Game studies is the practice of analyzing and studying games, their players, their subculture and impact on wider culture from a variety of academic viewpoints. Because this field is so new, methods of analysis have been imported from other fields such as sociology, anthropology, arts and literature and computer science.
The purpose of video game studies varies in scale and goal, from subjects as insular as simply analyzing development for the sake of understanding good design principles as applied to a game, to as broad as studying the social and psychological effects of playing games. Typically this latter category of sociological analysis take an empirical outside-in approach, studying specific aspects and their direct effects, and extrapolating their findings into a conclusion. Less has been written from a more subjective inside-out approach, such as how does the way we structure the experience of these games reflect on the structure of experience itself? What does the way we approach gaming say about the way we approach life?
Being a relatively new field, the practice of Game Studies often borrows methods of analysis from other fields such as sociology, anthropology, arts and literature and computer science. The purpose of the studies vary in scale and goal: they can be as insular as simply analyzing development in search of understanding good game design principles, or as broad as studying the social and psychological effects of playing games. This latter category of sociological analysis typically sees an empirical outside-in approach, studying specific aspects and their direct effects, and extrapolating their findings into a conclusion. . In my proposed essay, I intend to pursue a less common way of analyzing games by taking a subjective inside-out approach. This essay will investigate game design from an existential perspective, posing questions such as ‘how does the way we structure the game experience reflect on the way we frame our ‘real world’ experiences?’ By looking at games an existentialist perspective, we focus on the subjective experience of game playing and the co-authorship that is central to the medium.
All video games are, at their core, defined by their limitations. Even the most open world video games have boundaries and incentives that direct the player’s action. These boundaries are essentially the ‘rules’, which are necessary and definitive to all games. Rules provide the structure and objectives that dictate both the basic nature of the game as well as providing policy regarding smaller issues within this framework. These rules, establishing the nature and boundaries of play, must be agreed upon by all participating parties for the game to exist. The second necessary element for the game is for the player to have, to a degree dictated by the formative ruleset, a degree of control within these limitation, the potential outcome must be affected by his input. It’s through this balance of freedom and boundaries that transforms the ambiguous, frivolous “play” into the more directed and engaged “game”. Games possess a higher level of engagement than directionless play because by using rules, the pacing and tone of the game is controlled which imbues a sense a coherency and meaning to the activity. At its peak, this coherency results in a sense of importance that extends beyond the itself, such as in organized sports leagues. It is in this construction of meaning beyond itself that I will explore the parallels between game structure and existentialist writers such as Nietzche and Camus.
It is in this foundational definition of game playing as an expression of player control within a predefined framework, one that lends meaning to itself, that the first major parallel with the existentialist viewpoint appears. A major overarching theme of existentialism is the relationship between freedom and responsibility. Like the rules of a game, life has boundaries. We get sick, we die, we live by societal codes. The existentialist notion of freedom, which is different from the basic political definition of freedom and has similarities to what is modernly referred to as self-actualization, acknowledges the large degree to which our lives are not within our control. Contrary to rival philosophical schools using this lack of control, it is the rebellion against The Absurd, as Camus called it, that defines freedom. According to existentialism, freedom is the expression of our will, which is the control that we have within these limitations, and the construction of personal meaning within the framework of corporeal limitation. It is through this expression that, like game playing, that we create for life a meaning beyond itself.
In video games, there is no inherent, “real” meaning to the game, meaning that by definition that is no practical benefit for playing a game (excluding rare cases of monetary or social reward). These of course are the grounds on which video games have historically been dismissed as childish playthings, because they provide no physical benefit and presumably due to their interactive nature, are incapable of conveying a message meaningful enough to incite emotional or mental growth. Leisure time can be defined as the area of our lives that is left over after our responsibilities are fulfilled, where we pursue activities which have no connection to physical necessity. But if there is no immediately apparent benefit in an activity, whats the motivation behind it? What is it that makes these experiences stimulating? Most academic analysis will have you believe that it is simple escapism: that the appeal of the activity is to focus on something frivolous and relaxing and relieve oneself of the burdens of pursuing physical necessity. But if this were the case people would only play video games that were fun and relaxing, they would not value challenge, they would not keep playing games that can inspire anger or frustration in them. If the lack of necessity were it’s own reward than people would only play games, or engage in any leisure activity, in a way that reveled in it’s own uselessness. Goals and structure would be abandoned. I reject the idea of leisure escapism and intend to explore the underlying motivations behind what makes the exploration of a game’s boundaries and freedom such a stimulating experience, using the ideas put forward by such existentialist thinkers such as Camus and Nietzche.
Through this essay I intend to analyze the themes shared between good game design and the existentialist interpretation of freedom. This is not to be mistaken simply an account of chance correlations between the two, but a linking of causation between what people find engaging, stimulating and satisfying in the constructed experiences of a gameworld (here not just applying to just an open, 3D space but to all digital representations of which video games consist) and what creates a meaningful, actualized life from an existential perspective. I will do this by presenting several principles of an existentialist perspective of freedom, as expressed by the likes of Nietzche, Camus and Satre, and by then analyzing specifically how these are principles can be observed in the modern gaming experience.