A Brief Theory of Technology & Creativity

This past May, I was  invited to visit the University of Utah to give a couple of talks. One of them was for Erik Brunvand’s “Making Noise: Sound Art and Digital Media” course. It is a great class in which students from around the university gather to learn physical computing, basic electronics and a host of other things through the lens of music-making. I decided to use the opportunity to capture my thoughts on technology. 

The title I gave to your professor for this talk was, “A Brief History of Technology.” 30 minutes isn’t enough time for a full history of technology obviously, but, it is enough time to think about what we mean when we talk about technology, and to consider the role it plays in creativity.

Like many things, there seems to be a period we’ll call BC (before computation) and AC, or after computation. Hopefully, this will help us get some perspective on a concept that captures our imaginations and frames the way we think about the technologies you all study and use in this class. Technology is really just a fancy word for tool. And tool is just a short word for artifacts we use to get things done. Rocks, when shaped in a certain way, become a technology for banging and cutting. People have been using this sort of high-tech gadget for a really long time. More advanced versions of this type of technology? Hammers. Ginsu Knives.

Then there is the ultimate in multi-purpose technologies, one that has drawn so much of human need and knowledge into a single, streamlined tool: the pocket knife. This path from stone to knife to pocket knife is the history of technological progression in a nutshell. We develop a need beyond human capabilities, and we find something that can help us achieve that need, and then we turn it into an over-featured salable good.

If you think about it, the computer, the thing that we nowadays assume we’re talking about if we talk about technology, is really just a fancy pocket knife for calculating and organizing. A sort of cutting edge abacus-card catalog combo with a built in file cabinet. We could already do most everything we do with computers before, albeit more slowly and less efficiently.

My point? That we should remember that computers are just another kind of tool. They aren’t anymore magical than being able to start a fire with two stones. This example also points to a really important consideration for technologies: they are part of processes we develop to achieve goals. Being able to start a fire by striking two rocks together to create a spark near an easily flammable material—that’s a process involving a couple of pieces of technology—the rocks—and some additional materials—a flammable material and some pieces of wood.

The history of technology has always been a coupling of tools, processes and needs. Tools are only useful if we have something we want to do with them. So those sharpened stones were good for cutting. And when combined with another stone and some flammable materials, to create fire for warmth, cooking and protection.

Tools aren’t always tangible objects we can touch. Sometimes, they are systems we create that provide conceptual structures for more easily thinking about and doing things. Human languages are an example of this. They are a conceptual framework for facilitating communication between people. Each language has its own vocabulary and organizing principles that allow us to understand one another. Language also fits the pattern of tool, process and use. Language allowed people to communicate with one another in order to plan, negotiate, share news, and so on.

I’d like to focus on the role of another ubiquitous yet intangible technology in our lives: math. Math is a technology we rely on so much we have ceased to recognize what it is: a set of structural tools for thinking about and making sense of the world. If we look at the history of subsistence-plus technologies, we see math use for all sorts of interesting purposes. I’m a game design and game scholar, so I can’t help but bring up an example from the history of games: the humble die. Best we can tell, dice are a 6,000 year old technology for probability that maps an array of numbers onto a cube.

In many cases, dice are functioning as a random number generator. They help us sort out how many spaces we’ll move around the board; they help people figure out if their elf or wizard were indeed killed by the dragon, or merely received a flesh wound. Beyond random number generation, there is another mathematic technology in play with dice: geometry. The basic forms of geometry are used to produce different kinds of random number generators by mapping arrays of different sizes onto different geometric shapes. This is some pretty complex technology, isn’t it? Three realms of math converge in these elegant tools we use to guide Uncle Moneybags around the Monopoly board.

One of the reasons I find dice so fascinating is they haven’t really changed much in 6,000 years. Yes, we use different materials, and we have much more elaborate methods for manufacturing them, but the basic technologies and uses haven’t changed substantially. This points to an interesting point in the recent history of technologies. We have grown to think that technology must always progress, that it gets better and more powerful with each passing day. No one can argue that computational devices aren’t way more efficient than duck-taping an abacus, a typewriter and file cabinet together, but they aren’t the replacement for everything that has come before them. There is a long history of technologies that are just as important, if for nothing other than one simple fact: computers exist because of typewriters, looms, abacuses, microfiche and all sorts of other tools.

One way to keep perspective on computers: they are really, really fancy calculators. The very name, computer, belies the mathematical underpinnings: a thing that computes or calculates. These devices are really just incredibly complicated abacuses that we’ve figured out how to push to do all sorts of useful and entertaining things. Like dice, computers are made of layers and layers of technologies: math, but also language, and electronics, itself built on another dose of math mixed with physics. And the material form of computers requires other forms of math plus chemistry, and so on. You get the point: computers are these super-complex tools we’ve built out of a bunch of other technologies.

We think of computers today as these Swiss Army knives that let us accomplish a bewildering range of tasks, and that let us have all sorts of experiences. They weren’t always so multi-functional, though. Going back to their roots, computers were weaving machines, or math machines, but not much more. It wasn’t until people like Ada Lovelace, Alan Turing, Vannevar Bush, Grace Hopper and Douglas Engelbart got involved that we started thinking about them more broadly.

It was Ada Lovelace who first connected algorithms to computational machines. She was an English mathematician who studied and theorized around Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine. The Analytical Engine was a proposal for a general-purpose computer. Lovelace closely studied the plans, and theorized programs that could be run on the machine. She had a vision for how the computational device could, “… act upon upon other things besides number….”. Sadly, the Analytical Machine was never built, and so Ada’s theories were left untested.

It was Alan Turing who used mathematics to prove how computers could be useful for purposes beyond number-crunching. He is often referred to as the father of computer science, as he was able to reconsider the uses of these calculating tools for a broader set of uses, such as playing chess. One of the more important observations Turing had was that a computer could take on anything that could be expressed mathematically.

It was Grace Hopper who strove to make programming more accessible. She developed early compilers that allowed more people-friendly ways to program computers. Hopper believed it was important that programming languages be closer to English than cryptic strings of numbers and letters. She was also an advocate for moving from large centralized mainframes to networked computers, which further increased access for more people.

It was Vannevar Bush who imagined computers as a means of storing and accessing all of human knowledge. In the 1930s, Bush conceived of the Memex, a machine that used film to create an encyclopedia of books, documents and other printed materials that could be cross-referenced and organized to supplement the user’s memory. The Memex remained a concept only, though it influenced the eventual invention of the internet.

And finally, it was Douglas Engelbart  who saw computers as an extension of the human mind. He was concerned with using computational tools to extend what people were capable of doing, or what Engelbart called “augmenting human intellect”. Engelbart knew that for these new tools to be truly useful, they needed to be more accessible. And so as part of a larger project to network locations, he and his team invented the mouse and the graphic user interface. With these tools, it was easier for people to make sense of and interact with computers.

The point with these five people is this: tools aren’t just there, they become. And the processes we create to help us use these tools are borne from our goals for what we’ll accomplish by using the tool. This happens through a confluence of desire, understanding and use. People desire to do things, and they turn to tools to help them act upon the desire. To know which tool to use requires an understanding of the available tools and how they can help fulfill that desire. And deep understanding most often comes from use of the tools. That’s a functional take on the history of technology. People have developed tools around certain uses, with processes emerging for how to use them to meet human needs. And often, we find new uses for these tools, which lead to new processes, and so on.

In this class, y’all are concerned with creative uses of technology, right? There’s a long history there, too. Pretty much as soon as culture emerged, people started making things. Some of them were useful, like farming equipment, while others were useful in what we’d call subsistence-plus ways. By that I mean uses that go beyond the basic needs of sustenance, shelter and protection.

We start finding ways to use our tools for things like play and entertainment and not just for utilitarian purposes like feed and cloth and shelter ourselves. This is where music, visual art, theater and so on come into play. Sometimes, we use the same tools for both utility and enrichment, sometimes there are separate sets of tools used.

We can look back in the history of art and see that it also a history of technology. Let’s look back at the example of dice, the first examples going back some 6,000 years. They were used for forecasting and other spiritual intentions, but they were also adopted for play and gambling.Fairly early, people saw the there was a use of a tool to create something else—play. It took someone understanding the basic use of a die—probability—and coming up with a subsistence-plus usage for it. We find flat, round dice-like objects connected to the ancient Egyptian game of Ur. And dice were used for gambling in ancient Roman times, and later, in stories recounted in the bible. 

It’s worth pausing for a moment to think about how the general understanding of technologies informed their artistic applications. Let’s return to mathematics as a technology of knowledge production. During the late medieval period, math was considered a means of unlocking the secrets of God’s creation of the world. (“thou hast ordered all things in measure and number and weight.”) By being able to quantify the known world, it was thought that the secrets of God’s intentions might be better understood and appreciated. For the visual arts, this translated into an increased concern with the accurate representation of the visible world. This connection between mathematics and human interests fed into the arts, have a huge influence on what was created and how the art was created.

Cimabue's Madonna Enthroned

With this in mind, let’s look at painting in western Europe during the late Medieval period. The main subject matter was religious, typified by a work like this by Cimabue from the late 13th century. Though it isn’t easy for our contemporary eyes to discern, Cimabue wanted to create more realistic representations of the world. Part of the drive was to make the people and situations described in scriptures as tangible as possible.

Giotto's Scrovegni Chapel

Jumping ahead only a decade, we find Giotto, another Italian artist who is also pursuing a heightened sense of realism with his work. Giotto has taken the same tools and techniques used by Cimabue, and pushed them to new ends. He saw different potentials in combining the technologies of image-making—pigments, water, animal hair, and wooden sticks— and the systems of visual art—geometry, color, composition.

There is still a strong functional element to Giotto’s paintings—telling stories from the books of the bible—but there was a shift in the balance between purpose and style. These were all put to artistic ends that required a different kind of understanding of the potential of the various tools. With them, Giotto created what are in effect some of the finest graphic novels created on the walls of religious buildings in Italy.

Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling

The trajectory of modern western visual art is informed by this conception of the world. Michelangelo is considered the pinnacle of the representation of the visible world. By the time we got to Michelangelo and the early 16th century, roughly two hundred years after Cimabue and Giotto, the mix of technologies of creation and knowledge-making were influenced not by just trying to understand nature of the world, but to better it. So instead of trying to faithfully represent the visible world, artists like Michelangelo tried to one-up nature. This is best noted in the ways he exaggerated the human form and the ways it moves.

Niepce Bros. photograph

Jumping ahead 250 years, and we’re to the logical conclusion of representing the visible world: photography. The function of painting was suddenly questioned, as a new set of tools superseded the need for paintings—if all paintings were for was representing the world around us, why make them anymore? A 100 year period of angstful contemplation unfolded, resolving more or less with a urinal, and a Brillo box, among other things. Photography caused artists to question everything about painting: its tools, its processes and its purpose. This isn’t to say painting is no longer relevant, but that it went through a long period in which it was a set of technologies in search of a new purpose. Yet people continue to paint, and if you consider a broader range of subjects, paint with very similar goals—representing the visible world—with tools not so different than those Cimabue and Giotto used 700 years ago.

Let’s look at one more example of creative technologies: those of hip hop. The tools of hip hop have changed over the last 40 years, but they have also stayed the same: tools for cutting and mixing. Hip hop emerges from the NYC street party scene where DJs were developing ways to keep a party rolling without stops between songs. This may seem like an oversimplification, and it is, but the fact remains: hip hop music initially emerged as a means of keeping a party going.

The tools of the trade were two turntables, a mixer, a microphone and crates full of records. The DJs up in the Bronx figured out how to use two copies of the same record to create extended versions of a song, and to overlay pieces of two songs to create a new one, or simply to create a bridge from one song to the next. In the process, DJs discovered that their turntables weren’t just playback devices, they were instruments in their own right. They could be played to create new sounds out of the pre-recorded tracks.

These base technologies were supplemented with things like reel-to-reel tape machines to allow DJs to record mixes ahead of time so they wouldn’t have to always perform everything live. And there were digital tools like the drum machine and the sampler. Drum machines made it easier to replicate a great break, or create a new one. And samplers brought the storage and processing capabilities of computers to make it easier to build songs out of the pieces of other songs.

But at the end of the day, the point of all this music and its tools was keeping a party going. The tools of hip hop have changed over the last 40 years, but they have also stayed the same: tools for cutting and mixing. As this hip hop example points out, the history of creative technologies is often a history of exploration. By that I mean artists and designers are simultaneously pursuing creative goals and testing the potential the tools at their disposal to see what new expressive and experiential goals they discover.

In many ways, this class is not so different than what DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, African Bambara and Grand Wizzard Theodore were pursuing in the parks and clubs of the Bronx. In this class, you all are exploring the potential of your toolsets to create music. The differences lie in the contexts for sure, but also in the technologies you are using to create. Instead of mostly physical tools—turntables, mixers, and records—you are using the more language-based technologies of programming and music theory.

McCloud's Six Steps

It’s hard, isn’t it? One of the best descriptions of the challenges of creativity I’ve ever found comes from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. He describes a six-part journey from being a fan to becoming an artist. Though he doesn’t frame it this way, he is telling the story everyone goes through in mastering the technologies of their craft.

We begin with imitating the surface details of the given medium. We try copying the methods we know or imagine are used to create work in the medium. This is often about mastering the basic technologies of the medium—drawing with pen and ink, strumming a guitar, writing basic programs.

At some point, we get a handle on this, but we also begin to see there is much more than just knowing how to use the tools. There are all sorts of invisible technologies of knowledge we need to understand—color theory, geometry, musical scales, chords, and so on.  These invisible technologies are the basic principles governing the medium.

Then we realize there is another level of craft—that of the medium, and the underlying language of the medium. In comics, that might be the frame, in music, time signatures, chorus-verse structures, and so on.

Once we understand that language, we find there are more nuanced idioms that allow more fine-grained communication through the medium. The conventions of genres, which applies to music and comics alike.

After all that, we’ve come to master four successive layers of technologies: the basic craft skills, the principles that guide those skills, the principles of a medium, the particular language within the medium. And at this point, we are kind of back where we started, but with a more confident set of skills for using a set of technologies that allow us to create in ways we otherwise could not. We still have those nagging questions, though. What do we have to say? What do we need to express? And why this set of technologies? How are they strengthening our abilities in ways others could not?

This journey to mastering a craft isn’t easy, as you all well know. Ira Glass, host of the radio program This American Life, has a great quote on this that I’ll end with:

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

The moral of this story? Though it probably seems like it, the technology isn’t the hard part. It is knowing what to do with the tools that is the real challenge.

The more we can focus on what we’re making, and why, the less mysterious technology becomes.

Game Design, Dynamics and the Ripples of Play

The basic idea of this essay is pretty simple: when we design a game, we aren’t making a static thing, a tchotchke that people set on a shelf and forget about. Our games interact with people and culture in ways that ripple out well beyond the play experience. As obvious as this may seem, we all too often ignore the rippling effects of our games on ourselves, our players and those around us.

Systems Dynamics


Jay Forrester is the guy standing there over the shoulder of the seated fellow in this photo. He first conceived of systems dynamics as a field of study back in the later 50s and early 60s as a way to understand the complexities of businesses. He later applied it to the social world, and his students spread its use into all sorts of other domains. Though Jay Forrester isn’t well known in game design and development circles, he was a game designer of sorts.

That’s because game design is systems dynamics. Take a game as seemingly simple as Go. As systems go, it is quite simple: two players take turns placing stones on a gridded board in order to control as much of the board as possible. Yet there are billions and billions of possibilities for how the game plays out. This is where the discipline of systems dynamics come into play: how can we ever know all the possibilities of our games, even in systems as simple as that in Go?

When we design games, we are doing something quite amazing. We design activities for our players, which they enact through their play. They perform their understanding and desires through our games, often in ways that we could never imagine. If you’ve ever designed and play tested a game, you know that feeling of surprise when your players follow the rules of the game, yet it looks nothing like you imagined it would, or what it looked like when you played it yourself. This is the textbook definition of systems dynamics.

A useful model for this comes from Robin Hunicke, Marc Leblanc and  Robert Zubek’s MDA Framework. We design the mechanics of a game—what our players do, the goals they pursue, the spaces within which they do this. The dynamics happen when the game is put into motion through play. The aesthetics emerge from the play experience. This is a formalist perspective on games, wherein the aesthetics, or the thing we care about as game designers, is the experience people have. Instead of thinking of aesthetics as what a painting looks like, or its style, we think of what a game plays like. In less fancy terms, we might call this “fun.”

The challenge and pleasure of game design, for me at least, is the gap between my design and the experience—the fun the players have. We only have so much control of what shape that fun will take. Take the card game The Metagame I worked on with Local No. 12. We designed the two decks—culture cards and opinion cards—and we’ve designed ten different games that people can play with the game. So the rules, the things each game asks the players to do with the two kinds of cards, these are the mechanics of the MDA framework.

What happens when people start to play? That is the dynamics. Players pick which game they want to play, they pick the arguments they want to make, they size up their fellow players to think about what they like and how they think so that they can get their votes, they think about their understanding of the culture cards, and the possible arguments they can make. Sometimes people play it to be funny. Sometimes play to show off their smarts. Sometimes people get serious about it. Sometimes they get naughty. That’s up to them. The rules we designed create the space for a variety of dynamics to emerge. And that they do. These are the aesthetics: the place where our design is activated, and an experience unfolds.

Ripple 1: play + fun
That is the first ripple of game dynamics: what happens when players first encounter your game, and the experiences they have with it. This is that formal “fun,” or aesthetics layer. This is where we stop all too often when we think about the design of our games. But play goes so much farther than just a formal principal. This is treating our work like old musty paintings that hang on a wall of a museum, with no connection to life.

As The Metagame shows, there is no such thing as a purely aesthetic experience, there is no perfect “magic circle” within which gameplay happens. We don’t leave the rest of our experiences behind when we play a game, and we don’t leave our play behind we exit the game. The Metagame would break if this were the case, as we’d have no opinions about Comic Sans, or Lasers, or Journey, or for that matter, gender.

Ripple 2: play styles
Of course, there aren’t just the dynamics that emerge from our designs. There are the dynamics that emerge from how players like to play. We can design for certain play styles, but we can’t make players play our games in a certain way. Dungeons & Dragons is a great example of a game that can support any number of play styles. To John Romero, D&D was a playspace that begged you to battle and adventure. For Rand Miller, D&D was a playspace that invited storytelling and discovery. Both were play styles  were supported by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson’s design.

This is the second ripple of game dynamics: the play expectations people bring to our games. This is still a formal ripple, one that has to do with the aesthetics of the experience, and doesn’t necessarily touch on the real world. People bring their experiences and their desires to bare on our games and the play experiences they can provide. Sometimes these happen to coincide with what we intended, as with D&D, and sometimes, not so much.

Ripple 3: semantics of play
What happens when we think about what our players bring to the creation of play dynamics? This brings us to an important idea for game design: the semantics of play. I’m borrowing this phrase from the artist and game designer Matt Adams of Blast Theory, a group of English artists. The design of games creates meaning which is interpreted through people’s prior experiences and their desires for their play experiences. Because of this, games can take on unexpected meanings that push against your intentions. That’s a complicated thing for many of us in games, imagining how others might interpret and respond to our games. Just because we design a particular set of goals doesn’t mean that will contain or constrain what people want to do with our games. This goes beyond play style, to more complicated ideas.


Let’s look at a Blast Theory game, I’d Hide You. There are three “runners.” The runners moved around Manchester with their camera devices streaming live video feeds back to the game players. Online players track the three runners on a map, and can see what the runners are capturing through their cameras. The online players give advice to the runners about where to go, and how to encounter the other runners. Whenever the runners were in camera shot of one another, the online players could snap shots to “capture” them and score points. Further, the runners can ask passers-by for help, in the process, if only briefly, bringing the public into the game, too. So now we have the runners, the online players, and the general public, each bringing different experiences, different frames of reference and levels of engagement in the game, all at the same time.

The meaning of the play experiences for the three different players all demonstrate the third ripple of dynamics: The often-unintended interpretations of our games. Each mechanic we design into our games is a prompt for action. “This is a thing I get to do. What does it mean? Why do I want to do it? How does it relate to the rest of my life?” The goals of our games focus players attention only so far. We all bring different value systems, which influence what we are drawn to, offended by, feel prompted to respond to, in all sorts of impossible to predict ways. Things start really getting out of the control of the designer at this point.

Ripple 4: games as culture
What happens when games take root in culture? What happens when they become a phenomenon unto themselves? Games like Starcraft, Johann Sebastian Joust, Super Smash Brothers, Cards Against Humanity: they all take on lives of their own, far out of the control of their designers.

Basketball is a great example. These are the original rules of Basketball, written by Joseph Naismith back in 1891:


The original rules did not allow players to run with the ball, so passing was the only way to get the ball closer to the basket for a shot. Naismith’s goal with the game was to keep young men off the streets and keep them occupied during the winter. Within a few years, the basics of the game that we know today were in place: dribbling, passing, the hoop and backboard.  Basketball spread like wildfire, so fast in fact that some thought it was a troubling development. It moved well beyond the keep young men occupied.


Eventually, we end up with something like this, some 100 years later. Dr J finds a new wrinkle in the game no one in the preceding 100 years had realized you could do. The amazing thing about basketball is there isn’t just one version of the game. There are hundreds of basketballs. Once the game becomes part of culture, once it is out of the developer’s hands, the game becomes everyone’s and not just the developers. There’s streetball, HORSE, women’s pro, college ball, old man pick up ball, and on and on. It is a game, it is a spectator sport, it is a way to cheer for your town or school or nation.

This is the fourth ripple of dynamics that emerge from our games: What happens when our games become culture. The moment our games are in the public, they become theirs, not ours. They move from our initial prompts for actions and go in all sorts of directions, imposing their own uses on our games.

Ripple 5: culture reflects back
What happens when culture ripples back onto games? What happens when beliefs and behaviors seep into our games? The very idea that we think of games as systems is an example of this: the most basic framework for designing games is derived from a set of tools designed for understanding and fixing business systems.

One of its more pervasive offshoots of systems dynamics in our culture is Game Theory. Game Theory is the use of mathematics to understand human behavior. It was popularized by John von Neumann as a mathematical tool for analyzing the decision space of zero-sum games. At the crux of game theory is the assumption that “rational actors” will always act in their own best interest. This line of thinking was used to develop U.S. Cold War strategies, including the SAGE computer system developed to monitor Soviet activity. What is interesting here is the desire to imagine humans as rational logic machines, and not as people. There is a lack of empathy deep in the heart of game theory, even a distrust of people. The assumptions of Game Theory are that we want to win, to beat everyone else in a zero-sum, winner-take all game that is life.

John Nash, the mathematician made famous in the movie, A Beautiful Mind, was infamous for designing cruel games that pitted people against one another in zero-sum games that rewarded selfish play—the assumed baseline of game theory. One of his better-known games was So Long Sucker, better known as “Fuck You Buddy,” for reasons that become clear if you’ve ever played it. Game Theory and its views of the world bled into all aspects of life, including games themselves of course.

The culture of games always being about winning and “beating” a game emerges from this zero-sum mindset. We have internalized this thinking, and often take it as a given in the design of our games.  We see similar ideas playing out in games like Shark Tank, where business is treated like a single goal game: extracting profit. There is no value here in providing employment, or having products that enrich lives. Only money, and profit at all costs. Total bottom-line thinking.

Back in the land of video games, we find other values reflected. Like that it is OK to represent women as objects of desire, rather than as sentient creatures. There’s this thing called the Bechdel Test applied to film to see if women are being treated well:


God help us if we applied a similar test to games.

This is the fifth ripple of dynamics that emerge from our games: When culture ripples back onto us, influencing how we make our games, and the meaning produced when players play our games. The assumptions we make and the baggage we bring into creating our games that inevitably end up in the games. And so in turn, influencing the dynamics that ripple out of our games into the lives of our players and into culture as a whole.

It’s never “just a game”
So this is the main thing I want us all to be aware of: We need to be accountable for the dynamics that emerge from our games, and for the assumptions and values that we put into our games. We can’t simultaneously say games are important and a vital art form and say that “it’s just a game” when people challenge the violence and misogyny in games.

We don’t get to have it both ways. Either we own up to the place games occupy—sports, board- and cardgames, and videogames alike—or we accept games’ status as mindless entertainment widgets for emotionally stunted boys. Part of this is taking the design of games seriously, and recognizing their place in life and culture. We tend to want to stop at the abstraction, and delight in the formal and experiential qualities. While those are where the aesthetics lie, it isn’t where things stop. That’s just where the dynamics begin.

Design Values

This fall, the MFA Design & Technology faculty have introduced the concept of “design values” to the toolkit we use with our students. One thing that became clear as we rolled out this addition to our Thesis Studio cycle: we hadn’t fully explained the purpose, use and strength of design values as a concept. This essay is an attempt to better convey the intent and use of design values.

Most simply stated, design values are the qualities and characteristics you want to embody in your work. This can reflect your own goals as a creator, but also the experience you want your audience to have. Colleen Macklin and I borrow the tool from Eric Zimmerman, who originally used the term “play values” as part of the game design process. Related is Mary Flanagan and Helen Nissenbaum’s “Values at Play” project. Where Eric’s use of play values focuses on the aesthetics of a work, Mary and Helen’s draws attention to the political, cultural and ethical values implicitly and/or intentionally in a work. For our purposes inside MFADT, we draw upon both conceptions, and seek to generalize them from their origins in games and play to a wider range of creative work.

Our goal in using design values is to serve as a set of handles for students, faculty and critics alike to understand a student’s intentions with their project. If a student wants their project to, say, create Rhianna videos through creative computation and machine learning, then she will need to help the MFADT community understand how to evaluate the success and failure of her videos. If a student wants to create a social practice project that uses needlepoint to explore the subtle, sometimes deadly pervasiveness of chemical pollution in the environment, then she needs to make clear what connects the materials, technique, subject and process of the project. If a student wants to connect western youth to aspects of ancient Chinese culture through a strategy boardgame, he will need to identify the what, why and how of this intention.

In all these cases, design values are useful for focusing attention of the creator and their community of practice in ways that help keep the feedback focused and the project on track. The best way to show how they can operate is through examples: one from past students of mine, one from a book Colleen Macklin and I are working on, and one from a Local No. 12 project.

Black Bottom Parade
Back in 2011, the animator Matthew Maloney and I worked with a group of students at SCAD-Atlanta to create a project for the then-new Hong Kong campus. We found out about the project only a month or so before we had to take a group of students from Atlanta to Hong Kong to develop the project. The only things we knew going into the project were that it would be in a public space in the new Hong Kong campus (which none of us had seen before), it would use a low-fi reactive table one of the students had developed, and it would be a game. After assembling a student team, we began holding planning sessions where the students pitched ideas for projects suitable for the table. More generally, the team honed in on the characteristics we all wanted to embed in the project. In other words, our design values.

It is a table—as it should be
The first design value established that the students needed to find a game concept that took advantage of the unique qualities of a 4 foot by 6 foot reactive table. Further, the game needed to serve as more than just a tech demo of what the table could do.

No aquariums
Given that the project would be on a largish table that people looked down on, we wanted to avoid the then-predictable project trope of treating the table like a window into an aquarium or terrarium. So we wanted a premise that made sense viewed from above, but wasn’t just a simulation of a fish tank. We also rolled into this one a reminder that we should be culturally sensitive about being a group of mostly Western artists and designers coming into another culture.

Wow in, wow out
The students wanted the table to leave an immediate impact on players and spectators alike, but also leave a lasting impression upon them when they walked away.

Engaged from five seconds to two minutes
Because the game was going to be encountered by people in a public space that sometimes held school events, and sometimes was just a lobby, the students felt it was important that the game had an easy “pick up and play” quality. They also recognized that most people wouldn’t spend too much time with the game given its context, and so two minutes was the agreed upon ideal play session.

Exploration of one or two mechanics leads to discover and structure
The students wanted to keep the game’s interaction model and core mechanics simple and easy to understand and learn, with depth and subtlety emerging as the play experience unfolded.

Alone is great, cooperative is better
The students wanted a game that could work with only one player, but that would be more enjoyable with two, three or four. This in part came from the context, where sometimes only one person may be in the space, while other times it could be filled with people.

The design values for Black Bottom Parade more closely adhere to Eric Zimmerman’s take on play values. They are primarily concerned with the form, medium and experience of the game. From these six design values, the group had a shared understanding of the game they would make once we arrived in Hong Kong. We used these to work through dozens of game ideas, eventually landing on the premise of a group of deceased New Orleans musicians on a floating platform that the players had to keep aloft by directing the band leader, who had a “pied piper” status amongst the other musicians. The design values all evolved as we went, with one or two of them dropping out as the process unfolded. But throughout the three weeks the students worked on the game, we kept the design values up on the wall in our workspace to keep us on track. The resulting game turned out well, garnering recognition as an IndieCade 2011 finalist.

Games, Design & Play textbook
For the last couple of years, Colleen Macklin and I have been turning our approach to teaching game design into a textbook. A number of design values guide our writing.

Games are play machines
Early in the writing, we adopted the “play machines” metaphor to help us think about game design as play design. For us, this meant thinking about the aesthetic and cultural value of the play produced by games rather than thinking about games as commercial media products.

Look to the margins
Colleen and I both have more interest in expanding notions of games and play. And so almost all the examples in the book are drawn from indie games and altgames, as this is where the more interesting work is happening. We also wanted to showcase games by a more diverse group of gamemakers, which led us to be mindful of using games by women, people of color and LGBTQ-identifying gamemakers as examples.

Value neutral
We want the book to be useful to someone creating competitive local multiplayer games and someone crafting story-driven autobiographical text games. This means we need to find ways to talk about sometimes conflicting approaches to games in a way that is supportive and illustrative while recognizing that not everyone approaches the medium of games with the same intentions.

Dig into the details
One of the guiding ideas for the project is creating a book that will get further into the details of iterative game design processes that usually only come out after having gone through the process a couple of times. So we are working to provide a finer-grain look at some of the important considerations and processes of iterative design.

These four design values illustrate Flanagan and Nissenbaum’s “Values at Play” approach. Colleen and I feel strongly about making sure this book is inclusive and shows the incredible range of possibilities of games and play. We fully understand the political and ethical territory around games, and want to make the book something that will help broaden the medium while also showing the depth of the iterative game design methodology.

The Metagame
A final example is Local No. 12’s party cardgame, The Metagame. After the success of the artist’s project, “The Metagame: Culture Edition” we created for Esopus magazine, we decided we wanted to do a commercial version of the game. Four design values guided our work.

Players set the tone
A trend over the last four or five years for party card games is focusing on particular tones and kinds of humor, with ribald and off-color humor being the most prevalent. We wanted to create a card game that allowed the players to decide the tone for themselves. So we focused on creating “tone-neutral” content that could be played for laughs, as a more intellectual or philosophical experience, or, if the players preferred, as an excuse to make fart jokes. This played out mostly in writing and playtesting the opinion cards.

Find it in the dictionary under…
Through conversation with our illustrator, we latched onto the idea of those illustrations you might find in a dictionary to illustrate a concept. We thought this approach to the images and descriptions of objects would allow players to make the game their own.

Just enough info
In working on the culture cards, we wanted to make the sometimes obscure items on the cards as accessible as possible. We strove to use illustrations and descriptions to help people understand the items they didn’t know while not giving away too much.

One deck, many games
Though the original version of the The Metagame was a single game, we decided we wanted the deck to support a variety of play experiences, not unlike a traditional deck of playing cards. And so from the beginning of the process, we focused on developing a range of play experiences that allowed conversation and debate in some cases, but in others simple acts of comparison, attempts to guess what other players were thinking, and all sorts of other experiences.

These four design values were in the forefront of our minds as we created the game. They also remain a focus as we develop expansions and new games to play with the deck. The Metagame has a mix of both the aesthetic-focused play values and the more critical values of Flanagan and Nissenbaum. We wanted to make a game that didn’t generate culturally insensitive play experiences by default, and that could allow strong personalities and the more shy amongst us to have an enjoyable experience.

Design Values: the Basics
These three examples hopefully show the ways in which design values can support a range of project types and goals. The most important thing about design values is their role in creating shared understanding of what the project’s creator(s) are striving for so that the creator and their community of practice can help keep the project on track. Here’s some prompts for developing design values for a project, modified from Colleen and I’s forthcoming game design textbook, Games, Design and Play.

What is the piece about? How does the the piece present this to the audience? Through a story? Metaphor? Model of a larger system?

What concepts, perspectives or experiences might the player encounter during play? How are these delivered? Through story? Systems modeling? Metaphor?

Point of view
What does the user see? Through what kind of perspective? From what cultural reference point or political position?

If the piece is meant to provoke or challenge: Is it critical? Speculative? Pushing the boundaries of form? If it’s something meant to accomplish a goal and solve a challenge: What kind of challenges does the piece resolve? Mental challenge? Physical challenge?

How is the piece and the information within it represented? What visual and aural styles will be used? Why?

How and where do users make decisions? How are decisions presented? Is the information space perfect or imperfect?

Who is the audience? Where are they encountering the piece and how did they find out about it? When are they interacting with it? Why are they interacting with it?

What emotions are you hoping to generate in your audience?

The Author is Present

With anna’s upcoming exhibition, “the road to empathy” opening tonight at babycastles (which I interpret in part as a wake for dys4ia), it seemed like a good time to publish this essay. It is an in-progress excerpt from Fun, Taste & Games, a book I’ve been working on with David Thomas that we hope to release later this year.


anna anthropy’s dys4ia, The Chinese Room’s Dear Esther and Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest sit alongside a handful of other games that serve as exhibits in the trial-by-Twitter about what games are, can and should be. Much of the controversy relates to how the games are considered from the perspective of dominant ideas about game design. Particularly commercial games, the dominant presumption is that players have agency within the designed space of the game. This has become as central to evaluating games as the role of story is for film—films have stories, games have player agency.

How a gamemaker chooses to engage with the elements of game design—player actions and goals, the space of possibility for player performance, the visual and sound elements, the writing and the story—these are all design decisions. So too is the choice to not use these elements. Indeed, acts of omission are far more important decisions in the creative process than those about what to include. In music, it is the space between notes, the choice of which instruments to use and those to set aside. In film, it includes the decisions around which moments in the characters’ lives should be explored, and which should be left out. In painting, it can be the decision to work abstractly instead of using color and line to represent the world.

Expectations build up around mediums, and artists and audiences alike make assumptions about what ought to be part of works in a given medium. dys4ia stands as an example of a game that purposely resists and plays with our expectations. It is a game designer’s game; it belies a deep, intuitive understanding of the conventions of game design. It also plays with and breaks conventions to expressive ends. In an era when “game” stands in as another product category for disposable entertainment, dys4ia challenges assumptions. But in the context of personal work—Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persopolis: The Story of a Childhood, Gob Squad’s experimental theater piece “Western Society” or Marina Abramović’s performance art piece The Artist is Present—the game also shows us a way games are like other expressive artforms. Like these works, the emphasis is place on authorial experience, not audience performance (even, as in the case of the Gob Squad and Abramović, there is audience participation).

dys4ia is not limited by traditional ideas of gameness. dys4ia isn’t an attempt to make us understand anna’s experience, or to make us more empathetic. The game is a way for anna to make sense of a particular moment in her life, and perhaps to share it with others with similar experiences. The player is separated from the game in two ways: the intimate yet alien act of playing within another person’s experience, and through the distance of time.

dys4ia is a work of ludic literature. It is a playable diary, as Paolo Pedercini and others have noted. Or, as anna probably puts it best, a game journal. Our role is not to play in order to make the moments our own, but to play so we can receive anna’s story. It is a story unfolded through play in the sense of mechanical engagement with an authorial intentionality we might align with poetry—most following poetry don’t view the works as “for them,” but rather created as an expression of the poet. To think of games as solely a space for player performance inside a design is to tragically limit games. dys4ia shows how an ever-present author is equally important. More than that, it is an ever-present author in a past moment. dys4ia explores anna’s experience before and during the game’s creation, in the same way a diary captures the time around its writing.

The game’s space of mechanical possibility is narrow. This makes sense, as the game is about anna’s experiences after all, not the player’s. When we play dys4ia, we aren’t role-playing or engaging with a rhizomatic play machine, nor are we exploring an imaginary place and its inhabitants. The vignettes are shaped more like memories or dreams than anything else—distillations of meaningful life experiences.

The game is composed of four chapters, each focused on a particular period during anna’s experience around hormone replacement therapy. The chapters contain a series of short entries or vignettes exploring a particular experience or feeling. The use of Warioware-esque mini-games to construct a series of ludic vignettes gives a flexibility within a structured whole. Within each vignette, anna could use the appropriate gesture while still letting it fit within the four-chapter structure. Sometimes, the vignettes reference games like Breakout or Ms. Pac-Man (or its many themed clones). Sometimes they borrow from matching games. The interactions performed by the player within each vignette illustrate a thought, an experience, a decision.

One of the more striking appears three times, once at the beginning, once in the middle and once toward the end. In the first instance, the player is presented with a puzzle piece, and a wall through which it must pass. Using the arrow keys, we move the piece along. At first glance, the piece seems like it won’t quite fit, even though it is exactly the shape of the hole. Careful navigation allows the piece to enter the gap, bringing up the first passage of text, “I feel weird about my body.” The role of the player in anna’s story is made clear, as is anna’s state of mind about her body. In the same way a comic artist might use metaphor to visualize an idea, anna uses an interactive gesture to illustrate a moment in her experience.

One of the things that first struck me about dys4ia was the clever dissonance between the graphics and the subject matter. The relationship between the visual style and anna’s story brings a poet’s sensibility to the game. The stylization of the people, places and objects brings clarity and focus, but also a particular feeling to the play experience. The same extends to the play itself. When we think of something as deeply personal and challenging as gender transitioning, bright, simple pixel graphics probably aren’t the first style that comes to mind. Lo-fi pixel graphics are more often associated with fluffy and ephemeral, not personal and painful. This stark contrast works well for the game, bringing clarity and force to anna’s conveyance of her experience. But it also speaks to the zinester community and its embrace of “craptastic” visuals and audio as a critique of craft and technology barriers keeping more people from making games.

The language in the game is kept brief and to the point. It is there to underline the ideas more than present them. I say this because the images and interaction often make the idea, event or experience clear. The text’s display is often used to give more nuance to the vignette and to serve as feedback on the player’s actions. In the first chapter, one vignette presents the player with a silhouette of anna trying to put on a tight-fitting shirt. “Girly Clothes” appears at the top of the screen, providing context for the player action—repeatedly clicking the down arrow to pull on the shirt. After a number of clicks, “don’t fit” appears at the bottom of the screen, emphasizing the point, but also confirming the player’s experience.

A couple years after dys4ia was released, I encountered another work of a woman’s experience with gender transition—Transgender Dysphoria Blues by Against Me!. Like anna anthropy, Laura Jane Grace, the band’s lead singer, used the album to express aspects of her experience with transitioning to openly living as a woman. Songs like the eponymous “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” operate inside the idiom of the pop punk metal-tinged subgenre. At first listen, if you don’t pay attention to the lyrics, you might not think anything unexpected is going on with the song. The lyrics, however, suggest otherwise:

You want them to notice,

The ragged ends of your summer dress.

You want them to see you

Like they see every other girl.

They just see a faggot.

Listening to the song as a whole, lyrics and all, you can hear frustration and pain conveyed in a way that came natural to Laura Jane; she works from a place of artistically familiarity—guitar-driven punk-inflected rock. But unlike much of the band’s earlier music, there is a heartfelt, personal feel to the song. Laura Jane works through her experiences, feelings and desires, but doing so in the form she knows best. anthropy’s creation of dys4ia strikes me as similar in many ways—an artist working within a medium she knows well to share her experiences.

One striking difference between these two works is how they operate within their given mediums. “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” as a song doesn’t depart from the style of Against Me! in any meaningful way beyond the lyrics. Being someone who doesn’t always pay close attention to lyrics, I’m not sure I even noticed the subject of the song at first. But with dys4ia, there is a reimagining of the form of games. anna composed from the materials of games—more often considered a form of entertainment—as a means of self-expression and exploration. In the process, she gave shape to something new: a game steeped in the history of games, but still unexpected in its use of the form.

Transgender Dysphoria Blues did create some controversy, but it was largely accepted and people moved on. The form of pop-punk was not the controversial aspect, after all. That dys4ia created (and continues to create) a ruckus speaks to the limited conception of games that we operate under. dys4ia, Depression Quest and Dear Esther continue to serve as mile markers in the maturation of games as a medium—in their reception and the way we think about what games can be. For me, they are clear signs of the medium of videogames broadening, becoming more flexible and embracing. That these games receive so much scorn is a sign that they have hit a nerve well worth striking.

How The Metagame cards went from a sports card-like to dictionary chic

Five years of Metagame card designs

Five years of Metagame card designs

Over the last five years, The Metagame has transformed from a conference game to a party game, from there to an artist’s project bound into a magazine and finally back to a rebooted party game. Along the way, the visual design of the game has undergone one major reboot, three format changes and innumerable small revisions. At each turn, with each change, the visual design of the game has always been central to the success of the game. This is the story of the game’s visual design over its five year evolution.


2010: The Metagame Conference Game
Local No. 12 began designing the Metagame as a conference game for the 2011 Game Developers Conference. This meant the cards had to work in a wide range of circumstances—people standing in hallways chatting, players seated before or after conference sessions, in the poor lighting of a bar, in parties at 3am. We also knew we’d be dealing with people who knew games inside and out. This audience already spent a good deal of time talking about games, so we wanted to think through how to present the game in a way that dovetailed into their existing interests and activities.

Mid-century baseball cards were a model for our early layouts

Mid-century baseball cards were a model for our early layouts

Early on in the project, we hit upon sports trading cards as a model. It made sense for the game in a number of ways. Since we were focused on videogames as the primary subject matter, the “facts + picture” model of trading cards worked well as a framework. In the case of baseball cards, the player’s name and likeness were the most important information, followed by their position and team. This suggested an information hierarchy for the Metagame game cards. We would feature the game’s title and an exemplary image, followed in importance by the publisher, developer, platform and date.

Summer 2010: the first playtested card design

Summer 2010: the first playtested card design

With this in mind, we began experimenting with the basic composition of the cards. We quickly came up with a design that included the game’s title, image and salient information for differentiating which particular version of the game was up for debate. We spent a lot of time thinking about what kinds of images should represent the games. We experimented with screenshots, game logos, even fan art. In the end, we used a mix of these to convey the spirit of the game, and to help those who might not know it identify the game. We liked a horizontal image orientation, which favored high-definition videogames, but also gave the cards a strong visual presence.

We began playtesting a horizontal design that allowed large images. During our first large-scale playtest was at IndieCade 2010, we quickly realized that playing cards are vertical for a reason—it is much easier for players to hold an ever-expanding number of cards this way. Just as important, that is what players expected from playing cards. So while we liked the look of the horizontal layout and its strong visual appeal, we realized we needed to revise the design to fit the format people were used to. This was a recurring theme in the design of the game—finding the right balance between the visual design, the communication design, the play experience and the traditions of card design.

Spring 2011: card layouts used at GDC 2011

Spring 2011: card layouts used at GDC 2011

We went through a series of additional revisions to slowly hone in on a look that read “trading card,” had a vertical composition, contained the correct information, and used a representative image that got across the gist of the game. Even after a lot of testing, we realized there were some problems with our design. For one, right-aligning the game titles didn’t work well with the typical way players fan out cards in their hands—the titles became partially obscured. So while it may have looked better to right-align the titles, it was more functional to have them left-aligned.

We also struggled with the “flavor” elements of the card borders. In order to maximize the size of the images and information, we pushed our borders past the ¼” safe zone recommended by printers. And as a result, the variation in cutting created visible inconsistencies that would have likely been hidden by a more generous border margin.


2012: Metagame Videogame Edition

2012: Illustrations for the Metagame Videogame Edition.

2012: Illustrations for the Metagame Videogame Edition.

The success of the Metagame at GDC 2011 lead us to run our first kickstarter campaign. We were overall happy with the look of the game, so we left the visual design more or less intact. We did make one substantial change to the comparison cards—we reversed out the text and background so the cards were white text on dark gray background. This gave the two decks more distinct looks. We also thought it gave the comparison cards a more cleaner, more designed look.

The main change came around the images on the game cards. Following the lead of collectible card games like Magic: The Gathering, we commissioned illustrations for each game card. We reached out to friends, colleagues and the internet to find a group of illustrators with a range of styles. We then let them pick from the list of games to pick their favorites. In the end, we had 20+ illustrators create the 100 images included in the Metagame Videogame Edition. These proved to be a real strength of the game, giving each card a distinct look within the more neutral look of the cards.


2013: Metagame Culture Edition

Fall 2011: Esopus #17 premieres “The Metagame (Culture Edition)”

Fall 2011: Esopus #17 premieres “The Metagame (Culture Edition)”

Later that year, Local No. 12 was approached by Tod Lippy of Esopus Magazine about doing an artist’s project. We quickly honed in on the idea of broadening the game to popular culture—film, music, art, literature, comics, architecture, fashion, product design, and of course, games. We also had to consider how to translate the game from a traditional card design to something that could be reduced in size to efficiently fit onto perforated sheets for binding into the magazine. So while the overall look-and-feel remained the same, there were innumerable design considerations around scaling down to a smaller, more narrow card size.

Regular-sized Videogame Edition cards on the left, the smaller Culture Edition cards on the right

Poker-sized Videogame Edition cards on the left, the smaller Culture Edition cards on the right

One substantial change was to change the text on the comparison cards to upper/lower type instead of all caps. We felt this gave a greater elegance to the typography. On the culture cards, we also removed the labels for the creators, date and medium. Given the wide range of content we were working with, there wasn’t the same consistency as before. This also freed up some much-needed space in the smaller card footprint.


2013 – 14: The Metagame reboot

Summer 2013: roughly 25% of the tested prototype designs

Summer 2013: roughly 25% of the tested prototype designs

Working on the Esopus Culture Edition got us excited about doing a commercial release of the broader culture edition of the game. We started by opening up everything about the game for conversation. Who will be our new audience? How would they best receive the information about the objects on the culture cards? How should we represent the objects? What will set the right tone for a broader audience?

We spent a good deal of time thinking through the pros and cons of photographs and illustrations. We eventually agreed on illustrations, and even more specifically, a single illustration style. We thought this was a good way to move away from the expectations of collectible card games, and toward a more mainstream approach to card game design.

Some of the more important conversations about the card design were with Max Temkin from Cards Against Humanity. He urged us to think about simplifying and streamlining the information on the culture cards in order to make them more accessible. This led to a long period of design explorations, prototyping and playtesting. We went through at least two dozen iterations that experimented with the arrangement of the elements, the typography and color palettes. For most of these, we produced prototype decks for playtesting and feedback.


2015: The Metagame.

Fall 2014: The final design for The Metagame cards

Fall 2014: The final design for The Metagame cards

After months of testing, we landed on the art direction for the game. We honed in on an approach to the culture cards that we think of as “dictionary chic”—a clean sans-serif, a pink accent color (a holdover from the original logo) and dark gray illustrations and descriptions. The opinion cards are all-cap white sans-serif on one of six colors. This rainbow of color provided the pop needed to brighten up the game.

Even with the art direction determined, and our first public images posted on our Kickstarter campaign, we continued to tinker with the point size of the culture card titles and text, the line breaks of each description, the color palette of the opinion cards and the colors of the card backs for the two decks. To insure they worked as stand-alone designs and functional playing cards, we ran dozens of playtests to see how players responded to the art direction and how well they functioned in a variety of contexts (conferences, bars, coffee shops, schools, kitchen tables, etc.).

We then entered the lengthy process of making sure our design translated cleanly to print: paper samples, press proofs, production samples (oh, so many production samples). Given the quiet nature of the design, getting all the details right were important: making sure the box was truly white, getting the alignment of the cards as consistent as possible, Making sure the opinion card fronts and backs were consistent in color, etc.

Looking back at the two conference games, one artist project and two boxed versions of The Metagame, we’re proud of our little game. With each change, the game’s visual design has gotten tighter and more focused. We hope you agree The Metagame—what we think of as the canonical version—has turned out well.

Mediums, Media, Culture and History

Albrecht Dürer, The Ravisher

Albrecht Dürer, The Ravisher. Baillieu Library Collection, The University of Melbourne

Last night, my Twitter feed burst with anger about The Entertainment Software Association’s position on the preservation of “abandoned” videogames. Apparently, the ESA, the trade association of the major videogame publishers, believes the preservation of “abandonware” videogames—games that are no longer supported, manufactured or otherwise published— is a form of hacking. And, in the ESA’s eyes, all hacking is a form of piracy.

Perhaps the greatest irony here is the use of the term, “hacking.” The logic I’m sure is to play on the negative connotations around black hat hacking—the kind that leads to databases full of credit cards being stolen and Sony’s email littering the internet. Hacking used to not mean internet malignancy, not by a longshot. Back in the 50s and 60s, to hack was to do something new and cool with technology—“expensive typewriter” was an early hack to make massive mainframe computers function as a typewriter, for example. It is this flavor of hacking that led to the creation of the earliest videogames. Spacewar!, for example, was a 1962 hack of the Digital Equipment Corporation’s PDP-1. Steve Russell and his friends built and iterated on the game, slowly pulling together their dogfight-in-space game. Before Spacewar!, there was Tennis for Two, Willy Higginbotham’s 1958 tennis game hack of an analog computer designed for simulating missile trajectories. And in 1952, A.S. Douglas created a Tic Tac Toe hack, OXO on the EDSAC. The big difference between mid-20th century hacking and the sad state of affairs today? Tic Tac Toe, Tennis for Two and Spacewar! were all created outside the confines of intellectual property laws and the tangled mess that is media-based creativity.

This is not a new problem. For as long as there has been mass-production, there have been attempts to protect creative work. The oldest example I know is from the early 16th century—the German artist, Albrecht Dürer. Dürers paintings were works in the medium of painting, while his prints were a form of proto-mediamass produced image products. His paintings were part of the ongoing dialog amongst Dürer, those who commissioned paintings from him, the institutions in which the paintings were hung, his fellow painters, those who wrote about his work, etc. In other words: the cultural infrastructure that swirled around his work. If you look at a book about the Northern Renaissance, youll quickly note a few things: there were only a few viable subjects (e.g. the Virgin Mary, baby Jesus, saints, portraits of the wealthy and powerful); many of the works are incredibly similar in composition, size color palette, painting technique, etc.; and Dürer seemed to be a trendsetter and follower all at once. This is how material culture always works: there are conceptual, formal and experiential expectations around what a medium is and isn’t good for (I talk about these ideas in more detail in the first chapter of Works of Game).

Dürer was nothing if shrewd. He was quick to adopt printmaking as a new outlet for his work. In printmaking, the artist found both a new audience and a means of self-promotion. He could create prints based on his paintings in order to spread word about them, and he could create original prints that could be sold to a less affluent audience. Soon enough, copies of his prints began to appear on the market without his authorization. He was outraged, and sought to protect his work and, in today’s terms, his brand. What we see happening with Dürer was the transition from a medium to media. Painting was a medium in the same way as sculpture and drawing. Because of the resources, time and skill it took produce a painting (or sculpture or drawing), copying was a concern. But with printmaking, where a single image could be reproduced hundreds of times in short order, the dissemination of works was much easier. Printmaking was a media, and therefore changed the ways artists thought about the intellectual property of their work.

Fast forward to the mid-to-late 20th century, and we see what in the past we might have called a medium immediately transform itself into media—software. Certainly, software wasn’t the first medium born into media status (film, television, radio), but the change in perceptions of software were swift and fairly merciless. By the 1970s, barely a decade into the commercially-viable life of computing, software was already a widget to be up-sold with computers. (Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” is a much more detailed and insightful exploration of the role of technology in changing perceptions about media. And McLuhan certainly has things to add on the subject as well.)

The main concern here is that the operations of creative culture, including the media products created by the members of the Entertainment Software Association, don’t really operate cleanly within the confines of intellectual property and copyright law. These things in fact push against the traditional ways culture is produced. It is a cycle of creation, inspiration, creation, inspiration, and on and on. A clear articulation of this is found in Kirby Ferguson’s “Everything is a Remix” series. Videogames are no different. Think no farther than the genre similarities we see with action-adventure games (who all seem to star variations on a unshaved white guy theme, or shooters with nearly interchangeable weapons, maps and bad guys). It is how culture works. The same happens with movies: how many super heroes will save the world and aging white guys will rescue their daughters this summer?

When trends and mediums pass, history becomes the way we preserve and remember what has come before. Often, this ends up feeding back into the current culture. Subculture fashion is an obvious example—80s recycling of the 50s, 90s recycling of the 70s, 00s recycling of the 80s, 10s recycling of the 90s. Videogames, particularly indie videogames is another, with the insatiable love for NES-era graphics and the never-ending stream of golden era arcade reboots. Videogames in particular and software more generally are challenging to preserve. Unlike Dürer’s paintings, you can’t simply put them up on the wall under controlled lighting and humidity and call it a day. The games require their platforms, period monitors, the parts to keep the platforms running, etc. For institutions like the Museum of the Moving Image and the National Museum of Play, which try to present games on their original platforms, there is untold work and expense to pull this off. It is easier to preserve the ROMs from old games that can be run on emulators. That’s what we had to do when we exhibited Spacewar! in the “Video Games Blast Off” exhibition at the Museum of the Moving image, as it was simply too costly to have a functioning PDP-1 (only one known in operation out at the Computer History Museum, itself made out of the parts of three machines), so we worked with a preservationist to create a facsimile of the computer’s hardware, and ran an emulator for game play. (Every other game in the show ran on its original hardware.)

But beyond the challenges in preserving videogames and their platforms, there is the lack of support around this work. Much of the cultural heritage field (e.g. art museums, the Smithsonian Institute, the Library of Congress, archeological and anthropological institutions, etc.) is viewed as important and thus worth the resources necessary to conduct the important preservation and historical research. Software preservation is far behind that of many other forms of material culture preservation, largely because sufficient philanthropic and public money isn’t being directed toward the ongoing efforts.You would think ESA would provide money toward these initiatives, or encourage its membership to do so. But thus far, that hasn’t been the case.

Given this, the bulk of the work to preserve the history of videogames comes from fan preservation efforts. These efforts rely on passion, disposable income, eBay, and more often than not, ROMs and platform emulators. And this is what the ESA is calling hacking, and therefore piracy. 

I realize I’m deeply biased in my opinions about the importance of material culture histories, but I find the ESA’s position to be ridiculous, callous, and so clearly about the profit margins of its membership that it barely merits mention. And if I think about it for a moment, there is nothing surprising about this. The videogame industry is deeply uninterested in its past for any reason other than mining the nostalgia of its fan base for profit. Though the fans place emphasis on the videogame portion of “videogame industry,” the companies producing the games clearly put industry first—they might as well be selling razor blades. For the large companies paying dues to the ESA, a game on an obsolete platform is irrelevant. Why care about something that can’t be monetized? Or more importantly, why allow anyone to play it until the port to the current generation of platforms is complete? The more easily players can access ROMs for abandonware, the less profit potential there is for the release of games on Steam and iOS.

This model is nothing new. Disney perfected it with the periodic re-release of its classic animated films, and the tightly-controlled release in emerging media and platforms. Disney, however, is wise enough to see the value in letting cultural heritage professionals do the work of preserving Mickey, Minnie, Cinderella and all those cats, dogs, mice and other creatures. Let’s hope the ESA and its membership eventually wake up to the fact they produce culture, not just products, and that they benefit from the preservation of their products by allowing them to be preserved and studied. 

What Yvonne Rainer taught me about experimental game design

Yvonne Rainer dancing

All the turbulence around games and the increasingly diverse range of opinion on what is or isn’t a game, and what does or doesn’t constitute game development leads me to a fairly basic question:

What do we mean when we talk about game design?

Is it the design of spaces of possibility defined by the mechanics and fueled by the goals to which they are applied?

Is it the use of participatory storytelling to deliver personal narratives?

Is it something more ethereal, like the creation of potential emotional states?

Is it a tool for self-exploration and expression?

The more diverse games become, the harder it is to see one “game design” that unites them all. As we’ve cycled through a variety of movements from artgames to notgames to queer games to altgames, each has brought its own claims on the medium of games, and in turn caused reactionary territorial defensiveness. Artgames suggested games could be more than entertainment; notgames challenged that games had to be competitive, goal-oriented and mechanically rich; queer games brought a whole new set of values, perspectives and stories to games; and most recently, altgames question the assumptions of what indie means, and how games can be a sustainable medium. With each of these, particularly the latter two, there are always power politics at play over whose voices are heard and celebrated, and who has access to infrastructure and thus audiences and resources. But in all four of these cases, considered from a practitioner perspective, these debates come down to what we mean when we talk about game design.

A couple weeks ago, I found a handle to these questions in an unexpected place: the minimalist choreography of Yvonne Rainer and her colleagues in the experimental dance world of early 1960s New York. Under the guidance of the dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, the musician and choreographer Robert Dunn and the musician and artist John Cage, dancers, filmmakers, musicians, writers and other artists explored what lay beyond the current state of dance. Rainer and the group of like-minded practitioners formed the Judson Dance Theater as a stance against the then-dominant modern dance typified in the work of Martha Graham. Though a departure from traditional ballet in subject matter, costume, set design and many other ways, Graham’s canonical modernism, typified in “Appalachian Spring,” also stayed firmly inside the boundaries of dance—highly stylized movement distinct from the movements of everyday life, the repetition of forms and movements, an overt sense of drama,  designed to accompany melodic scores, among other similarities.

Graham’s choreography represented all the problems with dance for Yvonne Rainer. To express her ideas, Rainer wrote the “No Manifesto”:

No to spectacle.

No to virtuosity.

No to transformations and magic and make-believe.

No to the glamour and transcendency of the star image.

No to the heroic.

No to the anti-heroic.

No to trash imagery.

No to involvement of performer or spectator.

No to style.

No to camp.

No to seduction of spectator by the wiles of the performer.

No to eccentricity.

No to moving or being moved.

Though it might seem otherwise, these ideas were not anti-formal; in fact, they were the opposite. They were deeply concerned with dance as a cultural form, despite the rejection of the pervading aesthetic of the time. Rainer sought to re-locate the intent of the choreographer from the traditions of dance as a professional practice isolated from life to what she called “ordinary dance.” This wasn’t a dismissal of dance as a medium; it was a reassessment of dance as a more-human scale medium concerned with the movement of the body and not the baroque, contrived movements of previous dance traditions.

At the heart of Rainer’s work is the question of intent: what does it mean to choreograph dance when so many of the traditions no longer apply?

The embodiment of these beliefs are found in “Trio A,” a minimalist dance choreographed in 1966, shortly after the manifesto was written. The six minute dance is made up of a sequence of non-repeating movements that draw on the movements our bodies make in the process of work, play and the mundane. Everyone had a virtuosity with these movements, but a virtuosity developed through living, and not through art.

“Trio A” had style—an anti-style, but a style, nonetheless. Walking, swinging arms idly, hopping, slouching shoulders, rolling over—the movements and gestures that we perform on a regular basis without a second thought—were invested with new meaning, a treated as the elements from which dance could be composed. The style emerged from the choices Rainer made in picking gestures and movements, and how they were sequenced together. The flatness of the dance is also a stylistic choice—to remove intonation and bombast, and replace them with quiet execution.

There was a craft here, too, without question—Judson dancers were notoriously rigorous. But it was toward a different end. It was just not the craft of precise execution of moves drawn from the formal canon of modern dance. It was a craft of seeing and thinking in new ways, and de-training the dancer to move in a new way, to consider a less adorned form of performance. It was a craft informed by art, writing, music, philosophy and many other external influences.

Judson Dance Theater

The dance establishment of the time—Martha Graham and other modernists—looked at Rainer and her performers and didn’t see dance at all. I think this is what people used to traditional games, and thus game design, think of when they look at altgames and queer games and notgames: some people standing around in a box and calling it a game. Though it has become something of a dirty word, these are formalist contestations around form, intent and craft.

Let’s pause for a moment and consider these three terms. Often a talisman used to trigger consternation amongst game developers and critics alike, form is just another word for medium: painting, sculpture, film, music, games. Intent speaks to what the artist wants to do with the medium: make money, express themselves, solve world hunger, participate in an ongoing dialog with other practitioners, etc. Craft then is the set of skills necessary to produce work within the given medium that meets the artist’s intentions.

When we talk about game design (or choreography) we are talking about the interplay of these three concepts. We all make assumptions around these, often in the context of our own values and tastes. Pervading opinions take hold and color the way we think about games and their design. Even (especially) indie games are prone to this, setting expectations for experimental approaches to gamemaking.

Indie gamemakers bring a particular set of sensibilities to the form of game, the most dominant being that when we say game, we really mean videogame. Along with this come the privileging of visual polish, mechanical representations of systems, play experiences polished through playtesting, among others. Chris Hecker’s Spy Party and Capybara Game’s Super Time Force represent two examples of this perspective on the form of games.

Along the margins, we see something quite different: personal expression, expanding the range of people who can see themselves in the games they play, pursuing stories drawn from life and fantasy rather than make believe. These lead to radically different kinds of games: Porpentine’s Howling Dogs and Liam Burke’s Dog Eat Dog, for example, that suggest new possibilities for games.

Artistic intent is realized through making, and making requires craft. Now, questions of craft come up with too much frequency around artgames and notgames and queer games and altgames. Certainly, many of the gamemakers within these loose communities of practice do seem suspicious of or uninterested in virtuoso gamemaking, at least in the traditional sense of programming, modeling photo-realistic worlds and game systems brought to a fine sheen through playtesting. That said, there is a deep sense of craft in artgames, notgames, altgames and queer games—on writing, on finding ways to express feelings and ideas that simply haven’t been done before with games, on making games out of “ordinary tools” like Twine or Gamemaker or the other more affordable and accessible tools, on exploring the possibilities of 3D worlds unburdened of guns, puzzles and loot.

We find Twine games like anna anthropy’s Queers In Love At The End Of the World—a 10-second Twine game contemplating the decision of how to engage with one’s partner at the edge of time. While its production wasn’t burdensome, the ideas and experience are nonetheless well-crafted and powerful. Or Robert Yang’s under appreciated Intimate, Infinite, a Unity-built meditation on Borge’s “Garden of Forking Paths.” The game has many of the trappings of a “AAA Indie” production—lush 3D environments, cinematic camera work, cut scenes—but the ways players engage is more cerebral, and less interaction-based.

Like Rainer, there is a certain re-training or de-training at play in these games. But there is also a shift away from the traditions of game development toward the craft skills of other mediums—writing, ‘zine-making, literature, theater, poetry, to name a few. So perhaps instead of de-training, it is better to consider altgames as a reimagining of game design.

All of which comes back around to the form of games. In order to realize the intentions and create new kinds of play for a new audience, games and their design must be reimagined around the intent of the artists, not the expectations of the players. From this broaden perspective, we comfortably locate Squinky’s Coffee: A Misunderstanding and Merrit Kopas’ Hugpunx inside our reimagined understanding of game design.

Rainer’s minimalism, once considered far removed from dance, is now an important pillar in the history of dance. But it took time and dedication. They were continually denied access to the world of modern dance because they didn’t seem to be creating or performing what passed for dance at the time. This put them outside the cultural, social and economic infrastructure of the dance community. So Rainer and her cohorts looked beyond dance for inspiration, and made their own space—the Judson Dance Theater—where they put on free or affordable performances and workshops.

Ultimately, by questioning the form of dance and what it means to choreograph, Rainer expanded the medium. Will the same be true of queer games and notgames and artgames and altgames? One thing is for sure: questioning what constitutes game design is essential to the medium of games, even if it feels like rejection to some, because it broadens the medium for us all.

Theme by Pexeto