Implicit Game Aesthetics (4): Cook's Chemistry
Implicit Game Aesthetics (6): Caillois and Malaby

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


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Another interesting piece.

I think Suits developed his stance toward games primarily as an attempt to refute Wittgenstein's position that definitions can be useful without being rigorous. Wittgenstein used "game" as an example of a term that's hard to define rigorously, but still easy to use without confusion.

Ultimately I think that Suits fails in his (indirect) critique of Wittgenstein. His attempt to draw precise boundaries around "game" still possesses gaps and aporia. And his lack of knowledge of the craft of game design leads him to underestimate how carefully "obstacles" toward progress must be placed if they are to structure a viable play space. It's not enough that the path toward a goal merely be inefficient, rather the inefficiencies need to be calculated to offer the player interesting decisions along the way. As a result, he's too eager to include a wide variety of different inefficient life experiences under the umbrella of play.

That said, I agree with him that it is possible to make "keeping the game going" a goal during play. Such a goal is implicit in the game of catch. It's trivially easy to throw a ball in such a way that it can't be caught. The interesting part of catch is throwing the ball in such a way that catching it is a BIT of a challenge for the catcher, but not enough to interrupt the back and forth of the game. Similarly, "I set off a bomb that kills all the bad guys" is not usually an acceptable move in a game of make-believe. Moves that are chosen to "keep the game going" or "bring the game to completion" are an important part of many play experiences. Victory is not the same as closure. A game can formally end even while some players are still heavily invested in anticipating different strategies and casual chains. Similarly a game can feel "done" (there are no longer any interesting moves to make) even when its formal victory conditions have been met.

(I, like Suits, have an ulterior motive in choosing to allow a closure aesthetic ... it allows me to use play-based critical tools to analyze discursive spaces that lack formal victory conditions ... .)

I found the rest of McGonigal's book at odds with the aesthetic that she establishes at the outset. While she adopts a position that play can be pursued as its own reward, rather than as a means toward victory, "gamification" seems mostly to consist of erecting reward structures around existing tasks that are not in and of themselves entertaining. Grinding toward a reward is certainly a thing that people are willing to do in games, but in general I think most game designers would agree that its better to create an experience that's entertaining in and of itself. Maybe "grindification" would be a better word than "gamification" ... .

In any case, I think that McGonigal has perverted Suits's position toward games. Suits argues that games are valuable PRECISELY because they serve no practical purpose. McGonigal's attempt to harness the power of games as a utilitarian workplace/lifestyle tool seems completely at odds with the philosophical framework that she's grounding her argument within.

Brian: another interesting commentary - thank you!

Yes, there's little doubt that Suits was trying to counter Wittgenstein. Trouble is, I think Suits actually misunderstood Wittgenstein's commentary on games. The point of using games as an example was because it was a very complicated category that demonstrated Wittgenstein's 'family resemblance' concept fairly clearly. Wittgenstein's interest wasn't in defining games, or suggesting it couldn't be done, but in showing that some terms in language could not be adequately modeled in a view of language as definition (what Wittgenstein at one point calls 'the fallacious name theory', or something like that).

I should clarify that I agree with Suits that it is possible to have extending the game as a goal - there are many examples of this, including your catch example and also something like Mornington Crescent. My concern was that this doesn't describe the player of table-top role-playing games very well, even though they fit under the open games category that Suits defined via the extension of game concept.

"Victory is not the same as closure."

Great phrase! It so wonderfully describes that moment when a boardgame ends and most of the players are disappointed not because they haven't won, but because they didn't get to complete their personally set internal goals. "I didn't get to link all my cities together..." :)

I too am sceptical of the idea that gamification could be used to 'rescue' reality, for more or less the same reasons you outline here - but I do think that something like McGonigal's programme has strong merits, but it perhaps needs to focus on the recovery of the playful rather than simply instituting the grind. But McGonigal's work was perfect for this serial because her definition was so delightfully distinct from everyone elses, and she makes a great link into non-game designer definitions.


Brian : I like your term "grindification" !
But I like to argue that examples of multiplayer games for *scientific* puzzle solving ( eg. Seti@home, foldit or eterna) are about more than grinding. Players seem to derive genuine satisfaction from taking part in an RnD project that is seemingly very remote from their own lifes.

translucy: this is an interesting joining-of-the-dots - I hadn't thought about these in this context, but you're absolutely right - these are like ProgressQuest, but with real world consequences. Nice observation!

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