If the Author is Dead, so is the Designer

Douglas Wilson and Miguel Sicart emphasize the importance of “gamers [engaging] in a dialogue with the designer” in Now It’s Personal: On Abusive Game Design, especially in the realm of abusive gaming.  Having assumedly killed the Author with Roland Barthes just a few weeks ago, however, I find this assertion particularly bothersome; I think Barthes would happily expand his theory to the gamer/designer paradigm.

In what way do games like PainStation, Kaizo Mario, or Desert Bus call for the aforementioned dialogue to be had any more than Call of Duty, Halo, or Madden NFL?  They don’t.  These abusively designed games do not elicit a dialogue any more so than books like House of Leaves or Infinite Jest.  In either case – the abusively designed games or the unconventional novels – the author/designer is beside the point.  As readers work their way through these puzzles they are interested in responding to the work itself, responding to the platform, responding to manipulations of normative expectations (by playing/reading).  And though these things may be imbedded in the authorial intent, revelations about the author/designer and the ‘intent’ are again beside the point.  I realize that the dialogue is a metaphorical one, and that reversing normative gaming experiences for the gamer is resultant to the kind of ‘discussion’ that must exist between designer and the already established body of gaming expectations (developed and upheld by gamers).  However, the emphasis on the designer in the article is unwarranted.

The “dance” between gamer and designer is no more apparent or profound in abusive game design than it is in “conventional game design”.  In both cases, gaming expectations are taken into account as designers create their games.  When the game is played, figuring out whether the designer sought to adhere to or distance himself from said expectations seems a frivolous task.  The response of the gamer is what counts; the gamer can solve the problem of abusive game design by simply playing.  Accordingly, the line that separates abusive game design from conventional game design becomes more blurred as there are trends in abusive game design that gamers are likely to identify and respond to.  The more these trends reveal themselves, the more they become convention.

Abusive game design is forged with just as much intent and with just as much of a direct response to gaming expectations as conventional game design; falling further away from normative expectations (and likely popularity) doesn’t mean abusive game design offers more rhetorical insight than conventional game design.  It is just different.