Seek Ye the Gnarl (part 3)

Final notes on Salen & Zimmerman’s Rules of Play.
Unit 4: Culture is the final section of the book, and the shortest. This is the place where, typically, the subject takes on a certain urgency, culminating in an explosion of broad conclusions and/or open-ended questions. Nothing quite so dramatic here. Instead we get this unit on culture, and a set of activites which are related to games by rather loose connections.

Chapter 31: Games as Open Culture and Chapter 32: Games as Cultural Resistance deal almost exclusively with digital/computer games, one exception being a discussion of Icehouse (Looney Labs — I highly recommend Chrononauts) as a game system.
“Open culture”: this idea is built upon the idea of culture as a system; an open culture is an open cultural system, in which players can move meaning into and out of the activity. This is a significant blurring of the line between playing a game and designing a game. Sophisticated players of The Sims are able to build their own models and objects to put into the game. But is The Sims a game, or is it merely a toy, a machine for play?
Salen & Zimmerman’s operational definition of “game” is “a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome.” An open culture game seems to be one in which some or all of these constraints become optional. As an open ended game, the Sims lacks any real conflict or final outcome. As a “hackable” computer program the Sims loses any meaningful rules. This is true of many computer games.
But computer games seem to be the only place where the openness of the system is in some doubt — any tabletop game can be made culturally open, without specialized knowledge by the players. The rules of chess can be changed by anyone who plays it. The rules of Doom, or of Ultima Online, cannot [without specialized knowledge]. The “resistant strategies” of Chapter 32 deal almost exclusively with digital games, with the exception of Uri Tazaig’s politics-laden Universal Square. This hints at an unbalanced schema, one that is perhaps too small for the subject.
I have in mind two missing schemas from the Culture unit. The first is a natural extension of the chapter on Games as Cultural Rhetoric, which would be Games as Political Culture. Who is allowed to play a game? What institutions exist to control where and how a game can be played? Is there a ranking system for players? What happens when the political cultures of two games come into conflict? What kind of political acts does the game tolerate? Who are the referees, and how are the rules enforced?
Games as political culture is vital to being able to talk about online multiplayer games. Politics transforms the terms of the game definition — conflict and outcome are no longer the artifacts of gameplay, but are activities of the present. In an online game, conflict is occuring now and forever.
A discussion of online commercial games indicates a need to resolve issues of control and distribution of these games. A schema is needed to discuss the economic forces present in the culture of games, or Games as Cultural Products. I was mulling over this idea back in Units 1 and 2.
What does it mean that Reiner Knizia designed a board game based on the Lord of the Rings? How do copyrights, trademarks and patents enter into games? What is the contract between the player and the corporation in a commercial online game? How can we explain the popularity of “collectable” card games [product], and how is an individual’s success at these games tied to their social and economic status [politics]? What is a game francise, and how has it changed the production of games?
Have games become nothing more than consumable products, entertaining for a few hours or days but inevitably destined for the trash heap?
What about the commodification of online game resources, the buying and selling of characters, equipment, and currency on eBay? Actually, I don’t think this is an interesting phenomenon in and of itself, the occupation of brokering has been around for a long time, the collecting and selling of items with extrinsic value, such as antiques, art, old comic books, and so on. But what happens when game design becomes the activity of designing games for consumption, for import and export? Games built on the principle of designed obsolescence.
In the end, Games as Cultural Product is the place where the game designer grants himself special status. He defines himself as an architect in a landscape where people build their own houses. Of course this has long been the position of the designer, design as specialization and control over the production of meaning. The designer lays down the rules for how meaning is uncovered by play. Every designer has a political agenda, and every game design is a political act. But not all games are designed as a political act, i.e. chess can no longer be designed, it already has an established form.
The final chapter in Rules of Play presents a number of games that cannot be played. There is no “game” in a live action role playing game that took place in New York city in the late 90’s. There is no “game” in Microsoft’s A.I. marketing campaign. These are simply dead artifacts. They are obsolete.
Final remarks
Ah, some final remarks. Have I been too critical, or not critical enough? I think I have three basic criticisms that should wrap the whole thing up:
1. Salen & Zimmerman are too selective the choices of games they discuss. In particular, they draw too heavily from successful contemporary computer games.
2. The term “emergence” is effectively meaningless in the context of design.
3. The denial of the psychological, social, and economic impacts of games places this book firmly inside a sandbox. It is far too soon for game studies/lud[i]ology to forge an independant discipline. But if, in spite of me, lud[i]ology does survive, this book is sure to be part of its canon.
Rules of Play, 2004, MIT Press, ISBN 0-262-24045-9
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