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Implicit Game Aesthetics

Implicit Game Aesthetics was a serial in seven parts running here at from April 18th to May 30th 2012. The serial looks at the definitions of ‘game’ provided by various game designers and academics, and considers what aesthetic value judgements must underlie their claims. 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 seven parts of Implicit Game Aesthetics:

  1. Crawford's Taxonomy
  2. Costikyan's Critical Language
  3. Koster's Theory of Fun
  4. Cook's Chemistry
  5. McGonigal and Suits
  6. Caillios and Malaby
  7. An Island of Play

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

International Hobo's Chris Bateman joins University of Bolton

After 12 years heading up the creative consultancy brand International Hobo (ihobo), and running one of its constituent consultancies from both the UK and the US, Chris Bateman is stepping down from his role as ‘Creative Overlord’ to accept a position as Consulting Researcher at University of Bolton. The move does not affect International Hobo’s consultancies, which will continue to provide expert services in game design, narrative and player satisfaction, and Chris is still available for consultancy work himself.

Chris explains his move as “a natural next step for me”. Since publishing the paper “The Neurobiology of Play” (with Dr. Lennart Nacke) in 2010, Bateman has been gradually moving closer to his research interests in player satisfaction, game design and philosophy. His work on foundations to game aesthetics, published as the Zero Games book Imaginary Games, is the start of a long-term project combining philosophical theories of representation with empirical and practical studies of how and why people play games. His work in the emerging field of game aesthetics (which includes ongoing empirical investigation into the biology of play) finally convinced him to partner with a university with the necessary resources take his research to the next level. He states: “Bolton is delighted to have me as a researcher, a lecturer and as a consultant – and they have actively encouraged me to continue the kind of consultancy work I’ve been doing for the last decade,” adding “I’m sure I can do great things with the talent and resources University of Bolton has at its disposal.”

Relations with universities are nothing new for the International Hobo consultancies. Ernest Adams of ihobo’s Designers Notebook (specialising in game design consultation) has enjoyed close links with the University of Gotland in Sweden for many years, as well as serving as a Royal Academy of Engineering Visiting Professor for the University of Ulster, and teaching at dozens of other institutions. Similarly, Wendy Despain of ihobo’s Quantum Content (which provides game writing services) has been teaching a new generation of game writers at Full Sail, in Florida, while Richard Boon of ihobo’s Story Guy (providing narrative design and scriptwriting consultation) has been lecturing on digital and transmedia narrative for various institutions based in the United Kingdom, including the BBC.

For over a decade, companies under the International Hobo brand have delivered award winning consultancy in game design, concept design, dialogue scripting and narrative support, as well as offering cutting-edge player satisfaction services. It has worked on nearly forty videogames since being established in 1999, including million-selling S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl and Bratz: Rock Angelz titles, cult classics Ghost Master and Discworld Noir, and recent AAA titles such as Cartoon Network Universe: FusionFall and MotorStorm Apocalypse.

Implicit Game Aesthetics (7): An Island of Play

Pitons St. LuciaAll that remains is to summarize what this excavation has uncovered, and in the process to undermine the assumption that the foundational conditions of rules and fiction do not also offer an aesthetic value judgement. Unsurprisingly, we have collected an extremely diverse set of value judgements – what if anything unites them? As philosopher Mary Midgley remarked in her 1974 paper "The Game Game", there is a unity in concepts like 'art' and 'game' simply "because they all deal with human needs, which certainly do have a structure". In “The Neurobiology of Play”, I attempted to provide a foundation for this structure by considering human neurobiology, and in an attempt to make sense of the disparate aesthetic positions there may be no clearer place to start than the underlying biology.

One of the core patterns that we associate with play is that which involves the pursuit of triumph (Ekman's fiero), which I hypothesise is a large release of the reward chemical dopamine. In the victory aesthetic offered by Crawford, Costikyan, Koster and many others, this is the biological foundation that is most clearly expressed. To reach the particularly strong pay-offs in terms of triumph, it is usually necessary (as Nicole Lazzaro has observed) for the player to become frustrated i.e. to become angry. This is to push the fight-or-flight response firmly into 'fight' – and fighting is what the victory aesthetic stresses.

In its refined form as the conflict aesthetic, the fighting becomes embodied as battle – which some (such as Crawford) place as the highest condition of a game. In both victory and conflict, there is a necessity for the player to endure frustration in order to reach the most intense reward states and this almost certainly relates to testosterone, which has a demonstrated role in persistence. I want to suggest, therefore, that the victory aesthetic and testosterone go together – and that the conflict aesthetic is merely a refinement of the general formula expressed by the victory aesthetic. Because testosterone and pugnaciousness go together, this may also explain why advocates of victory or conflict aesthetics are so forceful in defending their definitions of games as necessarily true.

However, the experience of triumph can also be reached not by enduring frustration, but by enduring boredom or confusion – being compelled by curiosity and the promise of eventual reward to find a solution to a challenge by viewing it as a problem. The problem aesthetic espoused by Costikyan and others is thus a twin to the victory aesthetic – the same experience is prioritised ('triumph over adversity' or fiero), but the route to it is different. (The reward aesthetic, found in McGonigal and the early Bateman and Boon, can be seen as a weakened from of the victory or problem aesthetics – the same kind of biological reward systems are in play, but endurance in the face of frustration, boredom or confusion is not assumed.) 

What is different biologically in the case of the problem aesthetic is the operation of the decision centre of the brain, the orbito-frontal cortex. This region – which is closely linked to the region responsible for the release of large amounts of dopamine – is closely connected with decision-making and problem solving (e.g. Franken et al, 2005), and also releases smaller amounts of dopamine in expectation of future reward. In other words, if the orbito-frontal cortex predicts that a problem can be solved, the individual receives a hit of dopamine to encourage them to continue. Just as the conflict aesthetic was seen as a refinement of the victory aesthetic, the decision aesthetic is simply a refinement of the problem aesthetic focussing on the decision making, and the learning aesthetic found in Koster and Cook is a refinement of the problem aesthetic that looks over the long-term to what accumulates, rather than to the individual problems in isolation.

It is possible testosterone is also involved in this problem(-decision-learning) aesthetic approach to play – some further empirical testing would be required to determine this. If it does still relate to testosterone, this would explain why defenders of the problem aesthetic are as confrontational as proponents of the victory aesthetic, but there could be other explanations. Strong activation of the orbito-frontal cortex appears to be the "biology of nerdhood", which is psychologically expressed in the Rational archetype in Temperament Theory, or in Simon Baron-Cohen's concept of a systemizing brain or S-brain (as opposed to an empathic brain, or E-brain). The S-brain (which Baron-Cohen also considers a "male brain", while recognising that both men and women can have this kind of neurology) is constantly systemizing the world, that is, it expresses "the drive to understand a system and build one". This connects the problem aesthetic to the systems aesthetic, and explains why advocates of one often support the other: when people view the world as systems, perceiving challenges as problem-solving is the obvious corollary. It is small wonder that exponents of this viewpoint often fervantly claim that everything is a puzzle to be solved!

Furthermore, the systems aesthetic is not just a nuanced variation of the problem aesthetic – it corresponds to the desire to view games in terms of rules. Only when games are seen as formal systems (though the S-brain perspective) is the rule-element of games likely to be emphasised, and with this in mind we can now remove the foundational status of rules. Yes, rules are always there to be found – but only when games are seen primarily as systems. There is no explicit rule aesthetic, as such, but the system aesthetic (and the problem aesthetic it refines) were always intimately connected with the perspective of games as rule systems. This is the entire perspective collected under the term 'ludology', as captured by Ian Bogost's remark that the ludology-narratology debate seemed to be the question: "Is a game a system or rules, or is a game a kind of narrative?", but would have been better expressed by the question: "Is a game a system of rules, like a story is a system of narration?" Both ludology and narratology stressed the system-aspect – ludology just made 'rules' the central focus.

Just as the foundational status of rules pairs with the systems aesthetic, the narratologist's fascination with fiction pairs with the imaginative aesthetic foreshadowed by Costikyan and espoused directly by me in Imaginary Games (2011), albeit constrained once again by the systems aesthetic. The systems aesthetic thus bridges between fiction and rules, and hence between the problem aesthetic and the imaginative aesthetic. Just as the rules can always be found provided a systems-perspective is applied, so too can the fiction always be elucidated provided one comes to the situation with a model of fiction (like Walton's make-believe theory of representation). However, there is a huge gulf between the problem aesthetic (with its goal-oriented, outcome-focussed attitude) and the imaginative aesthetic (with its process-oriented focus on story and inventiveness). The agency aesthetic offered by Crawford may fit under or near the imaginative aesthetic, as a refinement of it that pulls back towards the problem-aesthetic via the emphasis on decisions the player makes. Perhaps the decision and agency aesthetics would be best seen as bridges between the problem aesthetic and the imaginative aesthetic. The curiosity aesthetic may also have this dual identity: it part-fuels the desire to solve problems, but it also powers a compelling interest in "richly interpretable" fictional worlds.

Another of the aesthetics brought in tangentially by Costikyan probably deserves far more attention than it has currently received: the social aesthetic. Because so few game designers or academics have drawn explicit attention to it in their definition of a 'game', it is difficult to do this value judgement justice. However, in my studies of players it is clear to me that there are a great many for whom the social rewards of play are a significantly greater draw towards games than victory or problems. The fact it is not clearly represented in this brief survey of game definitions almost certainly reflects the systemising perspective described by Baron-Cohen: it is the nature of the S-brain perspective to build systems, and the nature of the E-brain to view situations in terms of people's emotional states. The social aesthetic is expressly about this empathic approach to play, and the literature is sparse on it precisely because the systems aesthetic drowns it out. There is a small hint of it in the social abusive play recognised by Doug Wilson and Miguel Sicart, but even this is buried under their wider conception of abusive play, which is primarily an extreme form of the testosterone-fuelled victory aesthetic.

Finally, the uncertainty aesthetic found in Caillios and Malaby comes at games from perhaps as wide a perspective as is possible. All the previously described aesthetics could potentially be subsumed under its vast tent, and the playful aesthetic of Huzinga, Suits and others can be seen as a refinement of it. Perhaps the voluntary aesthetic advocated by Caillois, Suits and McGonigal could also be seen as a refinement of the uncertainty aesthetic, if it does not transpire to be a refinement of the social aesthetic instead. The putative mastery aesthetic, found in players but not obviously expressed in definitions of games (although Cook comes exceptionally close to doing so!) might also be a refinement of the uncertainty aesthetic, or perhaps a bridge between it and the victory aesthetic. The trouble with viewing specific aesthetics as refinements of the uncertainty aesthetic is precisely the scope of uncertainty to subsume anything under its remit.

As a metaphor to capture this arrangement of the aesthetics of play, imagine a tall twin-peaked mountain, rising high above a lone village upon a forested island amidst a vast uncharted sea. The twin peaks of the mountain are the intense rewards of triumph offered by the victory(-conflict) aesthetic and the problem(-decision-systems-learning) aesthetic, while its foothills are the more modest and accessible charms of the reward aesthetic. Here, in the lower slopes, the mysterious forest stands for the imaginative(-agency-curiosity) aesthetic, and the village for the social aesthetic. The sea that surrounds the island is the uncertainty(-voluntary-playful) aesthetic, within which all kinds of play and games can be found.

Whether or not this is a complete description of the landscape of the aesthetics of play remains to be seen, but whatever the case this approach to studying games offers a potential liberation from the interminable fight over the positions of boundary fences.

More game aesthetics soon!

June Speaking Gigs

I have a number of speaking gigs coming up in June:

  • Saturday June 2nd I’ll be speaking at St. Barnabas Church in Southfields, London on the topic Videogames: Art or Addiction? Tickets are £5.
  • Sunday June 10th I’m on a panel at the Institute of Art and Ideas' philosophy and music festival in Hay-on-Wye entitled States of Play. On the panel with me are Harry Eyres and Don Paterson, while Felicity Evans chairs. Tickets are £4, £7 or £9 depending upon when you buy them.

More to come later this Summer.


Implicit Game Aesthetics (6): Caillois and Malaby

Caillois Perhaps the oldest definition provided for what constitutes a game comes from Roger Caillois (1958), who was pursuing an essentially anthropological investigation into cross-cultural play in his book Les Jeux et Les Hommes (pictured left). It is worth noting that Caillois was French and thus used the term 'jeu', which means both 'play' and 'game' – this gave him a very wide perspective on what could be entailed by the term, and as a result his definition is quite inclusive. In brief, Caillois states that everything that constitutes play is free (non-obligatory), separated by limits specified in advance, uncertain, unproductive, governed by rules, and entails make-believe. The last two are the previously identified foundation conditions and can be set aside for now, and the separation condition can be understood as refinement of the rules-fiction dualism. This leaves three value judgements: that play (and hence games) must occur freely, without obligation; that play entails uncertainty; that play must be non-productive.

Unfortunately for Caillois, it is no longer clear that the first and third apply. As Edward Castronova, Thomas Malaby and others have noted, massively multiplayer games severely blur the lines as to what kinds of play are 'productive'. Similarly, it is unclear in the case of a gold farmer who also plays World of Warcraft for fun why their evening gaming should qualify as play but their daytime gaming should not. The boundary between work and play assumed by Caillois has become impossible to sustain in practice. Nonetheless, it is clear that there is a voluntary aesthetic that can be identified, since it can be found in Caillois, Suits and McGonigal, not to mention Elliott Avedon and Brian Sutton-Smith ("we can define a game as an exercise of voluntary control systems…"). This aesthetic seems solely to entail that the players of a game are, as Caillois suggests, under no obligation to play. Since the same game could be played in both a voluntary and a mandatory context – imagine being forced at gunpoint to play Russian Roulette – it's difficult to see why this would serve as a workable boundary condition, though. It almost seems as if what is intended by this value judgement is to say that games cease to be fun when they are mandatory. It's not entirely clear that this is a correct proposition, but it is a perfectly viable aesthetic of play.

There is one element of Caillois' definition left: the requirement for uncertainty. It is possible that this might be foundational – are there any clear cases of games that don't entail uncertainty? Either way, we can tentatively accept an uncertainty aesthetic as a position entailed in Caillois' view, and implied by Costikyan's (and possibly Koster's). It is not necessarily the case that Caillois is making a strong case of the aesthetic merits of uncertainty so much as he is reporting his view that those who enjoy play are deriving some proportion of their enjoyment from the uncertainty of the activity. This sits oddly with some of the activities Caillois includes within his category: theatre, for instance, is given as a very formalised kind of playing. While I can support this on the basis of Walton's make-believe theory of representation, it still seems to be problematic: if a person enjoys a stage play greatly and returns to watch it again, is uncertainty really their interest? It is not entirely plausible to suggest that the audience are hoping for things to go wrong! Similar concerns relate to players who master a particular videogame sequence perfectly, and return to execute that sequence again and again. It's not a wholly satisfying explanation for this behaviour that their motivation involves the possibility that they might fail. This seems to lend support to the idea of there being some kind of viable uncertainty aesthetic in games.

The uncertainty aesthetic finds its strongest expression in the work of anthropologist Thomas Malaby, who in his 2007 paper "Beyond Play: A New Approach to Games", decries the assumption that games and play should be seen as continuous. Malaby is particularly hostile towards Caillois' suggestions that games must not be productive, and in general wants to disentangle the concept of 'play' from the concept of 'game', and similarly to separate 'play' from 'work'. Malaby's defines games as follows:

A game is a semibounded and socially legitimate domain of contrived contingency that generates interpretable outcomes.

"Semibounded" is intended to take into account concerns about the 'leaky' Magic Circle (which Castronova drew attention to) while the requirement for social legitimacy is a fascinating and unique condition that offers an anthropological interpretation of games rather than an aesthetic value judgement, as such (although it might be taken to support the social aesthetic that Costikyan drew attention to). Both are perspectives on the rules-aspect of games, but from a vantage point so distant that it is barely recognisable as such. It is the "contrived contingency" and "interpretable outcomes" that are the core of Malaby's definition, here, and these can be seen as the uncertainty aesthetic crossing over into the fiction-aspect of games (the 'interpretability'). In many respects, Malaby's definition is the broadest, but of course this breadth also lets in many things that people wouldn't normally consider games. This is the nature of any widely construed definition, however – the trade-off in defining 'game' is always between being too inclusive, or being too exclusive. There seems to be a tendency for exponents of the victory and conflict aesthetics to vehemently prefer exclusivity, whereas exponents of uncertainty aesthetics like Caillois and Malaby prefer inclusivity.

In a paper the following year entitled "Anthropology and Play: The Contours of Playful Experience", Malaby expands his definitions to take onboard a new concept on play – one based on seeing it as "an attitude characterized by a readiness to improvise in the face of an ever-changing world…" Although he does not reference Suits, Malaby here is aligning 'play' with what Suits called 'the lusory attitude', although since Suits sees games as expressly goal-oriented (victory, conflict or reward aesthetics) – his intention is narrower than Malaby's. Nonetheless, both Malaby and Suits are gesturing at the special mental state that players enter into when participating with the uncertainty that lies deeply in the nature of games. As Malaby recognises, this has roots even older than Caillois' study of play, since Johan Huizinga's Homo Ludens (1938) – which inspired Caillois – is based on this idea. As Malaby writes:

For [Huizinga], the play-element – marked by an interest in uncertainty and the challenge to perform that arises in competition, by the legitimacy of improvisation and innovation that the premise of indeterminate circumstances encourages – is opposed above all to utilitarianism and the drive for efficiency. (Caillois likewise, despite his misleading claim that games are occasions of "pure waste," recognizes the centrality of contingency in games.) Huizinga felt that the play-element had been on the wane in Western civilization since the eighteenth century, threatened by the drive for efficiency and the routinization of experience it brought.

There is an aesthetic value judgement here – explicit in Huzinga and Malaby, tacit in Suits and McGonigal – that values the playful experiences over and above the pursuit of victory. This is definitely present in Suits' , albeit somewhat concealed by his overt focus on goal-oriented play, and it is inescapable in Malaby who has no trace of the victory, conflict or reward aesthetics at all in his concept of a game. This playful aesthetic (for want of a better phrase) is intimately connected with the uncertainty aesthetic – indeed, it is a refinement of it, in perhaps a parallel to the way the conflict aesthetic often appears intimately connected to the victory aesthetic. It is Caillois' paidia, Suits' lusory attitude, and Malaby's view of play as a disposition, and it directly opposes any aesthetic that would seek to make games solely about winning, battle or puzzles.

Next week, the final part: An Island of Play

Implicit Game Aesthetics (5): McGonigal and Suits

Reality is BrokenThe game designer and researcher Jane McGonigal provides an approach to defining 'game' in her book Reality is Broken: Why games make us better and how they can change the world (pictured left) that will serve as a convenient segue from game design opinions to academic opinions on games. She makes the following claim:

...when we're playing a game, we just know it. There's something essentially unique about the way games structure experience. When you strip away the genre differences and the technological complexities, all games share four defining traits: a goal, rules, a feedback system, and voluntary participation.

We are currently excluding 'rules' as foundational, and the recognition of goals could be seen as the victory aesthetic, although McGonigal oddly states that the idea of "winning" is absent in her model, which may seem difficult to accept since any stated goal allows for winning. However, note that for once the conflict aesthetic is entirely absent. This leaves two very different considerations: feedback systems, and voluntary participation. We will consider the relevance of voluntary participation when we look at Roger Caillois' account of play next week, but the question as to what aesthetic is implied by drawing attention to feedback systems as purportedly foundational to games is an interesting one. What exactly qualifies as such a system? McGonigal states:

The feedback system tells players how close they are to achieving the goal. It can take the form of points, levels, a score, or a progress bar. Or, in its most basic form, the feedback system can be as simple as the players' knowledge of an objective outcome: "The game is over when..." Real-time feedback serves as a promise to the players that the goal is definitely achievable, and it provides motivation to keep playing.

In some respects, this concept serves to deepen the understanding of the victory aesthetic, that is, it appears in a large part to be an elucidation of the player's relationship with the goal state. Additionally, the use of the term 'system' invites understanding this within the systems aesthetic. However, it is reasonable to imagine some additional value judgement must be at work in the choice to single out the specific element of feedback – in particular since no-one else has made it a boundary condition for games (although Cook and others do talk about feedback extensively). I'd like to suggest that what McGonigal is gesturing at here is a reward aesthetic that is separate from (but related to) the victory aesthetic. Consider her description of the feedback system in Tetris:

As you successfully lock in Tetris puzzle pieces, you get three kinds of feedback: visual – you can see row after row of pieces disappearing with a satisfying poof; quantitative – a prominently displayed score constantly ticks upwards; and qualitative you experience a steady increase in how challenging the game feels.

This is a description of the inherent rewards of playing Tetris, interpreted as feedback. For McGonigal, Tetris cannot be won, it can only be lost; her 'goal' for this game is stated as "to stack falling puzzle pieces, leaving as few gaps as possible in between them". We can see clearly here why she has separated winning from goals – her mention of goals as a trait essential to games is not an endorsement of the victory aesthetic, since the kind of 'wins' or 'goals' this covers would be a part of her feedback system. In fact, rather than the feedback system being ancillary to the goal, the goal is secondary to the feedback system. It is that which provides the rewarding experience; McGonigal's 'goal' is simply the instructions for play, the answer to the question "what do I do?"

McGonigal's approach is similar to the early Bateman and Boon, who in 21st Century Game Design suggest that a toy is a tool for entertainment, and a game can be understood as "a toy with some degree of performance." 'Performance' here is intended to be ambiguous, to include at its furthest extremes the kind of qualitative measures of play inherent in tabletop role-playing, where having a "great game" may simply mean the player's performed their roles in ways that were satisfying. However, it expressly includes victory conditions, failure states and metrics for measuring progress, and as such expresses the same reward aesthetic that McGonigal ultimately prefers to the victory aesthetic.

Arguably, the preference for the reward aesthetic emphasises the play over the outcome, whereas the preference for the victory aesthetic appears to emphasise the outcome over the play. With this in mind, it is perhaps unsurprising that those who favour the victory aesthetic also tend to favour the conflict aesthetic. McGonigal is unusual (although not unique) in considering conflict – which was the highest value in Crawford's taxonomy – entirely tangential to games. That said, the reward aesthetic can also be combined with the conflict aesthetic. Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman define a game as "a system in which players engage in artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome." The "quantifiable outcome" relates to McGonigal's feedback systems and can thus be seen as expressing the reward aesthetic, while the requirement that "players engage in artificial conflict" expressly presupposes the conflict aesthetic.

In addition to her four traits, McGonigal also cites the work of the philosopher Bernard Suits, and stands firmly behind his definition that "Playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles" calling this "the single most convincing and useful definition of a game ever devised". Although still a somewhat obscure figure, the philosopher Bernard Suits is growing in popularity among game scholars, mostly on the back of his marvellously quirky book of dialogues, The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia (1978). However, the roots of his work on games can be found in his 1966 paper "What is a Game?" In a somewhat muddy trail of conjecture, Suits begins from his concept of "game-playing as the selection of inefficient means" and works up to an ultimate definition that: play a game is to engage in activity directed towards bringing about a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by specific rules, where the means permitted by the rules are more limited in scope than they would be in the absence of rules, and where the sole reason for accepting such limitation is to make possible such activity.

This is a difficult definition to get to grips with! Part of the problem is that Suits has brought with him some philosophical baggage, namely the terms 'ends' and 'means'. These are perfectly normal words in philosophy (at least where it has been influenced by the Greeks), but fare rather less well in ordinary language. By the time Suits has refined his ideas in The Grasshopper, his definition has acquired a considerable amount of extra terminological baggage:

To play a game is to attempt to achieve a specific state of affairs [prelusory goal], using only means permitted by rules [lusory means], where the rules prohibit use of more efficient in favour of less efficient means [constitutive rules], and where the rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity [lusory attitude]. I also offer the following simpler and, so to speak, more portable version of the above: playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.

This definition, at least in its short form, is very popular among the comparatively few people who have encountered it. Unfortunately, to make this definition fit all manner of play situations, Suits has to conduct some pretty incredible conceptual gymnastics. In order to fit games of make-believe into his approach, Suits has to argue that "the important thing in a game of this kind is... that the moves one makes... keep the game going instead of terminating the play." Calling this 'the principle of prolongation', he thus proposes that what he calls open games (which would include certain abstract games like Mornington Crescent) fit his definition because the unnecessary obstacle that must be overcome in them is the end of the game. Whatever one thinks of this solution, it does not describe in any way what players of a diceless tabletop role-playing game actually enjoy when they are wrapped up in their character roles – the attention of such players is definitely not focussed merely on prolonging the game. Perhaps, Suits would not recognise these as games, although they fit comfortably under his term open game. Either way, some kind of value judgement has been exposed, but quite what it might be is less clear!

Ultimately, Suits approach points at a space between the victory aesthetic and the problem aesthetic without committing to either. Those who see either victory or problems as the fundamental aspect of games may find Suits' definition appealing precisely because it can be made to co-operate with any outcome-focussed approach. This doesn't seem to be the case with McGonigal who seems to reject both in favour of her more nuanced rewards aesthetic – but of course, the reward aesthetic fits equally well under Suits' broad umbrella, as will any of the other aesthetics which relate to victory or problems (such as the learning, decision and conflict aesthetics). What is excluded are all manner of aesthetics that do not focus on the goal-oriented aspect of play – such as the agency aesthetic, the imaginative aesthetic, or the social aesthetic. Anyone whose preferences lie in these areas will struggle to accept Suits' definition as anything other than arbitrary.

Suits has one explicit element in common with McGonigal – he too singles out voluntary participation as the hallmark of a game. To explore this aesthetic, we can go back a decade further to the work of Roger Caillois, the French intellectual who may have been the first person to attempt to formally define 'game'.

Next week: Caillois and Malaby

Implicit Game Aesthetics (4): Cook's Chemistry

Daniel CookTaking the emphasis on the player further, Dan Cook (pictured left) explored some ideas about a psychology of game design in his 2007 article The Chemistry of Game Design, within which he denies that games are statistical systems:

Many of the attempts to define games have focused on the mechanistic elements of the game, such as the primitive actions that the system allows the player to perform or the tokens that the player manipulates. The approach has been to treat games as self contained logical system. Mechanics and aesthetics are certainly important pieces of any model of game design, but in the end, such analysis provides little insight into what makes a game enjoyable. You end up with a set of fragmented pieces that tell you almost nothing about the meaningful interactions between the game as a simulation and the player as an active and evolving participant. Games are not mathematical systems. They are systems that always have a human being, full of desires, excitement and immense cleverness, sitting smack dab in the center. To accurately describe games, we need a working psychological model of the player.

Although this may seem to be arguing against the systems aesthetic, there is no denial here that games are systems. What Cook denies is that games can be understood solely as mathematical systems, instead advocating an examination of the psychology of players since the system means nothing without the player – something few would argue against. He continues:

Our player model is simple: The player is entity that is driven, consciously or subconsciously, to learn new skills high in perceived value. They gain pleasure from successfully acquiring skills.

Koster has expressed his pleasure with Cook's approach here, and small wonder – it has the learning aesthetic right at its heart. Indeed, with their shared interest in both systems and learning, Koster and Cook are aesthetically very close to one another – Cook even directly references A Theory of Fun for Game Design and encourages people to read it, and makes Koster-esque assertions such as:

The sensation that gamers term 'fun' is derived from the act of mastering knowledge, skills and tools. When you learn something new, when you understand it so fully you can use that knowledge to manipulate your environment for the better, you experience joy.

Note that Cook does not claim that players enjoy exercising their mastery but from the act of mastering. Again, the learning aesthetic is being placed ahead of the mastery aesthetic – players "gain pleasure from successfully acquiring skills", not from successfully exercising those skills. Cook, whose entire article is written with an evident adoration of positivistic science, draws against neuroscience to support his claims – but goes slightly awry in doing so. He cites neuroscientist Edward Vessel's remarks concerning what has been called the "click" of comprehension, and comments:

Upon the click of comprehension, a natural opiate called endomorphin, a messaging chemical in the brain similar in structure to morphine, is released. As humans, we are wired to crave new information constantly. In some sense, what you and I term curiosity can be interpreted as our brain looking for its next fix of deliciously fascinating information.

This is a correct interpretation of Vessel's work, but it misses out a great deal of what is interesting about it. Vessel, along with Irving Biederman and Xiaomin Yue, have conducted considerable research into the function of endormorphin and the receptors it binds to, and do say many things that support Koster and Cook's position. For instance, Biederman and Vessel allege:

We should add that the time course of cognitive pleasure may be somewhat protracted for children. A child may wish to hear the same story read to her over and over again (much to the chagrin of an adult reader), even to the point where sections of the story are memorized verbatim. However, when the youngster is questioned about the story—for example, why a particular character acted in a certain way—the child often reveals a lack of comprehension. It's only after a child fully understands the point of the story that she tires of hearing it again. This may be analogous to an adult's experience of mastering challenging subject matter. The payoff is in the click of comprehension, however difficult the path to that point.

However, while Biederman and Vessel's work does involve demonstrating learning outcomes associated with "novel" and "richly interpretable" experiences, this learning aspect is tangential to the core of their work, which is concerned with the neurobiology of perceptual pleasure. These kinds of experiences are rewarding because they are richly interpretable, not because learning occurs (although, as a later paper with Yue demonstrates, the endomorphin system triggers the dopamine system, which as Koster correctly observed is involved with learning). Curiosity is not a motivation towards learning, as Cook implies, but an inherently enjoyable experience. The learning, as mentioned previously, is always going on in the background, but it would be incorrect to single out the learning as the sole purpose of this neural activity. Biederman and Vessel have demonstrated, for instance, that people "enjoy searching for target images... as long as they can maintain a reasonably high level of accuracy" – this is an activity that involves endomorphin, but the reward comes from recognising the target image, not from any learning that might result. In so much as enjoyment here is related to actual performance, this could be an example of the aforementioned mastery aesthetic.

Cook's general approach to games and play does gain some support from Biederman and Vessel, however:

It may also be the case that some childhood behavior does not engage the reward system considered here. Video games are replete with repetitive perceptual inputs that seem to be endlessly amusing to young people. We suspect that children can tolerate the repetition because they are rewarded with ever-increasing scores until the game is mastered. It would be rare for someone to seek the repetitive stimulus of a game without having access to the controller! In general, many repetitive activities expressed during childhood may serve to build motor skills or improve performance, rather than increase knowledge.

Since Cook's player model focuses on the acquisition of skills, the contrast here between building motor skills and improving performance versus increasing knowledge doesn't give him issues – although it is reasonable to suspect something is being lost here. Cook claims that "When you learn something new, when you understand it so fully you can use that knowledge to manipulate your environment for the better", which runs contra to Biederman and Vessel's comments about videogames, where they expressly deny that knowledge is the critical element. It may well be for many players, especially those that favour problem aesthetics of play. But seeking improved performance is not the same as seeking new skills, for all that the improvement may be explicable in terms of skill acquisition: the goal is mastery, not learning, and the fun can lie in the exercise of the mastery, not in the understanding of it.

Of course, Cook has a much better understanding of videogames than Biederman and Vessel do! They make a mistake, for instance, in believing that it is only children that tolerate the repetition in such games – as any World of Warcraft player will attest. Even allowing for this, there is room for improvement in Cook's understanding of the relationship between curiosity and play, and between mastery and skills. Cook is insistent that the pleasure from mastering a skill is experienced only once, stating: "After the moment of mastery, a biological feedback system kicks in that dampens the pleasure response to exercising those same pathways again. What was once exciting becomes boring." His 'moment of mastery' is intended to be Vessel's "click of comprehension", but this should not be applied to skills, only to knowledge. The "click" concerns successful interpretation of a situation, and has actually very little to do with the more general process of skill acquisition, which can be continuously rewarding. A musician never masters their instrument in such a way as to become bored of it – their pleasure in developing a masterful musical skill is felt in their exercise of that skill, something that is obscured in Cook's account. Similarly, a game player may never know that they have mastered a skill, but they may still enjoy exercising it.

Like Koster, Cook prioritises the learning aesthetic over the mastery aesthetic. But Cook also misses out on another aesthetic experience his account comes extremely close to recognising – what we could call the curiosity aesthetic. The research on endomorphin is not just about the "click of comprehension", it is about why we find some perceptual experiences pleasurable. Part of this is because novel, richly interpretable images can be enjoyed whether or not any learning takes place. Curiosity does play a role when a puzzle is solved – it is part of what motivates the individual to attempt a solution – but players can enjoy curiosity that doesn't lead to such blunt payoffs, and frequently do. Exploring an intriguing terrain is fun for some players not because being able to navigate in that world is a skill with high perceived value (although it will be for some players), but because the landscape itself is richly interpretable. This is another way of saying that curiosity itself is fun, even if it never leads to learning.

Next week: McGonigal and Suits

Implicit Game Aesthetics (3): Koster’s Theory of Fun

A Theory of FunIn a recent discussion of the phenomenon of declaring certain things "aren't games", game designer Raph Koster approaches his definition of 'game' not with the properties of artefacts that qualify as games but with the player's activity positioned as the central point of interest:

Playing a game is the act of solving statistically varied challenge situations presented by an opponent who may or may not be algorithmic within a framework that is a defined systemic model.

Putting the player first in this definition seems to prioritise the play over the game, but this sentence conceals an opposite (but complementary) stance by concluding that the player's actions take place "within a framework that is a defined systemic model". The entire definition could therefore be run backwards as "a game is a defined systemic model within the framework of which players face a (possibly algorithmic) opponent who presents statistically varied challenge situations the player solves". Since the purpose of the current enquiry is to uncover aesthetic assumptions about games, the final clause appears to be the decisive factor, although there is no explicit system of priorities as is found in Crawford's taxonomy. Once again, the victory ("challenge situations") and conflict ("presented by an opponent") aesthetics appear central, and the phrase "statistically varied" may be a pointer towards the uncertainty aesthetic we will explore later. Koster's unique contribution, when compared to Crawford and Costikyan, is the explicit focus placed upon the systems aesthetic that was foreshadowed in Costikyan's allusions to resource management.

What the systems aesthetic excludes are kinds of play that lack any kind of formal definition. Children's games of make believe, on this reading, do not qualify as games because they are not formally specified (hence they are play, but not games). However, Koster could presumably argue that there is a defined systemic model in place here by arguing along similar lines to Bernard Suits' open games (which we will explore later) or by formally defining make-believe games in manner similar to Kendall Walton's acceptance principle or something like it. The systems aesthetic is incredibly wide compared to the victory and conflict aesthetics, but of course Koster also includes these, thus contracting his space of interest to the point that the systemic model requirement almost ceases to contribute anything additional. A spontaneous race between two joggers might qualify as challenge with an opponent but not qualify as occurring under a defined systemic model, but this would very much depend upon whether Koster intends to include activities that can be modelled systemically but which aren't thought this way by their players. Since any activity can be systemically modelled, it seems reasonable to presume a definition in advance is what is intended by Koster's wording.

Of course, what a game designer does in a great many projects is precisely the creation of these kinds of systemic definitions, so favouring the systems aesthetic is arguably to valorise the contribution that game designers make to a game. However, it is broadly the case in both videogames and boardgames that the kinds of systems in use become engrained in the culture that plays and makes those games. For instance, the fundamental systemic elements of first person shooters changed only marginally between Quake (id Software, 1996) and Halo: Combat Evolved (Bungie, 2001), and similarly between Halo and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (Infinity Ward, 2007). There was no redesign of the systemic elements involved, only modifications to interface efficiency (e.g. Bungie's abandoning of clunky weapon inventories for a simpler two-gun system) and enhancements to multiplayer (e.g. Infinity Ward's importing of experience point mechanics from RPGs). The bottom-up design of complete game systems is rare outside of very decision-centric kinds of games (e.g. strategy games, computer RPGs), and it is possibly the case that the systems aesthetic expresses a preference for these kinds of games – Crawford echoes this sentiment when he calls Costikyan's allusion to resource management "a strategy gamer's approach to the problem". The fact that the vast majority of game designers fit personality inventory archetypes associated with strategic thinking is probably no coincidence.

However, Koster's definition is only a part of his aesthetic judgement concerning games. In his justly acclaimed book A Theory of Fun for Game Design (2005), pictured above, Koster provides a definition of fun in which he expressly excludes all manner of experiences as fun. For instance, rollercoasters only provide "visceral fun" and are thus 'not fun' according to Koster's approach. Here we can see value judgements coming to bear on the aesthetics of play not from the conceptual approach to 'game' but from the conceptualisation of 'fun'. That Koster excludes all kinds of "visceral fun" as being fun is one of the strangest value judgements in the entire discourse of game studies, since to a great many players these kinds of experience are the very essence of fun. Instead, Koster positions learning as the central experience of fun, stating:

Games are puzzles to solve, just like everything else we encounter in life [and] serve as very fundamental and powerful learning tools.

This seems on the surface to be a value judgement in respect of problem solving that has already been collected under the aforementioned problem aesthetic, but Koster's also has a distinctly new contribution: it is not the puzzle or problem or decision that is important, it is the learning. He is willing to combine goal-oriented games and "playing make-believe" under a category he defines as "iconified representations of human experience that we can practice with and learn patterns from" i.e. he is happy to unify all forms of play under the auspices of learning – although he can only achieve this by dismissing, a priori, any kind of play or fun that does not fit this description as "visceral". Even though it does not appear directly in his definition of game, Koster advances a learning aesthetic that is relatively unique in the literature, and quite popular among the game studies community. This learning aesthetic is intimately related to the problem aesthetic, which Koster occasionally promotes directly e.g.:

All art and all entertainment are posing problems to the audience.

At other times, he stresses the learning aesthetic more directly:

The definition of a good game is therefore "one that teaches everything it has to offer before the player stops playing". That's what games are, in the end. Teachers. Fun is just another word for learning.

I have found (unsurprisingly) that teachers of games courses are particularly satisfied with this approach! However, it is deeply problematic to claim that the learning aspect of play is fundamental to games while also recognising (as Koster does) that this learning aspect is central to life and cognition in any context. That our neural architecture learns from all experiences is not a statement about play or games but merely an observation about neurobiology. Not all fun is about learning, as Koster admits by segregating "visceral fun", and if we redefine 'fun' so that it is just about learning then we are left with a vacant tautology. Koster even strays into metaphysics to defend his position, claiming: "Play developed to teach us about survival." This teleological claim is not empirically grounded and is either untestable or simply incorrect (for more on this kind of statement, see my forthcoming book The Mythology of Evolution). Koster is correct that games can be powerful learning tools, and makes many cogent observations in this regard, including the correct linking of the reward chemical dopamine to learning. Still, to make learning the central feature of games is an aesthetic value judgement, particularly since many players (unlike many game designers) do not enjoy learning when it is challenging but only when it is fun (in the wider sense) or interesting to them as individuals. This argues against a strong identification between fun and learning.

That Koster's position involves an aesthetic choice can be seen clearly in his condemnation of players who are enjoying playing but are not learning, as the following quote demonstrates:

Going back through defeated challenges in order to pass time isn't a productive exercise of your brain's abilities. Nonetheless, lots of people do it... But once you get past the point of doing something perfectly, do yourself a favour and quit the game.

Why should players stop doing what they are enjoying just because they aren't learning? Unlike Koster, and those who share his aesthetic tastes, there are many players for whom the exercise of mastery is more fun than learning, and perhaps also more fun than conflict or strict victory. This mastery aesthetic is not something anyone has espoused via a definition of game, to my knowledge, but it can be found among players and is distinct from both the victory aesthetic, which takes pleasure only in beating the challenges, and from the learning aesthetic since it valorises not the process of gaining perfection but the perfection itself. That this approach to play exists is not disputed by Koster – "lots of people do it" – it is simply his value judgement that this kind of play is inferior because it does not entail learning.

Next week: Cook's Chemistry