Player Two

Ludology from a developer


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Games and Art

Are games art? This is a seriously loaded question and there are a ridiculous number of ways to approach the topic.

For example:

  • What defines art?
  • Can we even define art?
  • How can we exhibition games in a gallery?
  • Does art have to be passive?
  • Where is the art in games?
  • Are non digital games art?
  • What defines a game?
  • Can both games and the playing of games be art?
  • If games are art what does that say for sport?
  • does the “slippery slope” argument hold any water?

And that’s all of the top of my head. Now, according to Gaut’s conditions for Cluster Art, games (especially digital games) pass with flying colours yet digital games are not widely considered art. why?

Is it that games are financed by sales driven companies? Is it the endless supply of low brow shovelware? Is it because the loudest members of the digital games audience are petty children? Is it because half the digital games industry don’t want it to be? Is it because that blowhard Ebert says so?

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It’s all of these reasons and more! Hilary Goldstein of VentureBeat writes that games do not need to be art because art is high-society snooty nonsense and games are fun and for everyone and we don’t need to it to justify it to anyone thankyouverymuch. Goldstein seems to have gotten the completely wrong impression of art, that it only exists as pointless pretensious posturing, pandering to pompous and pretentious people. Art is so much more than that, artistic products are art whether they need to be or not. Art is what elicits emotion and thought for no reason other than to get people to feel and think. Art is pure distilled emotion, thought and beauty. Games have made me think and feel in totally new ways. Games are art, whether they need to be or not.

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Game Rules

Games are almost totally defined by their rules. Games need rules; rules define how a player interacts with the game system and if there are no rules, there’s no interaction. If there’s no interaction, there’s no game.

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The majority of rules in games are restrictions, for example in card games, most rules revolve around when you are allowed to perform an action with your cards. Imagine if in the game “Lives,” where the win condition is to have no cards in your hand, there were no rules other than the win condition; the game would devolve to every player dropping the cards they are dealt as quickly as possible and then arguing over who managed to drop theirs first! This kind of chaos is what rules try to prevent.

The less random a game is between two players, the more even the competition between them and the more that the challenge is about outplaying the opponent and not random chance. This is why, i think, that chess is such Random chance, certainly has its place in games but I’m not going to discuss that here.
The rules also act as a contract of sorts between players. Each player agrees to abide by them which ensures fair competition; if either player attempts to ignore the rules in favour of gaining an advantage, it is considered cheating. However, if a player merely bends the rules or circumvents them in order to get an advantage and that player is technically not cheating, it can be considered either dishonourable or good tactics. Usually, the deciding factor to the individual, is their own biased opinion of the player.

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War in Games

Right, this post is a discussion of wars in games, wars as games and basically just how close they can be to each other.

People use media-  books, TV, games, etc. – to experience drama. Drama is the whole reason we engage with fictional characters, settings and stories. And at the core of drama is conflict. That’s what war is, war is conflict, very violent conflict. It only makes sense that media uses war so much to create compelling drama. Why games though? Plenty of media manage to make good drama without war as a theme, so why do so many games depend on war? Well the obvious answer is that war is conflict with a lot of action and engagement but I think there’s a deeper reason.

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The reason games and war are so interconnected, is that they share a common theme of conflict. The most entertaining games(and possibly the overall majority of games) are those with a conflict that the player resolves. The whole point of games is the interaction with the game system by the player. However, a game is uninteresting if the player is allowed unrestricted actions or if their actions are inconsequential.

So of course, wars fit in so well with games. The player has restrictions on their actions, they are not all-powerful(They can be shot and killed). Their actions have consequence(less enemy soldiers) and overall, the game challenges them. It can challenge their skills, whether they be reactions or tactics.

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The other side of the coin however, is that developers have made plenty of engaging games without war or similar conflict too.
Just look at Heavy Rain. There is plenty of conflict, drama and engagement without any “war.” Sure there are fist-fights but they’re padding, inconsequential to the story. If Quantic Dream could make an engaging story without resorting to using violence as a creative crutch, the rest of us developers can too!


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Games and Learning

Games help us learn. It’s that simple.

Many people deny this fact. Very few of those people know anything about games.

How do games help us learn?

There are many ways humans learn; every single thing around us registers to our senses and is filtered by our brain, it’s only natural that some of it sticks.
Now of course, when there are many ways to learn, there are many approaches to teaching. When it comes to teaching with regards to games, there are a couple of approaches.

One, the most obvious one is with educational games. Educational games are games whose sole goal is to teach the player. This is also the reason why they fail. Many educational games ignore the whole point of teaching through games. Games induce flow, which is when people are most receptive to learning. Almost every traditional educational game attempts to simply tell the player the information after distracting them with a mini game and in my experience, makes no attempts to engage the player. I consider these kinds of games on the same level as Educational Rap.

Next up is the game development teaching tools. the most famous one of these is Scratch which is a basic drag and drop program that teaches you the basics of programming. Now, unlike the previous section, I think this tactic actually works. It allows the student the express themselves through their work, which of course will induce flow and then facilitate learning. Other examples include Greenfoot and Microsoft kudo. This form of teaching is less about throwing information at students and more about getting them to express themselves. Inevitably, students that take to it will want to do something different and will go teach themselves how.

Finally, there’s Gamification. Gamification is the process of taking mundane tasks and applying Game Design techniques and arbitrary rewards to them to make them more appealing. Gamification is not exclusive to education but when it comes to education it works really well. It uses all the old tricks of games:  instant positive feedback, promoting competition, rewarding small actions. It takes all of these and uses them to provide loads of incentives for students to increase their motivation to learn, to compete with other students.

So there you have it, the three main ways games are used as a form of teaching and learning. Guess which one I think is a failure!


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Ludology versus Narratology

First off, a bit of background. What is Ludology and what is Narratology?

According to Wiktionary, ludology “is the study of games and other forms of play” and narratology is “the study of narrative structure.” While both these definitions are right they don’t explain what we mean when we talk about ludology and narratology within the study of games. Games themselves haven’t really had a huge amount of study. Initially, game studies existed only to historians and anthropologists, studying ancient games to gain an insight into dead societies. With the birth of video games in the 1980s, study of games has branched out to several other fields of study. Study of games has always overlapped into other fields of study such as sociology, psychology, philosophy, arts and humanities etc.

Anyway, there are two major approaches to ludology: games as narratives(Narratology) and games as mechanics(Ludology). I think it comes down to “what makes a game?” If you strip a game down, one aspect at a time, how far do you get before it is no longer a game?
Let’s take a game with a lot of going on: Mass Effect.
Mass effect has:

  • Art
  • Sound
  • Music
  • Moral Choices
  • Tactical combat
  • Narrative
    • Story/context
  • Interactivity
  • Mechanics/rules

For this example, take one scene out of Mass Effect. Commander Shepard is talking to a Krogan bounty hunter on the planet Illium. The hunter is going to kill Shepard if he doesn’t do it first. And let’s assume there’s a moral choice in there somewhere.

If you take the colour, the textures and art out, are you left with a game? Sure, plenty of games don’t have art in them. Look at ZORK, nothing but text yet it’s still a game. What about the sound? No more gun fire from the Krogan’s Striker Assault Rifle.  Do you still have a game? You do, plenty of games are silent. Look at most Windows 3 games. Take out the music? You still have a game. Now, lets take out those moral choices that affect the narrative, those choices that made Mass Effect famous; Now, the narrative has only two options, either Shepard beats the Krogan or vice versa. We still have a game. There are still hundreds of games without a moral choice system. Remove the tactical combat, reduce it to either the Krogan guns down Shepard or vice versa; you still have a game. Now let’s take a look at what we have. We have an interactive game with narrative and rules.

First, let’s take out the narrative. You no longer have Commander Shepard, you have the player’s avatar. And it isn’t having a shootout with a pissed off Krogan, it’s killing an enemy. In fact it’s technically not even killing, as killing would imply the enemy is a living being; it could be a living being but without the narrative to tell us that, it isn’t. Now, between the player avatar and the enemy, the mechanics and rules state that one is going to stay and one will disappear(or die/be destroyed), and it’s up to the player’s skill to decide which of the two parties that is. We still have a game but it’s not a very interesting one; whether the game is interesting is irrelevant right now though. Now you might think “we have a game here, with mechanics and interactivity but not story, therefore, games are not defined by narrative.” But is the game really without narrative? The absolute basic definition of a narrative is “a sequence of events” and here we have a sequence of events. You start of with one state, two parties, and then you change to a new state, one party. Whichever party that is is up to the interaction of the player. Even if we take the story and context out of the narrative, we still have narrative because a narrative is inherently born from interaction.

Now let’s take out the interactivity. We no longer have a player avatar, instead it is merely party “A” and now party A is nothing more than the enemy to the enemy. So now, “enemy” is a bit of a misnomer so instead we’ll call it party “B”. So now we have nothing  but rules and a stripped narrative. B will destroy A unless A destroys B first. A has no way to destroy B(no interference on the player’s part) so B destroys A. Would you consider that a game? I wouldn’t, it’s more like a simulation of the exact same variables over and over again.

So let’s go back a bit to our basic narrative with rules and interactivity. Let’s try taking out the rules. The enemy will no longer destroy the player if the player doesn’t beat them to it. So if we have interactivity, we have a narrative by default because the player’s actions create a narrative. But much like the stripped down narrative, I don’t think we can realistically remove the rules; there are always rules, laws and limits. If there is interactivity, there has to be rules on how the interactivity works.

So we’ve established that in a game, the narrative(in its absolute basic form, no story or context etc.) comes about from the interaction of the player because if there is no interaction it is a simulation, not a game. So in terms of games, narrative is dependant on interactivity. We also established that interactivity is naturally on rules and mechanics; therefore, the narrative of games in its most basic form is dependant on the games rules and mechanics. So to put it in layman’s terms: “what happens in a game depends on that game’s rules and mechanics.”

If this is the conclusion I have come to, then I guess I’m a Ludologist.

However, I’m not satisfied. Look at what we’ve been left with after stripping it all away. We do still have a game but do we still have Mass Effect? I say: absolutely not. When did it stop being Mass Effect? When did it change from one game to another? Let’s work backwards from where we are. We start with a game which has interactivity, a basic narrative (that is, a sequence of actions), and rules and mechanics to govern them. Let’s start by adding the story and context back to the narrative; do we have Mass Effect? We have Commander Shepard, the Krogan bounty hunter and Illium but is that Mass Effect? Some would say yes, we have the story and the story is what gives Mass Effect its identity; I disagree, I don’t think we’ve gotten there yet. So let’s add on the tactical combat now; once again, there are a multitude of ways for Shepard to kill the Krogan. I still don’t think we have Mass Effect. So let’s add the moral choices back in; maybe now Shepard can talk his way out of it. Now, a lot of people will say that we have Mass Effect; the choices that made Mass Effect famous are what makes it Mass Effect. I disagree, we still don’t have it. So let’s add the music back in; once again, the player can feel the tension of the situation, they are more engrossed. I want to keep going, so we’ll add the sound effects back in and I still don’t think this game that we have is Mass Effect. So I’ll add the last piece back, the art. Fully rendered 3d models, coloured textures, the whole thing.  I think we are finally left with Mass Effect again. So does this mean the art makes the game? No, that’s not what I think; if I took the sound first, nothing would have changed that drastically.

I think that what makes a game unique, what makes this game be this exact game is the narrative. Here I’m talking about the full narrative, not the stripped down one that we worked with for so long. Now if that’s how I feel, why was I not satisfied when I gave it back the story and context? Because that’s not all there is to narrative. The art and sound is part of the narrative and the narrative should be shown through the gameplay and bleed frrm every art asset and sound; the colour of Shepard’s armour,  the sound of his rifle are all part of the narrative they give this game its identity.

So here’s what I’ve come up with: the mechanics and rules are what makes a game or simulation, the interactivity is what makes it a game and the narrative is what makes it special, what makes it unique.

It looks like I’m a ludologist but I do not deny the value of narratology. Mechanics are what give us the game, narrative is what gives it meaning.