Metaphors of 'game' and 'play' are increasingly popular in academic writing, partly because games themselves are becoming increasingly important to media experience, and partly because something in the 'game' idea seems to describe the post-modern experience. However, the metaphor sometimes forgets what games can be like in practice. What I want to do, then, is go a round or two with the term, to question what the metaphor invokes.
Round I: 'Game'?
Games are played on a dedicated field -- a board, a screen, a playing-ground -- which is marked off so that in some sense it becomes a separate 'space', Huizinga's "magic circle". Play begins, and then, Huizinga argues, it is over, its effects lost (13). Players choose to play, agreeing to arbitrary rules controlling the game 'world'; goals and penalties are agreed in advance. Thus the gameworld provides an oasis of order in a chaotic, unruly world (Huizinga again); despite (sometimes) volumes of rules, games themselves are less complex and more clearly defined than "the casual and confused reign of everyday existence" (Berger, qtd. in Holquist 122).
The sanctity of the game-space offers something more than mere order. The construction of order through arbitrary rules temporarily dissolves the significance of the outside world. Players concentrate wholly on the game -- on the dice or the puck or the pawn; good gameplay (to use Banks's expression) makes you forget yourself and the passage of time, not operating consciously but going with the flow. Play, writes Csikszentmihalyi, "is going. It is what happens after all the decisions are made -- when 'let's go' is the last thing one remembers" (45). It is a difficult state to attain but it seems valuable, from academia's overly rationalistic perspective, to get out of our heads and let some other sense drive for a while.
Games engage different senses. Players use skills not ordinarily valued, striving for self-fulfilling perfection. Mundane time is linear, but games are full of diversionary, goal-deferring loops -- "the movement which is play has no goal which brings it to an end; rather it renews itself in constant repetition" (Gadamer 93). Gameplay is unpredictable; it shuttles back and forth, unsettled, dynamic, open to chance. You cannot surely predict the outcome. And then you play again.
We like, too, the superficiality of games. They are useless, wilfully inefficient, pursued solely for the pleasures they provide. Games can be seen as representative -- of power struggles, of unspeakable impulses -- but the action is distanced from the self. Imbued in an (in)animate piece or a disguised self, games license performance, freedom from the mundane self. Most importantly, game goals aren't 'really' important; we don't 'really' care; "no chains of causes and effects, means and ends, are supposed to connect the isolated area of play with the real world or ordinary life (Riezler 511).
Thus, reasons the theorist, the gameworld is a privileged space. Having freely chosen to play and consented to pre-determined constraints, players slip the controlling lead of the superego in pursuit of mastery. Difficult impulses are exorcised -- cathartically, if you like -- in the safety of the gamespace, the temporary "otherwhere" of experience where nothing really matters; no lives are actually sacrificed; no deaths are permanent; no loss is irreversible. Games are interactive, simultaneously controlled and risky. If one excels, one is celebrated; if one loses -- ah well, it was only a game. Afterwards it ceases to matter: handshakes all round and down to the pub.
Or so the theorists tell us.
Round II: The Magic Circle
My brother and his friends liked to play Skirmish. But afterwards, they were stiff and sore, with bruises lasting for months or longer. Players are regularly injured, permanently maimed, or even killed while playing those games we call 'sport'. True, you might forget yourself while playing, but what about afterwards? The embodiedness of players -- the constancy of muscle memory, bruises and scars -- imprints lasting effects on minds and flesh, inextricably binding the game world to the mundane. Besides physical injuries, however, are the continuity of memory and the excess of feelings (affect).
Games, after all, are played by people, "who only indirectly and ambiguously share in the perfect order of their games" (Holquist 115), stuck as we are with irrational feelings. Losers feel sore, disgruntled; someone else has proven cleverer or faster or trickier; they never quite got in the flow; it wasn't fun. So when Stephenson writes, "play is enjoyed, no matter who wins" (46) -- well, no. People sulk, they cry, they become vengeful: people don't like losing -- witness the origins of football hooliganism. Perhaps the cost of being rationally detached from the outcome of a game, of leaving the mundane, ratiocinatic world behind, is an irrational, affective investment that sometimes matters when it shouldn't.
To describe games as discrete, then, assumes that people are disembodied, completely rational and extremely forgetful: these are the only terms under which gameplay can be "detached". Huizinga and Caillois posit such players when they describe games as 'separate', 'unproductive', 'unreal'. They let the metaphor take over, mistaking form for practice. Somewhat extremely, Gadamer argues, "the real subject of the game ... is not the player, but instead the game itself" (95). No game, however, exists prior to or without players, and no players are free from the 'irrational' of their bodies and senses.
Round III: Representation
John Banks's "Controlling Gameplay" reminds us of the 'other senses' invoked in play. Games, he argued, are never simply representational. Gameplay is a forward momentum, engrossing and unselfconscious. He was right, but I want to recall, momentarily, the representativeness of games. It is, after all, partly their commitment to symbols that makes people willing to (be) hurt in a game, even to risk their lives.
Besides the irrational commitment to the symbol engendered by the affective gameworld, is the representational content. The violence debate hinges around the detachment of the gameworld: theorists argue that in gamespace, it's 'not real; we're 'just playing'; "things within this area mean what we order them to mean. They are cut off from their meanings in the so-called real world or ordinary life" (Riezler 511). The game frame theoretically negates commitment to content and underlying meanings (see Bologh). Fink reminds us, though, that content always draws on the world of experience: it "is always partly, but never wholly, the creation of fantasy. It always has to do with real objects [or ideas], which fantasy transforms into play objects" (qtd. in Anchor 92). Hodge and Tripp argue that, although play modality undermines or inverts meanings, symbols retain their mundane meaning: "the surface content of the image coexists as part of the content. An image of violence is still an image of violence, and viewers who enjoy it are still endorsing those impulses in themselves" (117). Games invoke the imaginary, the symbolic and the sensual in ways beyond ordinary 'consciousness', but that never makes it insignificant. Memory and affect again.
Structural anthropology provides ample evidence that games represent society (see, for example, Cheska). Clifford Geertz showed how games structurally reflect (often backwards) the values of a society. The game, he argued, reminds players of the overlap between their own and their society's values (27). Thus games function as social ritual (see Bakhtin, Caillois or Huizinga). But ritual, Handelman shows, is "how society should be" (189) -- in which case he is arguing that society should be ordered, rigidly rule-bound, oriented towards arbitrary goals and values, competitive, and simplistically representational. People -- and indeed, existence -- are complex, messy, defiant and irrational. "Not recognising the bounds between stylised game and causal reality is to do violence to the complexity of existence" (Holquist 121).
Round IV: Structure
Another remove from content, is structure. In Western society games are agonistic. Huizinga explicitly argued that their value lay in striving for glory over one's fellows, in proving oneself superior: that is what winning is. Although theorists now value the process more than the goals, gameplay nevertheless consists in trying to beat your opponent. Games are about conquest. Even those games featuring teamwork only require cooperation to vanquish opponents -- to inflict on them the humiliation, disappointment and (however infinitesimally) diminished social status that inevitably accompany losing.
Moreover, there are hierarchies within teams. A good point guard is never as well paid as a good forward; the Dungeon Master or GM determines the 'fate' of the other players. Just as players and teams are hierarchised, so are leagues, reflecting Western society's valorisation of hierarchy. Many must be conquered for the individual to triumph. While players may freely accede to rules, they don't decide them -- they are governed conservatively. Rules may evolve organically but become reified, regulated top-down, detailed knowledge itself becoming a source of hierarchical authority. Game rules are not folk-knowledge; they are dictated, published, refereed: another source of contest.
The game metaphor has its uses. Certainly what happens when one disappears or is lost in gameplay is worth serious attention. But to pretend that games are microcosmic, free, without affect, effect or meaning, and that they end with the final bell, is to forget the player, who lives on in the society reflected by the game.