Owning Games

Games are a fickle weird place, you know. There’s this well established, carved out region of information in copyright law that’s designed to be restrictive enough to curtail methodologies for trade secrets, but explicitly not restrictive enough for methodologies that you sell, or that people can naturally come up with on their own. This means we get to this super weird place with things like lawyers being left unable to basically do any work at all thanks to noncompete clauses, but being hired anyway to do no work because that noncompete clause threat is a useful tool and –

yes I’ve been watching Suits, but anyway.

Point is, games are hard to own. Proprietary systems you can own, and you can brand and trademark bits of them but it’s very hard to tell people that you exclusively own a system for laying tiles down on a board with letters on them. Straight up copying Scrabble is… legal. That’s why you can buy a bunch of scrabble variants that aren’t as nice, why Connect Four has a bunch of different names if you check the Reject Shop.

This is a little dismal as a creative – anyone in the world can take my work, do it better, and get lucky and succeed. The idea I might own my own material is a bit of a thing that somewhere along the line I internalised as a child, and it’s just not true when you work in games. You can copyright texts – rulebooks and game names and card information – but any system you see, well, shit, the way that system works? It’s fair game.

It’s funny, too, considering that there’s all these Youtubers dealing with one of the most choking fists of ownership on the other side of this paradigm, but anyway.

Games And Language: What The H*ck Is Paratext

Paratext, the term, comes from the work of Gérard Genette, a literary theorist from France. He’s contemporary to Roland Barthes, the person who coined the now-widespread term ‘death of the author.’ Genette is the indie band of mainstream literary theory, the one you namedrop to indicate you didn’t just get your academic study from channers screaming about the death of the author in threads about the sanctity of subtitles or something. The book of his you’ll want to namedrop here is Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation.

To define Paratext, first we need to define text. Text is basically, the stuff of the work. If the work is a story book, for example, the text is literally just the story from beginning to end plus all the illustrations involved. If it’s a comic book, it’s every panel, how they’re arranged, what is in them, what they say. If it’s an instruction manual, it’s again, the words that make up that set of instructions, all the illustrations explaining it. The text of a painting is, basically, just the painting itself, the image and how it expresses itself in the world. Text is, broadly speaking, easiest to nail down when you’re talking about books: The text is the stuff the author (or authors) made to tell you.

What about videogames,” you ask, well, that’s where things get muddier and where I think I disagree with some speakers on similar theories like Dan Olsen. But let’s save that for later.

When Genette coined the idea of paratext, he focused on books. Books, boy does Genette love books. Paratext, to him, was the threshold between the text and the not-text. Your lunch isn’t part of the text, very clearly, so that gap is easy to see – but the gap between the cover of the book and the text inside it, that’s not so obvious. The title of a book? Its table of contents? Publishers’ notes? The year it was published, as information? The weight of the book, the feel of it, the type of paper? These, Genette said, were its paratext, and they were the “a zone between text and off-text, a zone not only of transition but also of transaction: A privileged place of pragmatics and a strategy, of an influence on the public, an influence that… is at the service of a better reception for the text and a more pertinent reading of it.

Which sounds fancy, but we’ve had some years to work on it. Paratext, once the idea was established, became pretty important to how we recognise the ways in which people experience media. Genette, for example, with his loving focus on books, didn’t do a lot of good for the unsighted people in the world who have a much more limited experience of the paratext of books, but definitely have a stronger attenuation to audiobooks. So we worked on ‘paratext.’ The working definition I use is:

Paratext is media created as a requirement to experience a text

So, if we’re talking about an audiobook, the voice actor and the speaker quality and the freedom of movement it gives you while you listen is itself, part of the paratext of that book. If we’re talking about a painting, a surrounding gallery environment is part of its paratext – you need those things to experience that painting though if the painting’s location or form changed, so to could that environment.

And now we’re on to videogames.

I forward the idea that play is paratext. That is, the text of a game is the stuff that’s ‘stuck down,’ in the game, without a ludonarrative element; it’s the artwork, the models, the spaces designed, the construction and cinematography of cutscenes, the choices in editing and when and where the audience is given and loses control. That is text, but in order to experience any of that, you have to play it. You, a hypothetical you, a player, has to engage with the work and create a play experience in order to ‘see’ that text.

But then, that asks, doesn’t that make the play experience ‘not-text’? Well, sort of but also not really. It’s a threshold. Just as how the original structure of a game may work on the basic assumption you’re not going to stand still and wait for the timer to run out, there are assumptions of things that make the text a reasonable experience. You bring yourself to the table and you play, and you interpret, and in so doing, you create part of the game that’s there for the play experience.

This is part of why it’s so hard to analyse videogames in particular in terms of broad textual analysis, because a lot of people have it in their heads that there’s one singular model of how the game ‘should’ play, or two or three forking forms of it, without embracing the idea that part of the game is the player experiencing it. That competence and skill change the way a game feels, that pre-baked literacy or an absence of it changes what a game says. The ludic ballet of a speedrunner glitching around whole problems while perfectly evading random generated elements is as much the game as is the stilting steps of the first-time gamer learning how to aim and walk at the same time. What’s more, the idea of this paratextual element means we can look at things in terms of the general ways in which players tend to be pushed – we can view the play paratext in aggregate of experiences (the way lots of people create the paratext) or we can view each paratext as an individual interpretation that has potential to be interesting for consideration.

If we recognise play as paratext, we recognise ourselves as part of the creation of it. And that, that right there, is one of the most powerful things about games: Games let us create some of the text for ourselves.

By the way, Genette is still alive and I really, really hope he’s not reading this because he’s an old bloke and I doubt he gives two toots about videogames.

Accessibility Help: Voiceless?

I’m working on a game right now that’s meant to be a small, light game to play. Part of it is based around that classic game ‘Going to Grandma’s House’ where you repeat a list then add to it.

In this case, what you’re listing are fighting sounds – a biff and a thwack and a crunch.

When I work up these documents to make these games I put in a section where I list things I know the game needs and see if I can check if these things will exclude people. In this case, I realise, this game excludes people who can’t talk, and people who can’t hear the other players talk.

Now I don’t have any connections in the Deaf community and … is there an ‘unvoiced’ community? But I’m wondering about if this is an access concern I should build around/cater to, or if people impacted this way already have their own workaround for it, and I’d look silly ‘trying to help.’ Does sign language have distinct gestures for ‘biff’ and ‘thwack’?

An idea I conceived was carving out a small space on the card for a single set of morse code digits, so players could, if they couldn’t say the cards, could rap out the beats. Is that condescending? Is that ridiculous?

I don’t know. I don’t even know who to ask.

Being Polite

‘Police disperse Antifascist Actors, Cable Street’ – via BBC.com

Hey, do you know what being polite actually is?

I understand that, for some folk, particularly those raised by controlling, authoritarian assholes or who are themselves, controlling authoritarian assholes, that it’s a strict set of rules. Like, not swearing, holding doors for women whether they want them or not, that kind of stuff.

Politeness is a word that derives from the word polis. Literally, it is the behaviour of a city. It is how you interact with people when you know you have to, and how you deal with the people when you know there’s a large population of them around you, more or less, acting and interacting. Politeness is, in the simplest way, a general toolset of interacting with other people who you don’t really know.

Now, what people seem to think Politeness means is maintaining the rules that worked in the 1950s. Note that these rules include a lot of stuff we don’t want to talk about, like how black people knew it was impolite to talk to white people –

like at all –

And there’s the truth of politeness. Politeness is a moving social construction. It is a matter of being aware of your community, and being aware of the people in it. It’s knowing things like touching your hand to your own chest when you interact with a Muslim person, rather than offering to shake theirs. It’s being willing to apologise, it’s double-checking if you’re getting someone’s name right because you don’t want to be an asshole. It’s about leaving someone alone when they’re listening on headphones and have their eyes on their phone because that’s polite.

Politeness is part of the circulatory system of people moving around one another, and like every circulatory system, it has an immune system.

The thing is, when there are people who are fundamentally against the idea of society as it exists, when there are people whose view of how they want to live involves the eradication of parts of your society, when they literally want to kill people for no reason beyond imagined ideals of purity, then those people are inimical to the society you live in. And that’s when you should feel absolutely, 100% comfortable telling those people to get lost, because they are trying to not be part of your society, they are not part of the community. In that case, the proper behaviour of a civilised person is to reject fascists. Yes, even with swears, with rudeness, with dismissive derision. Because they are the ones who want to strip your social rules and wear the skin long enough to stab your neighbours.

So, tell a fascist to go fuck themselves.

After all, it’s only polite.

Why We Laugh At Things

Humour is something that’s talked about plenty online but one thing I see rarely discussed when we’re mad about something is why things are funny. It’s understandable, because unless you’re me, you probably find this topic quite dull. Still, humour is a thing that, despite what you may want to think, does have some actual rules and conventions, and even a cause and effect. I, as someone who has done a single year of University am therefore in a perfect position to explain this enormous subject and I won’t mess it up at all, honest.

All humour derives from a subversion of expectation.

Your brain is a fairly sophisticated device that tries to keep track of the future, which it’s kind of bad at, but also pretty decent at, considering. When you see a ball thrown at you, your brain does all sorts of math to track where it’s going and can more or less work out where it’s going to end up and if it’s going to hit you in the face. You wake up each day with a general expectation of what’s going to happen in it, and your brain actually patterns behaviour based on that. Talking to people, you have the same thing; as they explain things to you, you will expect things. Want to see this in effect? Look at comedy shows from other countries, even subtitled. There will be social cues that you don’t understand, and therefore, when they are averted, you won’t understand why it’s funny – or even why it’s so funny. Even British comedy does this. Even surreal British comedy like Monty Python’s Flying Circus does this!

Of late I’m seeing people enraged by components of jokes, and the defense being it’s just a joke. I think that’s the wrong way to approach it. What you have to look for is to find what, in the joke, you’re meant to laugh at. What’s the expectation? Why is it meant to be funny?

I don’t want to use any examples for this. The ones I can think of are – or have now become touchstones of outrage and anger and legitimate hurt. Too often though, I’ll see a joke where the point of the joke is to highlight someone being an asshole – you’re meant to laugh at the bad person, with the bad view. But then people become caught up in arguing that the view they forward is the point of the joke. That there is one interpretation and the one they wield is the correct and harmful one.

(There’s also a whole extra nest of ‘this media is enjoyed by people it affects, but not all of them’ which I don’t want to get into).

Dumbledore’s Orchy

I kind of already want to apologise for that post title. Moving on.

Writing advice time. Specifically, writing advice about signalling characters of diversity. I don’t know if you’ve ever listened to me talking about Harry Potter as a universe, but one of the complaints I’ve had is of what I call ‘Dumbledore Diversity,’ the notion that an author can, post-fact indicate the orientation of a character that is never otherwise signalled in the media, and that isn’t, in my opinion the same thing as writing media that has actually included marginalised people.

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Good For Goodness’ Sake

Motivating a heroic character well ‘is hard.’ I say ‘is hard’ because if I say, up front, it’s easy, and you’re a bunch of shameful, pathetic cynics, I’ll look condescending, even if that’s ultimately how I feel about this bullshit.

Media I watch lately has featured an enormous amount of templated storytelling and one of the template points that’s become worn so deep it’s now basically a groove is the protagonist’s motivation is overwhelmingly linked to someone important dies. It’s usually a woman, either a lover or a child. I considered, briefly, making a little gif supercutting together every single game, movie or tv show I could think of in the past five years or so that used this trope then realised it’s enough of a percentage of the media output I partake of that it’s gagworthy. Even stuff I like a lot does it.

Looking at you, Dishonored.

Anyway, point is, that it’s a really common motivator, to the point where it’s basically unexamined. In the classical arc of the Hero’s Journey, which really is storytelling 101 for people doing a large, multistage production with a three-act structure, one of the key points is the Refusal of the Call – ie, the point where the protagonist declines to go on the journey. This is a useful story device for showing that the narrative has resistance to it, and that there are more complex things going on in the hero’s life than just compliance with the story. It is an opportunity to represent that the call, the heroic action, is a choice, which is more important than destined compliance. It’s also a chance to show that the destind action won’t just happen without them – that the hero’s inaction would lead to problems.

This means that for simplistic writers and boneheads and cynics, clearly, the only option is that heroes don’t want to be heroes and don’t want to do anything. It’s seen as relateable that heroes don’t want to be heroes. That is, when presented with the opportunity to do the hero’s journey, most people would say ‘no,’ until something so dire – the irrevocable death of a beloved one – pushes them into action.

This is dumb, and it paints a worldview of heroes as glum people who don’t have any reason to like what they’re doing. It makes the action of being a hero – of being powerful, capable, survivable, important – as an annoying imposition on a life of happy potato farming. No doubt this plays into a protestant ideal of being content with your lot – heroes are just wishing they could get back to the dull drudgery bullshit of your 9-to-5, let me tell you.

The thing is, the refusal doesn’t have to be ‘I will not do anything at all.’ It can be ‘I will try this other method that won’t work.’ Or ‘I will focus on this different set of priorities.’ Or ‘I cannot make this decision for myself and must comply with an other.’ Or even ‘I can’t yet see a way I could do this.’ They are all ways to illuminate character, arrest the narrative briefly, and none of them require the murder of a woman only to provide motivation.

Interestingly, the movie Hercules does use the murder of a woman but it’s in the third act, in a way to intensify and narrow the focus, to make the stakes that were global personal, and that’s another, different problem. The Last Of Us is similar, though much closer to the end, and the threat of that death. But anyway.

When you paint heroes as being unable to be happy being heroes, and when you create a world where nobody would, with power, act in a way beneficial to others without it instead speaking to some trauma, you first reduce all heroics to emotional selfishness, and dissolve the idea of heroics as meaningful. Second, it’s so fucking repetitive.

There are worlds full of injustice and by creating characters who only care about it when the injustice directly impacts them you are suggesting that we should only care about things that directly impact us. You drag heroic aspirations down to our level, instead of elevating them, and you do it in the name of a cynic’s idea of realism, that there surely could be no reason a person might choose to do the right thing at all.

“That’s Not A Game” The Game

There is a behaviour I see just often enough from game developers or game reviewers that it gets on my wick. It is the habit of referring to a thing as barely a game or not even a game. This dismissive attitude is even there from serious minds like Mark Rosewater, a man I greatly respect, who argues that Candyland is not a game. The argument is that the actions of Candyland are automated and therefore, players don’t have to make any choices.

I would then sagely point out that there is, in fact, a choice, and that is, the choice to continue playing, and act all smug.

But the real issue is that saying things aren’t games is a delegitimising tactic that can be used to shut out certain components of games media, suggesting that some ideas or concepts for the ways games should work don’t exist, or that some choices or our own subconscious desire to participate in rules structures, aren’t real game mechanics or tools. It’s not like a game needs a lot of rules, or components, to be a game. A number of games are improvisational or purely paratextual – games that exist in response to other things that exist, like word games, or conversational puzzles.

Bernard Suits, in The Grasshopper: Games, Life And Utopia, defines games with a wonderfully intricate, encapsulatory phrase: A Game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.

This definition means that lots of things are games. Don’t-step-on-the-crack is a game. Cup-and-ball is a game. Fetch is a game. The problem people tend to have with this definition is that they’re left unable to say, more broadly: I don’t like what this game does, and keenly feel what it lacks. Which is okay.

If your definition of games is this broad, it means your acceptance of what games can be and can do can be suitably broad. It will give you oddball ideas and weird extra options. And it will also mean you’re a bit less likely to be condescending to games whose crimes are mostly being boring or simple.