency the player has but it does matter how the functional aspect of the game that provides that agency (or illusion therein) relates to the representation. Since the game of make-believe we play with a painting is still a game of some kind, having agency isn’t a requirement for games in the wide-sense, but as it happens this is also (arguably) true in the narrow sense. Games can be functionally complex without the player being given any agency at all.

Consider as an example of this strange phenomena Eric Fredricksen’s marvellous parody of massively multiplayer games, Progress Quest (2002). Even the illusion of agency is stripped from this game, within which the player’s character grows in power and acquires ever more ludicrously entitled equipment (such as an “Unearthly Spangle of Happiness” or “Impressive Diamond Mail Vambraces”) without the player doing anything. Character advancement in this game is automatic – yet players still manage to enjoy the games functional aspects, in part because of its parodic qualities, which ridicule the tedium of grinding in the games it mocks, but in part because its text representation is intrinsically rewarding for much the same reasons that these kinds of text representation are rewarding in role-playing games and multi-user domains. It seems that getting cool-sounding stuff is fun, at least to some players, even if they don't have to do anything to get it. Progress Quest becomes boring, as other videogames often do, when the mechanics that support the functional play become obvious and thus feel repetitive. In the meantime, it manages to entertain much as a slot machine can – random occurrences patterned into seemingly meaningful outcomes.

Although Progress Quest is functional in my sense, it is not richly or deeply functional. Walton makes the point that representational art is more intrusive on the games of make-believe we play with them than (say) a stick used as a prop in a child’s game of make-believe. Precisely what we value about a painting is that it guides our imaginings in particular ways. Similarly, the functional elements of games can become intrusive – as they do in many videogames. The games of Sid Meier are valued by certain players precisely because their mechanics are intrusive upon the play experience, far more so than their representations, which tend to be bland. Conversely, the appeal of the first person shooter genre prior to Modern Warfare was in part because the mechanics supported the representations unobtrusively – players didn’t, in general, think about the functional aspects of these games because they were engaged with the representational aspects of running around with a gun shooting people. This suited some players radically better than others, however.

Gamer hobbyists, those players who buy and play many videogames (or boardgames) sometimes state that “gameplay is everything”, or make sophisticated arguments that veil this kind of assertion in a cloak of righteous sophistry. The aesthetic implication of this kind of claim in my terms is that what is experientially valuable about videogame or boardgame play is functional, not representational. Furthermore, the confusing term ‘gameplay’ does not denote a single element of the functional aspects of play, but several overlapping concepts including (but not restricted to) rewarding decisions (cf. Sid Meier), challenges and victory, the mastery of systems, and meaningful agency. Each of these is a functional aesthetic of play or a game aesthetic, although this is far from a complete list of all the current or possible game aesthetics. Anyone who views Progress Quest positively as a play experience isn’t reaching that conclusion by applying any of these criteria.

Game aesthetics (or the aesthetics of play) isn’t new so much as it has been the concealed condition of our discourse on the value of games. My goal, therefore, isn’t to create a new field so much as to identify what parts of the game design and game studies discussions were always already a form of game aesthetics, whether in terms of representation, function or the confluence of the two. So far, “game aesthetics” has tended to mean just representational aesthetics applied to games, but we can and should take this further. I will know I have succeeded when some part of the discourse on videogames discontinues the boundary debates concerning what qualifies as a ‘game’ in favour of engaging in critical discussion of those games that are functionally or representationally interesting, and the reasons why they are of interest (i.e. what makes for “great games”) – something presaged by Ian Bogost and others. My specific distinction between function and representation (essentially parallel to Juul’s rules and fiction) isn’t anywhere near as important in this regard as the discussions I hope they – or something like them – might foster.

The opening image is by Suzanne Maestri-Walters as part of her popart collection, which I found on her website, One Girl Creative. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.

Beyond Definitions of Game

still-life-with-pac-man The endless discussions about the plausible definitions of what constitutes a ‘game’ have ceased to be productive. It is time for a new game about games – to stop being concerned about the question “what is a game?” and instead focus our interest on the wider and deeper question of “what is a great game?”. And to do this, we have to replace our fixation with the definition of ‘game’ with an attempt to recognise the different aesthetic positions within game design and game criticism.

I've now spent about a decade explicating the idea that ‘game’, as Wittgenstein correctly recognised in 1953, is a fuzzy concept that can only be accurately defined as an arbitrary step in a further process. However, the debate over the boundary conditions of the term ‘game’ continues to rage on as if some definitive conclusion were somehow just out of reach. Each new geek to arrive onto the scene seems to believe it is they and they alone who can pull Excalibur from the stone. We will not – indeed, cannot – resolve this debate. By all means continue playing this game if it entertains you, but do not pretend that you are advancing game studies in any way by doing so. You are more likely to be holding it back.

This said, new and interesting perspectives on the nature of games and play can be extremely productive. This might involve new definitions of ‘game’, albeit tentatively, within the context of the approach being discussed. Raph Koster, for instance, has got good ground out of his definition of game, and argues that the naming excercises are still valuable – but he also makes the important point that going to war with one another over our definitions is pointless. Besides, none of these individual definitions will rise to the challenge of correctly subsuming all things considered ‘games’ under one category. Problem cases, such as children’s games of make believe, Mornington Crescent or Snakes and Ladders (Chutes and Ladders in the US, where snakes are apparently too scary for children!), will always end up either excluded despite being widely recognised as games, or included under an umbrella definition too vague to be particularly helpful.

Could we please consider shifting the focus of our discussions from the fruitless argument about “what is a game?” and towards something potentially more productive? One possible candidate might be to recognise that the discussions about what-is-or-is-not a game are deeply parallel to discussions that have been had about what-is-or-is-not art. In these latter cases, we readily recognise that what’s at task by its very nature concerns aesthetics. My claim here is that we could benefit from recognising that this is also true in the former cases. Games, as I argue in Imaginary Games, are a form of art – indeed all art is a kind of a game, following the work of the philosopher of art Kendall Walton, and is contiguous with (but more complex than) a child’s game of make-believe. On this line of approach, instead of “what is a game?” we might ask the aesthetic question “what is a great game?”

It’s important to recognise that this switch in focus will not allow us to reach agreement any easier – as a matter of fact, there are very distinct and different beliefs about what constitutes a great game that are every bit as irreconcilable as the boundary dispute over the definition of ‘game’. However, by switching our discussions to deal directly with the aesthetics of play we will be far more likely to expose what is interesting about the debate, and considerably less likely to be bogged down in minutiae. As Ian Bogost suggested last year in his discussion of the tendency to dismiss odd games as 'aberations', repudiating unique aesthetic instances as anomalies to be excised is “as boring a response as it is blinkered.”

Identifying and debating the aesthetic criteria to be applied to games may allow us to identify ‘camps’ or ‘schools’ of game aesthetics. I’m sure some will argue that one of these is the “real” account, but that’s neither here nor there – the important thing is turning an unproductive debate into a productive discourse by asking different questions. If we can identify different aesthetic positions on games – or, which is the same thing, form into different factions extolling different virtues concerning play – we will not only have moved on from the futility of the definition of game, we will have advanced the argument for games as an artform immeasurably by seizing the high ground.

As two cases in point, here are examples drawn from a morning trawl through my endless sea of social media. Dan Cook, in an excellent brief discussion of his concept of loops and arcs in the context of games, offers a critique of contemporary videogames by saying “Too many arcs. Not enough focus on great repeatable loops.” By ‘loops’ he means recurring game systems with interesting feedback and dynamics, and by ‘arcs’ he means “a broken loop you exit immediately” e.g. a game puzzle, or a fixed challenge. His argument for “great repeatable loops” is an advocation of a specific game aesthetic, namely one in which dynamic systems are preferred over static or linear content. For my personal play preferences, I too prefer this loop-aesthetic (or open aesthetic) – but I also recognise that there are many players for whom the arc-aesthetic (or closed aesthetic) is more appealing. Our aesthetic experiences of games are not the same and we would be wise to explore this further.

As a second example, Tadhg Kelly (on the unfortunately titled blog What Games Are), espouses his view that Dear Esther isn’t a game. This is Bogost's lamented dismissal of aberrations once again; a game with unusual aesthetic properties is criticised because it doesn't fit into a presumed category. Tadhg's argument runs that a game is defined by “the ability… to cause meaningful change within it.” Within the context of the boundary debate, this claim is clearly false – there is no meaningful change in Snakes and Ladders unless the experience of play counts, and if the experience counts then Dear Esther also qualifies. But as an advocation of a specific game aesthetic, Tadhg’s argument has teeth – he is expressing the view, not that Dear Esther isn’t a game, but that it isn’t a great game, or isn’t a good example of what games can achieve (aesthetically). His position could be seen as an aesthetic of meaningful change (or an agency aesthetic) that prescribes specific virtues in respect of what a great game can or should be.

Taking this approach seriously, we can go back to one of the most famous examples purported to deal with the definition of a game and see it very differently. Famed strategy game designer Sid Meier did not claim that “a game is a series of interesting decisions” but in fact suggested that “a good game is a series of interesting choices” – this was always an aesthetic claim about games, namely that those games with aesthetic value as games consist of sets of interesting decisions or choices. This decision aesthetic overlaps with the aforementioned agency aesthetic, and depending on one's stance could be seen as a subset or a superset of it. Either way, one of the most oft cited examples of a definition of game is really an assessment of the aesthetic value of games.

The terms I’m suggesting here – open, closed, agency and decision aesthetics – aren’t intended to be definitive, exhaustive or even preferable. There are doubtless more and better options for categories. My point is solely that we advocate different aesthetic stances to games, and we will gain much more if we stop arguing about the irresolvable question of the ultimate definition of ‘game’ and start arguing about the irresolvable question of the qualities of ‘great games’. This would be to move our focus from the trivial to the majestic, from lexicography to aesthetics, from games as geek fetish to games as art and entertainment. To my mind (and presumably to Ian Bogost's too), this would be an inestimable step forward for both game design and game studies. We might not be up for the task or, more likely, I’m too much of a voice in the wilderness to help kick discussions sideways. After all, a spinning object resists attempts to move it because its rotational momentum overpowers any linear momentum, and this particular issue has been spinning around and around ad nauseum for decades. At the very least, this modest proposal deserves some consideration.

There might be some resistance from the more positivistic fellows in our midst to the extent that “I’m not interested in games as art, I’m interested in the science of games” – Dan himself leans heavily in this direction (I jokingly chided him in Seattle last year by suggesting that when he was on his physics degree he must have “drunk the Koolade”!). To this end, I must point out that a definition of ‘game’ is not, even in principle, a scientific possibility, whereas distinctions between aesthetic preferences is a potential avenue of scientific research. Open and closed aesthetic preference might correlate with goal or process orientation respectively, for instance, while agency and decision preference is likely to correlate with orbital-frontal cortex activation. Identifying aesthetic preferences for games unlocks a whole vast panoply of options for new research, both philosophical and scientific. Continuing to argue about definitions attains next to nothing.

I implore everyone involved in games – academics, game designers, players – to give up wild Grand Theory of Everything approaches and turn these issues on their head. We don’t agree about games – why not? What are the different viewpoints that are in conflict? (It’s not, I can assure you, about narratology versus ludology – although each of those terms may well express an aesthetic preference). The aesthetics of games is the gateway to a whole new discourse on play that could be infinitely more productive and satisfying for everyone.

Take the challenge and ask yourself this one, deceptively simple question: “What makes a great game?” Don’t worry about what to include in the term ‘game’ – a ‘great game’ is always going to be within your definition of ‘game’, whatever it is – just stick with your intuitive impression of the word and we won’t go far astray as long as we let go of the obsessive need for a perfect definition. Once you can express what makes a great game, you are better equipped to see how your preferences fit into the wider schemes available. If we can find patterns in our aesthetic beliefs about play, it cannot fail to offer us more than the interminable debate about the boundary conditions of games.

The opening image is Still Life with Pac-Man by Musat Iliescu, which I found here. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.


This critique contains a few minor spoilers.

JourneyWhat happens when you fund a small, ambitious and creative development team for a few years of experimentation? They come back with something beautifully unforgettable like Journey.

The most consistently depressing aspect of being interested in the aesthetic dimensions of play is the sheer vacuity of the typical videogame release schedule. While there are always oddities and curiosities being put out into the wild, the interesting titles are by-and-large tiny, low budget projects – and just as the film industry lavishes its attention primarily on feature films not shorts, so the games industry similarly lavishes its attention on the bigger games, those able to create a compelling world, or push forward the envelope of representation by sheer force of funding. The sad truth is that very few game developers get a chance to indulge in making artistically-motivated projects, and fewer still get a few million dollars to do so. My joy at what thatgamecompany have been able to do with the money their current patron, Sony, has afforded them is tempered by the stark knowledge that this is all too unique a situation. A great deal of creative talent is stifled by a funding gap that is greater than in any other medium today.

Journey has its aesthetic roots sunk deeply into the work of another artistically-motivated developer under Sony’s patronage, namely Fumito Ueda’s Team Ico, creators of Shadow of the Colossus and Ico, which they are named after. But whereas those particular games are hymns of praise to the deeply masculine experience of overcoming challenge and adversity (the emotional experience of triumph or fiero that is central to violent videogames), Journey is guided by an admirable restraint that allows it to explore genuinely new play experiences. Make no mistake – the aesthetic territory explored by Ueda-san is the unavoidable progenitor to Journey’s feel, but Jenova Chen and his dozen-strong team have managed to take that inspiration and build on it in unique ways.

If it were not for, shall we say, the excessive minimalism of Shadow of the Colossus, I doubt Journey could even have been conceived. This style of development focuses resources into narrow areas, thus allowing much of the typical game design deadwood to be trimmed away while the surviving features benefit from increased refinement and prominence. For Ueda-sans famous game, the attention is paid primarily to the colossi, which perfect the well-established Boss formula into something capable of delivering a rare additional emotional experience: regret. For Journey, its the world that all the attention is lavished upon, as a sequence of carefully crafted environments are presented to the player with an exquisite eye for delivery. Understated framing of viewpoint, including camera cases within which the player remains largely in control, are used to show off the beauty of the spaces the team have crafted. This landscape requires only patience to cross, and those with the willingness to meekly submit to the experience will be justly rewarded for their persistence.

There are slight problems with the breadth of appeal that perhaps need to be acknowledged. Just as Shadow of the Colossus was an artistically-motivated game destined to be played and loved by a comparatively small cadre of a million or so players, all of whom were highly literate with the complex controls required for entering 3D synthetic worlds, so Journey will not appeal to anyone who has not already spent considerable time out in the digital frontiers. If thatgamecompany believe this can be played by non-gamers, they are surely mistaken – such players will require a helpful guide present in the same room if they are to overcome the potentially baffling controls. Even though only two buttons are used, their function is quite arcane (and presented with minimal explanation) such that some players – even when able to explore the world competently – are still unable to describe in words quite how they are doing what they are doing. It’s a minor issue in many ways, since this game will be loved by its players, and it is to Journey’s considerable credit that it strims back its control suite to a comfortable minimum of two actions – sing and fly. Nonetheless, prior experience of videogames is a necessity for appreciating Journey. That said, no-one is going to begin admiring paintings with a Mondrian or a Picasso: adequate preparation is often a requirement for fully appreciating artworks.

Where the game truly exceeds expectations is by taking influence from a comparatively obscure title, namely Tale of Tales’ The Endless Forest, a massively multiplayer screensaver which invites players to interact with one-another as deer. Within that particular world, players could not enact any act of violence and could only behave as a deer would behave – creating a kind of collective performance art that was further facilitated by the absence of written or spoken communication. Each animal was identified solely by a unique glyph, and from my experience of that particular game it seems players seldom met the same deer twice. This idea is taken up in Journey (the team acknowledge the influence of the earlier game in an online interview) as each player’s traveller is similarly identified by a unique symbol that appears stitched into the front of their robe, and hangs in the air whenever they use their button to sing. As the player explores the world, they meet other players (provided they have opted to sign in to Playstation Network) in a way that owes a debt to what was pioneered by Tale of Tales, but once again takes it further.

Throughout Journey, the player is repeatedly paired with other players who are at the same point in their pilgrimage to a distant mountain. Sometimes these other players fail to notice or care and push on regardless, leaving their fellow travellers alone in the desert. Sometimes, however, they stop and sing to one another, communicating through a strangely beautiful piping and chiming voice that varies according to the frequency with which the button is pressed. There is no way to enact violence against the other – you can help, or you can leave: those are the only choices. The result is unexpectedly rewarding: players are actively encouraged by the design to co-operate, indeed, co-operating is the most rewarding course of action from beginning to end. Experienced players even return to the game (which can be completed within two hours) in order to render aid to fellow travellers. This carefully designed co-operative circumstance draws an entirely new experience out of the online multiplayer concept – you cannot help but help, since even if you wished to cause grief to the other player all you can really do is complete the progression of challenges ahead of them, making their journey easier.

The developers describe Journey as an “interactive parable”, and there are two distinct stories at work here. Firstly, the story of the world, a mythic-but-familiar tale of the hubristic fall of civilisations, told in short, mandatory mosaic sequences that appear between sections. This is the game’s least successful element, for although the exposition of the backstory is elegantly presented, it is also intrusive and unavoidable, and becomes wasteful of the player’s time during replay when the game becomes more overtly game-like. This is a minor complaint, however, as it is the second story – the tale of each individual journey – that really shines, and these emerge from the random pairing of players cloaked in an anonymity that forges a bond between strangers. This is not to suggest that a player who explores this world on their own will not enjoy themselves – the odyssey is sufficiently well-crafted to entertain any gamer who can bear to give up the adolescent power fantasies that fuel so many other videogames. Nonetheless, you can’t fully appreciate what Journey achieves until you’ve experienced its “massively co-operative” online play.

Journey is not just a rarity for being a well-funded artgame, nor for exploring the frontiers of the vast uncharted play space beyond videogame violence, but also because this is a game which willingly touches upon the spiritual. It would certainly be possible to offer a more subtle presentation of these issues – but since other games never come even remotely close to such matters, this must surely be forgiven. Besides, my sense is that a great many players (although perhaps not all those who will encounter it) will be genuinely moved by where Journey takes them, and some of the emotional tones it is able to touch are just slightly further afield than other games have even dared to imagine. It is an achievement to be lauded, even if it is tempered by the knowledge that the current state of game industry funding denies almost all creative teams – including Tale of Tales, who helped influence this title – the chance to create unique and memorable synthetic worlds like this one. As thatgamecompany admit: there’s no way they could have made flOw, Flower, or Journey without Sony’s patronage. Something is seriously wrong with any creative medium that manages to so radically block its own potential.

This is a critique, not a consumer review. My review would be: buy this game if you own a PS3 and want to support videogames as a creative medium.

What Are You Playing?


Decided to bump the piece I had scheduled for today to next week, since so many people I’d like to respond to it are busy at GDC right now. In the meantime, I’m always interested in what people are playing, why they like it, and what they’re looking forward to.

Personally, I’m still playing the boardgame Arkham Horror and the latest Zelda with my wife, as well as finishing up my revisit of Valkyria Chronicles and playing either the interminable campaign of Descent: Road to Legend (which I am finally enjoying) or Darkwind on Boy’s Night. We also sneak in some Storage, Inc, which is a classy multiplayer forklift game that no-one has heard of (it’s rotting away on the 360’s “community” pipe, which is a shame). It’s striking how much of my game money goes to hobby game maker Fantasy Flight these days – much more than goes on videogames.

I might critique Skyward Sword when we finish it (it’s been a long time since I critiqued a game!), and I was thinking about talking a little about Valkyria Chronicles at some point but I suspect too few people have played it to make this productive. Really enjoyed revisiting this game, though – after Front Mission 3, my favourite stat-RPG. The watercolour style of the CANVAS engine is a thing of beauty, and the mechanics offer a much greater focus on battle strategy over character advancement. In fact, it has the most restrained advancement mechanics I’ve encountered – compelling with almost no micromanagement. It’s representational choices are also interesting, and surprisingly successful. This is the only PS3 exclusive boxed product I rate, although it’s wildly unsuited to most players tastes! Definitely a grand folly.

As for looking forward to, I’m excited to have picked up Innsmouth Horror while in the States in February, and really looking forward to trying the new investigators and battling the final set of Ancient Ones. Beyond that I’m just waiting for The Last Guardian to finally be finished. I’m also looking for a good puzzle game, but everything that comes down the pipe is quite poor. Critter Crunch had promise but was terribly overdesigned. Don’t add a new mechanic every level, work on your core mechanics and make sure you have a mode for everyone. The absence of a useful sprint or marathon mode in this game is pure incompetence. The success of Tetris is not a fluke – learn from it.

What about you? What are you playing? Why do you like it? What are you looking forward to?