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.

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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)!

PART I: GAMES AND AGENCY

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.

PART II: AGENCY AND ART

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.

PART III: SOCIAL AND MORAL TRANSFORMATIONS

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!

 

New article: “The Arts of Action”

My new article The Arts of Action is out now in Philosopher’s Imprint!

This article is kind of intensely personal – perhaps awkwardly so, for an academic article. I realized, while I was writing it, that it was distilling basically all this weird stuff I’ve been thinking about, obsessing over, and floundering to articulate for, like, decades. It’s about all this stuff I love that’s at the margins of Fancy Artistic Life. It’s about why I love them, and why they’ve been marginalized. It’s about “process art”.

So: most traditional arts are what I’m calling “object arts”. An artist makes a thing, you appreciate the thing. Painting, novels, theater. The thing the audience appreciates is some external, distinct object. It’s the painting that’s dramatic, thrilling, moving.

The process arts are where the artist makes a thing, and then you, the audience, interact with that thing, and then *you appreciate your own actions*. The artwork helps make *you* beautiful, or dramatic, or elegant – and helps to shape the form of your beauty. Examples include: games, the act of cooking, social tango, contact improv, rock climbing, cities, the physical movement that surrounds eating, the social life that arises around hot pots and fondues.

In technical language: in object art, the aesthetic qualities are in the artwork. In process art, the artwork calls forth the aesthetic qualities inside the activity of the audience, for the sake of the audience’s appreciation of their own actions.

I think process arts are everywhere, but we often ignore them or misunderstand them, because we’re caught in this object art paradigm. We try to turn process arts into object arts, and in so doing we often drain the life out of them. And we suppress process-art qualities in many of the traditional arts. So the point here is not to force process arts into an object art frame, but to to try to appreciate them for how they do their own thing.

This is my attempt to give a Theory of the Process Arts, and answer a lot of the basic questions. Who’s the artist – the designer of the object or the active appreciator? Why call it an art, and not just freeform everyday aesthetic appreciation? And why have the process arts been so neglected? The answers are variations on a central theme: The object arts typically concentrate aesthetic responsibility in the artist. The process arts often *distribute* them, in a complex way, between artist and audience.

And it’s an attempt to find as broad a variety of examples as I could, and be true to the practitioner’s self-descriptions of those arts. My favorite parts of this aren’t the philosophy, but all the stuff I dug up about how cooks and tango practitioners talk about the inner feeling of their practice.

(PS: the article started its life as a couple of pages in the games book about the core nugget of the idea – the object arts and the process arts – and a bunch of unanswered questions. I wrote those parts of the book 3 years ago. I then spent another couple years trying to expand the theory beyond games and answering those questions, and that’s where this article comes from. It’s much expanded and improved from the original seed in the book.)

The article is online and free and open access to all.

New paper: “Games and the art of agency”

My paper, Games and the art of agency, is now forthcoming at Philosophical Review. The paper argues that games are the art form of agency. Game designers don’t just create worlds, or stories. They tell us who we will be in the game. They design for us an alternative agency, which we submerge ourselves during the game. Games work in the medium of agency.

The big outcomes: first, we learn about the fluidity of our own agency. We can take on the ends of a game temporarily. We can care about things we don’t normally care about, for the sake of having the struggle. Second, games turn out to be a distinctive form of art. Game designers are sculpting forms of activity for us. They are designing structures of practicality, so that we can enter into them, and experience beauty in our own actions. And third, games turn out to be our technology for recording agencies. Narrative lets us write down stories, paintings let us record sights, and games let us record forms of agency. Games, then, let us explore new forms of agency.

This paper was the seed that grew into my forthcoming book, Games: Agency as Art. Incidentally, this paper was written first. But it turns out that the review process for a philosophy paper can be so long, that you actually might be able to expand a paper into a whole book before the original paper finally gets accepted.

The book will expand a bunch on the major themes of this paper, spending a lot more time on the aesthetic theory and my worries about gamification. The book also spends way more time on the discussion of how games let us explore alternate agencies, thus forming a library of agencies, which we can use to develop our own freedom and autonomy. The book is also written in a more accessible way, with lots of long, loving discussions of specific games.

This paper version is more compact, more scholarly, and hits a lot of the key points much faster. If you want all the ideas really fast, read the paper version. It also contains some very technical stuff that won’t appear in the book. There’s a discussion of why game desires don’t count as fictional, on Kendall Walton’s theory of fiction. And there’s a discussion of why games break certain traditional arguments that you can’t desire at will, from the literature on practical rationality. I argue that taking on a game goal temporarily is a kind of desiring at will. And games expose some crucial lacunae in traditional theories of practical reasoning. As it turns out, lots of traditional models of rationality don’t make room for play.

A preview of my book, Games: Agency as Art

My book, Games: Agency as Art, is now forthcoming from Oxford University Press! Oxford has given me permission to offer the first chapter as a preview. Now available for pre-order!

The book is a sustained defense of the value of games and game-playing, from several perspectives. The book says that:

  • Games are the art form of agency. Game designers don’t just create environments and obstacles. They set our goals in the game and our abilities; they create the agency which we will inhabit in the game.
  • Games can work in the medium of agency to create aesthetic experiences of acting and doing. They can offer us crystallized, designed, and refined versions of our everyday experiences of practicality.
  • One way that games are satisfying: they let us inhabit a world that’s easier to make sense of, one in which the values are clearer, simpler, and easier to apply. Such games offer us are rare experience of clarity of purpose. They are an existential balm against the rest of our lives, which are full of a plurality of subtle and competing values.
  • This also leads to a danger: games can seduce us into expecting that simplicity elsewhere. They can serve as a morally problematic fantasy of clarity. 
  • The fact that we can play games teaches us something remarkable about ourselves. We have the capacity submerge ourselves in alternate agencies, to slip in and out of temporary agencies. We can take up ends that we don’t usually care about and dedicate ourselves to them, for a time. We can adopt different modes of thinking, acting, and deciding. And then we can put them all away when then game is over. Games teach us that our agency is notably fluid. 
  • A big bonus: it turns out that stupid drinking games and party games are incredibly important to understanding the nature of our own practical rationality and agency.
  • Just as narratives are a technique for writing down stories, games are a technique for inscribing and preserving modes of agency. With them, we can create an archive of agencies – we can experience different ways of being an agent. Games are a technology for us to help develop each others’ autonomy.
  • The book offers a unified account of the art form of striving games. It discusses, under a single conceptual umbrella, computer games, board games, card games, party games tabletop role playing games, live action role playing games, and sports. (There are many other sorts of games besides striving games, however, and the book doesn’t purport to cover them all.)
  • Also: discussions of the aesthetic ontology of games, the nature of interactivity in games, a taxonomy of game types, and a comparison of games to contemporary practices of relational aesthetics and social practice art.