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C.S. Lewis and Philosophy of Game Design
by Josh Foreman on 09/02/11 03:27:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Perhaps, in the nature of things, analytical understanding must always be a basilisk which kills what it sees and only sees by killing.

C.S. Lewis ~ The Abolition of Man



I’ve been interested by a pattern that I’ve noticed on Gamasutra and a few other game design related sites.  Almost every time an article or blog is posted that gets into the psychology of gaming and game design there will be a comment or two along the lines of:

“You can’t turn art into a system of numbers and metrics!  You are killing the FUN in games when you analyze them like this!  Don’t deconstruct the magic that makes games what they are!”

Personally, these right-brained knee-jerk responses don’t really appeal to me.  They usually strike me as sad, inarticulate slippery-slope arguments.  But I’m also philosophically opposed to dismissing ideas out-of-hand.  I prefer the Hegelian method of searching out the thesis/antithesis and hashing out a synthesis whenever possible.   That’s why I love bouncing between Nietzsche and C.S. Lewis. 

Which brings me to my point.  Being a dominantly right-brained individual myself, I sympathize with what these naysayers are pointing at.  And since I’ve not seen a well articulated argument from them, when I came across these passages from C.S. Lewis’ book The Abolition of Man, they jumped out at me as possible conscripts for their position.

The book itself is, of course, not about game design at all, but the theme does speak directly to this debate about how the analysis of a thing (Such as fun) can kill it.  At least for the artists.  Consider this passage as it relates to metrics or any specific psychological understanding of fun.

Now I take it that when we understand a thing analytically and then dominate and use it for our own convenience, we reduce it to the level of `Nature' in the sense that we suspend our judgments of value about it, ignore its final cause (if any), and treat it in terms of quantity. This repression of elements in what would otherwise be our total reaction to it is sometimes very noticeable and even painful: something has to be overcome before we can cut up a dead man or a live animal in a dissecting room. These objects resist the movement of the mind whereby we thrust them into the world of mere Nature. But in other instances too, a similar price is exacted for our analytical knowledge and manipulative power, even if we have ceased to count it.

We do not look at trees either as Dryads or as beautiful objects while we cut them into beams: the first man who did so may have felt the price keenly, and the bleeding trees in Virgil and Spenser may be far-off echoes of that primeval sense of impiety. The stars lost their divinity as astronomy developed, and the Dying God has no place in chemical agriculture. To many, no doubt, this process is simply the gradual discovery that the real world is different from what we expected, and the old opposition to Galileo or to `body-snatchers' is simply obscurantism. But that is not the whole story. It is not the greatest of modern scientists who feel most sure that the object, stripped of its qualitative properties and reduced to mere quantity, is wholly real. Little scientists, and little unscientific followers of science, may think so. The great minds know very well that the object, so treated, is an artificial abstraction, that something of its reality has been lost.

This seems to me like a quintessential argument against the way many in our industry like to view games as elaborate Skinner Boxes.  

When we take game mechanics as parts to a machine designed to trigger dopamine release in players, then we are no longer seeing a GAME in the common sense of the word, but rather a mechanism.  We have ceased to be artists and have become mechanics.  (Many developers don’t mind this designation, so don’t think I’m using it as a pejorative.)  I think the first time I encountered this feeling was when I learned about the nine-act structure that can be seen in almost every blockbuster movie made in the last 30 years.  

As our culture becomes more and more saturated with entertainment content it has been easier for us to pick up on the patterns that are at work here.  And as I discovered more and more of these mechanics, a great, dark ennui began to engulf me.  When I went to a movie, rather than enjoying or being moved by a story, I was observing a mechanical process. 

Seeing the pieces move like clockwork in an elaborate machine.  I was “seeing through” the magic.  Seeing through the movie.  Losing the experience.   This is something that Lewis predicted before post-modernism had a name, but he traced the trajectory that naturalistic modernism was on and presented his case that such a trajectory has no satisfactory conclusion. 

Our culture has been conditioned to “see through” so much.  To scrutinize things with a cynical eye so we can explain away what we disagree with.  To see through advertising.  To see through religion.  To see through patriotism.  To see through politics.  To see through morals.  And in our case: to see through fun.  This is where Lewis sees this ending: 

But you cannot go on `explaining away' for ever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on `seeing through’ things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to `see through' first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To `see through' all things is the same as not to see.

So what I think I’m hearing from the rabble rousers that object to the study of psychology applied to games, is fear.  They fear losing the magic that I lost with movies.  I can still appreciate a well done movie, but on an un-enchanted level, as one would appreciate a well crafted chair or shoe.  My right brain doesn’t want to lose that magic that games still bring me.

But my left brain understands that in every field there is a technical expertise that must be mastered before a medium gains its full power.  Imagine if doctors didn’t want to study internal organs because understanding how digestion works would ruin the magic of humans for them.  Or if movie makers didn’t study the craft, learning what kinds of characters are compelling, what kinds of conflict work, what kinds of relationships resonate, etc.  Well, sure, movies would be less predictable, but there would also arguably be fewer good ones. 

Our industry is still not even at the point of understanding what we are or how we work.  I feel like we are just now entering our adolescence.  We are still working too hard at mimicking other mediums like film, but at the same time starting to pull away and define our own personality.  This is a time for introspection.

We’ve been on the playground for a long time now.  We’ve outgrown out our magical imagination world, and I think it’s time to leave Peter Pan behind and grow up.  But that doesn’t mean we have to ignore Lewis’ warnings.  I don’t think this is a zero-sum game or a binary position where analytical understanding is antithetical to fun.  I doubt there are many doctors or culinary artists that can’t enjoy eating because they are aware of the biology going on behind the scenes.

 Instead they allow their insight to inform, rather than dictate their view of their crafts.  A patient may be no more than a system of pneumatic valves and electrical impulses while a surgeon is performing heart surgery.  But when they are done they can still feel empathy and even love for the patient.  A chef can understand the chemical reactions that acidic foods have with alkaline foods, yet still enjoy eating out with friends.  

So is something lost when we delve into the psychology of games?  Absolutely.  Some of the magic is lost, just like when we stopped believing in Santa.  But does it then KILL fun?  Not at all.  Humans have the amazing ability to switch modes when the need arises.  Those who can’t do this have something very wrong with them.

Like a doctor who sees all humans merely as meat with a heartbeat.  With time I’ve learned to switch the analytic part of my brain off when I see movies now.  Sometimes when the tropes and clichés are particularly awful I can slip back into that headspace, sure.  But overall, I’m quite happy that I have a basic understanding of storytelling.

When you lose Santa you GAIN the ability to BE Santa.  You lose some inexplicable magical feelings.  But you gain a different pleasure from crafting experiences of joy for those you love.   And isn’t that really what making games is all about?  

You can read Lewis’ book The Abolition of Man here:

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Lars Doucet
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Interesting article!

I think the fallacy is in substituting a model of something for the thing itself. The universe does whatever its doing, we like to call these goings-on "gravity", "space-time", "molecules", "chicken pot pies," etc, but ultimately those are models we project onto whatever-the-universe-actually-is. (Assuming you subscribe to the same assumptions about epistemology, semiology, etc, that I just made)

I don't think there's any need to fear analysis, research, or study, but in the hands of educated morons is it ever a terrible weapon. We just need to come at it as humble explorers, rather than arrogant conquistadors. Scientific data is useful, but only if you know how to interpret it and how to ask the right questions in the first place, and even then you're still not getting the full story.

Julien Delavennat
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I was just going to say that, +1 to you sir.

I would just add that what is usually said is that the more we know, the more we realise how little we know, thus negating any risk that we would ever manage to crack /everything/, we've still got plenty to explore, we're only seing the tip of the iceberg at the moment, even with the whole metrics thing, more deep analysis is what we need.

Josh Foreman
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Lars Doucet: "I think the fallacy is in substituting a model of something for the thing itself. The universe does whatever its doing, we like to call these goings-on "gravity", "space-time", "molecules", "chicken pot pies," etc, but ultimately those are models we project onto whatever-the-universe-actually-is. (Assuming you subscribe to the same assumptions about epistemology, semiology, etc, that I just made)"

I think you are mostly positing an ontology here. I think I agree with your basic premise that we humans apply labels to what we observe the universe doing. I think Lewis' argument is that if that is your *only* ontology you are missing a dimension of meaning that pervades human life and imbues us with the desire to do anything other than survive. As you say: "not getting the full story."

Martain Chandler
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"My people have a law never to speak much of sizes or numbers to you others, not even to sorns [Martian avian scientists]. You do not understand, and it makes you do reverence to nothings and pass by what is really great."

-- C. S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet

Rich Boss
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It occurs to me that CS Lewis may have been trying to warn us about the same exact thing Nietzsche seemed so worried about: The Nihilists. Who else can throw away all meaning and continue "seeing through things forever"? Certainly not the Hedonists, or the Existentialists, or the Scientists. All of the other schools of thought will find something opaque behind whatever transparent idea they are seeing through. The Nihilist, however, will continue perceiving only to 'see though', never to find anything opaque to focus on.

You will never find a Nihilist that knows they are a Nihilist; to believe in Nothing is to believe in Something. A Nihilist can never admit to believing in Something, because if they did believe in Something they would no longer be a Nihilist. (Isn't philosophy fun!?)

How do you keep Nihilist from bitching about their fun being 'ruined'? Convert them away from Nihilism. Give them Something to live for. I guess we are still waiting for the Ubermensch.

Christian Kulenkampff
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"You will never find a Nihilist that knows they are a Nihilist; to believe in Nothing is to believe in Something. A Nihilist can never admit to believing in Something, because if they did believe in Something they would no longer be a Nihilist. (Isn't philosophy fun!?)"

Very strange argumentation. There are many forms of nihilism. Nihilism as universal scepticism can be just the bottom layer of a mental model that does not claim to be the absolute truth. Accepting the concept of Nihilism does not mean you have to live without a moral model. Nihilism just relaxes the concept of morale and transforms it to a convenient concept for living.

Lori Smith
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This might help you clarify for yourself.

Daniel Menard
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I want to quote a passage from Mark Twain's "Old Times on the Mississippi" that is relevant to the article. In the story, Mark Twain chronicles his journey as a young boy learning how to navigate the Mississippi. The section I am about to quote comes from when his training is near completion, where he can read the river and understand the dangers that exist beneath the waters.

The young boy says "No, the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river" after he chronicles being able to read the river and is musing whether he still can see the beauty in it. He goes on to say that:

"Since those days, I have pitied the doctor from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beauty's cheek mean to a doctor but a "break" that ripples above some deadly disease? Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesn't he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesn't he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most of lost most by learning his trade?"

The young boy states that a doctor cannot see the beauty in another human being after knowing the human body and the symptoms of disease, that he cannot turn off his knowledge of medical sciences to appreciate a beautiful person. This may seem innocent but the young boy throughout the story naively believes he has mastered his trade and understands the world. This statement above is another naive misjudgment made by the boy because it is obvious that a doctor still can be attracted to a beautiful person, that the doctor's trade does not affect his love for another person. A doctor can see past a disease or symptoms of the disease to the beauty of a person.

The above statement is related to any art and science: knowing how to dissect and understand the parts of something does not inhibit the enjoyment and the creation in a medium. I was an English major for four years in college and my ability to dissect a story has not destroyed my enjoyment of a novel or my ability to write a story. What it has done is allowed me to communicate to others my ideas using terms and concepts that people understand and enjoy.

Good "educated morons" and "academics" develop models by researching what is out there; they do not create models and concepts from things that do no exist and are not fun. The tools that they provide for a common understanding are guidelines like they are in every other medium. What makes models and concepts kill creativity is what Rog Heddon hints at, mimics and close-minded people that fail to innovate. And, sorry to say, mimics and close-minded people do not need scientific models created by academics to fail to innovate, they've been doing that for years now.

However, if you give a model to someone that knows how to use it, to someone that can break the rules when it is needed, someone that understands and can explain why, then you can get something wonderful. It's just another tool for a good designer to use.

Josh Foreman
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A beautiful addendum. Thanks, Daniel.

Christian Kulenkampff
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Mangas/animes are categorized by their target group and they are similar within their category. This should remove some magic, but it doesn't. I know the type of stories I like. I see through my own liking, but this just helps me to find fiction I like. I get my entertainment from underdog stories and I still get entertained even if I know this. This does not remove magic - the only thing this knowledge may remove is the magic surrounding my own being.

When seeing entertainment as some kind of trap for your brain it is obvious that you will stay in "analyze mode" while consuming it. But when you knowingly engage in entertainment and "just let go" the magic is there. I totally agree with you. As an analyzer you have to learn how to deliberately switch modes.

Ramon Carroll
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Yep, but I think that the more we practice, the better we (as designers) can learn how to enjoy and analyze at the same time. I think any experienced designer who's been playing games for most of his/her life is perfectly capable of learning how to live the experience while, at the same time, separating himself/herself from it for the sake of examination. Specialists and experts have been able to do that in nearly every artform or area of science for hundreds of years

Haven't most of us been able to do this before while playing a game or two?

Scott Brodie
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Nice one Josh! Well said.

Ramon Carroll
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This is one of the most thought-provoking articles that I've read on Gamasutra for quite a while. It has really opened my understanding in some areas too. Thank you for your contribution, Josh.

Michael Peiffert
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"You lose some inexplicable magical feelings. But you gain a different pleasure from crafting experiences of joy for those you love."

This is exactly why I was crafting board games when I was a kid.

Thanks for the article.

David Theroux
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Josh, Thank you for this excellent and insightful article.

In C.S. Lewis's book, "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader", Eustace Scrubb, a spoiled, selfish, materialistic, thoroughly “modern” boy, meets a fallen star named Ramandu. On hearing that Ramandu is a star, Eustace says, “In our world, a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.” Ramandu replies, “Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.”

This distinction in philosophy between "scientia" (knowledge, the makeup of things) and "sapientia" (wisdom, the significance of things) informed all of Lewis’s writings, including his fiction for both children and adults.

You may also be especially interested in Lewis's related article, "Meditation in a Toolshed":

David J. Theroux

The Independent Institute: