Death of the Author and Games that Aren’t Games (yet still are)

RolandBarthes Today’s post is going to be somewhat academic, and a great deal less practical than I’ve tended towards thus far. Generally, I’ve tried to keep this blog focused towards interesting things that can be directly put into practice in some way, even if the overall concept is abstract. Today I will discuss a topic/theory I’ve come up with recently that doesn’t really have any practical bearing on the act of making games, but is hopefully nonetheless interesting and maybe even broadening. Who knows.

Today’s topic treads on the concepts of what is and is not a game, a well-known literary essay, and how one can possibly effect the other. I admit up front, this is pretty academic, so you’ve been warned.

Background: Barthes and Costikyan


So, to really discuss this, it’s necessary to first lay a little groundwork. There are readings involved, but I plan to sum up so you needn’t wade through them unless you really want to. The background is, however, necessary to the whole discussion.

Back in 1967-8, a literary critic and theorist named Roland Barthes wrote a short essay entitled “Death of the Author”. It’s a pretty modest little piece but the impact has been, to put it mildly, enormous, largely because it carries over into almost any artistic endeavor. The essay is available to read in full, but in a nutshell the concept is more or less this: the experience of the author is less important to the final work than the experiences and interpretations of those viewing/reading/playing it. Prior to this, there was a tendency to judge novels and such based on authorial intent, rather than the audiences’ relationship to the work in question.

The upshot of this is basically a concept of co-authorship—the consumer of the artwork is just as much a part of authoring the work(by providing interpretation and personal meaning) as the creator who produced it. This will become important shortly.

In 1994, game designer Greg Costikyan, in an effort to try to help produce a vocabulary that could be used towards real criticism of games in an informed and consistent manner, wrote an article called “I Have No Words and I Must Design: Toward a Critical Vocabulary for Games”. A more recent edition was produced in 2002. Among other things, it attempts to create a clear, concise definition of what a game really is in a formal sense, and it’s been generally accepted as a pretty good working definition from what I can tell. In so doing, Costikyan outlines a number of areas where we frequently see things that people call games that don’t really pass muster. For instance, many things that are labeled games are actually puzzles, toys and narratives. The details are not entirely important here, but there is one section that is a good case for the point of this post in particular:

Some years ago, Will Wright, in a speech at the Game Developers
Conference, described SimCity, which he designed, as a software toy. He
offered a ball as an illuminating comparison: It offers many interesting
behaviors, which you may explore. You can bounce it, twirl it, throw it,
dribble it. And, if you wish, you may use it in a game: soccer, or basketball, or
whatever. But the game is not intrinsic in the toy; it is a set of player-defined
objectives overlaid on the toy.

Just so SimCity. Like many computer games, it creates a world that the
player may manipulate, but unlike most games, it provides no explicit
goal. Oh, you may choose one: to see if you can build a city without slums,
perhaps, or one that relies solely on mass transit. But SimCity itself has no
victory conditions, no objectives; it is a software toy.

Reasonable enough, on the whole. Which brings us to the actual point of this writing.

Why SimCity can Still be a Game


simcity2I have no complaint with Costikyan’s analysis. I actually think it’s well-stated, quite intelligent and thoroughly apt. And I would argue that what I’m writing today invalidates it in no way. That said, there is an interesting interaction going on between these two points of theory, separate as they are. And I think Costikyan already allows for the conclusion, as he goes on to discuss why SimCity is a very excellent toy, and even alludes (almost) to what I’m about to say here.

You see, there’s three basic ideas interacting here. First, we have Costikyan’s definition, which poses the problem: SimCity isn’t a game in a strict because it provides no goals, which are intrinsic to the idea of game. Second, we have human nature. We as humans have difficulty with goal-less tasks. We are very goal-oriented, and will rapidly invent goals for ourselves in their absence. Chances are good that if we have a ball, we will either choose or invent a game to play with it in very short order. This gets important when tied together with our third concept, which is Death of the Author. These are our basic premises.

It goes something like this: IF games lacking goals are not games(but only need a goal to become one), and IF creative endeavors are co-authored between creator and consumer as a matter of course(as Barthes proposes), then our human inclination to provide the missing goals is valid for the purposes of meeting the definition of game. In short, part of our co-authoring as players is providing that missing element that fully realizes SimCity as a game.

The caveat here, of course, is that you still have to design for this. Some games (Costikyan points out SimEarth) fail to provide enough room to co-author in. Unsurprisingly, games like this are rarely successful.

Summing up


Well, not really summing up, exactly. But most people are probably wondering what the point of all this is when it’s not really useful for anything practical, at least on the surface.

It’s important, but primarily to designers and creators in the same way that understanding how paint pigments reflect light and interact with the medium is important to painters and not museum-goers. Things like this help us gain a deeper understanding of the things we create. Deeper understanding leads to informed, deliberate choices in the design process. Informed, deliberate choices lead to better results with less (relatively speaking) trial and error. Players needn’t care about it themselves, of course. But better games means it’s all better for everyone, players and designers alike. So we should all care, if only a little.

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