Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Games, Truth, and Defense of the Private

Image of VanDusen Botanical Garden Maze, via Wikimedia Commons

So it's no secret that I know lots of people who read more than me, who know more about various subjects than I do, and who make arguments that are pretty much right on.

Daniel Joseph is one of those people.

Before you read this post, go check out his take on games, the separation of games into a 'private' sphere, and personal sovereignty. It's good, and it's important to state up front that I think Daniel is on to something here. But I'm not going to just parrot his words and add more, because the whole Marxist take on the subject is just something I'm not well enough versed in to add anything of value.

Instead, I want to take some of Daniel's points and talk about games and truth. This is more of a riff, just like Daniel's post, so know that these ideas are evolving and definitely in need of some evaluative critique. I'm hoping as other read this, they can bring in their own perspective and help me sharpen my own.

I think that Daniel is right to see in games (or, to be more accurate, gamers that play games) an activity that has clearly been separated, clearly been demarcated, from what we might call 'public' life. Playing a game is a private act to many, even if they turn around and spout all sorts of opinions on the subject all the time. By 'private', I don't mean a hidden activity- I mean a personal relationship between a person and an object of culture that they, generally, pursue in settings one wouldn't label 'public', i.e. your house, or basement, or even on a friend's couch.

I also think that mass production of games brought the various forms of entertainment out of a publicly shared sphere (I'm thinking here of Baseball in the glory days, way before consoles or even commercially produced board games) and into one's own home, or basement, or shared with a close friend on their couch. While we certainly still have organized sports, I'm hesitant to classify them as 'games' in a 'private' way. Most viewers of organized sports are 'fans', not 'gamers'. But if we want to talk about Bioshock: Infinite, Twilight Struggle, or the latest Twine creation, then I'm much more comfortable with calling these 'games', because players not only participate in the culture- they also have a hand in shaping how the culture around these artifacts comes into form.

But there's another reason why I think games are largely seen as 'private'; they have been, and still are, arbiters of truth. Human agency mediated through gameplay produces truth that is applicable to situations outside the strict, deterministic boundaries of ludic reverie. Sometimes this truth takes on abstract form. If you play 'Go', for example, you're not necessarily learning directly applicable military tactics, but you are learning basic strategic and tactical lessons. Other times, truth from games takes on a much more directly applicable form, such as the reasoning behind Christoph Weickmann's 'Great King's Game'. A far more complicated version of Chess, Weickmann's game had pieces that were modeled after positions found in 17th century German political-military circles. If a lower ranking piece captured a higher ranking piece, it could take on that pieces 'attributes'- in effect, it could become promoted to a higher position.

Yet beyond this design mechanism, Weickmann also saw the 'Great King's Game' as a means to quickly evaluate candidates for service to the King. What would previously take years of personal observation, with Weickmann's game one could evaluate a person's inner qualities in a matter of hours or days. Play became an arbiter for truth. It's no coincidence, at least to me, that the at the dawn of the modern age, when bourgeois values began their ascendancy, we see games take on more direct linkages to the production of truth. It's also no coincidence that this direct linkage manifested itself at a time when public and private spheres of activity, and how to best regulate these spheres, became the central focus of governments across Europe. The rise of liberalistic ideals then could be seen in tandem with the rise of games, increasingly shuttled into 'private' corners of life, as the two are inextricably linked through their assertion of truth derived from 'private' activity.

Another point: when Daniel discusses how games became seen by gamers as an activity whose interaction was strictly held in the bounds of a "private garden, their summer cottage," we can find a direct parallel to that of Fin de siècle Austria, and the bourgeois retreat to country garden estates. Here I borrow from Carl Schorske and his essay 'The Transformation of the Garden' (found in his book, Fin de Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture).
Wherever European artists made the difficult attempt to grapple with an existing order, as they so often did in the nineteenth century, social realism emerged as a dominant literary mode. …Yet Austrian literature found other media to refract the problem of relating cultural values to a social structure in transition. The image of the garden was one such medium. Since ancient days, the garden has served Western man as a mirror of paradise to measure his temporal state. As it appears at crucial points in Austrian literature, it helps us to mark stages in the developing relationship of culture and social structure, utopia and reality. Within its narrow confines, the garden captures and reflects the changing outlook of Austria's cultivated middle class as the ancient Empire approached disintegration.
Schorske then goes on to explore the novel Der Nachsommer, written by Adalbert Stifter in 1857. In it, the hero-character, Henirich Drendorf, comes from a bourgeois family whose patriarch instills in his children the inner qualities of self-improvement through intellectual interests. Henrich desires to become a scientist, an occupation different from his father who was a merchant, and his quest to classify botanical species leads him to discover the Rosenhaus, a 'Paradise Regained', located in the countryside. It's owner, Freiherr von Risach, was a peasant-turned-nobleman by way of the Austrian civil service, and he built the Rosenhaus for "contemplation and practical activity on his own circumscribed domain, enriching his understanding and imparting, to those who would learn, his formula for a perfected and harmonious existence." Schorske goes into more depth, further on, about the true purpose of Risach's Rosenhaus:
Risach conducted his utopian estate on principles combining the practical prudence of Daniel Defoe with the classic sublimity of Johann Winckelmann. He integrated nature and culture into a single continuum. The Rosenhaus garden, central symbol of this integration, was designed not merely for aesthetic effect. Unlike the gardens of the country houses of city people, "where one cultivates unfruitful shrubs or at best bushes bearing only ornamental fruit," Risach's garden mingled flowers with vegetables to produce "feelings of domesticity and usefulness." Nature was perfected by science into art: purged of weeds and insects, the Rosenhaus garden bloomed "clean and clear." Risach's estate was thus no parturient paradise for a pleasure-seeking homo ludens. Nature naturante was curbed and perfected in accordance with God's intention that Adam fulfill a task in the Garden of Eden: "to dress and to keep it." Utility and beauty result from man's self-conscious and disciplined effort to activate nature's bounty.
But, as Henrich discovers, not all is well at the Rosenhaus. Risach, it turns out, has severe contempt for his servants, micromanaging them to the utmost degree and seeing in their uncouth ways an inseparable gap between his cultured demeanor and their uncultivated manners. Schorske notes that Stifter's novel demonstrates that, "the cost of progress in higher culture was deeper cleavage in the social structure," a sentiment echoed later when Schorske also remarks that, "Stifter showed that the social structure grew more radically stratified and less integrated as die Wissenden (translated as 'the knowing') progressed in the realization of their cultural ideal."

While it might seem that my digression into Schorske above was a detour away from Daniel's post, consider that games could be seen as a gamers retreat to a 'private garden, their summer cottage'. In an attempt to escape from the totality of a life ruled by capital, we can clearly link the vehement defense of the 'private sphere' of games by gamers to the intrusions of those from the outside. This would also explain why so many gamers turn away from notions of 'gamification', which could be directly seen as analogous to the gardens of the country houses of city people that produce 'unfruitful bushes' or, at best, 'ornamental fruit.' Only in a sphere made private, in contrast to the public, can gamers cultivate the sort of garden that blooms 'clean and clear.' Instead of corruption, gamers can find 'utility and beauty' that result from a gamers self-conscious and disciplined effort to activate a game's bounty. This is possible because games are arbiters of truth and, as a corollary, beauty.

So lets recap what's been discussed so far: games, with the birth of the modern period, achieve direct, actionable linkages to the production of truth, which also coincides with the rise of liberalistic practices of which capitalism is a part. As capital facilitates the mass production of games, themselves cultural artifacts, these forms of entertainment that were previously limited to the shared 'public' sphere become absorbed and encapsulated in 'private' spheres by the rise of a new type of cultural actor; the gamer. The gamer, in turn, sees in games a way to cultivate a utility and beauty, but only if the the uncultivated others, located in the 'public' sphere of activity, can be successfully distinguished from the die Wissenden (gamers). This is facilitated by a creation of the 'private' garden of games, of which gamers hold court and vehemently protect their domains from the intrusion of the public in various forms, be they claims of sexism, transphobia, or any number of other issues of which constitutes the concerns of the 'public' sphere.

What makes this defense of games so visceral for gamers is that their cultivation is a cultivation of truth. And if the public comes at these games, and by extension gamers, challenging the sort of truth these games produce, then the ultimate threat is not to the game but to the gamer who cultivates play of the game in his or her own private sphere. Games have become the extension of the grand compromise liberalism invokes on those who see themselves as bourgeois- gamers feel righteous indignation because the core issue is demarcating what they feel should be private from what others feel is a public issue. This wouldn't even be an issue, however, if games didn't hold such access to the production of truth.