Why I said Ludo-Fundamentalism and not Something Else

Why I said Ludo-Fundamentalism and not Something Else

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I’m not terribly happy to be feeling the need to write this.

Last year was good for me, writing-wise. I put out a lot of articles of a sufficiently high standard on whatever topics I felt compelling. It was creatively fulfilling. I also continued to find and refine my voice as a critic, to practise my ghost and hone it into a more distinct shape with each passing month.

It was—it is—an on-going learning process.

Part of that involved routinely scouring my feelings to find a way to articulate what it is my beliefs are on the medium of games, or on the narrative of a particular game, or on the discourse surrounding one or the other. Especially when I find my ghost at odds with how other people say we experience this or that, or how this or that exists in the world or ought to exist.

This led, at some point, to my use of the term “ludo-fundamentalism” on a couple of occasions to describe things I felt about how mechanics are often considered and weighted. I am not the first person to have felt and expressed these things, and I wasn’t the only person whose writing drifted towards incorporating these criticisms into our on-going analyses of games.

As we wrote and talked our ideas fed into each other and inspired one another so that, a few weeks ago, the ball was rolling on a “proper conversation” (if you know what I mean) about these ideas: ludocentricism, ludo-fundamentalism, post-cutscene.

A few Twitter conversations along these (and many other) lines happened altogether on one January night; they inspired a Tumblr post which roughly summarized the gist; it provoked further conversation; a Storify emerged to catalogue the complicated bones of the Twitter chains, which would then be updated at least twice more to try to cover the discourse’s fuller breadth; the Storify made the rounds in farther circles of game criticism, including those which take umbrage at words like “ludo-fundamentalism”, and introducing formalism into the matter[1], triggering more conversation chains and twitlongers and blog posts, and on and on. The timeline’s a convoluted mess. (For more reading material, see Critical Distance’s roundup.)

Anyway, at some point the discourse kind of stopped being about ludo-fundamentalism or -centricism or ideas on what a post-cutscene medium has ended up doing to itself, and became a reincarnation of the Formalist vs. Narratavist debate or the ludology vs. narratology debate or whatever—that old song and dance. I should say, actually, it’s that at some point the latter conversation arose from the former so that these two conversations ran concurrently, distinct but related, possibly because all the prior talk bore similarities to the debates of yore, then stirring formalists to defend themselves.

That might seem trivial but it’s a distinction I feel necessary to emphasize, because I sense the original, productive conversation we were having now runs the risk of being suffocated to death by equivocation of the new one (including new participants, new ideas, new and diverse methods, new expansive bodies of work) with the old one (including old grudges, old assumptions, old language, dying interest).

So, for posterity, I want to make a few brief notes on my views from the broad conversation that started this ruckus. Bear in mind I’m only representing myself here, not any of the other people referenced in the Storify. We’re each of us taking our game crit in whatever direction we feel best suits us, so there’s bound to be some disagreement even amongst ourselves.

There are two apparently related terms coming out of the discourse: “ludo-fundamentalism” and “ludocentricism.”[2] Austin Howe seems to prefer the latter; I’m a fan of the former and I’ll tell you why.

As I view it, ludocentricism suggests a method of looking at games that centres on their ludic parts, their ‘game’ parts. The pursuit of ludic analysis is not itself anything I have a problem with, since you can have a ludocentric analysis that is considerate of the focal points of other critical lenses. Ludocentricism doesn’t have to rule them out as preoccupied with ancillary aspects of the medium.

Ludo-fundamentalism, on the other hand, connotes to me an ideological current that inflates the importance of ludic parts at the cost of non-ludic parts. It speaks of values, recited into customs (as designs); it is prescriptive of the medium through the ideas it proposes. It advances rhetoric that diminishes the role of non-ludic parts in the composition of a videogame.

As a set of beliefs and values, ludo-fundamentalism exists within texts, often unsaid and dormant. Games can harbour ludo-fundamentalism through their narratives just as writers and designers can through their theory.

This can be done by asserting that the one unique thing about the medium of games is the aspect of gameplay, and so inferring games without complex gameplay are defective or are outright not-games. It can be done by associating general concepts like ‘form’ or ‘interactivity’ to only mean specifically ludic form or mechanical interactivity as a matter of fact, for example, which erases all other aspects of form and interactivity from the equation. When self-identified formalists say they focus on form to mean they focus on ludology, this is the removal of non-ludic parts from the scope of what could constitute a game’s form, illustrating ludo-fundamentalism.

And there’s the problem. The discussion about ludo-fundamentalism is also a discussion about form, but it is not necessarily about formalism. It should not need to conjure formalists from their own spaces and communities and rile them into battle against us. Except, it can’t help but do that because the idea of ludology as encompassing form is so entrenched that it becomes an obstacle to conversation. Not all discussions about form need to be about formalism, because form isn’t the sole domain of people who call themselves (or find themselves called by others) formalists.

Again, it pains me that I need to make this distinction. I don’t really want to be talking about formalism when I could be talking about ludo-fundamentalism. My use of ludo-fundamentalism as a term is precisely to avoid addressing this specific group of people or this specific realm of game design by talking about underlying values and ideology rather than social groups. Because I tire of finding myself constantly roped back into a frankly needless debate with people who are not actually interested in my body of critical writing or that of my similarly-minded peers.

As I said, last year was great for doing the kind of writing I want to do. It was progressive in a direction I want to see continued, for my own fulfilment and happiness. While a historic awareness can be beneficial, my exploration of concepts and ideas doesn’t have to be trapped by the limiting rhetoric set by people who are not interested in what I have to say. Or rather, I needn’t allow myself to be trapped by these. And oftentimes I do—I have to struggle to reject the idea of interactivity as a purely mechanical conceit; to reverse the brainwashing that says player agency is solely a facet of ludology; to conceive of meaning beyond systems of gameplay and feedback. I need to overcome these ideas so deeply entrenched in games culture they’re the cultural hegemony (and not only kept sealed within one corner of academic analysis) in order to simply express myself, because they are not how my ghost perceives the world.

If I remember correctly, this time last year, between powerful reflections on civility and anger from the activist-critic overlap community, there was a downpour of articles and blogposts by all sorts of game critics describing, in a comfortable sort of way, the methods they use to analyse games or their personal reasons for doing what they do. I secretly wanted to do my own of those myself but for some reason I never got around to it, so thoughts about why I write and how I critique gently haunted me for all of last year.

Rather than being a bad thing, it helped me keep sight of what I want to do, what I want to communicate to you, my reader. As I wrote in July, I consider my work in the same vein as folklore—transient and contributory to a larger culture of knowledge and beliefs. I don’t seek my ideas here to be set in stone. I want them to be useful for us to make sense of all this mess, to find something of value to move us forward.



[1] I hope the recent revival of the formalism debate has its own origin independent of the other conversation. I hope they’re not really connected. From what I’m seeing, though, its exact reappearance is something of a mystery, and it was likely borne from the momentum of this Storify.

[2] I’ll let Zolani Stewart expand on what he means by post-cutscene, rather than speculating on his behalf.


4 thoughts on “Why I said Ludo-Fundamentalism and not Something Else

  1. Hi there! I just wanted to say thanks for explaining your thoughts on this in further detail, and for conversing me about this the other day on twitter. Though I feel bad that you’ve felt obliged by circumstances to write this piece, I’ve certainly found it useful for clarifying my thoughts on the matter.

    To return to ludo-fundamentalism: you mentioned that you felt it was a mistake to look for ludo-fundamentalism purely in written criticism, and that it also existed in certain games (as a product of design choices). Would you be interested in elaborating on that a bit more here. I’d be interested in hearing more. For my part, though I loathe the idea that a designer would adopt such a philsophy, I don’t see how such a project could be effective, given that human beings can read anything as a story if so inclined, and frequently use narrative as a means of comprehending the world around them.

  2. The big reason I wanted to ask about Ludo-Fundamentalism to you is that I regularly see game critics in your sphere dismissing the ludology versus narratology debate, dismissing the formalist versus zinester debate. And what really confuses me about all of this is, almost all the game critics, academics, theorists, and so on that I know of are anti-formalist, with the exception of like, Raph Koster or Frank Lantz. It just begs the question, who on earth are you having this big debate with? Where are the ludo-fundamentalists, the formalists, and so on?

    I ask this because as silly as you may find it, I’d have to say by your definitions that I’m one of them, and I can’t find the supposed others. I’m known as a research buff when it comes to things I’m involved in, and to that end when it comes to games criticism I’ve read dozens of blogrolls, and I can’t find people with a genuine support of “games as games” as I would put it. For all the work people are putting in to crush that viewpoint, they don’t seem to have an opposition in anything other than perhaps the public unconscious. And I think it’s a viewpoint that has no representation in triple A, I think it’s a viewpoint that has no representation in indie. It’s a viewpoint that’s almost like a dream that no waking person can do much more than mutter out a few unthinking sentences of.

    They’re often characterized as being the ones in control, and that the big game review websites like IGN, gamespot, big AAA publishers, and so on are all in on this and the small indie games critics are rebelling by creating a new games criticism. Then you look at Bioshock infinite, a game you told me on twitter is Ludo-Fundamentalist, and honestly, it’s not Quake 3. It’s not Quake 1. It has an ending where you walk through a bunch of areas and press F on things until it tells you it’s over. There was that whole overblown controversy over whether BS:I should have shooting at all because it’s clear that what people love about it is the story and setting. This is why it comes off as just plain funny to me that such a game that’s so caught up in such things and had such sub-par (or I guess par, because par is really low these days) shooting is called ludo-fundamentalist by you.

    The way Frank Lantz put it on twitter was something along the lines of, “Games Formalism isn’t denying that some things are games, Games Formalism is thinking you can ‘fix’ Chess.”

    I’m trying to find people who are attempting to fix chess (perhaps like David Sirlin, who literally attempted to fix chess), because who on earth is really attempting to do that rather than the constant wankery over what a game means culturally?

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