What is Game Aesthetics?

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.


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Hi Chris,

What exactly do you mean by aesthetics here? My reading of the term is pretty plain-text (visuals, sounds, etc) but it sounds as though you're using it in an unconventional sense? Can you explain?

Characterisations of "unfortunately titled" aside my point is entirely nothing to do with aesthetics in the normal use of the term, and everything to do with function. It is no different, functionally, from walking around a gallery. It is aesthetically wonderful (a point which I find myself making endlessly), but if it is a game then we are in the utterly unproductive realm of saying everything is a game. That, apparently, is the best we can do.

I just think that's defeatist and can only end up in a arid plains of sub-sectional debates over whether it is "good game" or not. This is not helpful either because I don't consider it fair to judge Esther on those grounds, much as I wouldn't think it useful to fault The Waste Land on the grounds of being a bad novel.

As to Snakes and Ladders, while it is in fact nothing but an exercise in permutation, to the young player it does not feel so. It feels as though he has agency, much as many gambling games feel through manipulation. It feels as though the rolling of dice, the competing against other players or the house (although they aren't really) is unscripted action. It feels fascinating and fair, and that position matters and so on. These are the characteristics of a game.

Dear Esther has no such set dressing. It is apparent from within the first couple of minutes that it is an object to be regarded and experienced, and wholly that. Likewise with The Stanley Parable or The Passage or several other interactive works.

My argument has been and remains that such works deserve recognition for what they are on their own terms rather than be mangled into the label of game in an increasingly vague everything-is-everything sense. Otherwise they just get tarred with the brush of "but wherefore gameplay" in an increasingly byzantine and nonsensical maze of faux debate.

Thanks for the post,

Here was my comment from G+

I find Chris's discussions of game aesthetics some of the most approachable I've read. He takes on the rare role of being a translator between wildly diverse disciplines, a trait that enriches us all.

*Definitions of games*
I agree with his basic premise that there are all sorts of games, toys and interactions extravaganzas. And yes, the borders between them get more than a little fuzzy. As such tend to offer definitions of games as a view upon a problem, but try not to get too caught up in sorting every grain of sand into an appropriate box. Such exercises drive me a bit bonkers.

*Great games*
I'm very comfortable with the idea that there are many potential 'great games'.

Many of the topics I write about involve interesting high points within this messy topography. How do we reach them? Where might they be? How do we travel there quickly and lightly?

Admittedly, this nuance can be confusing to people wanting binary answers to hard questions. To say "Hey, F2P has these valuable properties" is often interpreted as "All paid retail games must die and if you make retail games you suck." Bless be the internet and the polarized lenses through which all ideas pass. :-)

*Bad games*
However, I'm deeply wary of the counter statement that there is no objective measure of a bad game. To allow multiple peaks also allows for multiple valleys. Assuming everything has value creates a warm pustulent space where incompetence festers unchecked and unconsidered. I can see the appeal, especially if you've given up on personal excellence or if you never had much talent to begin with. However, those who are not actively engaged in some form of hill climbing are not worthy of respect.

A subtle variation on this relativistic view is that as long as one person finds value, the game can be classified as 'good'. The 'value' can be as non-causal as 'My dog died and I felt really crappy playing the game that day.' This is a valid viewpoint for a consumer. However, it does little for a creator of games.

In the end, great games 'function', that is they yield a predictable causal effect in a substantial percentage of their players. When your game yields negative, unexpected, unengaging results for a large percentage of your audience, perhaps your game is broken. You can observe this. You can see where your game sucks. And you should improve upon issue with whatever tools at hand. Sometimes that means removing the unexpected result. Sometimes it means performing jiu-jitsu and transforming the negative energy into something more interesting.

It does not mean throwing up your hands and saying "Oh, well. Even this horrible game is inherently valid...maybe I'll write a paper or give a talk on how awesome I am." That isn't the attitude of a great game developer. That is the attitude of a poser.

The fact that this even needs to be stated blows my mind on a regular basis. :-)

The demarcation problem is not about words. It's about the huge disconnect between how majority and how [certain] minorities perceive games.

Note that I use "perception" here intentionally. Mapping video games directly to perception is incredibly difficult, so it's extremely important to talk about games in terms of what they are enjoyed for (something that Dan Cook makes clear in his article on video games chemistry).

That said, you need no hard science to come to the conclusion that Dear Esther is not a game. In fact, you need no science.

All you have to do is play the game itself. Play it and then ask yourself "am I enjoy this because I'm winning?". Do you?

If you do, it's a game. Period.

If you don't, disregarding how good it is, it's not a game.

Now you don't have to rely on personal experience of course. Ask other people. Ask those who like the game. Why do they like it? Do they like it because they feel good for solving problems, or do they like it because they reflect upon the story/environment? There lies the question to this problem.

Now, if that's not enough, if you still think that doesn't make it less of a game, conduct a little survey. Ask a bunch of gamers why do they play games? Why do they like games? Ask a GTA player if he's into experience or into winning powered by experience? Ask a SimCity player if he'd like the game if it was stripped of its rules? Ask a Snakes and Ladders player what he likes about it?

What will they say? They will say it's about winning within specific fantasy. It's about living in a world they want to live. And living in a fantasy requires tests in order to be properly functional.

Now, take a look at games like Dear Esther and you will see the difference clearly - Dear Esther is about reflecting upon the world. It's not about living inside the world. This is not necessarily worse, but it's completely different, and while it may be possible to perceive traditional video games in the same way, it's nevertheless totally unrepresentative of how general population perceives games.

The solution?

Accept it as a new multimedia entertainment so you could actually build upon in a proper way.

Snakes and Ladders was invented as a serious game with a meta-goal not seen in the modern commercial version: moral instruction of the young. Squares with snakes included a description of some moral failure, while squares with ladders included a description of a virtue. With these removed, the game loses much of its point, apart from pure competition.

I don't debate "what is a great game" with other people. I announce my opinion and leave it at that. Swings and roundabouts, mate, swings and roundabouts.

Snakes & Ladders isn't a game. There are no decisions to make. It's simply an activity, like reading a book or sewing. (And sorry, it doesn't make it a game by looking like one, nor by calling it one for decades.)

Have you ever played Snakes and Ladders or Candy Land with young kids? The game is called... learn to play the game as it is... learn not to "cheat" learn to take turns... learn to conform well with others. Learn to lose. The decisions are there if you know where to look...

If you think these games exist on the board in front of you then you haven't played them lately with 4 and 5 year olds.

Thanks for your comments everyone! I'll try to be concise-yet-complete in my responses.


Thanks for engaging me in this matter! Yes, I am using aesthetics in a wider sense, and in particularly I am claiming there are functional aesthetics (aesthetics of play) that are distinct from representational aesthetics. I will try to expand this point more clearly over the next few months.

"but if [a gallery] is a game then we are in the utterly unproductive realm of saying everything is a game. That, apparently, is the best we can do."

I don't believe this is the case. Walking around the gallery is not a game, except in the social sciences sense (there are rules we observe), but engaging with each of the artworks individually is a game of make-believe, analagous to (but more complex than) a child's game of make-believe. This is Walton's thesis, and it bears out better in practice than people give credit.

I appreciate your objections but the fight you want to mount is unlikely to resolve along definitional lines - you aren't the first to try, you likely won't be the last... Your use of 'game' implies a value judgement (although you deny this) and that value judgement is aesthetic in nature. My claim is that your goals are better achieved by recognising this. I appreciate, however, that the onus is on me to convince you of this! :)

I agree that a young player of Snakes and Ladders feels as though they have agency. But so do players of Passage.

"Otherwise they just get tarred with the brush of 'but wherefore gameplay' in an increasingly byzantine and nonsensical maze of faux debate."

Some aspects of our goals are not dissimilar, I think, and my chief issue is with your chosen method, which seems to me more likely to exacerbate the problem you hope to excise. Suppose we accept the terming of Dear Esther as (say) an interactive artwork - will this stop the gamers asking why it is being delivered through a gaming service like Xbox Live? How can asserting your boundary improve relations between the kind of goal-oriented, agency-encouraging games you clearly favour and interactive art?

Many thanks for commenting! I hope we will be able to continue this discussion over the months to come.

Dan: thanks for the kind words! I greatly value your contributions to the discourse on games because of the clarity you frequently offer on issues that are often exceptionally muddy. It is appreciated.

It is not my claim that there is no objective measure of a bad game, or that everything made as a game has value. There are plenty of bad games out there! ('Shifters' is the Plan 9 of videogames - I love it precisely because it is *so* bad!) However, it is my claim that there are, as you say, multiple peaks - and that we might benefit from identifying those peaks.

On a related note, I have severe issues with the way games are reviewed in channels such as PSN and Live/Community because the review system is hopelessly naive. A game such as Helico Heroes (an amateur game on Xbox Community) gets a bad review because it's a model helicopter flying game and as such supremely difficult to play. But the players who can master the controls get a lot of entertainment from this game, which may be the best 2D model helicopter game ever made! The single dimension review dismisses every title that is not of wide appeal - this is all too akin to the market forces that make for bland cinema! We need to do better.

Great games, as you say, 'function' - but the kinds of ways they can 'function' are different. I want us to explicate these distinctions more clearly.

Always great to hear from you!

Mirosurabu: "All you have to do is play the game itself. Play it and then ask yourself "am I enjoy this because I'm winning?". Do you? If you do, it's a game. Period."

So tabletop role-playing games aren't games? Games of Call of Cthulhu in which the players enjoy going mad and dying aren't games because the players don't win? Children's games of make-believe aren't games unless they specify a win condition? Journey isn't a game because my enjoyment of it didn't come from winning it?

This victory-aesthetic is definitely one of the ways games are enjoyed. But it isn't the only one, and it does not serve as an explanation for how the word 'game' is used except by a priori asserting this as a definition.

Regarding surveys, I have now collected play data from more than 75,000 players and observed several hundred different people of all ages playing games. Not all of these players share your views about what is enjoyable about games. In fact, a surprising number of them play videogames in ways that I suspect you would find quite vexing.

The gamer hobbyists are not experts on play because they buy and play a lot of games - in fact, they often have the least reliable perspective on the matter precisely because their tastes are so channeled towards their preferences. They know a lot about the kind of games they play - but very little about the kind of ways other people play.

Ernest: I don't agree that Snakes and Ladders "loses much of its point" when compared to Moksha Patam, although the latter certainly has the deeper purpose to which you allude. Never underestimate the engaging quality of rolling dice! :)

Jack: "Snakes & Ladders isn't a game. There are no decisions to make."

So playing a game of dice with fixed stakes isn't to play a game because there are no decisions to make? This decision-aesthetic is Sid Meier's camp - you aren't alone in preferring this, but it's not the whole story of games. Let's not forget that until very recently, 'gaming' meant 'gambling'.

And something is seriously wrong if being called a game for four hundred years doesn't have any bearing on the issue! :)

Ben: "If you think these games exist on the board in front of you then you haven't played them lately with 4 and 5 year olds."

Here here!

Best wishes everyone!

"[..] tabletop role-playing games [..] Games of Call of Cthulhu [..] Children's games of make-believe"

They are all games. I think you're confusing formal victory with informal victory.

A game does not need to celebrate one's win to be considered a game. As I said - it's all about perception. If you are perceiving tests and if you're enjoying winning, it's a game.

Let's take a GTA as an example. The game has a sandbox mode. You don't have to play missions to perceive it as a game. You don't have to play hidden challenges either.

All you have to do is look at the cars or the people on the streets and spot a test for yourself. For example, let's say you drive a car and spot a bike far ahead of you. You decide it would be fun to run into it and smash it. This is a test. It's not one that is explicitly set by the game, but it is a test nonetheless. The test is whether you can run into the bike full-speed and smash it.

You can lose. For example, if you crash into another car. When you do so, you don't feel happy, so you are inclined to try again later.

You can win. For example, if you hit the bike and catapult it far into the distance so that it causes a chain accident. This is a win, albeit not a formal one.

Griefing is the same. It's not set by the game. In fact, it's against the rules of the game. But you can still perceive wins and you can lose if others ignore you or even ban you.

Majority of the players, I feel, enjoy games in this way. That's what we call "games".

Now, of course, some people perceive video games completely differently. That's fine. However, that sort of perception is completely distinct from this conventional one.

[quote]I agree that a young player of Snakes and Ladders feels as though they have agency. But so do players of Passage.[/quote]

It is true that Passage can easily be perceived as a game. It has some level of interaction, it keeps score and it has several endings. You can try and play it as a game, and.. it will suck.

The same applies to Journey.
The same applies to Flower.

None of which, I believe, changes the fact that they are in fact not games. If you talk to people who like this game (or, if you try to like it yourself), you will see the process is completely different to that of gameplay.

Why would you then argue that it is a game?

Why would you? Why would you want to blur the line with completely different sort of value judgement?


Your work seems to be placed squarely in aesthetic analytic philosophy. As such, you should be familiar with Bernard Suits's definition (not the shorthand version which gets cited, but the paragraph version), as it stands the definition has not been succesfully contested for 30 years. If everyone here just took the time to read it and then offer it the intellectual respect it deserves, we could get a useful definition which is neither too narrow nor too vague. It even has the tools to distinguish between snakes and ladders as a game for children (they value their attempts to overcome obstacles, namely the constitutive rules of CaL, because those obstacles make such an activity possible) and as a chore for adults (although they follow the constitutive rules, they show no sign of valuing those rules for the activity they make possible).

Meier's insight is useful in describing what it is that makes us value a given activity, i.e. what makes a great game. In this case, adults who appreciate making decisions and having access to the results of their intellectual labour, dislike CaL and prefer to play Civilization. The reasoning following Suits's definition trivializes this whole problem of what a game is, and it being a good analytic definition points to places of further work, namely that which you call for in your blog post.

Mirosurabu makes an interesting point here that I fully agree with:
"Accept it as a new multimedia entertainment so you could actually build upon in a proper way."

This new entertainment is actually a single medium. Since there's not a better word, I like to call it videogames, and I consider most videogames we play today to contain the game meaning structure. But they don't need to; Dear Esther would mostly contain a meaning structure that is neither game nor (traditional) story. Because of that, I think it has great value, because that makes it more distinct as an experience.

I guess for me it makes much more sense to think about artistic media and certain structures of meaning that can be delivered through that media. It feels more elegant, and because of my interest in mathematical structures, I find elegance to be more true.

With this model, the problem of CaL simply goes away. It is an experience delivered through the medium of token-based roleplaying that has a structure very similar to a game. With that in mind, you can begin to study how CaL expresses meaning through token-based roleplaying's specific strengths and weaknesses, in addition to judging how well its meaning structures fit the medium.

Great article. Statements of definition in the aesthetic realm are always statements of taste, and usually motivated by an attempt to shape taste. Example: the father listening to his son's ipod and saying 'that's not music.' The debate can go on - as the comments above demonstrate - but with an acknowledgment that what is being debated is less to do with categorisation and more to do with the value and legitimacy of particular stuctures of response.

Mirosurabu: "I think you're confusing formal victory with informal victory."

This disagreement seems to be at key, as I think you're confusing victory with games. :) You give good examples of how you can apply a victory-aesthetic to various game situations, none of which apply to a lot of what I've seen take place around role-playing tables or between children playing games of make-believe.

"Majority of the players, I feel, enjoy games in this way. That's what we call 'games'."

I might agree with this sentence, perhaps, if you replaced "players" with "gamers". If you combine what in BrainHex is called the Conqueror and Mastermind play styles, you get a near-majority of gamers (47% of male, 41% of female respondents) who do lean towards either the victory-aesthetic or something not enormously far from it. To claim this is the majority of players is, however, false. The majority of players in the world today are very young children, most of which do not display any kind of victory-aesthetic as far as I can tell. If you meant "players" as in "videogame players", my quoted percentages cover this.

"None of which, I believe, changes the fact that they are in fact not games. If you talk to people who like this game (or, if you try to like it yourself), you will see the process is completely different to that of gameplay."

The idea that Flower and Journey don't display gameplay seems mind-boggling obscure - even under your victory-aesthetic, these seem to be non-problematic cases. Flower has clear victory conditions, and Journey does too, albeit more explicitly at the level of its Trophies. These would seem to be the wrong counter-examples to turn to.

"Why would you? Why would you want to blur the line with completely different sort of value judgement?"

If I want to blur this line it's because I see that line as purely normative and not necessarily helpful. I'm interested in what the medium of games can achieve, and rather less interested in pursuing a specific aesthetic - and if I was, it definitely wouldn't be the kind of victory-aesthetic you and many other gamers ascribe to and love. My work for over a decade now has been to expand people's understanding of the many different ways that people play games, including videogames.

I appreciate your spirited defence of your position! I hope you'll have more to say on the posts that follow on this topic, the first of which goes up tomorrow.

William: I am moving in analytic philosophy with this, yes, and I say plenty about Suits in "Imaginary Games"! I like his approach, but it falls down for my (very slightly) by excluding theatre, which is the closed form of various kinds of make-believe game that Suits calls "open games". Actually, what I find most useful in Suits is precisely his use of open and closed as modifiers for games - this is a truly great contribution to the subject. I'm not sure that more people reading The Grasshopper would be a way to resolve these issues, though, although it couldn't hurt. :)

If you ever read "Imaginary Games" I hope you'll let me know your thoughts on how I handle Suits position, and particularly what you make of my attempt to contextualise it with other approaches.

Godatplay: "I guess for me it makes much more sense to think about artistic media and certain structures of meaning that can be delivered through that media."

I'm not certain, but I think this is broadly the way the academic narratologists (not necessarily narratologists inside game studies, I should qualify) approach this issue. The way I see it, this option is parallel to others, and different approaches can often be mutually illuminating.

Gamograffiti: thanks for the kind words, and the support of my claims! Your example of "that's not music" is absolutely apposite here! I hope you'll stick around for the posts that follow on this topic over the weeks and months to come.


Thanks for the comments everyone, and apologies for the slow response - I've been in a chaotic new situation and it's taken me a while to get to the blogs.

Dear Chris,

I have gone through the early bits of your book, but as I am knee deep in my dissertation on games as opportunities for aesthetic interpretation, I am unable to do it justice just yet.
I do not think that Suits excludes theatre from games, only mimicry as a neccesary or sufficient condition. One can imagine any number of thatrical plays being games (perform Macbeth without props, or Mother Courage with one actor, or Rez Sisters in a crowded shopping mall, etc.).
What is more, I think he allows for play in theatre without their being a game. Caillois' examples of play which clash with comon sense ideas about games, ( such as his mimicry which I see you starting to talk about as I close the .pdf to write this), would benefit from the distinction. After all, the French do not have a different word for play and game (both are Jeu) and as such often have a hard time expressing the difference both in their own language and in their translation. In the end I see no need to dispute Suits' claims. ... I also see you continually hint at problems Suits runs into in your book, but you never seem to follow up with actual people having philosophical difficulty with him. Perhaps you could point me to them so that I might trouble their troubles :)

"The idea that Flower and Journey don't display gameplay seems mind-boggling obscure - even under your victory-aesthetic, these seem to be non-problematic cases. Flower has clear victory conditions, and Journey does too, albeit more explicitly at the level of its Trophies. These would seem to be the wrong counter-examples to turn to."

Just because some games have gameplay elements, it doesn't mean they are played or enjoyed as games. That said, I do agree that Flower and Journey use traditional tropes, but I don't think this is a good criteria.

The way I decide whether something is a game or not (or, in general, whether two works of art are of the same class or not) is by looking at the "positive experience". In the case of games, if a positive experience is brought on by the joy of winning, then it's a game. If it's not, then it's something else.

A "positive experience" can be our own or that of others.

For example, I didn't really like Passage, and I didn't really like Dear Esther, so I had to look at other people and figure out why they enjoy it. But I kind of liked Flower, so I had a chance to see it for myself too.

When I compare that to the way I normally play games, to the way people I know play games, to the way most Kongregate players play games, I see a difference as big as that between games and novels.

This is why I think these two things should be differentiated. They do not belong to the same class.

My second argument is that of semantics - I'd rather keep the word "game" to mean stuff that is in spirit of sports and board games. But this ain't as relevant as the first argument.


William: Thanks for your clarification regarding Suits - I think, perhaps, given the dialogue form of The Grasshopper, definitive answers are sometimes elusive regarding his position, although much of it is clearly set out.

If I don't cite anyone else who has problems with Suits, it can only be because I'm stating my interpretation of the way he expounds his position. If I had someone to point to, I would have put in the reference.

I really enjoyed The Grasshopper, and found a great deal of value in it, but I did find his approach to be occasionally torturously constructed. Of course, this is just my own value judgement and needn't point at anything deeper.

Also: this point about Caillois being French cannot, I believe, be overestimated. But relating to this, we should not allow the implications that the term 'game' has in English to have priority over any conceptual analysis we perform. One of the great strengths of Caillois' approach was he looked at how various words relating to play were used in many different languages.

All the best!

Mirosurabu: "Just because some games have gameplay elements, it doesn't mean they are played or enjoyed as games."

This statement blew a fuse in my head until I remembered that "games" for you implies the victory-aesthetic. Once I accept that point of interpretation, this sentence actually does make sense - and I'd agree with you if we could only rewrite that sentence in some other way that didn't predicate that particular aesthetic! :)

I do appreciate you expanding your position here, though!


Interesting discussion, and I watch this with great interest: both as a casual gamer who is very much into engaging stories, and as someone watching your very interesting and unique aesthetical perspective develop.

As Gaming aesthetics is new ground, any notion of a 'grand theory' is off topic...for now, but I think as the issues and agenda of gaming aesthetics becomes more coarse and fine grained, I suspect a grand theory will emerge out of it.

Michael: I think the irony is that my disavowal of grand theory will end up being the basis for a grand theory. :)

It's interesting to me, as someone whose been getting deeper and deeper into the philosophical quagmire, how completely I've been waylaid in aesthetics! My interests were always metaphysics and ethics - I never thought aesthetics was a topic that would interest me! But increasingly it's become the centre of my attention.

All the best!

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