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July 2015

Player Practices

Player Practices was one half of a special double serial in four parts running here at for the tin anniversary (celebrating ten years of my blogging). It ran in parallel with another serial, Foucault’s Archaeology, at Only a Game, from June 10th to July 1st 2015. Both serials were based upon the work of Michel Foucault whilst also touching upon themes from the first ten years of my blogs, particularly the work of Roger Caillois that formed the first blog serial I wrote.

The serial at Only a Game focussed upon Foucault’s ‘archaeological’ methods for analysing discourse, while the parallel serial here applied these methods to games and play. Each of the parts ends with a link to the next one, so to read the entire serial, simply click on the first link below, and then follow the "next" links to read on.

Here are the four parts of Player Practices:

  1. Game Paradigms
  2. Caillois’ Paradigms of Play
  3. The Three Discourses on Games
  4. The Liberation of Games

And here are the corresponding four parts of Foucault’s Archaeology:

  1. Paradigm and Episteme
  2. Discourse
  3. Contradictions
  4. Thresholds

Thanks to everyone who has spoken to me on, or about, my blogs over the last ten years, and if you enjoyed these serials, please leave a comment. Thank you!

Player Practices (4): The Liberation of Games

Despite the prevailing trends in games over the previous century producing a massive diversification of player practices, the discourses on games identified last week have insisted on asserting the artificial unity of the videogame or digital game, as opposed to ‘analogue’ games. This point needs drawing out in terms of the concept of player practices defined in terms of game paradigms (from the first part of this serial, and expanded in the second part, showing the character of these player practices in the mid-twentieth century). In so doing, I hope to make an argument that our very concept of ‘game’ is in urgent need of being liberating.

To begin with, it is useful to revisit the contradiction between ludology and narratology within game studies, as discussed last week. The final part of Foucault’s Archaeology discusses the thresholds that a discursive practice may or might not cross, passing into being an autonomous discursive formation at the beginning, through to becoming a knowledge practice, and perhaps a law-governed scientific practice, or even a formal practice. Yet despite the invocation of the suffix ‘-ology’, the hallmark of the sciences, neither narratology nor ludology have much prospect of crossing the threshold into scientificity as Foucault uses the term, which is not to say that these fields do not possess knowledge. It is to recognise that unlike atoms, plants, photons, animals, chemical compounds, electro-magnetism and gravity, games were never an isolatable object of study, and cannot be made to reliably speak for themselves.

In the discourse of game design, from which the other game discourses emerge, the idea of games as a self-contained system is established by the notion of the rules – the explicit object of discussion in game design. Whether we are talking about a boxed board game, an arcade cabinet, or a downloadable videogame, the ideal game implied by the stated rules is something that game design can and will talk about, but this discussion will tend to ignore actual played experiences. In the guise of ludology, a certain line of thought in game studies dogmatised this position in order to be able to talk about games as systems and not have to be weighed down with the messy problems entailed in the actual diversity of player practices and their associated events. Against this, game criticism swings to the furthest possible extreme, taking a single player’s events and experiences with a game and making those the object of discussion.

It may seem odd, given the apparent gap between these two positions, that I am suggesting they are part of the same discursive formation. Surely, even if game criticism emerges out of game studies, it has crossed Foucault’s threshold of positivity and become a new discursive practice? The question we have to ask is whether game studies and game criticism can make contradictory statements about the same object, or can mark out entirely different objects – and in this regard, it is fairly clear that neither situation applies. While the critic may allow a greater role for the player, and the ludologist may treat the game system as the dominant factor, both are talking about videogames and their players in the same general way, a manner conditioned by the design practices of the videogame industry, and thus also of the player practices it sustains.

The misleading factor here is that ludology is not game studies, but only a single thread within it – one that tends to give voice to the most dogmatically bullish positions. There are many alternative approaches within the field that are far closer in form to the practices of criticism. As a point of comparison, it is worth noting that a great many of the points raised by Brendan Keogh in Across Worlds and Bodies are identical to those I had made the same year in Fiction Denial and the Liberation of Games, a paper that is clearly part of the discourse of game studies. Our principle disagreement is that I do not accept the unification implied by the concept of ‘videogame’ – and here, it is me (not Brendan) who is breaking with the practices of game studies. Rather than game studies and game criticism being different discursive practices, they are more akin to different approaches within the same discursive formation – much like the intrinsic contradictions between systematic and methodical methods in Natural History.

The contradictory unity between the two more recent discourses on games are part of a single discursive formation for a simple reason: they both take as their exemplars, their genus of study, those games that are produced by multinational media corporations with gigantic development budgets. The AAA console game and its PC brothers (for they are surely not sisters) are the shared obsession between the vast majority of the both critics and scholars of games. Game design, on the other hand, is less affected by these big budget products because the rules of these games are not a great source of variation: they service player practices with the broadest possible appeal, which by necessity are constrained in terms of innovation (the FPS in particular is nearly as static as a sport at this point in time). Hence game designer’s love affair with ‘indie’ games – or rather, with the highly systemic game designs that cannot possess broad appeal precisely because their idiosyncratic designs are perfectly suited to an in-depth discussion in terms of rules.

I will not suggest that thinking in terms of player practices has the capacity to create a new discursive formation: this approach does not define entirely new objects or create new contradictions, it is only a divergent perspective that brings out different intuitions about games and their players. Anything I could say in terms of player practices can be translated into rules (for game design) or understood as systems (for ludology) or narratives (for narratology) or instantiated into individual cases (for game criticism). But thinking in terms of player practices emphasises the way that the design practices of, say, open world games descend directly from the player practices of tabletop role-playing games; the way the the design practice of ‘three lives’ in games descends from the player practices of the fairground sideshow with its ‘three tries’; the way console controller design practices descend from the player practices of pinball and electro-mechanical games; the way giant commercial FPS design practices descend from the player practices entailed in watching giant commercial action movies.

In this regard, I side with Keogh in recognising that as well as the lineage of games, the myriad entities artificially collected under the umbrella of ‘videogames’ share lineages with literature, theatre, film, and music. But I break with Keogh, with game criticism, game studies, and game design for that matter, in suggesting that we can’t keep imagining ‘videogame’ is an unproblematic generalisation that defines a defensible border. Many of us now understand this issue when it comes to abstractions like gender, which required a movement of liberation to shift prevailing dogmas. But everyone could benefit from seeing how this kind of critique of generalities applies in an even more staggering degree to play. The games we are playing with media these days will not sit quietly in the boxes we make for them. We urgently need a liberation of games to remind us that the diversity of games, of players, and of their practices, was never bound by the rules of discourse we imposed upon them.

Thank you for reading! More nonsense soon.