GAMES: AGENCY AS ART: A Reader’s Guide

Now officially out: my first book, Games: Agency as Art. Thanks to Oxford University for making this all happen!

The book says that games are a distinctive art form — one very different from the traditional arts. Game designers don’t just create an environment, or characters, or a story. They tell you who to be in the game. They set your basic abilities: whether you will run and jump, or move around your pieces geometrically, or bid and raise. And, most importantly, they tell you what your goals will be. By specifying the points and victory conditions, the designer sets the players’ core motivations in the game. The designer shapes our practical struggle by manipulating our practical interests and abilities, and the challenges we will face. Game designers work in the medium of agency itself. Games are the art of agency.


Game designers aren’t just telling stories. Game designers are sculpting a specific form of practical activity. They are deciding what we will do within the game and how we will do it. They do so by designing the basic shape of our agency within the game, and then designing the obstacles that we will encounter. A game designer says, in Super Mario Brothers, your goal is to go right, your abilities are running and jumping — and the world is full of dangers to run past and jump over. In poker, your goal is to get money, and your abilities are strictly limited to bidding and raising, and careful surveillance of the other player’s actions and expressions — and the world is full of other people doing the same to you.

Games, then, have a special place in our ecosystem of artifacts. Games enable a distinctive kind of communication. Every form of art lets us capture a different aspect of our experience and being. Paintings capture sights; music captures sounds; fiction capture stories. And games, it turns out, can capture and transmit different ways of being practical. Games are our technology for communicating modes of agency. And players can use games to try out new modes of agency. Big conclusion: games are a library of agential modes and practical styles, where we can explore and learn different styles of agency.

But if we see why real games are good, we’ll see why gamification should trouble us. Games grant us many of their pleasures by offer us a narrowed, simplified set of goals. They offer us value clarity – a brief respite from real life. In games, for once, we know exactly where we’re going and exactly how well we’ve done it. But to achieve those pleasures in gamified real life, we need to simplify our real life values. And that simplification can be incredibly destructive. It can transform us – as when Twitter changes us from caring about communication and connection, to caring about going viral.


A reader’s guide

Different parts of the book might interest very different audiences. So here’s a chapter breakdown. Different people might be interested in different bits.

1. Agency as Art – An overview of the whole thing. (Currently open access and free online)!


2. The Possibility of Striving Play – An analysis of the motivational structure of games. The book hangs on a distinction between:

-achievement play: playing for the value of winning
-striving play: temporarily adopting an interest in winning for the sake of having the struggle.

Striving play is possible, which means we can enter into a strange kind of motivational inversion, where we pursue a goal for the sake of the experience of going through the struggle. 

3. Layers of Agency – Striving play has all kinds of implications! Like: it turns out that we have the ability to forget our normal values and absorb ourselves in a temporary value-construct.

4. Games and Autonomy – Argues that games are a medium for communicating agency. Thus, playing games lets us explore a library of agencies. Suggests that games help us be more autonomous by giving us access to a larger inventory of practical styles and mental modes. Suggests that often, in life, we need to switch between between differently focused practical modes for cognitive-resource limitation reasons, and that games help us learn these different modes.


5. The Aesthetics of Agency – Argues for an aesthetics of action – for the possibility of aesthetically appreciating our own choices, movements, and decisions. Argues that games can construct such an aesthetics deliberately. Focuses on the possibility of constructed *practical harmony* – of the game designer creating world and agent to fit beautifully, for once.

6. Framed Agency – Extended in-the-weeds philosophy of art discussion about how it might be possible for games to communicate agency. We use the rules and conventions of game-playing to encode actions and practical modes.

7. The Distance in the Game – Every medium of art has its own special difficulty. The characteristic difficulty of the medium of agency is distance. The game designer has to achieve their effects through the free agency of – and often in collaboration with – the player.


8. Games as Social Transformations – Argues that multiplayer games, by working in the medium of agency, are also working in the medium of sociality. Game designers can create temporary social arrangements. It is the original social art. And: Mill thought we needed to have “experiments in living” where we tried out, experientially, life under different conceptions of the good. Argues that games let us do this in a particular, quick, formalized way. They are miniature political experiments.

9. Gamification and Value Capture – Argues that games may be good, but gamification is bad. Discusses the gamification of Twitter – which offers points for going viral – and the gamification of research – which offers a game-like scoring system of citation rates, H-index, REF, etc. Introduces the notion of “value capture”, which is when your rich values get put in a social/institutional setting which presents you thin, quantified, simplified versions of those values – and the simplified versions take over. Suggests that there are epistemic consequences to the value capture of discourse on Twitter, and the value capture of academic research. Argues that it’s OK to accept thin, simplified values for pleasure in games proper, but that it’s terrible to do in a real-world domain. (Currently open access and free online!)

10. The value of striving: Suggests that attitudes of playfulness and aesthetic joy in games may partially protect against value capture and the institutionalization of values.

Interested? Buy the book!