The Game Auteur

Yayınlandı: Kasım 28, 2008 kafaayari tarafından Yazılar içinde
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This article focuses on video game design and aesthetic choices of game designers in design process in order to examine the possible extents to which the auteur theory can be applied to the analysis of video games. The main question, around which the article has evolved, is: Can auteur theory as a theoretical framework reveal different styles and worldviews of video game designers and sustain necessary tools for their critical analysis? Video games are rules-based systems however they are also computer simulations with fictional worlds. This also allows us to evaluate video games not only in terms of programming and game technology, but also in the terms of design and art. The auteur theory as a critical method, has enabled critics of its time to reconsider movies with regard to the paradigms of art criticism. It has also allowed us to define some directors as “auteurs” by highlighting certain differences in styles, world views and technical competence.  In this paper, main argument is that the video game designers with total control on the aesthetic aspects of game medium and the production process can also be considered as auteur candidates in the field of games. Along with their narrative and formal aspects, expressive uses of video games allow game auteurs to put their intentions in games. I suggest that the critical analysis of game elements with an auteur perspective can also reveal the technical competence, individual style and world views of game auteurs. In this work, I argue that Gonzalo Frasca can be identified as an auteur candidate. His video games are examined with respect to this argument.

Kerem Yavuz  Demirbaş (

1. Video Game

In our time, video games are important parts of contemporary culture and they have strong similarities with conventional games. Game definitions focus on different aspects of games with the common point being that rules, goals and player efforts are considered as prime qualities of every game. Jesper Juul defines games as rule-based systems when he tries to compare game definitions and conclude with a single applicable game definition to all games:

A game is a rule-based system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome, the player feels emotionally attached to the outcome, and the consequences of the activity are negotiable. (Juul 2005)

At first glance, the definition of a game as a rule-based system restricts the possibility of discussing game aesthetics, which is necessary to analyze games with respect to auteur theory borrowed from the field art; the cinema. There is nothing much to be discussed about the aesthetics of rules, goals or clever moves in backgammon or chess games. However video games are also computer simulations with their representational game worlds. Juul changes the picture with his further discussion about the relation between fiction and rules.

In the game design process, the game designer must select which aspects of the fictional world to actually implement in the game rules. The player then experiences the game as a two-way process where the fiction of the game cues him or her into understanding the rules of the game, and, again, the rules can cue the player to imagine the fictional world of the game. (Juul 2005)

Both setting rules and goals and designing fictional worlds are important aspects of video game design. To discuss the aesthetic and formal qualities of video games in order to analyze them with the conceptional tools of auteur theory, it is crucial to focus on game production and role of game designer in game production.

2. Video Game Design and Aesthetic Choices

The video game is a product which creates game play as a process from the player’s side. At the same time, video games are the outcomes of another process, namely game design. Video game production requires team effort and game technology, which are the necessary elements of game production. Programmers create game engines and interfaces which allow game designers to design game-worlds and materials to impose game rules and goals. Aesthetic qualities of video games also depend upon the technical possibilities, whereas the intentions of game designers can be explicitly seen in design choices regarding the game elements.

Game design is the process by which a game designer creates a game, to be encountered by a player, from which meaningful play emerges. (Salen and Zimmerman 2004)

A game system is a working machine with game elements, but we can also interpret game elements as the symbols of different meanings. The composition of the game-world, the use of audio-visual materials, the information presented by game and the interplay between rules, goals and other game elements create a different layer of game play. We can distinguish game design choices as technical choices from aesthetic choices. The former one is about a balanced game play and stability of simulation as a working system, whereas the latter is about the representational world of video game and not necessarily connected to game system as computer application. The distinction between the representational dimension and the inner structure of computer application does not necessarily mean that the designing process is totally separated from video game technology. Under optimum conditions, the game designer can put his intentions in the game via using the emergence created by the interplay of all game elements. The relations of game components are defined by rules set and goals which are stored, executed, and controlled by the game system as program structure. Thus, aesthetic choices do not necessarily include a keen understanding of video games as computer simulations, but I argue that normatively, they do so.

Here we come to the point of distinction between the master programmer with technical skills and the game designer with artistic qualities. Discussing the issue of game production within the perspective of game aesthetics is necessary to decide for whom to take prime responsibility for total control of production, thus putting his intentions to the games and developing an individual style. Although the idea of director as the unifying source of meaning in film making, has been accepted in auteur theory, this idea still requires some discussion in the fields of games. First games are produced by scientists and programmers in the mainframe era of computer technology, that is why we can not easily attribute authorship to the game designer.

Programming a game engine can be considered with camera making (Aarseth 2004). Camera and game engine are technical apparatus and production of these devices is at best quality includes inventions. Espen Aarseth shows the difference of game programmer and game designer within the lights the examples such as John Carmack and designer John Romero, the two designers of well known FPS (First Person Shooter) games.

“Carmack however, is in special position; he is a brilliant designer of game engines, and might be compared to a camera-making, technical genius rather than to a master photographer, filmmaker or author. The innovative games he produced, Wolfenstein 3D (1992) and Doom (1993) were also the creation of his partner John Romero, a Dionysian complement to Carmack’s Apollonian programmer intellect.” (Aarseth 2004)

Game designers are interested with these technical aspects only for understanding the possibilities and limits of the video game medium to design the game and the play emerged from the game. Some game engines are already in the market to be sold and used after necessary scripting. The programmer’s control is restricted to the technological dimension of game production and in the cases of using ready game engines or game making tools with scripting capabilities, such control is much more limited.

On the other side, the game artists which create 3D models, textures, interface elements. All other graphics can be considered as the main creators of game aesthetics. A game world includes avatars, objects, characters and other representational elements which are created by the game artists. A better looking 3D model can be key to visual satisfaction in a basic sense. However, game play experience is not equal to the sum of all visual elements. We can hardly consider playing a game by visiting an art gallery. The aesthetic quality of a video game is hidden in the relations of these visual elements to each other in the game play context. Quests and story elements, textual elements, audio effects and music are not only supplements of the game experience, rather they are an integral part.

The video game medium has simulational, representational, ludic and technological dimensions which are working together while the game is played. The general aesthetic experience is different from reading a story, watching a movie or listening music. We can consider that when game production is analyzed in aesthetic dimensions, game design with the these different dimensions is at the center of aesthetic choices. The game auteur model looks applicable to game designers more than it is to game programmers or graphic artists. Which qualities are necessary to distinguish the difference between game designers? How can we define criteria for defining auteurs in the field of games?

3. Video Game Auteur

We can start the auteur debate with Alexandre Austruc’s manifesto-like article The birth of a new avant-garde: la camera stylo. In this article, Austruc claims that the director should express his/her thoughts using the camera as an author uses a pen. (Gerstner 2003) This expression presents a world view, the author’s philosophy of life. Later the authors of Cahiers du Cinéma, one of the most important cinema journals in France, responded to this call. They formed “politique des auteurs”: the policy of the author. (Cook 1985) They tried to change the actual state of French Cinema, which was under the heavy influence of screenwriters, in favor of film directors. The polemics about “the policy of author” affected film industry and young film makers found the chance to share their low budget films with the public. The work of director was advanced to have the primary quality of film art.

Andrew Sarris translated the politique des auteurs into English and transferred auteur theory to the USA. Sarris presented the idea of “levels” which is useful for categorizing directors. (Sarris 2004) At the top level, technical competency is the director’s ability to use film language. At the middle level, we identify personal style, a common aesthetic that unifies a director’s body of work. And at the nucleus stands interior meaning, a personal view of the world which the auteur presents in her films. The film auteur must possess all three of these qualities.

Auteur theory is an old, but not yet outmoded approach. I suggest that it can be useful while searching for a new medium that has expressive qualities. Auteur theory can be applicable to the field of games if it is re-conceptualized considering the qualities of game medium. The auteur discussion in the field of games found a place with Espen Aarseth’s article The Game and its Name: What is a Game Auteur? His approach is an application of the hypothetical category of game auteurs as a critical perspective on games.  Aarseth states “The approach I choose here, then, is not to accept or reject the hypothetical category of game authors a priori, but to see what happens when we try to apply it as a critical perspective on games.” (Aarseth 2004) Like Sarris, Aarseth presents three criterions for game auteur:

They must have made such an impression that the game is associated with their name, rather than that of the Development Company or publisher.

They must have made more than one game.

The games must stand out and be different from standard genre games. (Aarseth 2004)

I argue that Aarseth’s starting point is valid, however these criterions are superficial for debates like auteur theory which creates long lasting polemics in film theory and criticism. Pioneers, technical geniuses, commercial figures of video game industry, all of these can be included in the list of auteurs if we accept these criteria. Consequently, such criteria will result in a vague definition of auteur. The most important quality of auteur theory is not to compare directors or say designers in the field of games to hype a few selected names. Auteur theory can be fruitful when applied as a critical methodology for understanding video games. But without a clear and valid description of the video game auteur, an auteur search can only open possibilities around names. Converting ideas about auteurs into a critical methodology can be more fruitful.

The film auteur is the film artist and his intentions can be seen in the choices of “mise-en-scene”. In the same way, the intentions of game auteur can be seen in the aesthetic choices of game elements. If we start to develop a model auteur in the field of games and think in terms of auteur theory, a game author’s main characteristic is the use of games as an expressive medium. Like the camera-stylo (camera-pen) of Alexander Austruc, the game auteur uses the game-stylo to write his/her expressions using certain aspects of games. These require certain mastership of games, whereas the total control on design process can also be considered as a necessity. Technical competence, individual style and inner meaning are the three major points of Andrew Sarris’ auteur theory. Consequently, it is necessary to suggest that the game auteur is a competent designer and a creative game world-builder with a critical world view reflected in his/her games.

The application of three circles of Sarris to the field of games is useful if we focus on video game elements in aesthetic perspective and form a set of conceptual tools to analyze game elements. This analysis is identified as an analysis of “design-en-scene” which can be seen as a reflection of “mise-en-scene” analysis in the field of films. The complex structure of video games, visual, narrative and technical elements first requires further development of an aesthetic.

Already there are certain theories concerning the authorial methods of video game design. Janet Murray focused on narrative qualities of games when he defined game making as “procedural authorship” (Murray 1997). Gonzalo Frasca pointed the use of “game primitives” to encourage critical thinking and social debate (Frasca 2001). Alexander Galloway is theorizing avant-garde ways of game making as “counter-gaming” with his translation of Godard’s counter cinema from Peter Wollen to the field of games (Galloway 2006). And recent developments in ludology, a critical methodology which claims that video games should be analyzed first as games, provides us a categorization of game elements.

Aki Jarvinen’s work on game design, Games Without Frontiers, is a useful and new reference for understanding game mechanics and game elements. “Applied Ludology” (Jarvinen 2008) is not only important for analyzing games, but can also tell the critic where to look for author’s signature in the game. Jarvinen categorizes game elements into three groups: systemic elements, compound elements and behavioral elements. Systemic elements include the components and the environment. Compound elements include the rule set, game mechanics, themes, interface, and information. Behavioral elements include players and contexts. Analysis of different uses of game elements in these categories by game auteurs in a critical perspective can bridge auteur theory with the theories specific to video games to develop the theoretical framework.

From early video games to recent examples, video games provide rich empirical data to analyze in auteur perspective. Will Wright’s Simcity and other sim- games, Sid Meiers’ Civilization, Colonization and other games, Peter Molneux and his god-games, Shigaru Miyamoto’s Mario series and games of other auteur candidates show a great potential for serious criticism. The real value of auteur theory can be revealed when the games of these auteur candidates are analyzed using a critical perspective with the participation of critiques.

At this point, I analyze the body of games of Gonzalo Frasca. As a pofessional game designer, he has several games to analyze in which we find repetitions and similar uses of game elements to point out his individual style and world view which is necessary for the criteria of auteur theory of Andrew Sarris.

4. Gonzalo Frasca as Video Game Auteur

Gonzalo Frasca is an auteur candidate. He has games he individually designs and programs, he is technically competent, and his body of work shows a distinct style in games. His games are a good source to look for the inner-meaning.

He can be considered as one of the founders of news games, serious games and ludology. We also know him from his idea of “videogames of the oppressed” (Frasca 2001).  His works on “war on terror” influenced not only game circles, but also newspapers and magazines which carried his comments to the public: New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Guardian and, etc. The response of players and people can be confusing and mixed. Pleasure and frustration are two faces of the picture.

His games Madrid and September 12th are examples of the Newsgames genre, the transformation of political cartoons to the field of games. They are responses to political events, more then retelling the actual events. Their focus is on quickly delivering a comment. They belong to online magazines and newspapers, so this situation creates a certain limited game medium. Games have to be designed in short time, in certain size and length, with easy playability and clear messages on the surface. Using advanced programming techniques, 3D models and engines is too time-consuming for this purpose. Frasca prefers to design games with 2D graphics on single background image with simple controls. In the case of Kabul Kaboom!, we learn that the game is programmed in one day in an airplane trip. Technically he is competent enough to program and design his own games with certain aspects.

Frasca uses dichotomies to deliver his message. (Demirbaş 2008) In Kabul Kaboom!, he use the food/bomb dichotomy. We control a civilian in the game. We are trying to catch the food or help packages symbolized with Mc Donald’s burgers thrown from US airplanes and at the same time trying to avoid touching bombs. To catch the food and dodge the bombs we move the mother figure to the left and right, and we survive or we die. In September 12th we are sitting in the seat of a jet pilot and seeing a Middle Eastern city from the sky. To kill terrorist we fire a missile or we do not. The distinction between terrorist and civilian looks blurred because when we fire our missiles civilians are converted to terrorists. Madrid is designed in two days after the actual event, the bomb attack in Madrid on March 11, 2004. Here dichotomies like win/lose, despair/hope and player/activist are an important part of the game. The use of dichotomies is the key to the meaning of his games. The general context of these games are the dangers of “war on terror” declared by the USA after 9/11.

Frasca is using game primitives, which are presented by himself in his work “Video games of the Opressed” (Frasca 2001). Frasca proposes to use templates of old games to represent complex social situations and oppressions of people. Kabul Kaboom! use a primitive like Space Invaders to represent the oppression of a mother in a city which is target of bombardment. In September 12th and Madrid, Frasca use a primitive similar to Cabal, which is an old shooting game. In September 12th the oppression is the moral question of killing innocent civilians. Madrid represents the oppression of a citizen who is living in a city which is a target of a terror attack. Frasca’s game primitives are an important part of his style.

With his personal vision of game design, his technical competency in 2D Flash games, his personal style around game primitives and his critical point of view in “war on terror,” Frasca fits the game auteur model.

5. Conclusion

In this paper, I argue that the auteur theory, when applied as a critical method to analyze aesthetic dimensions of games, can reveal different styles and world views of game designers, thus enrich our understanding of video games as mediums. The analysis of the games of Gonzalo Frasca demonstrates not only his status as auteur compared to other game designers, but also reveals his own style of using dichotomies and critizing prevalent ideological trends, specifically in US politics. Further analysis of game designers as auteurs and their games can also be fruitful for educational purposes for young game makers.

Question concerning the auteur is related to our expectations about aesthetically mature games and serious game criticism. Dedicated game players are discussing the auteur status of some important game designers via internet forums. Also, the literature of auteurs in the field of games is an ever-expanding resource with new studies and theories on the use of game elements. This development could also lead the game industry to produce different games to supply the increasing demand of mature game players.


Aarseth, E. 2004. “The Game and its Name: What is a Game Auteur?”, Visual Authorship: Creativity and Intentionality in Media, edited by. Torben K. Grodal et al., 261-269, Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanums Press

Cook, P. 1985. “Authorship and Cinema”, The Cinema Book, edited by Pam Cook, 114-206. London: British Film Institute

Frasca, G. 2001. “Videogames of the Opressed: Videogames as a Means for Critical Thinking and Debate”, presented as master thesis in Georgia Institute of Technology

Galloway, Alexander. 2006. “Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture”. University of Minnesota Press

Gerstner, D. A. 2003. “The Practices of Authorship”, Authorship and Film, edited by David A. Gerstner and Janet Steiger, 3-25. New York: Routledge

Jarvinen, Aki, 2008. “Games Without Frontiers: Theories and Methods for Game Studies and Design”, presented as PhD thesis in University of Tampere, Finland.

Juul, J. 2005. “Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds”. MIT Press

Murray, Janet. 1997. “Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace”. New York: The Free Press

Salen, K. and Zimmerman, E. 2004. “Defining Games”, Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, 70-83. MIT Press

Sarris, A.2004. “Notes on the Auteur Theory”, Film Theory and Criticism, edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, 561-564. New York: Oxford University Pres

Demirbas, Y. 2008. “Bir İletişim Formu Olarak Bilgisayar Oyunlarında ‘Auteur Oyun’ Kuramı”, presented as master thesis in Marmara University, Institute of Social Sciences


Kerem Yavuz Demirbas

PhD. Student

Marmara University/ Communication Sciences


  1. […] by altug isigan Kerem Demirbaş over at the turkish game clog Kafaayarı put up an article on game auteurship today. The article is based on his M.A thesis which he wrote during his time at the IT Kopenhagen. […]

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