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The Jungle of the Real

Recently Matt Kaplan asked me to give my thoughts on the ‘No Russian’ mission from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 that has caused some controversy. He published my thoughts along with those of others on his Game In Mind blog. Reading through the perspectives offered by the members of the game criticism literati, such as L.B. Jefferies and Ben Abraham, I have to admit that I started to feel a little out of place. What struck me was that they all in their own ways seemed to take the topic much more seriously than I did. While I could appreciate what each was saying I couldn’t quite connect to any of their feelings on an emotional level. For each of them the existence of this mission was an important moment in the history of games, at least in the way that it was finally bringing certain subjects to the surface. For me, the whole thing seemed a little banal (the incident in the game, not the discussion).

Just the other weekend I was in Boston and I had the pleasure of grabbing lunch with Wes Erdelack (also known as Iroquois Plisken). Wes’ site Versus CluCluLand is one of a few blogs on games that I always look forward to reading. As we sat over burgers and discussed games and those who talk about them I explained to Wes that I wasn’t really interested in fiction. Wes was kind enough not to fall out of his chair, by the look on his face I imagine he wanted to. It occurred to me then that the rift between my perspective on games and that of the rest of my small corner of the blogosphere might be a bit deeper than I had imagined.

Indeed, what unites all the big name games that have come out and are coming out, and all the discussion that swirls around them is the topic of fiction. Modern Warfare 2 is controversial because it allows players to shoot fictional bullets at fictional civilians and that makes some people uncomfortable for various reasons. The talk around Uncharted 2 basically centered on how the game portrayed the relationship between its characters, the pacing of its plot, and how it captured the feel of Indiana Jones movies. Most of the talk of Assassin’s Creed 2 is about its re-creation of the major cities of Renaissance Italy.

While I would never pass judgment on people who find these topics engrossing (it’s wonderful to find what you care about in a game and write about it passionately) I have to admit that more often than not I find myself wondering what all the fuss is about. More often than not I find myself wondering if anyone is ever going to change the subject.

What interests me about games are not the ways in which they are fictional, or fake, but the ways in which they are real.


Jesper Juul is the first person I know of to suggest, in so many words, that parts of all games are real. The subject of his first book, Half-Real, was specifically about video games and as such he admitted that a large portion of what we recognize as being important in digital games are the fictional worlds that they project. In our discussions of video games it is inevitable that we will speak of their characters, their virtual environments, and their cutscenes, etc. These are such prominent facets of contemporary video games that they cannot be ignored. However, Dr. Juul points out that the rules of a game are not fictional, they are actual constraints on a player’s behavior and that this is just as important, if not more important, to our understanding of games as their fictional elements. Because he was addressing video games he put both their fiction and their rules on equal footing, but if he had been writing about games more generally the point he would make seems clear: there are games without fiction but none without rules.

Probably the most common rejoinder to the dichotomy presented in Half-Real is that it’s not so clear that rules aren’t fiction themselves. McKenzie Wark made this very point in the endnotes of his book Gamer Theory (my second favorite book on games). Rules may be constraints on the behavior of players but they are not constrained in any serious , or real, sense. When we play Basketball with someone we agree to pretend that we cannot move without bouncing the ball and that once we stop we can’t move again until we shoot or pass to a teammate. The fact is that we can do all these things but only act as if we cannot. Isn’t that at least a kind of fiction?

This is a powerful critique and one that I would be very interested to hear Jesper Juul answer himself. For my own purposes it is a point that I’m willing to concede. Rules are arbitrary, we make them up and agree to abide by them, and as such they are perhaps no more real than the conventions of fiction. We can decide that in Basketball you can run without dribbling. We can even add a rule to Basketball that you can move after stopping but only if you successfully bounce the ball between your legs three consecutive times. We can do this because rules are not real constraints on player behavior, they are conventional (‘fictional’) constraints.

What we shouldn’t do though is let this concession blind us to the spirit of Dr. Juul’s argument. There is a way in which part of every game is real. Perhaps rules are arbitrary, but what’s more important is that the consequences of those rules are not. When we play a game we pretend that we have certain constraints on our behavior, but the actions we take and the decisions we make as a result of those constraints are not pretense. Instead they are the explorations of the logical space of possibility that’s generated by the arbitrary rules we’ve adopted.

The limits on our behavior are not real but the behaviors and events themselves are, and the behavior and events that result from a ruleset cannot be altered outside of altering the rules themselves.


Let’s look at a game like Boxing.

The ruleset of Boxing is more complicated than the game is usually given credit for but the most important rules can be explained rather simply. Two fighters are put in a ring wearing thickly padded gloves. The two fighters strike at each other with their fists only, and only above the belt line, until one of them can no longer continue. When one fighter either falls unconscious or forfeits the other is declared the winner. There are, of course, a great number of other precise rules and not all matches end with a knockout or forfeit, but this is a fair description of the heart of Boxing.

Now, there is no real reason why the fighters must wear heavy gloves. Fights would be much shorter and winners would be much clearer if the players were allowed to strike each other with bare fists (there’s actually some good, counter-intuitive evidence that this would result in fewer debilitating injuries being suffered by fighters). There’s also no actual reason why opponents shouldn’t kick each other if their goal is to physically disable their opponent. To get even more nuanced, in fights where neither athlete is knocked out or forfeits, it’s arbitrary how judges score the different blows landed to determine a winner. They could by all rights judge all blows as equal, or simply let the fighters keep going until one of them was physically unable to continue.

Each of these rules is arbitrary. The players of the game of Boxing are pretending that these rules matter. What is not arbitrary is the behavior that fighters adopt in light of these rules.

For instance, because of the thick gloves that boxers wear they often guard their head by placing their hands against their face. The gloves are padded enough that they will absorb most of the shock from an opponent’s jab and wide enough that they can protect most of the more vulnerable parts of their head, like the jaw. They would never do this if they were fighting bare knuckled because not only would the shock absorption be considerably smaller but having their fist crushed between their skull and the sharp end of their opponents arm would probably result in a broken hand.

This sort of behavior is not put on for show. Instead, each fighter is adapting to circumstances that are generated by the ruleset they’ve adopted. It’s not that there’s a rule that says boxers are supposed to guard themselves by burying their head in their gloves, or some ritual that says they have to do it once every few minutes. It just so happens that in a game where players strike each other wearing heavy gloves it really is more effective to do so than to not. In fact, if we wanted to stop this behavior we would have to come up with a new, entirely arbitrary rule that said something like “participants are not allowed to touch their faces to their gloves”.

Also, without doing any further analysis it should be pointed out that boxers are actually hitting each other. The injuries sustained by fighters, some of them permanent, and the tactics they adopt to avoid those injuries aren’t so much the result of a fictional ruleset as much as a reaction and improvisation to the inevitable and real circumstances that the ruleset of the game only partly constrains.

It seems clear that while we might argue that rules are no more real than any fiction, there are large parts of a game like Boxing that are real. While the damage that fighters do to each others bodies is undeniably real, or at least as real as it gets, the tactics and strategies they employ to avoid that damage are also real. To stop those behaviors we would have to invent additional fictional and arbitrary rules.


There are other examples of the ‘realness’ of games that are not quite as visceral.

Imagine that you’re watching a movie where two friends are interviewing for the same job, though neither of them knows this fact. Then one of them discovers the coincidence and decides to use part of their interview to talk down the other, so much so that the other character isn’t hired. When seeing this you might have a genuine emotional reaction to the betrayal, especially if you’re fond of the victimized character. Odds are that your ‘mirror neurons’ will be firing and to some extent you’ll be feeling a bit betrayed yourself.

Next, say you find yourself in a similar situation. You and a friend are both interviewing for the same job, only neither of you knows that at first. Then somehow your friend finds this out and instead of telling you or even refusing to act on the information they instead use part of their own interview to slyly infer that you might not make a model employee. Whether or not either of you actually lands the job, if you found out about the actions of your friend it seems likely that you would not be very happy. You might, in fact, consider the action such a betrayal of your friendship that you would end your contact with them.

Finally, let’s shift to another friend in another situation. This time you’re playing the board game Diplomacy and since you control adjacent territory you’ve made a pact not to attack each other, which the rules of the game do not forbid. While negotiating with another player your friend makes a deal to coordinate an attack on your territory on the next turn along with another player, another action allowed by the rules. On the next turn they execute their plan and your meager forces are unable to hold them both at bay. Your territories are overrun and you are eliminated from the game. Your sense of betrayal in this situation might not be as intense as if your friend bad mouthed you to a potential employer, but it would still be there, and it would still be genuine.

So here we have three instances where you have a real emotional reaction. What’s interesting is that in the first case, with the movie, you’re having a response to a fictional incident. The characters are not real people and the betrayal is not an actual event (unless it’s a documentary). However, in the second and third cases your reaction is to an actual, not fictional, event! Your different friends actually both betrayed your trust. In the case of the game of Diplomacy they did not pretend to betray you, their betrayal was not a simulation of betrayal, they actually betrayed you. The difference between the friend that steals your job and the friend that steals your territory is one of quality, not of kind.

Just as in our Boxing example the rules of Diplomacy might simply be conventions but the behavior and events that take place in the game them are not necessarily fictional. A boxer guards his jaw so that he won’t be hit so hard that his mind shuts down and he loses the match. Your friend goes behind your back and makes a deal so that you’ll be cut out of the rest of the game.

It’s worth remembering that it’s not so rare to hear of all types of relationships breaking apart over a game. We might chuckle when we hear these stories and say that people shouldn’t take things so seriously, but most of us are familiar with the all too real feelings, and actions, that can arise even in the most casual settings when a truly competitive game is involved.

Games don’t just engender negative feelings, of course.

A year ago I wrote that the game Left 4 Dead was about love. Typically I’m a little more outlandish in my 300 Word Reviews than other things I write on Game Design Advance, but on one level I was being completely serious about my opinion. I did not mean that I was interpreting the relationships between the game’s fictional characters as being particularly loving, or that the game was somehow representing love in some particular fashion. What I meant was that in order for players to succeed in the game they had to exhibit all the behaviors that we would associate with love. They had to protect each other, they had to balance their own needs against the needs of the group, and occasionally they had to make sacrifices hoping that at some point the favor would be returned. Everyone who has played the game has a story about a teammate who doomed the group by hording their healing items, or running off on their own. Left 4 Dead is balanced so that players need to rely on each other in order to win. However, the game doesn’t enforce this behavior in any way, but rather lets its players navigate the gray area of just how to coordinate with each other.

Once again, I’m not suggesting that the caring exhibited between players in Left 4 Dead is the same as that between people put in life threatening situations. The bond between survivors of catastrophes cannot be equated to the hour or so long travails of a group of XBox Live users, but the two are comparable. They are at opposite ends of a very wide spectrum.


So far I’ve only been talking about multi-player games, which leaves a big elephant in the room (the one that Justin Keverne is always groping). It’s easy to imagine that once you get people together and have them start interacting then something real is bound to happen. However, games that are noticed for their fictions, whether the virtual world of Fallout 3, the facial animations of Uncharted 2, or the disturbing imagery of Modern Warfare 2, are more often than not single-player. The act of playing a single-player game is much more like reading a book or watching a movie; an activity that can be done in parallel with other people but is for the most part an individual experience.

The draw of these games may very well be the individual escape into a fictional world, the revelations of simulated relationships, and the drama of a planned but participatory denouement. On the other hand, single-player games are still games, and just because they tend to have lavish fictions it doesn’t mean that there is not some reality waiting to be grappled with.

In order to make my point I’d like to be a bit facetious for a moment. If you can, in the equation below try to solve for x:

2x – 7 = 3

Whether or not you actually took the time to reach the correct answer you have just engaged with what is basically every turn-based single-player game ever made. To experience a real-time game try to solve the equation above while standing on one foot.

At their heart all games, especially single-player digital games, are math problems. Most games are more interesting problems than the one that I’ve provided, and deal with much fuzzier equations, but that doesn’t change their fundamental character. To play a game is to attempt to find an optimal path for a given goal through the logical possibility space created by its ruleset. Basically you’re trying to solve the equation as best you can. If you fail you can always try again with a different strategy; you can try to find a different path.

Until my Xbox 360 ‘red ringed’ about a month ago I was playing Shadow Complex almost daily. I wasn’t playing through to experience the story again, instead I was trying to finish the game in as little time as possible and limiting myself to acquiring only certain power-ups. Learning to play the game this way was frustrating at first, since it often felt like the game was inappropriately designed for such a practice. Over time though this frustration diminished as I begun to feel the layout of the levels in my hands, as I started to be able to read the behavior of the enemy AI and react in real time, and as I stumbled across quirks in the game’s logic, like when firing a particular number of shots in a room would for some reason prevent a set of enemies from spawning. In these speedruns the fiction of the game began to not quite fade but blur to the point where only the necessary information was being communicated. My avatar was gray, my gun was gold, and my enemies were black and white. It was during these runs that I decided Shadow Complex was a great game, or at least the way I was playing it made it great.

Like all single-player games, Shadow Complex is real in that it was testing my actual abilities. I wasn’t pretending to fail over and over again at the same spot. Instead my failure was a mathematical inevitability as long as I left my tactics unchanged. As long as I kept giving the same wrong answer or using the same flawed method, I was never going to be able to solve for x.

What makes Shadow Complex great is not the modeling and texturing, or the stirring musical score, or a particular twist in the plot. The greatness of Shadow Complex is its math. The physics of the avatar’s movement, the shape of the terrain, and the timing of the danger. I had to calculate and plan for each of these variables and others with each run, and then somehow translate my answer through my hands and into the algorithm, which would tell me whether my guess was correct or not.

While obviously not everyone does, or even should, agree with my criteria for what makes a great game, it seems difficult to deny this basic facet of their nature:  math. Though all the layers of graphics and sound and text in a single-player game can be pleasurable and are a great help in making some of the inner-workings of a game more salient to the player, the heart of the game, where the choices of the player collide with the possibilities of the system, is not ultimately some fictional world or a rhetorical simulation or an artful juxtaposition, but a mathematical reality.


I can’t say that I never enjoy the representational layer of a games. I’ve played through plenty of games that I didn’t think were mechanically interesting just to see the cut-scenes; that was practically the only reason I beat the last couple of Metal Gear Solids. There are also times when the promise of some fictional reward helped to keep me going through games that were already fascinating in and of themselves but difficult and frustrating; the idea of seeing  the Golden Condor was sometimes all that kept me going through the roughest parts of Shiren the Wanderer. I’m human and so I’m by no means immune to all the pleasures of fiction. However, most of the time when I pick up a game I’m not hoping that I’ll see something amazing, or explore an exotic land, or meet interesting characters (and, more often than not, shoot them).

Also, I don’t maintain that this is a pleasure that is exclusive to games. A painting of an apple can be appreciated for its verisimilitude, but it can also be judged on qualities that have nothing to do with its resemblance to fruit. One can admire the ‘hand’ of the painter, whether it is present or not, or the direct, sensual experience of the colors. The shape of paint as it undulates out from the canvas can be as immersive an experience as any virtual world. Indeed, all ‘fictional’ modes of human culture, from novels to movies to theatre, can be appreciated in their form rather than their content.

What worries me is that much of the discussion of games that I follow seems to value their content far more than their form, or values the form only in that it serves the content (rather than content serving the form, which I prefer). Roger Travis has been suggesting lately that the word ‘game’ no longer fits the sort of experiences found in titles like Dragon Age: Origins or Uncharted 2. Perhaps he’s right and we’re seeing the beginnings of an irrevocable divergence between ‘games’ and ‘interactive narrative’. It makes me sad if this is the case because it means that ‘interactive narrative’ (or whatever it ends up being called) will feature histrionics instead of deep interaction; it will be full of the melodrama of fictional characters instead of the surprising, tragic, and often brilliant endeavors of actual people.

It was just over a year ago that I was arguing against taking the ‘one true and inevitable path’ as presented by the ‘art-game’ crowd, and I know that Game Design Advance has a reputation for being aggressively skeptical, so I’ll begin wrapping up this year on a magnanimous note: there’s room for everyone. As a category of expression games are flexible enough to tell us stories, or to be hung on the wall of a gallery, or teach us about the US budget deficit. Contrary to what some might say I actually believe that games can be all things to all people.

What I don’t want to happen is that in our efforts to turn games into something more familiar, more recognizable, we forget or ignore their particular beauty. Above all, games have the ability to generate real drama between ordinary people and to leverage uncertainty to create ecstatic performances. At their best games take us to that liminal space between possibility and inevitability; between ability and failure. To play games, and especially to play them well, is to accept an unconditional acceleration into this breach, to pierce the simulacra, and come as close to reality as we’re ever likely to get.

Author’s Note: The notion of something being ‘real’ is pretty controversial, especially with folks like Wesley Erdelack and Simon Ferrari around. There’s a philosophical argument out there about what is and isn’t ‘real’ that I have a lot of respect for, but which is beyond the needs of this post. Suffice it to say, for my purposes, when I say something is ‘real’ I mean that it’s as real as a punch in the gut or a broken heart.


  1. Great post, but you know I do write about things besides the content in games :P

    After 2 years of writing about games weekly I’m starting to find myself thinking more and more like you and all these books I’ve been reading on the subject. My brain just automatically tunes out the content and I start chunking the system. It’s like being in the Matrix, you just see the green stuff and ignore everything else. I used to finish every single player game to see how it ended, now I usually will have the whole system figured out about a 1/3 deep and will start to lose interest because I’m just repeating myself. Multiplayer kinda fixes it because people always get up to the weirdest things online, but I can never get myself to emotionally invest in the experience.

    I always said content was just one element of a larger system in games but the more I play them I have to wonder about my willingness to focus on just the design and behavior. Maybe I’m losing steam as a critic or maybe I’m playing the wrong games, but a lately I feel like I’ve played all these things before. Like I said on that post about the airport level, I’m glad they made a game about shooting civilians so people will finally have to think of something new to do.

    Friday, December 4, 2009 at 12:57 am | Permalink
  2. James L wrote:

    Really, really insightful article. I totally agree. Especially about the way a game abstracts itself. As another supporting example, I was just playing Canabalt ( obsessively and it’s especially evident to me in a very simple game like that – in the span of two or three hours, the gorgeous art and incredible music were totally tuned out and really the only things I was processing were walls, boxes, missiles, and windows. In my mind, what happens in Canabalt is a sped-up version of what happens to any game you play seriously for long enough – by the end of Borderlands I still thought they art style was fine and all, but really I was just watching the numbers pop up and trying to make them higher.

    And as you said, there’s enough room for both. Games that are story-driven can make you tear up or feel happy, but there are very few game experiences as emotional for me as watching my team in the NBA Finals, or watching an incredibly clever Starcraft strategy win a championship, or watching Daigo full parry Justin Wong, or, heck, even getting the high score in Canabalt for the day.

    Friday, December 4, 2009 at 1:11 am | Permalink
  3. James L wrote:

    As an afterthought, I think a good way to “cheat” to get this experience is to play a very small game like Canabalt or Orbital (for the iPhone) or something even smaller that’s still distinctly competitive. The games you really want to be competitive in are, of course, games with huge communities that will revere you like Starcraft or Counter-Strike or DotA, but there’s something about mastering and constantly improving at game that still gives you that feeling no matter what game it is, even if you’re only playing against a few people. And if you pick a small game, you don’t have to go live in South Korea and play it for ten hours a day every day.

    Friday, December 4, 2009 at 1:16 am | Permalink
  4. Dan Kline wrote:

    Well said.

    The point about mathematics is a stroke of genius.

    Friday, December 4, 2009 at 1:41 am | Permalink
  5. Charles J Pratt wrote:

    LB, thanks! I didn’t mean to imply that, sorry if it seems that way!

    I don’t know what sort of games you’re playing but I haven’t found that there’s a dearth of interesting systems out there to explore. Just recently I’ve been playing Arkham Asylum, a game I didn’t have high hopes for, and was surprised find that it was actually a pretty great brawler. Now I’m having fun playing through the challenge levels. Like I said in the piece, if my XBox wasn’t dead I would be playing Shadow Complex right now. Have you played Shiren yet?

    James, great to have you drop by and I’m glad you liked the post!

    I think you’re right that some smaller games like Canabalt or Orbital can get you to the point I’m talking about faster. I think that any time you’re faced with a small but non-trivial problem and you have the ability to quickly try it over and over again, you get to brass tacks pretty quickly.

    Dan, thanks! That means a lot.

    Friday, December 4, 2009 at 5:19 am | Permalink
  6. Charles,

    Just an absolutely wonderful, thoughtful post. Wanted to pick up on a few things:

    1. I think the problem of a sort of overrated or forced quality to the discussion about Modern Warfare 2 can most likely be attributed to the artificial way in which the post was formed. I mean, I literally solicited opinions about the event, so it was really only in my estimation that it was significant… and that, too, is entirely debatable. Your points here are well taken, and I take full responsibility if the sentiment seemed contrived. (It was.)

    2. As much as I love your analysis in this post and your invocation of mathematics, there is an undercurrent to your use of the word “real” that… whether intentional or not… really suggests a kind of old-school, logical positivism about gaming that rubs me the wrong way. Let me be clear: You’re not being abrasive or anything less than a true scholar in your post, and I’m probably reading a great deal into your choice of diction, but I do feel that you are going out of your way to make a distinction or see a rift between yourself and the rest of the “blogosphere” where there exists (or at least I see) very little.

    You yourself touch on the interrelated nature of rules, consequences, and the sometimes-fiction that binds them (or at the very least, foregrounds them). In this post, I think you do a magnificent job of describing two sides of the same coin: The side that motivates the player, and the side that engages. You are obviously most compelled by discussions of engagement, and how engagement is engendered by the conduit of form… not so much the fictional “exigency” of that form.

    My question is, why try to split the coin? You say you see a great deal of emphasis on fiction and not enough on form, but I wonder if you and I read the same blogs. Indeed, it is very difficult to find an in-depth discussion of gameplay–situated within, say, the fictive confines of a single player narrative–without the author also talking about the more tangible effects, emotional and other, on the player. Could Ben Abraham have launched his permadeath experiments without having to describe (and be drawn to) story? Could Michael Abbott’s praise of linear story in Uncharted 2 be extricated from his mention of a form that enables “co-authored” pacing? To be fair, this really all depends on which blogs one reads, but I believe many are attentive to the aspects of form you describe above.

    Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems you are also lamenting game *design’s* emphasis on fiction when compared to form. And I think this is a fair point; it’s certainly one that has been made before. From an authorial/design perspective, I think it’s definitely something to keep in mind. And God knows the gaming press could stand to pick up on this when hyping, say, the next Bioware RPG.

    I worry, however, that when interlocutors in the game studies discussion start drawing discursive lines against each other using something like “reality” as a criterion (as if to say, “My thoughts on the subject have to do with the REAL and observably human, whereas you deal with the fleeting particulars of an artificial design”), it will end up marginalizing the moments when story is–and will be–crucial to the evolution of gaming as a unique medium, and to our evolution as critical respondents.

    This is really just a long-winded way of asking the question, “Why split hairs over this?” And that’s a genuine question. Is it because you feel that game design itself will suffer? Or because you feel the quality of critical thought will suffer? I feel that there is an important distinction to be made there.

    Friday, December 4, 2009 at 8:06 am | Permalink
  7. By the way, I just wanted to add: Posts such as these are the reason I find this blog so worth the read. You definitely have an eye for detail and a way with words (and analogies!). Kudos, sir.

    Friday, December 4, 2009 at 8:18 am | Permalink
  8. Ross wrote:

    I feel the need to say that rules aren’t pretending we can’t do something. A player -can- walk after they stop dribbling in basketball. It just incurs a consequence, which is also defined in the rules.

    So your example didn’t exactly sit that well with me. You said that rules weren’t real, because there is nothing actually stopping you from taking a step. But the rules don’t say you cannot take a step, they say you will incur a penalty for taking a step. Players stop themselves from taking that step in the same way boxers guard their face with their padded gloves; as a reaction to the dynamics of the rules.

    Saturday, December 5, 2009 at 6:03 am | Permalink
  9. I find the post fascinating, but I have two issues with it.

    You bring up math as the basis for most of the systems in modern games. I agree, that in most cases games are giant math puzzles to be solved in turn or real time. However, you also insinuate that the underlying objective, beyond any fictional goal, is to solve for x within the confines of the rule set. That may be the case where we are now.

    I would offer a hypothetical counterpoint, where the fiction of a game and the math contradict each other. For instance, if Bioshock had a slightly altered presentation where saving or harvesting the little sisters did not in the end grant you the same amount of Adam, but kept the inherent numerical difference that was explained at the start. And then went out of the way to represent fictional repercussions for choosing the ‘evil’ path. Off the top of my head, actually showing the harvesting process. Now we have a dilemma where the math dictates one path and the fiction or rather its effect on the player dictates another. Since I have never myself experience such a situation, I’m not sure what the end result would be, but it does seem something would come from that division.

    My second issue is related to the first. You speak about how games are real in the effect it has on player who subscribes to its rule set. In that explanation you use a movie having an effect on a audience member watching, but he is not invested in a rules set and yet has a similar reaction. If the idea of games is to garner emotional response through a rule set, than cannot the fiction of a game also add to the emotional response in a player. In some cases the rules will meaning nothing without a fictional overlay and in turn will not be real themselves. Guitar Hero is my case study. When stripped down to its most basic element it’s a color matching game of Simon says with the memory challenge removed. There is no real reason to follow the instructions at all, and therefore illicit no emotional response, without the fiction of the music being overlaid.

    Despite these two disagreements, I am very thankful for the post. It’s a great read and I am always looking for something to intellectually masturbate about. It also helped me in formulating a direction for a series of writings I’ve been working on for far too long.

    Saturday, December 5, 2009 at 11:22 pm | Permalink
  10. Charles J Pratt wrote:

    Matt – Glad you liked it so much!

    On your first point, I don’t think that your post was artificial or forced feeling. I think it was an accurate representation of the conversation at the time.

    It might be that we’re not reading the same blogs, but to my mind, when it comes to the so-called ‘brainysphere’ I don’t see a lot of discussion that places rules and possibility spaces over fiction. There are blogs that do analysis of the mechanical aspects of games, such as James’ In Machinam and Richard Terrell’s Critical-Gaming. But it seems to me that for every post out there on the real parts of games there are ten others about their fiction.

    The most honest answer I can give to your question is that I don’t actually think there’s a coin to split. As I said, you can have games without fiction, but not without rules. Ben Abraham could have easily done his permadeath run without worrying about the game’s fiction. In fact, I really like his post on how to survive in Far Cry 2 precisely because it gets into the details of how the game actually behaves without trying to make a point about its fiction.

    I should also confess that I don’t think that story (or fiction more generally) will be important to the evolution of games. Perhaps it will be important to the evolution of a type of game, the ‘interactive narrative’ if you will, but games will always be a much larger form of human culture than just that.

    In fact, I do think that an over-emphasis on fiction will hold back both game design and critical discourse. In the first case because it narrows the range of forms that games can take, and in the second because games will, and already have, taken forms that won’t be recognizable or accessible from a purely fiction-centric perspective.

    Anyway, thanks so much for the kind words!

    Ross – You’re absolutely right, I could have used a better example. To answer you quickly though, I would say then that the rule to apply a penalty when a player moves with dribbling is a convention itself and not real. But you’re correct, I should have been more precise in the first place.

    TGC – Thanks for dropping by!

    First off I want to say that I actually believe that all games are math, not just modern ones, but that’s a much larger and different point than the one I was trying to make in the post.

    You make a good point that the fiction of a game can change the way someone plays it. The point I was trying to make, however, wasn’t that this isn’t true or is somehow a ‘bad’ way to play, but that there are other things in games, ‘real’ things, that interest me more, and I wish that the critical community talked about those things a little more often.

    As to your second issue, I want to clarify what I meant by the movie example. What I was trying to say is that with a movie you can have a real emotional reaction to a fictional event, but in a game you can have a real emotional reaction to a REAL event. This is the important difference.

    Also, in my opinion, it is not the job of rules to illicit emotional reactions from players. The job of rules is to create a logic space of possibility in which players adopt certain behaviors to reach particular goals. It’s the actions and events that take place within that space that elicit emotional reactions.

    Sunday, December 6, 2009 at 1:16 am | Permalink
  11. Frank Lantz wrote:

    Very nice.

    I often think about that scene in Waking Life where Caveh Zahedi talks about André Bazin:

    You open up the shutter in front of an actual thing. And everything else in a film is built out of and around and against and through that thing.

    What you are talking about in this post is – what is that thing for games?

    Sunday, December 6, 2009 at 1:36 am | Permalink
  12. Wait, you said I wasn’t going to like this one? I’m entirely on board with the thesis that we shouldn’t lose sight of what is special about games in attempting to make them more like other familiar forms. You’re a bit more skeptical of single player games than I am, and that’s fine.

    The interesting and unique thing about games is interacting with the systems they’re made from. Playing with other people tends to complicate that interaction.

    It takes a pretty literate player to draw meaning from a game’s systems, adding other people increase the noise substantially. Which is often great, but makes some things more difficult.

    I’d also say a well-crafted fiction/representation/abstraction makes those systems much easier to realize for some people. Give a system context and its often much easier to parse. Heh, I always found the grade 3 “word problems” in math easier than the straight arithmetic.

    While it may all be math at the end of the day, which maths and why can still be a fascinating and beautiful thing. I’d say that a well-crafted single-player game can be a cleaner window to gaze upon that machinery.

    Monday, December 7, 2009 at 6:55 am | Permalink
  13. Charles J Pratt wrote:

    Hey Nels, that comment of mine was a response to your reaction to Daniel Cook’s recent piece on the Three Constraints. It’s interesting to me the people who like my piece but really didn’t like his, as I think he and I are expressing similar sensibilities.

    Actually I’m not really skeptical of single-player games, just about the rhetoric that swirls around them.

    I think you’re absolutely right that part of the value of a well-crafted fiction is to make the system easier to understand. I call this ‘salience’ and hopefully I’ll write about it at some point.

    Anyway, thanks and I’m glad you like it!

    Tuesday, December 8, 2009 at 4:33 pm | Permalink
  14. Re “No Russians:”

    Honestly, I found the scenes where characters blasted their way through some fictional Middle Eastern city during Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare much more offensive, simply because it visualized what I found so ugly about the invasion of Iraq and many Americans’ views of the Middle East. Shooting up an airport is terrible, yes. I think we can agree on that. But alluding to the invasion of Iraq brings up much stronger and more complex emotions. For me, at any rate.

    “No Russians” didn’t affect me at all. Just another level. Shoot the people the game tells me to. Get to the checkpoints. Next level.

    Thursday, December 10, 2009 at 7:37 am | Permalink
  15. @Frank Lantz

    The Bazin question is a great one. I prefer to approach the ontology question from a motion capture techniques (MCT) perspective. MCT is probably a case where you have an “untouched” record of reality: traces of movement within time, taken from a performer. That is pretty much what a film camera does, but the “plate” on which the record is done is different. But still one could claim that there is some sort of “authenticity” in this. But what when these traces of time and movement are projected onto a model and then covered with skins etc? What is left from a Bazinian ontology notion then?

    We also need to notice that most games do not have such “recorded reality” at all. Everything in them, including the camera are “invented”, they only exist suggestively. They display what modern animation theory calls “double sense”.

    @Charles J Pratt

    I still haven’t read Jesper’s book, but as far as I see, his point is that while the rules in video games are fictional (being made up by someone, probably the designer) they are a reality of their own (in the sense of being present regardless of you being willing to behave according to them or not. In other words, these rules are “insurmountable”). That is different from playing basketball in the backyard of your house. There you can agree with a friend to change a rule and then play it that way. But you can’t do such bargain with a copy of NBA Live Action.

    Or, if you want to bargain, then you need to hack into the game engine. Which ironically brings us back to Frank’s ontology question. What is the untouched reality in a game.

    But to me, this also opens to my favorite game-related question of all times: “What’s the raw material of video games?”

    Thursday, December 17, 2009 at 10:06 pm | Permalink
  16. Charles J Pratt wrote:

    Hi Altug, thanks for dropping by!

    Dr. Juul’s position, as I understand it, is that rules are real because they are actual constraints the behaviors of players. In this sense I think you and her are making the same point. The point that folks like McKenzie Wark are making (at least to my mind) is that rules are arbitrary conventions and are therefore no less real than the conventions of fiction.

    The “untouched reality of a game” is it’s possibility space. Though ‘untouchable’ might be a better phrase. This is because, as I said in the piece, the possibility space is the logical result of any set of chosen rules. Therefore you cannot alter the possibility space directly; you can only alter the underlying ruleset.

    For me the more interesting question is “what are the raw materials of games”, not just video games. In that case my answer would have be that ‘possibility’ is the raw material of all games.

    Friday, December 18, 2009 at 7:15 pm | Permalink
  17. Uhm well, I think I’m somewhere different from Juul, but maybe I wasn’t able to express it good enough :)

    I only present my interpretation of his notion of the “real” in video games. To me, what he says is a way to say that rules in video games, once they are coded, become as real as real-life rules (like physical rules for example): *This* is what Mario can do. *This* is how things happen in Pac-Man’s World. *This* is what you can chose to express etc… There is no way to go around it. To me, this is a way to say that while rules are as arbitrary as McKenzie claims them to be, they are non-negotiable when presented in form of a video game. They become *real* (insurmountable). This is not the case in non-digital games, where the rules can always be subject to negotiation.

    To me this very difference is a basis to start speaking of the video game as a medium and to define what its raw material is. What is it that produces such kind of essentially arbitrary, yet insurmountable rules? At the core, we probably speak of algorithms here. But algorithms are not only records of the past, (as could be said is true for film footage). They’re also a blueprint of future possibilities and it’s this quality that you exploit in order to express yourself through this medium. Ultimately, “real” becomes a way for me to investigate what makes possible “fiction” in this medium.

    Btw, I’m happy to have found this blog. Lot’s of nice articles and phantastic podcasts really. Keep up the good work!:)

    Saturday, December 19, 2009 at 1:31 am | Permalink
  18. Btw, I’m also very interested to know how Juul would have answered the question in regard to McKenzie’s argument that rules are arbitrary. But probably he is not interested into the issue the way you are. He would probably say that these issues must be tackled seperatedly. I believe that he would agree with the argument that rules are arbitrary in nature; but that nevertheless the notion of their “realness” must be maintained because this their “reality” is a way to distinguish games from narratives.

    As I see it, the notion of the “real” has been developed by him as part of the narratology-ludology debate and in that sense it is not so much a discussion on the “nature” of rules (whether they are arbitrary or not), but a discussion that uses the rules topic as a way to discuss the “nature” of games (as something different if not *opposed* to the “nature” of narratives). By bringing up this notion of “real”, he wants to say that games aren’t stories, because there is something real (non-fictional) in them. So he tries to explain the difference between games and narratives at the root — the ontological level. Games are half-real; narratives are unreal. As a result: games aren’t narratives.

    The way in which he uses the “real” as an argument in regard to draw ontological distinctions between games and narratives is in line with his overall problem and approach. For example in his discussions on time in games he suggests that games are played in “real-time” (The argument that says: “When I play a game, I do things *now*”) and can therefore not be narratives since narratives don’t have a *now* but are bound to *discourse time* (The argument that says “narratives are recounts so they can only take place in the *past*).

    What repeats itself is the attempt to connect games to the “real” and distinguish them from story (“fiction”). A dichotomy that was probably put forward to be able to claim games as the object of game studies and to “save” it from being colonialized by narratology and such).

    Saturday, December 19, 2009 at 1:48 am | Permalink
  19. Charles J Pratt wrote:

    Hi Altug, I’m so glad that you find the site interesting! It’s always nice to hear that our work is appreciated.

    I can’t really speak for what Dr. Juul’s motivations were in arguing that games are ‘half-real’, though he has said (in my interview with him) that it came out of his participation in the ‘narratology vs. ludology’ debate.

    From my perspective what you describe as ‘insurmountable’ rules are not really an exclusive property of digital games. A non-digital game like Monopoly has rules that are enforced by it’s materials, specifically the number of places on its board, that are not under negotiation by the players. Similarly, sports like golf and football can be played in weather that has a profound effect on the game and are not negotiable by the participants.

    By the same token there are plenty of instances of players negotiating new rules in digital games in the form of speedruns or ironman runs. The game of ‘Grifball’ was actually created by a bunch of Halo 3 players agreeing to all follow a set of rules that weren’t enforced by the materials of the game.

    Friday, December 25, 2009 at 5:46 am | Permalink
  20. Thanks for the examples of “insurmountables” in board games. And also thank for the examples how people go around them in digital games. Very eye-opening and thought-provoking!

    As I said before, the “insurmountables” in digital games can be altered if for example we decide to hack into the game engine. There are probably many other methods to go around the “real” in digital games (as your examples suggest). Or we could, potentially, also alter the tokens in a board game or agree to re-arrange the layout of tiles on a game board, or even re-draw them etc. That would mean that the insurmountables of board games too aren’t really insurmountables. It looks like everything speaks for the approaches that are in favor of the arbitrariness of rules in games.

    All this got me thinking about what exactly ‘configures’ the limits of what we dare to configure or re-configure while we are engaging in gameplay. What is it that makes the “real” (or let’s call it preferred) gameplay dominating the apparent arbitrariness of game rules and their openness to negotiation? Could it be that this is related to configurative powers on the side of the “text” that articulate the player into the interactive process in a way that sort of structures parts of her way of acting? Do games also come with certain modes of consumption that suggest limits in gameplay which are perceived as “real”? I think it would be interesting to search answers to these questions…

    Saturday, December 26, 2009 at 2:41 am | Permalink
  21. I should have commented sooner, but here goes:

    People use terms like “real” and “fictional” in all sorts of ways. In Half-Real, I am using the terms in a specific way, as they are defined in fictional worlds theory (Thomas Pavel and others).

    Which is to say: The basic question is which world we are referring to at a given time. This world (the world in which I am writing this blog comment), or another world that we imagine?

    Real rules: The rules of games refer to _this_ world – they describe what you can or cannot do in this world when playing the game. This is the same for analog and digital games. Hence rules are “real” in this sense.

    Fictional worlds: The fiction of a game, like all fictions, refer to an imagined world that is distinct from this one (the real world). This doesn’t prevent us from discussing it, of course. We can discuss and be inspired by Hamlet’s motivation or the characters in Avatar and so on, and we have a range of ways of interpreting the relation between the real world and any given fictional world.

    But the bottom line is that we make strong distinctions between this world and fictional worlds. To not make such a distinction is to be “crazy”, and in fact novels such as Don Quixote and Madame Bovary deal with what happens if you don’t. We can then read our Baudrillard and try to claim that it no longer makes sense to have the distinction, and there certainly is an interesting discussion concerning when we think of thinks as “real”, but I think it is safe to say that we all continue to live by the real-fictional distinction anyway.

    The idea of Half-Real is to see video games as a special variation on that theme: video games consist of real rules that govern actions in this world, but they also project fictional worlds. I.e. the very real rules of a skiing game determine what you can do in _this world_ with your controller and what happens as a result, all the while you imagine yourself to be skiing in a fictional world (i.e. yes, you are playing a skiing game, but you are not actually skiing).

    As I recall, McKenzie Wark’s comment in Gamer Theory seems to be based on the idea that “real” means “important”, hence he is saying that “fictions are important too”. This is not in any way at odds with what I am saying in the book, McKenzie is just using the word “real” in a completely different sense.

    As for the rules of Basketball, I think Charles is using “fiction” to mean agreed-upon, socially constructed, or unnecessary. This is also “fiction” in a completely different sense that I am using. In Half-Real, something is fiction if it creates another world than this one. Most of culture is arbitrary and agreed-upon anyway, innit?

    Sunday, February 28, 2010 at 11:58 pm | Permalink
  22. Charles J Pratt wrote:

    Thanks for the clarification Jesper! I apologize if I misrepresented your position!

    For my own part I use the word ‘fiction’ to refer to things that are ‘pretend’, which for me includes the thematic elements which refer to ‘not-real’ stories and worlds. Rules are pretend, just like fictional stories and worlds, but the actions and events that result from them are not.

    Also, I agree wholeheartedly that most culture is arbitrary and agreed upon, much like the rules of a game. That’s probably why I’m such a fan of Huizinga!

    Monday, March 1, 2010 at 3:31 am | Permalink
  23. Sure. I am not too happy about that way of using “pretend” or “fiction” … It seems to run counter to most theories on the subject. (Wearing my professorial hat.)

    Have you read Bernard Suits? He argues that game rules can always be overridden by more important rules (such as stopping a game to save someone from being run over by a car).

    Monday, March 1, 2010 at 4:39 pm | Permalink
  24. Another thought: Are you sure rules are “pretend” in any sense? I call rules real because they involve actual state changes in the world (such as moving a game token about or having a bit change in the computer’s memory). How is this different from the boxing example?

    Monday, March 1, 2010 at 9:53 pm | Permalink
  25. Charles J Pratt wrote:

    Perhaps I am playing a little too fast and loose with the terms. I should see if I can think of a better word to draw the distinction. Do you have any suggestions?

    I agree that rules cause state changes in the world, I’m just not sure that that qualifies them as real. The state changes are, but the constraints that led to the state changes are not.

    Tuesday, March 2, 2010 at 12:57 am | Permalink
  26. Frank Lantz wrote:

    Jesper’s distinction seems completely reasonable and has the benefit of being common sense. Calling rules “fictional” is confusing. If the aspect of rules you are trying to get at is the way they are conventional, arbitrary, unnatural, immaterial, or mutable, then you could use some of those words. Fictional means something specific that is pretty straightforward and well understood, you should have very good reasons to muddy it.

    Tuesday, March 2, 2010 at 5:23 am | Permalink
  27. You seem to be getting at what Salen & Zimmerman describe as “artificial”?

    Three other variations on this:

    1) Caillois, p.8-9: “[…] chess, prisoner’s base, polo, and baccara are played for real. As if is not necessary. […] Thus games are not ruled and make-believe. Rather, they are ruled or make-believe.”
    (The opposite argument of what you are making!)

    2) This Bernard Suits article discusses the relation between game rules and laws:

    3) Marie-Laure Ryan’s “Narrative as Virtual Reality”, which on a high level is reminiscent of your argument just going in the opposite direction: narrative is like games.

    Tuesday, March 2, 2010 at 4:30 pm | Permalink
  28. Charles J Pratt wrote:

    Yeah, I think all those terms are better!

    To be clear, I’m not really invested in the idea that rules are fictional. I was using the term in it’s widest sense, which I would argue makes it a synonym with ‘fake’ and ‘pretend’, in order to make a point. I think you guys rightly demonstrate why that was a bad idea.

    Looking back I also think that I mis-characterized Wark’s position, which I feel bad about. I thought I remembered something and didn’t bother to double check if it was correct.

    To your variation’s Jesper –

    For me it’s clear that Callois is including things like unstructured play in his use of the word game, which I think is fine but is not the same way that I’m using the word. My sense of the word ‘game’ is closer to what you call the ‘classic game model’.

    I’ve been reading Suits’ The Grasshopper for my talk on the ludic contract and I have to say that I have some real problems with the definition that he puts forward. I need to think about it some more though and make my own objections a little clearer to myself however.

    I also need to return to Marie-Laure Ryan, since I haven’t read her in a long time. From your description though I think I like where she’s going! It would not surprise me if narrative was more like a game than we give it credit for!

    Anyway, thanks for the feedback guys!

    Tuesday, March 2, 2010 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

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