Understanding Comics, but for Games
Updated: Mar 5
Question on the table: What would an Understanding Comics (UC) for Video games look like?
On its face, UC is stylish, smart, and hell it’s even meta. Scott McCloud really makes a good case for himself as not only a smart, thought-provoking author but also as an entertainer and presumably half-decent maker of comics himself. It’s hard not to trust him and the arguments he makes. Put into more words, UC possesses 3 qualities that distinguish itself from things that simply focus on one or two of those elements. First, UC has good arguments that really dig into the essence of comics as a medium. McCloud immediately earned serious academic street cred by quoting and referencing the famed philosopher Marshall McLuhan. Not only does he quote a “serious” high-brow philosopher, McCloud is sensible enough to only quote the digestible bits of McLuhan. As an undergrad, I failed to grasp the difference between “sounding smart” and actually saying smart things. I appreciate McCloud’s clear, structured arguments and his choice to only bring in new, more complex arguments only after he’s laid the groundwork. It also speaks to his understanding of his audience: he’s directing this to normal people and not other academics.
His audience focus leads to my second point: UC is actually entertaining. It’s probably entertaining partly because it has such good thoughts and theory, but I venture he went to great lengths to make his work enjoyable to read. Perhaps he was simply meeting an audience expectation that comics have to be enjoyable to read. Arguably, could anyone who’s read a comic before be expected to pick up his book and be as entertained as they would be reading a more fictional comic? Based on the thoughtfulness of his structure, I’d argue he probably has a good and pithy introduction to the book as a whole. Or that he just isn’t worried about appealing to people who don’t want to read a meta-comic about comic theory. Whatever his tactics, I enjoyed reading.
Finally the third compelling aspect of UC is that it is itself a comic. On one level this is compelling because it shows he knows how to make a comic (something I love to tease game theorists about). On another level it appeals to a very high-brow, postmodern aesthetic sense: media about media. A hallmark of postmodern pieces is to have the piece of art point to the very fact that it is a piece of art, e.g. a character talking through a TV screen to the audience.
Thus the follow up, what would Understanding Games look like? Based on what we’ve seen UC do well, it would similarly have to focus on good theory, entertaining/charming delivery method, and also be itself a game. First quality, what is the core of what a game is? To inaccurately quote Jesse Schell, “I don’t know. I guess probably rules, goals, and interaction?” Besides those points, certain audiences interested in how to make games or the work that goes into a game itself would have to understand iteration.
Secondly, Understanding Games would probably be entertaining in and of itself as a game. It’s interesting to note that books or comics can be very broadly entertaining, while most games will only aim to be fun. Arguably, Understanding Games would likely want the player/reader to learn something, which would shift its goals beyond just fun. Understanding Games would therefore aim to be Transformational, according to the Sabrina Culyba’s Transformational Games framework. Understanding Games could have pithy narration, pretty graphics, or maybe even cool tech; however, it should probably be most entertaining through its mechanics in order to maximize its postmodern cool factor.
Finally, UG would have to be a game. Tangibly, I could see this as a series of levels with a specific narration or title hinting at the goal of the exercise. Now that I think about it, Bennett Foddy’s Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy would be a really good point of reference. The reader/player of Understanding Games probably wouldn’t be expected to write the rules of the game (also because dynamically implementing rules created by a player would probably be impossible).
A sample series of levels might look something like this: Give players an interaction. Then a starting set of rules/structure. Make them experience it without goals. Give them the same experience but with a goal. Now let people see/experience how an idea evolves over iterations. Would it work? Maybe with either lots of words or very few words that are very clear. It would also be very smart because the entire piece about games would itself be a game. Like why not? I bet someone could make a lot of money or look very cool in front of other game theorists for doing it.