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Notes from GDC: The Summits, Part 1

with Kellee Santiago, Jonathan Mak, and Pekko Koskinen

This was the first talk at the Idie Games Summit and unfortunately I came in a little late. When I sat down the panelists were discussing the difference between ‘intrinsic rewards’ and ‘extrinsic rewards’. As far as I could understand, things like points or levels are extrinsic rewards, in that that they are separate from the fiction of the game’s world, while something like a beautiful explosion, or a character’s dance, is an ‘intrinsic reward’ because it takes place inside the gameworld. This reminded me a lot of Alex Galloway’s writings on the diegetic and non-diegetic in games, and led into Jon Mak’s subject which was “input and output”.

His central point was that when all is said and done games are simply software where people use something to input a command and expect an output. He said that he was really interested in the way that a very simple game can be an incredibly rewarding experience if the output is interesting. Bringing up Everyday Shooter on the projector as an example, he showed the game stripped of all it’s complex visuals, and pointed out how boring it was. Then with a few key strokes he added the visuals and showed how much more interesting the experience became. His point was basically that while gameplay (input) is very important, designers mustn’t overlook how the output is expressed, through visuals, sounds, etc.

Finally, Pekko Koskinen started by saying that while most people there had gathered because of video games, it should always be remembered that games are not a medium. Indeed, he pointed out that games can be found in any medium, from human language to sculpture (I guess he meant board games) to screens. He then mentioned a really intriguing project that he was working on: a massively-multiplayer theatre piece taking place in a Finland. All this led to his final point, which was that in the process of making a game most people focus on the product of the endeavor being the game itself. What we design when we design gameplay though, are behaviors. Therefore we should think of our product as being the players themselves, rather than being games.


This is a summary of one of the panels that I attended during GDC ’08. It’s pieced together from notes, so if you have any specific questions just ask them in the comments and I’ll answer as best as I can remember.


  1. Nash wrote:

    Is there any more information available about Koskinen’s MM theater piece? Is it digital or true theater? Intrigued…

    Saturday, March 1, 2008 at 12:21 am | Permalink
  2. Bob wrote:

    I find the idea of finding the presence of games in other media to be interesting– one of my favorite directors, Fritz Lang, often structured his films as competitions between two or more opposing players, each taking turns in the narrative for supremacy. On the other hand, I’m skeptical about the idea of a “massively-multiplayer theatre piece”– to me, it just sounds like LARPing, plus a Prsoscenium arch– though I will admit that the concept intrigues me.

    As for the idea that games are not a medium of their own on the basis that you can find games in any other medium– c’mon. Just because one form of art can be fitted occasionally into another doesn’t negate its independent status as a form of art on its own. If that were true, we’d all be toiling away on one of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerks instead of writing plays, composing music, directing films, or designing games.

    I do agree, however, that designing gameply means designing behavior. If a game designer’s product is the player, and not the game, however, the sentiment starts to feel more than a little bit authoritarian to me. Then again, that’s part of the truth of games– win or lose, you can only do what the rules tell or allow you to do, no matter how clever you try to be. Games turn people into sheep, not merely whether they like it or not, but also whether they know it or not.

    And if you ask me, that’s a good thing. Games are the only place where fascism is okay– sure, you can try and fight back against authority, but that’s just what the game wants you to do. In a well designed game, as in any dictator’s thousand-year plan, everything proceeds as has been foreseen…

    Saturday, March 1, 2008 at 2:10 am | Permalink
  3. Charles Joseph wrote:

    If you’re interested in Mr. Koskinen’s stuff, then here’s his website/organization: He seemed like a really nice guy and if you sent him an email I’m sure he would respond to it.

    Bob, I think you’re mixing up ‘art’ with ‘medium’. This guy is definitely invested in the “art” of games, he’s just saying that we shouldn’t get caught up in what we’re making games out of, ie. paper or language or assembly code. These are all mediums that people make games with, but games themselves aren’t tied to any particular medium.

    Also, you hit upon something that Frank calls “toy fascism” and I call “domesticated tyranny”. Whatever you choose to call it, it’s the authoritarian nature of games. I think that this is why I’m attracted to games that are satires, because they make light of their own authoritarianism and then comment on it. See Portal for a recent, very successful example.

    Saturday, March 1, 2008 at 6:46 am | Permalink
  4. Bob wrote:

    CJ, I think you’re mixing “medium” with “material.”

    Saturday, March 1, 2008 at 7:52 am | Permalink
  5. Frank wrote:

    >> See Portal for a recent, very successful example.

    Bioshock, too.

    Wow, “games are not a medium” is something I thought I was in the process of inventing for myself, during the GDC, while writing an artist’s statement for an upcoming book about Pervasive Gaming. Looks like I should check this Pekko Koskinen guy out.

    Sunday, March 2, 2008 at 7:54 pm | Permalink
  6. Charles Joseph wrote:

    There’s still something very valuable to be said about the fact that games are not ‘media’ either. Which is, I think, a much more pernicious and widespread idea.

    Sunday, March 2, 2008 at 10:31 pm | Permalink
  7. Frank wrote:

    Yeah, “Games are not media” is the way I put it.

    Monday, March 3, 2008 at 3:32 pm | Permalink
  8. First to clarify the definition of Medium:

    A medium — as defined by my Media Change class taught by Rhizome’s ( Marisa Olson — is the path from creator to consumer (between painter and person at gallery looking at painting, which is the expression of a painting). To clarify, some people use medium to mean the actual paint and canvas… that a medium has to be a physical object. The later definition is the one CJP and Frank are using. The truth is both uses of the word are correct, and from we get: “A specific kind of artistic technique or means of expression as determined by the materials used OR the creative methods involved.” The term “media” is just as sticky…

    Yes, games are about creating a player’s experience. But this is done through the creation of rules mainly. A set of rules can exist without a player, just as a script can exist without an audience. This reasoning suggests games can be a medium, that games are a form of expression determined by the creative methods involved. A game doesn’t stop expressing something just because no one is playing it, does it? By saying “games are not media,” you are inadvertently suggesting a formal game does not express anything.

    There is so much gray area in this conversation because of the looseness of the terms being used (game, medium, etc.). I certainly agree games can exist in any medium, and I love the idea that: “What we design when we design gameplay though, are behaviors. Therefore we should think of our product as being the players.”

    Monday, March 3, 2008 at 5:34 pm | Permalink
  9. Charles Joseph wrote:

    I would actually go so far as to say that a game is actually the interpretation of a ruleset, just as a play is the interpretation of a script. But I know that I’m pretty alone on that one.

    Monday, March 3, 2008 at 5:58 pm | Permalink
  10. Bob wrote:

    I think we’re officially in the no-man’s land of semantics, here. Time to break out the breadcrumbs.

    Monday, March 3, 2008 at 7:07 pm | Permalink
  11. I agree with the “a play is the interpretation of a script” metaphor, in fact I think I’ll steal that. But would you go so far as to say a play is not a media?

    Monday, March 3, 2008 at 7:42 pm | Permalink
  12. Charles Joseph wrote:

    I usually take ‘media’ to mean broadcasted content. You know, pictures and words and such. The problem I’m talking about is something that has arisen from the popularity of video games, namely that games are pictures on a screen. I don’t think that when people stop and think that they really believe this, but in normal conversation they’ll often start speaking of games as if they were just typical media.

    So no, I guess I don’t think that play is media. A game is not a broadcast of some type of content, and neither is play. Though broadcasting could be part of play, I suppose.

    Monday, March 3, 2008 at 11:16 pm | Permalink
  13. Charles Edward wrote:

    Ugh, ok, I feel like everyone is coming into this with different definitions. Can we try to express what we mean without using the word media or medium? I think that’d clear things up for me a bit.

    I’ll give it a shot. Television, movies, painting, sculpture, and a number of art forms have passive audiences. Many game performances do as well (sports), but to be clear, we’ll say that games (the “script”) can and do have active audiences (nod to CJ, so do scripts for plays). Alright, so there’s a big difference and we’ve talked about this a bunch on this blog.

    Game elements (rules, meaningful choice, rewards…etc) can and do exist in a number of artistic works. This doesn’t always turn them into games. Furthermore, game elements don’t have a set physical form or method of being consumed, so a proper game could look and feel like anything. This isn’t true for most, if any other forms of creativity.

    Ok, I think I’m starting to see the distinction. And I realize that using the word media/medium would have saved me a few lengthy sentences, but for the most part, is this the argument?

    Why can’t the rule systems be the “medium”? Sure, it could be code or written word or social taboo, but aren’t they all still rules? Are rules our paint? I suppose in some ways that’s true, but paint and clay and film are all very physical things and rules are pretty transient. Is this what is stopping rules from being our medium?

    Without a medium strictly for games, are we actually artists of many flavors, switching from video to code to music to sculpture? I think that’s true in a lot of ways. The game designer infuses physical art and space with mini-realities that have their own rules, conflicts, and rewards. Hmm…could then the ethereal “game space” be our tool?

    I’ve asked a lot of questions, is there anything in here worth responding to?

    Wednesday, March 5, 2008 at 11:42 pm | Permalink

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