Beyond Choice in Game Narrative

Over on ihobo today, an open letter to Caroline Marchal and John Yorke responding to their talk at Develop: Brighton. Here’s the most inflammatory paragraph to whet your appetite:

There are, I think, two main problems with game writing today. The first is that too many of the people working on stories in games have a great appreciation for the toolkit of game design but too little an appreciation for the vast toolkit for narrative… To have experimented with short stories, or plays, or novels, is not a wasted effort for a game writer, but an opportunity to learn vital skills in story construction. The second problem is that there are rather too many ‘carpetbaggers’ (if you’ll forgive the allusion), which is to say, screenwriters who think that the problem with game stories is something that can only be solved by writers with experience in film and TV. Of the two, the latter might be more dangerous to games as an artistic medium, since someone who is game-literate can learn conventional narrative relatively easily (by attending your talk, for instance) but a screenwriter who believes that games must adapt to the conventions of screenplays is undertaking a certain kind of violence against the radical potential of game narrative.

You can read the entirety of Beyond Choice in Game Narrative over at ihobo.com.


The Journey Towards Trans Liberty

An open letter replying to Branwen at Branwen.me as part of the Republic of Bloggers. Further replies welcome!

Obaid.Traces of LibertyDear Branwen,

I write to you at this time as my closest friend in the trans community, among which I have made a great many friends over the past twenty years, and all of whom I hold dear. I write with great concern, because social media advocates for the trans community are currently engaged in actions that are extremely likely to hurt the trans community, the lesbian community, and women in general. And I also write with considerable difficulty: precisely because I dearly wish for liberty for the trans community, and indeed for everyone else, I feel great anxiety when the path that leads there has become obscured by a series of intersecting forms of hatred manifesting in the dark corners of these communities.

A short while ago, I consented to having my name added to an open letter addressed the University of Bristol asking them to ensure the freedom of speech of the British organisation, A Women’s Place. This group has been accused of a great many things by the trans community, including that they are espousing violence against trans folks and that they are TERFs (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists). I can find no specific evidence to support the former claim, and have no particular interest in assessing the latter since ‘TERF’ is fast becoming the political equivalent of an ethnic slur (as with terms such as ‘libtard’ or ‘Remoaner’) and that seems as offensive to me as (say) purposefully deadnaming a trans person. I find both these situations offensive, but neither is illegal and, I would further suggest, neither should be.

A question I hear more often than I should these days is whether there should be limits to freedom of speech, which is otherwise taken to be a fundamental right. It seems to me that freedom of speech should not be curtailed, or else this right means nothing. Nonetheless, there is always an associated responsibility to take into account the outcomes of what someone says, and this mean that some forms of speech can be judged illegal, irrespective of freedom of speech. For instance, when Lawrence Burns was arrested in the UK for inciting racial hatred it was because such incitement was itself illegal. Indeed, inciting violence is illegal in the civil law of the vast majority of nations, and because of this it greatly matters what we construe as ‘violence’, a point I shall return to shortly.

As a historical matter, the very notion of ‘rights’ is grounded on the idea that the limits which should apply to everyone are those that serve to collectively defend everyone’s freedom. In his discussion of these issues in The Free Development of Each, Allen Wood lays out the conception of rights as they existed in the German philosophical tradition from which they originated. The German philosophical term ‘Recht’, meaning roughly ‘the condition of right’ or ‘rightful conditions’, entails having the freedom from having your choices constrained by the choices of others, such that everyone can experience freedom equally. In the centuries since Kant’s time, we have switched from talking about ‘the condition of right’ (Recht) and started talking about ‘rights’ instead, but the same considerations still apply. The manner chosen for addressing the condition of right at the moment is a set of legal statutes, agreed internationally (although not currently endorsed by all nations) and often modified nationally. It is these that we call ‘rights’, like the right to free speech, which (as for any such right) applies to everyone equally.

The problem we are now facing is that the trans community’s freedom from having their choices constrained by the choices of others has now come into conflict with other communities equivalent demands for freedom. These kind of disputes are an unavoidable consequence of trying to build a system of laws that sets as its goal equal liberty, since different conceptions of both equality and liberty must inevitably conflict as the attempt is made to balance the needs and demands of one group against another. Whenever this happens, there must be discussion about how to resolve the conflict – and no single party can expect its demands to be given precedence against anyone else’s as such disagreements are being resolved. The danger at the moment is that this necessary conversation is being obstructed by political pressure being applied by some trans advocates… and that’s a potential disaster for everyone’s liberty.

In the UK, these disputes have hit an impasse over a proposed modification to an existing law known as the Gender Recognition Act. Part of the proposed change would remove the current system of application for a Gender Recognition Certificate as a required step before legally permitting people to present themselves as a different gender to that officially recorded for them. I am not a supporter of the Gender Recognition Certificate process… it places a medicalised step into a system where it is not clear it is required, and where it can certainly be distressing. But I am unsure whether I support the currently proposed revisions to the Gender Recognition Act or not… that would depend upon how the new law impacts everyone, and not just the trans community. To establish that requires discussion – and it is this discussion that is currently being obstructed by certain trans advocates who are campaigning against groups such as A Woman’s Place who seek to participate in that debate.

It seems to me that a lot of the furore that has been directed at A Woman’s Place revolves around discussion of what is called the Gender Critical view. I can find no evidence that this particular organisation is committed to the ‘gender critical’ view, although it is certainly the case that some of the people involved with it do hold gender critical beliefs. I would like to provide a definition here of what ‘gender critical’ means, but any attempt to do so will be inadequate as a great deal is collected under this banner, not all of it accurately ascribable to those who hold this view. Broadly, however, being ‘gender critical’ entails firstly viewing gender primarily as a social construct, and secondly interpreting the female gender as relating to a specific model of power relations founded on control of the assumed innate reproductive qualities of female bodies. This viewpoint has become problematic in part because disbelieving gender also entails undermining trans people’s claims about their gender.  

You contend to me that espousing the gender critical view is violence against the trans community… this is a serious allegation, since under the system of rights that evolved from Kant’s philosophy, the State is justified in intervening against those who conduct violence against others, in order to preserve rightful condition. But it matters here whether we are talking about literal violence – the use of physical force or power against someone – or whether we are talking about figurative violence, which would be protected by the right of free speech unless it incited literal violence. The twenty eight members of the trans community in the US killed in 2017 were tragic victims of violence – and distressingly this figure has been climbing each year recently. The ‘corrective’ rape of Mvuleni Fana, and scores of other lesbians like her in South Africa is grotesque violence. The beating of transwoman Jayla Ware in Charlotte, NC, earlier this year was violence. The punching of sixty year old Maria MacLachlan at Speaker’s Corner in the UK last year because she had been branded a TERF was violence.

I assume the reason that you and others want to hold gender critical views as (figurative) violence against the trans-community is because such beliefs dissolve the concept of gender entirely and instead focus solely upon biological sex, in some cases leading to a denial that a transwoman is a woman or a transman is a man. The threat here is thus one of erasure, since if this view were to be widespread it would entirely eliminate even the possibility of being a transgender person. Believe me, I know how upsetting such situations can be, as I have already experienced a situation where others were espousing views that entailed the erasure of an important part of my identity, namely my religions.

When Richard Dawkins began to talk about parents who were raising their children within a religious tradition as tantamount to child abuse, I was incensed. This amounted in my case to a literal accusation against my own parents that they abused me, which was factually inaccurate and deeply upsetting. Furthermore, if Dawkins’ logic had become sufficiently widespread, it would ultimately have amounted to the erasure of religious children – which I take as entailing a complete nullification of who I am, since who I am depends upon who I have been. I felt such anger at this horrific view. Even at my furthest point from wanting to identify as religious, even when I held my most hostile attitude towards fundamentalist Christianity, I still accepted the positive role my parents’ Christianity had in shaping me. Dawkins polemic was figurative violence against me. And I was ultimately forced to accept that this was protected by free speech. You might be resistant to this analogy, but for me this is directly parallel to the relationship between certain gender critical views and the trans community, right up to the invocation of ‘science’ or ‘rationalism’ as justifications.

We accept severe disagreements between people from different religious traditions because we acknowledge that different metaphysical (i.e. untestable) claims are entailed in each tradition. We are going to need at some point to accept that this is also true of sex and gender: there are facts about sex and gender, but none of them eliminate a need for individuals and communities to form their own metaphysical understanding of the meaning of those facts. This freedom of belief is crucial to liberty in general, and even extends to some degree to the facts themselves (if it did not, the sciences would be stagnant because there would be no room for new understandings to overturn old dogmas).

I share with you a commitment to the claim that ‘transwomen are women’ and ‘transmen are men’. But we cannot compel others to share those beliefs and still claim to be in support of equal liberty for all people. I share with gender critical feminists the view that gender is a social construct, just like other important things such as money, nations, personal identity, and human rights. I cannot share the view that a specific understanding of power relations entails denying trans folks the freedom to establish their own identities, since this seems against the commitment to equality and freedom that feminism was founded upon. But I cannot compel such feminists to give up those beliefs, even in such cases as they are hurtful to the trans community. I can and will oppose incitement to violence against trans folks, and every other human being. But figurative violence, no matter how distasteful, is protected by freedom of speech and must not be infringed, or the cause of liberty is hopelessly undermined.

I am astounded and impressed by the political power now wielded by trans allies as a result in large part of the connectivity of the internet. But I am horrified to find this power being wielded to bully and silence women and prevent conversations about the implications of a change in UK law with serious implications for all women, not just transwomen. When the cause of trans advocates risks encouraging organisations to bully their own staff because their beliefs do not align with a dogmatically enforced metaphysical status quo, the cause of liberty for all has run amok. When the trans community think it acceptable to advocate violence against women, as happens when people support concepts such as ‘punch a TERF’, we have gone far from redressing inequality and into a dark and distressing place where a desire for hateful vengeance is occluding the struggle for equality. That hatred and bullying can be found in the unpleasant corners of many political groups today, including feminists and radical feminists… but it is never justified in the pursuit of liberty.

The journey towards trans liberty has been difficult, and will continue to be so, but it is only a part of the greater journey towards equal freedom for all envisioned by Kant and other Enlightenment thinkers such as the British philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft. Wollstonecraft understood that the condition of right necessitated a change in the status of women, and argued persuasively for this to happen. In her 1792 text, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman she wrote:

…if women are educated for dependence, that is, to act according to the will of another fallible being, and submit, right or wrong, to power, where are we to stop? Are they to be considered as viceregents, allowed to reign over a small domain, and answerable for their conduct to a higher tribunal, liable to error?

It will not be difficult to prove, that such delegates will act like men subjected by fear, and make their children and servants endure their tyrannical oppression. As they submit without reason, they will, having no fixed rules to square their conduct by, be kind or cruel, just as the whim of the moment directs; and we ought not to wonder if sometimes, galled by their heavy yoke, they take a malignant pleasure in resting it on weaker shoulders.

This caution applies to both the trans community and the feminist community, and to women and humans of all kinds, and holds a wisdom desperately needed at a time when social media technology is all too frequently undermining the cause of liberty for all. I worry whenever I see communities set into conflict that ought to be working together to support the common cause of freedom and justice for all, especially at a time when the entire notion of rights is under threat, if it has not already been irrevocably impaired. I am afraid, for everyone, when we lose sight of the path to liberty for all... but I never lose my hope that we will find our way back to it.

You will always have my love and respect, and I shall always strive to be worthy of yours.

With unlimited love,

Chris.

The opening image is Traces of Liberty by Omar Obaid which I found here at omarobaid.com. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.


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,

Chris.


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 ihobo.com.


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 ihobo.com, although if you haven’t already read Are Videogames Made of Rules? you probably ought to begin with that.


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,

Chris.

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.


Cyberg Applications

Network globeOver on the Journals of Doc Surge, Chris Billows has some additional thoughts about cybergs, the networks of technology and humans that are a definitive feature of our time. He suggests that literacy, toys, telephone networks, and vision correction technology also comprise cybergs.

While there are certainly technological networks around these four things, only two of them are strictly cybergs in my sense, since the term assumes “we must be dealing with a network that spans its entire breadth with some kind of active relation, even if merely one of potential.” I should note, however, that this isn’t really a criteria of exclusion: all technology forms a network of connections at some scale; the discussion of megacybergs and gigacybergs merely set a criterion for what to count together.

Literacy meets this large-network criteria, because the exchange of written media through all the available channels flows in every direction. Indeed, the advent of writing methods was a significant turning point in human thought. This might even be the second largest cyberg after money.

Toys do not meet the criteria directly, which is to say, traditional toys (like hammers) do not form large networks, but only small networks of productions. However, with most of the toy industry now intimately caught up with film and television (go to a toy superstore and see how many unbranded toys you can find!) this is all-but subsumed in the movie and television cybergs.

Telephone networks meet the criteria, even if it is merely the potential for global communication that elevates this to he big leagues. As, for that matter, does the global mail services – which was the cyberg that made the original Republic of Letters possible!

Finally, vision correction technology like glasses and contact lenses do not obviously meet the large-network criteria, since their networks are all relatively small (national scale). There is no connection to my knowledge (even of potential) between, say, French contact lenses and US contact lenses. That said, most contact lenses are manufactured by large multinational corporations such as Johnson & Johnson or Novartis – and in that sense they are part of megacybergs. But it would be the corporation, more than these specific tools, that would be the obvious network to point to.

What’s interesting about these four examples, and about the cyberg concept in general, is that thinking in this way about technology immediately draws us into a different point of view on tools. I had not really thought about toys as a technology before (despite defining them as a ‘tool for play’ in 21st Century Game Design), and putting the into this framework really does emphasise the way play is conditioned by existing media property. There’s something faintly disturbing about that.

Many thanks to Chris for sharing his perspective on this! I’d also like to thank him for his helpful feedback on the manuscript for The Virtuous Cyborg, not to mention his continued friendship and support!


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.


Brian Green on Online Anonymity

Over on Psychochild’s Blog, Brian Green has a fantastic four part series exploring the relationship between privacy and anonymity, and arguing against the idea that removing anonymity would address the problem – both because this means giving up privacy, which we value, and because it is not practical to do so. Highly recommended reading for game designers and anyone interested in online abuse and privacy:

  • Part 1 looks at the relationship between privacy and anonymity, and the key questions about anonymity.
  • Part 2 examines the harms entailed in removing anonymity.
  • Part 3 makes the case for the impossibility for enforcing public identity and restricting anonymity.
  • Part 4 looks at dealing with the problems of online behaviour, and the changes that might be required.

I shall respond in full in about two weeks time with a piece entitled Lessons from the MUD, but in the meantime a few quick remarks.

Brian’s example that we are now used to people pulling their phones out all the time in the final part sits badly with me; I do not think this an example of a cultural shift to deal with technology consequences so much as I think we have instituted our rudeness and now accept a higher degree of impoliteness towards each other. The same thing happens in big cities, of course: we learn to be less polite. I do not think this specific example upholds the point Brian wishes to make, in terms of adapting to technology, although I do agree with him that this adaptation both needs to and will happen. We just need to be careful in recognising the active role required in shaping norms.

At several points, Brian trots out the example of people who need to protect their identity. I do not think this is as strong an objection as he and others do; his more general arguments about everyone’s need for privacy are much stronger in my view, in particular because they apply to everyone. If we thought public identities would solve all the problems, the need for some people to adjust their permanent identity online would be a manageable issue. But as Brian nicely outlines, public identities aren’t a guaranteed fix. This is not even a likely fix, as Brian elaborates very clearly in part 3.

We need to be having these discussions, and I am enormously grateful to Brian for wading in here, and making such a thorough report on the issues. I heartily recommend you check out all four parts.


Kawaii Hyper Capitalism

PeeqoOver at the O Creative Studio website from wonderful Barcelona, Víctor Navarro Remesal becomes the first writer to join me in mulling over cybervirtue outside of Only a Game. Víctor’s piece, entitled The Rebellion of Robot Mates, discusses the charming image-flashing robot Peeqo, and the implications of this kind of design. It’s a great read, and full of animated gifs that demonstrate how Peeqo’s gif face expresses itself.

Here’s an extract:

Its design thins the thickness of everyday life by convincing us that everything should be festive, and I don’t know if I want a Dr. Who GIF in an ATM machine. Besides, with its chutzpah, Peeqo has managed to place another camera and another microphone inside our house, and keeps on compiling our data, a little bit more sugar for the Big Data pill and the Always Online motto. I think of Meitu hiding spy code and the sweetness of Peeqo acquires a new hue: that of kawaii hyper capitalism.

You can read the entirety of The Rebellion of Robot Mates over at the O Creative Studio website. Vive la república de los bloggers!