Talking Points: Play and freedom

In the context of a culture that trivialises fun, games and play, it’s easy to forget that play has some important foundations. We’ve already touched on what Huizinga calls the “play element in culture”, the way play is woven through even very serious and solemn institutions and aspects of social life. But essential to the notion of play is the core value of freedom.

As a confirmed word-nerd, I arrived at this conclusion by considering the many uses of the word “play” – and the underlying unity of them all.

There’s the obvious playing as both an intransitive verb (what are the kids doing? They’re playing) and a transitive one – playing a game or a sport. (You can also “play an opponent” or play against someone, but these are clear derivatives of these senses – though it’s interesting that in some sense the opponent becomes the game.)

There’s play as creative expression: playing a theatrical part, a musical instrument, or a musical composition.

Playing a particular position in a game or sport combines the two – you’re fulfilling a function (like playing a scripted role or composed work) but also playing the game in which the position arises.

There’s playing with people or things – in a positive, mutual sense, playing in ways that explores and expresses both your nature and theirs, and the interaction of the two; in the less-positive, predatory sense, treating them like toys, i.e. using them purely according to one’s own nature and with no respect for theirs.

There’s playing at something – pretending, mimicking, mocking or simply behaving with inappropriate levity. This is similar to the sense above, except that the toy is the function you’re inhabiting, and therefore you’re not manipulating an external thing (more appropriate for the preposition “with”).

There’s letting things play out – allowing them to develop or unfold according to their nature.

And there’s liquids, light, objects or abstractions playing over a surface or object – again, behaving according to their nature without outside interference or obstruction.

There are numerous other uses of the word “play” (playing on things/words, being at play, being in play…) but I think the common element has been sufficiently outlined here.

In all cases, the implication is one of acting and interacting freely according to the agent’s nature. Sometimes that freedom is one-sided – a wilful ignorance of consequences, especially consequences for others – and other times it’s mutual. But the common element in all these meanings is the people or objects playing are acting unconstrained, as prompted by their nature in that moment.

When looked at in this light, the connection between the concepts of play and freedom is inescapable. But there are practical connections to political freedom too. Time unconstrained by the needs of survival – time to play – is “free time”. Unsupervised, unstructured activity is a primary opportunity for people to discuss the circumstances of their lives and how they might wish to improve them. As we saw in the previous post, the free imagination of play is the best way to explore new ideas in search of an optimal solution – system definitely has its place in ensuring those explorations are thorough, but the bold leap of intuition or inspiration is as important in discovering the new territory to explore in the first place.

None of which to say that play is the only – or even the most meaningful – freedom. But even people who profoundly disagree with Emma Goldman’s anarchism – or aren’t much for getting their groove on – can recognise the point she was making when she refused any revolution in which she couldn’t dance. Any system so totalitarian as to reserve to itself the right to determine whether people should dance, or otherwise express themselves in playful ways, is clearly unlikely to respect other, more immediately political freedoms.

There’s an important distinction here: fascists (and other political bullies) could, and by all reports often did, have fun – at the expense of others. Fun that derives from – or is indifferent to – some participants not having fun is the harmful kind of play alluded to above, and comes from the same basic toxic political relationship: that one person or group’s priorities completely eclipse another’s. But genuine, hurts-nobody, upwelling-of-joy fun is only threatening to those to whom the human spirit is fundamentally something to be squeezed, bruised and broken into some predetermined pattern. (This is not to say that some behaviours which deny or impinge upon others’ freedom don’t need to be moderated or regulated; but any system that has a problem with harmless expressions of happiness clearly needs close scrutiny.)

Given that, the existence of room for the human spirit to grow unconstrained, according to its own nature, without external influences pushing or pulling it too hard in any particular direction, seems to me to be an essential indicator of a political system that is worth inhabiting. That is to say – to the extent we can play freely, it seems more likely that we’re free in other important ways; and to the extent that we’re not, play gives us somewhere to start.

(Click here to read the next post in the series: Play, happiness and health.)

P.S. – Bonus TED videos, added 11 May 2016:


Talking Points: Play and innovation

The points covered in the past 6 reposts (starting here), while valid and important points, are far from being all there is to say about the importance of play. Perhaps one of the most important points is the strong linkages between imaginative play and concrete innovation, technological and otherwise.

It’s a matter of simple logic that play generates solutions that more rigorous forms of work do not. Play is by its nature both engaged and unconstrained – or more precisely, the constraints arise only from the current (and evolving) facts of the situation. It is the ideal tool for exploring the full range of possibilities in any situation, and discovering interesting properties and interactions which might be generalised to other situations. The quote I selected to launch the 2013 Global Gossip Game – “Play is training for the unexpected” – reflects this; and notably, its source was not an educational theorist (though many such would agree) but a paper by mammalian biologists.

In support of this idea, that play is fundamental to developing strategies to deal with the new and unexpected, I can point to things like the ways in which advanced mathematics/logic has developed a branch (which ventures into psychology and economics) called “game theory”; the way in which advanced computing technology spontaneously generated games in a variety of formats; even (stretching it quite a lot) The Game of Life (playable here) as an example of the way in which the most simplistic iterative processes can develop lifelike properties that can start taking on decidedly playful characteristics.

But this truism is evident at an even more obvious level. For the last few millennia, the major driving forces behind technological advancement have been military and industrial. In the last few decades, one of the major driving economic forces behind innovations in input and output devices has been the games industry – to the extent that many cutting-edge military technologies use games controllers as inputs. (And as the games industry continues to advance its outputs – VR, haptics, etc – the military will likely start using those more too.)

Let’s emphasise this. Play-driven innovations are keeping pace with – and even outpacing – the life-and-death research of the military. Of course, they are building on each other’s achievements, and the point I’m making here is a generalisation. Even so, you know there’s a powerful motivating force at work – and one that is more likely to produce innovations that actively improve the quality of everyday life, as opposed to (in principle, hopefully) making it harder for outside forces to disrupt them.

In a world increasingly driven by innovation, this is clearly not something we can afford to ignore.

(Click here to read the next post in the series: Play and freedom.)

Talking points: Games, systems, and systems literacy

[First posted on the IGD blog on October 14, 2013]

Welcome to the fifth and final entry in that series of more detailed talking points we mentioned! (Click here to start from the beginning.) I hope you’ve found them interesting and informative – or at least useful in making the case for games as having a place among the many modes of culture the library supports. I would be very interested to hear feedback in the comments! Anyway, here’s the summary of this final Talking Point from the original post:

Games are systems, and fostering intelligent literacy about systems is an important educational goal on par with fostering intelligent literacy about words.

As we’ve discussed, games are culture that creates connections between people; they force us to exercise our capacity for mindfulness; and they are as capable of seriousness and at least as capable of fun as any other medium. But we have not yet talked about perhaps the single most important aspect of games: their existence as systems of rules. (And in some cases nothing more – no physical components at all!)

The world we live in is full of systems. Many of these are natural systems, such as the immensely complex system of air and water circulation that moves heat around the planet and (for instance) allows the west coast of Ireland to be far warmer than it has any right to be out there in the Atlantic with nothing between it and the Arctic. Or the migration patterns of birds and insects, or the dance of subatomic particles within every atom of matter, or the myriad physiological systems (nervous, digestive, circulatory, immune, endocrine…) whose interactions enable the individual existences of every complex living organism on the planet – including us.

Then there are the hybrid natural-human systems on which we depend, such as agriculture, water storage and distribution, various forms of power generation and resource gathering, shipping, fermentation, various medical interventions, and many more.

And lastly, of course, there are the entirely anthropogenic systems – languages (and for that matter language as a whole); the high technology of the internet and its billions of electronic components (including the computer on which I write this and the device on which you read it) which of course are themselves systems; government, the military, cities and towns; economies, corporations, production systems, workplaces; architecture, narratives, music, culture… We have always been surrounded and pervaded by systems of tremendous complexity, but increasingly and for an increasing number of us, the systems with which we interact are either heavily influenced by human intervention, or human-created.

(And we ignore to our peril the inescapable reality that all these systems which can so easily engross and consume our attention are themselves embedded in and emergent from the larger natural systems which surround us, supplying their raw materials, enabling and/or constraining their processes, and being affected by their outputs.)

One of the many extraordinary things about humanity is its capacity to perceive not just the moment-to-moment flow of phenomena, but – indirectly – the systems which underlie the endless tumble of events. It’s like trying to work out the inner workings of a tremendous factory by peering through the windows – only the factory is the size of the universe, some of its machines are smaller than atoms, and each of us only gets one window a few centimetres across.

It is my firm belief – and I am far from alone in this; Plato, Einstein, and many other great minds agree – that this capacity is intimately linked to our capacity for play. Play is about consequence and experimentation, about if-this-then-that and what-if-this-happens? It is hard to imagine a behaviour better adapted to learning and responding to the parameters of a system.

Games, as codified play, are themselves systems. Some are incredibly simple systems – Tic-Tac-Toe or Snap – while some are tremendously complex systems which attempt to approximate reality (or some imaginary version thereof) – particularly the “crunchier” or more rules-heavy end of the tabletop roleplaying genre and the wargames from which it evolved, which have their roots in genuine military attempts to simulate various actual battle – and economic and ecological – conditions, and which typically by their nature need to be able to respond to player actions outside a rigorously predefined set of possibilities.

I am not an especially good Chess player, and barely know Go, but in both cases I know enough to see that one of the keys to successful play is the ability to successfully visualise the myriad interactions of a single move both on the board at the time and in the branching possibilities that arise from the new game state – the way it shifts the interfering patterns of support and protection. If I move my rook here, it protects my king, but leaves my bishop vulnerable, and if that goes my queen has nothing to protect it either. Of course, this is just one aspect of play; the ability to use the shift of pieces to manipulate your opponent into making key mistakes is another (and according to some, though I personally disagree, even more important) dimension – playing on your opponent through your play on the board.

Clearly these are skills which are worth cultivating – as our ancestors have known for millennia, as evidenced by the prestige rightly accorded excellence at Go, Chess, and similar games by cultures all around the world. This same ability to visualise and anticipate multiple interlocking influences and consequences is vital to biology, medicine, climate science, economics, physics, engineering, advanced manufacturing and informational workflows – pretty much any advanced discipline, and especially cross-disciplinary work and even advanced generalisation. (If you’re interested in further reading, the pioneering work in systems thinking – the art of understanding system dynamics – done by Donella Meadows and others is an excellent place to start developing the general skill of analysing systems.)

So that’s one aspect of this topic: the inherent merits of games as practice for life in the same way that fiction is – as a playful practice of necessary analytical skills with very real applications. But as we discussed last month, games aren’t just systems, they’re poetic systems – systems which are designed to express and/or induce particular emotions, ideas, or other responses.

And this is for me perhaps the most valuable aspect of games as culture: they teach us that systems are not neutral, that they can and do embody particular values and weight themselves towards particular outcomes, and that these outcomes are expressive of the way the system is designed at least as much as they are of the qualities of particular participants in or elements of the system. Given that many of the systems which are most negatively impacting most of us at this point in time are human-created, and many of the natural systems affecting us negatively are human-influenced, this is an essential lesson for us to learn – and apply.

This concludes our Talking Points series! I hope it has helped to persuade those who need persuading that there is substantial value to be found in games, and that they have the capacity to be the active, dynamic complement to the pensive, contemplative cultural mode that books foster. We need both reflection and decision in our lives; I would argue that we need both games and books as ways to keep those parts of our psyches in good health without being overloaded in reality.

There is a great deal more to say about games – the lessons they teach us (through game theory) about mutual support, competition, community, and more; the mental health benefits; the extraordinary range of social and technological innovations they have driven; the fact that gaming culture, although (somewhat deservedly) having a reputation for being riddled with nasty online behaviour, is in many ways ahead of the mainstream in identifying and constructively attempting to address bigotry and discrimination. But those posts are for later.

[EDIT: Follow this link to read those later posts.]

Talking points: Games, seriousness, poetry, and fun

[First posted on the IGD blog on September 10, 2013]

Welcome to the fourth, and penultimate, entry in that series of more detailed talking points we mentioned. Here’s the summary from the original post:

Games can be serious, poetic and expressive – or trivial, silly and fun – and be so brilliantly or leadenly, just the way other forms of culture can. (Does anyone seriously dispute that, fluff though P.G. Wodehouse’s work is, it’s completely brilliant fluff?)

We’ve seen that games are culture that creates connections between people, and forces us to exercise our capacity for mindfulness. All of these points were made to show that the assumption that games are mere bits of fun not worth being taken seriously by libraries is an ill-considered kneejerk reaction, and hopefully that point has been made.

So now I want to take a step back and reflect on that notion of “mere fun” – the idea that something fun inherently has less value or meaning, and should be treated dismissively – especially in reference to games.

Contrary to that common assumption, the fact that games are fun is not, in fact, a mark of triviality. On the contrary, it is a sign that they speak to something deeply embedded in what it is to be human. When music evokes strong emotional reactions, that is understood to be a mark of its quality; visual arts likewise. Prose or poetry that move us are recognised as being important for that reason. That games typically evoke different emotions, emotions more suited to active engagement rather than reflection, does not mean that we are less obliged to attempt to understand why and how they do so, or that we will be less rewarded by the attempt.

Part of the problem seems to come from the assumption that fun and seriousness are somehow opposites. Nothing could be further from the truth. “Fun”, the spirit of play, is a distinguishing characteristic of humanity at its most fully engaged, as pioneering psychological thinker Mihalyi Csiksentmihalyi explores in his seminal work Flow. The flow-state he describes in this book is attained by finding a sweet spot where the mind is focused and highly but not overwhelmingly challenged, much like the best physical exercise. Flow, unsurprisingly, is highly conducive to happiness and mental health. Notably for libraries, Csiksentmihalyi’s work on flow is also deeply concerned with its relationship to learning.

It is no coincidence that one of the communities where his work is most widely known is in the game design community, with pioneering indie game development company thatgamecompany actually naming one of their earlier games (or possibly two) after it. Fun and seriousness can be inextricably intertwined – if you’ve ever fallen in (requited) love, or played with a child to whom you have a close bond, odds are that you’ve experienced this firsthand.

Even in less intensely intimate interactions, people engrossed in play may be laughing their heads off, but still be taking the experience very seriously; conversely, players maybe concentrating intently, and even to outward appearances grimly, and inwardly having an exhilarating, even transcendentally joyous experience.

Outside the context of formal play, encountering truly poetic works in any medium (“poetic” here used in the broader sense of “beautifully made for its moment”, as in “poetic justice”) also inspires this same mixture of an upwelling of joy and exhilaration with a state of profound awareness and reflection. That games more often approach this intersection from the side of fun rather than seriousness does not mean they cannot reach it. And given that they can, surely we should be cultivating the medium – as we do others – to assist them to do so as often as possible.

Even if “fun” and “serious” were opposites, there is nothing saying that they are synonymous with “insignificant” and “important” respectively. We all know people who are both deadly serious and deathly dull, and conversely people who are alight not only with fun but with intelligence, wisdom and wit as well. In fact, I would say that being serious without a sense of fun is more likely to be a dangerous quality than having a sense of fun untempered by seriousness, and that combining both fun and seriousness is significantly preferable to either alone.

This has been recognised by thinkers throughout history. James P. Carse wrote a book called Finite and Infinite Games which is well worth reading (and not only in this connection). And it’s no coincidence that the quote chosen to start off the world’s first Global Gossip Game was from no less a figure than Playto: “Life must be lived as play.” (Technically this is a translated paraphrase, but it’s widely quoted in this form. I mention this point because it’s important to be accurate, lest distortions creep into our communication and we end up with “He bites snails.”)

Now, none of this is to say that anything that gives someone a giggle or whiles away an hour is noble and enduring and should be in our collections. isn’t A Comedy of Errors. (Ah, the power of italicization.) But we stock Mills & Boon novels, and I’m pretty sure not all of those are classics to be preserved for the ages, and I’m also pretty sure that the people reading them are already about as literate as they’re going to get from reading Mills & Boon. None of this is to say that we should stop stocking those books; I’m just pointing out that this does suggest that we recognise the value of sharing culture purely for the sake of the pleasure it affords. So even if we decide that games by their nature cannot be serious or improving, that still would not be a sufficient basis on which to ignore them. And we cannot in good faith decide any such thing when examples and evidence to the contrary abound.

Given that, as we’ve previously discussed, games can be powerful cultural experiences, that they exercise the brain, that they improve our capacity to analyse systems and to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, that they are well-suited to the library, and that the library is well-suited to them – and that on top of all that, they’re fun – surely it’s time we started engaging with them more rigorously, bringing the best of the intelligent, widely cultured library perspective to games, and bringing the best of games to the library experience.

(Click here for our last Talking Points post – “Games, systems, and systems literacy”.)

Talking points: Games and theory of mind

[First posted on the IGD blog on August 12, 2013]

Hello folks! This is the third of that series of more detailed talking points we mentioned. Here’s the summary from that original post:

Further, games develop and reward theory of mind – the mental models we each have of what other people are thinking.

Games are culture that you have to share, and which reward intense engagement with other people. That in and of itself fosters the ability to model what other people know, might be thinking, and are more or less likely to do – known as “theory of mind”. (Because the key capacity is the ability to theorise about other minds… Which, when you think about it, is a truly extraordinary achievement: to be able to model something as complex as a human mind inside another human mind. Yes, the process is fallible and we resort to all sorts of cheaty shorthands, formalised conventions and external encodings. But that it’s possible at all is pretty incredible.)

Two things make games uniquely good at fostering this crucial (perhaps most crucial) aspect of intelligence.

First, as alluded to in the last Talking Point post, games license a closeness of attention that is often inappropriate and even uncomfortable outside the magic circle of a game.

Second, and relatedly, games like Werewolf and poker explicitly require bluffing, misdirection and outright lying. Not only do these acts require the exercise of theory of mind (you can’t lie convincingly without an idea of what others might find plausible) in and of themselves, but because they are built into the structure of the game, they also require you to be able to spot them – which requires even more active reading of your opponent, because you’re not even sure what their goals are. Are they trying to persuade you to fold, or to increase your bet? Are they trying to persuade you to eliminate that person because they sincerely believe that their target is a Werewolf? Because they know? Or because they’re a Werewolf themselves?

Speaking purely personally for a moment, my own ongoing fascination with Werewolf and similar social deception games lies in precisely this learning about lying, and even practising it. This isn’t because I am comfortable with falsehood – quite the contrary; though I’m quietly spoken, if anything I’m slightly too honest when I speak outside games (though thankfully the people I’m close to value that quality too), and my engagement with the wider world has always been through organisations that have strong commitments to independent, objective and rigorously verified truth-telling (particularly Amnesty International). But engaging with deception, understanding how it works and how it develops a consuming momentum that can entrap you, has made me both less susceptible to, and more understanding of, liars – and thereby improved the quality of my honesty, because what I’m saying is less likely to derive from ignorance or other people’s false statements. In other words, lying for fun has made me a more truthful person.

(Or is that just what I want you to think?)

It makes sense: there are few things more interesting than people. If games let us think about people, what they’re thinking and feeling, what they might do, and the entanglement of all those things, maybe they’re not entirely frivolous cultural pursuits after all…?

(Click here for our fourth Talking Points post – “Games, seriousness, poetry and fun”.)

(P.S. This being a relatively short Talking Points post, I don’t want anyone to feel shortchanged. So here – have another bonus TED talk, this time on the neuroscience of making moral judgments about intentions. You come across such interesting stuff when you start taking games seriously…)

Talking points: Games, sharing culture, and connecting people

[First posted on the IGD blog on July 5, 2013]

Hello folks! This is the second of that series of more detailed talking points we mentioned. Here’s the summary from that original post:

If we’re talking about sharing culture, games are the form of culture that you (usually) have to share to experience. For that reason, games foster socialisation and allow members of the community to connect across demographic barriers like age, gender, ethnic background – even language.

We’ve previously established that games are culture. And it’s in the nature of games that most of them require playing with other people, and reward engaging attentively with the people with whom you’re playing.

When it comes to sports – i.e. body-games – these benefits are undisputed, or even (somewhat self-fulfillingly) exaggerated. There are undeniable bonding effects to exercising together for a common purpose, as anyone who’s ever undertaken strenuous physical labour with others can attest. But it seems likely to me that a considerable part of the bonding effects of sports (and especially where that bonding occurs across team lines, where time spent exercising in close proximity is not a factor) is about the intensity with which you are having to anticipate the actions of others – to imagine yourself in their position.

Everyone from mixed martial arts fighters and football players to poker and go players (or practitioners of both, such as chessboxers) speaks of the importance of understanding your opponent. And in a team context, knowing the actions (and temperaments) of your team is just as important. Clearly, any game which involves more than one player is going to reward an ability to put oneself in another’s shoes.

(And even a single-player game can reward the same kind of engagement with its creators, and analysis of their themes and arguments, as a book; but as with books, it’s a much more serial relationship, with the creator thinking about the audience only at the time of creation, and the audience thinking about the creator only after publication. Game players are interacting more simultaneously and – especially if they’re playing over a common tabletop – immediately.)

And when that understanding is paired with an activity which one finds inherently pleasurable – such as the brainwork of a game – it’s no surprise that friendships are formed at least as often as rivalries. And because games are fundamentally informational in nature, the point of commonality has no inherent link to any characteristic such as fitness, gender, age (barring the very young, because of their lack of neurological development), race… meaning games can be the basis of friendship between wildly disparate people.  Think of the intense relationships formed over the chessboards of World Championships, where there may not even be a common language, and you can see how this might work.

In fact, there is a long history of games being consciously used as bonding exercises. The modern obsession with sports, which has its roots in the character-building (and in more cynical cases, army-building) ambitions of the Victorian-era educators, is just the most recent incarnation. It’s mentioned as early as Book One of the first work of Western history, Herodotus’s Histories: the ancient Lydians, faced with a famine, used games to keep their community together through 18 years of grinding hunger, eating only every second day, and playing games on the days they didn’t eat. And in the context of a starving populace, it seems hard to believe that this was Olympic-style athletic games; the games here were probably something like modern tabletop games.

This is very much applicable to the library, if we choose to use them this way. It’s a recurring theme in the comments about past IGDs. It was also an ongoing motif in the study trip I took from Australia to the States, where I spoke to people from over a dozen library services about the uses of games. Games were used to provide constructive channels for socialisation, especially for teens; but targeted appropriately, they were just as effective for adults and indeed for groups of mixed ages. (The lack of links here is because this was not regarded as worth documenting: the games were not catalogued, their use was not recorded, patron feedback was not monitored, and no metrics were captured. After all, it’s only games…)

So if you have stories about games encouraging people to socialise across demographic boundaries, share them below!

(Click here for our third Talking Points post – “Games and theory of mind”.)

Talking points: Games as culture

[First posted on the IGD blog on June 6, 2013]

Hello folks! This week, the first of that series of more detailed talking points we mentioned. (Normally we’d be doing these in the second week of the month, but… well, you’ll see.) Here’s the summary from that original post:

Games are a form of culture that is as old as culture. Every known culture has some sort of games. If libraries can support movies and music and other forms of culture, games have a place at the table too – especially since, unlike most other forms of art, the closest thing we have to a public institution dedicated to playing games is usually a casino.

Play is one of the foundational human activities: so much so that in 1938, Dutch historian, cultural theorist and philosopher Prof. Johan Huizinga wrote a book called Homo ludens, arguing that not only was play an important part in culture but that it was a necessary (though not sufficient) precondition for culture. I am not sufficiently well-read to make a definitive statement on the subject, but based on the reading I have done I am prepared to state with some confidence that there have been very few societies in the entire history of humanity that have not featured some kind of more-or-less formalised or ritualised play – which is to say, games.

That ritual or sacred dimension to play is worth noting. Just as theatre and literature have roots in the mystical, games also have similar links. The ancient Egyptians played a game called Senet as a meditation on the soul’s journey. Snakes & Ladders was based on an Indian game with a strong element of moral teachings (which was copied in at least some Victorian boards, with prideful behaviour at the head of a snake leading to a downfall at its tail; some modern boards still feature these little parables). Even modern playing cards are based on the cards of the tarot.

And the importance of games even in our own modern culture is hard to deny: even setting aside the crass indicators of the recent incredible surges in money being spent on games (they say videogames are now making more money than movies, and tabletop games are also undergoing a sharp growth in popularity and public interest), consider the incredible importance placed on the Spassky-Fischer chess matches in the Cold War – or the ubiquity and importance of poker in US culture – or the deep respect accorded to go masters in Japan, China and Korea. Skill at all these games is meaningful beyond the pleasure of winning, showing that it is possible for a game to demand, and therefore symbolise, qualities which a culture considers emblematic of the virtues it holds dear. (And of course the language reflects this ubiquity, with game terminology well-represented in everyday turns of phrase and cliches, such as “playing the hand you’re dealt”.)

Some scoff at the idea of games as art, a prominent recent example being film critic Roger Ebert (he specifically spoke against videogames but his argument applies equally well – or rather poorly – to non-electronic forms). Such people claim that games cannot be art because the outcome is determined not by the artist but by the player(s), denying any chance of the work expressing any meaningful authorial intent.

This ignores the reality that many forms of art are not experienced in a strictly linear, artist-defined fashion – architecture, sculpture, improvisational performances, procedural art and more all allow the audience to control the pace and/or content of their experience to some degree, and are no less artful for that. (And it is no less possible for them to express a particular sensibility, or for audiences to read design intent from them.) Art can be made of anything (when you know what has gone into paints and pigments throughout history, you know this to be indisputably true), and that includes arrangements of rules and decisions and restrictions and consequences, let alone the other art (in writing, in the design of boards/cards/pieces, or in the design of models, animation, audio, music and so on) that a game may incorporate.

Ebert’s error, understandably enough, was to look at the artfulness of games and judge it in terms of the artfulness of movies. Each artform has its strengths and weaknesses, and it’s certainly true that the game will probably never be as good at showing a coherent, tightly-controlled piece of audiovisual narrative or exposition as film can, or as good at describing the inner psychology of its protagonists as prose. But games have their own extraordinary ability: they may not be great at describing subjectivities, but they are amazing at inducing them, and/or allowing people to explore decision and consequence. Brenda Romero’s* discussion of her The Mechanic is the Message series in this video is well worth viewing if you have any doubts about whether this can produce meaningful capital-A Art.
* Her name at the time was Brenda Brathwaite; you may find more of her work under both names.

So, OK, games are culture and they might even be worth taking seriously. But what has that got to do with libraries?

Libraries are the place where a community comes to share information and ideas and culture. In most libraries that have any kind of recreational/cultural component to their collections, we have already expanded our holdings to include other media, such as movies, TV series, and music.

Games, as stated above, are a form of culture which it is (in most cases) simply not possible to experience without sharing that experience with other people. They are, if anything, the single form of culture which most requires the sharing-focused community that a library supports, fosters and houses. (Further, games are one of the single best ways to create ties between community members, as we’ll discuss in a later Talking Points post.)

And if you were to design an institution to support games, it would probably look a lot like a library. It would have places people could sit together and engage in cultural pursuits. In order to maximise the pool of potential players, it would be open to all the members of a given community, subject to appropriate behaviour. It would probably even have some books, since getting good at any game requires you to get smart at thinking about probability and systems and psychology, plus reading up on the history of the game and notable past matches, plus other specific knowledge that may be useful (or just interesting) to players of a given game.

So games and libraries are already a great fit. But there is a further impetus to inclusion of games in libraries.

There currently are no public institutions dedicated to supporting the actual playing of games. There are local game stores, but those have none of the public profile of the kind of institution I mean; those are book stores rather than libraries. Then there’s the (fast-vanishing) games arcade, the economics of which almost mandate nickel-and-diming and heavily favour electronic games, and therefore rule out huge swathes of gaming possibilities. The only real high-profile venue for games in most cities is the deeply-exploitative casino, most of whose “games” are closer to Skinner boxes operating on a variable-ratio schedule, designed that way to maximise their addictive qualities.

Regardless of the intentions of their owners and staff, neither of these institutions has any kind of inherent interest in getting people to engage critically and creatively with systems and human psychology – in fact they have a vested interest in not doing so. But fostering that kind of well-read, reflective, creative mindset in the citizens we serve is what libraries are all about – and games, especially integrated into our existing activities, give us an excellent opportunity to do just that.

(Click here for our second Talking Points post – “Games, sharing culture, and connecting people”.)

Talking points: Why games in libraries?

Hi folks! I’m going to repost a series I wrote for the International Games Day @ your library blog during my 2013 editorship thereof, both because I am happy enough with the way they state the case that I want them to find more readers, and because I am reasonably likely to refer to them a fair bit and it is easier to link content on my own blog 🙂

I’ll post the introduction today and then an additional entry each following day.

Talking points: Why games in libraries?

[First posted on the IGD blog on May 22, 2013]

Hey everyone! So one of the things we’re planning on doing is offering you some talking points for those conversations about why games are even happening in libraries. This first post will give the overview, and then we’ll go into more detail on each point as we go along.

Before we begin, it’s important to recognise that libraries are about books. It’s right there in the name, after all – “Library” is closely derived from the Latin word for “[place] of books”.

But libraries have always been about more than books being in a place. They have been about storing them, yes, but also about making them accessible. Hence the physical care of books is only part of a library’s job – we also catalogue them.

Even that is just a means to an end, though, and it’s important to recognise this as the familiar physical medium of books – the bound codex – moves into the electronic realm. Ultimately what a library is about is providing a place where a community can share culture, information, ideas, beauty – where human thought can be made accessible for people to engage in self-directed study and exploration. And the community is an equally important part of the equation.

Take the iconic library, the Library of Alexandria. It’s estimated it held half a million scrolls. (Note: scrolls. Not codices, not books as we know them. Physical form is not the point.) In addition to shelves, chairs, tables and study spaces, it also held lecture theatres and even dissection rooms. Again, the community of self-directed learners was as much the point as the works they studied (and in turn produced – which leads us onto a whole fascinating tangent for another time).

So that’s great and all, but what relevance does it have to games in libraries? Well:

  • Games are a form of culture that is as old as culture. Every known culture (pretty much) has some sort of games. If libraries can support movies and music and other forms of culture, games have a place at the table too – especially since, unlike most other forms of art, the closest thing we have to a public institution dedicated to playing games is usually a casino. [Full post up here.]
  • If we’re talking about sharing culture, games are the form of culture that you (usually) have to share to experience. For that reason, games foster socialisation and allow members of the community to connect across demographic barriers like age, gender, ethnic background – even language. [Full post up here.]
  • Further, games develop and reward theory of mind – the mental models we each have of what other people are thinking. [Full post up here.]
  • Games can be serious, poetic and expressive – or trivial, silly and fun – and be so brilliantly or leadenly, just the way other forms of culture can. (Does anyone seriously dispute that, fluff though P.G. Wodehouse’s work is, it’s completely brilliant fluff?) [Full post up here.]
  • Games are systems, and fostering intelligent literacy about systems is an important educational goal on par with fostering intelligent literacy about words. [Full post up here.]

We’ll come back to each of these points over the coming months, but hopefully that will get some ideas flowing. Let us know what you think!

(Click here to start reading the series in order.)

Bonus TED video: Your brain on video games (because who doesn’t enjoy the occasional TED talk?)

Game review: Hanabi as metaphor for intelligent life

It has taken me a shamefully long time to crack open the copy of Hanabi I picked up after hearing it recommended in a podcast by the Three Donkeys crew. Despite playing it first on January 4, I knew within a few games it was going to be a near-certain personal Game of the Year for 2014. I’ve since played it for hours with my partner, chasing a perfect game (so far our best score is 23, 4 actions short of perfecting all 5 fireworks – so close!), and that opinion has only been cemented.

Hanabi‘s core conceit is simple: players are working together to try and play cards in various colours in sequence, but each player cannot see their own hand, instead relying on information from other players which is controlled by a very strict economy. In other words, the only person who can actually do anything with a card (play it or discard it) is the person who can’t see it.

Hidden information in games is nothing new – it can more or less carry an entire game, as is pretty much the case with poker. What’s so ingenious about Hanabi is that it not only forces us to confront the unyielding reality that we can never really know what’s going on in other people’s heads, as any such games do, but to do so in the framework of having to collaborate with those people.

Emotionally, it is far easier to engage with the problem of other people’s unknowability in a competitive or even hostile framework – the resentment that our more basic natures reflexively feel towards the things that make us exert ourselves meshes well with a goal that involves somehow triumphing over them. (One could argue that this is at the root of many modern socio-politico-economic ills.) This is part of the pleasure of competitive play: expressing that basic egoistic subjective sense of the self’s defiance against the world, but doing so in a consensual context where that hostility is licensed, constrained into forms that contain the possible harm, and channeled in ways that mean that even the journey to defeat can still be a pleasurable experience.

But real life – especially a good life – is much more about getting inside other people’s heads in order to help them, whether because doing so helps us too, or simply because we love them. And that’s what Hanabi is all about.

The puzzle that you are collaborating to solve – sort cards drawn randomly into sequences of 1-5 in 5 different colours – is childishly simple. But the fact that you know nothing of the cards you hold except what your partners tell you – and vice versa – plus what you can see of cards that have been played or discarded, and what you can deduce from all that information, makes other people not only a crucial part of the puzzle but utterly indispensible to the solution. Feeling antagonistic towards them only distracts you – and probably them – from the problem at hand.

This forces the higher functions of the brain not only to engage with the intellectual problem at hand, but to examine and control those resentful lizard-brain “how dare you make me work” impulses. In other words, you are not only practicing being smart but being good; blaming other people for not automatically conforming to internal expectations is at the root of evils ranging all the way from petty to genocidal.

The way the information economy works is also ingenious, but I would rather leave the review at this point than further explain the rules or focus overmuch on the technical. They are simple to learn, and I hope the mystery will encourage you to pick up the game.

So let me simply conclude by saying that I highly recommend that you play Hanabi, and take care to honour the spirit of the rules about communication, not just the letter. It thoroughly deserves the Spiel des Jahres[1] it won, but more importantly, it is not only deeply pleasurable: it is rewarding.


Hello! Welcome to the blog of Philip Minchin (or Phil Minchin, I answer to the nickname too – as the title of this blog suggests 🙂 ).

For the last few years, I’ve been advocating for games and play as essential parts of culture, particularly in a library context. (For an outline of why I hold this view, read this series I wrote for the International Games Day @ your library blog.) I’ve also been exploring new opportunities for libraries in the online world, moving from the old one-way, broadcast models of publishing to more two-way, networked one. And I’ve been writing and designing for games, both electronic and tabletop.

If you need to contact me, I’m available via Gmail – I’m euchronic there.

I’ve been happily working in the background, but it’s getting to the point where I need a central online location for all my various bits and bobs so people can find me easily. So here it is! More to come soon.

I’ve presented at numerous conferences, conventions, and library services; those with public links are:

I’ve also written a paper on libraries in the age of interactivity, which touches on questions of play but focuses more on the structural role of libraries.

I’ve had blog posts selected as weekly Feature posts on game designer site Gamasutra.

In 2011, I was instrumental in getting the ALA to recognise that its National Gaming Day @ your library was in fact an International Games Day @ your library, in 2012 I founded the Global Gossip Game to link libraries worldwide for the event, and in 2013 I ran the IGD@yl blog and took the GGG to all seven continents.

I’ve been a consultant to various games companies on working with libraries to share their games with audiences. I also do freelance creative writing and worldbuilding work; in the last couple of years I’ve contributed to numerous tabletop RPG books, including an Adventure Path, half-a-dozen Player Companions and the Bestiary 4 for Paizo Publishing’s Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.

I’ve been a consultant to libraries around games, as an important part of culture in themselves, as the basis for interesting new forms of literature, as tools for promoting both traditional and new modes of literacy, as promotional tools to bring people into the library, and as a simple source of fun. Most notably, I prepared a Games & Interactivity Strategy for Melbourne Library Service around their new Docklands Library (opening in mid-2014).

I’m a contact point for library e-Game lending – I’ve been advocating for a few years now that libraries need to work with vendors (I particularly recommend Valve Software’s Steam product) to develop an e-lending solution for electronic games, and one of my current projects is acting as a central clearinghouse for people interested in that prospect.

And I’m currently beginning the work of establishing APILI, an institution that will be to play and games what the National Library of Australia is to the archived written word, ACMI is to the moving image, and the National Gallery is to the visual arts… only with key parts of its work being (a) more fun and (b) more readily accessible through local communities’ own libraries and schools.

Here’s my standard intro blurb if you need it:

Trained in history, literature, classics and archaic languages, Philip Minchin has worked in publishing, arts production, NGO governance and campaigning, and library IT in Melbourne, Australia. There he got interested in the evolving relationships between libraries, communities, games, interactivity, systems and UI design. He now presents and consults to libraries on these issues, helping to develop games & interactivity strategies that blend the best of old and new media to support intelligent, literate engagement across the full range of modern culture. He also writes game content for Open Design and Paizo Publishing, among others, and volunteers for International Games Day @ your library (Saturday November 15 in 2014) – including running the Global Gossip Game, a not-so-little exercise in information theory and silly community-building fun.