This is the third article in The Academics Are Coming series.

7. insurgency

“Why contain it? Let it spill over into the schools and churches, let the bodies pile up in the streets. In the end they’ll beg us to save them.”

Bob Page on the Second Ludology/Narratology War (Deus Ex)

Today, anyone and his granny can make a game and a new breed of street developer has emerged. Some of these new designers see the prevailing game paradigms as too constricting. Why the need to win or lose? What is the point of points?

Tale of Tales‘ Michaël Samyn views the conventional single-player experience as nothing more than a “test” and, a couple of years ago, he proposed the notgames “design challenge” – something he refuses to call an agenda or a movement. He wanted to encourage developers to put aside goal-directed play and aspire to make art with games.

Despite opposing notions of ludology, Samyn’s restatement of the single-player formula as a test is a classic ludological, reductionist argument – tear away the shallow exterior, and you are left with nothing but naked hoops to jump through. And just like ludologists, Samyn is interested in crafting significant, unique work in the medium of games. Take a look at these “opposing viewpoints” on Myst:

Espen Aarseth in 2004: “Most critics agree that the Miller brothers succeeded eminently in making a fascinating visual landscape, a haunting and beautiful gameworld, but to experienced gamers, the gameplay was boring and derivative, with the same linear structure that was introduced by the first Adventure game sixteen years earlier. Nice video graphics, shame about the game.”

Michaël Samyn, the Notgames Fest 2011 keynote: “Why had people not realized that most of us were playing Myst for its world and its stories, and not the arcane puzzles?”

Aarseth and Samyn both make the same point, differing only in emphasis. Aarseth sees failure, but Samyn sees inspiration. Ludology says games are based on mechanics and goals; the notgames perspective calls goals and challenge out as clichés that hobble the greatest of video game art.

Notgames is just one of many facets of the recent “art game” movement. The term “art game” is practically useless as it confers little meaning; it conjures up images of games that have no score or goal, probably devoid of challenge and aspire to make the player feel something. Traditional players snipe that such games are jokes. They are movies with a click to proceed to next scene button.

On Destructoid, Jim Sterling fired out a video that aligned him with the traditionalist camp, also winding up art game enthusiasts with the suggestion that this “genre” was just a modern retelling of the Emperor’s New Clothes: you’re all pretending to see some grand meaning in these games, even though there’s nothing to see.

Art games have succeeded where the academics failed – spreading the ludology/narratology debate contagion into the laps of players. Traditional players worry that art games will dilute what the gaming experience is really about; those who support art games see themselves as fighting against the incumbent status quo that denigrates experimental approaches.

The war has gone mainstream and encouraged players to take sides. Gamers disaffected with cutscene candy and the dumbing down of difficulty bind themselves to a cause that is ludological in all but name. Artists who think developers haven’t risen to the real challenge of the medium, who think bullets have taken precedence over metaphor and meaning, have camped out in the ground that once belonged to the narratologists.

Back in 2006, no one took much notice of an interview with BioWare writer Jennifer Hepler where she proposed that, like cutscenes, combat could be skipped. After all there are those, like Hepler herself, who are fascinated with story more than combat and also have trouble finding the time to play through games completely. Perhaps games should start catering to those players instead of flattering the hardcore?

But since then that same hardcore has become alarmed that challenge is on the wane – and mainstream gaming is about easily marketable tough-guys in CGI trailers and QTEs. Will a new X-Com be as brutal as its original? Is Dark Souls the only remaining hope for the hardcore in games? Why is it possible to complete the first mission of Call of Duty: Black Ops without firing a single shot?

And so Hepler’s six-year old interview was “unearthed” and attributed to the “decline” of BioWare. The Twitter mobs besieged her account and flooded it with hate tweets including the casual request for her to commit suicide. The first comment on a Kotaku post about this storm reads:

You have to understand: games are about gameplay. Games with stories should be games that tell these stories through, among other things, gameplay. Someone who works in the industry and DOESN’T care about gameplay, and would rather have you skip it, is objectively harmful to the industry, much the same way cancer is objectively harmful to the human body.

We’ve been here before.

Hepler’s interview admission was perceived as a slur on rules at the behest of conversation trees and narrative, arguing some rules were less equal than others. To her critics, this was more than an adjustable “difficulty setting” – it was about stronger narrative bias, about making a movie with a proceed to next scene button. Perhaps it is the industry’s own fault: after encouraging the fetishization of in-game achievements, relegating combat to an optional “for the masochists only” status undermines the weight of some of those achievements, such as game completion.

The new discussions aren’t about modes of academic analysis, they are about “cutscene vs interaction” and “art games vs story-isn’t-agency”. They discuss the right and wrong ways to go about making a game.

8. babel

Raph Koster lobbed his own grenade into the fray at the start of the year, with a piece that framed narrative as player feedback. It was interesting but levelled that feedback was narrative’s only purpose. He warned developers that a heavy focus on narrative yields a game with no replay value. By all means make that game, provided you accept that you’ve made a beautiful interactive movie not a game. Case closed.

I chatted to Doug Wilson of Die Gute Fabrik about this in the public arena of Twitter – the “interactive movie” jibe ringing in my ears – and Koster spotted our discussion. The conversation expanded and Doug threw in Proteus as the anti-ludology nuke, Charles Pratt declared that what we consider as “games” today is a historical aberration and Koster pointed out that “loads of people” have been working on narrative “for years” and rules are hard – which is where our efforts should be devoted. And I said I had to go to bed.

It didn’t really go anywhere. It was just two groups coming together for a little Twitter jihad. No one died, no one learnt anything.

But Honeyslug’s Ricky Haggett shook his head at us:

I do get childishly gleeful watching you guys tie yourselves in knots with this stuff.

It was probably the most important tweet of the entire discussion.

Back in the 80s there were plenty of programs which weren’t titled “art games” but would have acquired that lofty title today, such as Douglas Crockford’s Hollywood Medieval. Games were narrowly defined by score and a limited set of genres; beyond that, things just weren’t games.

Over the 90s, games became synonymous with the worlds they were built in, authored places with depth and back-story: Another World, System Shock, Wing Commander. At some point, the existence of a world became enough to label something a game, even if only the merest hint of agency was on offer. That’s where we are today.

Hollywood Medieval

Games as rules. Games as narrative. Games as play. Games as games. It’s not about ludology, it’s not about narrative and it’s certainly not about art. It’s about the word “game”.

No one is talking the same language any more. What is a game? Do we want to narrowly define what we mean by a “game”? If we do that, do we need to kick The Cat and the Coup, Proteus, The Path and Dear Esther off Steam because they don’t meet something like the ISO Videogame Standard? Good luck getting the toothpaste back into that particular tube.


Stretching theories to cover the entire universe of games leads to extreme statements that don’t seem to have value. Koster, for example, makes the point that all games are essentially turn-based, which is technically true in an algorithmic sense, but is that actually helpful from a design perspective? [see Raph’s comment below] Jack Post (2009) tries to rigorously define the narrative of Tetris to “bridge the narratology-ludology divide” but does anyone care? Narratology is not going to create the next great puzzle game.

Michael Brough, developer of Vertex Dispenser and Glitch Tank as well as other games, suggested that we should deal with the definition of game that has the most relevance at the time it is needed. Michael Abbott has also weighed in on this subject, opposing the narrowing of definitions, arguing that the real action takes place on the margins.

Narrow definitions of games are perfectly valid within little contextual spaces. Ludology can have its rules-based framework. Narratology is free to pursue games through narrative. Art games can co-exist with the FPS, the RTS and the platformer. They don’t have to compete. Why can’t we have different theories for different situations, each one handling their own definition of game?

Every voice and viewpoint is valuable. What’s so maddening are the destructive attempts to own the word game. Mathematics blossomed into a thousand different branches, so has games and so should the theory. Some will care about narrative. Some will care about rules. Some will care about player experience. Some will care about monetization. And some will try to change the world.

There’s enough space for everyone.

9. pretentious old men

“A bunch of pretentious old men playing at running the world. But the world left them behind long ago. We are the future.”

Bob Page on games studies academics (Deus Ex)

Mitu Khandaker, studying for a PhD in games studies at the University of Portsmouth, had a moment.

No postgrad wants to feel like their research is pointless – and Khandaker worried about the general relevance of games studies. Was anyone paying attention? Were games being created with theories and results from game studies in mind? She wrote up her concerns for an article in Kill Screen. The opening quote in the launch video for this series was taken from her article.

The academic debate over whether ludology or narratology is the natural setting for games analysis is pretty much over and the answer was both and neither. But while academics were scribbling out papers, game developers were creating, forwarding the medium by example. Opinions come out like knives during casual discussions of ludology and narratology yet the academic papers – containing hundreds of fiercely argued exchanges on the topic – stay on the shelf collecting dust.

This was Haggett’s point. A bunch of us were being grumpy on Twitter but a philosophical argument isn’t going to stop developers making stuff nor players buying stuff.

As for Khandaker, she found an answer to her moment of career crisis.

Academics could make games. They could demonstrate and test theory with their own examples. They could create experimental games to chart territory that developers with commercial considerations would fear to tread. Game studies academics could spread the word through the medium itself.

Thus begins The Academics Are Coming – a series of interviews with academics who make games.

notes in the margin

  • Thanks to Mitu Khandaker for reciting the Kill Screen quote for the video.
  • I am aware that the Hepler debacle is also wound up with a hatred of gay storylines.
  • Perhaps too academic, but bullet points are good! Michael Mateas lecture PDF on Interactive Narrative. (I’d also argue there are plenty of “intertextual” game examples.)
  • Henry Jenkins on Game Design as Narrative Architecture tries to chart a level-headed course between ludology and narratology.
  • A modern offshoot of the ludology crusade: the belief that single-player games are an evolutionary dead-end that will soon perish now that we are all connected. The connection here is board games. Ludology stated games were built from rules and to forget that was to forget how to make games. In a similar way, the church of multiplayer states that games were always about other people and to forget that is to forget how to make games. I’m also looking nervously at Quintin Smith.
  • Tadhg Kelly has his own take on rules vs narrative (warning, this one is for the designer-philosophers and not that accessible to the casual reader). He comes out against those who say “every game has a narrative”. Kelly also insists Dear Esther is not a game.
  • Jim Sterling’s views on art games have progressed. Originally he said all art games are shit. Now he says art games are just cloning the few successes. I’m searching for the middle point where apparently he must have said an art game was good. Help welcome. Go see his updated go at art games.
  • Ian Bogost’s keynote for DiGRA 2009 “Videogames are a mess” has a lot to say about the history of the question: Is a game a system of rules, or is a game a kind of narrative?
  • The MDA Framework developed in 2004 is pretty interesting. It didn’t fit into A Theoretical War but I did consult it. It was devised by Marc LeBlanc of the original Thief team.

  • I found the following video fascinating to watch as the show hosts gradually lose their cool. The best bits of this video are much later, once the discussion is in full swing. Have a look around 52 minutes in, for example.

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33 thoughts on “A Theoretical War, Part 3

  1. It did seem odd for the academics not to create. After all, film majors are expected to engage in all aspects of the medium (though I have a hard time believing Michael Bay is familiar with the theories of Sergei Eisenstein). Then again, I took my first shot at making games in middle school, making me largely incapable of considering a single complex notion while I did it. Exposure to tools generally outstrips exposure to theory.

  2. There’s so much I think reading this.
    One of my first thoughts was… this is a discussion I often see in RPG Maker forums… things like “what’s more important in a game?” And that’s a discussion I (and some people) often dismiss as silly. But reading this series made it all sound so… BIG! And as someone who makes games, I get to feel like, at the moment I’m making design choices, it’s like taking part on some big faction war.
    It also reminded of some discussions within Psychology. How there are these huge debates over the meaning of some concepts or psychological processes, but in the end, it’s clear that people will never agree because they’re talking about the same word, but not the same thing.
    And the last thought that crossed my mind was: “art games make no money”.

  3. I see that you mention it, so I’ll repeat what I have already written in long form as a reply to the first post of this series:

    Bogost’s “Videogames Are A Mess” is a text of crucial importance. Bogost goes out of its way to bring home a point that shouldn’t even be that hotly debated: Videogames are a lot of things, and they have no problems being all of those things at the same time.

    So we should probably get comfortable with the thought that only because we can’t or don’t want to look at more than one (or a few) of those things at the same time, our limited perspective will not make all the other things disappear.

    Or, in other words: If you write about or make games, feel free to state your position. But don’t forget that doing so, you only say something about your personal bias, interests and/or methods, but no universal truth about the nature of games.

  4. Fantastic essay. As I read it, my mind was thinking “Oh, but what about *this*?!” – and then, whatever the “this” was, you then dealt with it and went one better.

    And I agree that the best way to move the debate forward is not to discuss, argue and philosophise, but to *create*. All of that discussion is valuable, but mainly to make people think about games and what one can do within that space. If somebody is studying games and not making them, my question to them would be: why not? Don’t you want to?

    Having said that, I would love to make games but have no time right now.

  5. @Beam: The academic interviews will throw some light on this. There is a rise of development-led research, but the academics will defend to their grave that not all research has to be “practical”. There are also academically-produced games which you never hear of. While researching for this piece I came across Mike Treanor’s “Reflect” where you have to mimic the actions of animals. I’m not suggesting anyone downloads it, as I found it a little tricky and not much fun- but it’s just to highlight that there are more academic games out there than we realise. (Treanor is part of the Prom Week team.)

    @George: Is this your first comment here? You’ve used some quotation marks – is that a quote from someone? And, er, well done for summarising three weeks of articles in four words.

    @Nicolau: Having finished writing this essay now, I just don’t think I’m going to get into such arguments again. It seems a little pointless to me. However, there is Doug Wilson’s argument that assumptions about what a game has to be can have political (IGF) repercussions. I might have agreed with you that “art games make no money” some time ago, but this year we have Dear Esther – which has repaid its investment already – and Proteus which I’m damn sure is going to make some money. Neither game has goal-directed play and both are often labelled “art games”; they are also perched under the notgames umbrella.

    @gotohaneda: I’ll respond to your other (fantastic) comment separately (and at a later time). Anyone reading these comments should go read that one. I wasn’t really intending to bring any additional truth to the debate, more my disdain for it =) Although I was happy to draw the parallels between the ongoing “story-focus & art game vs proper games” battleground and the ludology/narratology war. This was really pitched at those readers who didn’t know much about this crazy academic discussion.

    @james: Thanks! As I said to BeamSplashX above, some of the interviews will touch on the case both for and against development-led research. This is really what the series is all about with the ludology/narratology thing just being a particularly high-profile springboard.

    I would also very much like to make games but this site dominates my time.

  6. Well, it’s getting increasingly difficult for me to wrap my head around this, so I think I’m going to make a handy-dandy list. This should comprise all the different things that make a game. I believe it’ll be easier to make associations if easy to manipulate blocks are on the board.

    Realism (maybe; probably best to mark it as a subcategory)
    Morality (a subset of agency and stuff.)
    Length (as in time to consume)
    Breadth (as in open-world games. Different from scope, in that scope measures how much is seen at a time.)
    Control (just how accurately will a soldier carry out orders?)
    Uniformity (How well a game manages to not contrast itself unintentionally)
    Objective/ goal
    People (as in multiplayer)
    Innards and logistics (probably the same as mechanics and execution)
    Roleplaying (how much of the actions are the players, and how much are the characters)

    It’s -no doubt- not even close to comprehensive, and it’s already scaring me. How could anyone ever keep all of these in mind while creating or talking about games? (If each of the characteristics had 10 different states, how many combinations does that make?)

    This reminds me of a sort of cycle I keep seeing in areas of thought. It seems to me that every time I begin to learn a discipline or way of thinking it starts out as a very rudimentary object-based mentality. The focus is on things or feelings. Then, my mind expands a little, and I start to forget my original outlook. I start to focus on ideas and objective rules. Finally, logic comes to prove the initial, subjective veiw as best, with the later concepts being a measly representation.

  7. Proteus as the anti-ludology nuke? – I’d have thought of pure exploration as being more on the game mechanics side. Maybe it’s the same as my take on order/chaos and player agency and I’m missing the extremes – I can see the argument for lumping context and narrative together against system and rules, but as design elements it doesn’t seem a natural division. Context and system are both important for worldbuilding, mimesis and immersion – a consistent, rule-based world feels more natural and real than a beautifully detailed, tightly constructed background for someone else’s predetermined story. I’d have thought of the narrativist position as having to do with prescribed story rather than story creation – characterising Adventure as linear rubbed me up the wrong way.
    But then I enjoyed Myst for the arcane puzzles as well as the world.

  8. What baffles me is why people insist on thinking that games and gaming have a finite space, that if we’re not careful, games will “fill up” with something we don’t like and there’ll be no room for whatever we do. The ludologists are afraid that all games will become interactive movies. The narratologists are afraid that all games will become Tetris. Core gamers are afraid all games will become casual. PC gamers are afraid all games will go to consoles. Single player fans are afraid every game will be multiplayer. Platform gamers are afraid all games will go to mobile devices.

    It hasn’t happened, it won’t happen, it can’t happen. No medium is a finite space. There is room for everything, and at worst the ebbs and flows of consumer interest will define what happens to be “big” at the time, and what happens to be “big” at the time may not be your cup of tea.

    Now, don’t get me wrong. I find myself falling into this trap sometimes. I don’t want all games to become mobile! I don’t think every game needs a multiplayer component! But ultimately, something as absurd as the claim that Jennifer Hepler is cancer smacks to me of religious conservatives who aren’t satisfied practicing according to the tenets of their own faith, they have to force it on others.

    You know what, asshole Kotaku person who said that about Hepler? If you don’t want to skip the combat, don’t skip it. See how easy that was?

    I love scholarship of all kinds, and what Mitu Khandaker is doing is important because scholarship helps us understand ourselves and our world and our place in it. But scholarship is not about rules. It’s about understanding. Our definitions of things can only ever at most be loose, because there is no rigid clockwork ruleset to the universe. If you don’t believe me, tell it to the Weak Elemental Force!

    *pant* *pant*

    Okay, done. A fantastic article, Harbour Master. My favorite yet of the series, and you at your most thoughtful.

  9. I was, er, quoting myself. I think I tweeted something like that either as part of that argument, or a similar one around the same time.

    But thank you so much for writing this series. I have been feeling like I need to delve deeper into it, because there are some interesting positions — stuff that you disagree with, but struggle to articulate quite why, which is the best kind of thing to argue against. But you’ve just went and done field reportage, stopping me from having to get my hands dirty.

    I’m not sure I agree that these debates are useless — but when thinking exactly why, I vacillate between “but arguing these helps inspire games that sit in the cracks between theories, which can be really interesting” and arguing against them needing to produce work/help produce work/inform work to be valuable. Probably need to pick one of those positions to take, as they kind of undermine each other.

  10. “But ultimately, something as absurd as the claim that Jennifer Hepler is cancer smacks to me of religious conservatives who aren’t satisfied practicing according to the tenets of their own faith, they have to force it on others.”

    I agree completely. Saying you disagree with her is one thing. Saying she is a cancer in the games industry…? Come on.

    What infuriates me about that stance is that it comes from an unexamined, emotional position vis a vis gaming. She’s only a “cancer” if, in your view, the games industry MUST produce a certain kind of game. The idea that you’re so hostile to any kind of innovation that you characterise it as one of the worst, most perverting diseases known to man is just… well, I’m sure you get the idea.

    Also, re. academics making rules vs. understanding the object of study – rules can be useful, and some of the most interesting things to come out of universities have been theories (that is, hypothesised rules) about human development. “All Western development can be described as…” is an interesting thing to study. But by definition, these rules cannot cover every example: there will be gaps, because for rules to have any meaning they have to be simplified. And often, the *most intersting* works are those that do *not* adhere to the rules. 😉

  11. @mwm: I don’t know if I’d sit down and consider everything like that; a bullet point list I think would probably blow your mind and take the fun out of making something. You have to iterate towards a goal; with a multi-dimensional endeavour like a game, there is no formula.

    @Phlebas: Ludology requires challenge and goals. Proteus has none of that (it barely, just about, has one goal, but it’s ever so slight and optional) which is why it keeps being brought up in recent “games as rules” conversations. Pure exploration is no game at all, ludologically speaking- it’s all narrative (context, aesthetic flair, paint).

    I (now) agree that rules vs. narrative is not a natural division – but video games originated in times when they were pretty much 99% rules with graphics and a tiny bit of text on the back of a box served up context. We’ve got more powerful machines and more ambition these days but a dichotomy of rules/narrative has established itself. But I brought up D&D earlier – a prime example where rules are there to serve narrative! It’s just annoying these positions have turned into “cutscenes vs gameplay”.

    I’ve never got the feeling that the narrativist position is about prescribed story, but ludology is dead set against the idea of story being an important game component. As Frasca argued (in one of the earlier comments I made) constructing an interesting story is a difficult thing for a person to do, so how could a computer do as great a job on the fly in response to player input? They would characterise all interactive fiction as essentially being branching decision trees – choose your own adventure for want of a better word. There’s not much “game” to that which is why Aarseth in his ludological pulpit characterises it as “linear”.

    @Steerpike: It’s so awesome for you to cite “asshole Kotaku person” in a comment on the very day Kotaku have linked to Electron Dance.

    On your point about “there’s enough space for everybody” I think the real fear is the X-Com syndrome. I am not arguing against you, after all I was making the same point =)
    Look at the reaction of the X-Com groupies to XCOM and that’s the terror we’re talking about. The fear that no one will try to make a new Deus Ex or a new Thief or a new X-Com. These things are past and dead. Everybody wants toy gun shooters or Angry Farmtower blah blah etc. etc.

    There are still – still – people today who haven’t played many games since the 80s and think those days were the pinnacle of gaming. That we’ve forgotten what real games were all about. It’s an easy thing to believe that the games you loved are gone forever. No one will make them again.

    I don’t believe this – although I have certain concerns which I will rant about sometime in the distant future – but I can see where these fears come from.

    I’m just glad to be done with this essay and get some real man’s traffic back on the site next week. Shit, hang on, I forgot Kotaku was in town.

    @George: Ah, okay, it was your quote =) I don’t have all the tweets from that evening, you may well have spouted it in the conversation!

    My original approach to this series was to be far more judgemental but in the end I felt like the world has had enough of those kind of pieces. I’m not claiming to be unbiased but I will stand up and say there’s value in ludology, just not in the religion.

    Trouble is the arguments eventually come down to what we think a game is, so if you throw our Dear Esther or Interactive Fiction in a ludology debate, for example, you won’t be taken seriously because they are not games. You have fight for the term game first. But ludological theory cannot exist without its narrow definition of game- so you’re sort of arguing for the destruction of ludology. That’s not the intent but you’ve been pushed into tearing down their concept of what a game is, because they have turned around and told you that It Is The Only Concept of Game.

    Tired, this might be coming out a bit stream-of-consciousness. Run out of time – I’ll respond to more comments tomorrow!

  12. And my comment wasn’t meant to be directed against what you wrote, HM, but against some of the people you quoted with whom I disagree more vehemently. We’re pretty much on the same side in this discussion, I think!

    With that in mind… I don’t think Kotaku has ever linked to Tap-Repeatedly. This means war!

    But Kotaku is not its community. I’m sure they’ll understand my nerd rage. 🙂

  13. Great pieces, really enjoyed them 🙂

    I don’t know who decided that ludology was about rules in the sense of “you lose if you don’t do such and such”. There’s a huge world of constraints and boundaries that function entirely differently: evaluative rather than judgmental. We can, for instance, respond to a number from 1 to 10 (process it using a function or whatever) without having to say that a higher number is better. I’m comfortable calling both situations a game. Any bit of structure that orders chaos in some way can be considered a rule.

    What Ed said on Twitter about “Spiel” meaning both “game” and “play” in German is key, I think, and related to the Latin “ludus” having the varied meanings “play(fullness), game, sport, training.” .. Breadth of understanding..

    @ HM You say “ludology cannot exist without its narrow definition of game [challenge/goals]– so you’re sort of arguing for the destruction of ludology.” But I dunno… This qualifier seems like a fairly recent cultural construct. To try to do away with that dogma– I don’t think that’s destructive, but restorative. A way of rediscovering the depths of those root meanings, as understood at other times in history. It’s very possible to give a lot of thought to rules and the structures of games and play outside of the currently popular restrictive categorization. Maybe agono-ludology (from agon: competition) could be a new name for the old ludology.. a mouthful, I know, but it’d at least be up front about its interest in competition/challenge/goals. Or maybe a different prefix is more accurate.. In any case, the more convenient word is needed as the description of the superset. Other subsets can grow from there if people want: narrato-ludology, musico-ludology, etc.. though i’d guess there are probably more elegant ways of doing things. ludology is dead, long live ludology, etc!

    Granted, I have my own reasons for wanting to reconsider the language used here. I think of games as pieces of music, which feels to me closely related to ludological approaches (in that it’s structural, algorithmic). Games have taught me about music and music about games– something feels right here.. It seems like all these things dissolve into one another at some point..

  14. I wonder if the best way to study a game is to approach it in ways other kinds of gamers do. Things like self-imposed challenges, speedrunning, as well as making a conscious effort to engage with the story and the environments (combined or segregated as they may be). Maybe we should all try it once, though I’d approach 100% completion in most games with a hearty dose of trepidation.

    Perhaps it’s outside the purview of the ludology-narratology debate, as it’s somewhat the inverse of the process, but it’s a process all of us already have the tools and practice for.

  15. @HM I think, like everything here, that it has some merit. A systematic look at a game mid or early-development might be able to notify the dev of what differentiates it from its compatriots and what brings it together. A sort of Painter-looking-at-his-painting-sideways thing.

    The ‘Skip gameplay option’ seems to me to be more a hornet’s nest than at first glance. If people skipped over sections of gameplay, they’d sometimes feel like they were missing out on something important or entertaining, leaving a sort of guilt behind. Then, dev’s would probably try to accommodate for this and put more of the ‘oomph’ in the story and cut-scenes. Then, whether or not it’s true, people playing the game ‘faithfully’ will feel boned over since the gameplay through which they slog is meaningless. After all, if a game can be thoroughly enjoyed start to finish without any effort, then wouldn’t the effort simply be a punishment?

  16. @David: Pleased to see you down here!

    I wasn’t thinking too clinically in my previous comment. I still don’t know if I can articulate this well; going to try again. I don’t have a problem with fields exploring within certain well-defined boundaries, I have a problem with an absolutist perspective where NOTHING ELSE EXISTS BEYOND THESE WALLS. There’s a bait-and-switch from bad attitudes for “ludology” – and it’s the bad attitude that is the problem – yet we end up attacking and tearing at the field instead. I think that sucks because some of these guys really believe in what they’re doing and if there is anything of value there, half of us can’t see it because we’re too busy trying to take them down. They tie the debate to the core, fundamental definition of the field, so that if we weaken the definition of game, it’s tantamount to undermining the nature of their existing results and thus becames a fight that no one is going to back down from. Eh, I may be over-doing this.

    But there has been a moment I’ve stepped back from writing A Theoretical War and wondered: Holy Kanaga, are we imagining all this?

    Raph Koster has this diagram on one of his pages where he clumps various different concepts into a Venn diagram. What he considers games is one slug here, and Dear Esther ends up somewhere else. It’s clear where his boundaries lie and all his articles and essays will follow those boundaries. He’s got plenty to say if you subscribe to his set of definitions. If the internet bubbles up because he says, within his game grammar framework, “narrative is feedback” – is it his problem? Or is it ours for assuming he is making an absolute statement?

    As gotohaneda expressed in an earlier comment, game studies is already fragmenting with research striking out in all sorts of directions. Many of the academics in this series were doing something else but ended up extending their research into games – they came not from within the subject but outside.

    But you’re right; we have so much difficulty with the language in use. I don’t really have enough grasp of the existing material to comment in more depth. I’m a born and bred mathematician, I don’t deal with anything other than absolutes =)

  17. @James: I’m also good with the idea of rules as a foundation for games; don’t confuse me with Steerpike, we actually hate each other bitterly and our respective sites are in a state of war. I’m completely happy with idea of a study of “ludological games” where the results and observations of ludology are applicable to a particular form. The problem is where this initial definition is extended to cover all situations- no, not all things we call games can be reduced to rules. You could just boil down these three weeks into this simple message: “arrogance doesn’t make friends”. But I didn’t write that, because it would be arrogant.

    @Steerpike: Hey, buddy! Yeah we weren’t disagreeing at all, but was cautious that my phrasing about understanding these “irrational fears” might come across as disagreement. Oh and we’re defintiely at war.

    @Beam: That’s certainly being done and, as hinted at, the new debate is about whether players have been excluded from game analysis – that the player brings something to the table, and looking at the game in isolation is not enough. The game/player problem I think Bogost refers to it as. On the other hand, how much will becoming a hardcore master say about games: how many players actually complete or become masters at games these days? What do you think?

    @mwm: Yeah, optional gameplay is a whole separate topic. I don’t actually have a view right now because I see both sides – I see the crappy grind players are propelled through, boning our spare time, and I also see the sense of achievement that comes from… achieving rather than skipping. To know that others don’t have to do it lessens that. But perhaps if this became the norm, maybe it would become seen more like time attack modes and higher difficulty- a badge of personal fortitude that you put yourself through it. Don’t know.

  18. Lots to unpack here! You linked to two of my favorite game videos. I’ll have to save that last, long one, for when I’m not at the office.

    I’m so excited to see how your interviews come out. As we discussed a little once, I did my Masters thesis on games (in fact, narrative in games) but it was one of those weird little studies that never really saw the light outside of my own hobby work.

    @Beam: I’ve actually seen arguments to this effect, too, something like the only real worthwhile critique of a game is playing a game.

    I think it’s tricky. I think you can find something like a “Let’s Play” really fascinating: where it’s a game done by just one person who is a master of that game, and thus has the best possible vantage point to explain how it works. On the other hand, lots of general gamers experience a large amount of different games, broadly, than one game, deeply. There’s merit to both.

  19. Amanda – curious, which videos are you referring to? The Jim Sterling ones? Plus the last video is just added for curiosity’s sake. I didn’t intend to watch the whole thing and had it playing in the background while I was doing mass-editing of this essay, but found myself switching to it whenever the hosts sounded like they were going to getting ready to kill each other with quotes from Eskelinen or Murray. It doesn’t offer any additional insight but I think it demonstrates how upset we can get over this theoretical debates, because what the debates turn into is “the games you like are crap”.

  20. I like the Sterling one /and/ the Black Ops one.

    I have to admit. Peaches is exactly what a lot of art games feel like to me… At some point I swear I’m going to write about Passage.

  21. This has been a great series.

    I always seem to get cited as more fundamentalist on these issues than I actually am, so I thought I’d drop a few comments in the mix.

    I’m formally trained as a writer, as a musician, as a visual artist, and self-taught as a game designer. To some large degree, this informs how I approach all of these questions. To me it seems self-evident that there are art forms (expressed through media), that some art forms are cross-disciplinary to a deep degree and some are not, that some are effectively always collaborative authorship and some are not, and so on.

    My interest and advocacy for a more ludological position is not because I devalue any of these other art forms and media. It is that I am keenly aware as a practitioner of multiple art forms that when I make games, I am using elements from many, but that games have an aspect to them that is unique.

    This aspect is *not* interactivity. I have seen interactivity manifested in many other media and forms. The part I have not seen anywhere else is the particular rule structure that manifests consistently in what has been called “games” for centuries and across many cultures.

    I fully recognize that the boundaries of this are blurry. We have far less understanding of this core of games than we do of any other art form. By trying to pinpoint the less-ambiguous center I am not attempting to be exclusionary. I do not see why an act of definition is considered destructive, except in some academic pomo sense that does not really help practitioners.

    As someone who wrote his share of experimental fiction in college, I am fully sympathetic to the notion of creating interactive computer-mediated experiences that stretch towards art. I am less sympathetic towards calling them “games” if they do not touch on the unique core of interactive challenge models built from rules. And my reason is mostly that it makes it harder to work on understanding that core. Dear Esther and similar are liminal, to my mind — like concrete or haptic poetry are liminal to the classical understanding of what poetry is.

    When I say that narrative is not a game mechanic, then, I am speaking in the same sense in which I can say that typography is not a poetic device. Typography is crucially important in concrete poetry. It is incredibly common in most forms of poetry, even. But “poetry” is not defined around typography. Visual presentation, sound, narrative — they can all be incredibly common and incredibly important in games. But there are plenty of games where they are not central. Story is clearly only central in a subset of games, and when you make it more central than the rules system, you’re in a liminal place. Nothing wrong with that. Unless your creative goal centers on games and not on story.

    You pose the question whether understanding that games are fundamentally turn-based is of any real value. And I would assert that it has the same value as understanding that prosody seems to be common to poetic heritage across languages and cultures.

    There is a long history of liminal forms attempting to “seize the center.” I would suggest that there’s nothing wrong with the tension existing… but I’d continue to advocate for figuring out some basics while the debate rages on. The history of art seems to me to demonstrate that the real potential of liminal forms arises only after the center has been found, defined, codified, and reduced to praxis.

  22. Raph, hi! My original intention was to shed some light for the uninitiated on the faux ludology vs narratology dichotomy but, well, it turned into something else as most of my writing does by the time I finish it.

    In the original drafts, I instead argued that the debate between extreme points of view such as “notgames” vs “rules are fundamental” is important. That what comes out of these debates are interesting observations, edge cases and all sorts of strange experimental clutter. The tension you talk about is a key part of the theoretical ecosystem, pushing everyone to be a little better.

    On the turn-based question: It wasn’t quite the killer comment I wanted to pull out (as opposed to the extreme “all games have narrative” on the story side of the nine-dimensional fence). I can see where you’re coming from with an atomic point of view – but being all ridiculous and extreme I know, it sounded akin to saying all computational data is actually binary. We rarely perceive the programming environment like that, desperate to abstract away the low-level machine reality in exchange for the efficiency of higher-order abstractions. At some point, wouldn’t you need to abstract that out of the game grammar so we can visualise a game which affords a real-time simulation (even though it is an illusion)? As mentioned in a comment in a galaxy far far away, I’m not clued up on game grammar so this may be an obvious point to bat away. But that was on my mind when I wrote the above.

    Let me take what you’re saying about your approach and ask a different question that I haven’t seen anyone ask yet; it is the reason why everyone gets hyped up into a frenzy about “Was ist Spiel?”

    So I’m completely on board with strict definitions of games being introduced to grow theories. This is an important thing. Mathematics hand-waved its way through some terrible shit after calculus got invented and almost collapsed under the weight of intuition until they sat down and started formally defining limits, differentials, integrals, continuity and so on. There are now multiple definitions – e.g. the classical Riemann-Stieltjes integral versus the Lebesgue integral – which agree for everyday purposes but differ on certain crazyweird edge cases.

    (This was something else cut out of A Theoretical War. I’m getting to put all my draft material back in!)

    But your view is not merely simply a statement for theoretical purposes but closer to a truth of things; something better acknowledged than ignored. I’m going to link to your Venn diagram which is an important reference here plus that post sets out your stall that you’re not trying to be exclusionary – just precise.

    There are plenty of players and developers who don’t subscribe to your particular definition; and sites “about video games” freely discuss Dear Esther and Proteus without arm-twisting. There’s a whole messy games culture where all these apparently different things are smeared into one. I’m not trying to put words into your mouth, but this is the thought experiment taking place in these debates: a more precise re-framing of “game” is perceived as unavoidably exclusionary because it implies that “things which are not games” should be edged out into their own space.

    I guess the question is – what is it you actually advocate for? In the coming decades, would you prefer to see a better partitioning of different (digital) artistic forms? Do you think that’s inevitable?

  23. @HM:
    Much like the academics, I think the amount of hardcore gamers is less important than hearing their take on a game. I did not come remotely close to mastering any of the Devil May Cry games, though I did peek into what doing so would entail and worked the easier stuff into my playstyle. But, that element that allows a game to go that deep can be felt, even when I was flailing around with it at first. So “hardcoreability” is a worthwhile thing to look into, maybe even over things we typically consider for replay value (i.e. speedrunning).

    I think this ties into why I enjoyed slowbeef’s Let’s Play through the Metroid Prime series (besides the good-natured riffing). They were mostly new to him, but he usually had guests with him that would guide him through all the way to 100% completion. The combined perspectives both per game and in response to the design changes throughout the series provide a unique (and even valuable) angle on how the passionate-but-not-hardcore experience a game.

    Do video games necessarily prosper when they assume the same core as traditional games? It’s not quite the difference between still photography and movies, but perhaps games are like flip-books (an awkward middle ground where qualities of both media improve the end result in various degrees).

  24. @HM:

    “I can see where you’re coming from with an atomic point of view – but being all ridiculous and extreme I know, it sounded akin to saying all computational data is actually binary. We rarely perceive the programming environment like that, desperate to abstract away the low-level machine reality in exchange for the efficiency of higher-order abstractions. At some point, wouldn’t you need to abstract that out of the game grammar so we can visualise a game which affords a real-time simulation (even though it is an illusion)?”

    If anything, I tend to think of approaching real-time as real-time actually leads us down dangerous roads when we try to think about the user’s experience. We don’t tend to *decide* continuously, you see. We tend to make decisions at set points. So seeing even traversal of a space as a turn, followed by basically robot movement until circumstances change, is actually a pretty accurate way of thinking of how a user interacts with a real time environment.

    Think of how any human describes events: “I did this. And then he did that. And then while I was doing this, he did that.” We parcel things up. I would assert we do so both in advance, when considering a situation; and in retrospect, when evaluating it.

    This isn’t to minimize the issue of time. Effectively, what real-time becomes is “time limits.” Consider Tetris. Should blocks not fall on a timer, and move faster and faster, the core of the problem the player must solve remains. Increased time pressure becomes a factor affecting difficulty, but the core *systemic model* is the same.

    Being aware of time’s role in games as being merely “a limit on how long you can think before a decision” means you focus on the decisions a lot more. And a game where the challenge remains even when the timer is absent is going to hold up better than one that relies on the timer for its challenge.

    Wow, a long way of saying “yes, it buys us a lot.”

    “I guess the question is – what is it you actually advocate for? In the coming decades, would you prefer to see a better partitioning of different (digital) artistic forms? Do you think that’s inevitable?”

    I advocate for better understanding of games so that we can make better games. I happen to think that making better games will also lead to making better videogames, and that making better videogames will spill over into making better notgames, and so on. Would I prefer to see better partitioning? Actually, if we manage to evolve our understanding of games, I suspect that the resultant terminology itself will result in better partitioning. And i do think that understanding is coming, at a rapid rate.


    “Do video games necessarily prosper when they assume the same core as traditional games? It’s not quite the difference between still photography and movies, but perhaps games are like flip-books (an awkward middle ground where qualities of both media improve the end result in various degrees).”

    I think it is a closer analogy to say that games and videogames are like theatre and movies. The act of scriptwriting is much the same, the process of acting is much the same. The delivery mechanism is greatly different, and provide different affordances. But the core of actors delivering lines is still there. Practitioners often move between the two — both behind-the-scenes folks and actors, actually.

    Grammar and the like are aiming at understanding things like rising tension, the three-act structure, and the like.

  25. Raph: Ah, I see what you mean about turn-based games. I’m still not sure I’d use that term, since we already have games which are termed “turn-based”, and they are mechanically very different to “real-time” games, but I definitely see your point, and I approve of taking a phenomenological approach to the player’s moment-to-moment experience.

    It’s also interesting that the feature you assign to real-time games, which makes them turn-based, is a time limit – when for most traditionally “turn-based” games (think collectible card games or final fantasy’s combat) one result of having turns is that there *is* no time limit.

    Of course, your model becomes stretched when we start thinking about games like “The Path”, or the dream sequences in Mass Effect 3 – but that’s largely because they deliberately subvert what we’d consider normal gameplay. I guess, with those games, one “turn” is so bizarrely long and drawn-out that you really *notice* how drawn-out it is. Hmm, food for thought there.

  26. Ah, I’d forgotten about this:

    The book ‘Mind at Play: The Psychology of Videogames’ (Loftus & Loftus, 1983) had a chapter about their attempts to find out what made a game interesting. It was Breakout, I think.

    Rather than theorising, they just made lots of variants of the game to see which people would like. Some of the things they tried were pretty outlandish – no control over the bat, no bat, no ball, no blocks etc. but others were more subtle – no sound? no colour? no score?

    Seems like a pretty sound approach to empirical investigation, and struck me when I read it (back in the 00’s) as pretty far from the games-academic approach at the time which seemed reluctant to touch actual games as though they were in some way dirty.

    I’m glad to hear embedding theory in reality is coming back into vogue.

  27. @BeamSplashX: Sid, I think I remain unconvinced that gaming athletes provide critical insight into design. Considering that we are talking about the allocation of research $$$$, I need something stronger. I admit there may be interesting results in this area that someone is bound to (or already has) tapped into, such as the designs that promote the deliberate pairing of novices with experts, but I don’t think I see the case for an athletic sub-field of player-research.

    @Raph: Oh, ohh… ohhhhh. I get the turn-based reference now. Gah. I want to take it out of the article but, hey, without it this bit of the discussion couldn’t exist and we’d have a time paradox on our hands (turn-based time, of course). On advocacy, that was sort of the answer I expected – that you’re not particularly concerned with what happens outside the technical discussions although you anticipate trickle-down. I think it’s important to clarify that no “harm” is meant because that was characteristic of the old ludology battleground, as much negative campaigning as it was advocacy. (Although reading your blog for any length of time would make that clear, but it’s good to have it cited down here in the comments.)

    @James: Interesting points. I would just note that your final observation on “drawn out turns” charges out of a rules-based discussion into aesthetic considerations. Not that I want to put too many words into Raph’s mouth as he has quite a lot already, but I think in Raph’s world, a large duration between turns could be suggestive that the narrative (feedback) chunks are too big [where the time between turns is not “thinking time” but something like observation time]. It would render such sequences weaker as a game, under Raph’s framing; it’s not that the model is stretched so to speak, it’s that the model has defined out those things. The critical takeaway, though, is that it does not mean it’s a bad thing to do, it just depends what your goals are.

    @CdrJameson: That reminds me somewhat of the recent game The Snowfield which, I have to admit, I didn’t get into even though its development was explicitly player-driven. I’ll let the academic interviews carry this particular conversation forward.

  28. @James Patton:
    “Raph: Ah, I see what you mean about turn-based games. I’m still not sure I’d use that term, since we already have games which are termed “turn-based”, and they are mechanically very different to “real-time” games, but I definitely see your point, and I approve of taking a phenomenological approach to the player’s moment-to-moment experience.”

    Actually, actual turn-based games often have timers… chess played with a clock, for example, does so formally, but even pure turn-based games have social contracts about turn length.

  29. @HM: Do you know any of the specifics about how The Snowfield was developed? The mission statement is interesting but I find it kind of opaque as to how they actually turned it into a game. (For me it played like an experiment in not giving me enough feedback as to what was happening — I guess everyone wanted one and only one object, but their responses to me didn’t communicate that very well.)

    @CdrJameson: Do you remember what made the game interesting?

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