Ooh. The game conference just started, and Espen started his lecture by asking how many people have played World of Warcraft. Yay! Now he’s showing a screenshot from a raid with lots of high level characters, and yes, it’s so complicated. “How do we read it?” he asks.

  • Are games art?
  • Simulation
  • Are games fiction?
  • Why don’t games grow up and evoke (rich) feelings?
  • Warning: Is it safe to study games? Maybe not… E.g. the first PhD on game studies is now a massage therapist. Yet certainly getting easier. Richard Bartle’s model of types of gamers (achievers, killers, socialisers, explorers) suits the field of game studies as well.
    Is there a core of game studies? Certainly developing. Several journals now, about 7-8 international conferences on game studies this year, also becoming truly international: connections with humanities game studies in Asia and South America. Do we want a core? And who are “we”? If there is or should be a core, should it be in the humanities, the social sciences or technology? Can you combine them all? I don’t think so. The methodologies are so different that you can’t combine them, and so you can’t actually do anything useful. And Espen says he’s tried. Don’t try it, it doesn’t work.

    However, all three aspects do unite in the games themselves. So how can we avoid combining them? Well, we can’t. How can we understand games without a unified theory? I don’t think that’s possible either.

    There’s been a lot of metadebate about how to understand games in the last years (a.k.a. narratologists vs ludologists, though Espen didn’t mention this) More of this than looking at actual games. However, this will soon be fogotten. Now we have a big problem: how can we combine the technology and the critical work? Bigger wars coming: Crit vs Tech! E.g. at a recent conference there were two tracks: technical and “other”. Espen was in “other”, which was not very useful – there were technical people talking about the digital storytelling at hte same time, with no crossover, as Espen talking about games and narrative.

    Many game studies: game theory (not computer games), play research (children’s play), gaming and simulation (learning), ludomania (gambling, addiction), board game studies, philosophy of sport, digital game studies.

    What is the most influential computer game ever? Which game has influenced the most other games? (Suggestions from audience: pong, mario, tetris, etc)
    Espen: no: Dungeons and Dragons. Which isn’t a computer game, yet it is a computer game and has influenced so many computer games.

    Another game: tug of war with a dog. We didn’t invent games. Games are a cross-species aesthetics (aesthetics used very loosely to mean

    Espen’s game definition: “Games are facilitators that structure player behaviour, and whose main purpose is enjoyment.”
    We should focus on player behavior. Shouldn’t study games, but playing

    To figure out what a digital game is, we might need to figure out what is the essence of computing? Even this is a vague concept. Finneman (1999): mechanical representation, algorithmic formalisms, interface. Manocivh (2001) five principles. Turing: just one principle defines computing, the universal machine: a machine that can simulate any other machine (could add: any other media). No difference data/process.
    –> the high level principle is simulation

    Shows a picture of a walk-the-dog simulator from Japan. This is a game. Also a simulation.

    What is a simulation? Frasca’s definition: “to model a (source) system through a difference system which maintains, to somebody, some of the behaviors of teh original (source) system”.

    Types of simulation:

    • 2d arcade games (pacmans)
    • World: (Colossal Cave Adventure (1976)
    • Character: Avatar simulation (pen and paper) Dungeons and Dragons (1974)

    Dan Woods, who wrote Colossal Cave in ’76, had not played D&D, whcih is why there’s no character simulation in it. (I’m not sure whether this refers to the first version, with no puzzles, or whether it also refers to the version with puzzles, in which case Espen’s point is about the characters, not the puzzles.)

    OK, now there’s a lovely screen full of arrows and games and connections, which I’d love to spend more time looking at – show srelationships and historical development between these three

    What game is this? (shows picture of chess set)
    Audience: Chess (audience)
    Espen: Ha! trick question! This is just the equipment! You don’t really need the board to play the game. Chess is not equal to its equipment, it’s independent of its equipment. Games are not media, but they may use a medium.

    –> game aestheetics is not necessarily visual or verbal, it is performative. The enjoyment is about what you do.

    Games are not media. Shows pictures of “the same game” with radically different visual appearances.

    Game worlds are not fictional. Definitely games use fictional elements, but in the game, when Lara Croft dies again and again and again, that’s not fictional. That wouldn’t happen, fiction has to be consistent. Well then, you might say, it’s metafiction, postmodern. But no, because players don’t care, aren’t confused, because the dying (or, say powerups) belong to the game logic not to fiction. Walking across a med kit and getting better isn’t part of the (a) fiction. Neither are the braindead NPCs. We just sort of ignore how these things break the fictional logic, we’re not interested in it.

    Labyrinths can be fictional – e.g. a film set. However, labyrinths in games can be real, though they may physically virtual. Game labyrinths work just the same as real labyrinths (Hampton Court). The labyrinth in The Shining doesn’t work like that. Simulated worlds can be tested. They are not fiction.

    What do games allow players to do?

    [oh dear, lost the last notes in a crash when I went to a Tamagotchi graveyard to find the proof Espen showed that The Messiah of serious games is already here and we did not recognise him, given by showing the obvious grief of a girl who’s written a memorial to her dead Tamagotchi. I couldn’t find the original online, but it was WONDERFUL. I mean, really sad, and very strong feelings, that’s for sure. I hope he cited it in his paper or somewhere.]

    Tanya: What would it be like playing World of Warcraft without the visual environment? It would just be number punching. Just the rules are not enough!!
    Espen: Just a teaser, I have more to say about this! Certainly the landscape in WoW is important, however there are also lots of other aspects. Everquest players hacked into the interface and made a matrix-like numbers interface, and played it much more efficiently.
    (me, in my mind: whether WoW is fictional or not much depend a lot on the degree to which you roleplay)
    Espen: If the landscape of WoW was NOT fictional, you would be able to treat it as more real: you could chop down trees and build new houses etc. You can’t do that, so the landscape is largely fictional.
    (me, in my mind: does that mean that guilds and serious roleplaying is not fictional? Really depends on your definition of fiction, doesn’t it. See my thesis, I could think more about this.)

    I completely missed the next questions because I was thinking about fiction.

    2 thoughts on “aesthetics of play: espen aarseth’s keynote

    1. Heartless

      Very well written 🙂 Lots of questions I will need to ponder!

    2. scott

      Sounds like an interesting talk, though I’m unclear about the distinction between games and simulated worlds set in terms of whether or not they can be tested. I’m not sure I’d agree that game labyrinths work in games in exactly the same way as they work in RL, nor do I think that it would be impossible to simulate a labyrinth in a work of fiction.

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