Saturday, November 5, 2011

Clash of Games

"Men are born for games.  Nothing else.  Every child knows that play is nobler than work.  He knows too that the worth or merit of a game is not inherent in the game itself but rather in the value of that which is out at hazard."
The judge

The latest idea to catch my mind is a proposition I'd like to make - all emotion stems from playing games.

The above quote from Blood Meridian concerns the philosophy of Judge Holden who himself is a hermetic representation of Satan or War, in which he speaks, so he later claims, for the benefit of the kid, to educate him in part on the purpose of life and also in the nature of war.  A while after, he admonishes the kid for not playing the game (which was to scalp as many native Americans as possible for money)...

"You alone were mutinous.  You alone reserved in your soul some corner of clemency for the heathen."
The judge

Recently, over the past few months, a thing that has become an irritation for me has been the practices of the video game publishing company, EA.  Having bought out one of my favourite developers they then trashed my two favourite intellectual properties, turning them into populist, dumbed-down-for-kids crap.  I query myself, and try to ask, why is it that this angers me so?

As the judge is angry and disappointed with the kid, so too I am angry with EA because, from my perspective, they are not playing the game:  I buy games I like, a portion of that money goes back to the developers who profit and go on to make more and better games.  But, in appropriating Bioware's franchises as they did to attack opposition IPs and appeal to the kiddy market, EA broke the rules of the game I was playing.  When the kid broke the rules, the judge tried to kill him.  For me, well, I'm not a war god so I just get pissed off and rant wildly and vow to never again buy a game from EA.

Of course, each plays his own game, and EA and the kid see things differently...

"It was you, whispered the kid.  You were the one."

EA are playing a different game; the game of finance in a popular culture market.  Like the music, movie and, to a lesser extent, book industries of yore, they are currently riding a wave of success in an undereducated market that will buy their mass-appeal drivel for a little while yet.  EA, and other big publishers, have been breaking the game contract with old customers for years, hoping, like the judge, to educate the youth into a new game with new rules.

They can get away with breaking the rules of my game because my rules are not binding, are unenforceable.  In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock and Antonio have a natural and passionate enmity stemming from the different business games that each plays.  Yet in the loan contract they agree upon they willingly treat with each other according to rules they both accept.

You, merchant, have you any thing to say?

But little: I am arm'd and well prepared.-
Give me your hand, Bassanio: fare you well!
Grieve not that I am fall'n to this for you;
For herein Fortune shows herself more kind
Than is her custom

But the sickeningly happy lovers (and audience, one presumes) cannot accept this game of blood the businessmen are playing, and make a mockery of the court and common sense to rescue melancholic Antonio and punish Shylock - both of whom could not be any more ambivalent.

Art thou contented, Jew? what dost thou say?

I am content.

Clerk, draw a deed of gift.

I pray you, give me leave to go from hence;
I am not well: send the deed after me,
And I will sign it.

All their venom is nowhere to be found; the game they were playing has been destroyed and with it the context for their emotion.  All that is left is the judgement of the staged court, which has vapourised their contract and ridicules the passion with which they had entered upon it.

Simple, generic Game properties...
  1. A Game consists of Rules and Goals
  2. For a Game to Work, all participants must nominally play according to the Rules
  3. A cheater is a participant who breaks the Rules
And as this generalised game pertains to emotions...
  • Participating in a Working Game is enjoyable
  • A participant who achieves a Goal experiences delight
  • A cheater will inspire hatred in others
And I could define others with greater or fewer caveats, e.g. honour as defence of the Working Game, spite/malice as attack of the working game, etc.

I believe I can trace and explain all emotion from this.  From the kinders I teach who experience joy with the die, or those who have not been taught how to play by their parents exhibiting confusion and anger when they don't win, to old ladies on trains who raise my hackles by asking personal questions without first introducing themselves - all can be systematically defined as individuals playing working, broken and different games as each perceives it for himself, and as I perceive them.

There is a great deal more that can be harvested from this seed, in business, politics, anthropology, art and so on, but I shall save the details for programming.  What do you think?

Returning to the publisher-that-shall-not-be-mentioned, I realise according to this system that I am angry because they broke the rules of the game I was playing and, if a corporation can be angry, they/it must be angry that people like me do not play their game.  Rather than become bitter like the moody merchant, I can't go far wrong finding other developers and other publishers to play with who want to play the same game.... 

But herein lies the melancholia of Antonio.  He is a merchant of Venice, not Rome or Constantinople.  He must go down to the rialto to do business, and must come into contact, however indirectly, in work or at play, with the Jewish usurer he despises so much.  He would do himself and his brother Shylock a massive favour if he just ditched the anti-semitism and accepted the economic structures of Venice for what they are.


What distinguishes a game-game from the games we play as part of life are the boundaries, temporal and physical, that surround and dissociate games of entertainment from all else.  The hallmark of games played out in reality is that they have no clear demarcations and, to greater or lesser extents, they shall affect us.  Provided we buy into the games provided by our society, the culture of that society is itself a buffer that protects us from foreign games that work on different rules.  People playing different games, like the big game publishers that haunt my life, irritate the hell out of us because they don't play by our rules, thus they are cheating.  We could try to call them out, but they might stick us like Doc Holliday...

(I have been working on an interpretation of Blood Meridian, which includes amongst other concepts this interpretation of Games.  The book is easily one of the best books I have read - you should read it!)