Zinesters vs the World

I’ve been reading some Anna Anthropy and a “zinesters vs. formalists” and “what is a game?” stuff about her work and Proteus and Dear Esther, etc. etc. and decided to try to articulate my thoughts on it.

I had a post earlier where I linked to a list of criteriological types for analyzing games. I’ll repeat them here:

  1. game affordances
  2. space
  3. graphical qualities
  4. sounds
  5. challenge to manual skill
  6. cognitive challenge

Nobody who has thought this through or has ever played a text adventure is going to make graphics and sounds a crucial part of the definition of a game.

When Ralph Koster said dys4ia was something that could be made in Powerpoint, I think he was focusing on criteria 1, 5 and 6. In an unrelated post he said, Narrative is not a game mechanic he says “The core of a game is a problem to solve.” A problem to solve is synonymous with a challenge to overcome. Whether it’s a manual or cognitive challenge, he sees the challenge of a game as central to what makes a game a game.

Anna Anthropy in responding to this said:

by his definition, a game is a puzzle to be unraveled. it is a system to be understood. an enemy to be defeated. a country to be conquered. but DYSPHORIA is none of those things. what it IS, i need to believe, is a relatable human experience. and what a game actually is is A GAME IS AN EXPERIENCE CREATED BY RULES”

If you haven’t played dys4ia, go play it. I’m inclined to side with Anna on this one. I’m not entirely unsympathetic to Koster’s criteria. In his Narrative article he applies this not to small personal games, but to big-budget games like Batman: Arkham City. It’s kind of the equivalent of an early film enthusiast arguing that just filming a stage play isn’t cinematic if you aren’t making use of anything that is unique to film.

But I’d argue that Anna did use elements unique to games. I’ll use one example from dys4ia to show what I mean. In Level 3 – Hormonal Bullshit, you can navigate sensitive nipples through a maze of pointy objects. Whether you succeed or fail, the game continues to the next scene. (I guess Koster would require the maze navigation be a problem the player must solve in order for it to qualify as a game.) Then in Level 4 – It Gets Better, the game returns to the same scenario, but the nipples smash their way through, showing they are no longer so sensitive.

By repeating the same scene with changed mechanics, Anthropy uses the mechanics in an expressive way. Or to put it in her terms, a change in rules leads the player to experience the change in sensitivity.

In Ian Bogost’s Persuasive Games, he calls this procedural rhetoric, and it isn’t something you get from a Powerpoint presentation.

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