Leave Burgun Alone

When I watched Keith Burgun argue with someone who dismissed his writing and theories in their entirety, I felt like I had watched an alleyfight in an obscure neighborhood. This wasn’t something familiar to me, it wasn’t clear why they were fighting, and, from an outsider looking in, it seemed like Keith Burgun received an undue amount of scorn.

My experience with remotely observing people who induce passionately dismissive responses tells me that there’s usually a non-accidental reason for it. It doesn’t have to be a good reason, though. Sometimes, it seems entirely justified: Ann Coulter comes to mind. At other times, it can be because that person has said something that clashes with a lot of people’s beliefs and no more, which is what happened with Warren Farrell at the University of Toronto. Since I couldn’t be sure about which side was right, I spent several hours reading through his posts, his writing, and criticisms of his writing. “What Is A Game Designer?” was excellent, so clearly there is more to him than my first impression.

Initially, this was going to be just a reddit comment. Then I read the Amazon reviews that were equally scornful of him and realized this conflict extends to mediums where people use their real names, like Gamasutra, where I’ve written a handful of things. It’s evident that if I want to give a defense of Burgun’s work, I should do it with my real name and not my internet name.

There is a distinction to be made between Burgun, the persona, and Burgun, the writing. Equating the two amounts to ad hominem. He could have a reprehensible persona but excellent ideas, and an admirable persona but terrible ideas. (I am distinguishing between “persona” and “person” because how you present yourself on the internet is only a fraction of who you are.)

After following Burgun’s interactions with others for a while, it paints a picture of why, as a persona, he is disliked. His reddit interactions explain as much. He is occasionally dismissive of criticism, and does not explain why, exactly, criticism of his ideas is wrong, if he indeed thinks it’s wrong. He doesn’t do this all the time, granted: this is a criticism of his work that he allowed on his blog, even though he didn’t’ have to. Still, he does it enough to frustrate readers, especially when the person criticizing him is doing so in a reasonable way. This is an approach similar to that of bloggers like PZ Myers, who has received similar criticism and drawn similar levels of controversy.

As is typical when you dislike the persona, though, there’s a temptation to dismiss everything associated with it. People who would normally say “this is useful writing” change their complaint to “this is trash writing, worth nothing of value, and the conclusions alone render it worthless.” An easy way to hurt the person is to hurt the thing they’ve made, and the quickest way to dismiss someone who has made an argument is to jump straight to the absurdity of their conclusions. Admittedly, I felt less sympathetic for Keith when I saw how he looked down on others, and didn’t want to write this. But his ideas are still worth defending, in spite of that.

Currently, the top Amazon reviews for his book are two 1-star reviews and one 2-star review. This is not the sort of thing that happens when you are giving a balanced or objective criticism of a work. A 1-star review by definition means that a work is worthless or close to worthless. Burgun’s work, while imperfect, is not worthless. His article on difficulty is a useful way to think about difficulty, even though I disagree with his conclusions. 1-star reviews cannot possibly be accurate ratings of work like this; instead, they’re closer to what happens when you feel like the author is your enemy, a la Elizabeth Anderson’s review of Scrutinizing Feminist Epistemology, a book that quite directly attacks her field.

To add to the polarization, each “side” of most helpful reviews – the pro-Burgun side or the anti-Burgun side – has a contingent of maybe 10 to 15 people who have marked the respective opposite “unhelpful.” So, the most helpful 5-star review has about 10 people who consider it unhelpful, and likewise for the most helpful 1-star review. The exception is for the 2-star review, which I still consider too harsh a rating. The review distribution is also, predictably, bimodal.

The most common criticisms of Burgun are that he defines terms too narrowly, does not cite existing literature on the subject, has a condescending or dismissive attitude, is not an expert on game design because he has designed one game, and fails at creating a seminal work on game design. Some of these are more relevant criticisms of his work than others. None of them delegitimize his work in its entirety.

Criticism of his attitude is hardly relevant to criticism of his work. While it’s certainly frustrating to read work from someone who is dismissive or condescending, their attitude alone does not make their claims invalid. Tucker Max’s “Why You Should Not Go To Law School” essay is famous for its controversial attitude, but its merits are in its reasoning and not its attitude. He could be even more dismissive: “if you go to law school, you are an idiot and should jump off a bridge, and here’s why:” – it still wouldn’t render his work bad.

But suppose that you do argue, as some have done, that his reasoning is poor and that he defines his terms narrowly. In the case of game design, it’s not even necessary that his reasoning be foolproof or that his terms be airtight. It certainly helps, but theories can be useful despite their imperfections. If it’s understood that his definition of “game” and “puzzle” are definitions specific to his theories, there is no problem.

To explain why this is the case, I will draw an analogy to Bufang Liang (CosmoVibe), who has been a controversial figure in a subculture of video games. To briefly summarize a decade’s worth of hobbyism, there is an entire subculture based around the game Stepmania, where users create custom “notecharts” or arrangements of abstract notes to music. This has been systemized increasingly in the past several years, and Bufang has gone so far as to create a notecharting text that incorporates his method for doing so. Many of the same criticisms levied at Burgun have been levied at Bufang: he is dismissive of opposing theories, defines terms narrowly, and does not thoroughly argue his case.

Despite that, Bufang’s writing is still useful, because it does the following: elucidates a methodology, provides constructive mental models, outlines a unique approach for development, and explicates a great deal of conceptual matter that was previously implicit. The last bit – the explication – is worth it alone. But in reading Burgun’s work, I get the impression that it’s similar. He provides a methodology and set of theories that are, certainly, Burgun-specific. His definition of “game” excludes some things that I think are games. But his models and theories of games are still a useful way of thinking about video games, even if they may be “Burgunian” as opposed to universal.

The criticism that one has defined terms narrowly or failed to cite similar literature do make it difficult to claim that one’s work is “seminal,” in the sense that it is an authoritative work intended to be the standard for a discipline. But this, alone, does not warrant a 1-star review. Were Shigeru Miyamoto to write a book on game design, I frankly wouldn’t care how many works he cited – he could still contribute insight regardless. Insight is not contingent on how many people you’ve referenced who may think similar things.

This is when, presumably, someone pulls this card out: “but Shigeru Miyamoto is an expert on game design.”

Certainly. Remember, though, that ideas come before design. Any designer’s theories exist before they put them into practice. And at what point did he become an “expert”? He certainly didn’t attend a school for it. The first game that was inarguably Miyamoto’s was Donkey Kong, and arguably, he knew a great deal about designing before then. Spielberg was Spielberg long before he had even made a movie. I contest the assertion that Burgun needs to have a library of games under his belt for his ideas to have merit; Miyamoto’s ideas were clearly worthwhile by the time he made Donkey Kong, and Spielberg’s were arguably so before he even made a movie.

Hell, Arin Hanson (“egoraptor”) made an impeccable primer on “Show not Tell” game design and it’s questionable whether he even makes games at all. Does he? Who cares? It’s obvious that he’s communicated a great deal of clarification and insight either way. If he decides to make games one day, great. That wouldn’t legitimize his ideas after-the-fact, though; they’re already legitimate.

Besides, games and movies are focused on the end result. It would be one thing if Burgun had neither made nor played games. But who knows how many games Burgun has played? Roger Ebert, when criticizing a movie, appealed to criteria that were, at their core, theoretical. Were he willing, he could have expounded his theories of a good movie. Ebert neither wrote, nor directed movies. Ebert’s criteria of “a good movie” come strictly from watching and analyzing them. Those criteria are not meant to be universals; they would, however, still be useful.

Take, for example, Burgun’s figure on page 22 of Game Design Theory, which diagrams a story distinct from a game. “Story” is a linear path from point A to point B, while game is a web of points. This was criticized for being “condescending” and “contradictory,” because he says “I am not saying a story is simpler than a game” under the figure. You could see why someone would think this: the graphical representation could lead one to believe that Burgun thinks stories contain less complexity. But after reading Burgun’s explanation, it’s clear that he means stories are less complicated with respect to events engaged before the endpoint. He is not saying that stories are less complex mediums, only less complex with respect to their event engagement.

Certainly, some of his principles can come off as insulting, such as:

Is your goal to tell a story? Consider a linear, temporal medium such as prose, cinema or comics. I’ll get into this more in the next section.”

Games are interesting to me principally because they are a storytelling medium. When I wrote about disrupted familiarity as a storytelling device specific to games, I was describing a device in video games that I feel is best used in video games, because it is difficult to pull off in novels or movies. Burgun’s view definitely doesn’t gel with my own, and it’s tempting to say he’s wrong because it doesn’t encompass everything I think a game should have. In spite of that, he makes a number of game concepts abundantly clear. His explication of abstraction and his corresponding scale of the abstract to the literal, e.g., is one of the best I’ve seen.

Truthfully, I suppose I feel compelled to understand where Keith is coming from because the criticism of him hits close to home. In a lot of ways he and I are similar: he has written about his game-related ideas on Gamasutra, and so have I. He has a website titled after his real name where he writes about his ideas, and so do I. He has written a book with his ideas, and I am attempting to have one published. It’s easy for me to empathize with his position, even if I disagree with both his ideas and the way he engages critics of his work.

The criticisms of Burgun, though, are too dismissive to be realistic. The 1-star reviews should be more like 3-star reviews. It is abundantly clear that Burgun has played a lot of games, thoroughly analyzed them, and knows what he wants from a game – even if he has not designed a library of games. An explicit articulation of his theory may not serve to be an authoritative, all-encompassing work of game design theory, but that does not make it completely illegitimate. There is a good deal of worth to his ideas, and discrediting them entirely does no one any good. I enjoy his writing, and will continue to read it. I hope others do the same.

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16 thoughts on “Leave Burgun Alone

  1. Hey, non-Redditor(well, at least as far as game design content goes), non-Gamasutra’r(well, as a poster) here . I’m a game designer who has engaged with Burgun in other places.

    I’ll be honest. I DO hate Burgun’s persona a lot, but at the same time there are other designers I can think of whom have personas I hate who I respect quite a bit. I can only speak for myself, but I can strongly dislike someone and value their opinions and contributions.

    So that said, after spending months arguing with Burgun, the problem for me is there, behind all that poor communication and rhetoric is very little. You have a whole, huge, encompassing system that basically says “Decisions are the most important thing”. If you break that down a bit more to be less encompassing, you get “If you make a game about decisions, really make it about decisions”. This isn’t exactly a bold, devisive man making bold new claims about game design. These are rather basic re-packaged opinions being dressed up to be bold. Not that they’re not entirely wrong and by not being entirely wrong, there is SOME value… But is it’s value worth wading through his nonsense? Well again, I can’t speak for everyone, but for me it’s a definite kno. Atop that his presence places is highly disruptive and it’s ultimately his fault. I mean, the only place he can go without stirring up drama seems to be his own forums and BoardGameGeeks (for reasons that should be obvious).

    So yeah, you can get around the prescriptive terms and the narrow view of games and get to the heart of it and all you have is stuff that is less well written than stuff done by Koster and DanC and probably others.

    So yeah, you’re right, you can’t dismiss his content because of his behavior. Also, you don’t need to have done a million games to be an expert (some of my favorite people to talk game design with are non-designers). But many of us would argue that value is extremely limited and the potential for harm is much greater. If someone contributes very little and is infuriating, how should we treat them? Probably ‘not any way at all’, but we are, of course, human.

    You wrote this from a good place. No disrespect. Just gotta share where I think a lot of us are coming from.

    • > You have a whole, huge, encompassing system that basically says “Decisions are the most important thing”.

      Just want to make a correction here since what you said is incorrect. My system proposes four “forms” of interactive entertainment: Toys, Puzzles, Contests and Games. For the “game” form, decisions are the most important thing, but each form has its own “most important thing. If you don’t think that this system is of value, that’s fine, but I just wanted to make it clear to people that what you put forward is not accurate.

  2. Thank you for writing this. It’s good to hear someone approaching this situation with a level-headed demeanor. It’s really hard not to get caught up in the annoyance the guy causes.

    Burgun writes in an extremely polarizing, flame-baiting fashion about a topic where there is a lot of subjectivity and not many “right” answers. Of course this will cause people to be angry. Do you blame the people for being angry, or do you blame the man for behaving in such a way as to agitate instead of doing what he claims to be doing–presenting a “new and revolutionary” idea about game design that he thinks is self-evident and would uplift the medium?

    I’d like to briefly lay out a few sources of agitation–note that these are mostly not message-related, they’re related to rhetoric and presentation. In many ways, I’m on Burgun’s side when it comes to what he’s actually saying, though I’m fiercely agitated by the way he chooses to say it. I’ve tried for months to work with Burgun to improve his writing and bring his ideas into line with someone that would reach a broader audience–it has met with little success, He still uses the same flame-bait tactics and has only improved his tone slightly.

    To begin with, it does not at all seem like his ideas are new and revolutionary. Since he doesn’t do a better job of stating them than, say, Koster, it doesn’t seem to me like he has any valid claim to “new and revolutionary” and his self-important claims about his theory and work leave me agitated. Does he not read and participate in game design discourse enough to understand the stuff he’s saying better than his writing lets on? It’s OK to not be on top of all the recent developments, but the kind of thinking he presents in his book as new and revolutionary was mostly set forth in a clearer fashion in Koster’s Theory of Fun *almost ten years ago.* It’s not like Theory of Fun is some kind of obscure treatise written in inaccessible language–it’s a relatively short book written in laymen language.

    If Burgun presented himself as just an opinion-spewer and pundit, and didn’t have pretenses of being this game design expert full of new and revolutionary ideas that would make everyone’s lives better, I don’t think he’d stir up as much controversy. If he didn’t self-promote constantly, he wouldn’t be ruffling enough feathers for it to matter regardless.

    But here’s the real beef, and I think it’s a valid one: Burgun’s message is not served by his delivery. It’s damaged by his delivery. It causes reasonable claims he makes to turn into condescending extremist views. Redefining “game” and then using it in such a way that confuses just about every layman that runs into his writing is a perfect example of this. The conversation starts in a terrible way because of this–people are not a part of his coven of design and as such they don’t understand that he’s redefined the word, so they go on about games-as-in-the-medium, a context in which Burgun’s claims are ridiculous, when Burgun is really talking about games-as-in-decision-contests. And Burgun hasn’t improved of his own initiative on this area of un-clarity. It has taken several people, including me, many months of discussing this very topic with him before he has made even the surface-level attempts to improve in this area.

    It’s absolutely great to talk about decision contests. It’s something I want to read, in fact. They are the kind of games that I want to make, and discussing them is imminantly fascinating to me. Burgun should have me captivated and pleased, but his delivery and the superficiality of his writing tend to leave me agitated with nothing useful gained. The fact that I am his theory’s core audience, yet I can’t find much value in his writing, suggests that there is more to this theory than just helping people make better decision-contests.

    So if I’m going to choose the content to support, should I support the guy who is flame-baiting constantly and behaves in an untoward fashion towards others and reacts terribly to criticism? To me, his ideas just aren’t good enough to support the flaws in delivery. That’s why I gave his book 2 stars on Amazon. It’s below-average. The writing isn’t good and the ideas aren’t good enough to make that writing worth reading.

    • “His ideas are not new” is one thing, and I think that’s the strongest criticism. It’s important to keep in mind that assuming his ideas are completely and accidentally paraphrasing those outlaid by “Theory of Fun,” he might not be expounding on them in the same way. Even among textbooks which discuss very similar material, there is value in hearing the same ideas presented in different fashions. I doubt the similarities between Theory of Fun and his are perfect similarities, considering a decade separates the two – but then, I don’t have the two books to compare side-by-side, only what I can read of them from previews. (The $37 price point is my strongest criticism of Game Design Theory.)

      The suggestion that he “label himself an opinion-spewer and pundit” is bewildering because I’m not sure anyone would label themselves an “opinion-spewer,” and “pundit” isn’t far off from “opinion spewer.” Theories are definitely not empirical facts, so the criticism that he should label himself as someone who deals with “opinions” misrepresents the kinds of knowledge we’re dealing with in the first place. Dr. LaBossiere addresses this issue in a good way, but then by that definition of “opinion”, either way too many things we think are non-opinions are opinions or many things we think are opinions end up not being opinions, rendering “opinion” a distraction in either case. Any game design theory will be opinion or none will be, depending on how you define ‘opinion’, but the less-rigorous theories won’t be more of opinions by virtue of being less rigorous.

      I sympathize with your dialogue experiences though. In many ways that parallels my experiences with Bufang, mentioned here – he would define a particular concept in a certain way, and then treat his model as a universal when engaging with those who didn’t know much about how models differed. (To his credit, he does this much less than he used to.) It doesn’t affect the legitimacy of his ideas, just the legitimacy of the way he dialogues. It can be frustrating when someone acts that way though, definitely.

      No one should be blamed for being angry if they feel they’re being talked down to. But then, movie/film/art critics and theorists act in a polarizing fashion about their preferred subject matter all the time. It’s par for the course that they exist in game design writing. What I hope to do with this entry, though, is outline a way to evenly evaluate ideas of controversial game design figures in spite of that reaction, since I feel Burgun is dismissed for the wrong reasons often and especially so if “What Is A Game Designer?” was dismissed based on character or credential attacks. In observing the interactions he’s had, there are some legitimate criticisms and a lot of frustrated ad hominem. I’m less concerned with defending Burgun’s theories, and more concerned with knowing that if he *is* criticized, it’s for the right reasons.

    • Repeating something with a different spin is obviously very valuable and not every idea needs to be novel and original (I’d actually argue that iterative ideas are often the strongest). Saying something a different way is great — often when I write something, I’ll explain something 2 or 3 times in different ways just o make sure it clicks. For writing, this is a bit of a crutch (and I wouldn’t recommend it), but it works.

      The question is, if Keith is retreading old ground, what is he adding of value? “It’s like Koster’s ‘Theory of Fun’ BUT…” the ‘but’ here for many of us would be that it’s a poorly communicated mess without any real nuance. The crime isn’t retreading, retreading with such poor communication with seemingly very little of substance to add. It doesn’t clarify differently or expand upon, it almost obfuscates. And not just a little bit (which could be forgivable), but it obfuscates things A LOT by tying together a bizarre web of assumptions that are almost entirely unnecessary.

      Also to be FAIR to Burgun, I think he was pretty upset with the price point too and it was entirely the decision of his publisher.

      As for “What is a Game Designer”, I can’t speak for reddit, but I saw it as both self serving and extremely dismissive of the majority of game designers (Saying only 4% do any actual design work is gross). I don’t think he was describing a real problem — plenty of designers have programmers who just do programming. He was using a personal experience he brought onto himself as a soap box to complain about what he thought was a huge injustice. Technically he’s right, but most people actually understand this and the post seemed far more self serving than useful.

    • The “opinion-spewer”/”pundit” thing was nothing more than a minimal position that would’ve been more in line with his divisive behavior. If you’re saying controversial things, but don’t attempt to self-aggrandize in the process, you can get some interesting thinking out of it–look at Slavoj Zizek for a good example of how to say the controversial, but remain self-effeacing and respectful. The connotation behind “opinion-spewer” there was more negative than I really intended it to be, but the term “opinion-spewer” captures how I view much of Burgun’s contributions to discussions I’ve seen: he jumps in, perhaps self-promotes, and jams an opinion, often phrased dismissively of the discussion topic, with little backing down the throats of others unsolicited. I have nothing against sharing opinions, but when you do so in a way that appears, at least to me, to be very much self-important and more interested in appearing superior than actually moving a discussion forward, you’ve justified some degree of hostility because you’re breaking the give-and-take of social interaction.

      I’m not saying that Burgun’s *idea* of questioning some of the premises of typical game theorizing is a bad idea. To some extent it’s valuable to doubt premises and keep an open mind to fundamental problems in a discussion, but the way that Burgun does it is more distasteful to me and, I think, many other people who try to hold discussions with him, than is acceptable without some protestation.

      Other people can do this kind of thing so much better. I think that often Burgun causes problems in discussions by doing his version of doubting premises–the dismissiveness and extreme statements that he makes serve as a distraction from any productive discussion that might occur.

      Again, this doesn’t mean the content of Burgun’s writing and argumentation is incorrect or correct, just that the presentation of it doesn’t serve the goals that Burgun pretends to adhere to–progressive and productive game talk. Why bother with someone who behaves this way? Why bother with someone who pushes on with these same behaviors, even after being called out on it repeatedly?

      You push through if the person’s opinions are on a topic that you care about. I care about decision-contests as a form of games, so I press on. But should other people?

      I have spent a significant amount of time with Burgun and his work. I’ve learned the ins and outs of Burgun’s theory and ideas about game design. I’m so intimately familiar with his ideas that I can often argue his side of the game design arguments he gets into, and sometimes I even think I do a better job of arguing for his side than he does.

      I’ve fought through the argumentation issues to establish an understanding of Burgun’s thought, so I’m not at all blinded by my opinion of him as a person.

      After doing all of this work, I feel like I’ve been somewhat cheated. The substance required to justify my efforts doesn’t appear to be there. I continue to engage with him on occasion in the hopes that there’s something deeper to be found in his thought, but he continually disappoints me. I’ve done everything I can to be sympathetic to his theory, and I’m still left wanting. I’ve spent time to try to help him write better and more clearly articulate his ideas. What do I do now as an interested observer?

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