Game Informer on “Impostor” games

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Nov 152008
 

Is Wii Music a game?

Games That Aren’t Really Games…Should We Be Concerned? is an article on the Game Informer website (and maybe the mag too, for all I know) that explores the area of games that aren’t really games, such as the recently released Wii Music.

Curiously enough, the article leads off by using A Theory of Fun to try to figure out what a game is. 🙂 They arrived at this definition:

…for our purposes we needed something solid, and settled on several qualifications mentioned in his book. Ultimately, we chose the most important elements and decided that games are formal systems with rules that require choices, are competitive, have explicit goals and quantifiable outcomes. There…that is a little easier to swallow isn’t it?

They note that I myself think many of the distinctions are sort of irrelevant. Why? Let’s say that you have a game with a quantifiable outcome — Quake, perhaps. Now strip all semblance of score or feedback from it, but still track that stuff internally. What you have left is an activity wherein you shoot, but cannot tell if you hit; and if you hit, you cannot tell if you are doing better than other players.

In terms of game grammar, what we now have is an opaque model. All games are these mathematical models and constructs — information is given to us about the inner workings of the model, and we are supposed to figure out how the model works, and then act predictively.

There are some games where you use perfect information, meaning, you are shown everything about the model. Most classic board games work like this. However, information does not equal the actual thing. What we see is a representation of the model, not the model itself, which is abstract.

Now, does that mean that this version of Quake ceases to be a game? Not necessarily. The part that is missing isn’t information about the model — it is feedback on your interactions with it. When we see a game with poor feedback on your actions or choices, we call it a bad game — but a game nonetheless. There may be a threshold where a complete lack of feedback makes something not a game, but very few interactive systems lack all feedback. (A computer that is turned off, perhaps).

Instead, we are faced with a model we cannot comprehend because we lack enough data to assess what is going on. It’s the difference between popping the hood on a car from the 50’s and a car from today — it’s a black box, and the machinations within are difficult to guess.

Another factor that is frequently cited is whether there is a goal to achieve. Many “software toy” style games do not present explicit goals for players, and instead allow you to determine your own. Perhaps we have become accustomed to thinking that self-determined goals make something not a game, simply because software gaming forces you towards goals so much. But we should not forget that most real-world games are entirely based on self-determined goals. Yes, chess tells you that you should capture the king. But there’s a mutually agreed upon construct between the players there which is quite flexible and accommodates such things as making the knights neigh when they move, or galloping around the room pretending they are actual horses.

Saints Row 2

As software games get more flexible, this sort of breadth of goals is getting more common, to the point that now we have a genre called “sandbox games” which is simply described as “you can pick whatever goals you want, but we have supplied some built-in ones.” Congratulations, Saints Row, you have reached the level of sophistication of tag or hide ‘n’ seek. 🙂

Many of the “impostor” games that are cited follow a different pattern. There’s a model there, certainly. But the goals are entirely externally imposed. You set a fitness goal, a brain age target, whatever. The real world is slow at feedback, you see. How do you know you are actually changing your lifestyle? But the game is rife with feedback — that is the whole point, to hijack the feedback center of the brain. Basically, we get fun from mastering mental models; if we can orient the brain around real world models instead of the synthetic game ones, the logic goes, we can then use the strong feedback capabilities of software to help elucidate the model more, and thus encourage us to take the right actions.

Are they less games because they deal with real-world scenarios rather than fictional or artificial constructed models? I hope not, or else we might have to cease considering all of sports as any sort of game whatsoever.

The article states

While Wii Fit does include many of the features mentioned above – such as personalized workout profiles – the presentation is more similar to a cohesive collection of small games and challenges than a simple training tool.

and in doing so, acknowledges that the part that tips Wii Fit over into being a game in their mind is “the presentation” — the feedback loop.

This is much on my mind right now because on Metaplace I have tossed together a couple of fun games over the last two weeks. One is a simple variant on Tron-style lightcycles called Grid Battle. The variant pieces are that there are AIs that wander the field randomly deleting chunks of the line; and that people can join and leave the game at any time. Very quickly, people asked for a scoring mechanism — and it makes a powerful difference in how you play the game. I chose to make the score be based on how many segments of line you have laid down, which encourages people to fill areas as thoroughly as possible; you take out other people in order to give yourself more room to completely carpet the board.

The typical alternative would be to make the score based on kills of opponents — when you slam into a wall, that person gets credit. This encourages an altogether different style of play, wherein you aggressively go after others, and only carpet areas as a holding tactic.

A snapshot of HighSeas.

A snapshot of HighSeas.

I also worked on a thing I called HighSeas — a simple little ship-to-ship thing, where you can sail around with a moderately tricky control scheme involding raising and lowering sail, rowing, etc; fire broadsides, rescue drowning sailors before the sharks get them, and so on. There’s no scoring in there at all, yet it feels as fun as Grid Battle does. But sure enough, some players are asking for score.

Is HighSeas an impostor game right now? There is zero code in the model tracking any goals at all. But the feedback for sinking a ship is delightfully strong (oh, there’s slow motion sinking and splashes and then the little sailors bobbing on the water, and the sharks coming in, followed by a spreading little pool of blood…). This drives people to sink others even if there is no direct goal provided by the system. It’s a sandbox, with no score.

Were Brain Age able to place a hologram of your IQ or brain age over your head as you walked about, would it tip over into being a “real” game? Or are all of these distinctions really splitting hairs?

In the case of something like Wii Music, what we have is an interactive system where the feedback simply isn’t crude. Instead of giving you a score by analysing the consonance of what you are playing, or the harmonies, or your rhythmic sense, it lets you be the judge. You are both the action-taker and the judge; you decide how well you did based on whether you like the music you are making. You take on self-directed goals by choosing what sort of music to make.

At this point, it is hard to tell the gamer from the game. There’s a model there, but we evaluate our own sense of progress in understanding it. This may be similar to someone learning any motor skill or even pure mental skill. It is easy to picture a “goal” or “challenge” to overcome with these new learned skills. Play along to a predetermined piece of music. Replicate a particular song.

It’s ironic that we call these mere “activities” or “toys” when in fact this sort of gameplaying gives us the most broadly applicable skills. It’s the method we use most in the real world, when we play.

I am reminded, in the end, of Yeats (because it’s a game for me to work poetry into game design theory). In a poem about school children, he writes:

Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul.
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

How can we know the gamer from the game? “Impostor” games? — nay, these are merely games where the game is us.

  49 Responses to “Game Informer on “Impostor” games”

  1. What, no The Sims?

  2. these ‘non-games’ seem like a pretty natural progression. take super mario as an example.

    it has a high score system, but I have yet to see someone play for score. it has a timer, but speed runs are more a passing fancy then a purpose. it has a direction, but it hardly has a goal ( the princess is less a goal then a non-sequiter signifier of no more content ).

    to transition from noun-oriented to verb-oriented play is to transition from ‘game-games’ to ‘non-games’. mario et al have quietly and subversively laid the foundations for this transition by paying lip service to the former while following the spirit of the latter.

  3. Basketball is a game, but a basketball is not a game; it’s equipment. And basketball isn’t the only game you can play with one.

    Maybe that’s what they mean, that Wii Music may be a toybox full of toys to play with, but that there’s not a game until someone makes up some rules. No rules in the box -> you’re selling equipment, not games.

    Even a Mario game is tightly constrained enough that rules (including goals) are immediately implied by the feedback the player gets. Most RL toys are completely wide open, so maybe Wii Music fits in naturally with the idea of play, but has outgrown (in a sense) the more confining idea of game? I could agree with that, but I’d consider it a good thing.

  4. Or are all of these distinctions really splitting hairs?

    Yes. Let’s call Wii Music not a game. Okay, everyone who bought Wii Music: are you all going to return your purchases now? No? Mmk.

  5. So, what isn’t a game, then?

    Richard

  6. A better way to put it perhaps, is that anything can be a game, if we choose to make it so.

  7. @Peter, yeah, except Wii Music is actually extremely structured, so I don’t buy that. The only thing Wii Music doesn’t do is tell you if you’ve done it “right” or “wrong”. It most definitely tells you what to do, and how to try to do it though. I mean, it’s got whole sorts of training programs for how to use the system, and even has various goals for you to try out, such as playing a certain song using a rock styling rather than a traditional one. It just doesn’t score you at it, preferring to let you come to your own conclusions about how you did. It even goes to great lengths to make this self scoring thing apparent; for every song that you decide to record it asks you how much you liked how the song came out.

    Basically, they’re calling it an “impostor” game solely because it leaves the subjective (and it’s necessarily subjective in this case, because it’s trying to teach a quality that deals with the feeling of, and not the quantifiable mechanics of, music) guess work of whether the player has adequately performed up to the player to decide. This is short sighted at best, but that’s what you get from “journalists” that are really just hobbyists and fans of the genre.

  8. Actually, this has been on my mind over at Metaplace for some time. I’ve been thinking of it more in terms of “Which worlds at their current level of construction are already games, and if not there yet, what do they need?”

  9. Great post, on an important core issue.

    As far as I can see, I feel that danish researcher Jesper Juul has done a more-or-less book closing job at defining what a game is. Juul wrote his doctoral thesis on this very subject, a thesis which is also available in book form (“Half-real”). He went through historical research on games, from the ancient times till today, and came up with a six-part definition, which can be found here: http://www.jesperjuul.net/text/gameplayerworld/ .

    I would love to hear what you all have to say about this, since this model has been working fine for me since I first heard it presented in Utrecht in 2004. Is it just that not enough people have seen it, or are there problems with it that I haven’t seen – there must be some reason why his definition hasn’t ended this debate.

    Thanks,

    Peter

  10. Eolirin:

    This is short sighted at best, but that’s what you get from “journalists” that are really just hobbyists and fans of the genre.

    The “impostor” bit was just a hook, an angle, an excuse for talking about games that would not otherwise be talked about in a consumer magazine. I don’t care for the label. Good on them for promoting the “miscellaneous” genre though.

    Peter:

    … there must be some reason why his definition hasn’t ended this debate.

    Jesper’s definition is ambiguous, being applicable to all sorts of activities depending on the extent to which you want to interpret his six assigned characteristics. In the next paper on defining games, I’d imagine that Jesper’s definition would be included in a table of previous definitions just as he has included Huzinga’s (1950) to Salen-Zimmerman’s (2003).

    I don’t think the debate should end, but I also don’t think the debate is all that useful. I think the purpose of Jesper’s paper is also not to stifle debate; instead, the paper is meant to lay a foundation for identifying the other many ways games have yet to evolve beyond what he calls the classic game model. What definitions will we have in the year 2500?

  11. Peter,

    I like Jesper’s definition just fine. In think in this particular discussion we are elaborating on some areas that are a bit ambiguous on the borders, basically. I can probably drag him over here to discuss it, if you like. 🙂

  12. Here’s one that’s more recent than Jesper’s, FYI:

    http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=922456

    And this is where he more or less published it:

    http://terranova.blogs.com/terra_nova/2006/08/against_excepti.html

  13. Michael Chui>Here’s one that’s more recent than Jesper’s

    That doesn’t actually make it more right, of course.

    Thomas’s definition is: “A game is a semi-bounded and socially legitimate domain of contrived contingency that generates interpretable outcomes.” This may work well for social anthropologists, but it doesn’t coincide with what player mean by “game”. Rather than repeat my objections to it here, see http://terranova.blogs.com/terra_nova/2007/11/what-do-we-mean.html.

    Needless to say, Jesper’s definition isn’t perfect either. In his, you can be playing a game and not know it, which is very counter-intuitive.

    For the record, my own definition is here.

    Richard

  14. Raph>A better way to put it perhaps, is that anything can be a game, if we choose to make it so.

    Who’s “we”? If I’m walking to get lunch, can you make that a game without my knowledge?

    What’s “a game”? If we’re playing hide-and-seek with one another but we both thought we were the hider, is that a game?

    Do you really mean “anything”? If I choose to make the moon a game, does that make it a game?

    Richard

  15. Who’s “we”? If I’m walking to get lunch, can you make that a game without my knowledge?

    No; I meant that we as in “each of us individually can choose to make something a game” — in fact, your definition says much the same, in stating that

    You’re playing when you do this — even if other people with whom you believe you are playing are not in fact playing. Play is in the eye of the player.

    What’s “a game”? If we’re playing hide-and-seek with one another but we both thought we were the hider, is that a game?

    This one is interesting. It is almost as if there is an emergent metagame there, one of figuring out the social aspects that made the model so boring. 😉

    If I choose to make the moon a game, does that make it a game?

    That depends what actions you take with your choice — if you layer in rules and a model and feedback, then yeah, you could very well end up with a game. We do it with things like balls and sticks all the time.

  16. Anything you can play is a game right?

  17. Anything you can win is a finite game. We’re used to our games being finite games, so much so that “game” heavily implies something that can be won, not merely something that can be played. The complaint that Wii Music is not a game could instead be a complaint that there is no conclusion; that it is an infinite game.

    I always did like game theory. 🙂

  18. Like tetris right?

  19. Richard Bartle:

    If I’m walking to get lunch, can you make that a game without my knowledge?

    Richard brings up an interesting point: games require permission first and foremost. Without the permission of players, there can be no game. That said, this just circles back to what I said before about the futility of defining what makes a game.

  20. On the other hand, I think trolling is a classic example of a game that only has permission from one side of the table.

  21. Markimedes:

    On the other hand, I think trolling is a classic example of a game that only has permission from one side of the table.

    I don’t think so. Is a game no longer a game if observers assert opposition to its play? For example, ARGs. Whether a game is a game is entirely up to the players. “To catch a killer” and all that jazz.

  22. Actually no, not like Tetris, since you can lose Tetris (which ends the game, making it finite). In a sense, someone won, but it wasn’t you.

  23. Richard brings up an interesting point: games require permission first and foremost. Without the permission of players, there can be no game. That said, this just circles back to what I said before about the futility of defining what makes a game.

    There was no requirement for making Richard a player. Just put down a wager on his next significant action. Does he cross the street? Does he stop at the hot dog stand? Does he jaywalk?

    And are we done making a game out of making games yet?

  24. Michael Chui:

    There was no requirement for making Richard a player. Just put down a wager on his next significant action. Does he cross the street? Does he stop at the hot dog stand? Does he jaywalk?

    I don’t think that’s correct either. In that case, the gambler isn’t actually making Richard a player but rather making his/her observations into a game for he/she alone or with select others to play. In that case, the gambler is effectively the player, Richard is effectively an intelligent actor, and Richard’s intelligence serves as random chance.

  25. Michael Chui:

    And are we done making a game out of making games yet?

    Metaplace has not announced a launch date, yet. 🙂

  26. Michael Chui>There was no requirement for making Richard a player. Just put down a wager on his next significant action. Does he cross the street? Does he stop at the hot dog stand? Does he jaywalk?

    This makes me a token in your game, it doesn’t make me a player of your game. I’m no more playing it than a pawn is playing chess.

    (And for the record, yes I do cross the street, no I don’t stop at the hot dog stand, and yes I do jaywalk).

    Richard

  27. So what’s the over/under on Richard getting ticketed? I want in on this action. 😛

  28. Peter S.>So what’s the over/under on Richard getting ticketed?

    Jaywalking isn’t illegal in the UK. If it were, London would be impossible to traverse.

    Richard

  29. “A better way to put it perhaps, is that anything can be a game, if we choose to make it so.”

    Glad we’re finally on the same page! Remember when I was a petulant 20-year-old getting all adamant about more literal interpretations of “game”? Now I can’t stop talking about finance, bleh.

  30. The question that we try to answer here… is it “what are games?”, or is it “what can be subject to a state of playfulness?”. It seems to me like we try to answer the latter…

    Games are only one of the many activities which might engage into during play. But the question arises: can we define “games” without the state of playfulness they presuppose?

    Maybe the problem is in the way we interprete Callois’ model. To me it seems like it is not so much a taxonomy of games but a spectrum of states of playfulness.

  31. Ah, the boundary work… we’re not getting anywhere with this, but we refuse to give up! 🙂

    Altug: You’re spot on here; Caillois’ model is expressly not a taxonomy – Caillois himself is extremely clear on this (and quite disparaging of taxonomies in general!) I agree with your interpretation as a “spectrum of states of play”, and have coined the term “patterns of play” to cover this.

    Let’s not forget that Caillois includes theatre in his system as a form of play (not uncoincidentally, we call these performances “plays”) but to call theatre a game does seem to step outside of the family-resemblance category as it is normally applied. You *can* do this, but you’re on the road to calling everything play – which isn’t a million miles away from what Huizinga was gesturing at, frankly.

    The term non-game is emerging for games without express measures of performance or goals, and this appeals to me as a solution, but since it’s not taking off I imagine this isn’t going to settle the matter. Calling them “imposters” strikes me as churlish, though.

    As I ranted about recently in the context of the famous Sid Meier quote, I think part of the problem here is that some of us are considering decision-making (i.e. activation of the orbito-frontal cortex) as a boundary for games – which is rather elitist. Are you really going to tell me that a raffle, a foot race and Dance Dance Revolution are not games? We game intellectuals may be obsessed with our cerebral action, but many players aren’t! 🙂

    With respect to the boundary work, we’re never going to settle this out by alternative definitions, although we now have plenty of them to go around. We all choose whether to take a more inclusive or a more exclusive stance on this. Those of us who choose the former (such as myself) will fall prey to Richard’s criticism: “then what isn’t a game?” Those of us who choose the latter will fall prey to Wittgenstein’s criticism: “what of those things called games which don’t fit your definition?” No logical definition will suffice without objection for something which is a linguistic family resemblance category.

    What’s interesting to me about the emergence of titles like Wii Music et al isn’t that they challenge our notions of what a game is (for me, they do not), but that they show that we as an industry are finally adapting to the play needs of a wider audience! Or at least, Nintendo is…

    But I guess any appeal to end the boundary work will fail, because people are enjoying fighting over the borders. Well, I suppose we will all play whichever games entertain us! 😀

    Best wishes everyone!

  32. In that case, the gambler isn’t actually making Richard a player

    This makes me a token in your game, it doesn’t make me a player of your game. I’m no more playing it than a pawn is playing chess.

    I don’t understand how both of you quoted my first sentence and ignored it. The challenge was to make a game out of Richard’s walking to lunch. Period. There was, I repeat, no requirement that Richard have any participation in the play of the game.

    Sometimes, I make a game out of traffic light timing. It’s a game mostly consisting of skill, getting a feel for particular lights and how they change, and there’s immediate feedback if I get it wrong, because if I say, “Green!” and it doesn’t turn green, then I lose. You don’t criticize that game for not including the traffic light as a player.

    If you want to play, you make up your own game.

  33. to call theatre a game does seem to step outside of the family-resemblance category as it is normally applied.

    Perhaps not. Look up “Theatresports” for a form that is clearly a set of games. Other forms of improv can also be competitive, with scoring by audience feedback. And actors are notorious for finding ways to test one another’s ingenuity in overcoming the unexpected during a performance — it may not fit the normal definition of a game, but it certainly is a type of play within the play.

    Back in the olden days, when my language of choice was Atari Basic, I wrote a simple app to help me memorize lines for plays. All it did was feed me a cue and wait me to type my line, and it would not proceed until I got the line right. I can’t decide if that qualifies as a game or not, but I’m leaning towards retroactively declaring myself a game designer 🙂

  34. Michael Chui:

    I don’t understand how both of you quoted my first sentence and ignored it.

    I don’t understand how you could make the same assertion without realizing that, in your example, Richard is no more a player than a chess piece is a player. Like the real Richard said, in your example, he’s just a token. In your example, you are the player and you’ve already given your permission as a result of your playing the game you created.

  35. @Morgan, I’m pretty sure he did realize that Richard wasn’t a player, because he said as much.

    I think the confusion is stemming from the permission bit only applying to the players. He’s quite correct that as a token, Richard’s permission is not required. You’re also quite correct that the players must agree to play, or there’s no game.

    But when you get down to it, you’re both saying the same thing…

  36. Eolirin:

    But when you get down to it, you’re both saying the same thing…

    Michael’s arguing that permission is not required because he made “Richard” a player. Richard and I have stated that he did not make “Richard” a player; instead, Michael made “Richard” a token.

  37. Michael made “Richard” a token.

    Yes, I did. In fact, that’s all I did. I’m still perplexed as to how it could be seen any other way.

    “Richard” is just a token in a Plinko game. It freezes every time it drops down a level and you get to place a bet on which way it will fall next.

  38. […] Raph’s Website » Game Informer on “Impostor” games Raph Koster on games that aren't games, maybe: 'if we can orient the brain around real world models instead of the synthetic game ones, the logic goes, we can then use the strong feedback capabilities of software to help elucidate the model more, and thus encourage us to take the right actions.' […]

  39. Michael Chui:

    Yes, I did. In fact, that’s all I did.

    So… what’s your point? Let’s see…

    I wrote:

    Richard brings up an interesting point: games require permission first and foremost. Without the permission of players, there can be no game.

    You responded:

    There was no requirement for making Richard a player. Just put down a wager on his next significant action. Does he cross the street? Does he stop at the hot dog stand? Does he jaywalk?

    Richard replied:

    This makes me a token in your game, it doesn’t make me a player of your game.

    You responded:

    The challenge was to make a game out of Richard’s walking to lunch. Period. There was, I repeat, no requirement that Richard have any participation in the play of the game.

    If you agree that “Richard” is a token and not a player then the statement…

    Without the permission of players, there can be no game.

    …stands up to your “scrutiny.”

  40. The player is a third party. Let’s call him Joe. Bob Barker will call him down from the audience, and there’s a TV screen that’s showing a video some paparazzi took of Richard going to lunch. They freeze the video every few moments and ask Joe, “What’s he going to do next?”

    Does this help?

  41. I stopped reading when the blog became a chat room. Needless to say Raph, I think what you’re talking about (Wii Music et al) are simulations. Games can come from them, but they aren’t games in and of themselves. Many times simulations and games cross over because computers have the power of persistent immersion that real world games do not, but they are not games straight out of the box unless they have rules and a goal. However, once someone makes a goal in a simulation then it becomes a game. It’s like the basketball metaphor pointed about earlier.

  42. @Chris,

    I find it nice that you remind us that this is a debate about boundaries or borders. Maybe this gives us a chance to remind each other that most of the lines we draw between types of games and play are purely analytic and cannot be observed in such pure forms in practice. After all, a concept is itself an abstraction, a model, or a simulation. Maybe our goal is not to capture a “single truth” about games, but to design concepts that remain instrumental in the face of the multi-facettedness of games and play. Probably this is one reason why researchers like Callois refrain from taxonomies. They aren’t flexible enough.

    There are some interesting studies in cultural antropology that try to capture the nature of play and games by looking at situations in which players are “borderwalking”. Players often seem to oscillate between ludic and paideic play states in game settings that we would tend to classify as either ludus or paidea. Sutton-Smith speaks of “games of order” and “games of order and disorder” in this regard. Victor Turner uses the words “liminal” and “liminoid”, based on the latin “limen”, which means treshold.

    I also believe that Cziksentmihaly’s notion “autotelic play” is useful in understanding games that Raph calls “imposter” games.

    Terry Eagleton’s book “Literary Theory” had an interesting argument. It said that the question “What is Literature?” could be nothing more than the inscription of a gravestone. What is needed are better questions.

    A side note on Huizinga: I don’t agree that Huizinga is anywhere close to the thought that everything is sort of play. My understanding of Homo Ludens is that it is in first stance a book on culture, and not on play. It approaches cultural phenomena in the light of studies on games and play in cultural antropology. I read his statement “play is older than culture” as his epistemological motto. Taking play as a frame of reference, is a way to look at culture and its historical appearance in a different way, it helps for the establishment of a critical distance towards culture. This is by the way a motive shared by Callois. Their attempt is in understanding culture. Play and games are rather instruments to gain an insight on the broader laws of society. You can see the same in Geertz or Levi-Strauss studies. I don’t believe that any of these scholars would join any attempt to promote the rather populist thought that “life’s just a game”.

  43. @Chris,

    I find it good that you remind us that this is a debate about boundaries (or borders). Maybe this gives us a chance to remind each other that most of the lines we draw between types of games and play are purely analytic and cannot be observed in such pure forms in practice. After all, the concepts we propose are abstractions, models, or simulations themselves. Maybe our goal is not to capture THE ultimate truth about games, but to design analytical tools that remain instrumental in the face of the multi-facettedness of games and play. Probably this is one reason why researchers like Callois refrain from taxonomies. Taxonomies aren’t flexible enough. You start to chop reality down to a size that fits your model.

    There are some interesting studies in cultural antropology that try to capture the nature of play and games by looking at situations in which players are “borderwalking”. Players often seem to oscillate between ludic and paideic play states in game settings that we would tend to classify as either ludus or paidea. Sutton-Smith speaks of “games of order” and “games of order and disorder” in this regard. Victor Turner uses the words “liminal” and “liminoid”, based on the latin “limen”, which means treshold.

    I also believe that Cziksentmihaly’s notion “autotelic play” is useful in understanding games that Raph calls “imposter” games.

    Terry Eagleton’s book “Literary Theory” had an interesting argument. It said that the question “What is Literature?” could be nothing more than the inscription of a gravestone. What is needed are better questions.

    A side note on Huizinga: I don’t agree that Huizinga is anywhere close to the thought that everything is sort of play. My understanding of Homo Ludens is that it is in first stance a book on culture, and not on play. It approaches cultural phenomena in the light of studies on games and play in cultural antropology. I read his statement “play is older than culture” as his epistemological motto. Taking play as a frame of reference, is a way to look at culture and its historical appearance in a different way, it helps for the establishment of a critical distance towards culture. This is by the way a motive shared by Callois. Their attempt is in understanding culture. Play and games are rather instruments to gain an insight on the broader laws of society. You can see the same in Geertz or Levi-Strauss studies. I don’t believe that any of these scholars would join any attempt to promote the rather populist thought that “life’s just a game”.

  44. Sorry btw, it’s not Raph who calls them “impostor” games.

    I believe his reference to Yeats’ poem has a lot common with the Czsiksentmihalyc “autotelic play” notion (and his description of flow which states that the reward/goal in this mental state is the participiation in the process itself).

    It is a very old notion though. Some of the oldest myths tell us stories about travels whose initially stated goals, so it turns out, were never really reachable. The protagonists find out that the reward/goal was the travel itself, the participation in it: Jason and the Argonauts; the Simurg birds; you name it… Hesse, who connects to Buddhist philosophy, is known to have said that “life has no goal; it is a path that leads to ourselves”, again an emphasis that the reward is participation. The search for Nirvana in his novel Siddharta reflects this “autotelic” stance.

    In Islamic culture, especially Sufism, you can see a similar thing in Mansur Al-Hallaj’s philosophy who is known for saying “En el Hak”, literally “I am god”, but actually meaning, “I can’t know my faith from the divine being that it is directed towards.”

    To come back to Sutton-Smith and Victor Turner. They see the catalyst for social change in these “liminal” or “liminoid” situations in which playful borderwalking comes at a point where whole rule sets of society start to be questioned. The individual borderwalking might not be enough to change society, but they make visible what culture tries to hide: the seams of the social construct, which are its weakest point, the evidence that social order is just fabricated and not “natural” as those in power would claim. This is why play was so important for sociologists and culture researchers like Huizinga and Callois. They were tools to understand how society could be changed towards something better.

  45. Altug: thank you for your thoughtful response!

    “…most of the lines we draw between types of games and play are purely analytic and cannot be observed in such pure forms in practice.”

    I completely agree! I’m not saying that useful things don’t come from the boundary work, but one can’t expect this issue to ever be “settled” in any finite sense, I think.

    “I don’t agree that Huizinga is anywhere close to the thought that everything is sort of play.”

    I overstepped my mark here: I meant to emphasise Huizinga’s idea that we play culture, not to suggest that Huizinga was attempting to remove the distinction. His “magic circle” rather *creates* the distinction! 🙂 But as is so often when I’m rushing to comment I breeze over clarity in the corners of my ideas.

    I saw an adaptation of Siddharta and was quite shocked at how faithful to Buddhist philosophy it was – for some reason, I didn’t expect that. I always assumed there was something going on here beyond the (endless) process of reinterpreting Buddhist thought for the West. I would be wary of linking Flow to a philosophy of life, however; much as I have found Czikzentmihalyi’s model to be useful in my work, I would be wary of suggesting that Buddhist philosophy can be encapsulated in the notion of autoteleos. There’s a parallel, to be sure, and meditation is certainly a form of Flow, but something is lost in the attempt to equate the two, don’t you think?

    As for Sufi philosophy, again, while I appreciate your parallel here the mystic implications of “I am God” are far wider than in the context being discussed here (as I’m sure you appreciate!) Poor al-Hallaj was executed for uttering this “blasphemy” simply because people did not realise what he meant… I hadn’t thought of this as a parallel to Buddhist thought previously, but your rewriting of this clearly expresses non-duality!

    But now, we have wandered so far from the point, and into territory much more suitable for my blog that Raph’s! 😀

    Best wishes!

  46. I thought it was on topic and interesting, myself! 🙂

  47. Over the weekend I had the pleasure to read two books that were about aesthetic experience.

    Peter de Bolla (in his book Art and Aesthetic ) uses the phrase “affective experience” to describe what we feel in our encounters with art objects. He speaks of “silence” as the purest expression of the “affective experience”. (Similarily, the “flow” experience seems to be an experience where words become redundant). Brolla says, that it is not really “knowledge” that we gain from this process, but that it is rather a “sense of wisdom”. To learn something from the experience or gain sense through it is rather like engaging in the creation of an art object without really having an idea about how you manage to create it. It just happens to happen. The mental state is one close to “admiration”.

    George Bataille on the other hand, in his “Literature and Evil”, speaks of “poetic” and “mystical experience”. In the opening chapter about Bronte, Bataille refers to “divine intoxication”, which is “the intensity of the moment”. Later on he calls it “the domain of the moment” and “the kingdom of childhood”.

    Of course from the first second on I had to think of Yeats’ poem that Raph posted up here. What Yeats seems to describe is an instance of “divine intoxication”.

    Bataille continues his words by saying: “Contemplation liberated from discoursive reflection has the simplicity of a child’s laugh.” But when I read this sentence, I rather had to think of flow and not of divine intoxication. There seems to be a difference. More than just a difference in shade. But one of substance too.

    This brought me to two often asked questions about games: “Can games create emotions? Can games be art?” After I read de Brolla and Bataille, I would rather like to ask: What is the “trademark” experience unique to games? (what to use instead of “affective”, “poetic” or “mystical”?) How close can you push that unique experience towards the experience of “divine intoxication” or “poetic/mystical/affective experience”? Is it possible at all? Besides: is it necessary to push it there?

    I agree when Raph says about “imposter games” that “these are merely games where the game is us”. But then I feel that there is a radical difference in the experience that Yeats describes.

    How many different childhood kingdoms are there? Which is the one that games allow you to enter? Or do you think all magic circles are the same?

  48. What is the “trademark” experience unique to games?

    Immersive?

    How close can you push that unique experience towards the experience of “divine intoxication” or “poetic/mystical/affective experience”? Is it possible at all?

    How about Bacchus? Or perhaps E.A.R.T.H.?

  49. Bacchus must be a very interesting game! I’d love to play it. I wonder if it really gets you to a state of raging joy and collective ecstasy.

    What I find interesting is that Dan says in his article that he doesn’t consider Bacchus to be a game 🙂 Why? Because of formal reasons (like no clear goals and rules etc), or because the emotional experience in Bacchus is different from that of “flow” or “immersion”? I would say that flow and immersion are too “reserved” notions when it comes to express the raging joy and emotional density you experience during a Bacchus-rite.

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