Note: This is an open letter to Chris Bateman at International Hobo. All replies are welcome.
Dear Chris Bateman,
Thank you for your post on the “The Aesthetic Flaws of Games“. I am writing to provide an exploratory response to the persistent conflict you refer to, noting that this was not the point of your article.
In your first point about Aesthetic Ruptures, you explain how narrative and mechanical aesthetic modes can lead to player alienation because of their unskillful use. I agree with you, and believe that it is this very difference in aesthetic modes that is the reason why the conflict you refer to exists. You speak more to this in one of your earlier posts, ‘The Thin Play of Dear Esther“.
I have learned through our past discussions on Twitter of your intention to reduce the sectarianism we see in games, particularly the conflict between the narrative vs mechanical tribes, which can be distracting and destructive. As you wisely told me, be careful of trying to own the term ‘Game’. But I am concerned that in seeking a ‘perennial philosophy’ of games we do a disservice to some of the evolutionary traits that games have developed.
While narrative and mechanics are co-joined and influence each other, the fact that an improperly used mode can jar a player’s experience leads me to conclude these are different game accords. Yes, they are both forms of representation (one of mathematics and outcomes and one of narrative and meaning) but sharing that trait does not make them the same. In the same way all things are made up of atoms, not everything is atomic in the same way as demonstrated by the Periodic Table’s diversity. I think that games have distinct qualities that cut across mechanics, narrative, and genre, and could be used shed light on the issue.
Allow me to use the analogy of game aesthetic modes as being like a playground that has different structures of play. Instead of us telling others to play nice in the same sandbox, since it is all sand after all, I am saying that we must expand our perspective. Instead we should go beyond the sandbox and build a decent fence that clearly delineates the different play structures, since a sandbox is only one kind of play. We don’t want our sandbox builders to be disturbed by the monkey bar climbers.
It is this focus that has become the basis of my Gamestories theory. That is: It is players that bring to the game their aesthetic wants, and they take from the game the lessons and stories that they in turn tell to others. You have called these different wants aesthetic modes, but I call them Immersion Accords. I see a total of eight accords, of which I will mention two to not distract from this reply’s focus. The first accord is that of Pretend and second is that of Performance.
Pretend is about the Player taking on a role, everything from a Tetris block controller, to a imagined avatar in Zork, to a graphical representation of a space marine in Doom. The invitation to Pretend is no different than the children games that we all grew playing as the magic and charm is not lost on us as adults! In Pretending games help us explore artistic and humanistic aspects, a simulation of being depressed, a stranger walking in a strange land, a cloud, etc. Players are in a position to experience a new perspective and to pretend to be something they are not.
When a game is solely focused on Pretend, then it intentionally leaves out other accords, particularly that of Performance. Performance is where games are about challenging the player. What fascinates me is the irony of games generally being considered frivolous yet can require immense effort and work to succeed at them. A game where Performance is required, expects its player to sweat, to lose, and to win. Yes, they can also Pretend to be a WWII Paratrooper, but the Pretending is intentionally superficial as the game’s emphasis is based around action and skill.
The traditional criticism from the Pretend fans-tribe is that these action games reinforce immaturity, with their trope focus on power fantasies. The response from the Performance fans-tribe is that their games are real games since you need to actually develop skills to win at them. And on it goes. The effort to invalidate the opposing group because they don’t play the same way is asinine. I have you to thank for helping me see the light in this regard.
Tribal social transgressions aside, I think that the two play areas are well formed and we would all do better to accept it. As you have said, diversity of play is natural, so this would lead to a play ecosystem. While a playground can have sandboxes and a monkey bar sets (and so much more), it is beneficial to create fences between the play structures to keep players happy. A welcoming gate in the fence can allow players to go from play experience to play experience as they wish.
Good fences make good neighbors as Robert Frost was told. It is my hope that through Gamestori.es I can help establish these neighborly fences and gates, so that the diversity of play can have the tools needed to provide a supportive ecosystem.
With best regards,