So some of us went to the Philosophy of Computer Games Conference (PCG) in Berlin, and participated as presenters, panelists, and audience. What an opportunity to not only discuss how to philosophise with video games, and how games turn us into colonialists, but to catch up with old CphGC friends dispersed around the world (Amani Naseem, now living in Melbourne, Australia, and Ida Toft, currently in Montreal, Canada). A sure-fire way to adequately soak an intellectual event in laughter and alcohol. And to collectively be inspired by all the Nietzscheans and Foucauldians, which still exist, next to the Cuntians.
The conference topic – “meaning” – couldn’t have been chosen more broadly. Indeed, it drew a diverse crowd ranging from the classical German philosophers holding strong opinions on Luhmann’s Systemtheorie and Aristotle’s autopoiesis towards the lowly practitioner fighting with real world problems on a very applied level. How to design games so Orangutans enjoy rather than destroy them? How to make a poetic game based on stones? How to (fail to) model the refugee crisis?
Luckily, the conference also featured excellent keynote speakers, such as Paolo Pedercini, who interrogated some uncomfortable truths regarding the way we think about games. Since some of his points are relevant for game makers rather than armchair academics, it is fair to discuss them here.
First, one of Paolo’s observations is that people traditionally enjoy attributing no meaning to games. This denial of meaning has something to do with how in capitalism games have always existed as commodities, as commercial products. Basically, we treat games as objects not unlike washing machines or fridges. And like washing machines or fridges we expect games to function, not to mean. Let this iconic photograph from the dawn of video game history (Paolo’s slide) next to a washing machine ad speak for itself.
See the similarities? The object takes center stage, admired by the cheerful humans surrounding it (let’s not get started on what genders are presented as “naturally” cheering for which object). Visual history like this is somewhat revealing of how we tend to understand things in the world, and here, Paolo’s point about game objectification is impressively confirmed. Another indication: just consider how weird it would be to find an author biography on the back side of any PS4 or XBONE game instead of a feature list and bullet points informing us about technical details and requirements.
Of course, then there’s the other side, Paolo hastens to add. Those people who fight for the meaning of games, and by doing so they usually go all in: Games make us smart, games make us stupid, games make us have more empathy. Suddenly games have power over us – they make us [insert adjective according to religion here]. This might be good news for the basement-dwelling gamer stereotype, who is suddenly promoted from slacker to superhero. But why should games be directly transformative in the first place? Why is anyone buying this anyways? The answer again: because capitalism (the c-word will appear more often in Paolo’s talk, while remaining suspiciously absent from the rest of the conference). So Capitalism. Fridges and washing machines: Again, if games have total meaning, we can package and sell them to educational institutions. Again, they will come and put digestible bullet point lists on the box, but this time – perversely – in the name of a stupid-to-smart transformation. Some very naive notion of learning.
Paolo elegantly demonstrates the consequences: Both, to deny and to totalise meaning leads to the de-ritualisation of play. In other words, games are stripped of their social aspects, their feltness, and turned from untamable, uncontrolled experience into segmented, lucrative markets.
But do we want that? Isn’t tame also lame? And what to do about it? What it takes are sites and effort of re-ritualisation. Basically, individuals, friends, and groups of game makers who get together and push games beyond a fridge-status. Make them wild again. They can do that by creating environments that are too fragile, too risky, or too weird to draw massive audiences, to sell big. They can do that by stopping to pin down the meaning of games. Games don’t have to have one function or meaning, that’s naive marketing bullshit. Game makers secretly know well that the stuff they do lives and breathes through its ambiguity, not their market value. So as long as we have one minute to spare away from our fridge and washing machine factories: Let’s re-ritualise and make those games no one will ever be able to sell. To anyone. Ever.