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The World as Artwork

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Here’s a game I like to play. Next time you are in an art gallery, turn away from the paintings and look at the people. Look at them as if that was the show. Look at the other visitors in the gallery exactly the same way you would look at the art, as if they had been put there to be seen, admired, analyzed, and understood. This game is harder than it looks. We don’t realize how many different ways of looking there are, and how different they are. But if you are able to successfully play this game you will learn some things. First, you will learn how ruthlessly we look at art, how rapacious and haughty and impatient and demanding we are. What is this? Where did it come from? What’s going on here? What does it mean? Do I like it? Is it worth my time? Turning our art gaze on our fellow humans is shocking, embarrassing, you will instantly want to recoil back to the polite and diplomatic gaze we use for each other. Don’t. Because if you persist in this rude game you will learn something else. Humans are amazing. Judged as artworks, random people are deeply, desperately, heartbreakingly beautiful. They are strange, surprising, fascinating. They are overloaded with complex patterns, the primal pleasures of platonic geometry mixed with the playful, self-referential curves of postmodern signifier-tricks. Looked at as artworks, humans are bottomless pools of hypnotic meaning – masterpieces of light and shadow, color and shape, symbol, signal and noise.

You can do the same thing just walking down the street, or in a coffee shop, or a business meeting, or standing in line at a bank. It doesn’t have to be people. It can just be a random street corner with its ordinary surfaces, and all the banal details of the regular world. If you can trick yourself into looking at things as if, as if they were someone’s work, as if they had been arranged with a purpose, you may find yourself overwhelmed with the world’s haunting beauty – the subtle echoes of shape and pattern, the way the light hits the bricks at just the right angle, the suspenseful mystery of an errant shadow, the perfect punchline of an upended cup.

This is the trick that Ian Bogost plays on himself, and us, in his new book Play Anything: The Pleasure of Limits, the Uses of Boredom, and the Secret of Games. And according to this book it’s the trick that games are playing on us all.

This is a strange book, at first glance it looks a bit like self-help, pop psychology, or life advice, but it’s far weirder and more interesting than that. One of the early voices and key figures in the history of game studies, Bogost’s entire career has involved trying to figure out the tricky relationship between games and the world, starting with the primary question – what would it mean to take games seriously? How should we approach games as a topic for serious cultural criticism? For a long time, Bogost’s answer to that question involved thinking through the many ways games can be about the world. As a critic, and as a designer, he has emphasized how games, like other forms of media, can reflect the world – expressing ideas, operating rhetorically, conveying arguments through dynamic models and interactive systems. He has celebrated their power to communicate and persuade and cautioned against their enthusiastic adoption by the snake oil salesmen who would apply them as a magic elixir for shaping behavior.

This book marks something of a radical break with these concerns. In Play Anything games are treated less as things that work on or through or about or against the world and more as aspects of the world itself, invitations to experience the world as it is, not as we imagine, not for our sake, not in our interest, but on its own terms – blunt, indifferent, but also endlessly fascinating and sublime. The way a ball bounces, the way tetronimoes fit together, the way code functions. This new perspective is not a reversal of Bogost’s earlier concerns but it feels like the results of a dedicated effort to get beneath them, to discover something foundational about the underlying nature of play and games. His success in this effort suggests that this book belongs beside Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, Suit’s The Grasshopper, and Sutton-Smith’s The Ambiguity of Play as a key work in the field. It is probably Bogost’s best book to date, and that’s saying something.

It is also (and probably not unrelatedly) his most personal book. The threads that tie the book together are drawn from his life, his work, his family, his habits and hobbies. Bogost is a writer known for calculated erudition and acerbic wit and this book has both, but it has more. It is weird and warm; human, worldly. It is as if, contemplating the central thesis that games provide an opportunity to confront the stubborn truth of the world, he decided to let the lived reality of his own life guide his thinking. Rather than grand theory-spinning we get close observation of games and life as they actually are. Not idealized, not demonized, not disappointing, or frustrating, or thrilling, or boring or amazing or fantastic. Not life-changing, just life. But look at life, look at the ways it moves and doesn’t move. The world, with its limited degrees of freedom, unfolds into intricate arabesques more marvelous than any grand theory could contain. This is the secret of games as Bogost has come to understand them.

In addition to being deeply personal, Play Anything is also deeply philosophical. For those of us who have followed Bogost’s forays into Object Oriented Ontology without every quite understanding how they relate to his work on games, this book closes the loop, providing an intuitive and satisfying connection. The way that games draw us in to trace the convoluted surfaces of objects and rules and materials and code and the brute facts of their behaviors and interactions provides a model for a way of looking at the world beyond the demands of our egos and the distortions of our desires. (The apparent contradiction that OOO itself is an intensely human project, fully subordinate to our egos and desires, it just another one of those facts about the world that we can play with and admire.)

It has long been a habit of many ambitious game creators and critics to expound on the glorious potential of games while disparaging their current status. This book suggests a different way of thinking about games’ potential. It is not up to games to evolve into a more beautiful form, one more pleasing to us, more full of meaning. It is up to us to rise to the challenge they present – the challenge to inhabit the world’s corners, to see how they work and how we work inside them. The beauty of games is the play of close attention, and it’s all around us, waiting for us to look.

6 Comments

  1. Most of this article doesn’t surprise me, but usually when you write articles like these you leave *some* indication somewhere that you aren’t willing to fully embrace existentialism; that you believe progress is possible and that things can be understood. The fact that that’s missing in this article is surprising.

    For example, in “Against Design”, you wrote:

    >”I do believe game design is something you can study and learn and work to master.”

    Where did that guy go, who at least felt the need to temper the existentialism somewhat?

    The last paragraph of this article seems directly anti-progress to me, and I can’t believe you just left it at that. I suppose you’ve left some room for an interpretation that sounds like “well, us learning to design games better is part of us ‘rising to the challenge they present’”, but I really do not think that that’s how most people will interpret this, and I find it hard to believe (from the context) that that’s what you meant.

    Most people will interpret this article as: “stop trying to improve the discipline of game design or make better games. Instead, lower / completely rid yourself of the concept of standards so that you can just *like everything*!”

    Beyond the fact that I see it as counter-productive to the goal of “creating better games”, the reason I really don’t like this sort of rhetoric is that, especially coming from and speaking to creators, it’s really self-serving. People don’t like my game? Well! They just need to Rise to the Challenge I Present!

    (Perhaps instead of writing this critical comment, I just need to “rise to the challenge” of this article. Or… do you need to “rise to the challenge” of this comment?)

    I think this kind of a viewpoint robs creators of the opportunity to create something, have everyone tell them it sucks, and really internalize that and learn from it. Why did people not connect with my thing? What could have done to do a better job connecting with people? The sentiment of this article – which is RIFE in the game design community – instructs people to not ask such questions, but rather *blame* their audience for not getting us.

    What am I missing?

    Sunday, October 2, 2016 at 6:51 pm | Permalink
  2. Frank Lantz wrote:

    Hi Keith,

    >> Most people will interpret this article as: “stop trying to improve the discipline of game design or make better games. Instead, lower / completely rid yourself of the concept of standards so that you can just *like everything*!”

    First of all, that’s not what I meant, as I’m sure you know.

    Secondly, as a matter of empirical fact, I do not believe that a single reader of this piece will ever think I meant that.

    So I don’t think you have much to worry about.

    Monday, October 3, 2016 at 5:23 am | Permalink
  3. Conor wrote:

    Actually, I did kinda feel that was what you were getting at.

    >> It is not up to games to evolve into a more beautiful form, one more pleasing to us, more full of meaning. It is up to us to rise to the challenge they present – the challenge to inhabit the world’s corners, to see how they work and how we work inside them.

    That sounds like saying, its not a bad game that need to change but our attitude… So would you mind expanding for me? What have I misunderstood?

    Thursday, October 6, 2016 at 11:28 am | Permalink
  4. Frank Lantz wrote:

    >> That sounds like saying, its not a bad game that need to change but our attitude…

    Yeah, I guess I’m suggesting trying out a change in attitude, one that dials down the despair and disappointment and dials up the appreciation and joy. Without losing the sophisticated, critical, discerning eye of the thoughtful expert.

    Attitude is just framing. You can be doing the same activity and frame it in different ways. For instance you can frame it as an obligation or as an opportunity. You can think – ‘if I don’t do this I’m going to feel terrible’ or you can think – ‘if I do this I will feel awesome.’

    Is an attitude that celebrates existing games and parts of games compatible with a belief in the power of serious thinking and hard work to improve our understanding of games and our ability to make good games? I think it is.

    For example, I talk a lot about what I love about Poker. Does that mean I think Poker is a perfect game? Or that I think everything about is good? Or that I don’t recognize other kinds of games that are, in some ways, better? No it doesn’t.

    I think it’s really difficult to figure out what we love about a thing. It’s hard for me to articulate what I love about Poker, as opposed to what is just compelling or addictive about it. Loving something well is the process of figuring out what my real values are and then trying to live up to those values, not in some vague abstract way but in the concrete reality of what I think and do.

    I’m not saying lower your standards, I’m saying do the hard work of seeking out opportunities to live up to your own standards now in the real world with real games. Figure out how to do that hard thing.

    To some degree what I’m saying is just obviously true. You can seek out aspects of existing games that embody what you love about games and try to articulate them and get other people to appreciate them, and you can seek out aspects of existing games that fail to provide what you want and highlight those. And you can do both of those things to various degrees.

    The empirical question is – what’s most effective? What’s going to give us more of what we are aiming to get? And here I am making a claim. I am saying (and to a degree I am amplifying a thread I see in Bogost’s book) that this less obviously “critical” stance, this attitude of discerning acceptance I am describing, can be surprisingly effective at getting us where we are trying to go.

    Obviously, it’s bad to be complacent, I’m saying it can be surprisingly good to hone one’s ability to savor the good aspects of the world as it exists.

    One way to counter this claim would be to say “oh the world has already run this experiment – look around, everybody already loves the status quo and it sucks.” But I think this is just begging the question. I’m not talking about everybody, and I’m not talking about the status quo, I talking about you, the individual reading this. I’m saying run the experiment for yourself. You don’t have to flip a permanent switch, just run it temporarily. Try getting the best possible experience out of existing games, try finding concrete examples of the things you value, not in the idealized realm of some theoretically good game, but in actual games you can play now. Try articulating what those values are and then try to amplify them in the way that you play and think about the game. Just for a while, do that instead of listing out the potential, future, theoretical values you think a better game would give you. Do it seriously, with all your intelligence and will. Try to enjoy yourself, but also try to understand your joy and make it the kind of joy you really want in your life and then try to live up to that joy and become the person with that life.

    Do that for one month, and if it doesn’t make you a better game designer come back and tell me and I will personally apologize for wasting your time.

    Thursday, October 6, 2016 at 6:25 pm | Permalink
  5. JSR wrote:

    I’m not a game designer, more of a game enthusiast really, so this does not apply directly to me. I am interested in game design insofar as it is a closer look at a thing I love.

    I like this article because it speaks to my personal way of viewing art, which is to try and appreciate what aspects of it are good (or even beautiful) to me.

    If I were a designer of games, I might be worried that I was being made complacent by this type of subjectivity, and if anything, I could probably use more objectivity in the way that I view things.

    As an amateur musician, I find a lot of inspiration in artists who abandon accepted craft and try to communicate something that is deeply personal to them in a way that is unusual, or “slightly off.”

    Sticking doggedly to “best practices” results in banal, plain things that do not poke or prod your brain. They do not delight and charm you, merely “meet expectations.”

    Many of my favorite video games are the weird ones, the ones that have ugly, jagged edges around them but also contain novel ideas, ugly experiments that are charming in their audacity.

    I think the point of this article was to support close analysis and critical appraisal of *how* you like things as much as *why*. For me, I have found it enriching to undertake the task of finding the value inside things that seem valueless at first; it is not complacency, it is pure empathy.

    I don’t know if my comment is useful in becoming a better game designer, but an avid interest in (as opposed to rapacious criticism of)things has made my life more fulfilling in general.

    Thursday, October 6, 2016 at 9:37 pm | Permalink
  6. This article hit me squarely in the gut.

    I think that’s because I occasionally play a similar game. It’s called “imagine everyone you see is a shining god, perfect in all ways.”

    That experience is also striking and for similar reasons… For example, what might previously have been seen as flaws are suddenly hallmarks and calling cards. You know, the kind of personal branding Mt. Olympus is really good at. Pockmarks become the stuff of legend, eye-gleams are boosted many-fold, and presence itself delivers an energy-producing vibratory effect.

    I’m not sure what this practice is called but I’d guess it’s a gnostic, kabbalistic, or buddhist thing.

    And really, isn’t religion playing the same trick as a games? Making Sunday god’s day, having sacred space, and so on…

    I’m an athiest, but it really doesn’t matter. This structure:

    “…looking at things as if, as if they were someone’s work, as if they had been arranged with a purpose…”

    that’s typically been the purvue of religion.

    This line of thinking also suggests, that the attitude a player approaches a game (or anything) is a huge part of their experience, enjoyment, and impact. Marketing (or some kind of pre-experience frame design) is an important piece of the experience puzzle. And to your point, while most of the heavy lifting is on game makers to make and market powerful game experiences, players may have trouble finding meaning when they aren’t looking for it.

    There seems to be a paradox or contradiction here: There is more meaning in the real world when treating it like a game/work(of art) and yet we want players to come to games ready for more meaning.

    Maybe we need an interactive game museum / temple.

    Thursday, January 12, 2017 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

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