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  • Michael Moorcock
    "a genuine philosophy for the 21st century"
  • Mary Midgley
    "this matters - read it!"
  • Kendall Walton
    "wonderfully refreshing and inventive"


Game Design

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I want to create art, and I do that by placing a paper bag on the ground.


When I read about Kendall Walton, I instantly thought of what I read over at Psychology of Games where, to be able to understand something, you will try to put in in a context; to create a story. Marianne Simmel and Fritz Heider shows this by the following clip (90 sec long):

Heider-Simmel Demonstration

What I find interesting about these what-is-art/game discussions is what I feel that what people really trying to define is "what good art". To me, my paper bag is art because I said so, but I would never claim that it's good art.

When people say "That's not a game", what they really mean is probably "That's not how I play games". It' a exclusive way of seeing things, and by being exclusive, you actually prevent innovation in that area.

If someone says it's a game, it's a game. Try to learn from that perspective. To understand it. Sure, you can question it but only to get an understanding. Perhaps you realize that it's not how you play a game, and then can be dismissive, but at least you learned a new perspective.

Hi Rickard,
My work recently has focused on an idea related to what you say here: that it is aesthetic values that are in play when people tackle the questions of 'what is a game' or 'what is art', and like you I instinctively feel they are assigning their ontological categories on aesthetic grounds.

This opens up a fascinating door for me, since I can then identify aesthetic positions on play by looking at ontological definitions of 'game'. This is what 'Implicit Game Aesthetics' (drafted on my blogs, and enmired in peer defense for a journal) pursued. If the topic interest you, have a crack at that:

Thanks for your comment!



Congratulations on another successful procreation!

I enjoy your writing, and want to support your Republic of Bloggers, but I must admit that your open letters are so well written, well-considered and voluminous (for a blog post, at least) that it's difficult to feel that I have much to add to your existing thoughts -- and even to the degree that I can meaningfully contribute to the conversation, doing so often feels more time consuming than I can afford.

But, since having my ass handed to me (again) by FTL hasn't cured my (thankfully rare) insomnia, now seems the perfect time to vomit forth something that resembles discourse.

As usual, you have many fascinating thoughts here that I find convincing. But since merely nodding is uninteresting, I will focus on my points of dissent.

I claim that art does not merely "acquire a certain kind of usefulness", but in fact can easily be seen in purely utilitarian terms. Of course I understand your aim in contrasting art against the Victorian ideal of utility, but I think it's equally important to point out that numerous events (a patient overcoming post-surgery pain while avoiding drugs by playing a videogame, or a gamer relishing making decisions in her favorite fantasy world in what would otherwise be a dull couple of hours, or a group of friends centering a social gathering around a game, and so many more) are all naturally thought of in utilitarian terms. So you're really criticizing the Victorian sense of utility, not the applicability of utilitarianism to videogames and other art forms.

I also object to art being characterized as "undefinable" in some way unique to the field of art. Many thinkers (including yourself!) create consistent and useful definitions for many aspects of art -- while there are surely many aspects left to understand, and many aspects that are incompletely understood (and indeed are unlikely to be fully understood in our lifetimes, if ever), to a greater or lesser degree this is true of all fields of inquiry, and is in no way specific to art.

I also fail to see how "mega-bureaucracies" cannot achieve the aims of art. Can you really argue that no large organization has ever in human history played a significant role in creating a piece of art? (This statement seems hard to defend given any reasonable definition of "mega-bureaucracy" or "art")

Someday I hope to find the time to read "Imaginary Games", but until then, I've felt very comfortable thinking of art in terms of communication. This metaphor seems broad enough to encompass all art, but narrow enough to provide some practical insight to the in-the-trenches artist.

If art is communication, then many things can be artistic -- indeed, any time a speaker (artist) communicates something (anything) to an audience member by any means, the function of art has taken place.

As with communication, miscommunication happens all the time: sometimes through an incompetent speaker (artist), an incompetent listener (audience member), or a willful misinterpretation of the art (communication).

Great art communicates a great deal in terms of profundity, clarity, and volume of information. But since communication depends as much on the listener as on the speaker, it will always be entirely subjective (as it appears that Kant has noted), and great art to one person will often be superficial and nearly meaningless to another.

The only thing that separates interactive art (such as videogames) from purely passive art (like film or music) is interactive artists teach the artwork itself to listen to the audience member, and adjust its speakings accordingly.

I'm terribly curious to know your thoughts about these and other topics!

The rest of your letter was fascinating, with numerous details altogether new to me! Hopefully someday I'll be able to dig deeper without sacrificing the other time-consuming activities I'm engaged in.

Cheers and best wishes,


Hi Nathan,
Thanks for your thoughtful comment... although I must say, if you're suffering from insomnia FTL is definitely not going to offer a cure (it is likely to be the cause!), and writing text is also not high up the list of ways to get to sleep. As someone with a long history of insomnia that I am thankfully mostly over, I will have to say that videogames are best avoided in the last two hours before you intend to go to sleep. They wake up parts of your brain that will not slumber easily once awoken! :)

Thanks for your kind words about the blog letters - I have to say, it is becoming clear that because people agree with me on so many points, it is hard to get the dialogue going! This is unfortunate... Clearly, I will have to wade in on more strident subjects later this year! :)

Regarding utility, I think I am only criticising the ethical perspective that would reduce *all* morality to utility. Utilitarian thinking can be a healthy part of morality - but it becomes cancerous when all other aspects are quashed in its pursuit. I feel it would be unfair to blame the Victorians for this - although they started the ball rolling!

It is certainly not unique to art that it is 'undefinable', although I also do not think art is 'undefinable', as such, so much as it (like 'game' and many other words) have clusters of meanings that cannot be fully captured in a single definition. Wittgenstein is on point for me on these issues, as ever. ;)

I do not wish to claim that mega-bureaucracies cannot produce artworks. They do. Almost all feature films these days, to give one obvious example. But they pursue these for their commercial utility. It is art in Oscar Wilde's sense that is beyond the reach of the corporate mega-bureaucracy. They cannot pursue 'useless' art, because even in order to do so they would have to provide an explanation in terms of utility to justify its production! Only the individual and the small band of artists can reach art in Wilde's sense, or such is my claim, at least.

The view of art as communication is quite well established now, I'm pleased to say - I am very open to this understanding. There's an Eric Newton paper in the British Journal of Aesthetics called "Art as Communication" in 1961, and I'm reasonably sure that William James or some other pragmatist advanced a view predicated on this kind of understanding. I only resist it because I think that an unseen artwork could still be an artwork, and I do not feel the need to invoke communication-with-self to defend this. But the communicative aspect of art is definitely one of its most salient points, whether or not it is properly essential.

Lastly, I baulk at your characterisation of film or music as 'purely passive'. This is a common view that I resist - my paper on Tolkein's legendarium (which I linked to here somewhere) expressly tries to show how a book or a movie can be a highly active imaginative experience. This is not a merely technical point, either - as much as I enjoy videogames, most do not actually engage my imagination actively as much as a genre movie that is connected to a wider megatext.

I cannot commit to the line of reasoning that is going to demarcate 'interactive artworks' on some claim of passivity for other kinds of artworks - no art is passive. The experience of art is always active. If we must tease games away from other artworks, I fear it must be because of the ways they dictate experience as much or more so than any agency that they may seem to offer...

I must dash, as I am horribly behind on my work, but thank you for commenting and since you *have* commented before, you count as Player #6 for the Meta-campaign. Many thanks for returning to comment!

All the best,


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