Wednesday, November 19, 2014


I have to pause on this blog because I have to review the next few books before I post anything about them. I read them a few years ago and need to refresh my memory. Unfortunately, I am a bit swamped at the moment with other things which I need to tend to first. If you are interested in this thread, you can check back now and then to see if something new is posted. Or you can follow me onTwitter (@DrJohnArtz) . I don't tweet what I had for breakfast. So you won't be flooded with Tweets from me. I do send out Tweets when I've added something to one of my blogs. I only have four active blogs and don't post with any regularity to any of them. So, you won't get a lot of unwanted traffic. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia

The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia is a philosophical investigation of games by Bernard Suits. It is a dense, and, at times, difficult read. So, it is more for the stout-hearted, philosophically inclined reader, than it is for the casual reader. Nonetheless, it does make some very important points. So, I will summarize it here, very briefly, and emphasize a couple of its most dramatic contributions.

The book is structured around a very different interpretation of Aesop's Fable The Grasshopper and the Ant. In the original Aesop's Fable the grasshopper plays when the weather is nice while the ant works putting food away for the winter. When winter comes, the ant has plenty of food but the foolhardy grasshopper has nothing because he played all summer. So, the ant survives while the grasshopper starves. In Suit's interpretation, the grasshopper argues that he is merely acting according to his nature and if he did differently he would no longer be the grasshopper.  This was a little difficult to follow and I probably should read it again and wrestle with the ideas a bit more. But, the re-interpretation is not relevant to this post. So, I will keep going.

Along the way in discussing the role of play and games, Suits makes two rather astonishing observations. First, he asks about a utopian world in which people had all their needs met what would people do with their time? He suggests that they would play games. This seems right, on the face of it, as games are entertaining and will fill time not being spent on surviving. He then goes on to suggest that because of this games are the highest good for people. That is, it is the thing they would do if they could do anything they wanted to do. This, then, leads to the observation I made in a previous post that games are the only activity that people do for its own sake. Thus, putting play on a par with happiness as a thing people pursue for no other reason than to achieve it.

The second rather astonishing contribution that Suits makes is that he provides a workable definition of games. You might recall how, in the previous post, Wittgenstein said that games defy definition. The concept of games, according to Wittgenstein is held together by Family Resemblances and there is nothing that all games have in common. However, Suits defines a game as a voluntary attempt to othercome unnecessary obstacles. That seems to be a pretty good definition and one has to ask why Wittgenstein got it wrong while Suits got it right.

The answer, I believe, is that Wittgenstein was looking for a definition based on attributes whereas Suits provided a teleological definition. That is to say that  Wittgenstein was looking for features common to all games whereas Suits defined games in terms of the purpose they serve in our lives. This might even be a part of a larger patterns as we progress from natural science to social science to sciences of the artificial. Categories in natural science tend to be defined by attributes. In social science we see more of a mixture of attribute and teleological definitions. In sciences of the artificial more categories are almost always teleological.

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Metaphysics of Games

If you really dislike philosophy you should skip this post. It is not necessary for understanding subsequent posts and may just confuse you if you do no have philosophical leanings. But, for those who may be interested, I thought I would write a few words about the metaphysics of games.

Perhaps one of the most enduring and perplexing problems in metaphysics arises from the seemingly simple question - how do you know a tree is a tree? The problem here is that we have a specific thing that we assign to a group or category. We use the word "tree" for both the category and the individual instances that populate that category. In metaphysical terms the individual instance is referred to as a particular, and the category is referred to as a universal. In normal conversation we do not distinguish between particulars and universals, as that would just make conversation awkward. But, if we were being precise, the above question would be qualified - how do we know a tree (particular instance) is a tree (member of the universal category).

But, where do these universals come from? And how do we know a particular instance belongs to a category? Are categories defined bottom up based on common attributes? If so how do we select the attributes? Or are categories defined top down based on essences? If so, how do we determine the proper essences? These questions make up one of the most vexing problems in metaphysics known as The Problem of Universals.

Philosophers as far back as Plato and Aristotle have attempted to tackle this problem. In the last century, Ludwig Wittgenstein offered an interesting perspective using a family resemblances analogy and used games as an example category. If you go to a family reunion, you can see that the members of the family share some facial features. But, not everyone has the same set of common features. For example, a few people may have the family nose. Others have the family chin. Perhaps others have the family brow. The family is held together visually by a collection of interlocking facial features but no family member has the full set of common features. According to Wittgenstein, many concepts are held together in the same way.

In the case of games, we see a category held together by family resemblances. Some games have a strategy. Some games have winners and losers. Some games involve competition. And so on. But no game has a full set of common attributes. This assertion that 'games' is a poorly defined category would hold for nearly a century, until Bernard Suits would offer a precise definition of games. We will get to Suits in the next post. But for now we will leave it off by saying that the intellectual foundations of games is anchored deeply in the heart of metaphysics.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Literature on (Video) Games

As I mentioned in the last post, I write book and article reviews for ACM's Computing Reviews. I have been doing this since 1986, almost three decades. For most of that time I have been reviewing items in Information Systems. About five years ago, I started reviewing items within the domain of video games. And I can attest to the fact that the literature in (video) games is so far superior to the literature in Information Systems that the field of Information System should be crimson red with embarrassment. If ever there were a poor cousin, it is the field of Information Systems.

I put the word (video) in parentheses here for a reason and should explain that reason. The literature on video games only dates back to the first video games which was sometime in the 1960's. There are at least two wonderful books on the history of video games, neither of which are handy at the moment. So, I will check that date later. But, the literature on games and play goes back much further and requires almost no adjustment in order for it to provide a solid philosophical, sociological and psychological foundation for video games. In upcoming posts, I will introduce as many of these foundation works as I can. This is not to say that all the good work happened before the invention of video games. There are many excellent works on video games as well.  I hope to get to all of them as well. But, for now, I am going to laying down some foundation.

We can think of the literature of video games in terms of the following categories: philosophical, sociological, psychological, historical, empirical, and engineering or design. I have many books lying around and none of them have category stickers on them. So, I just made up those categories. But, I think they will work for the time being. And, in the next post, I will begin with some of the philosophical grounding. If philosophy gives you a headache, you may want to skip the next few posts. But, I encourage you to, at least, glance at them as the foundation work is important so you should, at least, be aware of it.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014


It has been over three years since I posted to this blog. I guess if you are looking for a daily feed you are pretty disappointed. But, daily posts are clearly not my blogging style. There are several problems with daily posts. First, it is a major challenge to come up with something worthwhile to say every day. And if one is forced to write something every day they will become shallow in their observations. Second, I prefer to write when I feel like writing. This is because I like to think about things and hold off writing until I have something that I think is worth saying. And, third, if you write everyday, then the posts you wrote a year ago are probably no longer worth reading.

My approach is to take a longer view of blogging. I write when I have something to say. And I write things that are, hopefully, as worthwhile to read years later as they are on the day I post them. I view a blog as a long term effort where I share my thinking about various topics. Sometimes you can see how my thinking evolves on specific topics. Sometimes I can see how my thinking evolves. Hopefully, the things I write will stimulate your thinking about the topics that I write about as much as they stimulate my thinking..

This particular blog captures my evolving thinking about video games. If you are interested in my thinking on more general topics, you can check out my main blog Ranting and Reflecting . I think about a lot more things than video games. And that blog captures a wider range of topics. I also contribute, on a regular basis to LinkedIn forums such as the American Philosophical Association forum and The Future Role of IT. You will notice a similar style on Ranting and Reflecting. I start thinking about something, post a few bits about it, and then disappear for a while. If you look at this from the perspective of daily blogging it makes no sense. But, if you look at it as a record of thinking that evolves over decades, it makes a lot more sense.

Now that I am back on this blog again I am going to do three things. First, I am going to review what I said before and see if it needs any reflection or commentary. Then, I am going start reviewing the foundation literature of video games. Along the way I will toss in some observations about where the field of video games has come from and where it is going. In the past five years or so I have reviewed over fifty scholarly books and articles for The Association for Computing Machinery's online review journal Computing Reviews  and I have played way too much World of Warcraft . So, it isn't like I haven't been doing anything. And since video games are only one of my many interests I have been involved in a lot of other things as well. But my style of work is to work on whatever I happen to be interested in until I am no longer interested and then drop it and come back when I am interested again. I think it is time to pay attention to video games again.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

What Does It Mean to be Meaningful?

This sounds like a weird philosophical digression, and perhaps it is. I am not above getting distracted. But, if the ultimate goal of a video game is to be meaningful, then we need to decide what we mean by meaningful. I am going to work into this via analogies from other media. Do books and films have to be meaningful? And if they are, what does that mean?

I should mention, if it isn't already obvious, that I am thinking this think through as I go along. So, what I decide further down the line may look very different from my initial impressions. At the same time, my conclusions may look very much like my initial impressions. I just don't know at this stage.

First, I think there are varying degrees of meaningfulness. A thing is minimally meaningful if it adjusts your in some way so that you are better prepared to cope with your life. A thing is maximally meaningful if it helps you to make sense out of your life and your experiences, or if it brings your life and experiences into perspective. I am flirting with a connection with the transcendental here but am not going to go quite that far.

That's not too bad for a start. We will see where it goes. Next, I will apply the definition to books and films. I will see if tha exercise helps me to refine or solidify the definition. Then I will apply it to video games. This is not, I should hasten to mention, just a quixotic philosophical pursuit. If I am right about what I am thinking here the ultimate design goal for a video game should be that it be meaningful. We'll see how it goes.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Does a Video Game Have to be Meaningful?

Asking whether or not a video game should be meaningful sounds like a silly question. But it is a very serious question that I plan to explore. The short answer is - no. A video game does not have to be meaningful. Just being fun is enough. However, if a goal of the game is to be memorable and enduring, then, I would argue, it does have to be meaningful. One might say "the goal of a game is make money"", and there is some truth to that. But few game designers, as creative artistic people, are satisfied with just making money. They want their work to have larger meaning. And few players are satisfied, in the end, investing endless hours in a game unless they feel it has some larger significance. So, in order for a game to be memorable, significant and worthwhile, it must be meaningful.

This has only become a problem recently as experts in media studies have offered up the claim that video games should be studied as cultural artifacts just as films and novels are studied as cultural artifacts.  Asking if a video game has to be meaningful is like asking if a novel or a film has to be meaningful. Certainly, there are lots and lots of junk novels and junk films. So not every one has to be meaningful. But, it is the goal of writer's or film maker's craft to produce meaningful work even though it is a rare occurrence. Similarly, it is the goal of the game designer's craft to produce meaningful work. Hence, we need to figure out what we mean by 'meaningful'.