Unusability: You don’t want to play it again!

“Unusable games“ sound like a contradiction: Who would want to play a game that doesn’t work? And why are there designers – educators, of all the people with already a reputation for bad game design – that create these unusable games?

If in a game we regret acting like we did, usable games give us a chance to do better next time.
Unusable games force us to repeat the same regrettable action over and over, until we regret playing the game as it is, without alterations of its rules or its narratives to do better.
Its a game-genre about awareness: Stop playing by the given rules, laugh at them – or change them.

Games demand from the player blind trust that they, as a medium, behave in a stable, foreseeable and conventional way. For example a game is usually accompanied by the exciting suspense of who may win in the end; a game that ‘cheats’, by subtly sabotaging this balance in favour of the game, of one player or a group of players, may turn gameplay into a frustrating experience.

So, if given a game the player expects it to be balanced, to be fun, to contain a coherent contextualisation. She expects it to be either culturally and traditionally tethered and proven like chess, or, with contemporary games, created en bloc by a competent and benevolent game designer for her entertainment.

What is perceived as the defining properties of a medium evolve in lockstep with the perpetuation and establishment of it as a medium, effectively stabilising and solidifying it in its technical form, its genres, narratives and tropes. Avantgardistic experiments, revealed audience manipulations or emerging technological advances may challenge – or endanger – these properties. Such dissolutions can be seen for example with Orson Welles’ 1938 broadcast of “War of the Worlds”, in a hitherto unfamiliar format resembling a newscast; in revisionist manipulations of photographic documents by the seamless removal of undesired political persons; or the anarchistic though benevolent hackers who show that physical media that handles information are no match for information-based media that handles information in terms of manipulative potential.

Unusability as educational approach strives for an understanding of medial limitations and preconditions, by aiming for a disruption of trust in these.

This happens through game design decisions which deliberately and unbeknownst by the user turn a game unworkable, aporic, disbalanced and disturbing, where it should be intuitive to use, guiding, fair and entertaining. Bateson would describe this as the wilful setting of deceptive contextmarkers to produce a category II error, a conflict only to be resolved on a higher level of cognisance. Bateson’s description of how to induce an “experimental neurosis” mirrors the design approach of unusability:

“Typically an animal is trained, either in a Pavlovian or instrumental learning context, to discriminate between some X and some Y; e.g., between an ellipse and a circle. When this discrimination has been learned, the task is made more difficult: the ellipse is made progressively fatter and the circle is flattened. Finally a stage is reached at which discrimination is impossible. At this stage the animal starts to show symptoms of severe disturbance.”[1]

In contrast to this rather grim laboratory setting, unusable games usually have emergency exits to reality: e.g. meta-communicative hints on what is educationally intended by the creator; the player’s ability to end the game anytime; or the ability to transfer back and forth between reflecting and playing the game.

Dustin, a player of the game “Super Columbine Massacre RPG”[2], gives an insight into a possible approach to handle an unusable game. He also paraphrases Ackerman’s constructionist approach of embedding and separation[3]:

“For me, this was one of the hardest games I’ve ever played. After 20 years of gaming, it’s almost natural at this point to try and immerse myself in what I play, but doing so in this case was impossible. If anything, the constant cycle of playing the game versus thinking about playing the game – the association, then dissociation – helped to sharpen the line between game and reality, not blur it.”[4]

Though unusable games are in their carefully created dysfunctions as manipulative as usable games in their smooth functioning, the former ones do not provide a setting how to resolve the higher order problem within the given game. Within the unusable game, there is in the end no other course for the player than to decide not to play on as usual. After this decision, it is up to the player what she will conclude or do with the game.

Topics and examples of unusable games

The potential educational topics of unusable games are twofold: To raise critical awareness about preconceptions on games and media in general, but also about content clashing with its medial frame, rendering it ‘unusable’ until resolved from a higher level of learning and action. In both approaches, initiation of irritation and puzzlement may lead to cognisance about trusted expectations, bias and habits.

For medial awareness, the critical review usually reserved for the content of a medium is expanded to the medium itself: An established medium carries a social, cultural, artistic and technological bias that is hard to turn perceptible unless a ‘cracking noise in the joints’ can be heard – and felt – as Debray would put it[5]. Games that startlingly break expectations concerning gaming as such can enhance the understanding of games as intended, manipulated and manipulating creations. On a level also relatable to genres and tropes, Frasca terms this the “Videogames of the oppressed”[6], which can also be read as gaming with the oppressed: The invisible, unconscious, ingrained properties of a medium are brought to unsettling attention. Welles’ 1938 radio adaptation of “War of the Worlds” for example showed the inability of the American public at that time to cope with an ‘unusable’ mix of a radio news format with science fiction content in a time of insecurity and threat of war.

Examples for unusable games that are, in contrast to Welles’ broadcast, explicitly or implicitly created as ironic medial commentaries are Costykian’s face-to-face role playing game “Violence”[7] and Wong’s concept of “The Ultimate War Simulation Game” [8]. Both deal with their genres’ gridlocked set of narratives and their players’ restricted but securing expectations of inconsequential violence and easy gain; both give their concepts the semblance of a ‘real’ game. While Costykian works with insults and overstatement to turn his game unbearable and the players’ possible actions sickening or meaningless, Wong describes the reality of war to be deeply entangled in a web of ideological, economic, political and medial interests, drenched in lies, misinformation and manipulation, as a background for a gritty and truly ‘realistic’ war game:

“[…] there were no naked human pyramids in Starcraft.”[9]

Picture: David Wong (2007): The Ultimate War Simulation Game.

As it is made obvious, games of war and combat are fun – but only if they are simplified beyond recognition, a commentary aimed i.a. at the gaming industry, claiming yet another level of presupposed ‘realism’ as sales argument for these games.

For a higher understanding of the determining socio-cultural contextualisation of content, including social bias and prejudices, the clashing premises have to be arranged between motivating narratives and resulting moves on the one hand, and the clash of consequences when acting according to this accepted framing on the other hand.

Picture: Gonzalo Frasca (2003): September 12th – A toy world. Here the player is given a too limited set of possible actions to win the game, in this case there is a shooting-gallery interface to play a simplified social simulation. It is like trying to play “The Sims” with only a gun sight and a trigger.
So, what will the player do if given a hammer and the task to turn in a screw?

Frasca delivers with “September 12th”[10] an example, dealing with the dominant US American foreign policy at that time, of preemptive military strikes to counter the terrorism threat. The game interface apparently follows this approach, with crosshairs and a trigger to sent rockets into an unnamed Middle Eastern city to kill black clad terrorists walking around between civilians. The actual game has innocent bystanders grieve over collateral kills, turning them into terrorists themselves. After some shots, the city is in ruins and the population has turned hostile. The lesson learned by the frustrated ‘player’ is: You cannot ‘win’ this ‘game’ with the given set of possible moves.

The upsetting of trust, in either form or content, may in its more radical variants intentionally trigger irritation, frustration, fear, or aggression, thus part of the educational concept has to include helping the player cope with the experience, or helping her understand the rationale behind the approach.

Wiemken’s approach of „Hardliners“ and „Breaking the Rules“[11] tackles i.a. juvenile aggressiveness influenced by computer games. The approach demonstrates the real-life impossibility of game-like actions by giving physical adaptations of in-game brawling, ambushing or shooting a real-life cops-and-robbers framing. Here an affective-cognitive wrap-up is crucial and an integral part of this socio-pedagogical approach, as power fantasies are questioned and ingrained juvenile insecurities are touched.

Picture: Shirt’s “Starpower”[15] is an educational group game that exemplifies the stratification mechanisms of society. The game’s rules (the outer box) are rigged in favour of a random group of players (assigned ‘squares’). They alone have in the end the power to alter specific rules regulating the other players’ in-game mobility (inner box, with ‘circles’ and the hapless ‘triangles’) to their own benefit.

Shirts’s famous group game of social stratification “Starpower”[12] is targeted at adults and deals with ingrained notions of a justified and fair assignment of power and success in a stratified society. “Starpower” is a deliberately rigged game, which assigns the players randomly to a group of either ‘squares’, ‘circles’ or ‘triangles’. The ‘squares’ set the rules how the other players may advance, stagnate or lose in the game, the ‘circles’ may try to advance to ‘square’ status, while the ‘triangles’ will remain powerless, come what may.

“The poor Triangles, with less and less power, wealth, or hope, first get angry, then apathetic. They sit around waiting for this dumb game to be over. They come to life only if they think up a way of cheating or of creating a revolution. Only subversion brings out their interest and creativity.” [13]

The inevitable clashes between the player groups’ perception of either entitlement or deep injustice concerning the assignment of regulative powers requires an after-game counselling to clarify the game’s goal – which wasn’t to let the players enjoy a game created with fair rules, but to render visible the appeal of a stratification of power for those on top, and the self-justifying, stabilising mechanisms to preserve the status quo. Meadows strikingly sums up this and other unusable games’ true goal:

“Suppose we could admit that most of us act as we do because of our places in the system. Suppose we turned our energy from blaming each other to blaming the structure of the games we play.”[14]

Unusability differs from metagaming or transmediality in the way that it is usually initiated by educators or game designers, though it is also possible as (trans)medial commentary by ambitious gamers. It requires from the creators a high level of awareness and reflection on the topic, and, if not in an open humoristic form but camouflaged as ‘real’ game, a safeguard against harmful player reaction to this delusion. Though there is already a long tradition of experimental art and political satire[17], unusable games, in contrast to formats in text, film or on stage, add the important factor of choice, and thus responsibility, on side of the player. As Wright puts it:

“Games […] are perhaps the only medium, which allows us to experience guilt over the actions of fictional characters.”[18]

If in a game we regret acting like we did, usable games give us a chance to do better next time. Unusable games force us to repeat the same regrettable action over and over, until we regret playing the game as it is, without alterations of its rules or its narratives to do better.


This is an excerpt from Wey-Han Tan (2009): „Playing (with) Educational Games: First and Second Order Gaming.“ Masterthesis, UIAH Helsinki, UHH Hamburg

[1] Bateson (2000): “The Logical Categories of Learning and Communications”, p.296.

[2] Ledonne (2005): “Super Columbine Highschool Massacre RPG”.

[3] See Ackerman (1996), “Perspective-Taking and Object-Construction”, p.28; see also chapter 4.2.

[4] Quoted on the website of Ledonne (2005): “Super Columbine Highschool Massacre RPG”.

[5] Debray (2004): “Für eine Mediologie”, p.73.

[6] Frasca (2001): “Videogames of the Oppressed”.

[7] Costykian (1999): “Violence: The Roleplaying Game of Egregious and Repulsive Bloodshed”. The title is programmatic, as is this quote from the introduction: “[…] there’s no point in trying to write a good set of rules because you idiots can’t tell the difference between a good set and a bad set anyway.”

[8] Wong (2007): “The Ultimate War Simulation Game”, italics by the author.

[9] Ibid., italics by the author. Wong here refers to the pyramid of naked prisoners in Abu Ghuraib; “Starcraft” is the popular strategic war simulation by Blizzard Entertainment (1998).

[10] Frasca (2003): “September 12th”.

[11] Wiemken, Jens (1997): “Breaking the Rules”.

[12] Shirts (1969): “Starpower”. For a detailed description of the game and its stages see e.g. Pittenger (1999): “Star Power”, also the commentary by game designer Wallis (2007): “Things to do in game design #1: cheat”.

[13] Meadows (2004): “Why would anyone want to play Starpower?”

[14] Ibid.

[15] Shirts (1969): “Starpower”.

[16] Frasca (2003): “September 12th”.

[17] Examples would be the German literary style of “Romantische Ironie”, Dadaism, the actions of current political activist groups like “Yesmen” or the aesthetic Postirony movement.

[18] Will Wright quoted in Jenkins and Squire (2003): “Meaningful Violence”.


Further Examples for unusable games:

Barnga: A Game of Intercultural-Awareness. Seemingly a simple card game of „War“, requiring just an ordinary set of cards, some written instructions and about 12-24 players.

Tor Bair: „Your Life is Tetris, stop playing it like chess.“ – Every game can become an unusable game if you don’t perceive it as a fair, balanced game within it’s cultural framing anymore!