It makes a certain kind of logical sense to say a boardgame is ‘made of rules’ and that understanding can be extended to videogames. As I have suggested many time before, the game design practices of early videogames descended directly from those of tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons or the Avalon Hill strategy games. But there is a cost to this description: the material components of those tabletop games are not made of rules... rules may constrain what appears on a D&D character sheet up to a point, but there is much that goes on in that regard which cannot reasonably be considered ‘rules’ – the description of the character for a start. An attempt to make rules the ‘atoms’ of games will come up against these loose ends, as well as the unavoidable fact that a polyhedral die is not a rule, for all that rules can be related to them.
Whenever you make a box and say “this, this is what games are!” I will show what you excluded and why others love those games just as much. This was the reason I had to disavow ‘games’, to deny myself any capacity to define “what games are” – in order to try and understand everything games can be, which is always more than you think. This is the reason that I now argue for a liberation of games, a break from the tradition of trying to lay out definite boundaries for games or, for that matter for art – not to forbid such definitions, but to embrace them all in all their confused glory!
My apologies to the late Gil Scott-Heron for this one! You can read the entirety of The Liberation of Games Will Not Be Streamed on Twitch over at ihobo.com.
Here’s the abstract for the paper I’m presenting for DiGRA/FDG at Abertay University in Scotland in August. The paper is entitled ‘No-one Plays Alone’. Special thanks to Dan Cook for setting this one in motion with me – you are quoted extensively in it!
The discourses around games have tended to focus upon either their artefactual qualities or the phenomenological experience of play. In both cases, games are primarily to be understood singularly. An alternative approach, related to Foucault’s archaeological methods, is to focus upon the manner in which games share player practices with earlier games. This technique can be applied to all eras of games, and is not merely restricted to videogames – indeed, a significant proportion of the player practices of videogames descend directly from the player practices of tabletop games, especially in terms of the progenitive role of tabletop role-playing games for contemporary digital entertainment. Such player practices can be broadly understood in terms of interface (how the player engages with the game), world (what the player imagines is happening), or the agency practices that connect the interface and the world.
Three propositions concerning the relationships between fictional setting and designed rule systems within games are explored, the last of which stresses the idea that ‘no-one plays alone’ i.e. that all play entails continuity of its practices over and above variation of those practices. These propositions are used to demonstrate three aesthetic flaws that are peculiar to, or particularly relevant for, videogames. This in turn leads to a discussion of the ways that commercially successful games have always proceeded by leveraging the existing networks of practice. The result is an alternative perspective for game design, game scholarship, or game critique, one that foregrounds the role of player practices.
Keywords: player practices, aesthetics, play aesthetics, games, fiction, rules, lineages
Cross-posted from ihobo.com.
The other week, I had a great chat with the new head of Zero Books, Doug Lain, and the podcast is now available for your listening amusement. You can find it over on the Zero Books blog, entitled Zero Squared #28: Imaginary Games.
Cross posted from ihobo.com.
Today is the tenth anniversary of my first ever blog post here on Only a Game, and the double-serial is perfectly timed to conclude upon this day, over on ihobo. This final part is perhaps my first public explanation of ideas that I formulated over two years ago regarding 'liberating' games, although I have certainly deployed this rhetoric in other places and at earlier times. I hope you enjoy the final part of the Player Practices serial, entitled The Liberation of Games, and welcome you to share your perspective either here or there in the comments.
Thanks for playing, especially those of you who have been here from the beginning! Here's to the next ten years.
Over on ihobo today, some thoughts about when it might be a critical mistake to view continuity of design negatively, particularly in the context of Mario Kart (and also British developer Supersonic). The argument being advanced is that being a good custodian for player practices is not only commercial good sense, it is something we have cause to praise artistically. You can read the entirety of Mario Kart and the Cult of Originality over on ihobo.com.
There have been several attempts to propose a ‘Player’s Bill of Rights’ (e.g. Graham Nelson in 1994, Raph Koster in 2000, Peterb of Tea Leaves in 2004, Ernest Adams in 2005, and Brad Wardell in 2008), but the tendency of these has been to present wish lists of requirements game developers should adhere to, motivated partly by personal frustrations, and partly by professional expertise. Such statements can be exceptionally useful as proposals of best practices for game design or commercial game development, but the ‘bill of rights’ aspect of such manifestos is best understood as an imaginative framing. It certainly helps such claims get noticed, but it does not rise to the level of a genuine claim to rights.
There are two possible ways that we might get clear of this problem. Firstly, we could involve many different players in a discourse on their issues – which will prove intractable in the face of the immense diversity of players, and the vocal bloody-mindedness of certain factions among them. The alternative, which I take up here, is to pursue a concept of player rights from similar philosophical groundings to the US Bill of Rights and the so-called Universal Declaration of Human Rights, namely Kant’s concept of Recht (what I will call ‘the rightful state’ or ‘rightful conditions’). This idea has been a substantial influence in the emergence of what are now asserted as ‘rights’, although it should be noted that the very first Bill of Rights (pictured above) was written in 1689 and reflected the earlier philosophy of John Locke (although this was also an influence on Kant’s work).
It is worth observing that of the above mentioned bills of player rights, Raph Koster’s A Declaration of the Rights of Avatars is closest in form to historical documents of this kind (being partly modelled upon them). But for these kinds of player rights claim to hold up, they must hold up on grounds parallel to historical rights legislature – and this is far from obviously the case, for reasons this enquiry will undertake to make clear.
Ethics vs. Rightful Conditions
Kant divided morals into ethics (which he saw as rational self-constraint) and the rightful state (which concerns civil law). Rightful conditions are distinct from ethics because Kant thought, as many of us do today, that freedom consists in setting your own ends (that is, your own life goals), without being unnecessarily constrained by others.
As Allen Wood explains, it was Kant’s proposal that the only justifiable role for coercion of any kind was to secure the external freedom of citizens – this and this alone is the rightful state for any nation. Kant did not consider it reasonable for anyone to be forced to adopt other people’s ends, since anyone who is constrained in this way is not free. But ensuring that everyone was able to set their own ends in a civil society means protecting against attempts to force other people to adopt ends that are not their own – and the only reasonable use of coercion would be to prevent this.
Such enforcement does not require anyone to adopt any specific end, it merely protects everyone against any such attempts to dominate their freedom. We are only free, the argument goes, if we are free to choose our own ends, our life goals, although we may be rightfully constrained in the pursuit of those ends because some things that we might intend to do would violate the rightful condition (e.g. murdering people who block your chosen end).
It is thus from the idea of a rightful condition that the authority of civil police arises, and also from the rightful state that concepts of human rights develop, to protect against external coercion. This sets the background to exploring the idea of player rights: if such an idea is valid, there must be a rightful condition for games.
The Ends of Games
To begin with we must ask: do we ever possess ends when we play? It is important to appreciate that an end is far more than just something you want. As I explain in Chaos Ethics, ends are imagined future states in your life that you actively commit to pursuing. You may heartily crave an ice cold beer but it cannot be one of your ends – although it could be one of your ends to own a brewery, say.
Either our gaming-ends – to reach Level 70, build a castle, 100% a game etc. – are truly ends in the sense that freedom implies, or else they are something akin to fictional-ends, hence (analogously to Walton’s quasi-emotions) quasi-ends i.e. imagined ends whose meaning occurs solely within fictional worlds and not in everyday life as such. This distinction is not that easy to settle, however. A player may genuinely want to 100% a game, but then lose interest and play something else – or may become so obsessed with World of Warcraft that they drop out of college.
Notice also that some kinds of game are difficult to imagine quasi-ends for – what I have called thin play games such as Dear Esther and Proteus do not afford much room for willing future states, as they are experiential, like other artworks. Similarly, you may want to win at Snakes & Ladders but it is not a plausible end to set, nor is becoming a master at this particular game a particularly plausible end, as it might be (potentially) for Chess or Tetris.
The safest answer is to provisionally treat ends within the fictional worlds of games as quasi-ends that nonetheless can affect the ends we set in life – such as the undergraduate who succumbs to the lure of Azeroth, and thus frustrates his original end to earn a degree. This approach helps us deal with ambiguities about the diversity of player responses to the very same games that should affect our assessment of whether and how players set ends in the games they (freely) choose to play.
Do Games Coerce Players?
For there to be a question of player rights in Kant’s philosophy there must be a possibility of coercion that should be excluded – so we must ask: can game developers force quasi-ends upon players against their will? It is not entirely clear that they can.
In the case of the MMO drop-out, it does not seem entirely reasonable to suggest the player was coerced by Blizzard so much as suffered a personal moral failure after playing their game (i.e. this is an ethical problem, not an issue with rightful conditions). Blizzard, World of Warcraft, and other players who know the drop-out are all implicated in the network of moral agency here, but implying coercion seems to massively overstate the level of responsibility of anyone involved. The same would appear to apply to scurrilous microtransactions that take advantage of frustrated players – they may be ethically questionable, but preying upon the impulses of players does not quite seem to be of the magnitude required to constitute coercion. After all, isn’t this more or less what casinos do?
What this suggests is that there cannot be any player rights based upon this idea of rightful conditions, which is where all our other uses of ‘rights’ descend from (even those older conceptions drawing against Locke). It may be immoral for developers to produce games that take advantage of compulsive tendencies, but it does not qualify as a breach of rightful condition. The developer, on the other hand, does have its ends unrightfully frustrated by players who acquire access to their game via piracy – namely their end of being compensated for their own work. But this was not the subject of this particular enquiry.
No Rights, Many Wrongs
The reason it sometimes feels as if there should be player rights is that some decisions developers make frustrate players and seem thoroughly unnecessary – not allowing cut scenes to be skipped being a classic example (included in both Ernest’s and Peterb’s bills of rights), or using inadequately specified puzzles (as Graham Nelson’s bill of rights argues against).
However, at best we can say that it is bad business sense not to appreciate the needs of players in this regard, and (on the other side of this coin) players ought to be aware that software development is expensive and time-consuming and even small features place significant burdens on developers if they are required to implement them. In this regard, ‘player rights’ as lists of bugbears are not something that can be justified as anything other than advice for best practices. (Of course, this doesn’t mean developers shouldn’t pay attention to such issues, only that they cannot be compelled to adhere to them!)
In other cases (such as with Brad Wardell’s bill of rights), certain specific demands concern the commercial relationship between a player and a supplier that do not actually relate to games at all. For instance, it might indeed be a breach of rightful condition to secretly install hidden software drivers in so much as the individual’s ends regarding being in control of their own computer are being thwarted. But this has nothing to do with playing games.
Issues like this do, however, suggest there might be software rights that could be pursued, depending in part upon the rather important question of whether users are effectively forced to use certain instances of software. Again, this idea lies beyond the scope of this enquiry.
On purely philosophical grounds, I can draw several conclusions:
- Games are not clearly coercive, and as such are not a suitable venue for protective rights.
- Software (including game software) can potentially be coercive and might qualify as breaching rightful condition.
- There is a moral distinction between games that do not cause players to set specific quasi-ends (some of which share kinship with other kinds of artworks) and those that do.
These latter games, where they are especially compulsive, might justifiably be subjected to legal limitations in so much as civil societies restrict narcotics and gambling for similar (moral) reasons – and it could be argued (although I will not do so here) that such things do breach rightful conditions, although this claim is certainly a matter of debate.
Along similar lines, game developers who prey upon players through manipulative microtransactions cannot necessarily be prevented from doing so as a question of rightful conditions – but this does not preclude them from being judged immoral, and as such communities might decide to institute laws to restrict access to such games by (say) age, or some other appropriate criterion.
Such laws would not necessarily be consistent with Kant’s concept of rightful conditions, except where in so doing they clearly protected external freedom. This might be justifiable when dealing with children, who we tend to treat as being more susceptible to external influences, but if we think an adult is sufficiently autonomous to get drunk, we should equally think them capable of being in control of their games. It is not that players have rights so much as it is that players have responsibilities – and not least of all, to themselves.
My paper for the International Journal of Play is now in print and should be available by following the link for What are we playing with? Role-taking, role-play, and story-play with Tolkien’s legendarium.
And did I mention I’ve accepted a place on the editorial board of this journal? They’ve already treated me better than every other journal I’ve submitted to, and I love their inter-disciplinary focus.