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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,

Oscar

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