The Aesthetic of Play


MIT Press 2015

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This book lays out my general theory of play.  Ranging from video games, to board games, to sports, to make-believe, to theatrical improvisation and beyond, I look at how particular arrangements of internal and external constraints make play possible.  Step-by-step I lay out of set of practical heuristics for designing viable play spaces: choice, variety, consequence, predictability, uncertainty, and satisfaction.  The result is a general methodology of game design that cuts across genres and disciplines.

I then examine the neurological and philosophical implication of this game design methodology.  I propose that our desire to play emerges from epistemological necessity–it’s an unavoidable side effect of the way that our brains build predictive models of the world.

The book ends with an extended exploration of the relationship between play and meaning.  I show how the heuristics of play apply to stories as well as games, and how a “ludic semiotics” can give us a better and deeper picture of how meaning-making occurs in all types of art, not just games.

“This book blasts through the sterile dogmas of game studies with a model of play that unites stories, games, and criticism into diverse unity. Upton offers a unique and invigorating perspective on humanity’s love affair with the aesthetic experiences of playing by transforming his own skills as a game designer into an intriguing new approach.”

Chris Bateman, Game Designer

“Brian Upton addresses some of the most difficult problems in game scholarship in an enjoyable and highly readable way. This book will be required reading for my graduate students.”

Ernest W. Adams, Founder of the International Game Developers Association

“Upton’s book is a rarity in game design and development texts—it provides a new way of understanding games both analog and digital that is innovative, tangible, and incredibly valuable for an evolving medium.”

Brenda Romero, Game Designer

“A bold new approach to thinking about aesthetics through the lens of games and play.”

Frank Lantz, Director, NYU Game Center

Level Design: Processes and Experiences

511pur2f6plCRC Press 2016

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I contributed a chapter to this level design anthology compiled by editor Chris Totten.  My chapter “P.T. and the Play of Stillness” is a deep dive into how the elegant design of P.T.‘s one simple level makes the experience of playing it so terrifying.

My analysis is detailed and fine-grained.  Step-by-step I break down how the particular shape of the game’s main corridor is optimized to create feelings of dread.  I look closely at how each of the game’s four doors serves a particular purpose in shaping player agency and expectation.  I analyze the sight-lines of the balcony in the entry hall, and the ominous claustrophobia of the bathroom.

Throughout I tie my close reading of P.T. to the broader idea of non-interactive play–the idea that much of what holds our interest during a game involves anticipation and interpretation, not interacting.  Often it’s the very stillness of P.T., the lack of agency it provides for the player, that makes it so scary.



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