A few days ago, Keith Burgun posted an article on Gamasutra regarding a proposed ontology for games – which pretty much declared anything that wasn’t a competitive winstate-driven game to be a vaguely defined and quickly dismissed lump of “interactive systems.” In this view, The Sims and The Walking Dead are out there next to traffic patterns and vending machines; a vast unexplored section of his Venn Diagram that might well be called “systems that aren’t the games I like.” He also made the poor choice of declaring Anna Anthropy’s ongoing quest to democratize games as misguided. All of this has prompted a fair bit of discussion, and I figured I’d put my thoughts from earlier up here.
The biggest, most immediate problem with developing a meaningful ontology of games: It doesn’t give us anything. There’s no intrinsic benefit to taking the giant, abstract concept that we today call “games” and slicing them up into “games” and “puzzles” and “contests.” It doesn’t further our understanding of system design, nor does it really do anything to help us make better games. Based on the Venn Diagram in the article Nobi Nobi Boy, SimCity, The Sims, Minecraft, The Stanley Parable, and arguably minimally ludic SCUMM titles aren’t games. They would fall into any number of artificially created categories to separate them from games proper. This belittles tons of games by lumping them together simply for not being the structured games that Burgun deems the most worthy of study.
And what benefits do we gain from this? What does it mean if a game is a “puzzle” or a “contest” or one of the giant mass of dismissed “interactive systems?” How does this categorization help us design better games, or understand and contextualize mechanics? Instead of declaring a hierarchy of exclusion, we need to be talking about what each circle in that diagram really means and how it achieves the properties that seem to differentiate it from other systems. Instead of saying “systems with winstates are competitions, and systems without winstates are something else,” we should be talking about the nature of winstates. They contextualize otherwise ambiguous play, but this comes at a price – every action in the game is now categorically either “good” or “bad” depending on whether it pushes the player towards or away from that winstate. We could then talk about how winstates could be used in system design to create systemic rhetoric. Games often even dynamically switch back and forth between contextualized, winstate driven play that judges player action (GTAIV when on a mission) and winstate-free play that encourages experimentation and expression (GTAIV when screwing around). Burgun treats games with winstates as a “higher class” of games placed into a rung further up his diagram as if games with winstates categorically belong to a different classification. Simply including/excluding games in sets doesn’t give any meaningful discourse, and in fact rejects wide swaths of our medium in troublingly reductionist ways.
And the problem isn’t just the wording (although any ontology that uniformly decrees wide swaths of what we know as ‘games’ to now be ‘something else’ has to be seen as at least superficially troubling). The nature of the hierarchy implies the games with the most going on – with the most worth discussing – falls into the narrow category of winstate driven competitive games. It contextualizes discourse in a way that focuses on a very narrow set of mechanics – and indeed, the Venn diagram itself visualizes this. Winstate-free games like Sim City, abstract expressive play like Minecraft multiplayer modes, narrative-driven experiences like Dear Esther, cooperative social games that don’t necessarily have traditional goals like Animal Crossing – despite their wide systemic differences they fall into the big blob of “Other interactive systems,” because the mechanics that differentiate Animal Crossing from Dear Esther don’t interest the author. More bins aren’t the answer, either – again, I doubt their utility to begin with, and at a certain point you’ve simply put every game in its own little bucket.
In short, if there’s to be growth in the application of mechanic design it’s got to happen through discussion about game mechanics, not an ontology of games that excludes lots of existing games and prioritizes a narrow set of design ideals.
Then there’s the problem of bringing up Anthropy’s speech. It needs to be stated that the goals of these two individuals are wildly different, but also not mutually exclusive. Anthropy wants games to be a democratized medium that extends its reach and accessibility as far as possible. She sees a world where games encompass a broader spectrum of the human experience, and that means that we need to be espousing scratchware/garbageware ideologies and homebrew punk aesthetics.
Meanwhile, Burgun wants to promote depth and analysis of games as systems. While I may disagree with his conclusions, his desire to push the medium further is admirable. But it simply doesn’t conflict with Anthropy’s work – there’s nothing that says we can’t simultaneously be encouraging new developers who were never exposed to games to create scratchware masterpieces while also having our industry mainstays pushing for deeper analysis and understanding of game and mechanic design.