Ancient Greeks, Modern Fun

Matt Barton's picture

I've been reading some good books lately about the subject of fun and videogames, such as Koster's Theory of Fun and McGonigal's Reality is Broken, plus whatever I see cropping up on Google Reader. Anyway, I've been studying their definitions and trying to come up with a synthesis, plus adding in a few things of my own from my studies of Ancient Greece. Needless to say, almost everything these authors feel is new or original is just the latest incarnation of things taught by Aristotle and Plato.

These are some thoughts I'm trying to work up into a book project, but there's a few of the core concepts.

Aristotle and Mimesis
In the Poetics, Aristotle had this to say about poetry and mimesis, or imitation:

Poetry in general seems to have sprung from two causes, each of them lying deep in our nature. First, the instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood, one difference between him and other animals being that he is the most imitative of living creatures, and through imitation learns his earliest lessons; and no less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated. We have evidence of this in the facts of experience. Objects which in themselves we view with pain, we delight to contemplate when reproduced with minute fidelity: such as the forms of the most ignoble animals and of dead bodies. The cause of this again is, that to learn gives the liveliest pleasure, not only to philosophers but to men in general; whose capacity, however, of learning is more limited. Thus the reason why men enjoy seeing a likeness is, that in contemplating it they find themselves learning or inferring, and saying perhaps, 'Ah, that is he.' For if you happen not to have seen the original, the pleasure will be due not to the imitation as such, but to the execution, the coloring, or some such other cause.

Aristotle might as well have been talking about videogames here. What other genre is as concerned with imitation, particularly when we talk about modeling physics or immersing ourselves more fully into virtual environments. His point about dead bodies is also spot-on: we enjoy carnage in videogame form, but very few of us would want to be present on an actual battlefield littered with actual corpses.

The part about learning is also key. Aristotle held that all people enjoy learning. Now, of course, "learning" doesn't mean rote memorization or school, necessarily. Instead, he has something more like what Koster had in mind about learning rules and systems; how things work.

Do you remember how much fun the crane was to operate in Half-Life 2? That's a good example here; the imitation is that when we get into that cockpit, we're pleased to see that the "look and feel" resonate with what imagine them to be. We also enjoy learning how it works and all the cool things we can do with it once we've mastered it. That's just flat-out good design. The same is also true for fantastic devices, such as the gravity gun or the portal gun in Portal. It doesn't necessarily have to be "realistic" of things we see in everyday life. Rather, it just needs to be behave the way we'd expect, given the constraints or peculiarities of the game world. We need to be able to guess how something will work based on those rules we've inferred, and then delight to see we're correct. It's not a game, but I see a lot of people taking pleasure in iOS because they're able to figure things out just by trying doing things the way they think it should be done--the designers have either anticipated that, or built the system to suggest it.

Essentially we're talking about the difference between learning-by-discovery and learning-by-rote. If you had to read an instructional manual or get help from a teacher, the design has failed. The interface should always be set up in such a way that the function are not necessarily immediately obvious, but never idiosyncratic. Once we get the basics, we should be able to build on them in an intuitive and logical fashion to do more advanced things. All good games are designed this way.

Aristotle's notion of "catharsis" is also frequently discussed, though not as well understood. Here's the relevant passage:

Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions.

By "tragedy," he basically has in mind a serious play instead of a satire or comedy. Note "in the form of action, not of narrative." It's easy to imagine that he's talking about games here instead of plays, where obviously the action (gameplay) is usually of more consequence than the narrative (story, cut-scenes, etc.) I think you can legitimately boil this down to the thought that fun games are also games that affect us emotionally, arousing our pity and fear. For instance, a good game might put you on edge (fear), so that you are in a great deal of suspense. You might also pity or sympathize with your character or others in the game, such as in the Final Fantasy series. If you don't care about the other characters, you don't have as much fun.

I could go on like this at length, but suffice it to say that Aristotle's insights appeal strongly to games as well as plays. Indeed, I think they are more applicable. For instance, when he talks about characters, he says that "character comes in as a subsidiary to the actions." How many times have we seen poor games that try to establish character in lame ways, such as a written description or purely by cut scenes. Bleh! A far better way is to establish character through what actions that character performs. Think about Floyd's death in Planetfall, for instance. That was a great way to cement Floyd as a character!

Imagine that Aristotle is talking about cutscenes when he says "spectacular" here:

Fear and pity may be aroused by spectacular means; but they may also result from the inner structure of the piece, which is the better way, and indicates a superior poet. For the plot ought to be so constructed that, even without the aid of the eye, he who hears the tale told will thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes Place. This is the impression we should receive from hearing the story of the Oedipus. But to produce this effect by the mere spectacle is a less artistic method, and dependent on extraneous aids.

I don't know anyone here who would disagree that the same is true for game designers: If you have to rely on cutscenes and "extraneous" measures to make us care about the story or characters, you need to try harder. A far more artistic method is to have things emerging from the gameplay or AI of the characters in question.

Plato
Most people don't get Plato because they don't understand his irony or appreciate the dialogue form. It's hard for people to understand that what we're basically look at are model dialogues; we're not just supposed to read them, but get a feel for how they work and then go out and have our own dialogues. The idea is to learn how to ask the right sort of questions and not accept common views on things.

Indeed, Plato goes to great lengths to show that we shouldn't trust our senses or what we think we know. His allegory of the cave, for instance, stresses the dangers of placing too much faith on our senses on the one hand, and the uncomfortable nature of truth when and if we ever face it. Indeed, we might consider someone who knows the truth to be insane; a raving lunatic, simply because we're so brainwashed or incapable of thinking outside the er, cave. But what would Plato have thought about videogames?

This phrase was engraved on the door of Plato's academy:

"Let no one ignorant of geometry enter."

That sounds like a game studio to me! For Plato, geometry was critical because it led us (literally) to proofs; ultimate truths. The Pythagorean theorem, for instance, is always true, not just true about a particular triangle. On the other hand, we're not able to make a perfect triangle in the physical realm (it'll always be a little off), but can easily do this abstractly. Thus I think Plato would have a lot of fun with virtual worlds. My guess is that he'd challenge our notion that they're "virtual." I bet he'd argue that they were more "real" than what we think is the real world, since they are built, basically, on geometry (polygons and math). Of course, I wouldn't want to take this too far, because we also have the problem that you still have to use your eyes to see the screen.

But let's look at Plato's Meno. In this dialog, Socrates asks a series of questions of a slave boy. Instead of just giving the boy a series of rules, Socrates asks him questions that guide him to discover how to find twice the area of a square. It might be a bit of a stretch, but it's not hard to see here how Socrates' method is similar to what happens in many videogames. Consider Portal, for instance. How boring would it be if at the start of each level, we were shown a diagram that explained the solution? Yet that's how school is taught. Instead, the game works more like Socrates' dialog with the slave boy; we are guided to a series of steps and allowed to discover on our own the rule to each room, which, as it turns out, is something like geometry.

Consider this definition of geometry from Wikipedia: a branch of mathematics concerned with questions of shape, size, relative position of figures, and the properties of space.

Is this not Portal?

There's obviously a lot more to cover here, but perhaps this is enough to show just how much insight for game designers lies in these ancient texts.

Comments

Mark Vergeer
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:)

Wow - interesting read Matt! Of course lack of sheep - errr. sleep and nightshift does make my comment rather short.

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Rowdy Rob
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Great article, and great idea!
Matt Barton wrote:

These are some thoughts I'm trying to work up into a book project, but there's a few of the core concepts.
{........}
There's obviously a lot more to cover here, but perhaps this is enough to show just how much insight for game designers lies in these ancient texts.

I must chime in and say this is a great idea for a book, Matt! You can write about videogames from an academic/philosophical/historical perspective, or ... uh... I don't know what I'm talking about, but your subject sounds very cool!

Such a book would not only give you the joy of writing about videogames, but would also give you academic "cred" amongst your peers. There's probably not a lot of PhD's running around that are anywhere near as knowledgeable about videogame culture, technology, and philosophy as you are!

That's assuming, of course, that you're writing for an academic audience... Well, anyhow, if you pursue such a book project, I hope it goes well for you.

Matt Barton
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Thanks, guys. I plan to make

Thanks, guys. I plan to make this part of it, though obviously I need to do a lot more research on the specific stuff about Aristotle and Plato I want to cover. I also want to bring in some nihilistic philosophy of the sophists, particularly Gorgias. They are big on saying "nothing exists" (ontology), "even if something exists, nothing can be known about it" (epistemology), and "even if something can be known about it, it cannot be communicated" (semiotics?). I think this could give me a good segue into talking about how it's not helpful and even misleading to separate reality and virtuality. My basic take is that a virtual sheep is no more or less "real" than an "actual" sheep you'd find on a farm. It's still "real" in the sense that it exists in the physical world as sectors on a hard drive or electron switches, etc. I'm not saying they're the same, of course, just that the differences are not as profound as many assume. In short, a virtual sheep isn't an imaginary one; it has a physical component, even if that component is just a configuration of switches in a computer's memory. This part isn't my idea, either; I got it from a good book called The Ontology of Cyberspace.

However, the bigger fish I want to fry is that videogames are digital drugs--specifically, psychoactive drugs like LSD. This is some really exciting research in my opinion. Apparently, not only are the physical effects somewhat analogous or even in some cases identical, but the surrounding cultures are eerily similar. When somebody like Timothy Leary starts describing acid trips, it sounds like he is talking about immersion in a videogame. I also think there's a lot of shared values there, just that videogame designers don't use the same terms for the same concepts. For instance, Leary and others talk about transcendence and freeing our minds from the restraints of the conscious mind/physical world, losing track of time or the outside world, etc. Designers call that "immersion." In any case, I have serious doubts about whether anyone can really distinguish between a real thing and a hallucination, or a real thing and a virtual thing. There must surely always be some doubt, no matter how faint.

I'm not quite sure where I want to go with it, but I think I'll argue that videogames can offer all the alleged benefits of LSD and similar drugs without the awful side effects. Or, at least different side effects. Then again, it's so early in my research I'm not even really sure what the side effects of LSD are. It's hard to separate the science from the scare campaigns and anti-hippie rhetoric. But I think I can carry over some of the hippie's concerns about not working (I have lots of new books that argue the future of work is play), anti-government (what hacker can seriously get behind representational government these days?), heck, even free love (if the sort of romance that goes in places like Second Life isn't free love I don't know what is).

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Rowdy Rob
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Real versus Virtual
Matt Barton wrote:

I think this could give me a good segue into talking about how it's not helpful and even misleading to separate reality and virtuality. My basic take is that a virtual sheep is no more or less "real" than an "actual" sheep you'd find on a farm. It's still "real" in the sense that it exists in the physical world as sectors on a hard drive or electron switches, etc. I'm not saying they're the same, of course, just that the differences are not as profound as many assume..

I think what separates "virtual" from "real" is that we know that "virtual" is not "real." I don't know how to explain that with my limited state, but I guess there's sort of a "fourth wall" effect with a videogame. (Does that make sense?) If I'm running over pedestrians while shooting at the police
in "Grand Theft Auto," I know it's not "real." My experience in the virtual realm might be amusement or moral indignation, because I know it's not real. But in "reality," such occurrences or actions would result in horror or mortal fear!

Matt Barton wrote:

However, the bigger fish I want to fry is that videogames are digital drugs--specifically, psychoactive drugs like LSD. This is some really exciting research in my opinion. Apparently, not only are the physical effects somewhat analogous or even in some cases identical, but the surrounding cultures are eerily similar. When somebody like Timothy Leary starts describing acid trips, it sounds like he is talking about immersion in a videogame. I also think there's a lot of shared values there, just that videogame designers don't use the same terms for the same concepts. For instance, Leary and others talk about transcendence and freeing our minds from the restraints of the conscious mind/physical world, losing track of time or the outside world, etc. Designers call that "immersion." In any case, I have serious doubts about whether anyone can really distinguish between a real thing and a hallucination, or a real thing and a virtual thing. There must surely always be some doubt, no matter how faint.

I'm not quite sure what you mean by that last sentence there; it seems like you're contradicting what you just wrote previously in that paragraph. But, I think it serves my point in that the "doubt" is what separates the virtual from the real. Until we get sensory data plugged in to our brains a la "The Matrix," it's very hard to accept a virtual substitute as "real." I think to be "real" is to actively overtake our senses. "Virtual chocolate" might look like chocolate, might "feel" like chocolate, but it doesn't taste like chocolate or fill our stomach like chocolate. It's not chocolate.

Drugs actively effect, or overtake, our senses. This is why being "virtually" drunk is nothing like being physically drunk! And while I've never been high (especially on hallucinogenic drugs!), I seriously don't think videogame effects can be anything close to LSD! People on hallocinogens seem to believe (at the time) that their hands REALLY ARE MELTING!

I think videogames are experienced as a play-fantasy, sort of like kids playing "cowboys and indians," coupled with "Lady Gaga Meat Dress" shock value.

Matt Barton wrote:

I'm not quite sure where I want to go with it, but I think I'll argue that videogames can offer all the alleged benefits of LSD and similar drugs without the awful side effects

"All the alleged benefits of LSD" is a very strong statement. I've done a lot of reading on hallucinogenics, and one of the supposed benefits is "transcendence" in a spiritual sense. I cannot imagine a videogame offering such a "benefit" unless the player is psychotic in some form. Mind-altering substances can actually change one's view of "reality!" A well-known example is the "liquid courage" effect of alcohol.

This is not to say there are not cross-over similarities in some aspects of the experiences with videogames and drugs, since they are both (supposedly) enjoyable. There IS a line of distinction there somewhere, though, but I'm not knowledgeable enough to argue where that line is.

Matt Barton wrote:

Or, at least different side effects. Then again, it's so early in my research I'm not even really sure what the side effects of LSD are. It's hard to separate the science from the scare campaigns and anti-hippie rhetoric. But I think I can carry over some of the hippie's concerns about not working (I have lots of new books that argue the future of work is play), anti-government (what hacker can seriously get behind representational government these days?), heck, even free love (if the sort of romance that goes in places like Second Life isn't free love I don't know what is).

I'd argue that the "free love" of "Second Life" is more like "free play/free shock value" than free love. Unless the participant(s) are psychotic, that is. Maybe I'm just not imaginative enough to see it as more than "virtual." And that's my argument - that we somehow innately know the difference between "virtual" and "real," and the line has not yet been blurred via technology. Mind-altering substances can, indeed, "blur" that line.

The whole "catharsis" argument, though, is a very compelling one, I think! Ah, but I've blathered on too long as it is (it feels good to blather sometimes!)!

Matt Barton
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Nice points, Rob. Call it

Nice points, Rob. Call it "blathering" if you will, but it helps me sharpen my thought!

I think Plato would be helpful here. I think he'd say that neither the virtual chocolate nor the chocolate in your hand is real chocolate. They are only copies of some perfect chocolate the exists only in the abstract (world of forms). It could be that the virtual chocolate is closer to that form, since it is some kind of geometrically perfect shape that can be perfectly copied to infinity, whereas of course the one in your hand is to some extent always unique (never the exact same chemical composition, for instance). Then there's the question of which of the virtual chocolates is closer to The Chocolate--the instance, or the object as code, which contains all the rules and instructions for making that particular virtual chocolate? In either case, BOTH are real in that they occupy physical space, in either case the physical state of a hard drive somewhere.

I have never done LSD or any similar drugs, so I can't say for certain whether someone tripping is actually experiencing the hallucinations as indistinguishable from reality, or whether it's obvious it's some kind of trick of the senses. I've talked to many friends who claim it's the latter. For instance, one said that when he did acid, he would see "trails." So if you waved a light in front of him, streams of light would follow it. He never had a bad trip, or saw anything that scared him, or got so far out he didn't realize he was tripping.

The only people I've heard claiming that LSD is fatal or deadly are of course the anti-drug crowd, and according to them even smoking pot puts your life at risk. There's probably some healthy paranoia mixed in there, since it's obvious that people can easily get carried away (just like with alcohol). It seems stupid to me, though, to one minute laugh and condone getting "hammered," but then act like smoking a joint is Evil.

I also suspect that someone who was tempted to do something like LSD might already have worrisome tendencies or possibly already be psychotic. If you're schizophrenic and doing LSD, of course that's going to be very bad. If you're perfectly healthy and doing it, though, that's what I'm not sure about. I'd like to hear some medical opinions on it that I felt weren't just the typical knee-jerk sort of reactions (i.e., show me legit studies and data that aren't sponsored by the government).

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Rowdy Rob
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The "Academic" angle
Matt Barton wrote:

I think Plato would be helpful here. I think he'd say that neither the virtual chocolate nor the chocolate in your hand is real chocolate. They are only copies of some perfect chocolate the exists only in the abstract (world of forms). It could be that the virtual chocolate is closer to that form, since it is some kind of geometrically perfect shape that can be perfectly copied to infinity, whereas of course the one in your hand is to some extent always unique (never the exact same chemical composition, for instance). Then there's the question of which of the virtual chocolates is closer to The Chocolate--the instance, or the object as code, which contains all the rules and instructions for making that particular virtual chocolate? In either case, BOTH are real in that they occupy physical space, in either case the physical state of a hard drive somewhere.

Excuse me, but my head just exploded! I need to make some repairs here.....

(wire...duck tape... staples......)

Ok, I'm back....

I'm out of mental ammo for tonight on the deep thought stuff, but I will say this. It appears that I was approaching this subject from a "common man" viewpoint, and you are approaching it from an "academic/intelligentsia" perspective.

I will say this: whether the "common man" perspective has any merit or not, the ACADEMIC perspective would make for a much more compelling book! You know as well as I do that Academic types eat that stuff up! It also has the chance to be "important" or "groundbreaking" in such a fashion.

This is not to say that there shouldn't be some grounding in "reality." A skeptical look at some of the "supporting" research might be in order, just to let your readers know that you're not some fringe-radical wingnut pushing a "virtual cult" or something. :-)

Which brings me to...

Matt Barton wrote:

I have never done LSD or any similar drugs, so I can't say for certain whether someone tripping is actually experiencing the hallucinations as indistinguishable from reality, or whether it's obvious it's some kind of trick of the senses. I've talked to many friends who claim it's the latter.

I have no actual medical/scientific data to post here, but what I've gathered reading heavily on psychedelics seems to indicate that a lot of the effects has to do with a) the disposition of the user at the time of consumption, b) the type of psychedelic drug used, and c) the dosage of the particular drug. (I was researching this stuff for a horror story I wanted to write at the time...)

One side effect of doing this "research" was that, for a while, I was actually tempted to try some of these drugs!!! (I didn't, of course.) That's why I'm not going to post links about it or name the particular drugs here, lest I send someone else on that road. But it was very clear to me that some of these drugs truly place certain people in an alternate state of consciousness where they actually believe what they are experiencing at the time. In the case of one particular drug, many of its users seem to believe that the effect isn't so much a hallucination, but an ACTUAL DOORWAY into a real spiritual dimension! Even after the drug's effect wears off, they are still convinced the "trip" was real! You have to take heavy doses of this drug to get that effect, though; in lighter doses, it seems more like a conventional "acid" trip.

In my case, I've been on Nitrous Oxide before (dentist office), and I did experience mild auditory hallucinations. I kept hearing a "popping" sound, and everything sounded like it was reverberating in a tunnel. And I would have weird thoughts, like "that's a GREEN SOUND. That sounds like green!" Still, I was fully aware that it was the effect of the drug, and not what was really happening.

Here's a link to a "funny" nitrous trip video that went viral a while back:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oS3Olh9DnaE&feature=related

Matt Barton wrote:

The only people I've heard claiming that LSD is fatal or deadly are of course the anti-drug crowd, and according to them even smoking pot puts your life at risk. There's probably some healthy paranoia mixed in there, since it's obvious that people can easily get carried away (just like with alcohol). It seems stupid to me, though, to one minute laugh and condone getting "hammered," but then act like smoking a joint is Evil.

From what I've read, there's no proven harmful effects from LSD in most people. Of course, even aspirin can have harmful effects in some people. But, this doesn't mean LSD is harmless! I don't believe people should be messing with their mind, but that's my "judgement," not an academic argument.

Matt Barton wrote:

I also suspect that someone who was tempted to do something like LSD might already have worrisome tendencies or possibly already be psychotic. If you're schizophrenic and doing LSD, of course that's going to be very bad. If you're perfectly healthy and doing it, though, that's what I'm not sure about. I'd like to hear some medical opinions on it that I felt weren't just the typical knee-jerk sort of reactions (i.e., show me legit studies and data that aren't sponsored by the government).

I think that it's pretty clear that drugs can trigger a psychotic break in otherwise seemingly-normal people, especially if the drug is used continuously over time. Maybe these users had a deep predisposition to psychosis before the drugs, but nothing "triggered" it until the drug was consumed. Apparently this was the case with the "Jarrod Loughner" shooting incident recently.

I could go on about that subject, maybe another time...

If you're going to equate hallucinogenic effects with videogame effects, then you run into this problem. Videogame effects equal narcotic effects. Narcotic effects can trigger social and mental breakdowns. Therefore, videogames can trigger social and mental breakdowns!!!!

I'll end this up on the "real" versus "virtual" subject. Well, I'll just say this: I notice that you have a "real" beer horn, and not a "virtual" one. :-)

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