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Just a Game?

Nuclear War If we defend the medium of games from its critics by claiming nothing in videogames matters because it's just a game, we betray everyone working on videogames with artistic aspirations by conceding that the medium of games is unimportant.

I see this kind of argument trotted out periodically on Twitter whenever someone like Jack Thompson decides to tilt at windmills. Usually the grievance is directed at violent games, at gun games, a vibrant part of the blockbuster market for games in part because it aligns so perfectly with the demographics which Sony and Microsoft have chosen to make central via their breed of overpowered boy-toy consoles. The temptation on the part of gamers is to reject these kinds of concern out of hand – playing Call of Duty does not make me want to pick up a real gun (the thinking presumably goes), much less commit murder, so getting upset about violence in games is stupid. After all, it's just a game.

What is actually at task here is the meaning of the fictional content of videogames, the interpretation of fiction within game worlds. Yet to assert that this does not matter because it's just a game is to claim – implausibly – that fiction in games doesn't matter because the fact of it being a game allows the significance of the fictional world to be ignored. And this is precisely an argument that games don't matter, they are artistically unimportant, they are second fiddle to novels and films.

It is important to recognize here that the reason that media such as film, theatre, and novels are lauded is because their fictional worlds matter. Shakespeare is still studied today, four centuries after his death, because his plays speak to the human experience – they contain eternal truths that can be exported (to use Tamar Gendler's term) from the fictional world. This is why theatre matters, even though some theatre is rubbish. Similarly, the films of Akira Kurasawa are not just about samurai warfare but about being human, and about the impact of history on human lives. These are examples of why films matter, even though most films are rubbish.

Precisely the reason that I argue in Imaginary Games that the fictional worlds of novels, plays, and films are part of a continuum of play that also encompasses games (including videogames) is that this is the most direct way of making the case that games matter, that they are a valid art form, and that their potential is at least as great as other forms of creative expression. But it is important to remember that defending a medium is not the same as defending any given instance. Call of Duty is not a great work of art, it is a popular work in an artistic medium – like Terminator 2 or The Avengers in film. It is not because it is ‘just a game’ that Call of Duty is artistically unimportant, it is because it is just a work of popular entertainment. This distinction is far more important than many gamers realize or admit.

If I recall correctly, I did once use this fallacious argument to defend the classic Flying Buffalo board game Nuclear War (pictured above) from criticism. My interlocutor was dismayed that anyone could enjoy a game that seemed to celebrate the obliteration of millions of people, or even the total destruction of planet Earth. But I should not have claimed this was acceptable because it was 'just a game' – I should have made the point that it was a satirical game, or perhaps a farcical game.

When Doug Malewicki designed Nuclear War in 1965, the threat it satirized felt very real, but he certainly didn't make the game to encourage an apocalyptic ending for all human life. It isn’t because Nuclear War is ‘just a game’ that we shouldn’t interpret it as glorifying atomic megadeath, but because it is a silly game, with country names like Bagmad and Little Bittyland, and a spinner for determining how many people are killed by radioactive fallout. The meaning of the fiction in games depends upon more than the simplistic binary opposition game-or-not. This is not so different from the situation facing films – did anyone really think Doctor Strangelove should be taken at face value?

Beyond the fact that the argument itself is erroneous, quite apart from its betrayal of the artistic potential of the medium of games, 'just a game' is also deployed hypocritically. The very same people who would dismiss conservative attacks on videogames by resorting to 'it's just a game' are vehement espousers of liberal ideals who would criticise the portrayed attempted rape of Lara Croft, question the use of black zombies in Resident Evil 5, or ask where the gay videogame heroes are hiding. But if it's 'just a game', none of these questions could matter. It seems as if this well-worn excuse is wheeled out solely to dismiss transgressions against other people's ideals (those that the gamers don't care about) because when their own ideals are violated, you can be sure no-one is dismissing these digital fictional worlds with the fallacious claim that it doesn't matter because it's just a game.

On this, as on so many issues, the community that cares about the medium of games must do much, much better. As a step in the right direction, let us ensure that no-one who genuinely cares about videogames gets away with the lazy defence implied by 'just a game'. If we value games, if we think videogames deserve greater respect, we should ask that those of us that enjoy playing games help discover how to properly appreciate this entirely misunderstood artistic medium. This step towards serious game criticism is long overdue, is more discussed than it is pursued, and has become necessary precisely because nothing is 'just a game' any more.


Fiction Denial

Space Invaders Invade TetrisAre game scholars dismissing the importance of fiction in games?

Games studies has thus far been ideologically united by commitment to what can be called fiction denial. Fiction (setting, world, representations etc.) is guaged of lesser importance to rules, or of no importance whatsoever. The premise of this is expressed in multiple equivalent ways: that the setting and representations of a game are interchangeable and that only the mechanics are 'eternal' (something akin to what Raph Koster or Dan Cook occasionally suggest); that players initially engage with a game via the fiction but later this becomes unimportant (as Graeme Kirkpatrick and Jesper Juul assert); that the representation has no effect on how the player behaves (as Espen Aarseth claims). Espen gives the paradigmatic example of fiction denial when he says he wouldn't play Tomb Raider any differently if Lara Croft had a different character model. I believe him. But isn't this a fact about Espen Aarseth and not a fact about either Tomb Raider or its players?

The problem goes back to the dawn of game studies – well, the first issue of Game Studies – with Juul's seminal line in the sand between games and stories. Stories, it is claimed by Juul, are already set – they occur in the past, while games happen as you play – they occur in the present. At the time, it was necessary to make this distinction to prevent game studies from being colonists by neighbouring disciplines like narratology that would have silenced the emerging voice of games. But Juul's argument is not as plausible as it first looks. Any stage play that participates with the audience or environment (passion plays, for instance) are as much in the present as games. Furthermore, both games and stories are constructed, scaffolded, or designed before they are experienced – the player of Halo can no more prevent the ringworld from being destroyed than the reader of Ringworld can present the spaceship from crashing. Juul's concerns about the problems entailed in translating books and films to games are mirrored by the problems translating games of one kind into games of another.

What I'll call Juul's Trench is an effective defensive measure, but little more – as by Half-Real, Juul himself seems to recognize. However, the later Juul still asserts that rules are real and fiction is not, and this is precisely the ontological claim that undergirds fiction denial. The idea that rules have reality while fiction is lacking in reality inevitably places the rules into a contrast with fiction where it will always come out on top. In Imaginary Games, I try to unseat this ontology by showing how rules and fiction are different forms of the same thing – different forms of fiction. I effectively support Juul's division while rejecting his ontology. I don't want to suggest that either rules or fiction is 'more real' than the other. To be honest, I don't want to get into an argument over what is real at all if we can avoid it.

At heart, fiction denial wants to make the (ontological) claim that it is the game mechanics, the rules, that are the real part of the game. Graeme Kirkpatrick's observation that players gradually see through the fiction to the rules is meant to support this assertion. While I agree that this does happen, my counter-claim is that this characterizes the experience of a particular kind of player and is not essential to games as such. Furthermore, for players who do engage with the fiction of the game fully, this 'seeing through' to the rules is an aesthetic flaw, not a strength, since it breaks with that nebulous experience we term immersion. From this perspective, it is not that the player 'sees through' the fiction, but the rules 'tear through' the world. Only an ironic ghost train rider wants to see the gears – or perhaps someone who makes ghost trains.

I want to make an additional claim that is more controversial: the causes of fiction denial are ideological commitments to the positivistic sciences. Some phenomena benefit from being studied in a positivist stance – chemistry, for instance. But in game studies Juul's Trench functions to divide art from science, and to put game studies firmly into the latter camp. What a disaster for the aesthetic appreciation of games: art is excluded by the very people who extoll the virtue of games! The strange and wonderful game ontology project epitomizes this assumption – offering dry, 'science-like' terms for game mechanical features, and refusing to allow them representative terms. But it does not even achieve this (thankfully!) – 'shoot', 'teleport', 'inventory', these are not fiction-neutral descriptions of game elements, and hallelujah! We should not want them to be!

What fiction denial hides is the intimate connection between fiction and rules, and particularly the way the content of the fiction implies rules, and thus wedding the wrong kind of rules and fiction together creates an aesthetically displeasing game. If fiction denial were viable beyond the preferences of particular players, an interface designed for a tank could become anything. It cannot – Battlezone controls work for tanks and sci-fi or fantasy variations on the key of tank. Despite the belief that you can reskin a first person shooter to be anything, you are always constrained to worlds in which wielding and firing a gun or a gun-substitute (a magic wand, fire breath) are central experiences.

One way to break through fiction denial is to temporarily forget the idea that game mechanics are eternal ideas, the "laws of physics" for play. Instead, foreground the world, bring the fiction into focus, identify the props (the fictional objects of the game world; those things with imaginative implications) and then see how the rules support or undermine their usage. As a matter of fact, this kind of thinking was already central to the way games are designed, and has been for over a century. The FPS is the game that emerges from the gun and the first-person camera – and always would be thus. The (fictional) qualities of the gun dictates the rules that can work well with it, and thus with the players' imagination. It is not the rules that are eternal but the fiction: no matter what rules you make, you cannot change the nature of a gun without it ceasing to be a gun.

I do not want to deny that game studies has been valuable, insightful or scholarly – it has been all this and more – I only want to deny the ideology that would mistake an individual interest in systems for an important truth about games. It is a fact about games that they attract nerds who think about systems. It is not a fact about games that the fiction is tangential to their play. On the contrary, for many players, for many games, fiction is absolutely central to the experience.


Implicit Game Aesthetics

Implicit Game Aesthetics was a serial in seven parts running here at ihobo.com 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!


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!


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:

...to 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


Implicit Game Aesthetics (2): Costikyan’s Critical Language

ParanoiaGame designer Greg Costikyan is most famous for his work on the award-winning Paranoia tabletop role-playing game (1984), pictured left, and the valiant-but-doomed indie publisher Manifesto Games. In 1994 he published an article in the British role-playing journal Interactive Fantasy that was expressly intended as a rebuttal to Crawford's earlier presentation of his terminology in The Art of Computer Game Design (1984). Entitled “I Have No Words & I Must Design” (and available online at Costikyan's website), Costikyan's express goal is to move towards a common critical language – a project as urgently needed today as it was almost two decades ago. He presents the following definition:

A game is a form of art in which participants, termed players, make decisions in order to manage resources through game tokens in the pursuit of a goal.

Notice immediately that Costikyan wants to assert games as art, contra Crawford's distinction – this is an aesthetic value judgement, but about art rather than games, per se, and thus lies somewhat outside the scope of this discussion. He also adds the following remark:

What's key here? Goals. Opposition. Resource management. Information.

Despite the goal to push against Crawford's approach, Costikyan's definition is ultimately quite similar in its component aesthetic value judgements – although it does not create a hierarchical assemblage of priority between them, and in his subsidiary remarks Costikyan suggests a great deal of additional elements that "strengthen games" (we'll return to these points shortly, as they are highly relevant). Nonetheless, Costikyan's key constitutive elements of games embody two of the same value judgements as Crawford: the victory aesthetic (goals) and the conflict aesthetic (opposition). What Costikyan adds is "resource management and information", which are presented in the context of the player's need to make decisions. This corresponds to Sid Meier's aesthetic assertion that "a good game is a series of interesting choices", and can be understood as a decision aesthetic. There is some potential overlap with the previously mentioned agency aesthetic, but it may be prudent to treat these as different – in particular because agency tends to concern the fiction of the game, whereas decisions tend to concern the rules of the game (although the blurring between these two is unavoidable).

However, decision-making is a subset of problem-solving tasks that certain players relate to the concept of a game, and thus the decision aesthetic is part of a wider aesthetic of play. As Costikyan remarks in his countering of Crawford's suggestion that Zork (1977-79) is a puzzle and not a game:

Almost every game has some degree of puzzle-solving; even a pure military strategy game requires players to, e.g., solve the puzzle of making an optimum attack at this point with these units. In fact, if a game involves any kind of decision making, or trade-offs between different kinds of resources, people will treat these as "puzzle elements," trying to devise optimal solutions. Even in deathmatch play of a first-person shooter, players will seek to use cover and terrain for advantage – 'solving the puzzle' posed by the current positions of opponents and the nature of the surrounding environment, if you will. You can't extract puzzle from game entirely.

Thus even though Costikyan himself seems to favour putting emphasis on the decision process over the wider activity of puzzle-solving, there is a more general problem aesthetic that can be recognised – one that views all play as puzzles or problems to be resolved. The overlap with agency is somewhat obscured when the focus becomes problem-solving rather than decision-making: we can make a decision about what colour car to drive but this is not a problem that can be solved, except in the most contrived use of the word 'problem'.

Should Costikyan's flagging of resource management be taken as part of problem(or decision) aesthetics, or as a separate assertion? This is unclear. Focussing on resources invites the kinds of decisions that correspond generally to the problem aesthetic (i.e. the activation of the orbital-frontal cortex and the consequent release of the reward chemical dopamine). Yet decisions are also possible in other wide senses, and these rapidly converge on the aforementioned agency aesthetic. Perhaps these two are in some kind of tension – between the formal, rules-focussed slant of the resource decision or problem-solving process at one end and the informal, fiction-focussed bent that is often entailed in attributions of agency to a game. These problems will have to pursued at other times using different methods. However, it is quite plausible that what is being alluded to here is close to a systems aesthetic that we will see later with Raph Koster's and Dan Cook's approaches to defining games.

Crawford, responding to the places where Costikyan's definition diverges from his own suggests that the reference to tokens sounds like "a throwback to the days of boardgames" and the reference to resource management reflects "a strategy gamer's approach to the problem", although he does not ultimately find either problematic. It is interesting, however, that Crawford uses the term 'throwback', which involves a value judgement – as if Crawford believes that now videogames exist there is no place for boardgames. A great many boardgamers – including Costikyan and myself – would vehemently disagree with this assertion. Thus if Crawford is making a value judgement against a boardgame-inspired term, there seems to be a case that Costikyan is also advocating a tabletop aesthetic. This might amount to nothing more than the belief that the fundamental systems used in tabletop games are compatible with their counterparts in videogames, and this may in fact be a subtle variation on the decision aesthetic. Still, a tension between a videogame aesthetic and a tabletop aesthetic that prioritises one form of play over the other may be present in this kind of discourse. I will not dwell on these media-specific aesthetics, but it should be recognised that both these and genre-specific aesthetic stances can be found in most discussions about games.

Costikyan's approach becomes far wider when he looks at those things that "strengthen games". Although these do not form part of his definition of 'game', they still embed aesthetic value judgements. Costikyan draws attention to diplomacy, colour (meaning the fictional gloss layered over the raw game rules), simulation, variety of encounter, position identification, role-playing, socialisation, and narrative tension. These broadly divide into general aesthetic positions. Firstly, those game-strengthening possibilities that specifically concern the way that players interact with each other beyond conflict – diplomacy and socialisation in Costikyan's terms. This could be termed a social aesthetic (diplomacy, socialisation), and it is worth noting that Costikyan (like Crawford) wishes to make the conflict requirement necessary and the social aesthetic tangential. It would not be difficult to defend the social aesthetic over the conflict aesthetic – co-operative games can often be expressed in terms of conflict, but such arguments are generally sophistic. Like Crawford, Costikyan still has some hierarchical judgements on games embedded in his approach.

Secondly, those game-strengthening possibilities that rely on the fiction or the player's imaginative faculties – specifically colour, position identification and role-playing. This imaginative aesthetic can be found elsewhere: in Imaginary Games I go some way towards defending an aesthetic value judgement that places this at the root of all of our experiences of play, for instance, which reflects a long and slow transformation of my beliefs about games over the last decade. Costikyan's simulation probably also belongs in this category – he notes that "simulation is a way of providing color" and also that "it improves character identification", which seems consistent with this approach. Lastly, Costikyan asserts that games can be strengthened by variety of encounter and narrative tension, which are forms of an uncertainty aesthetic that we'll examine more closely later.

What is striking about Costikyan's approach, even allowing for the apparent precedence given to the kinds of aesthetic value judgements also found in Crawford, is that it is so wide reaching. Definition aside, Costikyan allows for an incredibly diverse range of aesthetics of play within his framework. He still wishes to mount his priorities in similar ways to Crawford – namely the prioritisation of the victory and the conflict aesthetic. There may be a psychological or neurobiological explanation for this in terms of gender, or more specifically, in terms of testosterone. This chemical is associated informally with the male gender, since it is the male sexual hormone and governs the development of male sexual traits, but it affects both genders in the same essential ways and women with high testosterone levels display the same psychological traits as high testosterone men. It is a hypothesis I am currently investigating as to whether the psychological implications of higher testosterone levels in terms of persistence, tolerance to frustration and consequent enjoyment of conflict will serve as an explanation for why certain game designers wish to single out victory and conflict as key to games, but it is my strong intuition that these two aesthetic positions are related to testosterone in some way.

Next week: Koster's Theory of Fun


Implicit Game Aesthetics (1): Crawford’s Taxonomy

Chris CrawfordWhatever we consider games to be, people have incredibly strong opinions about them. I previously claimed that a great many attempts to define games could be interpreted as value judgements asserting a particular aesthetic stance, and in the series of pieces that follow I'll examine a number of definitions of the term 'game' and excavate the underlying aesthetic judgements. This is clearest wherever a definite boundary is being erected, and will become difficult when more general claims are made. There is ample room for many objections to my conclusions, not least of which being the need for further research, but it is not a plausible retort that one of the aesthetics that follows is the correct way of interpreting the term 'game' – the very nature of this approach voids any attempt to establish a single 'correct' definition. As Wittgenstein remarked, the meaning of a word is how it is used, and all of these aesthetics relate to ways the word 'game' is used by different people. We may prefer some of these uses to others, but this simply confirms that definitions of games involve value judgements.

At the start I shall take as essentially unproblematic only two conditions used within game definitions: that games entail rules, and that games entail fiction (or, in the terms discussed in my introduction to game aesthetics, that games have both functional and representational aspects). Both these apparently foundational assertions are sufficiently general that when taken singularly they exclude very few things people would consider as games, and indeed, include many things that a great many people wouldn't consider a game. Note that even play activities that have no stated rules can still be formulated in terms of rules – when I play Fetch with my dog, I consider this a game, but my Labrador probably does not conceive of what's happening in terms of the rules I can justifiably use to describe our game. Similarly, the fiction in (say) Chess is very thin indeed, but I don't think it's helpful to claim there is none at all. At the very least, Salen and Zimmerman's Huizinga-inspired "Magic Circle" sets apart the activity of the game from other activities, however porous this condition might be, and in this sense allows us to recognise a fictional world. Besides, we will later kick these blocks away in order to be left with a complete (but rough!) model of the aesthetics of play.

Because their stances are more strident and therefore more interesting, I shall start with the definitions of 'game' provided by professional game designers, and later consider the more moderate positions advanced by academics. It is the nature of this project to approach definitions of games on the assumption that they embed value judgements, but it is not necessarily the case that a proponent of a particular definition endorses the corresponding aesthetic judgement (although for the most part I believe they would, albeit with some considerable caveats). Nonetheless, in terms of the process of uncovering implicit aesthetic positions on play, each definition is archetypal of a wider viewpoint that is been reflected in my player studies over many thousands of players. The individual proponents of definitions, therefore, are akin to spokespeople for a particular aesthetic archetype and I apologise in advance to everyone involved for any violence I may have done to your specific views through the process of excavation.

To begin with, there is no better example of my claim that definitions of game conceal aesthetic value judgements than the famous taxonomy of creative expression given by Chris Crawford (2003), pictured above. Crawford is keen to note that his terminology cannot be considered definitive, but the nature of his definitions are so rigorous that they bring most out most clearly the kind of aesthetic judgements this exploration is aimed at uncovering. His taxonomy is constructed as a series of questions, each of which divides activities into two classes (sometimes with a subjective judgement aspect that Crawford is forthright in recognising). 'Game' is an accolade attained only by passing through each of the "gates" Crawford has set up, which implies value judgements that at other times in the same book he appears keen to disavow.

The sequence proceeds according to the following outline. Firstly, the motive of the creator is considered. If it is beauty, Crawford terms it 'art'; if it is money, he terms it 'entertainment'. Since Crawford places 'games' under 'entertainment', games seem to be immediately excluded from art, despite Crawford elsewhere (1984) yearning for games as an art-form. However, he also allows that this first step could easily be omitted. The rest of the steps are as follows:

  • Within entertainment: "is it interactive?" – if no, it is in the same (unnamed) class as movies, books and films, else it qualifies as a 'plaything'.
  • Within playthings: "is there a defined goal?" – if no, a 'toy'; if yes, a 'challenge'.
  • Within challenges: "is there an agent to compete against (or the illusion of one)?" – if no, a 'puzzle'; if yes, a 'conflict'.
  • Within conflicts: "can you impede your opponents?" – if no, a 'competition'; if yes, a 'game'.

Thus, only those things that are interactive, have goals, include opponents and allow attacks against those opponents qualify as a 'game' in Crawford's terms. However, simply listing these conditions doesn't do justice to the value judgements implicit in Crawford's taxonomy, since by placing 'game' at the apex of this sequence there is an unavoidable sense of priority to this order. Note that if the result of the final gate had been a different term – say, 'battle' – the entire taxonomy could be seen to refer to the space of play and games. By choosing to give 'game' this highly restricted meaning, Crawford appears to not only assert a number of aesthetic value judgements concerning games but also a hierarchy of aesthetics of play. The steps correspond broadly to an agency aesthetic (interactivity), a victory aesthetic (goals and challenges), and a conflict aesthetic (opponents and direct attacks) – all three of which can be found expressed by other game designers, although rarely in so rigid a sequence. Furthermore, other game designers do not tend to give so much weight to conflict: Crawford devotes two entire steps of his process to distinctions within conflicts, making direct competition a requirement of games rather than a class of games. This oddly groups games such as Snakes and Ladders, golf and all golf-simulations, Ubongo, Race for the Galaxy, and Knizia's Fits and its descendents, as being competitions rather than games, despite most people's strong intuitions that at least some of these are indeed games.

Over the next few weeks, we'll contrast the aesthetic value judgements found in Crawford's taxonomy with those found in other game designers (namely Greg Costikyan, Raph Koster, Dan Cook and Jane McGonigal) as well as those found among academics with an interest in play and games (Bernard Suits, Roger Caillois, and Thomas Malaby) in the hope of creating a very rough map to the landscape of the aesthetics of play.

Next week: Costikyan's Critical Language