Interview – Chris Bateman

Part II - Imaginary Games, Hobbyists , & Mass-Market Players

Interview - BatemanII

Chris Bateman is a philosopher, game designer, and author – and has a doctorate (pending corrections) in game aesthetics, to boot. He has written a series of books on game design and philosophy, the most recent of which are Imaginary Games and The Mythology of Evolution. In game design, he was lead game designer and writer for games including Discworld NoirGhost Master, and Heretic Kingdoms: The Inquisition. Bateman researches and lectures at the University of Bolton.

Here is Part II of our interview with Chris Bateman. You can find Part I here.

First Person Scholar book review editor Michael Hancock recently interviewed Chris Bateman to talk about issues related to games including realism, mimesis, mythology, and game design in indie and AAA studios. [The following interview was conducted by email, and has been edited for clarity.]

FPS:  I read your recent blog post on Gordon Freeman, where you contrast his cypher-like nature with Shenmue‘s Ryo who has more of an established personality, and how each type of character corresponds to different implied contracts between player and game. As I mentioned, I’ve been playing Myst recently, and it struck me how much The Stranger, as the PC is sometimes called, is exactly the same sort of blank slate – even more so, since at least Freeman gets his own distinct physical appearance. Besides the cypher nature of the PC, the obvious other element both games share is a first person perspective. Now, I know the blank slate protagonist doesn’t entirely overlap with the first person perspective – I’ve played too many older JRPGs to make that mistake – but I was hoping you could speculate on the fictional rules or implicit contracts that a first person perspective implies.

Bateman: People underestimate the importance of perspective for a number of reasons, but I’m not sure it comes in directly in terms of implicit contracts of play. I think there are at least two wildly different ways of analysing the aesthetic experience of videogames – to look at the fiction, the imaginings, which is what I develop in Imaginary Games (what I call ‘prop theory’), or to look at the function, particularly the interface and its devices, which is what Graeme Kirkpatrick stresses in his aesthetic model (what I call ‘form theory’). The presence or absence of first person is less significant in either case than what is being represented, and how it is being controlled. First person controls today imply a very complex interface – not a million miles away from driving a tank, actually – which requires complex actions by both of the player’s hands. It’s still something of a barrier to entry for games, although the younger generation growing up with an endless supply of FPS games is inculcated into it and doesn’t notice (hence they don’t really notice that Dear Esther is at heart a ‘first person non-shooter’, since it is controlled just like an FPS, something many players outside of our hobby could not even begin to operate). Older first person games – Dungeon Master springs to mind, or Myst which you mentioned – didn’t have this restriction, but now the ‘twin sticks’ (or equivalent mouse and keyboard) interface is the de facto control method for a certain type of game.

Of course, that ‘certain type’ is mostly games with guns – and it doesn’t matter so much whether it is rendered in third or first person since, nuances aside, the control schemes are equivalently complex, and the play that emerges from giving the player a gun works itself out in certain ways rather naturally. I’ve suggested that the FPS is analogous to children playing with toy guns because rather than a character you’re presented with a toy in your virtual hands – just like a toy gun except you don’t have to imagine killing the other boys because the game renders it all for you. Adult play, frankly, tends to be less imaginative than children’s play, which is a shame but also somewhat inevitable. Moving to third person adds the doll to the avatar (i.e. the character model) but as long as there’s a gun there, the gun is going to dominate the play of the game. Guns are props that possess this quality, as are cars. Small wonder GTA made a fortune putting the two together in the open world format that games like Elite, Paradroid and The Lords of Midnight had established as a great playground (and all three of those games were published between 1984 and 1985)! So I tend to be more interested in the props and the interface, and less in the perspective as such, except in recognising that first person is significantly easier for certain players to imagine when compared to a panned out, top-down view. I have always found it curious that I tend to prefer top-down or pseudo-isometric perspectives, that I often find it easier to get immersed in such a view than in first person. I felt more a part of the world of Resident Evil Zero than I ever did in 4, even though 4 is an extremely polished experience with a lot to recommend it. Perhaps my history as a dedicated tabletop role-player (I foolishly hoped to make a living making these, once upon a time!) has taught me to view the fictional world of games from a rather different angle…

FPS: In Imaginary Games, you draw a distinction between what you call “concrete” and “abstract” thinkers, drawing on psychology to differentiate between less and more imaginative people, respectively. And the reason you bring up this distinction is that it helps to keep such divisions in mind when considering what audience will be attracted to a product – generally, the less imagination required, the greater the audience.  And you extend the distinction to gaming cultures: imaginative people are those who tend to purchase a great variety of games you call gamer hobbyists, and mass-market players are those who buy only a few games, but may play those often (and if I’m misconstruing you here, please correct me.). My concern with those terms is that they slip a little too easily onto hardcore and casual gamers, terms that carry further problems because they often come with gendered expectations. Further, in my own experience, the games I tend to play rely less on a state of being (that is, me being concrete or abstract) and more on cultural familiarity; I played my first FPS, BioShock, for example, after watching my younger brother play through it. Until that point, I had simply regarded all FPS games as things outside my realm of experience. Do you see any value in adding further nuance to the abstract/concrete dichotomy (as you call it, p 57)?

Bateman: This distinction between gamer hobbyists and mass-market players comes directly from my early (rather crude) research into how and why people play games, the DGD1, which is discussed in 21st Century Game Design. I was expressly investigating at the time what makes people self-identify as a ‘hardcore’ or a ‘casual’ player, and I hypothesised that ‘hardcore’ players were challenge-focussed. This turned out to be incorrect. In fact, there were challenge-focussed ‘hardcore’ players, and challenge-focussed ‘casual’ players, as well as many other play styles. The key finding of the DGD1 was that the same general kinds of play style were expressed by both self-identified groups. So I stopped using the terms ‘hardcore’ and ‘casual’ and started talking about players for whom playing games was a significant part of their life – gamer hobbyists – and those who played games but were not so invested in the hobby – mass-market players. So this is expressly a remounting of ‘hardcore’ and ‘casual’, but it would be misleading to translate it back to those original terms.

As for gender, this really has nothing to do with gender in any individual sense – only if you started looking into distributions of specific play styles could gender come into play. But on an individual basis, gender predicts nothing much about play unless you count Sheri Graner Ray’s observations regarding certain cognitive patterns e.g. that female players generally find it easier to select an object from a crowded field, while male players generally find it easier to track a single moving object. Honestly, thinking that ‘girl gamers’ play in the same way is as utterly misguided as thinking that ‘boy gamers’ play in the same way! It’s wildly misguided to look at gender and play like this.

The whole purpose of introducing the distinction between abstract and concrete thinking (which is better understood as a continuum than a strict dichotomy) was to highlight the role of imagination as a limiting factor for participation in play of certain kinds. But I am not proposing this as some master key for the appeal of games – actually, I don’t believe there is a master key of this nature unless it’s uncertainty, which is far too general a concept to be predictive in any useful way. The point is, you could play BioShock because you were imaginative enough to want to be part of that fictional world. More concrete players would find that game pretty frivolous and uninteresting.

I’m reminded of when I was a student and I worked in a pub to get extra money (admittedly to spend on Magic: The Gathering cards, but let’s not get sidetracked by my student addictions!). When Star Trek: The Next Generation – a favourite show of mine at the time – came on the pub TV, the locals would get these disparaging looks on their faces and immediately change the channel. They had no interest in this kind of imaginative activity, it was childish and a waste of time for them. Unlike, for instance, the football matches – which were a matter of great importance! Abstract thought was not, for the most part, an important part of the lives of those locals – although I tell you, on so many different matters they were far more competent than I ever was or will be. Abstract doesn’t trump concrete, it’s just a different way of thinking.

The point in distinguishing between abstract and concrete approaches is only this: some ways of playing require greater imagination, greater abstract thinking, and this limits the audience for such games to the players who are both willing and able to imagine what is implied. It is far easier for most people to imagine that they are wielding a gun (as every FPS demands) than to imagine they are reliving an intense seaside affair (as Bientôt l’été demands). This is just as true of TV shows, books, and paintings – it’s ‘easier’ to enjoy a Turner painting than a Picasso. But there are joys to be found across the whole spectrum – I’d never suggest the aesthetic experience of a tabletop role-playing game was aesthetically superior than that of a football match. But it does require greater imagination to enjoy, and that is my point.

FPS: And here’s the FPS signature question: What can games do? What’s their potential? What’s the upper limit on the roles games can play in our lives? Given the context, feel free to interpret “games” in this case any way you see fit.

Bateman: At Philosophy of Play, my presentation was entitled “A Disavowal of Games”, because I’m finding the terminological disputes over ‘what is a game’ are seriously getting in the way of the more interesting work. I’ve been trying to disentangle this as an aesthetic problem – to see different concepts of game as different aesthetic value judgements, and I think this work has much greater potential than has so far been realized. Unfortunately, it leaves me in a very difficult place when it comes to a question like ‘what can games do?’ In the widest sense of the term game, as describing any play process, it seems as if both play and imagination have been absolutely integral to getting life – and not just human life – to where we are now. So in terms of potential, games in the widest sense are absolutely unlimited, and we could not even begin to speculate what the extreme ends of this might be. Unfortunately, this way of looking at ‘games’ blurs the lines so much as to be ultimately too vague to be useful.

If I constrain the question to something a little more specific – perhaps to those play experiences involving designed content, such as boardgames and videogames, then I find a real hodgepodge of possibilities, potentialities, and risks. The games industry has defended itself from attack from the ‘outside’ out of necessity, and most of the complaints levelled against games have either made ludicrous claims or involved a massive overreaction or oversimplification. But part of the problem with defending the medium in this way is that you then don’t acknowledge the true aspects hidden within the complaints being raised. I don’t think we can simply ignore the prevalence of gun games, for instance, and we mustn’t do so by claiming ‘it’s just a game’ since to do so would be to betray everyone experimenting with games as an artistic medium. Nor can we both praise games for their addictiveness and then be surprised that this also entails a risk that comes back to bite us on our collective behinds. I want to see questions like this taken into debate – but while we fear censorship, it will be difficult to have these discussions.

On the other side of this coin, play is an incredibly transformative experience, and I believe we could and should be looking at how imaginative experiences, guided and aided by games of various kinds, might help people with personal problems like anxiety, or task them with finding new ways of living together, or ask them to explore their own prejudices (and to be clear, political liberals can be just as bigoted as political conservatives, they just hold prejudices against different kinds of ‘others’). Films were an imaginative artform that also had this double-edged quality – if you study the twentieth century, you could not simply claim that movies were purely positive, but neither could you denigrate feature films in a blanket fashion without failing to recognize the achievements of some incredibly creative people (Moorcock’s Pyat Quartet, incidentally, is exceptionally relevant on this particular issue). The same kind of ambiguities surround games – both videogames and other processes of play – and I rather suspect the overwhelmingly positive spin that has been put on them in recent years, especially since the advent of ‘gamification’ as a buzzword, is in need of a more robustly constructed counterweight.