Abstraction, Confrontation, and Materiality

When you work with ideas for PhDs, which are original research (god, that’s scary), at first you must construct a model. This is a draft of mine, from way earlier in the year, which has already been dragged around the block. It’s already under revision. But, if I want to show the process, that means showing the bits I’ve already moved past, even if I’m embarassed of them. Consider this a stepping stone.

My PhD is about making games.

I’m working on constructing a model for looking at games (in general) that focuses on board games (in specific). Existing models of classifying games out in the wild are kind of grassroots, disorganised, and unfortunately, structured primarily by nerds, some of the worst kind of humans for providing comprehensive, forgiving models of classification. There are people who will shout in your face that 4th Ed D&D is a tactical miniatures Wargame, you Chad, because it’s not about communicating relationships between types of games as much as it is about defending territory they’ve staked out, and somehow being able to transform their preferences into rules. Ameritrash and Eurogame are terms of art, not (such as it is) science.

This model of game analysis is meant not to give hard defined boundaries for the games – don’t think this is about saying this game scores a 7.4 on miniatures. This is about instead presenting games as expressions of multiple axes, and lets you think about games in terms of how their designs are similar.

What we have is a model on three axes. It started out as a spectrum – a line in a row – then two lines in a row – then lines in opposition, but where we are now, the model considers each game has having a range of Abstraction, Confrontation and Materiality. Each of these values goes from ‘not very much at all’ to ‘lots and lots’ – we’re not talking hard numeric values. It’s possible a game to have very little abstraction, almost none, and it’s very possible for a game to have very little materiality, just as it’s possible for a game to have lots and lots of materiality or abstraction. At the same time it seems very hard for a game to have literally nothing of any of these things.

soccerisfake

Abstraction, in layperson’s terms, is how much a game presents of a theme. All games are abstractions – they’re human-mind representations of importance, assigned to indicators. Soccer is an abstraction, even if the thing it’s abstracting is soccer mattering (soccer is fake, actually). Some board games are very, very heavily abstracted for what they represent – look at games like Chess or Checkers – even those that are trying to represent something like a battle are still pretending battles work on extremely arbitary, careful rules with oddly specific dynamics. Some games are instead very low on abstraction and do whatever they can to present to you, the player, as much of their theme and game world every time you play them. Games like Magic: The Gathering are, again, still abstract representations of a war between wizards, but they’re still absolutely soaking with things that want to give you the feeling of existing in their world.

Low-abstraction games can look really different, though. Dungeons and Dragons runs low on abstraction because you’re trying to make absolutely sure that the world feels real, and players engaging with that world can interact with it in as many ways as they can conceive and explain to the player coordinating the game. Games like Gipf are really abstracted because they want to make the math puzzle of how you engage with them more present than caring about the fiction or the motivations of actions.

Confrontation is the degree to which the game presents players with opposition. The easiest models of confrontation are players in competition with one another, trying to ‘beat’ one another in some way. Race games like Snakes and Ladders have a lot of very obvious confrontation. You want to get to the goal before your opponents do. When they win, you do not win, and the very simple binary of ‘win or lose’ is the only thing the game is about. Confrontation and how the game presents it is a fascinating axis with so many different options. Games can be opaque about it, like Tigris and Euphrates, or they can be direct, like Formula D. They can make engaging with your confrontation indirect, like Monopoly, or they can make it direct, like Garou: Mark of the Wolves. Sometimes the game itself confronts all players, and then those players compare how they handle that opposition, and that becomes another level of confrontation, like Imperial Settlers.

Then, our third axis is materiality. Board games get to do a lot with materiality, moreso than videogames – because board games are built around what you might conventionally see as ‘actual objects.’ Some tabletop games can have almost no materiality, like word games and gambling puzzles. Some games play with huge materiality, like crowd-friendly games like Two Rooms And A Boom where just having a big space is part of the game. To bring up Dungeons and Dragons again, that’s a game that turns dungeons and palaces and dragons into (potentially) entirely conceptual entities, both as non-material entities, but also imbues those entities with the idea they should have mass and weight and force, and therefore, they have a virtual materiality.

This is a first draft of this concept space. It’s going to get prettied up for my thesis – and we’re already on the way to changing parts of it. Still, as with all things that wind up working, there are points along the way where they do not work. That’s where this is.

Symmetrical Juuls

[rules and fiction] are complementary, but not symmetrical.

When you deal with academic writing you’re sometimes left stymied by word choices. It’s one of the reasons the whole affair can feel super arcane, because people spend a month writing a sentence and then another month justifying that sentence to the people overseeing the writing.

This is something I’m finding. Most days I look at a statement and rewrite it, figuring it might look good tomorrow. So far it hasn’t.

This eight word conception comes from Jesper Juul’s Half-real: Video games between real rules and fictional worlds, 2011, and I feel like I could spend a lot of time – like, say, a whole blog post – picking at those word choices. Why not symmetrical? Why not asymmetrical? Why not ‘they are not symmetrical.‘ It’s easy to conceive that the structure of this one little sentence is that simple.

This is from Chapter 4, which is about Fictions. This chapter is – to summarise roughly – about what we sometimes in games refer to as theme or abstraction, not its narrative. Narrative is a story, and it’s how our brains do things – I’ve long since said that a game is a machine for making stories, and we make stories because it’s a really useful way for our brains to store a linear sequence of cause and effect. Fictions is a good way to establish the idea of the world that the game wants that story to occupy – whether an abstracted world where nothing matters but the order and sequence of a play, or a heavily flavoured world of flavours and sounds and spaces and moistures.

The book itself, I learned about, sadly not from my readings – I mean, I’m working through them at my own rate – but from the Game Studies Study Buddies podcast, which is available here. I’m honestly annoyed because it seems that the people involved are both smart and on similar pages to me, processing text and not necessarily agreeing with or disagreeing with it, playing in the spaces of consideration and being able to vocalise good and useful ideas about how academics can consider games, and they don’t fall down into treating all videogames as alien creatures to tabletop games. Heck, they mention that as something Juuls notices, the way tabletop games break a lot of the rules of what ‘is’ a game and therefore ‘game’ has to keep moving as a definition.

But that word choice, that thing up top, it sits on my head, as a friend mentions she’s dealing with internet that is Very Not Good, which I distinctly and clearly understand as different to Not Very Good. That order of emphasis is a coherent conception, and yet if I tried to feather it out for you I might miss the meaning she’s getting at.

Anyway, these ideas, that fiction and rules are complementary is something I have stumped at hard: If your rules fly in the face of your fiction, you weaken them both. The fiction can encode actions in your mind and make game mechanics coherent where they might otherwise not be. I’ll not go into examples here, but maybe I will another time. This is just a given.

But that last point: They are not symmetrical.

To call them asymmetrical would be to say that they are never symmetrical. To call them non-symmetrical would make their symmetry a function of what they are. Much of game studies want to talk about rules without fiction, to break down Plants vs Zombies into specific, tight details that ignore that this is a game about zombies, and how they vs plants, and how that fiction encodes game rules into player’s minds. Juul forwards the idea in Half-Real that you can discuss rules without fiction, but not the fiction without rules.

And that’s what I’m worrying at right now. Because they aren’t symmetrical. Rules can interleave with one another in places that leave the fiction untouched. Shuffling and stacking a deck in a particular way may have an outcome to the fiction, but the rules of the method are there for the outcome, not for the cause. There are ways the fiction can leave the rules untouched, like decals over a chassis. But I’m not sure I agree with Juuls that fiction depends on rules while rules do not depend on fiction.

But we’ll see. This is the problem with readings.

You’re never sure until you’re done and you’re never done.


This blog post represents notes on my PhD reading of Half-real: Video games between real rules and fictional worlds, by Jesper Juul (2011), chapter 4.

Presentation Feedback 1

Mamamia.com.au

The first presentation was a discussion of the media outlet MamaMia.Com.Au. It looked at the outlet over time and considered it both in terms of changing perspectives from a personal blog to a business entity, and also in so doing, the shift in landscape about representation of and presentation as a feminist outlet.

The main thing that stood out to me about this talk was the way the presentation used feminism, the word. Specifically, the presentation simply used feminism as a binary state, as in the question is Mamamia A Feminist Media Source. This needed some definition: Feminism has a simple definition, but its execution is very broad and wide. Is Mamamia an outlet unwittingly part of “White Feminism?” Is it striving to be Intersectional? Is it historically feminist, and full of a userbase primarily oriented around the feminist struggles of their younger days?

This definition wasn’t supplied. I assume the Thesis does present a single, central vision on the definitions and boundaries of feminism it intends to use, with its focal values and how it seeks to engage them, but it was still confusing to me. The question of is this feminist or not becomes much harder to answer without a clear idea of what that is, or even how that means. Theory and praxis are very different things, and it’s also possible that the outlet comes from a place of feminist theory, but its practical expression is flawed or is rendered without an awareness of the many complex intersections of not just genders, but gender binaries and cissexist assumptions.


Games From The Outside

My notes are sadly a bit thin from this presentation. Thanks to a prolonged internet outage, I’ve been unable to recover much of what I had to say about it. I will note that the slides were very information dense. Much of what the talk covered projected to me the idea of a sort of Ethnography – of reaching into a community space not owned by the writer and creating a text to decode what was evident to the people within the setting.

PowerPoint Sucks

Back in BCM311 I wound up offhandedly suggesting this was a reason that we shouldn’t use Powerpoint to make our points. After that point was made, the Professor eschewed it for our presentations in that class, but I did still start this little piece and considered it worth polishing up and finishing. As I start another semester of work, the specter of Powerpoint looms and I felt it best to elaborate.

Why Does It Suck?

      • Presentations should not simply be reading aloud the text on a slide
      • Slides should be useful for illuminating the spoken text
      • But that means the bulk of the presentation is in the spoken text…
      • … and that means there’s not as much text to put in the slides!
      • So if your marking rubric requires a word count or slide count, it encourages text dumps!
      • Slides are good for images and graphs and video – which are not graded as words!
      • Good Powerpoint presentations are best handled with some theatre –
      • and those skills aren’t part of any of the courses!
      • So giving a good presentation isn’t something we teach –
      • it’s something we expect you to already be able to do!
      • And that means the skills Powerpoint give you are just skills for making more Powerpoint!
      • Skills for making Powerpoint aren’t good skills because Powerpoint sucks!

Why Do Teachers Want It?

I think the big reason teachers want us to use powerpoint is because it’s a deliverable. It’s a thing that we can put our references onto, that shows we put some work in and did something other than read enough to give an impression we’re faking our way through the course. One of the ways we can represent that we’re doing the work is to show our ability to recontextualise it – one thing to put text on a page, but if we talk about it, even for a few minutes at a time, we can show that we’ve been able to recontextualise that information.

We then waste all that time just reiterating a written report!

So.

What Can We Do To Fix It?

Well here’s the bad news. Students need to get engaged.

We need to have the leeway to treat our deliverable in terms of references. Word counts on Powerpoint presentations need to just go – they’re awful, they’re useless. Powerpoint isn’t a bad skill to have but it’s not a skill fundamental to everything we do. Unless the uni is going to offer a course on Using Powerpoint Well, then we need to make sure our involvement, our skill with the program itself is a minimal factor.

We need to be able to do things like record the presentation, and then, after the fact annotate our own recorded audio, such as on Soundcloud. We need to be able to do things like record a presentation ahead of time and playback the video or the audio with images.

If the challenge is the recontextualisation, then let us recontextualise in a way that doesn’t benefit people who are good at fooling people, and instead tries to give as many people a platform to show that they have recontextualised the information.

#LHA300-4 – Synthesis

There’s this term you see a lot in gaming media, a term that’s faded in popularity in recent years but sadly serves a decent purpose: Ludonarrative Dissonance. This dissonance, derived from the cinematographical term Filmic Dissonance, is the problem that comes when a game’s systems, juxtaposed with the game’s content, seems mis-matched.

There’s a number of examples of this in games. One fairly renowned example is in the videogame Bioshock Infinite, where a narrative about racism in an opulent floating country is interrupted by the player character being induced by health-based rewards to eat cake out of trash bins. Ask any game reviewer and they’ll have an example for you, of something that stood out to them and stuck in the memory about a game because they weren’t… quite sure it fit.

This synthesis of content and systems is, for lack of any better term, the game itself. When they work together, the game feels whole; when they work against one another, it creates a strange feeling. Sometimes it doesn’t even slow things down meaningfully – players are very good at skipping over systemic bumps as they get into the fun of a game.

Dissonance is worth considering, especially when you have a dossier or a statement of intention in a game. If a game is about deprivation and debt, does it mean anything if the players are constantly rolling in the game’s currency? Does a game frame itself as being about combat, but all combats are resolved by a single, blind die roll?

In The Suits there’s no current glaring point of dissonance. In play, there are moments when the lack of information becomes a problem. Players are trying to manage hidden information, but are completely bereft of reasons why. It’s possible a player may use their nicknames, and give a player who knows all the possible nicknames an edge on knowing what gang they belong to. What’s more, memorising that table (when ambiguity about who is what allegiance) becomes a very powerful option, which seems maybe against what is a very lightweight, very small game.

#LHA300-3 – Systems

The systems of a game are, for lack of any better word, the how of a game. When you have a game in front of you, you can look at each individual piece, but once you set up the game, you are complying with the system. The game tells you what priority and order to look at things when you put it in a system; it conveys to you information about the important details.

The systems of a game structure the content.

This is important: The game is meant to present information to the player. Unlike a more structured essay, the game content is presented to a player in an meaningful way, but not necessarily in a linear way. Game content is part of an inter-related cloud of information, where each section opens questions as to other, possible things that are worth considering. That is to say, game content induces the consumption of other, related pieces of game content. This is regardless of what systems are or do – players are induced to naturally wait for the game’s content to draw attention from one piece to the next.

Game content is largely easy to consider, in a vacuum, as a teacher. It can be considered in terms of its volume and its basic skill in construction – are the instructions cleanly spelled, do they make some sense, do they project the appropriate character of the game’s tone? – but the challenge presented in grading content is to not just take that text into account, but to then consider what game content is presented in terms of relevance, and that is where systems take up the burden of the game.

In The Suits, the systems are reasonably simple, and use the cards to randomise and handle memory. Characters have gang roles, which they are assigned at random. They have nicknames, and allegiances, which are also assigned randomly, and the nickname is even up for individual interpretation.

Reading the rules as a play of the game, it does work in a linear passage of time; you start the game, encounter hazards, learn how to overcome those hazards, then how you can lose the game, or win it.

There’s a voting system which is barely explained, suggesting the game doesn’t really have a strict view on how people should vote, just that there needs to be some balance. Loot can be used to dispose of problems, which is also not directly explained, and could create strange interactions depending on what players consider the hazard to be.

Finally, there’s a only one way to win the game, and that comes at the end of a chain of ways you can lose. This suggests that the idea of winning the game is actually unlikely.

#LHA300-2 – Content

The simplest and first place to look at a game’s text is the grouping of elements that we’re going to refer to as the content. As with all gaming terminology, this stuff is ambiguous. The terminology used to refer to game components shifts from place to place. In this case, what I’m discussing is one of the three major parts of a game that make up its text.

Game content is, in the broadest possible way, the non-moving parts of a game. It’s honestly one of the harder things to talk about in a game because listing the elements that make up content is incredibly broad.

A game’s content includes but is not limited to:

  • Artworks
  • Manuals
  • Text in the game
  • Advertising components (box art)
  • Dialogue
  • Text explaining how the game is played
  • Game components such as dice, pieces or counters
  • Voice acting
  • Music

A game’s content does not include:

  • Systems
  • Structure

This is important; text that explains how the game works is still part of the content, as that text preserves the elements that make up the game.  That is a place where the game can communicate how it wants to communicate. Even if the rules of a game are so simple as to be explained in a short, spoken description, doing so in that way is a part of demonstrating what a game sees as important. A broad, simple way to view it is content is the game components, divorced from the systems of how those game components interact.

The good news is, these elements are usually very easily estimated and considered. The game content has its own distinct character. These elements can be approached from a point of external ignorance, and the game is, itself, meant to present these elements to the reader in a participatory way.

So, you can examine Game Content and consider it in isolation. What kind of look does the game have? What words show up in its vocabulary? What does the game want to tell you about, initially? When the game makes its first impression, before you ever play it, what can you tell about it?

In The Suits, as a very small game with very small amount of content, it’s not hard to take it all in, at the moment. The game uses its cards to create a train. It refers to gangs and loot. The language of the game is, at this point, very gender-light; there’s no instances of ‘he’ or ‘she.’ The game is about a theft between conflicting parties, but also about ambiguity of identity, suggesting that nobody in these groups is necessarily famous enough to recognise one another. The train is a casino, suggesting ridiculous luxury.

There’s also an element of the game missing from the posted version: It describes tables used to convey some game information. That’s part of the content, and that would be another place to look for possible information about the game.

So far, the main thing you can tell about The Suits before considering its systems is that in this context, theft is okay, that rich people probably can afford to lose money, and there’s something heroic about criminals. The use of language suggests a fairly inclusive structure, though that might be industry standardisation.