“The person who cannot lose himself in full earnest in a game or give himself over to the spirit of the game, but instead stands outside it, is a ‘spoil sport’, one who cannot play.” — David Linge, in the introduction to Gadamer’s Philosophical Hermeneutics
I found this great essay about the development of modern game theory, and the fight between different academic departments to claim this new field of study as their own. (By “game theory” I mean the study of games and game design, not the mathematical field of decision theory.)
Espen fears that game theory will be colonized by literary theorists, who try to understand games using the metaphors of storytelling and narrative and so on. He argues that the narrative aspect of games is basically just semiotic window-dressing, the real subject-matter is a sort of cognitive simulation device. I agree with him completely.
The reponse from Stuart Mouthrop completely misses the point. He wants the right to study chess by relating it to European feudalism, or to study Tomb Raider as a Western adolescent wank-fantasy, or whatever.
I hereby concede to him this right. It seems like one could say something interesting about how Go relates to Eastern philosophy, for example. So go ahead, write your thesis on the sociology of Dance Dance Revolution, or the racist/colonialist subtext in Pac-Man. Let a million flowers bloom, I say!
“No doubt one can play [chess] without connecting this logic to European history, but such an approach reduces chess to a series of abstract transactions, which may work well enough for mathematics but seems far too narrow for any serious cultural critique.”
The trouble is that this tells us nothing about the game as such. The fact that chess is a way of playing and not a way of singing or painting is irrelevant to this kind of analysis. For example, it does not seem to reveal any interesting insight about the difference in experience between Gary Kasparov and the observer watching his game. This distinction is immaterial to the game as cultural artifact, but any game theory worth the name had better be able to offer criticism from the intimate perspective of the player.
Gadamer wrote, “all playing is a being-played.” The very gameliness of games is in the act of giving oneself over to the system of rules and signs, allowing the game to play you. The rules of a game provide a kind of aesthetic framework, metaphorically comparable to dramatic structure. This aspect of a game is not knowable by reading the rules; it emerges from the performance of participants and has a structure all its own.
I personally feel that Go is somehow a slightly better, more elegant game than Chess. I also feel that Chess is a better game than Snakes-and-Ladders, and that Half-Life is a better game than System Shock 2. It seems off-topic to try and understand these comparisons by linking Chess to feudalism or Snakes-and-Ladders to phallocentrism. These may very well be interesting topics of cultural exploration in their own right, but their connection to game theory and criticism is trivial.
The literary theorists think that games would be improved if they better conformed to the conventions of narrative and dramatic structure already established in other forms of entertainment. I think this would make them either bad games or non-games, just movies with decision points or something.