Book Forum: C. Thi Nguyen; Games: Agency as Art

Welcome to the book forum for Thi Nguyen’s Games: Agency as Art! Below is a brief introduction to the book from Nguyen himself. Just a reminder: you do not need to have read the book to participate in the discussion. Feel free to ask about any aspect of the book or discussion below.

 

 

Games are a distinctive form of art — and very different from many traditional arts. Games work in the medium of agency. Game designers don’t just tell stories or create environments. They tell us what our abilities will be in the game. They set our motivations, by setting the scoring system and specifying the win-conditions. Game designers sculpt temporary agencies for us to occupy. And when we play games, we adopt these designed agencies, submerging ourselves in them, and taking on their specified ends for a while.

Games constitute a library of agencies — and by exploring them, we can learn new ways to inhabit our own agency. When we play games, we engage in a special form of agential fluidity. We can absorb ourselves temporarily in alternate, constructed agencies. Games make use of that capacity to record different practical mindsets. Games turn out to be our technology for communicating forms of agency.

 The book’s analysis begins with Bernard Suits’ proposal that to play a game is to voluntarily take on unnecessary obstacles. For Suits, the essence of game-playing lies in a curious relationship between means and ends. The end we pursue in a game isn’t usually valuable in itself. Passing the ball through the basket has little value on its own; otherwise we would just take a ladder to an empty court and have at it. A game-goal is valuable when it is achieved within certain specified constraints. Baskets are valuable when we make them while obeying the dribbling constraint and facing opponents.

Suits’ analysis suggests that there are different motivational approaches available to game players:

Achievement play: Trying to win for the value of winning (or the value of what follows from winning, like money)

Striving play: Trying to win for the value of the struggle (or what follows from the struggle, like fitness)

Achievement play is motivationally straightforward. An achievement player tries to win because winning is valuable to them. But a striving player doesn’t value winning in any sort of enduring way. They get themselves to care temporarily about winning in order to be absorbed in the struggle. Striving play, then, involves a curious motivational inversion. In ordinary practical life, we choose the means for the sake of the end. In striving play, we choose the end for the sake of the means that it forces is through.

Some doubt that striving play exists. But consider what we might call “stupid games”. A stupid game is one where:

  1. The fun part is failing
  2. But you have to try to succeed in order to have fun.

Stupid games include Twister, Telephone, and many drinking games. In Twister, the funny part is when you fall. But it isn’t funny if you fell on purpose. Falling is only funny as a genuine failure, and it’s a genuine failure only if you were really trying to succeed.

Stupid games demonstrate the possibility of striving play. What we really want is comic failure, but in order to get it, we must submerge ourselves in the struggle to succeed. But it isn’t success what we really care about. Striving play shows that our local goals and our larger purposes can diverge sharply. Once we have cottoned on, we can see that the motivational structure of striving play is commonplace. In so much game-play, our larger purpose is to have fun, but having fun requires a temporary dedication to the win.

Games are often misunderstood by scholars. It is easy to look at these artificial game goals — crossing the finish line, accumulating green tokens — and see no value in them. It is tempting, then, to declare the game worthless. But to see the value of striving play, we should look, not forward, to the goal of the game and what follows from it, but backwards, to the activity of pursuit. The goals of games are often valuable in virtue of the activity that they shape and inspire. (And games are not the only striving activity. Art appreciation is best understood as a striving activity — one where we pursue correct judgments about art for the sake of the delightful struggle to understand.)

Game-playing demonstrates our capacity for agential fluidity. When we haul out a new board game, we read the rules to find out what we are supposed to care about: competing or cooperating; accumulating money or gaining experience points; collecting resources or killing other players. And to get the most out of the game, we must bring ourselves to care as the rules direct.

Striving play shows that we can take on disposable ends. We can take on temporary ends for instrumental reasons – but also make them appear under the guise of finality. We must be able to submerge ourselves in this alternate agency, to put our larger agency out of mind. Imagine a striving player who could only pursue game goals in a transparently instrumental fashion. They could never be wholehearted in their play. Since they pursued the win transparently for the sake of the struggle, it would be entirely reasonable for them to throw the game whenever they were about to win, in order to prolong the struggle. But this makes it impossible to have the total instrumental absorption that so many players desire. The phenomenology of game play shows that we have the ability to submerge ourselves in alternate agencies. We can put our larger interest in a pleasurable struggle out of mind for a while, and devote ourselves to the goal of winning.

So: game designers sculpt a form of agency and embed it in a game. And players submerge themselves in that sculpted agency. Games, then, turn out to be our technology for recording and communicating forms of agency. They comprise our library of agencies. And, just as libraries of conventional texts let us explore others’ ideas, narratives, and emotional perspectives, games let us explore different modes of agency. Chess focuses us on analytic, rigorous, calculational thinking; Diplomacy focuses us on a Machiavellian style of deceit; Tetris focuses us on geometrical rotational manipulations. By playing a variety of games, we learn new modes of practicality. Games can help us become more free by teaching us new ways to inhabit our own agency.

It might seem paradoxical that such rigidly specified forms of agency could help us to become more free — especially when those agencies have been designed by another. Game-playing might start to look suspiciously like subservience. But those rigid specifications are actually the means of transmitting a sculpted agency. This is how we communicate agencies. We temporarily inhabit those rigid forms in order to learn what there is to be learned. And games are not alone here. Think of how yoga works. Yoga forces us out of our physical habits by clearly specifying novel postures. Left to our own devices, we tend to fall into habit. The strict directions involved with yoga are a technique for surmounting these habits — to help us find our way into an unfamiliar postures. Games do the same, but for practical mindsets. Games are yoga for our agency.

Games can also sculpt social relationships. By specifying agencies for individual players, multiplayer games can specify practical relationships between players, and so create new patterns of socialization. Scholars often treat games as a special kind of fiction, or a new type of cinema. But games are more distinctive than that. Games are manipulations of rules and constraints and affordances. Their closest relatives are not fictions, but legal structures and urban planning. Games are art-governments.

So what is the artistic value of games? Games are particularly good at fostering the aesthetics of action, at bringing out the beauty and grace in our actions, choices, and movements. (And comic clumsiness, too.) Non-game life offers us the occasional glimpse of beauty in our own action. We react to a falling box with a thrillingly graceful dodge; we figure out the answer to the philosophy problem that’s plaguing us with a glorious, epiphanic twist of the mind. These are moments of practical harmony, where our actions and abilities find some lovely fit with the practical demands of the world. But such harmonies are rare in the wild. The world is often too much for us, and our actions often clumsy or futile. Or the world forces us into to repeat easy actions to the point of grinding boredom. But games give us ready access to the aesthetics of action. The game designer can concentrate these practical harmonies, because they control over both ends of the equation: both in-game agent and game-world. In games, our agency and our world can be engineered to fit.

It’s easy to misunderstand games if we try to assimilate them to more familiar arts. Most well-theorized arts are object arts. The artist creates an artifact, and we admire the aesthetic qualities of that artifact. But games are a process art. In the process arts, the stable artifact is not the primary focus of aesthetic appreciation. Instead, the artifact calls forth actions from its audience, and the audience is meant to appreciate the aesthetic qualities of their own actions. If we focus on appreciating the game itself, as if it were a painting or novel, then we will miss the most important part. The beauty of games isn’t in the stable artifact of the game itself; it is in the beautiful actions the game instigates in its players.

Perhaps the most potent and seductive pleasure of games lies in their value clarity. In normal life, our values are usually complex and conflicting. Their nature can be subtle, their application obscure. But in games, for once in our lives, we know exactly what we are doing and exactly how well we have done it. After all, there are points. What’s more, all the other agents in the game are typically acting for exactly the same reasons — so the values of the in-game social world are perfectly comprehensible and coherent. Games offer us an existential balm, a relief from the value-confusion of our ordinary lives.

A serious danger of games, then, is that they might encourage players to export an expectation for such clarity into the rest of their lives — to expect obvious values and crisply quantified successes. Such people would then be attracted to systems, professions, and institutions that offered the appearance of systematic and clear value systems – like, say, finance, or quantified learning outcomes. And they might permit themselves to be dangerously wholehearted in their pursuit of those crisped-up values. After all, in games, we are permitted to treat everything as an instrument in our all-consuming pursuit of success. Don’t worry about games creating serial killers; worry about them creating Wall Street bankers.

Understanding the value of games also helps us to see more clearly the dangers of gamification. In gamification, we add game-like elements, like scoring and levelling up, into ordinary activity in order to make things less boring and more fun. But what works so well in games proper may wreak havoc on ordinary life. Games offer heightened experiences of meaningfulness and success precisely because they employ artificially narrowed goals. In striving games, this isn’t especially worrisome, because we are only narrowing our temporary, disposable ends. But when we gamify real-world activities like work, education, and communication, we tempt oursleves to narrow our enduring ends.

I call this larger phenomenon value capture. Value capture occurs when:

  1. Our natural values are rich and subtle.
  2. We are placed into a social or institutional setting which presents to us simplified – often quantified — versions of those values.
  3. The simplified versions take over in our motivation.

Examples include: wearing a FitBit to improve your health, and coming to just care about maximizing your step-counts. Going to school for the sake of education, and starting to care mostly about your GPA. Going to philosophy graduate school for the love of wisdom, and coming out fixated on your citation rates and the status of your publications on some ranked list. Or, perhaps most dangerously of all: going onto Twitter for the sake of communication and connection – and then becoming obsessed with your Retweets and Follower counts.

The account of games helps to explain the motivational stickiness of numbers. Our natural values are rich, but they are often hard to express. The sharp, explicit format of retweet numbers, citation rates and ranked lists have a competitive advantage in our justifications. If we adopt these simplified values, we will be granted a delicious hedonic reward. Our efforts will gain the clarity and the thrill of a game. All we have to do is peg our values to a simple metric. But that metric has been made by someone else — according to their interests, and not ours.

One scant hope: the aesthetic stance towards game-playing might offer a bit of protection against value capture. When we play a game, we absorb ourselves in the instrumental pursuit of clear, explicit ends. But when we evaluate our experiences aesthetically, we step back and reflect on the whole activity in subtler, more sensitive terms. That encourages us to practice fluidity in our agency — a certain light-footedness with our cares. It encourages us to play around, a little bit, with our values and selves.

20 Replies to “Book Forum: C. Thi Nguyen; Games: Agency as Art

  1. Hey, Thi,
    When I teach aesthetics, I always get a couple gamer kids of the “I watch twitch streams and e sports every day” variety who gravitate towards thinking about art primarily in terms of games. I’ve been having them read your stuff as a supplement to engage with in their papers. The question that this has naturally led to is how your theory can be adapted to help explain the value of game spectatorship. I would like to invite any commentary you have on this topic, and also to ask a more direct question: your theory might seem to predict that the best games to play (given the sorts of values that you think accrue through gaming) and the best games to watch other people play will tend to come apart. You talk about this in your rock climbing piece: the most engaging climbing problems are often so subtle that the complexity of coping with them can’t be seen externally. But I wonder if the better thing to say is that the question of the spectatorship value of a game and the play value of a game are just totally orthogonal and contingent on how transparently the gameplay externalizes the interesting elements of the game. So, for instance, we learned from the Olympics trends that curling is pretty readily engaging to watch even for people who just learned the rules and never played the game, and this doesn’t seem to reveal a lack of subtlety and nuance in the game.

  2. Hi Matt! Thanks for the question, and it’s a great and deep one. I think your suggestion is pretty much on the right track, so let me expand on it a bit.

    I think there are a few different intersecting issues and dimensions here that I’m still thinking through. First is there’s a question of the relationship of what the spectator is appreciating vs. what the player is appreciating. Let me oversimplify a bit and divide things into artificially clean cases.

    In some cases, there’s a big gap between the target of the player and spectator’s appreciation. The player is appreciating the aesthetic qualities of their own action and the spectator is mostly appreciating a distinct product of that action. So maybe table-top roleplaying game podcasts are like this. The role-players are really invested in the sense of their own creativity, decision-making, in creating the story. And some of the audience just is really into the emergent story. (Obviously this gets muddled – since role-players are also appreciating the story, too, and a lot of the audience have some sense of appreciation for the improv creativity. But you can at least imagine that there are some listeners that are just listening for the story.)

    There’s still a deep relationship between the aesthetic quality of the activity of creation, and the aesthetic quality of the created thing. Like, when I come up with a clever awesome story element in role-playing, the aesthetic quality of the story element is part of the reason I feel so clever. But the appreciation of my own inner cleverness and invention is really different from the appreciation of its product. And they can come apart – I can feel incredibly clever for making up this tiny patch to the narrative that will make the story well, that is invisible to the audience. Or I can perform what feels to me like a boring, humdrum bit of storytelling creation, because I know it’s needed here, and that can result in an excellent and enjoyable story.

    In other cases, there’s a much smaller gap. In a lot of sports, the player is appreciating a sense of their gracefulness in action, and the spectator is also appreciating a sense of their gracefulness in the action of the athlete. Now there’s all kinds of complexity, because there’s a lot of variability in the relative accessibility to different parts of the action, and to different sorts of action. A lot of my inner sensation of movement is inaccessible to many outsiders. And some of the moments I make in, say, rock climbing, might be invisible to outsiders, so it’s really hard for them to spectate – like those delicate tiny core/balance movements I was talking about. But others are quite visible – the glory of a big dynamic leaping movement is one where spectator and athlete may come fairly close. So in these kinds of cases it is, as you say, a complex spectrum depending on how transparent and visible the aesthetic action is to the outsiders.

    Add to this one more complexity: Barbara Montero’s point that, say, dancers have, as spectators, special or improved access to the proprioceptive and kinesthetic qualities of dancers on stage, because dancers in the audience can imaginatively mirror what it would feel like on the inside to be dancing.

    As to the using gaming as an analogy to art-appreciation – it’ll depend on your theory of art appreciation. There is, for example, the theory that when the audience appreciates art, they are appreciating the achievement of the artist. If you held a theory like that, you could start thinking that the appreciation of all art was something slightly akin to the spectator’s appreciation of the athlete. But I don’t hold a theory like that…

  3. Thi, in your introduction you discuss the “stickiness of numbers” and present increased expectations regarding value clarity as one of the most ethically troubling consequences of our interactions with games. I agree with you about this concern, but I also wonder if there are other ways in which games might affect our agency.

    On your model, we adopt disposable ends for the purpose of playing games; we are then supposed to simply drop these ends—and their associated modes of agency—once we’re done playing. Should we be worried that some of these ends are, for lack of a better word, more “sticky” than others? Do games alter or adjust our out-of-game agency in ways that are more permanent than we might like?

    To add a concrete example of this: Like you, I’m less concerned about games turning folks into serial killers and more worried about cases where games—and especially certain kinds of online video games—function as agency traps, and convert us into individuals obsessed (even outside the game!) with grinding tedious objectives.

    Admittedly, this is likely an empirical question which you might not be equipped to answer in full. But should we be taking this sort of concern seriously in the ethical evaluation of games?

  4. Hi Anthony, thanks so much for your question! This touches on exactly some of the stuff I’m most concerned about – and which I think needs so much more study.

    We have some decent empirical evidence that most mature players don’t export an interest or affection for violence from inside games to the normal world. Garry Young has a nice survey of the empirical literature here, where he concludes that what seems to be most important for “screening off” game violence from the real world is that the players can tell fiction from reality. So long as a player knows that the violence in Grand Theft Auto is fictional, then they don’t seem to export pro-violent attitudes from the game to the real world – just as an awareness of the fictionality of TV violence seems to protect viewers from exporting pro-violent attitudes.

    BUT: as Jesper Juul pointed out, games are “half-real” – they are mixtures of fiction and fact. Like, when I head-shot another player in a multiplayer shooter, it is fictional that I shot them and killed them. But it is utterly real that I beat the other player at the game, that I scored points, that I outwitted them. So: if an awareness of fictionality is what’s helping prevent leakages and exportation, then we should be much more worried about attitude leakage from the “real” part of games.

    So here’s things I worry about:

    1. In games, we adopt an-consuming instrumental attitude. That is, we take ourselves as having permission to use every game element – including the other players – as means to the end of victory.
    2. In games, we are used to having clearly specified, typically quantified goals – and to devoting ourselves entirely to those goals.

    It’s this stuff where I’m really worried about leakages between game-attitudes and real-world attitudes. In significant part, because these elements aren’t obviously part of the fiction. In games, you really do win, and your win really is helped out by that willingness to use everything else in the game in your all-consuming, unquestioning pursuit of the end. A narrow and tactical devotion to a clearly specified victory condition is of great use, in games.

    These are the areas where we should be most alert to special game attitudes problematically leaking out to the rest of life.

    Whether there are leakage depends on a player’s facility with agential fluidity – and I strongly suspect that agential fluidity is a skill that requires a fair amount of practice. Game-playing is a learned skill, and that skill turns out to be fairly motivationally complicated. There are two easy-to-spot points of failures in agential fluidity. First, some people that don’t seem to get themselves to care about artificial game-goals in the first place. Second, some people that don’t seem to get themselves to stop caring when the game is over. (A lot of so-called “bad sport about losing” behavior comes from the latter kind of non-fluidity, I think.) That’s exactly where I’m hoping we’ll see more empirical research. So much of the empirical research about whether games can influence us I think has been directed at the game violence issue, and so little at these kinds of issues.

    Anyway: a big take-away of the book the idea that games are very potent with respect to agency. I definitely think that a person can learn new practical modes and styles, and expand their agency, through a thoughtful use of games. It would be nuts to allow that games they can influence our agency in those positive ways, but then deny they could influence our agency in any problematic ways.

    Another way to think about it: every medium has things it’s particularly good at. I totally buy Nussbaum’s view that fiction can transmit emotional perspectives. This is why, when we thoughtfully engage with rich fictions, we can become more emotionally sensitive and attuned. But it’s also EXACTLY WHY fiction is also a powerful tool for propaganda, and for transmitting narrowed and hateful emotional perspectives. So if you buy my account, that games work by manipulating agency, and help to communicate forms of agency, then you should expect that games are simply very potent with respect to our agency – and to expect this to be the site of much of their promise and much of their danger.

    So yeah – more empirical research is needed. But I also worry a bit that the usual methods of empirical research may fumble a bit here. One of the reasons why it’s hard to measure, say, the positive effect of a long-term engagement with literature on one’s moral sensitivity is that so much depends on what an individual reader does with literature – how they engage with it, how they reflect, how they uptake and connect with it. It’s not like a pill. The effect of games on agency isn’t some brute and automatic thing. So much is going to depend on what an individual player does with it – whether they step back from an explored agency and try to integrate it into their lives, under the sway of their larger values, or whether they’re going to do something significantly less reflective.

  5. Hi Thi, if you’re aim was to make people want to read your book even more, this definitely succeeded! But I did have some questions about the description of Twister. First, you switch between ‘fun’ and ‘funny’ in your discussion of it in the context of “stupid” games, in a way that seemed potentially problematic. The funny bit of football (soccer, if we must) might be the post-goal celebrations or the overacting by players being tackled to the ground, but that doesn’t seem to have much bearing on issues about the motivational structure of the game, and it might be similar with respect to falling in Twister. But I also don’t really recognise this description of Twister – the fun *and* funny part is primarily the play that comes before the falls, particular when people have to stretch, convolute, and get into awkward positions around other people, and then hold those positions. That’s all compatible with succeeding at the game by being the last one standing. Perhaps telephone is a better example of a “stupid” game, though my own experience is that most games of telephone are really played as games of Rumors, where intentional changes are tacitly encouraged or at least tolerated, so it’s not clear that 2 is really satisfied.

  6. thanks for sharing this thi! i’m so glad you wrote this book and looking forward to reading it.

    I have a few questions if that’s ok:

    one is what games have you personally found to be especially valuable?

    i’d also like to know if you have any thoughts on the tendency for completionism, e.g. do you see it as compatible or in tension with striving play?

    and finally do you say anything in the book (or have you considered) the connection between the problem of exporting an expectation of clarity, and PUA’s? that’s a connection i’ve heard others make and it makes some intuitive sense to me, but it also sounds close to the widely debunked worry that video games lead to violence.

    thanks again for sharing this excellent summary!

  7. I love sports, but I hate games (except for those that involve table talk…). I draw the distinction between sport and games as follows: embodiment is essential to a sport, whereas a mere game can retain its identity independent of embodiment (e.g., online vs. board versions).

    Framing games as the art of agency provokes the following thought to justify my preference for sports: mere games don’t successfully craft agency, because of their lack of embodiment–there is no agency without embodiment?

  8. Hi Aidan, thanks for your question. And I’m glad the precis was appetizing – I do feel like I’ve been in a long, multi-year fight to get people to take the topic seriously as philosophy.

    On to your wonderful, sharp question. Yes, I entirely see the worry about sliding from “fun” to “funny”. As a matter of fact, I think the Telephone example is a clearer example of the phenomenon, for exactly the reason you give. (And I haven’t actually experienced, as you have, many slides from Telephone to Rumors. I actually rather think that a group that always slid that way might be diagnosed as being a bit too afraid to fail, and so unwilling to set themselves up for failure in the full spirit of a stupid game.)

    Actually, an even better example is certain types of drinking games. I’m inspired by this wonderful podcast by Quintin Smith about drinking games. (There’s a transcript here: https://www.shutupandsitdown.com/quinns-favourite-drinking-games/ ). Smith points out that many American and Canadian drinking games, like beer pong, glorify the winner. But European drinking games often glorify the loser. The games are often something like this: you have to name a new kind of candy bar that hasn’t been named before. If you fail, you drink. The point, says Smith, is that at some point you get so flustered that you CAN’T EVEN NAME A CANDY BAR and everybody laughs, including you, at your glorious failure.

    This strikes me now as an even better example, because the process of trying to figure out the candy bar name isn’t interesting or exciting. In fact, it’s so mundane, and that’s much of the point. The whole point is simply the failure and the hilarity that provides. (I now regret cutting my description of this game from the book. It was cut in the Great Downsizing of 40,000 words.)

    I see the difficulty in the Twister example. Actually, I always felt that Telephone was a cleaner example but have found, for reasons I don’t fully understand, that Twister makes the point clearer on a first past to most people. Maybe that’s because it’s more familiar? But maybe there’s something deeper here.

    Maybe it would be useful to compare Twister to other activities of straining to balance: like yoga and rock climbing. Yoga isn’t really animated by its relationship to failure – I think the experience is fairly a pure one of pleasurable balance. Rock climbing is animated by its relationship to failure – it provides the thrill and the sting – but a rock climb in which you never fall is actually a great success, and satisfying. But imagine a Twister in which nobody ever fell, and it just went on and on somehow… The structure of the game seems to lose its dramatic arc. There seems to be a way in which the failure animates the experience of all that balancing, and is the culmination of the activity. But I need to think about that a lot more….

  9. Hi Natalie, and thanks for your wonderful question, and your kind words.

    Completionism is an interesting topic. My first thought is: it’d be easy to immediately assimilate completionism to achievement play, and think of it as just end-product oriented. But I think that’s too quick. I can easily see completionism as a striving-type target. There’s a book on the culture of vinyl collectors, which contains a wonderful interview with a neurobiologist and record collector. She says that she thinks a lot of collectors are self-medicating depressives, and that the process of collecting is just difficult to make success feel real, but just easy enough so you can dependably get some nice successes in a day of vinyl hunting. So it’s a reliable source of little serotonin bursts. (This suggestion, by the way, immediately gave me an explanation for about half of my life.) So I’m pretty amenable to the idea that completionism could be taken up, by some, as a striving-type goal, for the sake of the process of collection. I am not a completionism with computer games, but I do think some people who want to complete every quest are doing so because of the kind of relentless, detail-oriented activity this requires. That’s striving play.

    But I also think that a striving completionism would be subject to a kind of modulation – that is, that it would only be engaged in, in the long-term, if the process were valuable. Other people I think seem driven by a more inflexibly achievement-oriented completionism.

    About Pick Up Artists – that’s such a great question! (PS, let me take this moment to recommend this weirdly fascinating book, “Confessions of a Pick Up Artist Chaser”, by Clarisse Thorn, who is a semi-cult figure feminist ethicist within the BDSM world. She became fascinated with and starting interviewing men from within the PUA world. She actually is sympathetic to some of the initial impulse – for wanting rules for nebulous spaces. [She says that as an autistic person, one of the things she liked about parts of the BDSM world were the precise and clear articulation of rules for consent and negotiation.] And she says that there are actually a few good actors in the PUA world who are trying to help people that want some rule-type guidance for negotiating the world of romance in a successful and ethical way. She says the good PUA trainer’s advice basically turn out to be complex systems that boil down to: “Listen to the other person and try to care about what they care about.” But I assume we’re talking about the much more familiar world of basically evil Pick Up Artists – a la negging. She spends most of the book interviewing the toxic ones, and trying to understand their psychology, and it’s super interesting.)

    Anyway, there seems to be me a clear connection between toxic PUA, and problematic exportations from games. That is: here are some attitudes we adopt in games: 1. Chase this clear, quantified score. 2. Do everything you can to instrumentalist everything in the game-world to hit that score. If you had somebody that problematically exported those attitudes to the world, you should expect them to look for situations that offered those clear scores and enabled that total instrumentalizing approach. And that’s just what toxic PUA looks like to me: competitions by dudes to “get as many digits as possible in one night.” Right down to the need to quantify women by their attractiveness (“A 10!” “Just a 7.”) and compete for the highest scores. (I also worry about the exact same attitude as it shows up with, like, Enron employees doing anything they can to the world to get more points, i.e. $$$. It is unsurprising that the natural location here is: “They’re playing games with other people’s lives.”)

    I do think that the connection between game violence and real-world violence has been debunked, but I suspect that this is specific to the fact that game violence is fictional. I am much more worried about the exportation of these other types of attitudes, because they are not as obviously fictionalized. Points and winning are real. This requires way more empirical research, but this is I think where we should be most worried about the problem of games.

    And for game recommendations! Among my favorite topics to talk about!

    First, for playing: I maintain an occasionally-updated list of boardgames recommendations, ordered by difficulty: https://objectionable.net/2017/12/14/board-games-so-many-recommendations/

    As to what games are most *interesting* and extraordinary as innovations, and valuable as exemplars of game artistry: the newest game I’ve been most impressed with is Cole Wehrle’s Root, which I discuss in the book. It is a clean, elegant rule-set in which the different sides play by totally different rules, for different goals. It is (explicitly) an exploration of Foucault’s discussion of biopower done up with cute woodlands-creature theming. (The designer was a history grad student before he dropped out because his game designs were blowing up.) One side is the Marquise de Cats, who is the bourgeois industrialist who is trying to build an infrastructure of lumber mills and make money and maintain the status quo. Another side is the Woodland Alliance, a bunch of (literally) underground critters fomenting revolution. Another side is the Eyrie, a bunch of old aristocratic warlords who are mobile and want to re-conquer everything with military might. Another side is an arms dealer who makes money by trading with the other sides, and is trying to profit from war and disruption. It’s a brilliant game, and one in which each side has its own distinctive agential angle – and where when you rotate through the sides, you get to see the same conflict from a totally different practical perspective.

    I love the boardgames Imperial for its weird, cynical take on warfare. (It’s WWI, but you play as the shadowy bankers trading stocks in the countries, manipulating the war for profit.) I love the hilarity and information-play of Spyfall, which is a party game about figuring out who your teammates are.

    But maybe the most exciting games to me right now are coming out of the indie tabletop RPG space – Apocalypse World and its variants, and its descendent Blades in the Dark. These are games that rethink role-playing at its roots – where deep collaboration is baked into the rules. These are games that incentivize playing in character and creating interesting drama, rather than killing and shopping a la D&D. These are games that let the players significantly shape the world and the direction of the narrative.

    And Blades in the Dark has the most genius mechanic. You are fantasy con-people/thieves, but you start a con-job in the middle of the job. And when you run into trouble, you spend your “stamina” points to have *flashbacks* where you play out your past preparations for this very moment. It’s genius.

    Blades in the Dark is the descendant of a simpler design, Lady Blackbird, which I also love. Notably, Lady Blackbird is free online, and the actual complete rule-set for play is simply half a page: http://www.onesevendesign.com/ladyblackbird/

  10. Hi Natalia – thanks for your wonderful question, and the kind words.

    First – completionism. I don’t talk about it all in the book, but it’s a really interesting topic. I could easily see the temptation to think: “Completionism is simply a matter of achievement play, because you’re obsessed with obtaining some end-product.” But obsession with the end-product is characteristic of striving play.

    There’s a nice book on the culture of vinyl collectors, which contains an interview with a neurobiologist and record collector. She says that she thinks a lot of record collectors are self-medicating depressives (including herself). Record collecting, she says, is just hard enough that it feels like a real struggle, so a victory is sweet enough to give you that dose of joy and serotonin. But it’s easy enough so that you reliably can get a few little cool finds in a day of vinyl hunting. So the practice is tuned to be just a particular kind of satisfying struggle. So I think many completionists are plausibly understood as striving players – aiming at completionism in order to have the satisfying struggle to complete. (PS this passage by the record-collecting neurobiologist explained to me, like, half of my own obsessions.)

    I’m not a completionism with video games, but I can also see it as, for some, a striving activity – one where the goal of completing every quest and getting every medal leads to a satisfying process of detail-oriented searching and mapping. But I can also see that completionism, for others, manifests itself as strangely inflexible – that you could be trapped in a compulsion to complete things, even though it wasn’t particularly fun or interesting. And, in many cases, that inflexibility seems plausibly to arise out of an achievement-orientation. And in many cases, it seems like a poor way to approach an activity – though that’ll vary a lot depending on the activity.

    On Pick Up Artists: what a lovely question! (PS, let me take a moment to recommend here Clarisse Thorn’s book “Confessions of a Pick Up Artist Chaser”. Thorn is a super-interesting writer and a semi-cult figure – a feminist activist in the BDSM world. She starts the book by admitting that, though she is repelled by much of the PUA world, she also has some sympathy for why a person might be initially drawn to the world. She says that, as an autistic person, she was drawn to BDSM partially because the ethical part of BDSM practice involves making explicit the rules of consent and negotiation, and she needed that explicitness. And PUA often makes the same promise: simple rules to clarify a murky social terrain. Much of the rest of the book is her interviewing and trying to understand various participants in PUA. She is careful to note that there are some parts of PUA that seem less toxic, and actually oriented towards helping confused guys learn something like heuristics for being a successful – and ethical – dater. But most of the book is about the more toxic side, and its psychology… )

    Anyway: it seems quite clear that there’s a strong potential connection between games and PUA. I’m worried about the attitudes that are common to game-play, that might problematically be exported. So two such attitudes are: 1. the idea that the goals are clear and quantifiable. And 2. the idea that we are permitted to instrumentalize everything in the game-world as part of our progress towards those goals. And if you imagined somebody exporting those attitudes, wholesale, out of a game, you could easily imagine them being drawn to PUA. Because PUA often makes dating into a competitive game with clear quantified goals. I.e., “Who can get the most digits at the bar tonight?”. Also the imposition of a quantified scale of attractiveness. (“She’s a 10.” “She’s a 7.” etc.). Some of the pleasures are from converting what is a nebulous and ethically fraught activity into a simple, clean, and totally competitive one. (As in many other cases, exporting game-attitudes outside of the secluded, consensual space in boardgames into the real world leads to evil behavior.)

    The causal connection between in-game violence and real-world violence has been largely discredited. But the psychological mechanism there might be heavily dependent on the fictionality of in-game violence. And I don’t think the competitive, score-oriented aspects of games are necessarily fictional. So there’s a big possibility here: of the problematic exporting of these game-like competitive attitudes, which might make PUA incredibly attractive.

    But this is a space where I think we need a lot more empirical research to really know if and why such attitudes are being exported. And so much of the research has been concentrated on the violence question, but very little on this sort of exportation.

    Finally: valuable games! One of my favorite topics.

    First, I maintain a list of recommend games, organized by difficulty: https://objectionable.net/2017/12/14/board-games-so-many-recommendations/

    One of the most interesting new games for me is Root, by Cole Wehrle. I talk about it a bit in the book. It’s this extremely elegant, extremely playable exploration of a class power-struggle, cast into an adorable woodland critters theming. It’s actually (explicitly) an exploration of themes in Foucaultian biopolitics, in boardgame form? (The designer was once a grad student in history, before he left to devote himself to his game design career.) The players play different factions, which each operate by totally different rules, with totally different goals. The Marquise de Cats is a bourgeois industrialist, who wants to spread their factories across the forest, and wins by maintaining the status quo. The Woodland Alliance are a bunch of (literally) underground critters, who are trying to overthrow the rulers, stage a revolution, which they do by secretly spreading around and gaining the sympathy of the people. The Eyrie are a bunch of old aristocratic warmongers (literally, Warhawks), who fly around and can get a lot of actions, but have to stick to their political dogmas or their social structure falls apart. And the River Traders are arms dealers that want to foment war and profit by selling weapons to the various sides. Each faction offers a totally different angle of agency, and when you play all the sides, you get to see the same conflict from radically different agential perspectives.

    I love the cynicism and strategic intricacy of Imperial, which is a boardgames about WWI where you play the wealthy investors trading stocks in the various countries, controlling the war for profit. I love the hilarity and information manipulation of Spyfall, which is a party game about figuring out who your teammates are.

    But the games I’m most excited about right now are some of the indie tabletop RPGs that are completely rethinking how RPGing works. Games like Apocalypse World, and its descendent, Blades in the Dark. They are re-building the basic structure of RPGing mechanisms, to incentivize playing in character and building drama – rather than to incentivize killing, looting, and shopping, a la D&D. Many of them have come up with utterly ingenious mechanisms for baking in deep collaboration in storytelling, right into the rule-set.

    My favorite new mechanic is in Blades in the Dark. You play fantasy con people and thieves, doing jobs. An adventure will drop you into a job, mid-break in. And then when you run into trouble, you spend your Stamina points to have flashbacks, where you go into the past and role-play out how you prepared for *this very moment*. It’s delicious, and inspires so much wild storytelling.

    Also, Blades in the Dark has its roots in an earlier design by the same author: Lady Blackbird. And Lady Blackbird is available totally free online, and the actual rule-set is only half a page long: http://www.onesevendesign.com/ladyblackbird/

  11. Hi Natalia – thanks for your wonderful question, and the kind words.

    First – completionism. I don’t talk about it all in the book, but it’s a really interesting topic.

    I could easily see the temptation to think: “Completionism is simply a matter of achievement play, because you’re obsessed with obtaining some end-product.” But obsession with the end-product is also a characteristic of striving play.

    There’s a nice book on the culture of vinyl collectors, which contains an interview with a neurobiologist and record collector. She says that she thinks a lot of record collectors are self-medicating depressives (including herself). Record collecting, she says, is just hard enough that it feels like a real struggle, so a victory is sweet enough to give you that dose of joy and serotonin. But it’s easy enough so that you reliably can get a few little cool finds in a day of vinyl hunting. So the practice is tuned to be just a particular kind of satisfying struggle. That definitely looks to me like a practice where many of the completionists are plausibly striving players. (PS this passage by the neurobiologist explained to me, like, half of my obsessions.)

    I’m not a completionism with video games, but I can also see it as, for some, a striving activity – one where the goal of completing every quest and getting every medal leads to a satisfying process of detail-oriented searching and mapping. But striving activities are ones where the selection of goals should be modulated for the sake of a satisfying striving activity. And there are definitely cases of completionism that strike me as unmodulated in that way. And those might be plausibly read as achievement-play cases. And it does seem to me in some cases that the achievement-orientation is inappropriate for certain activities, and leads to a lot of misery…

    On Pick Up Artists: what a lovely question! (PS, let me take a moment to recommend here Clarisse Thorn’s book “Confessions of a Pick Up Artist Chaser”. Thorn is a fascinating writer and semi-cult figure – a feminist activist in the BDSM world. She starts the book by admitting that, though she is repelled by much of the PUA world, she also has some sympathy for why a person might be initially drawn to the world. She says that, as an autistic person, she was drawn to BDSM partially because the ethical part of BDSM practice involves making explicit the rules of consent and negotiation, and she needed that explicitness. And PUA often makes the same promise: simple rules to clarify a murky social terrain. Much of the rest of the book is her interviewing and trying to understand various participants in PUA. She is careful to note that there are some parts of PUA that seem less toxic, and actually oriented towards helping confused guys learn something like heuristics for being a successful – and ethical – dater. But most of the book is about the more toxic side, and its psychology. )

    Anyway: it seems quite clear that there’s a strong potential connection between games and PUA. I’m worried about the attitudes that are common to game-play, that might problematically be exported. So two such attitudes are: 1. the idea that the goals are clear and quantifiable. And 2. the idea that we are permitted to instrumentalize everything in the game-world as part of our progress towards those goals. And if you imagined somebody exporting those attitudes, wholesale, out of a game, you could easily imagine them being drawn to PUA. Because PUA often makes dating into a competitive game with clear quantified goals. I.e., “Who can get the most digits at the bar tonight?”. Also the imposition of a quantified scale of attractiveness. (“She’s a 10.” “She’s a 7.” etc.) PUA takes an activity that is complex and morally fraught, and renders it into a simple, clear game. And, as with many other cases, exporting the gaming attitudes from the consensual, secluded space of games, into the real world, leads to basically evil actions.

    The connection between in-game violence and real-world violence has been discredited. But the psychological mechanism there might be heavily dependent on the fictionality of in-game violence. And I don’t think the competitive, score-oriented aspects of games are necessarily fictional. So there’s a big possibility here: of the problematic exporting of these attitudes. But this is a space where I think we need a lot more empirical research to really know if and why such attitudes are being exported. And so much of the research has been concentrated on the violence question, but very little on this sort of exportation.

    Finally: valuable games! One of my favorite topics.

    First, I maintain a list of recommend games, organized by difficulty: https://objectionable.net/2017/12/14/board-games-so-many-recommendations/

    One of the most interesting new games for me is Root, by Cole Wehrle. I talk about it a bit in the book. It’s this extremely elegant, extremely playable exploration of… a class power-struggle, cast into an adorable woodland critters theming. It’s actually (explicitly) an exploration of themes in Foucaultian biopolitics, in boardgame form? (The designer was once a grad student in history, before he left to devote himself to his game design career.) The players play different factions, which each operate by totally different rules, with totally different goals. The Marquise de Cats is a bourgeois industrialist, who wants to spread their factories across the forest, and wins by maintaining the status quo. The Woodland Alliance are a bunch of (literally) underground critters, who are trying to overthrow the rulers, stage a revolution, which they do by secretly spreading around and gaining the sympathy of the people. The Eyrie are a bunch of old aristocratic warmongers (literally, Warhawks), who fly around and can get a lot of actions, but have to stick to their political dogmas or their social structure falls apart. And the River Traders are arms dealers that want to foment war and profit by selling weapons to the various sides. Each faction offers a totally different angle of agency, and when you play all the sides, you get to see the same conflict from radically different agential perspectives.

    I love the cynicism and strategic intricacy of Imperial, which is a boardgames about WWI where you play the wealthy investors trading stocks in the various countries, controlling the war for profit. I love the hilarity and information manipulation of Spyfall, which is a party game about figuring out who your teammates are.

    But the games I’m most excited about right now are some of the indie tabletop RPGs that are completely rethinking how RPGing works. Games like Apocalypse World, and its descendent, Blades in the Dark. They are re-building the basic structure of RPGing mechanisms, to incentivize playing in character and building drama – rather than to incentivize killing, looting, and shopping, a la D&D. Many of them have come up with utterly ingenious mechanisms for baking in deep collaboration in storytelling, right into the rule-set.

    My favorite new mechanic is in Blades in the Dark. You play fantasy con people and thieves, doing jobs. An adventure will drop you into a job, mid-break in. And then when you run into trouble, you spend your Stamina points to have flashbacks, where you go into the past and role-play out how you prepared for *this very moment*. It’s delicious, and inspires so much wild storytelling.

    Also, Blades in the Dark has its roots in an earlier design by the same author: Lady Blackbird. And Lady Blackbird is available totally free online, and the actual rule-set is only half a page long: http://www.onesevendesign.com/ladyblackbird/

  12. Ben – fantastic, and extremely provocative question!

    I think I would run the argument something of the opposite way. You want to say: games are the art of agency, there is no agency without embodiment, so non-physical games are somehow poorer games.

    I want to say; the fact that we can get so absorbed in non-physical games shows that there’s potential forms of agency without embodiment. Or rather: maybe in normal life, our usual agency is very embodied. But games are constructed, alternate agencies, which offer us things very different from our full, usual agency.

    One way to think about it: games offer us constructed agencies which, in part, *carve out* some of our usual affordances and agential resources. In soccer, you can’t use your hands. In running, you can’t take a car. They concentrate us in one part of our agency, partially by stripping us away from other parts of our agency. (You learn how much you can do with your feet, in soccer, because you can’t use your hands.)

    I think of a lot of disembodied games as concentrating us entirely on mental forms of agency. (I’m thinking here of intellectual games, like go and chess and poker. I’m not thinking about a lot of physical video games. [Graeme Kirkpatrick thinks that action video games are a dance concentrated in the hands, PS.] I’m also not thinking about virtual worlds and avatars, because there’s a possibility of alternative virtual embodiment here that I, frankly, know nothing about. There’s a whole literature on it.)

    An interesting question is, then: why might somebody prefer only embodied, or only disembodied, games? I myself spent my youth preferring disembodied games, partially because I hated my body – in the sense that I didn’t control it well, and occupied it poorly. Sports I was bad at, reflex-oriented video games too. It was only in games like chess and computer strategy games where I felt like I wasn’t hindered by my crappy body. The older version of me exults in the profound sense of embodiment in rock climbing. In fact, the way in which rock climbing *forced* me to be more familiar with, and at better inhabiting, my body, is part of how I came, basically, to love my own embodiment. (Sorry, is this response too weird for PEA Soup?)

    Anyway, my own diagnosis is: that your preferences have to do more with the parts of your own agency that you prefer to relish aesthetically, than about the nature of agency in general.

  13. One more comment to Natalia on the PUA thread:

    What I said above seems to imply that the road into PUA that I’m suggesting is: 1. play games, 2. export the attitude out, 3. get attracted to PUA.

    That’s not the whole story, by a long shot. The attraction of PUA doesn’t need you to export the attitude from games. It is game-like, in and of itself, and so offers the pleasures of games. If you take up its framing of the activity, then you are involved in what is basically a game, and you get all the joys of clarity, simplicity, progress, clear measures of success, etc. But, obviously, you’re doing it outside the designed, secluded space of games proper, and playing around with other people’s actual lives and feelings.

  14. Hi Thi. My copy of the book is arriving at some point in the next couple of weeks so apologies if you address these questions in it already!

    You mention that scholars often approach games as a form of interactive fiction, but you say that games are also manipulations of rules and constraints and affordances. I have a couple of questions about rules and their relationship to fiction.

    When considering literary fiction, the rules constraining how we read are conventional – we aren’t explicitly told to read from left to right, down the page. It seems that games similarly have conventional rules. Games usually have tutorials or game guides explicitly telling you how to play, but much of how to play certain genres of games is taken for granted. What role do these have in aesthetic evaluation of games? On the one hand, a review of a game by someone knowledgeable about the conventional rules of a genre might be preferable, as they know how to play these kinds of games “best”, yet on the other, a review by someone new to the genre is useful for other new players in a way that the expert’s review is not. Is there anything special about these conventional rules in games, or is the case very much the same as for other arts, e.g. the film columnist vs your friend who’s seen a film already, or the food critic vs the Yelp reviews?

    Furthermore, do rules merely encompass these rules about how to play the game, or are there rules from the fictional content itself? For example, games often have a stamina bar limiting the time you can sprint in a game because the player character is a human and humans can’t sprint forever. Is this a different kind of rule to ‘press x to jump’ or ‘you can’t fast travel during combat’, which are more mechanical, and lack these in-game explanations? And if so, can we then distinguish agency in the fictional world (my character has these capabilities in the fictional world) from the actual agency in the game (I can perform these actions in the game)?

    Apologies for the multiple questions, and thanks for doing this. Looking forward to reading the book soon!

  15. Hi Alex, thanks so much for your questions!

    There’s a chunk in Ch. 6-7 that is moderately related to your question about fiction. Basically, I buy the view that artworks have a partially social ontology. That is, what it is to be a painting involves this physical object being part of a practice with certain norms – like, you are supposed to look at the front, and not the back, and you are supposed to pay attention to the visual aspects, but not the smell – in evaluating the “work”. (You can of course do whatever else you want, but that doesn’t count as evaluations of the particular work that is, say, Van Gogh’s Irises.) I think the same with games – there are certain implicit conventions with many games that make them *the kind of thing they are*, and if you don’t obey those, you’re not interacting with the work. So, like, using the Elder Scrolls Oblivion’s virtual environment to build like a play-house, but not actually trying to win the game, doesn’t count as interacting the work that is Elder Scrolls Oblivion. (Though it is definitely an interaction with the software and the virtual environment that is part of Elder Scrolls Oblivion – just like licking the back of Van Gogh’s Irises is an interaction with the physical substrate of Irises.) An interesting outcome of this is that, say, people speed running Super Mario Brothers aren’t actually playing Super Mario Brothers – they’re playing a different game with the same physical stuff. (kind of like a chess variation.) This is supposed to be elucidating a pretty obvious norm of artistic practice – like, if you’ve only speed-run SMB, you shouldn’t review SMB. (Though you can definitely review the different work, which is “speed running SMB”, or something like that.)

    This actually has some funky normative consequences for me in the game-reviewing space. Like: I think some games are made for parties and are meant to be taken in a spirit of fun, and some games are made for very very serious long-term strategic exploration. And a reviewer that played a party game as if it were a tournament competitive game, or a reviewer that played a heavy strategy game only once, haven’t actually played the game they are reviewing. (PS, because the current world of bloggers/YouTubers reviewing games often involves people regularly reviewing heavy strategy games after one or two plays, a consequence of this view is that *many reviewers have never actually adequately played the games they claim to be reviewing, and their reviews are illegitimate* – just as a review of a book would be illegitimate of you skipped half the chapters. (I totally, 100% believe this, and think that the current review culture of boardgames is actually perverting the entire enterprise in a really screwed up way.)

    I mean, you can definitely play things in a way they weren’t meant to be played, and enjoy it that way and pass that on. But that’s different from interacting with the *work that the artist made*, and I think there’s some value in that too.

    Anyway, there are two chapters of the book that go into this in probably too-exhaustive detail, but it’s really about what’s in the artifact that we call the artwork, and how we stabilize it for passing around certain experiences.

    On the second question: there’s a neat concept in Game Studies called “ludonarrative dissonance”, which is about whether the fictional rules of the world match up with the rules of the game. Classic example: doors in video games that don’t actually open. This is usually considered an aesthetic flaw, though Jesper Juul has an interesting criticism of that, in “Half-Real.” But yeah: there’s lots of examples where the agency implied by the fiction comes apart from the agency set by the rules. One of the reasons I’m so interested in a lot of indie RPGs is that I think such ludonarrative dissonance is a major feature of D&D that I dislike, and a lot of new-wave RPGs try to re-align them. What I mean is: in a lot of D&D, you may specify a fictional motivation like “bring peace to the world”, but the game still basically just rewards you with points for killing stuff. A lot of the new wave stuff is mechanically innovative exactly in the way that they try to make the game-mechanical agency flexible enough to match up with the emergent fiction agency, as created by the players.

  16. Thanks so much Thi!

    The stuff you mention about reviewing in the wrong way reminds me of a funny phenomenon whereby the new expansion’s set of Hearthstone cards are revealed, yet the new expansion doesn’t actually release until a slightly later date. You then get all of the YouTubers releasing card reviews, going through each card, giving it a grade on how good it is (and maybe how potentially good it will be later when other synergistic cards are released).

    But then, what’s really fun is when, a few weeks after the expansion has actually released, they then make a video titled ‘X reviews X reviews’, in which they review their original review of the cards, and the initial review always turns out to be completely wrong on which the best cards are. And then later, they review their review of the original review, and so on. (An example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QYQNB2XyrS0) It turns out, trying to evaluate cards designed to be played in a metagame without any experience of the metagame that will result from those cards being available is really hard, and arguably completely pointless!

    I think another similar problem to the one you mention occurs with release-date reviews of the modern phenomenon of ‘games as a service’, which inevitably change so quickly that the review and score by [Insert-Game-Reviewing-Site-Here] are outdated and of no use to potential buyers of the game even a month after they were written. The whole idea of a written review at release is just a hopelessly bad fit for these constantly evolving games! It’s interesting to see how various games media are trying to evolve to tackle this problem.

  17. Alex – oh god, I had never heard of that reviewing style of reviewing your reviews, and I think it’s fantastic – like an interesting live new innovation to try to cope with reviewing an art object that is genuinely metaphysically different.

    We’re very used to thinking about reviews in terms of getting at these… discrete, separable objects that you can have finite “adequate encounters” with. You can watch the movie in two hours; you can read the book cover-to-cover. But games get weird. In the book, one of the odder discussion is a dive into the odd ontology of collectible card games, like Magic: the Gathering. CCGs have these evolving metas where there is a set of evolving strategies and decks in current use, and then new releases by the designers directly address the current set of strategies that have emerged from the player communities. What I say is that, in this case, the only full experience of the game is for people that are participating in that live community – participating in the meta, and getting those new releases and struggling to understand them as the meta involves. M:tG is a one-time live evolving thing. Just having some decks at home and playing them in isolation from the community, and not being part of the live community that the the designer’s new updates are addressing, isn’t really an experience of the full thing.

    But this raises the question of how the hell do you review something like that – if it’s live, ongoing, and responsive? And maybe these reviews-of-reviews you’re talking about are a really nice, natural, ground-up solution to that.

    (PS that part of the book is adapted and improved from this paper, which is open access: http://gamestudies.org/1901/articles/nguyen )

    (There’s another argument I cut from the book because I couldn’t get the technical niceties to work, that I now kind of regret cutting: that chess was a deep strategic space that could only be explored by multiple generations of players, so the only audience that could be truly said to be appreciating chess fully was a large, inter-generational community of players…)

  18. Hello Thi! I’m enjoying (though have not yet finished) your book. And there’s a lot in it which relates to my own research, even though I don’t think of myself as working on either aesthetics or games.

    I’m surprised that you never refer directly to game theory (in the economist’s or mathematician’s sense) in your book, and wonder if there is a reason for that. I’m persuaded that you’re correct that games — or Suitsian games, at least — are in the medium of agency. And that what that means in part is that games specify the players’ goals, available actions and the various possible consequences of the actions. I think that’s a very cool and very fruitful idea. But game theory is a highly developed body of theory about how goals, available actions and their consequences relate. Game theory is abstract, and it definitely abstracts away from some things about many (recreational) games that you’re interested in. But I don’t think it does that to the point of being irrelevant.

    How do you think your theory of games relates to game theory?

  19. Hi David, thanks for your question!

    I’ve got a simple answer for you, and then an odder and rantier “disciplines of the norm” answer for you.

    The simple answer is: the book is a study of games in the Suitsian sense, and game theory doesn’t study Suitsian games. Suitsian games are ones where the goals are constituted by the obstacles – that is, where the obstacles are essential to the activity being what it is. And game theory is not: game theory is (from my fairly inexpert understanding) about modeling ideal strategic behavior for a rational agent pursuing *any* goal, be it obstacle-constituted or not. Another way to put it: the interest in this book is about how designers can shape obstacles to produce certain experiences. And there doesn’t seem to be a huge amount in game theory about that idea *at the level of abstraction I was talking about*. Game theory seems to have a lot to say about how a person should maneuver a given strategic space if they want to win. And so the nitty-gritty of the work of the game designer probably has a lot to learn from game theory (and It think is often so informed). But to me, that kind of work seems as far removed from the aesthetic theory of games as, like, the science of color-mixing and materials does from some kind of aesthetic theory of the value of painting. (Though, on second thought, I can imagine a bunch of people saying that there are aesthetic theories of painting that might be deeply concerned with that kind of grit. But it seems reasonable to think that it a first pass theory of painting aesthetics could elide it.) But the basic answer is: the notion of game in “game theory” seems significantly skew to the Suitsian notion of games.

    OK, now for the bigger norm-disciplinary answer. One of the quiet frustrations of doing interdisciplinary work is that, when I’ve done it, I immediately get hit with charges of “but you didn’t consult relevant field X.” This seems common among many interdisciplinary practitioners. BUT: work that’s super-siloed in a traditional field never gets hit with that charge. But once you venture out of the siloed into openly interdisciplinary work, then suddenly people seem willing to pile on with the “what about field X?” question.

    And here’s other relevant stuff that didn’t make its way into the book in any serious way: historical work on the nature of games, psychological work on child-development and play, anthropological work on cultural variation of games, work on the phenomenology of virtual reality, and tons more.

    Basically, I think the “why didn’t you look at relevant literature X” charge is often either (at its worst) gatekeeping, or (more likely) it arises from a specialist in X seeing all sorts of connections, not making adequate concessions to the cognitive limitations of individuals. For every topic, there are more relevant literatures than one human being can handle. In my defense, I think this book does something which I think hasn’t really been done before, which connects conversations that had been largely disconnected between philosophy of sports, aesthetics, and the interdisciplinary field called Game Studies – with an added sprinkle of practical reasoning theory. Researching across those fields took about 7 years of my life. Learning enough game theory to really make a worthwhile connection, instead of just a superficial flyby, would have added a few years more, and I already felt like I had one self-contained nugget that was baked. (And if I’d had more years to spend, I probably would have first spent it on the psychological literature on childhood play.)

    In short, in interdisciplinary work, I often think the charge of “why did you consult relevant field X” is… less useful, because for all topics, there are too many relevant fields X for one human being to consult. I think one bit of work might reasonably be expected to connect two or three fields up, and hopefully make those available, so that folks from other disciplinary backgrounds can make the next connection. So: if somebody who knows a lot of game theory sees lots of interesting new ideas and connections that could be made to somebody with a deep background in game theory, then they should write it! But there is absolutely no way that a book like this can cover all the bases. (If I sound a bit sore here, it’s because the area of games scholarship has become particularly fraught with various kinds of disciplinary gatekeeping. There’s a lot of people from field A accusing people from field B of not having adequately referenced field A, but where field A have never actually read field B or referenced it in their own work. And where both are relevant, but field A seems to have gotten dominance for historical reasons.)

    Anyway, rant over.

    So that’s my probably unsatisfying response. I read a small amount in game theory and didn’t immediately see the relevance, and so went chasing other directions. I probably missed a lot, and, it seems, most likely, didn’t learn enough to see the relevant connections. I welcome further work point out all the useful connections and illuminations that could be made. But I also hope that the work I did do, connecting up a few other fields that have been mostly disconnected, functions as an adequate mea culpa.

  20. Hello again Thi. I tried to post a reply to your response above last night, but I can’t see it now. (Briefly, I think that’s a good answer, and I’m no fan of silos. I certainly wasn’t thinking it was something you should do yourself, or should have done for the book. I’ll try to follow up some time about why I think it could be interesting if someone did it, and how it might help your project, for at least some games, and help show weaknesses of game theory for others.)

    Here’s a different question: As I’ve been reading your book, I’ve had a little selection of games that I’ve sometimes cycled through to look at each of them from the perspective of your argument, or to look at your argument with them in mind. One of them is snakes and ladders, which I think is interesting in several ways. (The others include Chess, Dungeons & Dragons, Solitaire.)

    I think S&L is a prima facie Suitsian game. Players take on the objective of moving their counter to the last square first, and accept the obstacle of moving along the grid in a certain order, with the benefits and penalties of the ladders and the snakes, and the constraint that the size of their moves depend on the dice rolls.

    It’s not clear to me, though, that anyone who understands the game can coherently engage in striving play. There is no significant technique or skill to moving, and no role for strategy. When it is your turn, you roll, and then move that many steps, either with or without a snake/ladder at the end. That’s it. You actually have no choices.

    It seems that this applies to achievement play too. You might care about whether you win or not, but you can’t really put effort into trying to win. And it would be strange to be proud of winning.

    Adults, of course, don’t generally play snakes and ladders, except with children. But I’m interested in what it is about for the children.

    Maybe the children falsely believe that they are striving, or have some kind of false belief that makes wins seem like achievements?

    I’m not tempted by either of those false belief thoughts. I think that one thing to say about snakes and ladders is that it is an instance of a kind of intermediate game, that helps teach turn-taking, randomizing, some conditional rules. By playing games like that, children acquire some cognitive skills and routines (they develop their agency) that can be used in other areas including other more demanding games. (‘Tag’ is like that – there’s a kind of turn-taking and simple rules about who is ‘on’. Mastering that prepares you to take on more demanding games.)

    But S&L is still fun for children (at least for a while). And I’m reluctant to say that it isn’t a genuine game for them too. If snakes and ladders isn’t fun for children because of striving or achievement, and it is a game, then what is going on? Where’s the aesthetic or rewarding aspect?

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