This chapter explains how and why games are paradoxical in a thorough examination of the notions of Bernard Suits (1978), who has offered the clearest and most pointed definition of games and game rules available, but who has also offered a flawed set of conclusions regarding the non-paradoxy of games. This chapter reiterates Suits’ emphasis of the importance of game rules and repudiates his disallowance of game paradoxy in favor of non-paradoxical and cooperative game play.
A fundamental misconception concerning games is that games are communicative -- much like language is communicative -- conveying an intentional message from game designer to game player. This misconception is oft championed by those who wish to position games and game play as rhetorical tools with persuasive consequences. Yet this misconception does not fare well in confrontation with the irascible and paradoxical nature of games and game play. Game rules tend to undermine and subvert intentional game design, and game players tend to prioritize and exhibit expressive play that undermines and subverts any supposed communicative intent of game designers.
Insofar as play is a natural and determinant property of human cognition, it is quite possible to isolate and describe those mechanics -- “game objects” -- that are necessary for game play. Further, this can be done without referencing any individual game player or any individual game play. Similarly, for instance, natural and determinant properties of living organisms allow us to isolate and describe the mechanics of an animal’s digestion or a plant’s photosynthesis without referencing any other idiosyncrasies of either plant or animal. Using this analogy, digestion and photosynthesis and game play are equally formal systems; and these formal systems can be identified solely with reference to those material components necessary to accomplish their most critical functions.
Over the past half century, the Holy Grail of game design has been to provide a game experience analogous to the aesthetic experience provided by stories and storytelling. Games and stories have had a long and troubled history in this regard, with neither emerging unscathed by the requirements and expectations of the other. This chapter offers an alternative solution to the dilemma of how to make games and stories compatible: quit trying. If an ideal marriage were possible, if effort and desire alone could accomplish this, it might have been accomplished long ago. Yet neither technological advances nor programming prowess has proven capable of satisfactorily tying this knot. The most likely conclusion to draw from this persistent failure is that game playing and storytelling originate in two distinct human aesthetic sensibilities. Though neither is made lesser through its incompatibility with the other, neither is made greater or more enjoyable as a reluctant partner in their interminably dissonant pairing.
While game rules are undeniably referential, games often do not -- and perhaps cannot -- reference anything other than themselves. Conventionally, self-referential symbols are called icons, wherein icons embody some essential property of that to which they refer. Games reference themselves in this iconic way, but they also do something further. Games serve as iconic references to referencing itself; that is, games are both self-referential and, simultaneously, referencing-referential. This is a unique semiotic property of games (and play more generally) that is embodied in game rules and the lusory attitude these rules evoke. Game play as a unique aesthetic experience only references what game play is -- and game play is (again, paradoxically) only what game play is not.
Possibilities for combining the game object and the simulation object are limited and precarious. It is certainly conceivable that the output of a simulation might serve as the input to a game. In such a case, the simulation portion of a game might prove capable of spinning along and churning out material effects without need of human intervention, until, as governed by the game rules, the game player chooses to stop that simulation from simulating. During that intervention, the game player might be able to play a game. Yet, when simulation and game are so distinctly layered in this fashion, though they may function in combination and cooperation, that layering seems more indicative of their differences than their similarities.
Games embody a special sort of reference: an in-between sort. This requires that game rules reference neither too strictly nor too loosely. The latter sort of reference transforms games into toys, ultimately referencing only the ego of the player. The former, stricter sort of reference turns games into simulations, where referencing becomes overly restrictive, bound by material and measurable concerns, dominated by a common (and often communal) set of values and beliefs. This chapter distinguishes the obligatory algorithms of simulations from the voluntary rules of games.
Digital media have demonstrated a particular affinity with games, making digital games more popular and more accessible than their more traditional, non-digital predecessors. However, this apparent affinity -- measured primarily on the basis of revenue generated ¬-- is somewhat misleading in terms of how digital media reproduce the unique semiotic system of games and game play. Upon reflection, it may be that digital media have been most successful in promoting game sales by promoting something other than games: by adapting the semiotic system of toys to the design and marketing of digital games.
This chapter claims that games and game play come before culture, before language, and before the sort of human thought we call referential and symbolic. Games and game play are integrally connected to each of these: as proto-culture, proto-language, and proto-reference. But games and game play are also different from these. During game play, seduced by its aesthetic pleasures, we return to a proto-state of mind and a proto-experience: liminality. A critical function of game play is then to separate itself from what our non-proto-state of mind thinks game play is, to separate our selfish and culturally determined desires from our more universal aesthetic experience of being human, of being natural.