Its very name conjures up ideas of freedom and reckless abandon, yet how we play is never without limitations or methods – it is always conditioned by the circumstances within which it occurs. Even the other mammals recognise boundaries to their play, violations that will change the play of (say) two dogs from excited, friendly roughhousing into hostile snarling and bared teeth. But how can it be, if play is at root unshackled by the specifics of rules and systems, that play is never entirely free?
This four part serial runs in parallel to Foucault’s Archaeology, over on my original blog, Only a Game, to celebrate its ten year anniversary this July. Each of the four parts of Player Practices is linked to the corresponding part of the other serial, although it should be possible to follow this one on its own provided you’re not too concerned about the roots of the methods I am building upon. The purpose of this particular set of posts is to demonstrate how we can understand all play – whether with videogames, movies, boardgames, novels, RPGs, dogs, dice, or just our imagination – as player practices that form lineages of connectivity that thread together very different genres and media. Further, that these practices are linked to the discourses about play, such that even when the forms of discussion seem very different, they are still interconnected.
In the first part of Foucault’s Archaeology, I look at how the French philosopher-historian Michel Foucault overlaps the work of the US historian-philosopher Thomas Kuhn, who suggested that the sciences undergo periodic transformations he termed paradigm shifts. Kuhn’s paradigm (and Foucault’s historical a priori) specifies the conditions of knowledge within any given scientific discipline – and the equivalent concept in Foucault’s work specifies conditions of knowledge in any human field that can be understood as a network of related statements. He further argues that all knowledge can be understood in this way, and even leaves open the possibility that his methods could be applied to more disparate fields, such as artworks. Foucault clearly recognises the peculiarity of taking a technique originating in the analysis of discourse and applying it to the skills of, say, an artist:
In analysing a painting, one can reconstitute the latent discourse of the painter; one can try to recapture the murmur of his intentions, which are not transcribed into words, but into lines, surfaces, and colours; one can try to uncover the implicit philosophy that is supposed to form his view of the world... Archaeological analysis... would not set out to show that the painting is a certain way of ‘meaning’ or ‘saying’ that is peculiar in that it dispenses with words. It would try to show that, at least in one of its dimensions, it is discursive practice that is embodied in techniques and effects. In this sense, the painting is not a pure vision that must then be transcribed into the materiality of space; nor is it a naked gesture whose silent and eternally empty meanings must be freed from subsequent interpretations. It is shot through – and independently of scientific knowledge and philosophical themes – with the positivity of a knowledge.
What I am attempting in this serial is to pick up the possibilities that Foucault suggests could describe artworks and apply the same argument to games and play. Partly, this is because I have been able to defend the claim (in Imaginary Games and elsewhere) that games can never be excluded from the category of art, but partly it’s because play and games entail knowledge of various different kinds, and anywhere there is knowledge it is possible to apply Foucault’s method. This is a key point: it is the reason that game design is a viable discipline, but it is also important to recognise that the potential knowledge about play is in no way exhausted by game design – as game studies revealed, and as game criticism reveals again.
We have indeed witnessed, in the last fifty years or so, paradigm shifts (to use Kuhn's term, since it is more elegant than Foucault's) in the discourses surrounding games, a point that I will pick up and explore more closely in two weeks time. The possible knowledge we can have about games and play is nearly inexhaustible, and certainly capable of sustaining multiple discourses. But if this were all I wished to discuss, this serial would not significantly go beyond Foucault, who already explained how his ‘discursive formations’ describe any domain of knowledge. But just as he also suggests that painting et al can also be understand as a kind of discourse (or, better, a kind of knowledge) so it is with games and play themselves – quite apart from any discussions about it! But what, it is reasonable to ask at this point, what would a game paradigm be?
The answer, I suggest, has already been brilliantly traced by the work of another French intellectual, Roger Caillois, who is considered one of the founding voices clearing the path for game studies. I’ve already shown (in Beyond Game Design) how Caillios’ patterns of play can be seen as prescient observation of neurobiological patterns at a sociological level. But Caillois’ four patterns, which he stresses are not to be taken as either a taxonomy nor as exhaustive, also indicate four dominant game paradigms at the time he was writing – four networks of player practices, constraining both particular kinds of play, and the discourses that surround those forms of play. Examining these will suggest the validity of the idea of a game paradigm, and thus a shift between one way of playing and another.
Next week: Caillois' Patterns of Play