So this is an attempt to succinctly lay out some games studies stuff I've been cooking on for a while. The basic thrust is applying Heidegger's aesthetics to games, then going to Levinas to understand the interpersonal and ethical implications of games. I conceive of this structure as extending to forms of games outside of RPGs, so I'll likely draw on board games and/or video games, as well as RPGs, as examples throughout.
It's my hope that someone, anyone, will find this useful or at least comprehensible. We'll see.
I. Earth and World
So first I need to explain some Heideggerian terminology. I don't really understand Heidegger (who does?), so it's probably best to read this as “some dude's misreading of Heidegger” and hope it's worthwhile by the end. If you'd like to get this stuff straight from the horse's mouth, go read The Origin of the Work of Art.
Heidegger, in attempting to position the work of art ontologically, arrives at two complex concepts: Earth and World. The work of art sets up a struggle between these two. We'll start with World.
An object's World is the entire web of significations associated with it. His example is a table: it is connected to the people who sit at it, the conversations had around it, the carpenter who made it, the meals eaten and work done at it, and so on. And each of those things has a further world, connecting them to further things.
Earth is the the set of background assumptions and conditions upon which the World of the object emerges. It is outside of World, and gives World its shape. It's the materials the object is made from, and the circumstances that prompted its creation, as well as the implicit background assumptions necessary for every utterance and representation. Art objects, for Heidegger, set up a kind of tension between Earth and World.
The work of art is inherently a World; it contains its own set of significations, it coheres within itself and to other objects. It also inherently appeals to Earth, highlighting the implicit assumptions that give the World of the object its shape (this is tied to the old idea in poetry that every poem is an ars poetica). That is to say, a work of art seeks by its nature to reveal Earth, to illuminate it; but Earth resists revelation. Earth is ineffable and unintelligible.
This struggle—the World of the work of art seeking to ground the Earth, to pull Earth down from the divine into the world of intelligibility—is the creation of Truth (concealment is a necessary precondition for unconcealment, aletheia, etc). And the work of art shows us this process, eternally deadlocked. World illuminates Earth, and Earth resists illumination, and the work of art sits uncomfortably in the space created by the equilibrium of that process.
There's a lot in there, and a lot I've left out, but it should serve as a starting point.
II. World-as-Earth, Magic Circle, Tournaments, Bleed
So here's where we get to my shit. I posit that games occupy a relatively unique ontological position, compared to the description of the work of art above. Everything above applies (games create a World against the background Earth of our shared universe), but games also set up an “Inside,” microcosmic version of that same Earth-World dynamic in each individual play.
As an object (that is, outside of play), the game is a World and interacts with Earth in the expected ways, etc. In play, however, the World of the game-outside becomes Earth to the play-inside. The game becomes the set of background assumptions upon which players act; I'm calling this World-as-Earth. And player action/interaction inside the World-as-Earth constitutes a kind of inside-World (or a set of inside-Worlds) that seeks to illuminate and reveal the World-as-Earth of the game.
This has some unexpected consequences, not least of which is: playing games (not merely the games themselves, but playing them) is, in the firmest and most emphatic terms, art.
This also sets up the game as a limn, a kind of nexus connecting our outside experience of the game-in-itself as an art-object to our inside experience of our playing of the game as art. And the game is able, under some circumstances, to allow the passage of information from outside to inside, or vice versa.
In the case of information traveling from inside the play of a game to our lived existences outside of the game, we have a few terms for that. LARPers talk about “bleed,” board gamers and TTRPG people have the “magic circle.” These are both acknowledgements of the game's permeability; what is World inside the game can travel across the game-as-Earth, through the game-as-World, and finally into the universe outside. This is typically something to be guarded against, or at least regarded with caution. The World inside the game is often a place different enough from our own that we must be careful how much of it we allow into our capital-R Reality.
I'd also like to point to tournament rules for games that have tournaments. This is another way we conceive of the permeability of the limn between the game-outside and the play-inside. After all, what are tournament results except information from inside the play of a game that has made its way out into the universe outside, and is used to rank real people. I want to attempt to be clear: these rankings are not merely rankings of plays, but rankings of people and their abstracted/embodied ability to play well. Put another way, it's not that tournaments rank players-in-a-game, but that they rank people and their ability to be a player of the game. Ultimately, the inside information garnered in play is used to pass judgement outside, not inside.
III. Next Steps
I plan to write an explanation of how this Heideggerian conception of the Art-ness of games gets us to an ethical understanding of games. For that, I'm going to go to my boy Levinas. But that'll have to wait until tomorrow, because this is more than enough baffling prose for one day.