Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Bogost Deconstructed

Ian Bogost speaking to user experience designers at the UX Design Conference, 2013, in San Francisco:
"This is the worst of the lot, this word [fun] and it's what I want to talk to you about today, because fun, after all, is the feature that is supposedly endemic to games and its the one that designers like yourselves sometimes want to extract from games and apply to websites and apps and whatever else.  You know, make it fun.  In the world of game design, 'fun' is taken as a given.  It rules as an assessment of artistic quality.  A game has to be fun, we say.  And in fact that sentiment, that statement, is one that could easily be made by an adolescent boy on an internet forum or by a Nintendo CEO in a keynote before twenty thousand game developers at our annual conference that takes place right across town.  And if fun just indicates that a product is sort of any good, then I guess it's a reasonable sentiment but it's also a kind of mercilessly vacant one."

I can hardly express my gratification at finding that my own arguments and positions are supported by a professor at Georgia Tech, who admittedly is considerably less volatile than me.  But, of course, when he speaks, he's respected as knowing something about what he's saying.
"The unexamined weirdness of these terms seems to go under discussed.  And it was actually best summarized, the weirdness of concepts like 'fun' and 'game,' was most effectively summarized by one of the most well-known twentieth century philosophers of play: Mary Poppins."

Bogost then deconstructs the song near the beginning of Mary Poppins, "A Spoonful of Sugar," for about four minutes and I won't reproduce it here.  Basically, the question he asks, in design terms, how the principle of the song, that a job can be made a game, can actually work:
"At first blush it seems like just terrific advice ~ but just try to follow it . . . if an element of fun is hidden in every job, then how do you find it?  Where do you look?  By what process beyond this sort of supernatural 'snap' does the job become a game?  A spoonful of sugar offers a kind of entertaining pointer to something that we already know, which is that things are more enjoyable when they're not less enjoyable.  A job seems like more fun if it's more fun, so make your jobs fun so that they'll be fun.
"And incidentally, and I'm not going to talk much about this, but this is also the kind of logic of a trend known as gamification: games are fun so let's add games to things that are miserable . . . and it's kind of shame on us for falling for this; it's the same as Mary Poppins' snake oil, that we're just to dupe people who don't know any better into doing our bidding."

Because Bogost doesn't, since he's talking largely to a room that will have bumped into this philosophy, largely expounded by business concerns who think that any human activity can be pumped into a business environment in order to provide motivation for people who are being deliberately underpaid, I'll say a word or two more about gamification.

The most obvious failing of the gamification argument is that "games are fun."  In fact, some games are fun; the same games are never fun for everyone; in fact, all games are ultimately despised by someone.  More than this, games that are fun for a lot of people are extraordinarily rare, spectacularly difficult to create and usually rely upon a principle that says nothing of human importance is riding on the outcome.

Gamification completely ignores all of these facts.  Gamification designers stubbornly argue that all games are fun, for everyone; that no one who is a good person can possibly dislike a game they are forced to play; that great games can be invented by anyone for any situation; and that my job, my income, my dignity or my enthusiasm won't or can't possibly matter once the game is presented.  What we get are twenty miserable people at a gamification event, grinding their faces into evidence of appearing to have fun, while gamification divisors, supervisors and enablers congratulate themselves for a moment of fantastic success!


"But I think part of this problem, the fundamentals of this problem, come from the word 'fun' itself.  It's a word that we use indiscriminately, without knowing what we're actually saying . . . when someone asks, 'Did you have fun?' it's mostly a courtesy: "Yeah, yeah, we had a good time.
"In common parlance it kind of suggests like, 'How are you?' 'I'm fine' ~ that you know everything went okay.  There's nothing we need to report on further; but weirdly, as an aesthetic assessment, it sort of works similarly.  So when you say, 'Oh this is a really fun game,' it's sort of like saying this is a good book. It was a good movie. It's a generic, slightly positive but basically empty sentiment that does little more than kind of endorse the speaker's unexamined, imprecise feelings."

I'll pause a moment for that word, "Unexamined."  Straight up, on this blog, I've been struggling to examine precisely how this "fun" is manufactured: and running head-on into a community that argues that fun is obtained by either: a) protecting the notion of fun from any examination, because examination, words, argument, investigation and so on are all horrible boring and therefore can only serve to ruin fun; or b) believing in the fun to such a degree as to argue that fun exists when people will it to exist, that thoughts create fun reality, that this is the only way to make fun, etcetera, etcetera.  In other words, make your campaigns fun and they'll be fun.

"[this empty sentiment] may do even less than that for games, because other media don't tend to enforce a sort of single, meaningless, almost immeasurable metric for aesthetic value.  I mean, what critic or creator or consumer, even, would take an art seriously if its aesthetic ambition was something as vague as being "good."  This kind of clown town, right?

And there it is, right in your face.  He's speaking about video games, but since there's much less money to be made in RPGs, it's doubly true.  Participants of role-playing are not taken seriously because they insist on measuring themselves in the most meaningless way possible.  Moreover, there's no way to improve the game if there's no way to measure how it works.

"If we want to be more generous, we might say that fun is a surrogate for some more complex, yet unspoken sensation of gratification and satisfaction, rather than as a description for that satisfaction ~ and that standard could be replaced by any number of varied emotions.  It's sort of like a pigeon.  Fun is a way of translating actions into emotions, but we never fully complete the translation.  And I think that's also why designers like you folks are maybe slightly mistaken to be interested in games on account of their ability to deliver fun, or engagement or whatever the hell it is that you think that we deliver.  Or at least your interest in games maybe slightly misplaced.  The thing that you might think is a kind of black magic of engagement or enjoyment, turns out maybe just to be the kind of ordinary practice that only seems exotic when it's unfamiliar.  There's a kind of Orientalism in any interest in games among the design community and asking how you can harness fun in your design practice, it might be a bit like asking how you can harness umami in your design practices?  It's just a mixed metaphor.  It doesn't quite make sense.
"But the weird thing is that fun turns out to be unfamiliar like this not just in the design context, but kind of in every context. No one has any idea what they're really saying when they talk about something as being 'fun.' In fact, even the origin of this word is sort of murky; we can't trace it back philologically and gain much ground.  It seems to be uniquely English, which is interesting ~ and there's a middle-English word 'fonnen' which is related to the fool: you know, to be a fool, to make a fool of, and that's our meaning that we sometimes use, "Don't poke fun at me" ~ but it's far less common than the usual sense of amusement or enjoyment that we've adopted today."

My etymology dictionary says that prior to 1727, fun is

"a cheat, trick" (c. 1700), from verb fun (1680s) "to cheat, hoax," which is of uncertain origin, probably a variant of Middle English fonnen "befool" (c. 1400; see fond). Scantly recorded in 18c. and stigmatized by Johnson as "a low cant word." Older senses are preserved in phrase to make fun of (1737) and funny money "counterfeit bills" (1938, though this use of the word may be more for the sake of the rhyme).

Picking up with Bogost again, following his dissection of fun as a term, followed by a longer dissection of fools and fooling, leading him to this point:
"The fool finds something new in a situation and then shares it with us. So think about it.  A friend returns from an evening out; 'How was your night?' you ask.  'Fun, we had a good time,' she reports.  What does she really mean?  Even with the same friends at the same bar, with the same hot wings and the same complaints about the same co-workers, the evening resulted in some new discovery . . . so we had a fun time is a kind of compressed shorthand.  It's a way of telling a story without telling it.
"This is where Mary Poppins leads us astray.  The spoonful of sugar covers over something, it tries to hide it, it tries to turn it into a lie.  It assumes that the situation itself is always insufficient.  It is never capable of holding up to scrutiny; that we've already figured out everything there is to determine about it and that thing is negative. It's wanting.  And that singsong job works in a movie but actually if you face a challenge like this in real life, a big messy room or a long boring flight or whatever it is, then the song and dance number just becomes an affectation.  It's just an adornment.
"Then we feel guilty about that ~ and we feel guilty because we were weaned on children's stories like Mary Poppins that taught us that meaning comes from outside a situation, from what we make of it, that has to sort of arise from ourselves, that we have to manufacture it. Otherwise we're ungrateful or lazy or something."

I'm sorry, I'm only going to repeat Bogost's point, now, sermonizing it for those in the audience who can't understand how this applies to the stuff we read as children when we began role-playing or how the game itself began in the hands of people who set out to market an incredibly complex idea in the space of three or four little books.  We were told that we had to fill in the gaps, that we had to do the 'work,' that we shouldn't expect the creators to manage all the problems and situations that we were going to face, because it was our responsibility.

And when we failed in that responsibility, as was inevitable, as every would-be DM fails, even those who don't believe they have, running toxic nightmares as they strut their abilities, we feel ungrateful if we disparage the game or we feel that DMs who ask for more from the source are lazy and misunderstanding of their responsibilities.  When Gygax, poorly as it turned out, tried to account for more possibilities with more rules, today he is mocked and derided for trying; and when the modern creators of D&D 5e make claims about how they've simplified the rules and streamlined the game, they subtly and knowingly disregard the millions upon millions of pages describing precedents for DM decision-making and gaming ideas and protocol and previously existing rules systems, that a desperate DM can turn to when 5e falls flat on its face.  But the creators of 5e aren't responsible for acknowledging that resource, the DM is responsible for turning to it, though the creators of 5e can certainly trade on it.

The readers' sense of D&D being really, really hard comes about because we were obscurely led to believe that role-playing could be easily managed by ten and twelve year olds without much effort ~ and when we faced that effort, and failed, we knew it had to be ourselves that failed.  And this has, in turn, left us with a legacy of people claiming they haven't failed, the game just needs to be simpler, easier, less complicated, less beneficial or adaptable to the player, while yet retaining its fun no matter how many legs we hack from the corpse.

"And this [guilt] is not just a problem for children, actually.  In their book, All Things Shining, the philosophers Bert Dreyfuss and Sean Kelly talk about this exact same issue, in the context of the depression and madness of our secular age.  They argue that meaning today has to come from within, because we've forgotten about God, right?  So we can't just choose the arbitrariness of theology, and that this demand to make something holy from scratch, by sheer force of will, is slowly eating away at us.  It's driving us insane.  David Foster Wallace becomes the sort of martyr for this cause in the end of Dreyfuss and Kelly's book.
 "So along with Mary Poppins, we assume that finding the fun is a task that comes from us rather than from the thing itself ~ and we just have to encourage or support that activity, that we have to bring something to the table that makes intolerable things tolerable, or we have to somehow cover over those things so as to make the intolerable things tolerable."

The reader can look at any number of the endless arguments going on about role-playing, that were there ten years ago and twenty years ago, and see that argument being made again and again, where the writer says, "You're not getting what you're supposed to be doing to make this game better," then refuses to give us any real information.  We're told to believe, or just accept, or trust that it's going to happen if we embrace it, without ever actually being told what "it" is.

I am backing off from the fight because I'm abused for arguing that there's "one true way" to play D&D; but as near as I can tell, I am one of a very small cadre of individuals who are willing to talk about any way to play D&D ~ because we are deconstructing the game and trying to empower the participant with tools, knowledge, comprehension and resources that they can use in real time.  We're not just saying, "The game is fun for those willing to open themselves up to the game being fun."  We're saying, "Work; build; prepare yourself; stop taking short cuts; admit errors; ask your players for feedback and ready yourself to change your precepts."  And for that we're told we're being inflexible.

"But what if it's wrong; what if it's just the opposite?  What if we arrived at fun not through expanding the circumstances that we're in, in order to make them less wretched, but actually by embracing the wretchedness of the circumstances themselves ~ and this will feel very counter-intuitive to you.  What if, in a literal way, fun comes from impoverishment?  From wretchedness?
"The Philosopher Bernard Suits argues that, 'Playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.'  A game is something that's good enough on its own.  Something for which on its own-ness is precisely the point.  As Suits calls this willingness to accept the arbitrariness of a game, the illusory attitude; we have to adopt this illusory attitude and accept the thing for what it is.  So golf would be worse than a good walk ruined were it a Broadway song-and-dance number about dropping balls in holes, maybe ~ but when we really play golf, if we reject it as insufficient, then we're missing the point.  We're missing the point of golf.  The point is that golf is meant to be annoying and unsatisfactory and that's why we like it."

And I covered that point with my last post.

"And there's something deeply abhorrent about games, something kind of revolting ~ but then out of that revulsion comes sublimity.  Occasionally.  And it's not just true for games.  When you operate a mechanism, like a steering wheel, we sometimes talk about the 'play' that's built into that system, and has a space through which the steering wheel can be turned before the shaft couples with and turns the pinion at its end, or you can find this elsewhere, too.  The play of light, the play of the waves, a play on words ~ and the game designers Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman have adopted this sense of play in their formal definition of the concept, which is one that I like a lot; free movement within a more rigid structure."

Oh, jaw dropping.  What I would have done to be able to put it that simply ten years ago. This is the basis for all my arguments about setting and player agency; and for why all fudging and all DM fiat is bullshit.  Good and proper play happens not when the car's steering randomly changes to make the process of driving a car more interesting, but when the car is utterly reliable and the driver learns exactly how much it takes to adjust the wheel at 90 mph (144 kmh) to fly past the startled faces of the old people driving their crumbling 1978 Gremlin.  Do you like it when your car does something weird?  Why should we imagine that a DM's random and irrational judgements would make a better gaming field to play on?  Are the best surfing beaches full of rocks because it increases the randomness?

As players, we want to control things; more importantly, we want to believe in that illusory attitude that they can be controlled, even if that is nigh impossible.  For that, we have to be able to interpret the landscape; we don't make a golf course better by random blasting.  We make it better by cutting the grass every morning to exact, measured specifications, so that when someone plays this hole a year from now it is the same hole they are playing today.  That's the bloody point.

Now ask yourself, with this in mind: why doesn't alignment work?

"So when designing a game, the question is not how to make it taste sweet, but what sort of structure it ought to be.  What sort of structure it can be?  What sort of structure it wants to be.  And then when we are playing a game, the question we ask is not how to overcome that structure, not how to reject it and make it something its not, but what it feels like to subject ourselves to it.  To take it seriously.  To really play golf for what it is.
"Play turns out not to be an act of diversion, but the work of working a system, of working with it, of interacting with the bits of logic that make it up.  And 'fun' is not the effect, it's not the enjoyment that's released by that interaction, but its a kind of nickname for the feeling of operating it, particularly of operating it in a way we haven't done before or haven't seen before.  That lets us discover something in it that was always there, but that we didn't notice or that we overlooked, or that we found before and now we're finding again.
"And the colloquial senses of game or play or fun would hold that those activities normally involve going outside the boundaries of normal behavior, of doing whatever we want, right?  That's usually what we think of when we play.  Don't play with your food.  This is why designers I think are so interested in taking advantage of fun, and why they are mistaken in thinking that fun relates to pleasure or to reward, when it's really just the opposite."

This is not the whole of the speech, which I strongly recommend the reader now go and watch (the link is right at the top of the post.  What I've copied has done two things for me.  First, it has absolutely vidicated every argument I've ever made on this blog about what needs to be done in making a game.  I will remind some of my readers that my opening chapter in How to Run about worldbuilding began with structure, function and behavior; that is what Bogost is talking about here.  I grant that was a difficult chapter; we're not steeped in what those terms mean, even as we pretend we know what we're doing when we design games.  'Fun' isn't a structure, it isn't a function, it isn't even a behavior, not as those words are defined.  It isn't anything.  We need to stop talking about it in terms of fundamental purpose and design.

The second thing it has done, hopefully, is to shine a clearer light on the matter of what are you doing when you run your campaign; and with regard to your behavior ~ your actions and the manner in which you interact with the game setting ~ in campaigns where you are a player.  We just haven't got a solid, clear, rational notion of what this role-playing concept is: because we refuse to believe, as a community, that it follows the same laws and principles of other games, other human activities, other structures and other principles of design.

If you want your game to get better, you have to stop thinking like that.  Because the sciences of design, user experience, interactive mechanics and so on have LOTS to teach you, solid stuff, real stuff, that will work and won't depend on you reaching inside yourself for the answers.  The answers already exist; they've just been applied to other things that work just like role-playing works.


  1. I have a friend, Ryan, who studies the topic of play, from a literary-theory and videogames perspective, and who is currently in the works to publish the core of his thesis in an academic journal. Ryan is an active proponent of Bogost's work, among that of others.

    I think the two of you could have a good conversation on the kind of topic you are writing about here. I've told him about you and he's read some of your blog, and he may even want to cite your blog in some future work. Would you like me to send an email introducing you two?

  2. I saw this gamification hype at college (computer science graduation) and sometimes I think I see its shadow lurking where I work (a 'progressive' big company). Luckly, I always had colleagues skeptical about this.

    My joy comes when my customers says thanks and the wage is paid my account not in doing my job. My job is boring, tiresome and stressfull and I want it that way.

    Many thanks for posting this. Now I have the proper weapons to kill this monsters if it ever appears in the Random Encounters of my workplace hex. :D

  3. After I have read some of his works, I can't help but think that Ian Bogost severely underplays the role of the players in his take on meaning in games.. The first chapter in his book "Persuasive Games" concludes that the potential for meaning lies entirely within the object of the game (that is, the rules and procedures), treating the player simply as an activator who then tries to comprehend the rhetoric of the procedures in the game. One of the professors at the university that I'm attending wrote a paper in response to that, which i find interesting:

    The short version of the argument he makes is that Bogost devalues the influence the player has on the meaning within the game, and the value of play itself as a vehicle of meaning. as he writes in the introduction, "as much as it [procedurality] has contributed to further our understanding of games, it has also fostered a way of researching and designing games that deprives them of the richness, pleasures and challenges that players bring to the game".

    I think you would enjoy the paper. It asks some interesting questions.


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