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In Praise of Spoilsports

Preface: This was written for a seminar that Jesper Juul was hosting at the NYU Game Center on the ‘ludic contract’, and was done mostly with the idea of simply presenting some of the ideas I’ve had knocking around in my head about the nature of games. As such it’s not terribly persuasive and is somewhat scattershot (especially at the end), so I’m not really happy with the structure overall. Nevertheless I decided to post it because I think that there are good ideas presented and I’m always interested in getting people’s responses. I also think the piece goes some way in explaining the thought behind some of my tendencies; for instance, the hope is that after reading this one might better understand my being somewhat dismissive of the importance of some thematic elements in some games, my skepticism about ‘meaning’ in games, and my belief that video games are not fundamentally different from other types of games.


In 1978 the philosopher Bernard Suits wrote about what he called the ‘lusory attitude’. In his book The Grasshopper he described how players in games submit themselves to rules for no other reason than that the behaviors and activities that result from this submission are pleasurable. Indeed without this attitude a game is not even possible. Here we have a sense of the more traditional definition of the ludic contract: it is an agreement on the part of players that they will forgo some of their agency in order to experience an activity that they enjoy.

30 years later the concept of the ludic contract is similar but different in important ways. Writing about the game BioShock, Clint Hocking, a Creative Director at UbiSoft, describes its ludic contract as “seek power and you will progress”. This is still recognizable as the lusory attitude suggested by Suits, though it’s about adopting an ideology more than a set of abstract rules. Recently Steve Swink wrote a more divergent take on the ludic contract. Writing about ‘skill’ in his book Game Feel, Swink creates another version of the ludic contract. When describing a hypothetical conversation between a game designer and a player, Swink has the player saying “If I take the time to learn this and agree to suffer through some frustration… you [the game developer] agree to give me some great experiences later.” This version of the ludic contract is no longer a disposition on the part of the player, but a deal that is struck between the player and the maker of the game.

Now, with the ascendancy of the single-player game it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the concept of the ludic contract has changed from being a literal agreement a player has with themselves, to a tacit agreement between a player and the developer of the game they’re playing.

With that in mind I think it’s worth asking just what kind of deal is being made between the developers of a game and its players. Who is bringing what to the table and what are they taking away from it? On the developer’s side they are providing the structure of the game, its rules and sometimes the props needed for play. For our purposes we’ll assume that what they’re getting out of it is the satisfaction of seeing something they helped create appreciated and enjoyed. Traditionally, in most forms of entertainment, be it film or painting or literature, the patron is expected to provide at minimum their time and attention. However, in a game something else is explicitly required: proactive obedience. A player, unlike a viewer or a reader, must act in accordance with certain customs determined by another person. As both Suits and Swink suggest, they do this in games with the expectation that their adopted behaviors will produce pleasurable sensations or interesting occurrences. Of course, not everyone is going to abide by the deal, or even accept it in the first place.

In his book Homo Ludens, the cultural historian Johann Huizinga talks about how the most dangerous thing for a game’s integrity, its continued cohesion, is not the cheater, but the spoilsport. Cheaters, by his argument, respect the rules of a game even as they try to get around them. On the other hand, spoilsports do not acknowledge or respect the jurisdiction of a game’s ruleset. In our parlance the cheater is one who signs the ludic contract and then violates its tenets, hoping that they won’t be enforced. A spoilsport not only refuses to sign, but tears the contract to pieces.

A lot has changed since Huizinga was writing about games. The Digital Renaissance has made it possible for game developers to craft ludic contracts that are a little more ironclad. Cheaters in most games these days have it a bit harder than when they just had to make sure the ref wasn’t looking. Cheating in a video game isn’t punished because, barring a certain level of expertise, it isn’t even possible! Modern games, to borrow McKenzie Wark’s analogy, are more like highways; you can go anywhere you want as long as it’s where the road already goes. I want to make clear however that what’s changed in the years since Homo Ludens was written is not the nature of games, but rather their complexion.

To that point I would like to like to suggest that there are two ways through which rules can be enforced, through which the ludic contract can be maintained: conventionally and materially. Traditionally the majority of rules in a game were enforced through conventions that were recognized and honored by the players themselves. For instance, the rules that govern the behavior of the different pieces in a board game like Chess are agreed upon and enforced by the two players. In major sporting events rule enforcement is usually passed to a disinterested third party, but it’s still expected that the referee will be following the conventions with which the players are, or should be, familiar.

The other way that rules can be enforced is through the materials of the game. Earlier, when I said that part of the exchange in the ludic contract was that the developers provided the rules and the props for a game I was being a bit disingenuous; sometimes the rules of a game are embedded in its props. Think of a Baseball bat used in a professional game. There are very specific rules that govern the length, shape, and type of wood of the bat. The player swinging the bat doesn’t need to know any of these rules because they are all materially enforced by the bat itself.

What has changed so dramatically in the past several decades is the shift from traditional games where most of the rules were enforced conventionally, to digital games where the vast majority of their rules are governed materially; by the code and hardware used to play the game. This shift has not fundamentally changed the nature of games. A Chess set and a Chess program can still be used to play a game of Chess, but with players enforcing the rules in the former case and the computer enforcing the rules in the latter. What has changed is the balance of power in the ludic contract. A Super Mario Bros. cartridge plugged into an NES is going to allow only a certain range of behaviors on the part of the player. There’s really no way to ‘cheat’ at Super Mario Bros. There’s no way to subvert the rules while still acknowledging their authority.

So if the switch from mostly conventionally ruled games to overwhelmingly materially ruled games has driven the cheater to the edge of extinction, what is the fate of Huizinga’s spoilsport? Actually, the spoilsport is alive and well, it just typically goes by a few different names these days. Today a spoilsport is more likely to be called a ‘speed runner’ or an ‘iron man’. While the spoilsport has new aliases its role is actually much the same: to highlight the fragility and ephemerality of the things that we call ‘games’.

To understand why the current game ecology might be hostile to cheaters but leave spoilsports untouched, or even thriving, there must be an appreciation for which aspects of games can be materially enforced and which cannot. It’s possible to imagine a game where 100% of its rules are materially enforced. In fact, it’s trivially simple, as you could just pick almost any video game ever made. For our purposes I’d like to look at the classic Nintendo game Super Metroid. Let’s be generous with our terms and include in the ruleset of Super Metroid not just those sitting on its cartridge, but in the spirit of Ian Bogost and Nick Montefort’s project ‘Platform Studies’, also the eccentricities of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System and a CRT television. Going even further we could include the shape of the controller used and the layout of the buttons on its face. Looking at this complicated, but very specific, network of hardware and software it’s easy to see that the range of its possible behaviors has been determined long before any player has switched anything on.

However, at this point it’s important to ask a simple question: how do you know how to play Super Metroid? While it’s easy through simple trial and error to figure out what you’re able to do, there’s an important element that’s missing: the barometer by which a player judges actions and events to be better or worse. It’s the final element that makes Super Metroid a game. What I’m talking about is, of course, the game’s goal.

There are two senses to the word ‘goal’. One is as an ‘end condition’; a predefined event which returns the game to its initial state. The second sense is ‘motivation’, the reason that the player is playing the game in the first place; what Jesper Juul might call the ‘valorized outcome’. I’d argue that the first sense, the ‘goal as end condition’, should be dropped from our definition and that a game’s goal should refer exclusively to the player’s motivation. This proposal is based on the fact that most games actually have many end conditions. In multi-player games certain players can be eliminated before the ultimate end condition is reached. In single-player video games it’s common for there to be several ways a player can lose and be sent back to the beginning (though this is becoming rarer). Also, while an end condition defines one aspect of a game’s possibility space, an end point on a branch, a player’s motivation informs how they move through the possibility space itself. In this light it seems fair to say that end conditions are part of a game’s rules, while motivations and goals are something entirely different.

The simple question that I asked earlier, “How do you know how to play Super Metroid?” has a simple answer: we know what to do because Super Metroid tells us what to do. Video games are constantly telling players what their goal should be, through non-diegetic and diegetic text, giant glowing arrows, or even in their instruction booklets. Digital games go through all this trouble to communicate a goal to the player because while developers might be able to lock down all of the behaviors of a system, its rules and therefore its possibility space, they cannot materially enforce the player’s motivation, and therefore the player’s behavior within that system.

The fact that goals can only be conventionally enforced is the reason that even in the age of digital games the ludic contract is still important. The ludic contract is still the tacit agreement between players and developers, and in the case of multi-player games between all participants, that a game is going to be played the way it’s ‘supposed’ to be played. In other words, everyone in the game is going to have the same, or at least sufficiently overlapping, goals that drive their behavior. That goals are conventionally enforced is also the reason that, while Huizinga’s cheater is disappearing, the spoilsport is doing just fine. In fact, spoilsports might now be more important than ever!

In 2009 the blogger Ben Abraham decided to do an ‘iron man’ run of the first-person shooter Far Cry 2. An iron man run of a game simply means that a player will restart the game from the beginning every time their avatar ‘dies’. This is significant because in most video games ‘dying’ means little more than being sent back a few steps. This type of run has the interesting effect, especially in a long game like Far Cry 2, of increasing the pressure on the player over time, since the longer they’ve played the more they have to lose. Far Cry 2 is also a significant game to iron man because the player can make non-trivial decisions about the unfolding of the game’s narrative that cannot be reversed if they aren’t allowed to restart and load an older save file.

Along the same lines Mikael Jakobsson describes, in his paper Playing with Rules: Social and Cultural Aspects of Game Rules in a Console Game Club, a similar situation to Mr. Abraham’s practice in a group that organizes tournaments for the Nintendo GameCube game Super Smash Bros. Melee. These tournaments are set up with the express purpose of making the outcome of any individual match or even the entire tournament as random as possible. To do this the organizers structure their tournament around a number of rules, such as dice roles to determine win conditions and sometimes even matches, with a game of Musical Chairs being played each time a player is knocked out. While the larger goal of any individual game of Melee remains the same, to eliminate your opponents, an additional goal has been added: you must win without the application of any innate or developed skill you might possess.

What the Melee tournament organizers and Ben Abraham have in common is that they are spoilsports. They examined the ludic contracts presented to them through their respective games by the developers and/or other players and decided that they didn’t want to sign. However, instead of abandoning the rulesets of these games they decided to appropriate them for games of their own. In Ben Abraham’s case he felt that the stakes in Far Cry 2 weren’t high enough and so he created a goal for himself that demanded more of his skill to accomplish. The opposite of this was true for the Melee players, who felt that the game they were playing rewarded skill far too well, and so they added a caveat to the game’s goal and created rules that would make it possible to achieve.

For the world that Huizinga was writing in, where the majority of a game’s rules were maintained conventionally through the implicit agreement of its players, spoilsports were a destructive and dangerous presence. When the ludic contract was exclusively between players, rather than with unseen developers, the spoilsport signaled a rejection of the community by questioning the legitimacy of their game. Currently, when the conventions of a community are giving way to material constraints on behavior, the spoilsport serves to remind us of the still potent control that players have over the way they experience their games. Spoilsports are both tricksters and guides that upset our sensibilities while pointing out the true, ephemeral nature of games.

To the spoilsport a game is not a product that you pluck off a shelf and bring home to place in a machine. A game is rather a social confluence of motivations and practices. Returning to our simple question, a spoilsport would answer that you know how to play Super Metroid most probably because of the way your friends are playing it, or more cynically because an ad campaign has told you how everyone else it playing it. The popular debate over whether the software developed under the supervision of Will Wright, such as SimCity or The Sims, should be considered ‘games’ is moot to the spoilsport. Neither The Sims contained on a CD-ROM or Super Metroid as it exists inside a cartridge is any more a game than is a Tennis ball. The Sims, Super Metroid, and a Tennis ball are all simply tools with materially determined potentialities that can be incorporated into the play of a number of games. Some of these games are going to be popular, and some will be more obscure.

Now, before I close I want to touch upon what I think is an important ramification of adopting a spoilsport’s view of games. Recently there has been an influx of methods for interpreting games. Ian Bogost has argued that the ‘procedural rhetoric’ of a game can be unpacked by a careful examination of its rules. Miguel Sicart has suggested that we can think of games as objects with ethics embedded in their design. Finally, Brenda Brathwaite has put it most succinctly in stating her belief that “mechanics are the message.” What each of these positions fails to take into account are the actions and motivations of the player. As I said before, the rules might determine the bounds of possibility for a player, but the player’s goal is what determines their path. If it’s going to be asserted that a game has a possible interpretation outside of any individual instance of play, then it seems fair to ask if the idea of a ‘game’ even needs to be brought into the conversation. On the other hand, if players are vital to any ‘meaning’ that a game might produce then it’s worth asking “what players?” and “when?” in response to any interpretation of a game that’s presented.

So, if the status of spoilsports has been raised in the era of material enforcement, then maybe we can cast a kinder light on the spoilsports of the past. Rather than the nose-thumbing, voluntary exiles presented by Huizinga we can guess that some of them were actually tinkerers and inventors. The games that have been passed down to us through the ages, games like Chess and Go and Soccer and Golf, owe a great deal to the mostly anonymous players who decided that there was something wrong with the ludic contract they had signed. These players rejected the conventionally recognized rules and presented ideas of their own, promising that their ludic contract was a much better deal. Based on this behavior it seems appropriate to call these players ‘spoilsports’, though of course now we just call them ‘game designers’.


Addendum: As a result of my conversation with Adam Parrish, which took place after I gave this talk, I’ve changed one aspect of my position. I’m now convinced that books, movies, paintings, etc., are also more like Tennis balls than we usually like to think.

Also, glancing through Homo Ludens I realized that I had unintentionally plagiarized and mischaracterized Johan Huizinga’s view of spoilsports. He, in fact, did see that they could be a generative, as well as destructive, force:

“It sometimes happens, however, that the spoil-sports in their turn make a new community with rules of its own.”


  1. Good job Charles, this piece has been a long time coming. Of course, I think the lumping of those three at the end, and the notion that they could all be dismissed in the same exact way, seems out of place with the rest of the piece. Sicart in particular agrees with you more than you think, if you check out his distinction between potential and actual games. But yeah, except for the ninja smoke at the end this is pretty great.

    Tuesday, March 30, 2010 at 4:24 pm | Permalink
  2. I’ll also throw this one out there, since I was reading Crawford yesterday :

    Your spoilsport hero prides herself on taking one game and turning it into another game, but is it possible that what she’s actually doing is taking one game and turning it into a puzzle? The speedrunner in particular seems vulnerable here.

    Tuesday, March 30, 2010 at 4:43 pm | Permalink
  3. Charles J Pratt wrote:

    Thanks Simon, I’m glad you like it!

    I appreciate what you’re saying about the next to last paragraph. It definitely doesn’t fit in with the rest of the piece very well, but it was part of my talk so I thought I should be honest and keep it in.

    Sicart is the one I’m least familiar with in that list and I’m mostly going off of the paper he wrote rather than the book (which I haven’t read). Does he put the ‘potential’ game and the ‘actual’ game on the same footing? From my perspective you can only understand the potential of a game through its actual practice.

    I actually don’t put much stock in Crawford’s definition of ‘puzzle’. He gives to much weight to the idea that there is no human opponent. To me Solitaire seems obviously not a puzzle, neither is Golf, which can be played alone.

    The puzzle/game distinction, to me, isn’t really a dichotomy, but rather two poles of a spectrum. Once the rules for a game are decided then the possibility space is set, and theoretically it can be mapped. For me, activities where the possibility space is easily mapped, narrow and/or shallow, feel more like puzzles, such as in Braid where each challenge has one correct answer. Activities where the possibility space is very broad and deep, with many different failure and success states, such as in Go or Solitaire or Basketball, feels more like games.

    I’ll definitely pick up Sicart and see what he has to say. If you have any other recommendations for further reading please pass them on!

    Tuesday, March 30, 2010 at 6:28 pm | Permalink
  4. I think a spectrum is a good way to handle the puzzle/game distinction. I can remember reading one compelling explanation of the difference before, but it certainly wasn’t from Crawford. Most games feel to me, even if they “really” aren’t, like a string of puzzles with transitions in between. I’ve never been one to distinguish, though, as I’ve never really been a situation where I needed to rigorously define the two in opposition to each other.

    I’m not going to speak for Sicart, but I don’t think he’d place the “game object” (as he calls it) on the same footing as a “game experience.” The former is the potential game, the latter the actual. He’s not quite using the words like you’re thinking. These terms come from Aristotle, so “potential” doesn’t mean “all the possible games that might emerge” but something more like “that from which the actual game comes.” I think that you, like I, will really love some parts of that book and really hate others. It seems to me that Sicart’s one of the few people willing to pick fights, which is all I ever want out of a book.

    Tuesday, March 30, 2010 at 9:26 pm | Permalink
  5. Thank you, Charles, for posting this even if you feel it isn’t quite where you want it. I assure you; it’s a pleasure to read.

    I’ve been quite interested in this idea of the contract between the player of an electronic game and its designer. Having these designers exist as real people to us, and being accountable to them, and they us. We in paying attention and being patient and open-minded, and they in not being devious or shallow in their dealings with us, through their design.

    If I had paid more attention to the title of the piece I wouldn’t have been waiting for you to lambast the contemporary spoilsport’s lack of generosity or genuine intellectual curiosity, but that’s journalism stuff, and off topic.

    Wednesday, March 31, 2010 at 5:56 am | Permalink
  6. Sicart wrote:


    I love picking fights! Even the educated-type ones!

    Great piece here, Charles. However, as Simon says, I try to be more nuanced in my work than just taking the Latourian perspective “there are values in objects”.

    In the book I write that the potential game, or the game analyzed as designed object, can have embedded values, but it is ultimately the player experience (and moral agency) what counts. But, I am guilty of some kind of procedural fetish, or simulation fever, in my argumentation.

    I guess my problem is that I really want to talk normatively about design, even approaching prescription, but it is quite tricky to do so, since, I agree, players (and their experiences) are fundamental for understanding the “meaning” “of” “a” “game” (some of the quote-unquote may or may not be ironic).

    Anyhow, thanks for a provoking thought piece!


    Thursday, April 1, 2010 at 12:31 pm | Permalink
  7. Charles J Pratt wrote:

    Hi Miguel, its an honor to have you drop by! If you like picking fights then that seems like something that you, Simon and I have in common!

    I can identify with really wanting to talk about design normatively, but from an aesthetic perspective rather than a moral one.

    I’m going to pick up your book as soon as I can and I’m looking forward to your talk this Tuesday at Jesper’s seminar!

    Friday, April 2, 2010 at 3:38 pm | Permalink
  8. “from an aesthetic perspective rather than a moral one”

    For a lot of people, the distinction between those two died somewhere around WWII. Frank is going to throw something at me for bringing up something so 20th century.

    Friday, April 2, 2010 at 8:17 pm | Permalink
  9. Charles J Pratt wrote:

    Are these the same people who think that Jazz is fascistic?

    Friday, April 2, 2010 at 8:51 pm | Permalink
  10. Yes duh there’s a bass line isn’t there.

    Saturday, April 3, 2010 at 4:23 am | Permalink
  11. What you said makes a lot of sense, and I agree with nearly all of it, except the bit near the end where you sort of paint the concepts of Bogost, Sicart, etc. as being somehow opposed to, incomparable with, or unaware of spoilsport behavior. Saying “the mechanics are the message” is not to say no other message exists. Brenda’s phrase could probably be more accurately expressed as “the mechanics are the *intended* message”.

    Your definition of spoilsporting seems built on the concept that there is an “intended” use the user is rebelling against, and to me this inherently validates Brenda’s view, because it assumes there is a “message” to subvert. If there wasn’t, these people wouldn’t be spoilsports. They’d simply be sportsmen.

    The very term “spoilsport” assumes there is something to spoil, so not only is it incomparable with procedural rhetoric, etc. It seems to require it to achieve any coherence as an idea.

    I wonder if using Huizinga’s terminology is overly limiting here. Speed runners, to me at least, don’t seem to be actively subverting anything. They simply have their own goals apart from those of the developers. Having goals unrelated to the developers and having goals specifically opposed to the developers are two slightly different things, IMO. People who engage in the second seem more like spoilsports to me. People who engage in the first seem more like extreme sportsmen.

    Lots of player-imposed goals are not at all opposed to developer ideology/message. In fact, in many cases they feel like an extension of them. The Thief fan community coined the term “ghosting”, for example, to describe the practice of getting through a level literally without interacting with *anything*, which is obviously in keeping with the goals and suggested play patterns the developers encourage. The speed running community is similar, I’d argue, since popular games, like Metroid, already incentivize quick completion speed. In both of these cases the so-called “spoilsports” are simply taking the developer’s concept and running with them further, not subverting it.

    If your point is that we shouldn’t just “read” games based on intended design/use, but how that design/use plays out with actual players, I think it’s a pretty sober one. But for me this doesn’t invalidate the idea of procedural rhetoric, ideology embedded in mechanics, etc. It just helps us understand better what we’re rebelling against–or not–should we so choose.

    Monday, June 14, 2010 at 2:40 am | Permalink
  12. Charles J Pratt wrote:

    Hi Matt!

    First I should probably clarify something: the reason I put procedural rhetoric, Sicart’s ideas, and Brenda Brathwaite’s (and now Soren Johnson (and formerly the art-game crowd’s)) supposition that the ‘mechanics are the message’ in the same boat is that I think when it comes down to it they all are suggesting the same thing. Namely, that mechanics and rules have semiotic freight *absent* any contextualizing thematic elements or ‘skinning’. I disagree with this.

    Beyond thinking that mechanics (generally) have no ‘meaning’, I also think that as players we have no access to the intention of game developers. My brief history of the ludic contract was just to show how we’ve shifted from the player’s role being defined by a social contract with other players to a social contract with the (theoretical) developers of a game.

    What I was trying to argue is that neither of these contracts is ultimately binding and furthermore that the way we play is more often determined by how our friends are playing, not what we imagine the developer’s intention to be (though members of a group may all agree on what they think is the developer’s intention).

    So in this light a spoilsport is not someone who subverts the ‘intention’ of the developer, but someone who rejects the culturally dominant practices associated with a game. Intention doesn’t even come into the equation in my view.

    Wednesday, June 16, 2010 at 9:17 pm | Permalink
  13. I certainly don’t read Ian, Miquel, and Brenda’s work that way. Nothing I have gathered from reading their work, playing their games, or speaking to them personally would suggest they feel thematic skinning is irrelevant to the “message” of a game. I think you’re taking statements like “the mechanics are the message” out of context and reducing them to their simplest possible meaning. I mean, come on. Train is proof Brenda doesn’t think that way, and before you say “well we don’t know what she thinks” I’d reminded you that we do, because she’s spoken on her intentions in Train and other games frequently.

    I think if you want to privilege player agency in generating the “meaning” of a gaming experience, that’s perfectly fine. I agree with you, and I think it’s not recognized enough. But claiming conversely that we have no business making any assumptions about developer intent is extreme to the point of silliness. It ignores that developers are often quite vocal about their intentions, in interviews, commentaries, etc., and that how much we can “know” about a developer’s intentions changes greatly depending on the game.

    Also, I feel there are certain logics of texts that can be read are having certain ideological values, regardless of whatever the intention might have been. I find GTA to be essentially a juvenile work, because of how it’s designed, and I really don’t care what Rockstar says in the press or how many spoilsport insist the game can be played in different ways. Saying games are completely meaningless objects until players apply meaning to them feels ridiculous to me. I see them as objects with (by accident or design) certain affordances of meaning, and what meaning the player walks away with is a negotiation between what sort of meaning the player desires and what sort of meaning the game allows. I think sometimes those “meaning affordances” are intentional, sometimes not. But it hardly helps us understand the complex interplay of gamers and developers better if we just flatly assume one side isn’t a factor.

    Thursday, June 17, 2010 at 2:53 pm | Permalink
  14. Charles J Pratt wrote:

    I’d have to strongly disagree with the way you characterize games in your last paragraph. For me, games are not objects, they are social practices that often employ objects. I think that’s a crucial distinction.

    Also, you seem to be saying that objects have inherent meaning. I would have to disagree with this, as well. Objects, whether they’re software or books or paintings, are always meaningless. It is only the act of interpretation that gives them meaning. Hamlet is a different play now than it was 100 years ago, not because the text has changed but because our interpretations have changed.

    As far as intention goes, I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t make guesses as to the intentions of developers, this can be part of the joy of playing a game, but I’m a strong believer in the intentional fallacy. We can guess, but we never really have access to a developer’s intention. Even when developers talk about their intentions I think it’s really only their interpretation of their own work. Human nature teaches us that we often don’t have access to our *own* intentions. And as for games where there is more than one developer, it seems clear to me that intention gets even murkier.

    Finally I don’t mean to suggest that Bogost, et al. are discounting the importance of theme, but I would say that they all are in different ways suggesting that mechanics and rules produce their own meaning. This is the strong impression I got from Brathwaite’s talk at AHoG, and Bogost said as much in Persuasive Games. This may be a misinterpretation and I’d be happy to be corrected on either account, but I don’t feel like I’m being unfair to their positions.

    Now, I wouldn’t argue that images and text and certain sounds all have generally agreed upon meanings, but I’d have to disagree for most game mechanics.

    By the way, I want to say that I’m really enjoying this conversation. It feels like it’s been awhile since had a back and forth like this on GDA. Hope you’re having fun as well!

    Thursday, June 17, 2010 at 6:16 pm | Permalink
  15. I’m a reluctant to join this conversation, but it’s too interesting to resist. I don’t have any formal training in game design so I’ll try to approach the subject as lightly. If I misstep, I’d appreciate any correction.

    I agree, in part, with both Charles and Matthew. The possibility space created by a ruleset is, in many ways, embedded. Physical objects allow only a limited number of actions, just as code allows a limited number of player states. The things that one can do with an affordance–physical or code-based–are never infinite. This doesn’t seem to be a point of disagreement between you guys.

    I also enjoy your characterization of a game as a negotiation. This smartly recognizes that a game isn’t an inert object, but an evolving relationship between multiple actors with ends that often differ. Objects limit the material actions allowed to players, but it would be simplistic to characterize these limitations as the essence of a game without more.

    However, I differ from both of you on one particular relationship. It’s probably not much of a difference–I hear implicit references in both of your comments–but I would characterize games in a slightly different way. Rather than just the end result of a relationship between a game’s designer and it’s player or a player and the game, games seem to emerge from a three-way relationship between the player, the designer, and the game as object.

    I believe that last relationship is important to include explicitly. You both seem to recognize that rulesets create their own possibility space, but you differ on the source of a game’s meaning. I agree that games don’t bear their own meanings. A materially-limited possibility space, without more, places a limit on the number of meanings of which a ruleset is capable. However, it’s often the relationship between the possibility space that a designer intends to grow from his or her original ruleset and the actual possibility space that results from the ruleset that create the most interesting tensions in a game.

    In truth, I’m just stealing a concept from Jonathan Blow. Blow gave an incredible talk about rulesets and generativity at Champlain College in February ( His theme focused on the often-chaotic relationship between rulesets and their resulting possibility spaces. The great chemistry of game design, he argued, seems to happen in the transformation from a set of rules into a set of possibilities.

    While the negotiations between player and designer or player and game object are critical to any complete definition of a game, your differences seem to emerge from that incubation phase that’s so often hidden from the player. Players might extract their meaning from alternative valorized outcomes, but these outcomes are limited by the material constraints of the possibility space and influenced by the embedded suggestions of the game designer. Similarly, the boundaries of a game object and its most trafficked possibilites are dependent upon the rules and suggestions made by the designer, but it’s ultimately where gamers choose to explore that defines the character of a game.

    Again, I don’t know that I’m contributing a perspective that wasn’t already implied by both of your arguments. However, your debate reminded so clearly of Blow’s talk that I felt compelled to include it.

    Saturday, June 19, 2010 at 2:53 am | Permalink
  16. Charles: I may not be able to match your desire for philosophical purity when it comes these issues. Whether or not objects “have meaning” or whether we just like to believe they do feels like a semantic distinction to me. It may feel like a philosophical distinction to you, but in my experience a lot of philosophy is semantics. :)

    What I find curious about your position is how you seem to argue it from self-evident first-principles, citing “human nature”, etc. I am no expert, but it seems like there are probably some figures you could cite (Derrida?) that might position what you’re saying in a wider discourse.

    Just to clarify my own position, what I was trying to say was not so much that object have inherent meaning but that objects have inherent properties, and this effects what sorts of meaning we can or cannot inscribe on them. The way I read your position was “nothing means anything so anything goes” which seemed like a bit of a cop out to me… though I imagine this isn’t quite what you “intended”. :)

    Sunday, June 20, 2010 at 3:02 pm | Permalink
  17. Brian: I think I agree with everything you said. I’m not sure where you (or Blow) differ from me, actually.

    Sunday, June 20, 2010 at 3:06 pm | Permalink
  18. Charles J Pratt wrote:

    Hi Brian! Thanks for dropping by! I hope you don’t mind but it seems that you and Matt are making similar points and so I’ll respond to you both at the same time.

    “A materially-limited possibility space, without more, places a limit on the number of meanings of which a ruleset is capable.”

    I don’t think that this is true. The material realities of an object can limit what we *do* with that object, but it doesn’t put a hard cap on the meanings that object can summon in people.

    Take, for instance, a Baseball bat. The uses of a wooden Baseball bat are limited by its physical properties. This object is really good at hitting a certain kind of ball great distances, it’s not so good for sewing clothes. However, it seems to me that there’s little correspondence between these constraints and the range of meanings that people derive from the object.

    For most people a Baseball bat symbolizes the game of Baseball. For someone who was mugged with a Baseball bat at one point, on the other hand, a bat might conjure feelings of fear and might represent violence. To someone that was terrible at sports when they were young a bat might symbolize public humiliation and inadequacy, while for someone else it might be a token of how hard work is the path to success. Finally, for someone who has no idea what Baseball is they might interpret a bat to mean any number of things, including being a toothpick for giants. The thing is, none of these interpretations is more or less correct, they’re just more or less popular.

    Just to be clear, for me the software that we use to play video games is much more like a Baseball bat than we usually admit.

    Matt, I have to admit I’m woefully under-educated when it comes to philosophy, so I’m not really familiar enough with Derrida to say whether or not his thoughts apply here. I would say though that my impression is that what I’m suggesting has a lot of resonance with Barthes and reader response theory.

    I don’t really have any interest in purity when it comes to these things. This is just something I really enjoy thinking and talking about, and that has led me to believe that certain things make more sense than others.

    Just to make myself completely clear, I’m not saying that “nothing means anything”. Meaning is not a delusion! What I’m trying to suggest is that meaning is linked to perspective and context rather specific objects. I also believe that more people should celebrate and take advantage of their role in the creation of meaning!

    Monday, June 21, 2010 at 3:45 pm | Permalink
  19. I apologize for misunderstanding your position, Matt. Hopefully we’ll have the chance to discuss it further in the near future. If you have the time, I hope you’ll continue this conversation so that I can better understand your perspective. Reading theory in isolation from others who think critically about games is a poor way to reach competence in a subject (if it’s any way at all).

    Charles, I’ve been turning over your response in my head for the past few days. You make a very good point and I think that, in many ways, you have me at a loss for defending my position. If meaning is used in the colloquial sense, then it’ll always be subject to the filter of human perception and understanding. As you said, people can invest objects with an array of varied meanings that don’t appear limited to their common cultural baggage (e.g. a baseball bat doesn’t have to summon meanings associated with the game of baseball). The limits of human understanding and imagination appear to be the only limits on meaning when it’s defined in this way.

    However, I’d ask you to consider a caveat to this. Although players might be the medium through which a game’s meaning is channeled–and, therefore, the masters of that meaning–those players are often so limited by the influence of narrative gloss and cultural experience that they forget their ability to define the character of a game.

    I tend to think of the possibility spaces created by games as vast landscapes, with the terrain of each game defined by its mechanics. A narrative skin might encourage players to colonize particular areas of that landscape, but the mechanics on which narrative is built are more permanent and capable of accommodating players in a multitude of different ways.

    However, many players are too comfortable living entirely in their pre-fabricated starting areas. While this isn’t bad per se, players often forget that there is a vast area to be explored outside of their initial colony of play. Designers are frequently complicit in this close-mindedness, encouraging players to stay within their designated space and helping them to forget about the rest of the terrain that’s been generated by the rules.

    I often sense a bit of shame in this practice. Some designers seem afraid of the idea that the rules they’ve created have given rise to a possibility space that’s largely beyond their control. They attempt to herd players into an on-rails experience that shuttles them down a straight line, as if they were building a town with only one long, main street with no adjacent or diverging roads. Many designers can’t seem to bear to countenance the notion that–rather than hand carve every idiosyncrasy of a tree–they’ve planted seeds, selected, and then nurtured the best-looking result. I don’t think there’s any shame in that at all, but many triple-A designers seem determined to forget this.

    Which is why I love spoilsports so much. They’re the explorers of play space. They dismiss designer control and wander off into the unknown. They sometimes stumble on silly or inconsequential features of the possibility space, but they often return to town with meaningful discoveries that encourage a few players to help them build in a new direction. Spoilsports show designers how powerless they can be and remind players how powerful they really are.

    Sorry for the extended metaphor and the mild histrionics. From my understanding of your position, Charles, this would seem to track well with your beliefs. We’ve only had a handful of chances to speak in-depth about games, so I’d be curious to hear your reaction to my own particular blend of theories. Matt, I don’t mean to interrupt your conversation with Charles and I apologize if I have, but I’d be flattered to hear your opinion, too.

    Wednesday, June 23, 2010 at 2:20 am | Permalink
  20. Charles J Pratt wrote:

    Brian, sorry for not responding sooner but things got a bit busy.

    “Although players might be the medium through which a game’s meaning is channeled–and, therefore, the masters of that meaning–those players are often so limited by the influence of narrative gloss and cultural experience that they forget their ability to define the character of a game.”

    The only thing I would tweak about this is the idea that players are the channel through which meaning is mediated. From my perspective the source of meaning is always located in people. Meaning is something that people project outwards onto objects, not something that comes from objects and is filtered by people.

    Other than that I tend to agree with your characterization. Players often allow the more obvious and traditional signals of a game’s narrative gloss (which is a great phrase by the way) and other elements of the representational layer to dominate their concepts of a game’s meaning. This can be a wonderful experience, one that I also enjoy from time to time.

    Ultimately, however, the predominance of this practice makes me sad. Like you, I wish that more people were less satisfied with received wisdom, and more often struck out to find their own meanings and create their own games. I think that game culture would be a richer place in the long run.

    Which is why we must praise spoilsports!

    Monday, June 28, 2010 at 4:56 pm | Permalink
  21. “Meaning is something that people project outwards onto objects, not something that comes from objects and is filtered by people.”

    I suppose what I don’t understand is why it can’t just be both.

    Thursday, July 1, 2010 at 4:34 pm | Permalink
  22. Charles J Pratt wrote:

    Well, both those things could be true, but what I’m saying is that the former makes sense to me while the latter does not.

    Thursday, July 1, 2010 at 7:45 pm | Permalink
  23. Would you agree that objects can prime that loop? If I see a baseball bat, it’ll invoke a different set of meanings than if I see a different object (or even if I don’t see anything in particular). I’m still projecting meaning onto the object, but that process was begun by the sensory input induced by the object’s presence.

    Friday, July 2, 2010 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

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