🎮 It's Just A Game

(Part of a series on games and models)

"It's just a game," we sometimes say, meaning: this is not real life, don't take it so seriously.

True enough. But games do communicate things about real life. And that's where their power and their problems begin.

Communication is not unique to games, of course. Books and movies are equally not real, and yet they tell us things about our world all the time. That's why we seek them out, because they offer us perspectives, they let us experience the world through another's eyes, through another's life. If they didn't, would we even pick them up?

Games are more circumspect. Some games are insistently abstract, and no amount of coaxing will cause tic-tac-toe to offer up new perspectives on life. But as soon as we turn to even just board games, things start to change. Even with simple go and chess, we start getting hints of communication — their model and their very vocabulary, full of “movement” and “surrounding” and “winning” and “sacrifice”, communicates a certain way of being. Their language is taxed by war.

And with computer games things get even more interesting. These don't have to resort to abstraction, they don't have to be austere-yet-explicit like board games. They can be narrative and metaphorical, they can speak in stories and parables. A video game like Bioshock or Detroit: Become Human is an interactive story kind of a game, which rivals movies not just in visual fidelity — but also in an ambitious story that uses similar devices as movies, and speaks to us just as clearly.

But games don't need a story to communicate, because games are primarily about doing things, they're a medium that traffics in agency. So games like SimCity or Civilization or The Sims can communicate a vision of the world without invoking any story at all.

Instead, these games speak by shaping agency: by moulding the world just so, shaping the rules of the world and specifying what can be done, and what can't — and then dropping the player in the middle of it and leaving them to their own devices. And the player, like an emigre in a foreign land, will start to learn to live in their new adopted home. They will start to pick up on its rules and values, they will learn how the world works.

And if things go well, they will think back, and the experience of novel agency will illuminate how life works back home, in the real world.

But games doesn't have to be truthful, or even charitable.

Games can present their own chosen set of ideas about how the world works, in the form of a limited model or simulation of the world. And the player, like a fish unaware of the ocean, might not realize the shape of the model and its boundaries — what the game represents accurately, what it editorializes, what it omits or sweeps under the carpet.

And this is where our rhetorical problems begin.

So while a lot has been written about how games communicate as stories and media, in these posts we'll instead focus on that other form — how games communicate via rules and agency.

This is a new rhetorical technique, unique to games.

But how can rules and agency be used to communicate anything at all?

✒ (To be continued in next part)

Thursday, February 17, 2022 - Contact: @rzubek