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Philosophy of Game Design - Part Four

Robert Yang | 19 Oct 2010 12:06
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It's the end of the line. We went from Aristotle and Plato to empiricism with David Hume to Marxist aesthetics with Theodor Adorno. It's been a haphazard, horribly incomplete survey across several different branches of Western philosophy. Some would say it was rambling - and to them, I would counter that all who wander are not lost.

But now our philosophical wandering is more or less ending here, with our discussion of more experimental, emerging game design practices. There aren't any more large sweeping fields of philosophy left to generalize, save for one.

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Postmodernism is generally an umbrella term that encompasses several different philosophies: deconstructionism, post-structuralism, post-post-deconstructralism ... okay, I made up that last one. But the operative word here is "structure" - such games are generally trying to interact with the form of a game itself or the underlying structure, chopping up rulesets and mechanics and criticizing them. These kinds of games are neither roller coasters nor playgrounds; they're big messy interventions.

Games like You Have to Burn the Rope or pOnd exist as somewhat cynical attacks on the modernist program of games we've been discussing previously in the series, targeting "accessibility" and "artistic value" respectively. Here, a good game critiques popular design practice, often through satire, parody, or humor.

You Have to Burn the Rope gives explicit directions on how to beat the game - such as the instruction in the title itself - which runs counter to the genre convention of boss fights in platformers, where a player must carefully observe a boss to identify weaknesses and conceptualize a moving / firing solution. In doing so, this game argues that if we are willing to make such games easier, why not do away with any and all meaningful concept of difficulty? Well, for one thing, the result is absurd. (Meanwhile, pOnd is best played without knowing anything more about it. To analyze it would destroy it.)

These games promote deep knowledge of genre traditions in mainstream videogames and they're asking us to be more critical of them. They're the games that designers make in order to remain in dialogue with one another.

That's where our traditional philosophizing ends, with the postmodern games that analyze the form of a game itself.

Why? Well, part of the reason is that philosophy itself is even more uncertain of what it is today. No other discipline in the world is so intent on its own destruction. "Philosophy is dead" will often be the central idea of half the papers at any given conference. Thus, my past practice of pigeon-holing game design practices into philosophical movements is no longer tenable.

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