play yourself

August 17, 2011

stories are how we make sense of the world. they impose a structure on what would otherwise feel chaotic – “one great blooming, buzzing confusion.”

whether via an internal monologue (that whistling noise is coming from the tea kettle because it is on a lit stove) or in conversation with others (religion, science, politics, literature, movies, etc.) stories help us understand not only what has happening but also why.

though not often discussed as such, games are a form of storytelling. in games, multiple players participate in the construction of a shared meaning.

the more fun the game, the more it makes sense. the converse is also true. the more the game makes sense, the more fun it is to play.

the Socratic method, which pits two participants against one another, is a kind of game, the product of which is a meaningful story.

likewise, a game of soccer is an occasion to ask and answer questions such as: which side will win? which team is better? which player is better?

if it is unclear who has won a game, it ceases to be a game. thus, the outcome, the “moment of truth,” is integral to the experience of a game.

games must always be challenging if they are to be meaningful. thus, they consist of rules that, by design, impede the player so as to reorient him in a new direction. a game is necessarily humbling for the player. we enter into games not to win, per se, but to learn by losing. in fact, they allow us to experience loss (say, death) via simulation.

games are thus a mode of inquiry and there are games within much of what we call the arts.

in the case of a novel, the reader must play along with the author’s ruses, following her every move – and feint – until meaning is produced. if the reader does not wish to play along, no meaning will be produced. if the author is not very good at playing, the process of reading will not be very pleasurable, etc.

in theater, a playwright calls for actors to play out a series of moves (lines, gestures, moods). if these are played out properly, the audience will experience the pleasure of recognizing not only what is happening but, more importantly, why.

computer games offer new and interesting “sense making” opportunities. built out of rules and in a constant state of simulation, computers are always at play – a notion popularized by late 20th century movies such as Tron and War Games but also in the quick trajectory of computers from state-owned tools for war-making to personal entertainment devices.

not only can computers effectively re-stage most of the games we have inherited from our ancestors, they also allow us to explore new approaches to that most rewarding and most difficult game of all: crafting the story of ourselves.

we are beholden to others for seeing ourselves as we really are. a worthy adversary is said to bring out the best in any player. only through dialogue, whether with a real or internalized interlocutor, can we escape the well-worn paths of habit.

assuming that our own identity is complex and, at the very least, a conjoining of our conscious and unconscious selves (our waking and dreaming selves), any game which allows us to knowingly challenge and possibly even lose to ourselves is a potentially reflexive process.

what better opponent could we devise than our own shadow?

today, video games are primarily an offshoot of theater wherein the game’s makers act as playwrights, devising challenges that the player (protagonist) can overcome only by intuiting the action or response appropriate to each scene.

yet, we are creatures of habit. we repeat ourselves and in doing so we betray ourselves. a computer need not be smarter than its human opponent to win, it need only keep sufficient track of the player’s (likely unconscious) habits.

by building sufficiently sensitive and deliberative software, the game designer as playwright could eventually cede her authority not just to other players (as in MMORPGs) but, indirectly, to the player’s own unconscious.