[-empyre-] The Playsthetics of Experimental Digital Games: Week 1 Featured Guests and Questions

Bart Simon simonb at algol.concordia.ca
Thu Mar 6 01:37:54 EST 2014

On 3/4/2014 11:38 PM, Felan Parker wrote:
> Skot raises an important point that all kinds of games have been 
> experimental in some sense at many points in the history of the form, 
> and experimentation isn't something that can be mapped on to any one 
> sector of game development. Again, I think we need to look to specific 
> contexts to undestand what it means for games to be experimental.

Er... sorry for my mispost yesterday, it has indeed been a while :)

Great opening round of thoughts but now how shall we zero in without 
just generating conceptual confusion and/or chaos?  Sandra's opening 
remarks make me think that she is after 'experimental games' as both an 
analytic category and a genre category (ha... wouldn't it be nifty to 
see experimental games as a category in Metacritic).  If the rest of us 
start picking at this by showing how all games are experimental in some 
context then we have our work cut out for us showing what is, and is 
not, experimental.

Its also a bit of hubris I think to deny experimental games their 
cultural historical place in the sun. Concretely then, the term 
experimental games makes an important appearance in the context of the 
shifting politics of the IGDA Game Developer's Conference. The website 
for the Experimental Gameplay Workshops series is telling -

    "This IS Experimental Gameplay: Creating unexpected play experiences
    or promoting unique feelings within players through mechanics
    (Gravitation, Passage, The Marriage). Generative games, where the
    gameplay or world changes based on choices the player makes
    (Spelunky, flOw). Emergent gameplay, where the game systems interact
    to provide suprising situations (ROM CHECK FAIL, Portal).
    Interactive storytelling, where the plot or dialog changes in a
    fine-grained manner, as opposed to discrete "branching points"
    (Facade). Innovative user interfaces -- natural language processing,
    image recognition, gestural control, new hardware devices (Guitar
    Hero, RENGA). Novel multiplayer interactions (Journey)

    This is NOT Experimental Gameplay: Novel content, narrative,
    settings, character designs, artwork, audio or plots -- unless they
    affect the core gameplay in a major way. New hybrids of
    already-existing genres -- unless the resulting gameplay is
    unexpectedly more than the sum of its parts. Purely technical
    innovation, experimental business models or distribution mechanisms,
    or games for under-served audiences -- unless the game itself is
    experimental as outlined above." (see

I like this definition actually mostly because it privileges gameplay 
and not game design as such. Yet the history of these workshops from 
2002 also tells the tale of upheaval in the game industry (at least as 
represented by GDC) and a growing dissatisfaction with the market 
determined design imperatives of the major game studios.  What's 
interesting to me is that this definition is also normal paradigm 
defining and provides both players and designers with a language for 
orienting themselves to what can be perceived as industry imperatives.  
Experimental Gameplay is first and foremost a rhetoric (or narrative 
frame) for collective action.  Indeed, experimentation in the context of 
the big money AAA studios is now harder to conceive of, in part, because 
of these workshops.  There is a nice case study waiting to be written on 
Ubisoft Montreal's 'Child of Light' project 
(http://childoflight.ubi.com/col/en-GB/home/index.aspx) in the sense 
that it has been cynically read as an attempt to cash in on the indie 
mystique and an ethos of experimentation.  Who doesn't love 
experimentation?  That should worry us.

This totally fits with Felan's art worlds model but the next step is to 
articulate how the actual practice of experimental gameplay supports (or 
not) existing and yet-to-exist mobilizations. Obviously, experimental 
gameplay is a lovely rubric for indie self-fashioning and even relative 
economic success (and this is how the experimental gameplay workshops 
have evolved) but is there more too it than this?


Bart Simon, Associate Professor of Sociology
Director, Technoculture, Art and Games (TAG)
Concordia University, Montreal

bart.simon [at] concordia.ca

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