Games as Intrinsically Valuable

On La filosofia di P. W. Zapffe e i videogames, Stefano Gualeni and Daniel Vella connect videogames to the concept of the absurd developed by Norwegian philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe. Though I cannot hope to do justice to their text here, which attempts to contextualise videogames within a worldview that presupposes humankind’s tragic awareness of their own insignificance, Gualeni and Vella essentially instrumentalise videogames as tools that can help mitigating our existential panic through four main strategies: isolation, anchoring, distraction and sublimation.

Each of these strategies envisage games as ways of escaping into a necessarily confined world with clear rules, whose states remain reasonably stable (or at least whose stability lies completely in the player’s hands) and which can easily make us turn our thoughts away from complex and unpleasant concepts such as the meaninglessness of existence. In somewhat rarer occasions, games can, finally, also sublimate said meaninglessness, presenting a way of expressing its dreariness in a way that is both understandable and relatable to other humans.

Whilst I do not deny the relevance of what Gualeni and Vella expose, I also cannot help but see it within a common thread in the critique of videogames that seems to attempt to justify games in accordance with their possible functions and uses. A game, in that way, is understood as relevant inasmuch as it offers something in return. Jane McGonigal, for instance, is famous for her work in which games are “weaponised” for what she considers the greater good. In a 2012 TED Talk called The game that can give you 10 extra years of life, for instance, the researcher asserts that games can boost someone’s physical and psychological resilience or help them deal with traumatic experiences. One of the examples she uses, a game she created herself called Jane the Concussion Slayer (later renamed SuperBetter), was supposed to help her tackle the aftermath of a difficult recovery after a concussion. In an earlier presentation called Gaming can make a better world, McGonigal presents another project in which she attempted to gamify the solution to major world issues such as the dwindling supply of refined petroleum in World Without Oil. In this project, players were asked to adjust their behaviours to reflect the so far fictional event that oil, a fundamental part of the infrastructure of our world, has run out. One of the stated parameters for measuring the success of this game was how much the players’ behaviour changed three years after the end of the game.

Though I have several ethical issues with the assumptions at the base of games like World Without Oil and gamification — such as that people need to somehow be tricked into making the world a better place — I do believe that, from a certain perspective, McGonigal’s view on videogames is not fundamentally diverse from Gualeni and Vella’s. Games in both perspectives are understood and analysed by what they can do as things other than games. Super Mario Bros. is seen and judged not as a game, but as an anchoring artefact that can help us deal with the absurd; if McGonigal’s description of World Without Oil can be relied upon, it is probably an immensely unsatisfying experience but which can still be considered successful because it is not so much a game as a sort of thinly veiled advertising tool.

I believe that the value of games in general and videogames in specific is to a large extent intrinsic, much in the same way as novels, paintings and films. To analyse Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris according to what techniques it proposes when coping with the loss of a loved one or Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude as a guide to Latin-American interpersonal relationships between family members seems to completely miss the point of why we engage with either of these works. Both are impressive pieces that one often reads or watches simply because one wants to watch a film or read a book — their existence justifies itself, without any necessary reliance on changing someone’s life or helping them to cope with the vicissitudes of human existence. This is not to say that studies of the sort are irrelevant or counter-productive: every work of art is a reflection of its context and carries ideas which might prove relevant to understand and analyse. But to engage with these ideas, one must first approach the work on its own terms, not as a stepping stone towards a non-related goal such as alleviating existential dread or tackling a real world problem.

With games, this need might even be supported by a conceptual matter. Johan Huizinga, a Dutch anthropologist who wrote one of the foundational texts of game studies, Homo Ludens, defines games as

a free activity standing quite consciously outside “ordinary” life as being “not serious,” but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. (Huizinga, 2009)

In Man, Play and Games, Roger Caillois, a French sociologist whose work was often concerned with games and play, builds up on that definition, refining it to include games of chance and changing the emphasis from an activity with no material interest to an activity that is essentially unproductive, i.e., that does not create value but might still move value from one player to another, but which is still completely separate from the outside world and, for the duration of the game, concerned only with itself.

According to both definitions, then, a game can only be played if it is played for its own sake. To experience it otherwise — meaning, to play it for a reason other than the enjoyment of the game — risks missing the main point of the game itself. In his text The Playful and the Serious: An approximation to Huizinga’s Homo Ludens Hector Rodriguez examines the concepts of seriousness and playfulness in relation to “serious” educational games. Though perhaps more forgiving than me, he reaches a similar conclusion: even if some serious games might successfully straddle the line of playfulness due to an essentially playful characteristic of the subjects they discuss, the integrity of play is lost whenever a game is played solely to serve an extrinsic function.

Returning to Gualeni and Vella, it is not that I believe that the approach outlined on La filosofia di P. W. Zapffe e i videogames is harmful or in any way invalid (differently from my personal thoughts on McGonigal’s games, whose claims of “leveraging” the labour of players seem to be rooted in a profound conservatism and a misguided understanding of societal problems). Only that their arguments indicate a study of videogames for their extrinsic value whereas I am personally much more interested in the study of videogames as a cultural product which can — and should — be analysed based on its own merits.