Game designer Greg Costikyan is most famous for his work on the award-winning Paranoia tabletop role-playing game (1984), pictured left, and the valiant-but-doomed indie publisher Manifesto Games. In 1994 he published an article in the British role-playing journal Interactive Fantasy that was expressly intended as a rebuttal to Crawford's earlier presentation of his terminology in The Art of Computer Game Design (1984). Entitled “I Have No Words & I Must Design” (and available online at Costikyan's website), Costikyan's express goal is to move towards a common critical language – a project as urgently needed today as it was almost two decades ago. He presents the following definition:
A game is a form of art in which participants, termed players, make decisions in order to manage resources through game tokens in the pursuit of a goal.
Notice immediately that Costikyan wants to assert games as art, contra Crawford's distinction – this is an aesthetic value judgement, but about art rather than games, per se, and thus lies somewhat outside the scope of this discussion. He also adds the following remark:
What's key here? Goals. Opposition. Resource management. Information.
Despite the goal to push against Crawford's approach, Costikyan's definition is ultimately quite similar in its component aesthetic value judgements – although it does not create a hierarchical assemblage of priority between them, and in his subsidiary remarks Costikyan suggests a great deal of additional elements that "strengthen games" (we'll return to these points shortly, as they are highly relevant). Nonetheless, Costikyan's key constitutive elements of games embody two of the same value judgements as Crawford: the victory aesthetic (goals) and the conflict aesthetic (opposition). What Costikyan adds is "resource management and information", which are presented in the context of the player's need to make decisions. This corresponds to Sid Meier's aesthetic assertion that "a good game is a series of interesting choices", and can be understood as a decision aesthetic. There is some potential overlap with the previously mentioned agency aesthetic, but it may be prudent to treat these as different – in particular because agency tends to concern the fiction of the game, whereas decisions tend to concern the rules of the game (although the blurring between these two is unavoidable).
However, decision-making is a subset of problem-solving tasks that certain players relate to the concept of a game, and thus the decision aesthetic is part of a wider aesthetic of play. As Costikyan remarks in his countering of Crawford's suggestion that Zork (1977-79) is a puzzle and not a game:
Almost every game has some degree of puzzle-solving; even a pure military strategy game requires players to, e.g., solve the puzzle of making an optimum attack at this point with these units. In fact, if a game involves any kind of decision making, or trade-offs between different kinds of resources, people will treat these as "puzzle elements," trying to devise optimal solutions. Even in deathmatch play of a ﬁrst-person shooter, players will seek to use cover and terrain for advantage – 'solving the puzzle' posed by the current positions of opponents and the nature of the surrounding environment, if you will. You can't extract puzzle from game entirely.
Thus even though Costikyan himself seems to favour putting emphasis on the decision process over the wider activity of puzzle-solving, there is a more general problem aesthetic that can be recognised – one that views all play as puzzles or problems to be resolved. The overlap with agency is somewhat obscured when the focus becomes problem-solving rather than decision-making: we can make a decision about what colour car to drive but this is not a problem that can be solved, except in the most contrived use of the word 'problem'.
Should Costikyan's flagging of resource management be taken as part of problem(or decision) aesthetics, or as a separate assertion? This is unclear. Focussing on resources invites the kinds of decisions that correspond generally to the problem aesthetic (i.e. the activation of the orbital-frontal cortex and the consequent release of the reward chemical dopamine). Yet decisions are also possible in other wide senses, and these rapidly converge on the aforementioned agency aesthetic. Perhaps these two are in some kind of tension – between the formal, rules-focussed slant of the resource decision or problem-solving process at one end and the informal, fiction-focussed bent that is often entailed in attributions of agency to a game. These problems will have to pursued at other times using different methods. However, it is quite plausible that what is being alluded to here is close to a systems aesthetic that we will see later with Raph Koster's and Dan Cook's approaches to defining games.
Crawford, responding to the places where Costikyan's definition diverges from his own suggests that the reference to tokens sounds like "a throwback to the days of boardgames" and the reference to resource management reflects "a strategy gamer's approach to the problem", although he does not ultimately find either problematic. It is interesting, however, that Crawford uses the term 'throwback', which involves a value judgement – as if Crawford believes that now videogames exist there is no place for boardgames. A great many boardgamers – including Costikyan and myself – would vehemently disagree with this assertion. Thus if Crawford is making a value judgement against a boardgame-inspired term, there seems to be a case that Costikyan is also advocating a tabletop aesthetic. This might amount to nothing more than the belief that the fundamental systems used in tabletop games are compatible with their counterparts in videogames, and this may in fact be a subtle variation on the decision aesthetic. Still, a tension between a videogame aesthetic and a tabletop aesthetic that prioritises one form of play over the other may be present in this kind of discourse. I will not dwell on these media-specific aesthetics, but it should be recognised that both these and genre-specific aesthetic stances can be found in most discussions about games.
Costikyan's approach becomes far wider when he looks at those things that "strengthen games". Although these do not form part of his definition of 'game', they still embed aesthetic value judgements. Costikyan draws attention to diplomacy, colour (meaning the fictional gloss layered over the raw game rules), simulation, variety of encounter, position identification, role-playing, socialisation, and narrative tension. These broadly divide into general aesthetic positions. Firstly, those game-strengthening possibilities that specifically concern the way that players interact with each other beyond conflict – diplomacy and socialisation in Costikyan's terms. This could be termed a social aesthetic (diplomacy, socialisation), and it is worth noting that Costikyan (like Crawford) wishes to make the conflict requirement necessary and the social aesthetic tangential. It would not be difficult to defend the social aesthetic over the conflict aesthetic – co-operative games can often be expressed in terms of conflict, but such arguments are generally sophistic. Like Crawford, Costikyan still has some hierarchical judgements on games embedded in his approach.
Secondly, those game-strengthening possibilities that rely on the fiction or the player's imaginative faculties – specifically colour, position identification and role-playing. This imaginative aesthetic can be found elsewhere: in Imaginary Games I go some way towards defending an aesthetic value judgement that places this at the root of all of our experiences of play, for instance, which reflects a long and slow transformation of my beliefs about games over the last decade. Costikyan's simulation probably also belongs in this category – he notes that "simulation is a way of providing color" and also that "it improves character identification", which seems consistent with this approach. Lastly, Costikyan asserts that games can be strengthened by variety of encounter and narrative tension, which are forms of an uncertainty aesthetic that we'll examine more closely later.
What is striking about Costikyan's approach, even allowing for the apparent precedence given to the kinds of aesthetic value judgements also found in Crawford, is that it is so wide reaching. Definition aside, Costikyan allows for an incredibly diverse range of aesthetics of play within his framework. He still wishes to mount his priorities in similar ways to Crawford – namely the prioritisation of the victory and the conflict aesthetic. There may be a psychological or neurobiological explanation for this in terms of gender, or more specifically, in terms of testosterone. This chemical is associated informally with the male gender, since it is the male sexual hormone and governs the development of male sexual traits, but it affects both genders in the same essential ways and women with high testosterone levels display the same psychological traits as high testosterone men. It is a hypothesis I am currently investigating as to whether the psychological implications of higher testosterone levels in terms of persistence, tolerance to frustration and consequent enjoyment of conflict will serve as an explanation for why certain game designers wish to single out victory and conflict as key to games, but it is my strong intuition that these two aesthetic positions are related to testosterone in some way.
Next week: Koster's Theory of Fun