Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Video Games as Transformative Art

I reviewed a book recently for ACM Computing Reviews entitled Critical Play: Radical Game Design, by Mary Flanagan. It was a fascinating book that brought forth two important points about video games. First, video games can be through of as a form of artistic expression. And, second, as a form of artistic expression, video games can, potentially, be seen as transformative.

Seeing video games as a form of art is not that controversial. The background scenery and characters have graced posters and drawn the attention of graphics artists for years. But, it is much more than that. Consider the following progression... Imagine standing in your favorite art gallery viewing an oil painting of a landscape scene. Next imagine putting characters in that scene and having them work through some sort of archetypal human conflict. Now you have a movie. Next, imagine having that movie be interactive where the viewers actually interact with the characters in the story. Now you have a video game.

Returning to the landscape painting, it can be viewed on several levels. It can just be something nice to look at. It can inspire deeper reflection and aesthetic appreciation. Or, if it touches us deeply enough, it can be transformative. Similarly, a video game can simply be fun to play. If it is more engaging we may learn from it. For example, we might learn how to work in groups, solve problems, develop strategies, or manage resources. If it touches us deeply enough, it may be transformative.

These are compelling ideas and also somewhat problematic. I have been thinking of video games as play, serious play. I was starting to get a net over my ideas in this area. Now, having to consider the role of video games as transformative play has torn a big hole in my net.


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Video Games and Flow

This digression into World of Warcraft was intended to show how a video game in general and World of Warcraft in particular can be seen as a flow experience. This connection explains why there are so many video game addicts, why the video game industry is growing so fast, and why we should think about using video game models in the design of work and education. I would like to elaborate more on this idea but I took a break from World of Warcraft to write this entry and I really would like to get back to it.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

World of Warcraft: The Teleology of Resource Acquisition

World of Warcraft isn't just a series of quests where you slay monsters. A large part of play is the acquisition of resources. This happens in a variety of ways. First, each time you slay a monster you get to 'loot the corpse'. This grizzly phrase really means nothing more than right clicking on the corpse and copying the items to your inventory. The items could be money, thngs that are useful to your character, or things that are not useful to your character but that you can sell back to a vendor.

You can recieve 'loot' in a variety of ways other than looting corpses. You can recieve items of value as a reward for completing a quest. Some items you 'find' as treasure. And you can trade items with other players. If you have multiple characters on the same server, you can mail items that one character does not need to another character who does need it.

Professions are another way to acquire resources. This can get quite complicated and I will just give a simple example so as not to get off on a tangent. Let's say your character is a tailor. You normally receive cloth for free from looting corpses. Instead of selling that cloth back to a vendor you can use that cloth to make bag. You can then sell that bag back to a vendor, auction it off at the auction house, use it yourself, give it or trade it to another player, or mail it to another one of your characters.

The resources that you acquire are either of value to your character such as better armor or better weapons, or they can be sold for money which in turn can be used to purchase things of value to your character. The acquisition of resources can be just as important as leveling. As your character increases in level, it needs better weapons and better armor in order to succeed against more difficult enemies.

Ostensibly, the player in World of Warcraft is attempting to level up by slaying monsters. However, there are numerous goals being pursued simultaneously. The player is also trying to acquire resources and advance in his or her profession. This complex goal structure often requires difficult decisions regard how to most effectively spend one's time. And, if it isn't complicated enough, there are also social goals that we will turn to next.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

World of Warcarft:: The Teleology of Quests

The entire World of Warcraft game is structured around the pursuit of quests. When you first show up in the world, you see a quest giver who is identified by a yellow exclamation mark over his head. You right click on him and he gives your a quest. The first quest is to kill six wolves and loot them for their meat. When you complete the task, you return to the quest giver and give him the wolf meat. He, in turn, gives you a reward. In this simple course of action you learn a little about the game. You learn how your character attacks. You learn how to loot. You learn how to pursue quests. And you learn that you get rewarded for completing quests. There is a feeling of satisfaction derived from completing a quest.

As you complete quests, you gain experience. As you gain experience your increase your level. You start out at Level 1 and the highest level currently available is Level 80. Originally it was 65 and then went to 70 and 80 in the next two expansions. Quests are set up in an area to take your level into consideration. The progression of quests takes this into consideration also. So, unless you wonder off track somehow (or on purpose) your quests are appropriate for your level. That is, they are challenging but achievable. They are not too easy or too hard. And, as you complete quests, you see progress in your character's advancement.

Progress shows in a number of ways. The most obvious is leveling. An experience bar across the bottom of the screen shows how much experience you gained from the quest and how much further you have to go in order to achieve the next level. However, you also acquire better armor which makes your character harder to kill and you acquire better weapons which makes your character more effective at killing the monsters. If you acquire something you don't need, you can sell it back to a vendor for money. That money, in turn, can be used to purchase things that you need.

This is all just to show that the game provides you with goals that are challenging but achievable and provides a sense of progress and feedback to support that sense of progress. These points will tie into a larger point once I finally get back to Flow.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

World of Warcraft: The Economics of Primary Professions

Each character in World of Warcraft is allowed to select two primary professions which fall into two categories: raw material acquisition and crafting. Raw material acquisition professions include: mining, skinning, and herb gathering. Crafting professions include: blacksmithing, leathercrafting, tailoring, and alchemy. Although it is not required, it makes sense to have an acquisition profession that matches your crafting profession. For example, if you are going to be a blacksmith, it makes sense to be a miner as well since mining will provide the raw materials for blacksmithing. If you are going to be a leathercrafter, you should also be a skinner. And so on.

Professions are, in some ways, a distraction from the game. Time you spend acquiring materials and crafting items is time that you do not spend leveling. However, there are several, non trivial benefits to having and developing your professions. First, you can make items that may be of value to you. For example, if you are a leather crafter you can make armor enhancers that will increase the armor ratings of your clothing items.

Second, you can make items for your other characters. Your tailor, for example, can make bags for everyone and email the bags to the other characters. Everybody needs bags in which to store the loot they pick up while leveling. And bags are expensive. So having a tailor allows you to make bags for a fraction of the cost. Your leather crafter can make armor enhancers and email them around. If you belong to a guild, or just have friends on the same server, you can make items for them and give them away via email or trade them for items that you need.

This is all very handy. It helps enhance the quality of your character and your social connections. But, there is another aspect of professions that becomes increasingly more important over time. And that is the fact that you can sell the items that you make at the Auction House and earn money. Following is a simple example.

Let's say that your character is a skinner and tailor. If you acquire some heavy leather and silk you can make ten slot silk bags. You can sell these bags back to vendors for 20 silver coins. The problem is that the materials cost 21 silver coins. So you really sell them at a loss. But, if you buy the same bag from a vendor it will cost you 1 gold and 80 silvers (or 180 silver coins). On the other hand, if you give these bags to your other character you will save money.

However, there is another alternative. You can also take the bags to the Auction House. The minimum bid for a 10 slot silk bag is 30 silver coins. So, if you put the bag on auction, you will make 50% more than what the vendor will give you. However, as most people will need bags and 30 silver is a much better deal than 180 silver, they tend to sell quickly. So, you can put a buyout price of 40 silver which is twice what the vendor will give you and be reasonably assured of selling the item within 24 hours. If you want to be more bold, you can raise the buyout price. If people want the bag bad enough and have enough extra gold, they will pay it making your increase several hundred percent.

Since everyone accumulates silk and skinners get the leather for free, being able to make bags and sell them at the Auction House increases the money you earn and that money can be used to buy other things that you need. As you can see from this example, World of Warcraft has its own in-world economy and just like a real world economy you work to earn money and then use that money to buy other things that you need.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

World of Warcraft:: The Ergonomics of Class

The second decision that the player new to World of Warcraft must make, after they choose a race, is what class they would like to be. Classes define capabilities - strength and weaknesses. Not all races have the same classes so the choice of race will place some constraints on the choice of class. For example, Gnomes and Undead cannot be hunters, while Night Elves and Trolls cannot be Paladins. Nonetheless, each race has a good selection of classes. The races are fairly matched and, to the credit of the designers at Blizzard, the classes are fairly matched as well.

But, fairly matched and equal is not the same. The capabilities of each class can vary widely. The warrior, for example, has great armour and it difficult to kill. In WoW slang, the warrior is refered to as a tank. But, in fighting, he has to be up close to his opponent and hack away. This can get really tedious at times. The hunter, by way of comparison, has less armor and is easier to kill. But the hunter can stand back at a safe distance and shoot at his opponents. Some classes (such as Preist, Paladin and Shama) have healing capabilities and can heal themselves or others. Magical classes such as Mage or Warlock can hurl spells from a distance which is similar to the hunter's shooting. But, the can also cast weakening spells.

Unlike races, it does make a difference which class you choose as it will impact your play. Even though they are relatively fairly matched in capabilities, different players will prefer playing different classes. And your preference of class may well change over time.

I called this article The Ergonomics of Class because you can think of the classes as job designs. Different things are required and each different class brings different capabilities to the table. Just like in an organization where a wide variety of requirements need to be met by a wide variety of job designs, a guild or raiding team cannot consist of a single set of skills. A diverse team is much more likely to be successful.

This workplace analogy can be carried a step further in terms of organizational dynamics. Aside from being a fun game, we can learn a lot about team dynamic from studying the dynamics of teams in World of Warcraft. In order to achieve success in raids, the team must be careful chosen, carefully managed, and work in synchronous harmony. This is a tall order in Wow just like it is a tall order in the workplace.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

World of Warcraft:: Races and the Rawlsian Community

The first decision that one has to make when starting to play World of Warcraft is - what race should your character be. Races are broadly organized into two large categories: Alliance and Horde. Alliance appear to be the good guys as they are more attractive physically, while Horde appears to be bad guys are the are generally unattractive. This distinction (good guys versus bad guys) is not quite true but you have to get much deeper into the lore to discover this. And that is way beyond the scope of this post.

Alliance races include: Humans, Dwarves, Gnomes, Night Elves and Draenei. Horde races include: Orcs, Undead, Tauren, Troll and Blood Elves. There is very little help of any kind to guide the user in making this decision. However, as it turns out, that doesn't really matter much. John Rawls said something to the effect that society should be designed so that it does not matter which role you are born into. And WoW is a quintessential Rawlsian community. There are really only three factors to consider in your choice of race; all relatively minor.

First, the race you choose will determine the area in which your character starts. Dwarves and Gnomes begin in the snowy land of Dun Morogh while Trolls and Orcs begin under the punishing sun in the dessert land of Durotar. There are numerous starting places but they are all of approximately the same difficulty. So, the only factor that is really affected by location is the visual scenery that serves as a backdrop to your play. This is not to be dismissed too easily as it does affect your game play experience. However, it is also very much a matter of personal taste. So it is difficult to determine an optimal choice without just trying the different options.

Second, the race you choice will determine how your character looks. Since you will be spending a lot of time looking at your character, you want to choose a character that you like looking at. Peronally, I prefer gnomes and night elves. But it is very much a question of personal taste.

Neither of these first two options is all that critical as I would recommend that a serious player, over time, play a variety of different races. The landscape is interesting and the quests are different in the different lands. Although the level of difficulty is roughly the same, the variety still makes it worth while. As you play longer, you find that the diferent races start covering a lot of common territory. But the starting areas are unique, interesting and fun.

The third issue is the decision to go with an Alliance or a Horde character. Some poeple feel very strongly about this not unlike supporters of a local football team. I have characters of both categories and do not see a huge difference other than the territory they cover and the visual effects. Alliance characters and territories tend to be more aesthetically pleasing. While Horde characters and territories then to be a little harsher. However, if you are going to have multiple characters on a server, it is important to have all Horde or all Alliance on a given server.

Character on a server can share resources via email. This will become very important later, especially with professions. But, an Alliance character cannot email resources to a Horde character and vice versa. So, it is best to have all characters on one server on the same side.

Yet, the bottom line here is that you cannot really make a bad choice with regard to race. Class, however, is a different matter and we will take that up next time.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Structural Flow Elements in World of Warcraft

In the last post, I claimed that we can see playing World of Warcraft as a flow experience. I divided the elements of a flow experience into structural and experiential elements and said that the structural elements (goals, feedback, challenge, and control) can be seen in the design of the game. In this post, I will take that claim a little further and point to elements of the game design that, I believe, support that claim.

We can make a further distinction with regard to the goals dividing them into personal and social goals. Personal goals are the goals one has with regard to progress in the game. These are similar to the goals one might have when playing a game of skill. One wants to progress through higher levels of achievement and acquire skills or objects that will make them more successful in the game.

However, World of Warcraft is a MMORPG which means that it also provides a social experience as you play with, play against, or interactive with other players. This social interaction leads to social goals. Social goals include - achievements that others can see; prowess in battle; skills that can be used to help other players such as making items of value; economic productivity; and status within a guild, group, or among players on a server in general.

As I write this, I realize that most of this will make no sense to someone who knows nothing about the game. So, I guess I am going to have to digress from this digression and explain a little more about World of Warcraft. This is, after all, a blog. And that means thinking out loud. So, I apologize for not having figured all this out before hand. Next time I will embark on an explanation of World of Warcraft for the uninitiated. Then I will return to flow experiences. I think this will be interesting and, hopefully, not too confusing.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

World of Warcraft as a Flow Experience

World of Warcraft (WoW) is, as of this writing, the most successful MMORPG ever with well over ten million subscribers paying a monthly fee to play. It is a well thought out, cleverly designed, game with great graphics, good performance and good reliability. It is also a flow experience. In order to support this claim, I will take the criteria provided for flow experiences in the Wikipedia article and, over the next few posts, explain them in terms of WoW.

As a reminder, the Wikipedia article provides the following criteria:
  1. Clear goals (expectations and rules are discernible and goals are attainable and align appropriately with one's skill set and abilities). Moreover, the challenge level and skill level should both be high.[2]
  2. Concentrating, a high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention (a person engaged in the activity will have the opportunity to focus and to delve deeply into it).
  3. A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness, the merging of action and awareness.
  4. Distorted sense of time, one's subjective experience of time is altered.
  5. Direct and immediate feedback (successes and failures in the course of the activity are apparent, so that behavior can be adjusted as needed).
  6. Balance between ability level and challenge (the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult).
  7. A sense of personal control over the situation or activity.
  8. The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action.
  9. People become absorbed in their activity, and focus of awareness is narrowed down to the activity itself, action awareness merging.
For purposes of explaination, I will divide these criteria in two categories: structural and experiential. The structural elements 1, 5, 6, and 7 can be explained in terms of the game design. The experiential elements 2,3,4,7,8 and 9 can only be explained in reference to subjective play experience. Demonstration of the structural elements is fairly straightforward. The experiential elements will be verified largely from self reporting. That is, I have played the game and I had certain experiences. In order to really nail this down from a research perspective a great deal more work would have to done. So, I will also discuss how such research might proceed. This is a lot to do. So, in the next post, we will get started on the structural elements.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009


Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (don't even try to pronounce it) has brought these ideas together in a coherent model of optimal experience which he calls Flow. Flow is the experience that one has when engaging in an actvitiy that produces happiness in the moment and enduring happiness. A short introduction to Flow can be found in the Flow article in Wikipedia.

I won't replicate the book or the article here, but will say that a Flow activity has clear and worthy goals, it is challenging but achievable, it provides feedback reflecting progress, it is intrinsically satisfying, and one tends to loose a sense of external things when pursuing a flow activity.

Flow activities take your mind off of what Russell called 'detractors' and allow you to engage in meaningful contributors. They also support Wittgenstein's requirement that you have a sense of purpose in that they contain clear and worthy goals. The notion that they are challenging but achievable while being intrinsically satisfying seems to support Aristotle's view of virtues.

Different activities might produce flow experiences in different people. Some people, for example, find that playing music is a flow experience. I, who am tone deaf, do not find it to be so. However, I do find other things to be flow experiences.

Bringing the conversation back to video games, it is easy to see why video games are so addicting. For many people, they are flow experiences. The have clear goals that are worthy in the mind of the players. More sophisticated games such as World of Warcraft actually have quite complicated goal structures with short and long term goals, conflicting goals, and both implicit and explicit goals. The goals are challenging but achievable. There is feedback in the form of leveling and the accumulation of resources and achievement awards. Players tend to find video games intrinsically satisfying. And they tend to loose a sense of external things when engaged in playing them.

People are often critical of video games for precisely this reason. They feel that gamers are much to involved in there games. However, I would turn it around and ask why are the other activities in life so much less compelling. Why are work and education more like video games? Is work, somehow, supposed to be unpleasant? Is education inherently difficult. What if work and education could be designed using the same principles as video games? Instead of being disdainful and suspicious, maybe there is something here that we can take advantage of.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Contributor and Detractors

There is a lame old joke which says that the nice thing about hitting yourself on the head with a hammer is that it feels so good when you stop. Certainly the presence of adversity in your life can make you unhappy. But does removing it make you happy? There are numerous things in life that can make you unhappy. These include shortage of money, criticisms from people whose opinion matters to you, feelings of inadequacy, boredom, and fearing for your physical well being, just to name a few. While these things make you unhappy, their removal does not make you happy. It will only make you less unhappy. It seems that there is an equilibrium state between happiness and unhappiness where you are neither happy nor unhappy.

There are things that make us happy and things that make us unhappy. Bertrand Russell, in The Conquest of Happiness, referred to these as contributors and detractors, respectively. Some of the detractors are mentioned above. According to Russell a contributor to happiness is zeal. That is, you have to have positive energy exerted towards something worth pursuing in order to be happy. Russell's student Wittgenstein added the notion that a sense of purpose was essential to happiness.

We are beginning to see a pattern emerging here. In order to be happy, you have to remove the things that make you unhappy and purse things that are somehow worthy of pursuing. In addition, these things that you pursue have to be things that you are good enough at to make progress. Next time, I will bring this all together in a coherent psychological theory.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Developing Your Virtues

In the last post, I mentioned Aristotle's claim that happiness is the only goal that we seek as an end in itself. In this post, I will take that a step further and discuss Aristotle's view on how happiness is actually achieved.

Aristotle saw each person as possessing unique talents. These talents are your virtues. This comes from the fact that Aristotle used the term "arete" which is translated some times as excellence and some times as virtue. I prefer the word excellence rather than virtue because virtue has a connotation of moral goodness where as excellence is more suggestive of something that you are good at. The key to happiness, according to Aristotle is to develop your virtues or, in simpler terms, become better at things that you are good at.

This is almost common sense if you think about it. People who are good at music enjoy playing music. People who are good at sports enjoy playing sports. People who are good at academics enjoy studying and learning. Similarly, people who are not good at sports, for example, do not enjoy them.

This can also be understood from an evolutionary perspective. If a person is good at something and they develop that talent, then they are more likely to survive as long as that talent has some survival value. This mechanism was discussed earlier. If people are rewarded by pleasurable experience for pursuing things they are good at, they are more likely to pursue those things. If the pursuit of those things has evolutionary advantage, then the pleasurable reward also has evolutionary advantage.

So, over eons of evolution, the enjoyment of pursuing one's virtues has evolutionary value. The enjoyment also has evolutionary value. And hence we enjoy doing things we are good at and becoming better at things we are good at makes us happy.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Psychological Quality of Life

Pyschological quality of life occurs when one has an enduring feeling of well being. That is, quality of life is a subjective experience rather than a response to external factors. This is a problem for those measuring quality of life because there is no test you can perform to assess one's subjective experiences. None the less, if you wish to improve your quality of life you have to work on your subjective experience. So, it is important to look at it from this perspective. We can also think of subjective quality of life as happiness. One is happy if their life has quality. We are assuming 'good' quality, of course. And if one's life has quality they will be happy.

Before we dismiss the objecitve external factors (such as those used for an objective or sociological determination of quality of life), it is fair to say that external factors can diminish one's subjective experience. A happy person who is being hit with a stick will be less happy than a similarly happy person who is not being hit with a stick. However, not hitting someone with a stick does not make them happy. It merely makes them less unhappy. I will come back to this issue later. But for now, we need to focus on the question of what makes people happy.

In an earlier post, I mentioned Aristotle's claim that happiness is the only goal which we seek for its own sake. We seek money, fame, and worldly posessions because we believe they will make us happy. But we pursue happiness as an end in itself. We want to be happy because we want to be happy. So, how do we do this? Aristotle had an answer, and it was quite a good answer. We will turn to it next time.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Sociological Quality of Life

Very often when we are attempting to assess the extent of a difficult to measure attribute such as quality of life, we look to surrogate attributes that are more easily measurable. It is very difficult to detemine the quality of life for an individual because we do not have a handy quality of life meter that we can use in the same way as we could use a thermometer to measure their temperature or a tape measure to determine their height. What we do instead is that we measure other attributes that we feel are correlated with quality of life.

We often see list of states or cities with the best quality of life. What does this mean? Does it mean that the people in these states or cities go through their days kvelling in ecstasy? If you were to move to one of these cities or states would you reel in the delight of increased quality of life? Are there no miserable people in these places?

Actually, what happens is that the people who determine quality of life for states or cities do it by measuring surrogate variables such as days of sunshine, average temperature, air quality, commute time, and so on. The presumption is that if these variables are agreeable then your quality of life will be improved. This is not entirely unfounded as having these variables at disagreeable levels might well detract from one's quality of life. But, they do not get directly at the underlying phenomenon. One could not say that quality of life means good climate, clean water and a short commute. While quality of life might be affect by these variables, it is somethig very different from them.

This approach to quality of life is often refered to as sociological quality of life as it looks to aggregate sociological variables to assess a personal subjective phenomenon. And while it is not without merit, it does fail to directly address the underlying phenomenon. That is, one's life has quality if one feels like it has quality. Quality of life is a subjective psychological experience that has little to do with these surrogate variables. And that will be the topic of the next post.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Quality of Life

We are forever in search of ways in which to improve our quality of life. And, yet, does anyone know what 'quality of life' really means? When we try to define quality of life we often land up metaphorically chasing our tails. Things are good if they improve our quality of life. But this adds another poorly understood word into the discussion. What do we mean by good? And further, are things good because they improve our quality of life or do they improve our quality of life because they are good?

One of the problems is that 'quality' is a poorly understood subjective term. A thing is good if it has good qualities. Robert Pirsig the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance wrote a second, less well known book, called Lila in which he attempted to address the issue of what we mean by 'quality'. He tried to say that we may not be able to define quality but we do not need to because we all have a shared subjective understanding of what quality means. According to Pirsig, anyone, regardless of their philosophical disposition, would agree that sitting on a hot stove is a low quality situation.

This may be true but is not useful unless the question that we are trying to answer is - should I sit on a hot stove? Most people would agree that improving the quality of their lives would be a good thing. And most would also agree that not sitting on hot stoves would contribute, in a positive way, to their quality of life. But this observation has little value beyond this specific situation. Eventually we have to return to the question - what is 'quality of life' and how can we improve it?

In the next post we will look at objective attempts to define quality of life and see how they can be misleading. In the post after that we will return to this notion of a subjective quality of life and see if we can get a little beyond the avoidance of hot stoves.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Games and the Ideal Life

Suits asserts that "in Utopia the only thing left to do would be to play games, so game playing turns out to be the whole of the ideal of existence." [pg.154] Most activities that we engage in, we engage in for the sake of something else. We work to earn money to eat. We form social structures for protection and survival. And so on. But, if we lived in a Utopian Society where all our needs were taken care of, the only activity we would engage in, according to Suits, is game playing. That is to say that game playing is the only activity that we pursue as an end in itself. I am not sure if it is, indeed, the only activity that we pursue as an end in it self. But, it does seem fair to say that is an activity that we view as an end in itself. And a reasonable question is - Why?

Aristotle claimed, as I mentioned before, that happiness is the only goal that we pursue as an end in itself. So, if game playing is the only activity that is an end in itself, is there a connection between happiness and game playing? Assume for a moment, (I will argue this point later) that one is happy if they have a high quality of life and unhappy if they have a low quality of life. Then do games contribute to our quality of life? If so, is this why playing games is an important element if not the very definition of the ideal life?

Next in our discussion of games, we will turn to happiness and qualify of life. We will attempt to understand the connection between game playing and quality of life. I will argue that game playing contributes in a significant and positive way to our quality of life and that is why we find game playing to be inherently satisfying. Further, we can use this insight to see how the nature of games can be applied to other activities such as work and education to make them more satisfying.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Reflecting and Refocusing

Many years ago, when I worked in a government office, there was sign that circulated which many people would pin to the walls of their cubicle. The sign began with an articulation of the ideal expectations for employee behavior and ended with the observation "but when you are up to your ass in alligators, it is easy to forget that your goal was to drain the swamp." This seems to have broader applicability as we get into any number of situations where dealing with the dynamics of the situation distracts us from the very reason that brought us into the situation.

As we explore the philosophical foundations of games and the various analytical and linguistic subtitles, we are vulnerable to the same phenomenon. So, let us pause for a moment to reflect on what we have done and where we would like to go with it.

We have defined the concept of a game. We have constructed a universal. Ideally, this universal includes all things that are games and no things that are not games. The Aristotelian approach of defining games did not work because games do not have attributes like rocks, plant and trees that were developed over years of evolution. We have taken a more Platonic approach in attempting to discover the essence of "gameness", not in the World of Forms but in the world of abstract ideas. Abstract ideas are ideal when they are intellectually economical.

We needn't worry about Hume and Wittgenstein because we are not trying to account for all conversational uses of the word "game". Bacon steered us away from that in his warning about Idols of the Marketplace. Our goal was to find a definition of games that reflected the essence of games not the variety of uses of the word. We did this because we want the particulars within our universal to be the 'same' thing. We want this because the extent to which they are the same the more we can learn about them. So, if we have to toss out some particulars as not really being games, this is the cost of gathering more knowledge about those that are games.

As we proceed with out analysis, we may wish to refine the definition. However, unlike the philosopher who would refine the definition to give it greater coverage, the researcher would refine the definition so that it works better for research purposes. That is, we would refine the definition if that refined definition would help us to learn more about the particulars contained in the universal.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Serious Play

I am not ready to say categorically that all play develops skills which historically have had survival value. For example, one may play to reduce stress or overcome boredom. In this case the play may only have distraction value. At the same time, I am not willing to go out on a limb and say that there are instances of play that do not develop skills that historically have had survival value. Instead, I am going to step around this problem by defining 'serious play' as those instances of play that develop such skills. It may be that all play is serious. Or it may turn out that there are instances of play that are not serious. But, I am trying to get to the core of the concept of games here, not play. So I need the idea of serious play.

It should also be pointed out that serious play is inherently satisfying. Nature, or perhaps evolution, has provided us with a reward for rehearing these skills and that reward is a pleasant feeling that we refer to as fun. So, we practice these skills because the practice is an end in itself as far as the individual is concerned.

Bernard Suits points out that games have a goal of some kind and this goal can usually be accomplished much more efficiently if the rules of the game are not followed. For example, if the goal in poker is to acquire money, then one could acquire the money just as well by clubbing the opponent over the head and taking it. But the rules of poker do not allow that. In fact, at one point, Suits points out that a key characteristic of a game is the pursuit of a goal via inefficient means.

Why would somebody pursue a goal via inefficient means? The answer, I believe, is that the pursuit of the goal via inefficient means constitutes serious play. As serious play, it, in turn, produces fun; and, of course, skills that historically have had survival value.

Suits goes into much more detail regarding the concept of games and I would strongly urge anyone who is interested in this to give it a read. However, Suits is examining the landscape of games while I am trying to come of with a definition that will be useful in understanding the construction of games. So my purpose is not to come up with a definition that covers all current instances of games. Rather my purpose is to come up with a definition that allows us to create new instances and apply that constructive process to new applications.

So a tentative definition of a game might be that it consists of a goal which must be pursued according to a set of rules and that the pursuit of that goal according to that set of rules constitutes serious play.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Man the Rehearser

I think I may have tried to set aside the concepts of play and fun a little too quickly. Why is play fun? I think there is an important reason for this and this reason is also important in understanding games. Think back to the puppies playing on the floor. They are rehearsing skills that will become important when they are adults. The play fighting they engage in is preparation for real fighting later. Now, granted, they are probably not going to encounter any life threatening struggles with other animals on my living room rug. But nature selected animals int he past who were good fighters and evolution does not change course just because my living room is a safe environment.

Taking a step back from this we can see how animals who practiced important survival skills would be more likely to survive. Further, we can see that animals who derived pleasure from practicing survival skills would be more likely to practice them and hence more likely to survive. Taking this to its conclusion we can see how natural selection would favor animals who found play to be fun. This argument could stand a little fleshing out. But, the sketch, I believe, makes the point.

In the case of humans, the necessary survival skills would include not only survival skills like wrestling with siblings, but would also include cognitive skills such as planning, problem solving, strategizing, and coordinating. Early humans did not have the advantages of speed, power, claws, teeth or other weapons that other animals had. There advantage, or at least one of their advantages, was the cultivation and application of the above skills.

So, incorporating the argument from the previous paragraph, we can see how early humans who derived pleasure in practicing these skills would have a higher chance of survival. Over time the adaptation 'derives fun from play' would become a species characteristic.

There is probably some survival value in all things we do for fun. However, I am sticking to play. Play is fun because it allows us to enjoy the rehearsal of skills that historically have provided survival value. Not all play is games, but games represent a special kind of play; a special kind of rehearsal. Understanding games as a special kind of rehearsal helps us to understand the nature of games and that understanding can, in turn, be applied to other things we need to such as work and education. But, once again, I am getting ahead of myself. Next time I will look at games as a special kind of play; a special kind of rehearsal.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Games, Play and Fun

It seems pretty obvious to say that we play games because they are fun. This however, introduces two related concepts that are associate with games but not games. We play games but games are not the only form of play. Kids play make believe, or dress up or cops and robbers. None of these are games as they do not have goals and rules. But they are played nonetheless. Not all games are 'played'. Professional sports, for example, are work. We may use the term play to describe the activity. But, it is work. Suit's definition of playing a game as a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles does not apply easily to professional sports. It is no longer voluntary when one is getting paid.

Making further distinctions, not all play is fun and fun can be derived from activities other than play. For example, an amusement park ride may be fun or meeting up with old friends my be fun, but neither could be considered play. Looking at it from the other perspective, a game may cease to be fun if one is loosing badly.

I am making these distinctions because play, games, and fun are often linked in much of the literature that I have read thus far. Clearly they are related concepts but they are not the same thing. Both play and fun deserve closer scrutiny but are distractions at the moment. So, I am going to set them aside definitionally and hopefully get back to them later.

It seems that play is some sort of a rehearsal activity. We pursue thing in a non serious way so that we can develop necessary skills for serious situations. Games are a very structured form of rehearsal but not all rehearsals are structured. Puppies fighting is a good example of play that is not a game. Further, it seems that fun is the reward for rehearsing. The reward of fun can be achieved through other means such as spending time with old friends. But the reward of fun makes play and hence games inherently satisfying.

There is a great deal more to both fun and play than I have time to get into at the moment. But, I needed to set them aside because they occur so frequently with the concept of games.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Games, Goals and Rules

As we look more closely at the internal structure of a game we see that games have a goal of some kind and a collection of rules governing the behaviors that one can engage in to achieve the goal. So, for example, in a football game, the goal is to score more points than the opponnent by getting the ball into the end zone more times. (This is not to diminsih field goals and extra points. It is just to make the analysis simpler). In getting the ball into the end zone, the team must achieve this goal using prescribed means. If you were to drive a tank down the field or gun down all the members of the defensive line, getting into the end zone would be much easier. But football has rules which say that these tactics are not acceptable.

The goal has to be worthy and achievable. If the winner in football were defined as the first team to score 100,000 more touchdowns than its opponent, few people would engage in the game. But the goal of more points within a limited time frame seems reasonable.

The rules also have to be reasonable. They have to make achievement of the goal challenging and satisfying without making it frustrating. So, if one of the rules of football were that players had to have their feet tied together, nobody would wish to play it.

In addition, as you strive for the game goal according to the game rules, you get better at the game and the satisfaction of playing the game increases.

So, Suit's definition of a game as a "voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles" might be slightly restated as an attempt to achieve a challenging and satisfying, but unecessary goal using challenging and satisfying but unecessary means. The goal here is not simply the game goal, but achieving the game goal using the means allowed in the game.

Next we will consider degrees of "gameness' looking at some quintessential examples, some borderline examples, and some bad examples.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Distinctions and Refinement

Suits' definition that playing a game is a "voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles." seems like a pretty good one. It seems to capture the essence of what playing a game is all about. But we are far from done. For example, it appears that a game is an object of play but not the same thing as play. Can you play something that is not a game. Can a game be experienced through anything other than play. What is the difference between work and play? Can a game be work?

Taking this a step further we can ask - if a game is a "voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles" how do those obstacles arise? Why would anybody attempt to overcome them? It seems that these obstacles arise from the fact that the game has a goal and a set of rules for achieving that goal. But there are lots of things that have goals and rules which are not games. For example, in your career, your goal may be to get to the top and one of the rules is that you can't just shoot everyone to get there. So, is your career a game?

And why would anyone engage in a game. Clearly, in your career plan, you are pursuing it for very tangible rewards - more pay, more prestige, a bigger office, whatever. And yet in the game it is merely the satisfaction of winning. Is there something inherently satisfying about playing a game that is a reward in and of itself. If we play games for their own sake while we always work for the sake of something else, doesn't that make playing games a superior activity?

The more questions we answer, the more questions arise. Sigh! This is the essence of the project of knowledge. We merely become more and more aware of how much we do not know. Socrates was referred to as the wisest man alive by the Oracle at Delphi. He responded by saying that his wisdom was derived from the fact that he realized how little he knew. But, don't reach for the hemlock yet. We will return to Suits in a little more depth and try to get a little more structure on our concept of a game.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Grasshopper

In a delightful book entitled The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia, Bernard Suits explores the concept of a game. This book is a stunning piece of work for three reasons. First, he achieves what Wittgenstein failed to do. He manages to define the concept of a game. Second, it is an excellent example of the process of concept analysis as the grasshopper attempts to define the concept of game and then defend it against challenges. Third, it provides some profound insights about both life and games.

On the first point, Wittgenstein not only failed to come up with an adequate definition of the concept of games, he proved (or thought he had proved) that such a definition was not possible. Yet Suits defines playing a game as a "voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles." [pg. 55] This is not the formal definition and one would have to read the book to understand Suits' definition more fully. But, it does capture the essence of playing a game. How did Suits get this right where Wittgenstein got it wrong? I believe that the answer lies in the fact that Wittgenstein was looking for attributes - rules, players, strategies, and so forth. Suits' definition is teleological. It defines games in terms of the purpose they serve. Aristotle's final cause was the purpose for which a thing exists. And, according to Aristotle, you must understand the final cause in order to understand a thing. Sadly, teleology has fallen out of favor. And, yet, it is clear that you cannot define the concept of game without reference to the purpose for which they are played.

On the second point, Suits provides us with an excellent example of concept analysis, a technique that is often woefully missing from social science research and almost unheard of in business research. Using commonplace understandings of concepts in research is as destructive to good research as is replacing statistical analysis with 'gut feel' or replacing methodology with mere curiosity. This was, in fact, the essence of Bacon's Idols of the Marketplace. Bacon saw, way back in the 17th century, that using commonplace understandings of concepts was destructive to the project of science. And yet, today, we do it all the time. Sadly, there are far too few examples of good concept analysis and Suits provides us with an exemplar.

On the third point, games are one of the few activities that we pursue for their own sake. This means that they have intrinsic rather than instrumental value. Aristotle pointed out that happiness is the only goal we pursue for its own sake. Now, Suits is pointing out that playing games is an activity that we pursue for its own sake. Is there a connection between happiness, games and the ideal life? I think so, but it would be way too premature to suggest that. Let's see how things unfold.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Universals Crash and Burn

As we observed in the last post, John Locke attempted to update Aristotle's view of universals by saying that we select key attributes for defining categories based upon our objectives. So, we can look at games, decide what salient features they all have in common and define the concept of game based upon those features. It looks like the project might be gaining altitude again. But, instead it will take a nosedive.

David Hume would observe that we form categories based on a subconscious cognitive process that cannot be made explicit. That is, we go about our business in the world, experience games, and form a visceral concept of what a game is. Any attempt to explicitly define characteristics would be artificial and doomed to failure. The Supreme court justice who admitted that he could not define pornography but claimed - "I know it when I see it", was embodying Hume's view of universals.

If Hume steered the project into a nose dive, Wittgenstein let it crash and burn. According to him, the only thing the elements of some categories have in common is that they are members of the same category. He used a, now famous, analogy to family resemblances. If you go to a family reunion and look at the members of the family you will see common elements. Some will have the family eyes. Some will have the family nose or mouth. Some the family brow. And so on. There are overlapping features held by subsets of the family but no set of features common to all. For example, not everyone has the nose. Or not everyone has eyes. Universals, according to Wittgenstein, are made the same way. You cannot define a core set of attributes because there is no core set of attributes that all instances have in common. And the concept he used to illustrate this was - you guessed it - games!

Should we despair at this point and give up our attempt to define what constitutes a game? Should we despair that if this is true knowledge is not really possible? No, that would be a little overly dramatic. Instead we will back up and see where these great minds went wrong. We will go back to some road signs provided by Bacon and Aristotle and try to get back on the right path. And that will be the topic of the next post.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Decline of Universals

Aristotle saw universals as constructs based in reality. A tree is a tree because it shares key attributes with other trees. Anybody can look at a tree and a squirrel and see that they are not the same thing. Initially this seems to solve the problem. But in the long run it only makes it worse. It answers the question - where do universals come from? - by saying that they are constructed based upon common attributes. However, it then leads to the question - where do attributes come from? If the squirrel happened to be brown, we could create a universal "brown things" to which the tree and the squirrel would belong. Aristotle might balk at this by citing that "brown" is not an essential attribute and universals should be formed based on common essential attributes. This sounds good and it seems like we are making progress. But, we are not. How do we know that an attribute is essential? Is an attribute essential because it is in the definition of kind? Or is an attribute in the definition of kind because it is essential? That whirring sound in the background is our cognitive wheels spinning in the philosophical mud.

Locke made some progress by saying that the creation of universals involves a cognitive process of abstraction whereby we we select attributes based on some set of objectives. I am going to jump in and help Locke out here by saying that our objective is usually intellectual economy. We create categories because they are efficient ways to organize our knowledge. Otherwise, we get into huge trouble with Locke. We get into trouble because it raises questions such as 1) how do we select objectives?, and 2) how do we know that a particular category is better than another category at meeting those objectives?

Locke has both helped and hindered the pursuit of universals. He has helped in that his claim is intuitively appealing. It does seem to be the case that we look at a collection of particulars and though some cognitive process extract a group based on similarities. In fact, it feels so built in that one has to wonder if it is just a function of the brain. He has hurt in that it has made our understanding even more unclear. How does this process work? Can it be made explicit? How are objectives defined? How are categories evaluated with respect to objectives?

All we were trying to do was to figure out what a game is? How did life get to be so complicated. Any six year old can tell you whether or not something is a game. And, yet, a philosophical adult has to admit defeat. Why is that? Well, David Hume will come to the rescue on this question and, in doing so, take a stab at the larger question. However, as we will see, Hume will jump into the muddied waters and stir up even more mud. Following that, Wittgenstein will show that once you are into muddied waters you can't get out. And that is what we will take up next.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Aristotle and the Notion of Purpose

A central element in Aristotle's metaphysics was the idea that in order to under stand a thing, you needed to understand four causes. This is a little confusing to the modern reader as the word 'cause' has taken on a slightly different meaning. However, if you think about it as 'important things to know' rather than causes, it makes a little more sense.

Aristotle believed that in order to understand a thing, you needed to understand its material cause (what is was made of), its efficient cause (how is got made), its formal cause (what it became), and its final cause (why it was made or what is was made for). Consider a table, for example. The material cause might be wood. It would be very different if it were made of ice, or putty, or sand. The efficient cause might be a craftsman, although it might also be a manufacturing process or a wood carving process. Each would produce a different result. The formal cause would, of course, be a table. However, the wood could have been used to make a boat, or a chair or any number of other things. Finally, no pun intended, we have the final cause, the purpose of table. A table is made to put things on. It could have been made for shade or protection. But the fact that it was made to place things on is an important aspect of a table.

This notion of final causes is central to Aristotle's view of of the world which we call teleological. This comes from two ancient Greek words 'telos' (far off or end state) and 'logos' (rigorous understanding). When we say that we have a teleological understanding of a thing we are saying that we understand it in terms of its purpose.

Teleology was tossed out of physics by Galileo who said that you can understand astronomy without having to resort to any underlying purpose in the universe. This is probably true. But, teleology stayed out of other sciences as well, probably due to physics envy. And there are numerous places where it would be appropriate. For example, when you say that a turtle has a hard shell for protection, it is a teleological claim. Natural sciences other than physics and chemistry are filled with teleological claims.

Taking this a step further, from natural science to social science, you have to ask whether or not it is possible to understand social science at all without referring to purposes. Certainly you cannot understand games without reference to their purpose. This is why Wittgenstein failed and Suit succeeded. But, again, we are getting ahead of ourselves. Next time we will follow the evolution of Aristotle's concept of universals and see why it ends in a train wreck.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Aristotle Points the Way to Destruction

Aristotle's view of universals was quite different from Plato's. Instead of relying on an immaterial World of the Forms, the ever practical Aristotle said that universals are formed simply by grouping things with the same attributes. Initially this seems to solve the problem of universals. Categories may not exist in the world, but things and their attributes do. So, if we just create categories from things with common attributes we are out of the woods as far as the problem of universals goes. Or, so it may seem.

If we try to define the attributes that all games have in common we begin to see how naive this position really is. In fact, Locke, Hume and Wittgenstein will carry this perspective to the point where it seems like knowledge is impossible. And Wittgenstein will use the case of game in particular to show this. Aristotle's approach seems to work pretty well on natural objects like plants and animals. And this makes sense, when you think about it, because, presumably, these things evolved from common ancestors by developing new attributes that distinguished them. Organizing them into categories and even taxonomies is largely an exercise in mapping out their evolutionary changes.

But, not all categories involve natural objects. In fact, most categories involve artificial objects (like games). And artificial objects do not have the benefit of natural evolution to sort them into categories. Unfortunately, Aristotle is leading us down the path to destruction with this view. And the aforementioned great minds will escort us the rest of the way.

But, before we dismiss Aristotle and his wayward ways, we need to consider the fact that he offered a different perspective which will put us back on the path to understanding. This is he notion of teleology which give us great purchase in understanding artificial objects. And that we will take up next.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Plato and the Form of Game

Looking out my window again and seeing a tree, I might ask "is this thing a tree because it is a member of the set of trees, or is it a member of the set of trees because it is a tree?" In fact, Plato wondered this as well. Is category membership derived from essence? Or, is essence derived from category membership? Are the particulars in a category because they are all the 'same' thing? Or do we consider them the 'same' thing because they are all members of the same category?

Plato believed that categories were determined by essence. We recognize a tree as a tree because there is a universal concept of 'treeness'. And even though each individual tree is an imperfect copy of that template, we can still recognize the tree as an instance of that ideal. This sounds pretty good until we ask where did that universal concept of treeness come from? And, trying to answer that, Plato gets into a lot of trouble.

Plato believed in a World of Forms (or templates or ideals) where all of these categories exist independent of the material world. But, he got into trouble trying to explain where this World of Forms came from and how we access it to recognize things like trees. You can have a lot of fun at Plato's expense over this. Plato believed that this World of Forms was somehow more real than the material world which was just an imperfect copy of the Forms. He beleived that the World of Forms was eternal. He believed that you had knowledge of this world prior to being born, but the trauma of birth made you forget it all. So, you spent your life remembering bits of it. This led him to say that you never really learn anything, you only remember things. You can go on and on and have a good chuckle at Plato's expense over this. However, once you have given it some serious thought, you probably have to admit that Plato was right. He didn't get the mechanics down, but the notion of ideal concepts does seem to hold up.

If you forget about immaterial worlds where forms reside and focus instead on intellectual economy and the pursuit of knowledge then it does seem to be the case that there are ideal definitions for concepts. If a thing has an essense and the category is defined based upon that essence then we have achieved the greatest intellectual economy possibl in the organization of our knowledge. These forms do not exist in some immaterial world. They exist in our minds when they are well organized. And organizing our minds well gives us the greatest purchase on the pursuit of knowledge.

A quick example can illustrate this. Consider the Periodic Chart of Elements. Organizing elements based on the number of electrons provides great intellectual economy. Just how far would chemistry be today if the Periodic Chart contained elements like creek water and tree sap. How far would medicine get if the body were made of blood, phlegm and bile? How far would psychology get if personalities were made up of introversion/extroversion,... well I am digressing.

So, back to the topic at hand, there must be an ideal form of game. If we can find that ideal form, it will advance our understanding of games and how games relate to other universals such as happiness, productivity, personal growth, education, and the like. But, before we do that, we will have a major conceptual train wreck thanks to Wittgenstein. And that won't happen for several weeks yet. So stay tuned.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Problem of Universals

If I look out my window, point at a thing and call it a tree, how did I know that this object is a tree? A simple answer might be "it looks like a tree". In fact there is a delightful line in Mark Twain's Diary of Adam and Eve to this effect:

"Entry in Adam’s diary:

Tuesday: Been examining the great waterfall. It is the finest thing on the estate, I think. The new creature [Eve] calls it Niagara Falls – why, I am sure I do not know. [She] Says it looks like Niagara falls. That is not a reason, it is mere waywardness and imbecility."

How can a thing 'look' like Niagara Falls. For that matter, how can a thing 'look' like a tree. What we are really saying is that we have been shown instances of trees in the past and this new thing is similar to those instances. But this observation does not get us very far. There is a general category called 'tree' and we believe that this object outside the window belongs to that category. But, where did that category come from? And, how do we know the thing we are pointing at belongs to that category?

The problem of getting from the individual occurrences of things in the world to the groups into which we organize them is known as The Problem of Universals. The things that make up the instances or occurrences in the world are known as particulars and the groups into which we organize them are known as universals.

Why is the problem of universals so important? Consider the definition of a triangle. It is a three sided geometric figure the sum of whose interior angles is 180 degrees. That is a great definition. All triangles are included and nothing is included that is not a triangle. And from such precise definitions whole fields of knowledge have been developed. Now consider what would happen if we defined a triangle to include other geometric objects such as polygons, and metaphorical uses such as a 'love triangle'. How far could geometry get with definitions like that? And that is the crux of the issue. Defining universals is at the very heart of how we develop our knowledge of the world. And without well defined universals, progress in discovering knowledge is seriously hampered.

Since this is such a crucial problem in the advancement of knowledge we are going to stay with it for a while. While it is tempting to just move on with our understanding of games, not getting the concept nailed down threatens anything we would do from this point on. It would be like saying, let's not bother pouring a concrete foundation for this house. Let's just start putting up the walls. Whether or not you fully grasp the Problem of Universals, I think you can easily see where the analogy would take you.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Concept of Identity

How do we know when two things are the same thing? This question seems uselessly abstract until we consider the fact that our knowledge is organized around sameness. And if we do not know what we mean when we say two things are the same, it is not possible to develop or acquire knowledge. When we say that two things are both games, we are saying they have the same essence or arché, which, in turn, means certain things should be true about both of them. To push this further, all things called games should have the same essence and certain things should be true about all of them. Further, all games should be related in a consistent manner to other concepts such as enjoyment, pleasure or growth. This is how we organize our knowledge and organizing our knowledge around essences leads to greater intellectual economy.

The concept of identity is the metaphysical problem that we encounter when we attempt to establish sameness. There are, in fact, two quite different varieties of sameness: sameness of a thing over time and sameness of two distinct things. The first, sometimes called the persistence of identity, addresses the problems that arise when I say that I am the same person who graduated from college, lo so many years ago, even though that person was decades younger, much less wiser, and very different in so many ways. The second, usually called the problem of universals, addresses the problems that arise when we group things into categories. Where do those categories come from? With no intention of minimizing the first, we are going to consider the second over the next few posts. There are two reasons for this. First, we need to know what we mean by the term 'games' if we are going to study them seriously. And, second, 'games' have an important role in the development of our understanding of universals.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Search for the Arché

Early pre Socratic philosophers were engaged in a quest to find the fundamental unchanging essence of which all things were made. They are sometimes referred to as the earth, air, fire and water philosophers as they, in turn, posited each of these as the most fundamental element. Their quest is sometimes referred to as The Search for the Arché from the ancient Greek word, Arché , meaning the beginning or first principle. We see this word in modern words such as archeology (study of the beginnings), archaic (belonging to the beginning), and monarchy (one first). We can take the word to mean the essence or underlying principle. And while the pre Socratics were looking for the underlying essence of all reality, we usually limit ourselves to the underlying essence of the particulars that make up a concept.

So, what does this have to do with games? We saw in the previous post that normal conversational usage of a word or concept (such as game) is inadequate for serious rigorous research. Included in the conversational usage of the term games are such disparate particulars such as sports games, games people play (social roles), and the game of life. If we wish to study games, we need to come up with a crisper definition. We want the concept of games to include only things that are essentially the same.

The reason for this is simple. If the particulars that we include in the concept of games are essentially the same then we should be able to describe attributes or properties that they all have in common and we should be able to identify regular relationships that these particulars have with particulars in another concept.

In order to do this we need to make sure that all of the particulars are essentially the same; that they have the same essence. Or, in simple terms, that the instances are all instances of the same thing. We need to find the arché of games in order to be sure they are all the same. But, what exactly do we mean when we say they are the 'same'. This question, which seems to be far to simple and obvious to even comment on, actually opens up one of the most perplexing ideas in metaphysics - the concept of identity. What do we mean when we say to things are the same? We will turn to that in the next post.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Idols of the Marketplace

In the last post, I asked the question - What is a Game? I mentioned Wittgenstein who said you really can't define a game and Suit who said you can. Let's take a step back and ask - Why does it matter? You have probably never had the experience where you used the word 'game' in a sentence and somebody interrupted you to ask - What is a game? We seem to get along just fine in our normal conversations using words like 'game' without actually defining them. And, if we need a definition there is always the dictionary. So why all the fuss and bother?

The answer is that in order to study something from the perspective of rigorous research the usual definitions and fuzzy understandings we carry about in our heads are not good enough. I will explain why this is later. But for now, I just need to draw a line between meanings used in conversational discourse and meaning used in research.

Francis Bacon, one of the philosphical fathers of modern science, discussed four illusions we suffer from that prevents us from advancing our knowledge. He called these illusions 'Idols' and one of these 'Idols of the Marketplace' is on point here. 'Idols of the Marketplace' refers to the fact that the terms we use in normal conversations (e.g. when chatting in the marketplace) are simply too poorly defined to advance scientific understanding.

Taking a step beyond Bacon, I would point out that the purpose of casual discource is not the advancement of knowledge. The purpose of casual discourse is social bonding. And social bonding is easier to achieve if we blur distinctions rather than sharpening them. Hence, in casual conversation we may use the word 'game' in a wide variety of imprecise ways such as 'games people play', 'the game of life', 'gaming the system', 'playing the game to get promoted' and so on. However, for the purposes of research we must refine our definitions. We need precise definitions that refer to precise categories and all of the instances of those categories should have the same essence.

The same essence.... What does that mean? Well, perhaps we can take that up next time.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

What Is a Game?

I always like to begin an inquiry into a new area by looking at the philosophical underpinnings. This usually identifies the major issues and provides a framework for interpreting higher level claims and disputes. There are two ways to approach this. One is by trying to find out what some of my favorite philosophers have said on the topic. The other is to attempt to understand the key concepts in the new field of inquiry. One might say - "Hey! This is video games we are talking about here. What philosophical grounding might there possibly be?" But, speaking with the confidence of some one who has done this many times, I can say with surety that there are philosophical underpinning to everything. You just need to know where to look.

In this post, I am going to sketch out the philosophical foundations and where I think they will lead. Over the next few posts, I will explore the philosophical issues in more detail. If philosophy gives you a headache or puts you to sleep, you may want to come back in a month. By then, I should have the foundations all laid out and be ready to more on to less arcane issues.

When we ask the question - What is a Game? - we are inquiring as to the meaning of a concept. A concept is an abstraction of particular things in our experience that we group together for the sake of intellectual economy. How we get from these particular things to the concepts in which we group them is the central problem of metaphysics; a problem known as the problem of universals. Many revered philosophers include Plato and Aristotle have commented on this problem. More recently, Ludwig Wittgenstein chipped in with a damaging critique of the problem of universals by saying that the particulars things grouped together in a concept might not actually have any specific set of things in common. This is a damning critique, because, if Wittgenstein is correct, then knowledge is not possible. And the example he used was -- Games! So, as I began this inquiry, I thought I would start with Wittgenstein and the apparent impossibility of defining games.

However, in pursuing this, I came across another related work by Bernard Suits called The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia in which Suits defies Wittgenstein by defining the concept of a game. According to Suits "playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles" Well!! It doesn't get any better than this. On one hand we have one of the greatest philosophical minds of the 20th century claiming that you cannot define a game. On the other hand you have some guy I never heard of providing what appears to be a perfectly serviceable definition. As we attempt to unravel this apparent contradiction we will learn a little metaphysics and a lot about games.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Evolution of Video Games

When we use the term 'video game' we are lumping together a large set of diverse and often very different instances. Further, when we talk about Massively Multi-player Online Role Playing Games we are talking about the intersection, some might say 'collision' of video games with virtual worlds. This all needs to be sorted out so we can begin this sorting by looking at the evolution of video games. This is not intended to be the definative history; far from that. It is a sketch intended to make a point that I wish to make.

The Ultimate History of Video Games by Steven L. Kent provides a fascinating account of the early days of video games as the industry grew out of the pin ball machine industry. It is important to understand the roots of video games because they began as games of skill. This notion of a game of skill that you can get better at, and derive satisfaction from your improvement, will become very important in understanding the psychology of video games.

While the notion of a video game as a game of skill persisted, several distinct genres evolved over the next few decades. There does not seem to be any concensus on specific genres at this point, perhaps it is too early in the history to start defining categories. So, instead of providing categories, I will provide instances. There are games with narratives and games without narratives. Grand Theft Auto is an example of a game with a narrative. There is a back story to the game which the player needs to know in order to play the game. However, there are games without narratives such as Tetris in which the player is engaged in a combination of skill and problem solving. There are games that are tied to products and games that are independent. Perhaps you saw a movie such as Star Wars and wanted to continue the enjoyment by playing a Star Wars video game. There are sports games such as John Madden's Football which incorporate real world teams. There is a wide range of first person shooter games where the player is represented by a hand or a gun that goes around shooting things. This differs from third person games where you are represented by an avatar or character which you view from a third person perspective. Most games you play till the end and while you may play through a game more than once, you are unlikely to play through it repeatedly. This differs from role playing games where you play one or more roles in the game but do not ever 'complete' the game. Most video games are single person games where the player plays against the game. However, since the introduction of the Xbox we have seen increasingly more multiplayer games where you play not only against the game but against other players.

All of this is background to help me explain my focus here. I am interested primarily in Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games. There are games in which internet access is critical because you are playing against other players as well as against the game. Because other players are involved it is a social environment and gives rise to social dynamics. Since that social enviroment is persistent and is modified by the inhabitants, it is a virtual world. It has a narrative and understanding the narrative is critical to understanding the game. Because of the richness of these narratives they can be viewed critically in the same way that a film or book can be viewed critically. MMORPG's subsume a lot of the features of earlier video games. They are visual. They involve skills and getting better at things. They provide challenges to overcome. But, the social dynamics, virtual world environment, and background narratives take them to a new level, not unlike television and film, where they not only provide entertainment but they are a cultural phenomenon worthy of study.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Why Blog on Video Games?

Why lay all this groundwork about this blog? Why not just dive into the substance and write something about video games? The first article was justifying the important of video games. The second post was explaining how I got here. And this post is explaining why I am blogging. Will we ever get to something of substance? Yes. Soon. But, this ground work is important. My view of blogging was influenced by a wonderful article that a friend pointed me to in The Atlantic entitled "Why I Blog"

I will let the article speak for itself, but will speak instead to how it influenced my thinking. I am used to much more formal writing. I think an idea through, organize it, express it, revise the expression and so on. The end product often bears little resemblance to my original thinking. And, yet, there is value in that original thinking. It was the unprocessed reaction to ideas as they occured rather than one possible final interpretation of those ideas. And the purpose of the blog is to capture those unprocessed reactions. The blog, as Sullivan says, is a public diary. It captures your reactions as they occur and puts them out there for everyone to see.

I often make statements based on my personal experiences such as "in the early days of the web, nobody saw it as a vehicle for commerce." Today that statement sounds absurd as the web is at the very heart of commerce. And, yet, I can recall when teaching a class in web applications in the mid 1990's that I would have to make the case for commercial uses of the web. These perspectives are important because our initial reactions to old 'new' technologies can help us understand new 'new' technologies. And yet these reactions are often lost in the published record. Blogs are a way of capturing that raw material out of which sense is later made. And there is value in capturing that raw material.

I must also admit that I have become somewhat disenchanted with formal academic publishing. The model we use of reviewing past literature, testing hypotheses using a formal methodology, explaining our results and conclusions, and then having our work reviewed by peers seems to be appropriate for natural science where we are attempting to discover the properties of the natural world. But, objects of study in social sciences do not, as Robert Pirsig once put it, "hold still." Concepts in social science evolve and change. So we are studying a moving object. In the world of technology we are often studying objects that do not even exist in the world today. We are ofter making claims about things that ought to exist. Attempting to study future worlds brought about by technology using methods of natural science just doesn't seem to make any sense. And it is also why so much academic publishing in the field of technology just seems to be irrelevant. So, when something does not appear to be working, it is best to try something else and that is what I am doing.

As I begin this journy out of the comfort of everything I already know and into this new realm of video games, my goal in this blog is to capture my thoughts and reactions as they occur rather than sorting them out into a cohesive collection of organized sense making packages. This will probably appear as though I am bouncing around a bit and, indeed, I will be. Our thoughts as we have them do bounce around. One day I am interested in technology; another day history; another day I might be pondering and reflecting. I might be excited by a book I just read; something somebody said; a new game that game out; a new insight. But, whatever it is, I will report it as accurately as I can. And if I change my mind about something later and revisit it to revise it, well that is why I am blogging.

Friday, January 30, 2009

How Did I Get Here?

Before diving into the substance of this blog, I thought it might be appropriate to explain who I am and how I got to this point. I am a fifty-something professor of information systems. Over the course of my career, I worked for a couple of decades in software development and am well into my second decade as an academic. I have a wide variety of interests although, if I had to nail it down, I would say that my technical interests lie in programming and databases, while my non technical interests lie in philosophy and ethics. I also love to write. Writing, whether it be research, commentary, fiction, or blogs has always been a big part of what I do.

A little less than a year ago, I began to develop a profound interest in video games. I used to play video games in the mid to late 1980's. At the time, I had an original Nintendo and had beaten both Zelda and Link. But, then, I lost interest and didn't play anything for almost two decades. So, what brought me back? Well, it was a circuitous route to say the least.

Late in the Fall of 2006 a colleague of mine mentioned a novel new Internet application called Second Life. At the time I was in one of those ruts that academics get into where you think you know everything and are not interested in anything new that might disabuse you of that notion. But, somewhat reluctantly, I gave Second Life a try. Within a month my delusions of omniscience had been entirely disabused. It did not take me long to see that Second Life was new, different and bursting with future potential. So, I began to study it seriously.

My journey through Second Life is a story in itself, but lest I begin digressing, I will leave that story untold. Suffice it to say that while studying Second Life I read Edward Castronova's book on Synthentic Worlds and was astonished to see that he barely mentioned Second Life, focusing instead on massively muliplayer online role player games like Everquest and Ultima Online. So, for the sake of completenes in my research, I decided that should explore these synthetic worlds. And, I have to say, I was very reluctant at first to get into all this.

After some failed attempts to find something I liked, I finally got around to World of Warcraft. It was rough going at first, but I stuck with it. Finally, I began to like it. Then I began to REALLY like it. I started reading books and articles both scholarly and popular press on video games. I began to play on a regular, some might say compulsvie, basis. I started writing an introductory guide to World of Warcraft. I started encorporating virtual worlds and video games into my classes. I started blogging about virtual worlds and video games. And now, here I am. I no longer see myself as a database guy. I am on my way to being a virtual world and video game guy. And somehow, it feels really right.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Significant of Video Games

A number of factors are coming together to suggest that video games are beginning to arrive as a significant phenomenon worthy of serious study and consideration. These factors include, but are not limited to:

1) We have an emerging generation who grew up playing video games. The 1950's produced a generation who grew up in front of the television and look what happened in the 1960's and 1970's.

2) The video game industry now rivals the entertainment industry.

3) Video games have gone through several paradigm shifts, the latest of which is the rise of massively multi-player online role playing games. The rise of MMORPGs means two things. First, video games are now a social phenomenon. And, second, somebody has to come up with a better acronym.

4) Academics are beginning to study video games in much the same way that they have studied other cultural phenomenon such as books and movies.

5) Some researchers are beginning to suggest that the skills one learns from playing video games are actually useful, important and valuable skills.

6) Educators are beginning to look at video games as a vehicle for education and training.

7) As technology such as Internet bandwidth, graphics cards, and server capacity increases and improves this will only get bigger, better and more significant.

So, it seems that now is a good time to start documenting and reflecting on this emerging phenomenon. And that is going to be what this blog is about.