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.

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.