WEEK 4: Video Games

Video Games: play / agency / game studies

Prepare Juul, Jesper. “The Game, the Player, the World: Looking for a Heart of Gameness.” Level Up: Digital Games Research Conference Proceedings. Utrecht, 2003.
Juul Game Player World

Tanenbaum, Karen and Joshua Tanenbaum. “Commitment to Meaning: A Reframing of Agency in Games.” Proceedings of Digital Arts and Culture Conference, 2009.
Tanenbaum Games & Agency

Play or watch play-through: The Stanley Parable (2011); Her Story (Sam Barlow, 2015); a sandbox game (Grand Theft Auto V, Skyrim, Minecraft, etc.)
Guest Speaker An Associate Professor in the Interactive Media Division of the School of Cinematic Arts, Richard Lemarchand is a game designer, a writer, a public speaker and a consultant. Between 2004 and 2012, Richard was a Lead Game Designer at Naughty Dog in Santa Monica, California. He led the design of all three games in the Uncharted series including Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, and Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, winner of ten AIAS Interactive Achievement Awards, five Game Developers Choice Awards, four BAFTAs and over 200 Game of the Year awards. Richard also worked on Uncharted: Drake’s FortuneJak 3 and Jak X: Combat Racing for Naughty Dog, and helped to create the successful game series GexPandemonium and Soul Reaver at Crystal Dynamics in the San Francisco Bay Area. He got his game industry start at MicroProse in the UK, where he co-founded the company’s console game division. Richard has made storytelling action games the focus of his career, and he is interested in the way that narrative, aesthetics and gameplay work together to hold a player’s attention and facilitate the expression of their agency.

5 thoughts on “WEEK 4: Video Games

  1. What I found most provocative about Juul’s “The Game, the Player, the World: Looking for a Heart of Gameness” was his discussion of ‘transmedial gaming.’ It brought to mind what Neil Postman refers to as ‘medium as metaphor,’ or the idea that certain mediums are better suited for/can produce certain results—this being similar to McLuhan’s “the medium is the message.” Juul’s gets at this concept when he states, “[w]hile it is clear that something can be passed between a novel and a movie and back, it is also clear that not everything passes equally well. For example, novels are strong in creating inner voices and thoughts, while movies better at conveying movement” (Juul 9). As a result of this phenomenon, a medium might influence us in specific ways and further, will influence its content—for example, the television has made a spectacle of the news, a once more information based practice, provided by the newspaper. Taking this into account, that different mediums render different results, Juul’s point that, like narrative, “there is no single medium or set of props that is the game medium […] no set of equipment or material support common to all games” (Juul 9) becomes something that could be interrogated. To quote Postman, “[a] person who reads a book or who watches television or who glances at his watch is not usually interested in how his mind is organized and controlled by these events, still less in what idea of the world is suggested by a book, television, or a watch.”

    As Juul’s decides medium does not in itself define a game, he does lay out criteria or the immaterial support that determines a game’s qualities. This criteria being: [1] “Rules,” [2] “Variable, quantifiable outcome” [3] “Value assigned to possible outcomes,” [4] “Player effort,” [5] “Player attached to outcome,” and [6] “Negotiable consequences” (Juul 5). And these qualities can, of course, be manifested via any viable medium. A board and game pieces, cards, a road and car, a field and the human body, a home, and before the invention of the computer, the rules were usually determined and regulated by the computing power of the human brain. A game’s dependence on a brain or “computational processing of data” (Juul 11), is what Juul feels made the computer such a natural fit for the game, as it now allows us to play without having to mentally keep track of the rules and game state.

    Given the now common existence of the computer game (and when I say computer game, I am referring to all computer games, console games, and the like), if medium influences content, it’s worth asking what games have become common in our digital age. Video game commentator, Anita Sarkeesian, has noted that over that past few years the majority of games debuted at E3 (or the Electronic Entertainment Expo, a highly anticipated, yearly event that premieres the industry’s newest games) have been combat based—this number usually lingering around 80%. In addition, and, of course, not surprisingly, the games also feature very few female protagonists, Sarkeesian’s site claiming 9% in 2015, and the few women who are included (leads or not) are usually heavily sexualized in a specific scantily clad manor. Other entertainment industries, like film, also have more male protagonists than female, but this number is still significantly larger, 37% in 2016. There are also far fewer movies centered around combat.

    It’s easy to chalk this state of affairs up to the men making the games and tech being a misogynistic and male dominated industry, but I think this is too easy. Most industries are male dominated. What’s more interesting, to me at least, is asking what is it about the computer that lends itself to this kind of game play? Is it the visuality? Is it the fictive environment (see Westworld) that lends itself consequence free vice? Is there something specific about the hardware? What is it about this medium that seems to lend itself so well to shooting sprees and sexism? Given that computers (and video games) are here to stay, this violent proliferation might very well be worth our attention.

  2. I’ve never really understood the practice of creating a definition of something based in deriving features from an included set that has already been decided on. The vast majority of the time, the features feel forced; they’re added or altered to fit the pre-defined contours of what is and is not supposed to fit the definition. That’s exactly what Jesper Juul does in “The game, the player, the world: Looking for a heart of gameness.” He starts from a premise that certain things are and are not games, and creates a definition to match that gut feeling. For me, that makes the definition feel largely useless because it ultimately breaks back down to Juul’s gut — especially when it comes to border cases. In Juul’s definition, everything with his six features is a game, but not everything missing a single feature becomes a borderline case. Instead, some, like traffic, are simply not games. Even some that are ostensibly missing the same feature are in different spaces, as according to Juul, both pen & paper role-playing games and free-form play are missing fixed rules — but the former is a border case while the latter is simply not a game.

    That said, there are a lot of interesting questions that are raised by examining the edges of the features that Juul lays out.

    1. What is the role of fun in playing games? Juul’s fifth feature, the attachment of the player to the outcome, has a strange definition of spoilsport: one who refuses to become unhappy by losing. There’s a certain tension here with the way that Juul articulates variable and quantifiable outcome. The reasons Juul gives for playing sub-optimally are, on their surface level, so something stays a game — but as someone who has played a lot of games with friends, the conscious reason is so that the game stays fun. Usually, as with the chess example, I create additional rules for myself and then try to have fun within those rules. It feels, ultimately, similar to Juul’s Pac Man example — I play to make pretty patterns. Does choosing to play by a different (not fixed) set of rules mean that something ceases to be a game while I play that way? Or is the definition of a game in the rules that exist prior to any player interaction? In the case of a video game, is the game an artifact that can be played with as well as played, meaning at times it ceases to be the same game? Am I sometimes playing with Skyrim and other times playing Skyrim? Is creating that distinction useful, especially in the context of video games?

    2. What does it mean for something that is almost always serious to be defined as a game? What does it mean that regardless of whether it’s defined as on game on the outside, some people approach traffic, elections, and the like as games? Because while it’s certainly true that they always have consequences, there are a very large number of people who conceptualize elections as games to be won, and traffic as a real-life version of a driving video game. This is, ultimately, what bothered me most about the article — Juul decided at the outset these things must not be games, and so built a definition that could exclude them and then leave aside the implications of their inclusion.

    3. What is the problem with including player intention in the definition of a game? There seems to be a very clear desire on Juul’s part to define a game based around its existence with idealized players who follow mostly optimal strategies. It seems to me that in a lot of cases, including something along the lines of “intent to play a game” as part of the definition would allow for a slackening of the formal definitions that unnecessarily exclude things, while also allowing for things we do not often consider games to be them when they are played as such.

  3. My impulse when analyzing games, as all media, is to regard them as fractal replicas of bigger realities or micro-enactments of the broader epistemic and ideological assumptions that constitute our realities. All of the scholars we have read on games this week and last (Noah Wardrip-Fruin et al., Jesper Juul, and Karen and Joshua Tanenbaum) are either totalitarians or, more likely, are in implicit disagreement with this notion that we can conceive of games as analogs for bigger systems. Juul describes the game most fundamentally as a “rule-based formal system,” and reflects that one of the reasons computers and games have been so compatible is that computers can now enforce the rules of the game. Upholding the supremacy of rules, Wardrip-Fruin et al. and the Tanenbaums argue in different ways that agency must be conceptualized as distinct from freedom, and must instead be defined within the parameters of rules as a playful exchange between the limits they impose and the creativity possible within or despite their supreme sovereignty. Filmmakers like Abbas Kiarostami and the proponents of Dogma 95 have made similar claims about the benefits of constrictions (in Kiarostami’s case, censorship) on creative expression. I disagree with this view; anyone who is creative under restrictive conditions can also be creative under nonrestrictive conditions. The Tanenbaums claim that “all meaningful content in a game world involves a restriction of the player’s freedom at some level […] we need constraints in order to make interactive experiences meaningful and pleasurable.” They want to shift our understanding of agency from unrestricted freedom to a commitment to meaning, “towards the intent which underlies that choice.” But as we discussed last week, one of the greatest achievements of contemporary power has been to make actions feel meaningful when the intentionality behind them is implanted. I think this brings us to a standstill—game systems depend on rules, and when taken as analogs they will necessarily uphold the authority of the law. Is there a way around this? I understand why games need rules, but I wonder where this leaves us if we want to think about games as being about more than just games. (For instance, what is the relationship between the ‘game contract’ and the ‘social contract,’ especially where rules are concerned?)
    I’m also interested in how reality and fiction figure in these articles—a line of inquiry that might bridge the insular world of the game with its broader ‘real-world’ implications. Juul raises but ultimately sidesteps the issue of fiction in games. It seems to me that fixating on the fictionality of a game is superfluous since the vast majority of games that might be described as fictional use this component as an entertaining backdrop that in no way transforms the fundamental components of the game system. The more significant modifier would be a nonfictional game that makes an explicit truth claim and in that sense raises the stakes and nature of the interaction. But beyond this, questions of representation and the language of non/fiction seem less important to me than the fact that games are experienced as real and are part of our realities. As Juul observes, the emotions that ensue from a player winning or losing a game affect them in actuality. Juul later offers a more succinct definition of the game as “a real rule-based system that players interact with in the real world.” Similarly, the Tanenbaums describe meaningful choices as “the ones in which the illocutionary commitments entailed by the utterance/action are real.” What do they mean by ‘real’?
    Milton Friedman described people’s real quotidian activities as “the actions of participants in a game when they are playing it” and the legal framework that ‘frees’ the free market as “the rules of the game.” Here, neoliberalism’s homo economicus resembles game theory’s radical mechanization of the subject, although real-world tests of game theory scenarios have consistently found its presumption of a fundamentally selfish subject to be flawed. This is why I think we find something liberatory in the Tanenbaum’s turn to speech act theory, because it makes room for a player who desires something other than capitalistic accumulation and may just want Pac Man to “move in a pretty way.”

  4. In Jesper Juul’s “The Game, the Player, the World: Looking for a Heart of Gameness”, Juul attempts to define the rules that apply to all games. He lists six features that he believes that games share: fixed rules, a variable and quantifiable outcome, valorization of the outcome, player effort, attachment of the player to the outcome, and negotiable consequences. However, he concludes that the definition of games is a rule-based system in which players interact in the real world. One of his points that I found interesting, and a little laughable, is when he asks why there is an affinity between games and computers and why aren’t games played on other technologies. I just found it laughable that he would even mention a microwave or an airplane as a tool to play games. He does, however, mention the telephone. Granted that this paper was written in 2003, I will accept his question about why games are not played on the telephone, although I wonder if games could be played over the telephone, not a cell phone. I wonder what would be Juul’s opinion about the explosion of cell phones and how games are especially designed for smart phone use, as well as tablets and iPods. Would he consider any changes to his definition of games? Juul also mentions conflict relating to games, that this leads to goals that the player must reach. I believe this is an important aspect of games, as well as story telling. I believe that not only does conflict create a set of goals that must be reached by the player, but it also keeps the player interested and entertained.

    In “Commitment to Meaning: A Reframing of Agency in Games”, Karen and Joshua Tenenbaum explore the concept of agency and how it is particularly applied to games based on narrative. Karen and Josh suggest that agency is better understood when story and play cross paths. They say that agency is “better understood as a commitment to meaning.” I agree with their argument because that is what makes narrative gameplay fulfilling. I found Gonzalo Frasca’s point about the “more freedom the player is given, the less personality the character will have” to be very true and important to narrative game play. He states that the character then becomes a “cursor for the player’s actions.” One of my favorite games to play is “Red Dead Redemption.” I’ve played it multiple times, not only because it is one of my favorite games, but because I can’t afford to buy new games. But it is evident that your choices to affect the personality of John Marston. The choices you make determine the character’s honor, which will then affect how other characters in the world of RDR react to John. This will also present obstacles you must face as John based on your decisions. However, John does have some limitations, in the story of RDR, because they are based on his personality which you help to develop based on your decisions. I believe there have to be limitations to the actions and characters because this gives the story and your actions meaning. This is what makes the game’s end so devastating, or fulfilling, based on the path you choose to take.
    When agency as freedom is mentioned, they bring up the post that by making more choices available to the player, the player can then have “freedom to act upon the world without restriction.” I do not particularly agree with this because the player still does not have true freedom in the game because everything has already been predetermined for the player. Will there ever be true freedom in gameplay if program is needed for the game to exist? Probably not.

  5. This week’s readings about video games primarily focused on two concepts: the development of a formal definition of games (Juul’s article) and the role of agency in narrative-oriented games (The Tanenbaums’ article).

    For Juul, all games can be said to have six qualities: games are rule-based, they have variable quantifiable outcomes, these outcomes have assigned value, games engage player effort, the player is attached to the outcome, and consequences are negotiable. These formal qualities can be applied to all games, not just video games. Juul argues that games are transmedial; they are not isolated to one particular medium over another but, in fact, move through and amongst different media forms. This understanding allows Juul to place video games in the history of all games.

    The Tanenbaums’ article is useful because it allows us to move past what I find to be tiring understandings of player agency in games that both a) presupposes players are automatically empowered because they “interact” with the video game and b) privileges action for its own sake in games instead of interrogating what we are being asked to do. What I found interesting in their article is their description of game designer’s understanding of agency as freedom from constraints. This idea seems aligned with a libertarian political view and it would be interesting to see a further exploration of the political ideologies of game designers, the political implications of their understanding of agency, and the consequences this has on game design and content. The Tannenbaum’s insistence that constrains can enhance gameplay and meaning is a useful antidote to the insistence that meaning only derives from unrestricted action.

    For the Tannebaums, defining player agency around notions of choice and freedom positions designers and players in an antagonistic relationship. Instead of seeing the player as a collaborator in play, designers see players as “agents of chaos” (3) that have to be worked around. The definition is also limiting because it doesn’t explain why players have strong attachments to games with limited freedoms and choices. Instead, they argue that player agency is best understood, at least in narrative-oriented games, around the notion of meaningful commitment, which they adapt from speech act theory. A meaningful commitment arises when the player is asked to follow through on their actions in such a way that the intent behind the action is connected with the outcome. Agency in games, then, is not about choices or freedoms, but about “expressing intent and receiving a satisfying response to that intent” (9).

    I appreciated Juul’s analysis of games that doesn’t think of video games as separate from other games. I did, however, find the formal definition of games somewhat limited. From an historical perspective, it’s not clear to me how we can find these formal qualities in games of the past without archaeological or historical evidence, of which he provides none. Further, as Juul himself points out, some of his formal qualities can apply to things that we don’t consider games, such as the stock market, war, or elections. But, why aren’t they games? Juul’s answer is a bit unclear. He relies upon an idealistic definition of games that doesn’t take into account how gameplay actually unfolds or the various contexts in which play occurs. If anything, this understanding prevents us from seeing how game-like elements can be evidenced in many aspects of contemporary life. We might be critical of the game-like qualities we find in, let’s say, the stock market considering its vast influence on everyday life regardless of whether we are “playing” or not.

Leave a Reply