I've been making games and teaching game design for almost 30 years. Proof. Here is a link to my Substack where I write about games, art, and AI. I recently published a book titled The Beauty of Games, which explores the creative, expressive, and cultural aspects of games.

Here are some of the main themes from the book:

  • One of my goals with this book is to help people who aren’t already “on the inside” of game culture to understand games better. Game criticism and discussion tends to be somewhat insular. Despite their massive popularity, games don’t have much presence in mainstream cultural conversation. I want to illuminate, for a broad audience, the ways that games can help us better understand ourselves, each other, and the world.

  • The best way to understand games is to see them as an aesthetic form, alongside music, literature, film, painting, and so on. As opposed to seeing them as appliances, devices, toys, hobbies, or other kinds of simpler cultural objects.

  • The best way to understand video games is to see them in the broader context of games in general, including board games, folk games, gambling games, and sports. For one example, see this excerpt from my book.

  • Despite wanting to blur the lines between digital and non-digital games, I try to emphasize the deep connection that all games have to computers and computation. Games are the artform of systems, the artform of software. Games have always been an exploration of how rules generate behavior, about interactive models and simulated worlds. In a way, games invented computers and are therefore responsible for helping us figure out what to do with them.

  • A recurring theme in the book is the idea of meta-cognition, or what I call "thought made visible to itself". Games are the artform of thinking and doing. Games are ritual representations of being in the world. They are opportunities to observe ourselves perceiving, planning, modeling, predicting, acting, interacting, and learning. As such, games have a complex relationship to reason, rationality, logic, and problem-solving. They are a deep dive into, as well as a kind of escape from, instrumental reason.

That's a brief overview of some of the book's main themes. I'm happy to answer questions about any of that, as well as to answer any questions about any of the games I've made or about teaching games and helping create and run one of the world's top game design programs.

UPDATE: OK, I think I'm going to call it a night. Thanks so much for all of your questions. I really appreciated them!

Comments: 45 • Responses: 16  • Date: 

samanpwbb10 karma

I love games but sometimes I feel like the essential nature of all games, and the reason I keep playing them, is that they are operant conditioning chambers (essentially: unpredictable reward-giving machines), and that makes me feel like a sad dumb pigeon. Should it?

franklantz19 karma

Yes! You are nothing but a sad, dumb pigeon, and this is a great truth that your love of games has led you to recognize. Everyone is a sad, dumb, pigeon, but you are sad, dumb pigeon who knows they are a sad, dumb pigeon. And this is a superpower. Who knows where this dangerous knowledge might lead you?

When you play a game, you enter into a tiny operant conditioning chamber, allow it to shape your experience, and then leave. Then you reflect on that experience. Then you play a different game and compare them to each other.

What would it be like to live your life like that?

UntamedBreadWarden6 karma

Hi Frank! A few years back you shared your bookshelf - does this still hold up or would you add anything additional to it now?

Just got your book the other day, looking forward to diving in! Thanks!

franklantz6 karma

There is one essential book missing from that stack - The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch. Even though it's not about games per se, it is the most important book about the thread that connects those books together and every game designer should read it.

A couple of books I might add to that stack if I were taking this picture today are Games: Agency as Art by C Thi Nguyen, and Aesthetic Theory and the Video Game by Graeme Kirkpatrick.

mrventures5 karma

Do you have any advice for game development educators in terms of providing students with the experience of working on large code bases? I find that often in the classes I'm teaching that the students are working on very small, bespoke indie projects. Which from a coding standpoint is a very different experience than working within an established code base.

franklantz6 karma

We never did this at NYU, but one idea you could try is to have a big faculty-managed game project with a giant code base that you have students contribute to. This would give them a sense of what it's like to add features, do versioning, and track bugs on a big software project. It's the kind of thing you can't learn without doing.

even_more_fries4 karma

First: I loved Universal Paperclips! Thank you! (This is how I know about you.)

Thanks also for writing the book, I look forward to reading it.

A question: these days I am preoccupied with conveying to people the realities of climate change, and of effective political action.

Do you feel a game would be a good approach, for either problem? Thank you!

franklantz13 karma

This is a really interesting problem. On the one hand, you would think that a game would be a great way to explore the topic of climate change, for example. After all, a game is a system, it can embody the systemic, dynamic, emergent properties of the topic. It seems like that would be great. My friend Ian Bogost has written extensively on this, and (at least) used to be optimistic about this possibility.

However, in practice, games that model real world systems are almost never genuinely compelling or persuasive as rhetoric. Why is that?

I think it's because simulations tend to fail, as rhetoric, in one of two ways.

Either they are pre-determined, you have to build the outcomes you want into the rules of the system in a way that feels like you are begging the question - the player senses that they aren't really exploring a rich, emergent, interactive model of the real world, they are being fed a fixed result that only looks dynamic.

Or they are out of control, and end up generating a lot of unpredictable behavior that don't correspond to the rhetorical point you are trying to make. If it's a real system, players are going to discover all kinds of weird, unexpected behaviors in it that don't really line up with the real-world system you are trying to model and don't line up with whatever point you are trying to communicate.

Therefore games like Pandemic, for example, are a great use of the theme of infectious disease, but aren't really making any substantial points about that topic in a straightforward way.

It's an interesting problem!

mrventures3 karma

What are some games (of any media) that you recommend for people who want to broaden their horizons when it comes to understanding what games can do and what games can be. I know that. For example, when it comes to board games, a lot of people have only played Scrabble and monopoly. Do you recommend any games to serve as a gateway into the deeper thinking that your book is about?

franklantz7 karma

Here's my standard answer to the question "what games should I play?" from a person who isn't currently a gamer but is curious to know what's up.

You should find out, from your friends who play games, a game they are playing, and play that. It's so much more important to have a good context for playing a game than to play the "right" game. Playing with, or alongside, other people will motivate you to pay attention, to dive deeper, and give you a framework for reflecting on the game, thinking and talking about how it works and what it means.

mrventures3 karma

Any advice for a first-time author in the space of creating a book for game development? Specifically, I would love to know your insights on approaching publishers with the hope of one day making a paperback version of a "how to pass game development interviews" book that I'm working on.

franklantz4 karma

My advice is start doing it, and iterate.

Specifically, for this idea, here's how I would approach it. I would want a book that's mostly examples. Lots of real-world examples of the kinds of tests and questions you get in game dev job interviews. And good ways to think about those questions and tests. I would also try to make it generally useful, less about how to trick someone into hiring you, and more about how thinking about these questions and building the skills to pass these tests can help make you a better, more successful person, even if you aren't trying to get a job in game dev.

Sure-Couple66293 karma

Hi Frank,

I listened to the Voulgaris interview you tweeted (fascinating in many ways). At one point he talks about the soccer team he owns and the radical inclusion of probabilistic analysis and so on. He mentions there being a “culture war” and pushback against his approach - players can no longer be confident in their intuitions and have to submit to a top-down hyper-rational approach. Some say he is ruining the game, and to this he seems to shrug, “maybe I am”.

This connects to what I see as very real concerns: - the tendency to treat our lives as something to be optimized, to see ourselves as capital stock that must not lie fallow but be constantly invested for profit, to accept externally imposed values/price-tags rather than thinking and living for ourselves.

Reading your synposis it seems you might be touching on this kind of theme. Do you see a danger in the humans-as-rational-machine metaphor, and the role game design might have in reinforcing the issues I mention?

franklantz3 karma

Yes, you are touching on one of the central ideas I tried to wrestle with in the book. In games, we make things explicit, quantitative, optimizable. But real life isn't this way. Sometimes, approaching life as if it was a game can be effective, it can give us insights, revealing the systemic properties of real-world contexts, it can unleash creativity, break the spell of a situation to which we've become too attached, inspiring us to take a lighter, more flexible attitude. But if you lose sight of the crucial difference between life and game you can fall into nihilism and behave like a sociopath.

Look at Sam Bankman-Fried, rationality, and effective altruism for a great current example. Or consider how pick-up culture encourages people to instrumentalize their personal interactions.

I'm a fan of the idea of meta-rationality. The idea that rationality is an essential, important, powerful mode, but it is not a global, universal perspective from which one can make value judgments.

In my view, games illustrate this by being systems that we move between, but this process of moving between systems is not, itself, a system and never can be. It is something else. "Beauty" is a clumsy way of pointing to this something else, but that's what I've got.

_bobby_tables_2 karma

Damn you Frank Lantz! Do you know how many days of my life I've dedicated to Universal Paperclips?! Too many to admit without feeling deep shame.

That wasn't really my question. So, UP is ridiculously addictive. Any "trick" to designing an addictive game?

franklantz3 karma

In the case of Universal Paperclips, I did it like this:

  • built a simple version of the first part of the game
  • played it
  • added things that I wanted, as a player
  • played it again
  • continued to operate in this loop - playing/tweaking/adding/playing
  • once the first 5 minutes were working, I thought about how I wanted to extend the game
  • back into the loop, and so on

In other words, I sort of built the game from the inside out, always continually playing it, and playing it over and over and over again. So that anything that wasn't working really well eventually got eroded away by the the force of my short attention span, leaving only the things that satisfied my obsessive compulsive nature.

SquigBoss2 karma

A little bird told me that one working title for the book was “Against Play.” Can you elaborate on that, and/or your personal ongoing blood feud against Miguel Sicart?

franklantz4 karma


I only considered that title tongue-in-cheekily. But I honestly do bristle a little about the way the word "play" is often used in these conversations. Let me see if I can explain why.

I think there is a widespread sentiment that sees games through a normative lens which opposes "play" (good, liberating, resisting power, bottom-up) to "rules" (bad, oppressive, enforcing power, top-down.) Sicart's essay Against Procedurality is a great example of this.

As much as I can, I want to see things clearly, and understand them, and I think this kind of normative lens, this kind of good-vs-bad framing, will, most of the time, mislead, distort, and distract from seeing things clearly.

Ultimately, I want to end up in a place that's good, as opposed to bad. I want my work, and my thinking, to be a positive influence on the world, to make it incrementally better. But I think doing so requires one to forego easy, intuitive, comfortable, "good sounding" heuristics that fall into this good-vs-evil puppet show framework.

One of the things games teach us is that everything is more complex and surprising when you examine it closely.

comradeHac2 karma

Do you have any advice for a game designer/programmer with very mediocre visual art skills on how to make a project more attractive to potential art collaborators?

franklantz3 karma

Make it fun. Make it genuinely fun to play, not as a "concept" or a "design" but as an actual playable prototype with ugly, placeholder programmer-art. If you can do that, artists will be excited to collaborate on the game with you.

PsycheEtoile2 karma

Drop7 was the last thing i did every night before going to sleep. It was the only thing that kept my ADHD brain busy enough to relax.

When I upgraded my phone, I was so miserable because I couldn't download it again. Nothing else has come close to the same experience.

Is there any plan for making this available on the play store again? PLEASE?!

franklantz2 karma

I am so sorry this happened to you. Periodically, a few of us from the original team talk about how we might fix it. No promises, but there is a non-zero chance that we might be able to solve this problem in the not-too-distant future.

gobo_squirrel2 karma

hi Frank! Loving your book so far, got it yesterday.

I used to tune into you and Naomi Clark's twitch streams from NYUGC and really miss them - It feels crazy that there are so few (that I know about) things like that, that talk about Big Game News from an academic (but very fun!) perspective. Any chance you two bring it back, or any recs for something similar to take its place?

franklantz1 karma

Thanks! Yeah, I loved doing "The Discourse" with Naomi, that was an amazing time. We did another one recently when I was in town for my book launch and it was a blast. I would be down to make it a semi-regular thing again, maybe once a month or something? You might enjoy UNBOXING, which is the podcast of my NYU colleagues Laine Nooney and Joost van Dreunen. It's a bit more focused on the business side of things, but fun!

mjandersen1 karma

I've always been fascinated by how Drop7 started out as a game (Chain Factor) hidden within a show (Numb3rs) about a completely different game (Primacy). Can you talk a little about the considerations for designing something that crossed so many different layers of experience?

franklantz3 karma

At my studio Area/Code we always had a kind of love/hate thing for ARGs. We were making games that were very ARG-adjacent - big, social, messy, experiential, real-world things. But, to us, "proper" ARGs were kind of ridiculous. Everybody loved them but no-one had ever played one! They would get written up on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, but then, if you tried to actually play one, it was always an impossible, impenetrable mess. People were so enthusiastic for the idea of ARGs it didn't matter that the actual things were, not bad exactly, just kind of irrelevant. Similar to how VR and The Metaverse work, and for similar reasons.

But then we got hired to make one, and, gosh, somehow our attitude changed! But seriously, we decided we were going to try to tackle this honestly as a real design problem. So the whole structure of the Numb3rs ARG was about creating an accessible, casual, approachable, game and having that at the center of the messier, real-world, collaborative-narrative, mystery experience. And it kind of worked?

I think, in a way, we were using the excuse of the ARG to give us license to make a simple puzzle game, something what wouldn't have otherwise fit with the ambitious, reality-hacking ethos of Area/Code. But also, there is a deep dose of weirdness that remains at the heart of Drop7 that is the result of its origin. It's in the core mechanics of the game, and I think it's why the game works the way it does.

So the lesson is - problems are good. Tackle them!

Btw, have you seen The Oldest View?

ghtddkc1 karma

What is the most satisfying game you’ve played?

Where do you think the incremental genre will go in the future?

Thanks :)

[deleted]2 karma


horsebatterystable1 karma

Can you share a link to SET? Unfortunately it's pretty much un-Google-able, and I've tried!

RDM8171 karma

I am a beginner resiearcher in game studies, I have published locally but struggle with the larger international community. At my Uni, I have only a few colleagues researching games, and usually, they are also beginners in the field, and often end up advising them (mostly extra-officially). Do you have any tips on how to broaden my reach and collaborate with other researchers? I'm in the Global South, by the way. The Beauty of Games is next on our study group book discussions =)

franklantz2 karma

Ok, this is going to come off as overly blunt, but I think you should stop worrying about how to fit into the existing game studies world. If there are people, ideas, and projects there that are inspiring you then that's great, reach out to those people, use those ideas, learn from those projects. But in my view, there aren't any particular journals or projects or conferences (or discords or group threads) that you need to be a part of to do important, groundbreaking scholarly work on games. In fact, I think in a lot of ways, getting plugged into that scene will hold you back. I honestly think that most of the established formats, structures, and norms of this field do more harm than good.

(No disrespect to all of my game studies friends, you know I love you.)

You are going to have to figure this stuff out on your own. Try to do work that is honest, and personal, and interesting, and true, and you will find that your own scene magically appears around you.

The Beauty of Games is next on our study group book discussions

Awesome! Let me know if you want me to drop by! My email is my first name dot last name at nyu.edu.

AnotherDrunkCanadian1 karma

Universal paperclips is a classic staple of the r/incrementalgames community.

Do you play any incremental games currently? Which ones are your favorites?

franklantz2 karma

I'm not currently playing any incremental games. My all-time favorite is Kittens Game.