最近，随着平台游戏题材在独立游戏中的重生，这种设计观念有点复苏的势头。这些新亚里士多德游戏并不像“经典亚里士多德游戏”，因为他们不对玩家的失败进行严厉的惩罚 。如果玩家在游戏过程中死亡的话，通常会从死亡的那个场景重新开始，而且游戏角色的生命数量无线，并非《洛克人》那样强迫玩家在生命耗尽之后完全从新开始。然而，虽然 游戏通过这些小改动来提升易用性，但是这些游戏仍然有很大的难度，需要玩家的反应能力。
现在，想象下整个世界充斥着Ted之类的玩家。他们无一认同《洛克人》是款优秀的游戏，然而这并没有让游戏的质量有所下降。这些玩家的个人经历玷污了《洛克人》的纯洁本质 ，也就是说，《洛克人》仍然保持其优秀的本性，但是是独立于那些无法击败Top Man阶段的拙劣玩家之外。他们只是无法认同和感受到游戏的优秀之处而已。
游戏是否变得更加“政治化”，如果是这样的话，那么依我们的标准这些还能否视为“优秀的游戏”？如果EA坚持将塔利班作为可玩派系添加到《荣誉勋章》中，那么这算是优秀 的品味抑或只是宣传计划，或者这只是个游戏根本不值得我们如此严肃地探讨？如果有的话，那么什么才是通用于有关当前事件的高度政治化游戏和完全非政治化游戏的黄金法则 呢？
“艺术游戏”究竟是个合情合理的题材还是在将来没有发展空间，因为所有的游戏本质上都具有艺术性？然而，Tale of Tales声称“游戏并非艺术”，支持全新题材的互动艺术， 否认规则、目标和机制的重要性。如果有的话，那么什么才是通用于这些“非游戏”和游戏之间的黄金方法呢？
我们是应该将《FarmVille》视为“社交游戏”，还是视为不受许多硬核玩家喜爱的“肤浅”游戏，还是像Warren Spector在PAX 2010的主题演讲中所说的那样，只是硬核玩家在电 子游戏新玩家和那些老玩家（游戏邦注：这些人关注主机、订阅《PC Gamer》而且知道小岛秀夫之类的著名开发者）之间人为建立起的一道障碍？如果有的话，那么什么才是通用 于“社交游戏”和所谓的“传统游戏”的黄金法则呢？
这些人通常是中产年轻人，他们是传统观念中的“玩家”，但值得庆幸的是此刻板观念如今已逐步消失。这些玩家已内化1983年的崩溃局面，行业亦是如此。他们通过严格质量控 制以及着眼大众“娱乐”寻求稳定（例如，“哇，PlayStation 2也可以播放DVD！”），最近则通过通俗性扩大用户基础。
强调收集数据——很多时候是平衡多人游戏的定量数据，是游戏设计的经验探讨。通俗性是指提出假设（“若Protoss Zealot的制作时间更久，将能够平衡早期游戏困扰”）以及 收集证据确认或否定假设（“Protoss如今在4分钟Gold联盟中赢得较少比赛”）。
想象在《军团要塞 2》中，数据显示鲜有玩家选择间谍角色——这是否意味着火焰兵过于强大，工程师太难消灭，或其他信息？（我们需要更多数据）若间谍难以消灭工程师，是 否由于热门地图的特定强大地点存在关卡设计问题，或者存在相关声音漏洞，间谍的斗篷声响过大，或者存在平衡问题：间谍的斗篷无法维持至穿过前线？（我们需要更多数据） 。或者只有少数玩家扮演间谍角色是件好事？（这看情况）。
在《Left 4 Dead 2》中，玩家投票选择保持那些游戏模式；在《Halo: Reach》中，Bungie通过投票结果平衡多人播放列表。渐渐地，玩家如今开始通过直接民主方式做出游戏设 计决策。
你如何知晓某组数据或诠释信息未来是否还会适用？有些玩家会出于某些原因突然扮演间谍角色。也许有天你的整个玩家经济形态就突然采用Stone of Jordans充当货币，而非金 子或宝石。或者明天重力就会忽然停止存在。
将此态度同经典亚里士多德玩家中心主义理念比较——玩家会抱怨“《洛克人》由于Cold Fusion Man难度过大”，Capcom的回应可能是，“你如何获得这些数据？”
-Tim Schafer（游戏邦注：欧美游戏设计师）回答是，因为游戏与艺术一样也能够表达人们的想法和情感。《Shadow of the Colossus》让我和我父亲都大受感动。游戏后我们都 安静地待在一间屋子里一个小时之久。
-Roger Ebert（游戏邦注：美国最富盛名的影评人）的回答是否定的，他认为艺术是艺术家的创作，而在游戏中却能由玩家创造结果，这种灵活性违背了艺术的意义。人们愿意目 睹悲剧的发生，但是却没有哪一个玩家愿意悲剧出现在自己身上——他们都希望能拥有一个“美好的结局”。
-Tale of Tales工作室的答案也是否定的，他们认为艺术是死的而游戏是活的——也可以说是一种“昏睡状态”，但是至少是有生命的。之所以说游戏是一种“昏睡状态”是由游 戏本身富有创造性的设置和情节所决定。
例如，在你的脑子里画一个圈。那有可能是一个很完美的圈。然后尝试徒手，或者使用模板，Photoshop的“画圆”工具画下这个圈。但是不论你如何努力，你所画出的圈都与你脑 子里完美的圈存在一定的差距，有可能是像素，分子或者原子而导致的差距。同样的，其它美好的东西在我们用物理表现形式展现出来后总是会与理想效果有所偏离，而仅仅只能 作为我们心中完美意象的仿造物罢了。
很多哲学家并不同意在死板的和谐原则下形成的美学观点。他们创造了一种区别于美的“敬畏感”。这种“敬畏感”更为深奥，人类并不能轻易理解它，除非你能在站在太空轨道 上俯视地球或者观看到原子弹爆炸等轰动场景才能有所体会。而且这种敬畏感并没有明确指明什么是好的什么是坏的，什么是有趣的什么是无聊的等等。（一些哲学家一直在尝试 着将这种敬畏感区分为微弱的敬畏感和强大的敬畏感等等。）
当然看，对于Tale of Tales回答“不”也是有原因的，我个人也蛮支持他们的论点。怎样才能制作一款好游戏？那就是不要一味地遵循各种条条框框并强迫玩家反复做着相同的事 。
为了抵制这种空虚的娱乐形式，马克思主义支持一种全新的游戏模式，即强调社会中的经济不平等，富人的权利不断扩大，穷人的地位越来越渺小等主题。但在马克思主义问世之 前，有一种被称为“社会现实主义”的艺术传统就已经存在了（但如今却深受马克思主义的影响），其观点认为一款好的游戏必须代表世界正义，批评任何非正义行为，并为正义 而战。
精巧的讽刺性小游戏，如《McDonalds Game》和《Oilgarchy》（游戏邦注：该工作室最近还推出了颇有争议的iOS游戏《Phone Story》）等去描绘各种迫切的社会需
求。“Newsgames”将报章杂志与游戏机制结合在一起创造了一种全新风格。非盈利组织Games for Change提倡将人权问题，贫穷以及全球化冲突等问题带入游戏中。我还将阐述《 合金装备》系列，《生化奇兵》系列，《侠盗猎车手：圣安地列斯》和《Deus Ex》等游戏在一种社会现实环境下是如何抨击它们所抵制的价值观。相信未来将会有更多游戏加入这 个行列。
一位有名的马克思主义艺术家Bertolt Brecht认为不论是在电影，油画还是电子游戏上实行这种模式都将呈现出一种根本的政治性问题，因为它将带动观看者或者玩家变得更加具 有批判性。
另外一位具有影响力的新马克思主义理论家Theodor Adorno宣称艺术不能带有政治性。他认为艺术品（如电子游戏）是一种表达形式，是判断一种东西是否存在的个人自由。出于 商业用途或社会善行等而把艺术（或者游戏）当成一种工具，你将不得不牺牲一些个人自由——而牺牲艺术家的自由完全是背叛艺术本质的行为，而因此变成艺术家行列中具有“ 虚假意识”的马克思主义者。
《You Have to Burn the Rope》和《pOnd》看起来就与我们在之前讨论过的现代游戏设计（即分别注重游戏的“通俗性”和“艺术价值”）有点格格不入。在此看来，一款好的游 戏总是会通过讽刺，仿效或者幽默等方式去批判那些大受欢迎的设计原则。
《You Have to Burn the Rope》明确地告诉了玩家如何做才能赢得游戏（就像游戏标题所表示的那样）而这却违背了传统游戏规则——Boss在平台上抗争着，玩家必须仔细观察他 的行动并判断他的弱点，以决定如何前进或者制定出相应解决方法。正是在如此情况下，该游戏的做法让人认为要让游戏变得更加简单，就应该剔除游戏中的所有难点。但是这么 做却导致了荒诞的结果。（除此之外，在《pOnd》中玩家无需了解游戏就可以玩得很好了。如果深入去研究这款游戏反倒会破坏游戏本身的乐趣。）
程序主义指的是放下游戏开发者的身份，即在游戏制作中，自己设计一部分游戏或者自己勾画游戏。当然了，我们可以讨论作者使用的特殊单词有何寓意，或者为何作曲家在歌曲 的末尾将音量提升等等，但是如果关卡设计者按照自己的想法设置游戏关卡，那么很有可能会因此违背了创作者的指示吧？这么看来，一款好游戏的制作不应该被创作者牢牢控制 着。（这与《使命召唤》和《荣誉勋章》系列等严格遵从“剧本”而制作出来的游戏有所不同。）
我们是否会因为游戏开发者Derek Yu在《Spelunky》（一款动作类游戏）中设置了一个不可能通过的洞穴关卡而不满？就像在游戏《求生之路》中，我们是否会因为被袭击而责怪 虚拟的AI角色，尽管这都是游戏中一些非特定的行为。这些游戏都很重视游戏设计，特别是一款最“有野心”的游戏——《Facade》，尝试地制作出非玩家角色（NPC）背景和完整 的叙述环境。
我个人最赞同的便是随机生成的游戏变化。在masocore平台上的《Dungeon》便是按照玩家的电脑情况而生成一些机制，但同时这些机制也将会随机给游戏带来新的漏洞或者相应地 改变游戏模式。因此玩家必须面对一种矛盾的游戏设置，即在不同的电脑上，游戏中的“钉子”长度会不同，他们所面对的游戏关卡难度也会有所不同，因为很有可能他们所进行 的游戏也存在着一些不同点。
Ian Bogost的程序主义认为游戏（传统上我们称之为“艺术游戏”）通过规则和机制表现出审美观点。按照这种“程序说法”，一款好的游戏能让玩家追求情感和心理空间，或者 能够帮助他们更好地了解现存的商业游戏。
或者以《Beyond Good & Evil》为例，这是一款关于收集照片的单人动作游戏。在游戏中，玩家通过拍摄稀有生物的照片而获得积分，但是有时候这些生物也有可能会吞噬掉你的 NPC好友。你会先拯救好友还是先拍照获得积分？在冲突中进行拍照任务时，玩家应该如何做才能躲避危险？
不知道IO Interactive（Square Enix旗下的一个丹麦电子游戏开发商）或Ubisoft在设计游戏时是否会想到这些问题。但是不论答案肯定与否，都不重要。重要的是玩家能够通过 与游戏机制间的互动而推测游戏的意义。这么看来，程序主义不只不能被称为游戏设计的哲学观点，也不算是游戏哲学和演绎，即我们在第一部分文章中提到的推动游戏发生转变的相关内容。
但是有些设计师却认为程序主义是个死胡同，因为比起更深层次的艺术表达，它更重视商业游戏中相同的游戏设置。走在这些设计师前沿的便是游戏开发商Tale of Tales，他们眼 中的新型电子游戏是：
非游戏（notgames）——借鉴了视频游戏中的一些元素，如游戏控制，实时3D图像等，但同时也力图打破如今束缚着游戏的一些规则和机制。这种新型游戏认为既然通过游戏规则 和机制创造出一种循环动作的游戏机制，让玩家能够掌握这种机制，为何又要蓄意制造一种反复的游戏体验？当我们注意到游戏机制是如何反复进行之时，我们将其称为“重复刷 任务”。但是如此看来，几乎所有游戏机制都具有刷任务的表现形式，那为何我们要将其隐藏起来呢？
相反地，非游戏主张用抽象的情感模式，如情绪，语调，主题等代替这种永不停歇的重复方式，而这些情感模式主要依靠视觉和音效元素体现出来。在这里，好的游戏（即相对于 非游戏而言）并不依赖于游戏机制，相反地它们更加注重对心理空间的探究。Tale of Tales的《The Graveyard》和Dan Pinchbeck的《Dear Esther》正是利用这一方法的两大典 例。
也有很多设计师不喜欢这种游戏类型，认为这种游戏类型缺少规则并过分强调理论，一直唠叨个不停却不会付诸实践。也有一些设计师（就像我）保持着审慎乐观的态度，我们并 不确定如何做才能制作出一款非游戏的游戏，并期待着Tale of Tales或其他非游戏模式实践者能够推动这种新型游戏明朗化。
同样也有一些人认为有些自由规则并不是那么容易可以推翻的：当你执行一些交互性行为时，这种交互性也会受到一些规则的约束。如果你可以用鼠标去移动游戏中的镜头和视角 ，那么这就是一种规则，不论这种移动是否有意义或者带有强制性，我们需要做的只是判断这种规则是好还是不好。如此看来，不存在任何单纯的非游戏或者低交互性的电子游戏 。
“关于技术问题”，德国哲学家Martin Heidegger认为人类应该与技术和谐相处，因为我们现在的行动被技术牢牢掌控着。例如当你开始玩《侠盗猎车手4》时，游戏指示你“跟着 黄线走”，而你也会毫无异议地照做，一点都没有按照自己的想法做出选择，这不就是一种受控制的情形？
The Philosophy of Game Design
If you’ve ever said that a videogame was “bad” for any reason – FarmVille is evil, StarCraft 2 is nothing new, VVVVVV is too hard, Braid is pretentious, Dwarf Fortress is inaccessible, Dead or Alive is sexist – in the performance of your royal duties as Grand Arbiter of Good Taste, then you also have to define and articulate what is a “good” game for us simple-minded folk.
So, what makes a “good” game? Well, it all depends on whether you believe in absolute truth. (No, really!)
For purposes of simplification, I will ignore all traditions of ancient philosophy that took place outside of Greece. Instead, we’ll just look at the two figures largely recognized as the roots of Western philosophy today – Aristotle and Plato.
Aristotle argued for a type of pluralism, where the purpose of a society was to ensure its individual citizens flourished (and by citizens, he meant only the small portion of Greek society that was the educated male land-owning military and gentry – sorry, women and slaves, no flourishing for you!) and such a person flourishes when he has reached a state of personal excellence or “eudaimonia.”
Many people wrongly translate eudaimonia as happiness, but it is more than that – there’s an aspect of self-actualization, the sense that you’ve finally achieved something. Surely, you deserve that feeling of achievement because you earned it.
So, an Aristotelian philosophy of game design would presume the existence of a “citizen” – the hardcore gamer. Under this account, the game should chiefly cater to this “best of the best,” allowing these players to excel, perhaps at the price of accessibility for every other type of player.
“Everyone else” isn’t worth considering because if they’re not capable of beating the boss at the end, then how can they possibly feel the accomplishment of surmounting a challenge? It’s not in their nature; they’re incapable of feeling real achievement. “Watering down the difficulty” would only weaken the sense of triumph for the gifted individuals that can meet the challenge – that is, games must definitely be difficult.
Such a design philosophy was very popular in the 8-bit era with incredibly difficult and unforgiving platformers like Mega Man and Contra, games that rewarded players who demonstrated uncanny coordination and reflexes.
More recently, this attitude toward design has enjoyed a return of sorts, with the rebirth of the platformer genre in the indie games scene through games like Flywrench, Streemerz and VVVVVV, as well as a new sub-genre dubbed “masocore” that delights in constant and sudden failure – or you can also consider the surprising popularity of Demon’s Souls as an example of this resurgence, a sort of neo-Aristotelian view of game design. These types of neo-Aristotelian
games aren’t “classically Aristotelian” because they don’t harshly penalize the player for failure, often respawning them on the same screen if they die along with a healthy supply of infinite lives – unlike a game like Mega Man that forces a complete level restart upon running out of lives. Yet, these games still value difficulty and player reflex, despite such small gestures toward accessibility.
Indeed, relatively very few people will ever beat the “Veni, Vidi, Vici” sequence in VVVVVV, despite its relatively forgiving nature – but those who do progress past it will have reached a transcendent state of platforming prowess. In this respect, these types of games are “player-centric” because the engaging nature of the game originates from the player’s will and skill to win.
And so, the Aristotelian tradition: Good players make good games.
But there are several philosophical problems with this type of design, which is part of the reason why there are relatively few games designed strictly in this tradition today.
Specifically, Plato would’ve called bullshit on it.
Imagine your hopelessly incompetent co-worker Ted tried to play Mega Man, with his sweaty hands permanently staining your precious vintage NES controller.
(He can’t even beat Top Man! What a disgrace.) You scream bloody murder when he tosses the now-greasy controller across the room in frustration. Would Ted agree that Mega Man is a good game?
Maybe not. But is Mega Man still good? Well, yeah, of course it is! Ted just sucks at it!
Now, imagine the entire world was populated solely by Teds. None of them agree that Mega Man is good – yet it’s still the same game, it’s still good! The personal (unskilled) experience of these Teds has corrupted the purity of Mega Man; that is, Mega Man remains eternally good, independent of the crappy players who can’t even beat the Top Man stage. They’re just too simple-minded and poorly endowed to see its greatness.
Thus, Plato argued for an account of absolute truth. People lie, misinterpret and get tricked all the time – do you really think that personal experience is reliable? Ted might be awful at Mega Man, but you happen to be terrible at first person shooters and can’t “get into” them despite Ted’s constant prodding. Your inability to play Halo without foolishly running into walls and spinning around in circles does not diminish its innovation and impact on the entire game industry.
And so, the “goodness” of a game must exist outside of the player.
Plato argues that the execution of justice is up to a select few of philosopher kings acting independently of the citizens, for they are the only ones who can use reason and logic to transcend the personal experience of players and to show us what a good game is. Who are these philosopher kings, pray tell?
The answer: game developers.
Plato would argue that Mega Man is good because Capcom made it, or because of the specific influence of certain “philosopher-developers” at Capcom. Mega Man’s “goodness” has nothing to do with players – because, as we just established, players all have different tastes, skill levels and experiences. It is impossible to formulate any reliable amount of knowledge upon such shaky ground.
Thus, as a sort of counterpoint to the Aristotelian tradition, a Platonic design philosophy is developer-centric and argues that: Good developers make good games.
This core dichotomy of player-centrism vs. developer-centrism is, I argue, the basis of all subsequent game design philosophies – or, at least, a convenient way of grouping and organizing these philosophies.
Today, most developers and players (including me) are moderates and believe in the importance of both player-centrism and developer-centrism. It may seem incredibly obvious that a good game design should follow some sort of “golden mean” or “middle way” that balances developer insight with player feedback, as well as difficulty with accessibility and commercial potential with artistic merit. How can anyone possibly think differently?
Games should be good. Duh.
Indeed, all this philosophizing might seem pointless when confronted by that simple truism. But let’s recall the history of thought in videogame design (or at least, recall it in the way I’ve packaged it) – the very notions of “player accessibility” and “artistic merit” in games are both relatively recent. In fact, they barely existed in the 16-bit era, much less the 8-bit era. What seems obvious now is actually the result of a long, gradual shift in thinking.
Even now, our “golden mean” of game design is still shifting as new developers and new player audiences emerge. Our notion of a “good game” is slowly moving somewhere … But where? Over the course of this series, I will try to address that question.
Are games getting more “political,” and if so, are these considered to be “good games” by our standard? If Electronic Arts insists on the Taliban being a playable faction in the newest Medal of Honor, is that in good taste or is it a publicity stunt or is it “just a game” so it shouldn’t be taken seriously? What, if any, is the golden mean between highly political games about current events and totally non-political games?
Are “art games” a legitimate genre or a pretentious annoyance with no future – or is the very label redundant if we’re to argue that all games are intrinsically artistic anyway? Yet Tale of Tales declares that “games are not art” and argues for a radical new genre of interactive art that rejects the importance of rules, goals and mechanics. What, if any, is the golden mean between these “notgames” and games?
Should we be ghettoizing games like FarmVille as “social games,” as “shallow” games rejected by many hardcore gamers – or, as Warren Spector argued in his keynote for PAX 2010, is the very notion of the hardcore gamer creating an artificial barrier between new players of videogames and the “old guard” of 18-34-year-old males who argue over consoles, subscribe to PC Gamer and know who Hideo Kojima is? What, if any, is the golden mean between “social games”
and so-called “regular games?”
These are not the only three different directions that people are pulling videogames – there are, no doubt, many more. None of them offer easy answers but all of them present unique philosophies and frustrating debates.
But that frustration is good, because that will begin the conversation.
If we want to make newer, “better” games – if we want videogames to mature further as an artistic medium, capable of defending its own existence and asking the hard questions – then we need to analyze our current presumptions and their validity, and this series of articles is a start. To avoid asking these questions is intellectually lazy.
To review from Part 1: Plato valued absolute truth, irrespective of player preferences, and so he argues that good games come from good developers. Aristotle had a slightly more pluralistic account of truth that was player-dependent, and so he argues that good games come from good players – and “good players” are skilled players who can beat difficult games.
For Part 2, we’ll derive some additional philosophies from Aristotle’s account – some more modern, mainstream player-centric theories that are all the rage right now.
But first, some history that’s crucial for understanding those approaches:
In 1982, Atari had a wildly popular videogame console in the US, but didn’t regulate who could publish games – so in 1983, the industry crashed from the collective weight of so many poorly designed games made by pet food companies and other ilk. Gamers have never forgotten: We’re obsessed with whether a game is “too short” or if it was “worth it,” and videogame reviews, unlike their literary, music, film, and art counterparts, routinely take price into account.
So now we quantify: How many weapons, levels and hours of playtime? You could only fit so many levels into the limited memory of an NES cartridges so developers found other ways to inflate playtime – Mega Man reuses levels and bosses in more challenging ways, Final Fantasy recolors enemy sprites for more powerful variants – because a more difficult game took longer to beat, which in the end was a more “valuable” game.
But, as we mentioned before, relatively few people have what it takes to master videogames: Namely, enough disposable income (or allowance) to pay for these games and several long, uninterrupted stretches of free time to master these games, not to mention a whole lot of luck, skill and perseverance.
Such people were usually middle-class teenagers, the source of the “gamer” stereotype that’s thankfully dying today. While these gamers had internalized the crash of 1983, so had the industry. They sought stabilization though stringent quality control, an emphasis on general “entertainment” (e.g. “wow, the PlayStation 2 plays DVDs too!”) – and more recently, by expanding their audience through accessibility.
All modern player-centric design philosophies re-cast the “good player” – from the classic Aristotelian notion of “skilled player” to “every player.”
Now as philosophers, we have to ask: What does it mean to be accessible?
For one sense of “accessible,” perhaps we can take the release of Valve’s FPS puzzler Portal as a watershed moment in this field.
Portal defined accessibility as “almost anyone can play and beat this game.” It was rather short, yet few complained about its length. (It was also part of the Orange Box, a collection of five games for $50 that utterly exploded our collective notion of value.)
While accessibility had been an industry concern for many years leading up to the game’s release, never had it been so fundamentally integrated into public accounts of the development process. Much of the press and interviews focused on how frequent testing decided which puzzles to keep and which to reject.
This emphasis on collecting data – most often quantitative data to balance multiplayer games – is an empirical approach to game design. Here, accessibility means posing a hypothesis (“If the build time for a Protoss Zealot is longer, it will balance early game harassment.”) and collecting evidence to confirm or deny that hypothesis (“Protoss are now winning fewer matches under four minutes in the Gold league.”).
Charts, graphs, heat maps, death maps, kill maps, eye tracking, heart rate monitors, player analytics – an empirical method to game design argues that collecting player data and interpreting it properly makes good games.
(Taking that idea a hundred steps further, logical positivism argues that anything unscientific isn’t verifiable and thus is meaningless, which in itself is an unscientific statement, which is partly why logical positivism quickly died the way it did.)
But this kind of data-driven design is plagued by similar problems posed in the philosophy of science:
When is data accurate / pertinent, and how do you go about collecting it?
If you collect data from highly competitive clan servers, or perhaps from someone who’s never played a videogame before in their life, are those sets of data valid for balancing the game for everyone else? (It depends.) Should we instead test on some sort of “average player” and if so, then who is that player? (It depends.) Is that really the best way to achieve accessibility, or do we end up pleasing no one by trying for everyone? (It depends.)
And then how do you go about interpreting that data you’ve just collected?
Imagine in Team Fortress 2 that data indicates fewer players are playing as spies – does that mean Pyros are overpowered or that Engineers are too difficult to kill or something else entirely? (We would need more data.) And if Engineers are too difficult to kill as a Spy, is it actually a level design problem with specific overpowered build sites on popular maps, or is it a sound-related bug where the Spy’s cloak sound is too loud, or is it a balancing issue with how the Spy’s cloak doesn’t last long enough to get past the front line? (We would need more data.) Or is this a good thing, to have so few players playing as Spies? (It depends.)
But now let’s say you want to know why a player keeps falling off a cliff.
Do you track the player’s camera position and vector to produce a heat map of what they look at, to determine whether they notice the “Danger! Don’t Fall Off!” sign, and increase the contrast on the sign texture to compensate?
Do you map their movement vectors against the level’s collision model – maybe their movement speed doesn’t decelerate fast enough – or do you increase the friction parameter on the dirt materials?
Do you just ask them, “Why do you keep falling off the cliff?”
Maybe this behaviorist notion, that we can deduce a player’s intention from observing their actions, is just side-stepping the issue. Why not just solicit player feedback directly and have them verbalize their intentionality? Social liberalism holds that all members of society should have (at least some) input with regards to the process of running their government.
While the empirical school of game design collects quantitative player data, this social liberal approach collects a form of qualitative player data through focus groups, surveys, and analyzing player feedback from emails, forums and blogs.
The social liberal account holds that good games come from listening to as many individual players as possible and interpreting that feedback properly. Here, “accessibility” means decentralizing power and sharing the reins of design.
(As a sort of pseudo-variant, perhaps a neoliberal approach would argue for feedback from clans and guilds, or maybe third-party vendors and game publishers, and value that over individual players’ opinions. The resulting design changes might trickle down and indirectly help individual players.)
In Left 4 Dead 2, players vote for which game modes to keep; in Halo: Reach, Bungie uses voting results to balance multiplayer playlists. Increasingly, players are now making game design decisions through direct democracy.
Don’t stretch this political analogy too far, though. Compared to citizens in real-life constitutional democracies, players have very little political power and rarely get real input on design. It’s still the developers who sort feedback to determine what is signal and what is noise, and they ultimately do the design.
Plus, there’s another reason not to base your game design on player feedback: Players often change their opinions or stop playing entirely.
Let’s return briefly to the empirical approach and quantitative data, with the mindset that social liberal player feedback isn’t actually shared governance but rather just more data – qualitative data.
How do you know that a particular set of data or interpretation will hold true for the future? Many players could suddenly start playing as Spies for some reason. Maybe one day, suddenly your entire player-based economy uses Stone of Jordans as currency instead of gold or gems. Or tomorrow, gravity could suddenly cease to exist.
This is, more or less, the core problem of empiricism as posed by David Hume: How do we know that observable phenomena will continue to act that way, consistently, in the future?
People are much more unstable than the laws of nature, whether in their feedback and rants on forums or their erratic playstyles that could abruptly change upon reading a guide or watching a YouTube video of a strategy.
We can’t collect more player statistics or solicit more player feedback in order to decide whether collecting statistics or feedback is good; that is, we can’t use induction to prove the validity of induction because that’s circular logic.
However, that very reasoning about using logic is a form of deduction from a set of premises – and to prove the validity of deduction, we can’t use deduction because that’s circular logic too – so we must use induction to prove the validity of deduction … but we just used deduction to argue for the fallibility of induction!
It’s okay if you’re confused – so was Hume. In the end, he adopted a kind of common sense “wait and see” approach, a type of practical skepticism. “Don ’t worry about whether it will hold true forever, but just worry about whether it holds true for now.”
And that, I guess, is a philosophical justification for frequent game patches, MMOs and Valve’s “games as services” mantra (as of this writing, there have been 150 patches to Team Fortress 2.)
Compare this attitude to the classic Aristotelian conception of player-centrism – players might’ve complained that “Mega Man is too hard because of Cold Fusion Man” – and Capcom’s response probably would’ve been, “How did you get this number?”
Suddenly Aristotle doesn’t look so pluralistic and liberal anymore – instead, it seems immovable, static and unresponsive.
Perhaps we must accept that a “good” game design is only good for a while, until the player data indicates it isn’t good anymore – and then you redesign and rebalance it until it’s good again. This is distinctly a player-centric notion, the idea that a developer must “do right” by the community of players.
So what makes a good game?
Perhaps it’s the willingness to change it.
Robert Yang is currently an MFA student studying “Design and Technology” at Parsons, The New School for Design. Before, he studied English and taught game design at UC Berkeley. If he’s famous for anything, it’s probably for his artsy-fartsy Half-Life 2 mod series “Radiator” that’s still (slowly) being worked on.
Before we look more closely at the philosophy of art (or “aesthetics”) and games, let’s just briefly consider some of the answers for that notorious question: “Are games art?”
- YES, says Tim Schafer, because games can express thoughts and feelings just like art can. Shadow of the Colossus made me and my dad cry! Afterward, we sat in a dark room in profound silence for an hour.
- WHO CARES? implies Matthew Burns. Instead we should go do something that’s actually important, like playing videogames.
- NO, says Roger Ebert, because art is about an artist; if the player determines the outcome, that flexibility betrays the artist’s intent. Tragedy is satisfying to witness, but players will rarely choose to plunge themselves into it – they want the “good ending.”
- NO, says Tale of Tales, because art is dead and games are alive – comatose maybe, but still alive. Blame the coma on games that favor established settings and scenarios over innovation and creativity.
While there are clearly some differences of opinion on whether games are art, we still fundamentally regard them as merely “differences of opinion.” Relativistic notions of individual rights and personal freedom have flooded our contemporary sense of aesthetics. Anything can be art, almost anything can be liked by anyone, and everyone has their own personal tastes in things and their experience of art.
Well, that’s kind of the position that Ebert eventually retreated to in July 2010 – that games still weren’t art for him, but maybe they’re art for someone else. So what makes a good game? The existence of any fans who will argue that it’s good.
But artistic appreciation was much more rigid in Plato’s time. He argued specifically for certain values like “beauty” and “harmony” as important aspects of art, but with some stipulations.
For instance, picture a circle in your head. It’s probably a perfect circle. Now try to draw one freehand, or with a stencil, or using the “Circle” tool in Photoshop.
Any physical manifestation of that circle, no matter how hard you try, is always going to be slightly off from that perfect circle – by just a few pixels, molecules or atoms. Similarly, any attempted physical manifestations of ideal beauty (i.e. the “art” a human produces) will always be just slightly off from that ideal, existing only as mere imitations of the perfect mental image.
Many philosophers weren’t satisfied with this idea of beauty founded on rigid principles of harmony and such. They coined a “sublime” separate from beauty. This “sublime” was more about witnessing overwhelming profoundness, admitting that it’s beyond your puny human ability to comprehend it; as if you ’re looking down at Earth from orbit, or watching a nuclear bomb explode. It isn’t necessarily indicative of anything, good or bad, tasteful or disgusting, etc. (Some philosophers also tried to distinguish between different kinds of this “awe,” between weak awe and strong awe, and so forth.)
That account of the “sublime” is what supports Schafer’s answer, which is one of the most common “Yes” responses invoked by gamers. What makes a good game? At least one in-game moment that stirs up awe or profound emotion of some kind.
Some might argue that there is no longer any single value like “beauty” or “truth” or “sublime” to unify art today. Which isn’t bad; in trying to conform to any single value like that, perhaps the artist is actually stifling their own expression.
That’s a justification for Tale of Tales’ “No” response, and personally I’m a little sympathetic to that argument. What makes a good game? Not blindly following formal conventions and forcing players to do what they’ve done before.
Then there’s a whole tradition of aesthetics arguing that art isn’t necessarily beautiful or sublime or dead – that art can be practical and useful as a tool.
You might dismiss such “art” as surprisingly decent state-sponsored propaganda, poorly designed and thinly veiled advertisements, or the common groan- inducing movie tie-in game with short scenes from the film as unlockable “extras.”
But no, those are corrupt commercial applications of art and bad examples of art as a tool, argues Marxist aesthetics. Most art has been co-opted by the powerful to keep the powerless in a state of constant distraction – this art, along with culture, political institutions and religion (“opiate of the masses”) forms the “superstructure” that keeps the powerless in a state of “false consciousness.”
That gross oversimplification is more or less how Marxism feels about art – in fact, it would probably point menacingly at videogames as a startlingly dangerous type of mind control, distracting us with a fictional war against the Zerg instead of our real-life ongoing class struggle against the rich.
To fight such empty entertainment, Marxism would argue for a new revolutionary type of game that highlights economic inequities in society, the growing power of the rich and the weakness of the poor. Existing long before Marxism but now heavily influenced by it, this artistic tradition is known as “social realism:” a good game fights for social justice in the world by representing it and critiquing it.
Many game developers operate in this tradition. Molleindustria seeks to “free videogames from the ‘dictatorship of entertainment,’ using them instead to describe pressing social needs” with well-designed satirical flash games like the McDonalds Game and Oilgarchy. The “Newsgames” project aims to coin a new genre that merges journalism with mechanics. Games for Change advocates new ways to bring awareness to human rights issues, poverty and global conflicts. I would also argue that the
Metal Gear Solid series, BioShock series, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Deus Ex operate in a kind of a social realist context and attack the values they see as oppression. The list goes on.
But not all Marxists agreed that social realism best advanced social justice; some felt it was too vulgar, too obvious or too comfortable.
One famous Marxist artist, Bertolt Brecht, argued that experimenting with the form itself – whether in theater, painting or perhaps videogames – would be intrinsically political because it would force the viewer or player to be more critical. Breaking the fourth wall and directly addressing the player, for example, might force him or her to reflect on their real-life actions.
A good game fights for social justice through formal experimentation that encourages players to reflect on themselves.
Another incredibly influential neo-Marxist theorist, Theodor Adorno, claimed that art should not be political at all. He argued that artworks (like videogames) wee forms of expression, symbols of our personal freedom to will things into existence. By using art (or games) as a tool, for commercial exploitation or social good or otherwise, you sacrifice your freedom to some outside purpose – and sacrificing any artistic freedom is the ultimate betrayal of art and fosters that Marxist “false consciousness” within the artist.
By this account, a good game doesn’t advance social justice. A good game remains as apolitical as possible. Games should not be used as tools; art is art and games are games.
Now we’re back where we started, muttering horribly pointless things like “art is art” and you’re probably rolling your eyes.
Again, talking about art like this might feel useless because there are no definitive judgments to be made about art. Everyone has their own opinion and taste in art and we generally respect that as a matter of personal preference in this postmodern age.
Maybe everyone had it wrong. Games aren’t art – but not because some of some theoretical idea of authorship or the “sublime” or Marxist aesthetics. Games aren’t art because so few people are making them compared to the huge amount consuming them.
Games aren’t art because learning how to code is still too daunting, while comparatively anyone can pick up a paintbrush or a camera and start making work. The most user-friendly solutions like Unreal, Unity and GameMaker still require substantial programming knowledge. Even if you do manage to make something that works, good luck getting istribution on any console!
So maybe games aren’t art because you aren’t making them. Maybe a good game is a game that you made. Maybe we need more and better paintbrushes – more intuitive ones that my grandmother can use.
In this sense, games won’t be art until there are millions of videogames, designed by everyone, flooding the marketplace like in 1983 with the crash of the game industry. Except in this glorious future we wo’t call it “flooding the marketplace” because we won’t commodify games like that anymore and your children will laugh at you for doing so. No, we won’t call it “the crash.”
It’s the end of the line. We went from Aristotle and Plato to empiricism with David Hume to Marxist aesthetics with Theodor Adorno. It’s been a haphazard, horribly incomplete survey across several different branches of Western philosophy. Some would say it was rambling – and to them, I would counter that all who wander are not lost.
But now our philosophical wandering is more or less ending here, with our discussion of more experimental, emerging game design practices. There aren’t any more large sweeping fields of philosophy left to generalize, save for one.
Postmodernism is generally an umbrella term that encompasses several different philosophies: deconstructionism, post-structuralism, post-post- deconstructralism … okay, I made up that last one. But the operative word here is “structure” – such games are generally trying to interact with the form of a game itself or the underlying structure, chopping up rulesets and mechanics and criticizing them. These kinds of games are neither roller coasters nor playgrounds; they’re big messy interventions.
Games like You Have to Burn the Rope or pOnd exist as somewhat cynical attacks on the modernist program of games we’ve been discussing previously in the series, targeting “accessibility” and “artistic value” respectively. Here, a good game critiques popular design practice, often through satire, parody, or humor.
You Have to Burn the Rope gives explicit directions on how to beat the game – such as the instruction in the title itself – which runs counter to the genre convention of boss fights in platformers, where a player must carefully observe a boss to identify weaknesses and conceptualize a moving / firing solution. In doing so, this game argues that if we are willing to make such games easier, why not do away with any and all meaningful concept of difficulty? Well, for one thing, the result is absurd. (Meanwhile, pOnd is best played without knowing anything more about it. To analyze it would destroy it.)
These games promote deep knowledge of genre traditions in mainstream videogames and they’re asking us to be more critical of them. They’re the games that designers make in order to remain in dialogue with one another.
That’s where our traditional philosophizing ends, with the postmodern games that analyze the form of a game itself.
Why? Well, part of the reason is that philosophy itself is even more uncertain of what it is today. No other discipline in the world is so intent on its own destruction. “Philosophy is dead” will often be the central idea of half the papers at any given conference. Thus, my past practice of pigeon-holing game design practices into philosophical movements is no longer tenable
Instead, I’m going to attempt a survey of emerging game design practices that don’t fit neatly under a philosophy. Or maybe they do, in which case you should tell me.
Generative Proceduralism is about abdicating developership of a game. It’s about a game that partly designs itself, or a painting that would paint itself. Sure, we can argue about what an author meant by a particular word, or why a composer applied a crescendo at the end of a piece, but what if a level designed itself, and how would it reconcile authorial intent with that? This approach argues that a good game is comfortable in relinquishing strict authored control.
(Compare this to the highly scripted, highly linear haunted houses of the Call of Duty and Medal of Honor series.)
Do we blame Derek Yu for an impossible cave level generated in Spelunky? Do we blame a fictional AI director for “screwing us over” even though it’s just a collection of random number seeds and formulas, as in Left 4 Dead? Such games relegate some of the design work to the game itself – and possibly the most ambitious games, such as Fa?ade, attempt to procedurally generate NPC backstories and entire narrative arcs.
My personal favorite variant of this approach are those games that are secretly procedurally generated. The masocore platformer Dungeon randomly generates a number seed based on the player’s computer details, and that number seed introduces a random bug or mode to the game. Thus, players offered conflicting accounts of gameplay – on some computers, spikes were secretly taller or shorter, or maybe a level would be impossible to complete – because they were all
actually playing slightly different games.
But don’t confuse this for the similar sounding philosophy of …
Proceduralism, as coined by Ian Bogost, argues that games (often what we traditionally call “art games”) make aesthetic arguments through rules and mechanics. Through this “procedural rhetoric,” a good game allows players to explore emotional and psychological spaces, or perhaps offers a way of exploring pre-existing commercial games.
For example, in the Hitman series, many player strategies revolve around disguising oneself as an NPC with a high-level of security access around the level, usually as one of the high-ranking bodyguards assigned to guard the target. Thus, Hitman games make a point about the powerful: They may surround themselves with security, but the power they delegate to their security is almost always their undoing.
Or look at Beyond Good & Evil, a single-player game about the personal conflicts inherent in photojournalism. Throughout the game you receive points for photographing rare creatures – but at one point in the game, one of these rare creatures is about to devour your NPC friend. Do you rescue your friend, or do you take a quick snapshot first, to score valuable points? In photojournalism missions during times of war, to what degree is the journalist embedded in
It is questionable whether IO Interactive or Ubisoft designed these games with such larger points in mind. Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t; in the end, it ’s irrelevant. What matters is that the player extrapolated that meaning from the game through their interaction with a system of gameplay mechanics. In this way, proceduralism isn’t just a philosophy of game design, but also a philosophy of play and interpretation, which represents a significant shift from
how we used to look at games in Part 1.
But some designers see proceduralism as a dead end, as more of the same structured gameplay of commercial titles instead of an interpretive shift that allows a deeper range of artistic expression. The vanguard of these designers is generally considered to be a developer couple known as Tale of Tales, who argues for a radical new genre of videogames:
Notgames borrow some elements from videogames – control schemes, approaches to real-time 3D graphics – but otherwise seek to break free of the rules and mechanics that constrain games today. It argues that rules and mechanics create gameplay loops of repeated actions, thus allowing mastery, but why craft an experience that is intentionally repetitive? When we notice how repetitive a mechanic is, we call it grinding. But in this view, almost all mechanics are a
form of grinding, so why try to hide it?
Instead, notgames seek to replace this perpetual grinding with emotional abstraction like mood, tone and theme, which often relies heavily on audio and visual direction. Here, good (not)games don’t rely on mechanics; rather, they rely on simple exploration of an artfully realized psychological space. Tale of Tales’ The Graveyard and Dan Pinchbeck’s Dear Esther are two seminal works in this approach.
Many designers dislike this genre and criticize its relative lack of a canon and overemphasis on theory, that it talks too much talk and needs to walk the walk. Other designers (like me) are cautiously optimistic but aren’t exactly sure how to make a game that isn’t a game, and are waiting for Tale of Tales and other notgames practitioners to articulate something more concrete.
There is also the argument that it is never possible to break free of rules: The instant you implement some sort of interaction, that very interaction is constrained by rules. If you can simply move the camera with your mouse, that is a rule in itself; whether or not those mouse movements are meaningful and compelling, however, determines whether it is a good rule or a bad rule. By this account, pure notgames are impossible to create and exist only as low- interaction videogames.
In “The Question Concerning Technology,” the German philosopher Martin Heidegger argues that people need a “free” relationship with technology because right now, we’re enslaved by it. When you begin Grand Theft Auto IV and it instructs you to “follow the yellow line” and you do it without protest or forethought, have you actually made a choice for yourself? Are you enslaved?
Proceduralism, accessibility, notgames, newsgames, social gaming. We are on the verge of something both wonderful and frightening. What could become paradise here and now could also be hell itself tomorrow.
This, I think, is the hardest question facing videogame design today, that no one wants to bring up: What damage is being done by videogames, and what is the designer’s responsibility to mitigate that damage? How are today’s videogames shaping thought?
To believe that there are only “good games” is horribly naive; this entire series of articles has been focused on debunking this collective idea of “good ” and how we do not have a central idea of “good” as it pertains to videogame design. Alternatively, where is our sense of a “bad game”?
I’m not talking about a game that you found to be poorly designed and stupid; I’m not talking about sexy, violent videogames demonized by a 24-hour news cycle; I’m not even talking about the player exploitation of FarmVille.
There’s a “bad” out there that’s not even on our radar. A “bad” that is difficult to articulate or even fully conceive of.
Maybe someone should do something about it.