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Play ?

by Andraz Bole on 07/02/14 08:54:00 pm

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


I have two passions in my life. Games and Philosophy. Well technically I have three, but I count martial arts as games. Even though it may not seem like it at first glance, they are thoroughly intertwined activities. They deal with problems at an elementary level. Philosophy as a mind activity is a very sneaky thing, because it never really gets us anywhere. It marvels in an eternal proximity of „just around the corner“ but never delivers. Since it isnt meant to deliver, but come to be as the process of delivery. Kind of like the old-school Mario franchise mantra: „Thank you Mario, but our princess is in another castle!“. Miyamoto strikes me as the magnificent Socrates in disguise, subliminally converting masses of kids, teens and adults alike into a generation of game philosopers. Thank you, ありがと.


The spirit of such mind activities should hone game designers, to place the players into the game world and treat it as a wondrous bazaar, where solutions are not something one simply follows, but something one uncovers. Finding solutions is everything games are about. Game design, I think, should completely embrace this task and help the player to better understand the problematic core in any game without giving him an answer. For a really simple example most should understand, vanilla version of World of Warcraft (even though there are tons of other examples), has done this wonderfully, where „questing“ meant unraveling the tasks at hand, however generic they may have been, instead of merely following symbols, checking the success conditions and fullfilling them. The player is constantly torn between inventing solutions and discovering solutions. And this is the magical unknown where Games enchant us, hex us and turn us into mindless, playing undead !


There is something profoundly irrational about playing. Finding a way out of a deadlock, that is fueled by a playful, never ending set of actions. This irrational is crucial to the understanding of why we love to Play and plunge into the magical place mentioned above. The interesting thing is, that this irrational works only as such, as unknown, mistified. Every attempt at uncovering it, demistifying it, checking out how it works „under the hood“ brings about a certain debilitating, impotent dynamic of mechanical actions. These seem utterly stupid, and a complete waste of time if looked at for what they are. The substance of Play has the structure of a miracle and we should leave it at that.


Through this veil, games bring up and educate their subjects, namely, the players. Games are, at heart, complex networks of prohibitions. You can go „here“, but can't go „there“, you can do „this“ but can't do „that“. How they communicate that to the player is where design turns for the better or for the worse. Their internal dynamic is much akin to a parent teaching its infant not to cross the road when the red light is on. The prohibition only makes sense if the kid will eventually understand why its a no-no to cross the street at the red light, not just because „Mom said so!“.


Games are the purest form of ethical activity. From a very real point of view, they are breeding their players. Not with content though, which would be the obvious first choice, but with interaction. The way we play influences us on a much, much more intimate level, than any first hand sensory content experience that we get bombarded with. The eccstatic moment, for example, when I start an orgasmically relieving combo in a connect-3 game like Candy crush saga, beautifully unveils how responsibility actually works as a network of consistency. Things can get out of control really fast. The chain reaction of consequence that started at my fingertips sometimes takes me to a place (a repositioning of candy items in the level) that is much less favorable than the one from before the clearing. „It aint all bells and whistles“, but the choice we are given is ours to make, and ours to bear, so to speak. Each move we make, spends our „move counter“, that eventually takes our life if we arent able to fullfil the „victory condition“ of each specific level. The fact that there is a counter instead of a timer, makes the crucial difference, because we arent being measured by an impartial meter, but by the scale of our own actions.


It has been bugging me forever, and still I cannot decide whether we play games or are they playing us? The gaming subject (the I, that plays) always emerges from nothing, when gaming, through cultivation, care and reflection on the mechanics that stand in front of us. You never, ever „just“ play. There is always something missing. Herein lies in my opinion the most relevant statement of modern gaming. Which is not that of virtual realities and their mimetic potential, but the revelation that reality is virtual! And only a philosopher gamer of the Miyamoto era will eventually truly be able to understand, why there is no spoon.

1SICART, Miguel : The Ethics of Video Games, The MIT Press (August 19, 2011) 

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