Saturday, May 15, 2010

Comment round-up #1, 15 May 2010

One of the great things about blogs is that they allow people to voice their opinion of an idea in the exact same place where the idea is first given expression.  I've been very happy with the conversations I've had in the comments section of the posts, but I get the feeling that a lot of these gold nuggets are passed by because they occur in older posts and I imagine few of my readers obsessively check all of my old posts to see if any new comments have been written.  I figured it'd be worthwhile to an first Interactive Illuminatus comment round-up, where I collect my favorite discussions so far and put them up to give people a chance to review what's been said since they last read the post.

I want to do this on a regular basis, partly because I want to point out these great comments that might have been missed, but also to encourage people to comment on older posts--or even the comments that are highlighted in the round-up.  Sometimes you have something good to say about a post or comment, but figure it's not worth it if no one's going to read your comment.  Well, don't fear!  Your great comment will most likely wind up in a future comment round-up, so write away!

Remy77077 applies the idea of my Three-dimensional games to my post The softening of the hardcore to show how the trend has been to move towards games that have a greater magnitude in the Diversion dimension at the cost of the Sport dimension.  This observation results in big blocks of text laden with links to even bigger blocks of texts, so fans of reading should check out Remy's comment and the conversation that follows.

Games and 'anon' (29 March 2010)
Remy77077 (whose previous comment inspired this particular blog post) returns to start a conversation about how agon is related to games by asking, "Are you dismissing 'easy agon' though as 'not a game'?"  The quick answer is "no," but don't waste the opportunity to see the good conversation that came out of the question.

Smokin' Hot Josh decides to go ahead and write his own case for expression.  You won't see a reply from me here because I don't like wasting words (despite appearances), so when I completely agree with you, I feel like I don't need to add anything more to the conversation.

Smokin' Hot Josh wonders why we should even care what Ebert has to say about games and art.

Yet another from Smokin' Hot, who delves into his massive archive of Game Informer to quote Prince of Persia's Jordan Mechner: "The real story of a game isn't the one told in the dialogue and the cinematic cutscenes...but the one the player tells afterwards..."  Check out Josh's comment to see the full quotation and Josh's analysis of it.

You're bound to have people question an unconventional way of viewing something, and newcomer Charles decided to be first in line for the job after I suggested games follow a narrative form.  Check out our lengthy conversation, starting with his opener, "Games are not only older than the narrative form, but are most likely older than complex language itself!"

(Here's a little side note that doesn't appear in the comments that follow: actually, games are most likely are the result of complex language.  While play is universal in the animal kingdom, the "game" form of play appears to me to require a level of complex communication that makes complex language necessary.  In this way of thinking, games are a uniquely human form of play.  And this comment about a comment is quickly turning into its own blog post...)

What's a fun game? (13 May 2010)
And we end where we began, with Remy77077 pushing the conversation to the next level.  In this comment, Remy asks the question, "What game conforms to your definition of a game, and yet is still 'fun' in the sense you write about here?"  You can tell by the length of my response that I found that question quite arousing.

That's it for this round-up, but I hope that before long it will be time to do another one with conversations just as interesting and fun to read as the ones listed above. 


Charles said...

I'm not sure that it's true that play is universal in the animal kingdom. Play is common among many mammals and birds, but it's not present in all animal species.

Also, the separation of games and play is a particularly Anglo-centric concept in my opinion. German, Italian, French, and I believe Spanish, all have the same word for 'play' as they do 'game', and I think that this conception is much closer to the actual truth.

As for games being the result of complex language, I think that's clearly true of certain games but not all. Complex language perhaps led to complex games, such as team sports, but simple athletics, like racing and wrestling, are present in some animals and therefore probably predated complex language.

Ferguson said...

I think the observation that English has a separate word for "game" and "play" while other languages combine them is fairly immaterial. The Greek language famously has four words to describe love, and we can easily understand the distinctions between those words even though we don't have equivalents to those words in English.

See more of my thoughts on the difference between games and play in my post Games vs. Play ( I think that post will also explain why I feel that activities such as racing and wrestling are in fact not replicated by other animals, though animals do engage in activities that resemble them and can be thought as predecessors to them.

Charles said...

Even if we said that activities that animals engage in which appear similar to wrestling and racing were not, in fact, what human beings define as 'wrestling' and 'racing' (which I don't agree with), it would still indicate that those games could develop without complex language.

I think the problem with your definition of 'play' is that there are clearly forms of play that are meant for spectators. Think of children playing and trying to impress their parents, or even just each other. Performance is often a very strong aspect of play.

The weaknesses in your definition of games it that you're actually describing a larger sphere of activities than I think you mean to, and also leaving out activities that are generally recognized as games. For instance, your definition could also describe cooking biscuits, where there are goals, progression, obstacles, and strategies. You could also be describing your drive to work.

You're definition also leaves out games of pure chance, where one could say that players develop strategies, but those strategies are actually useless and can hardly be considered part of the game.

It's interesting that you don't give rules any pride of place, but from the way you talk about strategies you seem to be simply taking them for granted. Which is fair enough I suppose.

Ferguson said...

My point was to say that exactly the difference between the animals' activities and the human activities is that the latter can be called games and the former cannot. Among playful animals, humans appear to be unique in the ability to engage in structured play, of which games are a part.

You're right that my definition includes things that we wouldn't consider games if you consider a free-floating definition. Here you must excuse my assumption that people would be thinking in terms of structured play, where rules are implied, as well.

I'm reading 'Philosophy Looks at Chess' right now, and there's a quote in there from Bernard Suits that has a better definition of a game than I do: "Playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles."

The "unnecessary" part makes it play, while the defining of obstacles to be overcome makes it a game, and that is the part that playful animals don't share with humans. They do not predesignate obstacles the overcoming of which is the point of playing.

I don't think Suits' definition entirely replaces my four components, but I think my definition begins where his ends. Suits also speaks of the prelusory goal and constitutive goals which fit nicely into my construction, furthering the definition of a game. I think the main thing, though, is that each of us is using a common language, so that you know what I mean when I say "game" and I know what you mean you say "play," and so forth. I think we can agree that while it might be debatable whether or not a game of pure chance should really be called a "game" or not, we can definitely agree that there is a substantial difference between a lottery and a game of chess, and our language should reflect that difference.

I'm still debating over whether or not I'd include games of pure chance as proper games, for the very reason you mentioned--there is no strategy to them. This could be preference on my part--maybe a general repulsion towards the idea of celebrating happenstance--but I'm not inclined to think of games of pure chance the same way as I would other games that do have strategies. Even if I do eventually accept them as games, I would say that all games of pure chance are ultimately the same game because they each have the same ultimate strategy, which is: none.

However, I'll concede the point about spectators. Not only do kids play to impress their parents, but acting is clearly a form of play, as well, and is most widely done for the benefit of spectators. And that has the side benefit of allowing us to call "plays" a form of play. Do you think that merely volunteering to do something unnecessary constitutes as play, or is there something more to it? (Everyone feel free to chime in on that question.)

Simon Ferrari said...

I'm going to jump in and be a wet rag on both of you.

I'm not quite sure why you're using the qualifier of "complex" on "language" here. Games are post-linguistic in your mind, and it seems like simple language is just the same as complex language for your purposes. I'm with Charles in holding that games are pre-linguistic, but that doesn't really get us out of any kind of bind. The fact is that stories are also pre-linguistic. There's a lot of research on this from George Lakoff and Mark Turner. They call one of our cognitive structures "EVENTS ARE ACTIONS." Basically even (human) babies have a knack for finding causality and anthropomorphizing. It doesn't really matter what the hell is going on in the brains of other mammals, because humans naturally convert events into stories, in which case narrative analysis always has a value (even given the differences between "story," "narrative," "fabula," syuzhet," &c). I can highly recommend Turner's "Literary Mind."

What really stuck out to me, though, was this part of your comment (from the original thread) Ferguson: "To my knowledge, and feel free to correct me on this, but there is no formal theory such as 'narrative structure' for games."

Whenever I see something like that, I have to wonder exactly how much research you've done before writing. Suits and Caillois are a great start, but game studies is an entire discipline with hundreds of practitioners. One of our discipline's first debates was the Narratology vs. Ludology debate. Basically, a lot of the early scholars in the field came from literary studies. Your post on three-act structure, from which you ask that developers develop more than a superficial understanding of narrative grammar, is actually quite light compared to one of the earliest works from our field, "Computers as Theatre" by Brenda Laurel (1991). Highly recommended would also be Janet Murray's "Hamlet on the Holodeck," which popularized terms such as "immersion" and "agency" in the discussion of videogames, and Espen Aarseth's "Cybertext."

What Charles is reacting against here isn't a novel idea that he's uncomfortable with, but something that's been a thorn in the side of ludologists (people who study play divorced from narrative and story) for decades now. Of course, he should know better than to get into this argument on the Internet, because he's had this argument a thousand times before. It's intractable. The clear answer is that there are things to be learned from studying games in every way possible.

I should reiterate, though, that the three-act structure you put forth is naive even by the standards of 19th century narrative theory. The introductory course in new media studies starts with the work of the Oulipo, Borges, and Nabokov. All good places to look for nonlinear narrative structures. Sure, we encounter games in a line no matter how they're designer, because of how our brains move through time, but from a designer's perspective it's significantly more fruitful to look at how nonlinear works have been made in prior media.

Simon Ferrari said...

Made it almost all the way through without a typo. Last sentence should begin:

"Sure, we encounter games in a line no matter how they're designed*,"

Charles said...

I actually have issues with Suits' definition as well. When you really examine what 'unnecessary obstacles' means it comes up pretty empty. He also has what I call the 'biscuit problem', which is that his definition could also be applied to cooking (to be perfectly honest, I'm not actually that uncomfortable with saying that cooking is a game).

I think were we might be disagreeing when it comes to games and animals is that you believe that animals cannot engage in structured play. Animals don't have tournaments or training regimes, but to me their play is obviously structured enough to qualify as games.

That's a really good point. I've obviously got a bit of a blind spot when it comes to narrative.

Simon Ferrari said...

Kant's really helpful both as a lens for the biscuit problem and for Ferguson's nice idea of looking at narratives as games. Kant's definition of art, in my reading of the Critique of Judgment, is nothing more than a ruleset separate from the laws of nature (though he holds that only a rational being can create this ruleset, which I'd disagree with). Through that lens, game design is intrinsic to all human arts and crafts, cooking included. Arendt derived Kant's political theory not from his writing on logic but on his writing on aesthetics, because of this emphasis on rulesets, common (communal) sense, and intersubjective judgment. Voting/politics is a game, too, in my mind.

I suppose economic game theory is also helpful here, but I haven't studied it in depth enough to make an argument (yet). Rational decision-making within a rule structure with variable outcomes as game is fine with me.

Ferguson said...

Simon, glad to have you here, telling us what's what. I must say, you've fallen dead into my trap. I come from more of a film and literary background and have an admittedly shallow knowledge of "theory of play/games"--though I did start this blog not to talk about games as a whole, but more directly on video games as a form of expression. As this post itself testifies, getting comments from readers was more important to me than having people read my own thoughts, though I do get great enjoyment out of that, I must say.

However, while I would never dispute you when you say there's been a lot of discussion about the nature of games and how they apply to philosophy, etc., my statement regarding them compared to narrative theory was getting at the notion that I didn't know about any unique formal theory of games that is equivalent to what narrative is to storytelling. I see narrative as a specific theory of storytelling that may not encompass all of storytelling's potential, but provides a good foundation for our discussion of storytelling. If games indeed have that and that is what game developers are currently using to design games, then I would like to see a profound re-thinking of it, because it's not working.

So while I can see there may be several theories or at least some in-depth discussion of what games are and their usefulness when thinking about philosophy or politics or what-have-you, I believe that it isn't entirely useless to use a theory of expression as established as narrative when thinking about games. I certainly wouldn't want to argue this be the only theory we use, nor that it even be the central theory--I just thought it might be a useful thought to designers or potential designers out there, naive as it may be.

I'm sorry to say I haven't read hardly anything from Lakoff and Turner, though I do know they're big players in this area. I'm more of a Pinker man, myself.

The uninteresting point here is that, just as nearly anything we do can be construed as a narrative, anything we do can also be construed as a game. This is because these are two artistic forms--theories on how to view life. However, my point--and I feel the one that's being disputed--is that just as there is a definition of a narrative, there is also a definition of a game. The only reason I've sought a definition is because I feel like it will ease discussion if we are all speaking the same language. It doesn't really matter if you allow my definition to replace your definition--call my definition "Ferguson's Game" if you like--so long as you understand what I mean when I'm talking about games. I certainly don't want to be misconstrued as attempting to be some end-all authority on the matter. We're all bringing our own experience and knowledge to the table.

I suppose, too, that one of my goals here on Interactive Illuminatus is to eventually get down to practical video game design theory. To use the more philosophical talk as a guide, but to get it into a format that people who just want to make games can take it and use it in a real way. Sure, I'll get distracted a lot, because I do love the philosophy, but ultimately, that's the goal.

Anyway, thanks for the input, Simon, and for the suggested reading material, as well. I'm probably going to have to write a post about this discussion because these comments are probably intimidating to all but the biggest fans of reading. Feel free to keep bringing the thunder here until I do! Before you write anything else, though, I want you to elaborate more on your view of games and stories being pre-linguistic.

Simon Ferrari said...

Thanks for the long reply. I'm not contesting your desire to define the word game. I too am a fan of the Suits definition (including a longer version of the one you cite, from his book The Grasshopper), but as with all theoretical definitions... some days I like it and some days I don't.

Anyhow, I come from a film theory background as well. One thing I I'd posit as the equivalent of narrative theory for games is Ian Bogost's "procedural rhetoric," which I'd liken to Eisenstein's intellectual montage from film theory. Basically he holds that arguments are forged through code, in the gap between a simulation and the real or imagined system it attempts to model.

Of course, Charles doesn't buy procedural rhetoric, so he's no help here.

And I was agreeing with your desire to use a narrative lens to examine games. That's what I meant when I said, "The clear answer is that there are things to be learned from studying games in every way possible." I just didn't think your discussion of narrative in that post was particularly robust. At least not robust enough to justify the comment about how designers should pay more attention to narrative theory past a superficial level. Because they do (some of them)!

Ferguson said...

Ha, I'm always good for a long reply every now and again.

Let's keep in mind I was replying to Charles' statement, "And, in my opinion, this dramatic arc is already well understood by most game designers." I wouldn't want to make an Ebert-like statement and say, "Game designers can never understand narrative theory." But as far as I'm concerned, the proof is in the pudding. Once I play games where I feel designers understand the strengths and weaknesses of narrative, and how to properly utilize aspects of narrative theory in an interactive setting, then I'll stop believing they have a superficial knowledge of narrative.

And I empathize with your relationship to theoretical definitions. It's hard to look at was has been done and define a boundary around what will be done. I think many times it's better to view a definition--particularly this one--as what the definer thinks should happen in the future, as opposed to what must happen. I think I'd be more comfortable arguing its merits from that angle than trying to say why I believe no games could possibly be created that are outside my definition.

Charles said...

" far as I'm concerned, the proof is in the pudding. Once I play games where I feel designers understand the strengths and weaknesses of narrative, and how to properly utilize aspects of narrative theory in an interactive setting, then I'll stop believing they have a superficial knowledge of narrative."

I think it's this position that initially irked me. It seems to argue that if game designers understood narrative theory better than we would get better narrative in games because we've obviously found the *correct* way of doing things. I think this overestimates the applicability of our present models (kind of where we started) and underestimates the amount of work and thought that has been put into interactive narrative (to which Simon has alluded).

I like the idea of treating narratives more like games, and I can appreciate looking at games through narrative. However, to me the answer is not to make games look more like traditional narrative, which is how I interpreted your advice about the three act structure. Instead I think we should be (and I think we are) trying to figure out how to make narratives look more like traditional games.

Ferguson said...

Again, I was merely responding to your claim that most designers understand narrative theory. I'm not talking about people who talk theory--I'm talking about the people who design the games that I play, and even then, only the ones who have decided to draw from narrative theory in their games. Some games don't have anything explicitly narrative about them--I'm not talking about those games. Most of the games that I like have a very light narrative element or none at all. It doesn't matter if you understand narrative or not if you aren't using it.

And it irks me, as well, when people suggest that video games be more "cinematic," which partly suggests a heavier narrative element. I believe that forcing games into a narrative format severely compromises their power--we see this over and over again in pretty much every gated game there is.

In a way, I suppose I'm suggesting that we, first, view narratives as games, and second, learn the lessons this new treasure trove of games has to teach us. I think the benefit of viewing narratives in this way is that many successful narratives, if not most, were not explicitly thought of as games by their designers, but can be viewed as games, as my post suggested, and I believe you and Simon agree with. This means that there have been people designing games without knowing it, and as a result narratives are most likely rife with happy accidents--rules that are counter-intuitive, but work, etc.