Languages of Experience

Note: I'm about to cross-post this at gamasutra. I'd thought about using this blog for a version with a lot more cheeky personal rambling. Still might, I did enjoy the bit about how I make games while double-fisting tequila and redbull. For now, I'm going to keep the two posts the same.

This GDC I had the pleasure of watching two well-known game designers nearly stand up shouting, as they violently agreed over minute distinctions between “fun” and “engagement.” Say what you will about Cart Life (they did) but anything that gets us that excited about a whole medium is working.

I don't want to give a precise summary of last month's game theory writing, by Dan Cook, Robert Yang, Mattie Brice, and Raph Koster, or the spark lit by Leigh Alexander,  the flights of Anna Anthropy, and the veritable army of posts, comments, and prognostications which colored the exchanges. Read it, if you want a sense of how we’re juggling the want for useful discourse, with the want to relish artistic freedom, to violently resist assimilation.

But even when we’re being loud, I’m struck by how much we’re agreeing in different languages. Raph Koster has been cheering on crazy, new shit for over a decade. Anna Anthropy says that everyone should be making personal, cool shit. Their outlooks don't seem all that different, on the face. The arguments signal to me that procedural literacy – the shit that we can only learn by interacting with game systems – has already begun to create new and robust experiences for which we lack words. Excepting the work of a few genius-level writers working on games – among which I’d count Patricia Hernandez, Cara Ellison, and Ian Bogost – we fall over ourselves trying to describe the power of the medium. And there's a really good reason that we'll keep falling over, and violently agreeing:

Games can do anything.

In games, we can recreate any experience within or without the human experience. And there are dozens of vetted, objective vocabularies for the human experience. I’m interested in outlining five: for cultural criticism, human engagement, human manipulation, spatiality, and aesthetics. We can and do use these languages to break down literature, poetry, cinema, sculpture, a range of mediums which includes games. But in games we go beyond reading or watching an experience. We live it. We can't help but live it. Procedurality means we need to get involved, it’s the major ordinance of games. Books say, know me. Television says, gaze at me. Games say, touch me.
Gamers will sometimes grasp behaviorism, positive psychology, art, and design implicitly and inseparably, because they've touched them, walked through them. With a few gorgeous exceptions –most of which I’ve ruthlessly pillaged, and some of which are listed below – older academic languages aren’t so holistic. Games are. Games are systems designed to be experienced. We have a lot of great work right now on how they function as systems, and similarly rich work on the craft of design. Where we’re lagging is in understanding the experience. If we can live games, then we can understand them through the languages used to analyze life.

Over the next few weeks, I want to talk about these languages in turn. Each could lend both precision and depth to conversations about why and how games matter.

1)    The Language of Cultural Critique Challenge

As a note: if I do lay out parts of a language on cultural criticism, it would be strictly academic. As a completely privileged white man, rarely do I encounter oppression that’s openly institutionalized. While I can lay out some theoretical work on othering, gender, cultures of abuse, and certain structures of oppression, my goal is to assemble a language, not solve anyone’s problems. If you’re reading this and think you can make a language which genuinely cares to help creators assess and elevate their challenges to existing social ills, maybe even generate new forms of empathy, then what are you waiting for? If there are objective vocabularies that you already use, then I really want to hear about them.

2)    The Language of Human Engagement

Some of the scholars adding to the language of human engagement do come from the games industry. “Fun” is the sweet spot, for commercial consultants and the media industry both. You see clear paths to fun in the work of folks like Rigby and Ryan, Nicole Lazzaro, and Raph. In psychology we can (and many do) pull from the standard folks like Cziksentmihaly and Maslow. It's also interesting to get into the deeper happiness research, with folks like George Vaillant, Frankl, and the parts of Maslow that don't involve pyramids. It's there you can start to plumb for the difference between pedestrian human happiness, and a depth of fulfillment.

3)    The Language of Human Manipulation

This language could clarify the line between engagement and manipulation for creators and the general populace both, by covering work in radical behaviorism, neuropsychology, motivational psychology, as well as their present applications within gaming. For a very non-confrontational instance, in what Dr. Nick Yee has called the Proteus Effect, embodiment alone can change behavior. Further, he's found that morphing an individual's face onto that of a political candidate caused significant increases in whether a respondent would vote for that candidate. With this possibility that media might (perhaps forcibly) change behavior, an understanding of human manipulation is growing increasingly vital for civic life, to say nothing of the subtlety of aesthetic expression.

4)    The Language of Spatiality

Architecture has long been asserted to shape behavior, for instance in Jeremy Bentham's Big Brother-style prison, the Panopticon. As with then, contemporary CPTED (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design) puts a major focus on architecture for deterring criminals. Though some vocabulary can be inferred from crime prevention projects, academics such as Don Norman hold out hope that we can free the conversation to be used in the pursuit of human fulfillment. Games-savvy academics have been working with government agencies to apply what we know. Spatiality is also a great place to point out deep links between these languages – for instance – between space and art, space and happiness, even the role of space in manipulation and oppression. Ultimately, these languages are meant to work in tandem, and expand past just five.

5)    The Language of Aesthetic Experience

Objective languages for aesthetic experience could jump the debate of whether games are art, focusing instead on how games fulfill established aspects of art. For one instance, if you compared games to Denis Dutton's twelve-item, cross-cultural aesthetic vocabulary, it becomes fairly clear how our medium has already fulfilled every established role of art. Dutton pulls on folks like Aristotle, Plato, Kant, and Hume. McLuhan, Warhol, John Cage, and Walter Benjamin also have a great deal to offer. It is also possible, once assessing their theories, to map ways in which games add wholly unprecedented vistas to the aesthetic experience.

Other fields and works are ripe with languages for experience. Critical theory, social psychology, education.

Languages for experience don't just hold potential for informing games. If games help us to compile, and then refine our languages for experience: for engagement, space, manipulation, aesthetics, oppression, and beyond, the literate naturally take those and use them to better discuss life. Notation once helped music to be understood, to expand and flourish. Once we can see firsthand how game spaces inspire and fulfill, once we understand and hardy ourselves to commonplace manipulation, and when more people can objectively critique art, humans refine our ability to make powerful, positive changes in all of our spaces. Online and off.

I’d really enjoy hearing feedback on this outlook, the meta idea, but maps for these languages aren’t the kind of thing that can be plopped and done. No matter how perennial the idea behind a word, language is a living thing. If any of it sounds relevant to your interests, then leave a little love!


  1. First of all, I think this is a really important distinction you are making and I'm glad to see you are tackling it. While the effects of design are felt in the mind; the reasoning and methods change drastically based on what and how you are trying to elicit these feelings.

    In my education a lot of information gets thrown around and it can sometimes be hard to sort it out. A map of the ways design could be applied is useful by helping me to determine what sort of design strategies I should be using and where I should be using them.

    In short, I'm interested in seeing where this will lead.

  2. Hey Tommy. Really cool of you to check it out. I hope the thing satisfies, when a little bit more is said and done.