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.
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For years, I didn’t know what to do with Anna Anthropy’s Realistic Female First-Person Shooter (2012).
It is, shall we say, a “minor Anthropy.” It’s not one of the games that she includes on her itch.io storefront. If you want to play it, you have to head over here. (It is, unfortunately, Windows-only, although Mac users should feel free to look at this video of the game in action on YouTube).
But despite its somewhat tossed-off status, it is a game I was serious considering including in my article on fumblecore games. There was just one problem: it seemed completely incompatible with my argument. So I swept it under the rug, but kept it in my memory, blinking in the back of my brain, challenging me, keeping me honest.
I think I’ve finally figured out what I want to say about it now, and it’s mostly thanks to the students in my “Frames, Claims, and Videogames” class. I didn’t even teach Realistic Female First-Person Shooter in that class. Instead, my thoughts began crystalizing as students reacted of Alyson Macdonald’s Twine game Female Experience Simulator (2013), one of the most contentious games we played in the course.
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One of my primary reasons for designing my course “Comedy and the Moving Image” for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s first-year seminar sequence was to give myself an opportunity to expand my knowledge base on comedy beyond the research I had done for my article on comedic videogames. The class gave me an opportunity to teach a whole bunch of readings, films, video art pieces, and television episodes I had never taught before. By the twelfth week, though, the time had come to turn back to my particular hobbyhorse.
In the lead-up to this class, I had screened a few stunts from the Jackass franchise. This included “Paper Cuts” from Jackass: The Movie (Jeff Tremaine, 2002) and “Tee Ball” from Jackass 3D (Jeff Tremaine, 2010). The first half of class was organized around discussions of violence and sadism in physical humor, propped up not only by Jackass but also by Muriel Andrin’s chapter “Back to the ‘Slap’: Slapstick’s Hyberbolic Gesture and the Rhetoric of Violence” and Scott Richmond’s article “‘Dude, That’s Just Wrong‘: Mimesis, Identification, Jackass.” In the second half of the course, things segued into small group work as students played and discussed a group of comedic videogames.
You can follow along with the visual presentation for this lesson here.
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