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Persuasive Games: From Aberrance to Aesthetics

August 2, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next
 

[Arguing against a stripe of neoconservatism in games that paints certain forms of design as aberrant and others as natural, academic and developer Ian Bogost examines the very nature of creativity and art and offers up an analysis of how the medium can move forward with a rich palette of choices.]

Every now and then someone objects to game design methods by arguing against "historical aberrance." This line of reasoning claims that a particular trend is undesirable on the grounds that it is new and abnormal, unshared by historical precedent. Let me share two examples.

First, a few years ago Raph Koster invoked this argument about single player games. As Koster put it, "the entire video game industry's history thus far has been an aberration. It has been a mutant monster only made possible by unconnected computers. ... Historically speaking, single-player games are indeed an aberration."

And second, just recently Daniel Cook made the same argument about narrative games. Says Cook, "I deeply doubt that the best use of games is to tell stories. Narrative games are a historical anomaly. Multiplayer systems of economics, social grouping, and related culture are the past and present trend."

Anomalous Anomalies

I cite these designers not to start a debate about these two charged topics, but because their claims make me uncomfortable. The argument from historical aberrance seems like a very curious one to make about almost anything, let alone a category of creativity.

But nevertheless, when used it has a powerful effect: if games have certain deep properties whose undeniable truth is borne out over time, who are we to think we are right to declare millennia of history wrong?

But by that measure, myriad other phenomena also count as historical anomalies. Consider just a few cultural practices that are truly unusual when measured with history's hourglass: compulsory education, indoor sanitation, women's suffrage, the idea of childhood, and nighttime work and play thanks to electric light. Yet, few would lament these changes as retrograde, or if they would, it would be insufficient to do so simply by calling them "historical anomalies."

Still, the examples just cited are ripples driven by larger waves of cultural progress rather than by creative practices. What about art, then? What artistic practices could we count as historically anomalous? Well, representation instead of ritual practice, for one, but also commodification, conceptualism, abstraction, and self-referentialism. Or even more obviously, prose storytelling in general and the novel in particular, which stands as a historical anomaly against the millennia-old backdrop of poetry.

Indeed, it seems undeniable that artistic practice is often motivated largely by dissatisfaction with or downright hostility toward received ideas. Most successful trends in art seek to be historically anomalous. Thus the positions of Koster and Cook exemplify an unusual conservatism. Video games have a "true nature," a molten core established by accident among ancient folk games. Any attempt to extract, modify, or dispose of this core becomes a deluded perversion. Instead, the reasoning goes, we should seek to revisit and amplify the "natural" features of games.

Deviance and Deviation

Aberrance is deviance, freakishness, abnormality. When it is discussed in the context of history, it's usually meant to uncover the ideologies that underwrite a received pattern of behavior: the use of the term "caucasian", or banning interracial marriage, to cite but two examples.

Candidates for historical aberrance are sometimes hard to pinpoint in the present, so we often have to reflect on them after the fact. Current debates in the U.S. about gay marriage and tax policy offer good examples: conservative positions claim that everything has always been this way, while reformist positions argue that change itself creates progress. For the conservative position untested deviations count as aberrance, while for the reformist position unexamined traditions do.

But video games generally participate in the latter trend rather than the former, and not always in a good way. For games, progress usually implies technological progress. When Nintendo and Microsoft market their Wii and Kinect interfaces, they make appeals to historical aberrance -- but from the position of advancement rather than tradition.

Joysticks and game pads are cast as substandard, unintuitive, primitive, exclusionary tools that must be replaced with natural, intuitive, inclusive physical interfaces. The joystick becomes aberrant, the gestural interface progressive.

It's not too hard to find holes in this position. We could easily argue that simple tool-based interfaces that extend our bodies are more desirable because they are steeped in convention and adoption -- and therefore more "natural." Or likewise, it's not clear that the Wii remote or the Kinect sensor is really any more intuitive than the joystick, given the fact that we have to learn how to use them anew, make room for them in our homes, and so forth.


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Comments


Laurie Cheers
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This isn't really a new phenomenon. People just like to justify their opinions by appealing to something beyond "I think this". For example, they'll appeal to abstract mathematics, or a principle from psychology or linguistics or economics, or some carefully chosen statistics, or a quote from a notable figure that makes it sound like he agrees with you, or - as here - historical precedents.



Unless they're done rigorously (e.g. a scientific study), such justifications are almost never helpful. If you felt like arguing the opposite position, you could pick a different, equally "valid" justification. The world is too complicated for any one principle to hold true universally. It's a good thing to be aware of when reading blog posts...

Ian Bogost
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Oh it's certainly not new! But that doesn't make it any less worthy of reflection.

Alex Belzer
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If I recall correctly, The Path was another game that conservative aberrantists tended to dislike greatly, a title I felt was brilliant in part because it was so undefinable, and yes, un-game-like, choosing to focus on experience rather than gameplay or goals, to enthralling effect.



It seems high time that someone called for us to move beyond the “It’s not a game!” argument. By accepting the many forms games can possess, perhaps discussion can finally be free to focus on function instead.

Ian Bogost
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Tale of Tales work in general offers a good example of this phenomenon. Their work is very polarizing (perhaps The Path is less so, perhaps, than Endless Forest or even The Graveyard). But whether one likes it or not, it's undeniable that those games have a very strong aesthetic.

Tadhg Kelly
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Interesting read Ian.



However I somewhat disagree with you, and with Danc and Raph too. On the one hand, assertions that multiplay is the future are not supportable. Even in social games the vast majority of play time is asynchronous (or single player as we used to call it) rather than synchronous and it's a giant leap of faith to hope that the audience will itself change in order to fulfil that ambition. Single play, as I've written about in my own blog, is not an aberration at all. It's the foundation of much of the games industry because it lets a player play without the hassle of needing to gather a group of friends together.



At the same, the non-narrative point is also correct. In my own writing I talk a lot about how I think there are many ideas that game designers seem to attach themselves to (particularly with reference to story) and end up attempting to import the conventions of other media into games and hammer them into place. And it never works.



I don't think it's an aesthetics issue, nor a progressive/conservative cultural issue.



It's psychological. The state of the mind when it is at play is different to its state when it is in reception mode (as needed for stories) so games that try and basically be something that they are not (as Heavy Rain or LA Noire both do) come across as weirdly bombastic experiences that are notable for how oddly boring they are despite their production values and techniques.



A tension exists there because there are some things that games are not. One of those things is a dramatic medium. Instead, I've taken to calling them a thaumatic medium instead, and talked about how they have the sense of story, pressure, things needing resolving, without the need for the actual ABC details of story to get there.



So in that sense I think there are games that can be labelled as aberrant, just as their are concept albums or experiments in fiction and film that just don't work. Part of how we discover what the medium of games actually is is by pushing on those boundaries, but the boundaries are all too real.

Ian Bogost
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Tadhg, can't we have it both ways? Can't you choose your psychological orientation to these choices, and I can choose my aesthetic one? Or are they incompatible?



As for examples like "games aren't a dramatic medium," I'm sure many would agree with you... I might even agree at times! Maybe games *are* less oriented toward narrative in some structural way. But isn't that state of wonkiness itself a rationale for pursuing particular narrative aesthetics in games? Art works don't have to be familiar or easy or even "good" in order to be coherent.

Tadhg Kelly
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Ian,



No, I don't think we can. I'm saying it's more of a physical "this is kind of how the brain works" kind of problem rather than a choice. We only have so much attention span and we can't spend it all in all ways at once, so we prioritise. I think it's why movies are best enjoyed in dark cinemas and books in quiet rooms. They need to dominate attention to work, and play cuts right across that.



On wonkiness, I tend to describe games as the art of place and tension. As in you're in a room, there are spikes coming down from the ceiling, what do you do? But also: what kind of room, what setting, what's kind of going on.



In this vein there are games that capture the sense of a story and sort of bring you along for the ride with it, and there are games that try to make you sit down and have movie time with choices and they are gonna tell you a story damnit. The first works because it's aligned with play. The second just doesn't.

Joe Cooper
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While I agree, this line about the mind being in a different state and being in "reception mode" got me thinking; a lot of bad fiction writers, many of whom are in the games industry making "weirdly bombastic" experiences, do so because they fail to mind that reading is an active process, too.



Since I've read your articles on engagement, I've observed it reading and I've applied it writing. Take these two bits of prose, for example.



"... she knew that he had temporarily ceased to be a friend and had become that incalculable, treacherous thing, an adult." (The Salterton Trilogy, Robertson Davies)



"... black beard and imperial eyes, his face vivid and alive with intelligence ..." (The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russel)



The first sentence is nothing *so* special or deep, but there is some meaning there in contrasting "friend" and "adult" and in setting up the character and situation. It minds that reading is active and can engage.



The latter sentence both misses an opportunity to engage and grates on the brain. I gave up trying to visualize an actual face from this ("imperial eyes" means zilch) and spelling out "intelligence" like that is just plain lazy. It smacks the brain for trying to infer and follows the smack with a raw thought.



I forgot where I'm going with this, my brain is somewhat blazed at the moment. Normally at this point I'd hit 'cancel' but maybe someone else can see some magical way this applies back to games. Sorry if I wasted anyone's time.

Christian McCrea
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The game series that people usually put into the latter category are Final Fantasy and Metal Gear Solid. Certain sections of game discourse have always sneered at these titles because they are so narrative-driven and the gameplay becomes incidental. This is why statements that summarily execute tranches of game design as good or bad end up being unworkable - when you actually begin to apply them to real and existing game history, their narrowness is clear.



If we are measuring games by some intrinsic set of qualities, and not as complex things built by complex people for complex times, then yeah - narrative-driven games are weaker, less good, less true, less interesting. But as a great man once said, shit ain't like that. Some people, some of them players and some of them developers, are story-driven.



The notion that these splits are psychological and not aesthetic is unconvincing. As are the notions that contemporary "games psychology" discourses attempt to crudely hammer into place, such as experiencing story and actions in distinct ways.



Games exist together and in conversation with each other; some exploit those connections and drive in directions you might call abberent, Tadhg, but which everybody else won't be satisfied to classify as an evolutionary mistake. Culture doesn't evolve. Art doesn't evolve. We ascribe historical revisionism on our cultural objects all the time, thats part of criticism and conversation - but ultimately Ian's point is sound. There is no unified future of the medium. Let a thousand messy, boring, abbarent flowers bloom.

Ian Bogost
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Tadhg, I'm not very amenable to cognitivist answers. So as with Raph, we're bound to disagree once the "brain science" card gets played. I could explain that more, but this might not be the place for it.

Tadhg Kelly
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Here is as good a place as any, since we're talking already :)

Ian Bogost
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Well, in brief, I worry about cognitive reductionism. I don't think we are what are brains do, and I am not necessarily motivated by solutions involving evidence of that kind. Is watching movies in dark rooms interesting only for reasons of perceptual optimization?

Tadhg Kelly
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No (you can watch movies elsewhere too) but it does reduce the chances of distraction.



It comes down to attention span: Nobody has an infinite amount of it, nor the capacity to split it in 100 different directions at once. Some of us have better or worse capacity, but there are still limits. Concentration is at a premium and the brain is really very good at filtering incoming information based on priorities like threats.



So this is why, to take a random example, while in the middle of a variety of tight combat experiences in Halo 3, when the game suddenly pauses everything to deliver a bit of script, it's incredibly annoying. It can't be anything but.



I think that when engaged in play-brain mode the mind is actively filtering toward survival first and achievement second, and that leaves a lot of stuff a distant third. Even when a game is in its quiet periods there is the expectation of agency and the puzzle-solving/strategising/creating part of the mind is trying to see what the next task to complete is. Present it with strapped-in narrative and its reaction is "uh-huh, come on already". Present it with fake choices (like the LA Noire conversation engine or Heavy Rain's QTEs) and its reaction is "is that it?"



So you may not like it, but I think how the brain perceives, processes, filters and prioritises under threat is central to understanding games - and it forms probably the strongest constraints on the art form.

Ian Bogost
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It's not really about whether I like the way the brain filters... it's that I don't accept that some property of the brain as a mechanism that forecloses creative endeavors involving humans. I don't have the reactions to Heavy Rain and LA Noire that you do--and I certainly don't believe that those reactions are mere epiphenomena of neural activity.

Tadhg Kelly
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Ah, I think you're conflating two things there.



Nothing at all prevents creative humans from making whatever they like. However, as miles of poor games stand as testament, the test of creativity is not whether the creator gets to make his object. It's whether other people understand it. That is the hard part.



So when you are asked whether to Doubt, Lie or Truth and you've already realised that most of the time you can 'win' most interviews by pressing Lie, Back then Doubt over and over, is that an expression of creativity? Or is it just repetitive and uninteresting?



Does it just not really work and there's a lesson to be learned? I think so. Otherwise there are never any lessons to be learned and there's no point in studying games at all.

Ian Bogost
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Oh, this is a shame to hear you say. I hope you don't really believe it. One can learn lessons and still believe that those lessons aren't leading toward anywhere in particular, including understanding. Like art of any kind, many "poor" games are just poor, perhaps but others are misunderstood--not for having failed to be understood, but for having been mistaken for things they are not.

Tadhg Kelly
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You may be reading more negativity there than I intend. Certainly there are some things in some games that do go misunderstood, but equally there are some ideas that repeat over and over in the form, and still never really work.

Ian Bogost
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I'll admit that there do seem to be creative decisions that just don't work, for various values of "working." But so often we point to patterns and deride them for brokenness, when really the problem is not in the work but in our receptivity to it. And it ought to be possible to look at works and try to ask what it would take to be receptive to them. That doesn't mean we have to change our minds about them, but we ought not to discard them either.

Tadhg Kelly
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Sometimes they just get baked in. Survival horror games seem to persist in using that walking-cylinder control scheme from the early days for reasons passing understanding (beyond a pretty tenuous rationale about intentional player dis-empowerment), for example.

Christian McCrea
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Tadhg, what you're ascribing to the study of the brain (or in this case, the assumption that the vast biological construct of the brain has a passive reception mode) can largely be understood through design culture. Design isn't evolutionary, it's historical. So many survival horror games use the control scheme that previous games in the genre use for precisely the most obvious reasons : the designers have acculturated it, and so have the players. Because it builds on experience.



Many millions of happy players of story-driven games would reverse your formulation and reject absolute statements about game design based upon a notion of cognitive efficiency. Maybe they are the aberrant ones?

Clifton Jewett
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1000 points for Gryffindor, or whichever house you are in, for giving us "thaumatic medium."

Tadhg Kelly
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@Clifton



Thanks! :)

Lance Burkett
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"games aren't a dramatic medium... a thaumatic"



I can't agree with you on that. It is true that some of the most powerful games that utilize strategic systems for emotional effect are more thaumatic than dramatic (eg. Amnesia), but in my opinion dramatic empathy can still be executed by means of systematic storytelling (eg. Gravitation) or more bluntly by forcing empathy upon the player using gameplay goals (eg. Mass Effect 2). It just needs to be handled with care. If the gameplay results in an adrenaline rush and there is no adequate gap between dramatic moments and action moments, it is impossible for the player to be in the right psychological state in order to care (eg. Modern Warfare).



Also, you thought Heavy Rain was boring? Maybe it is just your dislike of drama.

Tadhg Kelly
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@Lance



You see, the Mass Effect example doesn't work here. What happens when you set a goal is that players figure out the most optimal way to win that goal... while ignoring the context of that goal. It's called "seeing the frame" and what it means is that the brain filters out the context when things get heated. You can't really make players feel in that way.



The thaumatic approach is more powerful. In Portal 2, for example, there's a great sort-of backstory played out about Cave Johnson and his experiments. The details are irrelevant really, but the sense of it is highly relevant. And does it conclude exactly? Does it matter?



Yes, I thought what I played of Heavy Rain (not a lot of it, caveat) was boring. I'm a huge fan of drama and worked on games like The Movies creating little dramatic sequences for players to use in their own films. What I find with the HR style of game is that they're really just a lot like the QTE sections in God of War. I'm really just waiting for the nudges and button presses, and all the talking just seems like so much busywork in the way.

Lance Burkett
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@Tadhg



Good point, but in order to "see the frame" the player has to either encounter the situation multiple times(to apply trial and error) or have an explicit log of events at hand. When the framework of a game is abstracted away from the player they can't use raw mathematics and systemic deduction. So the player will have to resort to raw emotional responses or crude guess work. Thus, resulting in either thrilling combat gameplay or forced sympathy.



I'm not sure what you mean by thaumatic approach and lesser understand what you are trying to prove about Portal 2.



I haven't actually played Heavy Rain, but I have played its predecessor Indigo Prophecy. And when there were sequences requiring quick reaction I didn't lose much immersion. Especially when the choices made in those sequences are actually relevant to the context. If a game is designed in such a way that understanding the context and characters is key to actually playing through the game, then drama in games is possible.

Ian Bogost
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@Tadhg, Lance



A lot of Heavy Rain was boring! But that's sort of the point, I think. That's the beauty of it, the best parts of that game are the "boring" ones, the ones that refuse to participate in drama interactively, but instead give the player these vignettes of character affect.

Clifton Jewett
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There was a piece in the New York Times today on the benefits of boredom:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/07/opinion/sunday/the-thrill-of-bo
redom.html?pagewanted=1

Clifton Jewett
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You are right that you can't really make players feel in that way; it takes effort to listen to the talking and absorb it as more than busy work. For example, Kotaku ran a story called "Wait, What The Heck Are The Elder Scrolls?" the other day, and at first it surprised me that someone could play through the games without any curiosity and even complete the quest in which you break into the most important building of the empire to steal an Elder Scroll, and not even pay attention to any of the lore surrounding it. It's one of these situations where you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make them drink it. Kotaku's article doesn't even accurately say what the Elder Scrolls are.



Kotaku Link: http://kotaku.com/5828293/wait-what-the-heck-are-the-elder-scroll
s

Lance Burkett
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@Clifton



Am I the only person in the world that plays games for the story?!

Christian Ierullo
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I don't believe that multiplayer games should cease to exist nor should single player story focused games. But I do think that the more interesting is the latter because it still has room to grow. Trying to force a medium to be one thing is not only not healthy, it is not realistic. A medium after all is only a form of expression, literally a channel in which we can communicate; however people want to use that channel is the beauty of it. We have made wonderful tools available at their disposal, why stifle that?



In the end trying to use historical precedence to rub out "cultural aberrations" really makes no sense. History is defined by the decisions people made, and while we can look back on it linearly, there really is no way to determine that something is designed with one intention only.



This is why I do not like the word game to describe video games. The thing is most single player games do not follow the mold of traditional games anyway. I suppose this is why ludists try to use the argument of historical precedence to negate their existence. I don't believe at this point we should change the name of video games to something like "interactive entertainment" or shudder...."interactive movies" as that is just a shameless ploy at marketing which would do no service to the industry or the history it has built to this point. The term video games suites the medium just fine if we can accept that games themselves are evolving to encompass different aesthetic expressions.



While we must always consider the effects of our decisions upon history carefully I feel that people who hold too closely to tradition seem to miss the point of what that tradition stands for. Culture, law, social norms are all essentially tools to aid us in communicating and creating the world we want to live in. We cannot forget that we are the master of these tools not the other way around.

Tadhg Kelly
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This is why I call game designers 'worldmakers' sometimes. Every game is some kind of world.

Christian Ierullo
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I agree. Again, there are many different types of games, something like Tetris wouldn't really fit into this mold; but with a lot of modern single player games I find they really are about exploring spaces (worlds). I do think that Ken Levine was right when he said that in games the environment is the narrator. Makes me think I should study a bit of architecture to supplement my game design theory.

Lance Burkett
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@Tadhg



All forms of story-telling are worldmaking. They setup simulations in our heads that can be considered fictional contexts.

Tadhg Kelly
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Not in the sense that I mean. A novel or a painting creates a very specific view on something. A game creates a robust world with which the player can play.

Moses Wolfenstein
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Heh, I've been looking for a place to bust this out since I thought of it while I was out for a run yesterday. The creation of a world can start from many places. The telling of a tale, the making of a map, the design of a city, the writing of a song, the dropping of a single stone...the list goes on. As worlds, different types of games lean on different types of world creation tools and abilities.

Tadhg Kelly
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I think you're conflating 'fiction' and 'world' there. A fiction is a backstory or a map. A world (in game sense of it) is a physical thing that you can manipulate. Tetris is a world.

Moses Wolfenstein
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I agree that Tetris is a world, but it's only one kind of game qua world. It's a very different world from Mass Effect, Rock Band, Portal 2, Civilization, etc. All games involve systems, but there are distinct elements in addition to systems through which games are realized as worlds.



To put it another way, a system of rules alone isn't a world and it isn't even a game. At best it's a simulation. Rules are not merely executed in the playing of a game, games are played. Even without going into the murky waters of play, a system must be made perceivable to the player in order to function as a world for them.



As to the question of whether I may be conflating fiction and world, I never said that you could make games (as worlds) out of just any one thing on that list of stuff I was waxing on about. I said that world creation can start with a variety of actions. In fact it can start with none of them. At some point you need to introduce rules in the making of a game, but depending on the type of game you're making there may be more important starting places.



For certain types of games narrative is a viable starting point, and an essential tool for the creation of a sensible world. For many other types of games (probably most), narrative tools are useful at best for creating 'fiction' to provide a backstory or serve as a map, and at worst are used badly to create accidental kitsch.

Tadhg Kelly
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I think it's as clear as this. A world is a world if:



1. There are robust rules within it

2. I can take action

3. The world or another player has the capacity to reaction

4. By doing so, I can win, lose or take another action



And everything else flows from that. So Tetris, Portal and Mass Effect are all a part of the same basic form.

Lance Burkett
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@Tadhg

"A novel or a painting creates a very specific view on something."



Not really. We train ourselves to interpret different forms of media differently. We do not process a blueprint the same way we interpret a painting for instance. But they serve similiar purpose. These fictional media help us construct a world in our minds that follow the rules that our cognition provide. When an architect looks and comprehends a blueprint they construct a world in their minds to help them explain the quirks of that building (space, aesthetic, lighting and heating). When watching a film we use the knowledge we obtain from our own experience of perception and explanation to process what we see and construct a fictional world that helps us explain the plot events and characters.



Because it is a construct of our own knowledge rules of the world differs from person to person and when the person views it and for what reason (analytical, immersive or investigative). For example, kids looking up at the sky see animal shapes at first sight, whereas an adult would see possible showers at first sight.



You are both right and wrong, a painting or novel doesn't portray a world or system, but it doesn't simply provide a specific view.



@Tadhg and Moses



In my opinion a world is a set of systems that can operate in exclusion to other worlds but still be influenced by inputs of other worlds. To put it terms of physics a world is a planet. To put it in terms of societies a world is a nation.



Games like Mass Effect, are actually two worlds. The cognitive fictional world and the gameplay world. They both have different conventions, rules and systems. The gameplay world for example, has different ways of handling death. When a character dies during a combat scenario it has little effect on the fictional world. When a character dies in the fictional world it has little effect on gameplay. When the two try to occupy the same space (physical, conceptual or metaphysical) the logic and systems collide. To counteract this many developers use very crude patchwork, like plot armor. Doing this kills immersion unfortunately.



That's all I have to say about that.

Bart Stewart
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Living systems, which among other things are capable of propagating versions of themselves into the future, need both conservative and reformist processes. It's the combination of these capabilities in tension that creates the ability to adapt to environmental changes.



The value of the reformist perspective is pretty obvious; diversity creates new patterns, some of which may be better fit for the coming environment than existing patterns. But the conservative impulse is also crucial -- it's not about blindly clutching what has "always" worked (there is no always), but about preserving those patterns that have performed well historically to provide the benefit of those virtues to the next generation.



Humanity has done best when neither of these valuable perspectives is able to get rid of the other, so that both types of adaptive benefits are available. The same should hold true for computer game design.



There is value in trying new things, in creating and testing new patterns against the reality of what current and potential gamers actually like and want. Calling for a moratorium on creative diversity (whoever may be asking for such a thing) is only helpful when patterns are changing too rapidly to be able to distinguish successful new patterns from bad (or premature) ones... but does any serious observer really think that's the case for games right now? That there's too much variety in the design of today's games?



The impulse to conserve what works is not just valid, it's necessary for long-term survival. It's how a living system efficiently allocates scarce resources, which is a crucial survival trait. But like the reformist impulse, it's most effective in moderation.



In the case of computer games, I think I would say that we also need some voices of restraint. Not every change fits the gaming environment -- remember VR gaming? How about live-action video? Not every new possibility deserves lots of money thrown at it.



But that said, I also think that, on balance, the game industry is not currently suffering from too much diversity of design. Just the opposite; too many games (especially multiplayer games) are content to cut-and-paste a small set of mechanics. (This is true even of indies, with their abundance of platformers.)



Overall, it seems to me that the balance between conservative and reformist principles in game development is actually pretty good right now. There are definable modes of play and satisfying standards, and there are also experiments popping up all over the place. That's exactly as it should be!



The presence of a few voices (even well-known and respected voices) calling for careful evaluation before discarding working patterns is well-matched against the natural creativity we're seeing from the proliferation of game-making tools. It wouldn't surprise me if, fifteen years from now, we look back on this as a Golden Age in game development, when things weren't changing either too quickly for consumers to follow or too slowly to retain their interest.

Ian Bogost
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"The game industry is not currently suffering from too much diversity of design."



Right. But moreover, it's not very good at identifying its aesthetics and culturing them as such... the patterns you mention are rarely treated as aesthetic patterns. Instead, they're usually described as market patterns or "natural" patterns. I'm not sure which of those is worse.

Lance Burkett
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"...so long as neither side wins and takes over the country."

-Deus Ex

Joe Cooper
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Huh, I tried to post somewhere above and it came out here. I didn't mean to write anything here.

Raph Koster
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Oddly, I am a fan of both Heavy Rain AND Sleep is Death. The context of my original remark was at a business conference, not a design conference, and was aimed much more at shaking up preconceptions about the game *industry* than anything else.



I do believe firmly that single-player is fighting the tide, in that it works against some fundamental characteristics of the *real* canvas on which we work, which is the human brain. And I say this as a huge fan of single-player games. I think it is inevitable that single-player gaming drifts towards two poles: the interactive narrative and the puzzle, precisely because of this canvas. I also think it is inevitable that they will come to be wrapped, at all times, with multiplayer and social components -- and I suspect that in the years since my original statement, this has gotten a lot less controversial than it once was!



That said, I will disagree with this statement: "Video games aren't science. They are not a mystery of the universe that can be explained away via testable predictions and experimentation."



I think they are, and this doesn't preclude them also being an art. I think they are a mystery of the human brain that CAN be explained with greater knowledge of ourselves, and CAN have hypotheses proven or disproven by testable predictions and experimentation.



What's more, I think that said predicting-and-hypothesizing is happening today at a very rapid pace, and that we are in fact learning more and more every day about an emerging science of game design.



The artists among us -- a group in which I count myself! -- can be and rightly should be troubled by this, because it evokes the spectre of a time when the market comes to be dominated by mathematically derived pablum designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator hindbrain triggers in our psychology, much like film (http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article.cfm?articleid=1609&CFI
D=1860542&CFTOKEN=77456349, or see the orange-and-blue phenomenon, http://www.slashfilm.com/orangeblue-contrast-in-movie-posters/) or music (see the soundwave analysis firms that predict hit-worthiness of music algorithmically such as http://www.musicxray.com/) or graphic design or or or.



See, I am not *advocating* these positions. I am *observing* things, and arriving at conclusions. In fact, when I have engaged in advocacy, it has been to argue the case of art, for aesthetics, for broader influences and diversity -- in fact, this exact topic is one I wrote about five years ago in http://www.raphkoster.com/2006/12/02/the-algorithm-or-art/. When I said at Project Horseshoe a few years ago (http://www.raphkoster.com/2006/11/10/project-horseshoe-influences
/) that "I think games are math, and it worries me," I really mean it.



I don't think that greater understanding of color theory, golden sections, and perspective necessarily preclude there being art in the process of making paintings, though. It may well be that by taking up a given medium, though, we are choosing our shackles, choosing which constraints we limit ourselves with. Game grammar, theory of fun, social mechanics, etc, are just my attempt to explicate to myself, what the building blocks of this medium ARE.



That means I can enthusiastically sign on for "Let's make games. Let's make good ones. Let's try to figure out what that means for each of us. Let's help our colleagues and our players and our critics understand it." But it also means that I disagree with Clive Bell inasmuch as I do regard the tensile strength of clay as a essential and yes, exhaustible quality of the art made with said clay. My goal would be to turn that to strength rather than weakness.



PS, Tadhg: multiplayer asynchronous play is centuries old. I still think it's multiplayer. :)

Tadhg Kelly
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I think there's a world of difference between multiplay and single play, and it relies on synchrony. Synchrony doesn't mean real time (but it can) but rather that the actions of players need to be happening in sync. So a board game played by friends is synchronous, as is a sport, a game of office Counter Strike at lunch or a game of VGA Planets.



Whereas asynchronous obvious means that being in sync is not necessary. Single play is asynchronous, as is most of the forms of social gameplay.



The interesting middle ground is something like the Poker table at your local casino (or Zynga Poker) where players gather and depart casually, often quickly. Halo deathmatches or the on-the-fly co-op of Left 4 Dead are synchronous but the lack of the social structure of a game of Poker with friends or the office Counter Strike league.



It depends on the game (single player Poker is no fun) but I think the general shape of most videogames that employ a mix of the two is that the majority of players will tend toward asynchronous play. They have busy, complicated lives and it's hard to get your friends to gather (even your Facebook 'friendlies' - all the people you sort-of-know on your social networks) for any kind of consistent game.

Raph Koster
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Then we're just defining things completely differently. Play-by-mail chess is, to me, still multiplayer despite its asynchrony. The length of a turn or delays between them does not, for me, make something single-player. Instead, my bright line is the presence of other human actors in the system.



This is why I regard social games as multiplayer and you don't, and why you had the reaction you did to my social mechanics presentation, I surmise -- nothing in there was intended to be necessarily applied synchronously. (Remember, I In fact, most of them are asynchronous mechanics.



I strongly agree synchrony is challenging. But as soon as you have persistence of the game tokens in some fashion, all sorts of asynchronous multiplayer mechanics start to arise.

Ian Bogost
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Right, we disagree about the cognitivist bit. But that's okay, it's fun to disagree!



You know I'm totally on board with embracing constraints in the material. But we have so many different materials to choose from, and so many ways to interpret them. I'm not sure games are like clay, in that respect.

Ian Bogost
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I'm with Raph on the point about asynchrony, for what it's worth. But, given the above, I'd rather think of asynchrony as an aesthetic than as a genre or a design pattern.

Ian Bogost
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I'm responding in pieces here, sorry about that.



"Oddly, I am a fan of both Heavy Rain AND Sleep is Death."



I don't think that's odd. That's one of the points I hope to make here. It shouldn't be odd, anyway!

Tadhg Kelly
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But Raph, play by mail chess is synchronous. As I said above, being in sync doesn't mean real time (hence the example of VGA Planets).



Asynchronous means our games are not in sync, not our time. So your Gardens of Time game is much further along than mine, but I can maybe send you gifts and you likewise. That's asynchronicity.

Raph Koster
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That's not the common usage of "asynchronous gameplay" that I hear around the industry, and it's not the sense in which I use it. I use it to mean "play the same game state but not at the same time" not to mean "gameplay state out of sync." Basically, much like the sense that you use it in network programming, where an asynch network call gets back to you when it's done, and it's non-blocking.



That said, I can see why you use the term the way you do; these are important but subtle distinctions!



So for me: play by mail chess and neighbor interactions in most Facebook games are asynchronous interaction; they are multiplayer without a requirement for simultaneous play. A deathmatch game or an MMO is synchronous multiplayer.



For you: play by mail chess is a synchronous game, because state is held in common across both boards; a deathmatch game would be synchronous because it is multiplayer but there is only one game state. A facebook game with game states per player is asynchronous because game state is not synchronized across each player's state. (I use the term parallel for that). And an MMO, where there's one overall game state, but there may be many embedded games, I am not sure what you would call...



For that matter a footrace versus the game of the world record time in footracing... synch or asynch? I bet we would end up with the exact opposite term:



For you, the race is asynch (it's separate single player games with no common game state; the fact that you race alongside someone is moot -- let's say it's a race where you stay in your lane). And the world record is synch, because it's a single game state in which all racers participate.



I would say the race is parallel synchronous -- the race occurs at the same time. And the world record is an asynchronous game.



I may now have to re-read everything you have ever used this word in, and re-evaluate. :)

Ian Bogost
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I'm intrigued by Tadhg's use of "asynchronous" though, and I'm open to thinking about his spin on it. I do agree that it would have to be defined clearly, and that would run counter to common uses of the term, but hey, that's sometimes what makes things get interesting.

Tadhg Kelly
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Raph, I feel a blog post coming on :)



To summarise:



PBM chess is synchronous. So is a deathmatch. CityVille is asynchronous. MMOs are also asynchronous



A foot race (like a sprint or a marathon), however, is synchronous. The win condition of the game relies on you being first, and by being first everyone else loses, and everybody gets the chance to be first by completing the same formal challenge (the race). Your state is directly reliant on someone else's because it affects whether you qualify for the next round. Ditto most forms of athletics.



However the business of attaining world records is the asynchronous meta-game. You can run as many races as you like and never achieve it. Or you can be Usain Bolt. High scores and achievements could be said to be likewise.

Olivier Lejade
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Tadhg,



Then I'm curious as to how you would categorize a game like Trackmania ( http://www.trackmania.com/ ) which can be both at the same time?



The distinction between (a)synchronous play sessions and (a)synchronous game states is an interesting one from a game design perspective.

However - coming back to your original point that "there's a world of difference between multiplay and single play, and it relies on synchrony" - I'm not convinced (a)synchronous game states matters that much in the player's perception of being in a mutliplayer game. Would you care to expand?

Luis Guimaraes
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In Chess, each movement affects the other players game, in race, each participant takes physical space on the track. If you run in a race with every participant being a phantom, than that's what Tadhg is calling asynchronous gameplay.



While I understand (in fact, when I read Chess I got it), there's the semantic problem that "chronos" is about time, to the point that asynchronous could mean different time, different time scales, and so on.



As for Chess, race and the world record exemple, Chess and racing happen to have multiplayer in the same match. While the world record isn't necessarily the same case, as the case of social games isn't either.

Raph Koster
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Tadhg,



All you're saying is that there's a shared game state, and calling that "synchronous." I agree that "shared game state" is a hugely important variable, but I just don't think the term "synchronous" works very well for it, and it works against what I believe to be the common usage. In particular, I don't think it works very well for nested games, such as MMOs, or even most athletics. I think that if most people saw the term synchronous applied to the long jump, they would scratch their heads...

Ian Bogost
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But Raph, just to play with this idea a bit, even if I'm also not yet sure I fully grasp the language Tadhg's using here, there's potentially something interesting about considering state fulness synchrony, and looking at the design space differently as a result. It could lead to different approaches, different aesthetics, who knows.

Tadhg Kelly
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Olivier, I think plenty of games manage to split both. Halo single player? Asynchronous. Online? Synchronous. It comes down to whether the actions of other players matter to the state that you're in.



Luis, true. My Greek/Latin was never up to much. I think it's a fairly common usage of synchronous to mean common state in the modern world though. For example, my Dropbox synchronises my computers. It can do it all in real time, or it can wait for a computer to come online and do it later.



Raph, I'm saying a little more than that. A shared game state might just be the town in which all your MMO players are hanging out, but the gameplay of the MMO mostly does not require that all of those players remain in sync with each other. Most of the time it's just a collection of single player games essentially rubbing up against each other, trading and waving hello.



By saying 'synchronous' as applied to Chess etc, it means that the game state of other players is essential to my play. I cannot progress in Chess until you take your move. But in an MMO, I can wander off and do a quest whenever I like.



Ian, totally.

Raph Koster
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Believe me, I get the value of the concept. It's central to the work I have done in game grammar, and I use it all the time, and it's implicit in the "games are made of games" viewpoint. in the MMO case, I would state that the game as a whole is synchronous, but individual subgames may vary.



My definition of "the game state of other players is essential to my play" is "multiplayer" though again, that may apply to a subgame rather than the whole.



You're right that "synchronizing" means to "bring to the same state"... but "synchronicity" and "in synch" means "multiple entities changing at the same time" and the roots are, as Luis observes, about time.

Patrick Holleman
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I think the latent meaning behind "synchronicity" is the notion that both players are afforded an equal amount of time by the rules of the game. That is, long jumpers get an equal number of jumps. Chess players get an equal number of moves. Both sides in a formal debate get a rebuttal. It doesn't matter how long the period of time provided is, it just matters that an equal amount is available to both parties. My turns in chess could be 90 seconds (or three weeks) longer than yours, but we have the same amount of time given to us by the rules.



Perhaps an asynchronous game is the opposite. In World of Warcraft, there are no rules that govern available playtime. If I have 18 hours a day to farm gold, and you don't, there's no rule that's going to stop that.



Perhaps we can accept that money is also equivalent here. In Frontierville, if I have $50 to spend on energy and you don't, I still have the exact same advantage as the gold farmer in WoW. So it's asynchronous, still. Money stands in, to some degree, for time, but the effect is the same?



My aim is only to clear up a meaning, because I think we're all talking about different idea that have the same word unfortunately attached to them.

Tadhg Kelly
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That's a good analogy Patrick.



Raph, I think what you're describing as synchronous is better described as contemporaneous (tempo being a closer root for time than chrono also, as in words like temporal).

Tadhg Kelly
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Or 'temporany' for short.

Luis Guimaraes
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@Taghg



"Tempo" means "time" in a couple or more latin languages. "Chrono", as in Chrono Trigger, still has some common derivative words spread to many languages, as per see, chronological.



By the way, the point about synchronicity was that, the most important resource in a game as it's players, and if multiplayer, how they relate and affect each other's games.



I won't start discussing something I stand for the goods of both sides, multiplayer and single player both have so many un-tackled possibilities that we can't yet tell what is and what isn't, before digging deeper, and there's a lot to dig.

Tadhg Kelly
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I was thinking that it might be a useful taxonomy to separate synch and tempo. It opens up the idea of synchronous and temporal, or asynchronous yet temporal. Or synchronous yet atemporal.



This definitely feels like something I should expand on in a post.

Luis Guimaraes
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Maybe there's some word we're forgetting to express it.



On the subject: without excluding the unique, characteristic merits of multiplayer and synchronicity (direct correlation/effect, same match, shared game state...), single player, in it's many current and fore-coming forms, has a wide spectrum of possibilities.



It might be that Heavy Rain and L.A. Noire are, with some chronological shifting, err... Pong.

Daniel Cook
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As an off topic note, I think of these problems in terms of good old logistics. How much time does the player have? How can I slot their time in with the available schedule slots of other players? Turns, ghosts, parallel play, concurrency, Raph's nesting of games, matchmaking, bots-stranger-friend availability are all tools and constraints to take into consideration.



The goal I set for my logistical problem is to have the actions of one human impact the actions of another human in a manner that at the very least gives the impression of a relationship. That's multiplayer and it comes in a spectrum of engagement levels.



I'm still not completely clear on your use of synchronous, Tadhg, but look forward to a future post! This is something I think about way too much these days since most of the designs I'm working on are not about traditional concurrent multiplayer designs. It is a fun area. We are doing to concurrent multiplayer what Braid did to the single player concept of Time.

Mike Reddy
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Isn't there a distinction between synchronised environments, synchronous access to information and fully duplexed ability to act. We can't move our chess pieces at the same time, but we both know the board state simultaneously. Or we can both jump/shoot/etc in Halo Reach, but don't have synchronised knowledge; I can't see where your sniper is spawn camping

Clifton Jewett
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Tadhg, prior to seeing this comment page, I have always encountered "synchronous" and "asynchronous" in game design with the definitions described by Raph Koster above. I feel that this definition is well established and have encountered it frequently, with the common example of "chess by email" for an asynchronous game. This is also used by Jane McGonigal in Reality is Broken to refer to playing Scrabble clones on Facebook. I don't feel like ferreting for more examples but I know they're out there in droves, and they go back to at least the mid 90's. The established use in the game design field may not match previous lay uses as well as yours, but I would suggest coining a new term (unless, as Luis suggests, one exists and escapes our tongues at the moment).



Your concept of synchronous is quite important. It's certainly something I've thought of before, but not enough to sum up in one word. I'd be happy to read a post on it.

Clifton Jewett
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I'm not sure how an MMO is asynchronous by your definition, if it has a persistent world. It now feels to me like you are taking the concept of symmetry (http://www.sirlin.net/articles/balancing-multiplayer-games-part-1
-definitions.html) and seeing if the starting and ending points of players are symmetrically balanced or not.

Tadhg Kelly
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Clifton,



I've posted a more worked-out version on my own blog:



http://whatgamesare.com/2011/08/synchronous-or-asynchronous-defin
itions.html

Ara Shirinian
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Some styles of game design may be more or less popular at any given time (and driven more or less by individual conceit vs. market dynamics), but it is unfairly limiting to the pursuit of the art to suggest that one is less legitimate/aberrant than another, more so if we are talking about buckets with so much mutually exclusive space as "single player" and "multiplayer." It's any person's prerogative to decide as harshly as they want to what kind of game is interesting to them- but as Ian says this is a matter of taste.



On the other hand, we also have a medium that can contain almost any other media, so you can experience a "game" that is not really a game, however meaningful the experience might be, but that is a different can of worms.

Ian Bogost
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Games of the latter sort are particularly demanding, because they remind us where we think the dividing line lies, and then they challenge us to move it.

Daniel Cook
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Talk of multiplayer games are somehow equivalent of banning interracial marriage? Someone is abusing the rhetoric bottle. :-)



To put my 'tweet' in the appropriate context, I prefer to talk in terms of untapped opportunities. Simply because a game is 'old' does not mean it cannot suggest fascinating possibilities for future play. Even translating tag or hide & seek to a networked multiplayer world with thousands of players yields games unlike any this world has ever known. The passion is more about what new systems of networking, persistence and computation can bring to human interaction. If this is conservatism, it is an odd sort. Futurism? Sure, that a label I'll take.



The reference to games being thousands of years old comes in large part because there are interesting examples of play that I personally feel were trampled and pushed to the side by a sad decade+ of 'games as movies', 'games as narrative', 'games as immersive spectacle'. I can readily accept that others feel that if only we spend another billion dollars on experiments in narrative we'll incrementally improve upon the aesthetic you see in games like Heavy Rain. To me, that is a waste, but let's be clear: Other than few unheard/misquoted words on a hobby blog, the only thing I can really control are the games that I make. This enforces an inevitable live-and-let-live status quo.



The whole talk of games not being a science is merely a needlessly blinkered statement. Of course games have art, craft and science. If you are going to play the big tent card, play it broadly. Playtesting is based in large part on the philosophies of science. I use as much experimental validation as I can get in my design processes. A/B testing, metrics and other more modern techniques of iterative design are both craft and science in action. The underlying patterns of feedback loops, play styles, definable player emotions, social structures and economic structures appear across a variety of games in a variety of time periods again and again. Hey, lets note them, talk about them and if possible use them as tools. Instead of slavishly copying old forms or acting like naive infants, why not build a tested and empirically validated conceptual scaffolding of these lessons so that we can build grand new structures?



To imagine that games are some magical, boundless and random phenomena governed primarily by the whims of the artist only leads to creator after ignorant creator wondering why their game failed to function. A small fact that critics are required by the rules of their game to ignore: Each failed game is wrought of blood and passion by real human beings. If we can study games and then give creators tools so that they are slightly more successful than throwing themselves about in a dark room full of knives, then we have done good in the world. It appears you write from the perspective of a critic that desires varied baubles to use in a critical performance and cares little about the human cost of creation. I write more as a developer that hopes to elevate and empower fellow creators so they can make new bright worlds.



Should we have a variety of game aesthetics? Sure. I mean no offense, but this is inevitable. As the breadth of creators become grows and the tools (both technological and theoretical) get cheaper and easier, people will make a vast cornucopia of games in all shapes and flavors of emotion. It is a worthy topic to ask why a flourishing is occurring now and why it was not the case in the past. You know...so we can avoid running that particular experiment again.



take care,

Danc.

Ian Bogost
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You're misconstruing the "games are not science" position. Talking about "science" is almost as bad as talking about "art," but saying that "games have science in them" is not the same as saying "games are a problem to be solved." The latter is the blinkered position, and it has nothing to do with whether or not one playtests. But, from my perspective, playtesting is as much a matter of aesthetics as it is a matter of what you're calling "science." If what you want is a game that gives the most people what they think they want, that's a particular orientation. It's not a "solution."



Don't mistake magic for randomness and whims.



Danc, you tend to take very strong (sometimes incendiary) positions and then, when push comes to shove, I think you actually have relatively moderate views that are poorly supported by your stated positions. If you need to weasel out of them through ad hominem, then I pity you.

Daniel Cook
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A science of game design (something I'm very much in favor of pursuing) doesn't require that 'games are a problem to be solved'. Unless I'm missing something in how the phrase is being used in this essay... (BTW, I'd much rather this be a dialog than volleys back and forth. If I was overly personal in my comments, I apologize.)



Science (in my mind) is a systematic empirical study of a phenomena. You create theories, you test them, you evolve them or toss them based off the results. Eventually you build up a body of theories that model some but not all of the phenomena. The process reminds me a lot of game design since as I and many other practice it because there is always a reality that you can reference. Did the players accomplish the task? Did they exhibit signs of emotions as expected? The models and theories tested during development occasionally have broader applicability to other games.



Does physics seek to solve the universe? Not really. Nor does a science of game design need to solve games to be a valid and interesting pursuit. I think it should be a major pursuit of those who wish to be broadly educated on games. If there is a 'game studies' department on a campus there should be an equally well staffed 'gameology' department. Ideally, the two should be cross pollinated in the same department, but I get eye rolling + comments about politics when I bring that one up. :-)



Do aesthetics play a role? Can they be a study all their own? Very much so. Who is denying this?



take care,

Danc.



PS: 'Blinkered' is my new favorite word. It is like the car you buy that you then see everywhere.

Ian Bogost
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That's what's so confusing to me, Danc, about your response. It feels like you're agreeing with me, to a point: there are styles. There are approaches. There are ways of choosing to make things. But then when I read what you write, here and elsewhere (and not just on Twitter), it's incredibly normative and definitive. This is the reason that science is a bad model for art. It's not about singular answers and accomplishing goals.



I don't really understand what "gameology" would mean compared to "game studies," but I'm interested in hearing more about what you mean here.

Ian Schreiber
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Since when is science about "singular answers and accomplishing goals"? Science is about making admittedly imperfect but good-enough-to-be-useful models, then iteratively improving them. Sounds an awful lot like the process of game design to me. Instead of calling it "gameology" how about just calling it "game design"? I don't know about Danc, but I'm more interested in making games than studying their effect on culture (not that there's anything wrong with either).

Daniel Cook
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Re: Writing style. On Lostgarden and Twitter, I suspect I'm not writing for you. Instead, I'm trying to state a concept as clearly as I know how for people interested in making games. Often that comes across as definitive because I'm trying to define terms for people who may have never actively considered such topics and are about 3X more inclined towards an engineering mindset than myself. Heck, I'm trying to define them for myself.



Perhaps my comments make sense from this perspective. Lately I've been thinking about efficient design. You, as a developer have limited hours in your life. You can use those to place a bet on a game that you create. If your bet fails, you lose autonomy, put your family's financial health at risk and potentially go back to working at a AAA plantation that crunches your life away. What game do you make?



The study of a game's aesthetics is one method for identifying value. It is great that there's something interesting about the unique feel of the play in Heavy Rain. That is real meaningful value you can deliver to the player. Now how strong is that value? Will lots of people want that?



Now what is the cost? This is a complex question since it is more than the hours you put into the game. What is the richness of the emotion (often fun, but not always) that you've found? How hard is it to capture the value? What is the probability of success? How does the design fit the developer's skills and mood? A design that costs very little and results in a large burst of value is an efficient design. A design that clicks with a tiny number of people and is expensive and to pull off is a less efficient design.



Not everyone will pick the most efficient design. But I find it important to possess tools that help you understand which design is more or less efficient than some other design. From an efficient design perspective, L.A. Noire isn't very efficient. I'd hesitate to recommend that style of design to someone who is explicitly looking for a high value game given their limited personal resources.



For a particular developer with fixed resources and a given risk preference, these thoughts matter. They likely don't matter a lick to the player at the end of the day. When I write ""I deeply doubt that the best use of games is to tell stories. Narrative games are a historical anomaly. Multiplayer systems of economics, social grouping, and related culture are the past and present trend", consider that as a recommendation about potential costs and benefits to be processed by a developer. "Best use" could be read as "Most efficient design".



IMO, there's an immense amount of new-to-the-world value to be found in multiplayer games with procedural or user generated content. On the other side of things, narrative, immersive, single player titles seems to be giving diminishing returns despite obnoxiously escalating investments. The less efficient design is riskier despite being 'proven' over the past 30 years of heavy investment.



To link back to your essay, this view isn't "one true path". Online multiplayer is one grand opportunity among many. It isn't a limiting line. It is an oil field where some spots are potentially richer than others. If you have the tools to dig.



I can see how these comments may not have the same interpretation for the player, critic or academic studying only the end result of the game.



Re: Game Studies vs. Gameology. You know, I need to educate myself more on what is already out there. My guess is that I'm looking for writing that is considered part of Game Studies but comes more from a social sciences angle.



take care,

Danc.

Olivier Lejade
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Ian said: "Danc, you tend to take very strong (sometimes incendiary) positions and then, when push comes to shove, I think you actually have relatively moderate views that are poorly supported by your stated positions."



The irony! One would think that, of all people, the cow clicking god would understand the value of pushing an argument to its extreme in order to make it absolutely clear what that argument is. Are you really rooting for more wishy-washy opinions on the web?

Ian Bogost
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You're right, I use provocation all the time. But it's precious, and besides that, Dan wants to have it both ways--or all ways even. He wants to be able to revise his position at any moment by claiming that it's stylistic or "efficient" or some such.

Ian Bogost
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Thanks for telling me that I'm not interested in making games, Danc. That's very generous of you, a virtue that seems to pervade your public persona.



Is it not clear to you that this idea of "efficiency" is precisely the sort of scientistic response whose certainty I was questioning, by reframing it and other techniques as "aesthetics?" We could argue about whether or not "efficiency" sits on an aesthetic register or not, but I'm not so concerned about that--until you start reframing your aesthetics as mere market dynamics, attempts to squeeze the last drop out of the least lemon.

Tadhg Kelly
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Ian,



I think your image of Dan here is quite wrong, and unfair to boot. He's by no means an extractionist, but rather has been a long time advocate of using techniques found in product development to avoid the sometimes historic levels of waste in game development.

Ian Bogost
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I have no "image" of Dan for which I'm advocating. I'm responding to being insulted repeatedly for no particular reason.

Tadhg Kelly
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I don't think you were. You accused Dan of going all ad hominem, but I didn't see where. He simply explained his views and has been even throughout.

Ian Bogost
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Ok, well, I don't want to belabor it. I'm not interested in figuring out who's the bigger scoundrel. Let's just keep talking about other stuff.

Tadhg Kelly
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Roger that.

Jamie Mann
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@Daniel:



"IMO, there's an immense amount of new-to-the-world value to be found in multiplayer games with procedural or user generated content. On the other side of things, narrative, immersive, single player titles seems to be giving diminishing returns despite obnoxiously escalating investments. The less efficient design is riskier despite being 'proven' over the past 30 years of heavy investment. "



I certainly agree that there's value to be found in multimedia games with user generated content (henceforth referred to as MMUCG), but I'm not so sure that they offer grand opportunities - more precisely, I think that there's far more of a "one hit wonder" element to MMUCGs: the game has to have the right style and be in the right place at the right time to attract a critical mass of players *and* it also needs to have sufficient infrastructure in place to handle the userbase - and setting this up may well be more costly than producing a single-player game.



Spore is perhaps the best example of a multiplayer UGC game which failed to meet expectations, despite having virtually everything going for it: a high-profile, successful developer supported by a wealthy company who gave the developer a free rein and backed the game with a huge marketing campaign. The game sold well, but it failed to achieve the reach that the Sims did (and similarly, the Sims Online also failed), implying that it was perhaps the singleplayer "toybox" setup of the Sims which attracted people, rather than the UCG elements: people weren't looking to create their own content, but instead wanted to play with content other people created.



Personally, I think the main issue is that single-player game design has become very stratified: people are investing lots of money into producing very similar games (e.g. an FPS featuring space-marines vs aliens, set in a ruined city); this lack of differentiation then increases the risk of low sales. As previously noted, games such as Demon's Souls and Catherine both show that there is still active interest in single-player games which offer something different!

Moses Wolfenstein
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I'm so glad you acknowledged your use of provocation here. Otherwise I was gonna have to "+1" Olivier's comment.

Ernest Adams
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God, all these efforts to prescribe what is orthodox and what is heretical game design, or what is natural and what is unnatural game design, make me tired. Ian, I salute your energy in refuting them. I couldn't do it.



As for those who feel themselves entitled to dictate: It's a medium. You can do anything in it. Some people like some things better than other things. That's why we have horse races. But your own personal preferences have exactly ZERO weight as gospel. Stop trying to set yourself up as the goddamn Académie des Beaux-Arts.

Raph Koster
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You can't do "anything" in a "medium" unless people have been making movies with chisels and marble and I missed it. :)



For me this isn't about dictating... it's about exploring.

Daniel Cook
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I wish I could like / +1 this.



Instead, I offer this image of Wembley giving a thumbs up:

http://images2.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20101220025837/muppet/image
s/8/80/WembleyFraggle-thumbsup.jpg

Zack Hiwiller
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Heretical Game Design would be a lovely title for a book.

Moses Wolfenstein
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Medium>Form>Genre



In terms of skill and specialization

Ian Bogost
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I'll admit that Raph and Dan are just convenient examples, and I could have picked others (but I don't feel that I'm treating them unfairly either). Raph, sure there are always constraints. I mentioned this above, too. But there really are far more ways to interpret the possible directions of games than comments like the ones I've called out in this article. It's hard to read comments like those I cited above as earnest "explorations," Raph.

Tadhg Kelly
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I wouldn't say it's orthodoxy vs heresy. I think it's more about figuring out what tends to work and what tends not to.



And yes, I do think there are many kinds of ideas that have been tried in games over the years that just physically don't work, so there is such a thing as 'what games are not'. That doesn't mean innovation is bad and we should all just play platform games, but it does mean that some drums have been banged together forever with zero progress. And it's important to understand why.

Luis Guimaraes
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No progress is zero progress (no pun intended). Video games (games or not) are too complex pieces to be entirely worth or useless from the progress point of view, even a clone will have something to teach that the former title didn't.



It is important to understand why something worked or not. But sometimes it's no on the whole and just a small step went away. The hard part is to recognize each one, because if it was easy, it wouldn't happen.



Everything was an aberration once.

Ian Bogost
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Tadhg, I remain concerned about talk of things "working" -- because this implies that there are solutions, or worse *a* solution, which I don't think is the case, because I don't think there's a *problem* to begin with.

Luis Guimaraes
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A game, either to make or to play, is "a series of interesting choices" right? I'm with you Ian, that there's no "solution", or else there's no choice, nor interesting choice. But then I don't think machines will be taking our jobs anytime soon (even if some might want it to happen) to be scared by it.

Raph Koster
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Ian,



Or rather, there are many *potential* problems. There is the problem Dan is referencing, of viability for a developer seeking remuneration. There's the problem of touching people emotionally, or touching them propagandistically, or logically... There's the problem of expanding the possibilities of the medium. And so on.



Every time we design a game, we are in fact setting out to solve a particular problem, and perhaps that is what you are really getting at when you seek an aesthetic; the very word design implies an artifact created around a problem set.



Some of the gap here may be between those who keenly feel the weight of problems and constraints handed to them (by publishers, bosses, etc) and those who keenly feel the sense of freedom to choose their own problems to work on.



To some degree, this feels akin to your angst when Cow Clicker started "working" in ways you didn't expect it to...



Nobody here is saying that there is only one problem to be solved. All the "scientism" is aimed at saying "regardless of the problem, here are some tools of the craft that you may be able to use for solving the problem that you have at hand." And yes, just as if you were working with wood, we'd hand you sandpaper and saws, but might not if you were working with poems, because each medium happens to have qualities that are intrinsic to it and therefore the tools follow suit.



I really don't see this and the search for an aesthetic as incompatible. I don't see why you can't have both.

Ian Bogost
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Raph -- Dan's race to viability *itself* makes a number of assumptions, one of them about what "viability" means, even! The fact that he and others are so concerned with fixing the meaning of that term is interesting, and it both opens up and forecloses different directions. Obviously some constraints can be material, and some material constraints can be marketplace constraints. But surely you see how talk about "solving" problems in marketplaces isn't the only way that aesthetics get explored?



I'm not sure why this feels akin to Cow Clicker, but maybe you can tell me more about what you mean.

Tadhg Kelly
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Ian,



It doesn't mean that there is an optimum solution. By its very nature gameplay is all about the search for the optimal on the part of the player, but when achieved it becomes uninteresting (as Raph wrote in his book). This virtually ensures that there must be permanent invention by game makers.



At the same time, what is meant by 'work' is that some kinds of ideas never really coalesce. Some conventions just work in various forms and their commonality is clear. I might start to call them universal, but that feels a little over-reaching.



I think we're at the point where these conventions and loose observations are plentiful enough that they can be identified as patterns. Some people might not like the idea that there may be a quasi-formula (or at least common ground guide) that seems to work for games (as there is for films, poems, novels, etc) because it implies that games fit in a template.



However I don't think it does.

Ian Bogost
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The moment we touch these things, they scurry away. After all, there are games that aren't about searching for the optimal (Tale of Tale's work came up earlier), and there are some who reject patterns and conventions like the ones you mention precisely in order to reject patterns and conventions. Art is weird. It's not a "problem" like tensile strength. That's all I'm saying.

Tadhg Kelly
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They don't always scurry away. Plenty of TV shows use a writing formula, movies have for decades, and poetry has long had standard verse structures. There are conventions in songs, sculpture, compositional art and so on too. They're not laws but at the same time they sort of seem to work again and again.



And then, yes, you get the fringe. Which, when it discovers something that does work tends to get absorbed into conventions. But also which, frequently, remains on the fringe because its work is self referential and of interest to only the very few. It's the same across all the arts.



We agree wholly that art isn't something to be 'solved' by the way.

Ian Bogost
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The conventions of poetry offer good examples of techniques that emerged for particular, contingent, historical reasons and that were later adopted, altered, discarded, picked up again, revised, and on and on. What scurries away is the notion of a definition ("poetry is x"), not the individual examples.

Raph Koster
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I actually don't say that it is about searching for the optimal (unless you are a powergamer), but about searching for understanding. In fact, I spefifically reference satisficing and similar means of arriving at adequate mental models that are suboptimal.



I think that Tale of Tale's work falls perfectly into a model centered around trying to understand the work.

Raph Koster
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Ian, yes, of course Dan's chosen problem set is riddled with assumptions. If you recall, when i did Andean Bird, I ended up having to explicitly disclaim in the comment thread any interest whatsoever in market viability, despite players pushing me to consider them. So you know that I agree with you that the marketplace constraint is a chosen constraint.



For those who make games professionally, or who are at gaming conferences (especially business ones) it just happens to be a particularly *important* constraint.

Ian Bogost
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It's probably also worth pointing out that Heavy Rain is a commercial success. There's room for far more aesthetic diversity even within the constraints of a marketplace. It's also worth reminding ourselves that there are many marketplaces.

Tadhg Kelly
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There's a difference between the idea of something as sold versus whether it actually is genuinely any good. It seems to me that there is an 'aftermath' effect with games, just as there is with films and the like, where the marketing story of what it could be spreads far enough and is attractive enough that customers will buy it to check it out.



But, in the cold light of day some weeks later, those same customers are either faintly disappointed, didn't finish it or just sort of forgot it. It's the 'was it memorable' factor. Reviews and initial views often don't reflect this at all because of the hyperbole. It's the sort of reason why Return of the King won dozens of Oscars for example (despite being a fairly iffy film) and why Titanic sold trillions of tickets only to be faintly disowned a couple of years later.



I just think that we need to be careful in citing sales figures as definitive proof rather than possible indicators. Elsewise Zumba Fitness truly is the greatest game the UK has ever seen.

Ian Bogost
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I hope it's clear that I was never advocating that sales figures become definitive proof of anything. I just mentioned them in light of comments regarding commercial viability as a design concern, via Raph via Dan.

Ernest Adams
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I don't for a minute believe that "every time we design a game, we are in fact setting out to solve a particular problem."



I am quite prepared to believe, Raph, that every time YOU design a game you are setting out to solve a particular problem.



But I'm not.

Raph Koster
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Serious question then: what are you doing when you design a game? When you set out to design a game, do you not have any of the following in mind?



- a goal in mind?

- an experience to provide?

- a message to convey?

- an audience to satisfy?



Do you sit down at the keyboard and let come what may?



Any of those things are essentially design problems. You speak regularly about the design problem of creating narrative games & reaching for particular aesthetic goals. You write down common errors and deny designers twinkies. Are those not problems to solve?



I guess I just don't understand exactly what you are affirmatively arguing, Ernest. When you design a game, what are you doing? Why do it in the medium of a game? Why design it rather than let people play whatever they want?



Bear in mind, when I go to draw a picture, I am also solving a particular problem; when I write music, I am solving a problem; when I write a poem, I am solving a problem. The problem may just be a desire to express myself, but it's still what I am doing.



More, I commonly complicate and constrain the problem for myself -- write a poem, in sonnet form; draw a picture, of this particular object in this media; write a song, in 5/4 time. Design a game, that uses one mouse button. Design a game, that tells a story. Design a game, that feels like a kaleidoscope. Design a game, about game mechanics. Etc.

Clifton Jewett
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I'm with Raph Koster on this.



I think Ernest may be assuming "solve a problem" means that the problem is solved for all time, to the normative exclusion and negation of all other alternatives, when a more practical / temporary sense is implied.

Lance Burkett
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@Tadhg



Quality is subjective!



Heavy Rain has been hailed by many as a brilliant and memorable game. Just because you dislike it out of preference doesn't mean the idea behind shouldn't be explored. But I agree with you on the idea that market figures shouldn't be the only source of proof.



And many of the problems people had with Heavy Rain weren't due to limitations of its gameplay structure and narrative genre, but rather unrealistic story writing at times.

Moses Wolfenstein
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A final solution for video games? #SelfGodwinize

Christopher Parthemos
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We're getting to the point in the games industry where people are putting the proverbial toilet bowl on the wall, and calling it art. I mean that in the best possible way. It's insane to try to define a medium that's essentially bounded only by how you define it. To some, gaming requires a complex system. To others it doesn't need to be much more than someone throwing a ball against a brick wall. All this business about historical abberation, syncronicity and asyncronicity... to use a food metaphor, it's like putting truffle oil on mashed potatoes. Yea, when people see it on your menu they'll think you're a fancy place because hey, truffles are expensive... but at the end of the day, it's a meaningless ingredient. In food as in games, (can anyone tell that I just read this http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/36290/Opinion_Get_Your_Hands_D
irty.php ?) simple pleasures are always best.

Bart Stewart
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Do you think you might be confusing implementation with design?



Yes, at the end of the day somebody has to sit down and crank out code/audio/artwork... but at the start of that day someone has to think about what to implement and why. The "doing" part may be cut-and-dried activity where the requirements are clear, but the "deciding what to do part" is almost never so obvious. There's science in design; there are production rules for what you get when you fit certain systems together. I think that's the point Raph was making in his comments here.



But there's also art involved: on what basis does a game designer choose among several system options when they all achieve the required functionality? That's where aesthetics necessarily enters the picture. That's the area where it helps to have a critical vocabulary, because that's how you figure out that Systems A and B are a better fit for the "feel" of a game than Systems Y and Z. If designers aren't allowed to talk about the aesthetics of design -- as many of Ian's essays try to do -- then forget about ever seeing games that amaze because they "feel" so thematically solid. Instead, we'll get metrics-driven machines, about as satisfying as clicking on a picture of a cow ;), or putting up four walls and a roof and calling it a house.



Yes, it'll keep the rain off, but who would *enjoy* living in such a soulless thing?



Aesthetic discussions like the one Ian sparked here -- assuming they retain some connection to comprehensible reality -- are how designers figure out how to give games souls. Why call for less of that?

Mike Reddy
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Ian said: if games have certain deep properties whose undeniable truth is borne out over time, who are we to think we are right to declare millennia of history wrong?



Clearly a straw man argument that he then proceeds to knock down; that being the nature of straw men, rather like exploding crates in FPSs really. The clue is in the 'if' and the 'who are we to', so it's no wonder we get a good debate afterwards.



Raph said: I do believe firmly that single-player is fighting the tide, in that it works against some fundamental characteristics of the *real* canvas on which we work, which is the human brain.



What tide is this exactly? Cognitive Science? Or Market forces, where CoD seems to sell well, so we extrapolate that it is the effect of an underlying cause.



Dan said: Does physics seek to solve the universe? Not really.



Actually, I'd say "yes, it does" but a little bit at a time, here and there. The ultimate goal of a physicist is to keep asking questions until there aren't any left.



Chris said: We're getting to the point in the games industry where people are putting the proverbial toilet bowl on the wall, and calling it art.



So what? I deeply enjoyed "An Oak Tree" as a piece of art. Being the first to do something daft or obvious can really help others to see things anew; like fish feeling the water they swim in.



I say: Ian is right to question whether we are developing wagon ruts in game design, especially as it is such a young and old medium: play being older than storytelling if not by much, even if computer delivered games is the newest of media. Heresy is a serious charge in any endeavour. To paraphrase Monty Python, no one expected the "Heretic Kingdoms: Inquisition"!



From a theoretical perspective, a lot of the subsequent comments/arguments, such as Tadg's issues with asynchrony, apply to all media. I have a PhD student working on the educational uses (if any) of Virtual Worlds, like Second Life. He's had headaches creating activities that are certainly in an environment that can be synchronous, multi-player, but time zones and a different expectation of experience - essentially glorified chat (better done elsewhere) or massively single player online (MSO?) - render common student-student and student-tutor communication models difficult to replicate. He now has a wonderfully negative result to write up, as learning in Virtual Worlds still needs its killer app. However, this is another example of media existing on five axes: geography (am I in the room, in shouting distance, across the world); time (am I there in sync, remote on-line synched with lag, there taking turns or thoroughly asynchronous, completely distinct non-intersecting times); broadcast (one-to-one, one-to-many, many-to-one, many-to-many); status (passive consumer, user-generated, active collaboration, producer); permanence (persistent, instanced, ephemeral). Different games, like stone tablets, cave paintings, play performances, etc, have different qualities. Unless there's been a law passed banning some forms of communication, no game type can be considered heretical

Raph Koster
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The tide I mean is both cognitive and cultural. I believe games implicitly teach; that the thing we are hardwired to want to know the most about is each other; and that solo and singleplayer games end up dragged over to this use because of the gravity well.



This doesn't mean anything is heretical. I disavow that characterization altogether.

Michael Joseph
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My $0.02



- Single player is not an aberration. It's been around forever. Every form of solo practice for a sport or for a battle amounts to single player. A general on the eve of battle formulating his tactics and imaginging his opponents actions and his counters to those actions and contingencies... is a game. A little girl having an imaginary tea party is playing a game. Only children living in the country with no neighboring kids to play with don't play? What if they play with a dog or cat? Doesn't count? Single player is what you get when you want to hone skills by yourself. Playing a game by yourself might require a little extra imagination but computer games make this even easier by often providing virtual opponents. But whatever. Solitaire is an aberration, tossing cards into a hat, practicing your billiards or dart throwing by yourself.... i think in the end these sorts of outrageous claims goes to show how much this so called social gaming phenomenon has excited some people.



Be excited by social gaming but I think it's a mistake to try and compare the relative values of single player games and multiplayer/social or to suggest that one is better than the other. Single player games aren't going anywhere nor will they ever be marginalized. Implying that single player games are played by introverted loners and suggesting they are stastical deviants is a misleading and irresponsible thing to suggest.



- On the science of gaming I think that some people who persue that are likely to find that they're not doing good work. It'd be like studying torture to find the best ways to extract information from prisoners. That's because much (but not all) of the research into the science of gaming is the study of psychology and it revolves around extracting money from people. There's little chance of discovering anything meaningful about games as art because real art isn't so focussed on monetization.



Art is about trying to say something (often something very personal). It's not just diversion. And it's not about figuring out how to hypnotize with one hand and pickpocket with the other.



And for the rest who are more genuinely interested in understanding what makes a game "good" they'll have the toughest job of all. But nobody is seriously undertaking this in a scientific way. It's pretty much just game designers and educators using experience, exchange of ideas, and intuition.



The science behind music is what gives us Britany Spears and the Backstreat Boys. Let's leave the science of gaming alone before any more Frankenstein monsters are beset upon us.

Raph Koster
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Your examples are all of solo activity that LEADS to social activity. I think that is telling. :)



You state "Implying that single player games are played by introverted loners and suggesting they are stastical deviants is a misleading and irresponsible thing to suggest"... but (for better or worse) demographic surveys have shown that particularly the core gaming hobby IS tilted this way fairly strongly, and so are the creators of said games. This has changed dramatically, but largely thanks to connected gaming.



Finally, you state that the science of gaming is not likely to lead to good art. Pillars of the art game movement, such as Jason Rohrer and Rod Humble, were specifically inspired by the "science of gaming" stuff in my book Theory of Fun -- they have said so publicly. So unless you want to dismiss the art game movement, I think this is already demonstrated to be false.



That said, as I noted above, I AGREE with the comment that there is tremendous risk in a reductionist approach that drives solely towards monetization. It is one of my great fears as well. That doesn't mean that I think we stop figuring out our equivalent of the rules of perspective and color theory, though. We have gained so much from this work in the last decade and a half that we tend to forget that previously, the best we had was a collection of rules of thumb and a lot of quasi-mystical naif approaches.

Tadhg Kelly
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Raph,



>> This has changed dramatically, but largely thanks to connected gaming.



I question this assertion. I think it's changed more to do with a drop in price (facebook games are free, therefore less of a commitment) and access (it's all in the browser, no technical worries).

Raph Koster
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It started changing prior to the F2P market, with MMOs. There were measurable and significant demographic and psychographic differences in the aggregate audiences.



This is not to minimize the value of distribution in effecting the change in a much broader scale overall -- though of course the changes in distribution and price were also an artifact of networked computers, the casual game market in particular was heavily driven by business landscape changes rather than connectivity.

Michael Joseph
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" Your examples are all of solo activity that LEADS to social activity. I think that is telling. :) "



Hrm... I suppose that's true. I think I understand your argument a little better.



Still I don't think that solo activities that do not lead to social activities (or which are not some preparation for future social activities) are aberrant ones. I'm more inclined to think that the issue is really about the definition of "game" and that solo video "gaming" only seems abberant in the traditional context of gaming and it's probably not appropriate to judge them in that way. Solo gaming seems a bit more akin to many past times such as watching TV or films or reading a book.

Jamie Mann
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When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.



When you're focused on multiplayer titles, the future is multiplayer (and it helps to deflect criticism about the shortcomings of your single-player implementation - after all, it's only there to help train people for multiplayer...)



When you're focused on MMORPGs, then explicit narrative is irrelevant: after all, people will create their own stories from their experiences of interacting with the game systems.



It's easy to see where both are coming from, but it's based on such a narrow focus that there's a real risk that the game implementation will suffer. A lot of people enjoy single-player games. A lot of people enjoy having an explicit narrative to work within. And if you ignore these demographics and focus on what you consider to be a "pure" experience, there's a real risk that the only person who will enjoy the game will be yourself...

Raph Koster
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I think you need to give a little more credit to the key folks involved in the discussion, all of whom have worked on single-player, multiplayer, multiple genres, games for art, games for money, indie, and commercial. It's not that simple.

Tadhg Kelly
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Agreed.

Jamie Mann
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Apologies if it wasn't clear, but I wasn't commenting on the commentators: there's been many interesting points and suggestions made. Instead, I'm referring to the two people whose statements triggered this article:



Raph Koster: "the entire video game industry's history thus far has been an aberration. It has been a mutant monster only made possible by unconnected computers. ... Historically speaking, single-player games are indeed an aberration."



Raph has spent his entire career developing multiplayer games, from MUDs to Ultima Online and Facebook-based social games. I think it's safe to say he's fairly well focused on multiplayer games.



Daniel Cook: "I deeply doubt that the best use of games is to tell stories. Narrative games are a historical anomaly. Multiplayer systems of economics, social grouping, and related culture are the past and present trend."



Daniel Cook is a developer who (at the risk of gross simplification) believes that the best approach for gaming is to create a set of gameplay mechanics and let the player(s) develop their own narrative. He's written several Gamasutra articles on the subject:

http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/1524/the_chemistry_of_game_
design.php

http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/1524/the_chemistry_of_game_
design.php



Much as I wish Raph and Daniel the best of luck in their endeavors, as far as I'm concerned, while they both have a point, their approach is not guaranteed to be correct - indeed, I don't think there is One Right Way to make computer games.



For instance, some of the most popular games ever made have been single-player games, from Pacman to Super Mario Bros, Tetris and the Sims - EA tried to make a MMO version of the Sims and it failed miserably.



Equally, some of the most popular games ever made have had an established, fixed storyline. Metal Gear Solid, Halo, Final Fantasy, Zelda, Call of Duty, etc.



Fundamentally, as with other media such as painting, books, films and music (and other human activities such as cooking) there's an infinite number of permutations waiting to be explored. Similarly, there isn't a single atomic audience; instead, there's dozens of demographics which can both overlap or violently reject each other. Then there's the ennui factor: as the Wii and WoW have demonstrated, people grow tired of specific IP and gameplay mechanics after a while and move on to new IP and/or different gameplay mechanics (both new and rehashed, as per the movie industry).



Thems are just the breaks...

Raph Koster
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Dan and myself were exactly who I meant when I said "have worked on single-player, multiplayer, multiple genres, games for art, games for money, indie, and commercial". There's no question that most of my published commercial work has been in multiplayer -- though not all, such as the various single-player titles I was associated with while at SOE. But that's not even the majority of my designed games. I've done puzzle games, board games, art games, etc.



That quote does not say "stop making single-player games" in it anywhere. That isn't my position. I LIKE single-player games. My position is that single-player games historically have never been the mainstream, became the mainstream for a period because of unconnected computers, and IMHO are going to return to being more of a niche because they will get wrapped up with multiplayer contexts. That makes the last 30 years an outlier on the graph.



The fact it is a big outlier, or that great achievements were managed in them, doesn't have anything to do with the thrust of my argument. I think that the development of single-player gaming thanks to the computer led to a massive flowering in games and the invention of numerous forms that were heretofore impossible. But great achievements were also managed in mosaics, frescoes, opera, and so on; and they also had moments of utter dominance as the established dominant form of their respective broader art forms. It doesn't mean they are the be-all end-all.

Ian Bogost
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Raph, this isn't exactly a response to this comment, but here's as good a place as any to put it.



I went back and re-read your article in light of this comment and your earlier ones about the material having been presented at a business conference. And I still feel comfortable with the way I've characterized that argument in this article. I think you're downplaying the position that you advanced in that material, and it's not even by implication. You say "single-player gaming is doomed." But then you hedge a bit with an edit at the end, which says something like "all play will be in a social context," which is so broad and general as to be akin to saying "all videogames are played within a worldly context."



Here's a different way of putting the original thesis: why not say something like "I, Raph Koster, have the following vision for my games. I want them to accomplish these things. I have the following reasons for them. I have a style I've developed around those properties." Why must every account of everything strive to be all-encompassing and bullet-proof, such that even the clarification of the universal law strives to become a universal law? This is the squabble at the heart of my disagreement with Dan too, I think. The endless search for the trump card. Anything you can do I can do meta, etc.

Raph Koster
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My thesis wasn't about the games I want to make, though. It was about where games as a whole are going. It was not advocacy of moving in that direction. It was the statement "I think games are moving in this direction." I still think games are moving in this direction, for that matter. :)



I have games I very much want to make that run completely against that tide: single-player, heavily narrative games. I am aware that they run against that tide, and I just live with that fact.



I'm not telling anyone what to do. I am telling them what I think most people ARE GOING to do. There's no imposition of an aesthetic or an ideal there.



The defensiveness that always seems to arise around this almost always boils down to comments like this post, which I will unkindly summarize as "why are you telling me what to do?"; and the sister response "you're nuts, it won't happen because I love the current kinds of games." I got *exactly* those two responses when I advocated for games-as-art.



Again, there's a defensiveness there that I just don't understand.

Ian Bogost
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Hmm. Those aren't the best responses, but I think its very difficult to read your article as a kind of disinterested statement of what's going on. You don't really think that's what it is do you?



In any case, this line of thinking is far bigger than you and Dan; I just used you two because you offered convenient examples.

Jamie Mann
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Raph,



Thanks for the additional information and context!



I'm glad to hear that you believe there's a place for single-player games, but it has to be said that this didn't come across at all in the original statement: to me, the description of single-player gaming as "a unnatural, abnormal, mutant, monster aberration" (to pick the key terms from the original full statement) is completely negative polemic which is effectively instructing people to actively avoid the development of single-player games. This may not have been the intent, but it was certainly the result!



As such, my response wasn't intended to be defensive, but was instead intended to be a counter to such a polarised view. I'll agree that it falls somewhat into the "you're nuts" camp, but that's because it was response to a distinctly extreme statement!



Certainly, the "traditional" market is currently focused on multiplayer experiences, and this is likely to continue into the foreseeable future. However, I think this is at least partly just a cyclic phase that the games industry is going through, much as happens in other media industries: when something is popular (e.g. WoW, Halo 3, Wii Sports, etc), people will tend to try and produce something similar, either because it's inspired them or because they're looking to replicate the original's success [*]. In time, what's new becomes old and any high-value elements will be integrated into the next wave of productions. At some point, we'll start to see single-player games with multi-player elements integrated into them - Demon's Souls is an early example of this - and it's estimated to have sold over 1.2 million copies, despite having been passed over by Sony as it was considered too much of a niche title (and I'd guess that it's single-player focus was part of the reason for rejection).



Anyhow. To finish off my rant/refutation, I'd also like to pick up on this: "All of you learned to play games with each other. When you were kids, you played tag, tea parties, cops and robbers, what have you". Yes, we did - but we also spent a lot of time playing alone - doll's tea parties, racing cars along tables, setting up epic battles between toys against each other, having fun with imaginary friends, etc. Beyond that, people have been entertaining themselves since the dawn of time with activities such as reading books, completing crosswords, knitting, jigsaws, drawing, listening to music (and/or playing music), playing solitaire, building models, etc. The appeal of self-focused entertainment isn't not going to vanish simply because a new option for multiplayer gaming has arisen.



Indeed, since the original statement was written, it can be argued that single-player gaming has actually gone from strength to strength, thanks to the rise of the handheld; if you look at the best-selling games on the iPhone, they're all single-player, and with titles such as Angry Birds seeing over 100 million downloads, their reach completely dwarfs that of multiplayer-focused games such as WoW (11 million subscribers) and Wii Sports (76 million sales, thanks in part to hardware bundling; the unbundled Mario Kart game managed 28 million).



Even outside the handheld camp, single-player games are still selling strongly, 5 years after that statement was made. For instance, it's only been a few days since, Atlus accounced that their new game Catherine sold 200k units in the first week of release.



All told, I think the future of gaming is best described in the traditional weather-forecast way: tomorrow is going to be pretty much the same as today, but a bit different...



[*] in addition, if you're feeling cynical, it could be suggested that some developers and publishers like to focus on multiplayer and user-created content for the simple reason that it reduces development costs!

Daniel Cook
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"Developers and publishers like to focus on multiplayer and user-created content for the simple reason that it reduces development costs!"



And why would this be considered cynical? This is a mental model of the Man that is deeply flawed. These aren't magical gnomes making games you know. These are human beings engaged in highly demanding, highly creative endevour. If they can create one day longer because they have some vague understanding of economics, then bless them. Promoting ignorance of economics because it somehow 'frees the artist' shows an understanding of art so incredibly divorced from the reality of making art that it becomes a sad parody.



I've never met a starving artist that idolizes the fact that they are starving. It is only the *rare* selfish consumers and general intellectual parasites that think there is something cool about lost jobs, depression, broken dreams, unpaid mortgages, uprooted families and all the rest that comes from being a starving artist.



take care,

Danc.

Timothy Ryan
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I'm finding these comments more interesting than the article. Thanks Ian for getting this going.

Ian Bogost
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Cheers.

Gerald Belman
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I can't help but ask: what the hell are you people smoking?



It seems like your thoughts have become so abstract that your actually not talking about anything(or your all just talking about different things).



(I really liked your article about shit crayons too, but this seems like you retreated into your philosopher hat.)

Lance Burkett
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???

Simon T
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!!!

James Margaris
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Speaking of being so abstract as to lose all meaning:



Raph: "Bear in mind, when I go to draw a picture, I am also solving a particular problem...problem may just be a desire to express myself, but it's still what I am doing."



This is such a broad definition of solving a problem that it's completely meaningless. You've turned "solving a problem" into literally "doing something." Every time you eat you are solving the problem of how to sustain your body and deliver needed sustenance no? But I don't think any sane person would consider the act of eating as problem solving.



Arguments about the one right way to do something are nearly always wrong. Period. What's especially fascinating about the arguments Raph and Danc are making is that they fly in face of history, empirical evidence and the preferences of millions of gamers. Narrative games are fun and they work. It's impossible to claim otherwise. Likewise single player games are fun and they work. Unfortunately some people are completely incapable of distinguishing personal opinions from the One True Way and possess something similar to religious zealotry on this particular topic.



The idea that different people like different things is so completely foreign to some people it boggles the mind.

Ian Bogost
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I think, in this case, the "problem solving" rhetoric arises from a preference for cognitivist undermining. All action becomes neurological, evolutionary action. Which I don't buy, but it's an increasingly popular position.

Raph Koster
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I am not talking about "solving a problem" in that meaningless sense. I am talking about solving a creative problem. Every time I sit down to do something creative, I wrestle with how I am going to do it, and whether I am doing it well, and how I can do it better.



I would love to think that there are people out there for whom there is no problem to solve there, but I kind of disbelieve. ;)



I actually think empirical evidence and history *support* my argument. And nowhere did I say that narrative games are not fun or don't work. Nor did I say that single-player games are not fun and don't work. It's a strawman argument. Of course people like different things.



The worst thing I have said about the demise of single-player gaming as we know it today is that it would make the many fans of it (myself included!) very UNHAPPY when bite-sized games with service-based business models and a connected environment come to dominate and make big budget narrative extravaganzas with high graphic fidelity no longer make financial sense, and therefore not get made. That's not a value judgement. It's genuine regret, just like I can be sorry that orchestral music has been on the way down for a heckuva long time. I'm not saying "stop writing symphonies." I'm saying "symphonies aren't the future."

James Margaris
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Raph, this is what you originally said:



"Every time we design a game, we are in fact setting out to solve a particular problem."



People have told you that this is not how they operate, but rather than concede that not everyone is exactly like you you've instead continued to broaden what you meant. Again "how I am going to do something" is so broad that again EATING A SANDWICH is "problem solving." Will you use a fork? Your hand? Decisions decisions!



I'm fairly certain that if you asked creative people if they wrote or drew to solve a particular initial problem the answer would usually be no. Claiming that game design is about solving the problem "so how do I make this game" is close to a pointless tautology. Now I suspect that when YOU sit down to design a game you actually are attempting to solve a particular problem - but that's you.



"The worst thing I have said about the demise of single-player gaming as we know it today is that it would make the many fans of it (myself included!) very UNHAPPY when bite-sized games with service-based business models and a connected environment come to dominate and make big budget narrative extravaganzas with high graphic fidelity no longer make financial sense, and therefore not get made."



So what you are saying is that though there will still be high demand for those types of games people won't make them because...? As the bite-sized game market becomes crowded (and it will) if there is another market that is not being served that's money being left on the table. There is little demand for orchestral music these days. (But orchestral music still gets made!) There is high demand for narrative games and single player games.



This argument looks a bit to me like someone claiming 3 months after the pet rock came out that rocks are the future of all toys.



I would also point out that there are some very broad terms being used here that are probably inappropriate. For example many games on "social" platforms are still essentially single-player games. Most iPhone games are single player and not service-based. Yet games that are primarily multiplayer (like say fighting games) are somehow not social games. (Even though thousands of people will gather in one place to play them together!)

Tadhg Kelly
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I think perhaps you're getting a bit too wrapped up in Raph's description of how he works. Some creatives consider themselves discoverers, some innovators, others problem solvers.



I think it was Rodin who was asked how he created a statue of an elephant and responded that he started with a block of stone and chipped away all of the parts that didn't look like an elephant. I.e. solved it.



I think that's what Raph means.

Luis Guimaraes
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The point is that in game design, nothing ends with "using hand or fork", everything has deep connections with every other aspect of the whole, and many unforeseen consequences can simply broke the whole design if something was done wrong, and sometimes it can be hard to find why. I think that's a problem to be solved.



Input mapping? Problem. FOV? Problem. AI reaction times? Problem...



"If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses."

— Henry Ford

Tadhg Kelly
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Yes but a lot of that comes down to a lack of discipline on the part of the designer.

Frank Lantz
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Terrific article, Ian!



I know I've been guilty of the Janus-faced double-take, looking back to appeal to the eternal nature of games while looking forward to rhapsodize their glorious future. In fact, the IndieCade "optimist" talk I gave last year was primarily about coming to terms with this contradiction. How can I reject the simplistic teleological model (games are primitive now, they are improving slowly through the solution of specific problems, we can judge games by whether or not they advance us along this journey) and yet still count myself among the ranks of the "progressives" which is where I want to be and where I feel like I belong. I ended up in a similar place as you, with the image of an avant garde that is rushing, not into the future, but into the *present*. The idea is to give ourselves a slap across both faces, wake up! Look around! Where are you?



Here's what I would say in defense of Raph and Dan. Their claims must be heard within the larger context of the overall critical/intellectual discourse. For a long time the word "game" has been virtually synonymous with "single-player, story-based game". It has long been a wide-spread and largely unexamined assumption that the aesthetically interesting and culturally important aspects of video games are the ones that are exploring *that* mode, moving us forward on *that* journey. When Clint Hocking says he's interested in games about human relationships he can take it for granted that his audience will understand what he means - games that *represent* relationships between *simulated* humans. When Chris Hecker says the hardest thing for games to do is people sitting around a table talking, he can assume we all know that he means games that *model* people talking.



We can argue about how ubiquitous this attitude has been, but if you do grant that it is widespread and dominant then Raph's and Dan's (and my) overstated claims to the contrary can be seen as strident and exaggerated attempts to call attention to this assumption and call it into question.



But over-corrections are still mistakes. (In fact, I often think most mistakes are over-corrections.) So lets see where maybe we all agree.



1. Own your opinions. Too often, we couch our value judgments in the language of norms (what games should be) or empirical claims (what games really are). Instead, we should be honest about what we like, what we love, what we hate, what we want more of, what we want less of. Then we can try to figure out why, and try to explain that to each other. In fact, you could say that the whole enterprise of game design and game criticism and game scholarship is simply this process.



2. Allow rhetoric. Having said the above, it should be ok to make big bold claims about how games ARE and how they SHOULD BE. About how some games are GOOD and some games are EVIL. (Hi Jon!) About how some games are PUSHING US FORWARD towards the promised land and some games are DRAGGING US BACK into the primordial ooze. It should be ok to say these things because that's the way aesthetic arguments work. Like it or not, that's how we talk to each other about art. These things are important, matters of taste matter and are worth fighting for. Can we become more self-aware, more empathic, better listeners, less biased, more Bayesian, and still keep our fighting spirit alive? THAT's the big question that I'm interested in.



3. Single-player story-based games are real. They are a big, important thing. We don't know where they are going but we can't ignore them. To say they aren't the only thing is not to deny their importance or power. But sometimes it needs to be said that they aren't the only thing.



4. Scientism is problematic. We should be very careful about using the language of science - solutions, efficiency, objective truth - when discussing the aesthetics of games. First of all because the whole point of the realm of aesthetics is to carve out a space beyond this language. And even more importantly because games *themselves* are quite often, crucially, *about* solutions, efficiency, and objective truth. More than any other artform, games give us a window into and onto the realm of instrumental reason, and in order to do that they must always *exceed* and never *collapse down to* instrumental reason. I think of this as the problem of "knowing where to put the slide rule". Ian is exactly right that one shouldn't mistake magic for whim. Game designers are engineers, but they are drunk engineers. Players are scientists, but they are pretend scientists. Games are out-of-control experiments that reveal impossible truth and double-blind madness. Taking cog sci as an example, it is never enough to apply the insights of neuroscience and behavioral psychology to the craft of making more powerful game experiences. We must invite our players into the tent, we must give *them* some of what *we* are smoking, we must recognize that every game, from the smallest Sudoku puzzle to the largest imaginary universe, is a trip into unlicensed neuroscience and irresponsible behavioral psychology, a Stanford prison experiment we run on the make-believe jail of our own consciousness. Because you can never, ever be simultaneously inside and outside of your own head, you can never, ever look into the past and the future at the same time, you can never, ever be here now, and that's exactly what games allow you to do.



-frank

Ian Bogost
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Thanks for this Frank. These are great comments and I don't want to spoil them by adding anything. Thanks particularly for #4 above, which I think might be the primary problem.



Oh, and for anyone who missed Frank's Indiecade talk, video is here:

http://www.ifc.com/videos/indiecade-2010-frank-lantz-part-1.php

http://www.ifc.com/videos/indiecade-2010-frank-lantz-part-2.php

http://www.ifc.com/videos/indiecade-2010-frank-lantz-part-3.php

Clifton Jewett
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I really cannot agree that for any time the word "game" has been widely synonymous with "single-player, story-based games," but I suppose that may hinge on what you mean by "the overal critical/intellectual discourse". In either case, I'd be more interested in what might be wrong with what Hocking and Hecker aspire to do, because I don't think any of the possibility space you seek is foreclosed by them. Obviously when they say "game" in those particular contexts, "single-player" is implied, but neither they nor the audience are forgetting that multiplayer games exist.



Your 1 and 2... well, I'm sure you're aware of your dualism. Your big question is mine. too, although I'm not sure how much Bayesian advice I can contribute yet. I'm certainly curious about it. I think one problem here is that many people are identifying hegemonic memes in spaces where there is no real hegemon and certainly no thoroughly-researched breakdown on questions about what types of games or definitions are most common. I hope a Bayesian approach could help here.



I much enjoyed your 4, all I might be able to add is that, scientism is the aesthetics the scientist needs... and its appeal is growing! Labcoats flowing, test tubes bubbling, bodies embraced by wires, dances of numbers more complex than any numerology... How are we to judge those who have fallen under scientism's spell? Must the real scientists and engineers be teetotalers? I'd also like to demand their celibacy for our benefit, but sometimes I worry about the poor things...

James Margaris
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"Here's what I would say in defense of Raph and Dan. Their claims must be heard within the larger context of the overall critical/intellectual discourse. For a long time the word "game" has been virtually synonymous with "single-player, story-based game

...

It has long been a wide-spread and largely unexamined assumption that the aesthetically interesting and culturally important aspects of video games are the ones that are exploring *that* mode...""



This says very little about games themselves and is really a terrible indictment of the critical/intellectual discourse about games.

Gregory Kinneman
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Excellent discussion from everyone. I vote that the arguments presented here get preserved, refined and continued in a panel at the next GDC.

Clifton Jewett
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Over the past few days I've written an non-fiction novelette on this topic. Here are some highlights:



I thoroughly refute Raph Coster's single-player game doomsdayism and charges of aberrancy.



I "console the introverts, regaling them with tales of the single-player games of yore".



I find out that Daniel Cook's tweet intended something completely different than I thought and I curse Twitter in verse.



Read it here: http://kliffyco.tumblr.com/

Moses Wolfenstein
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My own recent blog post that's related to this conversation can be found here:



http://www.moseswolfenstein.com/weblog/2011/8/5/captain-obvious.h
tml

Nick Harris
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I can't decide whether this article is unfocused, or I lack sufficient focus to understand it.

Martain Chandler
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The gulf between Scientist-Philosophers and Engineer-Poets can often be wide and daunting.

Josh Foreman
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Great convo, everyone! These are the nuggets I come to Gama to discover.

Gerald Belman
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Are you seriously having a debate about whether or not we should be having a debate? (or a discussion or whatever you want to call it)



Are you seriously questioning whether or not we should INNOVATE and EXPERIMENT with video game design?



You need to stop this. This plays into the hands of the people who want to stop discussion about why facebook games are stupid. This plays intot the hands of the people that are CURRENTLY IN POWER. And if we keep doing this we are never going to come to any conclusions and you are only going to be driving people AWAY from the discussion.



Consider this statement:

Facebook games suck because the people who make them don't play video games and don't really care about them.



This statement is something we can debate.



We can get interviews of Mark Pincus and learn about his childhood.



We can bring up figures about the number of facebook games that are just copies of other games.



We can do research to figure out the insignificant amount of art assets and labor that go into these games.



We can show how most people that play these games exhibit addictive personality traits.



We can show that most of the design decisions in these games are made to advertise to more potential players rather than improving the game.



But having a debate about whether or not we should be having a debate. That's a waste of time. (to be honest I am guilty of debating having a debate as well. I should stop. Oh nooo. I'm doing it right now. It's a vicious cycle.) I am honestly interested in hearing people defend facebook games. Mainly because it is extremely difficult to do so. All the mental gymnastics they have to do; it's like watching a Japanese obstacle course gameshow.



So in conclusion, there is no mathematical formula for designing a "good" game. I take this for granted but apparently people are so stupid that they still need to debate it.


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