Player Practices (2): Caillois' Paradigms of Play
Wednesday, 17 June 2015
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
You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.