Play-Spirit, and Those Who Ignore It

I. Deviants, and The Bad Sportsman 

A longtime co-conspirator has surfaced with a new blog. We share a canon on game studies issues, so we thought it might be fun and productive to write back and forth about game studies a bit and see how that works. So here we go.

His first article was about three classifications of [what I’m calling] deviants, and their occurrence in games and videogames.

Drawing from Huizinga, the “Cheater” flouts the rules but (nominally) respects the “play-spirit”, not breaking the game world for others. This Cheater is a merely a sinner, though- not an apostate or heretic like the “Spoilsport”. The Spoilsport violates the rules and breaks the kayfabe.

My colleague suggests a third category of deviant: the “bad sportsman” who does not break the rules but does damage the play-spirit. This can include “cheap”, “unfair” but not illegal tactics that overturns the expected dynamic of the game. One easy example is “cheese”, the spamming of a single move-set in a fighting videogame that has high return without respect for the conceit that fighting should be a more dynamic experience. Another example: in tabletop RPGs, a “munchkin” is a person who treats the math as more important than the role-playing experience itself, perhaps instead min-maxing for desired traits and metrics.

I should note that respecting the play-spirit does not necessarily mean strict adherence to the rituals of the game-as-artifact, especially with videogames. The play-spirit is a social phenomenon. As I noted in a rambling series of notes on StarCraft (see pt.3), the community has built an institution around the game that fully expects some of the game’s aesthetics to be deliberately flouted: e.g. the marine unit’s shooting animation outlasts the moment that damage is afflicted on enemies, so a good “micro” player actually distorts the illusion of gunplay by cutting the animations short and maneuvering units in a way that does not resemble our conception of gunplay (or conventional tactics for that matter). [Evidence: Forum post, video]. This is not bad sportsmanship because the living, breathing social exchange that is the StarCraft community has deemed it to be an affordance of standard play.


II. An Open Question on Computers and “Play-Spirit”

My colleague began to dip into exploring the “Bad Sportsman” in single-player videogames, which brings to mind a conversation we’ve had before. “Single-player” in the context of traditionally MMO games means “Simulating Multiplayer with computer agents.” So the question was, “can computers play games?”

There are immediate intuitive answers that come to mind, and I don’t mean to plant too strong a position either way. Pragmatically, some agents do a great job affecting a videogame system in such a way that they’re indistinguishable from a human player, sure. But the question as posed is deliberately a bit fuzzy, and that’s what makes it interesting.

I’ve often defined playing as an exploratory exercise (and contrasted it with gaming, an exploitative exercise). My go-to thought experiment was to start with myself playing something, and work backwards until I consider myself to be “not-playing”, and see if I pass some threshold that I can attribute to modern machines without feeling uneasy.

StarCraft [I know, right?] has canonical “build orders” that are highly recommended for players to follow. This is essentially an algorithm for good standard play. A machine can follow instructions. But this is only one facet of many processes going on during a game of StarCraft. Enemy locations, enemy build orders, and the like are also serious concerns. These things can also be addressed algorithmically, I suppose. But can the AI devise a wholly new strategy? Can the AI (as an agent, not as the tool of the game developers) take a serious (even if small) part in evolving the Orthodoxy of Standard Play? I suspect this might smell like a weird technoskeptic argument (of the”Oh, but can a computer write a poem?” variety) but I’m still grappling here.

When I played Tic-Tac-Toe with my younger cousin, I already know that I cannot lose a match. For me, it was a solved game, only possibly ending in a stalemate or a victory. There was no further exploration of the system from me. When my cousin finally arrived at the plateau of Tic Tac Toe Enlightenment, I would never win another game either. We would be trapped by the countable moves and predictable options of the game. I might say, then, that before the veil lifted from his eyes, he was actually playing Tic Tac Toe, and I was only really nominally playing Tic Tac Toe. Basically I was gaming it, repeating the forever-dominant strategy. If anything, I was playing my cousin, but maybe that’s neither here nor there.

There was one other point that my colleague made that I was interested in exploring, presumably about this DiGRA paper on the implications of the fact that digital videogames structurally can have more rules than standard non-digital games (pdf). I may come back to that soon.

This is effectively the first post of Fogbanking’s second year in operation, and the first one in a while. It’s good to be writing again.



Eric Zimmerman, briefly, on Games/Art. I share his opinion that it’s a tired argument.

A few short years ago, I worked as a lowly research assistant doing testing/design/research for some DARPA-funded game projects, which according to this VICE article might be the devil. Or something. I’m not sure what the thesis actually is. Maybe someone can enlighten me.

I finished Diplomacy, and started on World Order as soon as it was released. I expect to blast through Europe and America, as Kissinger’s project has barely changed at all in the past several decades, but I’m interested in how he views the rest of the world and their claims about political legitimacy. Should knock it out in maybe two weeks. Meanwhile I’ve been opportunistically consuming design stuff to maybe take notes on in the near future. My employer recently pushed a Mac into my hands so I have the opportunity to really inhabit this design role, I guess.

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