Tuesday 9 December 2008

Things I don't want to do

N'Gai Croal can have my man-babies. Hi N'Gai!

This post could also be called “Things I’m not particularly good at, and hence largely shy away from”, but that was a bit long I thought. It might also help to keep that in mind while reading.

As a member of the burgeoning blogeratti, us pretentious, occasionally intelligent videogame writers (admittedly a somewhat unknown in comparison to the likes of Michael Abbott, Iroquois Pliskin, Leigh Alexander, N’Gai Croal, etc.) there’s a particular thing that I see others doing and that I struggle to be interested in.

Reading around, I get the sense that there’s a lot of thought being put into things like defining the proper terminology for talking about games; whether that terminology should be specialist or general enough to be inclusive; and what kinds of things need brand new words or explanations. And I really struggle to want be a part of it. And when I stopped to think about it, I wondered if maybe I was onto something.

This is going to run the risk of seeming like I’m calling him out, but Corvus Elrod (whom I greatly respect) has devoted a generous amount of words and blog posts to things like his definition of ‘play’ or the definition of ‘mechanics’. I think the first time I saw it happening I actually did a double take. Does an established word like ‘play’ really need redefinition just solely for the context of videogames? Isn’t just the context of a videogame blog enough for people to generally understand what you mean? If you do think there is a case for it, wouldn’t it perhaps be better to come up with some new and descriptive word rather than repurpose an existing one? Can’t we also by this point assume that many (most?) people who are reading our blogs pretty much know most of the terms and understand what we mean when we say things about a game? Surely they don’t really need us to explain that “videogames involve a player’s input, whereas a movie doesn’t”. If a particular reader doesn’t know that sort of thing already, what are they doing on my blog?! Go out and play some games first! Seriously, shoo! Go play Halo or The Sims – you’ll pick up on that whole player input aspect pretty darn quick, let me tell you. And if my mum can do it, so can you.

James Paul Gee wrote in What videogames have to teach us about learning and literacy that the best videogames, the ones that are successful, actually teach the player about how games work. So why do we in the blogosphere seem to think we have to explain the wheel to our readers? They’ve all played Call of Duty, they’ve know all the tricks. And if they don’t, can we even expect them to understand this interactive medium without experiencing it? Gonzalo Frasca, the granddaddy of academic videogame theory, says that in media that is simulational (videogames), unlike traditional narrative’s with which most people have already had significant exposure to in the form of film, books, etc, you can’t actually come to grips with it from the outside or without experiencing it for yourself.

In another example of the terminology discussion, Iroquois Pliskin (who, again, I greatly admire for his near-overnight rise to prominence and contribution to discussion) in a recent post criticized Clint Hocking’s bastard phrase, ‘ludonarrative dissonance’. He described it as,

“needlessly florid, and…the sort of thing that gives aid and comfort to the people who think that games writin' has gotten too fancy.”

I commented on the post, but I’ll reiterate here – I think ludonarrative dissonance is a fantastic term, and honestly it’s not just because I’m enamoured with the work of Clint Hocking himself (heh). It’s because it’s a term that describes quite exactly a specific occurrence in videogames – one that only occurs in videogames. But hey, just a second ago, wasn’t I advocating against discussing terminology and such? True, but in this instance ludonarrative dissonance is actually a term specific to videogames – unless it involves rules or mechanics that “say” one thing, and a story that says another you can’t get ludonarrative dissonance. There is no potential for ludonarrative dissonance in media like film, so I think it’s quite a valuable term for describing something rather unique to videogames and as such hasn’t really had a name before. And it avoids repurposing old words which, frankly I think is actually doing more to create a specialist vocabulary about games than phrases like the above. In what other context does ‘play’ mean “the self-guided exploration of possibility within a bounded space.”1

Okay, so the counter argument to that all this is, well, look in the dictionary – there’s already a bunch of given meanings for ‘play’ that are all different, some subtly, others wildly. But I don’t think I’m alone in feeling like this is an issue. The recent hoopla over the snappy gamer’s article, which tried to call out fantastic games writers as being “overly intellectual” and ruining it for everyone else, so pooh pooh, made Leigh Alexander comment that, while the author was being a dick, he did kind of have a point.

All of which makes me think that, shock horror, Kieron Gillen and New Games Journalism maybe actually had the right idea. You really, truly can’t dissect a game without reducing it to less than its whole. I just don’t think it works as it fails to capture the essence of what’s really great about games and why we play them. What I believe Gillen was onto with NGJ was identifying and writing about ourselves. Ultimately, people and their reactions, their feelings, their thoughts their stories (which I am also a big fan of, gaming anecdotes [RPS’ Planetside, the 1% and the ‘I was there, man’ syndrome is an amazing example]) are always going to be more interesting to read than a technical breakdown of game mechanics and why the pistol in Halo 1 was overpowered.

So, let’s bring this train wreck to a conclusion – what am I trying to say? Is it misguided to attempt to nail down some important and novel terms and ways of thinking about games? Well, no not really, there’ll always be a place for that. But, if writing about games is going to really truly transcend accusations of ‘over thinking it all’ then I believe the blogosphere has got to stop trying to clinically explain ‘how it is’. Let it go a little more often - go a bit wild. I think the really successful writers are already doing it, and I tip my hat in the direction of Duncan Fyfe and his writing at Hit Self Destruct. Also, Rock, Paper, Shotgun are often exceptionally good at this too.

Lastly, to both the guys who I criticized earlier, please don’t take it personally. Feel free to disagree with me, take my argument apart and show me the gaping flaws in my logic – please tell me if you think I’m aiming way off base. I am eternally thankful that, largely, we’re all an incredibly mature, friendly and thoughtful bunch and that that in itself goes miles towards overcoming any disagreements.


Anonymous said...

Wow, there's a lot to respond to in there, isn't there? I think I'll start by defending my own actions. -.0

My blog is a curious beast. I'm part critic, part storyteller, and part developer. Almost every single one of my posts is a small component that gets me closer to a much larger goal. Firstly, I'm developing a critical framework for the discussion of all media--from novels to live performances to video games. The framework is based around the exploration of participatory storytelling, a concept which is distinct from interactive storytelling in many ways.

Secondly, I'm interested in advancing the design of video game to the point where true participatory storytelling can happen.

In order to meaningfully move on to the greater definitions, and greater understanding, we need to be on the same page in relation to the simpler terms. And as you may have noticed in the comments of my posts--there's a lot of varying expectations and understanding of the words I work to define. My definition of play, for example, has nothing to do with challenge, scores, or learning--all elements I've been told are critical to the concept.

Even if I weren't working to some greater goal, I think it is important to challenge and rethink our own instinctual understanding of terms. Sure we all think we know what play means, but until we talk about it we're never entirely sure we know what it means to everyone else.

As far as defining mechanics--I'm working towards something larger there as well. It's pretty clear from the resulting conversation that there are a lot of assumptions about a) what "game mechanics" are and b) what role they must play in a game. I'm interested in upsetting that particular apple cart, and am edified by the responses I get.

Anonymous said...

... and I forgot to check the email follow-up comments box.

You squeezed writing out of me before I was done with my fist cup of coffee this morning. Well done!

Ben Abraham said...

I was really wary of coming across as if I was trying to invalidate your posts, or your entire project on Man Bytes Blog. I hope I got the tone right. =S

I think I understand your desire to 'be on the same page' as you say, but I also wonder whether it's actually an attainable goal. Not that we shouldn't try to come to any sort of consensus, far from it, but doesn't the range of responses you have gotten seem to imply... well... just the range of applications a single word has? If, as I tried to argue in the post, we would benefit from being a little bit more 'subjective' and 'experiential', is the payoff from agreeing on terms worth anything?

Can we even agree on terms? It also seems to presuppose that there's a 'right' answer or definition for what 'play' is.

You're totally right though about the importance of challenging ourselves to rethink our understanding of even simple ideas. If you can believe it, this post actually started life as more of a defence of "Why I couldn't be bothered!" Which in the end wasn't really the issue at all, but it's still definitely a tendency.

Thanks for not taking offence, and for taking the time to respond (before the first coffee no less!) =D

Anonymous said...

I wasn't offended at all. I think I might need a banner for my blog that reads, "I love it when you argue--but be sure to bring everything you have to the table as I'll be arguing back."

I'm not trying to get everyone to use the same definitions for those terms everywhere--only to ensure I'm being clear what I mean when I use them for my own subversive ludonarrative purposes.

I've been contemplating responding to the ludonarrative dissonance talk floating around. Perhaps I'll do that tomorrow.

Ben Abraham said...

"I'm not trying to get everyone to use the same definitions for those terms everywhere--only to ensure I'm being clear what I mean when I use them for my own subversive ludonarrative purposes."

That seems very reasonable to me. =D I look forward to you contribution to the Ludonarrative Dissonance discussion.

Travis Megill said...

I think for me, your argument is a little backward, Ben. You say that we shouldn't be worrying about defining terms and over thinking games, but instead should be explaining how the games affect us experientially, or describing our direct experiences with the games, whether creatively or more objectively (Correct me if I'm wrong, I tend to be).

But you also say that we shouldn't have to define gameplay mechanics and terms because a player should just play the game and understand for themselves. That's my biggest problem with experiential discourse on games right there, why not just play the game? If the purpose of that kind of writing is to get a player to play the game themselves, that's fine, it's a preview, but how is it criticism?

I think the purpose of the "brainy gamer" thing, whether pretentious or not, is to talk about games in a new way that doesn't conform to preview or review. It's about dissecting a game after the experience, and the people who read it will have played the game. After all, I don't read a book of literary criticism on Joyce's The Dubliners without carefully studying the book first.

So I'm okay with the idea of experiential game writing as preview or review, but I have trouble seeing it as criticism. It describes the experience so people will get an idea of how the game plays and what makes it unique, so it acts as a preview for someone who hasn't played it.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post. I'll take the spirit of it and respond in kind; i.e. generally.

I understand the need for highly specific discourse. As one comment on my ludology post noted, there is a need for a highly games-specific language that isn't simply "what we've been doing with other media, but with games".

However, I think that really, this type of analysis has been the only type of analysis in games studies almost since its inception. We have a huge selection of very specific studies of games to turn to now, be it Juul, Aarseth, Eskelinen or as you suggest, Frasca. We even have many, many blog posts that dissect the minutiae of the medium.

This is not to say that we don't need more of this; as Corvus rightly points out, there is absolute merit in continuing to re-examine our understandings of even the most basic notions.

However, games are best understood in general terms. I can't stress this enough, and it is why I agree with the general thrust of your post. This can be done personally, through new games journalism-type writing, or it can be done other ways. This is because when we actually experience games, we engage with them from the ground up; like the pedestrian, we cannot disengage ourselves from the city to look at it from a bird's eye view. We only have our limited perspective down here, underneath the skyscrapers. When we're playing, we can't remove ourselves from the current situation and examine things like game mechanics and even, yes, ludonarrative dissonance. We can't because we've got a Big Daddy to take down.

Absolutely, it's later that we should take a step back and look at these things; but should it be our primary mode of discourse? Absolutely not.

Travis Megill said...

Ack, I hate having afterthoughts that I want to add after I hit submit. Oh well:

I really enjoy reading creative ways to write about games, but in the end all of these methods are gimmicks in a way. They are entertaining, of course, and informative as well, but I don't think they will ever be the most effective form of game criticism.

Also, a question. Aren't "New Games Journalism" and the "brainy gamer" blogosphere phenom really two completely separate things that have some overlap? I think I may get confused in these discussion because journalism is something completely different from criticism for me. And I think a lot of what Corvus does is something completely different from either of those as well.

In my MFA program, we write essays from a writer's perspective about novels and short stories, etc. They aren't literary criticism though, they're a writer looking at another writer's process and trying to understand the way they constructed a narrative. Criticism picks apart what the narrative means, but writing about the process of construction doesn't focus meaning, it focuses on how (to steal from Corvus) the dynamics of meaning are created.

Anonymous said...

I don't know that games are "best" understood in general terms, or that there needs to be a primary mode of discourse.

It seems to me that the necessary balance between big picture and fine detail examination is just as personal a need as the emotional impact of farting at strangers in Fable 2.

I'm just as leery of pigeon holing what game discourse "ought to be" as I am pigeon holing what video game "ought to be."

Ben Abraham said...

Dhalgren (first post) - You got the gist just fine, don't worry. =)

I guess, the difference for me is that I don't think that the 'experiential' subjective (dare I call it NGJ?) necessarily has to be shoe-horned into the preview category.

Criticism is by no means only about the negatives in games - Specificaly, the Rock, Paper, Shotgun piece "Planetside, the 1%" is a FANTASTIC example of *positive* criticism and yet, totally grounded in self, experience and anecdotes. And yet it still pulls off making a serious and deep commentary about what the game actually did... to the players.

Which, in my opinion, is about all you could ask from a piece of criticism. If any analysis or criticism divorces itself from the actual play experience... what's really left of the game? You end up talking about numbers, statistics, rules and abstract concepts. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for that but I think there's also time and place for that, but if you don't get anything meaningful out of it then I don't see much point...

Anyway, that's my take on it.

Daniel - I think we largely agree. I don't see any kind of 'objective' analysis or criticism as possible for games without dealing with our own inherent subjectivity. We *play* games and that's how we experience them. We don't read about them even we can, because it's hardly the same thing...

So I guess I'm personally very skeptical of any 'criticism' or analysis of games that omits that human factor.

I hope this all makes sense... I'm awfully aware that I'm making some bold statements potentially without seeing all sides of the argument...

Anonymous said...

@Corvus - maybe I was a little strong in my wording, but I agree pretty much wholesale with your comment. I don't think there should be a primary mode of discourse at all - but I think there currently is one (though it is definitely waning). As you say, experience and specifics in balance.

Travis Megill said...

@Ben: I think we agree on our idea of criticism, I definitely didn't intend it to be about negatives or positives of a game, that's what a review does. I think criticism is about analyzing the meaning of something, or the experience, which may fit better with games.

Yes, you may be able to creatively describe a game experience to a person who has already played a certain game and illustrate what "meaning" you took away from the game, but it seems more like an entertaining gimmick to me than the most effective way to analyze a piece.

You could write criticism from a character's point of view in a novel, and creatively show the meaning of the book by using that character's perspective. Yes, it would be original in some way and entertaining, but would it really be more effective than straight criticism? I don't read criticism to be entertained, that's why I read the book or played the game, I read it to be provoked.

Erik said...

If I had to pick one of you to throw my hat in with, it would likely be Travis (dhalgren). Personal response certainly can be done in an entertaining way, and can even give me a fair understanding of whether I'll enjoy playing a game, but I fear it comes close to Reader Response theory in literary criticism and analysis, which I've always found needlessly self-indulgent and gimmicky.

This may parallel my relation to music, in which I appreciate the emotional responses of trusted peers in recommending songs or artists. I have a problem with music, though, in that I often feel like I'm the only person that cares about the message and craft of the lyrics. To me, the lyrics are much more important and interesting than whether the tune is catchy. Lots of folks, on the other hand, can sing along with every word on the radio and never stop to actually understand the words they're singing. More power to them, I suppose, but that's not my bag.

Ben Abraham said...

Oh Travis, I would have expected YOU of all people to believe in the potential for creativity to add something to criticism! ;-)

I guess it comes across like I'm arguing we do away with terminology and such. You said that you want criticism to be "about analyzing the meaning of something, or the experience."

Well, I don't think you can separate the MEANING of a game from the experience of it. No matter what words or specialist devices to we use describe a mechanic or 'feel' of a game, nothing, NOTHING, substitutes for actual hands-on experience.

Now, what I think the value in the *creative* aspect, the subjective style, is it adds to the criticism something...

It's like, treat 'subjective' criticism as just another tool for writing about games. It should go hand in hand with talking about statistics, mechanics, dynamics, abstractions and, yes, ludonarrative dissonance.

Does that make sense?

Travis Megill said...

:) Aww, Ben, don't make me feel like I'm dissing creativity.

I think it's more that creativity has its place. Even creativity has a complex terminology so creative people can talk to each other. It's interesting to see people come into the MFA program who have no previous experience with English, they often wonder why they have to learn all this terminology stuff in a creative program. They just want to write. The reason the terminology is important is the same reason any abstraction is important, it allows you to look at something by holding it at arm's length instead of all smushed up against it and inside of it.

I would argue that the best way to evaluate an experience is to separate yourself from it, and I think it's probably been argued much better by others before me. Consider literary theory, there are hundreds of different frameworks with their own terminology to examine a work through a variety of different lenses, including, as Wordsmythe brought up, reader response, which is a relatively new theory. Your description of game criticism seems to have similarities.

I think my point is that games don't have a complete set of "ludology" theory yet, so you've basically skipped all of those other theories and gone right to reader response when that's just one possible lens we can view something through. Reader response theory is just as complex and head-ache inducing as any of the other theories once you start looking into it.

Erik said...

Briefly, I value that reader/player response provides perspectives on a text/game, but I find that it too easily slips into an assertion of subjective truths that don't apply to a broad enough audience to matter. An extreme example would be a player response to Shadow in FF6 due to the player having had a black lab named Shadow as a child. I'd much rather talk about why the thief is named after John Locke.

Travis Megill said...

Awww, but puppies are cute! :)

Erik said...

Yeah, but mine's cuter.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

Hey Ben, good post and thanks for the kind words on my blog!

You have a good point. Maybe when we're analyzing games, coming up with new language or reusing old concepts to describe what happens when we play them, we're just getting further and further away from the experience. As you say, maybe getting all analytical misses what is really compelling about playing games, and people like Gillen do a better job of capturing this experiential and subjective element in all its specificity.

The benefit of being analytical, I think, is that it (hopefully) contributes to making all these private and idiosyncratic experiences (what's more private and subjective than fun?) into something that is potentially more public and sharable. If you can explain how a game goes about making itself fun to play (which is what I try to do when I analyze some game or other), then maybe other people will recognize the kind of things you describe and they'll have a new appreciation for the game. Or maybe getting a good analytical handle on a game makes it possible for people to have an interesting debate and discussion about it.

I mean, my real answer is that I think people should be trying everything when it comes to games writing. Let a hundred flowers bloom. (Even though I had some quibbles with the term "ludonarrative dissonance", I hope it came through that I really really admire Hocking and I think that the insights he offered in that piece are excellent; part of my ish is just that the terminology got in the way of recognizing his contribution.) Everyone should approach writing in a way that seems interesting to them and then see if anyone else responds.

Ben Abraham said...

Thanks Iroquois, both for reading and for getting the spirit of my argument. Can't ask for much more than that. =)

Travis Megill said...

Personally, I thought Ben's post was a thinly veiled SnappyGamer. (btw, are you SnappyGamer/RAM Raider?) :)

Of course I'm kidding!