In the latest Mostly Walking, Sean B. alluded to an article published by Ludica, a women’s game collective “devoted to exploring alternatives to the current anthrocentric, male-dominated, and technocentric culture of digital games” (see article below), about how video games differ from board games in that the rules are strictly imposed on the players, rather than dictated by social contract and thus negotiable and bendable (e.g. house rules or cheating).
He later linked to the article on Twitter, so I went ahead and read it, only to fall down the rabbit hole and read everything else available on the Ludica website (http://www.ludica.org.uk/).
I thought I’d bring this up here for discussion, in the spirit of Sean's Q&As (because actually bringing this up in a Q&A would be kind of difficult).
Before I start, I have to say that I am no expert on the subject: I have become interested in video game design only recently, thanks to Sean’s participation in Mostly Walking and to his Play by Play videos. However, I do have more of a background in feminist and gender studies, which is a subject that Ludica is particularly interested in, so there’s that.
I'll spoiler my summary and thoughts for each individual paper so that this post doesn't get huge as heck. My thoughts are italicized and bulleted to (hopefully) make things clear.
“Sustainable Play: Toward a New Games Movement for the Digital Age”
This paper revisits the New Games movement from the early 1970s in the US, which was meant as a thought-provoking and view-changing social movement as a response to the Vietnam War and the highly competitive, militaristic game culture that prevailed at the time. According to Bernie DeKoven, an important figure of this movement:
“A game is a social contract, allowing participants to suspend the culturally defined significances and consequences of their behavior. A game has a set of rules, roles, and goals that are distinct from those of the culture that supports it. It is an esthetic system with qualities of elegance, symmetry, and clarity. A game is a form of mutual entertainment whose effectiveness can be determined by the degree of engagement manifest by the players.”
- I don’t know about you, but I feel that this is a very useful conceptualisation of games and gaming.
The New Game Movement invited players to engage in large-scale multiplayer gaming experiences in which they experimented with bending, breaking and reinventing game rules around a sustainable (and somewhat Utopian) world view. For example, games often involved players exchanging teams all the time, or working towards a goal before turning around and taking antagonistic actions right before reaching that goal. Most games had an explicit global-environmental aspect to them.
Ludica argues for the initiation of a “new New Games movement” in digital gaming, which would “generate games that use the innate potential of both the technologies we are exploring and the players who put the game in motion”. Related to that, they stress the importance of subjective engagement in the game experience, and warn against the draw of theoretical intellectualism in game design.
- Might I note that I love it when an academic paper warns me about the danger of academia? It’s always entirely relevant, though. I’m curious to know just how much “theoretical intellectualism” becomes an obstacle for game designers with a background in Game Studies.
However, there are some obstacles to the implementation of the New Games philosophy in video games: “Digital games create a particular inhibition to the reinscription of rules due to the fact that the rule structures and roles are encoded in the game construction itself”. This is in direct contradiction with the idea of a game as a negotiable social contract.
Moreover, unlike other types of games, the rule structures of digital games is usually opaque: “they constrain players’ actions without recourse to alteration”, and often without full knowledge of what the game rules even are.
- Since the publication of this paper, have any games been produced that specifically focus on allowing the player to make up their own rules? We have many sandbox games in which we can do whatever we want within a certain set of rules, but are there any games that let you decide the very dynamics of everything?
- Or is that even the right approach? Is something like Tabletop Simulator, where you have game objects but the rules remain as social contracts and not implemented as code, the one true way to digitalize the concept of New Games?
I’d like to point out that the authors also deplore that video games “tend to valorize particular skills over others”, like fast reactions or good aim, which impose even more restrictions on players that they can’t always circumvent. In the conclusion to the article, they propose that “players should be able to adjust rules to varying skill sets so that groups of diverse experience can play comfortably together” and that “players [should] not be judged by whether they are good enough for the game but by whether the game is good enough for them”.
- This is a philosophy of gaming I generally agree with, but I know it to be very controversial. The way I see it, a good game should indeed be able to accommodate both players with little interest/ability in being skillful and players who derive great pleasure from that kind of challenge. I also think that playing among people of the same skill level or playing among people of all skill levels, with individual adjustments to make that possible, should be a given choice. However, I wonder: what is the cost of such choice in game design? Is it a case where you just have to limit the possible avenues? If so, where should the balance fall?
With all that being said, the authors bring up the fact that “regardless of these constraints, players manage to find unique and inventive ways to reinscribe rules, often hijacking features or flaws or making a superfluous frill a central part of a game mechanic”.
- Is there a specific pleasure to using a game “in the wrong way”? Is it just a question of the nature of play, or is it a testament of a flaw in video games if we especially like to break their rules? How does this relate to the success of sandbox-like games where you have large amounts of freedom over what you do?
They give the example of players of Second Life who build games within the game, and are even officially given intellectual property of that content. Something interesting about that game-building environment, they note, is that there is a built-in community of potential play-testers for game play experiments.
- Does extensive play-testing allow to make more complex games? I’m thinking of Kerbal Space Program, which has been in the play-testing phase for literally years. They have a pretty elaborate task to achieve, with all the physics of flight / space travel / material properties involved – would that ever be possible without such prolific play-testing going on? Maybe the future of games will involve a lot more involvement of players in the actual making of the games.
Nonetheless, the authors note that very little subversion of a game’s philosophy is usually achieved by player modifications. For example, they’d be interested in someone modding Counter-Strike in a way that derives from the war-centric narrative. Formerly, what the authors would like to see in a new New Games movement is “the turning on its head of traditional, competitive, and combat-based models of game play”.
“Playing Dress-Up: Costumes, roleplay and imagination”
I will be doing less of a detailed summary for this one because it’s pretty darn long and I have much fewer things to contribute, but feel free to bring up anything else from the article for discussion!
The authors talk about a continuum of play activities, first proposed by Caillois. One extreme is “paidia”, a type of play characterized by diversion, turbulence, free improvisation, and carefree gaiety – it is a “frolicsome and impulsive exuberance”. The other extreme is “ludus”, where this exuberance is disciplined by a complementary and inverse tendency to bind it with arbitrary, imperative, and tedious conventions.
In this framework, video games’ structures and mechanics tend to fall within the domain of ludus. The authors propose two possible explanations for that: “This may be due in part to the inherent nature of programming code, which demands logical structure and therefore lends itself to strict rule sets; it may also be due to the prevalence of male designers in the field who may tend to favor more ludic, goal-oriented forms of play.”
- How much does having a game-determined goal (rather than a player-determined goal) limit the freedom of the players? Do games risk having no purpose if they have only player-determined goals? In other words, is there a trade-off between freedom and purpose?
- Also, I think I might have a problem with the idea of “goal-oriented” VS not goal-oriented. Can you really have a game without a goal? Even if there is no end-point, I figure there must always be goals, whether successive or continuous, no matter if the games sets them or lets the player do so.
The authors suggest that dress-up play could be the basis “for the creation of more gender-inclusive games, as well as a bridge to more gender-balanced approaches to game studies”. Indeed, they propose that dress-up and fashion already served as an entry-point for women and girls into computer games with the “pink” game movement of the 1990s, and later with games like The Sims, EverQuest and Second Life where these aspects play an important role. Moreover, they suggest that video games could also be an entry-point for men into dress-up, because mixing dress-up with technology might dispel its feminine connotations.
Dress-up in video games goes well beyond doll-play: any game that implies the making of a customized avatar involves some amount of dress-up play. This type of game mechanic is strongly tied to the identity of the players: they can both express their identity and expand it by exploration of styles, races, genders, etc. They list a number of modes of dress-up play, some of which I find particularly interesting.
First, dressing up as a testament of seniority / status / mastery, a good example being World of Warcraft.
- That goes back to the gaming philosophy where achievement and prowess in front of challenges is of great importance. It’s quite interesting that this attitude toward video games is literally implemented in some games.
Regarding this mode of dress-up, the authors propose that “perhaps the conflation of the “masculine” space of the computer, combined with the notion of “gear” (armor and weapons) actually regenders costume play in more masculine direction”.
- I think this brings up a really interesting thing about this article: few adults, especially men, would openly call their avatar-building “dress-up play”. The term is a mixture of childish and typically feminine that I think makes a lot of people dismissive of this reality.
Another really interesting mode of dress-up play in video games is that of gender play. This part of this article is so good I want to quote it entirely, but I have very little to add to it, so I just strongly suggest that you go read it and come back with any questions or comments about it because I’m totally down with discussing this.
I’ll just mention the concept of “avatar representation”. On this subject, the authors bring up “the impoverished view of online embodiment most designers seem to be operating with”, which seem to oppose the possibility of more diverse representation, especially for female avatars.
- What part does avatar representation play in greater inclusiveness in video games? I think that, at this point, it is pretty necessary – but is it at all sufficient?
“Players, Games & Culture” – Celia Pearce’s Keynote speech for Medi@terra 2006
The text begins with a remark on game culture in general, and the value that is attributed to it:
“Some might argue that the term “game culture” with reference to video games is an oxymoron. Digital games are viewed largely, like their cousin the comic book, as a form of low culture, indeed the lowest of low. Any content whatever is somehow viewed as more menacing and nefarious when re-inscribed in the form of a game.”
Pearce points out that games’ status as art is strongly debated.
- I think it’s evident from a lot of visual, conceptual and emotional masterpieces that video games can certainly be art. What I wonder is whether that will make people recognize the art in -all- video games, or if people will keep feeling like only certain types of games deserve the title of “art”. If the design of video games is an art, can some be more deserving of the title than others, or is it just a question of artistic preference like in any domain?
The author also proposes that, in addition to the cultural production of game-making, there is the culture of game-playing, which is a form of production (maybe an art?) in itself. In this regard, she speaks of a player-centric approach to the study of games, which “views the game in the context of the agency it affords players, the experience they have while playing, and the social constructions that take place in the context of play communities”.
- I think it’s very interesting to see the role of players as productive rather than just receptive. If you think of it, a lot of multiplayer gaming experience is dependent of a game’s play community, so the players themselves produce a core element of the game.
- I wonder how much a game and its specific dynamics shape the community that comes with it, and how much community-building is a matter of chance events reinforced by positive feedback loops. For example, the StarCraft community has something unique in that you can hardly develop into a great player if you never learn from others, which demands some level of sharing and discussion that is not necessary for other games that are less driven by complex tactical skills. I’m almost certain that the game itself has had a strong impact on the community that grew around it. But, as the authors talk about later in the article, if you have a significant number of players who migrate from one game to the other, they might shape the second game’s community in ways that are independent to the games’ actual dynamics, for example by attracting greater number of people who think and play like that established community.
Pearce suggests that the mainstream game industry, especially in the U.S., has become so enamored of its technological prowess that it has lost sight of this player-centric approach. In other words, they “forget the entire point: games are first and foremost about play, the act of play, the process of play, the experience of play, and the intersubjective construction of shared play space”.
However, she proposes that an exception to the rule is Nintendo. According to her, with the DS and the Wii, Nintendo showed a more evolved sense of play because of i) more engaging and embodied interface, ii) very player-centric ads showing the players engaging with the game and each other rather than showing just the game graphics, and iii) great inclusiveness of people of both genders, all ages and various ethnicities.
- I think I agree that Nintendo is a lot more about the experience of play and the construction of shared play space than other companies. But at the same time, surely Nintendo’s approach would not suit all manners of video games. Try making a game like The Last of Us with that philosophy… Which brings me to ask, is it true that games are necessarily “first and foremost about play”? What about emotional experiences that are not immediately about fun, but rather feeling something much deeper than that?
In contrast, the author describes the Xbox as cultivating an audience composed exclusively of men, saying that “its testosterone-induced, combat-based games merely push women further into the margins of play”.
- In terms of women’s interest in them, is the problem with combat games really that they are about combat, or does the problem lie more in the delivery of that theme (e.g. representation)? I’m sure the subject matter plays some role, but I guess I’m wondering if it’s as big a role as we think it is.
She goes on to say that “at the same time, women who have long been ignored by the game industry are now finding satisfaction in the growing casual game landscape”, a type of game that has notably been marginalized by mainstream game designers and hardcore gamers alike.
- Something really bothers me about the idea of “casual gaming”. I feel like it’s a label created for the sole purpose of excluding an entire branch of gamers as “not true gamers”, rather than an actual relevant category of gaming. Am I the only one?
Later in the speech, Pearce talks about play communities, defined as “a group of people who wish to play together, who may change games, and who might even reinvent game rules in order to create a level playing field for its members” and that forms around shared play styles and preferences. She contrasts them with communities of practice, the groups of people who share a common activity (e.g. video games or a video game), which are normally what scholars think about.
Pearce says of play communities that what brings them together is the desire to immerse themselves in alternative worlds as means to explore their own identities through play.
- I totally agree with the idea of play as exploration of self. I also think that the immersion in a certain play culture can not only illuminate, but shape one’s identity. To people for whom video games have been an important part of your lives: how much would you say they helped discover yourselves, and how much did they shape who you are now?
The author also mentions that contemporary Western culture marginalizes play as a trivial activity that has no place in adult life.
- How does the concept of play apply to adult relationships (whether romantic of friendly) on a day-to-day basis? Are there complex and covert adult play dynamics? I find it hard to believe that people just generally stop playing altogether, especially with the social importance play can have.
More to come as I work my way through the articles! Feel free to start responding right away.
In the meantime, if there's anything that I got wrong about format or whatever, please let me know!