This is a guest post by Chris Reid.
The destinies of cultures can be read in games.
–Roger Callois, Man, Play, and Games
Before it was stolen, patented, and sold to the Parker Brothers, Monopoly was “The Landowner’s Game,” a Georgist propaganda piece meant to illustrate the unfair behavior of the landowning class. The game accomplished this by setting up rules and fictions (game mechanics) that generate a reliable system behavior (game dynamic) which produced the intended experience (aesthetic): That aesthetic, frustration, has disrupted family game nights for decades. The dynamic is familiar to nearly anyone who has played it: those who manage to own more property have the money and power to be better insulated against chance, and those who don’t are likely to lose even more. The game spirals out as losers are burnt down to nothing and winners become even more powerful. Winners might find the game fun. Losers are deliberately irritated by a slow, nearly unavoidable death. In theory, the game mechanics could be adjusted to produce a ‘smoother’ outcome for more players, but it was never the point. It wouldn’t be “Monopoly” otherwise.
Games are living things. In multiplayer experiences, the community of players can enforce rules, eject jerks, and adapt the game to fit their collective needs through precedent setting, apologetics, etc.- I often have to ask about “house rules” when getting into the nitty-gritty of Monopoly – what do you do with Public Parking in this house? Are there housing limitations? The manual has “definitive” answers but people sometimes have their own canon.
Often, on the first tests of a newly designed multiplayer game, the mechanics won’t generate the intended system behavior because humans are tricky. Even if the system gets the major kinks worked out over time, we can still anticipate the occasional flouting of the letter of the rules (i.e. cheaters) and, often even worse, the flouting of the spirit of the system (i.e. spoilsports, who are technically not so much cheaters as the game-world’s apostates or psychopaths).
Play is apparently a very old behavior- certainly older than humans, as we see animals imitate aggression for sport or personal training or pecking order or maybe for no purpose at all. Structured games are younger, likely as old as civilization- some philosophers believe that it is the basis of civilization altogether. Despite these broad claims by some, ‘game design’ largely refers to the design of a very narrow set of artifacts: usually videogames (and sometimes board games), usually designed by a specific person or group and constructed for use with a narrow set of technologies to be sold for profit. I hope to convince you that, far beyond even Monopoly, there is a world of play and games that is much broader than definitions including ‘fun’ or ‘non-seriousness’, and that there exist frameworks for thinking about the way that games are built and maintained by play communities.
The mid-20th century work of Johan Huizinga and Roger Caillois takes a cultural/anthropological view of game studies. They declare broad, sweeping theses about games as cultural products and see play as the “civilizing element of culture.” Caillois suggests that all forms of play are voluntary, uncertain in outcome, in their own time and space separate from “life outside” of play, and governed by some kind of logic that distinguishes it from non-play. Unstructured play tends to grow into more structured games as the activity takes shape and rules are litigated into clarity by the play community.
Caillois and these other anthropological philosophers of play were cataloguing and dissecting games before the advent of videogames, which is reflected in their point of view:
- one, they are not speaking as ‘practitioners’ of a huge industry talking to itself, seeking cultural legitimacy; they generally speak of games as cultural products instead of as the expression of a specific creator with an intent. (For his part, Huizinga- the father of the cheater/spoilsport distinction- believed that ‘modern’ games and sports were sterile bastardizations, uncreative and unplay-like due to the warping influence of profit-making).
- and two, they predate the sheer domination of videogames as examples of games in our culture in general
How dominant are videogames in the discussion of games? We could illustrate this dominance in the logic of the First Person Shooter (FPS). Many of you readers are probably highly “FPS-literate”: you could pick up an unknown title in an unknown language (and perhaps even with an unfamiliar controller) and would instantly understand a slew of complex conventions, and get right to “work” – you can probably infer the goals, game mechanics, and feedback shorthands in very little time. Even an “innovative” FPS title today generally requires very little new acquaintance.
It’s likely that much of the development of the First Person Shooter as a “thing” is a forced hand in the design space of possible videogames, since we’ve probably been roleplaying warfare since before language, and gunplay is a widely-understood form of romanticized violence. Media Studies Professor (and Cow Clicker creator!) Ian Bogost has often made the case that plenty about the design of the FPS is also based on path-dependent events during development of specific conventions. Computational limitations have forced entrepreneurial developers to whip up neat tricks that become canonized by player recognition (e.g. “crates in conspicuous places should probably be investigated”). New games are seeded with quirks and conventions from whatever Game Engine was licensed to save coding effort and time. We can often feel the similarity in games that share an engine, even if we don’t know which game engine is which. The Quake II Engine produced a single-player narrative-driven experience in Half-Life, and a multiplayer experience in Counter-Strike.
Rules are inseparable from play as soon as the latter becomes institutionalized.
[Imagine] a continuum between two poles. At one extreme an almost indivisible principle, common to diversion, turbulence, free improvisation, and carefree gaiety is dominant. It manifests a kind of uncontrolled fantasy that can be designated by the term paidia. At the opposite extreme, this frolicsome and impulsive exuberance is almost entirely absorbed or disciplined by a complementary, and in some respects inverse, tendency to its anarchic and capricious nature: there is a growing tendency to bind it with arbitrary, imperative, and purposefully tedious conventions, to oppose it still more by ceaselessly practicing the most embarrassing chicanery upon it, in order to make it more uncertain of attaining its desired effect. This latter principle is completely impractical, even though it requires an ever greater amount of effort, patience, skill, or ingenuity. I call this second component ludus.
Roger Callois, Man, Play, and Games
The domination of the videogame in our thinking about games can lead to interesting confusions. Videogames are calcified games, much more ludus (structured games) than paedia (free play). My First Person Shooter example above helps to illustrate this.
A non-digital game’s rules are like “laws” in the legal sense- its rules can be ignored or broken (at the risk of being caught and punished); a videogame’s rules are often better thought of as “laws” in the “natural law” sense – as a description of physics in the universe of the game, as non-negotiable boundaries to the players’ range of activities. “Cheat codes” are pre-ordained “allowable” behaviors that are simply hidden facts of the game universe for the player to discover. Cheat codes are not really ‘cheating’, although they might be spoilsport behaviors, i.e. not in the spirit of the system’s intended use.
The videogame is an authoritative game master, turning guidelines into physical law. There is no act of rules interpretation, no apologetics between players and swayable referees. There are no mercy rules and no “house rules.”
While videogames are different from games in this way, the most long-lived videogames are often online multiplayer experiences that create a hybrid between hard videogame and softer human-mediated game rules. Communities grow as living parts built on the relatively inflexible skeleton of the videogame world. The hard videogame world offers goals and interesting limitations to navigate. In the softer social world above it, expert players create eternal endgames – competitions, goals, house rules, and narratives around their communities – in order to continue the play long after the newbie grind of linear content ends. Tips are traded on how to push the limits that the videogame allows, in order to help players feel the thrill of a challenge, to socialize, to beat others, or to produce some sort of unique personal experience. “Elder Games” (i.e. higher-order games) develop in the space above and around the game that was actually designed by developers.
There is one other salient property in a videogame, that also exists in other kinds of games [courtesy again of Bogost]: the simulation gap, the difference between the rule-based system and the its representation to a player. Cognitive effort is necessary to “fill in” the gap. All structured games and videogames are maps of a more complex territory, the world the game means to “actually represent.” Determining which elements of that real-world territory are pertinent to the game is an act of simplification, a design decision that demonstrates the values of the system. (e.g. “You only have this much space/money/time- what will you simulate?”) A common and easily understood illustration of this principle is SimCity, which boasts a system that simulates a city for the player to act as God-Mayor over. SimCity creator Will Wright:
Any simulation is a set of assumptions. So there is bias in any simulation, depending on how you look at it. […] First of all you have to clarify your internal model — how does a city really work? Most people, they’ll kind of roughly describe it, but they’ve never really thought in detail what the linkages are between different things. But when they’re playing a game like SimCity, which is one set of assumptions, it clarifies their own internal assumptions.
For SimCity, most of the value judgments about which variables are pertinent to the player are meant to be in service of a more fun game experience. Thus, several aspects of the city simulation are unfaithful to the reality of city management because they leverage biases that players already have. For example, regarding the risk of nuclear power plants blowing up, which Wright once compared to the erroneous action movie trope where “if you shoot a car enough times it simply explodes.” Other aspects of the territory being simulated are simply ignored, in order to reduce the player’s choices and make each choice more obviously meaningful. The role of the mayor in SimCity is basically all-powerful. SimCity has a tax theory. SimCity has a simple and coherent urban development theory. SimCity has a clear, linear, repeatable, and game-able technology tree that represents what the player may consider to be the big milestones in energy and transportation technology that can transform life in a fictional late-20th century town.
Procedural Literacy is the ability to engage with a system and grasp its functional and technical limitations, to make informed guesses at the biases that a system might engender. It is an act of this kind of literacy that could lead one to be able to identify common system dynamics, like how Monopoly tends to play out; a procedurally literate person might wonder about what is missing or constrained in a videogame or other system, as the simulation gap in SimCity illustrates. Ludus requires literacy. Play communities tend to make rules and norms and move improvisational play towards ludus.
Comparing and contrasting videogames and other games (like boardgames) is a useful exercise in morphological thinking that allows us to clarify what’s so special about games and how we might categorize or study them; however, the anthropological game studies thinkers like Caillois had a much broader view of play than the examples we’ve explored so far. The concepts of procedural literacy, simulation gaps, and the role of play communities in defining the ongoing rules of play (through litigation, apologetics, or meta-games) are all still applicable going forward, but the games being played can look wildly different.
The Dionysian Society
After examining different possibilities, I am proposing division into four main rubrics, depending upon whether, in the games under consideration, the role of competition, chance, simulation, or vertigo is dominant. I call these agon, alea, mimicry, and ilinx, respectively. All four indeed belong to the domain of play. One plays football, billiards, or chess (agon); roulette or a lottery (alea); pirate, Nero, or Hamlet (mimicry); or one produces in oneself, by a rapid whirling or falling movement, a state of dizziness or disorder (ilinx).
Roger Callois, Man, Play, and Games
Caillois recognizes four interacting play forms: agon (struggle or contest), alea (chance), mimicry (roleplay), and ilinx (vertigo, the tumult – think theme park rides, recreational drugs, or driving recklessly). These forms might exist in different capacities in different games, although one of them will usually be the kernel of the play experience. Games are also situated on a continuum between paidia and ludus. For example, unregulated competitions like racing or wrestling are examples of primarily agon+paidia. Regulated contests and sports are more agon+ludus. The more arbitrarily conceived the voluntary obstacles are, the more ludic we can describe the play. We can see a developing taxonomy. Caillois waxes on about how these play-forms might combine to enhance or mitigate one another, but we can run through that exercise another time.
As he explores these ideas, Caillois suggests that it is “not absurd to try diagnosing a civilization by the games that are especially popular there.” He tries to be clear that we should not be shocked to find in any civilization groups of people who are ambitious, fatalistic, imitative, or hysterical- but he suggests that exploring the games that people take seriously would tell us something about how they perceive those attributes in their society.
Forgive me, reader, if we get a little problematic here.
In societies conventionally called primitive as against those described as complex or advanced, there are obvious contrasts in the latter that are not exhausted by the evolution of science, technology, industry, the role of administration, jurisprudence, or archives, theoretical or applied mathematics, the myriad consequences of urbanization and imperialism, and many others with consequences no less formidable or revocable. […]
[…] Some primitive societies, which I prefer to call “Dionysian”, be they Australian, American, or African, are societies ruled equally by masks and possession, i.e. by mimicry and ilinx. Conversely, the Incas, Assyrians, Chinese, or Romans are ordered societies with offices, careers, codes, and ready-reckoners, with fixed and hierarchical privileges in which agon and alea, i.e. merit and hereditary [life lottery] seem to be the chief complementary elements of the game of living. In contrast to the [Dionysian societies], these are “rational”. In the first type there are simulation and vertigo or pantomime and ecstasy which assure the intensity and, as a consequence, the cohesion of social life. In the second type, the social nexus consists of compromise, of an implied reckoning between hereditary, which is a kind of chance, and capacity, which presupposes evaluation and competition.
Roger Callois, Man, Play, and Games
Effectively, Caillois argues that “rational” civilization primarily conceives of play in the forms of agon and alea because their understanding of social reality focuses on the interplay between rational agents seizing control (agon) or relinquishing control to fate or society (alea). “Rational” civilizations live in a “science-fiction” model of a world that is ordered by some fundamentally-knowable principles. Mimicry and Vertigo have their place- especially for those who are not selected by the major merit or chance games of their society- but are diminished in importance, and are often officially seen as childish or delinquent. For example, the “mimicry-lite” play form that Caillois calls “identification” allows for vicarious living through movie stars and heroes. For vertigo, there are always drugs. Generally, Caillois believes that “rational” civilizations frame themselves as heroes in a struggle to replace chance (alea) and the seductiveness of fatalism with the exhausting work of competence and justice (agon). He calls this drudgery “social progress.”
In contrast to the “rational” society, the “Dionysian” society sees a capricious, fundamentally unknowable “weird fiction” model of the world, where perception of the world is mediated (or laundered) through masks, trances, possession, and mystery rituals. Caillois suggests that this social arrangement is the basis of all cultures originally, and that tearing away from the sacred Dionysian dance towards “social progress” is a slow and painful process that is evidently never complete. As with Alea+Agon, Mimicry+Ilinx are complementary opposites: “Mimicry consists in deliberate impersonation, which may readily become a work of art, a contrivance, or cunning. The actor must work out his role and create a dramatic illusion. He is compelled to concentrate and always have his wits about him, just like the athlete in competition. Conversely in ilinx, in this regard comparable to alea, there is submission of not only the will but of the mind. The person lets himself drift and becomes intoxicated through feeling directed, dominated, and possessed by strange powers.” Just as alea is the seductive, destructive force to agon’s creative force, Caillois observes that there is an interplay between the creative, theatrical (controlled) mimicry experience and the intoxicating destructive force of ilinx.
One clear example of the Dionysian society is outlined in Xavier Marquez’ excellent blog post on Aztec Political Thought:
We might say that the theatre state at Tenochtitlan was primarily organized not to provide security, prosperity, or even glory, but for producing transcendental experiences. In this setting, Mexica priests were, in Clendinnen’s felicitous phrase, “impresarios of the sacred” (p. 242), practitioners of the only art that really mattered in the polity, and capable of setting in motion all of its resources for the sake of producing such collective experiences. Their “work” involved not just sacrifice, but a whole series of techniques, from fasting to powerful hallucinogenic drugs to chanting and dance, designed for maximum emotional effect. (There is a great deal of interesting “psychological engineering” in Mexica ritual, and I occasionally wondered idly about the genesis of such complicated practices). And the overall effect of their work was a “calculated assault on the senses.”
As a reminder, this is still “play.” As with Monopoly, (although, yeah, to an extreme), “play” does not always mean “fun.” The opposite of “play” is not work – play can be very hard work. The opposite of “play” is not “serious” – play creates its own bubble of seriousness, which is why the apostate is so much more dangerous than the cheater – breaking the rules is one thing, but breaking the bubble can be fatal to a social group.
The magic of mimicry often involves the audience – it is not necessarily pure trickery on an unsuspecting public. As with simulation gaps in videogames, there is still often a “gap” between the rules and practices of theatrical representation and the things that are meant to be represented. In a sufficiently engrossing theatre production, we can be moved by things which are known ‘not to be the case’. We can understand that the red handkerchief represents blood and still react accordingly.
As the agon+alea alignment depends on challenge or delayed gratification to heighten its attraction, the mimicry+ilinx alignment depends on mystery and social contagion to amplify its effects; therefore, ultimately rise of the belief in a singular, discoverable, stable, ordered universe undermines the power of the state built on the theatre and ecstasy of mimicry+ilinx. Caillois describes contemporary historians’ critical accounts of “The Veiled Prophet” Hakim al-Mokanna in the 8th century, “perhaps the last attempt at political domination through masks [in what he must have considered the ‘civilized’ world]”. Al-Mokanna wore a gold mask, claiming that his true face was too luminous for mortals to see. [By the way, have you seen the second episode of the Young Pope?] Al-Mokanna used human plants and mirror tricks to deflect sunlight and produce the illusion that he was glowing, in order to terrify enemy soldiers. When he was defeated, he tried to disappear “without a trace” by throwing himself into a vat of quicklime to foster the belief that he had ascended into heaven unscathed. While his followers bought it, the chroniclers at the time knew better. “The reign of the mask henceforth will seem like imposture and trickery,” Caillois claims, “it is already defeated.” This is perhaps too literal a definition of ‘mask’, and too optimistic about its defeat.
If a culture’s dominant games are so telling about their values, then the uniqueness and prominence of the videogame ought to be telling about our own culture. When someone of my cohort says ‘game’ they almost certainly mean videogame. It affects how we think about all games. When we talk about ‘gamification’ we are almost always talking about an aesthetic for our tools (e.g. badges, cheevos), instead of starting with the experience of a user or community and the broad kinds of game elements that we might actually be able to use.
It might not be fair to give videogames so much primacy when thinking about games, since state and national lotteries eclipse even the videogames industry in their command of obscene amounts of money; sports are also unfathomably expensive pastimes; movies and television and music have become more and more varied and technically excellent as their audiences become more literate in the medium; also, drugs. Caillois’ taxonomy of play, designed before the advent of the personal computer, allows for a broader definition than we might otherwise appreciate, without falling into an amorphous and inactionable “all human social life is a game of nomic” trap.
Caillois and Huizinga began to claim in their study of games that the ability to create and share social realities were what allowed humans to coordinate in large scale, setting the basis for civilization. We don’t have to necessarily accept this conclusion, but we ought to acknowledge that games and play are not exclusively the domain of idle pastime – we are surrounded by games, both trivial and deadly serious. Through comparing and contrasting these broad types of play, we can ascertain methods for thinking about how they are constructed and maintained. We can talk in terms of mechanics/dynamics/aesthetics, in terms of play communities as litigators and meta-game designers, we can talk about rules and literacy, representation and simulation gaps, varying playforms and their intended experiences. We can give a slightly richer language to the ways we interact with each other and with the systems we create.