What I Mean When I Talk About Games Literacy

27 July 2010

I mentioned I was thinking about Games Literacy a lot at the moment. Here’s a rough braindump of what I wrap up in that phrase. This is crudely written, half-formed thought – exactly what blogs are designed for – but by god, I’ve got to get it out in order to start refining it.

Firstly: understanding games – board games, card games, especially video games – as systemic media (to quote Eric Zimmerman) is vital, and whilst there’s more coverage and criticism than ever – from a swathe of informed if slightly self-important bloggers, myself included, to increasing column inches in serious publications – I’m not sure about the quality all of it. I’ve ranted about this before with regards to a particularly poor example, which managed to totally ignore What Made Games Games, for instance. Jason McIntosh has a great article on criticism not being about personal enthusiasm, but about a canonical understanding.

Historiography is particularly lousy when it comes to games. There are loads of great games still to be made, and loads that have already been made, but if you’re going to make one – or even criticise one – it helps to have that sense of historiography. I’m concerned by the poor knowledge of the medium that so many creators have – giant gaps in their memory of the medium, both analogue and digital. I don’t know what the fix is, but this is something that needs sorting soon, and in the meantime, my only solution is: play more games. Not just new games, not just videogames: anything and everything. Study the form; apply that knowledge.

If literacy is about both reading and writing in a medium, then it’s important to address games-literacy as it relates to games making. Or, more simply: understanding games through making games. The best way to explain something about a medium isn’t always to talk about it; you’re often better off explaining by making.

A great example of that is Ian Bogost’s recent Cow Clicker. Rather than detailing all his problems with Farmville through writing alone, Bogost made a game. The game is definitely satire, but it’s a systemic satire. There’s no fakery; it’s not a gag pretending to be a game, or a series of “what-if” screengrabs; it’s a real set of rules and systems that slowly make the absurdity of Farmville et al evident. You can play it. That’s what gives it its power: feeling the systems in action; seeing those clicked cows appear in your activity stream.

Of course, it strips some of the fluffy surface layers away from Farmville to expose nothing but the systems underneath – which is where the bite of its satire lies – but it’s very much satire embodied as a ruleset. Bogost calls this “method design”. For me, it’s very much criticism-through-making. And, of course, through the process of making such a thing, you come to understand it better as well.

By contrast, a classic example of poor-literacy exposed in the writing-mode is the problem of harvesting the Little Sisters in BioShock. The game is, nominally, about choice and free will; one particular system – choosing to spare or harvest the Little Sisters – is supposedly a clear embodiment of this. Except, when you look at the benefits for taking one or other course throughout the game… numerically, at the systems level, there’s barely any difference. Doesn’t matter what you do; you still get loads of ADAM, and with almost no difference in the long-term.

One name for that is “ludonarrative dissonance“, the story and systems being out of kilter; my name for it is “lousy design”. Games are about systems; if the system doesn’t say what you mean to say, why on earth would any number of layers of aesthetics salvage that?

Soren Johnson’s excellent GDC talk Theme Is Not Meaning covers this exact area, and it’s great. At the same time: I wish talks like that didn’t need to be written. Because it’s not an advanced topic for really advanced game designers; it’s fundamental.

How do you fix that? I think one major, major part of the solution is: you make more games.

I’m serious. Just make more. They don’t have to be big, you don’t have to sell them, you just have to make the damn things. I met students on computer-games courses last year, and, whilst my opinion of those courses has risen somewhat, I was horrified by how few games they were actually making on them. Many of them would have a mere handful in their portfolio (aside from their year in industry), some as few as two or three. Purely by dint of turning up at the 48-hour game jam I was helping judge, they’d made one more game than their contemporaries.

How many games could they churn out if they made much smaller, much simpler things, on the side? How many card games, for instance, had they made? Denki prototyped Quarrel as a boardgame, simply for speed of iteration. You learn a lot by making games and playing them with people, even if they’re barely more sophisticated than Snap; and then, you make them better, or you make them again. Putting all your knowledge into one or two titles – even if, as with the slowly dwindling AAA-console market, they take several years of your life – just isn’t a viable way of learning.

It’s so important to remind people that games are not one very slight thing; games is a thousands-year-old discipline, with culture, and heritage, and so much prior art. It’s important to understand that they’re not reserved for special, hallowed creators, with development studios or bedroom-coder legacies; anyone can make them, and anyone can make them better.

I think the way you understand games better is that you make more of them. And it doesn’t matter how you make them – be it in XNA or Dvorak, or LittleBigPlanet, or Inform7, or GameMaker, or Flixel or a deck of blank cards or a packet of balloons. What matters is that you do make them. Because that’s how you’ll come to understand them.

So I’m thinking about this a lot, and where to apply the patches, or what to do as a result – if there’s anything other than vague hand-waving and ranting here, and the vague conclusion: play more games, make more games. And yes, for someone who talked about understanding-as-making, that was a lot of chat. I’m working on it.

  • "We made no attempt to check the accuracy of the story before publication and did not contact Rockstar Games prior to publishing the story. We also did not question why a best selling and critically acclaimed fictional games series would choose to base one of their most popular games on this horrifying real crime event… It is now accepted that there were never any plans by Rockstar Games to publish such a game and that the story was false. We apologise for publishing the story using a mock-up of the game cover, our own comments on the matter and soliciting critical comments from a grieving family member. " The combination of "no attempt to check the accuracy" and "soliciting critical comments from a grieving family member" is really quite astonishing. Idiots.
  • "I suspect a lot of people aren't sure what's the top idea in their mind at any given time. I'm often mistaken about it. I tend to think it's the idea I'd want to be the top one, rather than the one that is. But it's easy to figure this out: just take a shower. What topic do your thoughts keep returning to? If it's not what you want to be thinking about, you may want to change something."

Five Things I’m Thinking About

25 July 2010

Everyone’s doing it, so let’s get this out of the way.

1. Games Literacy

Almost certainly top of the list: this topic has been bugging me for a long while now, and I’m slowly finding ways to express what I mean by it. In a nutshell:

The standard of literacy around/about games is pretty bad. By which I mean: the understanding of games as games. What does that cover? It covers the understanding of them not as “movies with choices” (although they may have a narrative or plot), but as things in their own right, built around systems and players, and the interactions thereof. This isn’t about raising the standard of capital-C Criticism, as seen in magazines and papers and countless blogs around the internet; it’s about making lower-case-c criticism more prevalent, better understood, and even possible.

Also: there’s something about Alan Kay’s explanation of literacy, namely, the ability to read and write in a medium. Read-literacy is better than ever when it comes to games; write-literacy is perhaps worse than ever. How do you go about solving that?

In a nutshell: what does literacy for a systemic medium look like, and how do you go about improving it or educating it? How can we claim to be literate when we still need to remind professional games developers that “Theme Is Not Meaning“?

(I cut a vast chunk of exposition and further analysis here, and I’ll put it together in another post shortly).

2. Asymmetric systems and games

I talked a bit about Waldschattenspiel (video here) at Wonderlab, and it left me thinking a lot about asymmetric games and systems that, whilst asymmetric are, nevertheless, fair. To keep using games as an example, for now: games that offer the players different (though sometimes complementary) skill-sets, sometimes differing in capability, sometimes in power – and yet manage to be fair, well-balanced systems.

There’s something delightful in discovering the power in what initially felt like an inherently weak position. There’s something lovely about affording all the players different capabilities, that slowly turn out to be useful. It’s very easy to make a balanced system by simply mirroring capabilities – and it’s a very easy system to “read”. But I think the more satisfying ones are asymmetric, where series of rules interact with each other, and more delightful to be part of.

I’m trying to work out how that applies to systems that aren’t games.

3. Text Adventures / Interactive Fiction

I’m a self-confessed IF fan, even if I’m not as up-to-date as I was. When Peter asked me for a quick tour of the genre, I ended up playing a whole pile of adventures again and got sucked in. There’s so much invention and great writing buried in this genre, and it’s a real joy to find its gems. And, of course, it got me thinking about what I could do with the genre…

…which is why I now appear to be writing a text adventure. Or rather: before I can write the one I’d like to, I’m writing one about tidying my flat, purely as a learning exercise. It’s turning out to be surprisingly challenging but also great fun – in part because Inform 7 is a surreal joy to write. Here’s some sample code so far:

The bedroom window is north of the bedroom. It is scenery, a door and open.

Instead of examining the bedroom window:
  if the bedroom window is open, say "The bedroom window is open. [first time] A gentle breeze wafts through the bedroom. [only] Through the glass, you can see [description of the neighbouring gardens]" in sentence case;
  if the bedroom window is closed, say "The bedroom window is closed tight. Through the glass, you can see [description of the neighbouring gardens]" in sentence case.

Marvellous.

4. A history of music through preset sounds

Talking to Pat and Momus at Wonderlab last week, I hit briefly on the idea of a history of music through preset sounds: the default timbres built into electronic instruments, before they become edited or overwritten by musicians. This is mainly a product of the digital era, when preset memory became possible, but it has a nice: from original Mellotron tapes, through default disks with early samplers like the Fairlight or Synclavier, into the 80s and the FM synthesizers (and all those DX7 presets – the pianos, the basses), and then into the PCM era.

But, of course, there’s a separate history: one of the original sounds being sampled by musicians who couldn’t afford the real instrument; one of entire records being sampled, presets from one era burnt into the music of another; one of software and hardware being capable enough not to sample but actually model or emulate the instruments in question; and right up to the restoration and repair of old instruments – or the way circuit-bending takes old presets and makes them eternally new.

Mainly, though, I was thinking of a history of music seen through the TR-909 hi-hat – which is a sample, not analogue, a cymbal played in a studio somewhere in the world and reproduced across music for thirty years – or Fairlight Orchestra Hit 5, echoing across music and soundtracks for generations.

5. Driving

This year, I completed my New Year’s Resolution for 2006 (and, frankly, 2009-present) by passing my driving test. I now own a small car and have become a driver.

And it’s really reshaped the way I see the world. The country is now a different shape, for starters: it used to be pinched around train stations, between which I could travel quickly, but then was reliant on cabs and lifts and walking. All of a sudden, places that were surprisingly tricky to get to are now trivial. And also: places that were quick to get to can now be slow, should I choose. (Thanks, Old Kent Road).

My requirements for the road system are now different: I now care more about the A-roads I might have to take than when really, the only roads I needed fixed were in Southwark, making my bus rides bumpy. My requirements of the economy are different: I don’t feel great owning a petrol-powered car in 2010, especially as I watch two oil spills on opposite sides of the world, but I recognise the convenience I’m buying at a cost. I love trains (when they’re on time), because I like the views, and I work surprisingly well on them. I can’t work in the car, but I gain agency and a strange kind of relaxation.

And, of course, the systems return. It took driving alone to understand it: driving isn’t an action you perform, it’s a system you join. Traffic is lots of people driving all at once, and as long as they all roughly conform, not much bad happens. Driving’s frightening at first, because it feels like everything is on you: you have to be perfect all the time. But in fact: everyone else is juggling that responsibility as well, and we all make up for other deficiencies, and a system slowly emerges. The point of the driving test is not to assess perfection: it’s to assess if you’re good enough to be part of the system. And then the system takes over, and you fit in with everybody else.

As Jeff Noon pointed out in Pollen, the cars are the map. It took learning to drive, and doing it, to realise what that really meant.


And that’s my list, I think. A bit long, but definitely what’s on my brain right now, and a rough glance at what thinking about it feels like to me.

(Yes, there are no comments on this post. Feel free to email me, or link to this, or talk about it in your own space. These are very unformed thoughts that require further thought. I’m interested in discussion, but as a furthering exercise, not footnotes)

Links & notes for this month