Games, Explained

Fig 1.

Games are simple. They are designed activities that produce certain kinds of pleasure. They are interesting in various ways – as problems to solve, worlds to explore, comforting rituals, or novel ideas to consider. And they are voluntary, we do them instead of working.

Fig. 2

Inevitably they become more than just ways of experiencing these qualities, they start to represent these qualities to us – they become symbols that stand for pleasure and freedom. Symbols of an outside of work, symbols of meaningful connection, symbols of discipline and mastery or symbols of comfort, indulgence, and loss of control.

Fig. 3

As symbols, they function in complex networks of meaning generation. We use them as shorthand in all kinds of cognitive equations. We think about them while falling asleep and they give us comfort and pleasure. We use them to catalyze the self-assembly of our taste-making algorithms. We use them to map out the countours of the social territory by which we identify ourselves with some groups and against others.

Fig. 4

Symbols work in particular ways – the same symbol has to be recognizable as identical even though it appears in many different forms, while different symbols need to be easily distinguishable from each other. So games as symbols evolve in ways that exaggerate arbitrary features in order to emphasize perceivable similarities and differences, to increase the power of their symbolic functions.

Fig. 5

Because of this evolutionary pressure, sometimes their role as symbols comes into conflict with their other, lower-level functions. When we begin to notice this gap it may bother us. For example we may realize that the process of signifying pleasure has made a game less immediately pleasurable, and we may wonder why we spend so much time and energy projecting images and performing pantomimes of the things we want instead of just pursuing them directly. We may feel as if we are trapped in a mirror maze, becoming more and more deeply confused about what we want after all.

Fig. 6

When this occurs games may take on a third level of signification, becoming representative of symbols themselves, becoming emblematic of the whole complicated, difficult process of symbolic representation, with its double-agent duplicity, its vulgar flattening-out of primary qualities into telegraphic units, and the way it seems to constantly teeter on the edge of explosive, out-of-control recursion.

In other words, games are like art, sex, and cigarettes. Simple.