Jane McGonigal, Post-Structuralism, and Speedruns

Before the course started, I had begun reading the book “Reality is Broken” by Jane McGonigal. In this book, McGonigal presents the same four necessary components of a “game” that our guest speaker, Mavis Dixon, gave during her talk today: A goal, rules, a feedback system, and voluntary participation. Both also quote Bernard Suits, who said that “Playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.”

Since reading that part of the book, I’ve been considering whether the behaviour of individual players throws a wrench into those ideas. The problem is this: if a game is defined (at least partially) by it’s rules and goals (or obstacles), does that mean that changing the rules, goals, or obstacles turn one game into an entirely different game?

Many gamers will create self-imposed obstacles, goals, or restrictions on top of a complete game. For examples of this, see this blog. “No Wrong Way to Play” was created by Anthony Burch (the writer for Borderlands 2 and the web-series “Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin’?”) to document some of the more interesting variant play styles. To use one of the examples from the site, is a person doing a low-score run of Super Mario Bros. (wherein one attempts to complete the game earning as few points as possible) really playing Super Mario Bros.? Or are they playing another game entirely?

Our discussion about post-structuralism and video games really opened up a new dimension of this for me. Since post-structuralism rejects the idea that a work has a single interpretation or purpose, would that kind of analysis resolve our problem? Could we say that the rules, goals, and obstacles presented by the game are merely one interpretation of what it means to play the game?

What do you all think?

After writing all this down, I’m starting to form connections between existentialism, The Stanley Parable, and the idea that playing a game is necessarily a critique of the game’s systems. I think I’ll leave those ideas for the comments.

8 responses to “Jane McGonigal, Post-Structuralism, and Speedruns”

  1. Ryan Vogt

    As a brief addendum to what was posted about self-imposed restrictions and goals, how many of you are familiar with speedrunning — the art of completing a video game as quickly as possible? The only imposed restriction is that you have to be as quick as humanly possible. It’s a fun, if frustrating, hobby 🙂 For those of you who were game-players in your youth, look up some videos of your favourite games from your childhood being destroyed in a matter of minutes…

  2. joewmanning

    Thanks Ryan,

    I was going to mention speedruns as another example (hence the title of my post), but it slipped my mind.

  3. judmicha

    This is an interesting question. For me this brings to mind not just unconventional play styles like low score runs or min-maxing in RPGs, but something more like speed runs that involve deliberately taking advantage of glitches in the game. I once watched a video of a fellow who finished Amnesia: The Dark Descent in under 30 minutes by strategically clipping through various parts of the terrain and thus bypassing large sections of the conventional game. I think that kind of thing really gets you to the point where you are not just finding creative ways to operate within the rules of the game, but seemingly exposing new rules and new systems that were in a sense latent in the game but meant to remain hidden. I wonder if contract law would allow game developers to proscribe unorthodox play styles like speed runs by inserting a provision into the EULA?

  4. jen0331

    I also think this is a great question and this issue could lead to further legal implications.
    For example, how far can the player changes the rule or how “unconventional ” can a player be playing a game for it to be considered violating the author’s moral rights or any related IP rights? Just like the Geese case we talked about in class, is changing the rules of the game also offending the author’s right to the integrity of their work? If this is possible, then to what extend do you have to change the rules to amount to the alternation, distortion or mutilation of the work?

    The idea of post-structuralism would also kick in since it rejects that there’s one interpretation of the work so if that’s the model we adopt in the legal world, then should different interpretation or different ways of playing a game not consider a violation of moral rights? In addition, should any player that comes up with these new rules be awarded any IP rights since they have also created something different ?

  5. eduj

    To answer you original question, I think the answer depends on the degree in which the rules, feedback systems, and obstacles are altered or redefined by the player. In the example that you pointed to (doing a low-score run of Super Mario Bros.), the obstacles and goals have merely been inverted and, in my opinion, does not amount to an “entirely different game”. There will be a point where the rules, obstacles, and feedback are sufficiently altered so as to amount to a different game entirely. The best analogy that I can come up with at the moment is chess vs. checkers–no one with a reasonable mind would argue they are the same game despite the fact that they are played on the same board.

    Of course this is only my opinion and is subject to debate.

  6. Jon Festinger

    Great post and replies. Lets talk about this in class a bit.


  7. Ryan Vogt

    I think you make a good point, eduj. I wonder how far you have to break from the original rules of a game to call something a different game. There probably isn’t a clear line.

    I mean, if I was playing, let’s call it psuedochess — a game that is identical to chess, but you cannot move your queen until your fifth move — is it *really* a different game from chess? How about if only one of the two players is constrained as such (a minor handicap to a more skilled player)?

    But, what about if I removed four pawns, arranged the remaining pieces on the black squares of the first three rows, only allowed pieces to move a single hop diagonally (except to hop over enemy pieces to capture them), etc.? This is clearly a different game (most people call it whydidntyoujustbuyacheckersset?).

    So, at what point do artificially imposed constraints or modifications make something a different game? To be honest, I have no clear answer.

  8. joewmanning

    I guess it was discussed in class today? I wanted to be there, but I got into a car accident yesterday as I was coming back from Thanksgiving in Kelowna. I wasn’t hurt, but I was a little too shaken up to come to school this morning. I’ll be sure to check out the video from today as soon as it’s posted.