The Utility Game

An open letter to Jesper Juul as part of the Republic of Bloggers.

Jesper-juulDear Jesper,

It was my great pleasure to read the draft of your paper from this year's DiGRA UK, “The Aesthetics of the Aesthetics of the Aesthetics of Video Games”, which expands nicely upon what you presented at MediaCity. Your playful regress commences from conventional videogames that have no perceived utility but which are experientially obsessed with the play of utility (level 1, the aesthetics of videogames). At the next level, you draw out a sense that these conventional videogames are anti-aesthetic and anti-playful because of the strong goal-directed nature of their play experiences (level 2, the aesthetics of the aesthetics of videogames). Then, finally, you use examples of games I have championed under the label ‘artgame’ such as Dear Esther and Proteus to recognise a new aesthetic trend to reject the goal-oriented play of conventional videogames and abandon utility-seeking (level 3, the aesthetics of the aesthetics of the aesthetics of videogames).

Everything inside your argument is academically perfect, your use of Huizinga and Caillois shows a rare appreciation for their work, you support your case with numerous insightful references, and the prose flows with a jaunty joyousness that is so very rare in game studies it can only be admired. That you have pictures of a child playing with food – and this serves a key role in your discussion – is a clear sign of the skill that lies behind your work, which is justly admired by games studies scholars. And yet there is, as I intimated in the Q&A at MediaCity, an issue with your use of ‘utility’ that warrants further analysis, and this is not so much a flaw in your argument as the unseen foundation of it. I should like to draw this out. Additionally, I want to interrogate your claim that this level 3 aesthetic aligns with the practices of (say) novels or gallery art and is not as such a move towards the playful, but rather an assertion of authorial intent. This point, it seems to me, might be only half-right.

Let us start at the end and work backwards. The statement of yours from the paper that I must disagree with is this one:

The third layer, the aesthetics of aesthetics of aesthetics is not, as we might first think, about going back to play, about letting players be creative in an open universe. It is the reverse: it is about keeping almost all of game structure, keeping goals and “winning”, but removing the playful element of games, removing the element of games where players improve their skills, or where they improvise creatively, where they play.

Here, you are asserting a very specific concept of play, one that aligns with your book The Art of Failure, the crown jewel of MIT’s Playful Thinking series, which you co-edit. And in both that book and in your paper, you are asserting your aesthetic values for play and games, which is what we all do whenever we apply these terms in a specific sense (as per my argument in Implicit Game Aesthetics). You suggest that Proteus “does not give players many tools for interacting with the game world” but such a claim rests on the concept of utility that frames your paper, and which is my ultimate target in engaging with it here. Proteus, which is my favourite game of this century, is rife with play – what it is devoid of is the play of utility. Bees, frogs, squirrels, sunsets, shamanic figures all provide ample playful elements where the player has ways to assert their agency within the distinct and definite authorial intent, not to mention (since the landscape is a soundscape) the playful expression of an audio journey to match the Zhuangzi-inspired hiking play that lies at the core of Ed Key and David Kanaga’s masterwork.

It might be significant that both Proteus and Dear Esther are collaborations between programmers and musicians. Jessica Curry and Dan Pinchbeck produced in Dear Esther a less playful space than Proteus, but mainly because it is more overtly narrative – and explicit narrative always produces a tension with play, as you are acutely aware. However, I deny your claim that Dear Esther is not playful, which once again is an argument framed by the concept of utility. The play of this game can be found both in the freedom to engage with the experience of the landscape (in parallel with Proteus) and also in its subversion of well-established player practices (in accord with your remarks about authorial intent – “developer expression” in your paper).

These points are extremely significant, and even more so once you add Tale of Tales to the brew – which you do. But if I go down that delightful rabbit hole with you we will never make it back to the crux of my claims. The important point is that I deny your claim that recent artgames maintain goal-orientation but dispatch creative play. On the contrary, they weaken goal-orientation to the point of window dressing because they reject the utility you rightfully align with conventional videogames. Proteus and Dear Esther, after all, have a ‘goal’ only in the same sense that a novel has the ‘goal’ to finish reading, and this does not condition the play of either. It is precisely this absence of ‘goals’ (and thus challenge) that meant certain players had to reject them as qualifying as games at all.

I am honour bound at this point to mention Mel Croucher’s 1984 Deus Ex Machina, a game so far from conventional 1980s videogame aesthetics that British magazine reviewers declined to give it a review score. Not, I should stress, as an aesthetic hissy hit like the aforementioned “that’s not even a game!” malarkey, but out of genuine respect for something so far outside of the bounds of convention as to deny the applicability of scoring it in numbers. And it may be significant that games at this time – 1984 to 1985 – were at their peak of inventiveness, as exemplified by British games such as Paradroid and Elite (influences upon Grand Theft Auto and thus open world games in general) and Mike Singleton’s The Lords of Midnight (which inspired Ed Key in making Proteus). The iron clad rule of utility-in-games had not yet asserted itself to the fullest extent at this time, even if its presence could, even then, be felt gathering its strength.

The question it is worth asking here is how did we get to this situation whereby conventional videogames are intimately caught up with utility (level 1 and 2 of your argument)? To answer this, we ought to question this whole notion of ‘utility’ in the first place. As José Zagal challenged at MediaCity, if the videogame entertains, is this not utility (contra your level 1)? But even this response doesn’t go far enough, because we have to wonder about this whole issue of utility, and how it can be that both you and José (and me, for that matter!) have so successfully internalised the notion of ‘utility’ that we can wield it as part of quite complex aesthetic arguments.

We get ‘utility’ from the Scottish philosopher David Hume in the 18th century, who invents it as part of his sceptical philosophical arguments (along, it must be said, with a great many other things...). He goes on to influence Kant and the Enlightenment, not to mention the utilitarians Bentham and Mill, and thus the entirety of the contemporary moral order. Indeed, Hume’s influence is so great that in the 19th century James Hutchison Stirling remarks: “Hume is our Politics, Hume is our Trade, Hume is our Philosophy, Hume is our Religion.” But alas, it is not Hume-the-person with this influence (Hume’s love of a good ‘debauch’ is nowhere to be found...) but a particular strand of thought inspired by Hume’s writings, a thread I fear Hume himself would have repudiated had he seen what was to become of his philosophy.

When Huizinga and Caillois lament the decline of the play element in culture during the mid-twentieth century, it is the continuing rise of utility as the measure of all things that is tied to this trend (without being reduced to it). Thus when we get to the role of utility in the play of contemporary videogames (level 2 of your argument), what we are encountering is not so much a special property of the many different videogame media as it is a reflection of the utility-obsession of the last two centuries, a circumstance that has continued to intensify far beyond the concerns Huizinga and Caillois raised. The play element has not only been evicted from culture, as they feared, it is danger of being evicted from play itself.

Around the time Caillois is working on Les Jeux et Les Hommes, Heidegger is presenting “The Question Concerning Technology”. His interest is not so much technology-as-tools as it is to challenge the mindset that comes with our technology, an enframing of the world that reduces all things to what he calls ‘standing reserve’, that is, resources to be exploited. As I have remarked previously, Heidegger’s ‘essence of technology’ is the fundamental design principle of contemporary videogames and you – correctly, in my view – give this the name ‘utility’.

This analysis is built upon the history of philosophy because philosophy has, and continues to possess, a key role in our conceptual understanding of anything and everything. But the points I am trying to emphasise here are independent of the philosophical references I am drawing against. Commercial videogames thrive upon the play of utility because, as Caillois successfully analysed, our cultures have enshrined competition as their social basis. Once winning in competition (which has become linked, as Caillois saw clearly, with winning by chance) comes to dominate culture, free play as such is doomed. Utility – as a measure that reduces all things to use-value – is allied to this flattening of culture. It is the ineluctable ‘must’ that makes thinking in any other way impossible because we can only reason in terms of the efficiency of means and have lost the capacity to think about our ends at all – an accusation Einstein levelled against the twentieth century that is just as true today.

In your Art of Failure you brilliantly capture a way of playing and the related class of games that are fundamentally about winning and, as such, about competition – even accepting that this is often framed indirectly. But behind and beyond this regime of challenge is the possibility of playing together that is not about, and cannot be reduced to, utility, standing reserve, or our obsession with victory. Games such as Proteus, Dear Esther, and the entirety of Tale of Tales remarkable catalogue resist this flattening of the world. If we cannot see within them the possibility that these games are engaged in play, the fault lies in us. Our addiction to utility blinds us to other possibilities. Your analysis is correct... but it is also caught up in the enframing that risks blinding us to the very problem Huizinga, Caillois, Heidegger, and Einstein had fought in vain against.

With deep and abiding respect for your work and achievements,


The War on Game

Over on ihobo today, an open letter to Raph Koster following up an earlier comment he kindly left me. Here's an extract:

What is the true definition of 'game'? No, don't answer that. We both know why that question cannot possibly be resolved as long as it has that particular wording. But what if there was another way? What if there was something that could be truly and validly asserted about our definitions of 'game'? If that were so, perhaps the war on 'games' that has so hurt our not-so-little community of players over the last decade could actually be ended, and peace restored.


You can read the entirety of The War on Game over at

All Good Things…

Have thoroughly enjoyed my Autumnal Social Media Break – so much so, in fact, that I don’t particularly want to come out of hiding (nothing personal, entirety of the online world!). However, it has to happen, and I’ll be back to blogging next week with the first of a small set of Winter blog-letters.

If you left me a comment, I will get back to it shortly; if you left me spam, I’ll be deleting it very soon… I might rejoin Twitter tomorrow morning (1st December) or I might put it off until next week. But ‘I’m on my way’, at the very least!

A Virtuous Interlude

Sunset BirdsIt is time once again for my autumnal social media break, a chance for me to exercise my cyber-restraint, pay less attention to my pocket robot’s distractions, and peer more deeply into the world around me. When I come back in early December, I have a small handful of blog-letters to share before the Winter Festival hits – mostly on or around game topics, and following on from discussions that have already happened here or at events I went to this year. I have room for one more that I haven’t started yet, so if you want to write a blog-letter to me while I’m away it would be more than welcome.

Then, as the Gregorian New Year comes around again, it will only be two months to the release of The Virtuous Cyborg and I will be gearing up for the book’s launch events. I will be touring, so if you would like me to come for a guest lecture or other speaking gig please get in touch through the contact link at, or directly if you already have my email address. So far, I am focussing on the UK but a US trip is always on the table and Europe is only a short trip away even if the current political climate makes it feel more distant.

To everyone who has continued to support the discussions here at Only a Game, my unlimited love and gratitude. Enjoy the silence, and we shall speak again soon.

The Game resumes in December.

Ecologies of Play

Over on ihobo today, an extended comment replying to some very interesting challenges raised by Bart Stewart in connection with Are Videogames Made of Rules? Here’s an extract:

For a tabletop game, the rulebook this set of practices eventually becomes can be seen as a static snapshot of the player practices of the design team in respect of the game, discussing how their game is played. That each group of players will inevitably vary those player practices is one of the reasons I am suggesting we treat player practices as constitutive of games rather than rules, because the rules as written remain the same but the games being played with those rules can be quite diverse – even if all you take into account is the differences in interpretation and not greater variations like house rules. I don’t think any two groups of players engaging with a Fantasy Flight game are playing the same way, as the rules often leave open a certain number of ambiguous points that the players have to negotiate and settle on their own.

You can read the entirety of Ecologies of Play over at, although if you haven’t already read Are Videogames Made of Rules? you probably ought to begin with that.