Over the past couple of years I have embedded literally dozens of general-audience video essays I have made and posted on my YouTube page. I am very pleased to announce the online publication of my first peer-reviewed academic video essay at the [in]Transition Journal of Videographic Film and Moving Image Studies.
The appearance of this video at [in]Transition has been a long time coming. (I actually first obliquely referred to it way back in October 2018, when I began by “Let’s Study Horror Games” series.) This is actually the first time that [in]Transition has published a piece on videogames, and so it took them awhile to seek out appropriate peer reviewers. I couldn’t have asked for better ones: the reviewer comments, available online (as is [in]Transition‘s style), are thorough, thoughtful, and engaged. Despite the delay, I am seriously impressed by the journal’s dedication to expanding their horizons, and making good on that “and Moving Image Studies” bit of their title. I’m honored to have had a role in their expanding purview, and I hope it is a harbinger of things to come.
This video is densely packed with game examples, and it wouldn’t have been possible without the years’ worth of work I’ve done on these themes, with the help and input of too many people to count. If you are interested in written versions of the material leading to the creation of this video, which has evolved a lot throughout the years, I would recommend this conference paper (by the same title) I presented at the 2013 Philosophy of Computer Games conference, and this conference paper I presented at the 2015 Society for Phenomenology and Media conference.
In The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia, Bernard Suits offers the following definition of a game:
[T]o play a game is to engage in activity directed towards bringing about a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by rules, where the rules prohibit more efficient in favour of less efficient means, and where such rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity.[i]
What does Suits mean by the favoring of “less efficient means“? Well, we could imagine a reductio ad absurdum version of any given game, in which players truly want nothing more than to achieve the game’s end goal. Suits offers this famous description of golf: “if my end were simply to get a ball into a number of holes in the ground, I would not be likely to use a golf club in order to achieve it, nor would I stand at a considerable distance from each hole.”[ii] Of course, the real goal of golf is not to get a ball into holes in the ground. The real goal of golf is to be good at … well, golfing. This leads Suits to his pithiest formulation: “playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.”[iii] Games aren’t really about their purported end goals. They are about consenting to manufactured inefficiencies, accepted as the constraints that make play possible.
One means of introducing “less efficient means” into the completion of a task is by using deliberately abstruse user-experience design. We see this in analog game design in classic party games like Twister or Operation. We see this in digital game design in the fumblecore genre, which I have written about before.
Today, I’ll be writing about two games, both of which harness deliberately inefficient control schemes as a key component of user experience: Affordable Space Adventures (KnapNok Games, 2015) and Duskers (Misfits Attic, 2016). Neither precisely qualifies as “fumblecore” (at least according to my own definition), as neither involves the control of a human body. Instead, both games task players with piloting spacefaring vessels, using a technologically-aided science-fiction setup to justify their cumbersome controls.
Despite this congruence in abstract terms, you’d be hard pressed to find two games more tonally divergent, which made pairing them together even more irresistible.