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.