Interview – Chris Bateman

Part I - On Realism, Philosophy, and Artgames

Interview - Bateman

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 Noir, Ghost Master, and Heretic Kingdoms: The Inquisition. Bateman researches and lectures at the University of Bolton.

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.]

First Person Scholar: I was recently reading an essay by Gerald Voorhees where he cites Alexander Galloway’s distinction between ‘realisticness’ and ‘social realism.’ Realisticness refers to how a game adheres to photorealism and precise, accurate simulations, whereas social realism speaks to “the congruence of the social reality of the gamer with the experience of the game,” that the “fidelity of context rings true… with the political reality in which the player is located.” Galloway makes the point that very few games can claim to aspire to this social realism, but it struck me that there is a potential connection between social realism and imaginary games, that people may always be drawn towards imaginary games that speak to their social realities – not only that, but designing with social realism in mind may help bridge the gap you identify between concrete and more abstract thinkers. How do you think the two terms compare, and do you think imaginary games is a useful lens for making socially realistic games, and vice versa?

Chris Bateman: It’s interesting to try and drive a wedge between ‘realism’ and ‘social reality’, because it’s not clear how we should tease these terms apart. It’s a legacy of the Enlightenment, in some respects, to want to assert a single objective reality (reality) and a set of subjective realities (social realism), and recently I’ve really come to question the assumptions behind this divide. Consider a simulation of a moonbase. The temptation is to declare this a realistic simulation if it gets the physics of space travel correct, considers the biological demands of life support, and so forth – in other words, to ensure that it conforms with current scientific thinking on the relevant matters. This is generally taken as the yardstick of realism. But of course, all the theories deployed in this way are subject to future revision, and the concept of a moonbase in itself is not necessarily realistic – the reality of space exploration is that unmanned probes are better suited to the task, and only a romantic science fiction mythology makes the moonbase seem both desirable and realistic. In this way, even purportedly ‘realistic’ simulations are intertwined with social reality – you can’t split situations into objective and subjective matters with anything like the confidence that is usually assumed. The two sequels to Imaginary Games (The Mythology of Evolution and Chaos Ethics) dig into these strange and wonderful aspects of our human experience, and try to suggest that our perpetual living within mythologies (even mythologies of a scientific kind) is not a problem to be eliminated, but something valuable to be acknowledged.

Are people drawn towards imaginary games that speak to their social realities? I’m not sure about this… the drive for escapism seems to pull in the opposite direction. Part of Mike Moorcock’s criticism of Tolkein’s legendarium was precisely that it was fiction to comfort rather than to challenge. Although I think Mike goes too far with his critique here, there’s definitely a sense that most epic fantasy literature attains an internal fidelity rather than a fidelity to the reader’s lived context. What’s interesting is how the readers then adopt these narratives into their own mythology – the hippies read the ring as an allegory for nuclear bombs, for instance, even though this was not Tolkien’s intention. Every imaginative experience is a collision of mythologies. With most of the big budget contemporary videogames, it’s clear that we’re dealing with straight power fantasy and so if there is a fidelity within them, it tends to be fidelity to other sources of power fantasy – movies in particular for the GTA franchise, which is parasitic upon the language and tropes of the cinema to a dramatic degree since moving into 3D, and science fiction for the ever-popular space marine fantasies. So I’d agree that fidelity is an important point to look at – the interesting question is: fidelity to what?

FPS: I really like your point that people tend to take an adoptive approach to mythologies. Lord of the Rings is a perfect example, as I think it’s been adopted by people with wide-ranging political beliefs. Some groups believed it an anti-nuclear allegory, as you mentioned, whereas the film adaptations, especially the second, brought out elements that were broadly interpreted as supporting the War on Terror. But alongside this breadth of interpretative possibilities is what seems to be a creative straightjacket – you’d be extremely hard pressed, for example, to find a best-selling fantasy game that doesn’t have Lord of the Rings, or at least Dungeons & Dragons, at its core. Likewise, as you say, sci-fi games and games like GTA have very clear precedents. And if you move away from these edges, then a game risks being unmarketable. Could you comment more on how these baselines affect creative choice in game design?

Bateman: The influence of Dungeons & Dragons on the games industry simply cannot be underestimated, and of course the game does have Tolkien as one of its key roots. What’s fascinating is both the setting (a hodgepodge fantasy world) and the mechanics (structured rewards) have permeated every aspect of contemporary videogames in one place or another – everything from Call of Duty to FarmVille owes a debt to design features introduced in (or refined by) tabletop role-playing games. We point to games like Pong and Pac-Man as our progenitors, but the lineage of games is far older than digital coin-ops! Looking back at game design prior to the first commercial videogame successes, however, it’s interesting to see the channelisation of content was still there. Avalon Hill, the wargaming company that paved the way for D&D, produced hundreds of games, but almost every single one of them has a historical war setting. A rare exception – Starship Troopers – is a licensed space wargame, the original ‘space marines’ game from which Halo and so forth inherit their clichés via James Cameron’s Aliens. Cameron actually had his cast read Heinlein’s novel for inspiration. So this narrowness of allowed content isn’t something new, it’s something that tends to go with all commercial media to some extent. It’s not a surprise that Homer was telling war stories and adventure stories to his audience!

The upshot of this is that big budget videogames are incredibly constrained as to where they can go if they are to make back what they cost to make (and if that sounds coldly capitalistic, it’s important to remember that studios that can’t do this go out of business and everyone loses their job). Fortunately, smaller studios have fewer restrictions, and with the massive diversity of players coming to take an interest in games within the last decade, suddenly we have options for creativity that were unthinkable not that long ago. I tend to see this as having been spearheaded by companies like Nintendo and PopCap who were willing to break the erroneously assumed link between tough challenge and ‘great games’, creating opportunities for inventiveness to resurface. The games of the early arcade and the 8-bit home computers also had this innovative character, in that case because people didn’t know what they were doing and so tried everything, no matter how crazy! It’s great to see that spark of invention coming back into games, albeit in the commercial shadows and backwaters.

FPS: As someone with extensive experience in both philosophy and game design, how do you think your work in one field complements the other? And do you think that this dual footing has changed the way you are interpreted, in academia or in the game industry?

Bateman: Imaginary Games isn’t quite two years old and I still don’t really have a sense of how it is being interpreted, although I’ve had some great conversations with scholars and other nerdy people about it. Also, it is the first part of a trilogy concerning the role of imagination, so in terms of how I am interpreted it may be prudent to wait until after Chaos Ethics comes out (around May next year) and wait until the dust settles a little. Of course, for game studies, it’s only the first book that matters, and I have been pleased that this book has at least been noticed – many scholars have completed their magnum opus only to discover it was unread, at least in their lifetime. I don’t think Roger Caillois or Bernard Suits lived long enough to see just how influential their ideas were going to be, for instance. I was keynoting a fabulous conference, Philosophy at Play, earlier this year and walked into a session that began by citing Imaginary Games, which was embarrassing but gratifying. I think I’m contributing a valuable new (or at least unfamiliar!) perspective, but of course that doesn’t mean I’m being heard, nor that there weren’t already a wealth of great perspectives to draw from in game and play studies.

As far as the games industry is concerned, my work in philosophy is largely invisible. The only clients of mine who have taken it on board have been those with a stake in artgames, like Tale of Tales. They recently thanked me for the efforts I make to present rhetoric that defends the importance of the kind of creative invention Michaël and Auriea [Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn, founders of Tale of Tales] and others like them are producing. I told them I had the easy job, since I only have to make the arguments – they have to make the games, which is far harder! But I’ve always had a conflicted relationship with the industry at large, because I’ve depended upon it for my livelihood for a very long time and it has been both my friend and my enemy in equal degrees. Some years I have hated it so much that I wanted to pack in games completely – actually, that’s what drove me deeper into philosophy. But when I got there, I found that games could never leave me alone – once a game designer, always a game designer – and so my skills from that field collided with my exploration of philosophy. In retrospect, this was very healthy for me. I’m in a much happier place in respect to videogames now than I was a few years ago!

FPS: You brought up Tale of Tales, and I’m glad you did; I’ve been following them since I read reviews of The Path back in 2008, and it’s great to see a studio so devoted to trying new, experimental forms. Are there any other “artgame” studios, to borrow your term, that you think deserve greater attention? And how do you think they compare to art studios that work within larger developers, such as Team Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, or Ubisoft’s attempts to drum up interest in their upcoming Child of Light? What’s necessary for (or at least, what helps) such a game to have an effect on game design at large?

Bateman: Because Michaël and Auriea were already working on web-content, they were pretty well established as a studio even before they took an interest in games. A lot of the other interesting voices in artgames are individuals, or collaborations of individuals, but there are some wonderfully artistic games being made by such people right now. I love Ed Key and David Kanaga’s game Proteus, for instance, which literally made me cry just from the sheer beauty of its world (although admittedly, you might have to have an aesthetic taste for 8- or 16-bit retrogames to appreciate it). Very simple but very interesting pieces are being made by artgame creators such as Deirdra Kiai, Mory Buckman, Ferry Halim, and Jordan Magnuson, and Rod Humble’s The Marriage started some interesting conversations in terms of abstract representation, even if it is more representational than he perhaps gives credit . I’m also very much in support of The Chinese Room – Dear Esther was a revelation. I’ve termed the kind of experience that Proteus and Dear Esther deliver ‘thin play’, and it’s fascinating both for what is being explored, and what they’re refusing to do – not to mention the vehemence with which certain gamers denounce these styles of play as ‘not even games’! The aesthetic value judgements behind such attacks reveal a lot about the prevailing attitudes of gamers, and the sense of ownership of the hobby that certain individuals strangely believe they can hoard, like a dragon perched upon a pile of stolen treasure. Personally, I question whether excluding titles exploring new spaces of play from the category of ‘game’ can possibly be seen as an action in support of our unique medium. I feel this is a rather selfish betrayal of pioneering spirits we should be nurturing.

Larger studios, like Team Ico or thatgamecompany, only get to participate in making artgames at the whim of giant multinational corporations – but I must say, I’m fully in support of these monstrous bureaucracies giving something back to the medium they profit from. Of course, they are not doing this selflessly – Sony funded both of the companies I’ve mentioned because they wanted to have unique content on their platforms that would help the Sony brand image, and give people reasons to buy their consoles. This is still ultimately a good thing for everyone, and I don’t really know why other media corporations don’t see the equivalent benefit in investing in creative content ‘on the side’. Once you have your GTAs and your Assassin’s Creeds generating billion dollar revenues you have something close to a duty to experiment and see what new corners can be explored – and this is merely a commercial duty to the stockholders of the corporation. You could further argue a duty to the medium to support creativity – although this argument goes down badly in the boardrooms of commercial megabureaucracies. That’s short-sighted. In that respect, although possibly only in that respect, Sony have been more responsible than most of their rivals in investing in titles far outside the well-established commercial mainstream.

You can read Part II of our interview with philosopher, game designer, and author, Chris Bateman right here.