Welcome to Emerging Futures -- Volume 82! Games Creativity Life (Part One)...
Good morning playful events of emergent agency,
We have said this now a few times over the last couple of months – games are very much on our minds.
In the past we have often shied away from the word – playing “games” – it just does not sound very serious or important. And the word reminds the two of us of all of those terrible icebreaker and team trust building exercises we have come to loath.
But over the last year as we have been developing workshops – the question of the importance of games keeps coming up for us.
To step back and provide context: we are continuously asked about doing lectures to introduce our approach to innovation, and while lectures can be very helpful – we do quite a few of them and try to deliver exceptional ones. We have found via first hand experience – e.g. the hard way – that they are not ideal to introduce relational, emergent, distributed and embodied approaches like ours.
The venn diagram of an enactive (4EA), emergent, and non-ideation centric approach is a radical challenge to our deeply held individualistic, human and mind centered embodied practices, concepts and environments. This is especially true in regards to our interest in moving beyond disembodied approaches to thinking – lectures tend to put everyone in seats to become static hybrid chair-human receivers of a talking head – it is hard to conceive of a more cartesian experience! The implicit embodied learning from a lecture – the hidden curriculum so to speak, is one that is further reinforcing the opposite of where we are interested in going.
But conversely there is also an argument to be made that workshops can provide an equally false setting that is very hard to bring back into daily life. And certainly many innovation workshops do exactly this – such that there is a workshop high for a few days after – but then it is back to business as usual.
The answer to this problem is not to not do workshops but to do them as part of ecosystemic approach to preparing the larger environment of infrastructure, tools, practices, rituals and habits to be hospitable to distributed emergent more-than-human practices of innovation.
And this question of constructing environments to catalyze emergent novelty brings us games.
What is a game?
Surprisingly there has been little philosophical research into games – in a large part because the famous, and famously imperiously critical, anglo-austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein who claimed without any real argument that there was no way to actually define a game (but he did interestingly claim that one could write a very good book of philosophy that consisted entirely of jokes).
The french philosopher Gilles Deleuze thought that the attitude of Wittgenstein and his followers was:
“a philosophical catastrophe… a regression of all philosophy... They imposed system of terror in which, under the pretext of doing something new… – it’s poverty introduced as grandeur…. they are assassins of philosophy…”
Strong words! But there is a truth to the closing down of many avenues of exploration that happened in Wittgenstein's wake – and certainly one of them was the rigorous exploration of games in anglo-american philosophy.
It is interesting that in literary studies and elsewhere we see quite a bit of discussion about plots, characters, settings and implicit ideological habits of specific games – but almost no reflection on games themselves.
But all this said – there are a few astonishing and helpful books on games. The first and classic in the field of the study of games that has really engaged us deeply is by Bernard Suits, (1925-2007) who wrote: The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia. Suits is famous for his pithy and compelling short definition of games:
“Playing a game is a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles”.
There is so much one could say about this statement, but let's just focus on the end: “overcoming unnecessary obstacles”.
Now, this is a controversial position but we want to explore it:
Innovation, when it is most disruptive, is also involved in a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.
For many, innovation is precisely the opposite of this – it is about solving pressing pre-existing problems. While this might be true of incremental/developmental innovations (improvements) – we would argue that it not the case of radical innovation. Radical innovation does not solve existing problems as much as it makes them trivial. The invention of the automobile did not solve the problems of horse transportation (shit piling up on the streets for example) – it simply made them trivial. In some very real sense there is no logical reason to overcome horse or animal based transportation. It is a perfectly fine method of transportation. And more than that it gives rise to a number of astonishing ways of being alive that are not necessarily improved upon by the invention of the automobile.
We will come back to this, but it is important to put it out there as we start exploring this definition – there is an interesting dialog between the theory of games and innovation… and a critical part of it has to do debating the status of needs, utility, efficiency and necessity…
Now Suites does not stop with this definition – he goes on to introduce a three part definition (in what is a very jovial and humorous book – not quite a book of jokes but certainly a kind and playful critique of Wittgenstein).
A game has three parts:
There is a “prelusory” goal – ludus being the greek for game – thus in every game there is a goal that can be defined separate from the game.
This first rule makes clear that in a game there are other – more so-called efficient ways that one could get to the same outcome or goal. For example in basketball one could get a drone to fly the ball to the hoop far above any player's interference. Or in chess one could just jump to a checkmate position from the very first move….
This is equally true of mountaineering: you could just take a helicopter to the top of the mountain, but that would be “cheating” in the game of mountaineering. And it is equally true of an aesthetical/ethical life – one could for example just drive everywhere but one deliberately choose another way – walking or biking – why? Here we can already get a sense of the importance of aesthetics – of qualitative choices that are at the heart of games (and life). We choose to make alternative forms of living available for the sake of higher/more fundamental values – beauty and aesthetics. No culture exists simply to fulfill so called basic needs and survive – something far richer is always at stake,..
All of which leads us to the second rule:
A Game must have a set of constitutive rules that forbid the most efficient or simply alternative ways of getting to the prelusory goal. Here the rules act as what we could call constraining blockages.
A game's constraints or blockages are constructive – they are what allows for new practices to emerge. Blockages are enabling constraints. If a game is really well designed then the constraints are profoundly enabling in what they allow to emerge (in the technical sense of emergence). (hence our near obsession with exploring game design itself).
Suits suggest that the playing of a game is the finding of the best alternative allowable efficient way to get to the goal. But here there is room for disagreement – in climbing (something I (iain) have spent much of my life engaged in to some degree) the experience becomes the goal and in many cases one deliberately forgoes the ostensible goal of reaching the summit as something belittling of the total experience (an emergent ethico-aesthetic mode of being). Standing on the summit becomes a form of arrogance – even talking about “summiting” can be seen as diminishing both to the mountain and the experience – here the game is leading to new novel and emergent explorations of aesthetics/ethics.
And in terms of creativity and innovation – the deliberate development of strategic blockages are part of refusing the known and as Deleuze puts it “finding the conditions under which something new can emerge” – without pre-determining what the new can be. We are, in such cases of great game design, set upon an adventure where the path is made in the walking…
This then brings us to his final element:
The players must submit to the constitutive rules with what he called the “lusory attitude” – one needs to become the game.
At its most simple this element – this attitude asks of the player to fully embrace the constraints as game making. There is no point in complaining that one cannot use a drone in basketball…. (but this is not to say new games, goals and rules cannot be invented – it is just in all these cases there must be some set of conditions that are accepted as given for the playing of the game (the exploration of agency).
What is important with this element is that it asks the player to believe in the emergent relational dynamics that will emerge when the game is played – something will happen. And this something is the emergence of a new form of agency (this is something that C. Thi Nguyen in his book “Games: Agency as Art” more fully explores – we will explore this work and related concepts more fully in our next newsletter: Games Creativity Life – Part Two).
Understanding games as possessing these three elements opens up a whole range of explorations. It gave us a new set of tools to help us design games for experiencing the embodied enactive emergent relational dynamics of creativity. We have started to develop games that change goals mid game as well as having games nested inside of games – And games where the materials and the environment are the constraints.
Engaging with Suits and Nguyen gave us a renewed appreciation for those who treat innovation deliberately as a very serious type of aesthetic game – an art form whose medium is events and action – and how we can directly connect games creativity and life…
Games are aesthetic events about experimenting with alternative spaces/forms of agency.
And innovation processes for radical change (the qualitatively new) are similar in a number of critical ways:
We would like to end this week’s newsletter with questions – with the hope that next week's newsletter can involve your speculations:
Please send us your speculations (on these questions or any other aspect of the topic) – and let's explore this together…
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