Dealing with Ambiguity

23 Mar

In my very first lecture as an undergraduate the lecturer, curse his rotten soul, asked us a seemingly trivial question- “So, what is fun?’. As ludologists the world over shivered in horror, I began the process of trying to answer that question. Seven years later I’m still not there, but the very act of pondering has given me some insights that I’d like to share.

The first thing that should be acknowledged is that fun is an ambiguous concept. It is certainly not alone when it comes to the field of games and play: In fact, both the terms game and play are highly ambiguous themselves, enough so that when Brian Sutton-Smith wrote a career capping masterwork on play, he didn’t call it ‘the wonder of play‘ or ‘the importance of play‘, or even ‘the oddness of play‘. He called it ‘the ambiguity of play‘. Throughout my studies I don’t think I’ve come across someone more suited to attempting to define play and games and if he chooses to define them by their ambiguity, I feel that deserves intense consideration.

As a more practical type, interested in hands-on design challenges and establishing good practice in that regard, this ambiguity is a real sunnavabitch to deal with. Almost every other field of design is dealing with quite simple, unambiguous tasks. Houses need to provide shelter and durability, Chairs need to provide comfort and a pleasant aesthetic, tools need to be practical and efficient. Of course there are many more subtle nuances and complexities to these design tasks, but those same nuances are common across all fields of design, so a game designer has to cope with them as well. We also, however, have to cope with not knowing the basics of what we are trying to achieve. Comfort, durability, efficiency. These are not very difficult to predictively design for. Fun is.

This is made even more demonic by the fact that, despite the fact nobody knows what fun, games or play are, everybody knows what fun, games and play are. Everybody. You can take a three year old out to the park, point at people doing things and say ‘is that fun?’ and you’d hear absolute certainty in the response. This particular ambiguity has been the subject of much groaning amongst scholars trying to deal with it. Some of these baffled exclamations are, however, insightful. My choice picks are:

The most irritating feature of play is not the perceptual incoherence, as such, but rather, that play taunts us with its inaccessibility. We feel that something is behind it all, but we do not know, or have forgotten how to see it.”

-Robert Fagen

“Play is one of those constructs that is obvious on a tacit level, but extremely difficult to articulate in concrete terms”

-Loyd Reiber 

This is one of the reasons I like to advocate game designers doing deeper reading into play studies, by the way, because play scholars inadvertently say the most wonderfully interesting things for us games people. Funny that.

Anyway, both these statements are just as true of ‘game’ and ‘fun’ as they are of ‘play’. This particular observation spawned an intellectual digression at the time into Kuhnian paradigm theory. The property of ‘tacit obviousness’, the idea that we somehow just know that all these things are games, or fun, despite not sharing one set of readily observable common properties, is something that many proto-fields suffer during the pre-paradigm and crisis phase of development. Another common property is the attempt to refine a whole bunch of things we now see as linked into separate schools or fields based on massive evidence gathering at a very shallow level- imagine if biology was broken into ‘horseology’ and ‘dogology’ and ‘bearology’, etc. This is not to say that these specilialisations are not rather valuable, we must of course understand the particular inner workings of ponies, puppies and pandas. But to think oneself a biologist when one is in fact a horseologist is… problematic (In the world of the paradigm, one is first taught fundamentals, then specifics. In the time of crisis, one first learns the specifics, then- if lucky- the fundamentals. A paradigm horseologist will be a biologist first, horseologist second. A crisis or pre-paradigm horseologist will be a horseologist first and discover what will later be called biology if they are lucky). I am often irrevocably reminded of this when I see the latest discussion on the nature of immersion or fun based on a new release in (insert game genre here).

Historically, escape from this crisis state has been some really, really smart person coming up with something that seems stupidly simple, but only once you already understand it. See- natural selection, classical physics, the atomic theory, the theory of relativity and so on. While I won’t assert a similar thing will happen around games and play, it’s interesting to note the similarities. Doing so has altered how I deal with the ambiguity of what I work with.

The main change has been to relax my desire to see these terms quickly defined and put to bed, because in a Kuhnian crisis scenario that leads to many problems- namely fragmentation, arbitrary specialisation and blindness to fundamentals as noted above. Like Sutton-Smith, I am for the moment content to accept the ambiguity of these concepts and in doing so, remain very careful about how I apply them generally. Echoing Chris Crawford’s view on fun, it is terminology so broadly used that it cannot be re-appropriated to be a strong design construct. Equally, neither play nor game are valuable concepts for a game designer because their general use and ambiguity is so pronounced that any attempt to reign them in will, instead of being insightful, merely limit the scope of your investigations. This has pretty much been going on since forever, even the granddaddy of all ludology, Huizinga himself, was a culprit. He was rightly taken to task by Caillois for failing to even mention the most concretely influential field of games on earth- games of chance. Caillois, in turn, arbitrarily ignored deep play and so on. It’s basically a story of dominoes, only with definitions.

The other thing I do to cope is to be incredibly self critical. When I think ‘games should be like this’ or ‘this would be a great system’, I force myself to really crack down those operative words. What do I mean by games in this precise instance? What is the measure of great? By ensuring I internally establish precisely what I’m thinking about without loaded and ambiguous terminology, I’m not only more able to ensure that I’m not making some hideously misguided assumptions, but it forces me to clearly see things in the most fundamental terms, which is fruitful ground for making connections to things which might not immediately be obvious and may one day allow me to introduce Jesse Schell to the Mendeleev he’s been waiting for. Every day is a new discovery, because every day I find something that I had taken for granted which is actually built on mist and alchemy when you dig down far enough.

This may sound like a lot of work for the joy of uncertainty but really it has helped me improve my ability to understand and design, with no small hint of ironic emphasis, games. Just because you don’t quite know what you’re doing, doesn’t mean it can’t be amazing. Ask Miyamoto.

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Posted by on March 23, 2013 in Games Theory, Quick Reads


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