Here’s a critical analysis of Costikyan’s article. This is not in support of whether or not Cost of Living is a toy, or a game, or literature. Instead, I seek to highlight the difficulty of answering the question, “What is a game?”. (Most of my retorts are silly, but they stand, nevertheless.)
Critical Analysis (Caution: Copious snark ahead! Please do not take anything too seriously!)
What makes a thing into a game is the need to make decisions.
Is ordering a meal in a restaurant a game? “The menu is tightly constrained, the ingredients clear, and satisfaction requires you to think about several considerations, like quantity and quality, and price.”
But the game is not intrinsic in the toy; it is a set of player-defined objectives overlaid on the toy
And what exactly are these “player-defined” objectives? And how are they “overlaid on the toy”? I talk about this after this analysis.
But SimCity itself has no victory conditions, no objectives; it is a software toy.
The objective of Cost of Living is to have an audience use their own abductive reasoning to either accept, reject, or learn from the abductive reasoning in the metaleptic conversational interstitials. However, this objective is not disclosed to an audience. So, do we move the goal by claiming that all objectives must be visible?
SimCity is a game – at least when a user plays it as a game
This is basically a tautology, right? Anything is a game if you make it a game. Frankly, most of Costikyan’s arguments feel like tautologies.
“Cooperative games” generally seem to be variants of “let’s all throw a ball around.” Oh, golly. What fun. I’ll stop blowing deathmatch opponents into gibs for that, you betcha.
It seems that being a jerk is a common trait among us designers, huh?
So – why don’t they just get rid of the puzzles? Why not just make it an interactive story? […] But never mind that; without the puzzles, it’s no longer a game. […] The puzzles, and the struggle involved in solving them, is what makes Grim Fandango a game.
Earlier, Costikyan states that a puzzle is not game. But here, if a work contains a puzzle (or sequence of puzzles) then that work is a game? How?
Life is the struggle for survival and growth. There is no end to strife, not this side of the grave. A game without struggle is a game that’s dead.
Is life a game?
Making something difficult makes it more enjoyable? That’s not how we view everyday life […] But it is absolutely true of games. We want games to challenge us.
I want life to challenge me. But I suppose a sample size of 1 (i.e. Costikyan himself) is adequate proof of evidence for his assertion.
Cookie Clicker is a commercially successful incremental game that had no struggle, which also spawned it’s own industry of mobile games referred to as “incremental or idle games”.
They aren’t any fun if they’re too simple, too easy, if we zip through them and get to the endscreen without being challenged.
Costikyan is correct, but only because he is implicitly referring to his target audience. The problem is that this statement reads like it applies to all of humanity across all time. I bet the rise commercially lucrative idle games are still a surprise to Costikyan.
As a result, Ultima Online is, under most circumstances, a Hobbesian war of all against all, the game filled with a palpable fear as people flee from one another, trying to avoid potentially deadly encounters. In EverQuest, by contrast, players frequently stop to help each other out, strike up conversations with random passers-by and in general behave with a degree of social solidarity. Clearly, I prefer the latter.
Didn’t Costikyan just pooh-pooh cooperative games? But here he claims to prefers cooperative games?
The structure of the story, however, creates a single, unchanging narrative that the reader cannot alter. Narrative structure is one dimensional, because you can follow only a single path through a story.
Barthes’ The Death of the Author challenges this statement five decades ago, and reader-response criticism is still around. I bet the rise of our post-truth world is still a surprise to Costikyan. (For me, our “post-truth” world is more evidence that narration-based agency is a viable alternative to story-based agency.)
But a game shapes player behavior; it does not determine it.
Exactly! With a game, the player expects to produce the solution in the context-problem-solution model. I’ll return to this soon in this reply.
But economists do assume that people behave rationally, by and large.
But also, this economic assumption is strictly in the mathematical sense. This assumption of rationality is akin to banning a division by zero in algebra; allowing division by zero invalidates all of algebra (because then anything can equal anything); likewise, accepting irrational actors invalidates many classical economic theories. Economists know that people are (psychologically) irrational. For instance, a person can intend to be rational while still acting irrational. This shows that psychological “rationality” is subjective. This reason, and many other examples of psychological rationality, is why economists just assume this matter away from their mathematical economic models.
It helps, in other words, to think of a game’s structure as akin to an economy, or an ecosystem; a complex, interacting system that does not dictate outcomes but guides behavior through the need to achieve a single goal: energy, in the case of ecosystems; money, in the case of economics; victory, in the case of a game.
There are more goals to a game than victory, right? The author belittles on one MMORPG for allowing PKs, then lauds another MMORPG for banning PKs, which the author claims this promotes “prosocial, moral” behavior. Well, “community” is another goal of playing games (perhaps the ultimate goal?). Also, none of those systems are alike! Costikyan is committing what economist Friedrich Hayek accused other economists of doing, “it involves a mechanical and uncritical application of habits of thought to fields different from those in which they have been formed”. In other words, everything can be anything with some oversimplification.
If I took this article’s section at face-value, and I believed that all of these structures’ components are interchangeable, then I can just put all of my energy into designing the “happy path” (i.e., game structure) because I can assume my players are rational (i.e., economic structure). Can you image the state of IF with this design philosophy? But, again, economic “rationality” is an assumption to simplify mathematical economic models (economic structure), and it is not a psychological assumption of players (game structure).
(I have the feeling that the only editing and peer-review of this article happened when they accepted Costikyan’s membership into their club: “Congrats on making it through the gate. Now you’re welcome to do whatever. Run free, you wild child!”)
Indeed, if I had my way, a solid grounding in economics would be required of anyone seeking to learn about game design.
Gee, I wonder why he moved on to be a consultant…
Nonetheless, its real-world value exists only in the context of EverQuest; if […] EverQuest servers shut down, my notional possession of a Bloodforge hammer will immediately cease to have meaning – and no one will be willing to pay money for it.
Costikyan stated a serious interest in economics. Then states that money has “real-world” value? Doesn’t his “endogenous” argument also apply to monetary systems? We already know that a system’s endogenous value does not transfer across systems; this is intuitively obvious to everyone, right? And monetary systems are a terrible example to use, because they are not a “real-world” system. Weather patterns are a “real-world” system; monetary systems are “social reality”. What happens when a country defaults on a loan from the IMF? What should I do with all of my Italian lira? Why can’t I spend Greybacks in the USA?
Games are fantasy. I don’t mean that all games are about orcs and elves and magic spells, although far too many are; I mean that they ain’t real. The fact that they aren’t real is part of the point.
So CTE in contact sports (e.g., boxing, USA football) is fantasy? What about the endogenous value of these players? Or their exogenous value (e.g., sponsorships)? In this section, the author is trying to provide a counter-example to test this “theory”, but all he’s really doing is cherry picking his way to inconsistency.
Games do the same. “Bloodforge hammer” has no meaning, except in the context of EverQuest.
What about the concept of “checkmate” from the game Chess? Isn’t this a counter-example of endogenous meaning from a game that also has exogenous meaning in the “real-world”? The endogenous and exogenous meanings are the same with checkmate — out of moves, game over!
Achieving a kill in a Quake deathmatch will do nothing for you in the real world, but may elicit glee or satisfaction when you’re playing the game.
Dennis Fong “achieving a kill in Quake” literally earned himself John Carmack’s own red Ferrari 328 GTS convertible in 1997 (five years before publishing this article)! I bet the rise of pro gaming leagues are still a surprise to Costikyan.
At last we have a functional definition of “game”: an interactive structure of endogenous meaning that requires players to struggle toward a goal.
Cost of Living = Game?
- interactive structure = text I/O
- endogenous meaning = affective labels (emotionally-valenced words)
- player = audience
- struggle = affective concepts (emotionally-valenced empathy/sympathy)
- goal = abductive reasoning
A question almost immediately arises: If “the game” is a subset of “interactive entertainment,” what forms of interactive entertainment are excluded by our definition? My answer: None. Or none worth the powder to blow them to hell, anyway.
Cost of Living = Game?
Cost of Living = interactive
Cost of Living = entertainment
A site that provides articles for you to read, or video clips to watch, or music to download is indeed providing entertainment – but it does not allow you to interact with the entertainment in any meaningful sense.
What if that site provides a social community (e.g., comment section)? Is that site now a game because it’s “interactive entertainment”? I bet the rise of YouTube is still a surprise to Costikyan.
It could be unstructured. But I have a hard time to imagine a completely freeform, unstructured form of entertainment, unless it be simple conversation – and certainly people find online chat entertaining.
I bet the rise of social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter) is still a surprise to Costikyan.
But merely because I find something entertaining does not mean that it is entertainment
This is an argument about audience interpretation versus authorial intention. This argument is about as fruitful as “parser versus choice” on the intfiction forums.
Entertainment is a side effect, not the purpose.
Where does this side effect come from? The subjective opinion of an audience, right? So if a work is objectively “interactive” and subjectively provides “entertainment”, then it’s a game to that audience? Then why isn’t a puzzle a game? If an audience considers a puzzle as entertainment, then that puzzle is “interactive entertainment” and, by Costikyan’s extension (game ⊂ interactive entertainment), that puzzle is also a game? To me, this contradiction unravels this whole article.
Only if the meaning has direct, one to one connection with the real world is it not “endogenous” – as is the case with history, or the stock market. And if the meaning is directly connected to the real world, you have something of practical value; not an entertainment form
So checkmate (a.k.a. out of moves, game over!) only has practical value? The goal of Chess (i.e., checkmate) is not entertainment, it’s just practicality? What’s practical about Chess? Is Chess even a game?
Perhaps our non-game “interactive entertainment” can eschew struggle? This is feasible […] Or perhaps we can have “interactive entertainment” without a goal? Again, in principle you can.
This is a consequence of an article that’s cobbled together from cherry picking arguments. First, Costikyan uses economic “rational actors”, which is a mathematical concept of economics. Second, Costikyan states that “games” are a subset of “interactive entertainment”. Does he mean subset in the mathematical sense? Since he previously uses a mathematical economic concept in the first point, I’m reasonable to assume that in the second point that subset is the mathematical concept, right? Well, subset also means equality, unless it’s a proper subset. But since the author seems to be cherry picking whatever suits his own intuitions (economically rational versus psychologically rational, layman’s subset versus mathematical subset), the article is ambiguous and thus self-contradictory.
The search for “interactive entertainment” that isn’t games is motivated by repugnance for games – those cheap, gaudy, violent, unpleasant, degraded pop-culture entertainments for ill-read, ill-mannered little boy brats. It’s a search by those who wish to achieve something “higher” and of greater merit and value than can possibly be achieved among such a puerile and repulsive form as “the game.” In short, the search for non-game interactive entertainment is wrongheaded, inspired by a failure to apprehend games and a foolish, reflexive response to what they represent, in our culture, at this point in time.
This article is not a case for a critical vocabulary in games. Instead, this article is a (thinly-veiled) reaction to the vigorous game censorship discussions that were happening at the time. This article was first published in 1994 around the time that the US Senate hearings on video games were occuring and when the ESRB formed.
Any form of “interactive entertainment” that isn’t a game must be noninteractive; or not entertainment; or pointless. […] Interactive entertainment means games.
Again, what about puzzles? A web-based crossword puzzle is interactive, is entertainment, and has a point. But it’s still not a game?
Creating sensory pleasure is important, and when you design, it’s worth thinking about how you will do so. But it’s a supporting factor, not the essence of design.
I bet the rise of Apple products is still a surprise to Costikyan.
I don’t think chess would benefit from a beginning cut scene explaining about how the game is a war between two brothers.
Quick, someone cover @aschultz eyes so he doesn’t read this!
And when designing, you need to identify what it is that players are going to find challenging about your game, and why that challenge will be compelling.
The challenge for the audience in Cost of Living was to find a reason to empathize and sympathize with the awful decisions that Carrin makes in his life. The stateful portions of Cost of Living were meant to explore and support this challenge. And this challenge is compelling because when we ourselves make awful decisions in our lives, don’t we want someone to empathize and sympathize with us?
But actually, [game design] is among the most difficult creative disciplines, precisely because we’re creating structures that people are going to use in every possible way, and use in ways we cannot anticipate.
But the game designer is a rational person, right? So, it’s fair to assume that this rational game designer would address all rational possibilities in a game before publishing that game, right? Then why can’t this game designer address a player’s “use in ways we cannot anticipate”? If a rational game designer cannot anticipate a player’s use of their game, does this mean that that player is irrational? Or is this game designer irrational because that player thought of a rational move that this game designer did not anticipate?
Games are an artform unlike any other, because the product is not passively received, it is not something specified to the last splotch of paint and every comma.
My theory of stateful and stateless media shows that “passively received” is ambiguous, at best. A stateless book changes the state of a stateful audience (this is the storyteller’s intention, at least). If a phenomenon causes a state change, it’s unintuitive for me to label that as “passively received”. If anything, I would use the phrase “passively received” to label the phenomenon where an audience reads a book and that book does not cause a state change; for example, I “passively received” the message that Cost of Living wasn’t welcomed at ParserComp.
Game design is, therefore, the creative attempt to imagine, a priori, the kinds of experiences players will have with your game, and through that act of imagination, to create a structure to point them toward the kinds of experiences you’d like them to feel.
Doesn’t this describe good design principles in general, à la Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things? Doesn’t this describe my proxy-audience theory? If so, then how am I using game design to produce something that’s not a game?
Rather, a game, as it is played, is a collaboration between the developers and the players, a journey of mutual discovery, a democratic artform in which the shape of the game is created by the artist, but the experience of the game is created by the player.
How is this not the case with everything? How do I love a movie (or book, or building, or game, or clothes, or music, or vehicle, or, or, or…) but someone else hates it?