Towards Videogame Composition

Jason Li
Jason Li
A computational designer and theorist living between bread and code.
Thesis Faculty
Harpreet Sareen
Loretta Wolozin
John Sharp
Barbara Morris

The following is a selected excerpt from the first chapter of Towards Videogame Composition. The project is a written proposal and documentation of my ongoing practice to develop Videogame Composition as a framework for creating games away from play. The full text is available through the University library

Looking at Videogames

From live-streaming to the resurgence of the far right, videogames serve as both witness and participant in the cultural fabric of today. Everyone is affected by videogames and their cultural productions either by directly playing them or by interfacing with them through their broader cultural impacts. Today, videogames are unavoidable.

I wanted a way to work in videogames space with intentionality and integrity. As an artist, I sought to create games that could not only enrich the playing audience, but also intervene in culture. I needed a method for both comprehending videogames and creating videogames from those lessons.

Game studies leads the charge to understand videogames’ impact in context. As cultural objects, games are understood to evolve unpredictably through play. The videogame, Among Us , failed to culturally resonate until two years after its original release. Only by being at play—and thus continuously evolving its cultural identity—did it eventually become a worldwide phenomenon. In studying these types of phenomena, game studies uses the lens of play: that games’ cultural manifestations are discovered and delivered by play. These studies extend beyond the history of videogames, but today, videogames are the prevailing playable media. Videogames become the site where players bring existing cultural ideas into collision with the videogame’s representation of values. The collision causes an evolution in both the player and the videogame object. With constantly changing context and countless players, play is understood to be infinitely generative of culture.


I found it difficult to reconcile the play-as-research methods of game design with the cultural analysis methods of game studies. The reliance on play for both methods required observing values as emergent from games, not necessarily as something worked into the insides of the game itself. This infinitely generative perspective of play is integral to both game design and studies. Attempting to consider the infinite possibilities would be paralyzing to me. These methods paralyzed my movement in the analysis because the integrity of research demanded a full consideration of the infinite possibilities of play. An impossible task. I needed something different.

This thesis, Videogame Composition, proposes a resolution by focusing on videogame creation. It offers a series of definitions to describe, and therefore analyze, the work of videogame making. It is a framework for both the process of purposefully creating a videogame and a lens to view videogames through. Composition sees the videogame as a specific assemblage of cultural potential energy brought together through tasks. These tasks describe the work required to connect independent objects to the videogame body. Once assembled, the videogame readily evolves through play. Rather than attempt to control the unpredictability of play, the framework focuses on the certainty that before videogames are ever played, they must be made.