Recess! 13 – Game Design as a Nihilistic Endeavour

I have a current shtick that says that game designers harbour no illusions about human reality. Designing and testing a game on people reveal the murky depths of human nature in a way few other pursuits do. Take even the simplest game with the possibility of deception and it will often devolve into the horrible treatment of one player for the advantage of another.

I’ve been enjoying reading Venkatesh Rao’s ‘The Gervais Principle’ a lot. Because I think it also sheds a lot of light on the human condition. He just published the final installment ‘Children of an Absent God’ and I was more than pleasantly surprised to read a lot of game design thinking in it and quite a bit of speculative realism as well.

Take this passage which calls game design a power literacy:

So the process of ripping away masks of social reality and getting behind them ultimately turns into a routine skill for the Sociopath: game design. Once you do it a few times, it becomes second nature, a sort of basic power literacy. An understanding of the processes by which the fictions of social reality are constructed, and growing skill at wrangling those processes.

I don’t know if I’ve read that definition of game design before (and I’ve read quite a few): ‘an understanding of the processes by which the fictions of social reality are constructed and […] skill at wrangling those processes.’ The interesting differentiator I think then is whether the participants in those social realities are willing or unwilling ones.

After that there follows a de-centering of the uniqueness of human experience which is very similar to what we’ve been reading in new materialism and Object-Oriented Ontology:

Social realities exist as a hierarchy of increasingly sophisticated and specialized fictions for those predisposed to believe that there is something special about the human condition, which sets our realities apart from the rest of the universe.

It is nice to see the philosophy I have been reading for the past year being operationalized into a thinking that can be applied to personal power dynamics. But to tie back into Kars’s statement of assumptions, here’s one:

Game design is an endeavour that from nihilism creates something of meaning.

Recess! 7 – Game Gluttony

Dear Niels and Kars,

This week I bought Ultratron and played that a bit. It looks like a solid 2D shooter like I haven’t played in ages. Before that I played bunches of Ridiculous Fishing and Spelunky which Darius Kazemi has kindly translated into HTML5 for us non-Windows users. And that’s only this week. I’m playing so many games right now. The amount of new games being released is also huge. Truly we live in a ludic age.

How different this is from back in the day when I would spend days grinding levels and gold in Final Fantasy on the NES or map out the dungeons of Faria. There simply wasn’t that much to play back then so we made do with what we had. I hear there are still people with such singular dedication to a game, but I can’t imagine it.

How different it is even from my tastes of a couple of years ago where I would play the occasional game but also see over 60 movies a year and a couple of dozen plays. That has changed and not just because of my move to Berlin.

Good games are not only abundant these days, they are cheaper than passive media1, easier to get and more engaging. Things that are not interactive have a terribly hard time getting and keeping my attention unless they’re very good or very short. Some stupid people would bemoan the change of our media consumption patterns and imagine that we are losing something essential. I don’t agree. I think we are better off with these more systemically complex and often also more social experiences.

So games replace previous media only once for each person and after they’ve done that they replace each other. I play many games briefly but intensively and then never again (Plague for instance) or sometimes I never manage to get into them at all (I played all of 30 minutes of Swords and Sworcercy). And then new games arrive and it turns out to be hard to get back into the swing, let alone the story of a game you played a week ago. Nothing seems to stick.

Making digital games that we can play over the course of years seems hard. Purely digital forms are too easy to forget and often limited in many ways. Long lasting games need to create widespread alliances in both the physical and the social world so we will keep re-encountering them in different contexts. Minecraft, Joust and Angry Birds come to mind off-hand. That suggests that cracking this question is the way to becoming successful, or is it the other way around?


  1. A cinema ticket is somewhere between €10-15 and theater can be double that for only 1-2 hours of entertainment.