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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

How we can understand ourselves through games

Games are a distinctive art form — one very different from the traditional arts. Game designers don’t just create an environment, or characters, or a story. They tell you who to be in the game. They set your basic abilities: whether you will run and jump, or move around your pieces geometrically, or bid and raise. And, most importantly, they tell you what your goals will be. By specifying the points and victory conditions, the designer sets the players’ core motivations in the game.

This helps us get a better grip on the uniqueness of games as an art form. Game designers aren’t just telling stories. Game designers are sculpting a specific form of practical activity. They are deciding what we will do within the game and how we will do it. They do so by designing the basic shape of our agency within the game, and then designing the obstacles that we will encounter. A game designer says, in Super Mario Brothers, your goal is to go right, your abilities are running and jumping — and the world is full of dangers to run past and jump over. In poker, your goal is to get money, and your abilities are strictly limited to bidding and raising, and careful surveillance of the other player’s actions and expressions — and the world is full of other people doing the same to you.

Let’s approach the issue this way: What is the artistic medium of games? If oil painters work in oil, and poets work in language, what does the game designer work in? I mean games in a very broad sense here, including video games, board games, role playing games, party games, and sports. To encompass all that variety, the answer can’t be something as narrow as software code or virtual environments. Many games are played on boards or in physical arenas. But, still, there is a common thread to all game design. The designer shapes our practical struggle by manipulating our practical interests and abilities, and the challenges we will face. Game designers work in the medium of agency itself. Games are the art of agency.

And, by shaping agent and world to match, the game designer can crystallize a particular and focused experience of the player’s own activity. In Super Mario Brothers the game is an active, reflexive activity of timing and movement. In poker the game is an information-gathering, data-manipulating, calculative activity. And that crystallization can highlight the aesthetic qualities of that activity. Games offer us the opportunity to experience beauty in our own action and thought.

Such aesthetic experiences occur naturally in our everyday lives. A box falls off of a truck and we swerve gracefully around it. A puzzling research dilemma defies us, and then everything falls into place in one glorious moment of epiphany. We have way too much stuff for this moving van, but then we figure out a clever way to interlock the furniture and it all just gorgeously fits. These experiences can be quite rare in ordinary life. But games can crystallize these aesthetic delights for us — and concentrate and refine them. Boxing crystallizes the aesthetic joys of dodging gracefully. Chess crystallizes the aesthetic joys of logical epiphanies. Tetris crystallizes the joys of, well, Tetrising stuff.

Ordinary life offers these aesthetic delights rarely, because in ordinary life our desires, abilities and the world are often out of synch. The problems and tasks which the world presents us with are often overwhelmingly difficult or tediously simplistic. But game designers can foster aesthetically delightful action by designing both the in-game agent and gaming world to match, to promote an experience of practical harmony.

Games are a part of an under-respected, and under-theorized, category of art — what I call the arts of action. In a game, the audience isn’t just supposed to appreciate the aesthetic qualities of the game itself. The audience isn’t supposed to appreciate only the enduring and stable designed object. Games call for something more participatory. The game calls forth actions from the players, and then players are meant to appreciate the aesthetic qualities in their own actions. They are supposed to find beauty, thrill, and terror in themselves — in their own decisions, their calculations, their reflexive movements, or their coordination with their teammates.

The attempt to make games legible within traditional theories of art has often lead theorists to ignore that self-reflective character. Arguments that “games are art!” have usually sought to assimilate games to the more traditional arts by praising the sorts of stable properties they share with the traditional arts — like their graphics, music, or story. But that emphasis tears our attention away from the most unique aesthetic goods on offer.

If we can learn to respect games for their own special qualities, then we will see games’ true place in our ecosystem of artifacts. Games enable a distinctive kind of communication. Every form of art lets us capture a different aspect of our experience and being. Paintings capture sights; music captures sounds; fiction capture stories. And games, it turns out, can capture and transmit different ways of being practical. Games are our technology for communicating modes of agency.

One way to put it: traditional libraries are marvelous, vast collections of texts, which we can use to explore all sorts of ideas, stories, and emotional perspectives. The body of games represents another kind of library: a library of agency. Every game encodes a different practical style. Chess encodes sharp, precise, tactical look-ahead. Diplomacy encodes manipulation and deceit. Tetris encodes rotational spatial relationships. And by playing games, we can explore these different practical styles. Through games, we can learn new ways to inhabit our own agency.

Featured image by chuttersnap on Unsplash

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