Ignoring the Pleasures of the Player

[March 11th update: OK, I was guessing. I have now read Barry Atkins’ paper, and I did misinterpret a few things. So please read the text below as 1) me going at great lengths to prove that I care about fun, 2) some general comments about why some people shy away from talking about rules in games. The comments below do not strictly relate to Atkin’s paper, his paper just made me think about a few things.
Apparently a few people have interpreted the discussion here, here, here as being very hostile or problematic, but this is not my experience at all.
It’s all in the area of the open exchange of ideas, even if some people (myself being a good example) are a bit more jumpy than need be. Just keep it going, everybody!]


Nick Montfort has posted his notes from the Form, Culture, and Video Game Criticism conference at Princeton University this Saturday. I can see I should have gone, but instead I’ll just comment a bit on what I guess from Nick’s notes.

Apparently Barry Atkins had some objections to my Utrecht talk about The Game, the Player, the World, because my definition of games (the classic game model) does not include pleasure.
I can see why he is making the point, but I also feel that you can’t talk about everything all the time – fun simply wasn’t the primary focus of the talk. I have written quite a lot on fun/pleasure in games, so it’s very strange to be criticized for ignoring it!
My early 1998 DAC paper work discusses fun.
My 2000 paper on the importance of studying games discusses fun.
I’ve discussed fun in the relation to the experience of time.
At the 2002 Manchester conference I presented a paper on gameplay and fun.
And recently I’ve written a general essay about theorizing fun and the issue of focusing too much on games as being challenges.
Incidentally, the last one criticizes the notion of game quality as hinging on “interesting choices” and challenges. It’s always a weird experience, being criticized for not discussing something that you have discussed, and being criticized for ignoring an argument that you have already proposed in great detail.
But all game definitions have grappled with this problem – it would be really nice to have a point #7 in my model, stating that “games are fun” – but the problem is that not all games are fun; some games are dull; different people enjoy different games or even the same games but for different reasons. You could easily end up with a strange situation where something would flicker between being a game and being a non-game during the course of a game session, etc… The grand point of my game definition obviously is that the negotiable consequences of a game (i.e. the game activity is predominantly harmless) means that it is possible to design a game and play a game for the fun of it.

Atkin’s paper made me think about a general problem I often encounter, an import from literary theory that just turns out not to apply very well to games. Whenever I give talks about games, discuss game definitions or simply mention the fact that games have rules, part of the audience always looks like all the alarms are going off inside their heads. The alarms are going off mostly because much structuralism (say, Propp, Greimas, Levi-Strauss) assumed that all texts really consisted of objective formal structures. The goal of the theorist was then simply to prove that a specific text also had the kind of formal structure that the theory predicted. This of course ignored the small matter of interpretation as well as the pleasures of the reader, and made for some pretty far-fetched readings of literature and film. Very broadly speaking, literary deconstruction and poststructuralism was then a reaction against this, emphasizing the act of reading, the act of interpretation, reader experiences, and the instability of texts.

This is the history that makes a lot of people automatically assume that if anybody talks about rules, structure, or definitions, they must be ignoring the experiences of the user. But the problem is that while this to a large extent is true with literature or film – if you reduce a novel to a semiotic square, almost everything interesting is lost – it is completely wrong when it comes to games.

Games are pleasurable because they are rule-based, because they are well-defined (and definable). It is the formal nature of games that makes them fun. In this case, games are complete reversals of what you may expect if you come from literary theory. If you ignore the rule-based nature of games, their well-definedness, or the kind of formal challenging systems that they are, you will be at loss to understand why games are fun, and you will be completely ignoring the experiences of the player. As I’ve said elsewhere: Games are formal systems that provide informal experiences.

Another assumption in the argument seems to be that work is completely distinct from fun, and that to focus on the challenging aspect of games is to ignore the fun aspect. But again, games are fun because they are challenging, games are fun because they are work.

23 thoughts on “Ignoring the Pleasures of the Player”

  1. Pingback: Water Cooler Games
  2. Just a remark on your IGDA article:

    This doesn’t affect you’re larger point any, but I don’t think it’s accurate to say that DDR does not “contain any interesting choices whatsoever.” It’s true that the success conditions for the game-as-program only require you to hit the right arrow at the right time, and at low difficulty levels of play, this will undoubtedly not require any interesting choices on the part of the player. At higher levels, though, the player needs to do more than just shuffle his feet: decisions need to be made about the way he will navigate a sequence of arrows–not doing so will result in chaos. And that’s just from the perspective of the program’s success conditions. There’s the whole dancing aesthetic thing going on, too, which is arguably not superfluous to the game.

  3. All games contain some element of decision (strategy), but in games like DDR the implementation of that decision (through direct action or through smaller decisions) is generally much more significant than making the decision, where player enjoyment is concerned at least. Which is one of the many reasons I have to take issue with Raph Koster’s statement that games with detectable patterns (ie obvious strategies) are boring.

  4. Hi Jesper
    I think it’s a bit much to state that games are fun because they are rule-based and well-defined. Doing my taxes is rule-based and (relatively) well-defined, although no fun at all. Of course I’m taking your statement quite a bit too literal here, but all for the sake of argument.. My point is that games are not fun because they are rule-based and well-defined, but because we are cognitively build to gain a pleasurable response, by engaging in “simulations” of real life – or rather to test configurations of resources, against a defined “environment”, governed by a certain set of rules. You might argue (although I think you will not) that this is unnecessary nit-picking, but by “tacking a step backwards” into the realm of evolutionary psychology, a lot of light can be shed upon our understanding and experience of games. This goes for narrative as well, and in fact evolutionary psychology points to a common ground of games and narrative, as I will show in an upcoming paper on emotional experience and interactive entertainment.

  5. JP: I kinda get what you’re saying, but at higher levels of DDR, I don’t even see how we can split the decision making and implementation and decide what’s “more significant”. The two go hand-in-hand, producing a level of enjoyment not possible at lower levels, where all one *really* have to think about is, “just hit the damn arrows!” At the higher levels, enjoyment is procured from having made a decision, implementing it, *and* realizing that the decision was a good one.

    From my own experience, DDR would simply not be very fun if it did not engage this higher mental capacity, and I figure this is probably true of most other DDR enthusiasts as well. Assuming the player hasn’t already pre-choreographed his session (which itself requires interesting choices), the problem for the player is on the one hand logistical, and on the other hand creative, as it would be for any freestyle dancer or improv artist.

    Regardless, my point is that DDR does in fact contain interesting choices. It’s not simply a Simon Says toy that you play with your feet.

  6. “Games are fun.”

    Well, no, they don’t have to be. I could certainly design a game that would be as painful as hitting your hand repeatedly with a hammer. But I might have a hard time persuading you to play it more than once.

    Let’s look at other forms: Not all novels are fun. Not all movies are fun. Not all poetry is fun. Not all theater is fun. Sometimes you take something from a work that’s something different from “enjoyment.” No problem with that.

    Of course, it’s very hard to create something so compelling that, even though it’s not fun, people want to experience it. But if you can pull that off, you’ve done something pretty amazing.

  7. Jesper, I’m really pleased you said this:

    “This is the history that makes a lot of people automatically assume that if anybody talks about rules, structure, or definitions, they must be ignoring the experiences of the user. But the problem is that while this to a large extent is true with literature or film – if you reduce a novel to a semiotic square, almost everything interesting is lost – it is completely wrong when it comes to games.”

    All these imported lit crit assumptions about games really irritate me. Yes, there is occasionally crossover, but for the most part, it’s safer to assume that games are their own medium, and must be treated as such, rather than just an offspring of movies, or novels, or whatever the fuck else. But you already know that. Well done for saying it.

    As for the DDR thing, JP and Walt, there’s a whole separation between strategising and putting that strategy into action! The amount of interface tackling you have to do in any game doesn’t stop the strategizing being “uninteresting”, but the actions needed to invoke that strategy may themselves become interesting (like a forced introspective into how you move your own body). Look at the anatomy of games again! (Which, in keeping with the initial post, is indeed about rules and structures).

  8. Nikolaj: I didn’t (mean to) say that anything rule-based is necessarily fun, but that rules are a core part of what makes games fun.

    >My point is that games are not fun because they are rule-based and
    >well-defined, but because we are cognitively build to gain a pleasurable
    >response, by engaging in “simulations” of real life – or rather to test
    >configurations of resources, against a defined “environment”, governed
    >by a certain set of rules.
    -Aren’t these just complementary perspectives, two sides of the same coin? Humans have a capacity for pleasure, and certain things help us gain pleasure. Games can give us pleasure in part because they are rule-based?

  9. Walter, JP, and Aubrey: I suppose the problem is that the distinction between skill and strategy is hard to pin down? The higher-level strategies that Walter suggests for planning ahead at higher skill levels can also be a skill (after a while you just recognize the foot sequence from the pattern on the screen). I do think that games can be enjoyable without requiring any higher-level thinking, and DDR is at least _mostly_ such a game.

  10. I’ll agree that DDR can be enjoyable without requiring higher-level thinking: I’m just a bit wary of the suggestion that playing sans higher-level thinking is the ‘primary’ way of playing DDR.

    Also, the sort of strategy/choice/decision making I’m talking about isn’t just about recognizing foot sequences: any given arrow pattern can admit of multiple foot sequences. The decision making I’m referring to concerns just *which* foot sequence a player might want to pick.

    Anyway. Can’t we also say that one can be skillful at strategizing?

  11. Jesper:
    No, as I admitted, by using ‘doing my taxes’ as an example, I was taking your argument a bit too seriously.
    By pointing out the difference between the object (here games) giving us pleasure, and the underlying cognitive adaptation dictating that we get pleasure from the object, I was trying to advocate taking ludology as well as narratology a step further (or perhaps rather a step backwards). By looking at the evolutionary foundations for games and narratives alike, new and valuable insights might be brought to the theoretical fields describing them, as well as the subject matter itself.
    I invite you to visit participant.dk and read my post from November 18th, for some of my thoughts on the consequences for combining narrative and game, in the light of evolutionary psychology.

  12. Jesper — Just for the record, I completely agree with you about the “open exchange of ideas.” Hopefully we can keep disagreement, debate, and hostility all in perspective, eh?

  13. Hmm. I’m not so sure, Jesper. I don’t see skill and strategy as hard to distinguish.

    I’ve always thought of “skill”* as the expression/implementation of a strategy – all the physical machinations used to apply the strategy (which is just a mental plan). It’s the link between the player’s will and the actual game system – the act of interaction. (In the same way, the link between the metaphysical gamestate and the players’ interpretation of that game state is visual/audio/haptic/whatever feedback).

    *There’s gotta be a less loaded term than this. I hate hijacking words.

  14. Ahk. Indeed. I need to clarify myself, as I got the wrong end of the stick again. I get your point, Jesper. You’re talking about trying to define the common interpretation of the meaning of “skill”. I certainly have no answers for that. It’s another one of those rather flexible terms (much like the word “game”!)

    That said, I’m happy with the distinction between the planning skill (strategizing) and the motor skill (whatever the bridge is between the player’s mind and the actual game state), but mainly because it fits sungly in the whole Anatomy of Games structure :)

    Note that there’s ways to make both strategy or action wafer thin (although they always have to be there in some form). In DDR, as explained before, the strategizing is essentially done for you, and the motor-control does its best to do as told by the DDR machine, through the proxy of the strategizing mind – the higher strategizing part of the mind is almost undermined since it needs to do little other than tell the motor control parts of the brain to do as the DDR machine says!

    The opposite would be something like chess, where HOW you interact with the board is largely irrelevant – the only physical rules are something along the lines of 1) tip up the table or knock over your own king and you accept defeat 2) let go of a piece after moving it and you confirm your move. (I could be wrong about #1). Strategizing vs. Putting-Strategy-Into-Action (the latter needs a better term =/. Any suggestions?) is still a distinction I can get behind.

    But no. I’ve no clue how to start to define “skill”.

  15. “In DDR, as explained before, the strategizing is essentially done for you, and the motor-control does its best to do as told by the DDR machine, through the proxy of the strategizing mind – the higher strategizing part of the mind is almost undermined since it needs to do little other than tell the motor control parts of the brain to do as the DDR machine says!”

    Again, I have to insist that this is a gross oversimplification, unless you’re SOLE priority in playing DDR is simply to match your feet with the arrows. But for many players, this will simply not be the case, and they’d probably even scoff at you if you told them that’s how you played. You can’t even say that’s how the designers intended it to be played. Like reading a book, DDR admits of multiple interpretations, and both the recognition and negotiation of those interpretations throughout an entire song requires more than simply matching feet to arrows.

    I can only guess that none of you have ever been enthusiastic DDR players. :P

  16. I have to agree with Walter here; when I finally stopped watching people play DDR and started trying to play it myself (and I’m definitely not great, but I can get through about half the songs on regular difficulty on DDRMAX with decent, B-ish level scores), I was completely caught by surprise by the amount of planning that players are forced to do. The thing I hadn’t realized from watching someone play is that most of the game is understanding when to shift your weight from one leg to the other successfully, as you have to keep standing as you also hit arrows. It’s a gameplay element that was completely foreign to me, and certainly not perceptible from watching from the outside. From my own perspective, looking at the arrows that come flying by (which don’t give any hints about which feet should hit which arrows) and then trying, over time, to figure out which when to put what, almost feels sort of like a puzzle, sort of. Interestingly, too, as you play, you can start to intuit what the designers had sort of intended – there are sequences of arrows where there are probably hundreds of ways that you COULD hit all the arrows (especially if you were floating in space or were holding yourself up by your arms), but you’ll stumble across a method or two that just feels so elegant, you can’t help but think that the designers had really intended it. All this only occurs once the game gets harder and more complicated, though. In fact, it kind of reminds me of watching the videos of very high level play in Ikaruga – the person is clearly playing by rote at that point (and quite amazingly), but they did do a lot of planning, strategize, and thinking to reach the point where they’d built their optimal path.

  17. [Pokes head back into discussion]

    In the player’s mind, I think it is often the case that the divisions between strategy and implementation are paper-thin if not totally invisible. When you’re in the thick of any fast-paced (or alternately, more slow-paced but deeply engrossing) game you’re not consciously aware of the strategic thinking behind your actions. Even a barely competent player of Street Fighter 2 will be able to pull off a sonic boom, dragon punch whatever without really thinking about it. This is not to say of course that strategizing doesn’t occur.

    The Strategy-Action dichotomy is just a way of thinking about the player’s mental model that is often useful when you’re designing, and it meshes well with the larger concept of interaction as a feedback loop, with Input > Interpretation/Processing > Output, or the encoding/decoding process in media theory.

    It’s also worth noting that strategizing occurs at many levels:

    Win Game
    – Get Frags
    – Kill Opponents
    – Damage Opponents
    – Manoeuvre to Advantageous Position
    – Run, Jump
    – Fire Weapons
    – Specific Considerations for Using Particular Weapons
    – Ammo management
    – Ambush Opponents
    – Understand Level Layout
    – Gather Information on Enemy Whereabouts
    – Deprive Opponents of Resources
    – Stay Alive
    – Dodge Enemy Attacks
    – Run, Strafe, Jump
    – Collect Items
    – Time Powerups
    – Collect/Eat Armor and Health
    – Know Locations of Stuff
    – Navigate to Those Locations
    – Walk Over Items

    … might be a (admittedly very crude and scattershot) model for expressing the different levels of strategizing that go on in a Quaker’s mind. As you can see the more specific you get, the closer you get into action and the further you get from conscious, higher-order intellectual strategy. “Strafe left so I can avoid a rocket that’s sailing towards me thus sparing me damage” is, technically, a strategy, but it’s the sort of thing that would be carried out with very little brain-mediation – an almost totally pure action/reaction. I think at some point it becomes difficult to separate one from the other.

    By saying that DDR (which I admittedly haven’t played much) was more about implementation than strategy, I guess I was pointing out that the actions you take don’t reach as high up the chain of “consciously devised plan of action” as they might in, say, a game of Civilization. But maybe conscious thought doesn’t even have anything to do with strategy.

  18. Well crap, my carefully indented hierarchy for Quake’s strategies didn’t survive the posting process. Just imagine that all those items are structured in a meaningful way :)

  19. I think Quake is fun *because* it’s about split-second decisions. And your actions/reactions onscreen mark your particular ‘style’ of playing. quote:’the actions you take don’t reach as high up the chain of “consciously devised plan of action”’. Is style then just an action routine? Is the player reacting to familiar circumstances and knowing what to do beforehand, or is he/she acting in an unfamiliar situation and be equal to (don’t know if this is good english :)) the task because of his/her skills?

  20. This is slightly OT, but when Audrey writes,

    there is occasionally crossover, but for the most part, it’s safer to assume that games are their own medium, and must be treated as such, rather than just an offspring of movies, or novels, or whatever the fuck else.

    I have to take issue with the laxity of this implied definition of “medium.” Yes, certainly V.G.s are their own medium, but have you asked yourself what defines a medium? It’s not just a matter of “occasional crossover,” but of the strategy of remediation (cf. Bolter and Grusin, then Raymond Williams). It’s simply wrong when formally inclined scholars say that it’s inappropriate to talk about the game “camera” in filmic terms; after all, designers think of fimlic effects when implementing camras, player’s experience of perspective is going to be unavoidably inflected by the training we receive as cinematic subjects, and, most importantly it would be downright irresponsible not to see what film scholars like Bordwell and Thompson have to say about point-of-view and perspective independepent of filmic structures like montage or the jumpcut. Just because games aren’t films doesn’t mean that they don’t refer to and remediate filmic techniques. Just because they are rigidly structured experience-engines doesn’t mean that we (the players) don’t have to have some psychological access to and context for the structured experience. And to ignore the theoretical resources afforded us by theorists and critics of other media is to inexcusably ignore the ways in which the “content” of a game is essential to the affect. (Pace, Markku)

    On a related note, perhaps the idea of narrative in games wouldn’t be/have been considered so anathema if writers had chosen a model of narrative whose originator hadn’t declared it unsuited for the analysis of narrative forms more complex than fairytales and detective stories. (Pace, Markku)

    Ben B.

  21. Well, I don’t think Aubrey would actually disagree with you, and in this case it’s just semantics as to what “occasional crossover” means. Generally speaking, I don’t think most self-described ludologists would disagree with you either. It’s just that the most pressing issue in game studies is to understand games as games. Notice how you subtly shift the terms of debate from Aubrey’s ‘games’ to your ‘V.G.s’. I think all of us are aware that videogames often share much in common with film/cinema, though they don’t *have* to (the sharing isn’t present in ALL videogames). I think we’re just wary, from an epistemological standpoint, that working primarily from an other media perspective *first* will prove needlessly problematic and/or impoverished when it comes to studying videogames sans an understanding of games as such (except in those areas where that understanding isn’t needed–but you won’t always know what those areas are beforehand). It’s not like we haven’t seen misguided applications of other media approaches before. And there is furthermore a concern, when it comes to videogames, in exploring the expressive power that the medium has to offer *without* resorting to filmic techniques and such. If we don’t initially set up some distance, we’re in danger of losing (or at least needlessly delaying) that exploration, potentially disastrous in the evolution of videogames as an art form.

    And again, none of this is to reject what you’re saying. Right now I think the tensions over disciplinary application are more about the dynamics of the formation of game studies, for which it would be beneficial to downplay, but not wholesale reject, the application of other disciplines, so game studies can get its bearings without having to continually fight off absorption into other disciplines. That would indeed be a possibility if no one was emphasizing the way in which games (and videogames) are unique and deserving of their own approach(es). A certain degree of formative isolation / game-as-game-centric research is needed, and that can’t happen without vocally downplaying the use of other disciplines, channeling resources.

    (And if all this should prove to be a bunch of BS, please remember that I’m an amateur in all things academic….)

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