The Language of Games

A reply to Chris Billow’s New Theory of Play: Playstates as part of the Republic of Bloggers.

MC Escher.Plane FillingII.1957Dear Chris,

Our disagreements about language are not something to be dismissed as ‘mere opinion’, but a valuable context in which we reveal our aesthetic judgements. Such was my argument in Implicit Game Aesthetics back in 2012, and this way of understanding our arguments about both ‘games’ and ‘art’ has served me well. This does not mean, however, that frameworks for delineating terms and concepts like your playstates theory, have no value. On the contrary: laying out clearly defined frameworks can be very helpful for having clarifying discussions.

In academic circles, this kind of constructed language is invaluable, and it also serves important roles in various practical domains. In both film production and film studies, a common language has been constructed that makes the ties between the academy and its associated industry in this case stronger, and helps ensure that everyone is talking about the same thing. How I wish the same were true of the games industry! We do have some common terminology – but almost all of this what we inherit from the tabletop game development scene of the 1970s and 1980s such as NPCs, scenario, campaign, with a few terms from the arcade like lives, levels, and high scores. The only more recent cases of terminology creeping in has been via hugely successful videogames: World of Warcraft gave us tank, kite, and (regrettably, in my view) mob.

Why has game development not formed a common language? There are several answers to this, but in the broadest strokes it all rests on the nature of the grassroots games industry. Even from the very beginning, film was a medium that required a significant investment of resources. This meant that the practices developed in an industrial context, and this facilitated a rapid and highly successful crossover into the academic world. As a result, the film industry and film studies developed a common lexicon that rapidly converged, and was then being taught to the new apprentices, regardless of how they were brought in. Theatre, as a pre-industrial form, had a classical form of apprenticeship, newcomers learning from the old hands: again, the practices could converge and then be passed on.

Games have had nothing of the kind. Whether we look at the commercial boardgames of the 18th, 19th, and 20th century, or the bedroom coders of the 8-bit era of videogames – or for that matter today’s Kickstarter boardgame community and indie developer scene – there has been no venue for apprenticeship, no basis for a common lexicon, no firm alliance between industry and academia. We invent the wheel and we reinvent it over and over again. To make matters worse, as the nerdiest medium thus far devised, game developers are obsessed with taking everything apart and putting it back together ‘right’, which is to say ‘in their own image’. We just don’t co-operate like other folks… although that doesn’t mean we can’t work together.

I only have to think back to the years I spent trying to fight for ‘cRPG’ instead of ‘CRPG’ – an utterly futile endeavour whichever way you look at it, and yet this mattered enormously to me at one point in my life. That may seem insane – it does to me these days! – but in my mind I was defending the priority of the tabletop role-playing game and its practices. There were, undoubtedly, better ways to do this. But for some queer reason this battleground became one of many I took upon myself. (I also, incidentally, fought hard for the use of the third person singular gender neutral ‘they’, long before this had become a point of political correctness – and indeed went to war with the QA department on Discworld Noir over this very topic.)

Your playstates model strikes me as very much the same kind of tilting at windmills, although it is much better formed than many of my own quixotic pursuits. As I mentioned to you previously in this regard, your model stands or falls upon whether the person encountering it holds the same aesthetic values about ‘game’ that drive you to characterise games in terms of measurement. I personally find this a fascinating perspective, particularly because I have not encountered this before. But of course, that suggests that you won’t be winning over converts very easily… not least because, nerd-windmills being what they are, every person who is likely to care this much about ‘game’ has their own definition, and their own reasons why they understanding it as ‘the right one’.

If this sounds negative, it shouldn’t – there are several things that I particularly admire about your playstates approach. First and foremost, that it is a trait-based theory and not a typology (as I mentioned to you previously), since this immediately hurdles the most fatal problems with definitions of ‘game’ that we usually encounter. Chris Crawford’s logic gates are at the opposite extreme here, and I find it fascinating that this is an influence behind your thought here. Secondly, that your model draws attention to the experience of make-believe as a playstate (Role-plays). As I have all too frequently complained, the game studies crowd is deeply committed to fiction denial, and constantly push systems (your Games) as much more important than fiction and imagining. I believe this is another example of aesthetic values drawing people into a particular way of seeing the world.

I fear many will part company with you at the point you distinguish ‘game’ from ‘video game’ (I so want to type ‘videogame’ here… another battle I have vainly fought, and I’m so glad Ian Bogost converged with me on this one.) Thus you can identify, say, Dear Esther as a ‘video game’  but say too that it is ‘not a game’ (because characteristic of your technical term ‘game’ is measurement). I too part company with you here, but in the opposite direction. Although your position is internally consistent, I can find no reason to restrict ‘game’ as a concept to measurement when every child in every English-language country says they are playing a game when they enter into a Role-play playstate. I feel, as I have mentioned to you before, there might have been an argument for replacing your technical term ‘game’ with another word.

But of course you didn’t. You couldn’t. Because deep in your aesthetic appreciation for games (whether as ‘games’ or as ‘role-plays’ or, I’ll wager, as ‘sports’) is the importance of the measurement element of the play experience. I think the systems crowd would be sympathetic, if it wasn’t for the fact that every single one of them wants to put down their own definitions and boundary conditions because… nerds.

You have to love the nerds, or I do at the very least, not least because I have been one all my life and see neither shame nor insult in claiming the term. It is just like the gay community successfully claiming ‘queer’ – the cleverest PR stunt in my lifetime! And oh how I chuckled when the aesthetic insult ‘walking simulator’, levelled at titles like Dear Esther and those other games that move much less confidently in the same direction, was similarly claimed by fans of the form as a badge of honour. Here is a valuable lesson in language. You don’t change language by laying out a new map of the territory. You change language through a game of aikido-like legerdemain, where the rival move is turned against itself. I wonder: is that game part of your playstate of ‘sport’, or is there a whole other playstate missing from your model…?

With unlimited love,


Any and all replies and commentaries, through blog-comments, blog-posts, twitter etc. are welcome! The opening image is MC Escher’s 1957 lithograph Plane Filling II. No copyright infringement is intended.

Pokémon GO Update: The Highs, the Lows

Over at ihobo today, yet more Pokémon GO reporting, this time looking at how the player community is adjusting to the update after a week.

Why so much on this game? Well, partly because this update is a big deal for Niantic and I want to chip in some professional perspective on it. Mainly because it’s a rare case of something having happened in the games industry that I’m actually interested in, so it’s a good opportunity to rebuild my blogging momentum. I have other blog pieces in production at the moment, but I’m struggling to get the time to work on them. Conversely, cranking out a thousand words on the game I’m playing with my kids is relatively easy win for me... it keeps me blogging, at that’s valuable to me in and of itself.

Interview for Pop Philosophy

PPh logo

Delighted to report that the Russian website Pop Philosophy has an interview with me, in both Russian and English, talking about games, philosophy, Discordians, and cyber-squirrels. Here’s an extract:

There are those who suggest we are living in a golden age of videogames, and if you look at the volume of titles today there is certainly a huge amount out there. But for me, really interesting or engaging titles are few and far between. On the one hand, the upper end of the market, AAA console games, feels constricted by the size of the audience they need to court. It is amazing what is being made now, but we’re deeply into iterating upon the existing player practices. If you wanted to find original concepts, AAA would be the wrong place to look. But then I look at what the indie community delivers and, unsurprisingly, they are making the games they want to play, which are mostly just iterating on the existing player practices too but with less budget and so more rough edges. There’s greater emphasis on puzzles, some ugly violence in the corners, a lot of half-executed retro sensibilities…it’s not lacking inventiveness so much as it has no aesthetic ambition. It’s too safe. It mostly bores me.

Check it out over at the PPh website!

Lessons from the MUD

AccursedLandsAnonymity and technology mix badly. While you are required in most countries to pass a test of skill with cars, our most dangerous tool, and even the US licenses and records the identity of firearm owners, any fool can appear on Twitter or Facebook with a fictional or falsified identity and act abusively towards the cyborgs they encounter there. However, eliminating anonymity by forcing the use of public identities is a heavy-handed solution that would almost certainly prove insufficient for eliminating the problem, as Brian Green has carefully outlined. But there are lessons that can be learned from earlier digital public spaces that offered anonymity but had less of a problem with abuse, and this can put a different slant on these kinds of problems.

The Multi-User Dungeons, or MUDs, began as spaces for creative adventures, greatly conditioned by the play of the pivotal tabletop role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons. These imaginary worlds were entirely made of databases of text, arranged to create the impression of connected rooms and spaces, within which players could move around and encounter one another. Players would join a MUD using network protocols from the early days of the internet, creating an account with a name that would become their identity in the shared space of the game world. The MUDs would go on to provide the basis for graphical games like EverQuest and World of Warcraft that would achieve tremendous commercial success.

A player coming to a MUD for the first time was likely to have been invited by someone else, and as such was not strictly alone. Nonetheless, players typically entered the text world as individuals, and since players would connect at different times they were often (if not always) alone. Starting players were always unknown to the existing players, so there was always an element of uncertainty about the arrival of someone new. Nonetheless, the community surrounding each MUD, which was typically a few hundred players or so, generally welcomed newcomers, and there was an air of hospitality extended in most MUD communities. Abusive players, then as with in the larger digital spaces today, were the minority, and would quickly come into conflict with the more responsible players who would report them to the administrators, typically entitled Wizards.

The Wizard system provided legislative, judicial, and executive power within the MUD. While the first Wizards would be those who set up the software and provided the hardware to run the game, many MUDs used a democratic system to elect additional Wizards, who worked as a collective to maintain order and community. Legislative acts concerned the code of conduct that applied, and thus set the boundaries of acceptable behaviour – such matters were always resolved by the Wizards working together, and generally involved consulting the wider community of players as well. Judicial and executive power was expressed by taking action against troublemakers – in many MUDs, miscreants could be ‘toaded’, which reduced a character to a powerless amphibian. Wizards would hold tribunals in this regard to determine the justice of any such punishment meted out. Although I have heard of some instances of ‘corrupt Wizards’, my own experiences showed the Wizard system to be highly effective at minimising abuse in MUDs.

While on the surface, MUDs were play spaces, in practice the division between game and communication system blurred. This was especially so because MUDs provided the first networked text communication system that didn’t require manual delivery, like a telegram. As such, many attracted a community of ‘players’ using them solely as a chat interface. These were the original chatrooms, since players would typically congregate in a room of the MUD’s fictional world to engage in conversation. This occasionally caused tension with other members of the community who were using the game differently, but for the most part it was a fact of life in MUDs that some people were there solely to chat, and facilities to do so were expanded in the code for MUDs as the 1990s progressed.

The MUD was the direct precursor to Facebook and Twitter, which descend from earlier copies of the chatroom concept, such as AOL’s offering, which lacked the fictional world but kept the name. Yet abuse in MUDs was comparatively rare, and rapidly resolved by Wizards whenever it occurred. Anonymity may still have fostered abuse, but the systems were in place in MUDs both to guard against it, and to discourage it from happening in the first place. The most effective deterrent against online abuse is community – and the MUDs fostered this far more than the latest digital public spaces.

Thus while a new MUD player might arrive alone and unknown, they were never unguarded – both in the sense of protected from the abuse of others, and watched for signs of conducting abuse. Conversely, a ‘tweep’ (as a user of Twitter is colloquially termed) is alone, unknown, and essentially unguarded – and these are the optimal conditions for abuse to fester. Twitter has an abuse reporting system, but it is distant and bureaucratic, with no community to manage the warnings and reporting, and no community-engaged Wizards to act as magistrates.

Here we have three different senses of ‘anonymous’, all of which contribute to cyber-disdain, and thus a greater risk of cyber-cruelty. To be alone in a digital public space is to lack a community, and crucially ‘follows’ and ‘friends’ do not mark the authentic social bonds of a community relationship but merely an open communication channel. To be unknown is to be anonymous in the sense of having a concealed identity – a situation that fosters abuse if it is not offset by community relations. Lastly, unguarded marks an invisibility to the systems of justice within a digital public space – a situation worsened by being unknown, and by being alone.

Thus Facebook’s requirement to use conventional identities (to eliminate being unknown) is insufficient to stop abuse, both because its users are mostly alone and unguarded, and also because the size of its membership means that with random encounters, cyborgs are still effectively unknown to each other. This is the fertile soil in which abusive behaviour online grows: as the cybernetic networks increase in scale, community is unsustainable since humans can only sustain viable communities at a scale of hundreds and never at a scale of billions. Two Facebook users, even with public identities, are effectively unknowable to each other – and nothing much can solve this problem short of managing encounters in a way that most would find intolerable. Guarding against problematic behaviour is more tractable when there is a village-scale community to engage, respond, and react – while at planetary-scale even robot-assisted magistrates are rendered impotent by the sheer scope of the network.

Anonymity is the root of online abuse, but there are at least three senses of this term that matter. We tend to focus on unknown anonymity, and thus miss the importance of alone anonymity and unguarded anonymity. My emphasis on being alone may seem misplaced. For instance, in his discussion of the problems of anonymity, Brian reports that “people in groups are more likely to transgress.” I agree with this claim, even though this may seem to run counter to my suggestion that alone anonymity is a key part of the problem. However, Brian’s point concerns ‘mob mentality’, and a mob is not a community in any relevant sense. Indeed, precisely what makes a mob dangerous is that people are alone together when they are a part of it – and this anonymity of the crowd (which also operates fairly innocently in audiences for musicians and so forth) becomes dangerous when the people concerned are also unknown and unguarded, as happens all the time in our digital public spaces.

When Sherry Turkle raises concerns about the way we are alone together online, she is not talking about the mob as such, but her work also emphasises this same concern: the undermining of authentic community by the current design features of the new communication systems. Yet different designs will produce different results. It is notable that blogs, which assign executive power to the blog owner (and thus are close to unguarded), and are ambiguous on the question of being unknown (since it is the blog owner’s choice how they identify) still manage to be less of a locus of abuse than the large-scale digital public spaces since bloggers are never alone. Forums tolerate contributions that are alone and unknown because they are not unguarded, thanks to the presence of moderators who can work effectively because the scale of the network of contributors is manageable. When a moderator ‘knows that such-and-such is a troublemaker’, they mean that particular cyborg is not anonymous in the sense of being unguarded. Different solutions to fostering cyber-respect (and minimising cyber-cruelty) hinge upon the different senses of anonymity.

What does not work – indeed, cannot work – is expecting our robots to plug the gap caused by scaling networks beyond human capacity to form a viable community. Abuse will remain endemic on Facebook and Twitter for as long as their cyborg participants can be functionally alone, effectively unknown, and inadequately guarded. If there are solutions to this problem, and it is not clear that there are, the most important lessons to learn are those revealed by the stories of the MUDs, the pioneering digital public spaces, the first cyborg communities of their kind.

With grateful thanks to Peter Crowther, both for feedback on this piece, and for running UglyMUG, a game that changed both his life and my own. Also, my thanks to Brian Green for his outstanding summary of the relationship between privacy and anonymity, which this piece responds to.

The Meaning of Play: Chris Bateman's US Tour (April 2017)

Play.Jan RasiewiczDelighted to announce that I am on a five State tour of the US this April, with four speaking engagements open to the public. I shall be presenting at four university campuses in Indiana, Texas, California, and Utah with an hour long presentation on The Meaning of Play. Most of the venues are open to the general public, so even if you're not a student at the universities in question you'd be more than welcome to come along. 

My topic for this tour is The Meaning of Play, an imaginative voyage through five hundred million years of play, using the latest empirical and philosophical research to trace the aesthetic motives that inspire beings to pursue play, and the lineages connecting the different kinds of play that these motives brought about. The journey will look at the aesthetic motives of the first multi-cellular life forms back in the Cambrian, how early wolves created new meanings for play a million years ago, the relationship between games today and games five millennia in the past, and how humans continue to create new and different means to – and meanings of – play.

Here are all the places you can catch me this April. Some details are still being confirmed and will be updated soon, so watch this space!

Tuesday 4th April: Indiana University, Bloomington, IN

Franklin Hall Commons, 1 pm 
Open to all

Thursday 6th April: Texas A&M, College Station, TX

Langford B Geren Auditorium, 7:45 pm
Open to all

Sunday 9th April: Laguna College of Art and Design, CA

Studio 5, Big Bend Campus, 2825 Laguna Canyon Rd, 1pm
Open to all

Wednesday 12th April: University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT

EAE Games Studio, Building 72, Level 2, 5 pm
Open to all

With thanks to Erlend Grefsrud for goading me into this title. The opening image is Play by Jan Rasiewicz, which I found here at his site, Rasko Fine Art. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.


Over on ihobo today, my critique of Tale of Tales’ 2015 artgame Sunset. Here’s an extract:

There are guns in Sunset, but you never see them. Indeed, this is a game that spectacularly eschews conventional spectacle. Throughout the games’ slowly-unfolding story, a civil war against a 1970s South American dictatorship is witnessed both from a distance – the sound of gunfire in the streets, an explosion at a neighbouring building – and from the intimate inside, since the player serves as maid to a key politician-turned-rebel. It is an ambitious, highly theatrical staging, and admirable when it works, which it does more often than not… Yet to treat Sunset purely as a narrative game is to rob it of its greatest achievement, and perhaps also to misunderstand one of the layers of meaning wrapped up in its name.

You can read the entirety of Sunset over on

Save The Endless Forest

Endless Forest Skull DeerAlong with Façade and Shadow of the Colossus, Tale of Tales’ ‘massively multiplayer screensaver’ The Endless Forest was one of the key games that made 2005 such a banner year for artgames. It went on to inspire Jenova Chen’s team in the design of Journey, and remains one of the most innovative designs ever offered in games.

Now Michael and Auriea want to bring back their “whimsical online magical deer fantasy” – and they need our help to do it! Please consider donating to the IndieGoGo fund for The Endless Forest: Second Decade. The original game was a milestone in the artistic history of games, as well as one of the most fascinating and engaging aesthetic experiences ever to be offered on a computer.

There are just a few days left to contribute. Please help the forest live again!