On Zero-Player Games

Jesper Juul has posted a fascinating article titled “Zero Player Games: Or What We Talk About When We Talk About Players” over at his blogzone. It is a cowritten piece between Juul and Staffan Björk, and I found it interesting for a few reasons that I’m going to outline below. I suggest you go read it–there is some good stuff there, though it does get pretty theoretical at times (the words “mathematics” and “proofs” were used a couple times, and my brain just shut down because I have the thinking capacity of a tiny child).

Some points:

1. To lay it out there, because I always feel like I have to, the article assumes that cognitive players who are not machines or algorithms must be humans. It isn’t true, lots of animals play games. The essay is anthropocentric, but certainly is more open to nonhuman players because it works through intentionality–anything can have the appearance of intentionality. Next point.

2. The idea that players exist as a specter to games is brilliant. The player is always there, even when the player is specifically excluded from the design of the game. For instance, Progress Quest is designed around the intention of a player to see skills increase, to have adventures, etc., even though the player never does those things. The ghost of the player is still designed around, it is the focal point of the entire experience. If I were feeling smarter (and if all of my books weren’t packed up and a hundred miles away), I would give you the appropriate quote from Derrida to back up this ghost talk (also, “Structure, Sign, and Play”).

3. The last bit of the essay takes a little turn. We are provided with this list of traits that are applied to the entity “player”:

By removing players, we could, perhaps paradoxically, show what was removed. Players turn out have a number of separable traits each highlighted by a specific type of zero-player game.

  • Players having continued agency: Setup-only games remove players’ interaction with the game state for (perhaps) the majority of the time that the game plays.
  • Players as humans: AI players negate the need for players to be human.
  • Players as temporal beings: When a game is solved, or when a game is purely hypothetical, it does not require actual players (human or not) to play it. The player effective becomes an atemporal idea.
  • Players as having intentionality: In most cases, and even in the case of AI players, we easily identify a player as an entity with an intention to perform well in a game. That intention does not need to be rooted in a psychological fact, but can simply be the exhibit of a preference for success over failure. The corollary to this is existence of spoilsports; entities that are supposed to be players but who exhibit no intention of wanting to perform as well as possible in a game.
  • Player as having aesthetic preferences: We have several times alluded to the fact that players tend to exhibit preferences for different games. Actual, human, players prefer certain game experiences to other experiences, and will compare games, and categorize games into genres. The initially quoted player-centric conceptions of games are thus revealed to be a specific type of zero-player game, that do not reflect the behavior of real players, only a type of hypothetical player devoid of aesthetic preferences.

I disagree with the second trait for obvious reasons. The fourth is weird because it assumes that players always want to win a game. I think that we can probably make assumptions that players have intentionality in that they intend to play the game–they want to navigate the world-space and ludic ecology of the game. Not everyone wants to win. Sometimes you want to be killed. I had a Day Z experience like that today–I wandered around until someone killed me, and I did it on purpose. In any case, that list is unsettling to me for reasons that I can’t put into words right now.

In any case, go read the article. You will be better for having done so, whether you agree or not (I don’t know where I stand right now.)

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