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The Philosophy of Game Design: Phenomenology.


A little while ago (actually longer ago than I intended to leave it before doing a follow-up blog) I wrote a bit about some of the semantics of game design in relation to fun specifically. I’ve been thinking recently about the nature of phenomenological philosophy and want to say a little about how it relates to game design generally, and game design as an art form. So, if that sounds like the worst possible thing to read about, feel free to skip this one.


Phenomenology is the study of phenomena as separate from physical being. One analogy often given is to imagine a scientist bought up in a totally monochrome environment from birth who is even clad in black and white clothes from head to toe at all times so they are unable to see even their own hands. This scientist then learns everything there is to know about the scientific nature of colour, and once they know all that there is to know about colour, they are released into the outside world. The question is whether they would then say something along the lines of “Yep, exactly what I expected” or “Oh, yeah, I just learnt something there”. In short, if you think they learnt something when they’re introduced to actually seeing an actual colour, that something is what phenomenology is trying to talk about. Whether there is something there or not has been an area of debate in philosophy for many years, but I want to try to talk about, if there is, what it means to game design and how it might be motivating game designers.


Its often said that comedy is one of the hardest genres to work in for performers, and I think part of the reason for that is that it’s a phenomenological genre. What I mean is, if someone makes a big spectacle Superhero movie, it’s as close to an objective fact as you can get here that it has big set pieces with epic things happening in them. Even more so, if someone makes a movie of a novel or a historical event, they can show that its relatively objectively an accurate depiction of the source material or the actual event. If someone makes a comedy that a single person doesn’t think is funny, or for that matter a horror that someone doesn’t find scary, there’s very little to point to and say that it has to some degree objectively done its job. In fact, I think you can see a certain amount of this influencing the design of comedy and horror games.


Often a horror game will present horrible images, or a horror atmosphere (particularly when looking for digital horror games the current trend seems to be for wandering around creepily empty locations while tense music and sound effects occur) rather than really attempting to actually scare people. Similarly, many comedy games create a safe space for friends to make each other laugh rather than actually trying to be funny. These games shift the pressure to create the phenomenological subjective effect that is meant to be their very purpose onto the shoulders of the players.


Movies generally have quite a low phenomenological weight to them, they exist as definitive objective entities and relatively little of their purpose works within their viewers as opposed to up on the screen. A lot of the time they’ll create quite broad strokes reactions via some well worked sledge hammer techniques, which is generally a good thing. Movies are shared experiences and there’s little point in having a divisive pilgrimage. Books or works of art tend to aim for something much more personal or isolating, the peril of transforming a well-loved book to the screen and the cries that a particular choice is “#notmywhatever” is one of the results of this. Now, I don’t particularly ascribe to the idea that games are works of art, but when I think they might be, its not because of the drawings on the boxes or even the components themselves, its when they start to touch on the nature of some of these areas of shared personal knowledge.


The artwork on games is produced for a distinct practical purpose and sometimes it can be of an immensely high standard, but it is only created in context rather than for the purpose of being art. Just as Toulouse-Lautrec created advertising hoardings its possible for these images to be works of art, but that has nothing more to do with the art of game design than banking becomes an artform because it so often commissions public sculptures. The art of games, if it exists, exists in the transitory nature of what the game creates during play, not what the game has paid to be painted on a game box to catch people’s eyes.


There is of course a strong crossover between phenomenological experiences and merely subjective ones. Things like the Stroop effect (where, for example, the word green being written in red coloured letters slows down people’s ability to name the written colour) or blind spots are interesting subjective phenomena as opposed to strictly phenomenological events. Ironically, subjective experiences are more easily objectively measured and manipulated, I can far more easily take advantage of the subjective phenomena of the Stroop effect to create an amusing event for you than I can the phenomenology of colour within you as an individual. The strongest area in game design for true phenomenological investigation at the moment, in my opinion, sits within the area of the phenomenology of communication and the nature of private and non-private language with its relation to controlled communication games.


A well-known example of this can be seen in the game Mysterium. In this game a player must communicate concrete facts using randomly drawn abstract images alone. The images create a purely private language for the communicating player, a meaning based at least partly on phenomenological experience. So, again, how does this really effect game design?


Game design is an area where players are bought together in a shared experience. Unlike a movie they do not share that experience as third parties, creating multiple similar experiences at the same time to create a sharing, rather an experience is created by the players together. Putting together separate phenomenological experiences into a shared one is extremely difficult. Its partly for this reason that we see so many multiplayer solitaire games created, these are games that seek to turn the experience of a game into something more akin to watching a movie, a series of similar, simultaneous, but separate and parallel experiences rather than a truly shared one. Its also why we see so many comedy games that contain no actual laughs and horror games with no actual scares. The most interesting games at the moment, from a purely personal perspective (which seems appropriate to this blog) I’d say the only interesting ones, are those that are playing with combining subjective experiences into a single shared experience. Occasionally they step over into managing to combine separate phenomenological experiences into a single shared experience. If they are to be considered a true art form, if that is something to be concerned over anyway, I feel that it is at this point that they will achieve it.


On a more immediate level, consider the games you play or design, how are they shared experiences? On which levels are they shared? If a designer and you’re putting up a barrier either between players sharing their experience with each other or with the game itself, consider why you’re doing that. Is it just because it makes the process of designing easier? We have a lot of games that have produced excellent parallel and simultaneous experiences, the question is, will anything be added by making more?

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