Avoiding Rebelism

Or on not cutting off your nose to spite your face

Structures of power have a lot to answer for. Academia is stale and slow to adapt. The industry is dominated by profit-hungry, short-termist thinking.

Educators sometimes act as gatekeepers, ignoring revolutionary new modes of thought either because they seem alien, or they come from lowly plebs outside academia.

Executives only care about reliably providing return on investment, jettisoning creative risk regardless how stagnant their business.

Consumers might be the worst. They not only glug down the blandest dross, but a furious minority denounces anything that challenges their understanding of the medium.

Rank & file practitioners are locked into their own institutional views of the discipline and everyone follows the money. Creative experimentation is all but exterminated, damning humanity to a life of uniformity.

Pick a card, any card

No creative medium escapes this narrative. But despite that, other mediums not only thrive creatively and culturally, but they have an identity. They know what they are and that allows them to build outwards. Games, not so much.

The term “arrested development” comes up a lot in game writing. Like, a lot. Nobody disagrees that games are fundamentally broken. But reading game-centered cultural commentary, you’d be forgiven for coming away thinking it’s mostly intentional sabotage by figures in power that’s holding games back as a medium and the only underlying, systemic issue is just a lack of common vocabulary.

To be fair, greed and gatekeeping are as real in games as they are anywhere else. But if that were the entire problem, every other medium would still have it.

And if the one systemic problem were a lack of common terms the first working theory with a coherent vocabulary that came along would have completely permeated our culture.

Directors are not endlessly debating the definition of film, musicians aren’t denouncing rhythmcentrism. They’ve moved past that, we haven’t. And I’m pretty sure the fact that the smartest people in games are caught up in some pretty dumb loops has something to do with it.

You might have heard of this as the “formalism” debate (scare quotes very intentional), but if you’re not a game design geek, you’re probably struggling to find reasons to care.

No, not that card

I can promise you one thing: despite loudly professing not to, the people making and writing about your favourite games care. Not much about the debate minutiae themselves, which have long past stopped being about anything useful. But definitely about the ripples it creates in the wider community and its eventual outcome. I mean, how could they not care about a debate on the future and soul of the entire space?

But the number one reason you should care is that the people just starting out care the deepest. The ones looking for a tribe to join. The ones whose games you’ll be playing two years from now.

Imagine a barely adequate metaphor. Now imagine an upcoming generation of designers and players just entering a creative medium being told on one side by established creators that you should mainly just use your left hand. That the right hand has its uses, but only to scratch your left from time to time, or massage it if goes numb.

Now imagine the most provocative and interesting new practitioners of that craft heavily condemning lefthandism, considering it best ignored. The right hand is where it’s at, baby. Technically, the left can do things, but everyone’s so over their left hands. You should just keep it under the table so you can have enough space for your super important right one.

The kinds of games that speak to culture and human truths, the ones that we want without even knowing it, can be made with either. But it’s not long until diminishing returns set in. And just think of the games you could make with both.

Ok, dumb loops. Here goes:

#1 The whole concept of game design and criticism is wobbly because there is no mature, stable, holistic Grand Unifying Theory of game design.

No theory fully accounts for why and how the vast majority of what we term “games” work and it’s not even guaranteed that such a thing can even exist. There are dozens of competing theories, largely arranged around the concepts of interaction or narrative to some degree, some more data-driven and some with a more philosophical take.

But if you apply Dan Cook’s Chemistry of Game Design or Raph Koster’s seminal Theory of Fun to Twine games like Porpentine’s Howling Dogs for instance, they mostly fall flat. Much the same when applying Stephen Beirne’s views on the role of cinematography in games to Drop 7. Yet these are all undeniably games.

Just like in any field of study, heroes and tribes supporting each of these approaches have emerged. As a result, there is a huge gulf in theory between progressive voices at the forefront of the medium because they each have a piece of the puzzle, but each is claiming theirs is the whole thing and actively dismissing and invalidating others in the process.

Narrative *can’t* be a mechanic.

Mechanics *aren’t* narrative.

And so it goes.

While I agree theory shouldn’t be everything, Grand Unifying Theories exist in every single creative field. They are often broken in practice, constantly tested and rewritten, but the sediment of what makes good writing or music has not changed in decades or for some aspects centuries.

Theory in other mediums also encompasses their entire breadth and aspects. In games, we’re basically still fighting over whether a novel is just made up of grammar or exclusively vocabulary or maybe it’s just blank paper.

I’m confident games will have their theoretical bedrock eventually. It’s only a matter of time. Not only that, but I’d stake my life that it will include both narrative and interactivity at its heart. But that time has not yet arrived, and it shows.

#2 The game industry doesn’t trust and barely recognizes game design theory and practitioners (it loves psychological, economical and data theory though).

The mess above and the (even more) intangible and nebulous nature of mechanics (as opposed to art or code) make game design theory fractured and volatile enough that it only has limited impact on the business. This is, thankfully, slowly beginning to change.

Consider that in the space of a decade, we’ve gone from tech to art to mechanics to dynamics and now to emergent narrative as driving forces in game design, though not in this particular order and not exclusively.

Building a business cognizant of the state of the art off the back of that much change, that quickly is super difficult. So theory doesn’t get enough credibility or traction to be proven in real life business scenarios. And business gets left waaay behind by theory. So does its marketing. So does its audience, which receives their education on what games are and what they should be mostly from one form of marketing (ads) or another (enthusiast press). Often, business combats this by misappropriating the language of theory, but rarely the understanding. And that too gets passed on to consumers.

#3 Game academia is new, has a lot to prove and a lot to lose and it is still in fight or flight mode.

To make any headway inside an established power structure, you have to adapt to it at least to some extent. This places a lot of pressure on game academics to establish legitimacy and a separate identity for their curriculum, not only to gain funding, but to justify the very existence of this academic space. That means building a coherent curriculum and to some extent, wagon circling.

Exclusion of radical perspectives in game design courses also follows from there, mostly when they would wreck so many well understood teaching models that you’re left explaining why, if cinematography and writing should be included in your game design class, even have a game design class?

#4 Some outsider critics and designers are doing incredible things that academia / business can’t touch yet

Do yourself a favour and read up on your Austin Walker, Lana Polansky, Zolani Stewart, Mattie Brice. Play stuff by Porpentine, Merritt Koppas, Nina Freeman, Soha Kareem, Stephen Lavelle.

In no particular order and I’m not even scratching the surface, but these are the people whose work completely turned what I thought knew about game design inside out, after a decade of “doing” and thinking about game design.

Very little of this amazing body of work and thought has been incorporated in industry practice, because it’s too left field and there’s no obvious connection to the currently accepted body of knowledge.

#5 But outsider critics & designers are fighting for survival even harder and they’re in EXTREME fight or flight mode

I get why, too. Well I don’t really, because I’m not them. But I get how constantly being marginalized and being shown zero recognition would breed deep mistrust and animosity towards people outside your immediate group in anyone.

Their work doesn’t make them terribly popular to the consumer crowd either, which if you know anything about the traditional video game consumer, almost certainly nets them a fair amount of abuse. Their work, or at least trends they help start are also misappropriated pretty consistently.

All of this means that there aren’t many ways an outsider (well meaning or not), can call the intense throughline of distracting defensiveness running through your otherwise excellent work misplaced without invalidating it and you.

#6 “Formalism” is misrepresented as and conflated with the “establishment”, and by extension with worst excesses of the industry

Jargon misappropriation, power dynamics and an unfortunate distant history of obsession with exploitative reward mechanics have given “formalism”, aka the study of interactive form, aka garden variety game design theory, a pretty bad reputation.

The thing is, as of about 2001, it’s also a largely undeserved reputation. Exploitative mechanics like points, experience levels and loot as a way of creating compelling experiences has gone the way of the dodo in “formalist” thought (if not the industry, yay misappropriation) for a good long while now.

In its place, you have stuff like the MDA theory and Clint Hocking’s further probing into dynamics and meaning, which beautifully codifies representational qualities in mechanics that have less to do with exploitation.

I absolutely don’t mean to imply critics of “ludocentrism” haven’t heard of MDA or the newly decreased focus on the exploitative side of game design. But you’d be hard pressed to find any indication in their work, which almost uniformly describes “formalism” as an unhealthy focus on efficient systems that must be conquered, rather than its new “expression and representation via interactive systems” direction.

#7 Once you get past the tribal warfare, everyone agrees a lot more than they disagree

Amazingly, MDA actually seems significantly close to what staunchly “antiformalist” critic Lana Polanski terms the “poetics” of games.

“Recently, Stephen Beirne’s gone to degrees to create a language that recontextualizes our understanding of “systems” as “structures”, according to critic Heather Alexandra.

But MDA and mechanics are “formalist”, so they get pretty much ignored, in favour of flogging the extrinsic “formalist” straw man moonlighting as a dead horse.

All the while narrative in “formalist” circles is “not a mechanic”, “expected to be there, but not important”, etc., while old school practitioners from Ken Levine to Haden Blackman are scrambling to make narrative games.

#8 And then there’s the isolationist approach

Finally, some of the people who know what’s up don’t care to get embroiled in an age-old extremely polarised debate that they see as unproductive and unwinnable. Even some of the people who have pushed the medium forward immensely just don’t see the value in engaging.

“Students that gnaw at these bones: Arguing ancient talking points in comment sections gets you nowhere in life. Make games instead. Base your design conversations around your hands-on experiments. You’ll learn more, faster.
Goodness knows that conversations on dead design ideas will not end. Players and their innumerable derivatives (fan press, forum warriors, cultural critics, etc) continue talking about these topics. Some talk for entertainment. Some for status. Some for business. Some talk about their game experiences in order to process them mentally and emotionally. For many of these purposes, simplistic polarizing hooks are more enticing than deep comprehension.”
Dan Cook

#9 Players, critics and designers just coming into games are forced into a disappointing and self defeating false dichotomy

Don’t know about anyone else, but I talk because of stuff like this:

Ryan Green quote via the tremendous Anti Semantics game crit YouTube show, though this is more mysticism than rebelism

If you think that’s out of context, trust me when I say I’ve seen much more and more depressing fare that I’ve been unable to track down.

Trying to contextualize the disappointment the tweets like those above brought out in me is pretty much the entire agenda.

By no means do I intend to cast myself as some all-knowing Godhead spewing original, unassailable wisdom. I’m sure there will be problematic terms and representation as I unpack this. Just know it’s not intentional.

But if anything is holding games back, it’s reactionary rhetoric from the medium’s most interesting new practitioners and its most celebrated old ones. There’s nothing in games as self defeating as as engaging with the art form by denying one of its defining characteristics only to defend another.

If you’re someone who understands that games are a mesh of narrative, fine art, visual design, mechanics and other equally important creative aspects, and that huge operatic schisms in creative disciplines are more about status and power dynamics and less about the work itself, we’d probably be pretty great friends, but you’re not in the demo for this thing right here.

Maybe you’re a designer who is not interested in interactive formalism? Cool, many people can be interested in different things. Games with minimal to no interaction are amazing (and totally games, claiming otherwise is not formalist, just reactionary).

But if that disinterest spills into disdain, to the point where you’re framing your work by its degree of “antiformalism”, maybe take a second look. Make sure you have a clear, fair picture of the thing you’re against and aren’t just rebelling for rebellion’s sake against an “establishment” that not only may be a lot more nuanced than you realize, but may also hold a vital part of the solution to the problem you’re trying to solve.

If you sincerely think The Formalist Man is out to destroy games by codifying them in their narrow little boxes or focusing on the wrong boxes, I don’t know, man. I guess I want to say that maybe it’s more complicated than that.

Maybe all the boxes are equally important, as is a lack of boxes, as is how the boxes stack together. But the least important thing is bashing each other over the head with them until two wrongs start making a right.