Gamification risks stultification because the game developer (or behavioural engineer) is specifying what is being learned, and there is no engagement of the will of the player (or employee). Submission is the inevitable outcome of this failure to create a common vision. What’s more, through mandatory achievements and scoring systems like Xbox’s Gamerscore we have witnessed the gamification of games... an emphasis on cyber-submission over the more engaging alternatives. This state of affairs is now endemic in software design: what is Twitter and Facebook’s Follow counters if not an invitation to judge quantity over quality?
Over on Psychochild’s Blog, Brian Green has a fantastic four part series exploring the relationship between privacy and anonymity, and arguing against the idea that removing anonymity would address the problem – both because this means giving up privacy, which we value, and because it is not practical to do so. Highly recommended reading for game designers and anyone interested in online abuse and privacy:
- Part 1 looks at the relationship between privacy and anonymity, and the key questions about anonymity.
- Part 2 examines the harms entailed in removing anonymity.
- Part 3 makes the case for the impossibility for enforcing public identity and restricting anonymity.
- Part 4 looks at dealing with the problems of online behaviour, and the changes that might be required.
You can read some brief responses from me over at Only a Game, and I shall respond in full in about two weeks time with a piece entitled Lessons from the MUD. Watch this space!
Delighted to announce that I am on a five State tour of the US this April, with four speaking engagements open to the public. I shall be presenting at four university campuses in Indiana, Texas, California, and Utah with an hour long presentation on The Meaning of Play. Most of the venues are open to the general public, so even if you're not a student at the universities in question you'd be more than welcome to come along.
My topic for this tour is The Meaning of Play, an imaginative voyage through five hundred million years of play, using the latest empirical and philosophical research to trace the aesthetic motives that inspire beings to pursue play, and the lineages connecting the different kinds of play that these motives brought about. The journey will look at the aesthetic motives of the first multi-cellular life forms back in the Cambrian, how early wolves created new meanings for play a million years ago, the relationship between games today and games five millennia in the past, and how humans continue to create new and different means to – and meanings of – play.
Here are all the places you can catch me this April. Some details are still being confirmed and will be updated soon, so watch this space!
Tuesday 4th April: Indiana University, Bloomington, IN
Franklin Hall Commons, 1 pm
Open to all
Thursday 6th April: Texas A&M, College Station, TX
Langford B Geren Auditorium, 7:45 pm
Open to all
Sunday 9th April: Laguna College of Art and Design, CA
Studio 5, Big Bend Campus, 2825 Laguna Canyon Rd, 1pm
Open to all
Wednesday 12th April: University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT
EAE Games Studio, Building 72, Level 2, 5 pm
Open to all
With thanks to Erlend Grefsrud for goading me into this title. The opening image is Play by Jan Rasiewicz, which I found here at his site, Rasko Fine Art. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.
Cross-posted from Only a Game.
Games are about choices! Games are about challenge! Games are about avatars! So many banners line the battlefield of games, so many visions of “what games are”. Yet no-one who attempts to boil down games into a simple formula preserves everything that everyone loves about games, and that means games are always far beyond what you think they are.
Conventional thinking about games has crystallised into certain dogmas, sometimes stated, sometimes merely implied, that attempt to control the phenomena of games through the simple means of declaring what they are or are not. We should be suspicious of this, but not (as the academics say) because it is ‘essentialist’ but because we should never confuse our aesthetic values for anything fundamentally necessary – even though, as Kant observed centuries ago, we all desperately want to do this, whether for ‘art’ or for ‘games’.
Whatever you single out as essential to games will necessarily reflect your aesthetic values for play. That is no bad thing – appreciating any of the aesthetic experiences of life is a practice we ought to treasure, because it illuminates a certain joy we take in living, and that is always a precious thing. The problem is, we think our aesthetics can be applied to others. Kant noted that when we find a great artwork, we feel that our judgement should apply to everyone – and thus are often scornful of those who don’t accord with our own judgement. The same is true about games, where our aesthetic judgements are sometimes shored up by all sorts of strange methods, including invoking psychology as a weird source of authority (as if psychologists could somehow show what was really art or really a game...).
Three of my own bugbears about this phenomena will help illustrate my point, starting with the famous Sid Meier misquote that “a game...” (or, as he appears to actually have said, “a good game”) “...is a series of interesting choices.” Who doesn't love an interesting choice, you might ask? Aren’t the best examples of games built around providing meaningful choices? It’s true that evocative choices are one of the ways that games satisfy players, but we ought to be careful about confusing a way games engage players for the way games engage players.
Games are about choices in about the same way that action movies are about weaponry. Yes, firearms are a staple of the genre, but films like Deepwater Horizon or, long before that, The Towering Inferno are still blistering action movies (quite literally in these cases!) without a shot ever being fired. Similarly, games supporting meaningful choices can be great experiences, and can offer many rewarding moments. Yet zero player games like ProgressQuest are still fun, despite offering no choices whatsoever. Along similar lines, many Japanese RPGs craft the play experience so tightly that almost no meaningful choices are offered, yet the genre is still wildly popular, and not just in Japan (indeed, the design of BioWare games have increasingly cross-pollinated the Western and Japanese RPG lineages).
Then there is our relationship to our avatars. Katherine Isbister, whose work I greatly admire, claims we have a deeper bond with our game characters than with characters from other media that are ‘not interactive’, owing to what psychologists have called para-social relationships. Already, a massive assumption has been made here that clouds the water. For my five year old son, the Marvel comics I read to him provide the same interactive capacities as the videogames we play, at least in terms of what happens afterwards, when he is playing games about them. This is not just true for a child’s imagination, though: for many cosplayers, the same expanded scope of interaction applies. (If this feels odd because it looks at play ‘outside the game’, recall that while we are watching a movie our bond to the characters on screen can be immensely strong; the idea of a stronger bond with a videogame avatar is already founded upon thinking outside the game, at the draw of returning to playing.) The games we play with media never quite stay inside the lines we draw for them, and para-social connections are generated by nearly every medium.
Besides, do we really bond with game avatars (or at least, the digital dolls representing them) more than the protagonists of books, films and television shows? Harry Potter or Darth Vader are more beloved than any game character, so it would seem this is not the case. Our attachments to the dolls we play with in videogames feel more intense while the game has us in its grip, but the relationship tails off dramatically afterwards (not to mention that a TV ‘boxed set’ can hold us in its grip just as effectively as a videogame). Note that we never play a game the second time in the same way; we don’t recreate our previous avatars ever, no matter how much we loved them. Conversely, other media characters are eternal – and gain tangibly from it in terms of their appeal. It’s not a coincidence that cosplayers favour Japanese RPG characters, which are closer in form to the older forms of media. The shared point of reference among the wider community makes a huge difference in such matters.
Then there’s the psychological concept of flow, which many people have suggested is central to games, and allegedly keeps us engaged through a tight balance between the level of challenge and our own abilities. Yet this phenomena (while an authentic part of animal psychology) has little to do with the appeal of tabletop RPGs, exploration games, walking sims, nor most boardgames. To understand flow is to appreciate the ways a certain kind of game elicits our intense involvement, but it would be utterly futile to make this a skeleton key for game design. If we consider survival-horror games as just one clear example, it should be clear that remaining within the ‘flow channel’, where our skills match the challenges, is a terrible description of the enjoyment on offer. Most players of these games are avoiding challenge to conserve limited resources, and anxiety in these cases is not a sign that the game has ceased to be fun but the very root of our enjoyment.
Flow was the psychological secret of the arcade, the essence of the intense involvement of the coin op that was initially predicated upon forcing the player to fail against rising levels of challenge. That made a great deal of sense in the commercial situation of that time, where games had to be designed to facilitate coin drops, and so shorter, more intense play experiences were the order of business (at least until the first ‘microtransaction’ games like Gauntlet, which threw away the concept of one coin, one game). But the arcade is only part of the story of videogames, and we should never forget that the medium descends from both coin ops and tabletop role-playing games – and only one of these lineages is about flow. The other is about immersive presence, that capacity to enter another world that is also in no way the hallmark of games, let alone videogames, which did not even originate it!
Whenever you make a box and say “this, this is what games are!” I will show what you excluded and why others love those games just as much. This was the reason I had to disavow ‘games’, to deny myself any capacity to define “what games are” in order to try and understand everything games can be, which is always more than you think. This is the reason that I now argue for a liberation of games, a break from the tradition of trying to lay out definite boundaries for games or, for that matter for art – not to forbid such definitions, but to embrace them all in all their confused glory!
The liberation of games means no one can chisel the agenda for play in stone. Everyone’s aesthetic values have meaning, even those we hate, and there’s nothing to gain from denying this diversity, this wild landscape of play. I revel in this chaos because it is the only honest way to love games: no-one is mistaken in laying out their boundary conditions for what games are, but everyone who thinks they can defend games from a border they have drawn is deeply confused about what they are doing.
This is the ultimate truth about games: nobody owns them, not gamers, nor social justice warriors, nor governments, nor corporations – no-one. Games and art are bigger that any fragment of culture, greater than any definition, and beyond even our species. The liberation of games means accepting everyone’s unique view of games, whether or not we agree with it. This is not easy. But it’s the only way to allow games to truly be everything they can be.
With apologies to the incomparable Gil Scott-Heron.
For those of you who have brought a suitable device to DiGRA-FDG (and for those not able to make the conference), here's my Prezi for No-one Plays Alone:
The timeline in particularly has a lot to offer an errant explorer... go take a look!
Looking for research partners!
I'm always looking for people with similar research interests for possible collaboration on papers, contributions to edited volumes, or possible formation of new sub-disciplines. Please get in touch using the Contact link if your research interests are in any of the following areas:
- Player Practices: my main Game Studies research subject right now, and I'm interested in allying with anyone who broadly agrees with the following statements, regardless of how they choose to describe their research:
"no player can play or design a game in complete isolation from the practices of others"
"an artefactual reading of a game is always an incomplete reading"
"the history of games is the history of the way players engaged with them" or equivalently "emulation is at-best reincarnation"
- Philosophy of Imagination: also interested in anyone applying Walton's make-believe theory (or another theory of representation) to any and all aspects of human life. This was the background to my 'imaginative investigations' i.e. the trilogy Imaginary Games, The Mythology of Evolution, and Chaos Ethics. If your work crosses over anywhere near mine here, I'm interested in talking to you.
- Multiverse/Pluriverse/Ecology of Practices: related to the above, I'd love to hook up with researchers who are pursuing Stengers' ecology of practices, William James' pluriverse/multiverse, or anything similar to my adaptation of Moorcock's multiverse to ethics and politics. If you are working on ways to understand our diversity of being as a manifold of practices or an inclusive set of mythos, please get in touch.
Many thanks to everyone who came to my talk!
Here’s the abstract for the paper I’m presenting for DiGRA/FDG at Abertay University in Scotland in August. The paper is entitled ‘No-one Plays Alone’. Special thanks to Dan Cook for setting this one in motion with me – you are quoted extensively in it!
The discourses around games have tended to focus upon either their artefactual qualities or the phenomenological experience of play. In both cases, games are primarily to be understood singularly. An alternative approach, related to Foucault’s archaeological methods, is to focus upon the manner in which games share player practices with earlier games. This technique can be applied to all eras of games, and is not merely restricted to videogames – indeed, a significant proportion of the player practices of videogames descend directly from the player practices of tabletop games, especially in terms of the progenitive role of tabletop role-playing games for contemporary digital entertainment. Such player practices can be broadly understood in terms of interface (how the player engages with the game), world (what the player imagines is happening), or the agency practices that connect the interface and the world.
Three propositions concerning the relationships between fictional setting and designed rule systems within games are explored, the last of which stresses the idea that ‘no-one plays alone’ i.e. that all play entails continuity of its practices over and above variation of those practices. These propositions are used to demonstrate three aesthetic flaws that are peculiar to, or particularly relevant for, videogames. This in turn leads to a discussion of the ways that commercially successful games have always proceeded by leveraging the existing networks of practice. The result is an alternative perspective for game design, game scholarship, or game critique, one that foregrounds the role of player practices.
Keywords: player practices, aesthetics, play aesthetics, games, fiction, rules, lineages
Player Practices was one half of a special double serial in four parts running here at ihobo.com 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:
And here are the corresponding four parts of Foucault’s Archaeology:
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!
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.
When game studies was asserting itself as a new field in the late 1990s, it did so against a background where the primary discourse surrounding games at the time was not in any significant sense academic. The first discourse on games was pragmatic, and corresponds to what we now call game design, but it began long before this term gained its contemporary sense and content, in the manufacture of board games. This hit its stride in the nineteenth century, as the mass produced boardgame industry took over from the games for the moral instruction of children from the previous centuries. Both these game paradigms are related to the four that Caillois identified (discussed last week), combining elements from all four but belonging to none.
Commercial boardgames were competitive, but except in rare occasions they did not consist in a fair trial between competitors as is the case in Chess and Go/Weiqi. They used chance but in a frivolous manner quite removed from the surrender to fate – indeed, for many centuries they used a spinner known as a teetotum rather than dice in order to create conceptual distance from gambling. They had moments of vertiginous panic (e.g. landing on ‘Go to Jail’ in Monopoly) but only trivially. And they entailed simulation, pretending to represent within the world of the game, but at an extremely crude level.
The discourse of game design (as it would come to be known) did not primarily consist in talking about games, but about a different kind of statement: the rule. Indeed, by encoding their player practices as written rules with the aim of having new players learn those practices from written rules, the discourse of game design created the illusion that the rules were the game itself, rather than simply a formal expression of the practices of their play. Boardgames were the vanguard of this advance, which accelerated in the 1950s and 60s with the Avalon Hill wargames and their imitators, which had far more complex rules than anything previously in wide circulation. This was a significant paradigm shift in both the play (and discourse about) games.
At the same time, fairground entertainments were advancing in complexity and breaking from Caillois’ pattern of vertigo into an entirely new game paradigm. Developing out of bagatelle and other such games of chance (that were not strictly Caillois’ games of fate), pinball and pachinko – like boardgames – combined elements of the classical player practices to create a new game paradigm very different to what came before. These led directly to the electro-mechanical arcade games, for which Sega was a major creator, and thus to the videogame, which initially produced largely inferior electronic versions of what had been done mechanically in the preceding decade. There are numerous examples: the player practices of Midway's Sea Wolf from 1976 are directly inherited from Sega's electro-mechanical cabinet Periscope (pictured above), which was released exactly a decade earlier in 1966. The rise of diverse arcade cabinets in the 1960s represents another game paradigm shift, one that the digital arcade simply picked up, rather than initiated.
The third part of Foucault’s Archaeology explains that distinctions between discursive formations depend upon identifying contradictions, some of which are intrinsic – like the contradiction between rule-play and role-play that characterises the RPG game paradigm and its player practices (discussed at length in The Essence of RPGs). However, some are extrinsic and mark separation between one paradigm and another, like the contradiction between the rule-specification of the boardgame paradigm, and the experiential design of a pinball table. Indeed, in terms of discourse, what characterised the arcade game paradigm (which extends decades earlier than the videogame) was a general inability to talk about the design simply as a set of rules.
From pinball onwards, the rules were only a small part of the experience, which was sensory in ways that spanned tactile, audio, and visual. Designers of such games learned from playing each other’s games more than they learned by exchange of written rules, as the tabletop lineage did, especially with the advent of role-playing games in the 1970s. Thus by the 1980s we have, in addition to the four classical game paradigms that Caillois identified, an increasing number of additional paradigms in the cross-bred space between them (as indeed Caillois discussed and critiqued).
The second discourse on games arrives in the late 1990s, calling itself game studies. I suspect it would have called itself ‘game theory’ if economics had not already claimed that term for the mathematics of competition. It is marked, from the very beginning, by the need to distinguish itself from pre-existing discourses – and in particular to make a break from narratology and media studies, which were just starting to take an interest in videogames as they became more overtly narrative. This is a particularly intriguing situation from the perspective of Foucault’s archaeological techniques since the narratives studied in media studies are precisely the game paradigm that Caillois called mimicry – precisely the medium people struggle to accept as games for aesthetic reasons that I outlined in Implicit Game Aesthetics. So there is a certain irony to game studies not only positioning itself in conflict with the narrative game paradigm, but also in choosing as its object of study the videogame, thus unifying a diverse set of player practices that by Foucault’s methods should be considered distinct game paradigms.
Game studies, unlike game design, is a discursive formation that is not in any positive way influencing game paradigms. It is solely an observer, and exclusively of what it calls ‘videogames’ or ‘digital games’. This narrow focus is testified by its primary association calling itself ‘the Digital Game Research Association’. Even today, other kinds of games are treated as distinct objects of study – at this year’s DiGRA conference, the role-playing games summit does not even appear in the programme, and had its own separate timetable. The game studies journal Games and Culture rejects submissions that are clearly about games and culture if the games in question are not videogames. The official mythology of game studies is that videogames are a distinct and unique medium that must be treated separately from all others – including tabletop games, which at best are treated grudgingly as a distant influence. This is the digital exceptionalism that I have criticised repeatedly, and exposed by showing that player practices in videogames descend and directly relate to other game paradigms.
However, it is not other games that game studies is obsessed with keeping out, but those discourses that are concerned with the narrative game paradigm. Hence the famous ‘ludology vs. narratology’ debacle that is to game studies what Romulus and Remus are to the Roman Empire. The official story – if you talk to those allied with ludology, at least – is that ludology triumphed, by showing the uniqueness of the videogame. Foucault’s archaeology suggests a different understanding: game studies is underpinned by the intrinsic contradiction between ludology and narratology, the latter of which was never banished but simply driven underground by the reigning orthodoxy that insists videogames must be understood by borrowing scientific techniques and never by the methods of the humanities.
Ironically, when the third discourse on games arrives it too buys into digitial exceptionalism and presents the videogame as its object of study, in total disregard to the different game paradigms collected by the term ‘videogame’ and the myriad connections to other non-digital paradigms. As much as Brendan Keogh tries to paint game studies as predicating ‘videogames as games’ in his seminal essay Across Worlds and Bodies (as opposed to his battlecry for game criticism of understanding videogames as videogames) he lines up with game studies perfectly. He even uses references that are exactly the foundational matrix of game studies to emphasise his point. This third discourse is not a new discursive formation at all, but the uprising of the suppressed intrinsic contradiction between the sciences and the humanities within game studies, returning to take its vengeance.
Next week, the final part: The Liberation of Games
Much has been written on Caillois’ groundbreaking book, Les Jeux et Les Hommes (translated as Man, Play, and Games) – very little of it insightful. Indeed, within game studies, the majority of responses to Caillois do not obviously go beyond the introduction to the book, where Caillois explains the definition of play and games he is using to guide his enquiry. A few go as far as to engage in his framework, which considers four distinct patterns in play, but none actually take into account Caillois’ purpose in laying out these patterns, which is sociological, and forms the focus of the latter half of the book.
Caillois, following on from Huizinga who inspired him, is interested in how cultures organise themselves around different elements of play, and his four patterns are his framework for investigating this. He expressly disavowed that his patterns should be used as a taxonomy, a point constantly overlooked in discussions of Caillois within game studies, preferring to see his approach as designed to bring out certain intuitive points of focus in order to criticise (as Huizinga did before him) the decline of the play element in culture. In the context of this enquiry, however, our interest is not the general sociological patterns Caillois pursues but the way these patterns reflect game paradigms (as defined last week) at the time he was writing, namely 1958.
The idea behind a game paradigm is to produce a parallel with Kuhn’s paradigms, and Foucault’s discursive formations (explored in the second part of the Foucault’s Archaeology serial). In both cases, we are dealing with networks of practices and (especially for Foucault) relationships between statements. The statement works perfectly for Foucault’s analysis as a smallest unit of interest, but when it comes to games and play, we do not have an equivalent ‘smallest unit’ to turn to. The concept of a ‘ludeme’, both disparaged and developed by David Parlett, has to unify so many disparate things that it is more likely to be misleading than helpful; morpheme and phoneme in language (which the term is modelled on) have extremely distinct usage cases to define them, and the same is simply not true of the elements of games.
The statement works as Foucault’s foundation because it is an event, a claim that is enunciated in given circumstances, and the event can work as the smallest unit of anything we care to investigate (as Alfred North Whitehead realized), since it is transparent to whether our focus is a thought, an action, or a material object. What is more, any event in any game or play situation is a potential statement, something that can be stated as an observation about that play (“I won”) or about the conditions in any given play (“you can’t touch the ball with your hands”).
Caillois’ first pattern covers competitive games (what he calls agon after the Greek word for contest) and concerns the pursuit of victory under conditions of fair trial. This describes the game paradigm that has formed and been maintained for several millennia around sporting contests, with prevailing practices such as ‘sportsmanship’ and the pursuit of victory in competition. Sports, it is worth remembering, are a kind of game, one that has set itself apart from the others through a persistent glorification of physical prowess. Directly competitive mental competitions – Chess and Go/Weiqi, for instance – qualify as a closely related aspect of the same game paradigm, even though they could never be considered sport. In this regard, it is worth recognising that Foucault’s discursive formations are united by intrinsic contradictions (as we will see next week) and distinguished by those contradictions that cannot be resolved; in terms of competitive play, the difference between a sport and a game is purely internal to the paradigm in question.
As Bernard Suits shrewdly observed, competitive games are characterised to a great extent by constraints on what is allowed – golf would not work if you could use your hands to move the balls, for instance. What further characterises the game paradigm of competition are the regulatory events at the start and end: victory, that which allows us to state “I won!”, is the inescapable characteristic of competition, so much so that many whose play aesthetics prioritise this paradigm presume it is characteristic of all games. (This is the most basic mistake people make about games: to project their own aesthetic values as if they had objective weight – a point Kant links to all aesthetic experience).
The start is even more important to competition: players must begin with the same initial conditions in order for it to be judged fair, in the specific way this term is used in competitive games. Even when these conditions are inequal, as in the case of handicapping, the goal of the inequality is to adhere to ideals of equality, e.g. in horse racing when different racers are expected to carry different amounts of weight in order to give each competitor a purportedly equal chance of winning.
Caillois’ second pattern (named alea after the Latin for dice) concerns games of chance and fate, and constitutes a different game paradigm precisely because its conception of fairness is incompatible with that of competition: in games of chance, everyone has the same chance of winning not because of attempts to balance talent but because skill has no bearing on victory. This, for much of the history of mankind, has been precisely the appeal of gambling, it entails a surrender to fate, an acceptance of a powerlessness that might grant victory to anyone.
However, even by the time Caillois is writing, there were forces mutating this game paradigm, both in terms of the statements made about it (e.g. statistical analyses bringing skill into the previously sacred mystery of games of fate) and in terms of the composition of games (e.g. poker, which allows chance to be mediated through skillful reading of the other players). The ‘favour of the gods’, so long the mythology of gambling, is fading in what Max Weber termed ‘the disenchantment of the world’.
In Caillois’ third pattern (ilinx), the game paradigm is completely different as there is no role for victory at all, neither is there Suits’ voluntary acceptance of limitation to define challenges. This is the play of vertigo, which is exemplified in the fairground ride that uses dizzying speeds and centripetal accelerations to tap into excitement and fear. The event of consciousness-destroying panic constitutes this game paradigm, which many would dismiss as ‘not a game’ and thus miss how central the successors to this paradigm have become to videogames.
So too his fourth and final pattern, mimicry, whose exemplar of ‘play’ is the theatrical play that Caillois – unlike so many game scholars since – recognizes as a game paradigm radically distinct from the play of winning. It is precisely this contradiction, the fictional story against the functional state of winning, that half a century later will give rise to entirely new discursive formations about play.
Next week: The Three Discourses on Games