critique 1: towards better critiques of games

i want to start this by saying that a critique of games does not really matter, and anyone who says otherwise has something in it for them (whether that's money, influence, or plain ol' enjoyment). at best, we should engage in criticism of the 'field' because it's a way to sharpen our minds towards other more important topics. there is a sort of irony in this attitude, in that our criticism of games itself becomes a sort of play, insofar as play is the emulation and practice of social forms. bearing this in mind, let's play critics and see how we can flesh out our understanding of tabletop games and the modes in which we play them.

"Therefore it is necessary that this terror and darkness of the mind be dispelled not by the rays of the sun nor by the bright beams of day, but by the appearance and law of nature."

a good central question to ask is, "why do we play games?" or "why do we play [specific game]?" this question will reveal the base presuppositions of anyone who tries to answer it definitively. 

all sorts of liberal-minded people in this scene can readily accept that the fantasies modeled in games are representations of meta-game fantasies, whether racism or sex or imperialism or whatever else. however, this sort of analysis is always accompanied with the moral obligation to select socially appropriate fantasies, or fantasies which are adequately censored and confined according to the scene's expectations. for example, the old school dungeon campaign is taken to be an example of racist and colonialist aspirations, and the solution often proposed is to substitute inhuman monsters for rich people who deserve to be burgled or killed.

this analysis is not interesting to me for the following reasons: first, it is a moral analysis which is satisfied with a critique of games only insofar as they deviate from acceptable mores; second, it is a content-wise analysis which is blind to the structures of the games' fantasy, and so it is satisfied to replace the explicit content without considering its symbolic structure. it is satisfied with the substitution of dungeon crawls with mansion crawls, despite the underlying petit bourgeois fantasy of thriving outside the system [2]. it is satisfied with an uncolonized america composed of indigenous republics and empires, reproducing the same modern fantasy as an eternally pseudo-medieval europe with the birthmarks of an idealized wild west [3]. despite the medium having existed for a couple of decades [4], and despite an overcrowded market of self-identified cottage industrialists [5], nothing has really changed for tabletop games in form or function. more importantly, its hobbyists are often blind to the social predetermination of their fun, in that they take their enjoyment of games for granted.

i quoted a passage from lucretius' on the nature of things (latin: de rerum natura) because this last semester, i wrote a research paper about how lucretius pointedly criticizes hesiod's model of desire. hesiod wrote in his poem works and days that human beings, specifically men, desire to toil because that is the only way for men to recover the blissful satisfaction (namely bios, translated by g. most as "the means of life") which zeus has hidden from them. as an epicurean, lucretius denies this outright and he argues that human beings only toil because they have convinced themselves that toil is necessary for pleasure when, in reality, it only leads to pain. in short, lucretius recognized that the things we desire are predetermined by material and social forces which are almost alien to us. by taking those forces for granted and assuming that they are transhistorical, we give them power to define and control our lives [6].

lucretius is too optimistic for my taste [7], but his critical attitude towards his time's view of history and religion is essential towards a 'scientific' critique of anything. we cannot take our beliefs and our desires for granted, lest we give power to the institutions which sanction them. this is not because power is intrinsically bad--it's a dubious abstract concept--but because i think some hobbyists are being played by forces of markets and marketing to which they turn a blind eye. why do some desire to steal? why do some desire to adventure? why do some desire to write massive systematic tomes of rules and 'lore'? why do some desire to play them? why has dungeons & dragons in name remained popular? should people play games that aren't dungeons & dragons, and why has the negative reply to this become an indie slogan? the answers to these questions must be taken for granted to participate in one tabletop scene or another. i think that neither answer nor question should be taken for granted, and i hope to investigate this point further.

overall, i hope to explore from a psychoanalytic perspective the various reasons why people enjoy these games, and how this also informs the composition of games. i think this will be accomplished in part by a historical reconstruction of trends in the hobby, from war games to “trad” games to “lyric” games (and all the steps and branches in between). a view towards the production and distribution of game materials is also necessary, i think, to understand how the economic cycle influences the forms of text and play by extension.

i have written these posts prior, and i will likely refer back to them or retread the ground i have already covered in them:


[1] lucretius, de rerum natura 1.146-8. translation my own.

[2] chiquitafajita_. sigma bandits.

[3] others have written about how d&d style fantasy, despite its medieval aesthetic, more closely resembles the social environment of an idealized wild west style colonialism.

[4] sarcasm

[5] sarcasm

[6] i disagree with lucretius that desire can be consciously reformed, and i think this points to the ideological aims of epicurean philosophy in that it believes itself able to bypass ideology.

[7] i think marx and freud had the right idea that there is no escape from what lucretius calls an 'alien mouth'. however, deleuze and guattari seem to sympathize with lucretius in anti-oedipus.


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