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C. Thi Nguyen: games and agency; games as art

So, game designers sculpt a form of agency and embed it in a game. And players sub­merge themselves in that sculpted agency. Games, then, turn out to be our technology for recording and communicating forms of agency. They comprise our library of agen­cies. And, just as libraries of conventional texts let us explore others’ ideas, narratives, and emotional perspectives, games let us explore different modes of agency. Chess focuses us on analytic, rigorous, calculational thinking; Diplomacy focuses us on a Machiavellian style of deceit; Tetris focuses us on geometrical rotational manipula­tions. By playing a variety of games, we learn new modes of practicality. Games can help us become more free by teaching us new ways to inhabit our own agency.

It might seem paradoxical that such rigidly specified forms of agency could help us to become more free — especially when those agencies have been designed by another. Game-playing might start to look suspiciously like subservience. But those rigid spec­ifications are actually the means of transmitting a sculpted agency. This is how we communicate agencies. We temporarily inhabit those rigid forms in order to learn what there is to be learned. And games are not alone here. Think of how yoga works. Yoga forces us out of our physical habits by clearly specifying novel postures. Left to our own devices, we tend to fall into habit. The strict directions involved with yoga are a technique for surmounting these habits –to help us find our way into an unfa­miliar postures. Games do the same, but for practical mindsets. Games are yoga for our agency.

Games can also sculpt social relationships. By specifying agencies for individual play­ers, multiplayer games can specify practical relationships between players, and so create new patterns of socialization. Scholars often treat games as a special kind of fiction, or a new type of cinema. But games are more distinctive than that. Games are manipulations of rules and constraints and affordances. Their closest relatives are not fictions, but legal structures and urban planning. Games are art-governments.

So what is the artistic value of games? Games are particularly good at fostering the aesthetics of action, at bringing out the beauty and grace in our actions, choices, and movements. (And comic clumsiness, too.) Non-game life offers us the occasional glimpse of beauty in our own action. We react to a falling box with a thrillingly grace­ful dodge; we figure out the answer to the philosophy problem that’s plaguing us with a glorious, epiphanic twist of the mind. These are moments of practical harmony, where our actions and abilities find some lovely fit with the practical demands of the world. But such harmonies are rare in the wild. The world is often too much for us, and our actions often clumsy or futile. Or the world forces us to repeat easy ac­tions to the point of grinding boredom. But games give us ready access to the aesthet­ics of action. The game designer can concentrate these practical harmonies, because they control over both ends of the equation: both in-game agent and game-world. In games, our agency and our world can be engineered to fit.

It’s easy to misunderstand games if we try to assimilate them to more familiar arts. Most well-theorized arts are object arts. The artist creates an artifact, and we admire the aesthetic qualities of that artifact. But games are a process art. In the process arts, the stable artifact is not the primary focus of aesthetic appreciation. Instead, the arti­fact calls forth actions from its audience, and the audience is meant to appreciate the aesthetic qualities of their own actions. If we focus on appreciating the game itself, as if it were a painting or novel, then we will miss the most important part. The beauty of games isn’t in the stable artifact of the game itself; it is in the beautiful actions the game instigates in its players.

Perhaps the most potent and seductive pleasure of games lies in their value clarity. In normal life, our values are usually complex and conflicting. Their nature can be subtle, their application obscure. But in games, for once in our lives, we know exactly what we are doing and exactly how well we have done it. After all, there are points. What’s more, all the other agents in the game are typically acting for exactly the same reasons — so the values of the in-game social world are perfectly comprehensible and coher­ent. Games offer us an existential balm, a relief from the value-confusion of our ordi­nary lives…

C. Thi Nguyen – précis of Games: Agency as Art

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