Philosophy of games: the state of play

I’ve written an overview of field of philosophy of games, just published in Philosophy Compass. (Here’s the official version, and here’s the pre-print draft I’m allowed to post for free.) It’s supposed to be: an introduction to the field, a helpful way to set up a class, and a commentary of the current state of play in the field.

The whole idea was that all these sub-fields are talking about games from different perspectives. The aesthetics folks are mostly focusing on video games and whether or not they’re art. The philosophy of sport folks are thinking about fairness and the value of competition. The philosophy of play folks are thinking about the mental attitudes of players. And then there’s that ginormous interdisciplinary field of Game Studies, which draws on literary theory, critical theory, and also brings in a lot of game designers and psychologists and more.

What’s particularly weird is that these fields barely read each others’ stuff, and often don’t realize they’ve been approaching the same questions from wildly different frameworks. I’ve tried to pull together the basics into one article, which should point interested folks in the right starting direction, and also point out some of the places where these fields should be talking to each other, but haven’t been.

The most interesting thing I figured out: a lot of these fields have a very particular framework. The philosophy of art and aesthetics tends to think about things in terms of works, texts, and meaning. The game is this created artistic artifact, which we’re supposed to artistically interpret. The value is an artistic value, and adheres to the game itself – its meaning, its beauty, its depth. The philosophy of sport tends to think about games as a kind of activity. The value is usually set out in terms of what players are doing – their achievements, their display of excellences, their skill development. (Interestingly, a lot of the philosophers of sport come out of a background in philosophy of law, and often think of games very much like little toy governments. They’re social contracts that we put up and accept for a while, to coordinate and get something valuable done.) And the philosophers of play tend to think of terms of the player’s attitude, the degree to which they keep the meanings of actions in the game psychologically distanced from the meanings of actions in the rest of their life.

All of this is a wild oversimplification. If you want less of an oversimplification, read the article. Then read the real stuff that I’m only breathlessly summarizing.

Sadly, all I had room (and the ability) to cover was what’s been going on in analytic philosophy, and it’s already twice as long as it was supposed to be. If anybody out there wants to write a similar thing covering Game Studies, or continental philosophy’s approach to games, I beg you: please do it.

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