For Christmas I gave my mom a copy of Kerry Howley’s Thrown, one of my favorite books from last year. It did not go over well. Thrown is a story about a philosophy grad student who falls into the world of MMA and decides that what she feels when she bears witness to the violent ritual of the cage match is the true meaning of phenomenology as lived experience, a glimpse of raw being that puts the bloodless, bureaucratic squabbling of academic philosophy to shame.
What Howley does when she writes about mixed martial arts is everything I want to be able to do when I write about games. It’s smart, it’s funny, it’s honest. It’s honest about the strange and scary power some games have to shatter us, to enthrall us, to expose us to terrifying and difficult truths.
My mom hated Thrown. Hated it. She said she wanted to fling it across the room (pun intended?). She saw it as a celebration of all the values she most despised – the spectacle of violence, macho bullshit, brutality, conflict, war. And I felt like a dope for dropping it on her without thinking of the context, for not thinking about how she might react, for expecting her to understand what I meant by it, what I hoped it would say to her about games and why I love them.
My recent comments about ludocentrism, formalism, etc. have been about as successful. And again I think a lot of the fault is mine. I dashed off some half-formed thoughts and then expected everyone to get exactly what I mean. A bunch of people saw some of the things I wrote as condescending and dismissive, and for that I’m genuinely sorry.
I don’t think it was a total bust, though. It generated a lot of interesting and worthwhile responses:
- Stephen Beirne explained why he chose the term “ludo-fundamentalism” in the first place. (More about which later.) Note: this is not a direct response to me, but a more general discussion in which he links to one of my comments as an example.
- Brendan Keogh invoked Susan Sontag, which is never a bad move in my book.
- Cameron Kunzelman pointed out the danger of simplistic approaches to the idea of “form” and “content”.
- Austin Walker did a very Austin Walker-esque thing thing in which he elegantly wove his experience of playing a game into his experience of navigating this debate.
- Errant Signal created a video that expertly laid out the troubled history of ludo/narrative tension (before making something I said sound as bad as it possibly could.)
- Todd Harper highlighted the institutional power structures that frame these discussions and shouldn’t be ignored.
- And Austin Howe (along with Zolani Stewart, Lana Polansky, Iris Bull, Claris Cyarron, and Solon Scott) summarized the push-back in a way that helps to clarify the larger context and stakes of the whole issue.
Many of these pieces were prefaced by hand-wringing about how bad this topic was to begin with and greeted by grateful declarations that finally the entire question had certainly, once-and-for-all, been put to rest. But I’m not so sure. I was glad to read them, even when they made me flinch at how much offense I had caused. I think I’m smarter for having read them. I certainly don’t want to impose a debate on people who don’t want one, and I really, really, don’t want to be seen as belligerent or insensitive by anyone who is struggling to figure out how to forge a practice of critical intellectual engagement with games and culture, a project that I believe in and want to be a part of. So I’m not quite sure how to feel.
Maybe I like fighting too much. My image of what it means to be an intellectual was created by the letters column of the Nation, where people like Christopher Hitchens and Alexander Cockburn spun warring words into something better than consensus, where each response would have me nodding along in agreement, thinking “yes, this is obviously the definitive take on the matter” only to be brought up short by the totally convincing rebuttal that followed. It was created by the acrostic dialogues in Gödel, Escher, Bach, where truth was not a prize to be won but a spirit conjured by the complex dance of different points of view. It was created by Mikhail Bakhtin’s idea of the “dialogical” in which insight and knowledge emerge out of the quarrelsome interplay of different voices in conversation and debate. I think Kool Moe Dee is at his best when he’s spinning L.L. Cool J’s words back at him. I think Limited Inc is Derrida’s best book and John Searle’s. I am trying, in my life, to become a good Bayesian – open to new evidence, willing to update my priors, aware of my status as a single, broken node in a larger process that benefits us all.
Well, if I wanted a fight I certainly got one, didn’t I? I know I’ve been accused of punching down here, but the little bluebirds circling my head right now are telling me my opponents are connecting pretty good so I don’t know.
I do know that I don’t argue with people I don’t respect. It didn’t come across, and I know that’s my fault, but let me try to say it more clearly. I want to engage with the critique of ludo-centrism/ludo-fundamentalism because I think this critique is valuable, interesting, and crucial. I think it’s my responsibility to seek it out, understand it, and speak to it. I should have been more sensitive to the power dynamics at play, I realize that now. But I wouldn’t be having this argument if I thought the people I’m arguing were powerless, if I didn’t think they had strong ideas that demanded my attention.
Ok, I get it, I’m the heel in this fight. But the show’s not over yet.
Round Two – The one where we play Chess instead.
Right off the bat. This is my bad. An honest mistake. I thought this was the term you had used, but obviously I mis-remembered. I should have said “ludo-fundamentalism”. Stephen, I apologize.
On “Imaginary Dragons”
This paragraph from my gama post was definitely my biggest blunder. The point I was trying to make was that folks who are aren’t as interested in theme and narrative see an emphasis on theme and narrative everywhere, so they are baffled by the claim that attention to theme and narrative is being crowded out or dominated by attention to rules and structure.
But apparently what came across was more like: “rules are for cool, smart people and stories are for babies”. That’s not what I think or what I was trying to say. I’m sorry that it came off that way. I was trying to be funny and disarming and ended up being insulting. Writing is hard.
I probably should have made the two lists symmetrical by including pejorative terms in the first list too, like so:
Everywhere *you* look you see gratuitous points, arbitrary goals, toxic competition, pointless puzzles and perpetual conflict which indulges the basest, most aggressive impulses of the adolescent psyche. Everywhere *we* look we see pretend worlds and childish make-believe, imaginary dragons, badly written dialogue and unskippable cutscenes in which angry mannequins gesture awkwardly at each other.
Maybe you still don’t like that. Maybe there’s something wrong with making those two lists at all. But at least that’s better at making the larger point – that both sides can feel alienated from the status quo without either side actually *being* the status quo.
Maybe I shouldn’t say “you” and “we” at all, maybe that comes across as divisive. But there *are* different points of view, there *are* different tastes and preferences. I think it’s good to be honest and up-front about that.
I know those two lists are a cartoony caricature of different positions, that no single person thinks like that. But I think those lists do correspond roughly, in an exaggerated way, to points of view held by real people. I don’t want to pretend that everyone has a nuanced appreciation for the ways these different things blend together. I know there are people who think that an over-emphasis on mechanics and systems diminish the thematic and narrative power of many games. And I know there are people who think that an over-emphasis on representational and thematic dimensions diminish the strategic and performative beauty of many games. And, moreover, I think both of those types of people have a point worth acknowledging. Am I really wrong about this?
The Fight I Didn’t Want
My intention was not to defend ludo-essentialism/ludo-formalism. I do not want to assert that systems, rules, choices, or mechanics are primary, dominant, or essential. I’m not searching for some kind of systemic purity. I don’t think you can separate games from politics and identity.
Nor did I intend to claim, or imply, that people who emphasize narrative and theme in their games or their criticism aren’t doing serious, valuable, important work, or that the people in that original storify don’t talk about mechanics and systems enough or don’t have a deep understanding of the complex interplay of form in all of its manifestations.
The Fight I Wanted
Believe it or not, I had some very specific goals I was trying to accomplish, that weren’t “get repeatedly punched in the face”.
1. I wanted to open up some distance between people like me, who are primarily interested in player choices and actions and aren’t as interested in narrative and theme, from the reactionary elements of operation hashtag, from the anti-intellectualism and fear of change that motivates the shouty, chauvinist citizens of planet vidyagame.
This is what I meant by the tweet that sort of started it all:
People who complain about Dear Esther et al aren’t formalists they’re philistines. Were the ppl who walked out of Rite of Spring formalists?
I don’t want my ideas to provide cover or support to ignorance and aesthetic & cultural conservatism, and I don’t want to be associated with anti-progressive ideas. I wanted to confront the conceptual drift that I was starting to see crop up: “well, if you aren’t primarily interested in story and theme then you basically agree that games shouldn’t be political, or that such-and-such game isn’t *really* a game, or that games are just about fun and entertainment, etc.”
I don’t agree with those ideas, I wanted to distance myself from them, and I wanted to signal to other people who think like me that I think they should distance themselves likewise. I wanted to suggest that there could be a smart, progressive formalism that was diametrically opposed to the vulgar formalism polluting the current environment.
So, how’d that work out? I’ll tell you how it worked out. It was a colossal flop. I would say pretty much the opposite of what I wanted has happened. Somehow, I’ve managed to create a situation in which the battle lines that define the landscape of contemporary game discourse have been re-drawn with me on the wrong side. I botched it.
Did I ever think that if I need to work so hard to distinguish what I’m saying from this obviously bad position, maybe the problem is with my ideas themselves? Yes, I have thought about that, and I want to continue thinking about it. Maybe I should have done so privately, over a bottle or two of scotch, and not by inviting an open debate on the topic.
Score: 0 for 1.
2. Secondly, I wanted to specifically push back on the subtle but pervasive concept that finds something inherently shady about systems and mechanics themselves, something just a wee bit degenerate and villainous about them.
This isn’t a straw man. Here’s Miguel Sicart, from a well-known 2011 piece from the journal Game Studies:
For proceduralists, games have meanings that are prior to the act of playing the game, and somewhat determine the meaning of the game; there is an essence to any game, and that essence is to be found in the rules. In words of The Dialectic of Enlightenment: “For enlightenment is as totalitarian as any system […] for enlightenment the process is always decided from the start” (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2010, p. 24). Much like Enlightenment, then, proceduralism is a determinist, perhaps even totalitarian approach to play; an approach that defines the action prior to its existence, and denies the importance of anything that was not determined before the act of play, in the system design of the game.
And here’s Brendan Keogh from a recent piece in the Journal of Games Criticism:
Yet, in its short history, the academic study of games has predominately focused on the opposite. There are no shortage of models that attempt to reduce videogames to their most formal elements (Eskelinen, 2001; Juul, 2005; Fullerton 2008). Such models, fixated as they often are on understanding videogames first and foremost as games, reduce a heterogeneous cultural form and all its intricacies and tensions of style, form, and content to a singular type of system that must be made more efficient.
I refer to this as the “if you like rules so much…” argument. It’s easy to find more examples of it, just look for references to Adorno, to the rebellious power of play struggling against the tyranny of rules, to the way that game structures like defined goals impose a rigid, top-down order on the player, an order that demands logic and efficiency, an order vich must be OBEYED!
In its most reasonable form, the “if you like rules so much…” argument is specifically addressed at formalism that has become prescriptive. As Daniel Joseph puts it, in another interesting piece about this discussion:
For me I would emphasize the fascist tendencies of prescriptive formalism. That’s dangerous and should be questioned whenever we see it.
Fair enough. But here’s the thing. There is always a prescriptive dimension to aesthetic arguments. I can’t articulate and defend my tastes and preferences without suggesting that maybe yours should move a little closer to mine. And critics, scholars, and taste-makers *do* influence what games people make and play, both subtly, by changing the texture of the cultural landscape, like when Leigh Alexander speaks out against entrenched meanings of the word “gamer”, and directly, like when Gabe Newell hires the guys from Old Man Murray as a kind of inoculation against the stupidity they so articulately lampooned (and got Portal as a result.)
Moreover, it’s just not true that the odor of fascism is only present when formalism gets declarative. I think if one looks at the critical landscape, and even if one honestly looks inward at their own beliefs, there is something dubious and a little creepy about competition for its own sake, optimization for its own sake, the mathy, abstract, problem-solving, mechanistic qualities of game-as-system. I want to acknowledge that feeling and challenge it, say – even on their own, these elements don’t have to be seen as cold, rigid, reductive, oppressive, even on their own there is often something deeply warm and human and beautiful and mysterious and alive about them. Even on their own they can be a machine that kills fascists, a blow for freedom, in Deleuzian terms a nomad war machine opposed to the coercive apparatus of an authoritarian state.
Score: Me: Zero, Gabe Newell: One Million
3. Finally, I wanted to propose that a ludo-focused approach to thinking about games was not as oppressively ubiquitous and hegemonic as it might seem.
This trajectory of academic game studies plays smoothly into the commercial game industry’s pervasive, progressivist coupling of ‘quality’ videogames with technological advancements, demolishing one ‘generation’ of games with a ‘better’ generation every five years (Witheford and de Peuter, 2009, p. 71). When technology allows us to leave behind the trappings of other media, then videogames will be truly special. The industry spoke, and game studies wandered off into the desert to find the Promised Land.
First of all, really? Really? I don’t think Keogh actually thinks that Tracy Fullerton, who is making a videogame about Walden, has collaborated with Bill Viola, and whose academic program has birthed a revolution of emotion-driven, explorative, expressive, open-ended games, is a stifling force of oppression and an industry dupe, but that is basically what he’s saying.
But I admit, this one is tricky. In the piece linked above, Austin Howe makes a strong argument that game design programs tend to be very “ludocentrist and tech-fetishistic” and I can see how formalist ideas could become restrictive and oppressive in these contexts. That’s not how we want to do it at NYU, and this is a good wake-up call to make sure we aren’t.
I think one of the reasons I didn’t want to recognize the hegemony of formalism is my different perspective on the issue. My boss is the dean of the school of the arts, and when I talk to her about how games are evolving and growing and becoming more sophisticated and important and worthy of respect it goes without saying that I’m talking about their evolving thematic and narrative dimensions.
When I talk to the New York Times about games it is a fundamental assumption that games with stories and themes are worthy of intellectual attention and games without (like Chess and Tetris) are, literally, “stupid”.
Even within our field this attitude is ubiquitous, especially among progressive designers and critics:
A: When will there be games about humans and emotions?
B: You mean fictional humans and emotions.
A: Yes, obviously.
But especially for people outside of our field games are gaining status almost exclusively by virtue of their evolving ability to tell stories and express specific themes. Which is great! I am constantly evoking this evolution when I speak about why games are important and valuable. And when I encounter the “hegemony of story” in the world at large, most of the time I just keep my mouth shut, because I want games to evolve and thrive and this is one of the main mechanisms by which it’s happening.
I get this, and I’m on board. I recognize the existing power and future potential of the videogame as Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk, a “total theater” that blends narrative, character, setting, theme and choices, actions, systems, and mechanics.
But this isn’t the whole story. Because when I’m talking to my dean I want her to understand about Street Fighter. When I’m talking to parents of prospective students I want them to understand what their kid is doing when she spends all day in her room playing League of Legends. And as a designer I want to know whether Drop7 is worth the millions of hours of attention it has absorbed or if I am wasting people’s time.
That’s my perspective. I don’t want to ignore narrative, or get rid of it, or diminish its importance. Its importance is established beyond question in my mind. I want to figure out if, and how, to think about the non-narrative aspects on their own, because, like it or not, they exist on their own, or almost on their own, in a lot of games. I think it’s hard to make the case that League of Legends or Counter-Strike are important works of culture, capable of producing complex meaning and beauty, worthy of intellectual scrutiny and discussion not just because of their representational qualities but in some ways despite them, but that’s the case I am trying to make. I want to bring games like this along on the journey. I’m not demanding they ride first class, I just don’t want to leave them behind.
I want to understand how in addition to the beauty of games as worlds to explore, as narrative experiences, as thematic media, there is another kind of beauty that is more elusive, harder to see and appreciate. I think there is a natural, wide-spread tendency to distinguish between systemic or procedural qualities on the one hand and aesthetic qualities on the other, and I am trying to counteract that, I am trying to highlight the way that the systemic/procedural is itself aesthetic.
To be specific: this does not mean that I don’t care about race or gender or politics. Those things are deeply connected to the way games operate on every level – even if the games are completely or predominantly abstract.
Score: Who knows? Am I still tied for last place? Did I go negative BaraBariBall style? You be the judge!
The Word Formalism
Yeah, it sucks. I was using it out of convenience. My attitude is I think it’s good enough but I’m also willing to try to avoid it, especially now that it has become a toxic flag to a lot of people.
Y’all are mean. I mean, I may not be good at twitter but… wow. Send salve. I understand now that I shouldn’t talk to people unless they tag me first. I didn’t mean to be pushy. I really do just want to hear from people who disagree with me. I think I gain a lot from hearing criticism. But I get that there are subtle power dynamics to this stuff and I will try to be more sensitive to them.
And, in general, I get that I am lucky to have a lot of power and influence. Believe me, I think a lot about the responsibilities that come with that. I am trying my best to wield that power with care and attention and in the service of our shared project, which is thinking deeply about games.
I don’t want to be the heel anymore. But I’m not ready to give up the fight. I promise to only bring the fight to people who want it. But if you want it, I want it. I want a fair fight, a real fight. Like the kind that Kerry Howley describes, the kind where
The glorious heightening of the senses […] was only the first stage of an ecstatic moment, after which the feeling changed from that of a body made extraordinarily powerful to escape from that body altogether. It wasn’t enough to say that one could see a flow of dancing atoms where others saw a squishy cage, or hear the squishy whisper of colliding cells where others heard only the dull thump of a landed strike. The categories of sight and sound no longer applied, for a mind in the throes of ecstasy had expanded outward, beyond these rough tools of perception, to greet the universe without the interference of anything so frail as an eye or an ear.