[-empyre-] Week 4: The Playsthetics of Experimental Digital Games: digital game design praxis

Christopher Young christopher.young at utoronto.ca
Fri Mar 28 02:41:11 EST 2014

Dear all, thank you Sandra for inviting me to participate in this thought provoking venue. I’ve spent the morning reading, dissecting, and, more importantly, thinking about all the posts from the previous three weeks up till now. To start off, I’m going to pull a few quotes from the previous discussions that I hope will tie my post a little bit into this month’s theme, and then try to address this week’s theme a bit towards the end.

"As a gateway to personal expression Twine remains more open that other free game-making tools but is still bound to a particular type of practice, fertile for a particular type of literacy”—Emma Westecott.

"But, too often, the tired reuse of tried and true genre, mechanics, aesthetics etc is really disappointing—and surprisingly prevalent in a community that thinks of itself as making alternatives to big industry games. It indicates a failure to see games as a much broader playing field”—Lynn Hughes.

"I think we take for granted the rhetorics of inclusivity and don’t really think about issues such as how free labour and leisure intersect, especially for the DIY, hobbyist game authorship scene that is being lauded and celebrated”—Sandra Danilovic commenting on Alison Harvey’s post.

I found Bart Simon’s reorientation of experimental games to "games as experiments" useful for its implied twofold definition: (1) an experiment as something newly discovered; and (2) a repetition of experiments where we reproduce an experiment under the same variables of the original experiment, or alter the experiment by introducing new variables. I think up until about fifteen years ago or so, video game designers were experimenting broadly under the first definition; whereas today, I feel we are experimenting under the latter.

The three quotes above, particularly Emma Westecott’s and Lynn Hughes, speaks to this repetition of experimentation whether through tools that emulate a specific kind of expression or literacy (i.e. Unity, GameMaker, RPGMaker, Twine, etc.), or through reusing tried and tested genres (i.e. Action Adventure, 8-Bit games, Puzzle, etc.). As a disclaimer, I am not saying that what artists in the various game scenes are doing is either unoriginal or experimental; what I am saying is that what they are doing has fallen into the trap of what Michel de Certeau (1984) calls organizations' “strategies”: our everyday practices are being determined by corporations, institutions, and governments through their “free” gaming tools, “cheap” platforms, and “open” submission policies.

To tie the third quote in a bit more into this discussion, what we are seeing amongst casual, hobbyist, and amateur game developers, hackers, modders, etc. is the use of “tactics” or poaching: where “the imposed knowledge and symbolisms become objects manipulated by practitioners who have not produced them” (de Certeau, 1984, 32). For those of you who have read Henry Jenkins (1991) work, he uses these concepts quite frequently (in the de Certeau sense) to explain how individuals and subcultures poach texts to develop new texts that have meaning for them.

This is not to say that all is lost and we’re stuck creating and playing games according to organizations’  strategies, because one of the things that de Certeau (1984) discusses is that this use of tactics eventually feeds back into the strategy to shape a new strategy—a notable example being Steam’s creation of Greenlight  where players get to vote on which games get published; it’s not perfect but it’s a shift in Steam’s strategy.

As such, these shifts in strategy have opened up hegemonic venues, somewhat, to previously silenced voices. Kara Stone has rightly pointed out this is not always the case, and it is up to us as academics, practitioners, and players to poach these hegemonic texts and develop new forms of experimentation—or as Kara Stone succinctly highlights “research creations”—to challenge and remould these texts into meanings that are important to us.

I just want to end this post on something that Peter Coppin mentioned: that it takes a high level of computational literacy to be able to create games at a technically sophisticated level. One of the issues that I think most of us are struggling with—including myself trying to build games as a hobby—is that the computational texts that we use to build games through software, such as GameMaker, Twine, etc., increasingly remove us from understanding how they work, and so we may not be cognizant of the cultural effects they have on us, such as prejudice, or the limits they impose on our artistic forms of expression and creativity. This is a deeply troubling concern, and one that brilliant initiatives, such as DMG and other incubator spaces have been addressing.



Michel de Certeau (1984), The Practices of Everyday Life, Berkeley: University of California Press.
Henry Jenkins (1991), Textual poachers: television fans and participatory culture, New York: Routledge.
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