I just got done giving my GDC microtalk. It was every bit as nerve-racking and exciting as I hoped it would be, with so many talks from excellent speakers. It will definitely be one to watch on the GDC Vault when it comes out, just as it is every year.
My talk centered around thauma, the components of game design and the real questions of legitimacy that still trouble the videogame art form. As it was a strict format of 20 slides with 16 seconds per slide, I wrote mine out almost in the form of a poem. It had stanzas and pauses, which I think I mostly stuck to in the talk (I always ad lib a little). Here’s the text:
Leo Tolstoy once wrote that artists evoke a feeling in themselves and then – by means of expression – evoke the same feeling in others.
This, he said, was the activity of art.
Games also evoke feelings by means of expression.
I use the word thauma to describe how.
Thauma derives from Greek, meaning a wonder or marvel.
Thaumaturgy is the ability of a magician to work miracles.
As we describe the sensation of powerful story as dramatic.
I describe the sensation of powerful play as thaumatic.
There is an experience unique to games.
An enchantment that steals over us.
As we play, as we watch and as we retell the story of play it comes back to us.
We feel transferred to a different context of being.
We are here, yet we also feel elsewhere.
On a race track, pulling incredible turns.
On a tennis court, trying to score.
On a battlefield. In a city. In a haunted house.
A childlike landscape. A long forgotten shore.
An abstract space. An infinite plane.
Our journeys vary.
In some games we appreciate individual qualities.
But they don’t transport us.
Some games transport us but we don’t tarry long.
For each of us the criteria of thauma is different.
The nature of evoked feelings unique.
But to Tolstoy art was not mere beauty.
Or the expression of energy or emotions or pleasure.
He considered art not to be about how you feel.
Or who you are. Or if you cried.
But about what feelings the artist intended to generate.
And was she successful.
There are four schools of thaumatic design.
The school of mechanism, formal and elegant.
The school of simulation, complex and authentic.
The school of behavior, guided and rewarding.
The school of narrative, directed and emotive.
Each is valid.
As designers of thauma we add and remove.
We make giants of puny humans or gnats of fearsome egos.
We empower players with roles and fairness and resonance.
We toy with them and set the terms of their existence.
From these beginnings feeling is evoked.
Thauma is the holistic pot of fun, grokking, mastery,
skill atoms, veracity, flow, reward, action
meaning, narrative, magic circles, winning, losing
persuasion, immersion and ludonarrative resonance.
It is the feeling that a game world matters.
Thauma has many components.
That sense that a game must be fun.
That tendency of the mind to abstract.
That need to learn and grow.
Imperfection. Physicality. Time. Profit,
For some these are pillars. For others, boundaries.
Some games like to play with boundaries.
They should, particularly for criticism.
Yet the thaumatic experience rarely succeeds when only critical.
Especially if intended to be played for long.
Successful thauma is often grounded in rules.
In the elsewhere we know the rules.
We equate action with power.
In sports and board games rules make the world smaller and more focused.
In tabletop roleplaying they do the opposite.
The world grows larger.
Both at the same time.
Some would argue otherwise.
Why does a game have to be fun?
Must all roads lead to multiplayer?
Must all avatars have the same identity?
Is a player really a hero?
Is a game really a game?
These debates should show you how games are art.
But do you see it that way?
Or are you stuck on what games are meant to be?
That some games are art and some are problems?
That games will be an art one day?
That games must be destroyed so they can flourish?
That games must go beyond fun?
Are you frustrated by the present?
Future addiction gets depressing.
It’s fun to consider where games might go.
But as a group we get hung up on saying they have to go there.
And advocating that they have to change.
Or else be doomed.
Perhaps games are what they are today.
Warts and all.
Silly games with flapping birds are thaumatic.
Nagging games about making words are thaumatic.
Bewitching games about plants and zombies are thaumatic.
Cinematic games about solving murders are thaumatic.
Personal games about identity are thaumatic.
Ours is a broad church.
Arguments about “should” are a distraction.
The real argument is not about game versus story
or fun versus art
or future versus past
It’s about function versus institution.
The thing itself versus its place in the cosmos.
It’s about legitimacy.
Gamers often feel like outsiders.
So they co-opt the language of other arts and say “games are these too”.
And eventually get to “games should move on”.
Or they prefer to be outsiders.
They demean some voices to make them shut the fuck up.
For fear that they will “ruin games”.
Who Looks Outside Dreams.
Who Looks Inside Awakens.
We all already know that thaumatic feeling.
But we compromise it by only speaking to its future.
Or demeaning the present experiences of others.
We should own that feeling on its own terms.
We are neither scientists nor dramatists, psychologists nor economists.
We are thaumatists.
Our art of powerful spaces generating feelings is an art on its own terms.
It always has been.
In whatever form we choose to express them, this is what games are.