Common practice periods: When games are stable

This is my eighth 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.

It is easy, and probably common, to think of video game history as a series of innovations that propel video games “forward”, allowing for new experiences and expressions. (Not that anyone has written such a history in any significant detail.)

But what about in between? There are periods of time where, as I like to say, we know what video games are.

Four voices
When I took music classes in high school, I learned to do 4-voice arrangements of church hymns according a set of rules for harmony and voicing. Though it has later come in handy in weird ways, I can’t say that I appreciated learning those rules at the time, as it was rules about music that I did not care much for in the first place. In music theory, what I learned relates to the common practice period, ca 1600-1900, which is considered a stable period with certain rules about harmony, well-known chords and so on. One of the famous rules of the period is that two voices/instruments cannot follow each other in octave or fifth intervals. This was strange to me as I listened to much music, say Led Zeppelin, which often has the bass and the guitar playing riffs in unison.

I think I would have appreciated the lessons much more if I’d understood that the rules were a description of a particular musical style, and that all musical styles have sets of rules for what can and cannot be done.

Common practice periods in video games
And so it seems that video games have similar “common practice periods”, where video games, or at least certain video game genres, follow a set of rules. For example, the shooter genre is still in a common practice period where we expect a new game to contain both a single and multiplayer game, with the single-player game lasting between 10 and 30 hours for story-heavy games, and <10 hours for multiplayer-focused games. In addition, we expect such games to be promoted on ever “better” graphics, allow us to shoot firearms, collect more of them, manage ammunition, and so on.

In a bigger perspective, another common period was from 1980 to 2005 where we knew that video games were sold in boxes, aimed at a particular demographic, and (also) promoted on “better” graphics.

Does it follow that changing distribution models have bigger influence on the stability of game design than technology does?

And we can keep zooming out: When I was writing my game definition I dealt with the issue of change by not claiming that I had defined everything called games for all time, but rather that I was identifying a particular “classic game model” that had been dominant for several thousand years.

Institutions behind common practice
Going back to music, periods of stability may often have some institutionalized codification where rules are followed not only by observation, but may be explicitly taught to practitioners, and sometimes enforced. Video game educations and game design books can then also serve to define and maintain a period of common practice, though I suspect that many contemporary video game educations are more fascinated with breaking the rules than with maintaining them. Though that can become a type of common practice by itself, a “tyranny of pixelated platformers”.

That would be another type of history to write, one where we examine what it was that made certain periods of video game history so stable.

Surveillance, Gaming and Play special issue

Special issue of Surveillance & Society on Surveillance, Gaming and Play.

Surveillance, Gaming and Play

edited by Jennifer R. Whitson and Bart Simon

Table of Contents


Game Studies meets Surveillance Studies at the Edge of Digital Culture: An Introduction to a special issue on Surveillance, Games and Play PDF
Jennifer R. Whitson, Bart Simon 309-319


Surveillant Assemblages of Governance in Massively Multiplayer Online Games: A Comparative Analysis PDF
Aphra Kerr, Stefano De Paoli, Max Keatinge 320-336
Surveillance and Community: Language Policing and Empowerment in a World of Warcraft Guild PDF
Lauren B. Collister 337-348
Getting Played: Gamification and the Rise of Algorithmic Surveillance PDF
Casey O’Donnell 349-359
Games of Drones: The Uneasy Future of the Soldier-Hero in Call of Duty: Black Ops II PDF
Carrie Elizabeth Andersen 360-376
Creative Misuse as Resistance: Surveillance, Mobile Technologies, and Locative Games PDF
Jason Farman 377-388
The Gift that Keeps on Giving: Google, Ingress, and the Gift of Surveillance PDF
Nathan Hulsey, Joshua Reeves 389-400
‘I had no credit to ring you back': Children’s strategies of negotiation and resistance to parental surveillance via mobile phones PDF
Carol Margaret Barron 401-413
Gaming Privacy: a Canadian case study of a children’s co-created privacy literacy game PDF
Kate Raynes-Goldie, Matthew Allen 414-426


Enclosures at Play: Surveillance in the Code and Culture of Videogames PDF
Alex Dean Cybulski 427-432
Reporting From the Snooping Trenches: Changes in Attitudes and Perceptions Towards Behavior Tracking in Digital Games PDF
Alessandro Canossa 433-436
Watching Us Play: Postures and Platforms of Live Streaming PDF
Austin Walker 437-442
Diverting and diverted glances at cameras: playful and tactical approaches to surveillance studies PDF
Justine Gangneux 443-447

Research Notes

Playdates with Big Brother: Playfully Repurposing Surveillance Cameras to Build Communities PDF
Holly Robbins, Katherine Isbister 448-458

Artistic Presentations

Surveillance Chess PDF
!Mediengruppe Bitnik 459-465

Book Reviews

Review of Björklund and Svenonius’ Video Surveillance and Social Control in a Comparative Perspective PDF
Catarina Frois 466-467
Review of Lianos’ The New Social Control: The Institutional Web, Normativity and the Social Bond PDF
William G. Staples 468-470

Are Game Experiments Apolitical? Avant-garde and Magic Realism.

This is my seventh 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.


Here is a figure from Brian Schrank’s interesting new book Avant-garde Videogames. In the book, Schrank discusses various types of art-world avant-garde, and examines how they correspond to experimental video games.

Schrank structures the discussion around two axes of radical-complicit and political-formal. (I am personally placed in the bottom-right mainstream formal and complicit quadrant, but that’s OK.) He acknowledges the simplicity of this model and has many nuanced points and observations.

But let me just look at the political-formal axis. It represents video games, and art, such that a video game is either political or it is a formal experiment. Art historians can talk about this question at great length, but it is certainly an idea that was also expressed in 1940’ies denunciations of experimental, formalist, art. In that case, a powerful political entity felt threatened by experimental art and therefore decreed that artists should simply stop experimenting and rather only express established ideas in well-known form. And of course, the well-worn argument about art for art’s sake – that art should be judged on its own terms outside politics – sets up a similar opposition between the political and the formal experiment.

But is this really what we see in video games? Consider any of the high-profile political video game such as Howling Dogs, Dys4ia, Unmanned, September 12th, Cart LifeAll of these games are highly experimental in form and political. In fact, it is clear that their political messages are expressed through their experimental form. And it seems the formal-political distinction breaks down in most of the obvious examples of political video games.

Fortunately, there is an alternative view which has much more explanatory power. Here is Salman Rushdie reviewing Gabriel Garcia Márquez’ novel Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Rushdie says that magical realism (where supernatural events naturally happen in seemingly realist settings) is a way of expressing experiences that cannot be expressed through established more forms such as plain naturalism. The formal experiment is necessary in order to express political ideas and overlooked experienced:

El realismo magical, magic realism, at least as practised by Márquez, is a development out of Surrealism that expresses a genuinely ‘Third World’ consciousness. It deals with what Naipaul has called ‘half-made’ societies, in which the impossibly old struggles against the appallingly new, in which public corruptions and private anguishes are somehow more garish and extreme than they ever get in the so-called ‘North’, where centuries of wealth and power have formed thick layers over the surface of what’s really going on. In the works of Márquez, as in the world he describes, impossible things happen constantly, and quite plausibly, out in the open under the midday sun. (Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands)

This, I think, is a more convincing way of seeing the issue. New and experimental literary forms are necessary because they are the only way to express complex and hitherto unexpressed experiences. Political video games are also formal experiments in game design because this is the only way to express new and radical ideas. There is no opposition between the political and the formal experiment. Fortunately, for think how drab the world would be otherwise.


PS. And this is not a criticism of Schrank’s very useful book. It’s just a discussion of a particular view on the relation between formal experiment and political expression.

Game Studies 14/01 is out

Game Studies: The International Journal of Computer Game Research has just published its latest issue (Volume 14, Issue 1, July 2014).


Game Definitions: A Wittgensteinian Approach

by Jonne Arjoranta

This article looks at how games have been constantly redefined in game studies without reaching an agreement. It is argued that such an agreement is not necessary, and a Wittgensteinian approach to game definitions is preferable. This approach sees the cycle of redefinition as a hermeneutic circle that advances the understanding of games.

The Heuristic Circle of Real-Time Strategy Process: A StarCraft: Brood War Case Study

by Simon Dor

The heuristic circle of real-time strategy process is a summary of key ideas about the cognitive and perceptive processes in StarCraft competitive play. It describes the way strategy in the game relies on the inference of three levels of game states and on the use of three kind of strategic plans at the same time.

Magic Nodes and Proleptic Warfare in the Multiplayer Component of Battlefield 3

by Johan Höglund

This article explores the construction of ludic spaces in the multiplayer map Grand Bazaar in Battlefield 3. It observes that this map constitutes a “magic node” that encircles a ludic space where only certain activities are possible. It concludes that the map Grand Bazaar represents a civilian Middle-Eastern locale as a permanent battleground.

Bioshock: Complex and Alternate Histories

by Ryan Lizardi

This article performs a close reading on the Bioshock series and determines that it encourages a comparative and contemplative look at the historical, cultivated through counterfactual and alternative experiences of accepted histories and reinforced through both ludic and narrative elements.

A Practiced Practice: Speedrunning Through Space With de Certeau and Virilio

by Rainforest Scully-Blaker

Through a discussion of Michel de Certeau and Paul Virilio, this article puts forth a language to discuss speedrunning, the practice of beating a game as fast as possible without cheating, as it relates to games as spatial narratives. A new set of terms for discussing game rules as they relate to speedruns is also applied to the analysis.

Play and Possibility in the Rhetoric of the War on Terror: The Structure of Agency in Halo 2

by Gerald Voorhees

This essay contends that Halo 2 helps attitudinally position players in relation to the War on Terror. It considers a range of possible, potentially-overlapping affective responses to Halo 2, foregrounding both the rhetorical efficacy of digital games and the player’s agency to determine their rhetorical effect.

Book Reviews

Sound in a Participatory Culture
by Kristine Jørgensen

Playing with Sound. A Theory of Interaction with Sound and Music in Video Games. (2013) by Karen Collins. Cambridge. Mass.: MIT Press. ISBN: 9780262312288 .

Play Redux is Solo-Play

by Hanna Wirman

Play Redux: The Form of Computer Games. (2010) by David Myers. University of Michigan Press. ISBN: 978-0472050925

The Impostor Syndrome in Video Games

This is my sixth 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.

You pick up a video game, and everything about it is just right, the fiction, the subtle variations on existing game designs, the controls. The game is a perfect match to what you think of as your very own and somewhat sophisticated taste. But something refuses to click. You are not feeling it.

This happens to me at regular intervals. For example, I think I value tight, replayable, logical, small playfield and spatial games, but I do not enjoy Threes at all. Something must be wrong with the game.

In 2010, Jason Mittell wrote a thoughtful essay on disliking Mad Men. He describes how everything seems to be stacked in favor of the show being able to win over Jason:

Mad Men is lodged squarely within my habitus: along with other cable series from channels like HBO, Showtime and FX, it’s part of the wave of “quality television” serial dramas that has raised the medium’s cultural value in the 2000s (as Lynne Joyrich discusses in this volume), and served as the object of much of my own scholarly research and personal fandom over the decade (see Mittell 2006). The show is steeped in cultural references that resonate with my own background as a media scholar, flattering my otherwise esoteric knowledge of U.S. advertising and media history. Nearly every television scholar and critic with whom I interact loves the show.

He then analyzes particular traits of the show that he finds off-putting such as the unpleasantly sexist male characters, low emphasis on empathy.

Elsewhere, Oliver Sacks and Vilayanur S. Ramachandran talk about the Capgras Delusion, where a patient is convinced that all their relatives and loved ones, even dogs, have been replaced by impostors who, the patient admits, look and act like the relative, but at the same time certainly is not that person.

Capgras syndrome is often related to brain injury, and a common interpretation is that while the patient was able to recognize faces as usual, they were unable to experience the emotional arousal that we usually experience in relation to familiar faces. Hence the experience that a person is an impostor – he or she looks like the real relative, but does not feel like the relative. The patient is not feeling it, and the relative appears alien for that very reason.

The impostor syndrome in video games

Video games: and this provides a different description of the impostor syndrome in video games (and television). We often approach a video game or some other work that ticks off all the boxes on our personal lists. We may even be invested in the aesthetic criteria on our personal list. And yet, we do not feel what we think we should be feeling. We rationally recognize the game, but our emotions fail to follow suit.

We may then send ourselves hunting for explanations, showing that the game we are playing will in some way fail to satisfy our criteria for what a good game is. This is not to discount Mittell’s discussion of Mad Men, but to point out that we often want our articulated tastes to be able to capture what we subjectively and emotionally enjoy. Whenever we feel that a particular work is an impostor, this is an incentive to find flaws in the work (the flaws may actually be there but the impetus comes from a mismatch between articulated taste and emotional response).

There are then two impostor syndromes here:

  1. When we think of a game (or other work) as an impostor that only on the surface pretends to be a genuinely important work.
  2. That we may feel like impostors ourselves. In this case, we are closer to the common meaning of “impostor syndrome” in that we may think that we are only pretending to understand what makes a game, TV show, or art work truly valuable. Yet we failed to have the genuine emotional response what we are supposed to have as true connoisseurs. We may feel that we are frauds, hoping not to be found out.

For Threes, I have been arguing for myself that I dislike Threes because I dislike the introduction of new tiles in the playfield, but is that really it? It is likely that we can never fully account for even our own tastes. We will continue to experience impostors.

New paper: High-tech Low-tech Authenticity: The Creation of Independent Style at the Independent Games Festival.

I have posted a new paper, High-tech Low-tech Authenticity: The Creation of Independent Style at the Independent Games Festival.

In which I study the history of visual style in Independent Games. I look particularly at the Grand Prize winners of the Independent Games Festival (IGF) from 2000-2014. I argue that what I call Independent Style is a “representation of a representation”, using contemporary technology to emulate earlier, simpler types of representation. Examples include pixel style graphics, games made with crayons, paper, paint etc…

Interestingly, the 2000-2004 winners do not look like the style we would associate with Independent Games today. Consider Tread Marks, winner at the first IGF.

Year Name Screenshot Visual style Theme / gameplay
2000 Tread Marks 8 3d Tank battle

It is then from 2005 (with Gish) and on that the Independent Style we have come to know begins to dominate the IGF. In the paper I argue that this coincides with an increased focus on non-physical distribution as well as self-publishing.

I also claim that this Independent Style (which is the style by which we recognize independent games) is meant to signal that a small-budget production is small-budget by choice and that small-budget development has a particular authenticity and honesty.

And I also discuss the Arts and Crafts movement, texture settings in Unity, locavore food, Jeff Koons and fake wood.

All comments are welcome!

The paper was presented at the recent Foundations of Digital Games conference.