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.