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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 Previous Page 5 of 6 Next

Interpreting Unpredictability

The anthropologist Thomas Malaby has taken a particular interest in play and games, and has published a number of fascinating papers on the subject (2007, 2009), with particular reference to time he spent studying the role of play in contemporary Greek culture. One of Malaby's key observations concerning games are that they are processes, sustained by human practice. But what kind of process?

He notes that "Games are, at root, about disorder", recognizing a central role for contingency in games, and suggesting that the incredible unpredictability of our everyday experience bridges the gap between games and life in general: games contrive unpredictability, but life is by its very nature always already unpredictable. Contriving contingency is one of the things that games excel at, since games which are readily predictable rapidly become boring.

The element of uncertainty, while crucial, is not the whole of the matter. Malaby (2007) observes that a second crucial aspect of games is their capacity to generate meaning. The many kinds of situation that can occur within a game (including but in no way restricted to the goal states and final outcomes, such as winning) happen in never wholly predictable ways and are "subject to interpretations by which more or less stable culturally shared meanings are generated."

This generation of meaning is a critical aspect of the game experience, and it is thoroughly open-ended. Not only can the way games are played alter within any particular social group, but the meanings that a game can generate can also change.

This appreciation of the meaning of the internal states of games is crucial to understanding the play of a great many games, and particular of digital games. The more complex games are not always undertaken for the sake of winning, even if this forms part of the framework of motivation.

No, what is rewarding in a game is the interpretability of the states the rules of the game throw into the player's awareness. Nowhere is this more clear than with a game like The Sims (Maxis, 2000) or the game I designed with Gregg Barnett, Ghost Master (Sick Puppies, 2003), where a great deal of the player's enjoyment is in the stories they tell about the little people running around on screen.

There is an important connection at this point with stories. Stories too are processes, and like Malaby's games they aim to be compelling or engaging, and possess a characteristic capacity to generate meaning by their internal states. There is a temptation to say that, unlike games, the content of stories is fixed, static -- but this reaction is premature.

Perhaps the most important states generated by a story are the emotional states of the participant --the reader of a book, the viewer of a play -- and these do indeed change, and the meaning of the internal states of the story also change (for instance, upon seeing the end of a movie, we may have a different understanding of what happens in the middle).

Furthermore, uncertainty is central to stories. It is oft said that "stories are about conflict", but this is a gross simplification. True, conflict is a common storytelling device, but there are many stories without express conflicts, such as love stories which rest upon misunderstandings, rags-to-riches tales of outrageous fortune, and adventure stories, all of which sustain the reader's interest by maintaining curiosity.

What is common to all well-regarded stories is uncertainty, the desire to discover what happens next, and conflict (i.e. competition) is just one of many ways that uncertainty can be generated. All this underlines the affinity between stories and games, and emphasizes the connectivity between play and art.

Malaby ultimately defines a game as "a semibounded and socially legitimate domain of contrived contingency that generates interpretable outcomes." This is something of a mouthful... Much of the wording goes to acknowledging that there is a special space that play occurs within -- what is often termed the magic circle -- but that it is porous ("semibounded").

The key point is that games are about contriving contingency to be interpreted. This is also true of stories. It is equally true of many other forms of art that are not expressly narrative in nature; I am unsure how Jackson Pollock's work is to be understood if it is not a form of contrived contingency intended to be open to interpretation.

The perspective on play presented in Malaby's work is refreshingly distinct from the usual tropes in game studies, for Malaby (2009) insists on seeing it not as a state (which would make it just a different aspect of a game) but as a disposition. He asserts, with reference to William James (1961) that "play becomes an attitude characterized by a readiness to improvise in the face of an ever-changing world that admits of no transcendently ordered account."

Malaby thus recognizes that when we play -- in games or in life -- we are adopting a particular attitude towards our activity, one that is fundamentally different from the attitude expected in the formal games of culture (such as the institution of money or bureaucracy) which "aim to bring about determinate outcomes".

Thus, following Malaby, games can be understood as processes that utilize uncertainty in particular ways to create compelling and engaging experiences, while play is best understood as a willingness to improvise in the face of uncertainty. Play is thus an attitude we adopt towards uncertainty, and games processes that may make use of this disposition, contriving, simulating or even suppressing contingency so that we might interpret what results. Paradoxically, games on this reading need not be undertaken in a playful spirit, even though the notion of a game may depend upon an understanding of play.

I want to make the further claim that this understanding of play and games extends to the world of art -- that art too can be understood as processes that make use of our attitude towards uncertainty and contingency to create compelling and engaging experiences and that invite us to interpret their states in meaningful ways.

The world of art seems akin to play undertaken in seriousness, play that has acquired a kind of cultural gravitas and esteem. As M.C. Escher put the matter: "My art is a game, a very serious game." In short, I want to assert that it is incoherent to claim, as Ebert does, that games cannot be art, since seen from the appropriate perspective all art is a game.

Article Start Previous Page 5 of 6 Next

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