Forest for the Trees

I contemplated, for some time, if a proper reply on Gamasutra to Frank Lantz's "More Thoughts on Formalism" was worth it and decided against it. The piece may be found here:

It's in the sphere of discussion right now, sort of tumbling and bumping about Twitter with vague commentary. For many, they've said all they've already wanted to say about formalism or whatever a long time ago. I'm new to all this so I want to comment. Undoubtedly, all of three people will read this and I will certainly ramble but let's get to it.

Lantz has two major issues at play in his piece. The first is that he proclaims a fundamental confusion at the conversation at hand but he doesn't seem interested in engaging with the discussion from anything other than a very distant place. Other people might be down in the mud but he's not going to really get his hands dirty. This is clear by his lack of understanding as to what people are referring to when they speak of "ludeocentrism" or "ludo-fundamentalism". At the very least, he wants to conflate them equally with formalism and this is a very real category mistake because the former terms might have to do with the latter but they are not the same thing as it.

Stephen Beirne explicates to great length what his language means in his piece "Why I said Ludofundamentalism and not Something Else. (Read it here: The term is meant to imply a concern with the ludic *at the cost of the whole*. A certain narcissistic contemplation of ludic rules, systems, and more that sees the forest for the trees. This is not, if I may be so bold as to speak on behalf of a term I did not coin, equal with formalism. The introduction of formalism itself into the discussion was a mistake. There's nothing, I think, wrong with a formalist look at games. I am a self deemed perspectivist; I believe all analyses are valid if they are made in good faith. The player is key. Blah, blah. I've rambled about that before.

So when Lantz wants to look at Stephen's term or Austin's and they say "I don't want to be unfairly painted as a defender of mainstream values, an enemy of progress, or a guardian of the status quo.", that's all well and good but being a formalist in and of itself doesn't mean those things and I'd also arrogantly submit that what is being said by something like "ludocentrism" or "ludofundamentalism" isn't that concern with form itself is automatically against progress but that an unhealthy obsession with the ludic can be. Form is cool. Talk about it. But do not talk as if it is everything.

Lantz wants to set up the same, boring split that we've seen before. Formalist on one side, the young narratologist on the other. But that's overly simplistic and done to conform to a very basic narrative that arguably tries to paint his school of thought as under attack by young whippersnappers. So that's problem one. He can't understand that the issue is a specific manifestation of formalist thought rather than formalist thought in and of itself.

Issue Two: Lantz doesn't understand that his language still makes implicit value judgements. He wants to talk about how games are a mess and how great that is and I agree! They're a wonderful mess and ought to be. Let them be mud and let the player splash around in the puddles, build mud castles, and more. Yet, this isn't what is being said and this concession, when offer by Lantz, is milquetoast and impotent.

"In this view, formalists are people who tend to be interested in deep games, games that have surprising emergent properties, games that allow for player learning and mastery." he says.

This statement, like it or not, has implicit value judgements being made about games. What games are good? Deep ones. What makes a game deep? Emergent play. Systems. The ability to achieve mastery. These are prescriptive statements. Thus, when Lantz offers that he is confused how formalism can be seen as conservative, he must either be blind to his own words or genuinely confused. Either case is does not engender confidence. If he is genuinely confused, he's not putting the work in to understand why people feel the school of thought can be reductive. If he isn't, then he's just excessively careless with his language.

Thus, we reach the crux of issue two. Lantz laments that he may be seen as someone who is conservative or that his preferred analysis of games can be as being threatened by change but then makes really strong value judgements on what makes for a "deep" game.

In the end, not only is there a fair lack of self awareness but there's also a fundamental lack of engagement with the people coining terms he questions or the critics discussing them. It is a self made intellectual prison that he locks himself in, looking out the window from time to time. Until the prison walls are broken down, however, and he looks at ludocentrism or ludofundamentalism for what the speakers *mean* compared to what he believes they mean, he's going to keep making his category mistake.

And that, well...that's a mistake.

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