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February 2013

A Disavowal of Games: Keynote for Philosophy at Play

Delighted to announce that I am giving a plenary session at the 2nd Philosophy at Play conference, which is on the 9th and 10th of April 2013 at the University of Gloucester. My keynote is on the second day (10th) and is entitled “A Disavowal of Games”. You can read all about the conference on the Philosophy at Play conference page. Here’s an introduction to my session:

The attempted process of distinguishing ‘games’ from their alternatives has striking parallels to the attempted process of distinguishing ‘art’ from its alternatives – in both cases, difference in a priori values may be responsible for differences in boundaries. Philosopher of art Kendall Walton has suggested that the category of art has in itself prevented understanding of art, and the same argument can easily be extended to games – the disagreement over the category has prevented understanding of games as activities. Using Walton’s make-believe theory of representation, the focus in understanding representative art becomes not ‘art’ but fiction, which in part depends upon various principles of generation, or rules. Walton’s theory can be gainfully applied to play activities in order to appreciate them as consisting of both fiction and rules. These concepts have previously been associated with games by Juul and others, and stripped of previous ontological presuppositions this approach can be used to mount a new aesthetics of play.

Hope to see some of you there!

Platform Blues

Blue Platform Recently, I’ve got into something of a funk about the issue of platform. This term, in case you haven’t heard of it, is something the media uses to assess someone’s relevance to a specific topic – so for instance a Professor of Middle Eastern Studies might get asked to comment on the BBC after something horrible happens in that part of the world. The Professor has a platform from which to speak about the Middle East. You can see that ‘platform’ here has a metaphorical meaning – it’s the thing you stand on so you can speak on a given topic. In general, if you don’t have a platform, you don’t get to speak to the media unless you are unlucky enough to be caught in a disaster or if you are caught by a vox-pop interviewer in the street.

I have been lucky enough to have a platform, and indeed occasionally get to speak on the BBC local radio, or get interviewed for magazines and the occasional magazine-style show. But my platform is in games and game studies. It’s not really surprising since I’ve made over forty games now, and I’ve published extensively about making them, understanding how and why we play them, and most recently in game aesthetics. Indeed, I am currently waiting for the bureaucracy to crank through my “back door” PhD in Theoretical and Empirical Game Aesthetics, which might give me the first doctorate in game aesthetics! You’d think I’d be happy about this, and certainly I’m grateful to have had the chance to build a platform, and that there are people who want to listen to me.

But for as long as I have been writing publically, which is just a little longer than I’ve been writing Only a Game (seven years), I’ve been enjoying writing about philosophy so much more than I enjoy talking about games. The work I’ve done on what you might call philosophy of imagination has been extremely well received by academics in philosophical fields, and there has been little I’ve done in my life that I’ve enjoyed more than writing my philosophy trilogy for Zero Books (the last part of which, Chaos Ethics, I’m working on now). Yet I do not really have a platform in philosophy, and neither am I likely to get one – and of course, irony of ironies, if I did have a platform in philosophy I’d be less likely to get to use it than I am my platform in games because games are a ‘fun’ topic and the news is more interested in this than intellectual graces.

Hence my platform blues… I have a platform to speak on a topic area that I know well and have things to say, but I cannot bring myself to apply myself to building up that platform because I would like a platform in philosophy so much more. The more I look at this, the more I realise that to get that platform I would have to switch to talking about politics (almost all philosophers who manage to get a platform do so), but my moral philosophy is anti-political in the sense that I see contemporary politics as a futile battleground of entrenched ideology that we must step back from if we are to fix it. This isn’t the sort of the thing that the media wants to hear – they want snappy, interesting, exciting stories, and any old nonsense will do.

I don’t want to make it sound like I’m depressed about this, because it’s no where near that bad, but there’s a sense of being trapped that I don’t like, and worse there’s a sense that if I was just focussed on my own self-interest I’d just continue to build my platform in games and forget the philosophy. But I must, as Joseph Campbell’s interpretation of Hindu philosophy advises, ‘follow my bliss’, and that would be to continue as a philosopher. I often say that “I’m a game designer by profession but a philosopher by vocation”, and that is as true now as it ever was. All I would like is some way to make peace with my inability to turn my philosophy into a platform, or to not feel bad about not utilizing the platform I have in games more.

Is this just me merely second-guessing myself? The most pathetic mid-life crisis imaginable? Well, all I know is this has been on my mind for the past few months, and it never quite goes away. Considering how much depression disabled me in my youth, I am overjoyed that I now have so much stronger mental health that I can let myself think about something like this without it being the start of a snowball of self-debilitation. Those days, I’m proud to report, are far behind me. We all have little things that tug at the loose threads in the tapestry of our lives, and I suppose this is mine. What’s more, when I look out into the world around me, I consider myself blessed that it is something this trivial that troubles me from within my own life.

Chaos Ethics Update

Just this moment completed the third of the four sections planned for Chaos Ethics. This has been a far more monumental undertaking than I originally imagined, although I hope that it is all the more worthwhile because of it. I have now completed all the discussions of the role of imagination in morality, the tension between Law Ethics and Chaos Ethics, wild justice and animal ethics, and now (in the third chapter) all the major moral fictions in play today. Where else can you find Kant rubbing shoulders with Badiou? Latour arguing against Singer? Midgley and MacInytre discussing vice and virtue? Phillipa Foot being run over by Allen Wood?

All that is left, other than a rather extensive editing process, is the final section which could be said to be the book’s applied ethics. This is a considerable break from what has become the norm in moral philosophy, where applied ethics have been treated as either impossible to discuss (because no answers can be reached) or not the relevant battleground (because meta-ethics must be defended to make applied ethics plausible). But I think I have successfully circumvented both these catastrophes, and it should be possible to apply what I’ve done so far to actual ethical quandaries like drone attacks, abortion, euthanasia, and drug taking, not to mention political quagmires like gay marriage, and attain conclusions – although these might not be answers.

I have repeatedly wondered if I ought to stop at the end of the third chapter, and omit the applied ethics, but I think that for the audience I hope to get the book must go on and tackle the political battlegrounds from an ethical stance – even though what it won’t do, in any case, is return the verdict each camp is committed to in advance. Since it is politics, and not ethics, that people are fired up about these days, it may only be by tearing apart the claims of the political as essentially unethical that I can engage anyone in worthwhile discussions of the book’s core argument.

75,754 words and counting!

Loyalty Cards, Gamerscore, and Vanity

Over on ihobo today, an exploration of the relationship between cognitive bias, vanity, loyalty cards and Microsoft’s G. Here’s an extract:

The loyalty cards work on a system identical to B.F. Skinner's fixed interval schedule of reinforcement… the schedules pay out roughly 1 in 6, with the best offering a free coffee every 5 and the worst (Costa) effectively offering just a 1 in 20 (5%) return. But all these loyalty schemes are superior in dividends to Microsoft's Gamerscore scheme (or G), which until last year offered no tangible rewards at all. And yet, G is far more effective than the coffee shop loyalty cards at promoting loyalty, and it is interesting to see why that might be.

Interested? You can read the entire Loyalty Cards, Gamerscore, and Vanity over on

Faithful Adaptation and The Hobbit

Azog The week that the new Tolkien movie adaptation came out, I quipped on Twitter: "Is the first of The Lord of the Rings prequels out? Honestly, I would have preferred a movie of The Hobbit." This remark brings up an interesting distinction in the concept of 'adaptation' that I should like to explore.

Recall that Walton's make-believe theory of representation considers our engagement with representative art in terms of the imaginary games we play with the relevant props. In some cases, particularly those work of a megatextual nature such as Marvel comics or Star Trek, what serves as a prop in our game might be more than the individual work we are experiencing. There are often what I term secondary props that we use. In such cases there may be multiple games of make-believe we can play depending upon which secondary props we are using.

For “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”, there are numerous games we can play. Firstly, we could take the movie as the sole prop in our game – in which case it is quite a poor artwork, as much of its content is entirely pointless without considering the relationships to other works. The framing story, for instance, asks that we consider the three “The Lord of the Rings” films as secondary, otherwise Frodo’s presence makes little sense.

I want to claim that because of the way it has been constructed, the prequel movie only makes sense with the main trilogy as its secondary props, and that it doesn't make sense to consider the novel of “The Hobbit” as secondary to its most obvious imaginary games. If the film were a faithful adaptation of “The Hobbit”, the book would necessarily play a secondary role in that choices made in its construction would refer back to the source material in a way that would show consistency. This consistency is absent, and with it the entire fabric of the movie (and presumably movies, too) ends up frayed at the seams, uncomfortably disjoint.

I shall say that a faithful adaptation of a book to a film always offers (but never requires) the book as a secondary prop. This means that if you have read the book, the imaginary games you can play are different than those you can play if you have not. This observation, I hope, is not too troublesome, as it presumably matches common experience. But this would also suggest that if you cannot incorporate the book a film is adapted from into your imaginary game without  serious tensions, the film is not a faithful adaptation. This, I'm claiming, is the case with Peter Jackson's newest film series.

It is worth noting how short the book is (roughly 150 pages) compared to the sequel (about 500 pages). As a result, there is a shortage of content a faithful adaptation can draw upon. Indeed, there are a number of entirely unnecessary sequences in “An Unexpected Journey” that come from the appendices of “The Lord of the Rings”, such as the discussion in the house of Elrond. These would not be necessary in an adaptation of “The Hobbit”, but are useful in making a prequel trilogy to “The Lord of the Rings”, both for length and for continuity. This would seem to allow Jackson to claim that it is a faithful adaptation of  the part of Tolkien's megatext (what Tolkien himself called his ‘legendarium’) that corresponds to “The Hobbit”. But this justification would also fail.

Consider the role of the Orc chieftain Azog in the film versus the book. Azog is mentioned in "The Hobbit" as having killed Thorin's father. However, in the legendarium Azog is dead by the time of the events of “The Hobbit” – and indeed Thorin earns the title ‘Oakenshield’ in the Battle of Azanulbizar where Azog is killed. The likely reason for keeping him alive in the prequel trilogy is so that Thorin can slay him in The Battle of Five Armies, at the climax of the story. But this battle, while a key event in the book, gets only brief coverage in one chapter of “The Hobbit”. But adapting to a trilogy requires material, and this battle is an obvious place to pad out the narrative. Azog serves a vital role in the prequel trilogy movies, therefore, because he is required for the payoff to the inevitable giant battle scene. But he is radically unimportant to the book.

This doesn't show that the prequels aren't faithful adaptations of the legendarium, in so much that Azog is a deeply minor character. But it does demonstrate that in making narrative design decisions for the prequels, Jackson will draw from any sources that might get him the length he needs to justify turning a book a fraction of the length of “The Lord of the Rings” into a film series the same length. “The Hobbit” is only one source among many in this respect, with “The Quest of Erebor” playing an extremely significant role – indeed, it may be fair to call the trilogy a reasonably faithful adaptation of the part of the legendarium that corresponds to “The Quest of Erebor” (a story which has “The Hobbit” as a secondary prop).

The biggest barrier to seeing “An Unexpected Journey” as a faithful adaptation of “The Hobbit” is that the tone is horribly wrong. Tolkien’s original Middle Earth fable has the atmosphere of a fairy tale, and battle sequences are naturally backgrounded while questions of character are foregrounded. Those scenes that are closest to the book – the trolls, Gollum, the goblin king – sit slightly uncomfortably against the fight scenes literally grafted onto the body of the tale. Offhand comments in the book, such as giants fighting in the Misty Mountains, become overwrought action sequences simply because they must if there is going to be enough material to make three movies.

“An Unexpected Journey” isn't a bad prequel to Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings”; nor to Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” for that matter. But it is not a faithful adaptation of the book “The Hobbit” for the reasons I have outlined here. Whether this is a problem or not depends to a great degree on what game of make-believe you wanted to play, and with which props. For myself, I would still have prepared a movie adaptation of “The Hobbit” to a bloated trilogy of prequels, but I do appreciate the extent that Tolkien’s legendarium has been woven into the secondary props for these films, if nothing else. It makes me hope for a faithful adaptation of “The Silmarillion” in the future.

Reliable Witnesses: A Retraction

In December, in a piece entitled Scientists Distorting Science? I suggested that in the context of Joshua Greene’s paper “The Secret Joke of Kant’s Soul”, Greene was not a reliable witness in the sense offered by Bruno Latour. This was an error, since for Latour a reliable witness is what a researcher talks about. The researcher themself is a spokeperson for the thing in question e.g. in the context of special relativity, Einstein was a spokeperson for light, and the Kennedy-Thorndike experiment was a reliable witness.

This being so, I should not have claimed, in Latour’s sense at least, that Greene was not a reliable witness. I should have said that Greene was a bad spokeperson for the human brain in this paper, or perhaps that Greene was a bad spokeperson for deontological ethics (probably both). The reason he was a bad spokeperson is that he didn’t not have any reliable witnesses in the context of what he was claiming, but he himself could not be a reliable witness in Latour’s sense.

I’d also like to say that the title of this post was rubbish and I wish I’d thought of something better, particularly since precisely Latour’s point about science studies is that we shouldn’t think about scientists ‘distorting the science’ since a scientist is just a researcher, and ‘science’ in this sense is just an abstraction (Latour would write it Science and contrast it to the sciences). Scientists don’t distort the sciences, they just research, and if they do their research well they find reliable witnesses and thus become spokepeople for various things. It was precisely because Greene did not focus on the part of his work that was a reliable witness (for the neural systems involved in moral judgement) that he failed to be a good spokeperson for the brain in this paper.

Blogs vs. Social Media

SocialmediaWhen I first started Only a Game, over seven years ago, it was something I did in the morning. Work was only intermittently hectic at the time, and my wife left for her job in the hospital very early in the morning - I could afford to spend a couple of hours every morning writing whatever I thought into my laptop in bed, before getting up and applying myself to my company. As a result, I wrote a tremendous volume of material here on a variety of subjects - and I also read a great deal of other people's blogs, responded to them, cross-linked and developed dialogue. It was a wonderful time for me, and I am still friends with many of the people in that original blog cluster.

Now, however, this does not in any way describe my blogging experience.

Most of my blog posts these days are written on my pocket robot during my morning or evening commute. They are often written days or weeks in advance and then queued up to run on Tuesdays for this blog, or Wednesdays for ihobo. I still read other people's blogs, but I don't have the time to do this well and so rely on Twitter (which I enjoy) or Google+ (about which I am ambivalent) to draw my attention to things. When I go to Google Reader now, there is typically hundreds of posts queued up and at best I might pick one or two to read. I simply don't have time to be engaged in other blogs like I used to.

But more than this, I sense that between 2005 and now, the blogging experience I described at the beginning has been consistently undermined by social media channels like Facebook and Google+ that subvert the discussions between individuals by mounting them on a superior technical platform. There are many advantages to the way Google+ handles comments that I would certainly say was an improvement (in technical terms) over the old blog conversations. Yet there is also something shallow and unsatisfying about Google+ which I do not like. Every time I login, I see bite sized chunks of things that people have shared mixed in with content Google wants to show me. This is very different from the consistent engagement that happened in my early blogging days, which felt like a small digitally connected community, not a randomly generated newspaper page.

My blogs have now become private publishing channels for short essays I write, which I then promote via social media. I do not know who comes to my blogs directly, who comes from social media referrals, who came in from a web search, and this ambiguity bothers me somewhat because during, say, the Ethics Campaign, Only a Game enjoyed discussions that were stimulating and lively. Now, these kinds of discussions occur badly on Twitter, or superficially on Google+, and when I get good conversations on my blogs it is rarely more than an intermittent one-on-one exchange. Something about this bothers me - something that I valued about blogging seems to have been undermined by the social media networks, precisely by offering a better technical platform for discussions.

I don't have a conclusion, but I would ask anyone else who reads this to let me know their thoughts and feelings on the tension or compatibility between pre- and post-social media blogging. Is it the internet community that has changed, or is it simply me (with my ever-growing list of commitments) that has blocked me from blogging the way I used to. Has social media improved blogging, or has it irrevocably undermined it?

Skimming Stones

Alas, since I am only two thirds through the manuscript of Chaos Ethics, I'm not going to be able to commit to resuming blogging this month in the manner to which I have become accustomed - namely, writing short essays on various topics that interest me. Since I don't want to stop blogging, I'm going to try and return to a form of blogging closer to what I used to do in the early days - writing more stream-of-consciousness pieces, possibly even writing content on the day I post it (instead of scheduling in advance). Instead of building little sandcastles, I'm going to have to switch to skimming stones for a while. You're more than welcome to skim them with me!