Games are about accepting arbitrary authority, but play is about the Satanic refusal of rules, seeking limits beyond limits
“There was a time when I spoke of our inner relations; now I am not speaking of them. Now I am speaking of our external relations. You conducted yourself improperly, and I do not wish it to be repeated.” —Alexei Karenin in Anna Karenina
My memories of play all seem like alien encounters. The earliest one I can summon involves holding a plastic bat and being in an open field, wearing sandals. My brother is somewhere nearby, and I have no idea what we are doing, but there is also a small plastic ball that produces a strange machining noise as it sails through the air. Then I am four or five; I have decided to pretend to be a dolphin and swim across the soft ripples of my parent’s bed. Then I am the victim, left alone with my older brother who, when the sun sets, decides to start speaking like a demon, locking himself in his room and refusing to come out, then rushing after me an hour later, pinning me to the floor, growling and snarling until I am crying — an outcome produced, a role played, a win had.
Then I’m playing football in high school. I get confused when the lineman across from me gets angry that I hadn’t tried to hit him during the preceding play, slipping past sideways so I could get closer to the ball carrier. “What? Are you afraid to hit people? Come on, hit me!” On the next down, I didn’t think about the ball or anyone else. I hurtled my body at his with as much force as I had at 14. After the play I walked back to the huddle dizzy, spots in my eyes with each blink. “That’s better,” he yelled.
Then I’m playing a game called Final Fantasy VIII, a spiral notebook filled with statistical variations based on character changes I can make, trying to decide the best approach for the game’s ending fight, when my dad tells me my grandfather’s finally died and asks me if I want to fly to Arizona the next morning to attend his funeral. I tell him no. I hardly knew him, and the service will be all strangers, and I have no money, and there are all these changing numbers here before me to attend to.
Games rely on the incongruity between inner and outer experience. Yet their dependence on concrete rules have created a culture disproportionately fond of logic. Players romance the poetry of the command prompt while ignoring the entropic ennui of the organism staring at it. In early levels of a game, the tutorial text prompts that hover above the ground can only be accepted. The games don’t invite dynamic inquisitions of their rules. They depend on the pleasures of chance within an immovable structure. Behavioral limits are everywhere in game worlds, though the source of those limits is meant to remain a mystery. Rulebooks have no author.
Much of play theory takes as given that rules come from an unambiguous yet unidentifiable central authority and focus primarily on the meaning that the rules create within play. Johan Huizinga claims in Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture that play “only becomes possible, thinkable, and understandable when an influx of mind breaks down the absolute determinism of the cosmos.” It requires a structure wherein human will can seem to affect events, a rhetorical scaffolding that guarantees an output for every input. To crack open the limits of one’s consciousness, an insidious cage must be closed around the player, against which she can labor, pitting impulse against intellect.
In Man, Play, and Games, Roger Caillois codified the distinction between intelligence as a structural deployment of rules, and play as a generative response to them:
An outcome known in advance, with no possibility of error or surprise, clearly leading to an inescapable result, is incompatible with the nature of play. Constant and unpredictable definitions of the situation are necessary, such as are produced by each attack or counterattack in fencing or football, in each return of the tennis ball, or in chess, each time one of the players move a piece. This consists of the need to find or continue at once a response which is free within the limits set by the rules.
Before we can play, we must perceive what is possible; before we can accept limits, we must have a sense of how and why they are limiting.
But a game’s rules are an existential redundancy, shrinking the pre-existing limits of our bodies’ capabilities into a comprehensible miniature. Likewise, playing games with other people is also a redundancy, since ordinary social interactions already contain the same tension between order and invention within limits. Structuring social interaction with games reduces the possibilities of play by one order of magnitude.
In Caillois’s terms, this attitude makes me a destroyer of games, which are “ruined by the nihilist who denounces the rules as absurd and conventional, who refuses to play because the game is meaningless. His arguments are irrefutable. The game has no other but an intrinsic meaning. That is why its rules are imperative and absolute, beyond discussion.”
This obsession with rules for their own sake is the basis of gamification, the quantification of performance and imposition of rule-bound incentives that are creeping into every industry, collapsing the difference between play and work. Video games extend the membrane of these play values, which now blanket everything from finance to philanthropy. Nike+ has turned jogging into a surveillance-based competition with the past. Viggle turns the sloth of watching television into an act of accruing points that can later be traded in for prizes. Credit cards have created a monetary black hole wherein customers earn points for taking on debt.
That someone could claim rules are the source of pleasure in play has always seemed absurd to me. The fixation on competition, expression, and cultural signification feels false, wasteful. The presumption that an influx of mind bent on breaking down the order of the cosmos could be an isolated and occasional activity, assumed only when one is within the magic circle of games with overt, discrete rules, cannot be right.
Games are not unique in activating and intensifying this experience; it’s just that we rarely acknowledge the centrality of sensually interrogating the order of reality in every other part of life. One plays everywhere, not by acknowledging rules but by ignoring them, imagining uses for oneself outside the imposed values of a set of rules. The spirit of play rejects nature’s impositions — food and shelter and rest, and the energy and enthusiasm the body must expend to get them. As Huizinga argued, play violates the logic that we have bodies to work and suggests instead that we have bodies to spite nature with pleasure and vulgar communion.
The root meaning of play derives from the Old English word for brisk movement, or alternately, the Middle Dutch variant for a leap of joy. If we accept the body and brain themselves as the limiting rules here, any sort of joyful movement for no productive purpose fits neatly within Caillois’s sense of play as “an occasion of pure waste,” after which, “all can and must start over again at the same point. Nothing has been harvested or manufactured, no masterpiece has been created, no capital has accrued.”
This description acknowledges that our understanding of play depends on the culture it lives in. The insistence that games require hierarchical rules is an intimate mirror of our time and place, where money creates moral possibility, and access to wealth is a reflection of work ethic, an act of fealty to the authority that distributes money as a organizing unit of social good, something that creates the impression of freedom while still allowing a central authority to control the win-condition. In the same way that a game can say you must kill the end boss but you’re free to kill him in any manner you choose, we say you’re free to get money in any way you choose, but you’re not a success until you have enough money to sustain yourself.
The eagerness to embrace gamification is a coping strategy to make the increasingly unavoidable horrors of our social order bearable, an eagerness to attribute the pleasures of our weaknesses to the labors of living. In this way, we are told that to forgo our present social structure would be to abandon the few morsels of relief that make it tolerable.
Play is a safely contained form of rebellion, a structure that can oppose the values of the culture it springs from as long as its players agree to leave that opposition behind when play ceases. We can have conflict resolution through guns and blades in games as long as we accept that our real conflicts be resolved through indirect representation, passivity, and waiting. To play at being the hero is to acknowledge we will never be one, a submission to the structure of the world outside the magic circle.
Games encode the struggle for survival across all times and cultures. In the earliest games, there is the imprint of scarcity and existential antagonism, from the farming competition of mancala, where the two players compete for seeds to give themselves a better crop, to the various war pantomimes of go, ur, and chess. The emergence of organized sport, likewise, ties explicitly to war cultures almost everywhere, from the marathon’s roots in panicked war messagery to the Malagasy tradition of Ringa, or any number of other wrestling games from around the world.
The struggle for survival in games seems always to legitimate the need for an outside agent to calm the violent uncertainty of that struggle with authoritative rules. Games are essentially coercive in the same way that governments are. Violence is thus intrinsic to games not as competition but at the level of their rule-bound systems for expressing authority and enforcing negative consequences on those who reject the authority’s values, which players internalize as their own.
When games migrated onto computers in the early 1960s, however — first with Spacewar! and later with Ralph Baer’s experiments with World War II radar technology that led to the first creaky version of Ping Pong (later ripped off by Nolan Bushnell and turned into Atari’s Pong) — they erased the need for a person to administrate the values inscribed in a game’s rules. At the same time, they intensified the old competitive forms of speed and efficiency, while greatly diminishing the investment needed to interact —the swing of a ping-pong paddle reduced to a few inches of rotation on a game controller.
Unlike in earlier forms of play, where violence was implicit in the pantomimes of authority that forced peers to view each other as combatants, violence in video games makes up for the sensual narrowness of game machines, unable to touch back, to respond intimately, to watch you in the same way you watch them. Instead, games require audiovisual hyperbole to respond to each gesture the player sends them, something easiest to see in explosions and blood spurts, either the literal gore of other humans falling in failure or the neon geometry of abstracted shapes dissolving away from the play space.
Playing against a computer made the core question of competition interpretive: Why would a person want me to experience these particular limits? In pre-digital forms of play, the hierarchical competition between people kept the focus off of the authority. With computer games, there is only player and master, the game is no longer a mechanism for hierarchical advancement among peers. Since there are no other people to be surpassed, the prize of winning is drained of its social status — indeed, it becomes a badge of geekery and shame. One is left only to question why it is she who is the player and the computer who is the master.
In religious terms, this question is the genesis of evil — the fracture of curiosity that gives Satan his first second thought about the order of heaven and God’s role in enforcing it. It’s by contesting the ethics of rules themselves, not in following them through to the prescribed end, that one tries to break down the “absolute determinism of the cosmos.” Huizinga is inadvertently satanic when he observes that a child playing is “making an image of something different, something more beautiful, or more sublime, or more dangerous than what he usually is.”
Games reveal evil to be more of a Nietzschean historical structure and less a matter of defiling absolute morals that should never be defiled. From the point of view of the subjugated, the game structure is evil in its ability to calm players, making them tolerant of power and its prescribed limits. Meanwhile, to the masters, the play impulse is its own form of evil, leading curious souls to discover the depth of the human will to transgress nature itself. Each side propels the other toward deeper and more severe intensities, determined to prove the unjustness of the other. The master must behave as an authority because players are wild and untrustworthy. And the player must be wild and untrustworthy because the master is inflexible and refuses to be called into account.
In The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games, game researcher Jesper Juul describes the condition of being pleasurably trapped between obedience and punishment as a paradox of failure: We want game experiences to punish us in hopes that we will be improved by it. “This is what games do: they promise us that we can repair a personal inadequacy — an inadequacy that they produce in the first place.” Only bad losers, Juul argues, treat failure in games as “straightforwardly painful, without anything to compensate for it.”
For Juul, the point of playing games is to confront and accept our inadequacies, a comforting boilerplate that makes it easier to rationalize the cruelty of the way we are slotted us into value-based roles in the world. You’re not as good as this person so you get less than them. You’re better so you get more. When playing against other people, this makes direct sense, but when play is computerized, this emotional mandate becomes masochism, a perverse mewling for the rack to be tightened to the point where it becomes intolerable, and once released, one lubricates one’s emotions with the shame of not having been able to tolerate more.
When Milton’s Satan wonders if Adam and Eve’s happiness is “Proof of their obedience and their faith,” he is critiquing the logic of game satisfaction and our expectation that accepting punishment should signify a player’s faith and obedience to the rules. But what differentiates players from slaves? Induced by the seductions and security of the game, the player accepts that their present conditions can be improved in some way by their own actions, and if there are inadequacies in their present, they must come from their own personal flaws. Slaves recognize that they are trapped in conditions that have little to do with their personal virtue, that under such conditions, play is a deeper form of servitude, a relieving pantomime that, rather than challenging authority structures, makes them more bearable.
Games torture players by regularly affirming their inadequacy, yet their structural values are reassuring, sparing us the anxiety of having to create new values out of nothing at all. The fear of failure is always comforting in that it at least dispels that ambiguity over what the distinction between good and bad should be in the first place. Being met with the resistance of punishment reminds the player there is some godlike meaning we are capable of discovering, it depends only on the player doing well enough to prove worthy of it. Before we can go in search of it, we have to accept there is something inadequate in us, which in turn depends on belief in some ideal state to which we could compare ourselves. Is this what I’m supposed to be doing? Yes, this is what you’re supposed to be doing. Don’t screw it up. I’ll try.
In the beginning I am crawling in dirt, the air is warm and the sky is blue and interrupted by protrusions of tree trunks, palm fronds, and the strange geometry of what will later make sense to me as homes. The experience of the warm dirt is its own articulation, the fact that it can be perceived is its own thought, and its self-evidence its own beauty. Every little change produces some new feeling, the involuntary lolling back of the head turns everything blue, the feeling of the coarse dirt turns mobile, innumerable particles move against my hand, seeming to push back against a force I am not aware of sending toward the ground. The first thought is the noting of differences, of change between one state and the other. Every little shift produces another little alteration, and this becomes a desire for change, its thoughtful articulation inseparable from its sensation. In this way, before there is order, there is a recognition of the sensual elements that will be used as its basis, the medium through which the ghost of structure will move.
There is a game in making sense out of all these patches of feeling I have installed in my conscious as the first living moment I can remember, me sitting in the dusty yard of my parents’ home in Tanzania where my father worked for three years as a professor, the arid inlands of the subtropics where sky and amnion were synonymous for maybe one day or one year. I didn’t know the rules yet for time and place, nor those of my own fat little body of unarticulated desires, indistinguishable fingers, and a perpetually wettening hole in my face that produced only a slow-moving waterfall of marveling, unable to hold onto the saliva that would be necessary for a functioning I didn’t know I had.
It is a predictable defect of creatures who begin their lives in such a state to project their own existential insufficiencies onto nature — the rules necessary for transforming the incompetent drooler into a tamer of beasts and builder of nations become laws of the universe and not affects of our peculiar distribution of helplessness.
In the end, the rules decay back into the morass of elemental nonsense, decomposing feelings that no longer connect to the consequentialist values that once gave them urgency and purpose. One is surrounded by people in a withering state, getting more and more wrong, forgetting that toilets are where one goes to relieve this feeling, and the office is where one goes to relieve that one. You have only the urges and no sensible place to put them, until everything is reduced to a frail and fecund moaning from the wettening hole out of which one’s mind spilled a lifetime of maxims, mandates, aphorisms, truths, hopes, accusations, questions, and claims, none of which survive the feeling that produced them, the undertow of disorder that swallows every player out of their little kingdom and leaves behind only the nonsense that had seemed like law when its creator was still able to impose himself on everyone else, an explanatory vision bookended with little pools of drool that anyone could have made.