Reviews - Updated on November 17, 2022

The fast-paced 20th century gave us not only great theories about what a game is, but also fruitful discussions about what traditional and new games serve. Video games have become the subject of much discussion, both public and private, over the past 20 years. The problem, however, is that after participating in several such discussions, you begin to feel deja vu – the train of thought and reasoning of completely different people are repeated with amazing constancy.

People play in all eras, but how different are their assessments and justifications for this activity?

People play in all eras, but how different are their assessments and justifications for this activity?

When I wrote a text about the two most important theories of the game – Johan Huizinga and Roger Caillois, the thought was constantly floating in my mind that sometimes it is more important to understand not the difference between games from everything else, but to expand our ability to think and talk about games. Strictly and accurately separating the game and seriousness, we ultimately gained little for ourselves personally. So what can I see in games thanks to theory?

Two interesting thinkers tried to answer this question – philosopher Eugen Fink (Eugen Fink) and psychologist Brian Sutton-Smith (Brian Sutton-Smith).

Justifying the Game for Intellectuals

There are people who do not need to justify what they like. For others, on the contrary, it is very important to know that their favorite work or type of art is being actively discussed by intellectuals. In the early 21st century, video game advocates hit upon a simple argument: video games can reach the level of art, and art needs no justification. This argument may not suit for various reasons: both the fact that it is primitive, and the fact that only a few video games claim such a status.

For those who want more sophisticated arguments, Eugen Fink’s Fundamental Phenomena of Human Being is a treasure trove of ideas. He proposes to look at a person as a special form of existence, which is revealed through death, love, work, power and play. In his opinion, a person cannot get rid of any of these phenomena, since this would be tantamount to ceasing to be a person. We can say that we are all doomed to thoughts of death, feelings of affection, the need to work and fight, and, finally, to play. The only question is what games we play.

Eugen Fink.

Eugen Fink.

Fink’s ideas are somewhat close to those of Huizinga and Cayua, however, instead of what a game should be (to remain a game, and not, for example, a means of earning money), Fink focuses on how we notice the presence of a game in our minds. As for the mixing of the game with other phenomena, Fink considers them completely natural and inevitable. True, he emphasizes an important point: the game is opposed to other phenomena, since only it realizes temporary freedom from the inevitability of realities in which people die, love, work and fight without a chance to restart.

The game is like a holiday

The originality of Fink’s thought lies in the fact that he puzzles, turning habitual relationships upside down. Many of us think that games fill our free time. But would it be free for us if we did not know games that distract from the necessity of realities? Fink elegantly reverses this connection: we play because it’s part of who we are, and that’s why we find free time to play. And new games appear not because a person needs to take time, but because we want to play, discovering in the game what you will not find in reality.

Oddly enough, many gamers will find similar moments in the experience: it is by no means free time that determines how much, what and why I will play. Much more often they play because they want a different state – a life freed from everyday worries. And this, as Fink notes, is the essence of the holiday. The game is a holiday, a time of idleness and humanity. If we were only concerned with survival, nutrition, and procreation, we would be little different from plants or fungi.

Video games not only interrupt everyday life, but also often seek to recreate the aura of the holiday.

Video games not only interrupt everyday life, but also often seek to recreate the aura of the holiday.

A holiday is not a vacation, in modern terms, an augmented reality event. Death and love cannot be ignored, and the results of labor and power are always obvious, tangible and material. Only the game offers to add a virtual dimension to things: in the past – with fantasy, and now – with technical means. The player does not run away from the world, but puts it in quotation marks in order to interact with it according to his own rules. This temporary suspension of the rules of the world is the window of freedom, without which a person would not be able to appreciate either his own uniqueness or other people’s products of imagination. In this regard, there is certainly an element of play in relationships, in art, in personal skill, and even in dealing with death. Maybe that’s why video games are focused on development, but at the same time we are so often confronted with the Game Over message?

Constancy and variability

If the game is time well wasted, then it remains only to understand that there are results of the game. Psychologist Brian Sutton-Smith has noticed that in different historical eras, games were talked about with a predominance of one or two topics. He calls these ways of discussion rhetoric, because they usually talk about games in order to convince others of their point of view. Surprisingly, over the course of two thousand years, Western tradition has produced few such ways: Sutton-Smith, in The Ambiguity of the Game, counted seven.

Brian Sutton Smith.

Brian Sutton Smith.

People don’t always follow popular opinions, but you can tell a lot about a society from which rhetoric is widespread or marginal. And games, and especially video games, are more a reflection of the trends of society than a unique statement of a creative loner. Taken together, these seven rhetorics show that the game is a rich phenomenon that is difficult to capture with simple functions or examples. By understanding the limitations of each of the rhetoric, we can also understand what exactly people tend to forget in this era, even if they are perfectly familiar with it from their gaming experience.

Seven Answers

So, there are seven rhetoric that Sutton-Smith identified in the texts of various authors from antiquity to the present day. And each is a kind of answer to the question of why games are needed and whether they should be allowed / banned. And this is a question that modern people are forced to return to, including because the same video games are often a convenient scapegoat.

  • The first rhetoric, the most ancient, is the rhetoric of fate. The game, as an expression of fate or luck, connects the player with a world full of divine powers and unknown laws. And despite the fact that the world of modern man is strongly “disenchanted”, theories based on probability still turn to a similar perspective.

  • The second is the rhetoric of force or power. At some point in societies, the power and status acquired by personal efforts become more important than elusive luck. Such rhetoric sees games as an expression of conflict, and above all values ​​competitive games (agon) and everything that serves victory.

  • The third, modern, is the rhetoric of progress. According to Sutton-Smith, just 200-300 years ago, ideas of utility and adaptation began to dominate Western culture. The game is then understood as learning or developing abilities that can be used in life. Today, both defenders and opponents of games are actively pumping this topic: games teach or do not teach or teach bad things.

Endless battles, piles of defeated enemies, thousands of points with the progress bar filling up - and all this is part of the rhetoric of strength and progress.

Endless battles, piles of defeated enemies, thousands of points with the progress bar filling up – and all this is part of the rhetoric of strength and progress.

  • The fourth is the rhetoric of (collective) identity. It is also rooted in antiquity, when the feeling of belonging to the community was extremely important. And as ethnographers know, it is often achieved through mass games at significant holidays. Today, this rhetoric is most pronounced among team sports fans.

  • The fifth is the rhetoric of the self. Here, on the contrary, we are talking about individuality and the significance of one’s own thoughts and experiences. This rhetoric is close to modern societies, because only against the backdrop of the value of individualism can the idea arise that through my experience of video games I understand myself better. When a game presents me with difficult dilemmas, my emotions speak much more about me than about the game or its authors. This also includes the popular Csikszentmihalyi flow theory.

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  • The sixth is the rhetoric of the imagination. I would call it the rhetoric of creativity, since the main emphasis here is on the self-expression of the creator. Games in this case are understood as a means to help create or develop one’s creativity. This view is a legacy of romanticism, but it is sometimes relevant to our day (for example, in judgments about geniuses like Kojima).

  • The seventh, opposed to all others, is the rhetoric of frivolity. This rhetoric implies a refusal to explain what games serve. The games are described as useless and pointless. As the philosopher Alexander Vetushinsky notes, the main purpose of such rhetoric is to show that the other six rhetorics contain a claim to universality. The rhetoric of frivolity insists that some games are different from others. And if one teaches you creativity, and the other trains your memory, then there will always be one in which they “stick” for completely different reasons.

What do we tend to forget?

Fink and Sutton-Smith weren’t meant to be moralistic, but given how much video games are now seen as an industry, these thinkers can be seen as critics of popular opinion.

We know that video game creators are forced to compete, and this translates into a matter of hours and minutes of player retention. It has long been known that it is easier to keep not with positive, but with negative motivation, that is, not “It will be interesting further,” but “Go on, otherwise you will lose.” But then idle time disappears, and obligations remain, moreover, the most ridiculous, virtual-abstract ones.

Times change, games change, but the main question is always the same: what games do you want to spend your time on?

Times change, games change, but the main question is always the same: what games do you want to spend your time on?

Moreover, the excess of the rhetoric of progress makes games monotonous. Level up and beat everyone in the virtual world or justify your leisure time by contributing to your own success and preventing dementia. Why not actually relax? First of all, this is your life, and no one knows what is definitely better for it.

It seems to me that familiarity with the ideas of Fink allows you to better understand what place video games occupy in your life – how they connect with the world or, on the contrary, allow you to take a break from it. Sutton-Smith’s ideas, on the other hand, have inspired many people to be creative in their search for new ways to handle games. So, studying his work, Jane McGonigal (Jane McGonigal) decided to understand what kind of games we lack in reality. And I would add: sometimes it is important to understand that reality is too much for us and the only way to be someone else without harsh consequences is to play.

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