It’s 3 AM and I’m staring at my screen. I’m not quite sure what to do.
I’m in the middle of a thing that’s slipping away from me. I don’t know what anyone else’s motives are. I don’t know what anyone else is planning. I wonder who they think I’m friends with.
I think I know what I want to do, but I can’t be sure it’s the right call. There’s so much information that I don’t have. It’s paralyzing. Mostly I just want to turn off the screen and look away.
I’m looking at Subterfuge, “a week long game of strategy and diplomacy.”
I’m looking at Twitter, where someone I’ve never spoken to before is telling me how wrong I am about “formalism.”
I’d been watching Subterfuge for a long while now. It promised to be a more refined, accessible take on a the intriguing concept laid out in Iron Helmet’s Neptune’s Pride and its sequel, Triton. These are real time multiplayer 4X strategy games, with the “real time” in question being weeks and weeks long. Think Civilization, if moving units from one side of a continent to the other took 72 hours. The idea is that you log in when you have a few moments, look at the state of the board, send a few messages to other players, consider your options, and put plans into motion that will take days to resolve.
I’d read Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s rollicking seven part account of a treacherous game of Neptune’s Pride years ago, and immediately swore I’d never play it or anything like it. No way, not in a million years. I would read anything anyone wrote about these games, but I could never see myself enjoying them myself. I’d been amazed by stories of players waking up at 4 AM just to sneak a few ships under the enemy’s nose. I’d laughed at anecdotes about using a false account name in order to convince a player that an enemy was a friend. But I just knew that I could never be so devoted to a game that I’d schedule weeks and weeks of my life around it.
Subterfuge seemed built to assuage those fears. Unlike Neptune’s Pride, Subterfuge games seemed to only last about a single week. I could spare a week, right? And instead of needing to jump out of bed in the middle of the night to enact a surreptitious ploy, Subterfuge offered a “Time Machine” functionality, which let me plot moves in advance. And whereNeptune’s Pride has many of the most complicated elements of the classic 4X genre (like a tech tree and a variety of units), Subterfuge boils things down into something almost minimalistic.
So when a friend of mine offered alpha keys to me and another mutual friend of ours, I felt confident I’d be able to have a bit of fun with this. We could experience this thing as three friends openly and honestly, deceiving only the other five players. And hey, if one of them betrayed me—or vice versa—then we could at least have a fun debrief afterwards.
I was in.
I became an undersea mineral magnate. I sent submarines filled with “drillers” to conquer empty outposts and to begin mining for the game-winning resource, “Neptunium.” I brokered peace using the chat function, establishing agreed upon borders with my more experienced neighbors to the south. My friends were to my north, and we proceeded along with an unspoken truce for days—little skirmishes here or there, but nothing serious.
Then the game really got rolling.
And now, 8 and a half days later, I’m out.
About a year ago, sitting on the long train ride from New York to Toronto, I was IMing Zolani Stewart, editor of The Arcade Reviiew. We were talking about his frustration with what felt like a common refrain: “Games are about interactivity.” Stewart didn’t understand why “interactivity” had been cordoned off as the major element that set games apart from other media. After all, plenty of artists, critics and philosophers have argued for years that all art is interactive—a collaboration between artist, medium, context and audience. The genius-artist has long been decentralized, and in the circles Stewart moved in it was always understood that all works had some degree of interactivity.
“But Zolani,” I reminded him, “Most folks don’t have the time, education or energy to work through how they’re collaborating with art. They come home from a shitty job, they eat an okay dinner, and they feel like they’re consuming (not interacting with) whatever show they watch that night. But with games, you hit a button and something happens. The interactivity is surfaced.” He agreed, he said. He hadn’t thought about that. But we both knew that there was something still to be said here. In this way, it’s felt like this little conversation presaged the debate about “formalism,” “ludo-centrism,” and “ludo-essentialism” that’s been occurring over the last few weeks.
Here is a time-compressed video of my first game of Subterfuge. That’s nearly 205 hours that’s been sped up to fit into one minute. Each second is three and a half hours of game time. And like everything compressed in such a way, it’s hard to see the detail.
Every time a sub leaves an outpost represents long, intense minutes, hours or days of planning, calculating and communicating. “What happens if I send these drillers here? Will my opponent reinforce? Can I trust my neighbor not to attack if I briefly leave my border with them a little weaker?” So you ask them, maybe, and they say “Yeah, sure. We have a truce.” Or maybe you don’t ask them, instead opting to lie to them. You say that, just outside of their radar range, you can see that their other neighbor is building up a massive fleet, encouraging them to divert their attention. And uh, oh, it has an assassin on board.
Much of the strategizing and bluffing in Subterfuge has to do with “specialists,” like the assassin. These are those little white icons next to some subs in that video. They offer you various edges: the smuggler moves between outposts you own more quickly, so that you can shuttle your drillers around more efficiently. The assassin eliminates any other specialists it gets into combat with. Once a day, you can choose one of these from a random set of three.
Anyone who can see your queen can see what specialists you have available to hire, and they can plan accordingly. Maybe they see that you have the specialist that zaps your outposts’ shields, so they’ll recruit a specialist that reinforces their defenses. Or maybe they’ll spoil your explosive surprise attack by trading that info to a neighbor, who can then work it into their predictions and plans.
The numbers in Subterfuge, like the specialists, are straightforward and easy to manage once you know them. Information in Subterfuge orbits between being totally hidden and totally transparent. And because you have so much time to consider this information, it’s easy to convince yourself that if you can only hold all of the variables in your head at once, if only you can make every possible calculation, then you can plan for any eventuality. Just manage your resources, control your visibility, and understand how other players in the game relate to each other. Play the game the right way and you’ll win.
And then something unpredictable happens, and everything falls apart. Watch, 18 seconds in, as the red player launches a bomb northward from his central outpost of 60+ drillers. Just a couple of moments (that is, a couple of hours) later, the pink player to his north quits, leaving his resources up for grabs. And then off to the sides of the screen, a few seconds (hours) later, the tan player off to the left resigns later that day. You can barely see it, over in the periphery.
There’s always something in the periphery, just barely out of sight. Hard to judge. Hard to plan for. A history you don’t know: are blue and green friends out of game? Do they have a truce? An unexpected specialist; a gift disguised as an attack; an undefended, but hidden queen?
This is why, despite the ability to set orders days in advance, I was staring at Subterfuge in the middle of the night. Because all at once, it convinced me that I could put together a plan that worked, while simultaneously making it increasingly hard (and interesting) to do so.
So I stayed up late, ran the numbers, maneuvered troops, sent messages. I scrambled to grab first place. And then I realized that holding onto first was a much more stressful and complicated task altogether. So I stayed up later. Because that week especially, I’d been desperate to put something, anything, together that worked.
There’s a good chance that you’ve totally missed this “formalism” debate. Or maybe you’ve noticed it in the corners of your Twitter feeds, or addressed in a single, tangential paragraph of a longer article.
This debate, in the most reductive summary possible, centers around a number of questions regarding how we think about and design games. Should we focus on game “form” or on game “content”? Is there something dangerous in prizing one over the other? Which of the two does the larger culture focus more on? And what do we mean by this elusive thing called “form” anyway?
A lot of the blog posts written about this debate have broken things down into two camps. On one side, a group of critics (including Zolani Stewart, Lana Polansky, Merritt Kopas and myself) took aim at a perceived cultural devotion to that same notion of “interactivity” that Stewart and I spoke about last year. When people talk about games, we argued, everyone seemed to prize the interactive bits to the cost of everything else: aesthetics, narrative, music. This cultural formalism, they argued, was detrimental—and even politically problematic. We saw this hegemonic formalism at work whenever a Twine game or “walking simulator” was called a non-game, or whenever GamerGaters (and others) deployed words like “fun” and “escapism” as shields meant to deflect criticism of works lacking diversity (or filled with racism and sexism.)
The other side (chief among them Frank Lantz, the director of the NYU Game Center) couldn’t believe what they were hearing: too much focus on form? Where? No one in the culture takes elements of game “form” (like game mechanics or level design) seriously. All anyone talks about is dragons and robots and good graphics and fandom and representation and culture. And where did this supposed formalism spring from? They asked “which formalism?” Which canonical works were being cited by GamerGaters? If the answer was “none,” then how was this formalism at all? These people talking about “fun” weren’t formalists, they argued, they were just conservatives and philistines twisting words to their own ends.
I say that this summary is “reductive” because this debate is sprawling, and because the reality of things is more complicated than a few paragraphs can offer. It’s easy to think every member of the conversation fits neatly into these two camps (we don’t). It’s easy to imagine that there is a clear demographic divide between the members of the two sides (they don’t, though there are trends). If you’re deeply interested, you can check out the lastthreeweeks of links over at Critical Distance, but even these miss major bits of the conversation which happened in the peripheries of social media. Just out of sight. Back and forths in Facebook comments. The many, many tweets that were not collected into a Storify.
And like every discourse, the “formalism” debate has a history to contend with. Not only the history of other debates like this (there have been plenty), but also the history of the last few years. However much we’d like to be able to disentangle this debate from years of cultural gatekeeping, personal attacks and institutional dismissal, we can’t. Even in the midst of the debates, even as Lantz and others bemoaned that the culture of critique spent more than its fair share of time on issues of representation, Zolani Stewart was harassed for offering free copies of The Arcade Review to women and people of color in an effort to increase the diversity of voices in our space.
And then, at 3AM, I was suddenly staring at a message from a stranger who saw and disagreed with a casual tweet I’d sent to a friend. A tweet which had been recontextualized, turned into a straw man representation of my broader position. God damn it.
God damn it.
I fucked up. I lowered my guard. I let them see where I was weak. I forgot to manage my visibility.
The knives come out. I feel like I’ve lost trust. I see my positions fall apart. And here I am again, months after I first complained that all I could do was hurt people, still upset that there’s no real way to win without coming to blows. No way to resolve these differences or to bridge these gaps.
I send hurried messages to friends. Sometimes in hopes of getting some backup. Sometimes just to voice my anxiety in an attempt to find stability. I say that I wish I’d never engaged. I say I wish I could just quit, but I know that that’s unfair to everyone else, especially those counting on me to support their efforts and who’ve supported me so far. But I feel like a little boy again. Outmatched. Not smart enough. Struggling with an unachievable desire to do well in front of people I admire.
I was so overwhelmed. Worse: I was overwhelmed in a way that seemed to undermine my own argument. In the the most sympathetic version of his position, Frank Lantz writes the sort of interactivity in games as diverse as football and crossword puzzles “might be important, deep, profound, worthwhile, meaningful, magical, [and] sacred” in a way that we fail to consider. And there I was, observing Subterfuge create a beautiful anxiety in me. An anxiety parallel to the one I’d been barely managing during the formalism debate.
Lots of works, across different media, have made me anxious: but none like this. That long, tracking shot at the end of True Detective’s fourth episode made me clench up. The climax of DeLillo’s novel Cosmopolis felt like it unfolded and compressed time all at once, and I flipped back and forth through those final pages over and over. But these were just symptoms of anxiety that I received, sitting comfortably. Subterfuge didn’t just inject me with fear, it enticed me to perform my neuroses over and over for a week: checking timelines, sending messages, lying to allies. Pressing buttons.
I’m cautious to deploy this sort of “life is a game” rhetoric. The two do not match up perfectly, especially when you think through the stakes of play. For instance: I am now done with that first match of Subterfuge, but as I run out of grad school funding in the coming months, I’ll be playing the political game of academia indefinitely. I don’t have to worry about the blue player’s driller count anymore, but even now I have to weigh whether or not this piece will ruin my chances for employment at this or that institution.
Yet I want to hold onto the Subterfuge/Formalism Debate parallel not only because, together, they caused in me a singular anxiety, but because in both cases I realized that I’d failed to listen to my own arguments.
I’d spent so much time demanding that we understand “form” as more than “core mechanics,” but here I was feeling limited by the explicit win conditions offered to me by Subterfuge. It was only once I was under attack from my former allies to the south that I realized I could make my own win condition. This is a thing we can do in games and that we often do without noticing it, as we make and achieve micro-goals for ourselves on the way towards completing the major, stated objectives. A game’s form, I remembered, was never the simple, closed off thing we imagine it is. Instead, it’s a thing we push and pull and collaborate with, a thing with potentialities that were never explicitly designed in.
So I decided that it was okay for me not to come in first, because that wasn’t what I was playing for anymore. I looked at what I and my remaining allies had left, and decided that so long as one of us could win, then I’d walk away victorious. I sent messages and moved subs around. I forfeited some resources, strategically. I taunted the biggest threat so that he’d redirect his forces towards me. I puffed up my chest and made a lot of noise, all while letting an ally siphon away my power. According to Subterfuge I came in third place. But, seeing as one of my allies took first, as far as I’m concerned we absolutely won.
It was right in the middle of planning out this new strategy in Subterfuge that I realized that I’d also dropped the ball in how I was handling the formalism debate. I’d acted as if the debate was happening in a vacuum. I’d said I wanted nuance, but occasionally fell into polemic. Worse, while I called for a holistic approach to game critique, I hadn’t yet offered one. I wanted writing (in the popular space) that would talk both about the mechanical design of games and emotional experience of play, instead of contributing to a long history of rhetoric that divorced those two from each other. But I realized that I’d failed to do this myself.
So, you know. Here it is. You’re reading it.
When we talk about games, we should be interested in form but we should understand that term broadly and critically. Broadly, not because the work of game designers is less important than that of writers or artists or programmers, but because the form of the game is an interlacing of these many strands of labor. Critically, because we should be aware of how the culture at large entices many—including those who would never identify as conservative—to adopt a sort of “naive formalism” that encourages them to reject interesting, experimental games, and which they hold up as a shield to protect them from critiques about problematic game “content.”
Let me be clear: I am not only talking to the game designers, academics and critics who took part in that strange, rolling debate. I am talking to my readers who enjoy games culture primarily as a consumptive practice. Some of us are concerned that our culture is too consumed with a desire for “fun” in form. Others are worried that there is too much of a focus on “escapism” in content. These are not mutually exclusive anxieties. The discourse around games is constrained in many ways, as all discourses are. So I’m writing to remind you that we can push and pull on that discourse. Our culture is interactive, even though it doesn’t have any buttons.
Austin Walker is a PhD Candidate in Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario, writing about games, labor and culture. He writes about games at @austin_walker and at Clockwork Worlds.