Religion has a lesson to teach to all game developers and gamers. I know many of you will be skeptical about this but bear with me and listen with an open mind and by the end I hope to convince you. There is one specific aspect of many religions called via-negativa. If its principles and ideas were to apply to decision making, developing or even playing games it would make a huge difference. Also, regardless of whether you’re a religious person or not, the value in understanding the religious concept of via-negativa can be an eye-opening moment. 

So, what is via-negativa?

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In the Christian tradition, via negativa refers to a way of speaking about God and his attributes by what he’s not. Because God is a being far beyond our capacity as human beings to comprehend, anything we can say of him is necessarily limited by our finite human understanding, and his reality far surpasses our power of expression. The truest things we can say about him are by way negation, by saying what he is not rather than what he is.

St. Thomas said: “This is the ultimate in human knowledge of God: to know that we do not know Him”

Richard Feynman the great theoretical physicist had a similar saying on quantum mechanics ”If you think you understand quantum mechanics then you don’t understand quantum mechanics“

 The Eastern Orthodox Church, in particular, uses the principles of Via negativa. It does not try to express what God is, It just lists what God is not and proceeds by the process of elimination.

If you look at the vast majority of religious teachings on morality, a similar phenomenon appears; they focus on the things we should not do.

In Christianity, 8 out of the 10 Commandments, start with “Thou shalt not” what not to do – a process of elimination, via-negativa.

The vast majority of Muhammad’s Islamic teachings in the 9 books of Hadith are Via-negativa teachings.

The same thing applies to Buddhism in The five precepts. All five of them are about things to avoid doing.

The best way to understand the idea of Via-negativa is to look at an equivalent in mathematics. The Limits is where you have an equation approaching an end without reaching it, but it helps to solve the equation.

The equation moves closer and closer to that end but never reaches it.

It’s like reducing the amount of water in a glass by half multiple times. No matter how many times you do it, some water will still be in the glass. It will never be empty because you leave half the amount you find in it.

So the amount of water in the glass goes in the direction of emptiness but never reaches it.

Via-Negativa does the same thing to different questions, by using the method of negation you get closer and closer to knowing what God is, without ever really reaching the final destination.

Through via negativa, by understanding what things are not, we get closer and closer to understanding what they actually are.

When Michael Angelo was asked about how he made one of the greatest statues of all time, the statue of David, he replied: by removing everything that is not David. 

Sculpting is a literal translation of via negativa into physical terms, for it revolves around removing and eliminating to get to the final perfect form and the better the artist is at removing, the better the statue will look.

For an ordinary person, he or she can improve by learning from his or her mistakes and the mistakes of others.

It’s called subtractive epistemology: in plain English, it means, we know more, A LOT MORE about what is wrong than what is right and religions know this very well.

In modern times we are more plagued with the opposite of via-negativa, via-positiva which aims at telling you what to do and what to think.

By having a quick look at the self-help shelf in your local bookstore you’ll notice that the vast majority of the titles are via-positiva ones, “the seven habits of highly effective people”, “think and grow rich”, “the millionaire next door” and tons of books about what to do to reach happiness. 

I’ve always been skeptical about these books, not just because they’re not based on any firm scientific foundations but also because they’re a modern phenomena of presenting ready-made McDonald’s style answers and solutions for quick and easy consumption of complex ideas that have baffled humanity since the beginning of history. And they all have one thing in common: Via-Positiva, telling the readers what to do in order to get rich, be happy, and achieve all his or her dreams in life.

Via-negativa books, which in my opinion would be much more helpful for someone who seeks answers to these questions, don’t make a good case for marketing. A book like “What I Learned Losing a Million Dollars” by Jim Paul provides many lessons and a frank analysis of the excessive economic hubris that led Paul to some of his disastrous decisions, and also covers the psychological factors behind these practices, but reviewers are mocking the author for losing his money and claiming that it’s wrong to learn from someone who has failed, it’s better to learn from someone who succeeds, preferring to read unhelpful via-positiva books like “the millionaire next door”.

While I was reading the reviewers of Jim Paul’s book trashing him for telling his story of losing his money, I remembered a Gospel story. 

According to the Gospel of John, the Pharisees, in an attempt to discredit Jesus, brought a woman charged with adultery before him. Then they reminded Jesus that adultery was punishable by stoning under Mosaic law and challenged him to judge the woman so that they might then accuse him of disobeying the law. Jesus replied, “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone at her.”

If you think of the moral of the story, Jesus is telling people to look at the Via-negativa component in each one of them, the mistakes they commit, their own shortcomings and imperfections in the face of what he saw as people with a via-positiva way of seeing things. Like the glass of water described earlier, no matter how close any person came to perfection, none of them were completely empty of sin or wrongdoing.

Even in simple daily life, with a question like losing weight, following via-positiva advice like drinking a specific syrup early in the morning or adding a certain spice to your food doesn’t really help. The most effective advice is a via-negativa approach on what to avoid; cut the carbs and sugar.

Doctors know that via-negativa advice on one simple thing to avoid, like quitting smoking or reducing alcohol consumption can be much more beneficial to your health than any via-positiva thing you can do like taking a certain drug or having an operation.

The things we don’t do define us as much, if not even more, than the things we do.

If you want to see Via-negativa in its shiniest form then look no further than the world of business, 

Warren Buffett has a similar strategy in investing. His rule, as he states it is: “You only have to do a very few things right in your life so long as you don’t do too many things wrong.”

“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”

When studying Warren Buffett’s investing strategy the first thing you will notice is that it’s full of red flags. Simply stated: he doesn’t look for what makes a company good, he looks at what makes a company bad.

Steve Jobs vision for Tech-products was a clear embodiment of via negativa in the tech industry. He once said: 

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully.  I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done.  Innovation is saying ‘no’ to 1,000 things.”

The next time you see Apple products in a store remember Job’s words “I’m as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done” and think of all the products that Apple could’ve made but decided not to. 

At the end of the day, the company with the biggest market cap in the world has less than ten main products and that’s it.

Via Negativa can also be seen in the design of Apple products, just listen to what Jony Ive the chief design officer at Apple has to say about the Aluminium MacBook

“aluminum unibody enclosure” eliminated 60 percent of the computer’s major structural parts.  Reducing the number of parts naturally made the computer thinner.  Contrary to what you’d expect, eliminating parts also made it more rigid and robust — the computer was stronger.”

Nike CEO, Mark Parker. said shortly after becoming CEO, he talked to Steve Jobs on the phone.

“Do you have any advice?”  Parker asked Jobs.  “Well, just one thing,” said Jobs. “Nike makes some of the best products in the world.  Products that you lust after.  But you also make a lot of crap.  Just get rid of the crappy stuff and focus on the good stuff.”  Parker said Jobs paused and Parker filled the quiet with a chuckle.  But Jobs didn’t laugh.  He was serious.

Apple’s most successful product, the iPhone, is a physical embodiment of Via-Negativa in a tech product. When all mobile phone companies were adding more and more buttons to their phone keyboards, Apple decided to have one home button and that’s it. And when manufacturers learned the lesson and reduced the number of buttons to two or three Apple went in a different direction, one button is one button too many, Let’s get rid of it.

In order to get closer to the perfect iPhone, Apple removes everything that is not iPhone, just like Michael Angelo and the statue of David.

Please don’t mistake via negativa with minimalism, Via-Negativa is about knowing what not to do and what to avoid by learning what is wrong and what is harmful. It has a long line of trial and error to follow and only by following this line, via negativa brings us closer to the perfect goal we aim for.

To understand the difference between Via-Negativa and minimalism think of the following example, people are talking every year about the books recommended by Bill Gates and why he liked these books.

I’m more interested in the books he didn’t like and that he actively avoided. I think it would be far more interesting to know why he avoided these books. Seeing the process of elimination would be more illuminating in understanding the man than looking at what he reads. 

In my profession of Architecture, we care about negative-spaces as much as the positive spaces we create. Sometimes a design is defined and established by the limitations and things we want to avoid, more than by the things we want to do. 

I know by now you’re thinking enough of this, let’s talk about video games.

So, let’s see how the concept of via negativa can apply to games at multiple levels, from an industry level to simple gameplay mechanics.

Video Games is a tricky business and it’s hard to find a manual to teach you what to do. If you start by asking what Rockstar are doing right or how Miyamoto came up with the concept of Super Mario, then you’ll get nowhere for there’s only one Rockstar and one Miyamoto. 

It would be more useful to look at all the gaming studios that went bust in recent years and understand why they’ve exited the gene-pool.

Learning from Telltale’s fall can be more useful for running a studio than the success story of Mojang or Rovio entertainment. Ask yourself what can I learn from the success of Mojang or Rovio? And I mean that in practical terms. My only honest answer is I don’t know but here’s the lesson: negative knowledge is more robust to errors than positive knowledge.

If you think the lesson from Mojang’s success is to make a Minecraft competitor then good luck and we will see you next in the big cemetery of copycats on the app store. 

Those small developers who die in the app store cemetery remind me of soldiers.

We honour the memories of soldiers who died defending their countries and consider them as heroes.

We equally have the same respect for the soldiers who survived, we don’t distinguish between a dead and a living soldier when it comes to who deserves respect.

But for some reason, we fail to apply the same logic to other fields of life and have disdain and disrespect for failures in business. 

A failed businessman is not appreciated enough in society. So to all the indie game studios out there who went bust, we thank you, we appreciate what you did and through Via-Negativa, by learning from your mistakes, hopefully, the next wave of developers will learn something. We owe you a lot. Without your mistakes I don’t think most of our beloved indie games would even exist. So, thank you.

My only advice to indie game developers is to ignore any via-positiva articles on how to go further with their journey. For example, please ignore the unapologetically via-positiva article by Kotaku: “the five rules of a very successful indie game creator”. The article has vague and unhelpful rules such as rule number 5: “be world class”.

It reminds me of something similar in academic journals. Nature and all the known Journals are focused on all the latest polished and successful studies. The same focus is not given to studies that fail or studies that do not reach decisive conclusions. That’s why new online platforms such as researchgate and academia are gaining momentum because they provide researchers with the chance to learn from the mistakes of others. For a scientist, learning what doesn’t work is as important as learning what does.

Now let’s move to Via-Negativa at a game level.

Resident Evil 6 has a very good lesson to teach in Via-Negativa: 

The game was received poorly by fans because it was trying to do things resident evil games do not do.

It was the gaming community who made it clear to Capcom through Via-Negativa what Resident evil is not.

Resident Evil is not an action game,

it’s not a shooting game,

Resident Evil is not a Michael Bay film full of explosions and car chase scenes.

It was gamers who were aware of the Via Negativa aspect here of what resident evil is not.

For many of us, it’s a bit hard to define what makes a resident evil game.

But collectively we are starting to gather a picture of what a resident evil game is.

In Resident Evil 7 capcom eliminated almost everything that Resident Evil 6 had which was not resident evil and gave us a product that is closer to the idea we have in our minds of what a resident evil game is.

Those who played the game said it reminded them of how they felt when they played the original games.

They don’t know what triggered that feeling but this reductionist approach in the seventh instalment in the series can help us to understand this feeling that we cannot put into words.

Without the failure of resident evil six, there would have never been the excellent Resident Evil 7. It was that failure that made Via-negativa clear for Capcom and they learnt what not to do and what to avoid.

I’m sure the lessons learned from the disastrous Fallout 76 will be as important for Bethesda in their future projects as the lessons learned from the success of Skyrim or Fallout 3.

In an industry with such a high mortality rate, Via Negativa is everywhere.

Learning why more than 90% of games on the app store are not selling is more useful to the indie developer than learning about the minority of successful games.

Even here at Gamedenker, me, your host, Elizabeth and my colleague Haitham, focus on learning from our previous mistakes more than anything else. It’s more important for us to know why some youtube channels and podcasts don’t grow, because we think the process of learning from our mistakes and the mistakes of others is much more helpful than to read why Pewdiepi’s channel is the biggest on YouTube. It’s via negativa friends, and we try to practice what we preach.

But how can the concept of via negativa be applied and seen in gameplay mechanics? look at Bloodborne: 

The best players are those who have accumulated a lot of knowledge about previous mistakes. The more mistakes you’ve made in previous rounds of the game the better you’ll become.

The game is designed around making the player learn from his mistakes.

When the player faces a new area and starts to think of the possible ways to progress through it with a via positiva mentality, i.e. trying to know what to do, it doesn’t take that long until the player inevitably dies and only then the via negativa aspect starts to kick in.

In the vast majority of the game’s areas, the player will end up dying multiple times but the knowledge bank of via negativa will expand each time and when you hit the same area again you’ll be in the more robust position of knowing what went wrong in previous rounds.

Just like Michael Angelo who made the statue of David by removing everything that is not David, the player survives in bloodborne by avoiding everything that doesn’t make him survive.

Even the gameplay mechanics themselves revolve around rewarding the player for not making a mistake. If you think you can stay safe by knowing what to do, i.e. using a shield to protect yourself, then bloodborne will punish you for using this via positiva way of thinking. Only by avoiding being hit and learning from your mistakes will you gain health and progress in the game .. like chess players, the good ones know what the right steps are but the masters win by avoiding mistakes.

The same concept is adapted to the simple but beautiful game Dead Cells and almost twenty years ago Crash Bandicoot used similar mechanics; making players better at the game by learning from mistakes.

You don’t have to be a religious person to see value in the teachings that approach God through Via-Negativa and teach people how to live by knowing what not to do. The fact that this approach appears in different places and different cultures throughout history should be enough to persuade us that there is value in Via-Negativa.

As players, developers and even as human beings we should embrace our imperfections, learn from them and make imperfection our compass in the direction of perfection. 

Religions know this very well, all of them share a central idea of humanity’s imperfection. Only by accepting this fact we will be able to progress both in life and in bloodborne. I’m sure that each one of us deep in his or her heart of hearts knows how imperfect he or she is because we never say aloud the things that we say in our prayers.