Virtuosity and the Game

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A brief interview between Legwork and Erik Svedäng1

Blueberry Gardey by Erik Svendäng

Legwork: Mr. Svedäng, the theme of this Legwork issue is “Virtuosity” and I think your perspective might be rather interesting in this conversation regarding our collective struggle to create [seemingly] accessible means for performing superlative identities. Your field seems like an incredibly telling production in recent history, as the realm of the virtual closes in on our relational behaviors. At any rate, I’m thinking you might not mind answering a few questions I have put together for you.

For the Internet record, virtuosity is
1. The technical skill, fluency, or style exhibited by a virtuoso or a composition.
2. An appreciation for or interest in fine objects of art.
[I personally prefer the first definition. You can think about the term however you like.]

Erik Svendäng: I’ll try to answer your questions as truthfully and straightforward as I can. I don’t really like discussing exact definitions of words like ‘virtuosity’ (it has been around for so long, collecting a lot of baggage) so I’ll use it in a very relaxed and pragmatic way. Please tell me if you think that I’ve crossed some kind of line.

LW: Is there potential for virtuosity in this?

ES: Yes. But a real piano has magnitudes of more potential (you can use 10 fingers, hit the keys in different ways and so on).

LW: When working, do you think about the virtuous potential of your users/players [how do you like to refer to these people?]? If so, what sort of matrix do you create for the potential virtuoso to navigate? Do you imagine a narrative of virtuosity?

ES: Yes, I think about it a lot. In different ways for different kinds of games though: The basic case could maybe be called “man versus man”. My iPad game ‘Shot Shot Shoot’ is an example of this, and so is ‘Chess’, ‘Starcraft’ and ‘Go’ – all games of destruction and struggle. Creating this kind of experience consists mainly of designing a space with lots of opportunities for skill (and hopefully virtuosity). The more opportunities the better, since when someone has reached complete mastery of the system they will probably lose interest and switch to another game. This phenomenon is very well observed in the field of game design and has been written about extensively in for example the book ‘A theory of fun’ by Raph Coster.

"Shot Shot Shoot," design, programming, art, sound & music by Erik Svedäng

Secondly, I’ve been able to make some more personal observations regarding skill and virtuosity while working on another kind of project; my iPhone game ‘Kometen’ (made together with my artist friend Niklas Åkerblad). It bends the definition of what is usually called a game by not presenting a goal to the player. Also, there’s no real way to lose or to know how good/bad you are doing.

It might seem like this would limit the opportunities for skill and virtuosity greatly, but I think that’s jumping too hastily to a conclusion. In ‘Kometen’ there actually are big opportunities for improving and learning how to maneuver your comet by taps and swipes on the screen. By seeing the player more as an actor or artist than an achiever or “lab rat”, shouldn’t there be a lot of space for her to express herself skillfully, even without getting constant feedback from the game? I wanted to see if players could judge their own performance and not depend on mathematical algorithms to know how well they were doing. My hope was that the result would be something close to dancing; basically an exercise in graceful and beautiful movement, free from rules and laws to bog it down. I think this is fertile ground for virtuosity, maybe in a purer form than what’s possible with the “normal” games I first described.

"Kometen," by Niklas Åkerblad and Erik Svedäng

LW: I have a sneaky suspicion that virtuosity obfuscates the relationship between user and the system in which the user acts, and that in a way the user and system are indistinguishable as the user becomes the perfect instrument for the system to recruit new users. As a game programmer, do you relate at all to such a dynamic when creating a virtual relational field?

ES: I have some trouble deciphering your question. It sounds a bit like the concept of “flow”, which you might be familiar with? During the state of flow space and time is said to disappear, which seems similar to what you describe as the user and the system being indistinguishable. This usually happens when someone is really into a creative activity, like painting, music performance, and also games (‘Tetris’ might be a good opportunity for experiencing this). I don’t really try to deliberately design “flow” when I make my games but I think it can occur in all of them.

LW: Well, the concept of “flow” does in a way articulate the situation I’m attempting to consider, but I want to address virtuosity less as an idealistic development of a relationship with an activity, and more as an indication of the activity’s ability to distribute its behavior. So, in a way, the concept of “flow” could be a language used by a “meme” as it firmly settles into a person’s personal vocabulary of habitual behavior. If virtuosity is programmatic, perhaps it is used as a device for reality production across activities.

At any rate, I found ‘Kometen’s’ “flow” potential to be strikingly similar to Guy Debord’s concept of dérive, insofar as it contains this utility of playful-constructive behavior and awareness of psychogeographical effects, but on a virtual scale. Thus, like dérive, playing ‘Kometen’ enables the player an opportunity for letting-go and its necessary contradiction: the development of new habits, to which they will constantly be drawn back, and perhaps a new program for self-actualizing virtuosity. Thus, some considered dérive’s technique to be similar to that of psychoanalysis, a kind of therapy. Do you think ‘Kometen’ has the same potential, and if so, was this your intention?

ES: I think you might be on to something! Many people have told me that they play ‘Kometen’ mainly because it gives them an opportunity to relax. This seems like an obvious effect of its “goallessness” and something that usually can’t occur in our lives since we have so much to keep track of all the time. To achieve virtuosity in anything – be it playing an instrument, arguing convincingly or cutting stones in a beautiful way – we need a safe place where we can make mistakes and lose ourselves in the pure joy of practicing, without having to worry about failure. There is a big requirement of “letting go” involved in this that many adults seem to have lost. Maybe games can help them to re-learn this ability, and thereby helping them to achieve virtuosity in other fields as well.

1Erik Svendäng was born in 1986, Uppsala, Sweden. He likes to create things. Currently, he is working on a bunch of new games.

One Comments on “Virtuosity and the Game”

  1. September 25th, 2010 | 8:47 pm

    “Many people have told me that they play ‘Kometen’ mainly because it gives the…”…

    Many people have told me that they play ‘Kometen’ mainly because it gives them an opportunity to relax. This seems like an obvious effect of its “goallessness” and something that usually can’t occur in our lives since we have so much to keep track of a…