Game talkPondering Caillois

 Posted by (Visited 15006 times)  Game talk
Oct 292005
 

Discussions continue over at Only a Game. Several good points are raised, most of which I’ll save for a comment over there, but there’s a bit on Roger Caillois’ terminology and how it applies that it feels like it deserves a broader sort of discussion.

Similarly, what exactly does one learn playing a game of pure alea, or from the aleatory elements of most tabletop RPGs? Not to mention games of ilinx, especially those closer to paidia than ludus…

If you haven’t read the book, it’s probably not clear that when I say “learning” I mean it in a broad cognitive sense of “building patterns, chunks, and schemata.” This cuts across the categories defined by Caillois, in my opinion.

To crudely summarize his model:

  • agon means games about competition
  • alea means games about chance
  • ilinx means games about vertigo
  • mimicry means games about, well, mimicry

In addition, there’s a spectrum from ludus to paidia, which basically means from structures game to freeform play.

Now, there’s a lot of immediate comments that spring to mind there, many of which can only really be addressed if I go back and reread his work. Suffice it to say that in my opinion,

  • chance is a mechanic
  • vertigo is an effect
  • competition in my atomic model is less than a mechanic; it’s a subatomic element that all game atoms make use of
  • mimicry is an objective

and all of them can and do involve the core issue of mastering a problem space.

It’s interesting, of course, to see how this overlaps with Lazzaro’s types of fun, since vertigo maps to altered states in her model, and arguably competition is all of the rest of them. As you know if you read the book, I tend to regard only “hard fun” as the core of games, since the other types are to my mind best understood as mapping to different cognitive processes and are generally found in combination with forms of schemata-building that could be classified as hard fun.

I also differ with Caillois in that I tend to believe that paidia activities generally have MORE rules, not less; the spectrum there is essentially about how descriptive the game is of its own ruleset (to use the Zimmerman/Salen approach to describing it). Paidia generally “imports” rulesets derived from a vast array of cultural assumptions, whereas ludus games are ones that have been tightly defined down (and which nonetheless have an assortment of rules that are implied but not stated that are part of the cultural practice of game playing).

A game of freeform roleplay (a paidia-mimicry game) is, to my mind, an incredibly difficult challenge involving the learning of and successful navigation of an enormous variety of rules that are no less strict for being unspoken. Often, it’s a process of defining the rules in accordance with cultural assumptions as you go.

Which leads me to say that not only do most paidia games trend towards ludus games as we build mental models of them, but that the true meaning of that spectrum is how many rules have been codified, and not whether or not they exist. Our lives are constantly circumscribed by rules; paidia games are about learning what they are and modeling them.

  8 Responses to “Pondering Caillois”

  1. Blogroll Joel on SoftwareRaph Koster Sunny Walker Thoughts for Now Sex, Lies and Advertising

  2. paidia. This in part explains why sports can have such esoteric rules. I love American football, but it’s rules are the epitome of arcana, and the Offside rule in football (soccer to some) is famously obscure. Raph Koster expressed his view that paidia activities generally have more rules not less: Paidia generally “imports” rulesets derived from a vast array of cultural assumptions, whereas ludus games are ones that have been tightly defined down (and which nonetheless have an assortment of rules that are implied but not stated that are

  3. I think Caillois’ categories are a bit of a mess. As I recall, he claims that they are psychological categories, but as you point out, they don’t really appear to be of the same type.

    I wonder if the paidia-ludus distinction could be seen as the naïve idea that “no rules”=”freedom” but “rules=”no freedom”. He would have benefitted from a few talks on emergence I think.

    My favorite quote is the one where he says that games either have rules _or_ are make-believe:

    “[…] chess, prisoner’s base, polo, and baccara are played for real. As if is not necessary. [...] Thus games are not ruled and make-believe. Rather, they are ruled or make-believe.”

  4. Oh, good. I have Jesper in my corner on this one, I can’t lose and my reputation among game studies scholars has not been irreparably damaged. :)

  5. Interesting point – games of fewer rules, while perhaps less ludologically sophisticated, are actually an order of magnitude more complicated to navigate. It only seems the opposite because when growing up in our respective societies, we have been absorbing cultural code since we’ve been a member of that culture. I suppose this also makes the more sophisticated games more portable to other cultures – there is less reliance on exporting the implicit cultural rules of the game alongside the explicit rules.

  6. The Anarchy of Paidia

    Where do games begin? In the anarchy of paidia, we play without rules and without limits. It is amusing, creative and chaotic, but it is also short lived, as when the natural play of a toy becomes formalised, it becomes

  7. chance is a mechanic

    Fair enough, and there is a pattern recognition element to groking probabilities. Its important to note that “alea” always accompanies an economy of soft information, which is more than just a mechanic. A whole social/cultural situation could be implied by its uncertainty.

    vertigo is an effect

    Its perceived as an effect, but it actually has to do with uncertianty, even if that uncertainty is of a deterministic system. For instance, in a snowboarding game the illinx is derived from the uncertainty of navigation.

    competition in my atomic model is less than a mechanic; it’s a subatomic element that all game atoms make use of

    Thats what we’ve seen so far, but only half, probably less, of the potentially playing public. My main complaint with your book was that it seemed tied to this assumption. I must dissent.

    mimicry is an objective

    Sometimes mimicry is the starting point, not the goal. I think theres a huge market for mimicry for its own sake.

    I think the holy grail would look something like a dynamic content creation system where paidic mechanics could be implemented in the abstract, and then different levels of each of the four qualities would be possible. The player would tend to gravitate toward a play style which composed the right mixture to them, this would be their particular ludes. The system would have to cue into different possible ludes (ludi?) that player might persue, and these ludes would form along the flow of the experience, the way the flow of a river forms landscapes over time. This isn’t to say such a game would appeal to everyone, the core mechanic might appeal only to a specific audience.

    Short version: I agree with your take on ludes and paidia, we need to explore “a process of defining the rules in accordance with cultural assumptions as you go.”

  8. [...] Patrick on Pondering Caillois [...]

  9. [...] Just yesterday, a co-worker handed me Chris’ book, 21st Century Game Design, and so far it’s quite good, though I haven’t gotten past the initial section on audience modeling yet. I expect to have more quarrels with it once I get to the sections that about actually modeling game structures, since we’ve had some disagreements in the past on his blog. [...]

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