Vienna: FROG13 | Video games and authorial intent


Prelim slides >>> pdf.


On the absence of imaginative resistance in games.


Slides for the upcoming Foundations of Digital Games conference.

Upcoming: Futures of Literature.


I’ll be at the University of Malta workshop on digital games and literary theory next week.

My presentation is called How games might annihilate narratives. [Update: pdf draft here.]

The abstract.

Here I examine two specific definitions of games and narratives — from Herman’s Basic Elements of Narrative (2009) and Suits’s The Grasshopper (1978) as assumptive of formal distinctions between the two forms. I then explore the origins and implications of this formal distinction from the perspective of evolutionary psychology. Ryan’s claim (in Avatars of Story, 2006) of compatibility between games and narratives is questioned in some detail, particularly as regards that claim’s emphasis of Herman’s “worldmaking/disruption” function of digital game replay. Ultimately, the essay describes the communicative and expressive functions of, respectively, narrativity and liminality as separate modes of human cognition.

The summary.

In the relative short history of digital games, games and narratives have mounted an uneasy alliance. Despite the commercial success of narrative-based games and despite considerable theoretical interest in the synthesis of games and narratives, aesthetic tension remains. And, unfortunately, most recent attempts by game designers to resolve this tension (e. g., incorporating quick-time events like those in Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain, or including morally ambivalent gameplay like that of CD Projekt RED STUDIO’s Witcher series), appear no more effective in providing an enjoyable narrative experience than the more radical of strategy of switching off the game-play entirely, as offered within Bioware’s newest release, Mass Effect 3.

In contrast to the seeming inability of interactive digital media to adopt a sastisfactory narrative aesthetic, it is interesting to note that the medium of film much more quickly did so. Less than ten years after the Lumière brothers first projected Arrival of a Train at a Station (1895), Edwin S. Porter had produced The Great Train Robbery (1903). And, only ten years after that, D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin were household names.

In roughly the same amount of time, digital games have cycled through interactive fiction and adventure games and role-playing games and a variety of other, similarly narrative-inspired and narrative-duplicating aesthetic forms that have failed, consensually, to inspire to the same degree as their originals. Digital games, on the other hand, have had increasing influence and impact during their short history, both when packaged as narratives and when not.

I have presented here an explanation as to why this might be the case: Games and narratives exist most appeallingly as aesthetic experiences within two different modes of human cognition.

These two distinct modes — labeled here luminality and narrativity — originate within the natural history of our species and continue to influence us much in the same manner as did their original forms: one fundamentally expressive, the other fundamentally communicative. In these two fundamental respects, then, these two modes of human cognition function quite differently and independently: they interpret and understand the world around us in different ways and, as a result, offer different ways of being in that world. To be within one of these two is, simultaneously, not to be within the other — just as, analogously, to be entirely rational is not, simultaneously, to be entirely narrative.

Nevertheless, as equally modes of human cognition, these two share common functions of human semiotic systems more generally (including the transgressive function of self-reference). In these shared semiotic functions, games and narratives may yet find some aesthetically acceptable union, even if only an ironic and dissonant one.

For surely, games and narrative are not so far apart in function as raven and writing desk. And the output of one might well serve as fuel and fodder for the other. Certainly, our most aesthetically pleasing game plays and replays provide incentives for their subsequent retelling as narratives — just as, among all chess games ever played, some of these are considered brilliancies. These brilliancies may be relatively rare instances — and, when they do occur, they are governed as much by chance as design — but they occur nevertheless.

More reasonably, then, the relationship between games and narratives might only be so distant as that between Morlock and Eloi, both still recognizably human, but only capable together of producing mulish offspring.

More about the relationship between games and narratives.

For a game to inspire specific retellings, to be narratively designed, it must involve actions whose purpose is not just winning or losing, but fulfilling a concrete goal. It cannot therefore be about aligning three tokens on a line on a game board, nor about kicking a ball into a net. But it can be about stealing cars or using cars to chase bank robbers.

— Marie-Laure Ryan, Avatars of Story, 2006, p. 193

Does this make sense? It doesn’t seem to.

‘Aligning three tokens on a line’ and ‘kicking a ball into a net’ are, to my mind, clear instances of concrete goals. However, Ryan’s claim is clearly that ‘stealing cars’ is a concrete goal and ‘aligning three tokens on a line’ is not.

Explanation 1. In order to make sense of this, let’s assume that perhaps this means to say that the concrete goals of narratives, as opposed to the concrete goals of games, are of a special sort of concreteness: a concreteness that is part of the human condition. Thus, stealing cars would bring with it the expectation, in the world in which we as humans live, of repercussions. Someone would miss their cars and come looking for them. Likewise, using cars to chase bank robbers would imply that we would wish to capture the bank robbers and that the bank robbers would wish not to be caught. In both cases, we might infer something about the goal-seekers from their goals; and we would infer this based on the assumption of a common human condition among those who infer (us) and those who we infer about (the goal-seekers).

On the other hand, ‘kicking a ball into a net’ gives us little to go on regarding such inferences. Did the ball wish to be kicked? Was the kicking done in order to improve the kicker’s calf muscles?

We just don’t know.

So, perhaps this would work: concrete goals are part of the human condition; non-concrete goals aren’t.

Explanation 2. But then, upon reflection, it is also unclear that this version makes any sense. Because, as Ryan notes, ‘stealing cars’ in a game is what the game’s goals are about — not what the game’s goals are. In fact, it is fairly important (to our personal human conditions) that the game goal of stealing cars be something distinct from the (truly) concrete, non-game goal of stealing cars.

So, perhaps, in order to make sense of this, we need to assume that the concrete goals of narratives, as opposed to the concrete goals of games, are of a special sort of concreteness: something like (but not really) the concreteness associated with the human condition. So, stealing cars is not really stealing cars, but it is about stealing cars — and being about the human condition is close enough to the human condition to be concrete.

So, perhaps this would work: concrete goals are about the human condition; non-concrete goals aren’t.

Explanation 3. But then, upon reflection it is also unclear that this version makes any sense. Because, after all, although we know that the game goal of ‘stealing cars’ is about stealing cars (that one is easy), what about stealing (instead of aligning on a line) three tokens? Is that about stealing cars? Or what about stealing three cars in order to align the three cars on a line? Is that still about stealing cars?

Or what about drawing little car pictures on the three tokens (or attaching little wheels to them) and then aligning them, or stealing them, or doing something else with them entirely? What would that be about exactly?

And, if it is unclear what a game goal is about, then how can we know when one game goal is about the human condition and another game goal isn’t?

Maybe we should just chuck this whole human condition thing entirely.

Explanation 4. Maybe what it means is this: For a game to inspire specific retellings, to be narratively designed, it must involve actions whose purpose is not just winning or losing (period).

This would be okay with me because, among other reasons, it is okay with Suits. Suits’s definition of a game (well, game-playing, actually):

to play a game is to engage in activity directed toward bringing about a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by specific rules, where the means permitted by the rules are more limited in scope than they would be in the absence of the rules, and where the sole reason for accepting such limitation is to make possible such activity

— Bernard Suits, The Grasshopper, 1978/2005, pp. 48-9

In this definition, the purpose of games is not just winning or losing but “bringing about a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by specific rules” — and Suits goes to great lengths (believe me, he does) to distinguish between winning a game and “bringing about a specific state of affairs.”

So, if we are to go with Suits’s definition of a game — I’m going with it — then all games involve actions whose purpose is not just winning or losing. And, then, extending this definition to Ryan’s claim takes her claim to mean that all games inspire specific retellings and are narratively designed.

But then, of course, the whole point of Ryan’s claim is that some games (those with concrete goals) inspire narrative stuff and other games (those with non-concrete goals) don’t inspire narrative stuff.

So that doesn’t make much sense either.

Explanation 5. Games are one thing, and narratives are another thing.

A bit about the relationship between games and narratives.


I’m pondering a bit more about the relationship between games and narratives. I’m prompted to write about my pondering due to the Koster post here.

Koster’s argument is that a narrative can serve a game’s feedback function, but only, basically, once. His conclusion is that narratives are not a very good — not a very sustainable — game mechanic. I agree with him, mostly. I’ve written previously about how narratives and games are a bit like oil and water in several respects. (But I’m broadening my views more recently.)

And, though the Koster post makes sense as written, it’s based on a very simple model of both games and narratives.

Koster’s narrative model is focused on the sequencing of events.

And his game model is a concoction of stimulus-response mechanisms and pattern-matching. This model presents itself as more about the pattern-matching than the stimulus-response mechanisms, but we know it’s all the same because there is no clear indication in the model as to why pattern-matching is fun: pattern-matching is fun, this model says, because it is — and “fun is the process of discovering areas in a possibility space” (from Theory of Fun).

This is unsatisfying in that pattern-matching is not universally fun. Certainly, some pattern-matching is more fun than some other. And, in fact, some pattern-matching is no fun at all. Pattern-matching folk like Koster admit this, but what they admit about it is this: Some patterns are too difficult to match, and others are too easy; those patterns are no fun. The patterns that are the most fun to match are the ones in the middle of being too difficult and too easy.

That makes sense, as far as it goes. Indeed, the patterns that are most fun to match are sort of like Goldilock’s bed: a bed with dimensions and complexities similar to the dimensions and complexities of Goldilocks. So, likewise, the patterns that are the most fun to match are those patterns with dimensions and complexities most similar to the dimensions and complexities of pattern-matchers. But there’s a problem: The patterns that are really the most fun to match are not simply those patterns with dimensions and complexities most similar to the dimensions and complexities of pattern-matchers, but patterns with dimensions and complexities most similar to the dimensions and complexities of the human condition of pattern-matchers. These latter sorts of patterns might qualify as patterns, but they also qualify as something else: beauty and art.

Stimulus-response and pattern-matching models don’t say too much about these latter and special sorts of patterns: the beauty and art sort. Or, when they do say something, they say something like this: Games can’t deliver these sorts of patterns. Koster says something like this: “[G]ame systems,” he says, “have a very limited emotional palette.”

Some people — some of the same ones — would then further say that games are inferior to those things that can deliver the beauty and art sort of patterns: things like films, novels, and narratives. (Roger Ebert, for instance, has said something very similar to this.)

And then there are some other people entirely — Marie-Laure Ryan in Avatars of Story, for instance — who say that both narratives and games can deliver beauty and art. Games and narratives may even be able to deliver these sorts of patterns simultaneously and together — a claim based on a very different model of games and narratives than is Koster’s claim. In Ryan’s view, narrative is less critically about the sequencing of events than it is about the construction of a narrative world, including both world building and world manipulation (cf Herman’s Basic Elements of Narrative).

All told, this is a more engaging claim than is Koster’s in that if a narrative provides feedback in a game through world building and world manipulation, then you no longer have to worry about the diminishing feedback of a repetitive narrative sequence; you can start to benefit from the more interesting and compounding feedback of a recursive narrative function.

Unfortunately, because this realization is really a very good one, it has led many narratologists, including Ryan, astray. Because narrative (or, more circumspectly, narrativity) can be a game mechanic, say the narratologists, game and narrative are compatible. They are sympatico.

But no. They are not.

Christmas is over.


Christmas over, shunned by the avian population it was intended to serve, the bright red bird-feeder stocking hung alone in the backyard, thinking of what might lie beyond the wooden fence and, eventually, spring.

Thoughts on blind players playing.


Tommy, of the Who’s rock opera Tommy, is blind. Yet a pinball wizard.

Luke Skywalker, in the very first of the Star Wars movies, demonstrates his fledgling mastery of the Force by parrying attacks while blinded.

Neo, in the culmination of the Matrix trilogy, negotiates his way into the Machine City while blind; without eyes, Neo sees what others cannot.

These are fictional characters and fictional accomplishments, but each is similar in representing human vision as a useful but optional component of human experience. Should our sight be deprived, these stories tell us, there is recourse. Our other senses — physical, mental, or ‘spiritual’– step up.

There is much fairy tale in this claim, of course. But this fairy tale is seductive and used in subtle ways to support a politically appealing view of human experience as an egalitarian feature of our species, equally available to all regardless of our physical differences.

In practice and fact, however, human blindness confers human disability and limitation.

Can a blind player be a pinball wizard? No.

But what about a more general question: Can a blind player play a game?

Certainly. Blind players are prevented from interacting with game tokens in the same fashion as fully visioned players, but, at least in traditional games, it is the relationship among game tokens — which token is ahead, which is behind; which is valuable, which is not — that constitutes the game. And accessing and manipulating this relationship among game tokens is an act of cognition, not vision.

In fact, there is a variant of chess — blindfold chess — built on this realization.

It must be noted, however, that in order to perform well at blindfold chess, it is much more important to be skilled at chess than to be skilled at blindness. Blind chess-players seem to have no particular advantage in playing blindfold chess; chess grandmasters, on the other hand, have a great advantage in playing blindfold chess.

And chess is not the only sort of game. For interactive digital games — first-person shooters, for instance — the relationship between game tokens is not the only variable defining the game. To access and manipulate relationships among game tokens, the digital game player must access and manipulate the game interface, which is then equally defining of game form and experience.

Most digital games depend on a visual and tactile interface; some games (e. g., Milton Bradley’s Simon) also depend on an audible interface. But for interactive digital games, to remove the ability to access and manipulate the game interface is much more crippling than to remove the sight of a chessboard.

Certainly a blind player can play chess. But can a blind player play Team Fortress 3?

And then there are a couple of further questions:

1. The possibilities of game design. Can Team Fortress 3 — and similarly real-time, interactive digital games — be translated into a medium that a blind player can play? For instance, the rules of golf have been modified to accommodate blind golfers, but to what extent do these modifications recreate the play of golf? For games like golf (and even more so for first-person shooters), it’s not clear that a blind player can access and manipulate the same play experience as the sighted player. But can games be designed in some alternative way — not to mimic but to evoke experience? For instance, perhaps this might be possible through synesthesia: the subjective interpretation of sensory data in terms of an alternative sensory process, e. g. “hearing” colors or “seeing” sounds.

2. The realities of human design. To what extent does human experience in general — play or otherwise — depend on the human senses? Obviously, human experience depends a great deal on the senses, but we tend to evaluate this dependency as a binary one: either the experience is accessible (in which case it is the same egalitarian experience for all) or it is accessible to some and wholly inaccessible to others (e. g., the blind).

Playing the audio — beeping sounds — version of Simon and playing the visual — blinking lights — version of Simon are normally considered, essentially, playing the same game. If so, then a blind player can be considered to be playing the same memory game of Simon ( i. e., having the same experience) as a deaf player. However, playing the conventional, graphically animated version of World of Warcraft and playing a text-only, MUD-like version of World of Warcraft seem (particularly during the combat portions of the game) very different experiences.

When and how does this difference occur?

If we play World of Warcraft in black-and-white, is it still the same game-playing experience? If we play the game with cataract-impaired vision, is it still the same experience? If we play the game with inferior hand-eye coordination, is it still the same experience? During which portion of turning off the sound and the light and the touch of an interactive digital game is that game rendered into a different experience? Is it during some single critical moment or is it during every moment?

Our most fundamental and universal human experience — our sense of self — suffers from gentle degradations. Between human life and human death are subtleties, sometimes caused by the impairment of our senses, sometimes caused by their augmentation. If we accept this of the human experience of self, why shouldn’t we also accept it of the human experience of play?

The play of a skilled player with superior senses and faculties is not merely quantitatively different from that of an unskilled player in hours played, levels cleared, and scores achieved. It is a qualitatively different experience.

We might even say, politically unappealing though it may be, that the play of a skilled player is a more complete experience.

The winning condition of Tetris.


The notion of Tetris having no winning condition seems to have progressed from annoying to presumptuous, so let me briefly explain.

If properly arranged blocks did not disappear from the Tetris screen, then perhaps Tetris would have no winning condition.  But they do disappear.

The winning condition in Tetris is to properly arrange falling blocks and cause them to disappear, thereby enabling a new game of Tetris.

These successive games of Tetris can be made easier or harder to win by manipulating a number of factors — most commonly the speed at which the Tetris blocks fall.  (And here, I should note, making a game so difficult to win that it is very unlikely to be won does not, of itself, preclude that game from having a winning condition.)

In analogy, a chess match of infinite chess games is not a game without a winning condition.  It is an arbitrary extension of the game of chess, wherein each game of chess has precisely the same winning condition as the ones before and after it.

In the case of Tetris, we can clearly see that this sort of extension is arbitrary by the common interposition of “levels” to restore the (most enjoyable) integrity of the game form.


And further, just to be clear in reference to McGonigal’s claims in Reality is Broken, Bernard Suits (in The Grasshopper) directly addresses games that are not arbitrarily extended in his discussion of “open games.”

I would define an open game generically as a system of reciprocally enabling moves whose purpose is the continued operation of the system. p. 124

With this definition, Suits does not admit games within which game players have no “state of affairs they are trying to achieve” (i. e., winning conditions), only that some take an “unnecessarily narrow view of what constitutes a state of affairs” (p. 124).

Regardless of this definition, however, in the specific case of Tetris, it seems clear that the objective of the Tetris game player is not to clear blocks in consort and cooperation with the continued operation of the system, but rather to clear blocks in opposition to and in competition with the continued operation of the system.  If so, then Tetris is quite a conventional game and has quite a conventional winning condition.  And, even if not, even if Tetris need be construed as an open game, then it would still have a winning condition:  the continued operation of the system.

I see no intermediate position available to those who claim Tetris has no winning condition.

Occupy Wall Street: The aesthetics of unorganization.


There are calls for the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protests to become better organized. Here in New Orleans, for instance, at the (somewhat) alternative news organization The Lens, the reporter (@mattdavis999) assigned to the OWS beat has made lack of organization the main theme of his coverage. But this is common elsewhere as well.

These calls for OWS to become better organized view the movement from a singular and somewhat repressive perspective: one that would subdue and interpret individual behavior within collective action. Sometimes this collective action is called community or compromise or reformation. But it is all the same in that each of these assumes a particular sociology of art.

And why is it suddenly important to refer to news media aesthetics?


  • The OWS movement is fundamentally an aesthetic protest, and
  • An aesthetic protest presents contradictions to conventional culture, institutions, and their organizing principles.

As an aesthetic protest, the OWS has its own form, apart from any social organization or control. The news media, burdened by their allegiance to the benefits of collective action, struggle to conceptualize such an event, much less explain it.

And what, exactly, is an aesthetic protest?

It is a protest that, like a work of art, is not bound by the sociological context of its origin.

Unfortunately, with such a claim, I move beyond the ability to explicate matters news-media-style, in stories and packages. I can only here reference Adorno’s notion of the formal autonomy of art and, equally briefly, reproduce that which Adorno’s aesthetics would argue most strongly against (as described by Edgar,1990) :

In sum, any work that cannot be attributed a role as entertainment or as of ritual significance within a consensus of values common to significant consumer groups is dismissed as socially irrelevant….The sociology of art thereby becomes an instrument to facilitate the administration of art, and so a form of market research that enables the more efficient coordination of the production and consumption of cultural artefacts.

I am struck by how well this quote describes news coverage of the OWS movement. Those calling for more organization seem clearly to be doing so from a position in parallel with what Edgar above calls a sociology of art: “an instrument to facilitate the administration of art.”

Most tellingly, this particular sociology demands organization from protests in order for those protests to have more effect. But, in the case of the OWS movement, the effect has already been had. As an aesthetic protest, the effect is the expressiveness of OWS, not any supposed (or imposed) rhetorical goal.

For instance, in analogy, we do not fall in love in order to organize our emotions. Nor do we feel anger, or sadness, or dissatisfaction because it would be more effective to do so (even if it later turns out that it would).  We fall in love because we must.  And there it is.

Of course, this is not to say that pragmatic, even calculating, human behavior cannot or does not occur within the OWS movement. It can and does occur. But this sort of calculated planning and organization — e. g., in order to achieve a particular effect — is the planning and organization of the actor: it is the practice of mimesis and representation. And, as such, it is, at some level, the practice of the political and the disingenuous.

The core of the OWS movement, unlike (and despite) other protests to which it is often compared, does not at all appear mimetic. Republicans, Democrats, Tea Party members, and the like represent a particular point of view, usually expressed in their choice of a particular iconic representation: a “candidate.”

The OWS movement has no candidate, nor needs one — nor any other superficiality to appease cultural morals. It is enough to point out the most important victory of the OWS movement:  revelation of the failure of news media to recognize and explain the human condition without reference to those structures and materials — those organizations — with which they are aligned and by which they are sustained.

For individualism, symbolic resistance is not enough.


One reason individualism has fallen out of favor, a major one, is that individualism is understood in conflict with community and culture. In this conflict, individualism is interpreted as anarchy. And individualism may well be a form of anarchy, though not necessarily a form of anarchy in conflict with community and culture.

Remember that, during America’s westward ho, individualism was a primal and positive force, a pioneering spirit that drove us towards what was right as rain, supported in equal parts by the naive enthusiasm of Pecos Bill and the pseudo-sexual violence of John Wayne’s McClintock.

Subsequently, all such instinctive justification for American individualism has been subverted. Instead of natural and good, individualism is mystical and mechanical. No longer swept from her feet, the American heroine’s head is swept from her neck. And instead of riding west to protect the schoolmarm, American heroes simply ride on, into the distance of High Plains Drifters and Terminators.

And yet still, after all this, community and culture would recapture individualism, dead or alive. Brando’s Wild One and Fonda’s Easy Rider are the DOA variety. Still alive are those rugged individualists who, against all odds and much to their own dismay, survive: the lone and the lonely, the Freddy Kruegers and the Jason Bournes.

Pitting the individualism of the Wild West against vested interests of community and culture has come about, strangely and somewhat perversely, with the steady rise of community and culture. The ascension of society brings with it a curious revelation: individualism is not individualism at all. Individualism is but a disguise adopted to serve the social, and the drama of that social has now moved from off-Broadway to on, where actors playing individuals can either speak their lines as written or not speak them at all.

This is essentially the position taken by Markus & Kitayama (1991) (with, according to Google scholar, a staggering 7292 citations!). This analysis elaborately describes the difference between “construals of the self” in Western (prototypically American) and non-Western (prototypically Japanese) culture. The implication throughout is that Western construals of the self — particularly those promoting a philosophical individualism — are more likely the fabrications of Goldwyn than Nietzsche.

Toward the end of their analysis, Markus & Kitayama clarify:

…a persistent issue is how deep or pervasive are these cultural differences?…In other words, is it the case, as we suggest here, that these norms can sometimes be internalized to the extent that they determine the nature of one’s experience? (p. 247)

From this point of view, individualism may play an important role in community and culture, but only if community and culture permit it to do so.

This argument is currently the most critical argument raised against individualism. It is an argument that would retain the function and occasional value of individualism but destroy its core in the natural and biological origin of the human species.

I find this argument, despite offering a vast rhetorical repertory, problematic. It assumes individualism is subordinate to community and culture because everything is. Based on this assumption, individualism has no unique properties; individualism is an instrument of the collective.

I have dealt with this argument before. In a previous century, I delivered a rebuttal to Craig’s (1999) proffer of a “constitutive metamodel” that would do for all non-constitutive metamodels what Markus & Kitayama would do for individualism: absorb it into the collective. This rebuttal made the same point I would like to make now: paradigmatic differences cannot be resolved through social discourse.

It must be said that there are arguments of note that any model attempting to accomplish what Craig would like his model to do must fail. If the differences among communication theories are truly based on unique paradigmatic assumptions… then it is unlikely any superficial appeal to rhetorical similarities among these theories will mediate their differences. It is rather more likely, as Kuhn (1970) notes, that any attempt at serious theoretical debate between distinctive paradigmatic camps would simple not be effective: “Communication across the revolutionary divide is inevitably partial” (p. 149).

…in Myers, D. (2001). A pox on all compromises: Reply to Craig (1999). Communication Theory, 11, 231-240.

In this, Marxists and individualists agree:

Either workers and their allies [here, for “workers,” the naturalist might simply say “body”; and, for “allies,” simply “mind”] claim the real agency that they possess and take the chance of making a world in which they are free in body as well as mind; or they resign themselves to generation after generation of grinding exploitation, settling for the meaningful but insufficient consolations of sporadic, creative, ungrounded, and symbolic resistance.

…in Cloud, D. L., Macek, S. & Aune, J. A. (2006). “The Limbo of Ethical Simulacra”: A Reply to Ron Greene. Philosophy and Rhetoric, 39(1), 72-84.

Equally, for individualism, symbolic resistance is not enough.