Philosophy of Games

A while back I came across a fascinating summary paper on the current state of philosophy of games work. It's by C. Thi Nguyen, and a preprint can be found here:

I was really interested to read about what philosophers think of us as a discipline. And I mean that honestly - philosophy is a hugely underestimated practice (a lot of the current limitations of AI, for example, have long been predicted and worked over in philosophy). But I had no idea whether anyone cared about games of all things, and I was glad to see that, in fact, multiple anyones did. 😀

And perhaps the most interesting part was in the framing of the discussion. Nguyen looks at philosophy of games as the coming together of multiple, mostly external currents. Philosophy of games tries to understand the value of games and the meaning in what games are. But at the same time, as a discipline it's very new, just because games as such are also very new. So, unsurprisingly, the current state of the discipline is strongly anchored in other surrounding disciplines, and people trying to use existing frameworks from elsewhere to understand this curious new terrain.

So far so good, after all every discipline is rooted in others - but which historical roots he identified in philosophy of games was what really surprised me.

In his analysis the author finds the strongest interplay between two "schools of thought" on how to approach analyzing games. The conclusions in the essay describe it best:

  • I’ve suggested that, in the philosophical analysis of games at least, there are at least two ruling frameworks that have been applied to games with varying degrees of success. First, from various schools of aesthetics, we have found tools to think about games as objects of appreciation. In some cases, appreciation involves interrogating a game in representational terms — looking for its story, its meaning, its social criticism. The discussion of games as artworks has yielded other useful results concerning the exact nature of the proper object of appreciation, and the relationship between artist and audience in interactive works.

  • Philosophers of sport, on the other hand, have approached games with an entirely different framework. This has lead into investigations about the normative nature of games — what guides the choice of rules, and how those rules might be applied, interpreted, or even changed. Furthermore, philosophers of sport have investigated games as social practices and as forms of life. We might say that aestheticists have given valuational accounts about the game itself, or about the experience of the game, while philosophers of sports have given valuational accounts of performance in games. It is important, for example, that the idea that it might be valuable to be skillful at a game arises very rarely in the aesthetic discourse, but constantly in the philosophy of sport.

A fascinating summary. I had come into this paper fully expecting a discussion of two things: one, the study of games as media, including the old narratology-and-ludology debate which cast such a huge Sauron-like shadow over the whole area, and two, some kind of discussion of mechanics and systems and gameplay, in the formal game design sense, which are the bread and butter of practicing designers.

But instead, the author suggests something else: that philosophy of games understands games in terms of the following currents:

  • Philosophy of aesthetics, which does have a nonzero overlap with media studies, but is more interested in larger questions around meaning, beauty, and truth, and
  • Philosophy of sports, which seems mainly interested in issues of ethics and justice, such as questions around rules, fair play, cheating, or why would someone submit themselves willfully to a series of grueling tests under artificial conditions.

Fascinating areas, both, but absolutely not what I expected. I did not expect to see these philosophical currents to be so calmly unconcerned with issues of gameplay - the very thing that players actually seek out in games, and the thing that designers work so hard to understand and then build an artifact around.

There seems to be a problem here, which is that both of these approaches have a huge blind spot. They can't understand the appeal of a game like Dwarf Fortress, or a game like SimCity, or a game like Minecraft. And these games are not singletons, they are simply the most popular, most extreme examples, but they're emblematic of an entire dimension of gameplay. There's a whole spectrum of games which are not sports-like at all (they're single-player/PvE and exploratory, rather than competitive and goal-oriented), but also not concerned with visual aesthetics in the same way as philosophy of aesthetics understands it (though they are very concerned with the aesthetics of what it feels like to participate in a rulesystem). And these kinds of games are experiences that players find great value in, but which these philosophical frameworks don't know how to value.

Which puts us, as designers, in an interesting position. How do we understand the value of the things we create? How should others value them?

Ah, but let me leave this post with a cliffhanger. I feel there's a longer response brewing.

Sunday, January 5, 2020