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About the Archives

This page contains all entries posted to GAMBIT in May 2011. They are listed from oldest to newest.

April 2011 is the previous archive.

June 2011 is the next archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

Videogames 101 Event Lectures Now Online!

Videogames 101 took place on May 5th,. 2011 at The MIT Museum. Many wonderful games were played and there were demonstrations from Owlchemy Labs, Fire Hose Games, Gradient Studios, SCVNGR, Zynga - Boston, the MIT Media Lab, and the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab. For those of you who missed the event, here are the lectures that took place during Videogames 101 for your viewing pleasure...Brain Surgery: Artificial Intelligence in Video Games Damian Isla, Moonshot Games. Design: Collaboration: Dean Tate, Harmonix, Graphic Visualization: The UI Art of Dance Central for the KinectAdam Carriuolo, Harmonix Psychology: Causing Fear and Anxiety through Sound Design in Video Games* Ahmed Abdel-Meguid, 38 Studios. Video Produced by Generoso Fierro, Edited by Garrett Beazley

A Conversation Regarding Design

statler_waldorf_02_01.jpegBelow is a "digital conversation" between me and Jason Begy. It started as a chat in the GAMBIT lounge and we thought that it might be interesting to concretize our ideas some by writing them down. We took turns writing paragraphs to each other continuing on for a few days. It should be stated that these are ideas we are still working out, and we simply wanted to lay bare some of our recent thoughts to perhaps move them forward. Enjoy.

I think our understanding of "design" with regards to games needs to be looked at more closely. The attachment of games to consumer objects, either packaged board games or software, seems to have skewed our understanding of what the creators of the game are actually doing. We seem to think that the fundamental operations of games are somehow being written by designers, with a direct authorial linkage like that of a painter to painting, a songwriter to song, or perhaps more frequently referenced, a director to a film. However, I stand behind the assertion that a game not-played is not a game at all, which implicates players in authorship. More dramatically, the organization of rules by a designer does not a game make either, which is to say, at best designers are configuring details and assigning symbols to preexisting forms, no small feat, but not wholly authorial. Allow me a parallel: a carpenter doesn't design the use of a chair as an object for sitting, rather she suggests only how a user might sit in it, should the user feel inclined to do so. The user may always place their belongings on said chair instead, thus rendering it a table.

Previously on this blog I have referred to a board game as a mnemonic device: whatever "state" it can be said to contain only exists in the minds of the players; the tangible pieces are there to lighten the cognitive load. Any meaning the boards and bits have is assigned and maintained by the players enacting the game; the "rules" as-writ are suggestions for a method of play, and the pieces facilitate that method. This is a key ontological distinction between video games and non-digital games. In a video game the rules are enforced by the underlying code: they are much more rules than the suggestions accompanying my copy of Carcassonne. I cannot chose to interpret Mario's in-game function in a way other than that dictated to me by the game. And yet your objection fits equally well: a board game in its box is just a collection of pieces, and a program not running is just lines of code. All of these points and ideas beg the question: What exactly is a rule?

Recently, casually around the lab, on twitter, and on my blog, I've been referring to rules and rule systems as "non-things." By this I mean to suggest that the idea of a rule does not exist until it is initiated. I fully acknowledge the playfulness of the language I am using here by calling a rule a "non-thing;" on one hand dismissing it and simultaneously reinforcing its existence through reference. However, I think it is important to distinguish the difference between an abstract understanding of a system, presumed cause and effect, and an actualized system that has been engaged, especially in the field of game design. In the digital realm this asks us to examine the relationship between computation and the user, to examine our understanding of the space of play, and to perhaps rethink what a designer actually creates. Some people making games are doing really interesting work in this area. The Copenhagen Game Collective's great game B.U.T.T.O.N. comes to mind. The space of play is radically expanded, rules are opaque rather than transparent, and the value of the game seems to reside in the liminality of computation and performance. Then again, board games seem to have done this sort of thing for a long time. Are video games actually so radically different? I'm reluctant to submit to "platform studies."

If a rule is a non-thing until enacted, can we talk about potential rules? Or our understanding of the rules we would follow, if we were to play a particular game? It seems logical to say that a rule of football (any kind) is that players must not step out-of-bounds, or at least there is a consequence for doing so. If I am not playing football right now, is this still a rule? The dichotomy is akin to the difference between a note as indicated on sheet music and as performed in some fashion. Not being one myself, I would imagine that most musicians recognize there is a difference between a written note representing a perfect instantiation of a given tone, and the subtleties of that same note performed. I am currently unsure of to what extent this dichotomy has been theorized, but it seems to me to be a promising and relevant parallel.

Another entry point into the vagaries of "rule" is to ask of a non-digital game or sport, Is a given rule a do or a do not? For example, in football the rule could be "always stay in-bounds" or "do not step out-of-bounds." Either the positive or the negative communicates the idea. But some rules are not susceptible to negation. In Monopoly, that Boardwalk costs $400 is a positive rule, and it is difficult to effectively describe this rule as a negative. In baseball you must hit the ball with a bat, in hockey you cannot throw the puck into the net, and so on. Once again video games are not susceptible to these tricks of language, as the rules are hard-coded. Perhaps the un-debatable nature of video game rules is where the idea of "rules-as-designed-things" comes from.

At the risk of positioning myself lest I be accused of being a social constructionist, I think that rules, hard-coded or not, necessarily depend on the society that adopts and engage them, even in the case of a video game systems.

One of my favorite things to watch is when Matt (the lead designer at our lab) plays a game for the first time. He is always looking for ways to "break" the game - immediately pushing on the boundaries of the game's affordances to find "something else to do." Matt's play is discursive. He may fall into patterns eventually, but he is first exploring the vocabulary and grammar of the system and finding ways to "play" with it. He creates a network between himself and the game (as code, platform, text and context), through play, that defines the game as played. Even a game that has minimal coded affordances can invite creative play. Again, this is one reason why I think B.U.T.T.O.N. is brilliant. It calls the relationship between player and game to our attention.

That musical note comparison is very interesting. What does that written note really represent? If I am playing the score on a piano tuned a half step down, am I expressing the same piece of music? Do the relationships between the notes matter more than the relationship between the written note and its physical manifestation? What role does the listener have in this mode of communication?

Something tells me we are having a discussion that is part of a larger philosophical discourse that extends far beyond just game studies. I only wish I could somehow know it all, making my writing more thorough.

I also think it's problematic to throw-out the role of the video game designer entirely. Playing against the rules of the game to see what works and what does not is certainly possible, but it only functions in the context of the system's affordances. Everything you can choose to do is in some way enabled by the code running the game. Certainly unexpected and unplanned behavior crops up, allowing the player to do things the designers never intended, but this is still a result of how the system functions.

One thing that continually returns to mind here is the MDA framework, which posits a high degree of designer control over player behavior. That such control is possible becomes apparent in very simple video games, such as Don't Shoot The Puppy. Here the player only has two possible actions: move the mouse (thereby shooting the puppy), or do not move the mouse. In the context of the game, the designers have a high degree of control over my actions simply because they have not given me many choices. Video games are deterministic in a way that other, non-digital games are not.

I do agree with you in that this is clearly part of a larger discourse that neither of us are particularly well-versed in at the moment. However, these are important questions to ask, especially when working in an environment that privileges the designer by default. Furthermore, this line of thinking reveals some of the problems with lumping all game-like activities under one banner. Clearly video games, sports and board games have a lot in common, but they are also clearly different, and there is room in game studies for more nuanced inquiries into all of them.

Friday 5/20/11 - Jibe demo from ReactionGrid

Jibe by ReactionGridFriday Games at GAMBIT is ending for the semester, we'll see you in the fall. To end the series, we have a guest presentation from Chris Hart (CTO) and John Lester (Director of Community Development) from ReactionGrid! They will be presenting a live demo and overview of Jibe, focusing on how it can be used by game developers interested in creating multiuser 3d environments.

The talk will start at 4pm Eastern Time at the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab, and will be simultaneously livestreamed at

Here are some more details about Jibe and what you can expect from the talk:

Jibe is a multiuser virtual world development platform from ReactionGrid. The Jibe platform is an extensible architecture that uses a middleware abstraction layer to communicate with multiple backend systems (currently SmartFox & Photon) and frontends (currently Unity3D, ready for WebGL). Current deployments of Jibe worlds utilize the Unity3D web plugin, with iOS and Android support under development.

Additional features include customizable 3D avatars, private/public text chat, Vivox voice integration, hooks for Augmented Reality/SCADA/robotics/telemetry applications, a built-in registration database, detailed logging of inworld events and user tracking, and the ability to integrate with preexisting user registration systems (including FacebookConnect). Jibe platforms can be hosted by ReactionGrid or deployed on your own servers.

Friday Games 5/13/11 - Super Mecha Giant Robot Inertia

18-meter tall Gundam in Odaiba, Tokyo"You're not gonna believe this, but it was a giant... metal... man." - The Iron Giant (1999)

Mecha. Mobile suits. Armored troopers. Vertical tanks. Giant freakin' robots. This Friday, we'll have a look at how some games turn weightless 3D polygons into hulking, lumbering giants. Specifically, we'll look at inertia: a giant robot at rest tends to stay at rest, a giant robot in motion tends to stay in motion. Combine that with unusual points-of-view, control schemes, and positional play for ten-storey tall experiences.

Join us at 4pm at the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab, or watch the live stream at!

Looking Glass Studios Interview Series - Audio Podcast 3 - Tim Stellmach and Laura Baldwin


Part 3 of a continuing series, where I interview members of the now-defunct but highly influential Looking Glass Studios (1990-2000), which wrote the book on 3D first-person narrative game design throughout the 90s, in such games as Ultima Underworld, System Shock, and Thief.

In this episode I talk with Tim Stellmach and Laura Baldwin. Tim was lead designer on Thief and Thief II, as well as a designer on Underworld II, System Shock, and Terra Nova. Laura was a designer/writer on Thief. She also worked in System Shock 2.

Again we are joined on this podcast by Sara Verrilli, QA on System Shock and designer on Thief and Thief 2.

The discussion mostly covers Thief, though there is some discussion of other projects. If you want to find out where lingo like "taffer" comes from, or what it means, be sure to check it out!

Download The Podcast!

To subscribe to the RSS Feed, enter in to your podcast client or RSS reader of choice.

Student Games in Lobby 10 today

standoff.jpgFrom 1pm to 4pm, students from CMS.611J/6.073J Creating Video Games will set up their final semester projects for public play in Lobby 10, right under MIT's Great Dome.

This past Spring, students were challenged to design games with the themes "Mexican Standoff" and "Australia". The teams responded with a large variety of projects, including iOS apps, text adventures, multiplayer games and single-player games.

Creating Video Games is an MIT class that introduces students to the complexities of working in small, multidisciplinary teams to develop video games. The joint Computer Science/Comparative Media Studies class covers creative design and production methods, stressing design iteration and regular testing across all aspects of game development (design, visual arts, music, fiction, and programming).

Friday Games 5/6/11 - 3 Perspectives on Ikaruga


This Friday is all about Treasure's acclaimed Ikaruga. Part "bullet-hell" style shmup, part puzzle game, Ikaruga is an extremely difficult and intense experience.

But of course, for some of us at GAMBIT the game is about much more than dodging bullets and scoring points. This Friday Matt Weise, Mark Sullivan and Jason Begy will each share their own perspectives on the game: what it means, why it matters, and why it's art.

On Object Orientation: An Antapologia for Brian Moriarty

This is an antapologia for Brian Moriarty. Antapologia is greek for a formal counter argument to an apologia, which is greek for a formal defense.

ebert.jpegAt GDC last March Brian Moriarty delivered an impassioned, and now infamous defense of Roger Ebert's even more infamous claim that video games are not, and could never be, art. Moriarty built a somewhat circuitous and dare I say specious argument that drew many cheers and contrarily much ire from the game development and game studies community. He invoked philosophy and faith, Shoepenhauer and Dylan (Bob), to argue that with the exercise of free will exhibited by players engaged in play "sublime art" is necessarily precluded. "Sublime art," Moriarty incanted, "is the door to a perspective of reality that transcends Will." His diatribe reached its philosophical climax with the seemingly simple, albeit nonsensical utterance, "Sublime art is the still evocation of the inexpressible."

I will resist the urge to poke at his house of cards. I will not, in this letter, suggest that he engaged in "pretentious rhetoric" to the point of philosophical obfuscation. I will not argue that he unabashedly rejected wholesale the last 100 years of philosophical discourse about art, intertextuality, mass media, and the collapsed distinction between high and low culture. I will not intimate that in mocking Duchamp, declaring The Fountain to be nothing more than a piss pot, he unwittingly stumbled into Duchamp's magical urinal, reiterating for the entire audience, the artist's brilliant statement. No, if you want to read the myriad ways his argument has been dissected and scrutinized, read twitter transcripts. Better yet, read his apology yourself and make up your own mind.

I am far more concerned with how Professor Moriarty framed his argument. I am disturbed by the distorted lens through which he is looking at games, and I am noticing that his vantage is shared by many in the game community. I cheekily call it object orientation, with the full pun intended.

Game designers have become obsessed with the artifacts of their supposed creation. I blame digital games. Games have become commodities, not as constrained performances, rather as obscured or even invisible systems, executed by machines, and operated upon by players. Best Buy, Amazon and Game Stop sell them to us as disks and cartridges or even downloaded software, and we engage them on a superficial interface level while far more complex rules and operations act as the Wizard to our conference with the great and powerful Oz.

Don't get me wrong, I am grateful for the explosion of interactive possibility afforded by computation. However, I am concerned that our understanding of what a game is and is not has been distorted by an obsession with the "game" as object or artifact, rather than the game as performance.

I know, by heart, the rules of chess, and I buy chess sets as a matter of convenience, not necessity. One can play chess with almost anything so long as the parties involved agree upon the signification of the play objects and the space. I dare not even attempt to count the number of times I've played soccer with t-shirts for goals, baseball with a stick and rock, or even charades with nothing but the people with whom I shared some space. Games are not the objects that afford their engagement, they are defined by the engagement itself. A game not played is no game at all. Software does not a game make.

Moriarty spent nearly 7,500 words pontificating on the lack of expressiveness in video games. He argued about the imagery, and the sound, and even waxed philosophically about engagement and interactivity, choice and will. All the while he ignored the most expressive act of the medium, that which defines it, which is the playing itself.

mikhail_baryshnikov_3.jpegMoriarty said "I'm here because of this sentence: 'No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers.'" He repeatedly illustrated his obsession with the auteur and art as artifact. Was Mikhail Baryshnikov not an artist? Is the choreographer of a dance the only artist to whom we owe appreciation for the performance? What about those engaging in the act itself? Does Moriarty look at the score for Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, without listening to it, and in reading the notation unperformed experience a "still evocation of the inexpressible?" I'm guessing not.

The art of dance and music and theater is performance. Sure society has established conventions by which we value and measure that performance, which subsequently gives value to the rules or constraints by which the performance is enacted (sound familiar).

However, the act of engaging, of playing, that willful and practiced activity is, in fact, the dynamic evocation of the sublime expressed.

For many who make and study games, the artifact of the creation is the essential component to their livelihood. I understand why, especially in our exceedingly commercial and material culture, we want to value the object in hand, and deify its supposed "creators." However, a video game not-played is no game at all. Rules unrealized are not enforced, and cease to exist. Systems uninitiated are chaotic non-things. Designers have grown attached to the perception that they are creators of artifacts. In truth the act of game design is more like composing a musical score or choreographing a dance; the "object" of the creation is not fully realized until it is engaged through performance.

This post can also be read at Abe's blog, A Simpler Creature.

Video Games 101: Today, 6pm, MIT Museum

5170201717_a46e97c035_m.jpgHopefully you've been enjoying the Cambridge Science Festival as much as we have. After the success of our open house Saturday, now we move over to the MIT Museum for an event showcasing the local game industry.


Video Games 101

Thursday, May 5, 6-8:30pm
MIT Museum @ 265 Massachusetts Ave
Teenage and older.

6pm - Recess
Our team of "professors" are ready to answer your questions! Play games and demonstrations from Owlchemy Labs, Fire Hose Games, Gradient Studios, SCVNGR, Zynga - Boston, the MIT Media Lab, and the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab. Also look for other pros wandering the halls.

6:45pm - First bell
Classes begin as our experts give short talks about different aspects of video game development.

Brain Surgery: Artificial Intelligence in Video Games
Damian Isla, Moonshot Games

Design: Collaboration
Dean Tate, Harmonix

Graphic Visualization: The UI Art of Dance Central for the Kinect
Adam Carriuolo, Harmonix

Psychology: Causing Fear and Anxiety through Sound Design in Video Games*
Ahmed Abdel-Meguid, 38 Studios

7:45pm - Pop Quiz: Question & Answer session
Damian Isla, Dean Tate, Adam Carriuolo, Ahmed Abdel-Meguid

8pm - Study Hall
Last chance to play games or talk to professors before the final bell.

8:30 - School's out.

* This talk uses examples from a video game rated Mature for Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, and Strong Language.

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