Are games art? How can games create beauty and meaning? Can we use games to explore the aesthetics of thought?
In this interview, I speak to Frank Lantz, one of the world’s foremost game designers, with a pedigree in exploring how emerging technology can create new kinds of gameplay. He is the Founding Chair of the NYU Game Center, the co-founder of Area/Code Games (acquired by Zynga in 2011), the co-founder of Everybody House Games and the creator of the game Universal Paperclips. He has taught game design for over 20 years at New York University, Parsons School of Design, and the School of Visual Arts and has created numerous influential talks and writings on the subject of games. His book The Beauty of Games was published by MIT Press in October of 2023. Frank helped pioneer the genre of large-scale real-world games, working on projects such as the Big Urban Game, which turned the cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul into the world’s largest boardgame; Sharkrunners, which allowed players to interact with living sharks in a persistent virtual world, PacManhattan, a life-size version of the arcade classic created by the students in his Big Games class at NYU, and many other experiments in pervasive and urban gaming.
Q: What is a game?
[Frank Lantz]: I would describe games as an art form centred around systems. Viewing the world as a system means perceiving it as a collection of interconnected elements. These elements interact in a way that both enables and restricts themselves and each other. Essentially, what is observed is the collective behaviour of these elements as they unfold over time, creating a range of possibilities. Systems, in this context, could refer to various domains—be it software, economics, ecology, or even democracy and your local library. They are not just single objects or events but a network of interconnected events that simultaneously create and limit each other. This is what defines a system.
Games, in essence, are stylized representations of these systems. We engage in games for reasons akin to why we create music, tell stories, make art, perform plays, or dance. They serve purposes such as entertainment, education, the pure joy of the experience, the pursuit of beauty and meaning, distraction, or simply to pass the time. These motivations are diverse and multifaceted.
Defining games is notoriously challenging. Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein used the term ‘game’ to illustrate the complexity of definitions. He highlighted the difficulty in language precision, noting how the single word ‘game’ encompasses vastly different activities like solitaire, tennis, chess, and ‘Ring Around the Rosie’. These activities share certain resemblances but do not have a precise commonality, forming a collective family instead. While it’s nearly impossible to craft a definition precise enough for mechanical application, from my perspective, this is my understanding of games.
Q: Do you think games are a fundamental part of our humanity?
[Frank Lantz]: I do believe there’s something fundamentally essential about free play—the open-ended combination of elements not confined by a narrow context. This concept is vital not only to humanity but to life itself. Consider Johan Huizinga, the sociologist and anthropologist who, in his book “Homo Ludens,” famously argued that play is a necessary precondition for culture. I find this perspective accurate. It’s evident in the way animals engage in play, emulating a stylized version of behaviour, which in many ways mirrors what civilization is.
Ordinary behaviour involves basic survival actions like eating, avoiding predators, finding a mate, and reproducing. Play, however, is a mock version of these activities, allowing us to experiment and understand how they work and interconnect. Questions like “What if I did it this way?” arise in play, exploring different possibilities. This idea suggests that the concept of ideas predates the modern human brain, existing within the system of behaviour enacted and explored through play.
However, I think this concept extends beyond Huizinga’s views. I would trace it back even further, to natural selection and Darwinian evolution. These, too, are systems, comparable to games like chess or Tetris, where elements (genes, in this case) interact in various ways without a predetermined set of rules, leading to natural selection. In evolution, there’s an inherent goal or rule about what success looks like, akin to the objectives in chess or Tetris that determine the continuation or end of the game. Thus, in a sense, evolution and natural selection resemble a game. They’re not games in the technical sense, as nobody is actively playing them, but they share similarities with games due to the open-ended, free play of elements exploring a realm of possibilities. This exploration is the very reason for our existence, as well as that of animals and life itself.
So, I do see it as quite primal. When engaging in regular games, one can sometimes sense this primal, atavistic energy. It’s a reflection of a deeper, fundamental aspect of life and existence.
Q: What makes a great game, that stands the test of time?
[Frank Lantz]: Backgammon, I think, is particularly illustrative of this point. When I consider backgammon, I see a true game. It harks back to some of the earliest board games known to us, sharing a similar structure: a roll-and-move game on a track, manoeuvring pieces around. Backgammon itself is ancient, thousands of years old, yet it remains actively played today, not as an archaeological novelty, but as a living, vibrant game. It’s not confined to a niche group who are enthusiasts of antiquities, like those who might listen to old music or read ancient literature. Instead, backgammon is played by a diverse crowd: children, avid gamblers, and nerds striving to master the game.
The endurance of games like backgammon or chess lies in their continual presentation of an interesting problem. These strategy and decision-making games are like a well from which we draw insights. As a game designer, I can attest that while creating games, most rule combinations aren’t inherently fascinating. Often, a game concept might initially seem uninteresting or static, and despite efforts to invigorate it, it remains lifeless. But sometimes, a game just works; it becomes a little engine that generates mystery and interest, prompting questions like “What happens if I do this?”
Playing backgammon involves constantly asking such questions, both individually and collectively. It’s a game that humanity is still exploring, uncovering new questions and aspects. Consider the doubling cube in backgammon—a critical element for many contemporary players that significantly enhances the game’s intrigue. Yet, this feature is a relatively recent addition, invented less than a century ago in the early 20th century on the Lower East Side. Its inclusion demonstrates the dynamism of backgammon. It’s not just about playing and enjoying the game; it’s about continually modifying it, inventing new frameworks and mechanics, and finding ways to enhance the experience. This is the hallmark of a living game.
Q: What is the relationship between computers (and computation) and gaming?
[Frank Lantz]: It’s intriguing how the term “games” today almost invariably conjures images of video games. Mention a passion for games, and people typically think of Fortnite, Call of Duty, or Minecraft, reflecting their significant cultural presence. In my book, I aim to highlight the continuity between these contemporary video games and older forms of games, including sports and board games. Despite their differences, they share many commonalities.
However, I acknowledge the monumental impact of the convergence of games with computers, leading to the creation of video games. This fusion marked a significant cultural explosion, underscoring the importance of games in the context of modern technology. Historically, games have hinted at the potential of computers, serving as precursors to software even before computers existed. If a Martian visited Earth and observed a chessboard, they might initially mistake it for a calculating device, similar to an abacus. Games like Mancala or backgammon could also be perceived as mathematical tools. These games are physical embodiments of software, akin to steampunk, where chess pieces represent logical units interacting in various ways.
The physical aspect of chess, for instance, is somewhat arbitrary; the essence of the game is the interplay of ideas and exploration within the parameters set by these ideas. We could play chess with pencil and paper or even mentally if needed. In this sense, video games are a medium through which we explore the nature and implications of computers.
Recalling the early days of computers, large mainframes were used for serious tasks like missile trajectory calculations during the day. At night, enthusiasts would experiment with these machines, conjuring imaginary worlds of cave networks or empires, continuously discovering more engaging problems. This exploratory process mirrors our ongoing quest to understand computers and software, akin to our historical engagement with games like backgammon and chess. We’ve always been fascinated by the challenge of rearranging symbols, pushing the limits of our understanding, and solving puzzles.
Video games continue this exploration, delving into unfinished business. We’re still in the process of figuring out what we’re doing with them, learning, and adapting as we go.
Q: Should we look at games as representations of thought?
[Frank Lantz]: I see games as psychology experiments that we conduct on ourselves. This realization struck me while playing Sudoku. When you first encounter Sudoku, you’re acutely aware of the rules you’re applying to solve the puzzle. It’s a conscious effort, like turning a crank and watching the puzzle get solved. However, as you progress, those initial heuristics, those rules of thumb, become internalized. You stop being aware of them; they become second nature, and you start focusing on more subtle, higher-level heuristics. This process of internalization continues, advancing to ever more complex levels.
It’s fascinating because this is what our brains are always doing. They’re constantly identifying patterns, trying to understand the world, predicting what happens next, and minimizing surprise. Some theories suggest this is how consciousness works. In games, this intricate process becomes visible, something we’re usually completely unaware of. It’s akin to the moment when you take off your glasses to check if they need cleaning or adjusting. Most of the time, we just see through our glasses without noticing them.
In poker, for instance, there’s the concept of ‘leaks’—flaws in your thinking that cause you to lose money. Identifying these leaks involves a dual process of playing the game and simultaneously analysing your own decision-making. This aspect of games, the potential for self-awareness and improvement, often goes unnoticed. Games are not just a source of entertainment; they can be a tool for self-improvement, a way to understand decision-making and break free from suboptimal patterns.
The initial lesson in any game is that natural talent alone isn’t enough. Every time I encounter a new game, I think I might be naturally good at it, but that’s rarely the case. However, the truth is empowering: with effort, you can become proficient at any game. This lesson in self-improvement and effort is profound, and it’s something I encourage people to explore.
[Vikas: and what about- therefore- the cultural ‘status’ of games?]
[Frank Lantz]: …games don’t hold the same high cultural status as painting, poetry, music, theatre, and literature. This might be because games are foundational, more primal than these other forms. Animals play, children play; games are integral to the developmental process and often associated with children’s culture. This association is one reason they might not be perceived as having higher status, despite children also engaging in drawing and make-believe.
It’s understandable to be sceptical of games. As much as I love them and have dedicated my life to them, I’m not advocating for everyone to value games more. They already have a significant cultural presence, and their status seems appropriate to me. Consider the expression, “stop playing with me.” It indicates a seriousness, a distinction from the act of playing, which can be perceived as non-serious or even counterproductive to work. In certain contexts, like business meetings or critical operations, playing is inappropriate. Instead, focus and adherence to rules are crucial.
However, there’s a unique space for play and games—a bubble where we can unleash creativity and explore. In architecture, for instance, there’s a playful element where architects like Zaha Hadid have pushed boundaries. So, while I understand the scepticism towards games, I also recognize their deep power and the unresolved tension between games and real life. Games need to exist outside of everyday life to serve their purpose.
Regarding business simulations, while they are somewhat game-like, they often lack the depth and engagement of actual games. Successful business figures like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, for example, don’t gravitate towards business simulations. Instead, they are passionate about Bridge, a game that is complex, challenging, and deeply satisfying. It embodies the joy of problem-solving and intellectual engagement, which is a key to understanding figures like Buffett. It’s not just about business acumen; it’s about the love of thinking and solving complex problems for the sheer pleasure of it, as exemplified in the game of Bridge.
Q: Should leaders learn more about games?
[Frank Lantz]: Poker, notably, is the origin of game theory. John von Neumann formulated the ideas of game theory inspired by his experience playing poker. Similarly, card games have been fundamental in developing probability theory. This entire branch of mathematics, which focuses on calculating probabilities and probabilistic thinking, emerged from mathematicians who were also avid game players. They sought practical solutions to questions in card games, like estimating betting odds and winning probabilities.
This probabilistic way of thinking, which now seems natural to us, was not innate to humans. It required a precise calculation of uncertainty, a perspective discovered and refined through games. Games have been instrumental in shaping our understanding of the world as a system, offering a rich source of ideas. For entrepreneurs, in particular, games serve a dual purpose. They allow the indulgence of aggressive and competitive instincts—demonstrating skill, overcoming obstacles, striving to outperform others. Concurrently, they instil deep humility. Mastery in games comes through loss, through pushing the boundaries of one’s abilities. The journey to proficiency is not about constant winning, but about gravitating towards challenges where loss is frequent, and embracing that experience.
This process is not merely about fulfilling a power fantasy; it’s about reaching the limits of one’s capabilities and striving to extend them. Serious engagement with games like chess or poker leads to a form of ego dissolution. Initially, there might be a surge of ego, a desire to dominate opponents. But to truly excel, one must realize their insignificance in the face of a complex, shared challenge. In the depths of a serious game, the individual player becomes less relevant; it’s the problem that takes centre stage.
At the highest levels of poker, the perspective shifts from a narrow focus on one’s own hand to a broader understanding of the entire game. It’s not just about the cards in one’s hand or the chips at stake. It’s about comprehending the ecosystem of the game, predicting the movement of chips based on the dynamics at play. This involves considering all the minds at the table, including one’s own, but not being confined by personal limitations. It’s almost as if one transcends their individual perspective, becoming part of the larger, intricate dance of the game.
Q: What do you hope your legacy will be?
[Frank Lantz]: I hope that a century from now, clever teenagers will mention my name to impress others. It might sound absurd, but I genuinely believe this is an aspiration worth having. It’s like saying, “Have you heard about this guy?” and sparking interest. This desire stems from my admiration for influential figures like Marcel Duchamp and Kurt Gödel, whose ideas have shaped and continued to resonate through generations.
I aim to be part of that ongoing, evolving conversation where ideas are sculpted over time. To achieve this, it’s essential to stay relevant and vital. I don’t necessarily aspire to reach the celebrity status of someone like Taylor Swift or to engage in large-scale institution building. While I’m proud of my achievements, such as my work at NYU, my primary goal is to remain active in the field as long as possible. I hope to do this by sharing my ideas in a way that allows them to endure and continue influencing others long into the future.