“[Games] as Technique”?

Tolstoy and his Horse


One of the papers we read for this week’s Jazz Hands Fridays was “Art as Technique” by Viktor Shklovsky, written in 1917. At least in its English translation the paper reads extraordinarily well and crisply – in that way reading it reminded me a little bit of how strange it is to read Moby Dick and to realise it was written in 1851. The paper is most notable for introducing the idea of “defamliarisation” as a key technique in literature for “making” readers engage more deeply/reflectively (or just more) with a work.

Shklovsky spends a great deal of the time going through examples from Tolstoy, quoting long passages from a story told from the perspective of a horse puzzling at human concepts like ownership, from a story in which “normal” flogging is redescribed such that it seems hard to distinguish from other, more “obviously” torture activities. Apparently a lot of this stuff was controversial at the time, which is probably a good sign that it worked. One of the funnest examples was what seemed to be a defamliarising of opera which people at the time were quite offended by, feeling that it made opera seem a bit dumb. To be fair, it is true that if you just start describing things in a fairly blank manner (“the guy in the hat walks over there, he says something, then walks two feet to the left where a woman says something…”) they do end up sounding kind of trivialised – it breaks up what gestalt effect is created, or knowingly omits crucial elements of an experience, such as music, tone, etc.

Anyway, the obvious question is the relationship of defamiliarisation to games. To the extent that games can leverage this, then I suppose they can become both more poetic and more demanding of reflection. It seems pretty clear that this can be the case. The most obvious form of defamiliarising is of course from the tropes of games themselves – if you break expectations (such as usability, fun, agency) you’re effectively estranging the player from the game.

And there’s your problem, too. If you go around estranging people from your game, they’re probably just… not going to play it. In much the same way that barely anyone reads poetry that’s considered “difficulty”, barely anyone is likely to stick with a game that’s being obtuse.

I got stuck on that for a bit, and it all felt a bit hopeless, but it’s a misreading of Shklovsky to some extent. Defamiliarisation isn’t the same thing as obtuseness or cryptic designs etc. Rather, it’s about working against expectation, and this can be done in all kinds of entirely accessible ways. I was thinking about the poem “This is just to say” (by William Carlos Williams) which, I’m willing to believe, has at least some of its poetic force from the fact that it is entirely accessible, quite possibly working against our expectations of “difficult” and tortuous poetry, and thus creating a different flavour of defamiliarisation.

So games can, then, be both accessible and alienating, I’d imagine. And we do see that being done. Anna Anthropy’s dys4ia is a game that is entirely easy to play, but estranges various game design conventions in order to make its point. I can imagine describing what I often go after in my own games in a similar way, as an attempt to make something that can be engaged with, but which sets unusual terms and (ideally) asks something from the player they didn’t expect to give going in.

That’s probably enough rambling. It’s well worth reading “Art as Technique” – it’s short and punchy, well written, and very accessible – and may help you look at things differently.

For what it’s worth, I wrote this poem immediately after reading it:


You restlessly check the tomatoes
and listen to the radio
and check the tomatoes again.

They aren’t ready, it takes more time
than you ever want to give it.
You switch the radio to the other station.


28 February 2014
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