C.S. Lewis and Philosophy of Game Design
“Perhaps, in the nature of things, analytical understanding must always be a basilisk which kills what it sees and only sees by killing.”
C.S. Lewis ~ The Abolition of Man
I’ve been interested by a pattern that I’ve noticed on Gamasutra and a few other game design related sites. Almost every time an article or blog is posted that gets into the psychology of gaming and game design there will be a comment or two along the lines of:
“You can’t turn art into a system of numbers and metrics! You are killing the FUN in games when you analyze them like this! Don’t deconstruct the magic that makes games what they are!”
Personally, these right-brained knee-jerk responses don’t really appeal to me. They usually strike me as sad, inarticulate slippery-slope arguments. But I’m also philosophically opposed to dismissing ideas out-of-hand. I prefer the Hegelian method of searching out the thesis/antithesis and hashing out a synthesis whenever possible. That’s why I love bouncing between Nietzsche and C.S. Lewis.
Which brings me to my point. Being a dominantly right-brained individual myself, I sympathize with what these naysayers are pointing at. And since I’ve not seen a well articulated argument from them, when I came across these passages from C.S. Lewis’ book The Abolition of Man, they jumped out at me as possible conscripts for their position. The book itself is, of course, not about game design at all, but the theme does speak directly to this debate about how the analysis of a thing (Such as fun) can kill it. At least for the artists. Consider this passage as it relates to metrics or any specific psychological understanding of fun.
“Now I take it that when we understand a thing analytically and then dominate and use it for our own convenience, we reduce it to the level of `Nature' in the sense that we suspend our judgments of value about it, ignore its final cause (if any), and treat it in terms of quantity. This repression of elements in what would otherwise be our total reaction to it is sometimes very noticeable and even painful: something has to be overcome before we can cut up a dead man or a live animal in a dissecting room. These objects resist the movement of the mind whereby we thrust them into the world of mere Nature. But in other instances too, a similar price is exacted for our analytical knowledge and manipulative power, even if we have ceased to count it.
We do not look at trees either as Dryads or as beautiful objects while we cut them into beams: the first man who did so may have felt the price keenly, and the bleeding trees in Virgil and Spenser may be far-off echoes of that primeval sense of impiety. The stars lost their divinity as astronomy developed, and the Dying God has no place in chemical agriculture. To many, no doubt, this process is simply the gradual discovery that the real world is different from what we expected, and the old opposition to Galileo or to `body-snatchers' is simply obscurantism. But that is not the whole story. It is not the greatest of modern scientists who feel most sure that the object, stripped of its qualitative properties and reduced to mere quantity, is wholly real. Little scientists, and little unscientific followers of science, may think so. The great minds know very well that the object, so treated, is an artificial abstraction, that something of its reality has been lost.”
This seems to me like a quintessential argument against the way many in our industry like to view games as elaborate Skinner Boxes.
When we take game mechanics as parts to a machine designed to trigger dopamine release in players, then we are no longer seeing a GAME in the common sense of the word, but rather a mechanism. We have ceased to be artists and have become mechanics. (Many developers don’t mind this designation, so don’t think I’m using it as a pejorative.) I think the first time I encountered this feeling was when I learned about the nine-act structure that can be seen in almost every blockbuster movie made in the last 30 years.
As our culture becomes more and more saturated with entertainment content it has been easier for us to pick up on the patterns that are at work here. And as I discovered more and more of these mechanics, a great, dark ennui began to engulf me. When I went to a movie, rather than enjoying or being moved by a story, I was observing a mechanical process. Seeing the pieces move like clockwork in an elaborate machine.
I was “seeing through” the magic. Seeing through the movie. Losing the experience. This is something that Lewis predicted before post-modernism had a name, but he traced the trajectory that naturalistic modernism was on and presented his case that such a trajectory has no satisfactory conclusion. Our culture has been conditioned to “see through” so much. To scrutinize things with a cynical eye so we can explain away what we disagree with. To see through advertising. To see through religion. To see through patriotism. To see through politics. To see through morals. And in our case: to see through fun. This is where Lewis sees this ending:
“But you cannot go on `explaining away' for ever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on `seeing through’ things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to `see through' first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To `see through' all things is the same as not to see.”
So what I think I’m hearing from the rabble rousers that object to the study of psychology applied to games, is fear. They fear losing the magic that I lost with movies. I can still appreciate a well done movie, but on an un-enchanted level, as one would appreciate a well crafted chair or shoe. My right brain doesn’t want to lose that magic that games still bring me. But my left brain understands that in every field there is a technical expertise that must be mastered before a medium gains its full power. Imagine if doctors didn’t want to study internal organs because understanding how digestion works would ruin the magic of humans for them. Or if movie makers didn’t study the craft, learning what kinds of characters are compelling, what kinds of conflict work, what kinds of relationships resonate, etc. Well, sure, movies would be less predictable, but there would also arguably be fewer good ones.
Our industry is still not even at the point of understanding what we are or how we work. I feel like we are just now entering our adolescence. We are still working too hard at mimicking other mediums like film, but at the same time starting to pull away and define our own personality. This is a time for introspection. We’ve been on the playground for a long time now. We’ve outgrown out our magical imagination world, and I think it’s time to leave Peter Pan behind and grow up. But that doesn’t mean we have to ignore Lewis’ warnings. I don’t think this is a zero-sum game or a binary position where analytical understanding is antithetical to fun. I doubt there are many doctors or culinary artists that can’t enjoy eating because they are aware of the biology going on behind the scenes. Instead they allow their insight to inform, rather than dictate their view of their crafts. A patient may be no more than a system of pneumatic valves and electrical impulses while a surgeon is performing heart surgery. But when they are done they can still feel empathy and even love for the patient. A chef can understand the chemical reactions that acidic foods have with alkaline foods, yet still enjoy eating out with friends.
So is something lost when we delve into the psychology of games? Absolutely. Some of the magic is lost, just like when we stopped believing in Santa. But does it then KILL fun? Not at all. Humans have the amazing ability to switch modes when the need arises. Those who can’t do this have something very wrong with them. Like a doctor who sees all humans merely as meat with a heartbeat. With time I’ve learned to switch the analytic part of my brain off when I see movies now. Sometimes when the tropes and clichés are particularly awful I can slip back into that headspace, sure. But overall, I’m quite happy that I have a basic understanding of storytelling.
When you lose Santa you GAIN the ability to BE Santa. You lose some inexplicable magical feelings. But you gain a different pleasure from crafting experiences of joy for those you love. And isn’t that really what making games is all about?
You can read Lewis’ book The Abolition of Man here: http://www.columbia.edu/cu/augustine/arch/lewis/abolition1.htm#1