The Big Idea: Brian Upton

It’s fair to say that Brain Upton knows about a bit about video games: He’s the co-founder of games studio Redstorm Entertainment, was the lead designer of several games there, and currently works at Sony. It’s also fair to say that Upton has thought about what game design means more than most people ever will. The result of both that experience and that theorizing is The Aesthetic of PlayUpton’s here to explain how this book differs from other treatsies on game design, and why it matters.


The Aesthetic of Play exists because I was unhappy with other books on game design. They were good at explaining the mechanics of playable systems – how to build fun levels or write interesting rules – but they were not so good at explaining how meaning emerges from the experience of interacting with those systems.

The idea of meaning-making with games is important to me because I believe that games have tremendous untapped artistic potential. Many designers are groping toward something bigger, and recently there have been some games (Journey, Portal, The Last of Us, to name a few) that have hinted at the possibilities of the medium.  But we’ve been held back by the lack of a critical methodology. We’ve tried to adapt literary theory to our purposes, but it’s been an uncomfortable fit. (If you’ve heard of the “narratology/ludology wars” you know just how uncomfortable a fit it’s been.) Books are made of words, and so the meanings they generate are often easy to articulate. But games traffic in the ineffable. A great game can change us, but it’s frequently hard to describe exactly what the change was, or how it came about.

So The Aesthetic of Play began with me sitting, alone and dissatisfied, at a table at the Game Developers Conference in 2008. I was thinking about a future talk I might give about meaningful play, and I sketched out a rough set of diagrams to help me organize my thoughts about how players experience games. Instead of concentrating on rules and interactions, I focused on players’ moment-to-moment intentions and beliefs: What did the player think was happening? What moves did he think he was making? Or even … what moves was he making without thinking? Over the course of several months following the conference, this player-centric model of game analysis gradually coalesced into a set of design heuristics – a list of “rules for interesting experiences” that was significantly different from the “rules for interesting systems” that most game design books teach.

And then things got weird.

It was my wife’s fault. She’s a professor of music history at UCLA and she’s interested in songs, both old and new. Songs are a hard thing to be interested in if you’re a music history professor because they’re seriously under-theorized. If you study symphonies (for example) there’s a huge body of scholarship you can draw on that’s directed toward how symphonies operate as systems. But songs are so simple that there’s not a lot to be gained by that sort of structural analysis. You can catalog the chord progressions in “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” but that doesn’t get you very far toward understanding why listening to a Beatles song is so powerful.

As my wife and I talked to each other about our work, we slowly came to realize that I was answering many of the questions she was asking. The same methods I was using to analyze player experience could also be used to analyze listener experience. In fact, they could be used to analyze any sort of aesthetic experience.  I’m not a musicologist, so I didn’t feel comfortable writing up our observations in musical terms. But I do know a fair bit literary theory, so I wound up translating our conversations about aesthetics and play and music into a methodology for close reading of texts. Basically, instead of trying to adapt literary theory to analyze games, I invented a new way to use game design to analyze literature.

All of this came together in the first draft of a book near the end of 2010. At the time it was called Gaming the System (which I can see in retrospect was a horrible title). I sent it off to MIT Press, my first-choice publisher, and was rejected. It was a “revise and resubmit” though, not an outright “no”, which was encouraging. The editor said he liked a lot of what I’d written, but that the manuscript felt like two books stitched together. He had a hard time understanding how the heuristics of game design related to the analysis of narrative.

Fixing this problem was hard. I could feel the connection between the two halves of the book, but I didn’t have the language to articulate it. So before I started revising, I spent several years researching philosophy, neuroscience, and semiotics in order to construct an explanation for how these seemingly disparate ideas are linked. This deep dive strengthened the book in unexpected ways. Not only did I rewrite the entire manuscript from start to finish, but I wound up adding four new chapters exploring the philosophical ramifications of this approach to thinking about games and art.

The final draft of The Aesthetic of Play is as much about epistemology as it is about games. It uses play as the starting point for investigating how we exist as thinking creatures within an unfolding universe. It explores how a tendency toward play is an unavoidable byproduct of a particular epistemological stance – we don’t play to learn; we play as a consequence of being able to learn. And it shows how adopting this model of aesthetic reception offers surprising insights into narrative questions – why certain plot structures work better than others, for example, or how foreshadowing functions.

I realize this probably sounds ridiculously ambitious for what started as a simple book about game design. I didn’t set out to write a philosophy book, or a narratology book.  The manuscript just went in that direction because I couldn’t figure out any other way to answer the questions I found myself asking. My wife is happy though. We joke that I gave her a critical theory as a present. The two of us are currently collaborating on a book about play and music. It’s not clear yet where that book is going either, but we’re certainly asking ourselves some interesting questions.


The Aesthetic of Play: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the book page at MIT Press. Follow the author on Twitter.

17 Comments on “The Big Idea: Brian Upton”

  1. Is there anywhere I can see an excerpt from the book, however brief? It sounds fab, but seeing some actual paragraphs will help level-set. No brick an mortar bookstore near me is likely to carry it, alas.

  2. No Kindle edition yet… :(

    There’s an ebook option through the MIT Press site, but I can’t figure out how to buy it… their guide on accessing ebooks looks less convenient than the dead-tree version, too.

  3. One of those that from the title I’d ignore, but reading about it makes me want the book. Same sort of thing happened to me with the Civil War movie Glory. Not the kind of movie I would have gone to see, but I got a couple of free passes and was blown away by it. “The Big Idea” really does work

  4. William pointed it out first (10:52 am), that two-letter transposition typo leads to a cool name.

  5. Or, if you don’t like the Upton family, an instruction.

    I’m looking forward to reading this with an eye towards SFF narratives and stories.

  6. This sounds completely fascinating. I’m putting it on my wish list even though I will not have time to read it for … well, a while.

  7. What we see when we look at the word “narratology” is that it has been around for over 50 years, and that within any discipline, whether narrative literary criticism or immersive game play (which in my opinion have the same standard of “suspension of disbelief” as found in the theatre), there is usually some important, excellent standardization of abstract terms that are the result of past efforts, and the wheel does not have to be re-invented. It does raise the question, however, of “who” should be writing scholarly texts on narrative litetary criticism and game play. If a person responsible for narrative was so uninformed as to be unaware that these standards already existed for over half a century, and that he was forced by prior ignorance onto the waiting hands of possibly dead men who spent their academic lives ensuring the standard was up to snuff, should the reader consider the author a viable source of information about this subject, or instead someone looking for the gimick that sells their next idea at a conference under duress? Essentially the author states he didn’t have a lecture prepared, and then attempted to build some metrics by the seat-of-his-pants and finds out the metrics and standards already exist and some other people already did the heavy lifting (many of them Russian), and that his first attempt was rejected by MIT, but he has now personally developed the vocabulary of narrative in computer gameplay and is marketing it for money. In a world where everyone gets paid, especially Marvin Gaye’s kids, how is it this guy can grab 50 years of literary criticism and market it as his personal idea? I mean this honestly. There is a tremendous disconnect between who owns what, when it can and when it shouldn’t be used, and what is considered appropriate and courteous. If you think my comment is bitchy, think about how those Russian scholars and academics feel who worked under the Soviet system and set those standards. How would you feel if someone did that to your favorite U.S. professor, let alone an entire discipline!?! This unwitting vanity that the people of the U.S. have– which makes us incredibly ugly to people in other parts of the world that don’t have it so good– is a detriment. I understand the author wants prestige and cash for his efforts, but so do the folks who wrote the sources for his book. Essentially, my response should be, “No shit. Why do you hold any position of authority within the gaming industry if you are only now getting your standards? How did you get your job in the first place? If this was the level of your preparedness, why should we ever consider the author to be representative of authority on narrative?” I’ll still buy the book. But my point is that just because anyone can write book these days doesn’t mean all books are of equal merit, and while his is probably better than most, it makes my point on the inclusivity issue: it doesn’t matter if you have the proper office or morphology or if you fit into the proper social justice prerequisites, if you don’t have the actual necessary capability to write, then don’t become an author simply for a merit badge you can show off to your appreciative audience. If you want to be a sci-fi writer, be a sci-fi writer— not an expectant, black, female, amputee sci-fi writer– just a sci-fi writer. If you want to help develop metrics and standards of narrative in immersive game play, then do so properly and appropriately. It would be excellent if people stopped expecting less than stellar work to be deamed beyond excellent simply because they were “nice people” or “from an oppressed demographic.” First I want functionality: I want my faucet to work and provide clean, potable water. If, in the providing of my working faucet, I find out that my faucet installer also happens to be a former junkie from one of the less esteemed gender groups with a health crisis, that’s all great as long as my faucet works. When someone comes along telling me they’ve just invented the faucet anew, it makes me suspicious and it smells like Kanye. And that’s exactly how I see this issue of inclusivity at all costs, no matter what it does to the standards that were the very real and viable bias points that define speculative fiction, fantasy, and literary narrative. These authors may be very nice people with hard lives, but capability is prioritized before demographic marketability and social justice, and when it is not, all definitions become meaningless no matter what we may feel is just or fair. Please don’t take a shit in my drinking water and then try to sell me a faucet, explaining to me that it is the ethical thing to do because you’re a “nice guy” despite the fact that you’ve made a habit of shitting in my drinking water and telling me I should appreciate it because of the color of your skin or because someone did something mean in the past. That I should have to put this point in the ass-end of Scalzi’s blog should suggest to everyone that when you let standards slip in order to be a “nice guy” or “social justice warrior ensuring the opportunities for our oppressed masses”, first make sure the water you want to sell us as “potable” is actually potable as per the definition. Don’t go redefine “potable” so you can sell me shit water as “the new product which will change everybody’s life for the better.” Real standards are real standards and protect people of all types when they travel by plane; a black female passenger does not want her plane to crash and kill her baby because Frank the Samoan Amputee was having a bad day and standards of plane maintainance were let slide because it may hurt Frank’s feelings…. What fucking nonsense, and they have the balls to go after Top Gear’s Jeremy, just like they always went after Miles Davis. And that’s how I feel about this issue.

  8. Looks interesting but I’d also like to see an excerpt since my library doesn’t carry. Also no Kindle version, alas.

  9. I actually read all that, but it would’ve been a lot easier with some line breaks. I think the first few sentences were something like what my reaction was to the Big Idea piece, but now it seems to have been drowned in words.

    Book may be interesting, but I hope it’s not as self-congratulatory as the essay.

  10. This book sounds really, really interesting. Mr Upton, I suppose time will tell whether you’ve written an Understanding Comics for video games. As a writer of songs, I’m also intrigued by the book you’re working on with your wife.

    drunkenafficianado, go home, you’re drunk and you didn’t read the essay very well. The writer stated that he knows a fair bit about literary theory. What he went and read up on was neuroscience, semiotics and philosophy. When you started talking about inclusivity you lost the 99% of your audience who noticed that the writer of this book is a male person (and a white person, too).

  11. For those looking for an excerpt or a sample… I don’t have one, but as someone who’s had the chance to read the book already I can attest that it’s a fun read. The prose is spare but pithy and I found Upton’s “big idea” to be very well supported. Plus he uses “The Princess Bride” as a running example. Fantastic.

    I saw this book as a big step forward in exploring the family ties between video games and more conventional art forms, and not at all a restatement or rebranding of others’ work. I mean, if this has all been done already, tell that to the video game theorists who are still at each others’ throats about “narratology vs. ludology.” Any gamer with half a brain can tell that the two things can coexist in a video game, and yet Brian Upton is pretty much *the first one* to argue and support that. The fact that he does it in by finding a common aesthetic linking games and other art forms is bonus.

    Read this book!

%d bloggers like this: