I don’t want to say I’m writing a design manifesto, because games already have so many as to render the purpose of writing yet another manifesto meaningless. But if I were to impart any wisdom I’ve developed in my experience designing games, it’s this:
Fuck the player.
I know how that sounds. It might take you aback and offend sensibilities. That’s fine. I don’t really care. But I ought to explain myself, candidly and clearly, so that I’m not misunderstood.
When I say, “Fuck the player,” and I’m referring to the individual actor who will be engaging with the game before them, I mean it in the way Mattie Brice means it. In “queer as in fuck me – a design manifesto”, she wrote,
“fuck the world: manipulating a person’s agency without consent isn’t fucking. fucking is calling and fucking is responding and not knowing who did which first. our first step as creators is admitting ignorance and creating prompts where we ourselves are encouraged to react and endlessly tumble into others. to create is to open up. to fuck is to see
((Provocation: Queerness in games would be inclusion of unacceptable failures, unexpected actions that do not fall in line with the system. Answer: Design experiences that encourages meaningful variance between players and folds in incidental aspects of individual experience.))”
Listen. When I put out an essay, a game, a poem, some bit of creative work, I’m inviting you to experience something with me. I’m asking you to let me work you over intellectually, creatively, emotionally. I’m asking you to accept a certain power dynamic—right now, I have the talking stick, the conch shell, and I am making a statement—and for you to just. fucking. listen.
I’m willing to forgive Brice writing a manifesto because what she’s saying is genuinely useful. She wants to fuck the world, and so is expanding this philosophy to a much, much broader scale of social change. I want that too, in almost all the same kinds of ways—I’m not as averse to designing games toward specific morals or experiences, for instance, but I agree with Brice on the whole about abandoning normative understandings in favour of queerer and more diversified forms and expressions. But, on a much more intimate level, I’m asking you, the reader, the player, the observer, to put your expectations aside. Put your assumptions aside. Have a dialogue with the hand of your creator that ghosts softly over your shoulder and directs your attention to ideas, to objects, bodies, spaces.
There’s a certain ideological strain in games—in their marketing, in their production, right down into their code—which posits that the player is the center of attention. All flows from the player’s will, their agency is paramount, and their accomplishments are the result of a force of will persevering against a hostile environment. The centralization of the player’s ego as the focal point is about as Medieval as sticking Jesus dead in the center of every painted fresco, so that you absolutely must be certain that, “Yes, that’s Jesus all right, and he’s extremely important”, but it’s also a posture that’s so emblematic of late capitalism, of the pretense of meritocracy. In his review of The Crew, Austin Walker now-famously wrote,
“The Crew is a prime example of the new power fantasy. If, as Rowan Kaiser has argued, the old fantasy was about having power, the new fantasy is about accumulating power. The old power fantasy was invincibility codes and infinite ammo. The new power fantasy is the feeling that you’ve earned your success by your hard work alone. This is the fantasy behind the guitar-riff that signifies that you’ve leveled up in Call of Duty multiplayer. It’s the fireworks and orchestral bombast of Peggle. It’s the steady return on investment in Fantasy Life. It is a power fantasy that reflects our time. We want to be reassured that our effort will pay off in the end, that progress is guaranteed, and that our achievements are fully our own. I’ve never seen this fantasy executed as perfectly, so seamlessly as in The Crew. This is Postcard America.”
Many thanks to Walker for citing so many salient examples but surely this accumulation of power, this power-fantasy-as-class-struggle, is common enough to be detectable in a sizeable swathe of retail videogames. Right from this I can confidently claim that yes, the player’s ego is flattered with a position of primacy, but that primacy is mediated within a system which idealizes accumulation—usually via a scaling skill challenge of some kind—as an objectivist moral good. One earns their rank and their success via struggle (usually in the form of some scaling skill challenge) and this is a sign of their value and a justification for ownership of virtual capital. But I don’t need to retread old ground too much, here.
To reject the idea that the player is central is to listen to the game, listen to its heartbeat. What is it telling you? Where is it leading you? Is it lying to you?
Is it telling you that as a buyer, as a customer, your concerns are paramount? Is it selling you on the idea that through it, you can be the strongest, the smartest and the fastest? Is it wasting your time? Is it distracting you? Is it convincing you that might makes right, that “voting with your dollar” is the height of activism, and that only the best survive? What is it trying to convince you of, exactly?
To appeal to another sense, the book of collected essays, Ways of Seeing, based on the BBC series written chiefly by art critic John Berger explains the relationship between the visual and ideological. The history of the oil painting, in its various modes and moves, has always been a visual record of capitalism. These essays describe the “spectator-owner”, who presumably bought these paintings, or had them commissioned, and then hung in his home. The spectator-owner needs to perceive in the visual plane an affirmation that he is god of all he surveys, and that both the facsimilar representation of things in the painting as well as the painting itself confirm his status. The painting is thus not a window into some other fantasy world, but a mirror reflecting the ego of the spectator—and rarely, in the centuries-long history of oil painting, is this problem overcome. The oil painting becomes a prestige object, often vapid, a vessel to comfort, entertain and distract. The capacity for the paint itself to render texture, solidity, materiality is, as the book explains, part of what made it the perfect medium through which to propagandize capitalist excess and class inequality. Oil painting is exceptionally good for representing stuff.
I’m being all too brief, but jumping to the final essay, we discover the relationship between the gaze of the spectator-owner and, now, the spectator-buyer. Oil painting’s logical end, the book argues, is in fact the modern publicity. Advertisements draw so much of their visual language from oil painting, and this isn’t by accident. Here, though, there’s a crucial difference. Instead of centering the visual plane on the gaze of an already-successful “owner”, this language speaks instead to someone who has yet to own. It can’t affirm, then. It has to demean and undermine, it has to feed on the insecurity of not having enough, of appealing to buying power as social worth. It has to suggest a lifestyle of ease, efficiency, luxury that possibly you don’t have, but crucially, you must believe you need and deserve.
The centralization of the player’s ego, as Walker discusses, is playing on the shifting positions of the owner and the buyer. Many games, then—quite probably almost every retail game I’ve played in the last 5 years or so—feed two competing anxieties to create the “new power fantasy.” Games are at once a product you own and should act as a material conduit through which your importance as the main driver of progress and action is reaffirmed. But, say, scaling difficulty for larger reward also increases the cost of play, asking the player to expend more time, skill and energy to keep proving their worth. Are you a bad enough dude to conquer the Americas?
This has a real world cost, too, since game content is often sold separately as DLC. It was more than a little frustrating, for example, to be able to see the DLC content in Doki Doki Universe but not be able to access it without paying an additional fee for new levels. I don’t begrudge the developers too harshly for this, because I understand the cost of doing business, but it’s a clear example in my mind of how games act simultaneously as product and publicity. They’re often presented both as a thing you can own and a thing to convince you to buy more things, and this tension translates to the centralized player as an equitable and meritocratic individualism in much the same way the spectator-buyer is convinced that voting with one’s dollar is a meaningful democratic act.
Listen, maybe you’re not the center of attention, here. Maybe it’s your attention that’s being reflected and directed. Maybe you’re not the true god or master of your virtual domain.
You can embrace this, first by demoting agency as the most important aspect of a play experience. Games with limited agency exist in abundance, and they ask you to accept the forfeiture of a certain degree of control in order to guide experience. There’s a dynamic at work, a relationship emerging, between the player and the game, an outward expression of a creator. A projection of their voice.
I know, I know, “the author is dead,” but that doesn’t mean that so are their ideas. Intent isn’t paramount, but it exists. I know that’s taboo in the post-reader-response world, but it’s true. Once you’ve demoted yourself, you free yourself up for listening. The game has the talking stick now, it’s trying to tell you something. And some games actually want you to pay attention. They beg you to, enthusiastically, get tangled up in their computery guts.
The author is dead, but the work is very much alive.
I don’t ask you to interpret only through the confines of authorial intent, because it’s a dead end anyway. It’s about as useful and enlightening as any other kind of conventional checkbox writing, and deprives the author of the capacity for being wrong. This is poisonous to art as a whole.
But the soundness of your interpretation will, without fail, derive from your active, consenting participation with the work. It teaches you how to touch it, how to move through it, how to play it. How to listen.
Do you want to feel like your accomplishments are really your own? Then converse with a game instead of trying to monopolize everything all the time. Then you can actually tell which part of the conversation is yours and which part of it belongs to someone else.
Give the artist the space to say, with confidence, “Yes, I intended to do this. Yes, I am trying to say something with this.” This came up for me plenty after I released .error404. I had people asking me if the glitches were intended, one after the other.
Yes, they were. Then this response heartened me:
Don’t deprive yourself of the capacity for being wrong. If you recognize it, you can grow. It isn’t just repeating actions until you do what the game wants, either. It isn’t just a rote memorization, or some instrumentalist strategy-builder to Get The Shiny Thing. Never just see yourself as a customer getting the most out of a product. This is a space for an experience to erupt, for a multiplicity of perspectives to shine through (or maybe just one you’ve never seen before.) Don’t simply make every play experience a vector through which your wants are gratuitously satisfied, but one through which needs are addressed. Yours, the game’s, the developer’s. What is the game saying to you? What is it asking of you? Do you accept this?
Are you listening?