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October 2013

Four Questions

Over the past four weeks on ihobo, I’ve been asking some questions that push against contentious issues in games. These were all written with a dash of bluster to try and provoke discussion – in at least one case, I may have overcooked it. Here are the questions:

  • Is Gordon Freeman a Character? (25th September): this concerns what we mean by a game character, and what we want out of characters in games. The contested camps are arranged around narrative vs. agency.
  • Is a Jigsaw Puzzle a Game? (2nd October): this one concerns our understanding of both games and puzzles, and the relationship between the two. The disputes concern different conceptions of ‘game’.
  • Is Fiction Just a Wrapper for Games? (9th October): a new rant on an old chestnut, it’s akin to the classic narratology vs. ludology battle (or fiction vs. function) and also player-centric vs. object-centric game studies (or player vs. system). Great reply by Danc on this one!
  • Is the Interface the Game? (16th October): this concerns the importance of the interface in games, something Graeme Kirkpatrick has championed. But do we really appreciate how wide reaching the effects of game interfaces are?

Hope you’ve enjoyed these rant-flavoured ponderings. I’ll be taking my usual break from blogging in November but there’ll be more nonsense at ihobo from December.

Is the Interface the Game?

Periodic Table of Controllers Marshall McLuhan famously claimed “the medium is the message” – does this mean that for videogames ‘the interface is the game’?

McLuhan's point was that every medium takes its own unique form that is intricately entwined with the content being delivered, and that radically changes how that content is understood. This drew attention to the essential characteristics of different kinds of media, since in McLuhan's view a medium can control “the scale and form of human association and action”. For movies, he suggested that their very nature played with concepts of speed and time, making configuration more prominent than in, say, novels. His concept of ‘medium’ was also extremely broad – he suggested a light bulb was a medium without content that still changed human interactions, creating spaces otherwise unusable at night such that “a light bulb creates an environment by its mere presence.”

Applying McLuhan's insight to games, one possible interpretation is that ‘the interface is the game’. Thus whatever the content of a fighting game, the medium creates a social or personal status contest between direct or indirect competitors over their ability to operate the controls. An MMO configures large number of players into a community who interact solely (or at least primarily) via their own personal projection of the fictional world of the game. A touch screen puzzle game isolates its players from the world around them via the kinaesthetic interaction of stroking and prodding the device in their hands – a different consequence from a console or arcade implementation of the same game, which more explicitly invites observers to vicariously participate in the experience. In the case of the dancing game, this spectator role is even more explicit because the interface now presses the entire body of its players into its service.

Developing his aesthetic theory of games, Graeme Kirkpatrick expressly draws attention to this kinaesthetic dimension of videogame play, and the extent to which the control devices have been systematically ignored in the study of games. While this falls short of McLuhan's broad perspective (which focuses upon the social reconfigurations wrought by media technology) it moves in a similar direction – and is a perfect fit to the adage ‘the interface is the game’. However, for Kirkpatrick, the interface is only ever kinaesthetic – the imaginative experience is only a wrapper to be removed (as I critiqued last week). This simultaneously goes too far and not far enough – it foregrounds an extremely important part of fighting, shooting, and other fast-paced games that is indeed often overlooked, namely kinaesthetic control-device manipulation. Scholars interested in games do not, as Kirkpatrick justly accuses, pay enough attention to this aspect of videogame play.

However, it must be noted that Kirkpatrick's form theory ties the aesthetic experience of videogame play to the mastery of interfaces. This offers valuable insight into certain kinds of play that are control-focussed – and not just in videogames. Pinball tables are perfectly suited to the kind of understanding form theory offers, for instance, and also fit Kirkpatrick's observation that an entire generation of young boys grew up “dancing with their hands.” Elsewhere, however it begins to seem less plausible, especially in games that allow time for decisions, such as turn-based strategy games, point-and-click adventures, or explorers that are not challenge-focussed such as Noctis or Proteus. Here we need a different understanding of ‘the interface is the game’ where ‘interface’ is not just referring to control devices but the entire conceptual ontology of the fictional world of the game.

Some examples will help clarify this point. Although its implementation could certainly be more user-friendly, Noctis has an interface designed for cataloguing (fictional) astronomical objects. The player sees themselves as explorer, but acts as record keeper as part of a (badly connected, alas) community of record keepers. Turn-based strategy games traditionally have an interface that rests upon the player imagining perfect control over numerous things that could not plausibly be controlled in the equivalent situation outside of a game – they sell a fantasy of control closely related to Alaisdair MacIntyre's myth of managerial effectiveness. Games like Proteus and Dear Esther subvert the interface of the FPS by using identical control schemes that are stripped of guns and weaponry. The message of these thin play games is not so much the interface as what has been removed from it – and what this then allows to be foregrounded. This is still very much in the spirit of McLuhan's ‘the medium is the message’, but it is a long way from what Kirkpatrick's form theory is best suited to describing.

There is indeed a sense in which the interface is the game, but this ‘interface’ (much like McLuhan's wide reading of ‘medium’) is more than just the control devices. The interface is what connects players to the fictional world of the game – and via this, to one another in Miguel Sicart's ‘virtuous community of players’. It is what we denote by the phrase ‘avatar’ which must (as I argue in Imaginary Games) be something other than the character model (what I call the avatar-doll) since the avatar as a concept need not be depicted. Indeed, in most text adventures it was never represented, not even verbally. The interface is something akin to Huizinga’s magic circle (at least as Salen and Zimmerman have this), or perhaps it would be better to say it is the site of this rather porous boundary between fictional worlds.

‘The interface is the game’ means that the game is more than an object – it is a point of connection, a rhizome (as Deleuze and Guattari have it) that lies out of sight, under the figurative ground, connecting game designers, hardware designers, silicon chips, software routines, critics, players, FAQ writers, and more besides into a subtle network of connections. The interface is our way in – but into more than just the fictional world that the game represents. It is our way into something very real yet totally imaginary, something more than an individual game experience but substantially less than a totality. In the medium of games, the message always has more to it than meets the eye – or the hand. Yes, the interface is the game, but both entail far more than they seem.

Is Fiction Just a Wrapper for Games?

Minecraft Wrapping Paper A popular view of the role of fiction in games is that it is just wrapping paper, enticing the player to start playing before later being discarded as the 'real' game supersedes its mere trappings. This utterly misrepresents the experience of a great deal – perhaps even the vast majority – of players.

I've been told Markku Eskelinen advanced exactly this metaphor of wrapping paper in respect of the fiction of games. I shall call this the wrapping paper fallacy, since while it is true of some players playing some games, it is not true of all players nor of all games. An attempt to restrict the category of games to only those that fit this fallacy would be misguided, and fall under my critique of implicit game aesthetics. Rather than a systematic argument (such as the one I provided in Fiction Denial) what I want to offer here is an observational rebuttal to the fallacy by describing play situations that cannot plausibly be understood in this way.

Perhaps most significantly, the play of tabletop role-playing games is impossible to understand without reference to their fictional content, and it is implausible to suggest such games could be remounted in a different setting with impunity. In fact, the players of these games have strong aesthetic preferences for the kind of fictional worlds they want to play within, and only a tiny minority of tabletop gamers become drawn into the kind of systems-focus that 'discards the wrapping paper'. With freeform and other diceless forms, there is very little system to 'unwrap', which is to be expected in a game form so intimately wed to its fiction. Even considering computer RPGs, which do have systems that might be unwrapped, the fictional content is rarely if ever set aside. If the mechanics come to dominate the fiction, some players will view this with disappointment, some will happily engage with the systems while still enjoying the fiction, and some will have their play destroyed by the intrusion of the rules into their experience.

Similarly, in games that attempt to evoke fear it is implausible to view the fiction as a discardable wrapper since it is always involved in the desired experience. The rules can support the fiction – as Resident Evil's ammo, inventory, and save management mechanics all do – but it is ludicrous to suppose an 'unwrapped' survival-horror game satisfying its audience. Indeed, as current examples such as Amnesia (and older examples such as Clock Tower) demonstrate, the beneficial confluence between fiction and function has great power to enhance the players' experience within the fictional world of horror games, but they cannot do so in disregard to representation. The lamp-management of Amnesia relies precisely upon depiction to work – and this is far from a rare case in videogames. Any game aiming to evoke horror experiences necessarily depends upon its representational techniques, which could never be simply discarded without failing to satisfy the players they attract.

There are also those cases that are experiential in nature, for which mechanics beyond the interface contribute little of importance. The snowboarding game is a great example, particularly when played by those who don't really care if they win. SSX, for instance, provided a very satisfying simulation of mountain descent at speed – but this is not simulation in the game mechanical sense, but in the representational, theatrical sense. Fiction is essential to this experience, and only in the less popular 'trick' modes of such games is there any possibility of 'unwrapping'. Indeed, what would it mean to 'unwrap' the downhill descents? To think solely in terms of the branch points on the route, and to set aside the sensory experience entirely? It is not plausible to think that anyone could be engaged solely in the route-management aspect of a snowboarding game, since the vertiginous fiction of the snow-capped mountainside is precisely the main attraction.

Another example is the sports game, which relies for its appeal upon its fiction and the veracity of its content to the sports they are modelled upon. When a group of friends play 2-on-2 football with a FIFA videogame, it misdescribes their experience to suggest the representation is set aside so they can focus on the rules of football. This would be nonsense! Rather, the fact that it is fictional that your team is fighting for victory on a digital pitch is quintessential to the pleasure of such games. Even in the case of something like the Statis Pro tabletop sports games, which have game mechanics beyond the rules of the sport being simulated, the appeal is always that you are (fictionally) playing with real teams and real players. If you take off the wrapping paper, there is no reason to continue playing at all.

Rather than the image of the mechanics as a desirable present wrapped up in pretty but ultimately forgettable wrapping paper, a better point of reference in respect of the kinds of play described above (and many other instances) would be the relationship between representation and function in gallery artworks. The interest in the painting is primarily in what it represents – in the picture. Familiarity will allow the player of such an artwork to see past the fiction and enjoy unveiling the skills of the creator – Van Gogh's brush work, the pigmentation of the old masters, the impressionists' ability to imply through colour. But at no point does the fiction of the painting cease to matter. Indeed, it is this that the deeper understanding of a painting seeks to explore.

There are indeed some artworks that make the functional components more central to their experience – Jim Warren's Ripping sequence, for instance, or the blank canvases displayed in the Hayward Gallery's Invisible: Art of the Unseen exhibition. No doubt there are some appreciators of contemporary art who prefer such invention to more conventional paintings. But we should not confuse the tastes of a subset of those who appreciate art for the experiences of everyone who can enjoy a painting. The same is just of true of games. The wrapping paper fallacy makes a minority experience into a model for a vast and diverse landscape of play, a model that is much more parochial than its advocates tend to admit. Theorists of games need to spend much more time watching how people play and much less time treating their own experiences as universal. Only when we actually explore how games are played by everyone can game studies really claim to be studying games.

Is a Jigsaw Puzzle a Game?

Tetris Jigsaw Although we call them puzzles, is the play of a jigsaw best understood this way? Veli-Matti Karhulahti triumphantly declares in the title of his DiGRA 2013 paper "Puzzle is Not a Game!" Is he right?

The language surrounding games, puzzles, and play is always muddy. We call things 'puzzle games' that involve solving no puzzles, and other things 'adventure games' that primarily consist in puzzle-solving. Worse, arguments concerning artistically interesting games focus far to often on the asinine 'is this a game?' and not enough on why specific experiences of designed play are of interest. For these and many other reasons I have disavowed the word 'game' as the biggest barrier to understanding play, and suggest that attempts to define 'game' are more about the aesthetic values of the individual than anything more substantial (a position I outlined in Implicit Game Aesthetics).

One of the latest scholars to wade in on the terminology dispute, Veli-Matti Karhulahti, recognises the terms are problematic, but claims his approach is ontological and not terminological. Regrettably, Matti's ontology is grounded on the terminology of 'puzzle' and 'game', and thus fails to escape the contested language. I rather wish he had instead started from scratch with his terms, but it is at least clear what aesthetic value judgements are in play, and therefore how his claims should be interpreted. Matti lines up behind the conflict aesthetic citing Hans-Georg Gadamer's claim that games require "something else with which the player plays and which automatically responds to his move with a countermove." The space of play covered by the problem aesthetic is split by Matti – that which meet his criteria of 'puzzle' are not games, those that do are 'strategic challenge'. As the choice of the conflict aesthetic makes clear, Matti's games are necessarily challenges - which he views as a "vital constituent of games". We can clearly see where Matti wants to erect his boundaries, and what he is not currently prepared to consider as relevant.

At Philosophy of Play, Matti and I talked about puzzles and games in the context of my disavowal of games. He assures me that he “has a word” for imaginative play, such as children's games of make-believe, but he's not yet told me what it is, and this aspect of play is utterly absent in this paper. Games, to Matti (and to everyone operating under variations of the victory aesthetic) are simply challenges. His distinction between puzzle and game becomes grounded on an appeal to the claim that strategic challenges "entail configuring dynamics" while puzzles "entail configuring statics alone." Where Matti and I are in close agreement is in his assertion that "games and strategic challenges are rather processes than objects." The question I want to explore here is: shouldn't the play of jigsaw puzzles be understood as processes?

As a sceptic about whether ontology is seperable from language, my method shall be phenomenology. Matti's specific claim about jigsaw puzzles is as follows:

A jigsaw is a puzzle. The consequences of its configuration are determinate, for fitting puzzle piece A to spot B has always the same outcome: the piece fits of not, and if the piece fits, the system state alters into a more lucid picture. If the piece does not fit, the system state remains the same.

Unfortunately, this in no way describes the way the players of jigsaw puzzles undertake their solution. What's more, the consequences of combining two jigsaw pieces is indeterminate for a number of interesting reasons. The first involves the way that conventional jigsaw dies cut up the cardboard. It is not solely the correct pieces that can be fit together, and most 1,000 piece jigsaws produce apparently convincing false positives with serious implications for the processes entailed in solving them. The less colour variation in the image, the worse this problem becomes. Furthermore, for the players of jigsaws the meaning of a matched pair of pieces varies according to how complete the image is around the matched pieces: if the two are in isolation, the match provides no way to determine where it belongs, and may not even be helpful. Matti's description covers only the case of having an image fragment and successfully extending it – and this is a subset of all matches that will occur in any given play session with a jigsaw puzzle.

Although I have seen considerable variety of approach, two of the most general strategies for jigsaw solving are those my wife uses, and those that I use (which makes our co-operation with jigsaw a particularly rewarding play experience for both of us). My wife has an acute sense of colour and solves jigsaws by grouping pieces by their hue, then matching within colour groups before assembling the segments. This approach, which I'll call pieces-to-image has advantages when alignment occurs in certain patterns as joined clusters are less likely to produce false positives since multiple pieces are generally wed simultaneously – a kind of object-oriented approach. I have the opposite strategy, which I'll call image-to-piece: I start by looking at the box to identify specific features, then identify the components of those features, and then build them into the already completed parts of the jigsaw. Unlike my wife, I am usually looking to extend what is already attached – so the outer frame (the usual but not the only place to begin) becomes my scaffolding to attach to. My strategy is based upon leveraging my excellent eyesight, and I find it much more rewarding than other approaches. (If you approach jigsaws differently, please share your tactic in the comments – I love to discover new variations of play!).

One interesting consequence of my image-to-piece approach is that the location of the die cut radically affects the difficulty of the solution: jigsaw makers are brilliantly sadistic, making cuts that make two pieces appear to be radically distinct when in fact they belong next to each other. Because this also involves dividing areas of colour, it also has an effect on piece-to-image play, but it is far less frustrating for a player approaching a jigsaw this way because the details of the image aren't central to the method. A player who solved a jigsaw by the brute force method, as a computer would have to do, would be oblivious to these kind of issues, which makes me suspect the number of such players is rather small – although certain jigsaws, such as the infamous 'baked beans' jigsaw, or the Tetris jigsaw depicted above, may have no other practical solution since neither mine nor my wife's method can be effective in solving them. For this reason, my wife and I are incredibly selective about which images we choose, and not just for reasons of visual aesthetics. The aesthetic experience of our different ways of playing is what matters to us, much as with any game.

In a rather insightful section of his paper, Matti supposes that puzzles (in his sense) are characterised by their configuration never depending upon their form. There is a genuine spark of genius here – but unfortunately many of the things we call a puzzle are dramatically affected by form. Someone like my sister who learned to solve a Rubik's Cube kinaesthetically (by learning a process with her hands) could not easily apply the same technique to a digital version of the same puzzle, even though (mathematically) the solutions were the same: the digital version requires additional spatial skills my sister is not competent at. The same kind of argument can be made with digital jigsaws, for which many of the kinds of functionality my wife and I take for granted at the tabletop would either be different of impossible (depending, of course, upon how it had been implemented). This already suggests jigsaw puzzles are not puzzles in Matti's sense, and although solving them is a clear process I rather think they do not fit his concept of strategic challenge either. This point is even more apparent in the case of a mile-wide version of a tabletop jigsaw, the solution to which could not possibly resemble the kinds of tactics possible with easily held pieces!

All of this makes it sound as if Matti's paper is too flawed to be of value, but this is not so! It has strengths that shine through its limitations, and his discussion of the relationship between chess games and chess puzzles is the most insightful I have read on the subject. There is a fascinating account of a certain kind of puzzle buried inside, obscured by its claim to be talking about all puzzles. As my discussion of jigsaw puzzles stresses, the fact that puzzles involve 'configuring statics' is not enough to render all the things we call puzzles into mere (mathematical) objects. There is a process experience in the actual play of jigsaws, Sudoku, and crosswords (or at least, certain kinds of cryptic crosswords) that does not match Matti's model very well, and could be used to defend a claim that such puzzles are games, even in Matti's chosen sense. The conflict aesthetic could be applied to these kinds of puzzles: the 'battle' between puzzle-maker and puzzle-solvers is richer than might be seen when such things are judged purely on a theoretical basis.

Ultimately, this paper's problem comes from its title and framing argument being mounted upon the boundary disputes over 'puzzle' and 'game'. With this setup, it reads as disingenuous to claim that the author has no interest in engaging in terminological debate. The likely inference by the reader is that the ontological claims are supposed to resolve the dispute unequivocally (which I doubt Matti means to assert, since ontology can never provide this kind of service). Matti has suggested he'd like to see me get away from Walton: I'd like to see him get away from Crawford, and indeed away from the boundary disputes altogether. My disavowal of 'game' is one option for him to consider, but I invite him to discover another. He is exploring fascinating connections between puzzles and strategic or tactical play that warrant further investigation. I for one am excited to see how this avenue develops.