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This game literally stinks

Jeff Warrender
United States
Averill Park
New York
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"You Said This Would Be Fun", a book about game design, available at Amazon and DriveThruRPG
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Come talk design at the Jeff's World of Game Design blog!
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It's been several years now since semantic drift literally claimed another useful word from us, contorting its meaning in a way that renders it literally unusable now. But the upside is that now we literally have two words that mean "figuratively", at least.

There's another pair of words that haven't succumbed to semantic drift, and don't appear to be in danger of doing so, but that doesn't prevent misunderstandings about their meanings, which in turn leads to confused and confusing statements. That pair of words is "objective" and "subjective".

indigo

I've heard a number of people say things like this: "Don't say that a game is 'bad' or 'flawed'; say instead that it is 'not for you'." Saying the former, according to this argument, is to claim to make an objective condemnation of the game, whereas you should recognize, and say openly, that your statement about the game is necessarily a subjective one.

There are two problems here, each of which involves a conflation.

sugar

Conflation the first: "Objective" has two meanings. One is "impartial or unbiased", as in "The jurors should be objective in their deliberations". The other is "universal; factual", as in "the acceleration due to gravity at sea level is objectively 9.8 m/s^2"; any observer would find this to be true.

corn

Conflation the second: "Subjective" means "influenced by feelings, tastes, or opinions", but there are important and categorical differences between these. Notably, "feelings" and "beliefs" operate completely differently. If I'm an atheist, I may believe that no god exists, even though emotionally I might very much wish that a god existed. And conversely, as a theist I might believe in God's existence even if I'd very much prefer that no deity existed (this is essentially how C.S. Lewis described his own nascent faith, calling himself "the most reluctant convert in England").

tobacco

It would be one thing to say "you claim to be objective (in the sense of being impartial), but your objectivity is compromised by your feelings". That's a coherent objection: you say you're impartial, but you're not.

However, what the indigo admonition above actually says is akin to taking "objective" in the latter sense, as in: "you can't prove your statement about the game to be universally true; therefore, actually you are making a statement about your feelings about the game."

But this is a non-sequitur. My negative assessment of the game may not be based on my feelings at all.

tobacco

The difficulty is that it may be, and sometimes is. If a game has flaws, that may affect whether I enjoyed it or not. How can I increase the likelihood that a statement I make about a game is grounded on belief rather than feelings? A set of axioms on which beliefs can be situated turns out to be a great help.

We see this readily enough in the moral dimension. However much I may appreciate your giving me $10,000, if you acquired that money by stealing it from someone else, my moral axioms say that stealing is wrong and that I cannot accept, however much I would like the money.

So too with axioms of game design.[*] If a "good" game has characteristics described by some set of design axioms, then a game that violates one of those axioms can be considered to be "bad", whether or not I like it.

Now the rebuttal to this will be, "well, but your axioms may be subjective; someone with a different set of axioms (perhaps, e.g., theLegion of Doom axioms), would evaluate the game differently." Yes, that's quite true! But the crucial point is that that doesn't preclude us from talking about a game objectively (impartially), it simply means that we also should have a meta-discussion about what axioms we ascribe to and why.

Any criticism of a game is necessarily subjective in that it's one person's perspective. But that doesn't mean that every criticism of a game is (and should be expressed as) merely a statement of dislike. Some are, but to speak as though this is always the case is really to put words in someone's mouth, almost as a way of dismissing what the person is saying.

In addition to being bad manners, this also hinders constructive discourse about game design. If we're not allowed to say that a game is bad or flawed, we as designers can't really learn what works and what doesn't, we can only act based on whether people seem to like our game or not, and as a result we don't really have a target to aim at other than "do playtesters like it?"

[*] New readers might take note that my book about game design identifies six axioms of good game design, and these are stated in this post, if you don't want to buy the book to see what they are! (I think the free preview at Amazon extends into Ch. 2 and so I think you can read the discussion of them there, too. Or just buy the book, it's not too shabby!)

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