[-empyre-] The Playsthetics of Experimental Digital Games: Week 2 subtopics and questions

Sebastian Deterding sebastian at codingconduct.cc
Wed Mar 12 12:50:13 EST 2014

So chiming in here into a wonderful discussion:

My sense is that last week very quickly gravitated towards DTDT(tm), aka 
“defining the damn thing”, observing that “experimental games” can be 
understood and defined in at least two ways:

* as an analytical construct that describes the deviation of some 
existing convention, either to generate novelty, or to explore the 
possibility space of a form – and as such, as already mentioned multiple 
times, games like any aesthetic form are always already experimental, as 
designers are always deviating from existing conventions;

* as a social, discursive object that people use to understand, 
verbalize, do, achieve, signify certain things – and whose different 
usages, functions, and meanings are often tied to different “art 
assemblages” (I really liked that term): “experimental” as 
“sales-generating, absorbable novelty” (the industry understanding), 
“experimental” as signifying one’s identity as cool, independent, 
artistic, contrarian, etc., “experimental” as a commodification of that 
signified cool, etc.
For the anthropology folks here, that’s basically the good old emic/etic 
distinction: Are we empirically reconstructing how we as communities 
make use of the signifier “experimental games”, or are we trying to 
develop an analytical, cross-cultural construct of our own to describe 
“experimental games”?

Building on the latter part, I found the argument Matt made for an 
ultimately economic-technical breaking point between “mainstream” and 
“indie” intriguing – as 3D gaming raised the production skills, man 
hours, and thus, costs beyond what was available to most, this led to a 
market concentration toward a few big players who were basically 
financial institutions – just like Hollywood studios – able to 
accumulate big investments (from past profits or else): the birth of AAA 
as “mainstream” gaming.

One could prolong this argument to the often-made comparison to the rise 
of indie movies in the 1970s as well: the heavy upfront investment 
business model of now ‘big’ games made game companies risk-averse, hence 
the tendency towards proven formulas and serials, hence the fatigue with 
that, hence the counter-reaction. And now add that today, development 
platforms and the Internet and online market places like Steam have not 
erased but lowered the costs of development and distribution to a point 
where massive upfront investment is no longer necessary to be able to 
produce an ‘indie’ game (as long as your willing to self-exploit).

I’d like to add to that that the shift from analog to digital gaming 
itself raised the participation threshold in game design in terms of 
required skills (programming) and resource access (mainframes, back in 
the days). And I think we would all benefit from a neo-Marxian game 
criticism, an economic platform studies, if you will, that analyses how 
the economic and technical conditions of a time structure the 
possibility space of the games that can be made – including how, why, 
and when periods we retrospectively label “experimental” become more or 
less likely.

But finally to Sandra’s question regarding the relation of experimental 
games to gamification and the ludification of culture. If we take the 
analytic conception of “experimental” as “deviating from existing 
conventions”, then odd as it may sound, both experimental games and 
gamification present two instances of the same deviation – namely of our 
culturally prevalent conception of what games are *for*. If we take 
scholars like Huizinga or Caillois as representatives of the dominant 
modernist discourses about the “proper” social place or function of 
games for adults, then “we moderns” considered games to be “outside 
‘ordinary’ life” and “with no material interest” (Huizinga 1955, 13), 
“separate” and “unproductive” (Caillois 2001, 9-10) – a space free from 
the demands of social norms and uses. Somewhat paradoxically, the 
expected, demanded, normalized social function and purpose of games in 
modernity has been to be without function and purpose. At most, we 
tolerated their value for childhood development or as leisurely 
restoration for work, but even in that, we reproduced very specific, 
modernist rhetorics of play and games. In Brian Sutton-Smith’s terms, 
our dominant modernist rhetorics of games were those of frivolity 
(they’re worthless) or progress (they support productivity through 
learning or rest).

What both experimental games and gamification do is transgress these 
social norms: experimental games (at least the artistic ones) claim that 
games can and should also function as critical, even transformative 
pieces of art. And gamification proponents claim that games can and 
should also function as immediately productive cogs in the wheels of 
economic activity. Both instrumentalize and functionalize games and play 
in a way that deviates from our norms – here for critical reflection and 
transformation of society and its ends, there for the reproduction and 
optimization of its existing means. And there is reactance to both in 
terms of “this is not what games are *supposed* to be for, games are 
*just for fun*” (whatever that means): “Can games be art?”, “Need games 
be art?” and “Isn’t this just exploitationware?” are, on this analytical 
level, the same. And if we wish to get a proper analytic understanding 
of this, I suggest to temporarily suspend political and aesthetic 
preferences and just observe this significant *proliferation* of ways in 
which games get functionalized and functionalizations get normalized.

So much for now.


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