Are you a Narrative or a non-Narrative?

Somewhat tangentially (but tied to the type of pan-narrativism that I used to go up against when writing about games), there is an ongoing discussion about whether we constitute our identities through narratives what we make about ourselves, or not.

Galen Strawson covers it well, The Dangerous Idea that Life is a Story. Here is Jeremy Bruner quoted:

In the end, we become the autobiographical narratives by which we “tell about” our lives”.

Strawson argues that it may well be that many people really do conceive their lives as having narrative form, episodes, arcs, but that this is not universal.

I think it’s false – false that everyone stories themselves, and false that it’s always a good thing. These are not universal human truths – even when we confine our attention to human beings who count as psychologically normal, as I will here. They’re not universal human truths even if they’re true of some people, or even many, or most. The narrativists are, at best, generalising from their own case, in an all-too-human way. At best: I doubt that what they say is an accurate description even of themselves.

[…] it does seem that there are some deeply Narrative types among us, where to be Narrative with a capital ‘N’ is (here I offer a definition) to be naturally disposed to experience or conceive of one’s life, one’s existence in time, oneself, in a narrative way, as having the form of a story, or perhaps a collection of stories, and – in some manner – to live in and through this conception. The popularity of the narrativist view is prima facie evidence that there are such people.

Perhaps. But many of us aren’t Narrative in this sense. We’re naturally – deeply – non-Narrative. We’re anti-Narrative by fundamental constitution. It’s not just that the deliverances of memory are, for us, hopelessly piecemeal and disordered, even when we’re trying to remember a temporally extended sequence of events. The point is more general. It concerns all parts of life, life’s ‘great shambles’, in the American novelist Henry James’s expression. This seems a much better characterisation of the large-scale structure of human existence as we find it. Life simply never assumes a story-like shape for us. And neither, from a moral point of view, should it.

Are you the narrative type? I am not. I have already been an avid reader of novels, but never conceived my own life that way.

Video Games and Insightful Gameplay: Special Issue of COMPASO

The Journal of Comparative Research in Anthropology and Sociology has a new special issue on Video games and insightful gameplay, guest edited by Doris Rusch.

Journal of Comparative Research in Anthropology and Sociology
ISSN 2068 – 0317
Special issue: 
Video games and insightful gameplay
Volume 6, Number 1

Guest Editor: Doris C. Rusch


Doris C. Rusch / Video games and insightful gameplay
[Full text / pdf]

Research articles – Special issue on Video Games and Insightful Gameplay
Matt Bouchard / Playing with progression, immersion, and sociality: Developing a framework for studying meaning in APPMMAGs, a case study
[Abstract]          [Full text / pdf]

Ioana Cărtărescu-Petrică / Those who play together stay together. A study of the World of Warcraft community of play and practice
[Abstract]          [Full text / pdf]

Joanna Cuttell / Arguing for an immersive method: Reflexive meaning-making, the visible researcher, and moral responses to gameplay
[Abstract]          [Full text / pdf]

Daniel de Vasconcelos Guimarães / Apocalyptic souls: the existential (anti) hero metaphor in the Metal Gear Solid: Snake Eater, Peace Walker and Ground Zeroes games
[Abstract]          [Full text / pdf]

Mikhail Fiadotau / Paratext and meaning-making in indie games
[Abstract]          [Full text / pdf]

Sonja Gabriel / Serious games – How do they try to make players think about immigration issues? An overview
[Abstract]          [Full text / pdf]

Enrico Gandolfi / Once upon a bit: Ludic identities in Italy, from militant nostalgia to frivolous divertissement
[Abstract]          [Full text / pdf]

Kishonna Gray & Wanju Huang / More than addiction: Examining the role of anonymity, endless narrative, and socialization in prolonged gaming and instant messaging practices
[Abstract]          [Full text / pdf]

Scott Hughes / Get real: Narrative and gameplay in The Last of us
[Abstract]          [Full text / pdf]

Youn Jung Huh / Making sense of gender from digital game play in three-year-old children’s everyday lives: An ethnographic case study
[Abstract]          [Full text / pdf]

Xeniya Kondrat / Gender and video games: How is female gender generally represented in various genres of video games?
[Abstract]          [Full text / pdf]

Alina Petra Marinescu-Nenciu / Collaborative learning through art games. Reflecting on corporate life with ‘Every Day the Same Dream’
[Abstract]          [Full text / pdf]

Elisabeta Toma / Self-reflection and morality in critical games. Who is to be blamed for war?
[Abstract]          [Full text / pdf]

Max Watson / A medley of meanings: Insights from an instance of gameplay in League of Legends
[Abstract]          [Full text / pdf]


Other research articles
Yitzhak Alfasi, Moshe Levy & Yair Galily / Israeli football as an arena for post-colonial struggle: The case of Beitar Jerusalem FC
[Abstract]          [Full text / pdf]

Gautam Ghosh / An ‘infiltration’ of time? Hindu Chauvinism and Bangladeshi migration in/to Kolkata, India
[Abstract]          [Full text / pdf]

Adediran Daniel Ikuomola / An exploration of life experiences of left behind wives in Edo State, Nigeria
[Abstract]          [Full text / pdf]

Andra Jacob / Migrant’s houses as places and objects of cultural consumption and status display
[Abstract]          [Full text / pdf]

Book reviews
Alin Constantin /Book review – Roland Cvetkovski & Alexis Hofmeister, An Empire of Others: Creating Ethnographic Knowledge in Imperial Russia and the USSR, Central European University Press, Budapest, 2014.
[Full text / pdf]

Amazon: Terrors of the Gamified Workplace

You probably heard about the New York Times exposé on work practices at Amazon, where a constant chatter of metrics monitor employees. Yes, this is gamification in practice.

Many horror stories about a complete disrespect for the life part of the work/life equation.

But there also is a simple design problem inside: The Anytime Feedback Tool apparently allows employees to comment on the performance of colleagues without their own identities being revealed to the target of the comment. Combine this with stack ranking, where every group has to rate somone in the group as lowest performing, with potential for being let go.

As I discuss in The Art of Failure, we have to ask ourselves what the ideal strategy of an employee is in this situation? The simple answer is that it is likely much easier to back stab a colleague with the Anytime Feedback Tool, thus dropping them in the ranking, than it is to genuinely improve your own performance. It is plain game design: is there a degenerate strategy? Yes, there is. It will be used. Water will find a crack.


On top of that, Jeff Bezos’ rebuttal is that this “doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day.”

This more or less proves the article right: When managers or CEOs say that they don’t recognize the negative experience of the employees it means either that:

  • a) the company is organized such that the CEO will never hear about the negative experiences of the employees, or
  • b) the CEO is unwilling to hear about them.

Most likely both, with a) being the results of b)

The danger of metrics, and gamification, is that it insulates you from what is going on because you only receive the data you have chosen to receive. There is no substitute for listening to people.

Tic Tac Toe and Conway’s Game of Life in Javascript

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.

Why is Candy Crush addictive?

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.

What is a Game redux

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.


[1] Anat Biletzki and Anat Matar, “Ludwig Wittgenstein,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, Spring 2014, 2014,

  [2] Anil Gupta, “Definitions,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, Summer 2015, 2015,

[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.