The Ludologist http://www.jesperjuul.net/ludologist My name is Jesper Juul, and I am a ludologist [Noun. Video Game Researcher]. This is my blog on game research and other important things. Thu, 30 Jul 2015 20:50:18 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.2.3 Tic Tac Toe and Conway’s Game of Life in Javascript http://www.jesperjuul.net/ludologist/tic-tac-toe-and-conways-game-of-life-in-javascript http://www.jesperjuul.net/ludologist/tic-tac-toe-and-conways-game-of-life-in-javascript#comments Thu, 30 Jul 2015 12:39:39 +0000 http://www.jesperjuul.net/ludologist/?p=2118

For the Half-Real website (10 years ago!) I made two example programs to support the book’s discussions: an implementation of Conway’s Game of Life and a Tic Tac Toe program that plays perfectly by simply going through all possible game states.

Time passes, and I can no longer count on browsers running the Java applets that I originally wrote the programs in. They never ran on tablets and mobile devices either. And I dislike websites with broken applets.

So I have rewritten them to work in JavaScript. They feel like they always did, except they launch faster – and run on mobile phones and tablet:

PS. Tech notes: I did this using GWT, which compiles Java code to JavaScript. The good news is that GWT really works and consistently converts all Java logic to JavaScript. The more complicated issues concern (as we may expect) that all UI calls are different, and especially that Java is Thread-based, but JavaScript is callback-based, so any program flow that relies on threads (as in my case) has to completely reworked.

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Why is Candy Crush addictive? http://www.jesperjuul.net/ludologist/why-is-candy-crush-addictive http://www.jesperjuul.net/ludologist/why-is-candy-crush-addictive#comments Wed, 17 Jun 2015 08:40:49 +0000 http://www.jesperjuul.net/ludologist/?p=2115

I have a few quips about that question in this Popular Science article.

The point I was trying to make was that a game like Candy Crush both:

a) has a set of inherent design features that concern how easy it is to learn, time pressure etc..

b) is also a cultural moment, meaning that it is popular in part because being popular makes the game spread to new players. I.e. it’s popularity cannot be predicted solely from the basis of the design.

Hence “Why is Candy Crush so popular” cannot be answered exclusively as a design question, but the design is still important.

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What is a Game redux http://www.jesperjuul.net/ludologist/what-is-a-game-redux http://www.jesperjuul.net/ludologist/what-is-a-game-redux#comments Wed, 10 Jun 2015 21:21:23 +0000 http://www.jesperjuul.net/ludologist/?p=2102

This is my fourteenth monthly Patch Wednesday post where I discuss a question about video games that I think is unanswered, unexplored, or not posed yet. I will propose my own tentative ideas and invite comments. 

The series is called Patch Wednesday to mark the sometimes ragtag and improvised character of video game studies.

What is a game?

One of the joys of having been around for a while in game studies is to see certain arguments repeatedly go in and out of fashion. It’s not as much cyclical (since we never quite return to a place we have been before), but rather that old arguments come back, donning new garb and meaning something somewhat different than they used to.

At the very good recent DiGRA conference in Lüneburg, many speakers stated how they were “not interested in definitions”. After initially trying to question that sentiment, I decided to rather note some of the recent history of game definitions. Please pardon the self-indulgence as I return to my own earlier work.

*

As you recall, Wittgenstein argued against trying to define games (or rather the German Spiel), saying that we should not look for an essential core, but see the myriad ways in which the word is used, only connected by family resemblances. Or rather: in common interpretations[1], games was just an example for Wittgenstein – what he criticizes is the attempt at looking for definitions in the first place, for any word. So Wittgenstein’s argument is not specific to games at all.

The thing, of course, is that Wittgenstein is not trying very hard to find any commonalities in the activities he is describing (board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games). At the very least, they do seem to be semi-repeatable activities performed by humans…

*

And then – certainly there is a general post-structuralist attitude common in the humanities and social sciences today, and which I was trained in myself. So when thinking about video games, it was interesting to try to make game definitions, in part because you are not supposed to!

In my 2013 paper The Game, the Player, the World: Looking for a Heart of Gameness I came up with what I called The Classic Game Model:

A game is a rule-based formal system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome, the player feels attached to the outcome, and the consequences of the activity are optional and negotiable.

It also came with an illustration, pointing to the “games” where we tend to disagree about whether or not they are games:

The Classic Game Model

What kind of definition?

I called this a definition, but what does that mean? It does not cover all possible uses for the word “game”, or even a (harder to define) preexisting notion of “game”. Philosopher Anil Gupta distinguishes between different types of definitions, let me mention three candidates[2]:

  • Stipulative: “imparts a meaning to the defined term, and involves no commitment that the assigned meaning agrees with prior uses (if any) of the term”.
  • Descriptive: “like stipulative ones, spell out meaning, but they also aim to be adequate to existing usage.”
  • Explicative: “An explication aims to respect some central uses of a term but is stipulative on others. The explication may be offered as an absolute improvement of an existing, imperfect concept. Or, it may be offered as a “good thing to mean” by the term in a specific context for a particular purpose.”

This explains it better than I could: my game definition is not about covering all existing usages (descriptive), but it is still invested in previous uses (not stipulative).

Hence, my definition is explicative: it is intended as an improvement over an existing concept, but doesn’t aim to replace or supersede existing or future uses. It is rather a definition for the particular purpose of identifying points of contention around games.

An open definition

It’s an explicative definition, but it is also open in two ways:

  • It is a “classic model”: it describes a model that was dominant a particular period in time, and this makes it useful for noticing when our conception of games By now, it seems clear that Sims and Sim City are games, but it wasn’t the case when they came out. Similarly, we can discuss why some people reject Proteus as a game.
  • The definition is open to disagreements about borderline cases (gambling, P&P RPG, open-ended simulations).

Definitions: Limiting or liberating?

As I said, I think we are in a general post-structural epoch wherein it is easy to think of definitions as limiting, or even dangerous. The latter view arguably comes in part from Foucault, usually cited for the argument that categorizations, definitions and labels by themselves are oppressive. For Foucault’s central examples of gender and sexual identity, this is quite convincing of course, but it’s a complex discussion outside my expertise.

*

For the definition of games, I think it’s important to note that games, like corporations, just aren’t people. Yet we can still have situations where the games of certain communities are excluded because they don’t fit a particular conception of games (some people feel this is happening with Twine games).

I think we also often gravitate to comparing the definition of art with the definition of game. In a 1956 paper on “The Role of Theory in Aesthetics”[3], Morris Weitz points out that many definitions of art are evaluative, such that it makes no sense to claim that, “This is a work of art and not  (aesthetically)  good”. I.e. the definition of art is often a definition of good art. Compare this to most game definitions, for which it would be perfectly possible to claim that something is a game, but a bad one.[4]

*

Having a definition of, say, a particular historical model of games does not force you to use it to prescribe what future “games” should be like. It’s the other way around: by pointing to our unstated expectations, we can identify ways to make something new. I often use this exercise with students: describe your expectations for games, video games, mobile games, free-to-play mobile games. Now try going through the expectations one by one and consider how to break them. Definitions are generative and productive.

*

I think the truth is that by putting forth definitions such as this one, it becomes possible to discuss all kinds of important things. We can discuss cultural expectations, change, we can we can point to new ways of making games, we can discuss historical controversies. By discussing definitions, it becomes straightforward to be explicit about conventions and criteria for inclusion/exclusion in something like game festivals. If we don’t talk about these things, we can easily end up maintaining unstated and limiting conceptions of games.

The question is not as much whether to have a definition, but what kind of definition, and what we are going to use the definition for.

Notes

[1] Anat Biletzki and Anat Matar, “Ludwig Wittgenstein,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, Spring 2014, 2014, http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2014/entries/wittgenstein/.

  [2] Anil Gupta, “Definitions,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, Summer 2015, 2015, http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2015/entries/definitions/.

[3] M. Weitz, “The Role of Theory in Aesthetics,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 1956, 27–35.

[4] The main exception is Sid Meier’s statement that “A game is a series of interesting choices”. This is a definition of a good game.

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The Aura of the Video Game Image http://www.jesperjuul.net/ludologist/the-aura-of-the-video-game-image http://www.jesperjuul.net/ludologist/the-aura-of-the-video-game-image#comments Wed, 15 Apr 2015 19:13:26 +0000 http://www.jesperjuul.net/ludologist/?p=2085

This is my thirteenth monthly Patch Wednesday post where I discuss a question about video games that I think is unanswered, unexplored, or not posed yet. I will propose my own tentative ideas and invite comments. 

The series is called Patch Wednesday to mark the sometimes ragtag and improvised character of video game studies.

I recently spoke at the What is an Image conference, April 9-10 2015 at the University of Copenhagen. I had the opportunity to think about what characterizes the on-screen images that we see in video games.

Space Invaders

The first point is that video games do not ship as sets of images, they are rather image generators.

For example, how many possible images can Space Invaders generate? Here is a low ballpark number: each alien can be either alive or dead. With 55 aliens, this is 2^55 possibilities. The ship can be in 200 positions. There can be 2 shots on the screen at a time (at 200 * 200 positions), hence 2^55 * 200 * (200*200) * (200*200)  =11,529,215,046,068,469,760,000,000,000 = 1.15e+28 possible positions (this is not counting UFOs, scores or shelters, and conversely not discounting shot order).

By comparison, there are only 10^22 stars in the universe, and Space Invaders can therefore generate at least a million different images for every star in the universe.

This has a number of implications. Consider how this has played out, especially in the last 10 years.

cod_aw

We have many games like Call of duty: Advanced Warfare, a military shooter promoted on the fact that it is a next-generation game, running on next generation consoles, offering new graphics and game options, only made possible by the new generation of consoles (“HARNESSES THE FIRST THREE-YEAR, ALL NEXT-GEN DEVELOPMENT CYCLE IN FRANCHISE HISTORY.”)

A game like this demonstrates a particular traditional way of evaluating video games, one that comes from the fact that video games are image generators.

In traditional mainstream and AAA advertising and reviews, the image on screen is seen as embodying the presence of the underlying technology. The played game is evaluated for its ability to utilize (say) the PlayStation 4 graphical abilities. With every new console generation, we have then launch games that are criticized because they do not fully utilize the new console’s abilities.

We can compare this to Walter Benjamin’s notion of aura in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, where he talks about mechanical reproduction as threatening the sense of authenticity and of the original. For video games it mostly makes no sense to talk of an original game, but with AAA games we may experience a sense of presence of the hardware while playing.

We can see the on-screen image as carrying an aura of underlying computation, of ongoing calculations, shaders, of the hardware. (And it literally comes from that, of course.) This is probably not what Benjamin would think of as an aura, but I think it is being treated as such in the press and in game culture. We can also read promo material and articles emphasizing that a particular screenshot, image, was made in-engine.

In short, modern big-budget video game images are evaluated not just in terms of which pixels are physically on the screen, but according to whether they were generated in real-time, using the game machine hardware.

A game, in this view, is seen as good if it makes the invisible architecture of the game machine visible. This was the dominant way of promoting video games for a while.

Independent Games

But let’s think about the counter-movement that is independent games. (I have written about indie games visuals in more detail here.) Here is the 2010 VVVVVV:

VVVVVV

VVVVVV embodies a common “indie” nostalgia, what I call a representation of a representation, where modern technology is used to emulate older low-tech visual styles. Independent games are sometimes promoted with an idea of going back to the beginnings of video game history, when games were made by one or two people, rather than by the giant 100-million dollar teams of top games these days. (And with VVVVVV there is a specific nostalgia for Spectrum/C64 games such as Manic Miner).

Compare then the 2010 VVVVVV to the actual 1983 Manic Miner:

Manic Miner

Though VVVVVV and Manic Miner are in many ways similar, the low-resolution graphics of Manic Miner were at the time understood to be a technological marvel; a demonstration of hardware abilities, and claiming the type of technological presence I talked about before with AAA games.

This shows how the very same video game images would be evaluated in entirely different ways in 1984 and in 2010. Whereas the 1984 version of a game would be a technological marvel, a contemporary game with identical on-screen pixels would be a revolt against the technology-centric way of evaluating video games.

This is the shift that independent games claim: to move away from the focus on the technology as provider of the images that we are playing with, to a focus on deliberate sampling of historical styles, and by doing so, toward evaluating a game and its images as having a personality that comes from its creator(s), to which we then have a personal connection.

We could then criticize this idea of the independent developer as being quite romantic, but that is another discussion.

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Game Research Methods book out (for download) http://www.jesperjuul.net/ludologist/game-research-methods-book-out-for-download http://www.jesperjuul.net/ludologist/game-research-methods-book-out-for-download#comments Wed, 08 Apr 2015 07:56:40 +0000 http://www.jesperjuul.net/ludologist/?p=2082
ETC Press is excited to announce the release of “Game Research Methods: An Overview,” by Petri Lankoski & Staffan Björk, et al.
Games are increasingly becoming the focus for research due to their cultural and economic impact on modern society. However, there are many different types of approaches and methods than can be applied to understanding games or those that play games. This book provides an introduction to various game research methods that are useful to students in all levels of higher education covering both quantitative, qualitative and mixed methods. In addition, approaches using game development for research is described. Each method is described in its own chapter by a researcher with practical experience of applying the method to topic of games. Through this, the book provides an overview of research methods that enable us to better our understanding on games.
For more information, and to purchase or download a copy, visit:

 

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Well played volume 4, number 1 http://www.jesperjuul.net/ludologist/well-played-volume-4-number-1 http://www.jesperjuul.net/ludologist/well-played-volume-4-number-1#comments Wed, 01 Apr 2015 18:30:37 +0000 http://www.jesperjuul.net/ludologist/?p=2080

For your theoretical pleasure:

ETC Press is excited to announce the release of the first issue of the fourth volume of
Well Played: a journal on video games, value and meaning, co-edited by Sean Duncan and Caro Williams
http://press.etc.cmu.edu/content/volume-4-number-1

PART ONE: DiGRA
Sean Duncan, Guest Editor

Where’s BattleTech in MechWarrior Online? A Case Study in Game Adaptation
Hans-Joachim Backe

One Click at a Time: Playing Porpentine’s howling dogs
Hanli Geyser

Cause No Trouble: The Experience of “Serious Fun” in Papers, Please
Oscar Moralde

Playing for the plot: Blindness, agency, and the appeal of narrative organization in Heavy Rain
Fanny A. Ramirez

Spore’s Playable Procedural Content Generation
Gillian Smith

PART TWO: Games Learning Society

Elder Scrolls Online: How ESO encourages group formation and cooperative play
Michelle Aubrecht, Jeff Kuhn, Justin Eames

Acting in the Light and on Fayth: Ritualized Play in Journey and Final Fantasy X
Kyrie Eleison H. Caldwell

Well Played & Well Watched: Dota 2, Spectatorship, and eSports
Chris Georgen

Magic the Gathering: A Learning Game Designer’s Perspective
Dan Norton

For the Records – Understanding Mental Illness Through Metaphorical Games
Doris C. Rusch

Gaming a Non-Game? A Long Term (Self)-Experiment about FarmVille
Heinrich Söbke

The Stanley Parable
Phil J. Dougherty III

*These essays were part of the Well Played Sessions at GLS 10, the 2014 Games+Learning+Society Conference in Madison, WI, as well as the Well Played Sessions at the 2014 DiGRA conference in Salt Lake City, UT.
http://www.glsconference.org/
http://www.digra.org/

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Safety in games, from Shakespeare to Plato to Play Theory http://www.jesperjuul.net/ludologist/safety-in-games http://www.jesperjuul.net/ludologist/safety-in-games#comments Wed, 11 Mar 2015 21:43:12 +0000 http://www.jesperjuul.net/ludologist/?p=2067

This is my twelfth monthly Patch Wednesday post where I discuss a question about video games that I think is unanswered, unexplored, or not posed yet. I will propose my own tentative ideas and invite comments. 

The series is called Patch Wednesday to mark the sometimes ragtag and improvised character of video game studies.

A modest observation, connecting Greek Mythology, Shakespeare, play theory and game definitions. I wrote this after learning that Brian Sutton-Smith had died, though he would have outlined a learned book in the same time I took.

*

In Chris Crawford’s game definition, the notion of Safety means that “a game is an artifice for providing the psychological experiences of conflict and danger while excluding their physical realizations“.

Going back to Roger Caillois’ definition, games (jeux) are unproductive – a similar (though not identical) observation.

These are two variations of one of the most basic, and most difficult observations about games, and play: the idea that play/games do not have the full weight or impact of regular non-game activities. Why is that? The strange thing is that we in a backwards way can find a similar consideration in Greek mythology. Consider when Plato lets a voice describe man as a plaything for the gods:

God is the natural and worthy object of our most serious and blessed endeavours, for man, as I said before, is made to be the plaything of God, and this, truly considered, is the best of him (Plato: Laws.)

Why would we be playthings of the gods? Gods are generally immune to human action, but what makes it play? Enter play theory. Gordon Burghardt’s The Genesis Animal Play: Testing the Limits (MIT Press 2005) lists 5 criteria for identifying play in animals (I am paraphrasing them here):

  1. The activity has limited immediate function.
  2. The activity has an endogenous component – it is voluntary and autotelic.
  3. The activity differs structurally and/or temporally from the “real” activity it is based on.
  4. Repeat performance.
  5. The activity happens in a relaxed field – the animal is not stressed or frightened.

Number 5 is the interesting one: for play to happen, the animal has to feel … we could call it safe. Which an immortal does in the presence of mortals.

This is also what makes the standard Hollywood villain scary: when he says “Let’s play a game”, he is saying that he considers himself above any potential consequences of the activity. I.e. he believes himself infinitely stronger than our protagonist and/or he is not afraid of death. It can also be found outside Hollywood, now that I think of it. James Bond villains tend to hubristically believe that they can play a game with James Bond.

Also Shakespeare, King Lear:

As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods.
They kill us for their sport.

In my own game definition, I used the softer idea of negotiable consequences. This idea points to the fact that gods can make bets about their playthings, but that those bets may have dire consequences for them. So it is entirely possible for two gods (we are probably polytheistic in this argument), to suffer consequences that are not quite safe, but it is a bet they must make between themselves in order to get outside safety.

*

On two occasions I heard Brian Sutton-Smith claim that play provides a modicum of joy in our pain-filled lives. Although that wasn’t meant as a definition of play, it is interesting by reversing the order of events: we aren’t safe, and therefore we play. Rather, play is the animal deliberately pretending to be safe, while play lasts.

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¿Qué es exactamente lo que hace que los videojuegos sean tan diferentes, tan atractivos? http://www.jesperjuul.net/ludologist/que-es-exactamente-lo-que-hace-que-los-videojuegos-sean-tan-diferentes-tan-atractivos http://www.jesperjuul.net/ludologist/que-es-exactamente-lo-que-hace-que-los-videojuegos-sean-tan-diferentes-tan-atractivos#comments Wed, 04 Mar 2015 14:42:52 +0000 http://www.jesperjuul.net/ludologist/?p=2064

¿Qué es exactamente lo que hace que los videojuegos sean tan diferentes, tan atractivos?

Spanish translation of my 2005 “Just what is it that makes computer games so different, so appealing?” article.

 

Translated by Mike Morell (Miguel Bernardo Olmedo Morell). Thanks!

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Games Studies 14/02 is out http://www.jesperjuul.net/ludologist/games-studies-1402-is-out http://www.jesperjuul.net/ludologist/games-studies-1402-is-out#comments Tue, 17 Feb 2015 13:13:29 +0000 http://www.jesperjuul.net/ludologist/?p=2059

For your theoretical pleasure, Game Studies 14/02.

Ability, Disability and Dead Space
by Diane Carr
How does the horror game Dead Space use the idea of disability? How are able bodies represented in the game? What is the relationship between disability as threat, and the various sensations and pleasures offered by the game? In this essay these questions are explored using textual analysis.

“Take That, Bitches!” Refiguring Lara Croft in Feminist Game Narratives
by Esther MacCallum-Stewart
Tomb Raider’s 2013 reboot enabled a re-consideration of Lara Croft and the gender politics of representing her. This paper re-evaluates Tomb Raider ten years after Game Studies first addressed it.

Battle on the Metric Front: Dispatches from Call of Duty’s Update War
by David Murphy
This article analyzes the controversy over a software update applied to Call of Duty: Black Ops II (Treyarch, 2013) using assemblage theory (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987). By combining information posted by players with a critical investigation of reward systems, the conflict is contextualized within a neoliberal climate of player/industry mistrust.

A Too-Coherent World: Game Studies and the Myth of “Narrative” Media
by Edward Wesp
This article revisits Jesper’ Juul’s oft-cited argument about video games’ “incoherent” fictional worlds to argue for a more open relationship between the study of video games and other media, based on the recognition that all media have complex relationships with the narratives and fictions they convey.

Book Reviews

De Koven’s “The Well-Played Game”by Gonzalo Frasca
The Well-Played Game. A Player’s Philosophy (2013) by Bernard De Koven. Cambridge. Mass.: MIT Press. ISBN: 9780262019170. 176 pp.
Review of Karlsen’s A World of Excesses: On-line Games and Excessive Playingby Joyce Goggin
A World of Excesses. Online Games and Excessive Playing (2013) by Faltin Karlsen. Farnham, UK: Ashgate. ISBN-13: 978-1409427636. 178 pp.[more]
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A brief History of Anti-Formalism in Video Games http://www.jesperjuul.net/ludologist/a-brief-history-of-anti-formalism-in-video-games http://www.jesperjuul.net/ludologist/a-brief-history-of-anti-formalism-in-video-games#comments Wed, 11 Feb 2015 20:31:49 +0000 http://www.jesperjuul.net/ludologist/?p=2036

This is my eleventh monthly Patch Wednesday post where I discuss a question about video games that I think is unanswered, unexplored, or not posed yet. I will propose my own tentative ideas and invite comments. 

The series is called Patch Wednesday to mark the sometimes ragtag and improvised character of video game studies.

The word formalism has resurfaced again in discussions around video games (here, here, here). This post is not specifically about that discussion, but I would like to use the moment to discuss the idea of formalism in video game studies.

First: Formalism, formalist and more specifically anti-formalism have appeared a number of times in discussions around video games, but with often contradictory meanings. With this post I am attempting to give an overview of the terms’ history in relation to video games.

tl;dr Formalism has no particular set meaning. Its only universal meaning is the derogatory function of denouncing someone as theoretically, morally or politically bankrupt. But there are many interesting discussions in the details.

Let us go through the history and number the anti-formalisms we meet. Warning: If you are not familiar with every discussion, this will be quite compact. I identify 8 variations of anti-formalism, the 7 of which relate to video games. Here is the list.

  • Formalism #1: Experiments are formalist. Don’t make experimental art – that would make you an enemy of the people
  • Formalism #2: Experiments are formalist. Form, experiments or aesthetics are anti-political (or anti-progressive)
  • Formalism #3: Experiments are formalist, and experiments are a way of fighting against oppression, and for letting marginalized voices speak
  • Formalism #4: Defining things is formalism, and formalism is a way of locking down video games to prevent experimentation
  • Formalism #5: Formalism = looking at game rules to the exclusion of looking at story, experience, meaning
  • Formalism #6: Formalism = assuming that game meaning comes exclusively from the game rules
  • Formalism #7: Formalism = looking at game design to the detriment of looking at players
  • Formalism #8: Formalism = game definitions as stifling + focusing too much on rules

Formalism #1: Experiments are formalist. Don’t make experimental art – that would make you an enemy of the people

The history of anti-formalism really starts with Shostakovich and the 1948 Khrennikov decree in the Soviet Union (I’ve written about it here), according to which composers should stop making formalist (i.e. experimental) music.

Khrennikov reported that people “all over the USSR” had “voted unanimously” to condemn the so-called formalists and let it be known that those named in the decree were now officially regarded as little better than traitors: “Enough of these pseudo-philosophic symphonies! Armed with clear party directives, we will stop all manifestations of formalism and decadence.”

“Formalist” and “formalism” in this case meant anything experimental, and anything non-sanctioned by the regime. Fun fact: Shostakovich wrote a piece called Anti-Formalist Rayok (text here) making fun of a committee meeting about stamping out formalism in music. “O let us love all that’s beautiful, charming, and elegant, let us love all that’s aesthetic, harmonious, melodious, legal, polyphonic, popular, and classical!”

This is the original variation of anti-formalist thought, and I think this is the one whose echoes we are still hearing. It is clear that we can divide this in to some subthreads, but this is the source of the baseline air of accusation that is present when someone denounces someone else as formalist.

It’s not much of a stretch to see the relation between Soviet-era anti-formalism and other types of conservative attempts at preventing art experimentation.

Formalism #2: Experiments are formalist. Form, experiments or aesthetics are anti-political (or anti-progressive)

This is a common extrapolation of formalism #1: don’t play around with form, just state your politics in a well-known format. Similarly, from a theoretical standpoint: don’t analyze form, just analyze politics (or lived experience).

In prescriptive variations, this can be perceived as quite stifling. Those who lived through 1970’s will often, regardless of their political persuasion, talk about how oppressive the atmosphere could be, with constant requirements that all aspects of culture should be subservient to dominant political ideas. I am not saying that this necessarily applies to the criticisms I just mentioned, but it is a mode of thinking that has been used to such ends.

Of course, there are particular stories concerning (for example) painting, where (it is usually said) formalist art criticism hailed abstract expression as the highest form of painting, thereby concretely focusing on form to the exclusion of other issues. Such as, say, representation, politics. (Ian Bogost also discusses the broader history of the term here.)

Formalism #3: Experiments are formalist, and experiments are a way of fighting against oppression, and for letting marginalized voices speak.

If we consider that the Khrennikov decree was written under Stalin, then anti-formalist thought can also be seen as a way of protecting the powers that be against ambiguity and new voices speaking. To me, this speaks to my discomfort that some committee, however nice, should decide what experiments we are or aren’t allowed to use.

Formalism #3 is therefore completely contradictory to formalism #2, because experiments in form are assigned a completely negative role in #2, but a positive role in #3.

I recently wrote about how magic realism was interpreted as a way of saying what could not be said in traditional novel form. Rushdie says:

El realismo magical, magic realism, at least as practised by Márquez, is a development out of Surrealism that expresses a genuinely ‘Third World’ consciousness.

The recent wave of Twine games is distinctly formalist in this sense: finding new form for games to express what cannot be expressed in traditional game form.

Formalism #4: Defining things is formalism, and formalism is a way of locking down video games to prevent experimentation

Here formalism/formalist are not used to describe particular works or creators, but are instead applied to theorists:

In the so-called “Zinesters vs. formalists” debate (summarized at the bottom of this post), some people, especially in the Twine community, felt that  their work was being excluded by formalists (mostly identified as Raph Koster) who were applying narrow definitions of what games are.

In the slightly different context of Jamin Brophy-Warren’s PBS show, I was also identified as a formalist (though not in a bad way) for having made a video game definition. This is a tad more subtle. “Formalist” may be a misnomer in this case, given that has an uncertain relation to any previous uses of the term.

As for the content of that discussion, I do think there is a distinction between is and aught: to identify historical cultural expectations for things called “games” (as I mostly do at least, hence the name “classic game model”) is very different from claiming that this should be used to evaluate or exclude experiments. I do also find that identifying expectations and conventions are a great way to generate new ideas and experiments. And I have a deep-seated hunger for game experiments.

The flip side of it is that nobody is really that aesthetically inclusive anyway: no “game” festival is going to include a word processor in the competition lineup, so isn’t it preferable to ask ourselves if we have criteria than to pretend that we don’t? (Writing this does make me consider whether you could make a mystery game that was basically a modified version of Libreoffice.)

Formalism #5: Formalism = looking at game rules to the exclusion of looking at story, experience, meaning

This is at least how I interpret Janet Murray’s 2005 DiGRA keynote (with its wonderful “mind of winter” metaphor):

According to the formalist view Tetris can only be understood as a abstract pattern of counters, rules, and player action, and the pattern means nothing beyond itself, and every game can be understood as if it were equally abstract. … To be a games scholar of this school you must have what American poet Wallace Stevens called  “a mind of winter” ; you must be able to look at highly emotive, narrative, semiotically charged objects and see only their abstract game function.

Again, formalists are theorists, and in this case they emphasize rules structures to the exclusion of everything else.

Note that ludology and narratology are equally formalist according to some views (se #7 below).

Formalism #6: Formalism = assuming that game meaning comes exclusively from the game rules

This is what Miguel Sicart goes up against in Against Procedurality: the idea that game meaning comes exclusively from game rules (rather than from graphics, story etc..), and in a completely deterministic way.

Formalism #7: Formalism = looking at game design to the detriment of looking at players

TL Taylor recently tweeted a series of quotes from what she considers criticisms of formalist video game theory, let me cite a few:

(written by John Dovey and Helen Kennedy in 2006) “As already indicated, these ‘rules’ shape and structure our experience of a game to a greater or lesser degree, but they do not inevitably determine our whole experience. […] These kinds of activity and experience [cheating and mods] cannot adequately be accounted for by a reliance solely on structural or formalistic accounts of games.”

(Jenny Sunden in 2009) “The tension between these two directions in game studies, between games as mechanical-aesthetic objects and games as social practices, echoes the kind of friction between ‘playing the game’ and ‘being played by the game’ characteristic of any act of game play.”

(TL herself): Running nearly parallel to the familiar track of the classic narratology/ludology framing has been scholarship that sought to understand actual players and their everyday practices, as well as research that considered broader structural contexts and histories at work in the construction of play.

(Mia Consalvo in 2009) “What if, rather than relying on structuralist definitions of what is a game, we view a game as a contextual, dynamic activity, which players must engage with for meaning to be made. Furthermore, it is only through that engagement that the game is made to mean”

As you can see, the criticism does not concern rules or definitions as such, but rather the assumption that game design is able to determine actual use by players. Formalism here therefore is a shorthand for focus on game design, including as story, graphics etc…

The difference between #5 and #7 is that #5 promotes the interpretive tools of the humanities, while #7 promotes a social science perspective.

Formalism #8: Formalism = game definitions as stifling + focusing too much on rules

Which brings us to the present day. I see the current discussion (here, here, here) as being a combination of Formalism #4 (game definitions as stifling) and Formalism #5 (focusing too much on rules). This is one of the reasons why it has been a confusing discussion: different things were meant when people said “formalism”.

Conclusion: Which formalism is right for you?

Short answer: none. It’s a term with many contradictory meanings and lots of bad historical baggage. It’s also not conducive to discussion.

Here are some names for the fallacies we are often guilty of in these discussions.

  • You are x. This is probably not as conducive to discussions as “is it possible that you are overemphasizing x“?
  • Generalization by point sample: generalization made explicitly without considering whether it is true, i.e. saying that “a excludes looking at b” even though there is a chapter on b immediately following the chapter on a.
  • Graduate luck: The amazing stroke of luck when your graduate studies just happen to be in the theoretical tradition that is superior to all the others. (We have all been there.)
  • Exclusion by proxy: arguing that a perspective you dislike is exclusionary of other perspectives and therefore has to be excluded.

 

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