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On the Church of Reason and Punk Game Development
by Rami Ismail on 02/26/13 06:08:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

IndieCade East.

Last week, I gave a talk at the first ever New York City IndieCade East. Completely unaware of the expertise level of the audience, I decided to try a talk I’ve wanted to give for a while. Besides at venues filled with peers, I often speak at art- or culture-related events with audiences that have little pre-existing knowledge of the medium. This specific talk (which has gone through an absurd amount of iterations before I felt comfortable giving any version of it) is an entry-level explanation of the ideas and core principles of player agency – without using the words player agency.

Obviously, I needed to introduce Vlambeer and thus I ran with my usual slides – Jan Willem and I met in the train to school and pretty much hated each other right away, but found a common frustration in our game design university. We developed a mutual respect, dropped out because we felt we’d learn more just diving into the big bad world with reckless disregard for reality, founded Vlambeer in 2010 and made lots of games since.

Vlambeer. Yo.

After the talk was over there was a short slot for questions - which one person happily did. This person grabbed the microphone and carefully cleared their throat. This was an academic that ‘couldn’t fail to notice my stance on education’ and pointed out that I might’ve missed a tremendous wealth of theoretical knowledge about my chosen profession. The question that followed this quite frankly eye-opening rant was: ‘Do you know what player agency is?’

For some reason, that rubbed me the wrong way: I had spent a lot of time refining my explanation of the concept, catering it towards less literate people in a way that was hopefully both fun and educational. Here was someone who thought the reason I did it that way was because my assumed lack of formal education likely meant that I did not know the words for what I was trying to discuss.

I am not an academic. I make videogames. I learned how to make videogames by tinkering around with game creation since I was six years old. Somehow, I learned running a company by selling computers at an electronics store; by having a game design cloned and dealing with the supportive yet rough media fallout after that; by realizing I had undersold a game during negotiations because the other party instantly agreed to my opening bid; by having our accountant mail us about a few missing forms.

However, I am completely unsure as to how not having a formal education could be considered a limitation of my theoretical knowledge. One doesn’t need a university to read books or get access to interesting papers. Last year, I visited DiGRA out of sheer interest for the academic side of game development. The notion that the only way to knowledge of a subject is through formal education is mind-blowing to me.

Killscreen decided to write an article about my response to the question at IndieCade, which they framed within a context implying academics might not be relevant to our indie scene anymore.

J.S. Joust

This is equally mind-blowing to me. Many of the indie developers I consider personal heroes are developers that operate on that fine line between academia or theoretical exploration and practical development: conceptual art as many of Zach Gages’ installations or Douglas Wilson’ purposeful exploration of folk games and incomplete game systems being well-known examples of things that have inspired me over the years.

Thus, the whole framing of Vlambeer as a proof that education is inherently flawed is painful. It becomes even more contrived when one realizes that even though we did drop out ourselves, Jan Willem and I have spent a significant amount of our time on workshops, seminars, classes and talks around the world. Less than twenty-four hours before I presented the IndieCade talk that triggered all of this, I was on a stage at Chicago’s DePaul University presenting to a crowd of enthused students about my experiences with starting your own indie studio. A day after that talk, I would be speaking at the Parsons New School of Design alongside Ramiro Corbetta, Davey Wreden and Fernando Ramallo. Another two days later, I would be presenting another business-oriented talk at the IT University in Copenhagen.

For me that question on player agency perfectly illustrated once more that there tends to be a huge gap between academia and practical game developers. It illustrates a mutual feeling of superiority on both sides that results in two parties not seriously conversing on subjects that might push our medium forward. More than anything, it showcases on one side the tendency to disdain of academics towards the ‘simple, thoughtless banter’ of self-didactic developers. On the other side, it lays bare the mistrust of developers for the ‘experience-less self-referring writings’ of academics.

This status quo worries me. On endless occasions, I’ve argued for games to be inclusive of all expressions – and this is no different. Games can easily include punk games and academic exploration, but phrasing it that way would imply that there indeed should be a divide between the two. There needn’t be. They can just be different perspectives, different approaches to the same thing.

It would be absurd to claim that I oppose education. I will happily agree that I am unfit for education as a student. I will without hesitation state that a lot of institutes are falling short of their intended goals. I have not a single regret regarding dropping out. I will heartily recommend anyone who feels similar to how we felt three years ago to get themselves as far away from the system as they can.

Nobody will ever hear me say that in game development, education is a necessity. I’d go as far as to state that I would consider it foolish to say it is. All the same, education not being a necessity does not make it otiose or superfluous – it just makes it something that each and every person should make a conscious decision about.


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Comments


Marque Sondergaard
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One swallow doesn't make a summer, they say. One guy has this opinion (on your understanding of player agency as a direct result of your personal education situation), so what? As the Chinese say, a man can not turn to answer every time a dog barks.

Live and let live. Keep on making great games.

Rami Ismail
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Absolutely, yet if that question is illustrative of a larger and often perceived problem, it does make one stop to think!

Arjen Meijer
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A better question would be, what would need to change in order to make education work for you?

I am also willing to admit that education is not my thing, and I would have likely also dropped out if it wasn't for the freedom that I managed to receive from teachers who just let me just work on my own things.

Daryl Hornsby
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I started off learning to mod, because I was playing an RTS and found some awesome units on a modding website that I wanted to include. I then followed this hobby up by pursuing an education in game design. I found a lot of value from both areas, and agree that neither is particularly better than the other. I've worked with many people on projects who have no formal education, but they've spent enough time as players and active forum members to understand why games are designed the way they are, and they want to see if they can actual work on games in the real world. Indeed, on my MSc in Games course, only around 40% of us have any previous education in games or digital products, some have come from a psychology, modern art and even physiotherapy background, and they have been as active and knowledgeable in their teams as anyone else.

Anyone who wants to make games should be free to do so, regardless of their experience, age, sex or education.

John Lange
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In technical or academic fields, when it begins taking too much time to explain ideas, they are named. This allows communication to flow more freely as you can discuss the concepts as units rather than as a rough description of the concept. This happens in all languages and is essential to quickly exchanging information in groups.

What you are explaining here is what happens when academic and self taught groups come together, as the academics have agreed upon language and often find themselves explaining the names of the concepts that self taught individuals use. While the person who asked your question may have been impolite or trolling, he may have also been trying to help you distill your talk down to two words that have been accepted to mean the concept you were explaining.

As someone who has come from being self taught into the corporate development environment, this is something I deal with and work on regularly. I do not have the academic language that other developers may have and so it takes me longer to communicate concepts that they already have words for. This is a fault of mine, not theirs. The open source community has embraced the language of patterns and general academic terms for development even though many of the contributors have not gone with a formal education. But by accepting these terms, they all have a common language that they can base further discussion on.

Both sides, academic and self taught, will have to agree upon a language to further their communication when developing games. And most likely, these words will come from the academic side. This isn't something that either side should fight, though - both should embrace the naming of concepts so discussions can go further. I haven't heard your talk, but were you to spend 30 minutes explaining the concepts of player agency without actually saying that term, I would probably make sure to ask, publicly, if what you were talking about is player agency, just to make sure everyone who listened understood that there is an accepted name for the concept you were speaking on.

Joseph Elliott
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Great read.

I hadn't really considered academia until recently. I met someone who is heavily involved in the world of art academia (not games related) who finds games to be tremendously interesting, and believes that games, not her preferred medium of painting, are the vanguard of our culture's artistic exploration. I'm hardly an academic, having dropped out of college for a different industry altogether, and she doesn't have much experience playing games, but we've been able to really explore the medium theoretically in a way I've never experienced before. There's no judging, or ego at play; we're just playing off each other's knowledge and expertise to mutually improve our understanding of a new, great art form.

Gosh dang, I wish everybody could have that sort of experience. Why can't we all just get along? Exploring art should be fun and rewarding, not dividing and bitter.

Arthur Souza
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Hey Joseph! That line "why can't we all just get along?" basically says it all for me. Nothing better than being able to explore thing with someone with a knowledge you don't have, share experiences and points of view. That's some serious evolution.

Chris Charla
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Academia is a industry whose main output is the perpetuation and creation of more academia. This isn't to say academics don't have a valuable place in games, or can't contribute to our global knowledge bases or even create great games themselves.

But speaking just for myself, I'd much rather play a fun game from an uneducated "folk designer" such as Shigeru Miyamoto, Tim Schafer or Mike Mika, than spent 5 seconds of my short life listening to an aspiring academic discuss player agency.

Some fields are lead from the academy -- nuclear physics comes to mind -- while in other fields the academy trails applied craft. In my opinion, games are certainly a field in which practice currently is far more valuable than theory.

Jacob Crane
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Great read, I think there are valid aspects of Academia that can help flesh out ways to think different on the perspectives of games, but I strongly agree that you can not degree yourself a game developer.

There are so many skills in game development that no 1 direction really helps, and when it comes to design you are talking about the most nebulas but still intensive job. But I will tell you right now, I have yet to have a job where all I do is think of ideas all day as a game designer. I think if you want to focus on being a game designer that it's more of a transitive process that still comes with having a combined core skill like Art, Coding, Writing,Organization Management, or mixtures of all of the above.

The best degree you can spend your time on, if you want to be a game designer, is one of those core skills while you spend time teaching yourself and learning from peers.

I like that Academia tries to help codify some general terms like "player agency." I think that as long as we don't allow this codification to be used as law but as a way to easier communicate, this is of a great benefit to game design as a whole. Since it can sometimes take more time than necessary to try to communicate to other designers due to vernacular barrier. I think where academia will fall short is games are not theoretical devices. They are not formulas that you can pattern out, whatever design doc you make will almost certainly change when you go to implementation. Which I would bet most any one who has been in development can agree with. Technically speaking, designers write theory documents all the time. But how they execute it with the limitations they have is really in the end what is important.

Joseph Elliott
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Bingo! This is a great way of looking at it.

"I think where academia will fall short is games are not theoretical devices. They are not formulas that you can pattern out, whatever design doc you make will almost certainly change when you go to implementation."

But isn't this true of many artistic mediums? There will always be a divide between theory and execution. You don't become a great film maker without knowing some film theory, but no matter what you put on paper, everything can change once you get to set, or to the editing room. Games are much the same. Theory can help inform vision and technique, but creating art is a wild, unpredictable beast. There's no one way of doing anything, but discussing the merits and effects of certain practices can be hugely beneficial.

Brian Tsukerman
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I managed to catch your talk at Indiecade while on break from volunteering, and truth be told was curious why you avoided using the term "player agency" even as you described it. Having read this, I now understand that this was done in order to make the talk more accessible, which I honestly think was the right move.

As for formal education vs. working independently, I believe video games face the same issues as most creative fields such as writing, animation, and film, in that the degree you receive on it's own is functionally useless. Rather, it's your portfolio, network and dedication that matter most, none of which necessarily require academic degrees.

As for academia creating a "formalized language," I would argue that this is rooted in game culture as a whole rather than in academia, as our terms change and warp through use by consumers, marketers, reviewers, and developers. As a result, we tend to have multiple terms to describe the same idea (take "immersion" in this case) even as we come up with new ones to add perspective to existing concepts.

Matthew Downey
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(Deleted.)

Jacob Crane
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Great read, I think there are valid aspects of Academia that can help flesh out ways to think different on the perspectives of games, but I strongly agree that you can not degree yourself a game developer.

There are so many skills in game development that no 1 direction really helps, and when it comes to design you are talking about the most nebulas but still intensive job. But I will tell you right now, I have yet to have a job where all I do is think of ideas all day as a game designer. I think if you want to focus on being a game designer that it's more of a transitive process that still comes with having a combined core skill like Art, Coding, Writing,Organization Management, or mixtures of all of the above.

The best degree you can spend your time on, if you want to be a game designer, is one of those core skills while you spend time teaching yourself and learning from peers.

I like that Academia tries to help codify some general terms like "player agency." I think that as long as we don't allow this codification to be used as law but as a way to easier communicate, this is of a great benefit to game design as a whole. Since it can sometimes take more time than necessary to try to communicate to other designers due to vernacular barrier. I think where academia will fall short is games are not theoretical devices. They are not formulas that you can pattern out, whatever design doc you make will almost certainly change when you go to implementation. Which I would bet most any one who has been in development can agree with. Technically speaking, designers write theory documents all the time. But how they execute it with the limitations they have is really in the end what is important.

Dave Mark
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Rest assured that the same prickly divide exists in the AI realms too. Academic AI often likes to think that all advancement will come through them and that they exist to (one day) save industry's proverbial bacon. Industry AI people look at academics and ask, "you really don't get it, do you?" There is good to both sides of the aisle -- but the attitude that only one side is "enlightened" is pretty shallow.

Nicholas Heathfield
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In theory, theory and practise are the same thing.
In practise they are not.

My experience with academic ludology (such as it is) would indicate that the field is woefully under-equipped for the reality, especially since games exist on a crossroad between art, psychology and computer science. In academia, it still hasn't really been decided what game narrative really is.

The most useful academic findings for games that I ever found were in the Demographic Game Design model (Chris Bateman, 2005). If you read all of that - a very large book - you'll learn something very simple, that different people like different sorts of games because of their personality.

Far more useful was the completely non-academic "A Theory of Fun for Game Design" (Raph Koster, 2004). Read that - a very easy book to read - and you'll learn more about game design than any academic source can really teach you.

Case in point: for my University dissertation I really wanted to write about how "The Hero's Journey" can be applied to game mechanics rather than a conventional prose. But there wasn't enough academia behind it so I gave up on that. This was over a year ago. Then Journey came out and everyone realised, "oh my gosh! The Hero's Journey can apply to game mechanics too!"

Because the people making it knew it before academia is even allowed to think about it.

John Lange
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The hero's journey is the basis of many games, from the obvious such as JRPGs where the story and play both match it, to games such as Metroid and Zelda where you must complete trials to attain powers and then return as a different person to your original home. The Metroidvania genre is basically the embodiment of the monomyth in gaming form.

What I think may be a more interesting discussion on monomyth in gaming is having it mixed with player agency. Such as, what journey of discovery does the player himself go through vs. the journey the character goes through. Can you have a game provide the player with a Hero's Journey? You could argue that games like Super Meat Boy or N+ do this, by giving you all of your abilities immediately and rely on the player to improve to be able to continue.

Gal Kfir
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This was a very good read.
I myself have opened an indie game studio and I come from a country where the subject of game design & development isn't taught.

I do believe education is important but from my experience with people who have studied the subject abroad, the difference appears to be in the approach to the game design\development.
I do feel that some universities and colleges teach the subject better then others. Still the video games industry is very young. The medium re-tunes itself almost every year; with new technologies and new gaming experiences that are presented through experimental, and usually, indie game design.

I thinks its hard to build a solid education system on something that is in constant fluctuation. Work ethics can be taught but the theory of game design can be taken in many different directions. Every game is different, even if it's in the same genre. and yet every development bumps into it's own unique obstacles and dilemmas.

I truly believe that the most important issue to be taught in game development is team work. I have met such talented and professionally taught individuals that can be impossible to work with.
Game development is a massive cluster of pressure and people combined, I think that is one of the key aspects that should be taught before anything else. Hopefully that could change the perspective of educated individuals on the "punk" demographic of game designers like myself.

We need to work together to push our medium forward, to cooperate and deliver new and fantastic experiences. It will be a shame to waste our effort on Ego.

Thank you Rami.
Good read!

Rami Ismail
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Thanks, Gal!

Shay Pierce
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I just recently blogged about my current obsession, which is understanding the game-design ecosystem through Scott McCloud's lens of "4 Tribes of Artists":
http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/ShayPierce/20130221/187115/Game_De
signers_and_the_Four_Tribes_of_Artists.php

I think this article fits in in an interesting way... Academics are generally formalists who analyze the medium, break it apart, and test its boundaries: Ian Bogost is a pure Formalist. I wonder whether you'd consider yourself more of an Iconoclast (someone motivated by making games that talk about things that are personal and which no one usually talks about) or an Animist (someone motivated by making as much cool stuff as possible, and communicating it to the player as quickly and simply as possible).

Of course these categories are ultimately insufficient. It's just a need of my Formalist side to analyze people and put them into boxes. :)

Mostly I like thinking this way because it reminds me that this creative space is an ecosystem with very, very different creatures living in it. The formalists have something to learn from the other schools and vice-versa.

BTW, this "ecosystem" perspective makes the case of your game Ridiculous Fishing being cloned particularly offensive to me in this respect - aggressively cloning an innovator's game is bad for the whole ecosystem in the long run... that innovator will fail and "die", and stop adding innovations to the ecosystem... and this is ultimately bad for everyone (especially the cloners since they'll soon have nothing left to clone)!


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