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Game Design as Applied Metaphysics

I apologize for the lack of any sort of updates since August. My computer decided to break down at the end of that month, and I’ve neither had the means to replace it, nor do I know when that will change. As it stands I’m writing this via a notebook I borrowed specifically because inspiration struck me, and I wanted to jot some things down.

Moving on to the meat of this post, or if not the meat at least the appetizer that leads us on to that course, I was, once upon a time, known to freelance for small press roleplaying game companies. I was neither terribly famous nor overly prolific as far as these things go, but I was, if I do say so myself, rather good at what I did. The reason I was good at what I did was because I’d been gaming for close to 20 years at that point (for the record I’m creeping up on 25 years as a gamer these days), and I’d always tinkered with rules. Admittedly, that’s something most gamers are wont to do at some point or another in their lives. I also played, and read, a great many different games in that time. I wanted to know what made games tick. Why did game x play a certain way, and what happens if we change y? I concentrated not only on how those mechanics functioned in the abstract sense of number, but how they functioned in the realm where the most often failed: the theme of a game.

Vampire: The Masquerade and to a lesser degree its cousin Werewolf: The Apocalypse are generally my two favorite games to illustrate this point. When these games were released they went to great, even pretentious, lengths to set themselves apart from all those “less mature” games out there. Which left many of those who took White Wolf’s pretentious stance seriously rather baffled when sessions of these “storytelling games” (no mere rpgs, these!) of ‘personal horror” went off the rails and degenerated into chronicles of blood-drinking ninja and furry eco-terrorists.

One could argue that this was simply a player problem, and that the people injecting these shenanigans into the World of Dankness weren’t playing the game right. Except that at least some of the people who were doing it wrong wanted the pretension, and couldn’t figure out where the problem was.

The problem was, that for all their pretensions otherwise, the underlying rules of the Storyteller System, as White Wolf had branded their ruleset, were by and large set up to encourage the type of play that the lace and cloves crowd were complaining about. There were a great many rules, and in game benefits, to running around with a trenchcoat and katana, and not so many rules or in game benefits related to sitting around smoking cloves and wallowing in angst over one’s lot in unlife. (Yes, I know I’ve mentioned smoking cloves twice now. I can’t speak to other areas, but around here it was a common affectation – particularly among the LARPers – thus my memories of White Wolf games and people smoking cloves are inextricably linked).

If you want a game to play a certain way, and you want players to focus on certain themes, you need to make sure that the underlying structure of your game will reflect that style of play. Because we can talk about theme, or gameplay goals, or game balance, or whatever usual claptrap sees the light of day in such discussions, but there’s something that generally gets left out: metaphysics.

For those unfamiliar with the concept of metaphysics, or only familiar with the term as incorrectly thrown around by crystal-gazing hippies, I’m going to borrow the first few lines from the relevant wikipedia entry:

Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy concerned with explaining the fundamental nature of being and the world, although the term is not easily defined. Traditionally, metaphysics attempts to answer two basic questions in the broadest possible terms:

  1. What is there?
  2. What is it like

What this means is that each and every time a game designer sits down and writes up a set of rules, or programs in how a videogame will respond, she is engaging in an act of metaphysical creation. She is creating a world, and defining the underlying structure of how that world works. This is true even in those cases where a game claims that its setting mirrors the “real” world, and its rules are meant to accurately reflect conventional physics (i.e. things fall down etc.).

It is impossible for a game to model the external world in either an accurate, or even an abstract, fashion. Certainly in the case of electronic games they can try to visually mimic elements of the world outside the game, but mimicry is all it is. The moment a game, and rules of that game are created, the external world has ceased to exist within that space. A game designer is able, in effect, to move into a space traditionally only occupied by magicians and the divine; he replaces the metaphysical realism (the idea that there is a world external to my mind, and there are rules by which that world works) of what we conventionally think of as reality, with a metaphysical realism of his own devising.

No matter how you slice it that’s a rather weighty task, but one that is often overlooked in favor of such mundane elements as “game balance” (it’s generally impossible to construct a system so elegantly that it can’t be exploited or broken) or world building. Yet the metaphysics of a game, and the way the rules reflect those metaphysics, are far more important than any of those elements when determining how the game plays. Warhammer 40K and its various spin-off games has a metaphysical reinforcement of its rather black and white (though pretending to be gray) ethical system in the form of corruption. If you behave in certain ways you are punished by the universe by the spreading corruption of Chaos. The same is true of Star Wars; regardless of your reasons for doing so, the ethics of the universe are oriented in such a way that certain actions are punished or rewarded by moving one toward either the Light or Dark side of the Force. This metaphysical condition of that universe is also why, as much as I enjoyed both Knights of the Old Republic games, the idea that either Revan or the Exile did the wrong thing for the right reasons doesn’t fly; because the Lucasverse operates under the Utilitarianesque presupposition that it doesn’t really care why you engaged in a certain action, it only matters that you did a thing, and that thing was either good or bad.

We can talk all we want about making sure rules are fair or balance, abstract or crunchy. We can spend time on the sociopolitical elements of the setting, injecting it with all the little details we are told are necessary to make sure that things are consistent and believable. Yet if we fail to take into account the way in which the rules reflect the metaphysical truths of the game we might wind up with a very different game than what was intended, and discover that our exploration into the ethics of doing the wrong thing for the right reasons not only rings rather hollow, but has just become another stop on the hugging puppies for Jesus/killing puppies for Satan express.

 
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Posted by on October 24, 2012 in Geekery, Philosophy, Pop Culture

 

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Actually, I’m the one who gets to Decide if you’re a “Real Geek”

Apparently someone who styles himself Joe Peacock said some things for which John Scalzi took him to task. Mr. Scalzi rather scathingly demonstrates that his “geek cred” far outstrips that of Mr. Peacock, thus is anyone ought to be the arbitrator of what does, or does not, make one a geek it should be him.

Unfortunately for Mr. Scalzi I’ve got something that far outstrips him. No, it isn’t awards or award nominations. It isn’t consulting for a television show or being invited to conventions. As you might have guessed by this point it’s philosophy.

Ontology is generally considered to be a subset of metaphysics that, in brief, is concerned with the categorical nature of things. That’s admittedly simplifying things, but for practical purposes we can consider that defining what it means to be a person, and then as a subset of what it means to be a person, defining what it means to be a geek to be ontological questions.

As such I have taken it upon myself, in my role as philosopher, to once and for all define what it means to be a geek. Should you then fail to meet this criteria… well, you’re fucked, but I’m sure we’ll think of something we can call you.

Let us begin. The most obvious definition of what it is to be a geek is to be someone who likes geeky things, or engages in geeky activities. As a working definition this seems rather problematic, as it simply circles itself. So perhaps we should then examine what makes a thing geeky.

Comic books are generally defined as geeky. As are video games, science fiction and fantasy media, a fondness for toys that stretches beyond childhood… I’m sure we could add any number of other criteria. If these things are all ontologically geeky, one would think that they should have some degree of commonality. Comics, video games, as well as sci-fi and fantasy are all frequently known for over the top action… but then so are any number of films, television shows, novels etc. that aren’t typically regarded as being geeky. What about powers beyond the mundane? Again, most geeky things seem to feature, magic, super science, super powers etc.. Maybe those would provide us with a solid foundation. At least as long as we ignore the Bible, which features numerous uses of magic and super powers, or the type of magic realism that is generally considered to have emerged in South America and usually gets labelled as literary, rather than genre fiction, and thus mainstream rather than geeky.

And what about outliers. The Avengers, though I honestly find myself in agreement with Ebert’s review, made a fuckton of money. The Hunger Games and Twilight, had they not captured a mainstream audience, contain elements that under normal circumstances would place them firmly in geektown (the same also seems true of paranormal romance in general – it seems to be considered romance, and thus largely excluded from the category of that which is geeky). Heroes, The Incredibles, video games making more money than I’ll ever see in a lifetime. Unless we presume that all the money these things make comes entirely from geek pockets then it would seem that there are people consuming, enjoying, and possibly even considering themselves fans of these things, who do not otherwise consider themselves, or are considered by others, to be geeks.

I could provide additional examples, or continue picking at the issue, but for the sake of word count I think that these couple paragraphs provide a decent overview of the problems that can crop up when we start trying to set hard limits on what a thing is, particular on something so broad as geekdom. Sure, it’s easy to say when someone is a Harry Potter fan, but it gets significantly more difficult when we then try to translate that into determining whether that characteristic is enough to qualify him/her/it as a geek.

Part of the problem is of course that implicitly or explicitly we often assume metaphysical referents for these questions, and thus mistake questions of something else as being ontological or metaphysical concerns. One that I’ve frequently come across is confusing a difference of aesthetics or intent as demarcating a difference in category; which simply isn’t true. And of course those who have read this blog previously will be aware that I dismiss metaphysical referents for most things out of hand, and these sort of problems are among the reasons I do so.

Judith Butler examines a similar problem in relation to defining femininity/what it is to be female. I’ll admit to my paraphrasing here being a bit rough, as it’s been a few years since I slogged my way through Butler (in fairness she’s a strong thinker, but rarely exciting to read). No matter where you start out, or where you end up trying to define that which is feminine you always wind up with a definition that is incomplete, and worse, exclusionary. This is because femininity isn’t just some abstract social construct, it’s because femininity is a performed social construct. This is doubly true of geekdom, because we can’t even fall back on the specious arguments that biological sex is the same as gender; being a geek is made up exclusively of performing the role of the geek, whether one elects to take that role on one’s sole, or it’s socially imposed onto one. I’m admittedly making a bit of a jump here, because this statement touches on some things I haven’t really talked about in depth on this blog, but ultimately what makes one a geek is part of performing that role as part of performing one’s personhood.

If you’re read this far, you might have realized that despite the title of this entry, and my previous disagreement with Jessica Mills over some of the finer points of a similar topic, I’m largely agreeing with Mr. Scalzi. Joe Peacock can’t define what makes someone a geek. John Scalzi, as he rightly says, doesn’t get to do it. Even I, with a superpower that as part of its purview is meant to handle this very sort of thing, and thus means I am qualified to make such grand pronouncements, find myself unable to draw a clear line in the sand. What is it that makes a geek? Performing the role of a geek, and/or being regarded as a geek by the world around one. The ways in which one can arrive at one, or both of those criteria are effectively limitless.

 
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Posted by on July 26, 2012 in Geekery, Philosophy, Pop Culture

 

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You are not the Center of the Universe, no not even in the Matrix

This post was at least partially inspired by a conversation with a certain someone. That someone will remain unnamed in order to protect him (or her) from violent retribution.

From time to time, solipsism rears its ugly head. For those not in the know, solipsism is basically the delusion in which you think you’re the center of the universe; or to be more precise, at least in the philosophical sense, it means that you think you are the only thing that is real – everything else is simply a product of your imagination. Your cat, your significant other, your job, everything that does, has, or will exist is simply a product of your awesome, awesome brain… though as much as hate to Godwin an argument so early on, I have to ask; why you be hatin’ on Jews so much. That’s right, if you’re the only real thing in the universe then the Holocaust is also a product of your diseased mind.

I realize that going there was something of a cheap shot, but I did it to demonstrate that solipsism is rather easily torn down, because despite what pretentious undergraduates (and people who misunderstand what Descartes was arguing when they should be focusing on the actual flaws in his argument) fail to understand is that it’s not difficult to determine that there are things external to our own minds going on. There’s even a technical term for it: Mataphysical Realism. Metaphysical realism is simply the idea that there is a world that is external to us, and that there is a way this world works.

This is true even if the world one perceives is created by a deceiving demon, one has been reduced to a brain in a jar, or one is trapped in an overhyped film. Even if the world is demonstrably an illusion we are still bound by metaphysical realism. I’m a strong supporter of phenomenology and intersubjectivity, as such I believe that we do, in a very real sense, create the world; that is to say there is no meaningful world beyond the world of human experience. Yet this doesn’t mean there is no world external to our experience. My existing doesn’t create gravity qua gravity, but it is what shapes how I am able to understand gravity.

I just realized I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with this. I generally try to make these posts a bit more than short Philosophy 101 lectures, but really there’s not much to say about solipsism. It’s a rather amusing kind of arrogance and is easily deconstructed. So I suppose I shall simply end by saying don’t do it or you shall be mocked. Said mocking might involve pictures of cats.

 

 
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Posted by on September 13, 2011 in Philosophy, Pop Culture

 

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