Games - Agency as Art
How games offer a unique approach for exploring consciousness.
“Games are framed agency”
- C. Thi Nguyen (@add_hawk)
Knowledge is not passively received through the senses but is actively constructed & interpreted. Every perception we are aware of is a constructed simulation of the world. Every perception is a subjective narrative.
Art can serve as a medium in order to play with & transform our own narratives.
Games in the best case, present an interactive form of art that allows us to explore new states of consciousness. When children play “Cops & Robbers” they simulate alternative self models. For this game to work, the group of children has to agree on & appreciate the rules.
Rules in the game are tools to emulate certain types of agencies. When you read a book you experience the feelings, thoughts & actions of a cowboy. The same happens when you play Cowboy for a theater, role play, or PC game.
By following the rules of games you can experience the agency somebody else designed. If you play along with a certain storyline you can experience the tragedies, adventures & epiphanies somebody else imagined. Commitment creates narrative depth.
If we do not follow the rules, we can play more freely, yet we will not be able to experience the particular experience that has been sculpted by the author. We lose the possibility of this specific agency experience. In the same way, somebody that reads all the words in the book Dune in a random order doesn’t experience the novel.
The rules of games are often redundant, yet they allow us to dive into specific aesthetics of experiences.
“Fun is giving respect to something that does not deserve it.”
The novel Dune can only be experienced by framing our perceived reality in specific ways. The same is true for a game, we can only experience the world of a medieval knight if we limit our experience to that specific context.
In this way, similar to books described by neuroscientist & novelist Erik Hoel (@erikphoel) as a form of “intrinsic media”, games offer a unique approach for exploring consciousness.
The perfect haiku is like a stone thrown into a pond. It creates its own waves of resonance. When you read a book 10 years ago, it's a different book, when you read it now. Each sentence you read triggers a whole network of mental fireworks of associations. These associations are colored in the specific context of each scene of life. The best art has this implicit power. It hides implicit concepts & states of consciousness. Sneaking them into our subconscious mind in the cloths of narratives, the programing language of our soul.
The main goal in Christopher Nolan’s movie Inception was to plant an idea in the mind of his business rival through dreams. Interwoven into the scheme is an intriguing family business theme. The rules, the themes were well designed by the fictional team & they only work if the subconscious mind accepts them as its own.
Creating the insight, by laying the emotional & associative fundament. In this context, the deepest communication is bottom-up inception, carried by rules & themes that nourish the desired message.
“Communication involves shared norms. The more I reject shared norms, the more freely I can play, but the less I can receive communication.”
-C. Thi Nguyen (@add_hawk)
Narrative coherence guides us by projecting shared meaning onto our perceived world. It orientates us in the ocean of rising & passing patterns and is central to our meaning-making. A lack of narrative reference can lead to a weak sense of self & low self-esteem.
We can't live without narratives, without stories that connect us. We can just try to model healthy stories about reality. Maps that build the stage for communication & collaboration.
“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”
Rules in games in this sense are equivalent to our social norms. They structure our experience and agency. Struggles arise when we start relying on these rules and stop questioning their truth. In this sense, we are constantly required to update our narratives and keep in mind that no map can capture the totality of our reality.
Neil Gaiman wrote: “The most accurate map possible would be the territory, and thus would be perfectly accurate and perfectly useless.”
Rules function as a perceptual filter, reducing complexity and therefore narrowing our attention. This narrowed attention builds the base for our appreciation of the game’s aesthetic.
Climbers will pay attention to the details of their movements & how these movements affect their experience on the mountain. They will pay much less attention to the taste in their mouth.
This narrowed attention determines the games’ appreciation. The climber will find joy in his movement patterns & play with combinations. The context of frames invites us into a certain mode of enjoyment. The cook enjoys the play with nutritional taste, the piano player enjoys the aesthetic of melody & the tennis player finds intrinsic joy in well-actualized sets of forehand/backhand combinations.
This appreciation of style increases with the appreciation of affordance. An architect will appreciate a certain design of abstract drawings much more if he knows about the challenges behind it. In this way, skill level can raise the appreciation of beauty.
Certain movements in Chess are described as “elegant”. Cameron Browne  defined the elegance of a game as the maximum degree of its simplicity, clarity, and efficiency. Such an aesthetic of play is determined by the complexity of framing rules.
In this way, we see two possible layers of “elegance”:
How the map or game is designed
How the map or game is used & played
Both show the same criteria for usability & “elegance”:
Beyond aesthetic appreciation, games allow us foremost to build social bonds. Games allow frameworks for the collective agency. Finding coherence in a team sport, reading the competitor’s strategy, or composing novelty by fostering collective creativity in Jazz bands.
In a recent study, it was shown that playing together synchronizes mother-child autonomic systems. A mother's autonomic nervous system activity influences her child's vagal tone and heart rate variability (HRV).
A special form of play is represented in Improvisation. Improvisation provides no rules, frameworks, or reality filters for the agency to act on. The only rules are the medium Improvisation is applied to. In music, the Jazz pianist is only framed by the possibility of his or her instrument. On the stage of an improvisation theatre, the only limitations are the possibilities of the scene.
By this confrontation with the naked unmapped territory, every improviser is forced to “Find the Game” instead of following it.
Vulture  defines a game as:
“any pattern that emerges within a scene that the improvisers may follow while exploring the relationship between the characters.”
Finding the signal in the noise is a powerful tool for curiosity-driven mindfulness. In this way, every moment can be zoomed in. Every perception is a fractal of possible meanings, we can zoom in at any boring event and find miracles.
An improvised play represents an open relaxed state that is constructing meaning while being open for new information. The player’s attention opens & narrows within the melody of the game at hand. The appreciation of the game's aesthetic is found by exploring the emerging patterns themselves instead of within the patterns.
In improvisation, the definitions of Meaning and Transcendence merge into one single function. Recognizing Meaning as just a recursive bridge to the next Meaning. In this sense, freedom has only meaning within the confinement of our narratives.
“Most of us would say that inventing meaning while letting loose is the essence and promise of jazz”
— Robert Christgau
When allowing ourselves to improvise, we learn the act of meaning-making. We learn to create rules without getting rigid about them. We can recognize the reasons behind certain patterns and therefore recognize when it is time to let them fade again or let them evolve into new patterns of behavior.
The act of active meaning creation is an art form that is best nourished already in our childhood. It teaches us to live life on our own terms without predigested mental maps. Adults that lack the spark for curiosity are often trapped in the narratives presented to them by their culture and families. When the child gets used to focusing on following external rules, they start depending on extrinsic rewards like status or money. The intrinsic joy of exploring the patterns of our lives depends on our innate curiosity.
Yet if everybody just plays freely without any shared narratives and values, there cannot be intimate communication. Commitment to certain pools of associations, values, and agency are the fundament for communication.
In this way, a healthy agency can be described as free improvisation within shared games, which allows us to enjoy the process of collective meaning-making.