Cake Salad (a reply to Cameron Kunzelman)

This open letter is a reply to Ca­me­ron Kun­zel­man’s piece “On Video Games, Content, and Ex­pres­sion“. Anyone is free to reply here or on their own blog.Hey Cameron,

thanks for a great contribution to the discussion. I really agree with your basic sentiment that any approach that helps us personally interact with the material in a satisfying manner is doing its job. I wanted to take a moment and advance a few thoughts about the matter.

First of all, I get the feeling that the form–content distinction is a front for the more fundamental discussion of essence; the spectre of “what is a game?” that keeps haunting us and that many people wish would just lie down and be at peace. Greg Costikyan already mentions the word a few times in his comment on your piece. Many of us are drawn to the question because we want to know what is “essential” and “fundamental” to games, we want to know what the bottom layer of the sheet cake is. The thing is, without the top layers, the sheet cake is not a sheet cake, it’s just a cake bottom. Just like the opera is not opera without the text. Now maybe that’s cool. Some cake bottoms are so good in and of themselves that we call them something else. Maybe just cake. Other cakes work well because of the interaction between the layers, and it’s senseless to take those apart. So now we’ve got two types of cake: one type which has a super-interesting bottom that doesn’t need any other layers shmeared on, and a type that works in the interaction between the layers. Are they both cakes? What is the essence of cake? The Dutch would call the single-layered one a koek or cake, but the other one a taart. You can usually get both at the baker’s. I suppose you can see what I’m getting at here.

Greg’s musical analogy also works well, and we can imagine people asking “is opera still music?” because it’s also got text (not to mention props, scenes, and costumes). Some will reply in the affirmative and add: “Hey, and song might actually be the oldest form of music on Earth!”, to which others might reply: “Yes, but it’s about the melody and the rhythm, not about the instrument or the words.” — music formalism.

If I understand your interpretation of Deleuze & Guattari’s model correctly, you are saying that you prefer a model where there is no bottom layer, no substrate, no fundament. Games aren’t a sheet cake: they’re a salad. There’s a bunch of ingredients and they are tossed together in a bowl, and they all work together to make a salad. The advantage of this analogy is that it removes the hierarchy inherent in the sheet cake analogy. The disadvantage is that any formalist worth his or her salt would instantly reframe the discussion and ask whether or not you think a salad is a salad without greens. Maybe, they would argue, the greens are essential to the salad, and the rest is just dressing.

This brings me to the problems inherent in analogies. Sheet cakes are operas, cake fundaments are symphonies, and they’re all salads. Sprinkles are croutons are embellishments are achievements. And all of them are (part of) games. Except they’re not. If a game is a salad, what is the bowl? Is a salad without a bowl still a salad? Et cetera. Analogies can take us a long way, but there is a risk that we end up talking about the metaphor instead of the thing we are trying to study. Basically what I did in this piece so far. I apologise, but I’ll keep doing it. We’ll see where we end up.

It is worth asking why we would want to analyse games as (operatic) sheet cake — or as (musical) salad, for that matter. At the risk of being too presumptive, I would say that formalists prefer a sheet cake model because they’ve eaten a bunch of sheet cakes (taarten) that they didn’t like: these cakes had copious layers of overblown, sickly sweet schmear, gaudy glazing, and lurid sprinkles, while the bottom cake layer was soggy and cheap. Compare that to the times when they had simple cakes (koeken) that were delicious, without all the superfluous junk. The conclusion is simple: who needs those layers? The cake fundament is what it’s really about, and bakers should focus on making really good cake fundaments instead of duping fools into buying fancy-looking colourful mountains of shmear with disappointing fundaments.

Jan Toorop - Design for Delft Salad Oil (1893)

Jan Toorop – Design for Delft Salad Oil (1893)

The salad people, on the other hand, don’t like the idea that there is one particular ingredient that forms the fundament of their favourite food. They’ve had good salads and bad salads, but for various reasons. Sometimes the dressing was too acidic, sometimes too sweet; too oily, or not enough. Sometimes the lettuce was wilted, sometimes it was crispy fresh. Too many croutons, or too few. Whatever. There are so many factors, and they all interact in numerous ways.

One problem we are facing is what I tried to illustrate in the beginning: that of essentialism. Whether we talk about cakes, salads, music, or games, the same problem arises, and in that sense this four-way analogy is en­light­ening. No matter the metaphor, we can get stuck on defining the essence of a thing. Or rather: the essence of a word. A thing does not have an essence: it’s simply there. It could be something as simple as a rock, or as complex as a videogame in a box. The problem of essence arrives with the naming of the thing, and the categorisation humans (and other animals) need in order to make sense of the world. When we call a rock a rock, it’s because we assert it’s part of the category of rocks. We do this on the basis of analogies with other objects we’ve encountered. If a thing looks and feels like other things we’ve put into the rock category, well, that’s that settled right there. It’s the classic ‘quacks like a duck’ rationale, and it’s pretty solid most of the time for matters of basic survival.

The problem is therefore not so much in the principle of analogical categorisation, but it arises in later reflection on those categories: the attempt to express them in terms of rules and boundaries. We have a category of rocks, and we may attempt to formalise it into a set of scientific definitions, based on chemical properties, etc. The rocks don’t change. They’re still rocks (or not, depending on your definition). This formalisation of categories is useful and the basis of any knowledge beyond common sense, if and only if the categories correspond to important differences in the natural world.

The question is, what do we gain by applying it everywhere we can? To cut to the chase: why do we want to formalise the category of cakes, salads, music, and games beyond common sense? It’s highly questionable whether we gain any scientific or practical knowledge by doing this, since these are relatively arbitrary categories of human culture. Suppose we develop a super-firm definition that says that cake is most definitely a baked slab of mixed flour, sugar, and butter, and nothing else. With this definition we have established that the bottom layer of a layer cake is true cake, and the rest — meringue, whipped cream, icing — is extraneous to it. It tells us nothing about any particular cake, which may or may not have layers, may actually have some eggs thrown into the mix, etc. It merely draws a line in the sand somewhere, and sets the defined word apart from common parlance.

This argu­ment builds on a piece I wrote two years ago on the ques­tion of “what is a game?”.The way I see it, there are actually two uses for such a definition, and those are social and commercial. The first takes a particular definition of a concept and uses it to construct a social concensus. All the people who adopt the definition are part of the club, and those who operate with a loose, imprecise, informal notion of a concept are not. Cake formalists can have a great time discussing the precise ways in which butter, flour, and sugar may be mixed and baked to create cake. They are joined in fraternity and sorority by decrying the corruption of cakes by unnecessary layerings. Some may concede that some layer cakes are actually pretty good, even if the extra layers are not fundamental to the essence of cake. Others are seriously hardcore and will only ever eat pure, unlayered cake. They may even have arguments on who are the true cake-eaters. But they all know that they at least have a notion of what makes a true cake, while the plebs don’t.

The other use ties into the first one, and is commercial. It was expressed well in a piece by Jed Pressgrove. Consumers tend to want to buy things they know they will enjoy, and here categorisation is paramount. You appeal to ‘hardcore cake-eaters’ by stressing how your cake batter is super-well mixed with the deepest ingredients, but with none of the bullshit of layer cakes. When you’re marketing to this group, you’ll want to conform to their übertight definition and preferably bake your cake accordingly, or they’ll be all over you with bad reviews. But hey, we know damn well that there is a market for layer cakes, too. Lots of people like layer cakes. These people refer to layer cakes as cakes, so you better call them cakes if you want to sell them, not layered sweetbakes. In this case, you can’t afford to adibe by any strict formal definition. If your product is sorta or a lot like other cakes, well, it’s a cake. Both the presence and the absence of formal definition has a commerical function, and we’d best not forget it.

Cameron, I realise that at this point I may have strayed really far from what you wanted to get at with your blog. I write this piece as a reply to you because you catalysed me into writing this all down, most of which had been simmering for a week or two before you wrote yours. I hope you’ve found what I wrote interesting, or at least entertaining.

Finally, some readers may fault me for an attempt to position myself above particular aspects of this debate by hovering over it like a pseudo-objective drone. While this is partly true, I also think that between the lines you can read that I do actually prefer a particular side of the argument, while trying to be aware of some of the problematic aspects of all sides.

Let me express it as follows: I like cookies. I like cake. I like certain kinds of taart. I like music. I don’t know a lot about opera, but I think it’s pretty cool, seen from a distance. I’m not sure if I like it, but I may grow to like it. I like salad, if the dressing’s good. Plain salad is a bit bland. Croutons are nice, when crispy. I like games, but not all of them.

all the best,


This article was supported by the generous contributors to my Patreon.