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What Is A Game? An Excerpt From Imaginary Games
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What Is A Game? An Excerpt From Imaginary Games

November 25, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next

[In this abridgement of the first chapter of new book Imaginary Games, available via this Amazon link, game designer, philosopher, and writer Chris Bateman, best known for the game Discworld Noir and the book Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames, examines the game-as-art debate from an interesting new angle.]

What is a Game?

In April 2010, esteemed film critic Roger Ebert walked unknowingly into the teeth of a rancorous beast when he posted on his blog that not only were video games not art, they could never be art. Given that the internet is packed to its virtual rafters with belligerent gamers who will argue to the death over the insignificant minutiae of their preferred forms of play, this inevitably unleashed a storm of criticism.

In many respects, it was a boon for the games industry that Ebert had chosen to wade in on this topic, since there were enumerable critics in various media who would simply have treated the entire subject with disdain. Whatever one makes of Ebert's claims, he at least had the respect for the medium of digital games to consider this topic seriously.

But what is art, and what is a game? There is a temptation, as Ebert observed, to think that this is simply a matter of semantics and thus not a big deal -- an attitude embodying a rather wide prejudice against philosophy which Ebert, thankfully, does not share.

He quotes from the Greek philosophers in saying that art "improves or alters nature through a passage through what we might call the artist's soul, or vision," and constructs an argument based on the premise that, as goal-oriented activities, games are precluded from being considered art or, to put it another way, the possibility of winning in a game is anathema to artistry.

Yet not all things we call a 'game' include the notion of winning. A child's game of make-believe need not, and neither do most tabletop role-playing games, which are, at heart, a more sophisticated form of exactly the same thing as children's make-believe.

A rhyming game like 'ring a ring a roses' doesn't involve winning either, and certain computer games are equally divorced from an overarching goal -- Will Wright has called his game SimCity (Maxis, 1989) a "software toy", and there are many other games with ambiguity in this regard, such as the classic 8-bit title Deus Ex Machina (Croucher, 1985).

Before we can do justice to Ebert's argument, we must first establish with some confidence what we mean by the term 'game', and this is no easy matter. In fact, this has been recurring theme in the literature of game studies, which from the outset has involved nearly endless discussions concerning the boundary conditions of games. For the most part, we are no closer to an answer than we were when we began, but it is interesting to note that a great deal of the debate presumes that there is a definitive answer to be reached. The fact that people seem confident the term can be unraveled gestures at an underlying unity to the concept of a game, and thus suggests that the problem is not wholly insoluble.

In his 2009 keynote for the Digital Games Research Association (DiGRA), Ian Bogost admits that so much of the discussion within game studies has been dominated by this very question, "what is a game?" In an insightful summary of the 'moves' offered thus far, Bogost covers the history of this crucial investigation.

First, there was the ludology vs. narratology debate, which hinged upon whether games were best understood as a system of rules, or as fictions. But as Bogost notes, there is a false dichotomy in this approach. The question being asked is akin to "is a game a system of rules, like a story is a system of narration?" -- and worded this way, the sense of disjunction is removed and the answer is simply returned in the affirmative.

Jesper Juul provided the next major move in this debate, by suggesting in his seminal book Half-Real (2005) that: games are two rather different things at the same time: video games are real in that they are made of real rules that players actually interact with; that winning or losing a game is a real event. However, when winning a game by slaying a dragon, the dragon is not a real dragon, but a fictional one. To play a video game is therefore to interact with real rules while imagining a fictional world and a video game is a set of rules as well a fictional world.

Games are thus suggested to be both systems of rules and fictions. Bogost criticizes not this claim, but an underlying assumption that even if this is the case, the rules somehow have a kind of precedence -- some part of a game is more real than the other part (usually the rules). It is here that we reach the philosophical domain of ontology, where questions of being and reality are discussed. If someone makes a claim concerning what is real, they are asking an ontological question. This point will become important shortly.

Juul once again provides Bogost's "third move" -- the question of what is the appropriate area of study in respect of games: is it the games in themselves, or the players?

It leads to an idea that games 'exist' when players occupy them, which Bogost compares to Kant's breakthrough realization that whatever things may exist, we as humans only have access to them via our thought and senses. Once again, seen in this way we are no longer addressing the question "what is a game?" so much as we are dealing with the ontological implications of games.

Bogost has his sights in this keynote on introducing his own ontological move, based on the platform studies he has conducted with Nick Montfort. Here, a number of different component levels of digital games are systematically uncovered -- looking as games as just rules misses out on many key aspects.

In the case of the Atari VCS that Montfort and Bogost study in Racing the Beam (2009), the hardware and software constraints had distinct effects on the games that were (or could be) made. There are hidden elements in the nature of digital games to be teased out.

Drawing on the work of Levi Bryant and Graham Harman in ontology, and in particular the notion of a "flat ontology", Bogost boldly suggests that we entirely abandon attempts to claim a hierarchy of some kind in understanding games.

A game, he offers, is better understood from the perspective of such a flat ontology, one in which no one kind of entity has precedence over another (as in the case of the rules taking precedence over the fiction in Juul's half-real paradigm). Bogost goes further, suggesting we can look beyond the ontological elements that involve humans and throw the remit far wider such that: studies means not just studies about games-for-players, or as rules-for-games, but also as computers-for-rules, or as operational logics-for computers, or as silicon wafer-for-cartridge casing, or as register-for-instruction, or as radio frequencies-for-electron gun. And game is game not just for humans but also for processor, for plastic cartridge casing, for cartridge bus, for consumer... and so on.

It's a fascinating discussion that Bogost develops, one that takes a great deal of contemporary philosophy in its stride, and offers a refreshingly wide stance of its subject matter. But while his application of Harman and Bryant's object oriented ontology reveals some interesting questions, it's not clear that it answers the question we set out to explore in this chapter.

The matter at hand, you may recall, is "what is a game?" and it's far from clear that this is best dealt with as an ontological question. Ontology is principally concerned with what exists, the nature of being, or, in its wider scope, the grouping and relationships between entities. There is an ontological aspect associated with games, as we've already seen with Juul's concept of half-real, but to get to this kind of discussion requires a prior conception of what we mean by "game".

Bogost could not reach the conclusion that game studies should include such esoteric areas of exploration as the relationship between registers and instructions, or radio frequencies and electron guns, had he not already established that registers, instructions, radio frequencies and electron guns were all involved with games in some way. His conclusion presupposes a certain concept of a game. It is only by deploying this concept (whatever it is) that he is able to recognize the many things involved in digital games.

Treating "what is a game?" as an ontological question will not settle it once and for all, although that is not to say that ontology doesn't have an important role in a philosophical investigation of games. There are in fact some rather crucial questions in the intersection between games and reality -- and particular that nebulous concept "virtual reality" -- that warrant addressing.

For the time being, though, we must set this domain of philosophy to one side in order to undertake a philosophical investigation as to what the unifying concept behind "game" might be given that we can so easily and confidently act as if we know what a game is, despite not actually agreeing on any particular answer to the question "what is a game?"

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