This is a blog about thinking about games, in the sense that Film Philosophy thinks about Film, and Literary Analysis thinks about literature. More than that, I will be thinking about games in the terms of the relationship between gamer and game: gameplay. Now, games are preeminent in combining narrative and activity. They can, therefore, be analysed through their narrative. This is entirely appropriate for most modern games. For decades, game developers have sought to emulate and appropriate the grammar of film, and the narrative component, the “ludonarrative”, easily admits of the sort of analysis common to film. This can lead to the neglect of the activity of the gamer, the play. Under the banner “existential analysis”, I want to analyse the play.
It’s tempting to call film a “passive” and game an “active” artform. Indeed, film and game are most appreciated in their passivity and activity respectively. But, the terms are misleading, because there is no absolute passivity or activity, and both artforms rely on both extremes of this spectrum. Film is not passive. It does not require me to act, but it does require me to throw myself into it. This is clear from the times that I have failed to follow a film because I am texting, or the times I have disliked a film in the first instance, but come to love it at a later time, in a different place, and a better mood. Film can equally play with audience “activity” by soliciting certain expectations, whether to subvert them or confirm them. Game also requires passivity. If I am too active, clicking through prompts, skimreading key instructions, ignore dialogue, I will lose critical elements of the gameplay, and not only enjoy it less, but more importantly not experience the game in its intended play.
Film and Game are similar, therefore. Both are visual-temporal artforms that require activity and passivity. The terms reveal something about the phenomena, but obscure parts of it as well. It’s better therefore to use different words to more authentically grasp what we want to say when we call film active and game passive. I believe these are to say that film is lived in “listening” while game lives in “doing”. The philosophy of “doing” is existential philosophy.
Existential Philosophy has demonstrated that doing is not purely active, but always has its own form of passivity. I can jump only because I am the “passive” recipient of a ground, of a body, and of laws of motion. Video games create a pseudo ground, body and physics: all games create a “virtual reality”, whether or not they are played with a headset. We call the essence of the individual video game “gameplay”. This term can be radicalised to mean the interplay of player and game: of activity in ground and ground of activity.
Games are not unique in having this play of activity and passivity. Dance is constitutionally similar. Music serves as the ground of dance. The dancer, improvising or not, responds to their “passive” reception of the beat, and plays within it. This is an indication that game is a Dionysian artform.
Gameplay is ludo-dancing: the joy of doing within and through a rhythm of the rules. The “mechanics” of the game are the music, the activity of the gamer the dance.
Gameplay is an existential phemenon, a phenomenon that lives in the doing of a human being