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Talking points: Games as culture

Posted on June 6, 2013

Hello folks! This week, the first of that series of more detailed talking points we mentioned. (Normally we'd be doing these in the second week of the month, but... well, you'll see.) Here's the summary from that original post:

Games are a form of culture that is as old as culture. Every known culture has some sort of games. If libraries can support movies and music and other forms of culture, games have a place at the table too - especially since, unlike most other forms of art, the closest thing we have to a public institution dedicated to playing games is usually a casino.

Play is one of the foundational human activities: so much so that in 1938, Dutch historian, cultural theorist and philosopher Prof. Johan Huizinga wrote a book called Homo ludens, arguing that not only was play an important part in culture but that it was a necessary (though not sufficient) precondition for culture. I am not sufficiently well-read to make a definitive statement on the subject, but based on the reading I have done I am prepared to state with some confidence that there have been very few societies in the entire history of humanity that have not featured some kind of more-or-less formalised or ritualised play - which is to say, games.

That ritual or sacred dimension to play is worth noting. Just as theatre and literature have roots in the mystical, games also have similar links. The ancient Egyptians played a game called Senet as a meditation on the soul's journey. Snakes & Ladders was based on an Indian game with a strong element of moral teachings (which was copied in at least some Victorian boards, with prideful behaviour at the head of a snake leading to a downfall at its tail; some modern boards still feature these little parables). Even modern playing cards are based on the cards of the tarot.

And the importance of games even in our own modern culture is hard to deny: even setting aside the crass indicators of the recent incredible surges in money being spent on games (they say videogames are now making more money than movies, and tabletop games are also undergoing a sharp growth in popularity and public interest), consider the incredible importance placed on the Spassky-Fischer chess matches in the Cold War - or the ubiquity and importance of poker in US culture - or the deep respect accorded to go masters in Japan, China and Korea. Skill at all these games is meaningful beyond the pleasure of winning, showing that it is possible for a game to demand, and therefore symbolise, qualities which a culture considers emblematic of the virtues it holds dear. (And of course the language reflects this ubiquity, with game terminology well-represented in everyday turns of phrase and cliches, such as "playing the hand you're dealt".)

Some scoff at the idea of games as art, a prominent recent example being film critic Roger Ebert (he specifically spoke against videogames but his argument applies equally well - or rather poorly - to non-electronic forms). Such people claim that games cannot be art because the outcome is determined not by the artist but by the player(s), denying any chance of the work expressing any meaningful authorial intent. This ignores the reality that many forms of art are not experienced in a strictly linear, artist-defined fashion - architecture, sculpture, improvisational performances, procedural art and more all allow the audience to control the pace and/or content of their experience to some degree, and are no less artful for that. (And it is no less possible for them to express a particular sensibility, or for audiences to read design intent from them.) Art can be made of anything (when you know what has gone into paints and pigments throughout history, you know this to be indisputably true), and that includes arrangements of rules and decisions and restrictions and consequences, let alone the other art (in writing, in the design of boards/cards/pieces, or in the design of models, animation, audio, music and so on) that a game may incorporate.

Ebert's error, understandably enough, was to look at the artfulness of games and judge it in terms of the artfulness of movies. Each artform has its strengths and weaknesses, and it's certainly true that the game will probably never be as good at showing a coherent, tightly-controlled piece of audiovisual narrative or exposition as film can, or as good at describing the inner psychology of its protagonists as prose. But games have their own extraordinary ability: they may not be great at describing subjectivities, but they are amazing at inducing them, and/or allowing people to explore decision and consequence. Brenda Romero's* discussion of her The Mechanic is the Message series in this video is well worth viewing if you have any doubts about whether this can produce meaningful capital-A Art.

So, OK, games are culture and they might even be worth taking seriously. But what has that got to do with libraries?

Libraries are the place where a community comes to share information and ideas and culture. In most libraries that have any kind of recreational/cultural component to their collections, we have already expanded our holdings to include other media, such as movies, TV series, and music.

Games, as stated above, are a form of culture which it is (in most cases) simply not possible to experience without sharing that experience with other people. They are, if anything, the single form of culture which most requires the sharing-focused community that a library supports, fosters and houses. (Further, games are one of the single best ways to create ties between community members, as we'll discuss in a later Talking Points post.)

And if you were to design an institution to support games, it would probably look a lot like a library. It would have places people could sit together and engage in cultural pursuits. In order to maximise the pool of potential players, it would be open to all the members of a given community, subject to appropriate behaviour. It would probably even have some books, since getting good at any game requires you to get smart at thinking about probability and systems and psychology, plus reading up on the history of the game and notable past matches, plus other specific knowledge that may be useful (or just interesting) to players of a given game.

So games and libraries are already a great fit. But there is a further impetus to inclusion of games in libraries.

There currently are no public institutions dedicated to supporting the actual playing of games. The closest is the (fast-vanishing) games arcade, the economics of which almost mandate nickel-and-diming and heavily favour electronic games, and therefore rule out huge swathes of gaming possibilities; the next-closest after that is the deeply-exploitative casino (and here in Australia, the pokies room at the local pub), most of whose "games" are closer to Skinner boxes operating on a variable-ratio schedule, designed that way to maximise their addictive qualities.

Regardless of the intentions of their owners and staff, neither of these institutions has any kind of inherent interest in getting people to engage critically and creatively with systems and human psychology - in fact they have a vested interest in not doing so. But fostering that kind of well-read, reflective mindset in the citizens we serve is what libraries are all about - and games, especially integrated into our existing activities, give us an excellent opportunity to do just that.

(Click here for our second Talking Points post - "Games, sharing culture, and connecting people".)

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