STOP IT. Stop with the formalism thing. Stop it right now.

A very simple response comes to mind:

“Tadhg Kelly, please stop trying to tell me ‘what games are’. To be extremely blunt, judging by both your site and your CV, I don’t think you’ve earned the right.”

Granted, I haven’t earned the right to tell anybody what they should think is or isn’t a game either. But I’m not trying to claim it

You know who HAS earned that right, though? Anna Anthropy. Remember her? The woman who’s supposed to be at the vanguard of the “zinesters”? Her output has been excellent. Lurid title or no, Lesbian Spider-Queens of Mars demonstrated a clear mastery of simple, elegant, oldschool game design, and she went into no small amount of detail in explaining exactly how she employed that mastery. She’s done that over, and over, and over. She’s a good critic and a great designer.

If she’s calling stuff like Dys4ia a game, I’m going to be very reluctant to disagree with her, because she’s actually really good at making and judging the things.

The funny thing is that I’m not actually a gigantic fan of the anti-mainstream backlash. I get it, but I think that there’s more mastery and craft in mainstream than the “zinesters” are necessarily always willing to admit.  I also  don’t root my disagreement with Kelly in the political and identity elements of games as Anna does. (Though I do respect those responses.)

I’m simply not impressed by these attempts to turn games into empty systems of rules, and to straitjacket criticism by forcing critics to engage them solely as systems of rules. If that was EVER the case, it’s long over. It’s over in board games, it’s over in card games (CCGs are far more than their rules), and you’d best believe it’s over in video games.

If you want to know “what games are”, you don’t need Kelly. Go read Grant Tavinor for the definition of games:

X is a videogame if it is an artefact in a digital visual medium, is intended primarily as an object of entertainment, and is intended to provide such entertainment through the employment of one or both of the following modes of engagement: rule-bound gameplay or interactive fiction.


This problem is solved. This discussion is OVER. Grant Tavinor solved it back in 2008. Now go do something productive.

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11 thoughts on “STOP IT. Stop with the formalism thing. Stop it right now.

  1. Well shucks, that definition down there is darn excellent. Nice write-up, you.

  2. Reggie Rock says:

    There’s nothing interactive about pressing a button to continue a scene in an otherwise computer animated film.

    And, “earned the right”? This whole bullshit post-modernists pseudo-leftist triade put out by indie devs is no different than a child stamping their feet and saying “how dare you tell me my drawing is bad, my daddy told me I’m a special snowflake”. It’s using intimidation and irrational post-modernist window dressing to destroy criticism and critical thought about game sand gaming.

    Oh, and how are CCGs more than the rules? Games have always been about mechanics from ancient roman backgammon to cards against humanity. Rules are the defining characteristic of a game. Everything else is just animated films or novellas in between gameplay.

    Grant Tavinor needs to examine what makes a game a game outside of videogames. look at tabletop games. Look at this exact same discussion ten years ago in pen&paper rpgs at the gameforge and see how that turned out.

  3. Hey,

    “I’m simply not impressed by these attempts to turn games into empty systems of rules, and to straitjacket criticism by forcing critics to engage them solely as systems of rules.”

    That’s not what I do. With respect, I’ve written a lot more about why they’re not.

    • craigbamford says:

      And with respect, I’ve read it. That I didn’t extensively quote you doesn’t change the fact that I’ve been reading your discussions of gaming on “What Games Are” pretty much from the get-go. While you’ve dressed up your strongly formalist positions, the shape and structure of it is plainly apparently throughout.

      Your blog’s own title (and the title of your upcoming book) is asserting that you’re telling us “What Games Are”. I don’t see where the authority comes from. I don’t buy it, and don’t see why others do either. I don’t buy that game characters are treated as mere “dolls” by players. I don’t buy that structure trumps all other considerations in the minds of either creators or players. I don’t buy why games should be judged as rulesets, and I certainly don’t buy that tabletop RPGs somehow prove the triumph of rules-over-all considering the success of White Wolf.

      Yours are not the only definitions or descriptions. They’re a point of view, certainly, but they’ve never been described nor presented as such. In fact, whole reason I cited Tavinor is because they aren’t even the best descriptions. Tavinor’s disjunctive definition manages to cover both your preferred games and Anna’s game without any issue at all. As a descriptor, it’s immensely superior. Salen and Zimmermann’s influential text treats things in a similar way. So why not use Tavinor’s inclusive definition? A sort of gaming-focused prescriptivism?

      I do think there’s a lot of value in your writing, Tadhg. I actually look forward to reading your book. But please stop trying to tell me as a fan, or Anna as a creator, about how we’re supposed to identify or critique games. It’s not helpful; and as you can see, it ends up being intensely politically questionable in ways that I don’t think you’ve yet fully appreciated.

      Anna’s demonstrated beyond all doubt that she knows what is and isn’t a game. If she says that Dys4ia is a game, it’s a game. “Zine” or no zine.

      • If you really think it’s all just about “dressing up” mechanics – as though to give the nod to aesthetics but it’s all really about rules yo – then I submit that that’s something you’re inferring on your own Craig.

        But hey, I respect that I may come across that way. It’s not my intent though.

      • craigbamford says:

        I don’t entirely disagree with your point of view, Tadhg, and like with Koster, I think it’s a point of view that needs to be put forward. I don’t think I’m wrong in my inference, though; I think you’ve managed to place yourself far out on the edge of the “ludologist” spectrum, and no more so than in your response to Ms. Anthropy.

        Still, my issue, more than anything, is with the presentation. It’s about the name that you give your blog, “what games are”, and the extent to which you assert that THIS is a game and THAT isn’t. There’s a reason I cite Tavinor: he shows that that sort of arrogation of authority is simply not necessary to create a valid description of video games. They can be either the one OR the other; neither necessary, but both sufficient.

        There’s room for both Raph Koster and Porpentine. Tavinor’s description acknowledges that. Why can’t yours?

      • Tadhg Kelly says:

        (Hope this reply appears in-line, didn’t see a reply button under your last post Craig).

        So here’s why I tend to be more restricted with my descriptions (with no disrespect intended to Grant):

        “X is a videogame if it is an artefact in a digital visual medium, is intended primarily as an object of entertainment, and is intended to provide such entertainment through the employment of one or both of the following modes of engagement: rule-bound gameplay or interactive fiction.”

        This doesn’t tell me what a game (or more specifically in this case, a videogame) is, but instead what club a bunch of different things that loosely call themselves “videogames” sit in. It bears little to no relationship to much more conventional understandings of “game” as found in the world of sports, board games, casinos and so on either, and so is an entirely cultural definition.

        It draws the loosest strand to connect them together, is also loaded with terms like “artefact”, “engagement”, “gameplay” and “interactive fiction”. If you went digging through looking for those definitions they would also likely result in other referential terms (having created a glossary on my site, I have found this is a problem) and gets the regular reader further away from understanding what it’s supposed to mean. The net effect being if you’re already in the gaming culture you probably understand what it means. If not, less so.

        So you asked why can’t I be that inclusive, and the answer is a simple lack of utility, and hence its capacity to convey anything to anyone beyond the group that already has knows what it means when it says “videogames” to one another. In thinking about what games are, and also the greater spectrum of playable art (of which games are one part), and how they might find themselves, I find that utility matters more than validation.

        I believe that for games to find their own voice and legitimacy, they need to get to a place where the following happens:

        1. That they find their own terms. This is why I strongly reject “drama”
        2. They encompass ALL games. Regardless of how liked or loathed they are, for example, slot machines are a part of games.
        3. That the principles of how they work become teachable. This is where culturally loaded definitions fall down.
        4. That they avoid implicitly defining a lens. Interactive fiction is a wider field than gaming, and by stitching it in there on an inferred sliding scale between it and gameplay, this definition implicitly enforces the ludonarrative single-axis view of games. I have previously argued that games need to be regarded on (at least) a dual-axis quadrant scheme, as the ludonarrative view is horrifically poor at explaining simulation or behavioral games. (You may argue that I define a lens of my own of course, but what I actually try to do is define a context that lets several lenses coexist).

        On my site (here: I have both a short and a long definition of game. The long one was, in some ways, easier to come up with: “A simplified, fair, fascinating, empowering, believable and enclosed world whose purpose is to provide structured play through moderated yet unscripted actions and learnable dynamics, with the goal of winning through victory or achievement.”

        This describes “game” somewhat specifically and thoroughly and yet I think the language is more ordinary and avoids loaded terms. I also think it allows for variety of degrees of interpretation.

        The BIG sticking points within the critical community tend to be “action”, “learnable” and especially “winning”. A lot of folks on the fringe of the narrativist lens (as I define it) hate that because they want to believe that players play for reasons other than success (generally they don’t, although they often play for reasons in addition to success).

        I guess my problem is why a definition of game must in some way rely on bending players into people that they are generally not to work. Why must games, in order to become an art, become something other than they are? When I maintain that “games are an art form as they are, not as they might be one day” this is exactly what I’m referring to. As buildings are somewhat utilitarian but also an art form, or music or paintings same, games are an art form AS THEY ARE. Here and now.

        The critical community has, in my opinion, developed a huge acceptance issue of what games actually are.

        I stick to winning, learning and fun as the boundaries of game because the metrics tend to show that games without those qualities tend not to be played for long by that many people. And much of the feedback in user reviews tends to show that, alas for the idealists, many customers view games that do not incorporate the above to be lacking. For a workable understanding of games to emerge, and for the discussion of games-as-an-art-as-they-are, that tension has to be resolved in favor of the conventional rather than the critical to be accessible beyond critics.

        But I also think my long definition is overkill. Recently I found something simpler. I’m unsure about whether it works or not yet: “An apparently dynamic system that a player believes is winnable.”

        Finally (and thanks for putting up with my long reply) that’s also why my blog is named as it is. “What Games Are” as a title is not about you, the kind of reader who is already enmeshed in the scene and has complex opinions. It is for the sort of reader who reads Robert McKee’s “Story” to see what stories are all about. The book, likewise, is going to focus on that sort of reader.

        I receive a lot of email from readers who tell me that my blog is the first game design blog that they’ve been able to understand. Very often I receive tweets and mails from industry professionals and students alike thanking me for giving voice to something that they felt but could not express, or explaining something in a way that they finally grasp. Some of the material that I write might well be orthogonal to what the critical layer likes to think about what games might be, but beyond its heliosphere I get many approaches from people who say “Ah-hah, I get it”.

        And those, ultimately, are the people for whom I write.

      • craigbamford says:

        First, thanks for the detailed response. (As you can see, it’s prompted an even-more-detailed one. I might well promote this to a post itself later.)

        I think part of the problem, Tadhg, is this supposition that video games need to be folded into this broader category of “game”. Tavinor addresses this in Art of Videogames and in his essay, and Salen/Zimmermann take a similar position, all of whom argue that videogames aren’t a mere subset. We simply don’t use the term “video game” to describe “activities that would otherwise be called games, except that they’re in a digital medium”. It describes something else. That “something else” is what makes video games interesting in the first place.

        You said that games are “part of the broader spectrum of playable art”. I can see where that POV comes from, but it seems that the vast majority of points of view these days barring, perhaps, yours and Koster’s is that video games ARE “digital playable art”. They aren’t part of the spectrum, they ARE the spectrum. Certainly Anna Anthropy thinks so, and she’s a top-notch creator. They do need to be entertainments, but Tavinor (and Salen/Zimmermann) handles that easily.

        Yes, there’s a loose connection between the two “sufficient-but-not-necessary” strands of videogames. That’s exactly why Tavinor chose it, after being forced to reject simpler and more elegant sufficient-and-necessary definitions. It’s why I agree with him. That’s what they are. That’s how it works. We can like it or hate it, but that’s what we’re talking about when we use the term “videogame” (or “video game”). It’s messy, but leaving out Dys4ia is clearly, CLEARLY messier. Language isn’t always simple. Really, it almost never is.

        Yes, there’s some jargon. Yes, it can be rough going at times. I talked about that when I referred to the value of academia. Jargon can obscure, but it can also be necessary. Sometimes the job of the reader is to pay a bit of attention to where the jargon comes from, as sometimes it’s less “jargon” and more “field-specific terminology” that’s actually useful to know. Sometimes it doesn’t easily reduce to a handy glossary. Like I said: language isn’t always simple.

        Those things that come easily are not always the most valuable, and while there’s value in taking difficult terms and making them simple, that does NOT mean that the simplest, easiest-to-grasp examinations are always superior. It doesn’t mean you can avoid engaging them and responding to them. It doesn’t mean you can retreat to quantitative metrics in order to avoid them; whether you like it or hate it, basic intellectual honesty does require you to situate your work within the broader galaxy of writings on the subject. That’s why every academic paper inevitably includes an extensive literature review, and why students have to wade through those gigantic reading lists.

        The concept of “interactive fiction”, in particular, is INCREDIBLY important to know. You can’t get around it. People who don’t understand the concept of games-as-fictions and the concept of fiction-worlds simply don’t understand what the hell games are and what they do. There’s a reason that Salen and Zimmermann (my current go-to on the subject) get into more than a bit of detail on that one: it’s really, really important. Almost all of the games that you chuck into the “not-a-game” bin, like Dys4ia and the various Twine games, are clearly and obviously digital interactive fictions and the notion of digital interactive fictions as a part of videogames is older than we are.

        (The phrase “interactive fiction” in this case doesn’t just mean tradition “IF”, of course; it refers to direct interaction with digital fiction-worlds. And, yes, interactive fictions are broader than videogames; that’s why Grant has the two “necessary” conditions in his definition. It may be a messy bin, but that doesn’t make it wrong.)

        Meanwhile, I felt that a lot of what you’ve written in your response goes begging. The question of whether winning conditions are necessary for a game goes begging. The utility of user reviews goes begging. The question of whether the market punishes games that don’t have “winning, learning, and fun” goes begging. (Some of the most extraordinarily popular videogames in the world have no victory conditions, and some of the most respected aren’t always “fun”.) The question of whether players play for “success” goes begging, especially in the age of the ubiquitous Let’s Play video, and directly contradicts more of my personal interactions with gamers than I can easily recount.

        The question of why Tavinor’s definition isn’t “teachable” DEFINITELY goes begging; even if it isn’t useful as a prescriptive tool, the question of why on earth we’d want to adopt any sort of prescriptive view in 2013 is certainly going begging. Certainly Salen and Zimmermann did a fine job of teaching in their text, even as they keep the door open for interactive fiction-worlds, and there’s nothing in the phrase “what games are” that implies “how popular games are made”. It isn’t actually a normative title at all!

        It just comes back to the central problem I identified in the piece: who are we to tell people what a videogame should be, instead of doing our best to understand what they mean when they use the term? Your unnamed examples of people finding your writing easily understandable aside, we’ve seen that both consumers and creators alike absolutely bristle at the notion that the videogame that they create and enjoy aren’t “games”. I don’t value those people’s ease of learning more than the works of Anna Anthropy and Porpentine, especially when there is such a strong political element to your quest for prescription.

        As Grant Tavinor himself says:

        There does seem to be a large normative component in [game theorists’] proposals and that this comprises the most significant problem with how the definitional debate concerning videogames has been conducted to date.. Games theorists have all too often been guilty of implicit advocacy. There are clear cases in the games literature where the definitional and normative issues have become confused for each other…
        Definitions should stay silent on these normative issues so that we can count as games those which we do not happen to value as games.

        I couldn’t have summed it up better.

        I do look forward to your book. But, please, do keep in mind that definitions should not be normative, and that you must situate it within an existing academic/intellectual discussion and within an existing popular discourse. Tavinor’s need to reach for a disjunctive definition is a part of that; so are Anna and Porpentine’s difficult-but-valuable works, the whole Twine revolution, and that knotty artistic problem of works that are important even when they aren’t easy or always popular. As Grant said, games that you don’t like are still games.

      • Tadhg Kelly says:

        (I am loving this discussion, thanks for keeping with it).

        Videogames and tabletop roleplaying games have done much to expand the canvas of what games can do by realizing that fiction could play a much stronger role in the experience. Prior to that, folk games were mostly abstract and most fictionalizing of the game experience was largely done in the world of watching sports.

        Tabletop roleplaying invented the idea that the game could be played in the mind and moderated by intermediate rules to give that consensual imagination structure. Videogames invented the idea that the game world could actually be a consistent world in which the rules of the game did not have to be explicitly learned. Both gave rise to the capacity to believe in the game world, to see beyond its edges and infer more to the behavior of their actors than was explicitly apparent (this is similar to the lionizing of sporting heroes).

        However both still need many important game precepts in order to work. A tabletop roleplaying game with no rules, for example, typically descends into amateur improv theatre and becomes incoherent, then boring. A videogame with no meaningful actions is essentially a gallery you walk around. Much of the feedback that comes from players after the fact, even in supposedly-important breakthrough games like Heavy Rain, is a lack of a feeling of satisfaction. Many longer narrative games show large degrees of players falling off if they don’t have that strong system to go with them (such as in computer rpgs).

        So given all that I do regard videogames as a subset of games (but I wouldn’t use the adjective “mere”, which I think indicates a certain kind of unconscious judgement). I think videogames have done a tremendous amount to expand what we could physically do with a game, chiefly via animation, physics and artificial intelligence. I think videogames more or less invented the single player game too, which only existed in minute form before them. But they are still very much connected to their root form. Not to be trite, but it’s just what they are.

        The other side of that argument (that videogame is a convenient term that then stuck, but actually they’re something else) relies on a essentialist argument. Like the Uncanny Valley or the singularity, it effectively argues that the medium is not yet what it appears to be because it does not yet have some essential components, that at some moment a light switch will trip and – like the Infinite Improbability Engine – the true form will spring into existence. Not yet, its advocates say, but it’s coming. Which is basically an act of faith in things unseen.

        My argument is perhaps more reductionist, or empirical, than that because it relies on thinking about the audience as it is rather than it might be. Art forms tend toward sophistication and complicated conversations with their audience on any timeline, but the root rules that give them form tend to endure. Videogames have been in existence for 40 years and – like any art form – many of the earliest works display exactly the same as the most successful games today. They’re definitely bigger, better and more sophisticated than they used to be, but they’re still much the same as they were in some respects.

        Anyway… am I in the minority? It depends on who you ask. I am definitely in the minority among the criticism blogs, but outside of that sphere (as I said earlier) I receive a lot of validation. Also a lot of consulting work. And to be honest, most of the formalist crowd are simply quieter about their interest in games than others, so it’s hard to tell.

        On the “two-sufficient” side, do you not see how that is ultimately self-enclosing? There’s whole other kinds of videogame, never mind games, that simply do not fit well into either “gameplay” or “interactive fiction” without a whole lot of equivocating in order to bang square pegs into round holes. The ludonarrative view has long struggled with trying to figure out where The Sims sits, for example. It is lately struggling with Minecraft, and had no notion where to place Farmville or social slots games (to the point that people started arguing that they were not games, or to variously call them bad, and refuse to acknowledge that the fact that they were widely played was significant).

        My point is that a definition that only exists to validate a culture at a certain moment expires the moment after, because the culture shifts. So the definition of “what they are” in that sense becomes a snapshot, a “what they were”.

        In many ways the ludonarrative view is well past its prime in an age where MMOs, sims, social games, cooperative games, crafting games and many others have arisen to great success. From a critical point of view, pivoting back to it feels almost propagandistic, as if to say “yeah yeah yeah, ignore all that bullshit – this is what REAL videogames are about”. At that point it becomes less of an analysis and more an exercise in No-True-Scotsman arguments. Especially when the language refuses to consolidate.

        On interactive fictions:

        I agree. Fiction is a very important part of understanding games. In fact I think it always has been, long before videogames. Even from something as simple as Monopoly with its basic fiction right through to Mass Effect with its galaxy-sized ambitions, the fiction of games plays a crucial role both for the imagination and the mechanics of games. Fiction is largely the arbiter of what feels natural in the gameplay for example (passing Go and collecting $200 in Halo would make no sense).

        Where I feel the misstep lies in is in understanding the role of fiction in games. As someone who’s read many of my articles, you already know that I tend to place a very high value on the sense of story, particularly as it relates to the player’s sense of story, but a low value on storytelling that gets in the way of player self expression. That stems from “game” as a root (which is part of where the “zine” idea comes in).

        As for some of your other points:
        – I do think win, or at least success, conditions are a necessity. Ultimate win not so much (since at least Space Invaders onward) but achievement? Yes.
        – The market doesn’t punish so much as not fully engage with. Granted there’s an element of defining-your-success-conditions implicit in that. Also that business success should not always equate to creative success.
        – I said players play for success, but also things in addition to success. Authoring a video is a classic case in point.
        – Teachability is a big big BIG issue. I know from personal experience of teaching a masters’ class last year how much of a gap there is around a lot of this stuff. Also see Dan’s article on Gama.
        – Relatedly: Formalism is often massively misunderstood, starting with the assumption that it’s proscriptive because it sounds like “The Man”.
        – “What Games Are” is normative, and that’s why it gets many critical backs up. If the blog were called something more knowing (for example Critical Distance or your own Leveling Criticism) then it wouldn’t matter. It’s the fact that it’s so direct that bothers, but the norms who contact me seem to like it for exactly that reason.

        To your final point:

        Who are we to not tell people what games should be, or are, or might be? If only to be proven thoroughly wrong and therefore push the debate forward? It strikes me that not asking the question at all is not worthy of us, regardless of who is right and who is wrong. And I agree with Travinor, but then he went on to define in exactly the opposite, implicitly advocative terms (i.e. culturally).

        I do pay attention to the critical layer but I don’t intend to be bound by it. As I said in my previous reply, I’m of the opinion that many game critics have a very big issue to do with acceptance of games as they are, with all the good and the bad that that entails. It has nothing at all to do with personal tastes (no really, I loooove slots) and everything to do with an ideal of games not matching their reality. And therefore struggling to find their native artistry.

        Thanks again, this was fascinating.

      • craigbamford says:

        Quick reply on one thing, though I’ll probably add more later:

        When we’re talking about “interactive fiction”, I do want to emphasize I don’t mean “fiction” in the sense of narrative or story. Remember that Tavinor drew a specific distinction between the “fiction” crowd and the “narrativist” crowd, and Salen/Zimmermann made a point of addressing the issues in different chapters.

        No, I’m thinking more in terms of “fiction-worlds”; that is, interacting with a fictional representative environment, as opposed to a real one. The “Ville” games, Minecraft and The Sims fit into this category quite nicely, but the reason why Salen and Zimmermann spent so much time on the subject is because it’s absolutely key for understanding how MANY modern video games work and what players get out of them. It also encompasses the ideas you had about generated environments and “storysense” quite well.

        (I don’t have any specific objection to your concept of “storysense”, which strikes me as “fiction-world” by another name…just this notion that it’s inherently superior or how it fits into the whole “character-as-doll” concept.)

        Tabletop games can’t really play that representative role. They can simulate, but the basic process of working through the rules gets in the way. Only digital games (so far) can really represent. Even if it’s just a “gallery”, if it’s for entertainment, people seem willing to accept that it counts as a videogame.

  4. […] that’s come to define discussion, as summarised in this helpful Critical Distance round-up (Craig Bamford’s response is my favourite). More recently, though, Matthew S Burns at Magical Wastelands weighed in with […]

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