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Provocation and Meta-Provocation

Today, I attended the launch of the the DiGRA UK chapter in Bristol, which was a fantastic event. Although I had to leave early, I was incredibly honoured to be invited to give one of the featured ‘provocations’. I’ve been wearing my academia hat lately, working on finally inching my otherwise-neglected PhD thesis towards submission. I decided, given the context, to do a mostly-academically-grounded talk, and hastily wrote some thoughts last night (text in light pink, thanks to my ink-waning printer.)

So, all ready to give my talk, I began listening to the preceding two provocations, the latter of which asked about our responsibility to players. I reflected privately about how, through my work in developing Redshirt, I’d learned some lessons about this. I reflected on how lately, I’m sort of wearing my academic hat only reluctantly. Then, as I made my way to the front for my talk, I decided this was more important than the thoughts I’d prepared, and, thus, my ‘provocation’ became this:

 

Torn-Up Provocation

 

I tore up the ‘academic’ talk I’d prepared, and spoke instead briefly about the lessons I’d learned as a developer. A sort of meta-provocation, about how I’d grown more personally, and learned more about games and play through my work as a developer, than in my capacity as an academic thus far. It’s not that games academia is without value, of course, but in a personal capacity, my work as a developer has been more important to me. There is probably a reason for that. I’d learned more about challenging existing conventions in games, and about caring about players. So, I tore up my talk. This was my provocation for DIGRA UK.


 

For anyone interested (and because I said I would), here is the text of my original, planned, more academic talk about game studies, epistemology, and pluralism, after the break.

Original Provocation: “Games Are Operas Made Out of Bridges: taking an epistemological foothold on the mountain of whatever games and play are.” (Note: obnoxious title.)

“Games Are Operas Made Out of Bridges” is what Frank Lantz declared in his talk at GDC earlier this year, referring evocatively to the way that games are as much science and logic as they are art and intangible experience. The cold, rational, immutable rules of a game are inseparable from the aesthetic and emotional experience of the players who interact with those rules.

We tend to think of art and science as separate and distinct from each other – CP Snow’s two cultures problem. But, in games, this ontological distinction is blurred. Games exist simultaneously in two spaces – or infinite spaces, if we are to truly do away with this arbitrary distinction. I am really drawn to this conception of games, because as both an indie developer and games academic, I feel like I exist simultaneously in two spaces as well, and sometimes that is a weird place to be. However, I think the spaces in-between things are always the most interesting. (As an aside while I blog this writeup, I remembered that I wrote about games as the fourth culture back in 2010 on this blog, albeit unfortunately framed by the ideas in a book by the now-discredited-and-disgraced-Jonah-Lehrer. Oh well!)

So, game systems without human interaction are rational and inert. When human interaction is involved, however, other phenomena come into play. Literally, of course.

So we can agree with Lantz that games are operas made of bridges, a perfect union of artistry and engineering, and you should watch his talk for a far more eloquent explanation of this.

However, within this talk, he also takes a little dig at games academia. He says:

“Game studies & design discourse are filled with overly systematic attempts to model player experience in order to make definitive empirical claims about how pleasure works. Which to me drastically misrepresents the endlessly subtle, elusive qualities of aesthetics. You will never see these things under a microscope. Games are microscopes. Games have microscopes in them.”

Now, he is right that games are microscopes for ourselves, of course. They certainly are operas made out of bridges stuffed with microscopes.

But, I think he presents what is a common mischaracterisation of game studies; I’m not sure game studies is as full of these attempts at definitive empirical claims as he contends. In fact, I feel like empiricism is almost kind of a dirty word within game studies. And, for good reason too, for a lot of empirical work has historically ignored the important wider cultural and social context of games, in our weird, messy reality with so many layers of truth. After all, when we’re thinking about players, who even gets to play games at all is a political issue.

But at the same time, I don’t think it’s okay to conflate game studies and ruthless, data-mining, intensely metrics-driven design — just like it’s not okay to conflate the latter with usability or playability studies in general. What I’m talking about is the kind of design that systematizes & reduces the experience of players so as to increase ‘retention’ and monetization. Are player experience studies within an empirical framework the same thing? No, they are earnest attempts to understand what happens when we play games, in order to understand them for their own sake. I say for their own sake, because while knowledge will always seep through by osmosis, I don’t think game studies should exist in the specific service of the commercial industry.

One of my favourite things is a quote by Alan Moore, from Snakes and Ladders, a talk he gave at a magic convention of all things, on trying to understand what is real, let alone what is magic. He says that we humans are the “mud that sat up”, that through us “the universe knows itself, loves itself, and breaks its own heart.”

We know we have personal, emotional, and mysterious experiences when we play a game, and I contend that it is okay to try to understand those experiences, even empirically. I will say that in my work as a developer, my previous game Redshirt was entirely designed through ‘just seeing how it feels’ and incredibly informal play testing, the complete opposite of metrics-driven design. However, when it comes to researching games for the sake of games, and for the sake of us being the universe trying to understand itself, we need more rigour.

I feel like Lantz builds a bridge between art and science, smoothing over these ontologies, only to smash it down again, wrestling game studies and player research from the supposed grip of undesirable empiricism. I do not think it has to be that way, but I will contend that empirical research needs to realise the cultural and social contexts in which it takes place.

Games are culture, and should be understood as such. However, they are also experiences. And they are systems of rules. And narratives. And politics. And so many other things, spanning the divide of art and science.

I think games challenge us to rethink what knowledge is, and reconceptualise it not as segregated epistemologies, but as something more interconnected.

After all, what tradition do we see ourselves working in? Are games, and the connected experience of playing them, weird in-between things that do not quite befit study by the dominant schools of thought? I know that when as someone with an engineering background, I started on my PhD, this was the kind of epistemological woe that befell me.

We need to look to the spaces in-between things. We need not see empirical parts of our research as reductive, if we do not do work that is reductive, but instead, use it to further explore the richness of aesthetic experience that lays underneath. And, conversely, analytical work should not erase the player either.

Maybe we need to build a bridge between ontologies, for example, Gerald Cupchik’s “constructivist realism”, advocating for an “interplay between descriptive richness and experimental precision”, which “can bring accounts of social phenomena to progressively greater levels of clarity” (2001). Perhaps hybrid two-cultures-spanning methodologies befit this weird hybrid two-cultures-spanning medium.

Ultimately, my provocation is to ask where on the spectrum of epistemology we, the collective we, exist: I suggest that our work in game studies should take a foothold that accounts for the pluralism of games, and of people, by working within pluralistic frameworks.

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