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What does 'formalism' mean? What does it matter? If you answered "no" to both of these questions then this blog post might not be for you.

Frank Lantz, Blogger

January 20, 2015

5 Min Read

So last week this happened.

And this tweet in particular got me thinking about how "formalism" has come under attack in certain circles. I sort of think of myself as kind of a semi-formalist, or a semi-superformalist, or something like that. So I figured I should make an effort to defend the term a little, mostly to point out that from my point of view the mainstream status quo, with its focus on light entertainment, consumable media, visuals and narrative, isn't very formalist at all.

As part of that conversation on twitter I wrote this to Keith Burgun. (Now, here's an interesting side note: I consider Keith a classic formalist, but Keith and I disagree about almost everything. I think what makes us both formalists is a set of shared interests and preferences about the kind of games we like to make, play, and talk about, and the kinds of ways we talk about them. Which is just to say that formalism isn't a set of shared assumptions or opinions, it's a proclivity, a general approach.)

Then Gamasutra editor Alex Wawro reached out to me with a few follow-up questions which I am answering here. Alex's questions are in italics.

I confess to a rudimentary understanding at best of the contemporary state of debate regarding formalism in game play/design; as far as I can tell, you see formalists to be people who seek games primarily for their unique traits (complex interactive systems, for example) rather than their components -- music, art, narrative, etc. Those things are great, but they can also be found in other forms of art, whereas the feeling you get after staying alive Super Hexagon for over 60 seconds can only be conferred by Super Hexagon. 

Is that on point? Is there a simpler way to describe formalism in game design? 

There is no simple definition for formalism, it's an ambiguous and, indeed, contentious term. One aspect of the current debate is that I am arguing for a particular use of the term and against other kinds of uses. 

I use formalist to refer to someone who tends to be primarily interested in a game's underlying structure of choice and action and the player experience created by that structure. In this view, formalists are people who tend to be interested in deep games, games that have surprising emergent properties, games that allow for player learning and mastery. They tend to be less focused on things that could be considered "content" - audio-visual components, narrative, theme and setting, etc. So, a formalist looks at League of Legends and sees a game that combines deep strategic choice, hidden information, complex resource-management, team-based coordination, and an enormously high ceiling for mechanical skill, not a game about wizards and robots and dragons. This is not to say that a formalist is *exclusively* interested in interactive structure or *exclusively* prefers deep games that encourage player exploration and learning, it's just that this is a general tendency and a general preference. 

The thing I am arguing against is the use of formalist to mean someone who is conservative, who protests against games without goals or challenges, who feels threatened by games that are unconventional, who is trying to defend the "status quo". 

The way I see it, from a formalist perspective, most videogames aren't particularly interesting. They tend to be collections of shallow activities with lavish thematic and narrative dimensions - beautiful 3D environments to explore, gorgeous multimedia experiences, entertaining exercises of make-believe and pretend, but usually not that interesting in terms of player choice and action. 

So when I see smart young critics complaining about "ludo-essentialism" or "ludocentrism" or "formalism" in a way that implies that being primarily interested in formal qualities of choice and action makes one an ally of the status quo or a defender of ruling videogame conventions I want to speak out and say: No, we feel as disconnected from most games as you do, if for opposite reasons. Everywhere *you* look you see points and goals and competition and puzzles and combat. Everywhere *we* look we see pretend worlds and childish make-believe, imaginary dragons, badly written dialogue and unskippable cutscenes in which angry mannequins gesture awkwardly at each other.

That's videogames. A bundle of contradictions. As Ian Bogost says, a mess. You can't love these things without appreciating that mess. It's a fine mess we've gotten ourselves into! The fact that I'm especially interested in certain aspects of games doesn't mean I'm resentful or angry about the other aspects. I accept them, I enjoy them, sometimes I love them. But I have my interests, my preferences, I'm willing to acknowledge and defend them but I don't want to be unfairly painted as a defender of mainstream values, an enemy of progress, or a guardian of the status quo.

Why is this discussion important to game developers in 2015?

Because videogames are growing in importance,  influence, and sophistication, becoming a cultural form that can engage with complex and subtle thematic issues and inviting serious critical and cultural comment and debate.

How have your thoughts on the topic evolved, and in turn affected your work in the industry -- both at NYU and outside of it?

Here's how my thoughts about this topic have evolved: I love thinking about games, analyzing them, arguing about them, theorizing about them, but for me theory is always second to practice. At the end of the day the important question is - what games do you make? What games do you play? The games come first.

Theories can't tell you what games are good. The world tells you what games are good. Your heart tells you what games are good. Then theories come to help us appreciate the things we love even more deeply, to understand and articulate what we love about them and why, how to get more of the things we love, to love better, to expand and evolve what we play and make so that we expand and evolve as people, to convince each other about what kind of things to make and play and love, so that we create more consensus, agree on more shared values, or understand more clearly our different values in order to accept them, in order to be able to compromise and negotiate between them.


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