|An Aesthetics of Games|
C. Thi Nguyen
We are in an age of flourishing and innovation for games. Games are getting more creative, more biting, more innovative and just plain stranger. The aesthetic headliners these days are usually the independent, self-consciously arty wing of computer games. Take, for example, the intentionally queasy Papers, Please, a computer game in which you play a border security guard in a fictional Eastern European country, tasked with endlessly scrutinizing paperwork, looking for forgeries, incentivized by the game with promotions and rewards for shutting out desperate immigrants.
This explosion of game innovation in the digital sphere has been accompanied by perhaps an even more interesting set of design experiments in non-digital game development. Take, for example, the avant-garde wing of tabletop role-playing games—as in, you know, Dungeons and Dragons, with people sitting around the table, playing characters, rolling dice and killing orcs. Except now we have such experiments as Dog Eat Dog, the role-playing game where one player plays the colonists, and the others play the colonized, and the only starting rule is, “The colonizer is always right," and only the colonizer is allowed to make new rules. Or: The Quiet Year, a strange and moody little game set sometime after the apocalypse where the players guide a small community, perched on the edge of survival, through a quiet year between catastrophes. The players don't play individuals—they play values or thought patterns in the community, like “xenophobia" or “fraternity" and act through individuals. Or the truly cynical board game Imperial, a game where the players play shadowy bankers, trading war bonds during WWI, manipulating the sovereign powers into the most profitable wars.
So: are games a form of art? Are games capable of supporting aesthetic experiences? There's already quite a bit written on these topics, much of it by members of the ASA. There are, to paint with a broad brush, two main approaches. The first is to view games as a descendent of some familiar aesthetic form; the second is to view games as a unique and new form. There are, of course, both extremists and diplomatic synthesizers of the two traditions. In the European game studies community, this took the form of a debate between the “narratologists" and the “ludologists." The narratologists think that games can be read with the techniques developed for texts (Janet Murray, for example, famously read Tetris, the high-speed game of placing falling blocks, as a metaphor for over-busy working lives of Americans). The ludologists think that games are an entirely unique and new form, and must be studied with an entirely fresh set of tools.
One particular academic discipline, which calls itself “game studies", is populated by many a ludologist, but elsewhere in the academy, games tend to be assimilated to more familiar forms. For example: Mary Flanagan, game designer and game academic, has spear-headed a movement for what she calls “critical play"—for games that are socially aware and critical. Her bid for the worthiness of games involves showing how they function in a way similar to much contemporary art, especially conceptual art and performance art. She's interested in games as social disruption and political critique: like Frasca's September 2012: A Toy World, where you play the US army, gunsights aimed at a Middle Eastern village, searching for terrorists, and discover, over the course of play, that your attempts to eliminate terrorists only result in destroyed property, slaughtered innocents, and more terrorists. Over in the analytic aesthetics scene, there's been excellent work showing that video games can work as fiction. Grant Tavinor has argued extensively that Walton's theory of fiction applies to videogames. Ian Bogost has argued for games as a kind of rhetoric, that they can, by presenting models of economic and political systems, make a novel sort of argument.
These analyses all proceed by connecting games to some other aesthetic paradigm—texts, narratives, fictions. Lying underneath many of these approaches is a question about representation and communication. What, we ask, is it that a game means? And, accordingly, if we are to treat games as special in any way, how does particular nature give games a novel way to convey meanings? For some, the answer will be in interactivity. Tavinor treats the interactivity of videogames, in particular, as a tool to bring about greater imaginative immersiveness, especially in the first person character. For others, it is in the fact that games are an interactive simulation. Frasca has written here in a vein similar to Bogost's: games offer simulations, and they offer simplified simulations, that allow for a phenomenological, internal “take" on some complex causal system.
Interestingly, there is another philosophical field that has studied games, using an entirely different set of conceptual frames, and been lead down a different path—the philosophy of sports. Philosophers of sports typically view games not as a kind of text, but as a designed context for actions. Philosophers of sport have, accordingly, developed their own set of aesthetic questions, which are very different from questions about meaning. For philosophers of sport, the aesthetics of sport has to do with performance: with the experience of skilled performance, with the feel of overcoming challenges, with the appreciation of extraordinary performance and competitive drama by the spectators. This has led philosophers of sport to an entirely different set of aesthetic questions. For example: is an aesthetic experience only available to those spectators with no particular sporting allegiance, or can a fan have an aesthetic experience? And: can playing a sport be an aesthetic experience, or does the essentially competitive, aggressive nature of skilled sport make aesthetic experiences impossible?
It seems to me clear that both tracks are on to something very important about games. Surely games are fictions, surely games can make arguments, but surely they also do something distinctive: they present challenges, provide opportunities for the use and display of skills. Bernard Suits' account of games is quite useful here: Suits suggests that playing a game is voluntarily underrating unnecessary obstacles for the sake of the activity they make possible—for example, for the experience of overcoming challenges. Such an account unites sports, computer games, and board games, and opens the door for the possibility of a unified aesthetic of designed experiences of overcoming challenges. Dominic Lopes has suggested that any account of computer art must take seriously its interactivity; for Lopes, an account of computer art fails if it doesn't successfully differentiate between the aesthetic experience of an interactive user and a mere spectator to interaction.
It seems to me that computer games are a subset of computer art; they meet Lopes' definition of computer art, but add one more criterion: they are goal-oriented. We explore computer art, but we play computer games to win. If this is so, then an aesthetics of computer games must take into account the goal-orientation of game-play. That is, to parrot and amplify Lopes, an aesthetic of computer games must distinguish between the spectator of play, the interactive explorer and the goal-oriented player.
So: let me suggest the following questions that are addressed to the unique properties of computer games, and games in general. First: how do the interactivity and the goal orientation of games help build the experience of game-play? How can goal-oriented play help the fictional experience, or the rhetorical experience, and vice versa? Second, what are the possible modes of game-appreciation? Since games are such richly complex interactive objects, I'd like to suggest that there are several ways we can appreciate a game. First, we can appreciate it, as Lopes suggests, from an exploratory standpoint. We can appreciate the way the work constructs the available space of interactions. Second, we can appreciate it in play—in the absorbed moment of skilled and active overcoming of a game's challenges.
This leads to, I think, a number of quite unique questions about the nature of the game object, and the nature of proper appreciation. Suppose we were actually convinced that games could offer aesthetic experiences. What is the nature of the work of a game, and what are the norms for proper experience? For example, if we are to follow out Lopes' view that interactive arts require an exploration of the possibility-space for proper appreciation, then we get a straightforward normative response: for proper appreciation of a computer game, one must play many times, and explore the possible outcomes. Furthermore: what is the relationship between skilled play and aesthetic appreciation? Does one have to be any good at a game to be an appropriate judge of its design qualities? I suspect so, and I suspect that this presents a significant difference between the appreciative kinds of museum computer art, which Lopes primarily focuses on, and the appreciative kind of games. Games need to be played well to be brought fully into view.
There are hints, here and there, that are worth pursuing. Some people in the philosophy of sports have suggested that there is an aesthetic of experiencing one's bodily skills in deployment. There are moments scattered throughout the literature of games that make similar noises about the aesthetics of puzzles—the aesthetics of feeling one's mind confront, struggle with, and grasp, in an epiphanic moment, the solution. Similar words have been spoken about the beauty of a well-played game of chess. And then there are questions about how the aesthetics of challenge might integrate with the aesthetics of fiction, with the rhetorical capacity of games.
For those that are interested in these topics, there are a number of venues available. There is an annual European conference on the Philosophy of Computer Games, and, as of this year, a brand new Journal of the Philosophy of Games (the latest CFP's are at jpg.gamephilosophy.org). I and other members of the ASA are in the process of organizing a (hopefully annual) Stateside workshop on the philosophy of games (for more information on this, see http://objectionable.net/philgames/.