B. Upton, The Aesthetic Of Play

📜 Upton, Brian. 2015 The Aesthetic of Play. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

The book has three main sections: Games, Minds and Stories. Contrary to remarks in reviews (even at author's homepage) it's hard to say that this book is in most part about game design. The author, Brian Upton, is an accomplished game creator (worked on Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six series for example), and in the first part of the text he provides readers with basic vocabulary of game design and highlights specificalities of that discipline. That's surely great, but the aim of the work is much more ambitious: it is to provide a general method of critical analysis of works in any medium.

The method is to be universal, but unfortunately (for us) Brian Upton doesn't focus much on music and in the third most general section (Stories) pays more attention to literature or theater. One strictly musical line of thought was pointing to the research of author's wife, Elisabeth Randell Upton, who wrote Music and Performance in Later Middle Ages. The relevance of claimed similarities of two approaches remain "unproven" and if you know E. R. Upton's book and how it may be related to music games please drop a comment (or write a review?).

Minds — between Games and Stories

The baseline of Aesthetic of Play is the very interaction with the work. At this level the differences between creator, performer, audience member and even researcher are not of key importance. By inspiration from game design the interaction with every type of work is viewed in the aspect of: choice, diversity, consequence, predictability, uncertainty and satisfaction. You can put a lot of individual approach into how these perspectives should exactly be applied and certainly Brian Upton's ideas on that are worth reading even when disputing some of the author's choices. Generally the review of topics to consider fits a standard approach of game design (both for computer and board game design). Key step of Aesthetic of Play is to use that know-how to "art in general" (as seen at the page 112):

You can’t win a symphony. The words in a novel don’t rearrange themselves in response to our actions. You don’t have to struggle with a piece of sculpture to view it from different angles. And so games feel like a radically different form of expression, a radically new way to structure experience.

But if we choose different constraints to structure our discursive field, a completely different set of critical moves becomes available – moves that are much more applicable to other media of expression. Instead of treating conflict and interaction as essential to play, we can treat them merely as medium-specific techniques for generating interesting horizons of intent. This means that we can use the heuristics of play [based on choice, diversity, consequence, predictability, uncertainty and satisfaction] as a critical tool for understanding how art in general goes about structuring experience.

For Music Games

There are many details in the book that can be of use to music gaming. There certainly will be some glossary terms directly inspired by Brian Upton's remarks (e. g. Agenda). What might be the most inspiring is a potential for theoretical unifying music-and-games as a single experience. If games can be treated the same way as music is, it seems possible to form a wholesome understanding of a music game and stop treating it merely as a mix of mediums. Let's end by a glance at the page 285:

A game exists in the playing, just as music exists in the listening. Our movement from horizon to horizon shapes the construction of a set of internal constraints that represent our understanding of the game. But often this understanding is both ineffable and nonportable. We can feel the threat of the zombies lurking around the next corner, the momentary gap that is about to open in the defensive line, the pattern of falling jewels that will set up the perfect combo, but the interpretative constraints that generate these expectations are difficult to talk about or apply afterward. As with music, a great deal of the worth and power of the experience comes not from what it means, but from the fleeting presence effect it produces.

We can add that music exists not only in the listening, but in playing too.

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