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Edinburgh Interactive 2012

I’m proud to report I have a gig at Edinburgh Interactive this year with Ren Reynolds, at 2:30 pm on Thursday 9th August. Here’s the blurb:

Are computer games art?

This seemingly obscure academic question can quickly get film critics spluttering, lawyers scribbling, and bloggers, erm... blogging. Why all this passion? Because if computer games really are art then they matter. Not in the sense of computer games being the UK's most successful creative industry where we export products and talent around the world, or games being a massive boost to the British economy. No. Really matter. As a culture that people have to take seriously.

To answer the question once and for all, philosopher and policy wonk Ren Reynolds talks to Chris Bateman about games, art and their intimate relationship. As author of the book Imaginary Games, founder of International Hobo and lecturer, Chris brings the twin perspectives of game maker and academic to this vexed question.

Ed Key on Proteus

Proteus Described as "an audiovisual wilderness exploration game/plaything", Proteus is hauntingly reminiscent of certain retro-games, yet stunningly unlike anything you’ve seen or heard before. I caught up with Ed Key, one half of the team behind it, as he was moving house and asked him about the incredible world he is creating with musician David Kanaga.

Chris Bateman: Proteus, for anyone who hasn't played it, is a game of pure exploration – the tasks in it are thinned down to the point of being very nearly non-existent. Clearly, this is by design – you’ve mentioned before how the character of the play changed when you experimented with goals (what psychologists call ‘overjustification’). I’m curious as to how you came to commit to such a wonderfully thin play experience.

Ed Key: That’s interesting that you bring up ‘overjustification’ – I’d heard about it a while ago but not really thought about it in relation to Proteus. It makes a lot of sense in that context! I can't quite put my finger on why I think this, but I’m not sure it’s the whole story: it seems like there’s a distinct feeling of exploring a world where you have neither clear goals nor any indication of where the limits of the world are. One thing that we’ve avoided is any internal system to tell the player how many animals or events are yet to be discovered.

Chris: That’s become the norm, of course, thanks to Achievements and the like, so you take something of a risk pushing against that trend (albeit an admirable risk!).

Ed: Right, precisely because of achievements! It is a risky move, but it prevents any sort of “checklist” behaviour, even though that would have a certain primal satisfaction for the player. For me this is in tune with how we approach reality outside of games, whether it’s a scientific or creative endeavour.

Chris: So instead of explicit rewards, you have more implicit pleasures from the environment – and especially in the music.

Ed: The idea of a link between surroundings and music arose in the first few emails David and I exchanged. At first I wasn't sure if this was enough to hold people’s interest but it seemed to work well enough! I’m a great believer in not adding things if they don't “stick”, and since things like inventory mechanics and survival stats seemed to reduce the sense of immersion, I always removed what little I added. Instead we aiming for a density and variety of encounters and interactions using only the “move” and “look” verbs.

Chris: That’s one of the things I truly admire about the game, although I can’t imagine it began that way! Your old tumblr website mentions a project entitled Draco as an offshoot of Proteus that “might not go anywhere”. Did you originally plan Draco, and then found that the world you were creating was interesting in its own right? Or did you set off to sculpt Proteus, and considered Draco as a possible way to apply it?

Ed: Draco is one of several small prototypes I've made since starting Proteus that are also about exploring a landscape. These are mostly turn-based and heading towards something more about survival than just experience, playing with things that didn't fit in Proteus. The oil to Proteus's water.

Chris: Can you say anything more?

Draco-2010-10-18-0003Ed: Here’s an old picture [reproduced right] of what Draco looked like at one stage, although it went through many forms.

Chris: Wow, I can immediately see a connection between that and the classic Mike Singleton game, The Lords of Midnight! Were you a ZX Spectrum gamer? Was Proteus influenced by early art/games like Deux Ex Machina (1984) or Psychedelia (1984), or early playground worlds like Mercenary (1985)?

Ed: Well, I grew up with a Spectrum but didn’t play any of those at the time. One game that seems like it would fit in that list that I did play was Captain Blood. Fantastically surreal, very French game about exploring a universe and talking to aliens.

Chris: Yes, the magazines loved Captain Blood, but I never managed to find a copy myself, alas. Which other games would you say directly inspired Proteus?

Ed: I don’t think I could point to any direct inspirations in games. I’ve always been drawn to portrayals of nature in games, from Monkey Island, Morrowind, Minecraft, etc, but it’s more of a general osmosis than building on any existing game.

Chris: I think that’s a common experience. The designers who can cite specific influences, like Anna Anthropy, seem to be the exception rather than the rule. What about the abstract art style? Surely that has an 8-bit influence.

Ed: I think growing up with 8-bit games informed that. Since starting on Proteus I learnt a lot about colour theory and abstraction in the fine art world, but I’m still learning.

Chris: You cite as inspiration the work of one of the Taoist philosophers, Master Zhuang, and you’re also friends with one of the British druids. I wondered about how these mythological themes fed into Proteus, and whether you see it as having a mythic dimension. Proteus almost seems to be a love poem to the natural world (including, to some extent, humans) – the sort of thing that can be found in great abundance in Chinese and Japanese poetry. Is there a conscious connection here?

Ed: Definitely! Proteus is absolutely a kind of wordless poem about the world and a certain way of looking at things. David and I had lots of long philosophical discussions over Skype about modes of experience, how meaning arises, and that sort of thing. Another big influence, especially on David’s side, is “A Voyage To Arcturus” by David Lindsay.

Chris: I know the book although I’ve never read it – it’s considered to be hugely influential, though, as it was published way back in 1920. Tolkien was supposedly a fan.

Ed: Yes, it’s this totally unique proto-sci-fi philosophical adventure story about a journey to another planet where the hero grows and sheds different sensory organs as he travels through different regions. It also features two new primary colours (jale and ulfire) and a Primer-like timetravel paradox.

Chris: You call it a game/plaything – are you uncomfortable considering it a game/artwork? Did you feel you had to qualify “game” because so many gamers expect goals and challenges when they hear that word?

Ed: These days I’m less shy about calling it a game than I used to be. I’ll definitely qualify it with some extra verbiage if the situation seems to warrant it, as I don’t want people to go into it thinking it’s something that it’s not, but I’m now pretty happy with saying it’s a game, especially as I’ve had so many votes of confidence since then.

Chris: Personally I don’t even see it as that close to the boundaries, to be honest – there is a definite game-like structure in operation, and tangible (yet subtle!) rewards in the soundscape (I always stop to chase a magic frog!). But people can be terribly protective of the term ‘game’ and can get quite angry about violations of their notions of gameness.

Ed: In a way it doesn't matter – for the most part I find the “what is a game” discussions pretty tedious and limiting. Most of the time these articles boil down to the author’s personal preference, and maybe some kind of anxiety about the status of the medium.

Chris: This was precisely the thrust of my Implicit Game Aesthetics serial, which excavates aesthetic value judgements in people’s definitions of the word ‘game’. The blurring of the boundaries of gameness is not something new, as something like Deus Ex Machina on the Spectrum showed. The magazines refused to give it a review score, and the same happened with Geoff Crammond’s The Sentinel (1986) even though these days no-one would doubt for a moment that it was a game.

Ed: Yes, there have always been “games that aren't really games”, like Cowboys and Indians and Snakes and Ladders. Maybe even the more free-form D&D style “isn't a game”.

Chris: I prefer to go the other way on this and throw the term as wide as possible. If freeform role-playing games aren’t games then I may never have played a game in my life, since that is how I try to play in all game worlds!

Ed: Probably the main reason for calling it a game is that it’s a nice short word that doesn’t sound too overblown, compared with “ambient experience” or whatever.

Chris: Yes, and Proteus is extremely rich in ambient experience. For anyone such as myself who is open to its low-res visual aesthetic, it’s stunningly beautiful. When I played the latest build for the first time, I cried. Now admittedly I’m an old softy and it doesn't take much to make be blubber, but I've never had a videogame reduce me to tears just because it was so beautiful. I wonder – do you really appreciate just how special Proteus is?

Ed: Wow! I guess I’ve realised that a lot of people really like it!

Chris: Doug Wilson over at ITU Copenhagen has also heaped praise on it, and suggested that it's an important title – I heartily agree with him.

Ed: Doug has definitely been tireless about spreading the love for it.

Chris: I refer to Proteus in a forthcoming paper on game aesthetics alongside artistically motivated games such as The Graveyard and Journey – have you ever seen yourself as an artist or a creator of art?

Ed: As someone who’s lived with this thing for over three years as it slowly grew, it’s really hard to have an objective view of it, but I’m proud that we stuck to our principles and created something with very few compromises. In that sense I do have to consider it “art”, even though the word has some baggage attached – going back to the whole “are games art” debate that was so fashionable recently.

Chris: I hope that my philosophy book Imaginary Games is the nail in the coffin of the counter-arguments to games qualifying for artistic status – but perhaps a lively argument never dies! What about your contribution to this, though: are you comfortable having made something that is going to be used to help defend games as an artistic medium?

Ed: I’m definitely happy with Proteus finding a use in that way!

You can learn more about Proteus and preorder for access to the latest builds at

The Thin Play of Dear Esther

Dear Esther Much has been written about Dear Esther, alas little of it useful. Too much noise has been generated by people objecting to the idea that thechineseroom’s title qualifies as a game – some, like Tadhg Kelly, insist that it is worthy as a piece of modern art, but it isn’t a game because there is no agency. In Implicit Game Aesthetics, this aesthetic judgement  is termed the agency aesthetic, a way of enjoying play that focuses on the player’s ability to enact meaningful change in the fictional world of the game as the sine qua non of game aesthetics and hence a necessary condition of ‘gamehood’. Others object on grounds based directly on the addictive dopamine-hit of winning expressed by the victory aesthetic or the problem aesthetic. But none of these objections help people to understand the play of Dear Esther.

I disavow the term ‘game’ if it is going to get in the way of understanding games, and Dear Esther is a game worthy of study. Both my colleague Ernest Adams and I have long wanted games to be less obsessed with giving players fictional guns to wield and more willing to allow players to enjoy the environment. In a GDC talk, Ernest singled out Far Cry as an excellent example of a virtual world sadly closed to tourists because there is a perpetual gunfight going on inside. I share this sentiment. I have spent many happy hours crafting wonderful environments inside Far Cry’s first-rate level editor that alas fell flat because most were ill-suited for gun violence. Still, I have enjoyed roaming their virtual hillsides and shorelines for hours at an end. How sad that I was the only person who was enabled to do so – especially since examining Dear Esther practically shows how pathetically simple it would have been to have games/art of this kind available for play years before if only the development community hadn’t been so busy with its primary preoccupations.

At its heart, Dear Esther isn’t just built with an FPS engine, it is built as an FPS. Players who have now racked up hundreds, perhaps thousands, of hours in control of a disembodied gun-graphic forget that just moving around in these worlds in first person perspective is a skill that has to be learned. For many of us, it has become second nature – the fact that my gaming group has played Counter-Strike for so long has made these controls natural even to me, a player of very few such games. Those who object to Dear Esther on victory or problem grounds should reflect that there are players for whom negotiating the entire island with this set of controls would be a significant challenge. The objection cannot, therefore, be that there is no challenge or goal, only that it is too easy to be a game (which says a lot about the kind of players who would raise such an objection!). In fact, I would say it is still not easy enough, but that is merely my preference for games/art that can reach everyone, not merely every gamer.

The FPS influences of the game run deeper than the controls, though: the level design is written in the language of the first person shooter throughout. That the fictional world of games have a language, a semiotic dimension that communicates, is one of the most interesting things about them – players of Assassin’s Creed, for instance, learned to associate a cluster of birds as a signal to jump from the rooftops, one of many well-formed aspects in this game’s visual language. For Dear Esther, the familiar branching-path layout introduces itself immediately and remains throughout, offering the traditional decision: players try to establish which is the dead-end so they can explore that first (since this is the most efficient method of exploration, and most gamers have explored a great many fictional worlds). Instead of a power up or heatlh, however, they find a part of the story – a different kind of reward, but a reward nonetheless.

However, the game also takes some of its signals from other places – the ever-blinking red light from the antenna in the distance is a classic weenie, Walt Disney’s terms for giant landmarks that guide people precisely because they’re taller than everything else around them. There are also berms, the Imagineer’s term for earthworks that block line of sight, but these are more common in games than weenies for the most part. The mountain in Journey is an obvious exception, a weenie serving the same role as the antenna light – structuring the play of the game towards a signalled goal. Both titles conspicuously borrow successful theme park concepts, gainfully learning from playful architecture how to guide-without-pointing – what is called telegraphing or landmarking in game level design.

The confluence of the weenie (the antenna light high in the centre of the mountain) and the traditional FPS branching path structure creates unusual decisions for the player, ones low in overt reward but high in expressive value. The way forward is seldom unclear, except perhaps for a few moments in the underground caves if the player gets turned around. This leaves them sometimes facing a path split that would put them back to where they have been before. There is no new voice to be heard for retreading old ground, so making this choice is solely an aesthetic decision on the part of the player, to lengthen their path, to see the island differently. I myself could not resist walking back on the sandy shore to view the lighthouse in full, even though doing so did nothing but lengthen my game. Therefore it would be wrong to claim that there is no agency in Dear Esther, it is just incredibly thin.

This thin play is precisely the game’s strength, since it allows the fictional elements more focus. Walking around the island is, many people have commented, meditative. It is strongly reminiscent of the early sections of Silent Hill 2, which also focus more on evoking atmosphere and experience, with challenges and puzzles deferred to later. In Dear Esther, however, those victories-to-come never emerge, and the game seldom uses fear or anxiety to raise the level of excitement. It aims for a much calmer state-of-being, one that I am tempted to compare to the also-meditative play of William A. Romanowski’s tranquility, although the games have very little in common representationally.

Conversely, the mainstream videogames industry specialises in very thick play – the thick cumulative goal challenges of Modern Warfare’s multiplayer mode, the bountiful, overlapping tasks of a Zelda game, or the shop-driven cornucopia of many economic social games. These games are, in the psychological sense, overjustified – the player’s actions are strongly conditioned by goals and rewards, and these determine what the player can and will do at any given time (as discussed last week in Does Overjustification Hurt Games?). Agency in these games seems to be present in abundance, but what the player will be doing at any given time has been specified in advance. At best, they get to work their way through the chocolate box in the order of their choosing, but mostly any sense of agency in these games comes solely from what Espen Aarseth has called transgressive play – finding the unexpected corners of what has been set in advance for the ideal player to do.

Against the overjustification that is necessarily abundant in the commercial mainstream of games, Dear Esther is a welcome offering of thin play, albeit not so thin that you cannot spot its first person shooter pedigree (although it has clearly bred with some mongrel offspring of the adventure game). One of the most stunning things about it is that the game asks you to conduct all the pathfinding of an FPS but without any killing on the way, as if the form of the gun game is now so codified that developers cannot help but use its tropes. Then again, perhaps (as Ian Bogost suggests) the engine itself cannot help but extrude the echoes of its first person shooter heritage.

However you look at it, though, Dear Esther is worth looking at. Provided you are not seeking the addictive fun associated with the thicker offerings in the marketplace, you will find something very different and quite unique here. A beautiful fictional world has been dressed with a brooding backstory, exposed simply by traversing its spaces. It’s a kind of game/art I’ve been waiting a long time for, and that there have been absolutely no good reasons for the industry not to be making. The technology has been around for years, but no-one thought to look at what could be done with those toy-view worlds when you finally silenced the guns. I can but hope that the success of Dear Esther makes it easier to create this kind of thin play in the future.

Does Overjustification Hurt Games?

Achievement Unlocked Left The House Today Concern about gamification has brought about a healthy discussion about its limits – but have we really understood the extent to which games themselves are already subject to a stifling of free play by explicit rewards like Achievements?

In psychology, the overjustification effect refers to situations in which offering an explicit incentive – money or prizes – reduces a person’s intrinsic motivation to perform a task. The earliest demonstrations of this effect were Mark Lepper and Richard Nisbett’s experiments on children aged 3 to 5 years, who had been showing an intrinsic interest in drawing. They divided the kids into three groups: in the first, a “good player” ribbon was offered for drawing. In the second, the ribbon was also awarded but it was not announced in advance. The third group was a control. Watching the children later, they observed that when playing freely the first group was significantly less interested in drawing, while the other groups behaviour did not change. They concluded that expecting rewards undermines intrinsic motivation in activities that were previously enjoyable.

This effect has been controversial in psychological circles because it flies in the face of previous research on the effectiveness of reinforcement (rewards) – and the widespread practice of using incentives in classrooms. Since 2001, the battle over the overjustification effect has been fought by the latest tool in the scientist’s kit – meta-analysis. In effect, this method is based on comparing results from multiple different studies. However, despite the occasionally grand claims made about the capacity of meta-analysis to solve disputes in scientific circles, what has happened in practice is that meta-analysis papers are open to dispute in just the same ways as individual statistical analyses, and the issues continue to go around in circles as participants in such tiffs remain committed to their various theories. As far as I can tell, the evidence as it stands still supports the overjustification effect, although rewards can be gainfully used to improve interest in tasks that are inherently dull.

Personally, I am fairly convinced by the overjustification effect since I see it all the time amongst digital game players. When the game offers explicit rewards in advance – for instance, and now most commonly, as a result of Achievement or Trophy schemes – these rapidly condition the player’s interactions with the game in question to the point that whatever intrinsic enjoyment there might have been in the game soon becomes secondary to the pursuit of the next badge in the collection. There are positive aspects to this explicit disclosure of goals – it makes it clear what sort of things can be attained within the game. But there are, I suspect, massive negative implications in contexts where a game is offering something intrinsically enjoyable, but conditions it by rewards. Once the badge has been earned, many players will move on to other things, even if the activity they are passing from would have been fun for much longer.

From the point of view of a large company involved in making games, or even a small one, overjustification actually has benefits: if you rely on intrinsic motivation, you may not keep the player’s attention for as long as if you structure their play for them. For platform licensors like Sony and Microsoft, there’s an additional advantage to the overjustification inherent in Achievements and the like: it helps the player reach a point of losing interest in one game, and thus encourages them to buy new games. However, for anyone interested in the artistic potential of the medium of games, overjustification should be a cause for concern, since intrinsically pleasant or interesting aesthetic experiences will be curtailed by conditioning the player’s involvement via goals and rewards.

This issue also has direct relevance for gamification, the application of overjustification to non-game contexts. If, as Jesse Schell jokingly mused, we offer extrinsic rewards for reading books (“Achievement unlocked: 100 books read!”), do we not tinker with the intrinsic rewards of reading? Players on Microsoft’s Xbox 360 platform sometimes choose which games to play based on how easy it is to accumulate the points associated with its Achievement reward schedule (called “g”). It will not be an improvement over the current situation if people are encouraged not to read the best books for them personally, but merely the shortest and easiest to read books. Schell seems to recognise there is a potential problem in his reference to self-determination theory (which is the most common framework used to understand the overjustification effect), but I share with Fabian Groh a general concern about rushing into gamification. As his February 2012 paper notes in conclusion: “proper scientific studies about the benefits as well as the side-effects of gamification are needed.”

Furthermore, I believe the games industry ought to be equally concerned about gamification “at home” as well as further afield. Although I have been a long-time advocate of “stamp collections” and other explicit reward structures in game design, I am now beginning to worry that overjustification is disrupting some of the intrinsic enjoyment of games. Take, as a case in hand, my experiences of Journey. I was having an incredible time with this game, enjoying a real sense of amazement about the relationships forged between travellers thrown together entirely by chance. Then, I collected the final Trophy for the game. I have not played it since, neither do I feel I am likely to do so. In some respects, this probably reflects my natural bias towards Achiever-style play, which compels me to find ways to make clean breaks with titles I am enjoying a little too much since my time is a scarce commodity. Yet what was intrinsically enjoyable about my experiences of Journey had little to do with goals. My play had been overjustified, and without rewards my intrinsic motivation to play vanished.

I certainly don’t want to be the one to declare that the sky is falling, but there is an indisputable tension in the ubiquity of reward schedules as the primary structuring mechanisms of contemporary digital games. Computer role-playing games had always been conditioned in this way, but as the Western-forms of these games have benefited from the growth of computing power, they have been consistently constrained by the outer reward structures offered by Achievements and the like. The vast possibility of their worlds are limited in advance by whatever badges are there to be won. I’m certain the majority of players will defend Acheivements et al as adding to their enjoyment, and this is a supportable argument. But what might you have done, say, in the fictional worlds of Skyrim or GTA: IV if the game had not given you explicit rewards for doing specific things? Can you be sure that your interests as a player have not been limited rather than expanded by extrinsic motivations?

The play of games, and the play of life as a whole, has become increasingly overjustified – a trend that seems likely to continue. Should we as game designers continue to participate in this exercise in constraint, or might there be games and play situations that benefit from being liberated from extrinsic reward? At the very least, we should think carefully about what happens when all games through a given channel are required to be overjustified via the necessary inclusion of Trophies, Achievements and so forth. The freedom of play is being curtailed, and we let it happen because we enjoy the rewards of being told exactly what to do. Perhaps we might benefit from greater caution in this regard.

The opening image was borrowed from a blog post by Liam Pritchard over on Brash Games entitled "Why I love Achievements and why they are potentially damaging", who discusses the same issue from a player's perspective.