It started with a simple enough premise: you cannot understand video games if you don’t understand Dungeons & Dragons. It is, of course, a slightly gimmicky formulation, but the feeling I have is that the influence of non-video games on video games is often understated or under-examined. D&D especially has had a massive impact on the worlds that we play in and the rules that we play with, yet it is easy to overlook if you have never played the game yourself. Another pithy phrase I came up with was along the lines of ‘even if you’ve never played D&D, the person who designed your favourite game has’, which, while true to a surprisingly large extent, is also a bit gimmicky and pat and fails to tell the whole story. What I thought would be interesting, therefore, would be to write a series of irregular articles for The Ontological Geek looking at specific aspects of tabletop-and-beyond gaming and how those have influenced and shaped those elements of video gaming that are often considered by video game players to either be self-evident, the base principles of the form, or entirely generated within the sphere of video games.
It got more complicated than that, however, and I now find that in order to position myself satisfactorily I have to look at the spheres of games-criticism and games-writing first and the way that they too have focussed often entirely on the idea of video games as a discrete category rather than take in the lessons of other types of play. All this has been said before, of course, and repeatedly so, but I am reiterating it here in my own words and adding my own take to it to provide a bedrock for any future work I do and to provide a single place that I can point people to if they want to question my motives.
Video game exceptionalism is found in the idea that video games are not just unique, but are unique in a way that is itself unique. That they are different than their peers and predecessors in a way that requires a new understanding of how things can be different. This is a trap that many other media types fall into as well; often although not necessarily predicated on the belief that because a form exists as a synthesis of other forms it is by definition greater than and eclipsing of those other forms. You can see it in the way opera is talked about by a particular aficionado as the endpoint of both theatre and music, as the synthesis that allows both to be what they truly are supposed to be. But this is a teleological fallacy and, as with most teleologies, is always a dangerous way of viewing any kind of progress.
A teleology is a way of looking at the world which focuses on end-points as fundamental. They say that we are not moving away from a series of starting conditions, but are moving towards a set goal. A great many video games, with a single win condition at a fixed end point, are inherently teleological in that the player is aiming to align the world to that point through their actions and they have little choice but to follow the path ahead of them. History itself is probably not teleological, and although there are often claims made that it is, these manifest destinies usually lead directly to bloodshed.
If one looks at the stagnating cultural position of opera nowadays, only 100-odd years after it achieved its supposed apotheosis, one can see a possible future for the video games of today if the ‘final form of entertainment’ mythology that surrounds them is left unchallenged. Similarly, the related tendency towards a categorical separation from other forms is a terrible position from which to perform any kind of serious project of investigation or criticism. In synthesising theatre with music, opera was able to create an artform which fused the strengths of both, but crucially sacrificed elements of both as well, and which also requires at least a basic understanding of both to fully understand. It has also since fed into and informed a number of distinct traditions, from musicals to film scores, which themselves would resist a critical project predicated only on opera studies.
Exceptionalism should be guarded against in all areas both because it is trivial (any given form can do things which are out of the scope of other forms) but also because it ghettoises and compartmentalises peoples’ experiences. I was mocked at school for playing D&D by people who played video games based on D&D. It’s a trivial example, but it’s important. It’s similar to the reasoning behind people saying hip-hop isn’t music, or that modern art is rubbish, because they have categorised a technique as outside of the limits they have imposed on a form. I understand the need to delineate areas for academic study from both a bureaucratic and technical position but difficulties arise when we start to take those delineations as somehow essential, rather than useful techniques for apportioning intellectual labour. The university is a factory and we musn’t forget that the same techniques of specialisation and streamlining that have been put in place since the industrial revolution to accelerate material production have also been implemented to do the same for the production of knowledge.
Video games need to be situated within a general conversation about games and more specifically about play. They are (audio + visual + play + more — any number of those elements), and, as with opera, to understand them fully you need to at least have a basic understanding of the elements that make them up. This is in resistance, in some ways, to the way that videogames has swallowed up the conversation around other game forms, becoming a category unto itself. There is, it often seems, considered to be a parity, to be a defensible position, in using the same techniques to discuss a mobile app and a next gen console game, but that that parity stops dead the moment you move from screen to tabletop.
What do we do about the numerous board games that have had straight ports onto computer? If a videogame is the sum total of all of its parts, what happens if I play it with the sound turned off? When the game being played is the same but the experience, whether through medium or situation, is different it is clear that the treatment will depend on the mode of interrogation. This in turn makes clear that any categorical difference can only be constructed in the moment of and by the form of the study.
This leads into Brendan Keogh’s proposition, delineated in his article Across Worlds and Bodies: Criticism in the Age of Video Games ((Journal of Games Criticism, Volume 1 Issue 1)). Keogh’s proposal is in part an ethnography of games criticism and in part a plea to subjective and instanced engagement in critical projects. Ethnography, which consists of the study of in-groups from a position within that in-group, is a vital sociological technique, developed in part to counter the paternalism of traditional anthropology. But there is the caveat, as with all ethnographic techniques, that it is important to always stress the subjective nature of any findings. Those engaged in subjective analysis must actively engage with and break the reader away away from a cultural default of logical-positivism; that still common concept of knowledge as a universifiable and verifiable understanding of the world.
While ethnographies and subjective engagements provide techniques to allow marginalised voices to be heard, when they operate within a machinery that systematically stifles those voices they can, contrarily to their stated aim, further work to normalise hegemonic experiences. There is a natural pressure to feel like you have failed if you have not experienced a thing in the way that an authoritative figure is outlining as their experience. And whilst only certain categories of voice or subject have access to that authoritative position, the way that they experience the world will still be privileged.
One of the possible pitfalls of giving primacy to the personal moment of discovery of concepts and ideas and ways of being can be seen in another piece of Keogh’s pieces. In the article Bodythinking1 he talks about the way in which a player is playing a game even when they aren’t physically pressing buttons. Keogh’s use of the language of personal discovery (‘I’m playing’), pit against an entrenched and universal mode of thinking (‘we conceptualise’), interplays with cultural signifiers of authority (the PhD student writing longform in an edited publication) to allow the reader to believe that this is new knowledge rather than a new personal experience.
I don’t think Keogh does view this as essentially new work given the references to similar ideas in other fields of study, but how we say things can be as important as what we say. No matter the intent of the writer the text becomes an object in its own right. It may make for a good story and as a piece it is nicely written, but for those of us who play tactical and strategy games with this understanding at the front of our minds it is a bit galling to read of it as though it is a new thought. To take a further example, team sports are predicated entirely on the idea that people are still playing even when they haven’t got the ball at their feet. This has been a feature of games for a very long time, and one that the focus on videogames as a separate category altogether can only work to elide.
Keogh’s concept of the cybernetic player — the idea of the player-state and the game-state at a given time as the basic unit of study — is a powerful idea and, crucially something that can usefully be expanded into all play. To focus on the medium, the computer or console which mediates between game and player, is both mystical and reductive at once; a techno-fetishism that limits rather than expands one’s horizons. It is, in fact, the same thinking that asserts that reading a book only counts if it is made of paper — we forget that paper is merely a form of technology and not the thing itself. The computer-as-computer is nothing special, it is merely a repository and enactor of a set of information, an actor arbitrating between the actors playing the game and the actors who created the game. It does the same job that the board and the pieces and the rulebooks of a tabletop game do, and while all these different types of game act differently, their commonalities should not be ignored.
It is a duty of those who can write, who have the voice and the vocabulary and the reach, to do more than just write about themselves. I am fully on board with the political and social aim of identity reclamation in Mattie Brice’s concept of Games Criticism as a Selfie (and naturally appreciate her intimation towards moving away from a sole focus on videogaming as a site of critical engagement), but that cannot be all. To make a point as soundbite‑y as that talks’ title, a selfie can only be taken if you have a camera. The camera here is both a symbol of technological engagement and inclusivity (the assumption being that we all have at least a basic cameraphone available) as well as a marker of intellectual or academic engagement and autobiographical willing. What do we do for those without a camera? Just as not having access to the machinery of recording does not stop images from occurring or having meaning, the richness of a person’s internal life is not proportional to their ability and desire to articulate or elucidate that life to an external audience.
As important as recognising the limits of objectivity and exploring the depths of subjectivity are as an intellectual exercise they cannot become exclusively privileged as methodologies in exactly the same way that no methodology should be privileged as such. Pure subjectivity is as much a dangerous fallacy as pure objectivity. The rise of ultra-objective game reviews make a sound and serious satirical point, but viewed uncritically they can hide the creeping neo-liberalism of an anti-consensual, anti-societal meritocratic project to hand control of reality to those best able to describe what they want it to be — which is of course the exact thing they are trying to resist. While truly objective knowledge may be unattainable it should not therefore be erased from the toolset because the pursuit of it can help us to express and understand some of the commonality of our goals and experiences.
Writing well and engagingly is a skill, whilst reading time is a scarce resource, and good writing is incredibly efficient at exploiting and monopolising that resource. If we only ever write about our own engagement then we will merely see the rise of new hegemonies of experience as readers align themselves with readings that appear the most right because they are the most readable and the most widely-read. The solipsism of the cybernetic player, of the technological exceptionalism at the heart of the transcendence of the one-player experience, and of the language of selfies has the power to become a limiting and exclusionary rhetoric. Social play, be it structured by rules, pitches and tabletops or just freeform and spontaneous, teaches the players about boundaries and negotiation and the thought processes of others. We need a realisation that we are cybernetic actors in and with our cultural experiences too, that we come together when we realise that the boundary between self and society is as porous as that between self and machine. We lose voices not only by silencing those who would speak, but also by not speaking on behalf of and with those who prefer to use their time otherwise.
This is all quite a long way around of getting to my central aim as stated at the start, which is to begin, in a series of occasional posts, to look at the links between video games and tabletop and board games and to see how they have influenced each other. While video games are clearly not tabletop games, as I have mentioned above, I don’t think that you can explore the former without exploring the latter. I also don’t think you can understand them without a grounding in the audio or visual mediums either, but I’m not the person to be expounding on those.
You may not have played Dungeons & Dragons, but if you play video games then you most certainly play within the confines of concepts created by people who did. I have picked up on statements and pieces by others here not to nitpick or score points but because this is an essay with the express aim of examining, and setting up the necessity of examining, the often unspoken and unexamined assumptions that underlie the work of progress and analysis, my own included. This is not to say that any previous manifesto or movement is even wrong, merely that the imposition of binary and oppositional designations, like subject/object, whilst useful can also be misleading and the work of understanding should be a game that we all play together.
- Five out of Ten Magazine, Issue 5 [↩]