Players are overrated.
Within conventional wisdom of designing and critiquing games lies the assumption that the player is paramount. Much of criticism writes to inform players, games are designed with the player in forefront of the developer’s mind. There is even the idea games are completed by players, that without players, there is no game.
I want to propose that not only do games and play exist without players, but sometimes, it is preferable to purposefully make them auxiliary or absent from craft and interpretation. Just to be clear, I don’t think there should be a blanket destruction of player-centric experiences. Rather, we are quick to use ‘death of the author’ arguments because of the cultural history behind it, and so why not at least consider the death of the player?
My journey with this concept started when I played anna anthropy’s Encyclopedia Fuck Me and the Case of the Vanishing Entree. I remember it took me an entire day to play it, mostly because it felt so hostile to me at first. The game was set in its ways, knew what it wanted, and I felt incidental. I could play along, or leave. So I left. Its content disturbed me, to be completely honest. Within the hours that I spent away from it, I reflected on my inability to play, and decided it was a rigidity in myself, feeling a lack of control and agency within someone else’s world. Going back to it, it became clear that the designer was clearly present and wanted me to experience feelings I’m not used to. Eventually, I noticed I was being trained, trained to exist in this play space.
As a little window to a fictional world, Encyclopedia Fuck Me doesn’t have the player’s needs in mind. You either submitted to its logic or left. This is different from games that have a brutal, ‘masocore’ difficulty, because they make themselves known and welcome to players wanting that experience. They allow players room to be themselves and eventually dominate the game. There is no room for domination in Encyclopedia Fuck Me, because that’s the game’s role. Recently at the Queerness and Games conference, Jack Halberstam talked about escaping the tyranny of agency in games. He made a point that agency is always coded and designed into games, given to players by the developers. There is no such thing as agency in games. Agency is a lotus and we’ve all been asleep. I think The Stanley Parable strives for us to look at this issue, asking why we continue down this narrative of player agency. Can’t we still be taken through experiences without our every whim thought of and satisfied?
Play- and player-centric design are usually interchangeable terms, but I’d like to make a stronger distinction between them. My main quibble with player-centric design is the fetishized iterative process, where you take a prototype and get players to playtest it. Sometimes, this is useful; if it’s very important to you that someone feels a certain way or does a certain thing, playtesting is a method to achieve that. When I made Mainichi, I released it without any playtesting and iteration. Because players have a tendency to want agency and a positive trajectory, their input would have been useless to me. As well, the game was made for a friend to understand something. I couldn’t playtest the game with them and then ‘release’ it after. It would be like asking your crush to read and edit the love note you want to pass to them one day. With games that use personal experience as a main part of their design, player input through playtesting washes out their voice. If your game leaves out traditional qualities and emphasizes voice, then player-centric design is a useless paradigm for you.
This becomes even more important when we consider social politics, especially the kind that comes along with gamers. Gamers are trained to expect certain things from games, like explicit rules, goals, visual quality, and of course, agency. To put it frankly, gamers are set up to be colonial forces. It’s about individuality, conquering, and solving. Feeling empowered and free at the expense of the world. Many games try to evoke the qualities of play most commonly associated with boys and men. Many games envision their average player to be white, a man, heterosexual, American, and a whole list of other privileged qualities. Meaning, they act much like our reality set up to have a particular group of people feel good about their lives as long as they are complicit with the system. A bestowed agency. Many games that emphasize personal experience as design tools come from creators who are marginalized identities. Instead of the qualities listed above, their lives are more often community-reliant, without power, and restricted. It’s about survival. If these games were playtested, they would, most surely, get feedback about not having clear enough avenues to control and victory. It would be whitewashing a particular experience that doesn’t really get light or validation in our current landscape.
I experienced this recently with my game EAT. I made it for my partner who wanted to know more about my financial struggles and how there wasn’t a simple fix for it. EAT is very hostile towards players, because impoverished life is hostile. Much of my feedback wanted me to edit the game so people could actually play it. This was a misnomer; people could very easily play it, their life would just become a lot more strenuous. Because you can’t experience being poorer without being inconvenienced. You can look at EAT and see how it generates play, and not actually play it. It’s an experience that might just need a mental understanding to succeed. This reminds me of an anecdote I remember Brenda Romero describing about Train. She said a person went to go play it, but with just looking at it, understood what it was all about and refused to play. Instead, Brenda thanked her for playing, because the actual act of physically interacting wasn’t necessary. The player isn’t needed for play, the player is more someone who can perceive play. I know that EAT is painful to play, and most won’t do it, but that act alone should communicate something to those who encounter it. It’s demanding because that’s what’s needed to have that experience; how do you have a ‘fun’ experience of being poor while a non-white, queer woman who’s a student? How is agency and the player’s wants important when the system that impoverishes doesn’t care of the person’s feelings? Giving someone the agency to ‘solve’ the game is like positing one person can game the system and vanquish poverty in reality.
What I hope for now is to see more projects that are purposefully iterative and noniterative. To not take the iterative process as a given, to consider alternatives to player-centric design. Sometimes, it’s about us, not them. Sometimes, it’s about the experience, and not their sedation. I don’t want to drug people with their own chemicals, rather, encourage them to step outside of themselves and connect with what I have to say, as separate people.
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