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Dangerous Music

Of the blogs I’ve been following recently my current favorite is Versus Clu Clu Land, written by the mysteriously named Iroquois Pliskin (if you catch the reference you get a good idea of his taste in games). About a week ago Iroquois posted a short piece drawing an analogy between Jazz and video games.

Music has always seemed an appropriate metaphor for games to me, and I think the post does a good job of touching on the interesting design tension inherent between structure and improvisation. Unfortunately it gets caught up in the over-blown ‘narrative versus interactivity’ dichotomy at the end and doesn’t speak to what I think is the more interesting logical conclusion: that playing a game is a form of performance.


  1. That’s more or less what I see as the conclusion, too–though I get to it through Homeric epic rather than jazz. It’s what’s led me to argue that games and stories are actually just two forms of performative play practice. Ian Bogost’s recent foray into speech act theory fits in well here, too.

    Maybe we can keep this discussion rolling across the blogs that care. . .

    Monday, July 21, 2008 at 10:38 pm | Permalink
  2. While I agree that there is a performance quality to playing games (but certainly not a performance) — and that we can find similarities between game design and music composing (but also major differences) — I have an urge to ask: when will games be elevated to the level where critical discourse doesn’t spend the majority of its energy (or so it seems) comparing the form to other forms? The academic game world has a weak ego for sure, always over compensating to be taken seriously… and while I know there’s something to learn by making such comparisons, I suppose I just want games to be seen (and taken seriously) as games for awhile.

    Tuesday, July 22, 2008 at 12:37 am | Permalink
  3. @CBerkeley I think the impression that games aren’t being taken seriously as games is actually a historical accident created by the hegemony of formalism in the 20th Century, when we all received our training. In current work on classical literature, the only exciting stuff is the stuff that compares e.g. tragedy to philosophy and philosophy to history. I’m hoping that game criticism may get to skip the pseudo-science of formalism all together, and get right to the good stuff

    Tuesday, July 22, 2008 at 2:25 pm | Permalink
  4. Charles Joseph wrote:

    Dr. Travis, I certainly think it’s an interesting discussion! Though I’m always a little worried that it gets too far away from actual, applicable lessons in game design.

    Charles B, I’d be interested to hear why you think that there’s a “performance-quality” but no actual performance in games. I think that there is at least a very strong family resemblance. For me (and this may be where you and I disagree, Dr. Travis) it’s not really a matter of comparison. Games are not simply another performance art, but perhaps the ur-performance art. This is why I think the analysis of games gets so muddled, because we examine them as if they arose after or in parallel to other art forms, when in fact they are certainly much older!

    Tuesday, July 22, 2008 at 3:46 pm | Permalink
  5. Charles J. (please call me Roger! :D), I think we actually agree about games being the original performance. My word “compare” in my last comment is terribly imprecise–I think I should have written something like “the stuff that show the relations among” or something like that.

    I understand your hesitation to value this kind of discussion over nuts and bolts discussion about design, but don’t the two go hand in hand in enhancing games’ potential? If we can get people to think about what game-players are doing as performance, aren’t we enhancing what game-designers can imagine their games doing?

    Thanks for this conversation–the new place looks great!

    Tuesday, July 22, 2008 at 5:11 pm | Permalink
  6. Some good points all around. I do appreciate this sort of discussion, don’t get me wrong… I’m just a bit burned out by form comparison discussions between games and [fill in the blank]. I completely agree there’s a lot to be gained from such research/insight/theory that will ultimately push game design, and I’m all for that.

    As for the performance question, playing a game is a type of performance – but as a game designer, I think it’s a mistake to conceive that I’m designing for this performance. Rather, I’m designing for a player’s experience (and there’s a difference there). Players may find other experience within a game I design, and find other interpretations for my intentions and meanings. The word performance, to me, owes to much credit to the dramatic arts and doesn’t encompass the aspects of exploration and strategizing that it takes to be a player. I say let’s leave the word “performance” to the theaters and adopt something fresh for the true player experience. Although I can appreciate “the original performance” and I can see how we’re basically talking about the same thing.

    Tuesday, July 22, 2008 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

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