The Aura of the Video Game Image

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.


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 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.

Game Research Methods book out (for download)

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:


Well played volume 4, number 1

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

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.

Safety in games, from Shakespeare to Plato to Play Theory

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.

Games Studies 14/02 is out

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]

A brief History of Anti-Formalism in Video Games

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.


When Books track your Behavior (just like Games do)

From the across-media department, I find it interesting that readers and writers now worry about their reading behavior being tracked by their e-readers, as this New York Times article attests.


It’s interesting because we are by now completely used to this in games. Did we give in too easily?

I have even used user statistics to argue that games were too long, but this kind of tracking can also be seen as a dystopian future for books:

But not everyone in the literary community sees the ability to track reader engagement as a good thing. Francine Prose, writing in the New York Review of Books, imagined a not-too-distant future in which “writers (and their editors) could soon be facing meetings in which the marketing department informs them that 82 percent of readers lost interest in their memoir on page 272. And if they want to be published in the future, whatever happens on that page should never be repeated.”

Yet this describes what game development is already like in the present day, with extensive use of user testing for determining which levels to cut, edit, shorten etc…

Does this mean that we are framing video games too much as products, and too little as expressive artifacts?