Philosophy of games

Philosophy Compass 12 (8):e12426 (2017)
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What is a game? What are we doing when we play a game? What is the value of playing games? Several different philosophical subdisciplines have attempted to answer these questions using very distinctive frameworks. Some have approached games as something like a text, deploying theoretical frameworks from the study of narrative, fiction, and rhetoric to interrogate games for their representational content. Others have approached games as artworks and asked questions about the authorship of games, about the ontology of the work and its performance. Yet others, from the philosophy of sport, have focused on normative issues of fairness, rule application, and competition. The primary purpose of this article is to provide an overview of several different philosophical approaches to games and, hopefully, demonstrate the relevance and value of the different approaches to each other. Early academic attempts to cope with games tried to treat games as a subtype of narrative and to interpret games exactly as one might interpret a static, linear narrative. A faction of game studies, self-described as “ludologists,” argued that games were a substantially novel form and could not be treated with traditional tools for narrative analysis. In traditional narrative, an audience is told and interprets the story, where in a game, the player enacts and creates the story. Since that early debate, theorists have attempted to offer more nuanced accounts of how games might achieve similar ends to more traditional texts. For example, games might be seen as a novel type of fiction, which uses interactive techniques to achieve immersion in a fictional world. Alternately, games might be seen as a new way to represent causal systems, and so a new way to criticize social and political entities. Work from contemporary analytic philosophy of art has, on the other hand, asked questions whether games could be artworks and, if so, what kind. Much of this debate has concerned the precise nature of the artwork, and the relationship between the artist and the audience. Some have claimed that the audience is a cocreator of the artwork, and so games are a uniquely unfinished and cooperative art form. Others have claimed that, instead, the audience does not help create the artwork; rather, interacting with the artwork is how an audience member appreciates the artist's finished production. Other streams of work have focused less on the game as a text or work, and more on game play as a kind of activity. One common view is that game play occurs in a “magic circle.” Inside the magic circle, players take on new roles, follow different rules, and actions have different meanings. Actions inside the magic circle do not have their usual consequences for the rest of life. Enemies of the magic circle view have claimed that the view ignores the deep integration of game life from ordinary life and point to gambling, gold farming, and the status effects of sports. Philosophers of sport, on the other hand, have approached games with an entirely different framework. This has lead into investigations about the normative nature of games—what guides the applications of rules and how those rules might be applied, interpreted, or even changed. Furthermore, they have investigated games as social practices and as forms of life.

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C. Thi Nguyen
University of Utah


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