C. Thi Nguyen is a former food writer, now a philosophy professor at University of Utah. He writes about trust, art, games, and communities, and is interested in the ways that our social structures and technologies shape how we think and what we value.
His first book is Games: Agency as Art. It’s about how games are the art form that work in the medium of agency. A game designer doesn’t just create a world – they create who we are in that world. Games shape temporary agencies for artistic purposes. And games turn out to be our way of writing down and communicating modes of agency; by playing them, we can try out different forms of agency. (Here’s a summary of the book and Thi’s website is https://objectionable.net/.)
As a joint venture, “Keywords in Play” expands Critical Distance’s commitment to innovative writing and research about games while using a conversational style to bring new and diverse scholarship to a wider audience.
Our goal is to highlight the work of graduate students, early career researchers and scholars from under-represented groups, backgrounds and regions. The primary inspiration comes from sociologist and critic Raymond Williams. In the Preface to his book Keywords: a vocabulary of culture and society, Williams envisaged not a static dictionary but an interactive document, encouraging readers to populate blank pages with their own keywords, notes and amendments. “Keywords in Play” follows Williams in affirming that “The significance is in the selection”, and works towards diversifying the critical terms with which we describe games and game culture.
Production Team: Darshana Jayemanne, Zoyander Street, Emilie Reed.
Audio Direction and Engineering: Damian Stewart
Double Bass: Aaron Stewart
Darshana: You’re listening to Keywords in Play, an interview series about game research supported by Critical Distance and the Digital Games Research Association.
As a joint venture, Keywords in Play expands Critical Distance’s commitment to innovative writing and research about games while using a conversational style to bring new and diverse scholarship to a wider audience.
Emilie: This is Keywords in Play for Critical Distance, and on this episode, I’m talking to Thi Nguyen, who writes about aesthetics, institutional logic and gamification. He’s an associate professor at the University of Utah currently and writes at objectionable.net. And we’re going to be talking about his recent book ‘Games: Agency as Art’, which deals with the crossover of games with different types of aesthetics and sort of gamified experiences. In your book, you say that you’re primarily working with a ‘Suitsian’ definition of games. So just to kind of work us into what your book’s about, could you explain why you decided to use that definition, and maybe give some examples of like, what it includes and doesn’t include.
Thi: Hi, everyone, thanks for having me on the podcast. So, Bernard Suits is this philosopher from the 70s. And he wrote this thing that became kind of a lost classic in philosophy, people almost forgot about it, because in the 70s, like no one thought games were legitimate, like topic of inquiry for philosophy. And here’s his definition of games. So, there’s a complicated version and the simple, what he calls the portable version, the portable version is that to play a game is to voluntarily take up unnecessary obstacles to make possible the activity of struggling to overcome them. So, one way to put it is that for him, the obstacles and the constraints are the essential part of the game. So, you’re running a marathon, you’re aiming to get to the finish line, in Suits’ account, the thing that really makes it a game is you’re not trying to get to the finish line just to be at that spot in space, right? It’s not the independent value of that spot in space. It’s that you got there in a certain way, obeying certain constraints. So, for example, it doesn’t count if you took a lift, or took a bird, or like got someone to pick you up and throw you or took a shortcut, right? What it is to cross the finish line is to do it under those constraints. In my thinking, what this exposes is that games have this like, really funky relationship to, to the, I mean, the philosophy way of saying it is the logical, practical reasoning. But what this means is like, in normal life, we usually take the means for the sake of the ends, right? Like the ends are valuable. And the means are just what we have to do to get to that end. And Suits is really interestingly putting out this possibility that in a lot of games, this is inverted, right? It’s an inverted motivation, we take the end for the sake of the means, right? I’m a rock climber. And I try to climb to the top of the cliff. And the point is not just to be at the top of the cliff, because there’s actually an easy way up the back, right. And the moment I get to the top, I just lower down again, the point is that taking up the goal of trying to get to the top of the cliff, and doing it under a restriction like no spikes, none of this stuff, like just use your hands and feet, forces me into a very particular kind of struggle. And I think Suits exposes something that’s interesting because Suits doesn’t do, he doesn’t think about games as an art form. He was really just thinking about the definition. But for me, I do philosophy of art, I’m really interested in this question of what makes games an art form. And one of the things that was really interesting to me is a lot of the early stuff that, that I read when I was trying to teach about this stuff. People keep saying that, like, they keep trying to be like games can be important, games can be an art. And then they immediately compare them to some established art form, which casts particular light on the qualities of games, that’re similar. So, like, if you say games are a kind of fiction, then you’re going to cast light on the story and characters. If you say, games are kind of movie, you’re going to cast light on the cinema and the graphics. If you say that games are, so a lot of people are like, games are kind of like conceptual art that makes social criticism, then you’re going to look at like what it means. And I think a lot of these things. I mean, they’re all right. But I also think that these attempts to praise games by subjugating them to a paradigm of another art form can often lose out on what’s central about games. The reason that Suits is interesting to me, is that I think he like he grabs the heart, right? It’s this relationship to struggle and obstacle. And the thing that he really exposed to me was that what creates that kind of struggle is the game designer, specifying the goal and specifying the obstacles and then specifying your abilities. The main idea in my book is that people keep trying to say things like oh games are stories or games are environments and I keep thinking like that’s, that’s part of the story. But that doesn’t actually capture the majestic weirdness of games. And so, Suits leads me to the following formulation, that the medium of games, the art of games, the medium of the game designer is agency itself, right?! That the game designer is manipulating our goals, and our abilities, and the obstacles we face. And so, sculpting a kind of activity and the kind of agent we are in that activity. And the reason that Suits is so interesting to me, is he had the right tools for me to be able to be like, no, that’s the art. That’s the art form. That’s what, that’s what it’s about.
Emilie: The kind of stuff that game studies talks about is very broad, it can be pretty ambiguous, like, especially you know, there’s a lot of games where there’s not necessarily an obstacle.
Thi: Just give me an example of a game without an obstacle.
Emilie: I like visual novels, so I can name a lot of those. I’ve been playing a lot of ‘Catacombs of Solaris’ recently, which is a game by Ian McClarty. And it’s just kind of like purely this environment that kind of functions as an optical illusion. So, when you stop, it kind of freezes, you know, what you’re currently looking at on the frame, and then kind of makes it into the texture that’s on a 3D area. So, as you’re moving through it, it’s always changing.
Thi: Awesome. So, I’m a philosopher. So, I’ve been trying to define these terms like art and game. And I actually think, so I in some sense, am a bit Wittgensteinian about this, I think these terms are kind of these loose clusters that don’t define well. So, the ‘Suitsian’ idea captures sports, a lot of traditional board games, a lot of traditional video games, but I don’t think it slices everything that we naturally want to call a game. Some things I think, are more exploratory environments. And some things are more novels with branches with no goal. And those aren’t ‘Suitsian’ games. So, I actually am happy to say, look, I just want to talk about the art form, where you actually create an activity by, by creating a goal. There are a lot of other art forms that are nearby, and people may call them games or not. But I just want to talk about this, like, goal manipulation thing.
Emilie: Yeah, yeah, I think, you know, in a lot of cases, people will say like, oh, you know, that’s not really a game, what I’m talking about in this sense, they’ll kind of take that as a negative against it. But it can just be completely different, yeah.
Thi: Right. So, let me give you example, Suits has this really interesting distinction, where he says, okay, games are things where the constraints constitute the goal like the goal doesn’t even count unless you got there by the constraints. He says, there are other constraints systems, where the constraints’ help you get to the goal, but the goal can be understood independently of the constraints. So, his example is a sonnet. A sonnet has rules. But the point of a sonnet, to create a great expressive poem, is understandable independently of the rules. And he says, basically, if you’re following the rules, and you come closer, you’re like, oh, if I break this one rule, it’ll be a better poem, you can break the rule because the rules are just there to help you find your way. But you’re not like, well, if we were playing this game of chess, but if we just threw away this rule, it would be a better game of chess, you’re like, no, no that’s not chess. And one of the thoughts I’ve had recently is, I’ve never known whether role-playing games, tabletop role-playing games, count as ‘Suitsian’ games, I think some people play them that way. But the way a lot of people like I play them, they’re more like sonnets, the GM is willing to break the rules if you see a good story there. And so, I think they’re game-like and they’re close, but they’re not quite ‘Suitsian’ games.
Emilie: Yeah, that makes sense. I think it was a really good in-depth answer. The book kind of focuses on the particular types of aesthetics and aesthetic experiences that people can have in this particular type of game. What particularly interested you in using your background, as you know, a philosopher of art, a philosopher of aesthetics, to pay attention to games in this way.
Thi: I mean, in some sense, I think it’s just like, it’s so obvious to me that games are aesthetics. And I was like, frustrated, I think with people like having too narrow views of the aesthetic that made them miss on what, what was good about games, and in some sense, like, pushing games in this other direction, like. So, one of the early thoughts I had about this was, I was seeing more and more games that made games feel more like movies, and in some sense, putting the more on scripts and rails in an attempt to make them more aesthetic. And I’m like, no, no you’re losing out in the most important aesthetic element. So, here’s one way to put it. There are a lot of traditional arts, there’s a lot of beauty and a lot of grace, there’s thrills, there’s comedy, but it’s in the artefact itself. It’s in the poem, the novel and I think you can have beauty and thrill and grace in the game, the design. But I actually think for many of us, the reason we play them is the beauty and grace and thrill that it brings out in our own actions not in the object but in ourselves. I think about this all the time as a climber. I think rock climbing is a game when climbers talk about ‘oh my god, like, that climb is so beautiful’. What they mean is the movement the climb brings out of me is like, really graceful, beautiful movement. Or like you talk about like, you know, the feeling of your mind like solving the puzzle in ‘Portal’ or like, it’s like this. It’s everything is playing your place in your mind, like does a thing. In the book, one of my suggestions is that there are two kinds of aesthetics. There’s object aesthetics, where the beautiful thing is in the object. And there’s process aesthetics, where the object brings out something beautiful or thrilling, or comic in you, the person that’s acting or interacting with the object. And one of my worries is that, again, people are misunderstanding or pushing games in a weird direction, because they’re so caught in this object aesthetic paradigm, that they’re somehow missing out on, or not giving enough respect to this other thing that games are incredibly good at, which is sculpting the players’ aesthetic qualities. So, one, one thought, I love the philosopher John Dewey. And he has this thought that’s like, arts are crystallizations of natural aesthetic experiences. So, like, painting is a crystallization of the beauty of like, real visual experiences. And, and novels are crystallization of like, the beauty that’s in actual stories in the everyday world. And I think like, there’s a beauty in your actions in the everyday world like a box fell off a truck in front of me, and I like swerved the car. And I could just feel how like, like, mmm I just did that just right, right. But once you can have it, like, it’s really rare that that actually happens in life. ‘Cause most things we have to do in life suck. They’re either like, way boring, or like way too hard and frustrating. But games are this place where we can like, right size the world and the goal is to like, concentrate the beauty and comedy and thrill and coolness of our actions.
Emilie: You kind of talk about that as games kind of bringing our focus to like the agential modes or an aesthetic experience of agency.
Thi: So, this is my attempt to like put into philosophy language, the uniqueness of games, I need to give you one like techie distinction from the book to make this clear. So, the tech distinction from my book is that I think there are two kinds of motivations for playing, achievement play and striving play. Achievement play is playing for the value of the win. And striving play is getting yourself to temporarily be interested in winning for the value of the struggle.
Emilie: Okay, yeah.
Thi: So, the achievement player is someone who just wants to win or wants to win for the money. So, like a professional poker player’s, an achievement player, or like the glory to their nation, like that’s an achievement player. The striving player is someone that doesn’t really care enduringly about winning but gets themselves to care for the moment. So, they can have this cool struggle. And I mean, it’s not like 100%, one or the other, I think most of us are some mixture of the two or somewhere on the spectrum. But those are the endpoints of the spectrum. When I tell that, some people, typically people who play a lot of games, like of course, driving plays, really yeah, yeah, of course. And then other people, often philosophers, or people that don’t like games are like, “that makes no sense. You’re crazy. People can’t do that”. So, I came up with some arguments. And so, one argument is, so my wife and I play a lot of board games. And there’s one kind that I’m better at and one kind that she’s better at. But sometimes we find a game that we’re perfectly balanced at, and the struggle is perfect. And then sometimes at night, I’ll like find a strategy guide. And I’ll be like, “oh if I read the strategy, and she’ll never read strategy guides, that’s not the kind of person she is, then I’ll just win, right?”. So, if achievement play is the only way you should play, there’s only one rational thing for me to do. Read the strategy guide, because that’s the only reason we play. But I don’t, right, because I want the struggle to be interesting. So, here’s something interesting, I manipulate my ability to win down in the long term. Even though during the game I tried to win hard in the short term. And that shows for me that my attempt to win is driven by my interest in the struggle, not by my interest in winning. The second argument, so there’s a category I’m gonna call stupid games. This is I own this term, I made up this term. It’s a technical term in philosophy now! A stupid game is a game where one, the fun part is failing, but two, it’s only fun if you’re trying to win. So, like Twister, or the kid’s game of ‘Telephone’, or like drinking games. And the idea is, look, we do this weird thing. The actual funny part is failing. But if you’re actually trying to fail, it wouldn’t be funny, right? If you, if you make yourself fall over, it’s not funny. It’s only funny in Twister if you’re trying not to fall, and then you fall. And so, we can do this funky thing where even though we want to fail, we can take on temporarily the interest in winning. So, once all that’s back there, I can now, I can now give you like the cool idea. The cool idea is that when we play games, we can slip into alternate modes of agency. I am not a person that wants to beat all my friends and humiliate them. But in the game, I can slip into that mode of agency. And that is that every game specifies by this goal that we take on and by the abilities that we take on, like a particular mental and practical style. Chess is like fake look ahead, calculate, or like ‘Diplomacy’ is like manipulate people and lie and get under their skin. And the ‘Portal’ is like break your brain and like try to manipulate these weird way and learn how to see past three dimensions. In each of these things, it’s like a mental style, that’s like in the game. So, here’s the big question each of these mental styles, that’s what I’m calling the agential mode, right? It’s a style of being an agent that you may not have. But the game concentrates and that you can learn from the game. I actually learned to be a philosopher from playing chess; like chess is very philosophy like mental state. And so, here’s the suggestion like we have different libraries, novels and code, different stories we can learn from them, books of philosophy and code, different arguments, we can learn from them. So, my suggestion is the games are actually a library of different agencies that each game encodes a style of being practical, and you can learn different ways of practical, being practical from games. So, this is like, every library makes you more free in some way, and games make you more free, by showing you different specific styles that you could take on.
Emilie: It is interesting to kind of make this argument in the context of philosophy. Because I know that notoriously, there’s a lot of definitions of aesthetic experience that kind of exclude an idea of like instrumentality or having a certain goal, while you’re having the aesthetic experience, it’s meant to be something that kind of exists outside of its use, or it’s just kind of contemplated. So, I think people coming from that background, they might kind of find this idea of applying aesthetics to games really challenging.
Thi: So, this is actually, you can totally see this. So not just in philosophy, but in all kinds of cultural criticism, especially if you look at the history of the reception of games, in academia, and in kind of like places like the New York Times, or whatever, you keep seeing this idea that comes from Kant that like art is supposed to be disinterested, aesthetic experience is experienced, it’s like freed of practicality. And you see people saying things like, art is about not having goals. Aesthetics is about not having goals and games you’re just in this mechanistic instrumental attempt to win and get goals. So, it’s the opposite of the aesthetic. So, I actually don’t believe this theory, at all. One of the standard critiques of this theory is basically the political critique that the idea that art is supposed to be, have no purposes and be apolitical is a great theory to have if you’re already in charge, and you already have all the money and status. I often buy critiques like that. But even if you accept the view, that aesthetics should be disinterested, I think you can still have aesthetic experiences of games, I think there are two things, there’s the experience you have of trying to win and the experience you have of reflecting on your experience of trying to win. One suggestion I have in the entire book is that when we play games, we have these layers of agency. So, what I mean is like, okay, I’m trying to win, right. And I’m mostly absorbed in the process of winning because otherwise, I couldn’t get all the pleasures of games. But there’s a part of me that knows that. I’m just trying to win for fun, right. And what this looks like is if someone at the table just starts crying, we can just like, stop the game. Or if like, I look around, I realize all of us are just suffering and miserable and hate this game, we can just stop, right? Because some part of me knows that I’m not really in it to win. So, one way to put it is I think this inner agent was just trying to win, maybe that doesn’t have aesthetic experiences. But the outer agent that’s looking in on the inner agent can have aesthetic experiences. Here, here’s another way to put it. Alvin Oh just wrote a criticism of the book that I just wrote a response to. And Oh’s criticism was “art is supposed to be about ambiguity, right? And games are intelligible like you know exactly what your goal is, and you know exactly how you’re going to try to get there.” My response is, there are two things that are going on when you’re playing a game. So, I’m rock climbing, I know exactly what my goal is. And I know exactly that, I put my hand this way, and then pulled in this manner to try to get that goal. But it’s actually totally mysterious, and open-ended and ambiguous why this way of moving it, even though it succeeds, was really elegant and beautiful. And then the next move I made, which also succeeded was kind of gross and clumsy. So, the goal-oriented attempt is clear. But the status of that goal, or attempt, as an elegant one, or an ugly one, that’s totally ambiguous, that’s totally open-ended, you can make an attempt that’s totally practical, and then reflect impractically on the beautiful aspects of that attempt.
Emilie: That’s really interesting. You kind of put yourself through these, you know, very unambiguous and very goal-oriented activities. Just for, you know, the pleasure maybe later, maybe in the moment of saying like, that was a good or interesting attempt, or that wasn’t, and you can’t really determine which way it’s going to happen until it’s actually played through.
Thi: Exactly. I mean, if you think about it, like, if we just valued winning in the terms of the game, then we would never sort between different games, right? We just be “oh, I won” or like, “oh, I’m good at winning this game. I just play more.” But we do this other thing all the time, where we first we win, or we lose or whatever. And then we step back. And, like, the way I put it sometimes is like our motivation and our caring, like turns a corner, right? Like, first you’re caring about winning, and then you step back and you’re like, what was that fun? Was that interesting? And we often like, you know, we’ll play a board game together and then someone will win, or someone will lose, we will sit back and be like, should we play that again? Right. And that question is very independent of the question of who won or who lost, right? Like, I might have won a game easily and been like, “well, that game was fucking boring. Let’s never play that again”. Right? Or lost it and been like, “oh, that was that was. That was interesting. Like, let’s, let’s play that again.” And that, that, that turning the corner is the thing I’m talking about, about this transition,
Emilie: You said that you’re kind of moving towards this with your, your forthcoming work, but the end of the book kind of introduces a critique of gamification and kind of things related to that. And you see this as kind of like, a potential danger when it comes to you know, the, the purpose, and you know, the kind of aesthetic merits of games. The common definition of gamification is to say, it’s when you kind of add a game-like mechanic to, you know, work or some sort of, like non-game related achievement metric or something. But do you think this kind of idea of aesthetic misuse or aesthetic failure, or like, whatever, whatever way you want to describe it, do you think this can also be used as a way to like, critique games in general?
Thi: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I’ve never quite been able to say it clearly. But the closest step I can say is like, the aesthetic qualities in games and the playful qualities in games involve the stepping back from the absorption in the attempt to win, right? Like, there’s a state, in a lot of gameplay, we just become totally focused on winning. I sometimes call it like, ‘all-out instrumentalization’. You just like, try to use everything in the game for this one purpose. And one of the pleasures of games, I think, is this thing of like, so I’m going to call it like ‘value clarity’, right? Like, you know exactly what’s going on, you know exactly what you’re for, you know exactly how well, you’ve done. And that feels really good. I think it’s important. If you believe this thing about the library of agencies, or if you think playfulness is important, the right way to interact with games, to sustain those qualities, is to throw yourself into the win and then step back from it and ask other questions like, was it valuable? Was this fun? Was this interesting? Does this bring me and the other players closer together? Was it like, you can ask these larger value questions for it? I have a specific worry about games, which is a good interaction with them involves a stepping back. And a bad interaction with them involves getting stuck in this all-out instrumental mode, and carrying it outside the game, and maybe being attracted to the parts of the world that feel like that. So, one of the taglines I have in the book is like other people are worried about games, making serial killers, I’m worried about games, making Wall Street bankers, right? I’m worried about people carrying out of this game, this idea that value is simple and quantified. And you just want to win by that measure, in whatever way it is. So, I have this serious worry. But in some ways, that’s not a worry about a game. That’s a worry about what we take out of that game because the same game could be with one player engaged with his aesthetic and playful way. And what do I another player use as a basis for becoming like a financial psychopath?
Emilie: I was laughing a little bit when you’re bringing up that idea of the kind of focus like the pure instrumental gameplay, because what immediately came to mind is like, when I was a kid, like, just like, kind of moving past the point of conscience, and just like making the most cruel possible Mario Party move against my sibling, like that, you know. And in the long run, it doesn’t actually feel good. You kind of like, oh, that kind of did kill it. Right?
Thi: For me, that’s, like, that’s a very particular kind of game, other games. It’s like, you’re not really playing chess. Unless you’re making the harshest possible move. You’re not really playing basketball. Unless, I mean, cruel is weird. Like, you’re trying to be as aggressive as possible. And the game isn’t interesting unless you’re in that state. I mean, there’s, there’s a lot of moral complexity about sportspersonship and whatever. But the worry I have about gamification is that gamification by its structure discourages the playful attitude and encourages this kind of fixated attitude. Because it’s not temporary, like a key about games is, real games is they’re temporary, you step into them, and it’s possible to step back from them. But gamifications are pervasive, right? So, it’s not just formal gamification. I’m also worried about all kinds of like pervasive metrics, like grades, GPA, the fact that universities are ranked, right? In scholarship, it’s like citation rates, right? Like, there’re now ranked lists of exactly the status of every publication you could publish in. And like, you know, your status as a scholar is somehow set by how high you gotten on this thing. The thing is, when those are pervasive, it’s not something you step in and out of, it’s something that threatened to take over. So, here’s, here’s one thought. If you play games playfully and you step into and out of a lot of different value systems, what you’ve done is learned about a ton of alternate value systems. And that actually increases your autonomy and freedom of choice, but which value system to take. If on the other hand, you’re stuck in something like Twitter, I say this because I feel like the Twitter impulse in my brain all the time when you’re stuck in something like a grading system. That’s the opposite. It’s trying to get you to spend your entire life stuck in one narrow system. One of the papers I’m reading right now, the way I put it is I’m worried that with things like Fitbit and Twitter, what you’re doing is outsourcing the process of value deliberation, you’re letting like Silicon Valley set what you care about, about exercise or set what you care about communication. Because the point of these technologies is, they’re not stepping back from them. They’re supposed to like, guide every single communicative act online or every single physical action.
Emilie: Yeah. And that’s kind of the opposite of what you pointed out about the kind of aesthetic element of games only really occurs when you’re reflecting on them. So, if you’re always in the value system, then you’re never really thinking about it. Weirdly…
Thi: In some ways, like, if you think that the best way to interact with games is to cultivate playfulness, gamification is like the death of playfulness, right?! They’re, like the collapse of your values into a single, externally determined, invariant, inflexible. Like that’s, that’s the opposite of playfulness.
Emilie: That might be a good place to wrap up because I think that is, you know, pretty much covers the breadth of what you discuss in your book and kind of leads into what you’re working on now.
Thi: Yeah. So, if people are interested in, I was saying, there are a few things you could read. They’re all on my website, objectionable.net. There’s my book ‘Games: Agency as Art’. There’s an article version of it. That was written first called ‘Games and the Art of Agency’, which if you want, it’s online, it’s free, you can read it and see if you’re interested in it. And there are a few blog post versions of it. I’ve also got some stuff from the new site coming out. So, I have a paper that just came out, called ‘How Twitter Gamifies Communication’. And another paper that just came out called ‘The Seductions of Clarity’. And both of these are exploring ways in which like, very specific metrics when imposed on real activities, take away our autonomy. So, if you’re interested in that stuff, I put it all online. It’s all accessible for free. If you enjoy it, maybe you want to buy the book. That would be nice. Make my Amazon rankings go up, so I feel good about myself.
Emile: Oh, no. [laughs]. But yeah, that was really interesting. And thank you for putting aside some time to talk with us.
Thi: Thank you so much.
Darshana: We hope you have enjoyed this episode of Keywords in Play. For more great ideas around games check out criticaldistance.com. Or take a dive into the DiGRA archives at DiGRA.org.