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Brian Upton
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Ouch. I fell down the stairs with my son just the same way when he was a baby. Fortunately ours were carpeted. He's 15 now and could probably carry me down the stairs if he had to. Hope you feel better.
Toggle Commented Aug 29, 2012 on Falling Down the Stairs at ihobo
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A lot of thinking about games is grounded in the idea that games are fundamentally interactive. This idea has very deep roots. The fact that that it's embedded in the names of some of our institutions -- "The Interactive Achievement Awards", for example -- show how thoroughly internalized this aesthetic has become. The thing is, I think our critical assumptions about interactivity often warp our ability to understand place spaces. A lot of times, the interesting part of a play experience involves long contemplative chains. The interactive bit is limited to a minor bit of business to keep the contemplative play ticking along. When I was designing tactical shooters we'd often create levels with safe observation points, locations where the player could pause and observe and think about what lay ahead and what he was going to do. The play that took place at these moments wasn't interactive, but it was definitely engaging. When a play space is packed with lots of immediate opportunities to act (or interact) there's no room left for contemplative play. The cognitive load is too great. If you're always worrying about tactics, there's no room to think about strategy, or more importantly, meaning. That's what I think is so interesting about Dear Esther. By stripping out the tactical challenges entirely, it creates a space where there's room for long loops of contemplative play. There's room to think about what you're doing and why you're doing it and what it means and how it relates to your life.
Toggle Commented Jul 11, 2012 on The Thin Play of Dear Esther at ihobo
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Oh my. Perhaps it's different in the UK, but in the US there isn't a sizable group of liberals arguing that marriage as an institution is obsolete or unnecessary. Among the progressive circles I travel in its generally accepted that its convenient and useful for government to offer a standardized package of rights and responsibilities for two people who are merging their lives. Whether you're married or not makes a big difference in terms of taxes, insurance, parental rights, inheritance, power of attorney, etc. The push for gay marriage has come because of actual cases of real harm to gay couples who have not been allowed to participate in this standard package of rights and responsibilities. People who have not been allowed to make medical decisions for their partners, for example, or who have been denied contact with children they raised. Religions can do whatever they want. They can offer or deny commitment ceremonies to whoever they want. But real marriage is a legal contract enforced by the state. You're married in the eyes of general society if and only if you have a state-approved marriage license, regardless of what incantations some priest performs. And so, to avoid real injustices that have occurred in the past, it is important for homosexuals to be allowed to secure the protections of state-sponsored marriage. This argument is actually working pretty well in the States. Year by year polls show support for gay marriage increasing and opposition decreasing. Partially this seems to be because the opposition has be unable to marshal any argument other than "God says gays are icky", which even in a God-besotted country like the United States doesn't seem to carry much weight compared to "Yeah, but that guy over there wasn't allowed to visit his dying partner in the hospital."
Toggle Commented Jul 10, 2012 on Unmarriage at Only a Game
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Chris, here's are two hypothetical questions: If you could perform a different, less repetitively task to achieve the same reward as the grind, would you choose that instead? And if there was no reward, would you ever grind just for fun? When I say, "no one enjoys grinding" I don't mean that there's no pleasure in the totality of the experience, but rather that there's no enjoyment in the moment-to-moment performance of the mechanic. Grinding occurs when a mechanic that is dull by itself is made palatable only because of the construction of a framework of imagined reward. So I suppose that, actually, I'm expressing a tautology. I'm defining "grinding" in such a way that it's impossible for someone to say they enjoy it ... .
Toggle Commented Jul 7, 2012 on Does Overjustification Hurt Games? at ihobo
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When I design trophy sets I try to make them cut across the grain of the main game. I try to make them easy but unexpected: "Here's a different way to play. Try playing the game in order to accomplish THIS and see how it feels." I tell myself that this approach is better than the "collect 100 butterfly wings" sort of achievements, but considering the research you cited, it might not make much of a difference. I think what you've posted gets right to the heart of what I hate about gamification. Yes, as designers we can use the Skinner box approach to coax players into grinding: Keep killing kobolds and occasionally one will drop something epic! But such experiences aren't very fun. We may feel a compulsion to engage in them, but that doesn't mean that we enjoy them. I've never heard anyone say they enjoy grinding. They just see it as a necessary evil to get the piece of candy at the end. A good play experience is one where the act of playing is itself enjoyable. The moment-to-moment actions are structured to be fun in and of themselves, not because they're steps toward an arbitrary goal. I've never seen any gamification pitch that actually touched on real game design -- how to structure an experience so that it's entertaining in and of itself. (Probably because that sort of restructuring with most real-world tasks is very, very hard.) Instead gamification take one tangential aspect of games (grinding toward a goal) and uses it as a solution for everything.
Toggle Commented Jul 5, 2012 on Does Overjustification Hurt Games? at ihobo
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I suspect that Huizinga's play aesthetic drifted during the course of writing Homo Ludens. In the first chapter he writes: "“Summing up the formal characteristics of play we might call it a free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious,’ but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it.” That seems to place him pretty firmly in the "play is non-productive" camp. However, his actual analysis of play in culture later in the book runs counter to this definition. My reading of Huizinga is that he worked out his definition of play without fully considering its implications for his larger thesis. With theatrical play I think it's important to distinguish the experience of the audience from the experience of the performers. Both present opportunities for play, but radically different kinds. The primary goal of a performer is to structure an experience for the audience. Professional performers don't usually pursue performance as an end unto itself, but rather as a means to this end. Older schools of acting in particular emphasized rigid discipline on stage. A performance was not to be approached like a game of make-believe, but as a highly-skilled rote recital. It's hard to see this kind of performance as a playful activity. However the various "method" schools emphasize a more organic approach. The goal is not to work out every nuance of the performance in advance and flawlessly execute it, but rather to treat each performance as fresh exploration of the character. This often requires the actor to play the role as an end unto itself, rather than for the benefit of the audience. THis can result in the adoption of a lusory attitude by the performer. Audience play is an entirely different kettle of fish. It falls into the category of what I call "interpretive play", where the goal is not to arrive at a particular destination, but rather to construct an interpretive framework that makes sense of what came before and allows anticipation of what will happen afterwards. The success or failure of an interpretive frame in containing a performance can often hinge on tiny nuances ("She narrowed her eyes ... is she actually lying?") which accounts for why we can enjoy watching the same show multiple times. Minor variations in the actors' performances, or even in just which details we notice, can create enough variation in the constraints of the narrative system to structure a fresh interpretive play space.
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A collection of random observations: Huizinga introduced the idea of play being a thing apart from productive action, but problems with this position are visible even in Homo Ludens where he explores play elements in the law and in warfare. I would argue that play requires the player to enter into a ludic stance where the game is TREATED as an end unto itself, even if the player knows that there are material consequence external to the game. I do think that uncertainty is central to play, primarily because so much of play involves the construction of anticipatory chains. We think forward though a system of constraints, and then enjoy how our expectations are confirmed or thwarted. A play space with no uncertainty allows perfect anticipation; our expectations sprint so far ahead of our actions that the actual movement through the play space feels like we're following a predetermined script. Once I announce "mate in three moves" and you confirm that my expectation is correct, the game is over. Actually making the moves is merely a formality. I'm firmly in the camp that believes a preoccupation with challenge and winning has warped the study of games. In order for play to occur different states within the play space need to be assigned different values -- THIS state is more desirable than THAT state. However this differentiation of the play space does not need to be organized around "winning" or "losing". "I wonder what's over there?" is a perfectly valid differentiating criteria for structuring a play space.
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Another interesting piece. I think Suits developed his stance toward games primarily as an attempt to refute Wittgenstein's position that definitions can be useful without being rigorous. Wittgenstein used "game" as an example of a term that's hard to define rigorously, but still easy to use without confusion. Ultimately I think that Suits fails in his (indirect) critique of Wittgenstein. His attempt to draw precise boundaries around "game" still possesses gaps and aporia. And his lack of knowledge of the craft of game design leads him to underestimate how carefully "obstacles" toward progress must be placed if they are to structure a viable play space. It's not enough that the path toward a goal merely be inefficient, rather the inefficiencies need to be calculated to offer the player interesting decisions along the way. As a result, he's too eager to include a wide variety of different inefficient life experiences under the umbrella of play. That said, I agree with him that it is possible to make "keeping the game going" a goal during play. Such a goal is implicit in the game of catch. It's trivially easy to throw a ball in such a way that it can't be caught. The interesting part of catch is throwing the ball in such a way that catching it is a BIT of a challenge for the catcher, but not enough to interrupt the back and forth of the game. Similarly, "I set off a bomb that kills all the bad guys" is not usually an acceptable move in a game of make-believe. Moves that are chosen to "keep the game going" or "bring the game to completion" are an important part of many play experiences. Victory is not the same as closure. A game can formally end even while some players are still heavily invested in anticipating different strategies and casual chains. Similarly a game can feel "done" (there are no longer any interesting moves to make) even when its formal victory conditions have been met. (I, like Suits, have an ulterior motive in choosing to allow a closure aesthetic ... it allows me to use play-based critical tools to analyze discursive spaces that lack formal victory conditions ... .) I found the rest of McGonigal's book at odds with the aesthetic that she establishes at the outset. While she adopts a position that play can be pursued as its own reward, rather than as a means toward victory, "gamification" seems mostly to consist of erecting reward structures around existing tasks that are not in and of themselves entertaining. Grinding toward a reward is certainly a thing that people are willing to do in games, but in general I think most game designers would agree that its better to create an experience that's entertaining in and of itself. Maybe "grindification" would be a better word than "gamification" ... . In any case, I think that McGonigal has perverted Suits's position toward games. Suits argues that games are valuable PRECISELY because they serve no practical purpose. McGonigal's attempt to harness the power of games as a utilitarian workplace/lifestyle tool seems completely at odds with the philosophical framework that she's grounding her argument within.
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@translucy -- I don't play an instrument. A lot of my theorizing about music is, in fact, my wife's theorizing about music using critical tools she's borrowing from me! (She was a semi-pro singer before becoming a professor, so she's able to talk about the experience of music-making first-hand in a way that I can't ... .) I suspect flow is a part of a great deal of music-making ... virtuoso or not ... . @Chris -- I'm just starting reading Imaginary Games. I expect you'll probably wind up getting cited once or twice in the rewrite ... .
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@translucy -- Playing a musical instrument may or may not be playful depending on the context of the performance. If your only goal is satisfying the needs of the audience, then your moment-to-moment interpretive choices may be so constrained that play is impossible. However, the situation is different if you're playing for your own enjoyment (or are able to slip into that mindset while playing for others). One form of performer play is analogous to the simon-says gameplay we see in games like Guitar Hero. The "game" is to nail all the notes in the score and winning results when the piece is played perfectly. However, a far more interesting type of performer play is interpretive play. In interpretive play the goal is to construct an interesting performance out of the notes on the page, not by playing them literally and perfectly, but by subtly tweaking your cadence, attack, timbre, and volume to produce a particular effect. The notes are a set of rules that must be obeyed, and the challenge is to weave your way through them in an original and interesting way. It's fun the way that moving elegantly through the levels in a platformer is fun. Audience play relies heavily on the construction of anticipatory frameworks that the succeeding notes in the performance either confirm or contradict. We hear melodies, not isolated notes, and embedded within melodies are interpretive expectations. The anticipatory play of a musical performance is similar to the chains of anticipatory play we engage in between moves in a chess match. We're not interacting with the system between moves, we're sifting through potentialities, which is fun in and of itself. Music compensates for the lack of interaction by ratcheting up the fluctuations in the state of the system, forcing our anticipatory play to hurry to keep up. However, unlike most games, the anticipatory frameworks we construct when we're listening to music are not concerned with directing the composition to a particular goal. We're not trying to "win" the concert. Rather we're trying to navigate the constraints of the sounding phenomena such that we can bring our own anticipatory play to a clean ending. We're working to arrive at a settled state of affairs where further anticipatory chains seem superfluous. In literature we call this closure, in music resolution. This is why it's so jarring when a melody cuts off abruptly. Singing is just as much a form of play is playing an instrument -- i.e. maybe it is, depending on the context. It's interesting you should bring music into the discussion. My wife is a professor of music history at UCLA and over the last few years she's been borrowing a lot of the language from my work on play and using it in her classes. Play theory maps onto music-making particularly well.
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It's called The Aesthetics of Play. I'm in the middle of revising it after getting reader reports back from the publisher last year. Hopefully it will be ready to send out again by the end of summer. It uses games as a jumping-off point for developing a play-based critical theory that I then extend to other forms of cultural activity. In particular I take a long look at how narratives conform to the same design constraints as other play spaces. The original goal of the book was to create a unifying discourse that allows us to analyze the interrelationships between stories and games: How do stories structure gameplay and how do rules tell stories? However, in the process of writing, the scope expanded. I discovered that the critical framework I had developed to understand play could also be used to self-referentially analyze critical analysis. In other words, any critical discourse can itself be analyzed as a play field with certain restrictions and affordances that structure the sorts of interpretive moves that you can make within it. Hence my particular enthusiasm for this series of blog posts ... :-) BTW ... on the "Is play adaptive?" front ... in the book I argue that play isn't necessarily adaptive, but that it is a necessary side effect of an evolutionarily-grounded epistemology. In other words, we don't play to survive. We play as an unavoidable consequence of how human brains construct knowledge ... which is itself necessary for survival.
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"This mastery aesthetic is not something has espoused via a definition of game ... ." I think there's a route to a mastery aesthetic through Csikszentmihalyi's ideas of flow. Quoting from my work-in-progress book on play: Flow occurs when there’s a careful balance between skills and challenges. But there are broad bands of playful activity on both sides of the narrow flow channel. On the high end we find the “learning”-dominated play that Koster has identified in A Theory of Fun: Challenges are difficult, the potential for frustration is high, cruxes occur often, and the player is continually updating his internal constraints to adapt to new situations. On the low end we find the “doing”-dominated experience identified by Myers: Challenges are easy, the potential for satisfaction is high, cruxes are rare, and the player’s internal constraints remain mostly stable. It’s important to recognize that all of the experiences across this continuum are viable forms of play. Sometimes all we want out of a game is a few minutes of mindless button-mashing. We don’t want to be challenged to reconfigure our internal constraints; we just want to perform a familiar action in a familiar context that promises a strong possibility of a desirable outcome. And the flipside is also true. Sometimes the familiar and comfortable are boring. We want to be stretched and frustrated and prodded to learn new things about the game and about ourselves. (Myers refers to David Myers.) I completely agree with you about the problems inherent in Koster's definition of fun. You're having fun even though you're not learning anything? Well you shouldn't! I think that anything that purports to be a "theory of fun" needs to account for fun as we encounter it in the real world, not merely fun as we would like it to be. I think partially where Koster is coming from is a utilitarian stance where works of art are justified by the ends they achieve. It's not enough for us to enjoy playing a game -- the game must somehow improve us through the playing. You see this stance a lot with "high art" like classical music. You don't go to the symphony for fun, you go because it makes you a better person. I'd suggest that perhaps Koster has adopted this stance as part of a strategy to bring games into the fold with other contemporary forms of "high art". Great Works (tm) edify us, so if we want our games to be accepted as Great Works (tm), then we must demonstrate how they function as engines of edification. My personal view is that this therapeutic stance toward "high art" is the last death gasp of a 19th century ideal of artistic connoisseurship that was itself a response to shifting business models that allowed the middle-class a say in artistic production. "High art" was an attempt to carve out a realm of cultural production that was immune/indifferent to scruffy popular taste. The justification for elevating "high art" over popular culture rests on several claims, one of which is the idea that "high art" is better for people to consume than the common trash you see on teevee or hear on the radio. And so, 100 years later we see ambitious middle-class parents earnestly playing Mozart recordings to their infants. Personally, I disagree that games should aspire to be "high art", mainly because I believe that games are one of the sledgehammers we should use to destroy "high art" as a cultural construct ... . But I digress. In any case ... excellent post! I'm eagerly looking forward to more ... .
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While the characters in a story present the illusion of working toward goals, I think it's important to distinguish the content of a work from the experience of engaging with it. That said, I would agree that readers do have goals -- albeit not the same sort of goals that players have in a game. In playing a game, the player is directed to work toward a specific position of the game's state space -- the victory condition. In reading a story, the reader's interpretive decisions are governed by a desire to work toward positions in the text's interpretive space that maximize or minimize anticipation -- i.e. toward interpretations that deny or embrace closure. The result is a play experience in which certain interpretive "moves" are better than others without there being a single predetermined victory condition that the reader is struggling to achieve.
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I think in the case of both Crawford and Costikyan their definitions are strongly influenced by a desire to carve out a discursive space for games that is separate and distinct from critical methodologies borrowed from other media. Partially I think it's because of an honest recognition that existing lit-crit tools were inadequate to discuss rule-based interactions, but also I think it was part of the 90's digital zeitgeist (which we still haven't fully escaped from) that was heavily invested in portraying new media as radically disruptive and transformative. (Cough ... gamification ... cough.) The future was going to be non-linear, interactive, rhizomatic ... . And so Crawford and Costikyan both put forward definitions that emphasize the apartness of the medium -- the critical rupture that videogames present. By focusing their definitions on elements that are absent from most narrative forms -- goals, challenges, conflicts, competition -- they do succeed in carving out a distinct critical discourse for games. But at the expense, I think, of constructing a fairly narrow straightjacket on the sorts of play spaces that that critical discourse can address. In Callois' typology, they've drawn their circle tightly around agon -- leaving alea, ilinx, and mimicry largely outside. They're both good enough designers to realize that interesting forms of play lie beyond their definitions, but are too invested in othering traditional media to formally bridge the gap.
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"My goal in this serial is precisely to unfold the play space from the definitions so we can see what it looks like rolled across the desk like a map." I'm eagerly looking forward to it ... .
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The purpose of a definition is to structure a discursive field. Discursive fields are themselves play spaces, so the definitions we choose determine the shape of any play that takes place within the discursive field. Quite often our definitions are deliberately picked so they privilege particular moves within the field, coaxing our player/interlocutor to arrive at a predetermined location within the field. If you pick your definitions particularly well, you can create the illusion of freedom of movement while maintaining tight control over the play of discourse. This, of course, is identical to what we do as game designers when we lay out any system of constraints for a player to navigate.
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Apr 20, 2012