Implicit Game Aesthetics (5): McGonigal and Suits
June Speaking Gigs

Implicit Game Aesthetics (6): Caillois and Malaby

Caillois Perhaps the oldest definition provided for what constitutes a game comes from Roger Caillois (1958), who was pursuing an essentially anthropological investigation into cross-cultural play in his book Les Jeux et Les Hommes (pictured left). It is worth noting that Caillois was French and thus used the term 'jeu', which means both 'play' and 'game' – this gave him a very wide perspective on what could be entailed by the term, and as a result his definition is quite inclusive. In brief, Caillois states that everything that constitutes play is free (non-obligatory), separated by limits specified in advance, uncertain, unproductive, governed by rules, and entails make-believe. The last two are the previously identified foundation conditions and can be set aside for now, and the separation condition can be understood as refinement of the rules-fiction dualism. This leaves three value judgements: that play (and hence games) must occur freely, without obligation; that play entails uncertainty; that play must be non-productive.

Unfortunately for Caillois, it is no longer clear that the first and third apply. As Edward Castronova, Thomas Malaby and others have noted, massively multiplayer games severely blur the lines as to what kinds of play are 'productive'. Similarly, it is unclear in the case of a gold farmer who also plays World of Warcraft for fun why their evening gaming should qualify as play but their daytime gaming should not. The boundary between work and play assumed by Caillois has become impossible to sustain in practice. Nonetheless, it is clear that there is a voluntary aesthetic that can be identified, since it can be found in Caillois, Suits and McGonigal, not to mention Elliott Avedon and Brian Sutton-Smith ("we can define a game as an exercise of voluntary control systems…"). This aesthetic seems solely to entail that the players of a game are, as Caillois suggests, under no obligation to play. Since the same game could be played in both a voluntary and a mandatory context – imagine being forced at gunpoint to play Russian Roulette – it's difficult to see why this would serve as a workable boundary condition, though. It almost seems as if what is intended by this value judgement is to say that games cease to be fun when they are mandatory. It's not entirely clear that this is a correct proposition, but it is a perfectly viable aesthetic of play.

There is one element of Caillois' definition left: the requirement for uncertainty. It is possible that this might be foundational – are there any clear cases of games that don't entail uncertainty? Either way, we can tentatively accept an uncertainty aesthetic as a position entailed in Caillois' view, and implied by Costikyan's (and possibly Koster's). It is not necessarily the case that Caillois is making a strong case of the aesthetic merits of uncertainty so much as he is reporting his view that those who enjoy play are deriving some proportion of their enjoyment from the uncertainty of the activity. This sits oddly with some of the activities Caillois includes within his category: theatre, for instance, is given as a very formalised kind of playing. While I can support this on the basis of Walton's make-believe theory of representation, it still seems to be problematic: if a person enjoys a stage play greatly and returns to watch it again, is uncertainty really their interest? It is not entirely plausible to suggest that the audience are hoping for things to go wrong! Similar concerns relate to players who master a particular videogame sequence perfectly, and return to execute that sequence again and again. It's not a wholly satisfying explanation for this behaviour that their motivation involves the possibility that they might fail. This seems to lend support to the idea of there being some kind of viable uncertainty aesthetic in games.

The uncertainty aesthetic finds its strongest expression in the work of anthropologist Thomas Malaby, who in his 2007 paper "Beyond Play: A New Approach to Games", decries the assumption that games and play should be seen as continuous. Malaby is particularly hostile towards Caillois' suggestions that games must not be productive, and in general wants to disentangle the concept of 'play' from the concept of 'game', and similarly to separate 'play' from 'work'. Malaby's defines games as follows:

A game is a semibounded and socially legitimate domain of contrived contingency that generates interpretable outcomes.

"Semibounded" is intended to take into account concerns about the 'leaky' Magic Circle (which Castronova drew attention to) while the requirement for social legitimacy is a fascinating and unique condition that offers an anthropological interpretation of games rather than an aesthetic value judgement, as such (although it might be taken to support the social aesthetic that Costikyan drew attention to). Both are perspectives on the rules-aspect of games, but from a vantage point so distant that it is barely recognisable as such. It is the "contrived contingency" and "interpretable outcomes" that are the core of Malaby's definition, here, and these can be seen as the uncertainty aesthetic crossing over into the fiction-aspect of games (the 'interpretability'). In many respects, Malaby's definition is the broadest, but of course this breadth also lets in many things that people wouldn't normally consider games. This is the nature of any widely construed definition, however – the trade-off in defining 'game' is always between being too inclusive, or being too exclusive. There seems to be a tendency for exponents of the victory and conflict aesthetics to vehemently prefer exclusivity, whereas exponents of uncertainty aesthetics like Caillois and Malaby prefer inclusivity.

In a paper the following year entitled "Anthropology and Play: The Contours of Playful Experience", Malaby expands his definitions to take onboard a new concept on play – one based on seeing it as "an attitude characterized by a readiness to improvise in the face of an ever-changing world…" Although he does not reference Suits, Malaby here is aligning 'play' with what Suits called 'the lusory attitude', although since Suits sees games as expressly goal-oriented (victory, conflict or reward aesthetics) – his intention is narrower than Malaby's. Nonetheless, both Malaby and Suits are gesturing at the special mental state that players enter into when participating with the uncertainty that lies deeply in the nature of games. As Malaby recognises, this has roots even older than Caillois' study of play, since Johan Huizinga's Homo Ludens (1938) – which inspired Caillois – is based on this idea. As Malaby writes:

For [Huizinga], the play-element – marked by an interest in uncertainty and the challenge to perform that arises in competition, by the legitimacy of improvisation and innovation that the premise of indeterminate circumstances encourages – is opposed above all to utilitarianism and the drive for efficiency. (Caillois likewise, despite his misleading claim that games are occasions of "pure waste," recognizes the centrality of contingency in games.) Huizinga felt that the play-element had been on the wane in Western civilization since the eighteenth century, threatened by the drive for efficiency and the routinization of experience it brought.

There is an aesthetic value judgement here – explicit in Huzinga and Malaby, tacit in Suits and McGonigal – that values the playful experiences over and above the pursuit of victory. This is definitely present in Suits' , albeit somewhat concealed by his overt focus on goal-oriented play, and it is inescapable in Malaby who has no trace of the victory, conflict or reward aesthetics at all in his concept of a game. This playful aesthetic (for want of a better phrase) is intimately connected with the uncertainty aesthetic – indeed, it is a refinement of it, in perhaps a parallel to the way the conflict aesthetic often appears intimately connected to the victory aesthetic. It is Caillois' paidia, Suits' lusory attitude, and Malaby's view of play as a disposition, and it directly opposes any aesthetic that would seek to make games solely about winning, battle or puzzles.

Next week, the final part: An Island of Play


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Chris: in my view , a reference to the work of Friedrich Schiller would very much round off this section: "play" seen as state of being , as a separate ( and in Schiller's view maybe even ultimate) form of human existence!

translucy: only stumbled upon Schiller recently (as a result of reading Kirkpatrick) - I missed a trick here! :)

A collection of random observations:

Huizinga introduced the idea of play being a thing apart from productive action, but problems with this position are visible even in Homo Ludens where he explores play elements in the law and in warfare.

I would argue that play requires the player to enter into a ludic stance where the game is TREATED as an end unto itself, even if the player knows that there are material consequence external to the game.

I do think that uncertainty is central to play, primarily because so much of play involves the construction of anticipatory chains. We think forward though a system of constraints, and then enjoy how our expectations are confirmed or thwarted. A play space with no uncertainty allows perfect anticipation; our expectations sprint so far ahead of our actions that the actual movement through the play space feels like we're following a predetermined script. Once I announce "mate in three moves" and you confirm that my expectation is correct, the game is over. Actually making the moves is merely a formality.

I'm firmly in the camp that believes a preoccupation with challenge and winning has warped the study of games. In order for play to occur different states within the play space need to be assigned different values -- THIS state is more desirable than THAT state. However this differentiation of the play space does not need to be organized around "winning" or "losing". "I wonder what's over there?" is a perfectly valid differentiating criteria for structuring a play space.

Brian: thanks for your comments!

I'm not sure Huizinga is justly tarred with the brush of this separation between play and productive action - much of Homo Ludens is spent commenting on where the play element of culture used to be found (but can be no longer). His position, in this respect, was more subtle than Caillois' (as Malaby asserts), although it's important to recognise that Huizinga and Caillois pursued very different projects.

The issue with uncertainty for me comes down to how to understand theatrical plays etc., which for me still constitute a form of play (a game of make-believe). Uncertainty is harder to demonstrate here, and this suggests to me at least the possibility that some kinds of play do not require uncertainty as such. But this is a fuzzy point at the borders of the territory I'm exploring.

"I'm firmly in the camp that believes a preoccupation with challenge and winning has warped the study of games."

Amen brother, testify! :) Challenge and victory is very important to the understanding of play. But it is not, and never has been, the entirety of play. It is in recognising this, and drawing out some key patterns (that also happened to foreshadow the neurobiology of play) that Caillois' work is best celebrated.

All the best!

I suspect that Huizinga's play aesthetic drifted during the course of writing Homo Ludens. In the first chapter he writes: "“Summing up the formal characteristics of play we might call it a free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious,’ but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it.”

That seems to place him pretty firmly in the "play is non-productive" camp. However, his actual analysis of play in culture later in the book runs counter to this definition. My reading of Huizinga is that he worked out his definition of play without fully considering its implications for his larger thesis.

With theatrical play I think it's important to distinguish the experience of the audience from the experience of the performers. Both present opportunities for play, but radically different kinds.

The primary goal of a performer is to structure an experience for the audience. Professional performers don't usually pursue performance as an end unto itself, but rather as a means to this end. Older schools of acting in particular emphasized rigid discipline on stage. A performance was not to be approached like a game of make-believe, but as a highly-skilled rote recital. It's hard to see this kind of performance as a playful activity.

However the various "method" schools emphasize a more organic approach. The goal is not to work out every nuance of the performance in advance and flawlessly execute it, but rather to treat each performance as fresh exploration of the character. This often requires the actor to play the role as an end unto itself, rather than for the benefit of the audience. THis can result in the adoption of a lusory attitude by the performer.

Audience play is an entirely different kettle of fish. It falls into the category of what I call "interpretive play", where the goal is not to arrive at a particular destination, but rather to construct an interpretive framework that makes sense of what came before and allows anticipation of what will happen afterwards. The success or failure of an interpretive frame in containing a performance can often hinge on tiny nuances ("She narrowed her eyes ... is she actually lying?") which accounts for why we can enjoy watching the same show multiple times. Minor variations in the actors' performances, or even in just which details we notice, can create enough variation in the constraints of the narrative system to structure a fresh interpretive play space.

Brian: really nice commentary here.

Re: Huizinga, the exact same tensions appear in Caillois, who lays out a definition then proceeds to go "off piste" for the rest of the book. :)

And I like your take on theatre here, and agree distinguishing between audience and actor experience is highly relevant. I hadn't thought about interpretive play in these terms before, but it would bear fruit not just in theatre but also in repeat viewings or readings of other media.

All the best!

To add to your comments on uncertainty in "games of fiction":
To me stories in western culture revolve very much around application of the "what if"-rule: what if the world and the people or other beings were different?

What if the dead were not completely dead?
What if your neighbor were an alien?
What if the daughter of a 19th century landlord actually dared to choose the man she loves?
What if the mad prince was not mad but fooling everyone , plotting a scheme outside civilized bounds?

If the resulting what if scenario is well crafted it fulfills many of the aesthetic criteria you guys mentioned, first of all because it is meaningful and relevant in exactly an aesthetic rather than a pragmatic way.

Btw, I wonder if one should use the term "contingency" where you currently use "uncertainty"?

translucy: thanks for sharing this! It's an interesting slant on this topic.

As for 'contingency' vs 'uncertainty' - I'm following Malaby in using 'uncertainty', but either term would seem to be workable.

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