Saturday, June 16, 2012

Played Meaning (Concerning the Spiritual in Games)


There has been talk recently about the word "game" and what it ought to mean. Some would like it to mean something very rigid, like Salen & Zimmerman's definition: "a game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome." They see a value in this tradition. Others would like the meaning to be more fluid. By comparing the above with even just one more definition, Roger Callois', "an activity which is essentially: Free (voluntary), separate, uncertain, unproductive, governed by rules, make-believe", we can get a sense for the amount of necessary "tradition" that's actually at stake here-- almost none. These meanings are fluid, generative, subjective.

Now: a game is something that we play. A videogame is a digital playspace.

Why can't we use another word to describe playspaces in general, and thus preserve game's goal-oriented meaning? Because we are content with using the word "videogame" to define this form, at least for now. And videogames aren't even games in the "formal" sense of the word. They tend to be composite forms. Of what? Activities, toys, instruments, sandboxes, etc... ("games", too). Our intuitive understanding of what a videogame is and can be has eliminated the usefulness of game's sanctified definition in our present circumstances (whether or not they qualify as "games" in the formal sense, SimCity, Electroplankton, etc. certainly qualify as videogames). "Game" is also now used as a convenient shorthand for videogame or computer game, and other playspaces that resemble those. What we used to enjoy calling a game (i.e. Salen & Zimmerman's formal definition): Shawn McGrath's new term for this is "fucking game." "Math game," or "competition," or "school" are other possible alternatives.

A game is something that we play. A videogame is a digital playspace. This is the shape of games to come. To impose stricter definitions will only serve to stifle creativity and unnecessarily celebrate past trends in favor of present and future possibilities-- this is already happening.

If these proposed definitions are so broad as to include everything, and now everything is thus a game, then let's play everything! 


There's been talk about games and what they mean and ought to mean.

It's not possible to make a meaningful game. Likewise, it's not possible to make a meaningful song or picture or story. Meaning arises from our interactions with these forms, from how we play them. (It is possible to make a good game-- focus group testing is helpful here. Goodness is not great, though-- it's useful; it works rather than plays; this seems to describe the bulk of most design processes).

Games with a didactic quality like Jon Blow's Braid can fool us into thinking that meaning is a thing that is being created and then handed down to us-- the intensity of the implied value systems that come packaged in game designs are often mistaken for the meaning itself. Sometimes our perceived meanings line-up very neatly with what we're told are a game's intended meanings, and this can feel good, but such an effect is incidental rather than essential in any way.

It's not possible to make a meaningful game, but all played games are meaningful. Meaning can be generated but not located. It's a process rather than an object. 

Certain boundaries in a playspace will encourage certain types of play, and from these, if they're played intuitively and honestly, we experience the intensity of this thing called meaning. We then sometimes attribute this meaning to the creators of the game, and this is wrong. We can thank the creators, but we need to respect our own subjectivity (though to then thank ourselves would be foolish-- can we learn to thank the play impulse that somehow exists both inside and outside of ourselves?)


The relationship between music and videogames is not a rhetorical one, it's not just an analogy-- the language describing it may be, but the various identities are a fact. Structurally, there's little the two forms don't have in common. This has design implications-- rhythmically, formally, texturally, etc. Most importantly, in practice, both music and games are played-- and can be played in very similar ways.

Musical instruments are games, as are compositions. They are possibility spaces with boundaries implicitly or explicitly inviting certain types of play.

Videogames are not competitions by necessity, they are play-spaces. Play is the subject and the source of meaning. How do we play? The kinds of meanings that exist in music are the same kinds of meanings that exist, fundamentally, (but lying latent), in games-- they don't point at anything but the experience itself, at the materials and interrelationships that form the binding structures of that process.

This kind of meaning, and how it doesn't point at anything (it just is), is the reason why some people call music abstract. But music isn't abstract. Meanings that point (signs --> signifieds (words, narrative, realism)) are abstractions, divisions/boxings, of reality-- they necessarily leave a remainder. Musical meaning doesn't box anything and thus encompasses everything. Musical meaning is concrete. (The social/contextual meanings in music, what Adorno calls the "historical", point away from this toward a more linguistic system of signs. But this system, too, is fluid. Remember: we've all only ever experienced, and are continuing to experience, one piece of music (our own)).

There's a relationship between musical meaning and mathematical meaning-- at it's most basic, harmony (pitched and non-pitched) and its foundation in simple arithmetic. These identities become more vivid (in our minds, at least, if not our ears) when we study scores and consider those sets of instructions as the music itself-- this is how schools like to teach music, as a kind of math game. Computer programs are complex sets of instructions (scores), and it will be helpful to apply kinds of thinking gleaned from score analysis to game creation-- systemic approaches to harmony, rhythm, texture, etc. are useful tools. But the score is an abstraction, and when we try to live in it, almost all of music's essence is lost. From John Cage: "Mathematics enables us, it seems to me, to think about, say, water-- without jumping into it" (video). The experience of music, and its essential meaning, comes from our jumping into the water.

To explore these meanings-- forget narrative and forget "game design." We'll study music-- rhythm, harmony, contour, texture (and allow ourselves to freely identify these qualities-- to apply them to colors, motions, touch). We'll play music, listen to (play) music, and allow ourselves to question what music means in these contexts. We'll see music, and touch it, too, and live it when possible. Music is not a form-- it's an ethic of sorts, a way of being. It is a fluid answer to the question "how do we generate meaning in the play process?" How do we play? Competitive games have required the player's submission to an imposed set of values governing their ideal actions-- when we are no longer governed by such rules, how will we choose how to act? Again, John Cage (via some others): music's ideal function is "to quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influence."


Meaning-making in instrumental play (goal-oriented-- a value system forced on us by competitive games) is inherently and necessarily at odds with meaning-making in musical play. Though-- the two categories are not opposites. Instrumental play is goal-oriented; maybe the opposite of this is free play, which is something like an unreachable utopian state (or a Temporary Autonomous Zone?). Musical play describes a way of being that seeks love and identity with the world and its boundaries (to push up against these boundaries, to know them, and try to to break past them)-- its precondition is sensitivity, but nothing escapes its sense of possibility. (The most vicious sentiments might emerge from playing musically. Anything. Such attitudes might grow more intense or might be followed by a release of tension and subsequent transition into a state affirmation and tenderness-- the possible forms are endless). 

Notated compositions (and plans for future music-making in general) are a series of instructions, boundaries that we then play in. They are not music in the truest sense. Musicality playfully emerges from these boundaries, in affirmation of and tension with them. And it's this emergent spirit that is the essence of musical play. This spirit has no bounds. The Fluxus scripts, happenings, and other participatory arts of the 60s took a radical kind of musicality and played with it in new boundaries-- physical space, conceptual space, etc. (these, as opposed to the kind of aural space that music creates). Musicality requires a kind of openness, a total presence in the world, being here now. This openness is the foundation of all musical play.


The boundaries of competitive structures exist in direct conflict with our impulse to play musically, and yet, through this tension, such forms can point toward unique musical value systems. They will be fierce. The "guerilla tactics" in Zorn's Cobra are a good example, an aggressive transfer of power and a rare example of competition emerging from musicality, instrumental play contextualized as an exception rather than a given.

Rich competitive structures are considered holy by many game designers and players. And, it's true, competitions can reveal amazing seemingly endless vistas to our senses of possibility. This openness points toward the divine. Then-- the feeling shuts off when we realize that the possibilities can be ranked by order of their usefulness. We will be more likely to succeed if we behave in certain ways. The problem here is that the conditions of success, and sometimes the methods for achieving success, are pre-determined by the game's design. The game imposes a value system on our experience. The divine impulse can remain intact only if we're always open to our inner sense of infinite possibility (which will mean entertaining the less "useful" possibilities). I've read about Go masters that maybe play like this, and Bobby Fischer searcher Joshua Waitzkin describes similar states of mind in his book "The Art of Learning"-- it seems that along with mastery of a rational craft comes the confidence and ability to let rational things go, and to live intuitively. In life, we can choose our craft, and this choice can constantly be renewed; in competitive games, not as freely (except insofar as our experience of choosing and living in the game is an extension of our played experience of life).

Competitive play channels creative force but to an end other than itself. If our love of a process (a craft, a game), compels us to move in a direction other than that in which the game points, we encounter a barrier, and since we have freely chosen to play, we will now choose to stop, and will have chosen suicide in the play space. Of course, we're not forced to choose this way, but to choose otherwise requires a respect for and love of the game (a respect for its imposed values and a love of the experiential aspects of the playspace). 

A utopian state of play: all possibilities are ranked as highly as possible; each, when chosen, introduces an entirely new set of possibilities, each of which is also ranked as highly as possible. In this setting, the word "ranked" loses its meaning; infinities open and give way to new infinities, and so on. The life of the game is the life of the spirit.


If we're going to admit systems of ranking into our games, to construct goals, their design should come from an intimacy with the materials of the playspace as a freely-played space, meaning one explored through our own self-directed (and constantly dissolving?) goals; these goals should invite us to play with processes that direct us toward and help realize our vision of inner utopia. This is the end to which goals should be a means: a final played application outside the structures of competition. It's, in part, to a celebration of particular strong values like these that we can owe the creative triumphs of games like Way, which invites us to create simple languages and then destroy and recreate new ones in a final double-coda, Minecraft, which allows us to explore the conceptual wall between nature and culture, Mario Galaxy, which teaches us how to dance with all the world as our partner.. etc.

There is nothing inherently wrong with explicit goals and the instrumental play they call for. What is wrong is the widely-held assumption that these kinds of barriers and motivators are essential to the form of games. 

The essential meanings in games (in play), function at a lower level. If we start from an understanding of games as musical objects/spaces, instruments for self-exploration, our intrinsic attraction to explicit goals (as boundaries that describe ways of playing) diminishes, and we see that we can (must, even) start from nothing, from chaos. From here, we search and listen, and if our love of a system compels us to teach others particular ways of playing via artificial boundaries (rules, which can be broken-- the more fundamental boundaries cannot, they can just be pushed), then we should act accordingly. These goals emerge from love.


The question of how games and play generate meaning and how they can be made more meaningful ultimately points in the direction that all such questions must point: toward truth, the divine, the world/universe, god, tao, the eternal, infinite, spiritual, whatever, etc.-- absolutes (that, yet, may be anything but absolute-- impossible to place, constantly changing). The simple "how" question ultimately wants to ask, before it has become too useful and too realistic: "how can games and play be the most meaningful that they can be?" This is a question of values, and it can be answered only in action, only when it's truly played-- when it's a natural continuation of the divine impulse, that perpetual motion, unfiltered creativity. 

How we choose to play and find meaning in what we play-- these are fundamental questions. We're on a search for particular (fluid) ways of playing-- tactics that might further our search, that might point us in the right direction (all directions?).

And what we play? (we are what?)

Competitive structures have had, and will continue to have, many things to teach us (at best-- about valued/loved play processes), but they lack a particular kind of realism that's wanting in our games right now-- playspaces that, as in life (though very differently), allow for the full flourishing of our creative faculties, the active exploration of shifting possibility spaces and the intimacy with the materials that form their boundaries. 

Musicality as play-within-constraints can reveal for us ways of playing more fluidly, of opening ourselves to the world and to that infinite sense of possibility at every moment. 

Now, as players, we'll need to learn to bear the burden of generating our own meanings. And as designers, we'll need to bear the burden of imposing implied values (if not meanings) on the player with our boundaries. We'll open these forms and gladly hand over certain variables to the player because we know that it's not particular values that establish meanings, but the dynamics of change that generate them.