Games * Design * Art * Culture

Friday, June 24, 2005
Game Styles, Innovation, and New Audiences: An Historical View
Here's the paper I gave at DiGRA 05. Abstract:

From the earliest times, it's been possible to discern clear genre divisions among games, genres based on a collection of game mechanics. The pattern can be seen even in games of the Neolithic, and continues with digital games today. Since the inception of games as a commercial industry (in the 18th century), it also appears that new genres have, over time, attracted new audiences; in recent years, the rise in development cost has reduced publishers' willingness to experiment with games sufficiently innovative to potentially create new game genres, which may be a risk to the industry's long-term health.

Read more.

Monday, June 20, 2005
"No Justice, No Peace": No Truce in the Narratology/Ludology War
Okay, let's start with some essentials. The debate about the role of story in games predates the existence of game studies; in my experience, in face, it first arose in the mid-70s in the hobby games industry, when those who liked wargames wanted to brand the hobby games industry as "simulation games," while those who liked RPGs wanted to brand it as "adventure games"--both trying to find a way to distinguish it from the conventional boardgame industry, but placing emphasis on very different aspects of a diverse field: one on simulation and the other on story. And the debate has certainly existed in digital games almost from their inception--I suspect you can look at the topic list from GDC (and before it CGDC) from the very first conference through the present, and find talks by people talking about the primacy of story, and contrariwise talks by people challenging it.

The academic debate, therefore, merely recapitulates a debate game developers themselves have been having essentially forever--but in the context of the academy, it gains an ideological hue it lacks among game developers. That is, at its most extreme, the stereotype is that it's a struggle between those who view games simply as an alternative form of story-telling media (I was on a panel once at which Mckenzie Wark flat-out said that games can only be understood as narrative), and those who maintain that "narratologists" are essentially scholars from other media attempting a colonial grab, wishing to annex game studies to their own discipline, and that the brave, few ludologists who understand games as formal systems must fight to the death to insist on the primacy of rules, structure, and interaction.

Now, everybody loves a fight. It's so much easier to get people interested in a topic if you portray it as a conflict, and the portrayal of the game studies community as fiercely independent scholars locked in a struggle to the death over a fundamental issue in the understanding of games is an exciting one. And thus we have things like a discussion between Espen Aarseth and Henry Jenkins being billed as a "clash between narratology and ludology" (which, when you get down to it, is pretty ironic, as Aarseth, representing "ludology" studies games as a form of literature, while Jenkins, representing "narratology" [in this context but not others] is pretty sophisticated in his understanding of the nature of interaction in games).

The reality, of course, is that people approach games from all kinds of vantage points, it is both viable and valuable to look at games through many different lenses, and people who tend to come from one side are generally pretty open-minded about listening to and understanding the views of those from another. Thus, in the developer community, I tend to be on the "games as systems" side, but find the insights of people like Mark Barrett or Hal Barwood--people very much on the "games as stories" side--quite interesting. Similarly, Aarseth and Jenkins are more likely to have a drink together than engage in fisticuffs.

Thus, in a sense, it's valuable to try to take the rhetoric down a notch, and make the point that we can learn from each other, and we're all essentially engaged in the same enterprise: trying to make sense of the things we call games.

Which brings me to the subject of talks by Janet Murray and Celia Pearce at last weeks DiGRA conference. Both can be described as on the narratologist side of the debate--and both talks can, at least in part, be described as pleas for peace. A priori, this is good and right, yes? Rather than clashing, it's more fruitful for all voices to be heard.

And yet... Peace, can arise in three ways: The victory of one side; the exhaustion of both sides; or the agreement on a compromise. The first condition surely does not exist; the second would be a shame, since in the intellectual sphere (if not the military) continued engagement is a lot more fruitful than exhaustion; and as for the third... Well, compromise is certainly feasible. A compromise I'd be happy with would be something alone the lines of "all games are formal abstract systems, and some games have stories," and I'm sure many other formulations are feasible. But if you look at what both Murray and Pearce have to say, it can be boiled down to "Let's have peace, and by the way, I'm right." In other words, they are adopting a stated desire for peace as a rhetorical strategy to disarm opposition.

Okay, that's overstating the case; it isn't wholly an intellectual bait-and-switch. In both cases, the desire to take the rhetoric down a notch is genuine--but in some ways, I think, misguided. This is not, when you get down to it, a debate that's going to go away; it's a debate over something fundamental, a debate with (I suspect) no real ultimate synthesis, a debate that will probably go on for centuries, and a debate that we've already gotten tired of--but can't simply put aside, since it is fundamental.

Murray (a precis can be found here) begins by debunking the debate, and does a good job, by pointing out the value of a multiplicity of approaches to games. She then, however, goes on to insist on the primacy of--not story, anyway, but--mimesis to games. She makes an argument about the importance of mimesis to the development of language and human culture, and asserts, in essence, that games from the earliest culture have been essentially mimetic in nature, directing attention to the symbolic nature of representation. As a (sole) example, she offers Senet.

The description of Senet as having a symbolic nature is, on the face of it, semi-plausible; Senet labels some track locations with names such as "House of Rebirth" and "House of Happiness." And we know from the games of the North American Indians (via Culin) that some neolithic cultures ascribe spiritual values to games; thus, it is not implausible that the Egyptians viewed the play of Senet as an at least partially religious practice.

But from another perspective, Senet is extremely typical of the games we know from Neolithic cultures: It's a unidirectional track game in which pieces are advanced through the throw of binary lots, the winner being the player who gets his piece "home" first. Per Parlett, similar games are known from virtually every culture on the planet. These games probably derive initially from the use of binary lots in gambling games, followed by the use of a track to keep score, followed by elaboration of the track with special spaces to add an additional gameplay element. In other words, you for damn sure can understand Senet as a formal, abstract system. And while there is no way of establishing precisely how Senet evolved in Egyptian culture, what role it played, and how Egyptian understanding of the game evolved over time, I will bet you that Egyptians played track games first, and ascribed spiritual values to them later.

In other words, I will assert, to be sure with no real evidence other than the widespread geographic and cultural distribution of similar games, that Senet and games of its ilk were formal abstract systems before they acquired any elements of mimesis (or indeed narrative). And while I will agree that this assertion is based on a paucity of fact, I'll point out that the opposite argument--the essentially mimetic nature of Senet--is also based on a complete paucity of fact. We simply do not know how Senet evolved, or its cultural role in ancient Egypt. From my perspective, to claim it as essentially mimetic is therefore fallacious--an attempt to shoe-horn a game into a theory that Murray is predisposed to accept, rather than anything like a valid supporting argument.

More generally, if you look at the full panoply of folk games (that is, games deriving from tradition rather than ascribable to individual authors), you find that, by modern standards, all are highly abstract, with any representational elements of minor importance to the experience of play. Thus, Chess may have kings and knights, but clearly does not mimic or represent anything in the real world: the experience of play involves an understanding of abstract projection of force in a square grid, not a mimesis of pre-gunpowder war.

In short, folk games taken as a whole clearly contradict Murray's argument, and indeed pose real challenges to the narratologist project (at least in its simplest form): they can all be understood as formal abstract systems, and any narratological or indeed mimetic elements are minor in the extreme. It isn't really until the "theme" games of the 18th and 19th centuries, and arguably not until the advent of simulation games in the mid-20th, that we get anything you can really start to perceive as having mimetic elements.

Pearce's paper is couched as counterpoint to Gonzalo Frasca's paper from the 03 DiGra, Ludologists Love Stories Too (in which, interesting, Frasca also argues that the narratologist/ludologist debate is bogus--and similarly does so in such a way as to, in essence, say "let's have peace, and by the way, I'm right.") In part, as with Murray's talk, Pearce is quite reasonably making the argument that couching the ludology/narratology debate in terms of opposing sides with no common ground is foolish--but again, in part she is calling for peace as a rhetorical strategy. And as with Murray, at least part of her analysis is clearly wrong. To wit: Pearce says "To savor this point, I thought we might wish to take a moment to medidate on the various common meanings of the world 'plot'." At which point she provides dictionary definitions of several meanings of the word, including both the conventional narrative meaning, as well as the use of the word in terms of a plan, a graphical representation, and a ship's course.

Her clear implication is that because the word "plot" has these diverse meanings, one of which is narrative in nature, and the others of which (a plan, a graphical representation, a course of action) also have meaning in the context of a game, we can therefore fuzzily expand our notion of narrative as it applies to game to these other aspects.

This is a confusion between language, which is a system of symbols to describe reality, and reality. The English language uses the sound "plot" to refer to a number of different things that may have some common ideas at base (plot as the sequence of events in a narrative, plot as a plan of action) but are in fact very different concepts. But these meanings are distinct, and these are, in truth, different words; in another language, different sounds might be used for these meanings (and I'm not a linguist, but I suspect if I were, I could find one, or many languages where this is true). In essence, Pearce argues that, because the same sound is used in the English language to mean these different things, there is some essential similarity between the different things, and from this we can conclude that the notion of narrative, implicit in plot-of-story, is relevant also to the notion of plot-as-player-formation-of-intent. In fact, this is wholly fallacious; it relies on the assumption that the real world maps directly into the English language, and in truth, the language is a whole lot messier than that.

Now, I've spent some time addressing particular aspects of the presentations by Murray and Pierce, but before I conclude, I want to take it back to the meta-level at which I began. While it's true that the narratology/ludology debate is easily caricatured, and the reality is that people on both sides of the debate almost invariably find something worthwhile in the arguments of those on the other, it's also true that progress often derives precisely from the clash of ideas and the interplay of argument. Indeed, what we need to do is not call the whole thing off, but to engage with each others' ideas in specific, detailed ways--as I think I've done here. In short... the war must continue! Arise, ye children of gaming! The hour of glory is upon us! And certainly there may be no peace with "our opponents" (I do hope the irony is clear) if they couch their arguments for peace in terms of the ultimate primacy of their beliefs.

(PS: Although maybe this is all about gender, to be sure... The women call for peace, and I cry war....)

Saturday, June 11, 2005
Toward the "True Mobile Game"
(N.B.: This is a somewhat edited version of a presentation I gave at Nokia Research Center's Game Day, an internal Nokia event, two days ago--redacted mainly to remove anything that might be considered Nokia confidential... But I think the basic thesis is something worth thinking about more generally.)

In five short years, we've gone from b&w static browser games via WAP to full-motion, full-color 3D. And we've gone from basically zero in revenues to $1b globally. And good for us. But....

This has basically been built on the basis of interpreted language environments (BREW and J2ME) that provide the capability to emulate existing game styles, and whose security models make it difficult, often impossible, to access most of the features on a mobile phone.

In essence, we've been using mobile phones as inferior GameBoys--and that's apparently enough to build a $1b market, and growing. But while there have been a handful of interesting attempts to do things you can't do on other devices (like Botfighters), we haven't seen many successful games that do something novel and interesting with mobile as a platform.

Forget about games for a moment: What makes mobile devices different?

Well, for one thing, they are first and foremost voice communication devices. And they store quite a lot of information about your circle of friends and business contacts, in the phone book. Along with a datebook (which most people don't use, but some do, particularly on higher-end phones where they can hotsynch to an Outlook calendar). They are personalized devices--people add ring tones, screenery, and images of friends so they can see a pic when someone calls. And they're networked--as computing devices, they may be primitive, analogous to (say) pre-Pentium computers, but early home PCs weren't networked until comparatively recently.

From a user perspective, they are primarily social devices, used to keep in touch with friends, family, and business contacts, mainly via voice and texting.

The early success of mobile games as a business has been built on simply enabling existing video game styles. But remember that "the video game" is a subset of "the game," dependent essentially on a video display screen attached to a computer. A mobile device is, today, a (tiny) video display screen attached to an (underpowered) computer that is used for social purposes, enables voice communication, is personalized, and contains information about the user's social circle. In other words, we can conceive of a different category of game, something we might call the "mobile game" that may bear some connection to the "video game," but depends ultimately on the differences between mobile devices and PCs, rather than attempting to simply imitate the video game.

I'm not going to be so foolish as to try to predict what this "true mobile game" might be like--indeed, I suspect there are many as-yet undiscovered game styles that could be commercially successful as "mobile games." But to be true mobile games, they need to be able to take advantage of what mobile devices can do.

Here, however, is the kicker: The technology that, today, allows us to build games for mobile devices, does not allow us to access the other features of mobile handsets. You want to use voice? You can't--a mobile phone can make a voice connection or a data connection, not both at once. You want to access the phone book? You can't--the phone book is its own application, in splendid isolation from any others operating on the handset. You want to access personalization information? No can do. You want to use the network? You're stuck with HTTP (usually) which, together with a G2 network, means you need to plan for 3+ second latency.

Here are some use cases to illustrate what I mean:

"I want to communicate with the other players." Of course you do; in any multiplayer game, you want to talk. Even if you're playing Spades online, you want tabletalk--it makes the experience so much richer, even if all the other people say is an occasional "LOL" or "GG". It's no coincidence that every PC-based online game has text chat--and that Xbox Online requires voice chat support for Online-enabled games (the logical thing to do in the absence of a keyboard). In a mobile game, you can theoretically enable in-game texting--but that's only feasible for very slow-moving games (given latency and the difficulty of entering text on a T9 keypad). And these are voice communication devices at their core! But you can't use it.

"I want to challenge my buddy to a game." Yes, and things like N-Gage Arena (soon to become SNAP for all J2ME devices courtesy of our friends at Sun) allow you to build a buddy list. But my real buddy list is my phonebook, which is already in the damn phone. But I can't access it.

"I like this game, and I want to send the demo version to my buddy--or maybe even buy it for him." Great idea, and an excellent way of enabling viral marketing of mobile games. But step back and think about the complexities: I'm on T-Mobile, my buddy is on Cingular. I have a Nokia phone, and he has a Samsung phone. What I really want is to send him an SMS with a WAP link that allows him to download and install the game--but I'm on T-Mobile, and Cingular keeps it at some URL that T-Mobile doesn't know about. Also, because he has a Samsung phone, he doesn't want the same build of the application that I use--he wants the one that the developer optimized for his particular phone. And if I'm going to buy it for him--well, I have no billing relationship with Cingular, T-Mobile doesn't have any existing scheme for sharing revenue in this case with other carriers, and so on and so on. The idea is simple--but the current network realities don't allow it.

"Show me the pics of my opponents as I play them." Particularly if they have a camera phone (increasingly the norm), they've got one--but can I access that information from a game? Well.... No.

In other words, we've now built the technical infrastructure to enable a mobile games market to exist and thrive--but we haven't built the technical infrastructure to allow truly interesting mobile games to exist. And fundamentally, doing that does not mean introducing novel, futuristic technologies like LBS, G3, video communication, or RFID--what it means is exposing technologies that already exist on mobile handsets to mobile applications--and reconfiguring the network side to allow them to be used.

And, of course, we need to do this in a cross-vendor, cross-platform, cross-carrier way, to establish the widest possible installed base of devices for developers to write to.

Sunday, June 05, 2005
Violins, Gluh, and Mike Wilson v. Random House
Rich Bartle, at Terra Nova asks whether we can claim that games can teach stuff and also claim that games don't teach violence, despite the patently violent nature of many games.

I'm sorta tired of this argument, but you know--violent pop culture does not breed violent prevailing culture. Let's look at my city (New York): a peak of violence during prohibition, an all time low after repeal and during the war years, accelerating violence and crime during the 70s and 80s, and decline since then. Videogames started in the 80s. If they caused violence, shouldn't we be seeing an increase?

Nope... The decline is largely due, IMO, to abortion and better policing. The rise of violence in popular culture is outweighed by other factors.

Japan has probably one of the most violent pop cultures in the world--as well as a pop culture that makes a fetish of the sexuality of teenage girls. Yet they don't have an epidemic of pederasty, do they? And one of the lowest crime rates on the planet.

It's all bullshit. Sure, if you're crackerjack at Splinter Cell, you can probably become a sniper more easily. But what's that got to do with it? And you know, the federal government helps fund marksmanship on the grounds of encouraging a civilian population with skills that will be beneficial in times of war--instead of decrying shooters as "training for murder," we should be encouraging their play. Those skillz might be useful someday--as long as the people with them are decent human beings. Which, in my experience of gamers, they largely are.

Meanwhile, Sorrent (a major US mobile game publisher) is now Glu Mobile. Just as Digital Bridges (the world's very first mobile game publisher) is now Iplay. I can't say that either DB or Sorrent was a great name, but when you come down to it, who the fuck cares? Iplay sounds like, well, anything--nothing real distinctive there. And is "Glu" prounced "glue" or "gluh?" I think I'll use the latter. I understand that Greg Ballard doesn't wan't any remote connection to Scott Orr (Sorrent's founder, and the reason it's SOrr-ent), but a name is just a name. Maybe you should be worrying about other things, like the fact that your margins are inevitably going to be squeezed between the operators and the licensors, unless you can find an distribution mechanism that doesn't depend on the carriers, or a way of marketing to consumers that doesn't depend on immediate brand recognition?

And Mike Wilson sues Random House over a section in Masters of Doom, in which he is alleged to have used id's money to buy himself a BMW, semi-illegitimately. The book was published in 2002, ferchrissakes, but Wilson (who later went on to found the spectactularly successful developer Ion Storm, operating it in so objectively and publically ethical a fashion that no one has ever even evinced the slightest doubt about the camels-eye narrow, old-fashioned honesty and fiscally responsible nature of its management) is now (after another highly successful and ethically responsible venture building some kind of DVD magazine thingie) attempting to get back into the industry with something called Gamecock Media Group. And apparently it's latterly come to his attention that "There's nothing they could have possibly said that could be more damaging... This is an industry publication read almost exclusively by my peers in the industry." Good luck with that, Mikey.

Thursday, June 02, 2005
So when G4 first emailed me asking to appear on Attack of the Show, my first instinct was to decline--for a number of reasons. First, I'm doing a ridiculous amount of travel in May and June--E3, four days in Helsinki for Nokia Games Day (an internal corporate thingie), then DiGRA, and slotting in a trip back to LA in between E3 and Finland stuck me as a pain. Second, I'm a televisionophone; my ex-wife says I used to sneer at her whenever she turned on the TV, and since the divorce (ten years ago), I've never had cable, on the theory that the kids have the TV turned on all the damn time when they're with her, and when they're with me they can play games or read books. I have a TV, but it's attached to my 10 console systems (with a switchbox so you can move from one to the other at the push of a button without having to fiddle with cables), and we do watch the occasional movie or South Park episode on DVD (via the PS 2), but given all the EM traffic hereabouts generated by investment banks and brokers, OTA reception sucks. So there's no practical way to watch TV. And I like it like that.

Third, my basic impression--gained from reading blog commentary on G4, rather than any personal exposure--is that G4 is basically part of the problem rather than part of the solution. That is, being TV, it necessarily focuses on glitz rather than substance, and a big part of the industry's problem can be traced to precisely that--e.g., focussing on polygon counts rather than gameplay.

But thinking about it a little more, I realized that I've always said that fostering an independent games movement really requires solving three problems simultaneously: First, creating a desire among developers to do something different; second, finding a solution to the business issue of creating a viable channel for distribution of independent product; and third, changing gamer culture. By that I mean that people who like indie music and film are willing to accept lower production values in exchange for individual vision and creativity--and generally believe that the tradeoff is not only worthwhile, but vital. There are very few gamers who have an equivalent aesthetic, and if we're to build a viable independent games movement, the audience aesthetic needs to be changed, too.

I think the first of these three problems is solved; lots of developers are sick of the current industry conditions, and looking for alternative paths to market and alternative funding models. The second problem hasn't been solved yet, but between the casual game market, the move of niche PC publishers to online distribution, and entities like the IGF and Garage Games, people are at least trying. And I figured, okay, nobody is talking about this issue on G4, it probably won't make a big difference, but maybe it will help a little bit.

So what the hell, and I enjoyed it; LA is pleasant this time of year, they put me up in a hotel on the Santa Monica waterfront, and several people there claimed to read my blog.

I did, however, leave this post from Videogame Ombudsman up on the screen on the computer in the green room at G4's studio....

Twelve hours of air travel for four minutes of air time is pretty ridiculous, though.... don't know that I'd do this again.

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