Jared Sinclair

Some attempts at answers for Kazumi Chin (@kazumiochin):

Is playing tic tac toe slash increasingly complex non narrative games world as earth?

I'm going to make the strong claim here, because that's my way; I still think the weaker versions of the argument probably carry weight.

Tic Tac Toe does qualify for this World-as-Earth business, though probably not in a compelling way. This is the ontological situation that allows for play to have rhetorical content, but it doesn't guarantee that that content will be potent or anything. Tic Tac Toe probably doesn't have as much to say about the human condition as D&D does. But it probably says something, and even if it doesn't, that doesn't exclude it from the ontological possibility.

I actually arrived at this conception by thinking about non-narrative strategy games (not TTRPGs, initially). There's a procedural rhetoric to these things (Persuasive Games, Bogost, 2007), but I was unsatisfied with both the metaphysical and practical dimensions outlined (or not) in that book. So this Heidegger stuff is the metaphysical part; the practical part is Virtue Theory, which I haven't gotten to yet.

Is a tournament which is a set of rules itself a world as earth; a martial arts tournament for example, is that art? A tic tac toe tournament? does it need to be sufficiently complex?

A tournament is a kind of meta-structure that can qualify itself as a game (maybe it must be a game), and can therefore set up the World-as-Earth dynamic. Or at least has the ability to confer game-ness onto some endeavor.

A martial arts tournament seems completely indistinguishable from, say, a Magic: the Gathering tournament, to me. There is a game of martial arts, separate from the practice of using it to actually fight “enemies,” that has rules and structures and such. I imagine there are rules against snapping your opponent's neck in tournament play, for example, which distinguishes it from non-play fighting (I'm not willing to fully exclude non-game fighting from game-ness, but I'm also not ready to defend it, as yet). And there is some relatively complex rhetorical content to a martial arts tournament, for instance with regard to violence and its place in the world and in our lives. This rhetorical content resides not merely in the discourse surrounding the game among participants, but in the structure of play itself. The discourse, I argue, is to some huge degree determined by the structure of play; they inform each other. And yes, that gives it the same capacity for being art that other forms of play have.

Increased complexity seems to correspond to increased capacity for rhetorical content, and for art. So Tic Tac Toe's simplicity sharply limits its ability to make arguments, and to be art.

If the game play is art but the rules themselves are not, does that mean that for example blood piece in my Twitter banner is not art until someone plays it? What does it mean to play it then? Can I think about it? Is that sufficiently playing? What is the threshold of play?

And if a set of instructions is not art until it becomes a world, then is a poem not art until it is read? And only in the reading? So what’s the point of making the distinction? Isn’t it always true art is only art in the instance of engagement?

I would not make the argument play is art while rules are not. I might make the argument that engaging with art is when it comes into “fullness of being” or whatever, but then art is always-already engaged with—by the artist, if by no one else. The creative process is play, and play is a creative process.

Now as far as the audience goes: is the act of reading/thinking about rules a creative act? This seems nearly identical to the question of whether reading a stageplay is a “valid artistic experience” of the play, as opposed to seeing it performed, or performing it yourself. And I think it's fairly straightforward to say yes: the work of art is polyvalent in form, and therefore too in experience.

This is all just normal old context: I read a game, I imagine it, I play it. I read a stageplay, I imagine it, I watch it, I perform it. I have a cold, I'm drunk, I'm 31 years old. All of these things affect and inform our interaction with the art, but none of them change the essential nature of our interaction.

So for games, which set up the World-as-Earth dynamic, it might be useful to construe these contextual elements of our interaction with the game as an Earth that we bring to it, in addition to the World-as-Earth the game sets up. That's not something I've spent a lot of time unpacking, but it seems worth thinking about.

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.