Strolling Through The Zoo, Noting This And That

March 22nd 2005

From Consciousness Explained

by Daniel C. Dennett

Early in the book, Dennett begins to set out a method for Phenomenology.

You don’t do serious zoolology by just strolling through the zoo, noting this and that, and marveling at the curiosities. Serious zoology demands precision, which depends on having agreed-upon methods of description and analysis, so that other zoologists can be sure they understand what you are saying.

Serious Phenomenology is in even greater need of clear, neutral method of description, because, it seems, no two people use the words in the same way, and everybody’s an expert. It is just astonishing to see how often “academic” discussions of phenomenological controversies degenerate into desk-thumping cacophony, with everybody talking past everyone else. This is all the more surprising, in a way, because according to long-standing philosophical tradition, we all agree on what we find when we look inside at our own phenomenology.

I would argue that almost every piece of writing, serious and non-serious, academic and anti- academic, on the subject of videogames, is simply the result of people ‘strolling through the zoo, noting this and that, and marveling at the curiosities’.

‘Oh, I just noticed that Lara Croft plays with concepts of femininity, I’ll make a note of that.’

‘Crikey, isn’t the gameplay in Halo smashing?’

‘Resident Evil 4 has a different camera system to the previous games, but the control system has hardly changed. How clever I am!!’.

‘Katamari Damacy is unique’.

All perfectly true, worthy statements, entertaining and containing some insight.

Mostly useless to game designers.

As Dennett states, any system of learning (zoology, phenomenology or the study of videogames) needs ‘agreed-upon methods of description and analysis’, otherwise you get ‘desk-thumping cacophony, with everybody talking past everyone else’. Often, I think you’ll agree that we find ourselves in the doing the latter. I think we are moving, albeit slowly, into a situation of some agreed-upon terminology – the works of various writer/designers including myself should help that, (although what we really need is a proper peer-reviewed publication where we can set this stuff out formally and in agreement), but the methods of analysis are going to be a little harder to come by.

Commercial interests often drive this sort of thing, and we can already see game analysis becoming somewhat formalised and codified by the likes of Microsoft, amongst others. These types of tests are generally focused on products in development, and they tend to focus on user-centric problem-finding and problem-solving analysis. For example ‘is the inventory system intuitive?’, ‘can the user aim properly?’. They also keep their findings secret, for obvious reasons.

Those types of investigations are valid, especially if you have to quickly fix something between alpha and beta, but the work of usability labs for product testing is never going to create the foundations of an analytical system.

I’m not sure what kind of body or organisation needs to collect this data, but it would need to be peopled or policed by working game designers. We’d need to look for trends and conventions that are hidden from ‘strollers’. We’d need to analyse in a systematic and creative way, collect and share data and concentrate on facts rather than opinions. A real academic process is one of some structure, some creativity and a lot of information. That information needs to be organised, consistent and useful. It needs to relate to real products in the marketplace and our everyday experience. It needs to help designers do their work and help academics do their business of analysing and theorising. The data from the study of videogames needs to be simply presented and described in easy to understand language. It’s probably going to be boring work, but work that pays real dividends for those committed to collect and collate this information, and those who discover the hidden secrets and conventions in the data.

We are getting there, but we still have a long way to go, and nobody seems willing to step up and make an effort. Data collection isn’t as sexy as intellectual posing. Are we forever going to be a gang of disorganised, secretive, cacophonous, pseudo-scientific, pseudo-artistic professionals, or are we destined to become something else?


Oct 5th 2004