Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Clarification

Here is my theory. Game criticism isn't about telling the player whether a game is fun or not. If that's the critic's job we are all in a lot of trouble, because in the near future everyone will be able to pick up a demo and tell themselves whether a game is fun or not. “Is it fun?” is a question destined for obsolescence. We should be telling people how a game is fun.

I think this task is a something like what Aristotle does in the Poetics. Aristotle thinks that there is a certain experience that is constitutive of tragedy as an artform: katharsis, or the cleansing release of pent-up emotion and pity. With this end in view, Aristotle asks how the various elements of the dramatic work (the plot, the characters, and so on) need to be structured in order to create this emotion for the audience. And it's the same for games; what a critic can do is explain how the various elements of the game-- the visual design, the narrative, the gameplay-- conspire to create pleasure.

The second question, then, is what kind of pleasure do games aim at? What is the gaming equivalent of katharsis? My answer is that games aim to inspire a characteristic sort of pleasure, the delight in the discovery and mastery of rules. Play is an expression of the human mind's native lust to master the lawlike natural world through experiment and planning. As Kant says: “The understanding is hungry after rules, and it is satisfied when it finds them.” And video games are most fitting artform to satisfy this desire, because unlike other games and sports the rules of a video game are not disclosed in advance. Each game reveals a novel rulebound world to the player, and asks her to uncover its underlying logic through inquiry and imagination. And that is why the games are fun to play.


Anonymous said...

I have to say this article is a bit crap.

If you're going to offer me an explanation of what video games are about, the least you could do is explain Wii Tennis. Right? And I'll tell you why you can't. Wii Tennis has one rule. I don't know about you but I discovered this mysterious rule pretty early.

You've got it exactly backwards: game's aren't about learning rules, they're about forgetting rules. Rules are what stand between you and the experience. They're the ladder you throw down once you've reached the top. The moment you have to interpret the gameworld, the experience of being present in the game is broken. Pleasure is the forgetting of yourself, which is what happens when you stop thinking and get lost in the system. This is, incidentally, also the reason you are crap at Halo.

Iroquois Pliskin said...


Listen, I can see what you're getting at. Many a theory of video games is bound to get dashed on the rock of Wii Sports.

But here's what I say: different games have different ratios of discovery to mastery. And I'll grant that mastery is just what you say it is: becoming disposed to conform to rules without thinking about it.

Maybe it's like dancing. You're constraining your body in all these interesting ways, and along the way you're absorbed in the difficult and unpleasurable details: “where does my left foot go on the 7?” and all that stuff. And then once you've learned all the constraints it's about getting lost in the joys of mere movement.

All I'm saying is that unlike in dancing, getting-subjected-to-rules is often the funnest part of games. Because as you get acclimated to rules, you're having a world open out in front of you. Learning to dance is about being trapped in your body, but learning to play a new game is about liberation, attaining this feeling of agency over a select portion of your experience. A game is engaging to the extent that it's always challenging your fundamental ability to cope with the world, and this is why games like Half-Life 2 are the pinnacle of gaming, me.

Anonymous said...

Your problem is that you see every game as a puzzle to be reasoned out. Do you understand what gameplay is? It's hitting buttons with proper timing. Everything else is just window dressing.

What we have here is a valiant-though-sad attempt at dragging play into the orbit of words. You're grasping at the rule-following bit because you can talk about rules and you can't talk about barreling through Paradise City. Yoke some words around that experience, if you like, but it's treason against pleasure. Didn't you pay attention to Dave Hickey? You might be up for joining the Protestant Civil Service, but count me out. The submission of experience to the bureaucracy of prose is what ruins our entertainment.

Why don't you listen to your friend N'Gai Croal: tell us whether the game makes you shake your ass. And then slowly step.... away.... from the videogame.

ha cha cha cha

Anonymous said...

Hi Pliskin, I've been reading through your back catalog and this is the first time I've been fresh enough to a post to join the discussion.

I think the dance metaphor you mention is particularly apt. Something you've hinted at but not mentioned directly is students of dance and play both reach such a level of comfort and skill that they can begin to selectively cast off those rules they've spent so much time learning.

I've been watching some professional Starcraft matches recently, which made me realize how much expertise it takes to successfully do the "wrong" thing and make it work, and how satisfying that is.

I like your definition of criticism, but it raises a question for me: To your mind, is there a possible game out there that is so crystalline and pure in its purpose and experience as to make any attempt at criticism tautological?

As a game designer, I have to believe that it's possible to make that kind of game. I think Left 4 Dead is the best example we currently have. Everything about it is unified in a very Wagnerian way, and just chants to the player: Survive! Survive! Survive!

I have an inkling that the same thing that makes that game so well-designed makes it somewhat less ripe for criticism, because in a way the game's designers have already done it for us. Curious to hear your thoughts on this.

I've been ramping up my own blog recently, which will ultimately talk about how and why to try and make this type of game, albeit with a much more utilitarian bent.

Keep it up,


Anonymous said...

@Pete: I think there's definitely pleasure in internalizing rules to the point of subconscious action. Also, you'd better be something interesting for people to think about once they've achieved rule mastery, or you'll have a lot of bored players quitting your game.

I disagree with your second post somewhat though. There HAS to be a way to understand why driving around Paradise City is fun. Otherwise the people making that game would inadvertently include lots of crap that makes it less itself, less pure:

Putting in more jumps = good.
Putting in gas stations that you can pass through at high speeds for instant repairs = good.

My default example lately is that some developers would have been tempted to add big boss fights and a craftable upgrade system to Left 4 Dead. But you have to have a team that understands that the game is about escaping, and surviving. There's no standing around making things, and there's no way to beat the boss. There's only dying less soon.

I don't know that the average player needs to understand these things about games. But somebody does have to take responsibility and make these decisions, based on a set of values.

Nels Anderson said...

Wow, you're way more tolerant that I am Iroquois. I would have just deleted Stinky Pete's comment and never looked back.

I agree that much of the appeal of games is discovering (and then mastering) their ruleset. It can be rewarding in and of itself, or because it enables something else. Succeeding using the rules of turn-based combat in JRPGs provides more story as a reward.

As a game in isolation, Wii Tennis really isn't that fun. The input method is novel, but that's about it. Playing Wii Tennis with other people is what makes it fun. But so is playing gin rummy or Clue, if you're into those kinds of things. It's perfectly possible to derive enjoyment from playing games beyond directly from the game itself.

The only reason why Wii Sports seems particularly compelling is that it's dead simple, so you can play games with people you don't normally play games with. The bar for entry is lowest of probably any game ever. But I highly doubt anyone who was previously into TF2 or Halo bailed and now plays Wii Sports with his/her buddies instead.

Anonymous said...

Here's the thing though, Pete, what are you doing as you barrel through Paradise City? You're going as fast as you can, pushing the edge of your ability to take a turn without losing control and smashing yourself to bits. Every moment you're playing with rules, experimenting with them, seeing how far you can push them before either you or they break.

This is what Pliskin means when he says that a game "asks her [you] to uncover its underlying logic through inquiry and imagination". Sometimes that inquiry takes the form of t-boning another car in GTA IV to see how many times you can make it flip. Sometimes that flight of imagination is 'no-scoping' a guy in Halo 3 even though you didn't think you could.

I think what you're missing is that everything you're doing in a game is bound and facilitated by rules. No one could tell you the rules of Super Mario Bros., but every moment that you're playing, all the time that you're slowly getting better, it's because you're getting a little more acquainted with it's secret ruleset.

Anonymous said...

All I'm saying is that unlike in dancing, getting-subjected-to-rules is often the funnest part of games. Because as you get acclimated to rules, you're having a world open out in front of you.

I can get behind this "often", but I think I'm on the stinky pete side of things if you shift that "often" into "predominant" or "most important" etc. territory. For instance, it may not be what games are best at/suited for, but many of the pleasures of the (critically-acknowledged) best games happen to be narrative, even passively narrative ones. You can make the case that this isn't what games ought to be be striving for, but as a description of the current states of play, I think you'd have to cede the point.

Unknown said...

Hi Iroquois! I think the Aristotelian analogy is apt, but I think it cuts differently than you do.

(I have to say that I also disagree that rule-exploration is per se the telos of game-practice, because I think the pursuit "rules" qua rules is a red herring, and that rules are actually the same thing as Aristotelian elements like opsis and megethos, but that's a discussion for another day.)

My principle reaction to your clarification, though, is that Aristotle IMHO didn't actually understand tragedy very well--above all, he missed what we now recognize as the absolutely fundamental importance of tragedy's cultural context in fifth century BCE Athens. Do we want to miss the equivalent elements of games?

Anonymous said...

Just a question of curiosity regarding your assertion of games criticsm being related to fun.

Why limit criticsm to "fun"? Obviously this is the default intent of game developers, but doesn't focusing solely on fun discredit the other intents and meanings of a game?

Furthermore, is the concept of "fun" too restrictive? Games, their rules and systems set of various types of emotions which could all be held under the umbrella of fun. Are satisfaction, thrill, fear, regret, education and surprise all elements of fun?

Even sticking within this context we are still only discussing emotion. Can a game not be criticized based on other things it may evoke? Culture, for instance. I recently wrote a piece on my blog discussing "how" Yakuza 2 exchanges culture with the player. Like fun, culture can be interpreted as a developer intent behind the game, so do you think this would also qualify for critique?

I hope this came across accurately, first time comment, love reading VCCL, don't know what to comment about. ^_^

Anonymous said...

I was with you up to this point:

>> games are the most fitting artform to satisfy this desire, because unlike other games and sports the rules of a video game are not disclosed in advance.

In many video games the rules are known in advance. What the player is discovering are the extrapolations of these rules. Video games are not so different from other kinds of games in this respect.

Explicit rule discovery as a designed part of the game experience, as demonstrated by a lot of "art games" for example, is more of a stylistic choice than an inherent aspect of the form. In most cases it's only once the player understands the basic rule set that actually interesting gameplay happens, if at all.

>>...different games have different ratios of discovery to mastery

The key thing to keep in mind is that mastery is itself a kind of discovery, mastery is the process of exploring the possibility space created by the rules and discovering things about it.

Pala said...


Apropos games as mastery of rules:

You might find interesting to read Galloway's Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture Ch.4 where he discusses (with examples) how playing video games allows players to internalize algorithms. I'll leave you with two quotes from that chapter.

The style in which you learn to think doesn't correspond to the way any person usually makes sense of the world. Rather, the pleasures of a simulation game come from inhabiting an unfamiliar, alien mental state: from learning to think like a computer.
(Ted Friedman)

[Games] demand that a player can execute an algorithm in order to win. As the player proceeds through the game, she gradually discovers the rules that operate in the universe constructed by the game. She learns its hidden logic—in short, its algorithm.
(Lev Manovich)

Anonymous said...

Your thesis is hereby perfected. But you may have merely deferred the problem of game-pleasure. The player enjoys mastering the game, but also enjoys being a master of the game-system.(Mr. stinky's objection) I know all there is to know about GTA IV, and yet driving a motorcycle off a skyscraper is still remarkably badass. Pete says that you're ignoring qualia, ain't she a bitch. Perhaps another level of abstraction is needed. Players crave success. They succeed at learning the rules and also succeed at executing these learned procedures.

Love, Elliot

Anonymous said...


To your mind, is there a possible game out there that is so crystalline and pure in its purpose and experience as to make any attempt at criticism tautological?

I think the "to your mind" part is key here. I believe there are a lot of games out there like this, from Bit Generations titles and Bomberman to things like Go and SameGame. I find them pure not due to some failure of hermeneutics, but because of the way I have approached them, and what they have taught me about how I enjoy games. For me, such games provide experiences that provide more insight than well-reasoned criticism ever could. If I told you a story about a game of Go I had played, it would paint a better picture of the idea of Go than an analysis of moves and rules would. Nothing is impervious to criticism (thanks, Horkheimer!) but those pure games are everywhere if you choose to experience them as such. "Lucid Gaming," if you will. That's the beauty of video games: you can choose to engage them, or you can chose to experience them.

Does that make any sense? I really just wanted an excuse to mention Horkheimer because I think his name is hilarious.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@mike: thanks for the good words, and also for the questions!

to answer: I think in a well-made game is often more interesting to analyze than a poorly made one. Left 4 Dead is a good example I think: it's one of those games where you can tell the developers gave a lot of careful thought to how all the game's elements-- the visual and audio design, the mechanics, the AI director-- work together to create an experience of collaborative desperation. The analytical type of criticism I'm advocating wouldn't necessarily be negative; it would try to explain how these systems work.

@Nels: I agree with you that the social aspects of Wii Sports go a long way towards explaining its appeal. But that can't be all there is to it.

I still feel the force of the objection, tho: If I think that video games are about learning rules I need to explain why this very simple activity of waggling the remote with proper timing has bewitched the populace. Hell, I've played wii tennis by myself a time or two and I think it's awfully fun. So I should have something to say about it

@juv3nal: yeah, I should probably clear up what I said there. though the term "subjection" has a passive ring to it I should emphasize that learning rules is just as much an activity: when you're learning the rules you're opening up on a field of possible actions-- things you can do-- within the gameworld. Interaction-- what steve gaynor once called realtime media interpretation-- would be the active element of learning rules.

@roger travis: I'll cede the point on Aristotle getting the point of tragedy wrong, since I hope the basic point about using a kind of functional-teleological analysis still holds.

that said, I think your deeper point is well-taken: What if I've gotten it wrong? I think the rule-discovery idea covers a lot of ground but I feel that it misses the kind of visceral and experiential elements that pete points to.

Daniel Primed: this is an excellent set of questions! Fun is of course a slippery concept, meant to encompass a family of responses you point to. But you're right, there is a world of difference between a thrilling scene in Call of Duty 4 and cracking a tricky puzzle in Portal.

What I would say about "fun" as it applies to both these games is this: what is basic to these different experiences is a sense of agency, the feeling you get when you use your knowledge of how the world works and can act effectively within its logic.

the other side of your question is good, I tend to think about this problem a lot. Do games need to be fun, or are there other kinds of emotions and aims that they can pursue? I've read some people who say that games need to give up on being fun and empowering the player in order to become more artistically mature. I don't know what to think about this idea but I think about it a lot. Maybe I'll write a post on it.

Anyway, thanks for the encouragement and for the questions.

@pala: thanks for the link! I'm intrigued by this book I'll have to check it out

Anonymous said...


An insightful article, and I completely agree with you to a certain point, although I also agree with Frank's caveat.

However, while this is a great analysis of some of the reasons most games are enjoyable, it really leaves behind entire genres. What about games like Guitar Hero, where the rules are incredibly simple, instantly understandable, and provide few to no interesting decisions?

Unlike a game like Go or Chess, Guitar Hero is entirely about learning and mastering a physical skill. It's not really about rules. It's just about developing your reaction time and your ability to move your fingers quickly.

Guitar Hero is an extreme example, but a little bit of this purely physical skill is present in nearly every game. Take football, for example -- part of football is exploring the gameplay space as developed by rules, but part of it is just training people to be really fast. Or my favorite exmaple for anything, Starcraf -- part of Starcraft is strategy, and part of it is physical ability.


Anonymous said...

I strongly agree with your post. Games criticism that only focuses on whether a game is fun or whether it's worth buying is somewhat redundant because gamers can decide for themselves by downloading a free demo.

What I would hope that games criticism does is try and make gamers think of what it is they enjoy about games and why they enjoy it. I want the games criticism I read to offer me some kind of insight or show me a different way of seeing and thinking; for ideas to be thrown around, for my existing knowledge and beliefs to be challenged, and to look at a game as more than just a commodity.

Games are these amazingly complex and interactive texts that deserve to be thought about intelligently.

Unknown said...

Good answers, thanks.

Most of the game designers I really like are critiquing in some way, and most of the critics I really like are designing in some way.

I'm gradually coming to believe that if you could become perfect at both of those disciplines, you'd find they were one and the same.


Anonymous said...

Dammit, can't keep my accounts straight. ^That's me.