[MUD-dev] Fun in Games

Koster Koster
Sat Apr 27 11:26:18 New Zealand Standard Time 2002

In advance--JC, I apologize for the rather off-topic meanderings;
I'll understand if you want this thread to die now.

<EdNote: I'm too interested in where you're heading>

> From: David Kennerly

> Before continuing, I hope you, Raph, could help me eliminate the
> unintended quarrel:

Certainly. :)

> Raph Koster wrote: >> David Kennerly wrote:

>>> A fine game does not preach.

>> my main quarrel with your entire premise is that online worlds
>> aren't just games.

> What did I write that was construed to the contrary?  The scope
> was not so broad a subject as online worlds.

My reading was distorted by the list on which the statement was
made. :)

>  In a sentence, the scope > is delimited: From the point of view
>  of fun, the game is the type of > the all the arts.

Well, I am not sure that I agree with whatever philosopher you got
the original statement from. From a formalist point of view, music
can be considered ordered sound and silence, and poetry, the
placement of words and gaps between words, and so on. Some have
argued that the type of music is therefore form, but that just means
that form sees its purest mathematical expression in music, not that
form is absent from other arts.

No other artistic medium defines itself around an intended *effect*
on the user, such as "fun." They all embrace a wider array of
emotional impact.  Now, we may be running into definitional
questions for the word "fun" here, obviously, but even so, I'd
prefer to approach things from a more formalist perspective to
actually arrive at what the basic building blocks of the medium are.

> Continuing to clarify:

>> Nonsense.

>> a first person shooter about a white supremacist who shoots
>> blacks and Jews

>> is explicitly designed to tell people how to feel

> The shooter mod you mention does not sound like a fine game.  If
> it is not a fine game, it has nothing to do with the art of the
> game.  Badly designed games may be bad in many ways.

For all I know, it could be a stellar game--as game. It could be
extremely fun (cf GRAND THEFT AUTO 3 again). I do not see how the
bare mechanics of the game determine its semantic freighting.

As a thought experiment, let's tackle the issue of Nazis again
(Godwin's Law notwithstanding).

Let's picture a game wherein there is a gas chamber shaped like a
well. You the player are dropping innocent Jews down into the gas
chamber, and they come in all shapes and sizes. There are old ones
and young ones, fat ones and tall ones. As they fall to the bottom,
they grab onto each other and try to form human pyramids to get to
the top of the well. Should they manage to get out, the game is over
and you lose. But if you pack them in tightly enough, the ones on
the bottom succumb to the gas and die.

I do not want to play this game. Do you? Yet it is Tetris. You could
have well-proven, stellar game design mechanics applied towards a
quite repugnant premise.

I believe your argument is that the art of the game is purely that
of the mechanics. To which I say to you that film is not solely the
art of cinematography or scriptwriting or directing or acting. The
art of the game is the whole.

This does not mean that the art of the cinematrographer is less; in
truth, the very fact that the art of the film fails if ANY of its
constituent arts fail elevates each and every one to primacy.

> Even when bad, a game is not an active agent.  So it is misleading
> to suppose that

>> making us enjoy the morally reprehensible is quit within the art
>> of the game.

> Because this playfully animates the game.  In paraphrase:

>     There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral game.  Games
>     are well designed, or badly designed (Oscar Wilde, Picture of
>     Dorian Gray, Preface).

Ah, I used to believe that. But Wilde's observation is as out of
date as Wordsworth's, also paraphrased, that "all good games are the
spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings... games are emotion
recollected in tranquillity." Or T. S. Eliot's "study the game, not
the game designer."

There is no line dividing pictorial art and propaganda. Visuals
admit a greater degree of imposition than words do-there is
something about the medium which enforces complete acceptance or
rejection. Perhaps it is the fact that paintings/sculptures must be
absorbed into the consciousness as a whole, unlike words, which
perforce enter our minds linearly and sequentially.

Picasso's GUERNICA is an excellent example of this-an intensely
propagandistic piece that is never regarded as such. Its formal
construction admits no disagreement, conveying a universal sense of
fear shock anger and so on-and the tiny newsprint hashes seem to
make this emotional reaction universal. All the imagery and the very
formal approach insist upon presenting a very particular narrow
impression of a particular historical event.

Why is this more propagandistic than, say, Goya's depiction of
shootings during the Spanish Civil War? Does Goya's use of a greater
realism perforce imply less certainty of motive? It would be
worthwhile to investigate to what extent a greater preoccupation
with form and stylization accompany deliberate propaganda. (Or
course we run into the parallel assumption that all art must
therefore embody some sort of propagandistic mind control-and even
put thus, in the baldest terms, we must conclude that yes, it is

Games fall into the same trap/glory. As much as it would be nice to
focus on a purely belles-lettristic approach to game design, you can
go back over the three preceding paragraphs and replace Picasso and
Goya with Will Wright's SIMS and GRAND THEFT AUTO 3, and see where
it leaves you.

> Wilde was writing about art and society, but the paraphrase
> applies.  The game is a form of art.  It's design is an art.
> Although I applaud the intent to increase the design of the game,
> to write

>> we as designers tend to explore only a very small subset of the
>> possible means of doing so.

> Criticizes without helping and might mislead.  Fine games have
> portrayed the human condition.  It has done so through it's own
> art, which has been often misconceived.  It's apples and oranges
> to compare a comic's (or other narrative's) portrayal of the human
> condition to a game's portrayal of the human condition.  More
> applicable than a comic book comparison is the statement: The
> average card game does a better job of portraying the human
> condition than the average video game.  I'm not interesting in
> asserting this, but it is a non-misleading statement; it promotes
> artistic thought in the medium of the game.

I believe that here you fall into the trap of assuming that the
formal building blocks that comprise the unique element of an art
form are the sole building blocks.

Perhaps what we need is a clarification of terminology. I can accept
everything that you say in your essay if we define game design as
"the construction of formalized rules of interaction within a
limited set of variables, with the intent of providing interesting
and fun choices against which to measure some form of skill."

However, I'd then argue that game design is merely a component of
interactive entertainment, and that game design itself is on the
level of choreography, not of dance. For dance involves other such
disciplines: costuming, and music, and lighting, and narrative, and
so on.

I will accept the assertions you make regarding game design as a
formal craft; however, I view what I do as being the superset, for
pure game design must only deal with abstractions, or else
immediately cross over into the realm of interactive entertainment.

> The Prisoner's Dilemma is a brief example of a game portraying the
> human condition, which reveals some origins of how selfish
> entities behave altruistically (Robert Axelrod, The Evolution of
> Cooperation).  Whereas, shoehorning narrative situations is the
> way to begin a good narrative about the human condition, but not
> necessarily a good game.  Two examples of reinforce the
> misleading:

I am wary of identifying the mathematical field of game theory with
the entertainment field of game design; there are closely related,
yet not identical. One informs the other.

>> an online game set in a concentration camp, or an online game
>> where you live the role of a woman in colonial Williamsburg in
>> Virginia.

> Such a narrative, as a book or movie may portray the human
> condition.  But in the medium of a game, a variant of a Prisoner's
> Dilemma or Shubik's Dollar Auction (Poundstone
> <http://www.heretical.org/games/dollar.html>) applies, not
> narrative seeds.  While an online world offers broader scope than
> a game, loosely proposing these scenarios, as is, offers no help
> to design a good game within an online world.

Within the craft of the mechanics, which I agree shares much with
mathematics, certainly. But the *medium* of games, as it has come to
be commonly identified, is not solely mechanics.

> Shoehorning the principle of the movie, book, narrative, or other
> inapplicable medium onto the game perpetuates bad games.

This statement I must resist mightily. Pardon the lengthy digression
but I see it as necessary to emphasize my point.

Impressionism is not concerned with giving impressions, but rather
with a more distanced form of seeing, of mimesis. Modern image
processing tools describe the Impressionist formal process (and
indeed many of the later processes such as posterization-an
alteration of color and increase in contrast between color forms) as
filters-an accurate description in that Impressionist modes of
painting are depictions not of an object/a scene, but of the play of
light upon said object/scene. In such representations, what is is
being painted still must conform to all previously established rules
of composition-color weight, balance, golden section, vanishing
point, center of gravity, eye center, etc etc-while essentially
avoiding painting the object/scene, which ends up being absent from
the finished work.

"Impression: A Sunrise" is curious because it antedates
Impressionism, gave the movement its name, yet goes beyond what
Impressionism would come to be.  It is primarily an Abstract
Expressionist approach to representation, in that Abstract
Expressionism was concerned with form and color, mostly color.  The
painting, with its overpowering oranges and reds, conveys an
abstracted sunrise in the way that Mondrian's "New York" presents
that city...

Impressionist music was based primarily on repetition; its influence
on later minimalist styles is clear. However, where minimalism also
restricts its harmonic vocabulary, often to just a few essential
chords (tonic, dominant, subdominant, perhaps a few extensions or
substitutions thereof), Impressionist music as it has commonly come
to be characterized is essentially that of Debussy: intensely varied
in orchestration, extremely complex particularly in its chromatic
harmonies, and nonetheless very repetitive melodically. It is
worthwhile to note that Ravel's work as an orchestrator is perhaps
the epitome of said style: his "Bolero" consists of the same passage
played over and over, identical harmonically and melodically; it has
merely been orchestrated differently at each repetition, and the
dynamics are different. The sense of crescendo throughout the piece
is achieved precisely though this repetition.

And of course, there was "Impressionist" writing. Virginia Woolf,
Gertrude Stein, and many other writers worked with the idea that
characters are unknowable. Books like JACOB'S ROOM and THE
AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF ALICE B. TOKLAS play with the established notions
of self and work towards a realization that other people are
essentially unknowable. However, they also propose an alternate
notion of knowability: that of "negative space," whereby a form is
understood and its nature grasped by observing the perturbations
around it.  The term is from the world of pictorial art, which
provides many useful insights when discussing the problem of

All of these are organized around the same principles; that of
negative space, that of embellishing the space around a central
theme, of observing perturbations and reflections. There was a
zeitgeist, it is true, but there was also conscious borrowing from
art form to art form, and it occurs in large part because no art
form stands alone; they bleed into one another.

The mere titling of a piece of music lends it narrative context and
enriches it tremendously. Yes, it is possible to appreciate
works of Aaron Copland without their titles, as pure sound. But the
*sense* of them is carried in the interstices between the music and
the title. Just as the *sense* of a film is carried in the webbing
between the acting and the writing and the cinematography.

Other art forms have long recognized this; Welles' staging of
MACBETH as a Haitian tale of vodoun, for example, achieved by
selectively adjusting one of the component pieces of the art form.

All of which is by way of saying that you don't get to ignore the
prostitute you run over in GRAND THEFT AUTO 3. She's there. She may
be there because of the contributions of art or narrative or
whatever, as well as just being in bare mechanics something akin to
a power-up. But in experiencing the game, it takes, well, a game
critic to divorce her from the context in which she appears. And
frankly, game critique isn't even developed enough to give that
particular game object and interaction a name.

> While cross-training builds skill, a lot of knowledge carried over
> doesn't apply

Speaking as someone with perhaps more of this cross-training than is
strictly good for me, I have to disagree. But it may be because you
are defining things from that strict craft sense, whereas I am
coming at it from the point of view of the experience. And the
strict game experience cannot and SHOULD not be divorced from the
many other crafts that go into creating it. The experience is
greater than the sum of the parts, and it is what I regard as the
art form.

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