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Another cross-post from my Gamasutra blog – so again it’s about games, and assumes a certain baseline level of interest in/awareness of games. In response to Brian Moriarty’s apology for Ebert (also referenced in my previous post), Jason VandenBerghe makes a good point here that the art of games is present in the gameplay. The problem is he suggests that it’s ONLY in the gameplay, and not in the creation of the thing played. This was my response in his comments, posted here and on my personal blog so that people can respond separately at greater length if they choose.

What about music?

The performance is art.

The instrument is art.

The composition (the music-as-written) is art.

Even the sheet music might be art, especially if it’s handwritten and illuminated.

I agree with [VandenBerghe] that gameplay, especially where exceptional skill and or insight are freely at work, can be art. (And thank you for reinstating it as also expressive.) But that doesn’t mean nothing else in the equation is.

We don’t have the language to describe the poetry of system yet, and we’re not conscious enough of it as a form of poetry. [Poetry here is used in the way justice can be “poetic”; it comes from from the Ancient Greek for “making” and means anything artfully made.] It’s a chicken-and-egg situation; until we start talking about it in these terms (to see what makes sense as much as anything else) we can’t think about it in these terms, and vice versa.

But let’s be clear. If a movie is a more or less artistic arrangement of more or less meaningful images and sounds (and optionally but usually plot, character, narrative) – a game is a more or less artistic arrangement of more or less meaningful judgments and decisions and tests-of-skill and random inputs and consequences of all the above, possibly with one person playing it, and possibly as a meeting ground for more than one.

The point is:

although the elements being arranged are different, experienced differently, and appreciated fully only over a longer timescale and possibly in the context of multiple plays of the game,

the basic act is the creative act of arranging meaningful elements to produce an experience or sensation, and/or to express an emotion or idea,

and the basic act is therefore is fundamentally the same in designing and playing games as it is in composing or playing music, or any other artform.

Gameplay can be artful, and whether intended that way can certainly always be judged on that spectrum. Game design – or should we call it game composition? – is always artful. It may be crass art that deals with its subject matter only in the most superficial terms, and I would argue a great many games are; but so is a lot of music and a lot of cinema, and that doesn’t disqualify them from being art. They’re not great art, or what Moriarty calls capital-A “Art”; but they’re still art in exactly the same way movies are, and Ebert’s lack of systems literacy (while hardly blameworthy given the wider cultural context) doesn’t change that at all.

And therefore I’m with Moriarty:

games are art, but really, pretty much anything can be, so who cares about this?;

and games CAN be Art, and not enough are;

and (my corollary) we need to get better at talking about the unique forms of poetry offered by our medium as such, so we can get to the games that are truly, life-changingly great – and maybe even some that tell truths only games can.


This started as a comment responding to Brian Moriarty’s articulate apologium for Ebert, and to a trend in the responses to argue that “whatever anyone says is art is art” – as though Moriarty (and Ebert) were not talking specifically about “great art”, or “Art”, art that epitomises and exemplifies the best of its kind.

It got too long. So I’m posting it as its own blog entry, here and on my Gamasutra blog.

There’s a certain irony in that Moriarty and his populist counterlocutors (e.g. this comment), who are superficially arguing against each other, both ultimately seem to be using popularity as an index of whether or not something is art.

In Moriarty’s case, he’s talking about “great art”, or “Art”, as opposed to the broader category of “art” (which is what his critics are talking about, and can certainly include the commerical, non-challenging “kitsch” Moriarty is explicitly removing from consideration). A lot of commenters seem to miss this crucial distinction – Moriarty will happily admit many games to the category of kitsch. But ultimately even Moriarty’s argument seems to come down to a question of quantity as much as quality – art is about instilling a sense of discovery or rediscovery, but the only way you can tell it’s really good is if it has that effect on enough people.

That’s fair enough, but the problem with this is that, especially in new media, it can be very difficult to get the kind of exposure you need for your work to pass whatever the threshold is of “great art”. So part of the reason games have not yet produced capital-A-Art is simply that they’ve only recently reached mass audiences, and even now they are still not universally experienced the way every other form has been by the time its “great” works were created.

I would propose the following tests for the status of art, good art, and great (or capital-A) art:

Art is whatever is held to be such. It must involve some act of creation, but the simple act of bringing a natural phenomenon to someone’s attention is enough to qualify as creation for these purposes: directing people’s attention is after all a key component of any artform.

Good (or effective) art is art which elicits a reaction from a substantial portion, preferably a majority, of its audience – whatever the size of that audience. Exceptional art elicits a strong reaction from its audience and can potentially change minds or even lives. It may never be seen outside a small group – ephemeral art left unrecorded in a natural setting, a transformative roleplaying session, an unrepeatably expressive performance of Chekhov or Mozart – but for those who experience it, it is unforgettable, a sublime encounter with truth or beauty.

Obviously, as an audience increases in size (and therefore, almost inevitably, in diversity), the range of possible reactions increases, possibly exponentially. What is good or even exceptional art to a given, small audience may have no effect whatever on the wider audience.

So great Art is art which can consistently evoke strong reactions across a wide audience, or art that a wide audience agrees across all its internal divisions to be good or even exceptional. (By Moriarty’s definition, these reactions must be not simply reaffirmations of known emotional cliches, but something more complex; whether or not we agree with this addendum, my general point can stand, I think. It treats the idea of “greatness” as essentially one of scale, not effect – as with great wars, fires, events in history, etc.)

(Side point: does this mean that a single work of art which is only experienced by one person, but which has such a profound effect on them that it inspires them to affect the lives of millions, could also be described as “great art”? On first consideration, I’d say yes. And I like this because it allows art to be “great” purely by dint of its effect without reference to popularity… But I’m interested in your comments.)

The problem is that this necessarily tends to favour:

  • for breadth of dissemination and scope of potential audience: reproducible forms, then static forms, then scripted live performance forms, and least of all ephemeral forms;
  • for consistency of experience (Ebert’s key point), “declarative”, artist-to-audience media forms rather than interactive forms;
  • for longevity (i.e. time in which to reach an audience), media which are self-contained rather than dependent on technological or linguistic platforms which may become obsolete;
  • for ability to connect with a wide range of people, “lowest-common-denominator” themes and content (i.e. content that tends towards what Moriarty calls “kitsch”).

…to say nothing of the culture within which the work is attempting to achieve recognition.

Electronic games suffer on the second and third points – and I’d argue don’t make enough effort to escape from the trap of the fourth. Non-electronic games suffer on the second point, and often the first (as they are not always easily reproduced)

This in turn tends to instil certain presuppositions (simply by dint of long association) about what can and can’t be “art”, let alone “Art”.

Ebert’s logic that player interaction with the game nullifies the possibility of the experience constituting art is one such fallacy. Nate Logan’s point about sculpture (and Glenn Storm’s addendum about architecture) are key to understanding why; Michelangelo’s David cannot truly be appreciated from a single angle, and nor can the Taj Mahal. (Though unlike most games, you actually have to work hard to find any part of the experience which is not extraordinary.)

Similarly, the rules of a game can constitute what I call “the poetry of system” – the choices that you make as you play giving you a personal, even emotional experience of the assumptions, assertions and underlying logic of the game. Nobody who has played Z-Man Games’s board game Pandemic could argue that it’s in any way a realistic simulation of combating contagious disease, but as an evocation of the deeper tensions between spending resources on dealing with immediate threats or on working towards the longer-term endgame it’s both a compelling experience and genuinely expressive of a real truth. Playing gives you one or more experiences of the possible outcomes, but it’s the underlying balances and systems which are revealed through play that are where the art lies.

In other words: a given playthrough may vary, but it’s the systems that generate that experience which constitute the art, and possibly Art, of games – in exactly the same way that a play (coincidence?) may be performed or adapted ad infinitum from a fixed script, and the sheet music of a sonata may be played (also coincidence?) by a beginner or a maestro, but the quality of art (and possibly Art) still inheres in the script and the music themselves, regardless of the experience of the audience at any given realisation of the same.

I’d also allow – in fact argue strongly for – the particular “cosmetic” choices in which the game creator chooses to dress their system as being a crucial part of this, even though they are not part of the “system” per se – Pandemic‘s “flavouring”, or central metaphor, being the work of the CDC is clearly relevant, and Brenda Brathwaite’s work is exploring this boundary extremely fruitfully, and along the way making some deeply important statements about choices, the context in which they are made, those choosing, and the complex interrelations of the three.

One final point. The very fact that games allow for a multiplicity of endings – or rather conclusions – by its nature allows them to make more ambiguous points about their subject matter than traditional media can. At the same time, it allows for very definite statements about the causes of certain outcomes to be made, as multiple playthroughs reveal the different contributions made by each decision to the various conclusions. To me, that hardly argues that they cannot make sublime statements. It just means you need to grok the intricacies of a system (and its fictional and/or real context) of decisions and consequences, rather than a system of other, more traditionally-understood symbols. Making that step not only allows us to expand the definition of art, but fosters what you might call “systems literacy” – the ability to think through decisions-in-contexts (with part of those context being the interests, goals and decisions of others) to likely outcomes, both intermediate and final.

These are things we need badly to foster at this moment in history, and if games can engender that literacy, I say: Let’s Play.

Full title: Fortress of solitude or our last best hope? The role of libraries in fostering YA spec fic

An interesting discussion, particularly for SF fans – it was reported that young adults are requesting exclusively speculative fiction in a place like Sunshine, and in some cases are using it to upgrade their reading level by some years. My grave doubts about the quality of YA speculative reading were not exactly allayed by the news that science fiction was only a fraction of the market and fantasy & particularly paranormal romance (Twilight) were the bulk of the reading, though; what does it say about the state of manhood in the West that the dominant metaphor for male-female relationships is features men who are lifeless, monstrous parasites with violent appetites?

The big takeaway was finding the balance between the shift to a more communal quality to library spaces generally, and the opportunities that creates to facilitate the socialisation of the quiet reading-focused kids with each other and into their wider peer groups, and protecting the possibility of just sitting and reading, of the private and solitary time that fosters reflection and individual growth.

My own question, which I didn’t get the chance to ask, was how games integrate into this; to my mind, a good game (especially a good co-operative game) is a chance to combine thoughtful engagement with social interplay. If you’ll pardon the pun. There will be more on this, but I need to get the stuff from the Con out of my head quickly and get to sleep for tomorrow.

I’ve been reading some fabulous commentary on the near-total failure of war games to actually deal with the real experience of war, the way a good war movie does – among my picks:

Who Cheers For War?

Both are nuanced enough to recognise that war and other forms of conflict have a long history in games, and both offer intelligent thought as to why this might be so. But neither offers the most obvious explanation:

Real-time interaction with another human is the simplest source of intellectual challenge (and flow) around.

As for why they are drawn to metaphors of war, or at very least conflict:

Challenge and flow are both enhanced by surprises (and the need to adapt to them), which strongly suggest participants are not completely sharing information. In any human relationship, if information is being systematically withheld, common ground will tend to be eroded. And whenever admiration is available – which is always the case in witnessed challenges – it is very easy for one-upmanship to creep in and create competition where there was none. (Although, countervailingly, a long-standing relationship of competition can in fact form a surprisingly solid common ground itself, and generate mutual admiration.)

And of course the idea that the rules themselves might be something players must join forces to overcome, and win or lose together rather than separately, is a relatively recent realisation – and had to evolve through the pseudo-combat of the RPG, which sort-of-but-not-necessarily-really pitted players against the game master. This is somewhat similar to the idea that humanity might have more important threats in common (disease, the laws of nature in the context of our own ecological recklessness, et cetera… oh and eldritch horrors from beyond time) than each other, a notion which still doesn’t seem to have penetrated to the minds of our leaders (who, to be fair, have had to spend a lot of effort and attention on human enemies to get to that position, so you can see how the habit formed).

So that’s my take on why war is so commonly a theme of games. As for the current trend towards celebrating gore and violence, the previous post gives my thoughts on that.

For those not familiar with the term, game theory is not theory about how to make or consume games, it’s theory of the best way to make decisions in systems where the outcomes are also determined by the decisions of other participants in the field of activity (or other “players” active on the field of “play”). The film A Beautiful Mind includes some introductory examples of game theory, as its protagonist is one of the pioneers of the field, and the Prisoner’s Dilemma is a boiled-down, binary example of the kind of questions that it can raise.

I have a deep distaste for ultraviolence in any medium. Lacing brutal violence with hilarity and other fun payoffs for its witnesses is problematic enough even in a single work – while the vast majority of people are balanced enough to engage with sufficient detachment to have their fun and walk away, we live in a world which we know to contain unbalanced people who will seek this sort of material out and use it to reinforce their own pathological tendencies.  I question whether the mere entertainment derived from ultraviolence, no matter for how many, is worth the real damage on the psyches of the vulnerable and the risk of actual physical harm should those unbalanced minds collapse completely. Entertainment can be found in so many ways and places that I find it hard to justify serious harm for the sake of any specific instance.

(And catharsis doesn’t apply to a regular indulgence. Catharsis is purification; the original idea was that the audience be purged of the emotions the spectacle – i.e. the Greek tragedy – inspired, that those feelings flare up and fade away. But if people are instead seeking violent spectacles out more and more, their desire to witness brutality is not being exorcised but exercised – and becoming more potent as a result.

The only argument I’ll concede may possibly be true in favour of ultraviolence is that it’s a form of sublimation – by watching or participating in fictional violence, people are relieved of their desire for the real. But I’m very much unconvinced and would want to see solid behavioural research supporting the claim – and what research we’ve seen seems to point the other way, where an effect is reported at all. Links not to hand/to come, but along with the studies showing no long-term effect, there have been studies done that showed that the randomised half of a test group of children exposed to violent entertainments did in fact behave more violently subsequently, compared to both their own prior behaviour and their peers in the control group. The randomisation eliminates self-selection as a possible cause, and the clear sequence indicates the causal relationship that most parents I know report anecdotally. Whether the entertainment instigates violent behaviour, and/or is merely due to the children having a greater sense of license to indulge their own violent tendencies, is of course open to dispute – but of secondary importance. As for the difference between short-term effects and long-term effects, that’s a red herring – unless you’re arguing that repeated short-term behavioural effects will not produce habits if exposure is repeated in the long term, which aside from being dubious plays into the hands of people who claim that violent culture directly and immediately causes violence, and therefore should be censored right now because that will magically stop people being violent.)

Where violent entertainment becomes even more disturbing is when it becomes a selling point, which it indisputably has thanks to the grotesqueries of psycho-and/or-torture-centric horror films, fragfest games, and all the familiar bugbears of the Joe Liebermans of the world and their predecessors.  It’s only a short step, and one we’ve already taken, from something being a selling point to it being something in which people compete to outdo each other, leading to both the rapid escalation of extremity of violence (whether considered as a percentage of total screen time or  in terms of the degree of violence and the toxic emotions expressed thereby), and the tremendous growth in the number of such entertainments we’ve seen over the last decade or two.

Given that we know that human beings both determine their values and decide how to express those values in the real world based on a kind of composite picture of the people around them – not blindly seeking some perceived average, but using that as a basis for judgment, and often completely unconscious of the assumptions and prejudices they incur in the process – a culture which features more and more images of violence with payloads of enjoyment and fun is particularly problematic. It’s not just that it’s arithmetically, or even exponentially, more likely that a mind way down on the troubled end of the bellcurve will find some disturbing content to latch onto as such content is more frequently available. I would also argue that as violence saturates the culture, that has the effect of shifting the curve itself towards the violent end. I recognise that this is a slow process, and is resisted by other forces in human nature and in the wider culture. But as any student of probability will tell you, even small shifts of the bellcurve produce dramatic increases in what was seen as extreme under the old bellcurve, and dramatic decreases at the other end. (Think about the shape of the curve. If you’re right at the edge of the bell, not much fits underneath; but if the bell moves towards you even a little, there’s a marked increase in how much fits underneath, and therefore how often the same thing is occurring.)

The upshot of this is I have been known to take the view that most if not all ultraviolent entertainments – certainly pretty much every one I’ve seen – should never have been made. Even where there is actually some substantial moral point being made, rather than it being essentially a bloody confectionery (and yes, that’s intentionally a revolting image), I have taken the view that to the extent the point could have been made without the shock value it should not have employed such tactics.

This is often taken as an argument for censorship. And to be clear, I am not absolutely opposed to censorship – and neither are you if you believe that gloating images of cruelty and harm to children, or animals, or women, or minority groups, or anyone should be produced for entertainment, even if no actual harm was done in making them. A poster exulting in a photograph of a racially motivated murder, or a film whose entire content was the torture of a child and gleeful comments thereon, would be illegal on the grounds that the acts necessary to make them are clearly crimes… but if you agree with me that such material should be illegal even if the images they contain are cartoons and nobody need be directly hurt in their creation, then you are in favour of censorship, and the question is merely one of where we draw lines.

But I also know that power to censor absolutely (as opposed to restricting access based on impartial, impersonal, and indisputably relevant criteria, such as age restrictions) and with criminal penalty is a very grave one to cede to any government, and increasing the scope of such state control over public discourse is something to avoid if at all possible. I’ve volunteered for Amnesty International for over ten years – so I need no convincing on that point.

As always, I find the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the informed discussions of human rights advocates and scholars to be deeply informative (in both senses – it contains useful data, and it helps shape my conclusions) in navigating the conflicting interests at stake in this question. The key point is the UDHR’s insistence that no human right carries with it the automatic right to violate any other human right, and the principle of proportionality – it forces you to look for the solution that preserves freedom.

So my take on it is this:

  • We need to recognise that competing over deriving fun from goriness, violence and general destructive behaviour – and especially making public declarations that imply such things are fun or otherwise desirable, such as in marketing and promotion – will naturally tend to produce more numerous and more extreme examples, as it becomes a point of competition within the culture.
  • We need to acknowledge that in sufficiently large quantities that clearly has social effects. Society is an aggregate of the people, values, behaviours, actions and pronouncements that comprise it – how exactly that aggregate coheres and combines to produce actual lived outcomes is a complex process, but surely we can all agree that the more of a meme goes in, the more of that same meme is likely to come out (and go back in).
  • To the extent that that influences actual behaviour, and thereby produces violations of people’s rights, it is a bad thing; and given that there is not really a major shortage of ways for humans to have fun, pastimes with such effects can and probably should be moderated or even foregone.
  • We need to recognise that if we as citizens do not want a central authority deciding for us which memes are acceptable, we need to take responsibility for ensuring ourselves that the mix of memes is a constructive one, one which is more likely to produce positive outcomes; and while we can’t ever agree exactly on what constitutes a positive outcome, the framework of human rights that emerged from the global trauma of WWII is by formulation and definition a solid common starting point, and a fine articulation of the common sense understanding that we want to be able to be able to live and speak freely and without fear of harm, and that we want that framework to persist across distance (social, physical and otherwise) and time – for our contemporaries, for our travelling/future selves, for our kids.
  • Those of us who are culture-makers have a particular role to play in this matter, as few-to-many meme-generators. Each of us is a key element in the churning and spawning of memes, and we are also those most directly affected by any move to impose central control on which memes can be created and controlled. We therefore have more responsibility than others, and more at stake than others, in ensuring that the overall cultural mix is good, healthy, honest, and all those other contested but still incredibly important qualities.
  • If we fail to take this responsibility, the responsibility doesn’t go away. Someone has to take it up. And the whole thing about “with great power comes great responsibility”? To the exact same extent that that’s true in any given culture, it’s also true that “with great responsibility comes great power”. That’s pretty much the contract on which government rests – they more or less do what needs to be done, and we more or less let them do what they say they need to do to do it. And the more responsibility we surrender, the more power we surrender, and the more likely that corruption creeps in (because it always goes where the power is) and that tradeoff we made is less and less worth it. (Hmmm… future blog post…)

In other words: if we don’t get on top of this ourselves, we’re opening the door for people who quite possibly understand nothing about culture – and who certainly have less time to spend understanding it – to take over the business of deciding what’s good, healthy, honest, etc.

I’d like to think we’re smarter than to let that happen. But we have to start doing more than just applying social pressure, like the kind of statement this blog entry is making – or this one, which I commend – though that’s important too.

We need to actually make this a serious part of our conversations about the creation of culture – and we need to have concrete and honest data on which to base both those conversations and the creative decisions that individual culture-makers make. To me, this should be central to the business of the industry associations – monitoring and reporting on the nature of the culture being created and consumed, not just so that we can all mindlessly mimic the most obvious traits of whatever sells lots in the hopes of cashing in, but so that we can sit back and consider the bigger picture to which we’re contributing.

And in order to reward that reflective approach, we need to be much more scathing towards the only-more-so rip-off, whether that’s a copy within the medium or crap franchise-related adaptation into another medium, like the recent Sands of Time film, which somehow managed to take a truly ingenious (though sometimes a little undercooked in execution) story and fail to even copy all the good bits. (It may be a sometimes-successful business tactic, though it’s a lot more risky than it feels; but we need to do our best to make sure that unoriginal crap gets no more encouragement than such deserves. Note that this definition of unoriginality emphatically includes material that relies for its power on sensationalist exploitation of violence, and puts it squarely into the same category as the crap, emotionally cheap soap operas that most violent game players or film watchers would quite rightly disdain.)

The harshness of our rejection of lazy creations should increase proportionate to the density of the clone population; cultural weeds need to be treated as such. But note that the disrespect and discouragement should be directed at the work, not the creator; we want to foster good creation, so a smaller pool of creators is not in our interests, and imitation is a valid way to learn.

Similarly, we need to be more vociferous (but still reflective and creative) in our admiration of what genuinely does add to the quality of the meme pool – felicitous new combinations or mutations of existing memes, genuine originality, re-appreciation of a longstanding classic, whatever. Here also avoiding ad hominem comment other than attribution is worthwhile – both because the same creator (and sometimes the same work) may offer both praiseworthy and execrable creations, and because keeping that author/work division culturally strong buffers exceptional creations from the failings of their creators.

Finally, creative professionals need to reassert the all-around benefits of getting a work right before releasing it into the wider culture (and that includes shareholders, since better works do better, and besides – shareholders are part of the culture); this is why Valve Software’s approach to game development is widely and rightly accoladed by the very people it most frustrates.

This combination of better information, an increased culture of creative responsibility, and a reassertion of the value of the creator’s vision (and of creators… Bobby Kotick take note) is the best response to the genuine issue raised (often for entirely cynical reasons) by advocates of centralised vetos of culture.

The good news, as I see repeated again and again in the comments of the culture-makers who most seem to work in this way already, is that striving to take into account a wider scope of considerations when making our creative decisions only increases the rewards. Certainly as a reader/player/audience member having more levels on which to enjoy and engage with a creation deepens my appreciation, which benefits both me and the creators whose works I will more actively seek out and support.

A postscript to those who think this smacks of social engineering

Of course it’s social engineering. The thing is, society is always engineered (and always engineering itself); the question is who benefits from the current engineering, who is doing the engineering, and who misses out on both scores.

What I’m advocating here is decentralised engagement culture in ways that neutralise the critics, as opposed to centrally mandated, compulsory engineering that forces creations into some sort of mould. The difference is total.

What I’m suggesting is a more co-ordinated, coherent sharing of information and perspectives, in order to neutralise the problem the Prisoner’s Dilemma so compellingly illustrates: people acting in what seems like their own rational self-interest without consideration of the bigger picture (and understanding of their own contribution thereto) will almost certainly act sub-optimally, even in terms of that simple self-interest.

The alternative, just not addressing people’s legitimate concerns about shifts in culture and refusing to join the dots between our own work and its peers, doesn’t benefit creators – access to a better understanding of the bigger cultural picture is not going to hurt their work – and it essentially abandons the field to the self-appointed censors, who can be trusted to take the responsibility on themselves and to demand the power that goes with it – which is power over our creations.

So we need to tweak the “rules” – which are constantly shifting anyway – of the creative subculture to reward more originality, reduce incentives for reliance on escalation of emotive (especially violent) content, and help everyone (creators and public) be better informed – and make judgments and decisions accordingly.

More watchy goodness, mostly courtesy of TED:

Rebecca Saxe: How we read each other’s minds – actually about the  business of making accurate, predictive models of each other’s minds in our own. They’ve localised the ability to a particular segment of the brain, the Right Temporo-Parietal Junction (RTPJ) – verified by manipulating it to vary people’s capacity to understand what’s going on for each other. Quite literally mind-boggling, in several senses; very scary; and absolutely must-watch if you’re at all interested in the ways we relate to each other. I’d be fascinated to know if there is any gender-differentiation between men and women in the development of the RTPJ – and whether there’s any observable difference at birth, given the current state of gender neuroscience which seems to say that the differences between male and female brains in infancy are very few indeed.

Read the rest of this entry »

Um, this. Contains spoilers, but odds are you’re not going to play the game concerned (or if you are it’s probably already been spoiled for you elsewhere).

Another post of something I wrote up (in my own time) for the library I was working in… posted in case it’s useful as a starting point for someone else trying to get games into libraries. It’s written as an infodump for specific people at that specific service and as a result the style is pretty dense, so it will need adapting; but maybe it’ll save someone some time and helps get games into a library somewhere. It worked for me, despite games and collection management being no part of my job description: the library now has both a “games books” lending collection (mainly RPGs) and a bunch of board and card games for use inside the library.

Notes for games collections at public libraries


  • are tests of skill (unless they are pure games of chance, which are usually regulated as gambling) and therefore improve abstract reasoning, hand-eye co-ordination and/or ability to “read” and anticipate other people. Many improve other skills, such as resource management, linguistic skills, vocabulary, etc. The only games without any such benefit are pure games of chance, such as roulette – which are almost always played for stakes and are therefore regulated as gambling.
  • have historically been important parts of our culture: an understanding of chess, for example, deepens an understanding of a wide range of texts.
  • are important parts of other cultures, and a great way into learning about those cultures and interacting with the people who live them.
  • are an increasing part of the leisure-activity market.
  • come in many varieties, not all of which are easily integrated into a traditional library collection – but some of which are.
  • linked to the above, may or may not come complete with everything you need to play. Some may only be rules.
  • are based on platforms of every level of technology from sticks and stones to advanced electronics.
  • are often expensive (but, arguably, cheap for the number of hours they occupy relative to traditional, non-participatory media).
  • can be free (or available for free download if you print them yourself).
  • like comic books/graphic novels, are breaking out of a “kids’ stuff” ghetto and are taking on more sophisticated thematic, aesthetic and cultural elements. Some are completely unsuitable for children. Also like comics, parents can get quite irate if their kids get hold of adult material in a “kiddie” medium.
  • are a growing source of jobs – games journalism/criticism, and especially game design, are booming (though highly competitive) areas of employment.
  • as with film, literature, and fine art, some games are highly controversial and are portrayed by some as inculcating violence or inhumanity. The same arguments about free speech are being made about games as have been made (and continue to be made) about other media. Games are therefore, again like other artforms, important politically as well as culturally.
  • are increasingly integrated into other media. Every major-release film now has a game released at the same time, and these are not always repetitions of the same story. The Matrix trilogy, for instance, had an accompanying computer game revolving around the actions of a couple of supporting characters in The Matrix: Reloaded, and the action of the game interwove with the action of the film, explaining a number of elements of the movie which were otherwise unexplained. (This was planned from the start by the movies’ creators.) It also featured around an hour of footage filmed on the same sets, with the same cast, and at the same time as the movie. It is probably fair to say that the game was the fourth part of the trilogy.
  • are increasingly being used not only for fun but for educational and/or polemic purposes. Examples include the UN Food Program’s game Food Force (simulates the real difficulties faced by UNFP personnel in the field); Real Lives (generates a random person of varying background and wealth anywhere in the world, lets you play out choices in the real context of their lives, based on actual statistics); various online games created in response to the Iraq war; America’s Army, a free game created and distributed by the US Army as a recruiting tool… the list goes on.

Probably the most important distinction between games from a collections point of view is whether they are electronic (played on a computer or console) or non-electronic.

Electronic games

For a library, the only major distinction within the category of electronic games is between the “platforms”, i.e., equipment required to run the games. The three types are computer games (games to be played on a general-purpose computer, i.e. Windows, Mac, Linux etc), console games (which require a dedicated games-playing machine which plugs into a standard TV), and handheld games (played on portable devices about the size of a PalmPilot which require no other equipment, except batteries/chargers).

The current consoles of note are the Microsoft XBox 360, Nintendo Wii, and Sony PlayStation 3 (the PlayStation 2 is also still a current platform, but new releases are limited). The usual interval between console updates being released is 5-10 years. This means that the life of a game (assuming the physical medium survives) is 5-10 years, with the peak of its use in the first 3 or so years. (Computer games have a similar lifespan, as hardware and operating systems become outdated too.)

The current handhelds of note are the Sony PSP (PlayStation Portable) and the Nintendo DS  (Double-Screen).

Electronic games, by and large, can be stored and treated exactly like other optical electronic media (CDs and DVDs). Physically, they are identical: optical discs with optional booklets of various lengths, though games tend to have thicker booklets. Not that it is strictly relevant to the library, as we are not responsible for patrons’ actions, but they can be pirated just like CDs and DVDs, and like such media they often include built-in copy protection.

The decisions to be made by any library considering including these games in its collection are:

  • Which platforms to buy for.
  • If lending console/handheld games, whether to have the appropriate devices available to borrow as well, so that patrons without the console can play the games. On the one hand, we do not lend out DVD players; on the other, libraries experimenting with eBooks often do lend out eBook reader devices.

You would also need to ask suppliers about copyright/licensing issues pertaining to electronic games.

Loan periods would want to be reasonably long; games can take some time to play through. Good games can contain upwards of 100 hours of gameplay, though 20 is more typical.

Peripheral fact: Many computer games now support “mods” – modifications to gameplay and in-game virtual environments made by the public. Console games currently do not. Mods are generally available for free and provide an opportunity to develop game design skills. Talented mod authors are often hired by commercial game companies. This is mentioned to highlight the fact that these media are as open to patron authorship as more traditional library media – perhaps not as readily as books, but certainly as readily as movies.

Non-electronic games

Non-electronic games have enormous variety. Setting aside sports, they include:

  • Nursery rhymes/schoolyard games
  • Card games
  • Board games
  • Dice games
  • War/strategy games
  • Role-playing games (tabletop and “live action”)
  • Jigsaw puzzles
  • Educational or training exercises

They may use some or all of the following elements:

  • Bodily gestures, words
  • Quasi-theatrical characterisation
  • Dice
  • Cards
  • Boards
  • Generic tokens representing players (Monopoly, Snakes & Ladders)
  • Specific tokens with particular abilities or effects within the game (Chess, Scrabble, war games)

Some or all of these things can reasonably be supplied by patrons. (Indeed a boardgame company called Cheapass Games makes a point of keeping its games cheap by NOT including dice, player tokens etc on the grounds that buyers probably have about 10 sets of these already and they are cheaply available elsewhere. They sell you only the rules, board and sometimes cards specific to the game. Presumably the next logical step has already been taken by having even these things available for download in PDF form.)

Some card cards, board games and war games (similar to board games except that the “terrain” – i.e. the board – changes) are collectible. That is to say, not all pieces are included in a newly purchased set, and new pieces are regularly released over several years, with new sets often carrying new rules to vary gameplay. Collectible games are not well suited to a library collection; they are more susceptible to theft, there is likely to be considerable inflationary pressure on the budget to “buy them all”, and keeping collections and collection information up-to-date is complex.

Collection issues also arise with games which include all the pieces but use specific tokens, such as Scrabble or chess. Losing a piece makes the game un- or less playable. This is more easily addressed, for example by not permitting the game to leave library premises, or having cheap, not-very-attractive, and/or distinctive pieces – such as Scrabble tiles with the library logo on the back, which would not blend with any other set. (For well-known games, custom pieces are commercially available at reasonable prices.) Above all, pieces should be easily and cheaply replaced.

The obvious point arising from the above is that the games which are most easily included in a library collection are those which exist primarily as a set of rules, and where any equipment needed to play is provided by players. These are nursery rhymes/schoolyard games; card games; dice games; role-playing games; and possibly educational games. This can be stretched to include board games which use only dice and non-specific player tokens, which are easily replaced, but as more tokens are involved in play (and especially if they are difficult to distinguish and/or count, such as cards or tiles) the game becomes more and more difficult to keep in one piece. Thus Ludo or Snakes and Ladders make good games for a library collection, but Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit do not.

Most library collections already include some coverage of nursery rhymes/schoolyard games in their children’s collections. Similarly, rulebooks for card games, and to a lesser extent dice games, are likely to already be present in a library collection.

Historically, role-playing games have not been included in library collections. This is partly because of controversy (reports of association with Satanism and/or mental illness) and partly because of discomfort with the performative aspect of such games as players “act” their characters – it has associations of childishness (the “let’s pretend” elements), kitsch fantasy, geekery and/or bad improv. Live action role-playing (where participants actually dress in character, swing padded “swords” in combat etc) in particular is seen as embarrassing. However, both “live” and table-top role-playing are becoming more popular.

Educational or polemic uses of games have rarely been the subject of books in their own right, but this is changing. The use of games to illustrate points about and to counter common assumptions, to develop mental faculties and ways of thinking, etc., is increasingly popular. War simulations, the military training tactic which pits troops against their own side to provide something like actual battlefield experience and to test new technologies and strategies, is beginning to be adopted on a smaller scale in the corporate world and even by some large NGOs.

Games as a field of study

Interest in game design is growing. This is particularly focused on computer game design, but is not limited to is. It is worth keeping an eye out for new books in this field; more and more people are interested in the analysis of game structures and design, games as cultural and aesthetic artefacts, and so on.

Game theory is a related, also very interesting, and often neglected area of study which touches on mathematics (especially probabilities), logical analysis, psychology and even ethics and politics. (Game theory is essentially about how people second-guess each other. Many famous ethical and political problems, such as The Prisoner’s Dilemma, are problems in game theory.)

Just a random gameplay idea from the shower – a variant mode of playing checkers or drafts.

The variant adds a single rule: the ability to spend a turn “phasing” 2 pieces across to adjacent opposite-coloured squares (e.g. black if you’re already playing on the white). As always, un-kinged pieces cannot move backwards, so phasing them can only be done sideways or forwards. Kings can be phased in any direction, but count as two pieces. However, if the king is in the home row (i.e. the row closest to the player) and there are two empty opposite-coloured spaces in the same row on either side of the king, the two pieces that make up the king can be phased in two separate directions to become two ordinary pieces in the home row. In other words, if you can get a piece across the board to king it, and then get it back to your side of the board and have room, you have the option of splitting your king into two regular pieces.

If you’re playing with phasing you would definitely want to have 3 rows of pieces, not the variant I was originally taught where each side has only 2 rows (for a total of 8 pieces).

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