Over on ihobo today, some thoughts about when it might be a critical mistake to view continuity of design negatively, particularly in the context of Mario Kart (and also British developer Supersonic). The argument being advanced is that being a good custodian for player practices is not only commercial good sense, it is something we have cause to praise artistically. You can read the entirety of Mario Kart and the Cult of Originality over on ihobo.com.
There have been several attempts to propose a ‘Player’s Bill of Rights’ (e.g. Graham Nelson in 1994, Raph Koster in 2000, Peterb of Tea Leaves in 2004, Ernest Adams in 2005, and Brad Wardell in 2008), but the tendency of these has been to present wish lists of requirements game developers should adhere to, motivated partly by personal frustrations, and partly by professional expertise. Such statements can be exceptionally useful as proposals of best practices for game design or commercial game development, but the ‘bill of rights’ aspect of such manifestos is best understood as an imaginative framing. It certainly helps such claims get noticed, but it does not rise to the level of a genuine claim to rights.
There are two possible ways that we might get clear of this problem. Firstly, we could involve many different players in a discourse on their issues – which will prove intractable in the face of the immense diversity of players, and the vocal bloody-mindedness of certain factions among them. The alternative, which I take up here, is to pursue a concept of player rights from similar philosophical groundings to the US Bill of Rights and the so-called Universal Declaration of Human Rights, namely Kant’s concept of Recht (what I will call ‘the rightful state’ or ‘rightful conditions’). This idea has been a substantial influence in the emergence of what are now asserted as ‘rights’, although it should be noted that the very first Bill of Rights (pictured above) was written in 1689 and reflected the earlier philosophy of John Locke (although this was also an influence on Kant’s work).
It is worth observing that of the above mentioned bills of player rights, Raph Koster’s A Declaration of the Rights of Avatars is closest in form to historical documents of this kind (being partly modelled upon them). But for these kinds of player rights claim to hold up, they must hold up on grounds parallel to historical rights legislature – and this is far from obviously the case, for reasons this enquiry will undertake to make clear.
Ethics vs. Rightful Conditions
Kant divided morals into ethics (which he saw as rational self-constraint) and the rightful state (which concerns civil law). Rightful conditions are distinct from ethics because Kant thought, as many of us do today, that freedom consists in setting your own ends (that is, your own life goals), without being unnecessarily constrained by others.
As Allen Wood explains, it was Kant’s proposal that the only justifiable role for coercion of any kind was to secure the external freedom of citizens – this and this alone is the rightful state for any nation. Kant did not consider it reasonable for anyone to be forced to adopt other people’s ends, since anyone who is constrained in this way is not free. But ensuring that everyone was able to set their own ends in a civil society means protecting against attempts to force other people to adopt ends that are not their own – and the only reasonable use of coercion would be to prevent this.
Such enforcement does not require anyone to adopt any specific end, it merely protects everyone against any such attempts to dominate their freedom. We are only free, the argument goes, if we are free to choose our own ends, our life goals, although we may be rightfully constrained in the pursuit of those ends because some things that we might intend to do would violate the rightful condition (e.g. murdering people who block your chosen end).
It is thus from the idea of a rightful condition that the authority of civil police arises, and also from the rightful state that concepts of human rights develop, to protect against external coercion. This sets the background to exploring the idea of player rights: if such an idea is valid, there must be a rightful condition for games.
The Ends of Games
To begin with we must ask: do we ever possess ends when we play? It is important to appreciate that an end is far more than just something you want. As I explain in Chaos Ethics, ends are imagined future states in your life that you actively commit to pursuing. You may heartily crave an ice cold beer but it cannot be one of your ends – although it could be one of your ends to own a brewery, say.
Either our gaming-ends – to reach Level 70, build a castle, 100% a game etc. – are truly ends in the sense that freedom implies, or else they are something akin to fictional-ends, hence (analogously to Walton’s quasi-emotions) quasi-ends i.e. imagined ends whose meaning occurs solely within fictional worlds and not in everyday life as such. This distinction is not that easy to settle, however. A player may genuinely want to 100% a game, but then lose interest and play something else – or may become so obsessed with World of Warcraft that they drop out of college.
Notice also that some kinds of game are difficult to imagine quasi-ends for – what I have called thin play games such as Dear Esther and Proteus do not afford much room for willing future states, as they are experiential, like other artworks. Similarly, you may want to win at Snakes & Ladders but it is not a plausible end to set, nor is becoming a master at this particular game a particularly plausible end, as it might be (potentially) for Chess or Tetris.
The safest answer is to provisionally treat ends within the fictional worlds of games as quasi-ends that nonetheless can affect the ends we set in life – such as the undergraduate who succumbs to the lure of Azeroth, and thus frustrates his original end to earn a degree. This approach helps us deal with ambiguities about the diversity of player responses to the very same games that should affect our assessment of whether and how players set ends in the games they (freely) choose to play.
Do Games Coerce Players?
For there to be a question of player rights in Kant’s philosophy there must be a possibility of coercion that should be excluded – so we must ask: can game developers force quasi-ends upon players against their will? It is not entirely clear that they can.
In the case of the MMO drop-out, it does not seem entirely reasonable to suggest the player was coerced by Blizzard so much as suffered a personal moral failure after playing their game (i.e. this is an ethical problem, not an issue with rightful conditions). Blizzard, World of Warcraft, and other players who know the drop-out are all implicated in the network of moral agency here, but implying coercion seems to massively overstate the level of responsibility of anyone involved. The same would appear to apply to scurrilous microtransactions that take advantage of frustrated players – they may be ethically questionable, but preying upon the impulses of players does not quite seem to be of the magnitude required to constitute coercion. After all, isn’t this more or less what casinos do?
What this suggests is that there cannot be any player rights based upon this idea of rightful conditions, which is where all our other uses of ‘rights’ descend from (even those older conceptions drawing against Locke). It may be immoral for developers to produce games that take advantage of compulsive tendencies, but it does not qualify as a breach of rightful condition. The developer, on the other hand, does have its ends unrightfully frustrated by players who acquire access to their game via piracy – namely their end of being compensated for their own work. But this was not the subject of this particular enquiry.
No Rights, Many Wrongs
The reason it sometimes feels as if there should be player rights is that some decisions developers make frustrate players and seem thoroughly unnecessary – not allowing cut scenes to be skipped being a classic example (included in both Ernest’s and Peterb’s bills of rights), or using inadequately specified puzzles (as Graham Nelson’s bill of rights argues against).
However, at best we can say that it is bad business sense not to appreciate the needs of players in this regard, and (on the other side of this coin) players ought to be aware that software development is expensive and time-consuming and even small features place significant burdens on developers if they are required to implement them. In this regard, ‘player rights’ as lists of bugbears are not something that can be justified as anything other than advice for best practices. (Of course, this doesn’t mean developers shouldn’t pay attention to such issues, only that they cannot be compelled to adhere to them!)
In other cases (such as with Brad Wardell’s bill of rights), certain specific demands concern the commercial relationship between a player and a supplier that do not actually relate to games at all. For instance, it might indeed be a breach of rightful condition to secretly install hidden software drivers in so much as the individual’s ends regarding being in control of their own computer are being thwarted. But this has nothing to do with playing games.
Issues like this do, however, suggest there might be software rights that could be pursued, depending in part upon the rather important question of whether users are effectively forced to use certain instances of software. Again, this idea lies beyond the scope of this enquiry.
On purely philosophical grounds, I can draw several conclusions:
- Games are not clearly coercive, and as such are not a suitable venue for protective rights.
- Software (including game software) can potentially be coercive and might qualify as breaching rightful condition.
- There is a moral distinction between games that do not cause players to set specific quasi-ends (some of which share kinship with other kinds of artworks) and those that do.
These latter games, where they are especially compulsive, might justifiably be subjected to legal limitations in so much as civil societies restrict narcotics and gambling for similar (moral) reasons – and it could be argued (although I will not do so here) that such things do breach rightful conditions, although this claim is certainly a matter of debate.
Along similar lines, game developers who prey upon players through manipulative microtransactions cannot necessarily be prevented from doing so as a question of rightful conditions – but this does not preclude them from being judged immoral, and as such communities might decide to institute laws to restrict access to such games by (say) age, or some other appropriate criterion.
Such laws would not necessarily be consistent with Kant’s concept of rightful conditions, except where in so doing they clearly protected external freedom. This might be justifiable when dealing with children, who we tend to treat as being more susceptible to external influences, but if we think an adult is sufficiently autonomous to get drunk, we should equally think them capable of being in control of their games. It is not that players have rights so much as it is that players have responsibilities – and not least of all, to themselves.
My paper for the International Journal of Play is now in print and should be available by following the link for What are we playing with? Role-taking, role-play, and story-play with Tolkien’s legendarium.
And did I mention I’ve accepted a place on the editorial board of this journal? They’ve already treated me better than every other journal I’ve submitted to, and I love their inter-disciplinary focus.
A letter written as part of the Republic of Bloggers to the artists at the Sandbox/Fair events in Edinburgh. The letter is crossposted here from the Sandbox site. Replies from anyone at the event – or anyone reading this letter afterwards – are welcome.
Please accept my apologies for not being able to attend this event in person, but alas my wife will be going into labour any moment now and that has placed rather stringent restrictions upon my activities! I would like, however, to express my thanks at bring invited to talk to you on the topic of games as art, a subject dear to my heart and one that Edinburgh has graciously extended its welcome to me previously. That I am able to do so on this occasion within an art gallery is an especial point of pride, and helps bring into focus the importance that galleries possess in maintaining and exploring the values of art.
Although a game designer by profession, having worked on over forty games over the course of my career, I am now liable to additionally describe myself as 'a philosopher by vocation'. Even when I was studying astrophysics, my interest was in the questions that the sciences brought into focus more than the experimental practices. Yet I never anticipated being thrown feet first into philosophy, and much less philosophy of art which is a long way from my earlier interests!
Before I can discuss the role of games in the context of art, it may be prudent to touch upon why it might matter whether games can be artworks – and this question in turn hinges upon why art is worth talking about. There are many serious matters in urgent need of attention in our world – is it frivolous, then, to indulge in discussions about the status and boundaries of art? My view is that free discourse about art is a luxury that we in the United Kingdom (and other, not dissimilar nations) both can afford and equally cannot afford to lose. It is the question of the value of art that I want to address before we can explore the value of games as an artform.
Why is art valuable?
Oscar Wilde famously claimed that “all art is quite useless”, and when asked to expand upon this he wrote (in a letter to Bernulf Clegg): “Art is useless because its aim is simply to create a mood. It is not meant to instruct, or to influence action in any way.” Later in the same letter he added: “A work of art is useless as a flower is useless.”
Many critics of Wilde’s remark have engaged with this claim by demonstrating how art can be useful, which indeed it can be in a whole host of ways. But Wilde’s point should not be understood as denigrating art but as attempting to draw a line between art and purportedly ‘useful’ activities such as engineering, or medicine, or transport, or even entertainment – thus defining ‘art’ in opposition to the kind of values that organise such fields. The whole concept of 'utility', now the guiding principle of the national and corporate bureaucracies all around us, came to the fore in the Victorian era that was Wilde’s own time. Placing art in opposition to that kind of functional practicality gives art an important kind of power, the capacity to reveal a world beyond utility – a world we lose sight of all too often in the need to justify everything via claims to usefulness.
The grim vacuity of ‘utility’ as the sole value against which all other things must be judged was the nub of Einstein’s complaint that we had lost sight of our purposes. He wrote in 1948: “Perfection of means and confusion of ends seem to characterize our age and it has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity, that technological progress is like an axe in the hands of a pathological criminal, and that the attempt to combine wisdom and power has only rarely been successful and then only for a short while.” Art is a chaotic, indefinable bulwark against our obsession with means, precisely because (as Wilde remarked) it is not for any specific purpose beyond its own experience, even though the experience of art can and does change us, and thus art does paradoxically acquire a certain kind of usefulness, one quite beyond the reach of our unruly mega-bureaucracies.
This way of defending art as valuable has the distinct benefit of not requiring a specific definition of ‘art’ – which is exceptionally convenient, since no such definition can adequately take into account both the array of practices that can lay claim to producing or entailing ‘art’ and simultaneously the nebulous universality that would allow us to call, say, a 40,000 year old cave painting ‘art’ without any access to the specifics of the practice that created it. We instinctively recognise certain artefacts as ‘art’. Speaking solely for myself, I instinctively recognize games as ‘art’. So why do so many people have difficulty similarly recognising games as art?
Why are games art?
I began to discover that I had been tasked with defending games as art in the wake of the now infamous announcement by film critic Roger Ebert that games ‘could not’ be art. But Ebert’s Fence, as I have called it, which attempts to make a demarcation between games and art is not solely a problem created by outsiders looking in. A shocking number of supposedly well-informed gamers have enforced this boundary by, for instance, refusing to accept that the British-made Dear Esther is a game. “Art yes, game no”, this knee-jerk response states – while failing to notice that this attitude is precisely that which attempts to deny to games their artistic status. “You must be either a game or art”, the fence demands, “you cannot be both.” Sadly, many of those who claim to passionately defend games have become the greatest obstruction to recognising games as artworks!
What eternally destroyed this dichotomy between games and art for me was Kendall Walton’s make-believe theory of representation, a model from philosophy of art that explores how we imagine. Walton suggests that what has often held us back in understanding ‘art’ has been our failure to recognise the role of fiction in all representational artworks, as well as many other things we do not consider as art. He suggests that the way we encounter a representation (including an artwork) is by playing an imaginary game with it – one parallel to (but more sophisticated than) a child’s game of make-believe. We see sunflowers in Van Gogh’s remarkable painting because the bold brushstrokes prescribe a fictional world containing sunflowers, and our experience of the painting comes via the game we play with it that allows us to enter this world.
As a game designer, I could immediately see that this model completely flattens Ebert’s Fence since there can be no question of the artistic status of games if all artworks already entail games (namely, the games of make-believe we play as we experience them). The attempt to prise games away from art (or vice versa) then has to deny that the free imaginings of children constitute a game, despite this being precisely the word that is naturally deployed to describe such an activity! I developed this argument in my first book of philosophy, Imaginary Games, which would go on to be the first part of a trilogy on the role of imagination – in art and games, in science and religion, and in ethics and life. The last of these books, Chaos Ethics, will be out later this year.
However, let us not be too hasty in attributing artistic status to games! That games are art does not make all games into great artworks – nor even all great games into great artworks. The films of, say, Akira Kurasawa, are widely and justifiably celebrated as great artworks, but this does not make all feature films into great artworks. We have all seen terrible movies, after all. Similarly, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (made in Scotland, I might add!) is a great game that I would hesitate to defend as a masterly work of art, and not only because it operates primarily as a juvenile kind of wish fulfilment. The ambiguity surrounding both art and play is never entirely eliminated, and the personal experience that is central to the value of art creates considerable space for debate.
What are the boundaries of games-as-art?
The enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant reconciled the conflict between the apparent subjectivity of taste and the stridency of objective claims to beauty by suggesting that in aesthetics our subjective judgements are ones that we treat as if they have objective validity. So if I view, say, Pac-man as a masterwork my judgement also entails the expectation that others also have to view it that way. This helps explain why arguments about art – and, for that matter, games – can get so heated! Like our moral judgements, our aesthetic values can have a normative force that we expect others to conform to.
But in dealing with the idea of games as artworks we must also defuse the problem that our enjoyment of games causes us to valorise what we adore about those experiences independently of any artistic values entailed. Indeed, that is precisely why self-appointed defenders of games had to exclude Dear Esther as a game: it is a game that intentionally avoids the obviously rewarding aspects of challenge-oriented play. That alone is enough for some to brand it ‘not a game’ – and for me to single it out as a game of particular artistic value.
What I find especially fascinating in the question ‘what is a game?’ are the parallels with discussions in the art world over ‘what is art?’ Monroe Beardsley, for instance, flatly refused to accept that Marcel Duchamp’s ‘readymades’ – such as the urinal signed by Duchamp and gallery-displayed in 1917 as “Fountain” – could possibly qualify as ‘art’. I suspect that Beardsley’s principled rejection of this work did more to validate modern art as worthy of valorisation than anything said in its favour! Similarly, I view Ebert’s rejection of games as art to be the harbinger of an era no longer able to deny games artistic status, and for this I am immeasurably grateful to Ebert for deciding to talk about the artistic status of games, even in the negative. This watershed was long overdue.
Now, however, the problem faced by us brave few fools interested in the aesthetics of play is how to establish what is worthy of valorisation (or even denunciation!) in the context of games as art. It has been easy for me to support the artgames of Belgian developer, Tale of Tales, to give a simple example, because their work builds upon practices well-established as art against those practices that are well-established as games. These in turn inspired games whose footing is further from traditional artistic practice, such as thatgamecompany's Journey (featured – in a particularly novel way – as part of this exhibition [as pictured above]), which owes an acknowledged debt to Tale of Tales’ The Endless Forest but still feels unashamedly like a videogame for all its uniqueness. There is a vector of artistic expression at work here that is worthy of praise.
The task I am hinting at here is infinite and in need of support – I hope and trust that a few of those I am speaking to today, or who read this afterwards, will think it worthwhile to identify strands of practice in game design – art movements, specific aesthetics, communities of players or creators – that are worth valorising not just as games or as art but as games-as-art. The artist may resent the comfortable advantage of the critic who, after all, avoids taking the personal risks an artist must accept, but it usually falls to the critic – or to the gallery – to create and sustain the discourse that rings true with authentically artistic values. Those values are open to perpetual dispute – but the need to recognise aesthetic values is not. It is integral to our existence as imaginative beings.
Life, I am inclined to suggest, should be played, and as such we should strive both to play it well and to encourage others willing to go beyond the stifling demands of consumer conformity and ‘usefulness’ to play at living well. Be unique, create wondrous things, let your imaginative powers take you far from the inevitabilities! Make new worlds from old practices, and make anew the worlds of our oldest and greatest practices, including those we praise as ‘art’. This is the value of art, even if it is also why that value is always necessarily in flux.
With unlimited love,
No-one has replied yet.
Over on ihobo today, I expand my thoughts on the mythology of science into game design:
For quite a while now I've taken an interest in what neuroscientists can teach game designers. In the full knowledge that some of the things I convey will soon be invalidated, I have proceeded to dabble. But I am not a neurobiologist (or not yet, anyway) and many have advised me to leave it to those within the field. For me, this is the wrong way to relate to the sciences: experimental findings do not propagate by accurate description but by metaphors, what I have called (after Mary Midgley) 'myths' – and neurobiologists are no more trained in practical mythology than game designers are in neuroscience.
Regular players of Only a Game are probably better equipped for this piece than most, and I thought about running it here, but it is ultimately about games so I put it on ihobo.com instead. You can read the entirety of Neuromythology for Game Design over there – check it out!
Over the past four weeks on ihobo, I’ve been asking some questions that push against contentious issues in games. These were all written with a dash of bluster to try and provoke discussion – in at least one case, I may have overcooked it. Here are the questions:
- Is Gordon Freeman a Character? (25th September): this concerns what we mean by a game character, and what we want out of characters in games. The contested camps are arranged around narrative vs. agency.
- Is a Jigsaw Puzzle a Game? (2nd October): this one concerns our understanding of both games and puzzles, and the relationship between the two. The disputes concern different conceptions of ‘game’.
- Is Fiction Just a Wrapper for Games? (9th October): a new rant on an old chestnut, it’s akin to the classic narratology vs. ludology battle (or fiction vs. function) and also player-centric vs. object-centric game studies (or player vs. system). Great reply by Danc on this one!
- Is the Interface the Game? (16th October): this concerns the importance of the interface in games, something Graeme Kirkpatrick has championed. But do we really appreciate how wide reaching the effects of game interfaces are?
Hope you’ve enjoyed these rant-flavoured ponderings. I’ll be taking my usual break from blogging in November but there’ll be more nonsense at ihobo from December.
Cross-posted from ihobo.com.
Over on ihobo today, I ask whether Marshall McLuhan’s famous quote “the medium is the message” translates in the context of games to ‘the interface is the game’. You can read the entirety of Is the Interface the Game? over on ihobo.com.
A popular view of the role of fiction in games is that it is just wrapping paper, enticing the player to start playing before later being discarded as the 'real' game supersedes the mere trapping. This utterly misrepresents the experience of a great deal – perhaps even the vast majority – of players.
More game questions this week on ihobo:
Although we call them puzzles, is the play of a jigsaw best understood this way? Veli-Matti Karhulahti triumphantly declares in the title of his DiGRA 2013 paper “Puzzle is Not a Game!” Is he right?
Every poll asking gamers to rate the best videogame character is topped by Half-Life's Gordon Freeman. But is Gordon even a character, let alone the best that games have produced? This question hinges upon what we mean by 'character', of course. The argument that Gordon qualifies – despite his lack of a clearly recognisable personality or identity – rests on the assumption that a player-character should be an empty shell for the player to inject themselves into… Trouble is, player-as-Gordon has precious little choice because his world consists solely of puzzles to solve, things to crowbar, or things to kill. So if this is the relevant criterion, it doesn't seem like Gordon has the substance to back up his claim to supremacy with any kind of legitimacy beyond popular mandate.