Ed. Note: This is the first installment of a four-part series discussing the philosophy of game design and how we define what makes a game “good.” The series will continue in issue #274 of The Escapist Magazine.

If you’ve ever said that a videogame was “bad” for any reason – FarmVille is evil, StarCraft 2 is nothing new, VVVVVV is too hard, Braid is pretentious, Dwarf Fortress is inaccessible, Dead or Alive is sexist – in the performance of your royal duties as Grand Arbiter of Good Taste, then you also have to define and articulate what is a “good” game for us simple-minded folk.

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So, what makes a “good” game? Well, it all depends on whether you believe in absolute truth. (No, really!)

For purposes of simplification, I will ignore all traditions of ancient philosophy that took place outside of Greece. Instead, we’ll just look at the two figures largely recognized as the roots of Western philosophy today – Aristotle and Plato.

Aristotle argued for a type of pluralism, where the purpose of a society was to ensure its individual citizens flourished (and by citizens, he meant only the small portion of Greek society that was the educated male land-owning military and gentry – sorry, women and slaves, no flourishing for you!) and such a person flourishes when he has reached a state of personal excellence or “eudaimonia.”

Many people wrongly translate eudaimonia as happiness, but it is more than that – there’s an aspect of self-actualization, the sense that you’ve finally achieved something. Surely, you deserve that feeling of achievement because you earned it.

So, an Aristotelian philosophy of game design would presume the existence of a “citizen” – the hardcore gamer. Under this account, the game should chiefly cater to this “best of the best,” allowing these players to excel, perhaps at the price of accessibility for every other type of player.

“Everyone else” isn’t worth considering because if they’re not capable of beating the boss at the end, then how can they possibly feel the accomplishment of surmounting a challenge? It’s not in their nature; they’re incapable of feeling real achievement. “Watering down the difficulty” would only weaken the sense of triumph for the gifted individuals that can meet the challenge – that is, games must definitely be difficult.

Such a design philosophy was very popular in the 8-bit era with incredibly difficult and unforgiving platformers like Mega Man and Contra, games that rewarded players who demonstrated uncanny coordination and reflexes.

More recently, this attitude toward design has enjoyed a return of sorts, with the rebirth of the platformer genre in the indie games scene through games like Flywrench, Streemerz and VVVVVV, as well as a new sub-genre dubbed “masocore” that delights in constant and sudden failure – or you can also consider the surprising popularity of Demon’s Souls as an example of this resurgence, a sort of neo-Aristotelian view of game design. These types of neo-Aristotelian games aren’t “classically Aristotelian” because they don’t harshly penalize the player for failure, often respawning them on the same screen if they die along with a healthy supply of infinite lives – unlike a game like Mega Man that forces a complete level restart upon running out of lives. Yet, these games still value difficulty and player reflex, despite such small gestures toward accessibility.

Indeed, relatively very few people will ever beat the “Veni, Vidi, Vici” sequence in VVVVVV, despite its relatively forgiving nature – but those who do progress past it will have reached a transcendent state of platforming prowess. In this respect, these types of games are “player-centric” because the engaging nature of the game originates from the player’s will and skill to win.

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And so, the Aristotelian tradition: Good players make good games.

But there are several philosophical problems with this type of design, which is part of the reason why there are relatively few games designed strictly in this tradition today.

Specifically, Plato would’ve called bullshit on it.

Imagine your hopelessly incompetent co-worker Ted tried to play Mega Man, with his sweaty hands permanently staining your precious vintage NES controller. (He can’t even beat Top Man! What a disgrace.) You scream bloody murder when he tosses the now-greasy controller across the room in frustration. Would Ted agree that Mega Man is a good game?

Maybe not. But is Mega Man still good? Well, yeah, of course it is! Ted just sucks at it!

Now, imagine the entire world was populated solely by Teds. None of them agree that Mega Man is good – yet it’s still the same game, it’s still good! The personal (unskilled) experience of these Teds has corrupted the purity of Mega Man; that is, Mega Man remains eternally good, independent of the crappy players who can’t even beat the Top Man stage. They’re just too simple-minded and poorly endowed to see its greatness.

Thus, Plato argued for an account of absolute truth. People lie, misinterpret and get tricked all the time – do you really think that personal experience is reliable? Ted might be awful at Mega Man, but you happen to be terrible at first person shooters and can’t “get into” them despite Ted’s constant prodding. Your inability to play Halo without foolishly running into walls and spinning around in circles does not diminish its innovation and impact on the entire game industry.

And so, the “goodness” of a game must exist outside of the player.

Plato argues that the execution of justice is up to a select few of philosopher kings acting independently of the citizens, for they are the only ones who can use reason and logic to transcend the personal experience of players and to show us what a good game is. Who are these philosopher kings, pray tell?

The answer: game developers.

Plato would argue that Mega Man is good because Capcom made it, or because of the specific influence of certain “philosopher-developers” at Capcom. Mega Man‘s “goodness” has nothing to do with players – because, as we just established, players all have different tastes, skill levels and experiences. It is impossible to formulate any reliable amount of knowledge upon such shaky ground.

Thus, as a sort of counterpoint to the Aristotelian tradition, a Platonic design philosophy is developer-centric and argues that: Good developers make good games.

This core dichotomy of player-centrism vs. developer-centrism is, I argue, the basis of all subsequent game design philosophies – or, at least, a convenient way of grouping and organizing these philosophies.

Today, most developers and players (including me) are moderates and believe in the importance of both player-centrism and developer-centrism. It may seem incredibly obvious that a good game design should follow some sort of “golden mean” or “middle way” that balances developer insight with player feedback, as well as difficulty with accessibility and commercial potential with artistic merit. How can anyone possibly think differently?

Games should be good. Duh.

Indeed, all this philosophizing might seem pointless when confronted by that simple truism. But let’s recall the history of thought in videogame design (or at least, recall it in the way I’ve packaged it) – the very notions of “player accessibility” and “artistic merit” in games are both relatively recent. In fact, they barely existed in the 16-bit era, much less the 8-bit era. What seems obvious now is actually the result of a long, gradual shift in thinking.

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Even now, our “golden mean” of game design is still shifting as new developers and new player audiences emerge. Our notion of a “good game” is slowly moving somewhere … But where? Over the course of this series, I will try to address that question.

Are games getting more “political,” and if so, are these considered to be “good games” by our standard? If Electronic Arts insists on the Taliban being a playable faction in the newest Medal of Honor, is that in good taste or is it a publicity stunt or is it “just a game” so it shouldn’t be taken seriously? What, if any, is the golden mean between highly political games about current events and totally non-political games?

Are “art games” a legitimate genre or a pretentious annoyance with no future – or is the very label redundant if we’re to argue that all games are intrinsically artistic anyway? Yet Tale of Tales declares that “games are not art” and argues for a radical new genre of interactive art that rejects the importance of rules, goals and mechanics. What, if any, is the golden mean between these “notgames” and games?

Should we be ghettoizing games like FarmVille as “social games,” as “shallow” games rejected by many hardcore gamers – or, as Warren Spector argued in his keynote for PAX 2010, is the very notion of the hardcore gamer creating an artificial barrier between new players of videogames and the “old guard” of 18-34-year-old males who argue over consoles, subscribe to PC Gamer and know who Hideo Kojima is? What, if any, is the golden mean between “social games” and so-called “regular games?”

These are not the only three different directions that people are pulling videogames – there are, no doubt, many more. None of them offer easy answers but all of them present unique philosophies and frustrating debates.

But that frustration is good, because that will begin the conversation.

If we want to make newer, “better” games – if we want videogames to mature further as an artistic medium, capable of defending its own existence and asking the hard questions – then we need to analyze our current presumptions and their validity, and this series of articles is a start. To avoid asking these questions is intellectually lazy.

And your parents didn’t raise you to be lazy.

Robert Yang’s series on the Philosophy of Game Design continues next week in issue 274 of The Escapist Magazine.

Robert Yang is currently an MFA student studying “Design and Technology” at Parsons, The New School for Design. If he’s famous for anything, it’s probably for his artsy-fartsy Half-Life 2 mod series “Radiator” that’s still (slowly) being worked on.

Question of the Day, September 28, 2010

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