On Video Games, Content, and Expression



Frank Lantz recently wrote a post at Gamasutra about formalism. It is fundamentally about the stakes of formalism, what self-described formalists do and do not do, and how he sees the current world of video games. The much-quoted paragraph that has seemed to draw the most positive and negative interest is this one:

So when I see smart young critics complaining about “ludo-essentialism” or “ludocentrism” or “formalism” in a way that implies that being primarily interested in formal qualities of choice and action makes one an ally of the status quo or a defender of ruling videogame conventions I want to speak out and say: No, we feel as disconnected from most games as you do, if for opposite reasons. Everywhere *you* look you see points and goals and competition and puzzles and combat. Everywhere *we* look we see pretend worlds and childish make-believe, imaginary dragons, badly written dialogue and unskippable cutscenes in which angry mannequins gesture awkwardly at each other.

Bracketing off the elision that Lantz makes between the “ludo” terms and formalism itself (which is important but that I’m fundamentally uninterested in), what Lantz seems to be marking here is a bright line between form and content.

Lantz makes a distinction between those two things fairly often. There’s this interview from a few years back where he describes the games he made at Area Code as less “content-driven.” There’s also the fascinating longform interview that he recently did on the Designer Notes podcast where he explains about his procedural-esque fine arts work before games. In that podcast, Lantz is very specific in explaining that he turned to particular kinds of games in order to get away from games or experiences that leaned too much into “content.” By this he means things like the interactive CD promotional material of the 1990s — you create a small set of experiences, you make sure the brand is imprinted on those experiences, and you proliferate prerendered video or 3D model elements. From listening to the podcast, I get the feeling that Lantz doesn’t dislike those things so much as he finds them uninteresting, which helps to put the quotation above into context.

So when I read Lantz saying “pretend worlds and childish make-believe, imaginary dragons, badly written dialogue and unskippable cutscenes,” I’m reading a distaste for content. At the bottom, the fundamental rules that make up the possible interactions, emotional resonances, and readings of those “make-believe” worlds do not seem sufficient enough for Lantz.

That is to say that, for Lantz, the structure that undergirds a game like Skyrim is not interesting enough to warrant as much attention as the structure of a game like Hoplite. And as far as it’s concerned, I can’t blame him–games operate on humans in the same ways that other media do in that they require a certain discipline in order to fully resonate. In other words, its all up to taste, desire, and readiness, and games are so big as to cut across lots of different spectrums of all three of those qualities.

In any case, Lantz is evoking form and content in order to evaluate form and to cull content he doesn’t much care for.


I want to take a moment to evoke Deleuze and Guattari in order to suggest an mode of evaluation that evades form and content distinctions yet still gives access to some formal analysis (formal analysis without form, a bizarre byproduct of language and methodology).

In A Thousand Plateaus, the two authors read Hjelmslev’s strange theory of lingustics reductively in order to push that theory into a larger field than lingustics itself. The specifics of this move don’t matter so much; what’s important is that Deleuze and Guattari suggest a net (rather than a hierarchy or a dialectic) of content and expression.

Content in this case refers not to the dragons and fairytale language that makes up Skyrim, but instead “formed matters” that include both substance itself and form. To unravel the language, content is what constitutes a thing and how that thing is constituted. For Deleuze and Guattari, content is always wrapped up in its form; the systems of Skyrim (mechanics, the plot, the affordances of the controller and the engine, and so on) all comprise the content that is there. There’s no distinguishing between the structure of a thing and the thing’s unskippable cutscenes.

Expression is a term used to describe “functional structures.” Expression also deals with substance and form, but instead of what and how in relation to the object-in-itself like content, expression deals with the what and how of interaction between different objects in the world. To render this a little more clear, expression is a way of talking about the ways that an object can come into contact with other things and “form compounds.”

We’re a little in the weeds right now, and we’re going to get a little deeper, but I promise we’ll come out the other end.

Later in the book Deleuze and Guattari have this to say about content and expression:

The independence of two kinds of forms, forms of expression and forms of content, is not contradicted but confirmed by the fact that the expressions or expresseds are inserted into or intervene in contents, not to represent them but to anticipate them or move them back, slow them down or speed them up, separate them or combine them, delimit them in a different way.

and the next page

The independence of the form of expression and the form of content is not the basis for a parallelism between them or a representation of one by the other, but on the contrary a parceling of the two, a manner in which the expressions are inserted into contents, in which we ceaselessly jump from one register to another, in which signs are at work in things themselves just as things themselves extend into or are deployed through signs.

That’s a lot of wordage, but I’m mostly including those bits just to lead into my end here. Form and content are fundamentally classification techniques that attempt to split objects up into their substrate (form) and everything that rests on top of that substrate (content). It’s the sheet cake of aesthetic critique. Sheet cake is necessary sometimes, and often the simplicity of sheet cake makes it the best and easiest choice during complex crises (aka birthdays and office parties).

Analysis of content and expression is the salad of aesthetic analysis. It’s an attempt to acknowledge the internal workings and forms of an object (content) and the ways that the object interfaces and is altered by the world around it (expression). This form of analysis is an attempt to think the complexity of objects in the world, and I think it is a more interesting way of thinking through video games than the more-static form and content method.

I’m making a similar theoretical move here that Lantz does: I find analytic methods that give me easier access to complexity and shifting relations more interesting than I do the more static modes of analysis, and I think content and expression opens that up a little more than form and content.

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8 Responses to On Video Games, Content, and Expression

  1. I’m finding this just a more rarified version of the ludology/narratology debate, which I’ve always found kind of silly at its basis (although, if pressed, I’d probably find myself on the ludological, or ludocentric side). I keep coming back to Crawford’s essential question: “what does the player do?” The moment-to-moment gameplay is what is essential about a game; it’s not that the narrative structures, or the essential meaning, that the player takes away from the game is irrelevant — indeed, that may be key to the emotional impact of play, and the artistic virtue the player takes away from the game.

    Fundamentally, games are -not- about content. Games are about interaction with an uncertain system that produces outcomes that are not a priori predictable. Games are about dealing with that uncertainty, and gaining a degree of mastery around handling the uncertainty they pose. “Content” is a layer schmeared on, in the fashion of cream cheese on a bagel, to make the underlying player-struggle more interesting and appealing from an emotional perspective; this is by contrast to, say, the novel, where character-struggle is the main and sole appeal of the work.

    If I can make an analogy to music, the conflict there is between the lyrics and the formal musical structure. Wagner’s work would still be interesting if it had no connection to narrative, but it does, and that connection makes it more powerful. You can imagine a set of theorists arguing that lyrics are the most important thing in music, because they create the emotional connection and the “content” of the work, with another set of theorists arguing that the formal conventions of music tonality are fundamentally important, with the power delivered by human response to sound, and that the stress on lyrics is a distraction from what really matters — the artistry involved in creating the music itself.

    This is ultimately a fruitless conversation. Symphonic music does not require voice; an opera requires it. Many game styles do not require “content,” in any meaningful sense (go play Go); a graphic adventure requires it. To say “Go is inferior to Grim Fandango” is as nonsensical as the reverse; just as saying “Aida is inferior to The Goldberg Variations.”

    Form and content are not the same thing: They are orthogonal axes. And worthwhile works can be found at any point on the plane they form.

    • kunzelman says:

      Thanks for the comment, Greg. I definitely understand the distinctions that get made between form and content on the terms that “form and content” sets for itself, which I’m trying to metaphorize in the sheetcake model (there’s frosting, content, and there’s the substrate, the cake). What I’m interested in is complicating or outright rejecting are the terms that “form and content” analysis itself offers. I think it is often overly reductive in its commonsense application and its academic application seems more concerned with proliferating terminology of forms rather than demonstrating new forms/models/etc. Ultimately, I think that D+G’s double articulation of content and expression allow for a more bountiful analysis (or, in other words, I find the terms that they put on the table to be more exciting).

      I think maybe some of what you’re responding to here is the latent language in D+G of “form of content” and “form of expression” that holds implicit that content is ultimately form-generating and that expressions themselves determine certain organizations that are explicit forms. For these two philosophers, we can’t ever get to a smeared layer at the top of a substrate–that distinction doesn’t even make sense to them, and they both spent much of their lives trying to tear down these kinds of dualisms in literature, politics, fine art, cinema, and other fields.

      At the end of the day, I’m very much with you: I think most of this is a complicated mashup rehash of several arguments that have at best been resolved sufficiently for all parties and at worst have at least been discussed enough that people can read up and make their minds up fairly easily. I’m just trying to enter in some more complicated theories that I’m personally invested in thinking about, and like Lantz says at the end of his piece, at the end of the day I just want more games that I’m interested in to be produced (or to get the opportunity to produce them).

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting. I recently taught some of your writing and read Uncertainty in Games–excellent stuff all around.

  2. Originally I wanted to comment here, but my reply turned into something of an article. For who might be interested, I try to unpack some of the consequences of working with analogies like cake, salad, and opera, and explore the role essentialism may play in this discussion: http://www.eveningoflight.nl/subspecie/2015/01/23/cake-salad-a-reply-to-cameron-kunzelman/

    Thanks for writing this and inspiring my to finally put some of my thoughts down on paper, Cameron!

  3. Greg, Wagner himself (initially in essays, then in the operas themselves) formed the theory of the gesamtkunstwerk, the ‘total art work’ in which words, poetry, drama, the acoustic & architectural structure of the theatre you were sitting in, the music, the instrumentation, the melody, the relationship between the words and the setting, the harmonic structure, the relationship in time between signature themes (or ‘leitmotifs’) heard at different points in the operas, (in the case of the ring cycle, over all four operas) all simultaneously operate on the audience to produce the experience. Wagner would have pissed himself laughing at these attempts to separate form and content – he would have entirely backed up Deleuze, although in my view Deleuze is mostly rehashing ideas Wagner covered a century earlier, and then backed up by actually making the art happen, and putting it on in an opera house he had built for him by the King of Bavaria, at unparalleled cost & to his precise specifications.

    • kunzelman says:

      A lot of this was certainly in the air in 19th century Europe, and it’s no mistake that debates around form/content and responses to them feel like a rehash of the 19th century. I think you’re right on the money about Deleuze feeling like a rehash, although I think of that less negatively than you seem to; he was quite open about his influences of Nietzsche, Bergson, and the transitions in art happening around that time period (and the early part of the 20th century).

      All of this is pretty old stuff in general!

  4. sylvain says:

    Listening intermittently to this ongoing discussion from afar, I’m a bit confused about how the word “formalist” is used. It seems to refer almost exclusively to game mechanics, choices and actions as Lantz say, but how, for example, the representational elements are not part of the form? In the case of an animation movie, we would not think of the visual style as “content” but it seems to be so in video games. How an oeuvre looks (lo-fi, photorealism, retro, color schemes, etc,) would be considered as “form” in any other artistic field, but it’s not so clear in video games.

    I guess “formalism” in the context of games means “the formal elements that belong specifically to games” but this exclusion of what we would normally considered as “form” makes for a very confusing discussion (and it does contribute to the feeling of isolation from other fields that video games criticism is often, and rightly so, accused of). I agree, though, that there’s something arbitrary in this division anyway, and I tend not to use these terms.

    Ludo-centrism/fundamentalism, at least, is clearer about what it means.

  5. Hi Cameron,

    I enjoyed reading this and I think you and I are not so far apart on these issues. You know I love me some Deleuze and Guattari so how can I not see this as a friendly and most welcome olive branch?

    I think that the benefits of D&G in this context are not that they provide additional clarity or remove ambiguity but actually the opposite – there’s a percolating rhythm to their ideas that makes us loosen up a little, so we stop holding on so tightly to our utensils. They lower the lighting, reminding us that sometimes seeing every detail isn’t as important as looking good. A little rhizomatic cocktail to take the edge off my tongue? Yes please and thanks.

    “…the interactive CD promotional material of the 1990s…”

    They weren’t just promotional. They were creative works in their own right. In fact they were the good stuff. They were the deluxe, high-quality, grown-up version of interactivity, as opposed to the *obviously* junky kid stuff of games. Maybe people like Greg and I, who are old enough to remember the golden age of multimedia, were forever scarred by this encounter. Maybe that’s why, when asked to imagine how great it might be if the wonderful music and cool animation and amazing storyworlds were set free from the cage of goals and points and puzzles and combat, we stare with vacant eyes and lift a shaky, liver-spotted finger to point at a cobwebbed pallet stacked with Voyager CD-Roms that were never buried in the desert but should have been. Maybe we should just get over it.

    The thing is, I get it. I get that *within* games it seems like a focus on interactivity, or mechanics, or gameplay, or systems is ubiquitous and dominant. But in the larger context of the world these other things – visual art, music, storytelling – these things are *already* considered important, deep, profound, worthwhile, meaningful, magical, sacred.

    Most people, if they bother to think about games at all, assume that games’ rising status and cultural capital is wholly due to these ingredients. From the perspective of the world at large games are only worthy of intellectual attention, only aesthetic experiences at all by virtue of their newly acquired ability to deliver sophisticated visuals, serious themes, and compelling stories.

    I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say this point of view is ubiquitous, it really is. This is what people outside our world think explains why games are now in the arts section of the newspaper instead of just the business or technology section. It is a completely natural and intuitive point of view and, you know what? Maybe it’s true.

    That first thing, whatever it is, the thing that’s also in snooker, and football, and tiddly winks, and crossword puzzles? That thing, on its own, might be good for entertainment, or distraction, good for kids, good for delaying Alzheimer’s, good for passing the time, for plucking pennies out of our phones while we wait in lines, good for the neanderthals colliding into each other on the football field, or the spectacle junkies who root for them, good for a weekend escape from the serious business of work and art. But the idea that that thing, on its own, might be important, deep, profound, worthwhile, meaningful, magical, sacred? This idea is far from ubiquitous, far from intuitive, it is mysterious, strange, and new. I think it’s true, but you known what? I could be wrong.

    When I hear you say that in videogames that thing is one ingredient among many, no more or less primary or special or important, I get it, there’s a lot of truth there. But I want to throw the spotlight on that thing. Not because I don’t appreciate how nice its voice sounds in chorus with the confident, powerful, famous voices of its older brothers and sisters, but because it calls to me. I feel like it needs me, needs me to listen to it carefully, to understand it. What does it sound like? What is it capable of? What is it saying?

    I am not immune to the charms of its dazzling, accomplished siblings, quite the opposite. And I’m not deaf to the beautiful show they put on together. I’m not telling you that this strange, new, awkward voice is capable of holding the stage by itself. I think it is, but I don’t know. I know that sometimes it is quiet to the point of disappearing, sometimes it is too loud and abrasive, often it sounds like it is shouting orders, barking instructions, or muttering to itself, it sounds like its in a different key, or several keys at once, or not a key at all, sometimes it swoops like a wild animal, sometimes it hums and clicks and repeats itself like a machine.

    But it calls to me. I want to put the spotlight on it. I want to hear it and attend to it and find out what it is saying. I’m not trying to burn down the opera house, I just want a basement club where we can have a few drinks and listen to this voice on its own, or with a backing band, or just a simple accompaniment, and figure out what it means. I want you to come with me, to listen to this thing, but I’m not demanding, I’m just asking. I think it might be amazing.

    • kunzelman says:

      Thanks you for the thoughtful and expansive comment, Frank. We’re definitely thinking through these issues in similar ways. I really appreciate the time that you’re taking to really talk through your thinking here, as I think that’s something that’s something crucial that was missing from that previous piece–this particular concern and care that you have about games as they interface with “society” (as opposed to games enthusiasts) is obviously incredibly important, and I think this is the first place that I have seen you be so explicit about outlining it in recent memory (if that isn’t true, forgive me.) Of course, your previous piece was a blog post fired off in response to a set of vague questions, so I’m not sure anyone can blame you for not getting down to nitty-gritty details.

      Again, thank you for the wonderful comment.

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