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Video Games, Studies, Design, and Culture: An Interview with Jesper Juul

By Alejandro Lozano

Video Games, Studies, Design, and Culture: An Interview with Jesper Juul

Along with Espen Aarseth and other academics, Jesper Juul was one of the earliest researchers interested in video games. One of his most recent works appeared in the first issue of Game Studies, and he is part of its Advisory Board. Jesper also edits the MIT's Game Studies Playful Thinking series.

Alexandro Lozano: Can you tell me how the idea of creating an academic journal of video games started?

Jesper Juul: That is a good question. It happened around 2000–2001. I was studying with Lisbeth Klastrup. We were doing one of the first academic conferences on video games at the IT University of Copenhagen, and we invited a few speakers, including Espen Aarseth. It was also just when I was starting my Ph.D. The idea of a game academic journal came up out of that. I don't know exactly who had the idea, but Game Studies started then. It was an obvious thing. If you want to have a serious field of study, you need a publication channel and a peer review system to grow.

AL: What can you tell me about the profile of the scholars involved in the creation of the journal?

JJ: A lot of the people involved had a literary background. That includes me, Lisbeth Klastrup, Susana Tosca, Espen Aarseth, Markku Eskelinen, Marie-Laure Ryan, Torill Mortensen, Jill Walker, Anja Rau, Aki Järvinen, Gonzalo Frasca, and others. To some extent, game studies were formed by outcasts from literary theory. I cannot tell you why, but to us made sense to apply the tools we used to work on dusty old books to this new thing called video games. There was a large shared vocabulary. We also had similar interests—what video games meant, what they said to players, how to think about their structure and design ... Those were common ideas. It was very much a humanities group.

AL: What topics did the journal expect to cover?

JJ: Given the humanities background, there was a shared idea about what we did and what video games were—media or an art form with content that you could analyze, and you could compare video games and work with them in that way. That was the idea we had about what video game studies would become.

As time past we got in contact with people with different backgrounds like social scientists who had different ideas and questions like how players interact with games, so the journal got a slightly broader perspective on time. You might think that another important video game journal like Games and Culture covers video games from a social science perspective while Game Studies takes care of the humanities side, but in practice they have got mixed over time and both journals publish both things.

Creating the journal was a success. Researchers working in other universities could publish in the journal because it was peer reviewed. It was also open access from the beginning, and that helped a lot of people whose institutions may not pay for an expensive journal.

I wish we had made some tools to set ongoing discussions or to get commentary from people so the authors could feel that peers were reading and criticizing their work. Even although Game Studies is an online journal, it has the speed of an old printed journal. It would be good that we have some ongoing discussion. That is a thing we haven't done yet.

AL: Are there any differences or shifts since the creation of the journal?

JJ: The main difference is the focus has become broader. There is a humanities core, but there has been a move from what you can consider purely foundational questions or even aesthetic ones to matters about history, engines, players, users, and controversies in video games. It was a very game design-centered focus in the beginning, and the scope has become broader.

Video game Design Aesthetics
Part One: Designing video game studies

Jesper Juul is an associate professor at The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts,1 and teaches at the Institute of Visual Design.

AL: Can you tell us about the programs and the students of this Institute?

JJ: The Institute is a design school focused on creating, in this case on creating games, and with research related to that. Education at KADK has a strong visual emphasis, and we tend to teach students who are proficient at visual creation, but we also teach them prototyping, game design, and game theory skills. I guess the idea is to have a place where people learn to make interesting, good-looking games but also to go out and start their companies or work for a large one, or theorize about it.

AL: What about your courses? What are the primary goals and objectives?

JJ: As a researcher, I feel that definitional issues and methodological questions concerning video games are vital. One of the most exciting challenges is to find a way to teach this so students can engage in the same way a researcher does, to make them understand what is at stake. For example, when we are discussing game definitions I ask them to make their own definitions, and other students have to improve or criticize them. That works very well. They become possessive of their definitions very quickly and defend them vehemently. That is a good way of making them understand how these processes work and why game definitions are relevant.

Another thing that is exciting about teaching here is there are a lot of discussions that step out of the framework and conventions of game studies. There are different conceptions of video games. Some people see them as sets of rules, goals, and sets of stories and fictional worlds. But if you come from a social sciences background you use to think of games and video games as a social phenomenon that triggers social interactions between individuals. When you look at students who come from a visual background you understand that for them video games are obviously a visual thing—they are things that look good. To me, that is fascinating. I have taught to many kinds of different students over the years, and all of them had a very different set of intuitions about video games, so I try to learn about how they see video games

AL: Are there any significant differences between courses on video games design in the US and Europe?

JJ: I am not sure that there is a noticeable US–European difference. The larger divisions are really between different fields such as humanities versus social sciences, film versus literature studies versus computer science and so on, but I think that it is a little hard to say, at least now, that there is a big transatlantic difference.

Most of Juul’s research explores video game design in a theoretical way, but game design courses use to be about learning the tools and the technical strategies and resources to create a video game, and that does not necessarily involve in-depth knowledge of video game theory.

AL: Were the students expecting such a theoretical insight?

JJ: I try to make things come together. In my experience studying literature, there tends to be a huge distance between those who make theories and those who write books to the extent that they can be placed even at different schools or departments and they do not have necessarily anything to do with each other. To me, one of the goals of game studies was to create connections between theory and practice. It is good for students to know things about what makes a game interesting or how can they be structured. It can help them in a practical way. Also, building games can also be useful to make game theories, so I try to create an environment where we can cover both the practical and the theoretical side of video games.

AL: Is it easy to find ways to make this connection clear?

JJ: Sometimes is easy, sometimes is not. I mentioned game definitions as a good example to explore the expectations that culturally exist towards video games, and to help point to ideas for making new games.

 

Part Two. Discussing video game design aesthetics

AL: Game ontology is a provocative label. It seems inspired by the traditional philosophical ontology that tries to define what things are. For that to do so, a philosopher had to look for the essence of the object, but have video games such a thing? Can games be precisely defined or categorized?

JJ: I think we can determine video games in a certain way. On the one hand, some definitions try to cover all possible ways a word has been used. The problem with this is that there is no guarantee that we can cover everything that everyone had ever said about it. If I want to define the word ‘game', do I have to create a definition that includes even what a crazy person said about what a game was? Probably not.

Or perhaps you want a definition that includes something that is essential and does not change. Or maybe you are looking for a definition that points to a convenient way of thinking about that thing. My work on game definition is a combination of these two. There was a particular period when people tended to use the word ‘game' to mean something fairly specific, and that we can identify as pointing to a human activity that was quite stable over thousands of years. But now, with video games, people started to use that word in a broader sense. I think that you can define games, but I do not believe that it is possible to make a definition that covers all possible ways in which people have used that word—that does not make sense. But you can seek the commonalities in the way people have been using that word, and you can use that to examine historical and present disagreements about games.

Today most people will agree that The Sims (Maxis, 2000) or Sim City (Maxis, 1989) are games, but when these games came out this was not that obvious. It is similar to what has happened with conceptions of art. For a period of time, people often though of art in terms of the art object, and now people might think in a different way, paying more attention to relational or institutional aspects. This kind of shift occurs to games as well. For a time, it seemed clear that games were a set of rules, and now it appears to be obvious that the most important things about games might be the way people interact with them in their everyday lives. If you look at independent games then what gains attention is the role of the creator.

Juul discusses video game ontology in his book Half-Real; he defines its rule and fiction-based nature, as well as his interest in video game aesthetics.

AL: What is your concept of aesthetics and how do you apply it to video games?

JJ: Aesthetics is hard to define. I guess it is possible to talk about it in many ways. In

Half-Real (2005), I reflected on these two competing notions of what video game aesthetics are. One says that video games are a kind of fiction and aesthetics is about to evaluate the quality of a video game from that point of view. A quality video game would have a fascinating fictional world. But you can have an entirely different perspective if you think on video games as rule-based systems. Here video game aesthetics become something else, which is often about analyzing the depth and complexity of the system created by game designers. Developers can come out with a very simple design that allows a lot of gameplay out of that simplicity.

 In other places, I have talked about aesthetic in a different way, so I don't think I have only one conception of aesthetics. For example, in A Casual Revolution (2009), I was writing more pragmatically about how people play video games, so I did not focus on video games necessarily providing for a beautiful experience but in a practical way. I wrote on how they affected in our lives as players. I think that a lot of people dislike casual games because they believe that they cannot be real games for different reasons. They think that these games are excessively accessible or shallow.

In The Art of Failure (2013), I went into a more straightforward aesthetic discussion.

I thought about the character of the experience you have when you win or lose in a video game, and I also worked in this idea of a paradox of tragedy and painful art in general, so it was a book more focused on philosophical questions about the aesthetics of video games.

AL: Let us talk about one of the topics you are most well-known about: video games and storytelling You clarified your position in Half-Real, but could you tell us your current opinion about the relationships between games and stories in a nutshell?

JJ: I am not sure if I have changed my point of view since Half Real. When you start studying a medium, you are likely to first think about what is unique to it. Stories are not unique to video games, but other things are. We needed to find a language that could talk for example about gameplay and the experiences you get out of that. For that reason, I felt important to reject stories, at least as a primary frame for talking about video games and I wanted to emphasize the unique aspects of games.

Over the years the idea of finding the particular features of this medium became less necessary, so I could pay attention to other things such as how people interact with them. You can see the change in Half-Real. I was not thinking about stories as being irrelevant but as something complementary, and that is why we can think of games as rules and fictions.

If you focus too much on the unique features of a medium, you cannot make an account on why it is possible to find things such as titles in movies or chapters in literature. If we think of games in that way, there are things that you cannot explain logically and even look weird, such as the existence cut scenes in a lot of video games. But these are the kind of things that art forms do. They have things that do not necessarily make sense. We can try to think of them as logical constructs, but there are usually elements that surpass logic.

My main change about this over the years consists in accepting that art forms can be weird, that they do not have to make perfect sense and that you just cannot logically argue about it. I think that this change of mind is related with my readings on early cinema. Some people thought that cinema was to be destroyed with the use of sound in movies because they felt that cinema is about images and sound belonged to radio, not to this new art form. Nowadays you can see how wrong that argument was.

AL: What can you tell me about a game like The Stanley Parable (Galactic Café, 2013)? In this game, the connections between the rules and the story told by the narrator are taken to its limit. This game does not seem to be playable at all without carefully paying attention to the story that he is telling to us.

JJ: This game has different interesting aspects. First of all, it deals with this common way of building video games where the designers guide the player strongly. A player can have this feeling of freedom, but sometimes you are just framed in a strongly scripted experience. That happens with single player campaigns in first person shooter games. The Stanley Parable is a joke about this. It makes you feel that you have a series of choices, but the narrator already foresaw everything. It is funny that the narrator talks in past sense about what you are going to do at that moment, so he is always telling you that you do not have the opportunity to make a genuinely free choice.

This also happens in regular, more mainstream games. People like to post clips on the Internet on how they try to break a scripted mission or a chapter of a game. They like trigger situations that do not supposed to happen. What The Stanley Parable does is just to take this phenomenon to its limit. If for example, you do something that you are not supposed to do in a single player mission of a Call of Duty Game you feel intelligent and proud, but the narrator of The Stanley Parable just congratulates you for being as smart as to step out of the geometry of the game … but that was also scripted by the designers.

AL: To finish this section let’s talk about new technologies that seem to be promising for game development. Shifts in video game design are not necessarily tied to technological progress, but this medium relies heavily on technical improvements and innovations such as new engines or trends like virtual or augmented reality. Let's start with virtual reality. Video game industry is paying a lot of attention to this technology, but ironically VR is not new at all. Do you think that VR can lead to breaking innovations regarding video game design?

JJ: It is very interesting. In the big picture, you can say that technological progress does play a big role in video game history, so it makes sense that VR will be the next big thing.

This technology has been around for many decades, but it seems that only now it can work as a consumer technology. The curious thing is that VR allows a more immersive presence, but that goes against most of the current trends on video games. I think that the big trend aims to make people use multiple screens at the same time. Mainstream games are interruptible. You can stop them or play with them while you are doing other things. VR is anything except that; it wants the player to get completely absorbed in a world. That suggests that VR is not going to catch on. I am not so convinced for most game purposes. I think that most games will continue to get played on a screen. Maybe VR is a niche for games or experiences where is interesting to have a more comprehensive bodily experience. For example, documentary VR is way a much more interesting idea because it allows you to feel more present in the environment.

AL: What about augmented reality? It was the trend technology a few years ago, but now it seems abandoned. Do you think that there is room for AR in the next years?

JJ: Pokémon GO (Nantic, Inc., 2016) has attracted the attention again to AR, and now this technology appears to be the star for the mass market. That is so even when in Pokémon GO AR does not serve any particular function to catch Pokémon; you can turn off the camera and keep catching them. It just makes the things look cool. But AR has the advantage of not forcing people to be locked in a place or a screen unaware of their surroundings in the way VR does.

I think that nobody has figured out yet how to make an interesting game in AR. What I have seen so far are cute gimmicks, but I do not know if somebody that solves how to make a good game out of it.

AL: Are there any other emergent technologies or tendencies in video game design that catch your attention?

JJ: There is this open-ended question: Will consoles survive? Everybody declared consoles dead like five years ago with the arrival of extremely popular devices such as smartphones and tablets. Nintendo Switch works like an answer to that question. You have something that looks like a tablet device that plugs into your TV. It logically seems that in the end mass market devices such as tables will be cheaper to make than a dedicated device like a PlayStation or a Switch, so the dedicated devices are threatened from that standpoint. But it’s hard to predict. 

In any case, I do not think right now that technology is bringing a whole new game experience. Games are just moving to other places, and now consumer electronics companies like Apple are taking part in the process.

 

Part Three: Video games and contemporary culture

Video games work well when it is about offering the player the most immersive experience possible. Comparatively, other media and art forms show better at some points than others and vice-versa.

AL: What are the current flaws or weak points of video games as forms of expression? Are there any aspects that remain to be conquered by creators?

JJ: I think that the weakest point at the moment is related to the story part, especially in relation to characters that are NPCs (Non-Player Characters). You can spend a lot of time with an NPC, but you do not find dialogues or interaction options that match the possibilities you have in a regular social environment.

I also think that we are at a point where we can find a lot of interesting video games that are meaningful precisely because they differ from what we expect, like Dear Esther (Thechineseroom, 2013). This game means what it means because it is a ‘video game’ but is different from what you expect a video game is. Currently, video game design is experiencing meta trend of sorts. That allows us to think of how seemingly boring games such as Cart Life can convey an emotional flatness, exactly because we are used to playing video games that are colorful and exciting. That is interesting because you would not think that emotions and feelings like boredom could be present in this medium.

AL: Let us talk about games and society. Nowadays it seems that games have broken their chains and it is possible to find a kind of fun factor everywhere. You have gamification in business, game studies in the academia, the casual revolution that opened the game industry to new horizons ... Somehow the gap between labor and leisure is blurring. What role have video games played in this process?

JJ: There is something funny with devices such as smartphones. Everybody has started to have a game device in their pockets, and that is part of the current popularity of video games. Things such as point or star systems to review a place you visited are everywhere, and I think that video games have helped to people to become familiar with that kind of playful-evaluation systems.

People were used to playing games, but always carrying a smartphone makes easier to take games everywhere. It also used to be that video games would be the default scapegoat for societal ills. That has changed over the years, and now it is social media rather than video games that play the role of the scapegoat. You can still find bored journalists asking questions about violence in video games, but generally speaking, this medium has become off the hook, and that makes easier to use them in other context and environments.

AL: On the other hand, the extension of terms such as ‘game’ or ‘play’ can lead to misunderstandings and wrong ideas about what games are and what is their utility. Can this ‘need of play' take us to a ‘game burst' that could have significant consequences within game industry and game studies?

JJ: I think that the application of games to different contexts is like these cyclical trends. Educational games have been falling in and out of fashion for many years. Gamification is already a term that people do not use anymore. There is always a new idea that tries to find an entirely different and exciting way of using video games and game systems. The hype is more about specific applications of games.

AL: One last question: Are you getting better at Clash Royale (Supercell, 2016)?

JJ: I have hit a plateau. It has become harder to get better unless I either spend more money or play much more seriously. That is a problem. I understand that this is a design decision. I have played for free for many hours, and now I am more likely to pay a few Danish kroner to get some advantages.

AL: So it works.

JJ: So it works; it is made in a way that feels fair because you can play without paying money, but it takes a lot more time. Free games are interesting because many people hate them, so that is why you should play free games.

AL: Oh, that is a reason to play them.

JJ: Yes. As researchers, we need to resist the temptation to only play a few canonized games over and over. We need to engage with what is happening in the world around us.

 

 

1 In Danish: Det Kongelige Danske Kunstakademis Skoler for Arkitektur, Design og Konservering (KADK).



 

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