Archive for Design philosophy

Let’s play: ‘Nothing You Have Done Deserves Such Praise’

Nothing You Have Done Deserves Such Praise

I just played through Jason Nelson’s latest, Nothing You Have Done Deserves Such Praise (via Terry Cavanagh at Free Indie Games).

I wrote about Jason Nelson’s games right here in late 2010; NYHDDSP basically picks up where Jason Nelson’s School of Games left off. It’s a send-up of big-budge AAA titles, and in particular, the way those video games reward the player for jumping (and landing) in the correct places, for moving in a straight line from point A to point B. This game, like the best AAA titles, rewards the player with huge, unwarranted explosions.

One common reward in these types of games (and indeed, in most games) is the Power-Up. Of course, once the player achieves higher jumping ability—in NYHDDSP this ability is called “Super Legs”—the platforms are accordingly spaced farther apart. Since any New Ability is usually also necessary to proceed in a game, the player has ultimately “gained” nothing at all. He is, in essence, jumping the same distance as before.

Still, NYHDDSP might be less a condemnation of Obvious Game Design so much as it is a scathing remark on a larger “entitlement culture.” It’s taking piss out of achievement badge bros who have completed the same tasks another million players have already achieved. This has broader social implications. Especially in the educational system, but also in the workplace, students and underlings who conform are also rewarded: for falling in line; for showing up on time; for jumping when they are supposed to jump; for completing life in the “right” “order.”

Completing NYHDDSP is less a matter of skill or intellect than it is a sheer act of duty—so why do we, the players, tend to feel so triumphant? For accomplishing even the bare minimum required to “pass” or “progress”?

I didn’t notice during the first playthrough, but in NYHDDSP the player’s sprite is moving through the human body, specifically through its limbic system I think? In the next-to-last stage—a Coin-collect in which the player’s score artificially inflates by literal leaps and bounds—the player passes through the human head.

This is all an interesting thought experiment. But maybe the final stage ends too quickly. Its thesis—that we all play video games in a race against our own (geographic, sociocultural) alienation, to ward off our own sense of inefficacy—is a damning one.


How I feel about Sports Games

NBA Jam (via

I like using Formspring. Every once in a while I’ll get an interesting question about video games and how I feel about them, which is incredibly gratifying/ego-stroking.

Sometimes I bluff, but sometimes it turns into this “thought experiment” prompt and I end up stream-of-consciousnessing some overwrought missive (look out! It’s how I actually write everything, ugh).

And very rarely am I so pleased with my Formspring answer, I might repost it here. (And then again, once in a great, great while I get a vaguely lewd question, but this happens not so often as you might think, which is nice.)

This afternoon, as I was hurriedly typing something about Adam Levine’s new record label, I received this question:

So we’ve established games are art. Are sports games (something like Madden ‘07 to pick a random one) art?

What a great question! It’s exactly the type of thing I plan to cop out on answering, too, because who can answer a thing like that? So I defy you to call my bluff. Below, the full text of my Formspring response:

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An interview with Jake Elliott

I interviewed game developer Jake Elliott in time for last year’s Indie Games Festival, but I never posted it anywhere. I knew the interview was too, too long for publication, okay, but it was just so great, I didn’t want to let any of it go. (I interviewed Jake over Skype during the big Chicago blizzard.)

Now, there is a far more readable version of this interview at; in the meantime I got special permission to post the less-edited version right here.

Jake’s latest work, The Penguin’s Dilemma, will be a playable installation at Super Button Mashers, a gallery exhibit opening February 11 at Chicago’s OhNo!DOOM. Don’t miss it! I’m serious!

Jenn: Let’s see. Uh, so. I should have reread my notes before this.

Jake: Oh, that’s cool. I don’t have any notes to work from.

Ha! That’s awesome. Also I am really bad at interviewing. I’m okay at having a conversation, though?

Well, okay! That’s fine!

So you’re actually nominated in [last] year’s IGF Nuovo category for A House in California. And this is an adventure game with really simple images, and simple, kind of graphical parser commands?


And I played Hummingbird Mind yesterday, and in comparison it seems like that game is simpler to play? Because it’s maybe all [conversation] trees? But visually it’s actually more complicated?

Yeah. It’s, like, photos….

Yeah, it’s photos, right. Exactly. So I guess I was curious about the aesthetic decision you made with House in California.

I mean, mostly it was a strategy about what I thought might be—like, I don’t really have much skill in rendering graphics and drawing, or anything like that, so it all kind of started as a strategy about how I could do everything in a game, for myself, without borrowing graphics from other people. In something like Hummingbird Mind, they’re all Creative Commons licensed photos from Flickr that I did some processing on.

Oh! I didn’t realize that. I actually—
Yeah, I don’t call it out anywhere, but I mean, I credit the people in the—

No, I thought maybe you actually, um, had just, like, wandered around your apartment or neighborhood…

Right. I wanted to do something like that, but then I didn’t, and I just stole most of them. Or borrowed them, or whatever. Used them. [laughs]

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Excerpts from Ben Jackson’s essay in the upcoming ‘Distance’

FarmVille, a Zynga property

My friend Nick Disabato recently founded a quarterly print publication called Distance, which pledges to underscore “longform essays about design and technology.” It launches next month.

Nick himself is something of a comparative media Renaissance guy, and on the whole I trust his judgment. Last week he recommended I skim an excerpt from one of the magazine’s first essays. The piece was written by somebody named Benjamin Jackson. Nick suggested I might find Ben’s work “interesting.”

Um, yes. Yes, I found it interesting. Why, a week and a half earlier I had hemorrhaged something passingly similar to Ben’s excerpt, albeit nothing so cohesive.

You owe it to yourself to read Ben’s essay, too, because it connects seemingly disparate ideas about patternicity, carrot-dangling, “gambling,” and the ethics of the con:

It was later revealed that the machine, more commonly known as the Mechanical Turk, was an elaborately constructed ruse, where a highly-skilled human chess player of extremely small stature was hidden in the cabinet. Openings on the sides revealed gears, levers and machinery designed to misdirect the viewer into thinking that the Baron had devised some mechanical means of intelligently responding to a player’s moves.

The Mechanical Turk is an early example of unethical game design. Later examples include three-card monte, in which a spectator is shown a card, is asked to follow it with their eyes, and is then misled into following the wrong card. Many casino games are unethical: for example, slot machines usually randomize their payouts to ensure that players keep coming back, even when they’re clearly losing money. But unethical traits can appear in any game, no matter how subtle, and a recent crop of games shows a fuzzier moral ground.

The primary characteristic of unethical games is that they are manipulative, misleading, or both. From a user experience standpoint, these games display dark patterns: common design decisions that trick users into doing something against their will. Dark patterns are usually employed to maximize some metric of success, such as email signups, checkouts, or upgrades; they generally test well when they’re released to users.

For example, FarmVille, Tap Fish, and Club Penguin take advantage of deep-rooted psychological impulses to make money from their audiences. They take advantage of gamers’ completion urge by prominently displaying progress bars that encourage leveling up. They randomly time rewards in much the same way as the slot machines described above. And they spread virally by compelling players to constantly post requests to their friends’ walls.

This trend is not just limited to social games, though: many combat games, like America’s Army, are funded by the U.S. military and serve as thinly-veiled recruitment tools5. Some brands have launched Facebook games like Cheez-It’s Swap-It!, and they serve as tools to sell more products. These techniques can be used in any sort of game, in any context.

What, with all these concurrent ideas about “scams,” is Ben readying to describe to us?

ZYNGA. He is about to discuss ZYNGA.

A longer excerpt appeared this afternoon at The Atlantic. Now you can really see how cohesive Ben’s piece is. It is all about the maturation of the con, how Zynga lands us, hook, line, and sinker.

Here is an especially magnetic aside about “what” makes a “game” “good,” and why we might choose to invest in any game the way we do (it strongly borrows from the sociological idea of “cost,” wherein every human relationship is a type of transaction):

At IndieCade in October 2011, Adam Saltsman, Canabalt’s creator, discussed the notion of “time until death.” All of us have a finite amount of time on earth, and any time we spend on a particular activity is time that we can’t spend doing something else. This means that the time we spend gaming represents most of a game’s cost of ownership, far more than any money that we spend. If that time is enjoyable (or rather, if its benefits outweigh its costs), then the game was worth our time.

Really exciting stuff; I can’t wait to see what the entire essay contains.

You can help Nick Disabato kickstart Distance over here.

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On games of chance and “cheating”

Photo (Flickr): Chess by Howard Walfish

This Christmas I told my mother about Mohan Srivastava, some dude I first started thinking about ten-and-a-half months ago. Back then I’d written some diary thingie about “cheating,” “stealing,” and “cons.” The February 2011 issue of Wired was about all those things, too—the magazine had included an article about Mohan Srivastava—and reading the magazine was the first time I ever thought more carefully about “game-breaking” and morality. (Belated edit: I just remembered how much I like this book also.)

Over the holidays, my mother and I were watching an episode of The Mentalist together, which I like to watch with my mother sometimes because, even though it is a terrible television show, I like the idea of the main character being a mentalist and skeptic. A mentalist understands all these little rules about people (like how to perform a “cold reading”), and the hero of the TV show uses these talents for good.

This particular episode was about a town where all its residents are obsessed with finding veins of gold. The fictional people in this fictional town are all looking for gold but they are sidelining their lives to pursue it: going broke, wasting money on mining gear, alienating family, pinning every hope to finding those riches. (The episode is also about scams and cons, so I was really enjoying it, even though it was just as mediocre of every other episode of The Mentalist.)

“This really happens!” I said to my mother during a commercial. “People really waste their lives trying like this! On a pipe dream. It’s all just gambling,” I concluded. I was thoughtful.

“Haven’t I told you about Mohan Srivastava?” I asked my mother then. “The geological statistician?”

Srivastava is a type of statistician who consults the evidence, runs the variables through a complicated algorithm the rest of us will never understand, and thereby deduces the location of gold veins. So it turns out that locating a vein of gold is already a “solved game,” just like chess but more intricate.

This isn’t why Srivastava is famous; there are other geological statisticians who can also do what he does. Instead, Srivastava is famous because he realized “solving” the lottery isn’t so unlike “solving” the location of little streaks of gold in rock, and so Srivastava used the same rules and algorithms he already used for his job until, finally, he could no longer “lose” the lottery.

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On games, comics, narrativity, and time

Chris Ware

From a longwinded, boring diary entry wherein I transcribe notes on a panel/Q&A/lecture with comix author Chris Ware, dated May 9, 2010:

That is because comics use space instead of time (McCloud, Understanding Comics).

Also, speaking of space-as-time, as the eye travels from (in our English-speaking world) left to right, the eye’s spatial movement conveys the illusion of the passage of time. And after all, the passage of time itself is illusory. So what happens on the left side of a panel happens before what happens on the right side of the same panel, and the eye arrives at each spot and puts them into that spatial/time order, into sequence. Or! If a panel makes your eye jump left and right and left and right, as with speech bubbles in a dialogue, you interpret it as a fast exchange, bullets shot back and forth in almost a single moment. And! A long panel is a long moment, or maybe a long sequence of moments, and a huge panel with not too much inside of it is a perfect and lingering, cinematic Tarkovsky moment which, you know, is the exact opposite of montage. So I want them to all talk about that.

During the Q&A session, and I do not know this yet, they’ll get to it.


Here come questions about scripting a story in advance. Do you? Do you script your stories? Ray [Ray Pride, the panel’s moderator] wants to know.

This question made me think about college and about Professor Gary Saul Morson’s excellent textbook, Narrative and Freedom: The Shadows of Time, which is important for you to read if you have any interest at all in not-linear, unscripted literature, and also especially Slavic literature, which is Professor Morson’s mode. That book is about time, chance, and narrative possibilities (McCloud’s Understanding Comics is about space, chance, and narrative possibilities, so there is your connective tissue).


Morson’s book is also pretty great if you like the idea that morality is grounded in all things being changeable. What I mean is, a lot of Doomsday Christians, right, excuse themselves from accountability because they believe we are driving toward a predetermined ending anyway. Eschatology allows for incredible human unkindness: if all that matters is the Next Life, what shit ought we give about one another in this life? And so we are preoccupied with saving one another’s souls when maybe instead we ought to pay more thought to how we are planning to feed, clothe, and shelter one another, etc etc. So if you believe in determinism, and I try so hard not to, how can you believe in living ethically also?

Anyway, “narrative freedom” is an important point to stress, because how can a story, told in seeming sequence, be full of narrative possibility, if it is true that the story is also barreling toward a predetermined end? How can that be so? Morson’s book is about that, about how the two can impossibly happen at the same time, and so is McCloud’s.

And actually, I have always dreamed of Chris Ware talking about this, because in his stories’ architectures maybe you are not always sure of which direction your eye ought to travel (or, and so, in which direction “time” and sequence ought to be moving), or in which order you ought to read, but his storytelling itself is good enough (and seemingly pre-plotted enough!) that the story works in all radiating directions, and so, in navigating the seemingly sequential narrative, you are free to wander and choose.

Here I have written in parentheses, “video games too,” and I don’t remember why.

But maybe this is an OK thought because, say, the Astro Boy game for GBA is about hopping around through “time.”

Like, OK, in any 2D platformer, time is plotted as “stages” (or “levels” or “boards”), and these are basically panels that usher you through the “timeline” of a game. And that’s interesting because if you are “stuck” on a level and can’t pass it, you’re basically locked in this stagnant moment in time and story. So Astro Boy is a pretty normal 2D platformer, and you play through levels like normal, as in any game. But when you are made to play through the narrative again, or maybe not directly play through, but “revisit” the stages, I guess—and this is happening in the game because, as Astro Boy, you have to make something right in another place and time, looking for the spots where a time-traveling villain has changed the narrative timeline to suit his own nefarious ends—you play the levels out-of-original-and-established-sequence and not-linearly, and there are all these clever little narrative changes happening in the levels as you are revisiting them.

Or, OK, I like Braid, and while I’ve long since lost my notes on Braid, that game is about time being represented spatially—like, in some stages moving left-to-right makes time move forward, and in kind, moving right-to-left makes time go backward—and you play through the levels asequentially, or you can revisit narrative sections on a whim, and so on. And that game is all about stopping time and reversing it so that you can rectify your mistakes: you have second, third, fifth, millionth chances to make things right again, not only as a gamer who made a concrete misstep, but also as a human who is incapable of loving people the way they wish you would love them. I think that’s what the story is about, anyway. Maybe it isn’t.

Or, maybe—I’m not sure why I wrote “video games too” in parentheses, remember—maybe I’m not thinking about different ways to afford a gamer his own narrative freedoms at all. Maybe I am wondering instead about what would happen if a game were not too, too well scripted before its developer actually began working on it. That could be why I prefer smaller, low-budge games to big-budge AAA games, which are terribly scripted and, also, terribly scripted.

On scripting, Ware—who pre-plots sort of, kind of, but not especially so—sez: “Scripting seems to make both the reading and the drawing of the work ‘drearily boring’”

I like that idea, too, because it’s easy to forget that, as a writer and illustrator, the not-knowing, the wide open possibility, is preferable to the mundanity of always-knowing, or always driving ahead according to preset goals.


Playing through the 2011 IGF Nuovo final-list: Loop Raccord

Now that the IGF’s Nuovo Award Finalists have been announced, I hope it’s safe for me to post my impressions of another strong contender, Loop Raccord.

In Loop Raccord, the player is tasked with finding just the right spot in an animated gif, splicing it there, and then reversing the footage so that it creates an infinite loop.

In any given stage, videos are arranged in a grid, 12 at a time, everything moving and bobbing and jumping all at once. Its no-frills presentation is jarringly ugly. It’s a YTMND migraine. It isn’t even fun. And I couldn’t stop playing it. Oh, my god, I came back to it again and again.

And I was horrified, too, because I knew that clearing all these stages was pointless: the game was developed according to the Experimental Gameplay Project’s Neverending theme. Loop Raccord’s visual cacophony is endless. I knew I was headed nowhere! And yet I was completely arrested.

What should video games do? Often we—I am lumping myself in with critics and reviewers, but game-makers say this, too—tell designers to ‘engage the player,’ without considering what we’re really saying. What does that even mean, to ‘engage’ someone?

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Playing through the 2011 IGF Nuovo final-list: A House in California

I have a Mystery House ROM for my Apple II emulator, and I’m going to be truthful, Mr. Jake Elliott: your A House in California did not exactly resemble it as advertised.

Oh, sure, A House in California, recently named a nominee for the IGF’s coveted Nuovo Award, is all stark white flixels against a black backdrop, in the style of some early 1980s graphic adventure game. It is point-and-click interactive fiction, terribly sparse, with all possible parser commands weighting the bottom of the screen.

But the commands are strange—“Remember”? “Forget”? “Befriend”?—and sometimes, depending on what I accomplish in the game, the commands change. That is disturbing. But also, inexplicably satisfying, to see that I am somehow changing things with my actions?

I now totally get why House in California was included in this year’s Learn to Play gallery exhibit: the game uses a lot of “dream logic” and “guess-what-the-designer-wants-you-to-do,” and as you explore and progress, you find yourself making real sense of the game’s mediations. Like other good games that toy with their chosen genres, this game demands that the player learn its secret language.

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How to design your video game character

(I have a weakness for Russian villains.)

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Talkin’ bout Jason Nelson’s art games

Right before I started playing Jason Nelson’s games, I had been reading an article by some neurobiologist about the connection between agoraphobia and “spatial estrangement” and modernity and urbanity. I was in exactly the right mental room already.

Then Mr. Nelson emailed me about his “odd art games,” many of which you can play right in your web browser by visiting Arctic Acre. (In his email, he also suggested that I visit Jason Nelson’s School of Games. You should probably go watch his video lecture series, too, because it is hilarious. There are currently 16 episodes, each only seconds long.)

Maybe ‘odd’ is almost the wrong word for his games: they’re straightforward 2D platformers, with moving and jumping and spatial circumnavigation and an end destination in sight, so that the way to play is immediately discernible even to your mom. But as you run-and-collect, the screens become cluttered with prose noise, taking on the likeness and verve of treated text. Everything feels very inaccessible and obfuscated despite the mechanics’ simplicity.

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Bizarre game mash-up: a K.C.’s Krazy Chase retrospective

Not long ago, I sat down with Pac-Man CE DX, the new sequel to 2007’s stellar Pac-Man: Championship Edition for Xbox Live Arcade.

Like its predecessor, DX is a Pac-Man style maze gobbler with a shifting layout and a strict time limit, forcing you to go for the highest possible score before time runs out. DX adds in a “ghost train,” wherein sleeping ghosts around the maze wake up and begin chasing Pac-Man. Provided you don’t get yourself trapped—think Snake—you can use the train to rack up huge scores, grabbing a power pellet and chowing down on dozens of ghosts in one fell swoop.

I’d had a nagging feeling that this reminded me of another game, but I couldn’t pinpoint what. It wasn’t until my riveting game of Centipede at Ann Arbor’s Pinball Pete’s that my memory jogged: DX smacks of the Magnavox Odyssey2 game, K.C.’s Krazy Chase! That game was a curious mash-up of Centipede and Pac-Man, deliberately designed to prevent a lawsuit from Atari—a fate that had befallen the game’s antecedent, K.C. Munchkin.

K.C. Munchkin, released in 1981, was a huge hit for the Odyssey2, at least for its brief availability on the market. Beating the 2600’s notorious Pac-Man port to home consoles by nearly a year, Phillips, the parent company of Magnavox, found themselves on the receiving end of a lawsuit by Atari, who argued that the maze game was too similar to their own, and that Atari had the sole rights to Pac-Man on home computer. To be sure, K.C. Munchkin had its differences—multiple mazes, a level editor long before editors were common (it used the Odyssey2’s attached keyboard), and dots that roamed the maze itself—but ultimately it was a game in which an impish munching character wandered a maze, eating dots and avoiding monsters. As if driving the point home, with a wink and a nudge, that K.C. really was Pac-Man in disguise, the game even had power pellets that would allow the player to hunt the three monsters for a limited amount of time. Of course Atari won the suit, and K.C. Munchkin was pulled from shelves. Still, the game’s success had blown the door wide open for a sequel.

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Quotables (on game-making and art, sort of)

Reality—real life—the newspapers and the newsmagazines and what goes on across the street—these are the materials of great art, but not art itself, though I am conscious of the semantic difficulties inherent in the word “art.” Let us say that “art” points to a cultural, and not an aesthetic, phenomenon: that a wilted spider put inside a picture frame somehow, magically, becomes a work of “art,” but that the same spider, untouched, unnoticed, is still a work of “nature” and will win no prizes. This is a definition of art that greatly angers traditionalists, but it pleases me because it suggests how Gestalt-like and shapeless life really is and how necessary we writers (and scientists, and map-makers, and historians) are to make it sane.

—Joyce Carol Oates, preface, Handbook of Short Story Writing, 1970

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Games can be a kind of philosophy, a kind of homebrew neuroscience, a martial art in which you get to eat pretzels and drink beer, a spiritual discipline made out of math, a way of thinking about thinking, a way of becoming more consciously aware of our thoughts and beliefs and decisions and learning about complex and counterintuitive truths about ourselves and the universe. So as we reinvent gaming as the dominant art form of the 21st century, I just want to remember that games can do that.

—Frank Lantz, via giantmecha


“For a quality experience…” An I Love Bees retrospective

ilovebees It’s been nearly four and a half years since the release of Halo 2 on the original Xbox console. The game is remembered for a number of reasons—online functionality, the story, perhaps even the hype. But for a select group of fans, Halo 2 is remembered fondly not for its play features, but for the Halo 2 ad campaign: The Haunted Apiary, or I Love Bees.

I Love Bees is an ARG, or alternate reality game. What that means specifically is hard to quantify, but ARGs tend to share a few common characteristics. They are played in real time over a finite length of time; they involve group efforts in puzzle-solving, either online or in the real world; their stories are told in rather unconventional ways, ranging from clothing lines to trading cards to false newspapers to in-game websites in games over the years. As for I Love Bees, the main action of the game occurred at the website of the same name.

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DIGAREC’s book on games philosophy and ethics: it’s free!

Last May, the Digital Games Research Center (AKA the Zentrum für Computerspielforschung, AKA DIGAREC), together with the University of Potsdam’s Arts and Media Department, hosted the Philosophy of Computer Games 2008, a three-day conference for which “international speakers and scientists were invited… to discuss the ethics, aesthetics, phenomenology and politics of computer games.”

Now, with the continued assistance of the University of Potsdam Press, DIGAREC has collected, edited, and published the sum total of the May 2008 conference. The result: a finished book, Conference Proceedings of the Philosophy of Computer Games 2008, with keynotes and lectures divided and edited into chapters.


Essays include “The Concept of War in the World of Warcraft,” “The Space-Image: Interactivity and Spatiality of Computer Games,” “The Rhetoric of Persuasive Games: Freedom and Discipline in America’s Army,” and “Différance at Play: Unfolding Identities Through Difference in Videogame Play.”

Incredibly, DIGAREC opted to publish the book as a free, downloadable PDF—but make no mistake, this is a proper book (with an ISBN and endpages and everything!), suitable for your Kindle or e-reader. It’s a pretty hefty tome. Oh, and yes—it’s all in English. (My German isn’t that good.)


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