Eric Zimmerman responds in turn

Eric Zimmerman responds in turn

2004-01-11

A reply from game designer Eric Zimmerman that is receptive to multiple viewpoints, non-design or otherwise.

First of all, thanks to Chris Crawford and Jesper Juul for their insightful responses. On my planet, thoughtful criticism is the highest form of flattery. So I’ll do my best to return the favor.

Let’s start with Mr. Crawford. The most irksome quality of my essay for him seems to be that while I do provide conceptually sound understandings of the four “naughty” concepts, the definitions I presented somehow fall short of being truly useful. For example, Crawford would prefer that my concepts help him dismiss the idea of branching narratives as a design direction for a successful “game-story.”

How should I respond? On the one hand, branching stories are not games. And the choose-your-own-adventure books that I read as a younger kid continue to be a source of inspiration for me. In any case, I do heartily agree with Crawford’s implicit critique of branching stories: that games should pursue narrative structures that take advantage of their status as dynamic and participatory, complex and emergent systems. And these ideas do in fact surface near the end of my essay.

But on the other hand, Crawford does have a good point about the use-value of a definition. Compared to someone with his admirably bombastic inclinations, it’s true that the concepts as I present them are less about evaluating successful and unsuccessful designs than they are about understanding the way that game-stories function in general. Perhaps that’s what Juul means when he states in his response that my essay “skips the grandiose universal claims we have come to expect.”

Are “grandiose claims” really what we need? Possibly. But for me the questions that cluster about the game-story are so complex that there can’t be just a single set of answers. I’d rather not attempt to give designers a solution to the quandary of the game-story. I’d rather give them conceptual tools so that they can come to their own conclusions. That’s precisely what I mean when I call the value of a definition for design its utility. But one designer’s utility is another’s bombast.

On to Jesper Juul. Juul makes a number of pointed remarks, and I’d like to address several of them. First, the voluntary nature of games. I do think it’s valid to describe games as not always voluntary: as Juul points out, social pressures often force us to play games. My use of “voluntary” has less to do with the complexities of player psychology and more to do with the ontology of the medium. As Johan Huizinga’s notion of the “magic circle” deftly illustrates, games are innately artificial, separate in some way from “ordinary life.” In this sense, they are intrinsically voluntary. If you are playing a game to save your life, you are no longer playing.

Next comment: my English-centric emphasis on the words “play” and “game.” It’s true that very few languages possess the terms as they appear in English. But this doesn’t necessarily invalidate their use. All I can say in my defense is that for me they are remarkably useful concepts. And also, that the relationship between play and games in my own thinking is more complex than what I had space to elaborate in my short essay. For instance, while it is true that games are a subset of play, it is also true that play can be considered a subset of games. I’m not being coy: the experience of game-play is but one component of games among others, such as game-rules and game-culture.

Apart from these points, the most pervasive criticism in Juul’s response to my essay is to question the value of considering games as stories in the first place. He makes a number of strong comments along these lines. For example, he points out that considering games as stories carries a great deal of theoretical and ideological baggage. And that over-emphasizing narrative de-emphasizes the unique qualities of the medium by making them beholden to another field entirely.

To these concerns, I can only reply that I absolutely share them. Games are exceedingly complex phenomena that need to be studied and understood from many points of view. One of these points of view is the intersection of games and narrative - the “game-story” question that represents the focus of my essay.

But narrative is only one way to skin the cat. There are a host of possible schema which can and should be used to illuminate games and game design, from understanding games as formal, mathematical objects via systems theory and probability theory to understanding them as human systems of meaning, desire, and social communication. At the risk of biting the hand that invited me to contribute to First Person, I’d agree with Juul that indeed narrative is an over-used approach to understanding games. But there are reasons this is a central topic for our field. Considering games as narrative systems is necessary but not sufficient for a full understanding of the phenomena of games.

P.S: It’s quite sweet that in his closing remarks, Jesper Juul claims that he would like me to make more grandiose claims. What can I say? I’m no Chris Crawford. Perhaps the real challenge that Juul is putting to me is to take my game development collaborations beyond “beautiful minimalist” aesthetics and put the grandiose claims into the designs themselves.

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