Not the Only Game in Town

Experiments which aim to queer the rules of the game foreground the conventionality of rules, the arbitrariness of rules, the relationship of agency to rule making,  the location of changing rule sets within the diachrony of history, and the aesthetic nature of rules and rule making. They strive to play the meta-game, where a tweaking of the rules creates a field of aesthetic difference … to imagine the ramifications on a field of political difference ... to avoid changes whose results contribute to a monotonous array of games where the significance of a given difference is negligible–lost in a miasmic haze of noisy randomness.

This requires a shift in perspective. Where we have told each other stories and understood history and therefore also politics as narrative, we must learn to see the game of it instead.[3] Even as I act in history–if, against all likelihood I manage to imagine that I might act there, and not simply receive the story as some kind of revelation from beyond my time or place–I play a game, the rules of which where conceived and established prior to my participation in it.

To see the game of it does not require that the possibility of a narrative frame be extinguished, only that a ludic frame be allowed to come into view, and be appreciated for what insight it might contribute to understanding.

"To play a game, " writes Bernard Suits, "is to engage in activity directed towards bringing about a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by rules, where the rules prohibit more efficient in favor of less efficient means, and where such rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity."[4] He suggests, in other words, that we accept rules because of what they make possible, and he implies that there is some pleasure in that. However, this is an image of gaming that is equally teleological and tautological; if we can find pleasure in the constraints of some set of rules, to what extent is that pleasure located in the reaching of the goal, which the game and its rules establish, or alternatively, in the play of the rules themselves–in the act of following, in the confirming and delineating facticity of being subject to rule.

The derivation of the word "game" suggests another possibility: it is from the Old Norse gaman, meaning participation or communion (a compound of "ga-," together, and "man").[5] A primary consideration of the function of the game should be that it enables the participation of individuals in a common activity, and in that way constructs the group.

If one of the terms given to the field which plumbs the depths of gaming, ludology (the others are "game studies" and "game theory"), foregrounds the question of pleasure (its latin root, ludus, means "fun" or "play") the science ought to pay equal attention to questions of communion, and of law. The tendency, though, is to focus on law. Any reference to a game is paired with a consideration of its rules, if not the recitation of them. The centrality of rule implies the importance of  a kind of legal sovereignty in the game, and suggests the stasis of regularity, and the bureaucratization of regulation, but does not exclude the styled aestheticism of pattern, or the niceties of communion.

The correlation between the rational, legalistic structures that cohere the social, and the arbitrary valuation of a certain type–a certain style–of life is a strong one. This is what I understand from reading Nietzche: "Behind all logic and its seeming sovereignty of movement, too, there stand valuations or, more clearly, physiological demands for the preservation of a certain type of life."[6] From this perspective, the aesthetic judgment which validates the particularity and the peculiarity of a singular culture, lies behind the rationality of its law. We can locate the game in the theatre of ideology, and highlight the aesthetic dimensions of play: the legitimizing apparatus that mobilizes notions of efficiency, progress, or tradition, for the preservation of particular rule sets, is ultimately aesthetic and idiosyncratic in its motivations and rationalizations–even if the real effects of  play are felt in other registers: the economic, the bodily, etc. …

If, within the narrative frame, we find ourselves always riding the tail of history into futurity, in the game, we are always already playing. The question is said to be, are we winning or losing? Are we playing by the book? Or are we cheating the game? The question should be, rather, do we understand the rules as fixed? Are we bending the rules of the game? If we can play a game whose rules exist, can we make one up and bring rules into existence? A game might be seen as consisting of consensus around a rule set, or a regime of enforcement around an externally imposed law. Various levels of force (social and penal) are applied to policing the participation, the fixity of the rule set, and the adherence to the rules. And still the refrain, "No rule is absolutely immune to change."[7]

The pleasure in the recognition of rule produced pattern is just as implicated in a desire for law– a desire to be ruled–as the slavishness of following the leader, and following the rules. If this desire can be redeemed at all, it must be redeemed in a willingness to engage in rule making and rule changing. The participation in this kind of free play is a utopian rehearsal for another world which may be possible inside of this one.

Distance is useful; step outside the game. Play the meta-game: the game of games, where rules are never fixed and each game suggests a different one. Work to rule: rules are seldom self-identical, and the difference between the rule that is told and the rule that is followed opens to a gap where there is plenty of room for resistance. Refuse to play the game; play another one. There are always other games being played. Change the game: it was not always played the way it is being played now anyway–no matter what the dungeon-master says. "… these petrified relations must be forced to dance by singing their own tune to them!"[8]

[3] Cf. Manovich's discussion of database (and algorithm) as a "symbolic form" which supercedes narrative, or places it in relation to the database as simply one form among many, in Lev Manovich, Language of New Media, Cambridge, MIT Press, 2001, Ch 5.

[4] Bernard Suits, The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1978, pg 34.

[5] Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, <>.

[6] Friedrich Nietzche, Beyond Good and Evil, Project Gutenberg, <>, §3.

[7] Peter Suber, Nomic: Initial Set of Rules, Earlham College, <>, Note to Rule 103.

[8] Karl Marx, "Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right," in Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, February, 1844, Marxist Internet Archive, <>.