Sunday 19 May 2013

Quizzical Play #3: Gamecamp 2013

Last year I went to Gamecamp. This year I went again. But this time, I ran my own session, delivering a twelve-minute speech on my ideas about 'quizzical play' to a bunch of people who were kind enough to come and listen. Here is a recording of that talk, as well as my notes, from which I read almost verbatim.

You can listen to the talk on Soundcloud hereYou can also listen to the follow-up discussion here. Some parts of it basically summarise or replicates stuff I have already written about Dishonored and Art Game. Below is the full text of my notes, which I have tried to sprinkle through with links to the things I'm talking about. But it might be more fun to listen to the talk; I think so, anyway.

Flaws in the speech: I go very fast. I didn't think it through for very long; it's kind of just a lot of stuff I reckon which I dashed off on the train on the way to the conference, so there may be some flaws in its reasoning. I also frequently say things like "of course we all know" or "we've all seen" when in fact 'we' do not all know or have not all seen. Nevertheless, I hope you enjoy it, or at least that it provokes some interesting ideas!


Hello everyone, I’m John Brindle, I run a piddly little blog at and if you care that much about it you can ask me to repeat that address after this session.

So how this is going to work is I’m going to give a little talk for which I have given myself a strict deadline of five minutes, which will introduce the topic, and then we’re all going to just talk in a freeform sort of way.

So…I’m here to talk about quizzical play. But what do I mean by that? Quizzical play is play that sort of refuses or complicates the ostensible goals of the game. Quizzical play is players taking the game and saying, okay, I see that I’m supposed to do this, but I WANT to do THIS. And ‘this’ may be some kind of performance, or it may be completely perverse, way against the rules of the game.

That’s a bit vague and wishy-washy but I’m going to give you some examples and hopefully you’ll see what I mean. And once I’m done this whole notion is up for debate and complication and chopping bits off.

So here are some examples of quizzical play which is perverse, if you will, or against the game.

  • 1. Counter-play. This is where you deliberately play counter to what the game is telling you to do or what the game implies you must do maybe as an act of protest or maybe as an act of critical ‘deformance’ where you’re just seeing what happens if you do x. You've maybe seen that video where the guy is playing CoDBLOPS and he’s not shooting anyone. He is playing against the game, trying to prove that the game is crap – it’s a critical act. We might also point to that playthrough of SimCity, where the guy makes a utopia according to the game’s efficiency evaluation systems and it’s a fucking hellhole according to our own. Like, there are billions of people living in tiny tower blocks, it’s like a prison. And this is where you can see that maybe we have to be cautious about the concept of quizzical play because SimCity is already a game which deliberately affords opportunities for fiction and creativity. We might say its systems exist for the purpose of allowing you to feel like you run a city and be surprised by that city.
  • 2. Performance. Like, when I’m playing Half-Life for the 9th time, I’m in the test chamber – it blows up, and I make Gordon Freeman do this little leap of surprise backwards, like AH! Who knew THAT would happen? And maybe that’s kind of sad, but I do that because I value the fiction of the game EVEN THOUGH I ALREADY KNOW THE FICTION. It is not surprise; I am performing
  • 3. Roleplaying. This is even more intense. I roleplay in World of Warcraft and I’ve done that for six years now. To roleplay in World of Warcraft you basically have to ignore a lot of the systems which the game gives you. So the game lets you duel members of your own factions, but you don’t like the duel system, you don’t think it’s ‘realistic’ or poetic or whatever, so you say, actually, we’re going to fight this out with EMOTES. I’m going to say “/me slashes at you with a sword” and you’re going to say “/me blocks the sword with her axe.” There’s loads of stuff like that; in fact some of the events I’ve organised are so far from game reality that they completely ignore the game. I have organised an event where we were doing a long trek through the mountains. And the world of Warcraft is not actually very big. So we literally, our characters stood still, in one place, while we emoted about walking, and everyone kind of narrated their inner thoughts in a thematically overlapping monologue, and then I’d say “We reach camp” and everyone walks forward a bit.
  • 4. Speedrunning. Speedrunners are like the opposite of roleplayers. They take the ostensible goal of a game – get to the end as efficiently as possible – and they fucking run wild with it. They take it far more seriously than most developers ever intended. And this urge, this obsessive quest, actually reveals to them things about the fabric and structure of the game that nobody else knew, that not even the developers knew. They find the glitches. They find the clipping bugs. They find the shortcuts. They actually completely demolish what we think are the rules of the game, they get close, so close, to its actual material that they can feel it and they know just where its gaps and holes are.

Now I must stress, quizzical play is not necessarily oppositional. It’s just something players do. Some games actually encourage it. So here are some examples of games which seem built for quizzical play.

  • Dishonored and Thief. The wide range of options and emergent outcomes available to us in immersive sims would seem to get us closer to a holodeck world where players can spontaneously do whatever they want and the game response. But a lot of the time people take those beautifully deep opportunities and modify the game with their own ruleset to perform their own values. Some people play Dishonored in only stealth mode, some people in only action mode, some people refuse to reload unless they die…and meanwhile, in Thief, we have the practice of ghosting, which is taking either the fiction or the challenge of the game – depending on the values of the ghost - so seriously you attempt to not ever be seen ever ever ever EVER. And Dishonored recognised and supported it and has an achievement for it.
  • Art Game by Pippin Barr. This is a game where you are an artist and you have to create art for an exhibition. You do this by playing classic games – it’s Tetris, Snake, and Spacewar. When you lose, your playthrough becomes your artwork – so for example the shape of your snake at the point where you died becomes a weird modernist painting, the shape of your Tetrises becomes a structure. So you quickly find that what it used to mean to win is completely irrelevant because you’re just trying to create a cool artwork. And what this SEEMS to be doing is proposing an argument about how games can be art, because it is, in the mode of ‘notgames’ and the Proteus-style attempt to get away from winning, liberating these classic game mechanics from optimality, freeing them up as an expressive medium. But in fact what’s happening instead is that it is allowing or even forcing the player to define their own win conditions and then optimise towards them. You can spend hours trying to get something exactly right, or you can see what happens – it’s a game which basically demands the player define what winning means to her, and the actually bother about winning to greater and lesser extents. 
  • RAT CHAOS by J. Chastain. Rat Chaos is a Twine game which is really funny and just won an xyzzy award for best NPC; there’s a really depressed, thoughtful rat you can be a good listener for. Most of the game makes very little sense. Early on, if you take a particular path, then everything floods – completely arbitrarily, there’s no warning – and you die. But then the game says “A bunch of water fairies came along and turned you into a water fairy! YOU GOT THE GOOD ENDING!” And this is so absurd we can’t take it at face value, we have to say, okay, what are we really interested in getting out of this game? And we explore it or maybe we express with it or we do what we like with it.
  • Amnesia: The Dark Descent. If you really really get down deep into the rules of Amnesia you find it’s a kind of easy game. Okay, so, spoiler, the respawning system makes it very low stakes. I won’t go further with that. What I will say is that the game is so scared of you figuring that out that it has a warning at the beginning which literally asks you: “PLEASE don’t try and play to win.” Which is funny, right? Personally it makes me want to obey because I feel sorry for it. Your mileage may vary. I know my sister Jimmy was like “Fuck you! I’m playing this to win!” She’s Amnesia MLG pro. 
  • Starseed Pilgrim. In a funny kind of way the near complete lack of context and feedback in Starseed Pilgrim forces you to play quizzically. It’s empty, it’s confusing, it’s mysterious, so you just explore. You try what you like. If you want to win the game it’s literally just because you want to see what happens, you need answers. [I actually skipped this in the talk itself because I was worried about time, but I ended up returning to it during the discussion! - J.B.]

So immediately there are a few takeaways from the existence of this phenomenon:
  • Developers don’t control games. They can’t.
  • Players are not ‘immersed’ (though we knew that already) – they are critical and creative ‘unplayers’ as often as they are uncritical passengers.

But it also demands we ask what it means to play perversely in the first place. Before we say that someone is playing perversely we have to quantify what it would mean to play ‘properly’, and how the hell do we do that? We can propose a simple opposition between playing to reach the end of the game, and being ‘playful’, or having your own goals. But I don’t find that satisfactory. Because games have multiple endings and I don’t just mean the good end or the bad end – you can die, or, in some games, get stuck and not be able to get any further.

I think what this shows us is that a lot of what we assume about the structure of a given game is necessarily a fiction. In his great book Half-Real Jesper Juul said games were rules dressed in fictions. He meant to distinguish the two. But what if rules are always dressed in fictions, and what if we never touch their naked flesh? Indeed, what if rules are themselves fictions? A rule is semiotic, understood in natural language, consumed, understood, and enforced by human beings. Conversely, videogame code is non-voluntary and usually entirely inaccessible to the person playing the game. In fact the position of videogame code is analogous to the position in sport of what we call the laws of physics – which are not rules, but just things, which we describe in terms of fictions we call rules.

So maybe games don’t have rules at all – maybe they have physics, which we grope to understand as rules – and this is radical because one can do with physics precisely whatever it is possible to do with physics, and not simply what either the player or the developer assumes or intends is possible. Players can be completely wrong about the rules, too; they can be six years old and play the game for years, happily messing around without realising that you were ‘supposed’ to walk through that door over there. So we talk about gameplay, and graphics, and haptics, but maybe we need to talk about HEURISTICS – which are the partially prefabricated schemes we gamers hold in our heads to UNDERSTAND and INTERPRET what we see. You say that one of the implicit rules of Zelda: OOT is that you cannot walk through walls? (Except those trick walls in the Shadow Temple, obviously). “Ha!” says the speedrunner, suddenly sounding like the Queen of the Borg. “How pathetically limited your horizons are…” You only thought that was a rule due to process of induction the unmistakable semiotics of a visual representation of a solid surface.

This is not to devalue rules and code because they create the physics of the world we players move in. They also dictate what is possible in the phase space and valence different kinds of play as easier or more difficult. That encodes values too. But it does call into question the whole idea that ‘winning’ is something intrinsically embedded in the structure of the game. That can be the case with rules, because the rules literally say ‘a player wins when…’ Not so with game physics.

To clarify, there are positions in the phase space which have no way out, or which lie at the apex or end of a structure. There are also positions in the phase space which are the hardest to get to. But neither of those things guarantee that it counts as a ‘win’. There are easter eggs, funny deaths, difficult deaths, getting stuck, or strategy games and sandbox games that just carry on when you get the victory popup. These are formal positions too – differently contextualised. So we can say the difficulty or valence of getting to different positions in the phase space implies th ings about them. But ‘winning’? That comes from context, assumption, and aesthetics. It comes from a pop-up or a representation of value. We see this literally in RAT CHAOS, where the early ending is this absurd win condition, which means nothing!

So maybe players are never playing to win. Or rather they are sometimes to win, but they’re trying to win  - on this physical substrate – in accordance with their own rules. Sometimes these rules are their own, and sometimes they are constructed in alignment with the goals the developers have laid out and attempted to stimulate. The developers have also designed the kind of physics they think will inspire the wins they want people to try for. And often players are happy to go along with what the game suggests they should value and be interested in. We already have a self-selection operating there because players tend to buy or give time to the games they are interested in playing.

[SLOW DOWN] Okay. So. In a moment I’m going to say, okay, let’s talk about this! What are some great examples of quizzical play and some games that demand it, and what can we do, once we get our critical claws into this great big rule of yarn?

But first, let’s review. There is a thing called quizzical play. Quizzical play is doing things which are possible in the game but are not optimal. And yet quizzical play seems to reveal that optimality is more complex than we think. And if this is all true, and videogames are physics we make up rules about, then ALL play is quizzical play, or is in some way infected with quizzical play, because everyone playing to win is constantly interpreting and imagining the rules of the game, with ALL the biases that entails - and often they are flecking their play with expressive, emotional, or critical touches. Even the most obsessive optimiser, the mad minmaxer of SimCity, is choosing their own values and making their own system with which to exploit this new, this beautiful, this unseen and mysterious flesh. Thanks for listening.

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