The Grasshopper for the People

Welcome back for some more game studies condensed and contextualized for people outside of academia. Given the nature of canons, these works build pretty directly off of what came before them, and so you might want to check out the previous two posts I’ve done before getting to today’s, The Grasshopper by Bernard Suits.

The Grasshopper is highly influential in games studies and design, and especially anticipates/predicates so-called games formalists. Whereas Huizinga and Caillois were preoccupied with the cultural implications of games and play, Suits embarks on thoroughly defining games for its own sake. It’s unclear whether Suits actually cared about games as medium at all, since the reason he wrote The Grasshopper was more about the act of defining things, and reacted to philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s use of games as an attack on the usefulness of defining things. Nevertheless, we can see this as an origin point on many attitudes about what games are conceived, since every assumption about what games are came from someone else’s agenda.

Worth noting is that the majority of the book is written as dialogue between the characters talking out the process of defining games. It uses the grasshopper and ants from Aesop’s fable to relate the pursuit of defining games similar to envisioning utopia. For the most part I’ve grabbed whole quotes but I should say that because of this structure, the book is easily readable and takes you through every bit of rationale as a good philosophy book would.



“Let me begin, then, with the apparently outrageous assertion that there is no logical relation whatever between playing and playing games. […] I suggest that we ought to not concern ourselves with the word ‘play’ when it is used as equivalent in meaning to such words as ‘perform,’ ‘operate,’ or ‘participate in.’ Thus, we can play the violin, but this means simply to perform upon the violin. We can play a pinball machine, but this means simply to operate it. And, finally, we can play a game, but this means simply to participate in it. […] The existence of the expression ‘playing a game’ is not by itself a compelling reason for insisting that there is a logical relation between playing and playing games.” (pg. 220-1)

I’m actually going to start off with the end of the book to frame why I personally find The Grasshopper worth knowing about, that is, the fierce separation of games and play. Here, Suits posits that play is merely incidental in relation to games, more a hiccup of language than integral to understanding them. Since then there has been a disavowal of play, being something that is childish and too vague, for the preference of games as this idealized designed object. I imagine this was a popular stance when games studies was trying to differentiate itself for play studies, and game designers from toys and children’s activities. Now games are serious, professional, science-friendly. Suits did not necessarily mean for that to happen, more that he was sticking to his philosophical guns and needed to excise play in order for his definition of games to be sound. It’s worth keeping in mind as we read through the rest of these notes and when we think about how contemporary definitions are formulated in relation to play and the politics that arise from them.


“To play a game is to attempt to achieve a specific state of affairs [prelusory goal], using only means permitted by rules [lusory means], where the rules prohibit use of more efficient in favour of less efficient means [constitutive rules], and where the rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity [lusory attitude]. I also offer the following simpler and, so to speak, more portable version of the above: playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.” (pg. 43)

Here we have contemporary games studies boiled down to its essential core. There are many things that fluctuate in definitions of games, like whether or not there are rules or goals or the particulars of how players are involved, but there is a bedrock of this voluntary act of putting oneself in front of voluntary obstacles. Outside of this, such as involuntary play or necessary obstacles, completely upend thinking on games, or at the very least, aren’t considered to be relevant. Any connection to the real is disputed or at best garners highly ambivalent responses where games interact with culture, but by somehow being isolated from it.


“The attitude of the game player must be an element in game playing because there has to be an explanation of that curious state of affairs wherein one adopts rules which require one to employ worse rather than better means for reaching an end. […] Cutting across the infield is shunned solely because there is a rule against it. But in ordinary life this is usually—and rightly—regarded as the worst possible kind of justification one could give for avoiding a course of action. The justification for prohibiting a course of action that there is simply a rule against may be called the bureaucratic justification; that is, no justification at all. But aside from bureaucratic practice, in anything but a game the gratuitous introduction of unnecessary obstacles to the achievement of an end is regarded as a decidedly irrational thing to do. […] If playing a game is regarded as not essentially different from going to the office or writing a cheque, then there is certainly something absurd or paradoxical or, more plausibly, simply something stupid about game playing. […] I believe that we are now a position to define lusory attitude: the acceptance of constitutive rules just so the activity made possible by such acceptance can occur.” (pgs. 40-3)

Most profilc from The Grasshopper is Suit’s conception of the lusory attitude, which separates our day-to-day actions from games, that is, that feeling of entering what Huizinga called the magic circle, doing something useless for its own sake. This lusory attitude is valorized in conversations around positive aspects around games, getting players to exercise their imaginations and focus themselves in the pursuit to some (now elevated) goal. To be sure, Suits doesn’t believe in following rules for just following rules, so there is some sort of ‘use’ or need for the lusory attitude, though what that is is anyone’s guess.


“By amateurs I mean those for whom playing the game is an end in itself, and by professionals I mean those who have in view some further purpose which is achievable by playing the game. […] The attitude of amateur differs from these attitudes because he is motivated by a love of the game […] But although the attitudes of amateurs and professionals are markedly different, it is still the case that these differing attitudes are attitudes towards games, and not towards something else. […] If playing—rather than playing games—is activity which is always and only undertaken for its own sake, then ‘professional player’ is a contradiction in terms. On such a view we would be obligated to say that a professional athlete was not playing, but we would not be obliged to deny that he was playing a game. In the same way, while we would not want to say that a concert violinist was at play during his recitals, we would presumably want to grant that he was playing the violin.” (pgs. 154-5)

Suits follows Caillois’ impulses and aims to for good include games that are largely played for professional reasons or have some sort of gain in real life. Which is to say that professional football is a game but none of the players are deploying a lusory attitude. To be honest I’m not completely sure why this is such a contentious point for theorists, unless it’s just for this pursuit of a definition which real life is constantly trying to foil. There is this weird authenticity or purity at work in games studies that theorists aim to hold onto, and something like earning money completely ruins this purity somehow. I would say today that no one really thinks of professional players as markedly different from other players, but at the same time, that does reveal inconsistencies. This provokes questions regarding the opportunistic nature of games theorists and practitioners when it comes to how games are relevant connections to life and when they aren’t.


“It might be said that triflers recognize the rules but not goals, cheats recognize goals but not rules, players recognize both rules and goals, and spoilsports recognize neither rules nor goals; and that while players acknowledge the claims of both the game and its institution, triflers and cheats acknowledge only institutional claims, and spoilsports acknowledge neither.” (pg. 51)

Suits also continues the tradition of looking at the outliers of game players, with our old favorites the cheat and spoilsport joined by the newly minted trifler. While the former two are mostly the same just further pegged into a taxonomy, the trifler creates and interesting complication in way the many games pitch agency in games. According to Suits, triflers respect the institution of a game, going by its rules and customs, except they do not pursue established goals set out by the game. So if you’re playing RISK with your friends, where the goal is global domination, but you just want to take control of Africa so you can claim to be the new Nubian Queen and do nothing else, Suits would call you a trifler (trifling in slang is not wasted on me here). He doesn’t say it as polemically as this, but Suits ultimately considers a game, or at least a good game, one that has a goal in which the structure of the rules promotes you to obtain, so along with spoilsports and cheats (thought cheats are again sympathized with as being the most zealous of players), and professional players while we’re at it, triflers aren’t playing the game. It continues the lack of explanation by ‘formalist’ game theorists and designers on how cheating, mods, player-driven goals, and more are factored into tradition with something other than a handwave.


“The goal of participating in the game is not, strictly speaking, a part of the game at all. It is simply one of the goals that people have, such as wealth, glory, or security. As such it may be called a lusory goal, but a lusory goal of life rather than of games.” (pg. 39)

Here we have an interesting and short-lived turn regarding the application of play and games to life. For Suits life can be game-like and we can have a lusory attitude towards it but it seems that games are not the only thing one can be lusory towards. Because Suits is only concerned with defining games and not about games as cultural phenomena or their creation, we get to fill in the implications of thinking about our medium as either the games themselves or the attitude in which we approach things. At this point in time, the lusory attitude isn’t used to engage with life’s issues, rather games themselves are. Maybe it isn’t games that we really need to be concerned with in the first place? I think Suits would agree.


“I would define an open game generically as a system of reciprocally enabling moves whose purpose is the continued operation of the system. […] Heuschrecke thus correctly specified a game of make-believe as being ‘a reciprocating system of role-performance maximization.’” (pg. 146)

Here is where Suits addresses how games of make-believe fit into his definition of games, by turning the maintenance of dramatic effect into the goal of the game, separating it from performance in general through action-substantiated roles. To his credit, Suits at least questions why adults let go of open games and draws lines from preference for closed vs open games to capitalistic vs socialistic societies. These thoughts are still relatively untouched by most people in games who still valorize closed games and are more or less complacent as realms of business further mechanize games for profit. One would be hard-pressed to see the difference between open games and play at times outside of Suits’ very specific logic, but overall, inefficient means to an unnecessary goal stands as what’s allowed from the world of make-believe into games and what isn’t. Heuschrecke, by the way, is the grasshopper’s alter ego who has a scene of his own.


“H: You were playing a two-role, two-person, one-player game. It is also possible to play a two-role, two-person, one-player game where the person who is not a player (but, in effect, a device) provides you with dramatic opportunities with the conscious purpose of doing so. […] But the best way to get good lines is for your partner to be a player, because then he has a motive which is better than that of either of the others. The dupe is worst, of course, because he is least dependable, and most of the time he isn’t giving you lines at all but going about his own affairs. And the person who feeds you lines for some reward (or out of friendship or fear, it might be added), although we would expect him to be more constantly employed at his task than the dupe, is only indirectly motivated to provide the desired service. Only another player (or yourself as the other player) has a direct motive.” (pgs. 119-20)

Heuschrecke, or the grasshopper, shows how that games can indeed be played with unwilling or unaware participants, which differs from past theorists. Before, and with some after, everyone had to be within the magic circle to call what was going on play or a game, or else it’s real life and with consequence. As it turns out, open games can be played without the consent of all parties when those unknowing are treated like objects or devices rather than other players. Suits suggests these are poorly constructed open games because better ones would have another player who acts as a more active and intentional partner in perpetuating drama. Like most theorists, the deeper we get the weaker this life vs play distinction gets. Is there much use to keep the experience of the person playing an open game and the bystander apart? The only reason to is because Suits wants to reach a solid definition of games, no other reason. I feel the same impulse exists in games, that things are separated simply for the fact that a separation can be made, no matter how arbitrary that decision is. Given this example comes from ‘patients’ who didn’t know they were playing games, just that they enjoyed deploying roles, it seems like open games don’t require anyone to realize they are playing or in a game for it to be so. It really questions the need to hold onto this separation.


“S: But surely playing a part is the very essence of make-believe.

H: Playing a part is, yes. But playing what might be called a foreign or assumed part is not. One can also play, so to speak, native or proprietary parts.

S: What on earth is a proprietary part?

H: One way to define it is as follows: a part of such a kind that when one plays it, one is not conveying misinformation about one’s identity. […] Suppose that a Boy Scout […] dons his uniform and helps old ladies across the street. He is also playing a part, but it is his own part; that is, its performance conveys information rather than misinformation about the performer. […]

S: You are talking about role-playing in everyday life. […]

H: There are roles which enjoy a kind of objective or public status, so that they can be performed by different people for different purposes. They are in this respect like clothing. All kinds of apparel are for public sale, and I can purchase and put on something which correctly conveys my position in life, or I can purchase and put on something which misrepresents my position in life. For example, I can put on a business suit or I can put on the uniform of a full admiral. The only difference is that suits and uniforms are patterns of cloth and roles are patterns of behaviour.” (pgs. 121-2)

And on cue, roles that are used in games can include the roles we decide to have in life, through the requirement that the player, who may or may not know they are playing, is always trying to perpetuate their role through interactions with others. There’s a lot of implications on the rest of games when open games can basically pass for real life, or that the player can be ultimately unaware of their own playing. While Suits does his philosophical wheeling to serve his pursuit of definitions, I wonder how this can be used to press against convention and redefine convention and deployment of games outside of consumer entertainment products. It’s possible, though, that Suits was thinking of or anticipating LARPs and more formalized roleplaying.


“Our view of games occupies a middle position between two extreme positions which we reject: what may be called, on one hand, radical autotelism and, on the other hand, radical instrumentalism. Radical autotelism is the view that unless games are played solely as ends in themselves, they are not really games, that is, that amateurs alone are playing games. We have already rejected radical autotelism in arguing that professionals, too, are genuinely playing games. Radical instrumentalism is the view that games are essentially instruments, and we also reject that view.” (pg. 158)

To leave us off, we have Suits trying to complicate the use vs useless binary that games gets trapped in so often. He implicates basically all of games discourse, and even himself, since what is too autotelistic (something done for its own sake) and too instrumental is completely arbitrary. The only reason games would need to be completely for themselves is because there’s a value in separating them from life, and being instrumental is having some sort of end that amounts to something other the feeling of completing a game. I don’t know if any theorist has really addressed this deftly, it seems like something most don’t really want to deal with. At the very least it makes use have to consider aims like ‘for change’ or ‘education’ or ‘social impact’ when it comes to games, at least for Suits. It’s possible that the DNA of games from Suits and on resists proper use in areas outside of entertainment because of this attitude, and we’d need to revisit what it is about play and games we actually find to be at the heart of our practice to include them if these aspects are important to us.



And there we have it, another games theorist down. Let me know if these are useful to you and if there are any books I should consider for series. Until next time!

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Playing with UI

Once upon a time, I kept up with video game release cycles, Steam sales, and games Twitter fads enough to be aware of what games out there I should be playing. These past few years found me receding away from all these, and in conjunction with the exponential growth of individual creators out in the world, the ways games come across my plate is increasingly arcane. It’s a mix of (fleshspace) word of mouth, festivals, and student showcases that present a wide variety of ideas, audiences, and scale. So it stands out to me whenever I feel like I see a pattern coming emerging from a view of games not dictated by the press and whatever indie darling showed up that week.

In particular I’ve been thinking about a trend in metafictional use of familiar, pervasive UI that’s cropped up in games that catch my attention. Think Her Story, Cibele, and Killing Time at Lightspeed or even more close to what I’d like to talk about, Replica, Project Perfect Citizen, and Mystic Messenger. What all these games have in common is using the interfaces of technologies we’re familiar with as the the interface and setting of play. In Replica you’re playing with an iPhone interface (pity Apple probably wouldn’t let this game exist on its store) while Mystic Messenger mainly utilizes messenger apps like Line. Besides lending familiarity to a game that probably would prove more accessible to those who don’t consistently consume mainstream games, there is something innately more personal to these games by their very form.

This is useful to look at considering the particular brand of UI/UX craze that’s going on in design fields and now even seeping into games, despite the fact that the definition of game design should be designing experiences but, I digress. UI in games is largely taken for granted as just what’s necessary in order for players to operate the game. Meaning, it’s rare to play with UI in a way that it allows us to play in digital areas that are not usually considered ‘games,’ such as our computer desktops and mobile phones. In a way, UI might be the ultimate defining feature in digital games that signals what we play with, and to understand how to further engage with the world we have to think less of the content first but of how we can use UI to create unusual experiences.

What makes these types of games successful to me is the inherent transgression and indulgence of the public/private split in experience. A digital UI often designates a personal space only the user can see and therefore a place where private information is kept. There is something pleasurably invasive about these games that use non-game UIs because we are either making a new space our own or we’re looking into the private belongings of someone else. Intimacy, security, vulnerability, surveillance, all of these issues naturally reside when we use UI to knowingly create a private space for play that resembles actual ones we have in our lives.

These games, by effect, imply that there are hidden experiences or stories in our everyday uses of technology. Kinds of experiences that the current UI/UX designer isn’t really planning for because they aren’t considering their work as part of the playful act. In the height of experimental theater in the mid-20th century, happenings elevated the everyday lives of people to a more perceivable aesthetic plane. Performance artists who used happenings wanted to draw from life not just for content but for the form as well, to better relate the viewer who was almost always a participant, whether they realized it or not. I see something similar in the future of these UI games, where people are interacting with digital interfaces in a way they don’t realize is designed for playful experience or something other than pure functionality.

One could make the argument that video games often feel so much a like because UI design is strongly codified and similar between genres. Maybe the UI of a game has a stronger influence on what the game is going to be like than what conversations currently address. Why don’t more creators use the UI of other kinds of software to create their experience? Too meta? I feel like there’s a tendency in digital games that they perceive themselves as born out of nothing, when most people today encounter games within the UI of other experiences. In this way, loading up a video game might be serving the same function as walking into a museum, going in for a particular experience and leave ‘art’ inside and away from the rest of the world. But I think these ‘UI games’ (please don’t let that term become a thing) threaten that sacred space of games in only a good way. We should be thinking of the politics of the software and platforms we use everyday, and there should be art that complicates our uses of technology from the inside. Those who understand how experience is crafted in technology can undermine how top-down forces exert power through these sorts of interventions. And the idea of using a hack for a game, to actually alter the literal UIs we use themselves, has to be saved for another time. But I recommend you check and look out for these kinds of games because they have the potential to hold a unique creative power in games, that is, injecting play into spaces carefully crafted to hide their mechanisms from those who use them.

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Games, Art, and Design

I feel like a tennis ball hit between the rackets of Art and Design. When first exploring critical theory and occupying myself with creative writing and art history, I wasn’t really aware of an art vs design divide. My first university major was Interior Design & Architecture which sparked my interest in spaces and how they influence us even as I moved over to literature and writing non-fiction. Creativity was creativity to me, no matter if it dealt with functional objects or ephemeral forms of expression. But the apparent antagonism between the fields is how they mutually substantiate each other, that is, a lot of what makes design, design, is that it isn’t art, and also the reverse. The main tension is between design as utility and art being for itself; what a creative work is and isn’t useful for defines a lot of the conventions and values shaped around it.


Games have become increasingly bizarre and sometimes alien to because of my inability to locate it in either art or design, despite practitioners citing the medium being both. I am thoroughly interdisciplinary in my practice, so on that level games has intrigued me as, at the very least, needing art and design to work together to produce interactive experiences. It implies that there is this false binary between the fields and something exists beyond them that takes what’s useful to craft experiences. Yet I find in typical game development the less glamorous aspects of art and design, an unflattering utilitarian assembly line in the name of fun the cuts out a lot of the creative process for the expressive qualities of the game. Conventional game making practices reduce both design and art to gears of producing products instead of linking them through a shared creative process. I reflect on this because of widespread recognition of games not being very well made outside of narrow set of expectations of gamers. In my time lecturing around New York City, I find that there is, at best, still a stalemate at how many people treat playing games as a part of their life that they do with other forms of artistic media or designed experiences. We see this tension in games people still poo-pooing a dead critic for saying games aren’t art while very willfully resisting being held accountable for actually impacting culture in any meaningful way except for the act passing time for its own sake. People in the field of games are simply defensive if not apathetic about this dissonance since, when we boil it down, so much of games evangelism is done out of nerds wanting to legitimize how much time and money they spend on a hobby.


Being both a critic and creator implores me to wonder how to do better. It’s not a secret that the exemplar of games as medium are still lacking in effect to other disciplines; I was just at a panel where politicians and heads of games companies constantly harped on games being important because they make the most amount of money out of other entertainment industries. Not that they challenge how we think, not that they open up new forms of expression, just simply at the bottom line they make money for capitalists. This isn’t new, I’m sure you can look up any talk or article in mainstream venues about the importance of games and the first line will be how much more money the games industry makes more than Hollywood.


Researching design and art practices leads me to believe games as a discipline needs an overhaul for how it frames the creative process. More specifically, game design is so narrow in focus and shaped by industrial standards that severely limits the range of output because it excises many opportunities for imagination and exploration.


Let’s zoom out of game design and look at design more generally. Design is better identified by its process rather than what it produces, since design firms like IDEO can apply their process to whatever they are working on and produce a large range of things, from objects to organizational structures to live experiences. They could even make a game if they felt so inclined, and how they would differs from how game designers typically look at it. I feel it is pretty apparent that people in game design saw these design firms in their nascency and borrowed many of the terms superficially but barely evolved any of them. Most of the design aspect of game design rests in prototyping and iteration, with research into audience and needs being handed down from marketing as a given. That is, people want to have fun and the people we want to reach typically play games a certain way. In other design processes, who an audience is exactly and what they need start out way more vague and are identified as part of the creative process. Games are incessantly narrow because of this need for a ‘fun’ product and developers pulling in a range of assumptions of how people want to engage with play. This goes hand-in-hand with why there isn’t a strong idea of how social impact games actually impact the world, because the creative process rarely includes actually finding out what people need. The assumption is that people ‘need’ to have fun, to be addicted, or whatever usual game design buzzword you can come up with. Weirdly, games try to use a utilitarian creation process to create self-described useless work, and aim for a very specific kind of uselessness. Imagine if we exploded play outside the confines of market understandings of what the general landscape of gamers want and applied a process with engaging local communities and current events. Imagine what games would look like if everyone wasn’t in a rush to be the next blockbuster and understand their worth mostly through that level of revenue. I honestly wonder if games as a discipline truly grasps experience in its totality instead of continually drawing from the same dry well.


Art is disciplined by this process into livestock, meant to not imagine but lend to this very particular line of uselessness. We do see individual artists express themselves through games enough that we can see a creative output that is unmistakably at work with life contexts outside of game industry. This divide and conquer use of design against art rarely allows creators to engage with topics without first serving this industrial notion of fun or a waste of time. With the rise of 21st century independent game development this impulse is getting pushed back, however even much of this work is unable to imagine itself further incorporating an artistic practice, since game development is long held to be a drawn out and financially draining process that result in this one shot to make it all back. While they do exist, so few games creators display a creative practice simply because of how few games they are able to work on in any given amount of time.


It is worth noting that both art and design share the need for a creative process, and that one does not need to separate them on the basis of convention. Games are in a unique position to reframe this creative process to not be so skewed towards design and art industrial standards and create an honestly new kind of engagement. Every creator will have a different process and we can engage with different contexts instead of being held hostage by the traditional model of being a games creator. I’m actually super surprised with how different the field of design looks from games, and it doesn’t surprise me that so-called games ambassadors took business by storm because of how secluded the practice is. In a time when we’re struggling to understand games’ place in shaping culture, I don’t think we can afford to take any assumptions that the game design field hands down to us for how to create work. The most obvious benefit is for the social impact sector, but also just for our personal fulfillment as expressive humans who have a wider range of emotions than the current landscape of games would lead us to believe.

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Performance & Mimicry: Do Video Games Even Have Rules?

Performance and how it manifests in play takes up more of my thoughts as time goes on. We do see some mention of performance in games, typically that players perform with games as an aesthetic perspective. Players and objects as agents influencing each other, rolling into one another like improv acting is generally something I’m on board with. It allows us to see what sort of prompts each agent involved gives the other and the politics of the relationship that rises from the call and response that results. What trips this up however is a shallow look at what sort of prompting games give players, particularly video games. Instead of a performance we see the glorification of interaction and interactivity, or rather just the fact a call and response of any kind is happening. It influences game design, critique, and playing to understand video games as things that prompt interaction rather than objects with agency that lend themselves to performance.

Having just spent time going over my notes to Roger Caillois’ Man, Play, Games, I found myself thinking about his ideas on mimicry as a category of play and where performance fits into that. In this context, mimicry is the suspension of disbelief and evoking illusion over ourselves and the environment as a setting for play. Caillois cites games of make-believe to theater as the domain of mimicry, all of which performance is the evocative element that substantiates play. The quirk here is how in his classifications of games, mimicry is one of the types that doesn’t have rules: “the continuous submission to imperative and precise rules cannot be observed–rules for the dissimulation of reality and substitution of a second reality.” So there seems to be here a clash between performance and rules, because the sacred space of performance is marked by the act of performing rather than the bounds created by arbitrary rules. With rules, we don’t make-believe, we submit to the rules and act by their affordances. Performance, which is more than just literal action, requires manipulating illusion and revelation of the self in relationship to reality; being outside of it is like trying to have a call and response relationship with the void.

What looks like is getting in the way of creating, observing, and participating in performance with video games is the craft’s insistence that they are rules-based games. While there is ambivalence on this point for tabletop and live roleplaying games where there is performance with actual written rules that create the space one is in, video games have no such thing as rule-bounded realities for play. Instead, they have what designers call ‘material rules,’ or rules implied by what the code of the game and physical inputs does and does not allow the player to do. Thus follows the interactivity-based lens which looks at video games chiefly on what a player can and cannot do, and how they act within those constraints. Performance, narrative, and experience can only be described as an action report in this perspective because ‘what counts’ is that the player is doing, not necessarily what the player is doing.

We can shift focus then and see material rules as an attempt to classify video games as Caillois’ agon, competition or strife (the computer being who we play with) within established bounds of rules, when they actually do not have rules and are games of mimicry. Most if not all digital games do not have rules unique to themselves when it is recognized the game either will or will not let you do something. Unlike rules-based games in Caillois’ perspective, video games don’t dissolve away when a rule is ignored. Because video games are designed, analyzed, and played as rules-based games through convention, performance is rare. The times performance tends to happen is when perceived rules, said material rules, are broken or changed, much emblemized by the phenomenon of speedrunning. We see illusion and subversion in mods, hacks, glitches, and player-created challenges. While many designers embrace uncertainty in what the player will do and experience through creating multiple avenues of agency and adding procedural generation to everything, these are not used as prompts for performance as the creator could anticipate the possibilities of play down to a fine level of detail. Rules are more conventions that creators use as they make video games rather than what players eventually follow. For example, painters will use color and perspective to manipulate how the eye travels across their painting, but general viewers themselves are not following the laws of color and perspective on any lucid level. This is particularly apparent in fighting games, which are often described in performative language. Without questioning skill and dedication, all fighting game matches are predictable in concept by the creators, and in this perspective players are operating the game in the way it was made to operate. It’s obvious that creativity is at work in fighting games, and the community surrounding them attests to that, yet the games themselves are not platforms for generative play. The main way performance happens in video games currently is when a game is improperly used and purposefully broken which creators do not anticipate. When players do this we don’t see the game as necessarily ruined or dissolved, but evolved and on-going.

To nurture performance in video games, creators have to craft for it beyond the base of interactivity. Performance is generative, it creates. So far, the idea of performance is used as an on/off switch, that games aren’t ‘alive’ until performed. Performed in that usage simply means to operate. Crafting for performance means creating prompts and continuous calls and responses that you cannot possibly predict. The implications of performance and video games is most felt in their exhibition, and by effect how they are played overall. Despite being interactive, video games do not impart aesthetic experiences very well when put in exhibits or shows, since most are made for consumption in private spaces. That curators and event organizers only know to place a video game on a computer at a station shows that we do not fully understand the aesthetic experience video games have to offer. A computer in the museum is, in this context, no different from a picture frame on the wall. The art is dead and kept away from the people. In this light, I don’t think many people in video games have seriously considered games as artistic experiences outside the forms of entertainment consumption.

Performance has a history of interrupting the usual flow of commodification and consumption of art. Performance art challenged ownership, meaning-making, and methods of expression. Video games routinely run into what seem to be unsolvable issues that center around these sorts of issues, particularly engaging with social issues with any depth, interrogating relationships and intimacy, dealing with the subjective experience of shared events. This was an impetus of a work I performed earlier in the year, empathy machine, which moved a video game I made, Mainichi, into a performance context that activated its meaning through public engagement. It came after years of seeing Mainichi played in exhibitions on computers and completely lifeless. The proper context for a call and response was missing and instead people just glazed over it much like every other game curated around topics of social importance.

It’s possible what I’m talking about isn’t video games but something beyond them. Maybe this is to say that video games actually require a stronger presence of hacking, cheating, and modding for performance to come alive. Is it that they should be designed for maximum availability for exploitation or have vague enough material goals so players make their own? I’m only beginning to dig into performance and games, and these are just ideas, but I do think it’s a conversation worth having as games become increasingly absorbed into art and theoretical circles.

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Man, Play and Games for the People

Back with some more game studies theory where I take commonly taught text, grab the important quotes, and explain their significance for the non-academic and academic who needs a refresher alike. Last month I did Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens which is the oldest in the canon, and this time we’ll be looking at Roger Caillois’ Man, Play and Games which was inspired by Huizinga.

Caillois was a French sociologist who wrote Man, Play and Games in the late ‘50s specifically building upon Homo Ludens to create a methodology using games. At least in this canon, he seems to be the first to have clear classifications of games, separating from his predecessor who mostly detail with the vagueness of play and barely touched on games proper. And like Huizinga, Caillois cares more about what games imply about his chosen field rather than the construction of games themselves or any sort of discipline dedicated to them. So, let’s see what he has to say about games:



“The preceding analysis permits play to be defined as an activity which is essentially:

  1. Free: in which playing is not obligatory; if it were, it would at once lose its attractive and joyous quality as diversion;
  2. Separate: circumscribed within limits of space and time, defined and fixed in advance;
  3. Uncertain: the course of which cannot be determined, nor the result attained beforehand, and some latitude for innovations being left to the player’s initiative;
  4. Unproductive: creating neither goods, nor wealth, nor new elements of any kind; and, except for the exchange of property among the players, ending in a situation identical to that prevailing at the beginning of the game;
  5. Governed by rules: under conventions that suspend ordinary laws, and for the moment establish new legislation, which alone counts;
  6. Make-believe: accompanied by a special awareness of a second reality or of a free unreality, as against real life.” (pgs. 9-10)

In post-Huizinga texts, how a theorist decides to define play and/or games tends to reveal their agenda and show how they are building on those before them. Most of what we see here is pretty much lifted from Homo Ludens, with a small distinction. Caillois sees games as either governed by rules OR make-believe, not both. So not all games have rules according to him, and games with rules can only see make-believe as accessory to the experience instead of in tandem. This runs counter to many people that come after him, who believe all games have rules, no matter how obscured or loose. This division of rules vs make believe sets up his categorizations and the fundamental tensions he views when he takes a sociological perspective.


“After examining different possibilities, I am proposing a division into four main rubrics, depending upon whether, in the games under consideration, the role of competition, chance, simulation, or vertigo is dominant. I call these agon, alea, mimicry, and ilinx, respectively.” (pg. 12)

Here are the four main categories of the classification Caillois bases all his observations on. Agon comes from Huizinga’s ‘agonistic’ properties, basically referring to fair competition and honor. All competitive games fall under this category and anything involving conflict is read through agon. Alea covers all games of chance, including gambling, which is a hot topic we’ll get to. Mimicry centers around taking on roles, mostly characterized by make-believe and includes theater and all forms of acting. Ilinx, the one with the least amount of precedent, are experiences of intentional vertigo, from amusement rides to any sort of antic that evokes that cathartic loss of control. Caillois believed all games fit into one of these categories, and the categories interacted with differing levels of compatibility. Noteworthy is that agon and alea complement each other by virtue of being rules based and centered around the equal chances of success while mimicry and ilinx employ make-believe and suspension of the self. In true 20th century social science style, the former pair is associated with more ‘developed’ and Western societies while the latter with ‘primitive’ cultures and indigenous peoples of Australia, Africa, and the Americas.


“In general, the first manifestations of paidia have no name and could not have any, precisely because they are not of any order, distinctive symbolism, or clearly differentiated life that would permit a vocabulary to consecrate their autonomy with a specific term. But as soon as conventions, techniques, and utensils emerge, the first games as such arise with them: eg leapfrog, hide and seek, kite-flying, teetotum, sliding, blindman’s buff, and doll-play. At this point the contradictory roads of agon, alea, mimicry, and ilinx begin to bifurcate. At the same time, the pleasure experienced in solving a problem arbitrarily designed for this purpose also intervenes, so that reaching a solution has no other goal than personal satisfaction for its own sake. This condition, which is ludus proper, is also reflected in different kinds of games, except for those which wholly depend upon the cast of a die. It is complementary to and a refinement of paidia, which is disciplines and enriches.” (pg. 29)

There is a sub classification binary of paidia vs ludus, which is mostly forgotten after it’s described, but important to note because it seems to hold in language that exists today as what play vs games are. Paidia exists before any sort of codification of conventions while ludus is completely about the conventions. What strikes me as most interesting is how paidia seems indistinguishable from life at some level, that people from the outside wouldn’t really know you’re playing until focusing on the fact. Even though Caillois is strident about life and play being separated, paidia seems to somewhat flout this. I think paidia is used as the beginning phase of a game trending towards ludus, and a general timeline that Caillois makes, following Huizinga, of ‘primitive’ play to sophisticated modern games. I feel like ludus describes the main perspective in which the values of games are interpreted in contemporary discourse.


“In the confused, inextricable universe of real, human relationships, on the other hand, the action of given principles is never isolated, sovereign, or limited in advance. It entails inevitable consequences and possesses a natural propensity for good or evil.

In both cases, moreover, the same qualities can be identified:

The need to prove one’s superiority

The desire to challenge, make a record, or merely overcome an obstacle

The hope for and the pursuit of the favor of destiny

Pleasure in secrecy, make-believe, or disguise

Fear or inspiring fear

The search for repetition and symmetry, or in contrast, the joy of improvising, inventing, or infinitely varying solutions

Solving a mystery or riddle

The satisfaction procured from all arts involving contrivance

The desire to test one’s strength, skill, speed, endurance, equilibrium, or ingenuity

Conformity to rules or laws, the duty to respect the, and the temptation to circumvent them

And lastly, the intoxication, longing for ecstasy, and desire for voluptuous panic

These attitudes and impulses, often incompatible with each other, are found in the unprotected realm of social life, where acts normally have consequences, no less than in the marginal and abstract world of play. But they are not equally necessary, do not play the same role, and do not have the same influence.” (pgs. 64-5)

Here we see the qualities Caillois feels like the different classifications of games lend to societies during enculuration. This is what he means, to borrow from Huizinga, how play is lifelike but not life. Games are meant to create time and space to facilitate these impulses and that experience stays with people after they play games, but exerts itself in a chaotic manner in life. To Caillois and most games theorists, games are supposed to be safe and orderly spaces where we can indulge in lifelike experiences without consequence. What has been, and still is, vague is how games actually affect life while being separated from it, though he takes a decent stab at it.


“Games discipline instincts and institutionalize them. For the time that they afford formal and limited satisfaction, they educate, enrich, and immunize the mind against their virulence. At the same time, they are made for to contribute usefully to the enrichment and the establishment of various patterns of culture.” (pg. 55)

Huizinga saw the calcification of conventions from play as a plight of the modern man, but Caillois interprets this as how the values of play transfer to culture. Particularly interesting for people interested in power, the image of games disciplining human impulses into attitudes and aptitudes lends a lot to contemporary conversations around if and how politics manifest themselves in game design. This reads to me that games are ultimately always instruments and players trained through their mechanisms. Play is a wild force that must be cultivated into culture, and games acts as the translation process from this ‘primal’ state to a sophisticated one.


“It is certainly much more difficult to establish the cultural functions of games of chance than of competitive games. However, the influence of games of chance is no less considerable, even if deemed unfortunate, and not to consider them leads to a definition of play which affirms or implies the absence of economic interest.” (pg. 5)

Though it might seem to be a trivial point to most people, where Caillois disputes Homo Ludens the most is the treatment of gambling. Huizinga and by example theorists after him tend to separate gambling off from the rest of play since money is involved. I feel like much of Man, Play and Games is about how our perspective on games changes when games of chance are included. His logic is that games of chance might have resources exchanging hands but the net outcome of the game doesn’t result in a gain or loss. It’s seems like a lot of stretching to me, to try and have gambling games matter but still be inconsequential. Caillois has a couple case studies on gambling games in the appendix that are worth reading, and also kinda undoes his claim about gambling remaining inconsequential in my opinion, but I don’t find that a bad thing.


“Inasmuch as I am also convinced that there exist precise interrelationships of compensation or connivance in games, customs, and institutions, it does not seem to me unreasonable to find out whether the very destiny of cultures, their chance to flourish or stagnate, is not equally determined by their preference for one or another of the basic categories into which I have tried to divide games, categories that are not equally creative. In other words, I have not only undertaken a sociology of games, I have the idea of laying the foundations for a sociology derived from games.” (pg. 67)

And here is the main agenda of the book. Where Huizinga wanted to create a method of interpreting history from a cultural anthropology standpoint of games, Caillois wants to use games to create a method of interpreting societies. As far as I know, this still seems pretty unique and isn’t really used in games discourse too often. You see the classifications come up and their interactions, but in general parlance you don’t see games interpreting life, only life interpreting games. And though Caillois somewhat qualifies that there isn’t a one to one relation between the games preferred by a culture and the values of said society, he ultimately acts that way in his readings.


“Recourse to chance helps people tolerate competition that is unfair or too rugged. At the same time, it leaves hope in the dispossessed that free competition is still possible in the lowly stations in life, which are necessarily more numerous. […] To gamble is to renounce work, patience, and thrift in favor of a sudden lucky stroke of fortune which will bring one what a life of exhausting labor and privation has not, if chance is not trifled with and if one does not resort to speculation, which is partly related to chance.” (pg. 115)

Though I don’t really jive with how Caillois arrives to his method of interpretation, I have to say that what he does interpret is super relevant and surprising to see from a games perspective. He sees modern societies ruled by games of agon and alea and sees similar tensions from their differences in the values and problems we since in the world. Caillois believes that democratic societies value agon since it speaks to the values of egalitarianism, promoting fair competition for honor and wealth. But foiling this process is the presence of alea, which is the random force of nature that births people into different stations of life with different abilities. Even though society promotes equality through privileging competition and constantly undermines and devalues games of chance, alea cannot be fully erased and the idea of equality remains a farce since the accident of birth greatly determines people’s lot in life. Caillois observes that the disadvantaged rely on alea because they come to understand that the playing field isn’t even and true agon cannot manifest. Interesting implications for those looking at class and marginalization in games.


“Everyone wants to be first and in law and justice has the right to be. However, each one knows or suspects that he will not be, for the simple reason that by definition only one may be first. He may therefore choose to win indirectly, through identification with someone else, which is the only way in which all can triumph simultaneously without effort or chance of failure. From this derived the worship of stars and heroes, especially characteristic of modern society. This cult may in all justice be regarded as inevitable in a world in which sports and the movies are so dominant. Yet there is in this unanimous and spontaneous homage a less obvious but no less persuasive motive. The star and the hero present fascinating images of the only great success that can befall the more lowly and poor, if lucky. An unequaled devotion is given the meteoric apotheosis of someone who succeeds only through his personal resources—muscles, voice, or charm, the natural, inalienable weapons of a man without social influence.” (pgs. 120-1)

Caillois paints a fascinating image on identification and representation through this conflict of egalitarianism and the staying influence of chance. He sees identification as a sublimated form of mimicry that has been put into the service to maintaining agon, or its illusion. Because ultimately life isn’t fair and many people recognize that, the only way to keep people following the current social order is to use that element of chance is to glamourize the rags to riches storyline. So instead of actually being a system of fair competition for all, large portions of society try to replicate the situations that current lottery winners have, and eventually resign themselves to being disadvantaged.


“There is doubtless no combination more inextricable than that of agon and alea. Merit such as each might claim is combined with the chance of an unprecedented fortune, in order to seemingly assure the novice a success so exceptional as to be miraculous. Here mimicry intervenes. Each one participates indirectly in an inordinate triumph which may happen to him, but which deep inside him he knows can befall only one in millions. In this way, everyone yields to the illusion and at the same time dispenses with the effort that would be necessary if he truly wished to try his luck and succeed. This superficial and vague, but permanent, tenacious, and universal identification constitutes one of the essential compensatory mechanisms of democratic society. The majority have only this illusion to give them diversion, to distract them from a dull, monotonous, and tiresome existence. Such an effort, or perhaps I ought to say such alienation, even goes so far as to encompass personal gestures or to engender a kind of contagious hysteria suddenly possessing almost all the younger generation. This fascination is also encouraged by the press, movies, radio, and television. Advertising and illustrated weeklies inevitably and seductively publish pictures of the hero or star far and wide. A continuous osmosis exists between these seasonal divinities and their multitude of admirers. The latter are kept informed with regard to the tastes, manias, superstitions, and even the most trivial details of the lives of the stars. They imitate them, copying their coiffures, adopting their manners, clothing, preferences, cosmetics, and diets. […] It is obviously not the athlete’s prowess nor the performer’s art that provides an explanation of such fanaticism, but rather a kind of general need for identifying with the champion or the star. Such a habit quickly becomes second nature.” (pgs 121-2)

Coming out of nowhere, Caillios wraps up his application of a games sociology on Western society with the obsession of celebrity and the function stardom and heroics. It’s a really interesting premise since we see the values of games come full circle to dictate which games are fostered in our culture and how they are deployed. We can see contemporary games being used as escapes into heroic fantasies as a part of this process, where we can identify with achieving the success of agon in a system where it isn’t realistically possible. The other side of discussions around games training players to be in a society of capitalist labor now includes the pacifying element that encourages people to play along with the current system and its illusions. This implies that using games and their design as a critical lens actually has some legs, especially now that we live in a world of gamification and designed social platforms.


First anthropology, now sociology, next time will be philosophy with Bernard Suits’ The Grasshopper. Feel free to let me know if you use this or you find it helpful!


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Subjectivity and Reverse Difficulty

This past year has been an exercise in exploring the more fuzzy aspects of video game design, particularly around style and taste. These subjects have my interest outside of games and I’ve experimented in how to incorporate them, and at times these disciplines feel squarely at odds with game design. Expressing yourself often comes out in video games as completely extra and unaffecting, or overly mechanical and easily gamed. When it comes to play, the looser the bounds on the game are on separating life and play, the easier it is to incorporate more subjective expressions into the experience. Video games however attempt to completely isolate themselves away from the messiness of life to create simulated order, no matter how obscured. Because the game tries to contain the majority of the experience within its physical and digital bounds, it can only account for style and taste with its own arbitrary rules, which will mostly stay static from the moment it is shipped.

Staying within the conventions of game design, production, and distribution makes it hard for us to break out of these bounds. There are some online aspects that allow social elements to filter in and typically create what we would consider a fandom, however these aren’t central to the experience. Trying to get these subjective experiences into video games might just be a selfish task to further my consumption of them, but I can’t help but be interested in the possibility.

There’s a chance that what we think of as a good game might be standing in the way of understanding how we can incorporate style and taste further into game design. When gamers and designers look at works like Style Savvy and Happy Home Designer, they see a vagueness rather than a carefully constructed method where the player proves they’ve mastered the system. In both games, the player is presented with fairly easy quantitative obstacles to move around which in many cases barely constrain the amount of answers you can give. In the Style Savvy series, customers describe to you what they want, say a pink skirt or a sporty outfit, using words that you can use to filter through your stock room. As long as what you choose has those quality tags, the customer will be satisfied and buy what you offer them. Happy Home Designer is even less restrictive, usually only requiring the player to include a couple types of objects, but the specific objects and the design of the entire house and rooms can be anything and the client will be happy. The only degree of quantitative challenge is dispelled in the tutorial phases of both these games which leaves the traditional player bored only because a quantitative standard of difficulty isn’t present. It can be perceived as some sort of reverse difficulty, where the biggest challenge is upfront but also doesn’t severely limit what you can do. If essentially you can do anything and be ‘right,’ what is the point of the game?

This is a puzzle-solver’s mentality that is ingrained into both game design and playing. We expect to not only figure something out, but figure out a specific answer set up by concrete facts of the game’s rules and system. This can be as obvious as figuring out the placement of numbers in sudoku or instinctual for understanding all the physics of a fighting game and how that relates to what your opponent is doing. The designer creates an environment where the player has to grow through the material constraints of the video game, and the player expects to discover themselves through ever increasing challenge. This is a fundamental assumption present in the overwhelming majority of commercial products, to the point where games like Style Savvy can be described as vapid or lacking in substance not merely because it’s read as a ‘girl game’ and is about fashion, but because there isn’t this process of mastery involved.

At some point in time, this expectation molded both game design and playing to the point where current attempts to incorporate style and taste can be at best subpar. How do you quantify what we perceive to be unquantifiable in reality? Two people can look at an outfit, sit in a room, eat through a course meal, and have completely different experiences despite the identical processes. How is a video game going to account for that in the methods used for conventionally good games? It isn’t difficult to imagine that the lack of diversity in the kinds of interactions we have in video games is influenced by having challenge and mastery fixed as a cornerstone in how we create and play. To include commonly ignored, botched, or underdone subjects like style, expression, sexuality, and culture, video games would have to set aside this challenge-based call and response and expand it to where we can conceptualize how a computer can help us play with these topics. This doesn’t mean that the current methods for expressing style are the best, but rather an attempt to get players used to the ambiguity past the challenge. If you know that you will most likely surmount the obstacle in front of you, then surmounting the challenge is most likely not the point.

A solution would most likely appear in how we actually encounter all of these things in life. How is style expressed, recognized, created? Games that want to further dive into fashion would have to create societies with their own preferences, social issues, and methods of spreading trends that happen independent from the player’s actions. Look at today’s fashion for some examples: Why are hemlines longer and bigger? Why is there so much brown? Why are workout clothes replacing other parts of our wardrobe? It’s because a creativity industry that dictates what is made is being influenced by multiple factors, such as what are fashionable people on the street wearing that isn’t on run ways, what past decade is currently being revived for inspiration, seasonal conventions, and current social and design provocations. What is missing in Style Savvy is a living source of inspiration that prompts creativity. That is, the calcification of styles such bold or gothic in quantitative measures cuts the player off from being inspired or inspiring. Other characters will always react the same because their programming is looking for the bold and gothic flags and nothing else. It’s almost like the last vestige of challenge in the game is what holds it back the most. Some experiments in procedural generation imply the use of creating societies with their own biases and history as a way to actually explore style and taste. Because the point shouldn’t be to replicate real-world fashions and training players to understand them, rather understand the process of how taste and style are cultivated and expressed.

Applicable is the famous and much recited Yves Saint Laurent quote, “Fashions fade, style is eternal.” As much as I love Style Savvy, it is a game about fashion, not style. Fashion lends itself to games easier because there is a perceived right and wrong of what to wear. However what it is we want to play with is style, and that requires a system that is beyond right and wrong. And I think if we can wrap our heads around that, we can both design different games and play games differently than we’ve grown accustomed to through the height of video game consumption.

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UnREAL, Feminism, and the Reality Game

I recently wrote on the different ways reality TV games approach play and game design that differ from conventional attitudes on the topic. Despite how much film is seen by games people as a static medium, the form of reality TV using games to generate narrative, politics, and a wider scale of participation via spectacle all deserve due recognition. After writing about this, I’ve had friends tell me about the TV series UnREAL, a fictionalization of one of the creator’s personal experience being a producer on The Bachelor. It’s a very well done dark comedy and drama that also wrestles with contemporary issues surrounding feminism in a rather refreshing way, that is, everything is super fucked up and no one is holy. I recommend watching it if you can.

What fascinates me the most about this show is how it’s using a game as the central allegory for the struggles of feminism within contemporary society. Consider: first there is the literal game of a group of women who must woo the bachelor into letting them stay every elimination, with different motives not always romantic (bachelor included). Then there’s the producers who split the girls between them and receive financial incentives to goad them into drama and get them to the end. On top of that is the showrunner who has to produce high enough ratings for the network (and they usually want to degrade women in some way for such a purpose) so she can keep her show but also keep a bare minimum of loyalty with her production staff who are trying to retain any sense of conscience that they can. Most of this might not really be seen as a ‘game’ by most, and since this is a TV show everything is scripted so nothing seems to really be ‘played,’ but I believe the success of UnREAL shows the potential for a speculative wave of reality TV game design that could better access social issues on a populist platform. I have previously equated the struggle of personas on social justice twitter to reality TV, and the dynamics this show produces creates a heavy pause for reflection on how contemporary feminism is critically compromised.

Social justice and the general progressive mentality mainly deals with issues in large-scale political motions. Which is needed for sure, but also creates this ‘go big or go home’ attitude that has most people feeling like they can’t do much about all the crappy ways the world works if they don’t have a large reach of influence. Using reality TV as a game allows the show to reveal and unpack a complicated web of interpersonal struggles where decent people are stuck in a crappy situation and are compelled to pull each other down for their own survival. The focus of the show is how women are forced to use other women as stepping stones in order to get through the mess of their career, so the show features mostly women, but men appear around the edges to always fuck things up and make the situation worse. A reality-based game is well-suited to talking about this because they aren’t purely game theory strategy puzzles, rather largely dictated by how contestants struggle with social systems.

The striking metaphor for me is the relationship between producing and performing. UnREAL is completely meta, being a TV show about a TV show, using that distance and irony to reveal the process of how something seamless like a television program is produced in a very messy and contemptible way. The show of Everlasting, which is basically The Bachelor, is the reality in our imaginations, how we understand the world. There’s all the tropes you can think of, the bitch, wholesome wife material, spinster, angry black girl, the slut, the not-so-reformed dallying Ken doll. The ‘it is what it is’ or ‘that’s just reality’ part of us when we accept the subtle ways media and social systems have portrayed other people to us. But as we see in the show, the games are used as a structure to manufacture drama that can eventually be edited out of context in order to create this fantasy version of reality. Claims that reality TV is completely staged is way too simplistic; those things really do happen, we are watching reality, but there is an active force shaping those events, much like how we imagine systems of power in society. There are many lines in the show like ‘don’t blame me that America’s racist’ or ‘no man wants a dried up old woman’ that speak to how media and audiences are constantly reflecting each other in a never ending self-fulfilling prophecy, where the production staff is forced to twist women into nasty tropes and completely disillusion them from the fantasy world they were promised because audiences won’t watch it otherwise, and audiences receive a master cut of footage completely unaware of the context in which it was produced and on some level accepts it as ‘reality.’

It is fitting that the show chose The Bachelor to model instead of a game based of off athletic skill or conventional puzzle solving. The women of the show can’t display any sort of objective merit, the undercurrent challenge of the show centers around their worth and how they can shape others measuring their worth. Watching the show gave me many ideas for participatory experiences to involve people in power struggle on a social and societal level as opposed to a purely strategic. Different strata of people, the contestants, the bachelor, the producers, the showrunner, all have different forms of power and different sources of pressure while they all hurtle towards the final episode where it matters to every single person who is chosen to be the bride-to-be, just for widely different and typically unsavory reasons. Fairness isn’t really something that exists in this game, and the only rule seems to be that you can only leave once you’ve been eliminated. In this sort of game, it’s questionable whether anyone ‘wins,’ rather everyone just eventually gets to the end and has to reflect on what happened.

We can see UnREAL as film’s take on using the unique properties of reality games for commentary. It used the medium’s strengths of representation to show us mostly plausible parable and used suspense devices associated with reality games to keep us deep into the messy relationships as we try to figure what we would do in similar situations, and coming to the conclusion there is little wiggle room for the martyr narrative we have in actual reality. Good deeds are squeezed out of a great deal of compromises and the only people who can actually change anything are the rich and powerful who don’t really care about the pain of those under them until it comes to affect their routines. Games people interested in exploring social systems would do well to follow the example and look into reality games.

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Homo Ludens for the People

Going back into academia means having a long book list for research and summer is reading time to for me. While being acquainted with game design, designers, and game studies, I haven’t actually read much in the canon that informs contemporary thought on games. If you hang around games academics as much as I do, you start to become familiar with the names and the books, and seeing that I want to have a thesis about games, I figured I might as well take the dive and read up on what is institutionalized as the main thread of thought about play and games.

I don’t think reading academic work is for everyone, though many concepts are useful. There’s this exchange back-and-forth between institutions and the populace, much like high and street fashion, and I think it’s useful to help give light to some writing so non-academics can use it for their own devices. So I’ll be sharing a highly curated list of quotes from my note-taking and contextualize it for those interested in thinking about games at-large.

The first is Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture by Johan Huizinga, commonly marked as the start of the canon on games. It’s actually about play, and this play vs games distinction matters, though it can all get a bit vague, for these first few books, until games usurp play, and video games take over games. Worth noting is that at the time of writing Homo Ludens Huizinga was definitely an old white man in the 1930s, and being an early 20th century old white man interested in anthropology gives Huizinga the license to have some unsavory opinions to the contemporary reader. Rather than this being a case to disregard the book, I think it’s a good opportunity to understand how particular attitudes were baked into thinking about games that go relatively unchallenged. With that said, prepare yourself for some old dead dude language. But without further ado, some quotes from Homo Ludens.



“When speaking of the play-element in culture we do not mean that among the various activities of civilized life an important place is reserved for play, nor do we mean that civilization has arisen out of play by some evolutionary process, in the sense that something which was originally play passed into something which was no longer play and could henceforth be called culture. […] Culture arises in the form of play, that it is played from the very beginning.” (pg. 46)

A good place to start is at Huizinga’s central idea, which is that play is something that came before civilization and culture, and that all formation of culture has its origins in the playing of our ancestors. Huizinga spends most of the book detailing how everything we understand as culture rose out of play, from war to poetry to law. Though you would have to read the book to follow his exact logic, he traces the history of both language and various vestiges of culture to playful acts that eventually got institutionalized into their current form. It’s interesting to think about play being this widely diffused force, to the point where everything can be thought of being play or at some time once was play. Furthermore, Huizinga (possibly paradoxically, as you’ll soon see) casts play as something that produces culture, and things that don’t aren’t play, which cites this general attitude to not include gambling in play studies since it doesn’t have the best reputation. But overall we leave this thinking how contemporary play could be producing culture, despite further complications he brings up later.


“Play is a voluntary activity or occupation executed within certain fixed limits of time and place, according to rules freely accepted but absolutely binding, having its aim in itself and accompanied by a feeling of tension, joy and the consciousness that it is “different” from “ordinary life”.” (pg. 28)

If my reading shows me anything, it’s that everyone has to define play and/or games and it largely influences how they then talk about the subject. While I’m unsure of the true origins of defining games, Huizinga’s definition shapes everything that comes after him, something, if not all, of this is recontextualized for future writers’ purposes. This definition might seem like a no-brainer, but there are quite the few claims in here that narrow his focus despite how broadly he throws around play. First, we have play as a voluntary activity, one that a person must consciously accept to do, ruling out anything a person isn’t doing consciously or consensually. Along with being in a time and space that is separate from ordinary life, this definition eliminates looking at how people move through social systems such as gender and race as play, though the language of play exists in talking about those processes. Huizinga also sees play as a quite orderly affair, where the structure of play must be outlined clearly beforehand and delineating a sharp relief where the rules apply and when players return to ordinary life. Rules in particular will survive to live a long and overbearing existence after Huizinga, as well as needing a goal. We also see that main elements of play are the dual appearances of tension and joy, which characterize contemporary design imperatives pretty well. So that means if it doesn’t have the freedom to join or leave, bounds, rules, goals, tension, joy, and a separation from life, then it cannot be play, according to Huizinga. For the contemporary experimental creator and thinker, there’s a lot of conflict here.


“Not being “ordinary” life [play] stands outside the immediate satisfaction of wants and appetites, indeed it interrupts the appetitive process. It interpolates itself as a temporary activity satisfying in itself and ending there. Such at least is the way in which play presents itself to us in the first instance: as an intermezzo, an interlude in our daily lives.” (pg. 9)

I’d like to focus on the part about play being separated from life because it is the part I have the biggest beef with. According to this definition, if you gain or lose anything outside of play, such as money, influence, or anything with intention you are not playing. To Huizinga and many that come after him, play has to be for itself, it cannot be for some sort of practical purposes. So in Homo Ludens, professional players of games are working, not playing. Any type of creative act that is done for money cannot be play. Maneuvering social and cultural relationships and systems are not play, because there are actual consequences. The only thing one may seem to extract from games is honor, the distinction of being better. Play being consequence-free on life has implications for anyone who wants to create games for social impact. Whereas Huizinga sees play as an intermezzo in life, I see play more like a mezzanine, a vantage point, a plane of existence meant as a stopping point between two other destinations, not entirely distinct from its surroundings but also a separate feature with its own function. Elsewhere Huizinga codifies the term “magic circle” to describe how his idea of play is separated from life, and it is liberally used by games thinkers.


“The contrast between play and seriousness is always fluid. The inferiority of play is continually being offset by the corresponding superiority of its seriousness. Play turns to seriousness and seriousness to play.” (pg. 8)

Here starts the back and forth we will see forever about frivolousness concerning play and games. Huizinga essentially argues that play itself isn’t serious, but it is executed with seriousness. Since play is completely outside of ordinary life and has no real consequences, it itself can’t be serious, however he wants to account for the zeal we see in play, that players hold fast to the rules and put all their energy to achieving the goal. I feel like I’ve noticed waves and cycles of talking about play as though it is a serious pursuit to a frivolous one, often one wave that tries to utilize or mobilize games and the other that pulls it back over to the realm of leisure and uselessness. It is certainly a trend to watch whenever games come into the spotlight in broader current events or in politics. Huizinga also uses this binary to create an opposition between play and earnestness, and more notably, work.


“The player who trespasses against the rules or ignores them is a “spoil-sport”. The spoil-sport is not the same as the false player, the cheat; for the latter pretends to be playing the game and, on the face of it, still acknowledges the magic circle. It is curious to note how much more lenient society is to the cheat than to the spoil-sport. This is because the spoil-sport shatters the play-world itself. By withdrawing from the game he reveals the relativity and fragility of the play-world in which he had temporarily shut himself with others. He robs play of its illusion—a pregnant word which means literally “in-play” (from inlusio, illudere or inludere). Therefore he must be cast out, for he threatens the existence of the play-community.” (pg. 11)

I found this passage most fascinating, mainly because I never heard a mention of the spoil-sport in theoretical terms. I was also struck by how Huizinga observed how society prefers the cheat to the spoil-sport, a metaphor that can be applied liberally to our culture. I’ve actually noticed this in games, where the willingness to observe the rules enough to break them is preferable than the one who doesn’t want to. There are games that build its entire premise around the cheat, like the card game Bullshit (or Cheat, appropriately), and I’ve noticed a formalist enjoyment of cheating as a design feature. But the spoil-sport isn’t really allowed to exist. Huizinga goes on to describe the spoil-sport as “the outlaw, the revolutionary, the cabbalist” (pg. 12) and muses that spoil-sports are needed movers and shakers for new play spaces. The spoil-sport strikes me as an image of the Other, and curious if it describes how the dissenters of conventional games are viewed. It is interesting to think about taking on the posture of the spoil-sport as an ethical or maybe even aesthetic intervention.


“The differentiation between the plastic and the musical arts corresponds by and large to the seeming absence of the play-quality in one as compared with its pronounced presence in the other. We do not have to seek far for the main reason for this. In order to become aesthetically active the arts of the Muses, or the “music” arts, have to be performed. A work of art, though composed, practised or written down beforehand, only comes to life in the execution of it, that is, by being represented or produced in the literal sense of the word—brought before a public.” (pg. 165)

Here’s the seed of how performance is thought of in games, though with questionable consistency. It is the non-technological jargon version of ‘interactivity,’ but also takes it a step further. Huizinga sees playful art as only the performance of the game, not the creation or existence of games themselves. It’s actually up in the air whether Huizinga would consider video games to be games, and whether the object itself is anything but a mere tool to create something else. This suggests game design as a term might be something completely different than what it is we do to manipulate contexts for play. However, this is also the precedent for player-centric design, that a game is only complete or ‘alive’ with a player. This has legs if we consider the object itself also a player, which as far as I know is a common stance in games academia.


“In the very idea of “style” in art, is there not a tacit admission of a certain play-element? Is not the birth of a style itself a playing of the mind in its search for new forms? A style lives from the same things as does play, from rhythm, harmony, regular change and repetition, stress and cadence. Style and fashion are more consanguineous than orthodox aesthetics are ready to admit. In fashion the aesthetic impulse is adulterated with all sorts of extraneous emotions—the desire to please, vanity, pride; in style it is crystallized in pure form.” (pg. 186)

I was gratefully surprised to see style and fashion make it into Homo Ludens and really enjoyed a passage where Huizinga obsessed over 17th and 18th century wigs as the pinnacle of modern play. It’s interesting to see his take on style vs fashion, where style is this pure play with form while fashion is lowered into the muck of social dynamics. This brings up the search for style in games, and how style itself is this play with one’s own form as opposed to a small variance on a play strategy. Style and fashion serve as a connection between play and life, because while one could easily see fashion as frivolous, it’s undeniable that there’s a bleed out of any sort of play-sphere and into life.


“[The savage’s] aesthetic sensibility has brought the modern man close to [the sacred play] sphere than the “enlightened” man of the 18th century ever was. Think of the peculiar charm that the mask is an object d’art has for the modern mind. People nowadays try to feel the essence of savage life. This kind of exoticism may sometimes be a little affected, but it goes a good deal deeper than the 18th century engouement for Turks, “Chinamen” and Indians. Modern man is very sensitive to the far-off and the strange. Nothing helps him so much in his understanding of savage society as his feeling for masks and disguise.” (pg. 26)

Here is where we get to the not-so-great part of Homo Ludens. Ultimately, all of Huizinga’s claims comes from casting certain people as primitive and uncivilized and observing their behavior to create the tenants of what play is. Throughout the book, those he calls savages, which are typically the native peoples of European colonies, are grouped with pre-civilized Western people and compared to modern children. According to Huizinga, those in civilized (read: Western) societies are estranged from play and yearn to have it back, explaining and possibly justifying the exotification of non-Western people by Westerners (worth noting the use of masks by early 20th century art as well). These sentiments are not left out of video games, an industry based on the promise of transporting you to another world which is yours to explore and conquer. Especially with a history of assumed Western players going to non-Western locales to play, it’s interesting to think about what could be interpreted as the ‘mask’ video games evoke on contemporary audiences. I think this tension is pervasive in contemporary games thinking and design.


“As civilization becomes more complex, more variegated and more overladen, and as the technique of production and social life itself become more finely organized, the old cultural soil is gradually smothered under a rank layer of ideas, systems of thought and knowledge, doctrines, rules and regulations, moralities and conventions which have all lost touch with play. Civilization, we then say, has grown more serious; it assigns only a secondary place to playing. The heroic period is over, and the agonistic phase, too, seems a thing of the past.” (pg. 75)

When reading anything, it’s good to find out what the aims of the author are in presenting their theories. It seems like Huizinga went through all of this to tell modern audiences that society sucks right now because we’ve lost touch with play. Throughout the book he details how first there was play and eventually traditions grew out of it and soon crystallized into institutions, resulting in us just following conventions instead of actually playing anything. He sees professional sports vacant of play and that we have basically become a rule-following society instead of our old playful one. We are a society of games instead of play. With this launches the struggle between play and games throughout the canon where over the past decade or so play has lost to games (predictably, Huizinga might say). Despite sounding a bit petulant about it, he does color a sinister tone to anything akin to the coming of a “Ludic Century.” And while this does come off as an angry old white man yelling at a cloud (he bemoans the preference for the ‘slitherings’ in popular dance over ballet), I think it’s worthwhile tracking how play has lost favor for games, and why.


“In the 18th [and 19th] century utilitarianism, prosaic efficiency and the bourgeois ideal of social welfare—all fatal to the Baroque—had bitten deep into society. These tendencies were exacerbated by the Industrial Revolution and its conquests in the field of technology. Work and production became the ideal, and then the idol, of the age. […] As a result of this luxation of our intellects the shameful misconception of Marxism could be put about and even believed, that economic forces and material interests determine the course of the world. This grotesque over-estimation of the economic factor was conditioned by our worship of technological progress, which itself the fruit of rationalism and utilitarianism after they had killed the mysteries and acquitted man of guilt and sin. But they had forgotten to free him of folly and myopia, and he seemed only fit mould the world after the pattern of his own banality. […] Culture ceased to be “played”.” (pgs. 191-2)

I will leave you with the passage that I find to be quite strange but illustrative of some tensions in current games thinking. Huizinga recognizes that work and labor have become a more central concern in modern life but somehow completely disregards Marxism. He is so absorbed in games and play being so ancient as to dictate our culture that contemporary ideas of social systems seem completely absurd to him. Also fascinating is his disdain for technology, which makes me more curious of what he would have thought about video games. This also brings up a strange dissonance with past ideas of play and life being separated; if culture is played, and that has a distinct effect on us, how can life and play be pulled apart? I’m thinking that we haven’t stopped playing, but theorists are off about what play looks like.


And there you have it, some quick and dirty Homo Ludens with heavy editorial. The next will Roger Caillois’ Man, Play, and Games. Until then!


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Pokemon Go and Device-Mediated Relationships

Having spent the past several years hooked to social media and being a part of digital pop culture phenomena as they happened, it’s a new joy to witness trends on the ground. I usually get this with fashion but within the past few weeks it’s been Pokemon Go. I didn’t quite catch the bug, I played for about a day or two and found myself missing the main Pokemon games, and returned to those instead. But I do hear how others are affected by it, and it’s interesting getting accounts from people not in games or those who don’t usually play a lot of them.

Reactions tend to go two ways, the first being how players feel like Pokemon Go enables them to explore places they haven’t been, especially their own neighborhoods. The app places pokemon in parks and other public areas that seems to, by effect, help players engage with each other and those in their community. We’ve seen evidence of this with the various pictures and videos online of Pokemon Go gatherings or even the off story of philanthropic organizations using the context of the game to encourage people to do good. The Pokemon franchise itself is rather disarming and an almost universal symbol to those born in the 80s and 90s into video games, so it’s not a surprise that we can see such large-scale virality of this ‘bring Pokemon into real life’ sort of experience.

An other type of reaction is a natural outcome of the first, being that players rove neighborhoods feeling the effects of gentrification and most of these iPhone-wielding 90s kids remind locals of the threat to their livelihood. While it is true that Pokemon Go is getting people to explore and connect, the reasons for that are pretty thin, and potentially transient the moment people get bored of it and onto the next distraction. This is a common effect of gamification, where you might be able to get people to do things using games, but you probably aren’t going to make them care about those things, rather just the extrinsic rewards they gain by gaming the system.

There is this constant back and forth of what is ‘doing good’ for any particular kind of topic or action at hand. Many people are satisfied with any level of help or good, that is, if we can see things as helping in any sort of way, that should be enough to justify the action. On the other hand, much of what is being done as good is surface level and doesn’t get down to the actual problem, a constant chasing of the symptoms instead of curing the disease. If a more radical approach doesn’t come around, a problem will persist no matter how much Pokemon you slap on it. Are people joining together and being out and about because of Pokemon Go a good thing? Whether something is good or bad rarely extracts the value from what we are looking at, since we can see different answers depending on what we look at. Instead, looking at Pokemon Go as a product of our current condition rather than a moral story will help us understand how experiences like this change how we engage with our surroundings.

I’ve long been fascinated by how our experiences with relationships have changed with technology that facilitates connection and communication. From the dawn of ‘online friends’ to dating sites to social media to hookup apps, how people, especially young people with technology around most of their life, relate to one another has slowly changed. We’ve offshored more of our usual ways of linking to one another from offline to online, preferring the curation and swiping techniques to include people into our lives than the complete randomness of life. More people use social media and online dating than face-to-face methods of communicating. The change in economy and labor practices have a lot to do with this, with companies taking up more time of employees with the expectation that on-demand apps will do all the things they don’t have time for. How we interact with people online is typically different than in person, mostly documented by the amount of snark, hate, dick pics, and overall virality of entertainment that just doesn’t happen in purely offline relationships. These device-mediated relationships have users treating others like they are part of the technology itself rather than purely people. We can turn them off, block, left swipe, unfriend, ghost. The ease in which we can curate and the knowledge that there are so many people potentially available primes us to move through device-mediated relationships as if they were a part of an on-demand service, and attachment is thin since one can easily remove another from their experience.

Because of its pervasiveness and ease, people are relying more on devices to connect them with others rather to have their own intrinsic reasons to reach out to those around them. Again, there’s no value judgment here, but it helps show the messiness of what something like Pokemon Go and a lot of what I see in VR/AR reveal about contemporary problems like gentrification. Outside of the uncaring fashion of how real estate works, one of the major forces of gentrification is when people move to a new area and don’t engage with the community already present, only others who seem to be of their same class. So new pockets of people grow inside communities, attracting others like them but not integrating in what was already there. They don’t engage with their neighbors, or go to block parties, or do anything really but use the neighborhood as a sleeping place until a trendy cafe that alienates the locals shows up. Instead of seeing who’s physically around them, people use location-based apps that connects users of like-class and slowly converts an area from serving one group of people to another. Wanting to connect with others and using devices to do as such isn’t bad, it’s just an unintended side-effect is a distance from people not using the same services. Cultural biases slip into who we filter in these services and perpetuate inequalities bolstered by the in- and out-grouping of majorities and minorities.

This doesn’t even get into the design of said apps and services, the politics of those designs, and how cultural attitudes from before device-mediated relationships carry over to now. I haven’t said anything about the implicit concerns of surveillance and consumerism also at hand. It’s important to note that it’s totally possible to express resistance to troubling aspects of technology while using said devices, it’s just a matter of being aware that politics is being more readily and stealthily coded into our experiences as we move over to fully integrated experiences. The point isn’t to find out which games or experiences are ‘good’ to consume, rather acknowledging that everything is prompting us to consume and understanding how that consumption factors into culture processes. As games change with emerging technology, it’s important to question how games are being used to cultivate connection with others, and what that says about the kind of society we are.

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empathy machine

empathy machine is a combination of experiments concerning the current state of the video game industry, virtual reality evangelism, game design as a discipline, and activism. A previous game of mine, Mainichi, is projected on the wall through a veil of twine and hooked up to a Makey Makey which, along with conductive fabric, turned my body into a controller. I performed actions from the game, post-shower rituals, dressing, and putting on make up, and then the reverse to move in an endless loop. Objects from my house were used as props and players had to interact with me in spite of my movements and the intimacy the performance called for. It debuted at NYU’s Integrated Digital Media’s Spring 2016 showcase as a result of working with interactive installations and physical computing.



Some quick notes on why I made this project:

With the rise of VR has come this claim that one of its strengths was how the medium can act as empathy machines for people to understand one another, particularly advantaged people exploring the experience of the oppressed. Similarly in video games, the proliferation of games made by queer people about their experiences were dubbed “empathy games” which followed a pattern of the wider industry and games audience only caring about what marginalized creators are doing if it involves them talking about their pain and trauma. My game Mainichi is commonly used as an example of how to teach cisgender people about the trans experience, yet its design, critical engagement with other games, and my future work that isn’t about painful experiences are completely sidelined. My game was exhibited at events without my permission, conferences only wanted me to talk about harassment instead of my work and ideologies, and eventually after being on the receiving end of large-scale harassment produced by the industry, left unsupported. This was my attempt to reclaim Mainichi on my terms.

How games are curated and exhibited is a woefully underdeveloped conversation. For how much games advocates obsess over interactive differences between mediums, games mainly hang on walls barely played in galleries, sterile and robbed of any context. I believe that’s the lacking of both curatorial efforts and how most designers understand play. That there’s a performative element to games is commonly accepted, but rarely emphasized; games are showcased as objects instead of as vectors for experience. So this was an attempt to turn that around and show the crafted experience of Mainichi that I now would want people to witness. This part started in a conversation between Pippin Barr and I about performance, time, and the exhibition of games.

Finally, I wanted to put into practice some of my ideas about refocusing on play instead of the game object. This piece is the first of many in some practice-based research on alternative creative tools and theory for the field of game design and play. My aim is to bring the use of play to an activist setting through performance, coming up against conventional game design and analysis. This piece cannot be the same in every context and changes depending where it is exhibited. I plan to submit pieces like these to games events as interventions.





Intro to Reality Games for Game Designers and Critics

Being involved with artistic and critical communities around play, it’s easy to see repeated narratives about games eventually made into a canon. Certain games and play experiences are seen as exemplar and in-turn define how we think of what games are, particularly good ones. As with any sort of curation, canonization is political and reflects the values of the community that holds it up. So it’s always a fun venture to see what is left out of the canon and explore how it could complicate conversations around the medium of play. I’ve had a long-standing interest and history with reality games, the most famous being the US versions of Survivor and Big Brother, which are curiously absent from games discourse. I want to pose some potential areas of interest where I believe reality games stretch and challenge game conventions and critical thought around play. Also I just think people would get a kick out of analyzing and designing them.

Survivor and Big Brother created genre expectations for the reality games we see on TV today and even other sorts of game shows. The basic premise has a group of players sequestered away from their lives and other people to play in an elimination game that usually take a month to three to complete. These games are played in structured rounds that usually include some sort of physical, mental, or social challenge to either gain safety, control, or rewards and then a voting phase to eliminate another player from the game. Interpersonal dynamics mix with game theory as participants maneuver through the game until eventually there are only two left. Some eliminated players then act as a jury to choose the winner, who gets the grand prize. It is worth noting that film and TV conventions also affect how the game is viewed by audiences and that there is an audience at all is a strong factor in both the design and mythos of reality games. Just as we wouldn’t ignore the audio-visual elements of a video game, we must keep in mind cinematography and film/TV choices when thinking about reality games.

I should also note that amateur reality games exist off the TV and are played across internet forums, instant messaging services, and chat rooms (Online Reality Games, called ORGs for short). Communities of reality game fans play multiple of these over time and expect written episodes from the host that oversaw all the chat logs and journaling from the players. While the formats differed, they ultimately conformed to the structure and expectations of Survivor and Big Brother, with one of the most prolific of these using RPG elements and novelized into full-length fiction. ORGs that aren’t about or inspired by existing reality TV shows tend to bleed into the alternate reality games (ARGs) genre, to which many members of this community played before they reached public attention as marketing stunts.


Design Narratives & The Twist

Despite the game aspect being such a focus in this form of media, reality games are first and foremost creative works of non-/fiction (we can see them as both at the same time). While this would be true even if we were just peeping through cameras at the unfolding of the game, the players are aware the entire time they are being watched and a story will be made out of both public and behind the scenes drama. Confessionals, the usual name for private interviews between players and camera people, are frequent and contestants are asked about their personal perspectives and stories to eventually turn into dramatic episodes. And while the strategy of the game is interesting, the structure of the game is made to produce dramatic and interesting television, to create interpersonal tension and conflict since that’s what people want to see. The design of reality games are not simply for the enjoyment of the players’, rather it’s more important that the design creates a good spectacle. We can see this with regards to the introduction of ‘the twist;’ much like how we use the term ‘plot twist’ for injecting interest into writing we’re familiar with, in reality games there are also game twists. For example, the strategy of the first couple seasons of Survivor followed the same pattern: sixteen players start off in two teams of eight and after six eliminations merge into one group. When one team gets majority, they pick off members of the other team before turning on themselves. This was becoming predictable and therefore by the third season, an unexpected twist switched team members before the merge to shake up the dynamics of the game. Ever since, there’s always been a twist and further adjustments to the game whenever it started to get predictable. Games often contain plot twists in the story but rarely design ones; game developers tend to add on layers of general complexity that gradually helps the player progress, but not necessarily a design upset that completely shakes up how they play. One of my favorite board games, Betrayal at the House on the Hill incorporates a twist, where players know a twist will happen but unsure of what kind. Another example might be Michael Brough’s Corrypt, which is why it caught many developers’ and critics’ attention.


The Vote & Politics

In many games there’s some sort of force that makes sure that everyone has a fair shot and are playing fairly, like referees, dungeon masters, other players, or the computer. In reality games, fairness mostly comes from the fact that everyone has one vote that they can use in each elimination phase they attend, otherwise they are victim to the whims of the challenges, twists, and social dynamics of the experience. Players are often reduced to their votes or voting power in terms of strategy; alliances form to create a majority of votes, players act as swing votes between alliances, and jurors at the end of the game vote to decide who wins. Scholarly writing on reality games picked up on this imagery of voting and how it represents American or general Western fantasies of political systems. Voting is the most important part of these games and there is strong rhetoric at least in the US that voting is the most important part of being a citizen. By creating a game based on this sort of democratic idealism of equality through voting power we see reality games express a range of arguments around ethics and personal advancement in ‘fair’ societies. With Survivor taking place in ‘exotic’ locales and Big Brother taking place in a heavily surveilled compound to live up to its reference, critical perspectives could easily see how media and games contain imperialist, nationalist, and capitalist values. We can see not only the players’ expressions within political systems but also understand how audiences relate to watching ones play out. Implications of how people view prominent members of social media as they do reality TV characters are also interesting to follow.


Replays & Strategic Evolution

Though in the majority of televised reality game contestants only play once, there are many ways that knowledge of how past games affect how present ones are played. These sorts of effects are considered incidental or auxiliary enough to not merit consideration in conventional design or analysis, but in reality games, past relationships and how much knowledge you have of the game becomes much more important. This is particularly true for ORGs, where the same community of people are playing reality games multiple times, so players are bound to have played games with others and have both relationships and reputations. Because these games are so wrapped up in interpersonal dynamics, strategies will play out strongly biased by relationships and expectations already established. For example, who you decide to align with or vote out will change if you left a friend or foe with another player in a previous game, as well as if they played honorably or not and how far along they placed. If you know someone to be a generally nice under the radar player, you will be conscious of them sneaking too far along unnoticed. If instead a player was revealed to have backstabbed you and many people in the last game you played, you will know not to trust them and might want to eliminate them as soon as possible.

If someone was to research the change of the game and players over time, the fact that people who have watched and possibly discussed reality games in depth could play the game becomes important. Fans of the shows know the strategies and archetypes of players, forcing the game to move in certain directions, and eventually prompting new kinds of twists and structure changes. The audience of reality games cannot be ignored since their language discussing the shows eventually get into the games and shape design and discourse; the first recognized instance of an ORG player being drafted into the actual show of Survivor ended up placing 3rd out of 18. More games could take into consideration the same group of people playing games together and developing a set of dynamics, like Legacy: Risk.


Reality & Deterioration of Magic Circle

In the canon of game design and criticism is the ‘magic circle,’ an anthropological term about a sacred space where play exists outside the rules of real life. It points to the tendency for games and play to not have any consequences on real life, that how one acts in a game shouldn’t really affect them outside of it. And while the magic circle becomes more porous over time, reality games, especially ORGs, challenge its influence since one of the main elements of these games is reality. On TV, players are looking to win a million dollars, which will no doubt change their lives, and also exposure as models and actors, or some other PR reason. With ORGs you find players developing relationships over time that have an impact in and out of the game. Televised Big Brother games have a reputation for mixing in people’s lives with the games, such as secretly bringing in some players’ ex-partners to play the game, twin twists, and even seeing a player getting put on leave from his job for appearing on the show. The reality aspect of reality TV requires that the game meld in some way with players’ lives, and audiences indulge in the authentic emotional expressions of players when watching.

More pressing is the ever frequent questions of ethics in reality games. In games discourse, the only kind of play that is described as frowned upon are cheaters, who know and break the rules, and the ‘spoilsport,’ who doesn’t recognize the rules of the games as legitimate and plays outside the rules in that play space. In reality games, backstabbing and lying are not against the rules but highly frowned upon because backstabbing and lying are taboo in reality. In most games, lying and backstabbing are brushed off because for reasons such as ‘it’s just a game,’ and are easily forgotten outside of the context of play. And while this sort of reasoning comes up in reality games, because the game is much longer, the stakes are higher, and everything is more personal, what is moral stays in debate because humans decide who’s the winner of the game, not any objective win condition. Player’s personalities and understanding of how one one treats each other in the real world affects how the game proceeds and is resolved. This goes hand-in-hand with conversations around ‘deserving;’ who deserves to be voted out, who deserves to win? While a contemporary game designer and critic might conclude to the objective fact of who actually won and lost, within reality games is a constant discourse over these questions which ultimately shapes how the game concludes. There have been instances where between the clearly more strategic, cutthroat player and the under the radar, never lied player, a jury will pick the latter because they would feel morally compromised choosing who others might think of as a ‘better’ player but was a ‘bad’ person.


Players & Characters

In reality games, a players’ personalities undeniably impact the procedure of the game; are they likeable? Charismatic? Manipulative? Honorable? Can I stand being around this person all this time? Can I bare the thought of this person getting far in the game? Do I feel good about taking this person with me to the Final Two? Am I okay with this person winning? Personal preferences have always found expression in games, but never so much take a central role in the development of play as they do in reality games. Game designers that lament the difficulty of designing around relationships would find much use in how reality games prompt bonding and social dynamics. The personalities and strategies that emerge from the clash between the game’s structure and players’ morality are then viewed in highly edited episodes that turn real people into characters. This mediates audiences’ understanding of ‘reality,’ that even if there’s an awareness of creative intent in the production of these games and episodes, the relationship to the game is through some level of appreciating authenticity. Players’ emotions are real, there are close-up shots of their real emotions, information is shown and hidden in a way to show a real drama. Audiences eventually notice archetypes of players that are simultaneously their character and strategic editing; fictive and strategic elements are completely intertwined. Understanding the editing of reality TV has taken on its own art-form to create a meta game of guessing the winner, called Edgic. In this way, audiences are playing along to guess who the winner is, much like a reader would try to find out who the killer is in a whodunit. We can’t ignore the influence of editing and fan culture, not only because they eventually seep back into the canonized game, but they ultimately outline what a reality game is and how far its bounds stretch. Rarely has fan culture affected commercial games in such a manner.


I hope designers and critics give reality games a chance to be a part of our medium’s canon and history. There’s a lot to learn and chew on, especially considering the focus on interpersonal dynamics and how audiences relate to the game. If anything, I’d just like to see contemporary versions of these games that play with how people relate to one another and recognize that qualities of our culture can be used in the creation of play. There are strategies reality games have in spades that contemporary game design lacks and I think could help raise the bar in the kind of experiences we choose to create.

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Murder Mystery Writing as Design

Within the various medium wars game developers seem to wage with other forms of expression, writing and narrative are the most bitter of enemies. Even if we’re past arguments about whether narrative and play can even be in the same room, writing is by far less integrated into design processes than visuals and even audio. Writing workshops for games are often trying to apply fiction skills in spite of the commercial game making process instead of being a natural extension of creating the experience. Gamemakers begrudgingly acknowledge narrative is at work but cordon it off as if it is a disease, while the writing styles of popular sci-fi and fantasy bludgeon themselves in because of genre convention rather than actually being useful. As long as game design and narrative are seen as completely different tools, we will continue witnessing games at conflict with themselves, and even at the most conservative imagining, rarely have what we would call good writing.

We can find a useful link between design and narrative through the literary mystery genre, specifically around murder mysteries and the ‘whodunit.’ While mystery is often used in theming throughout all mediums, the genre dedicated to mystery has particular practices and form that focuses on how to craft a good mystery experience above all else. The structure of the murder mystery shares tenets of entertainment game design: the reader expects the truth of the mystery to be hidden away from them but with a fair sprinkling of clues so they could reasonably figure it out, in a battle with the author to sift through red herrings and plot twists, and feels equal amounts of surprise and accomplishment when they get to end of the story. This is a game, where a writer deliberately sets out to deceive a reader while creating a path of success for them to find along the way. Advancing in the story is like racing against the clock to figure out the mystery before it is revealed to you at the end and you assess how well you did. It is no wonder we’ve seen a lot of murder mysteries adapted into game format, because the design logic is pretty similar.

However, many of these mystery games don’t fully combine mystery writing with game design. Usually we see a mystery put onto an adventure game or hidden object format. What was design-like and writing-like in these games are still separate, or rather, conventional game design imperatives steamroll any narrative deception. Instead, I want to look at how murder mystery is handled in some experimental for their time yet well received visual novel games (with one exception) to find examples of how to better approach writing in games, with the possibility of the mystery being the starting point for game writing rather than optional flavor.


Rhetorical Processing

Mystery is typically handled by players scouting out information in the environment and using tools or interrogations to move forward in the story. It’s a strategy that relies on brute guessing and gaining tidbits of writing from scenes after solving a mini game of some sort. In the games I’m looking at, a lot of the information related to the mystery are given to you up front, yet the figuring out part comes in a scene of the player versus the game verbally mucking through the logic of the problem to eventually get to the answer. The most well-known example of this is the Ace Attorney series where the clues are not really that hard to find, but the real solution comes out of a trial where the player (and main character) aren’t at all sure of what the answer is until they piece it through debate. Through argument, the player is working all the information available to them, usually weathering many conventional mystery writing tropes that both lead them to the answer while constantly trying to knock them off course. The game trusts that the player is actively thinking through the problem as the trial plays out instead of relying on planted objects to eventually lead them through the mystery. Related is the Danganronpa series that also uses a trial format, though it uses mini games as a method to evoke the feeling of inventive and deductive thinking. With varying success these minigames help manipulate the energy and direction of the player’s thought process, and in a way, simulates the frustration of being mentally blocked pretty well. These trial systems are evoking immediacy and trying to get the player to be in a sort of crisis mode that forces them to piece things together on the fly instead of methodically trying every possible combination. Where in other more traditional mystery games the main solving is in finding the evidence which unlocks more of the story, in these trial sessions players are taken through the actual feeling of solving a mystery, planned deception and all.


Playing With Time

Time is already a weird subject when it comes to games, particularly video games, and I’ve noticed that time features strongly in the murder mystery games I’m looking at. I think it’s to simulate the ‘race’ against the author in mystery novels, the rate at which you figure things out versus how close to the end of the story you are. But more specifically there’s a pattern of using time as a device to further reveal and twist the narrative, most notably in Virtue’s Last Reward. In VLR, the player has a menu screen where they can move across the various nodes of the game’s narrative tree to figure out the mystery of the game. As with all mystery work, this has the a strong thematic focusing on ‘truth,’ what we assume it is and how much more complicated the topic is than black and white facts. This also has to do with genre conventions of the visual novel, where players are used to playing the game multiple times to see the entirety of the story rather than one shot through. Video games have a clear strength in depicting these themes, playing with possibilities and alternate realities that allow us a Rashomon-esque view on a scenario to build on narrative layers that further deepens our imaginations and the mystery. Another use of time is in Ghost Trick, where failures and partial successes act to both complicate and progress the mystery. Time isn’t just an incidental detail of how you get through Ghost Trick; you reverse time, you watch the passage of time, you erase times, and you race against time. The story brings up time-related themes such a grievance, regret, and memory. Like VLR, time travel works on a meta-level that makes us aware we are accessing another world through a device and the game’s creators want to use that relationship as a narrative device in the experience. This shared link of unique relationships to time between video games and murder mysteries asks for further investigation.


Game Within a Game

If we take that the murder mystery narrative itself is a game, then a pattern of actual games featuring prominently in the game we’re playing follows well to further tighten writing and design. Both the Zero Escape (999, VLR, and soon Zero Time Dilemma) and Danganronpa series have characters trapped in a game against their will that will result in many of their deaths until they can solve the mystery. This echoes the mystery tradition of sealing away a set of suspects so the player can feasibly figure out who is the mastermind (a prominent preoccupation of the characters’ in fact) while processing through the smaller events of the game. This is the most literal example of how naturally murder mysteries and games relate to one another by manipulating the structure of these ‘death games’ to bring out the detective in the player while not relying on literally making them a police officer. It should be pointed out how different these experiences are to games as theming, as in, typical adventure game that takes place in a video game themed world with such easter eggs, instead of characters playing by very strict rules in their own diegetic sense. Most importantly is the wide cast of characters, for murder mysteries are more character-driven than they are plot-wise, since the relationships between characters eventually produce the possible endings or solutions. Character development in this case isn’t then just for embellishment, but active sources of narrative and design tension seeing that they must be designed in a way that makes them equally guilty of the crime yet also competitors for the same prize against the player. This leaves open an interesting possibility for an AI-based murder mystery that could be generated by procedural character development and thoughtful situation design.

This is all to say that murder mystery novels on their own qualify to be to included in games conversations since the very structure of the narrative and the method in which it involves a reader is extremely playful. Seeing that there’s a difference between mystery as flavor and mystery as a narrative design methodology, we could use the latter both as a tool to create better writing in games and to interpret games as critics. It is not a leap to see the game developer as mainly deceiving the player along their path to solving the final riddle at the end, for which many games that involve narrative in any meaningful extent tend to structure themselves. It’s a possible method to continue bridging the gap between design and narrative practices and get at producing other experiences than we most commonly see.

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Teaching Representation in Games

This past semester I taught a class on representation in games for the first time. I’m not a stranger to the topic, much of my critical work and speaking gigs have been about representation in games, but it was a new experience figuring out how to teach undergrads about the topic. I figured it’d be worthwhile to share my process, how it went, and what I think it means to teach representation.

A little context is in order, because a class is created under different contexts depending on the school system and departmental needs, along just with the kind of program and culture of the students one teaches. I was asked to teach a survey of as many different kinds of representation as I could, so I ended up teaching specifically to gender, race, sexuality, class, disability, and age. This isn’t the most common format, usually any sort of media studies course will be focused on just one topic, such as Race in Games, and spend time diving into the various approaches so students come out with a pretty developed understanding of the discourse around subject. I was also teaching in a BFA program which ultimately trained students to develop games, and while it’s possible for a student to focus on theory, there is a much heavier emphasis on development. My course was encouraged to have multiple forms of final projects, so not just papers but also creative projects to accommodate the range of people who’d be taking my class.

Despite how usual theory courses go, I didn’t find having projects to be a hindrance, rather the complete opposite, for my next iterations on this class I was to further integrate a critical project. I’m attempting to frame theory to be inspirational in a practice environment, to have students move away from using criticism to decide whether something is good or bad but instead use it to further evolve the media they are looking at. So the final project was basically a prototype of a game or conference talk that evolves things that students are passionate about. I do feel like in the context of universities where people are paying a lot of money to learn, courses greatly benefit from having a more obvious use than a reservoir of topics for cocktail hour. And really, it’s mostly me trying to pass down how I work, since I am inspired by theory to make experimental work and to develop new ideas about games and play.

I’ll go through an talk a bit about my experiences by each of the sections I taught. The first lesson I learned in reflection was how sectioning off by identity category worked against me more than it did for me. When choosing my readings, it became clear to me I didn’t really want to teach a ‘how-to’ and representing marginalized identities; the idea actually struck me as deeply weird, to get students to go and find stereotypes, discuss them, and then try to recreate some ‘good’ depictions. Though everyone involved probably believed that’s what the course was going to be, I decided to choose more foundational philosophy in various fields that speak to the act of representing or creating identity, so we can get to the root of what it means to represent rather than equip students with some incomplete inventory list. Because I grouped readings under headings like “Race” or “Disability,” student at times got hung up about trying to directly speak to those topics as they are in popular discourse, so getting hung up on finding race in a particular game instead of looking for the power dynamics the readings are most concerned about. It also meant that subjects I thought were easier (Gender) came first and subjects I was the least read on (Disability and Age) went last. Thankfully my reading list was pretty successful outside of one or two, so I’d keep an even spread of readings from these subjects and reorganize them into different sections, like Power instead of Gender. In hindsight this was an obvious thing to do, I’m fortunate that I was encouraged to make the course uniquely my own so I can structure it how I want and others might be forced to have these sorts of distinctions, but I do think teaching about representation isn’t about detailing identity rather helping students understand how is it we form someone’s identity in our minds and what are the power plays in the act of representing.

I started off the class by reading with the Combahee River Collective’s “Black Feminist Statement” to hopefully start the class understanding that while we were going through the course section by section, all these topics are greatly intertwined, and the general awareness of intersectionality. I also chose Peggy McIntosh’s “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” in attempt to focus our attention on everyday details and not just broad sweeping claims about how power works in society. However, I found that introducing with these readings was more of a reflex on how I would start any other theory course dealing with identity rather than my specific needs. My future readings covered these topics quite well and I felt like most of my students already hear this language, which seems to be getting further and further institutionalized. You never know what kind of people show up to take your class but overall I feel like using these to start off my class underestimated where my students were at. In the future I think I’d want to do an in-class reading and exercise that acts as a sampler of the course overall, probably by finding some contemporary writing and games that put into focus the issues around representation.

For the Gender section I first got students to read the first couple chapters of Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl to get them used the kind of terms they would be encountering and how to look past the first level when it comes to accessing identity issues. It turned out to be a great introductory reading because it took students from identitarian terms like sex and gender to dynamics of power around femininity. It’s obvious when you’re already used to thinking this way, but many people don’t make the jump from something like being black to blackness, and Serano’s language is useful for student, especially since most haven’t read critically about a feminism focused on trans women. I also gave students the daunting task of reading through the beginning of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, which ultimately calls into question the idea of identifying as a woman and one of the more recognized appearances of performativity. In the future I’d probably move Gender Trouble further back in the course because her writing is a very high barrier for students, but ultimately super useful for breaking down a lot of assumed ideas about social justice and identity people absorb from the internet. I decided to pair these two readings together with Bayonetta, a forever controversial game about femininity in critical circles. I had some feedback before the class that this might have been too much for undergrads, but they had a great time, mostly because Bayonetta at the very least is interesting to look at and pleases a lot of impulses from people who play video games, and so the difficulty was mostly in how Bayonetta is received in feminist critique. It is a great game for people to disagree over and I totally recommend it if you want to tease out complications in contemporary feminist critique and harken back to its more poststructuralist/postmodernist roots.

The next section on race I started of with Ian F. Haney-Lopez’ “The Social Construction of Race,” which I imagine isn’t the usual context most students learn of social construction but the reading presents a complicated view right out the gate. Both this and the beginning of Edward Said’s Orientalism created a really strong base for my students to talk from regarding creating the Other. Along with the readings from disability studies, I found critical race theory important because of how much bodies are focused on that seems to escape a lot of other disciplines when it comes to this level of study. I paired these readings with Spec Ops: The Line, another controversial game surrounding American nationalism and the creation of heroics through racialized power dynamics. Like Bayonetta, it’s another good game to have students disagree over. By now, my students were getting used to the “there’s no obvious good answer” conclusion presented by the readings and strange machinations of pop culture. Around this time I feel like some started to give up on the idea of wanted their games to be “good” and that our ideas of about representation and identity don’t always come out in the most obvious of ways as we like to paint it in diversity awareness initiatives in games.

When we went through the Sexuality section of the class, I think it was obvious to my students it was the one I was most excited about. Mainly, I had students read the fourth part of Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality Vol. 1 which is where he details his ideas about power and the discourse around sexuality paired with a yaoi visual novel Absolute Obedience, a highly weird game about spies in postwar Germany hired out to seduce various targets into homosexuality. I figured if students weren’t overwhelmed by now this would be where I lose them, but feedback told me that this was a section that really changed a lot of their perspectives because of how intense the source material was. I felt like this was also the section students felt like was speaking to fundamental understandings of themselves, and while the topics being discussed were super loaded we were able to hold that space well as a class. I also had them read from The Handbook of the New Sexuality Studies which talked about how sexuality was constructed, though I’m not sure if I want to keep it in since we already read about social construction a little thoroughly elsewhere. Either because of the nature of these fields or my personal academic journey, a lot of readings reference Foucault and I’m going to move him earlier in the schedule as much as I can without fully intimidating students like I did with Butler.

There were a lot of little readings for Class because I wasn’t completely sure how to approach it in the way of representation. So there was The Communist Manifesto, Max Weber’s “Class, Status, and Party,” Annette Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods, and Erik Orlin Wright’s Class Counts which was a sort of combination of the former three. While students and people in general tend to talk more about gender and sexuality with more confidence, I noticed a lot more connection with the topics around class and labor. The idea of “classes” of people seemed to make a lot of sense and also shares some language in games, as does a lot of these topics. I probably would want to focus the readings to fewer authors, but since this is an undergrad class this was the first time many students read Marx and that it is in the context of video games is interesting. I had them play the six different prologues of Dragon Age: Origins and see how their characters were treated differently, also the varying depictions of contemporary social problems through typical medieval fantasy tropes. I got a mixed read on how well this worked, students were more attached to the depictions of class rather than sussing out how power works through class. This is a less controversial game but many students like it, and so there was some tension around challenging how it used class and how it tied to things like race in reality. I also want to balance out my syllabus a bit more away from AAA so I’m thinking of using Cart Life instead, though I do think the genre of RPGs lends a lot to class analysis itself.

With the Disability section we get to understanding the creation of ‘normal’ with Simi Linton’s Claiming Disability and Lennard J. Davis’ “Normality, Power, and Culture.” I keep thinking to myself as I type this about how everything needs to come earlier in the semester, but it feels particularly true for this. Disability studies has a lot of challenging work for complicity in social justice movements particularly around bodies and the rhetoric around how we create groups. For my next go-around I would probably just need one of these readings, so I’ll probably add in writing on crip theory. I also had students read Fiona Kumari Campbell’s “Refusing Able(ness)” which some students liked but I must have originally read it when surrounded by more academic work because now it doesn’t read very well. The students played Rogue Legacy since I wanted them to see a contentious work that depicts disability but it was met with mixed success. Students who could write more design-focused papers dug into it better than the rest, and I realize that it wasn’t the strongest example because I was stuck trying to find depictions of disability instead of something that reaches towards this normalizing force that disability uncovers. Many of my ideas had to do with playing with actual hardware or games about controllers, but I’m not entirely sure what I’d replace this with yet.

Finally, I had a half section on Age, with a reading on ageism from Todd D. Nelson and one on what’s dubbed childism from Elisabeth Young-Bruehl. I haven’t read much on age before I prepared for this class so it was interesting to see what was out there and how it related to my other readings. What was particularly striking to us all was how conversations around age focus on our culture’s bias against weakness or needing of care, and how that shapes society against children and older people. I didn’t pull off this section with confidence, and there weren’t many games that dealt these topics. I settled on them playing any version of The Sims and seeing the differences on how the game treats characters at different life stages, but it ended up more as an interesting conversation at the end of the semester more than deep critical engagement about age. I’m not entirely sure what to do with these readings particularly in the context of this class, which is about games that rarely seems to depict children or older people with enough depth to critique.

At the end of the course, students presented mini-talks or prototypes of games that involved concepts they learned and would potentially want to work on. I pitched these as being things students would want on their CV and much of what I saw were good starts. Along with their readings, every week I had students look up more contemporary articles on subjects and talk them through. While I don’t think it worked much in-class (students are kinda pooped after dealing with Butler all day) they were able to find where their opinion fits in the current landscape of writing and create gestures towards something new. I think for future iterations I would make this more project-based, either by having lots of little projects or a structured build up to a final. I haven’t had many courses like that, usually practice and theory are kept pretty much apart, but I’d really like to find ways to turn more students into critical creators, people who can do multiple forms of critical expression since I feel like I benefit from not just being a theorist, but also a writer, and also an artist, and that is something I can pass on to others to work with.


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Rethinking the Games Conference

There are days where I feel really self-conscious about calling myself an activist, since a lot of my work is in writing, speaking, and the realm of ideas. But I do feel closest to a feeling of activism when I help organize conferences and run various events that seek to include voices and perspectives commonly left out of the conversation surrounding games and highlighting alternative methods of gathering and sharing knowledge and our work. For someone who’s only been in a given field for about 5 years, I’ve organized a lot, and participated in even more, particularly ones that want to further represent the margins of art and thinking in games. Having just went to and helped out with multiple conferences in the past few months, it’s becoming more apparent to me that the usual format that we assume conferences should have isn’t working given the ideals we have for respecting labor and enabling actual change in our communities. This could be because the current conference model was borrowed from academics for how that industry works and not necessarily for communities of people whose main channel for discourse is impressionistic social media. The upshot to all of this is the average event is getting better; there are more explicit codes of conduct, clearer methods of reporting harassment and abuse, continually more diverse speaker rosters and audiences. So it’s not that everything has been going horribly wrong, rather we can always be looking to improve and solve the problems that arise as they come along. So here are a few topics the contemporary games event needs to address as we continue to evolve how we gather and celebrate the culture around our field:

Respecting Labor

Out of all the issues, ethical labor practices is the most in need of revision. This ranges from compensating speakers fairly to respecting the work of volunteers beyond a thanks. The most common position for events is that they would love to pay people who contribute to its existence, but they don’t get enough funds. In professional circles like academia it’s expected for people within the system to volunteer and contribute to the groups they are a part of, and it pays back (in it’s own, flawed way, this isn’t a piece about the many of troubles of the academic system) by publishing papers, extremely intimate networking, and access to latest research that could be a huge influence on yours. This sort of system doesn’t work, or exist at least, for many people in games, especially those not trying to work at companies or large teams for mass commercial work, so right now the supposed payment of volunteer work and speaking is that it’s “for the good of games” or some other agenda, but effectively keeps the exploitative nature of the games industry, burning out people who are in vulnerable and/or already exploited positions from being a part of the ecosystem. I should say that I think it’s really great that conferences do turn meager budgets into taking care of food expenses for the entire conference, which helps subsidize attendance, a problem I’ve seen a lot of progress on.

Beyond general extravagant uses of budget for the experience (I’ll get to this) instead of for the people who are asked to make it run, there are multiple forms of trade outside of monetary to make volunteering or speaking for a conference worth the work. For one, you can be direct and asking anyone volunteering their labor what they would like in return with the knowledge that money isn’t going to be available. It’s possible a volunteer/speaker would benefit greatly from a direct introduction with someone who you can feasibly have at your event, or that someone on the main event team can run a seminar of an important topic that relates to the interests of those who are volunteering. I’ve heard suggestions of having speaker/volunteer parties so volunteers, who are usually students or those looking to bridge into new communities, network more closely than they can while they are working. I’ve also heard of paid speakers giving lectures or resume reviews to volunteers. This also speaks to the lack of investment I see in a lot of volunteer work, because they know the event staff can only ask for the minimum amount of effort because they aren’t really getting much in return. I believe we can get resources to those who don’t usually have access by using conferences as a sort of work-trade, where if you volunteer, you get something you can take back to the community and enrich it.

Obviously a nice paycheck would be the best answer for compensating labor at events. I know that’s not the reality, and because of that, I don’t think we should just concede and sheepishly exploit people. Instead, I think we could rethink the trade. Ultimately, this forces your event to be a material benefit to the community by actually contributing to the people who help make it exist in the first place. And when seeking funding/support for the event, especially towards universities, this is a good way to extract more support when funds are limited.

Establishing Purpose

Picking up on being directly beneficial to a community, I find that most conferences don’t have a strong reason for why they exist. They share the problem with the overabundance of awareness activism, that while, yes, creating awareness of an issue is important, there has to be something beyond that awareness to keep your ideals relevant. I’ve noticed events get into a rut of over-correcting academic-heavy line-ups with really uninspired, underwhelming skill sharing and reacting to boring run-of-the-mill conference topics with panels of well-known people who don’t really say much besides letting you know they are well-known. I find that most conferences become tired after 3 or so years because they work on the basis of just existing instead of creating roots or actual bonds to other entities.

This awareness vs action focus can be felt down to the programming. So many talks are “I had this experience” or “I noticed something neat” and leave it there instead of taking those topics and turning them into an opportunity for audiences to respond. Not that everything must be some sort of 3D modelling 101 class, rather a call to action, the room to act, should be created by events and each part of its programming. This came into strong relief for me when I participated in the Allied Media Conference which handles this balance so well. Beyond including social meetups around social issues without conflicting with other programming, many of the sessions are lead by critical facilitators more than speakers; they have an agenda, perspective, and experience they want to share, but use it as a method of creation, action, or planning that allows participants to bring in their own life issues or creative impulses and work it all out.

I feel like it’s critical for this element to become incorporated into our events, especially ones claiming any level of social awareness, to become something that actively changes how the community works and activates it to solve contemporary issues. Too long have conferences stayed at an introductory, ephemeral level that people forget about once it’s over. There’s still room for the theory and personal experience, and for any awareness building, but it can’t be what we try to subsist off as we go on.

Size Control

Many events are way too bloated. This follows the previous two problems: when you’re not paying for the labor to substantiate an event and your purpose is vague and generalized, your event grows beyond its means and includes things just for the sake of having them. Conferences typically position themselves as central, national, or even global conferences and try to (with varying degrees of effort) to represent everyone under that umbrella, usually, if not always, failing at that task. The problem with having more things is less control over how they turn out, since it usually means you’re not paying them, you couldn’t give a lot of attention to mentoring the processes of the talks if there are new speakers, and that there’s less of a curatorial voice that ties things together and makes the event a more cohesive experience. There is this assumption that a conference must be multiple days with multiple tracks and multiple panels of multiple people. But instead of enriching people through including a massive amount of content and bodies, this waters down and muddles any sort of effect programming could have on audiences.

I honestly think limiting the amount of speakers, especially to local artists and thinkers, and only having one track of sessions is a better structure for an event than current models. I would exercise extreme prejudice against panels, which, as another holdover from academic conferences, doesn’t work unless there’s a lot of preparation or all the panelists know each other and have a good banter, which is usually not the case. I would suggest an edit to what I experienced at PRACTICE: a single track of 30 minute to 1 hour talks, no Q&A but break sessions where speakers have their own tables and people who wanted to ask questions or even just chill in the general vicinity of conversation around the topic of their session can do so.

Frequent feedback I’ve gotten was how much audiences wanted the artists of showcased works, typically in accompanying arcades, to give talks about the experience and process of their selected work, giving them a new perspective to reapproach the game with after encountering it in the wild. Audiences also benefit from eavesdropping on a pair of thinkers or artists speaking on topics they are interested in to get a more in-depth look into how people deep in these fields go with contemporary issues. Despite how it’s been reduced to a sort of tech party favor buzzword, people do want sessions where they can take something away. Sometimes we rely too much on planning for ‘inspirational’ talks; having given and witnessed some, when they work, they are amazing. On average they don’t, instead speakers tend to just settle on a sort of “I have no answers” or “take what you will” notes and it’s obvious the energy behind the talk is completely missing. Inspirational talks have to be mentored at some level and used in moderation. I’ve been to conferences with all inspirational talks that weren’t mentored, and if you don’t leave with a sort of voyeuristic pleasure of the confession of struggle it’s rather dulling. I don’t think events should have people parting with a feeling of “So what?”

I believe a community needs good events to thrive and grow, and there is room for more local events that support different local needs and agendas that the general conference doesn’t already. Conferences have an opportunity to act as stronger support system for marginalized communities and create a more ethical system of give and take. I want to fight the usual burnout cycle that industries participate in, going through exploited creators and thinkers as they are useful and not giving back to them once they are deemed too much of a maintenance to keep around. I also just want more events to exist, and for more communities to feel enabled to make their own despite not having a lot of money. If we’re going to change things, we can’t do it at the pace at which those more powerful deem us useful to them.


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Good News!

Good news! This year I’m going to be a Jury co-chair of IndieCade, helping choose the nominees for the awards and curating games at various events like IndieCade’s presence at E3. This was an unexpected appointment to be honest; I’ve been attempting to detach myself from games stuff but the various forces in the world draw me back in. I’m excited to take this position because of the opportunity to change how people, both in and outside of games, view play and the art we use to facilitate play. All of my work so far has tried to change the conversation around games to looking outward for new ways to express ourselves and find play in places we wouldn’t expect. IndieCade is a good venue for a balance between exposure and artistic representation, so I hope I can make an impact with my new position, both on the festival and games as a whole.

One method of influencing the cultures surrounding games is through visibility, what is held up as exemplars or made into a cannon. Personally, I’m not a fan of award ceremonies, but I know that many people enjoy the competition and potential recognition that comes from being nominated and how industry and communities at large use them as barometers for what is considered ‘good.’ If anything, having a strong curation and an eye to challenge the current state of games and play can be a great platform for cultural tastemaking, signalling to world at large new ideas and new standards. In a world that so often resorts to consumer habits and top-down economics to decide what is valuable, I want to take the chance to represent the grassroots and the margins.

Of course, everyone has different tastes and different agendas when it comes to highlighting games. I think it’s important to be forward and clear about what intentions go into this process so the community can be on board with the vision, or at least, understand what’s going on so they can critique it productively. And not just having vague values such as ‘excellence’ or ‘innovation,’ but direct intentions on how we’d like to present notable games. I’m not the only person deciding things, so I can’t control every single detail, but I can at least be transparent about how I’m working. I aim to be both an advocate and a curator of my own values, so hopefully I can communicate all these qualities through the curation that ends up in the festival this year.

In particular, I really want to expand how we think of games and play. I’d like to see new formats, not just digital and board games, but wildly new interpretations of how we substantiate play. I don’t want everyone to think they must make games in the traditional format, or in any convention really, in order to have a good game. I want to open up the idea of what’s a good game for people who don’t have a tech background, access to funds, or loyalty to traditional game design. I think it’s super important to continue stretching beyond what we commonly think of games, and not just in themes, but actually how we relate to the world through play. It’s vital to make sure we don’t keep games ghettoized in pastime entertainment, but also think on how it folds into our lives and creates new meaning for the various mundane aspects of our day-to-day.

One thing I find missing in many game showcases is deeply moving and compelling games that I can’t stop thinking about. We get distracted by idle amusement and surface technological advancements that titillate us for the moment but quickly leaves us as we move on to the next experience. I’d like games I feel in my bones, that take chances to do something risky in order to reach me with a sense of urgency and awe. I deeply believe that play can affect us like this, and want to encourage more people to experiment with how this can happen. I don’t have all the answers or ideas, but if I can help move the center of expectations more towards this, people from different backgrounds and perspectives than myself, it would be a job well done.

I could really use as much help as possible from people and communities who care about reshaping how we think of games. I’d like recommendations on how to find games and creators who would be in line with this vision and never think to be a part of an event like IndieCade. This isn’t restricted to people identifying as game designers, but anyone who feels like their works evoke play or games in whatever way they define and incorporate those things. Even if you’ve been rejected before and told your work “isn’t a game,” contact me!

Submission deadline is May 15th, please submit and spread the word around!

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