Over on ihobo today, the start of a new seven-part serial on game aesthetics, in which I dig into various definitions of the term ‘game’ in order to excavate the underlying aesthetic value judgements.
What we call ‘gameplay’ concerns the aesthetic qualities of the function of games, and only those games which have sufficiently rich and intrusive functions can have an aesthetics of play worth talking about. However, these gameplay-rich games are not the only kinds of games, and there is no need to erect a boundary between them and other forms of play.
You can read the whole of What is Game Aesthetics? over on ihobo.com.
The endless discussions about the plausible definitions of what constitutes a ‘game’ have ceased to be productive. It is time for a new game about games – to stop being concerned about the question “what is a game?” and instead focus our interest on the wider and deeper question of “what is a great game?”. And to do this, we have to replace our fixation with the definition of ‘game’ with an attempt to recognise the different aesthetic positions within game design and game criticism.
On Tuesday 18th October, I will be giving a presentation on the new book, Imaginary Games, at Oxford University, Room 2 of the Taylorian Institute (St Giles', Oxford, OX1 3NA) starting at 5:30 pm. The details can be found at the Zero Books Lecture Series blog.
If you’re in or near Oxford, you’d be more than welcome to come along!
Over on ihobo today, a follow up to an older piece. Here’s the introduction:
Could you ever be moved to tears over the plight of Mario or Princess Peach? Could a game system be designed that moves you in this way? I maintain that it cannot.
Back in December 2008, I wrote a piece entitled A Game Has Never Made You Cry, in which I first advanced my claim that – tears of frustration not withstanding – videogames have only ever made people cry via their fictional elements (cut scenes and the like) and never via their game systems. I recently tweeted a few comments along this line and attracted some interesting counter arguments that encourage me to update my argument.
Some further thoughts about how prop theory can clarify the experience of play over on ihobo today. Here’s a quote:
First person perspective places something in your virtual hands: this is toy-view; whatever you see in your hands being the toy e.g. a gun for most shooters… Alternatively, third person perspective allows you to look at what the doll your avatar is animating is up to, offering a more imaginative doll-view… There is at least one other view available, which we could call tabletop-view or table-view, that game menus, board-games, puzzle games and the like use. It seems whatever game you’re playing, the fictional world is either built around a toy, a doll or a table, which is unsurprising since these are what we play with as children.
The complete piece, Toy-view and Doll-view in Videogames, is over on ihobo.com.
The domination of videogames by guns and goals is likely to persist unless viable, creatively-driven, art-game movements can emerge that either subvert or discard both explicit achievements as the structure of play and weaponry as the focus of play. If this is not possible, games-as-art will flounder against the possibility of holding sufficient interest against the commercial mainstream, and will fail to earn attention, funding or respect. With the mainstream of videogames now quite clearly defined, the open question is whether the artistic potential of the medium will be explored, or left fallow.
This is a very different kind of discussion to last week’s, but with the same motivations and general approach. You can read Digital Dominance: Goals over at ihobo.com.
...the first person shooter genre and its cousin the third person shooter are examples of a hugely successful gamer hobbyist niche market in which game design was never really in the driving seat. The evolution of the form was dictated primarily by representational factors, with the role of design being chiefly to solve the functional consequences that flowed from the representational choices. The only “choice” was whether to work with guns as a central prop or not: once the gun was installed, the representational consequences of the technology available (in terms of graphical power, and in terms of controller devices) dictated the development of the form. Gameplay did not trump representation in shooters – it was dependent upon it.
I’d be interested to hear what people make to the way this discussion has been couched, as I found it an unusual way of looking at game design. You can read Digital Dominance: Guns over on ihobo.com.
I have the final text and cover (left) and a publication date for Imaginary Games now: it will be out 25th November 2011. If you don’t know what this book is about, click the link in this post (or the picture in the sidebar) to read the blurb.
I was very conflicted over the new cover, as I rather liked my mock-up (although it used a colour scheme already being used by another Zero Books title). However, a friend with better art-design instincts than me has reassured me that the book will look both distinctive and appealing in this scheme. Anyway, it’s all in progress now so it’s too late to change it.
Reviewers Wanted! If you write book reviews for a magazine or on your blog, you are welcome to write to me (follow the contact details on ihobo.com) for a PDF of the final text for review. If you intend a blog review, I request that you also submit your review to Amazon.
Thanks to everyone whose supported this book project! I’m very proud to have my first book of philosophy coming into print this year.
Also: check out these awesome endorsements!
In this well-researched book Chris Bateman explores the ambiguous territory between the fictional and the real, and slays some dragons hiding therein. Highly recommended.
Founder of the International Game Developers' Association
A wonderfully refreshing and inventive look at games of many kinds, but especially digital games. It is seriously philosophical, but Bateman, a professional game designer, draws on a huge variety of resources far beyond the writings of academic philosophers - fascinating and fun!
Charles Stevenson Collegiate Professor of Philosophy and
Professor of Art and Design at the University of Michigan
Chris Bateman’s Imaginary Games may just do for videogames what Noël Carroll’s The Philosophy of Horror did for scary books and movies.... not only philosophically compelling and interesting; it is also a great read. Bateman’s fluency in the relevant philosophical debates and history of thinking about games is both enviable and a pleasure to behold.
Director of Philosophy, LSU Department of Philosophy and
I was invited by Jon Cogburn to submit a chapter to the new collection of essays combining Dungeons & Dragons with philosophy, but my chapter overran. Here’s a segment I had to cut.
What do Dungeons and Dragons monsters have to teach us about fiction and prop theory?
What the character sheet does for the representation of the player characters, Gary Gygax’s 1977 Monster Manual – whose truly dreadful original cover is depicted to the left – and Don Turnbull’s 1981 Fiend Folio did for the creatures they are pitted against. As with attributes on the character sheet, the capabilities of the D&D monsters are laid out in numerical detail – including purely representative elements (size, weight) as well as the statistics (HP, THAC0) required to beat them into a bloody pulp, not to mention props for explaining their behaviour (alignment). In addition, an illustration of the monster helped provide a depictive prop to help either the players imagine their foe, or the Dungeon Master to describe it.
The Monster Manual and its less elegantly titled alliterative descendents are more than just reference books for game statistics (although this is their principal role), for the Monster Manual is also a bestiary of the fictional worlds of Dungeons & Dragons itself. Of course, specific campaign settings make variations one way or another, and there perhaps is no single campaign of D&D anywhere which has used every single monster in every single published guide, but by listing a menagerie of menacing monsters in one manuscript an impression of the kind of world in question is inescapably provided. The Monster Manual unequivocally prescribed players to imagine that the fictional worlds of D&D were deeply weird places, filled with an ecology of utterly bizarre beasts that would make no sense in any other context but high fantasy.
No fantasy novel ever written has contained such a heterogeneous hodge-podge of heinous horrors – the reader would simply have no way of dealing with such eclecticism in a conventional narrative. Yet somehow, the fantasy role-playing game dodges this criticism – or at least, Dungeons & Dragons (and the computer role-playing games it has inspired) avoid this complaint. For it must be said that a great deal of latitude is extended towards D&D’s ramshackle collection of foes; a commercial RPG published today with such widespread disregard for cohesion in the resulting fictional world would be subject to criticism. D&D is immune to it.
There is something about the megatextual collision of monsters from every conceivable mythological source that serves to buffer the inherent nonsense that results from criticism. To this day, I am unsure quite what it is. Is it that D&D was the first of its kind, and is thus afforded a certain latitude? Perhaps. But I rather suspect that there is a craving for this kind of massive intersection of otherwise distinct folklores. We see the same theme expressed in a movie such as Shrek, which combines all fairy tales into one fictional world, or indeed in Neil Gaiman’s adult comics The Sandman, which conduct the same kind of mythic collision with more delicacy and panache. Deep down, we can’t escape the feeling that all stories are one story, and the curious concordance of creatures in the Monster Manual speak of the same urge.