C. Thi Nguyen’s Games: Agency As Art is about games, and about why nobody should be ashamed of them — playing them, designing them, or discussing them with other adults. I read the book, and I stopped being ashamed. Unfortunately, I don’t know what a game is anymore. This is a review about that.
The first thing that struck me about Nguyen’s book is what it did not say, the place where it did not begin. For more than half a century, games — video games especially — have been blamed for everything from hooliganism to school shootings. Studies to the contrary notwithstanding, the weight of these accusations is felt in every serious conversation about the activity; despite the artistry in modern game design, non-gamers still don’t ask, “Are they good?” but only, “Are they safe?” For all of the industry’s users — and the numbers are indeed massive — this flavor of pastime is still stuck on the far side of respectability. At work you might talk about Succession, but not Animal Crossing.
Nguyen, a philosopher at the University of Utah, is not interested in engaging in this debate. Instead, his book addresses a critique that seems more minor but is ultimately harder to shake: that even if games aren’t bad, they are certainly a waste of time; they are simply “a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles” in the words of Bernard Suits (quoted early in the book) — the operative word being unnecessary. Furthermore, games offer nothing that could not be provided through some more worthy pursuit.
Now, even amateur gamers will intuit that this can’t be true, but Nguyen’s philosophical firepower is directed at explaining why it is not true. If you think games are a waste of time, argues Nguyen, it is only because you have fundamentally misunderstood how humans decide to spend their lives. Specifically, you have forgotten about interactive experiences, and it is the creation of exquisitely personal interactive experiences that separates games from all other pursuits.
It is in shoring up the human desire for experiences that Nguyen makes his most profound observation: yes, humans think in terms of means and ends, but the latter is sometimes just an excuse for the former. Sure, sometimes our ends dictate our means — I go to the store so I can satiate my hunger — but just as often we select ends because the means themselves are appealing. A person who sets forth on a long hike through a national park, on a trail that will deposit them exactly where they started, is clearly using “get to the end” as a thin excuse to have a glorious day. A college student playing the board game Settlers of Catan only ever cares about acquiring sheep and wheat cards because those goals allow her to have an experience with friends. Many modern board games are more fun if you’re bad at them, and a father playing Checkers against his child might not be trying to win at all. Goals, argues Nguyen, can be enduring — I brush my teeth because I want them to remain healthy — but they can just as easily be conveniences, assumed to enable an experience, and quickly discarded once the experience concludes.
But Nguyen then takes it a step further: if games are enjoyable experiences propped up by flimsy objectives, and if games are judged by their enjoyability, then game design is the art of engineering paths to success that make for a pleasurable, beautiful experiences. The game designer’s special tool to do this is the rule, which confines the player to a particular set of choices and win conditions. Because of this, games aren’t always pleasant to observe; some, like those that make you strap a VR headset to your face, are downright off-putting. But this is fine; unlike music or film, the aesthetics of games unfold through doing, not looking (though millions of Twitch streams might disagree on this point). Sometimes you just have to be there.
It’s the intentional use of well-crafted goals to create unique experiences that makes games special. Every game, from Candy Land to Call of Duty, places the gamer in the position of agent, responsible to perform, to choose. We adore games because we adore being agents; we like making choices, we like sitting in someone else’s chair, and we especially like the rule-based constraints that force our choices to be blissfully less complicated than actual life. Nguyen also makes the keen insight that we like our games to be just hard enough to make us feel that we have used our all to win; it is games like these that grant us the ever-elusive sense of achievement.
Good books have a funny way of making trouble for themselves. As I read Games, I found myself agreeing; as I read more, I found myself agreeing too much. The core problem of Games is that Nguyen’s answer is stronger than his question, and as the book proceeds it becomes more and more difficult to understand why the book should focus on the things we traditionally call games in the first place. With the concept “aesthetic striving play,” Nguyen gives us a way of finding games in all corners of our lives — and if it’s no longer shameful to do so, why not call those things games, too?
I’m asking this question abstractly, but I’m thinking about it in terms of one text, a passage derived from the Talmud that celebrates the righteousness of Jewish pastimes above all others.
We are thankful to you, our God, for putting our lot among those who sit in the study hall and not among those who sit on the corners. We get up early and they get up early: we get up early for Torah, and they get up early for frivolous things. We work and they work. We work and are rewarded; they work and are not rewarded. We run and they run. We run to a life in the World to Come, and they run to an empty chasm.
This text is recited every time someone completes a tractate of Talmud, which takes some serious doing even for advanced learners. Whether a person has spent a year studying ancient property law or the regulation of vows, and whether they remember what they have studied or not, the learner rejoices that they have spent their time better than others.
But why should this be so? Following Nguyen, the cacophony of the beit midrash, the study hall, is not much different from a busy night at the board game café: both are forms of aesthetic striving, both involve friendly competition, and neither is designed to make anything. Indeed, the idea that Torah study is a form of play helps example both why it is so beloved in certain Jewish communities and why people who are not engaged in that learning find it so hard to appreciate; it is, in the parlance of the Talmud, supposed to be done l’shma, for its own sake. To take it further: Why not imagine all religious ritual as a kind of game — or even all secular ritual? Why should we not situate ourselves in a world full of games?
Nguyen acknowledges this extension but seems hesitant to pursue it. Toward the beginning of the book he gestures at Johan Huizinga, whose 1938 book Homo Ludens did in fact make the case that games are genetically linked to rituals, performances, and all sorts of activities that take place within the so-called “magic circle,” in which the normal rules of life are suspended and we enter what the book Ritual and Its Consequences calls an “‘as if or ‘could be’ universe.” Nguyen says that he thinks games are different, but he never really gets around to explaining how. If anything, Nguyen acknowledges the fuzziness of his category: late in the book he warns against companies that gamify employee work goals, providing a “fantasy of value clarity” that obscures the essential messiness of the real world. In an interview with Ezra Klein, he notes that QAnon and other conspiracy theories have turned American politics into “research” that serves as a kind of self-fashioned puzzle box. If we are willing to admit it, life is full of games. The people who worry that games will remove us from reality need not be concerned; in the modern world, there is no unified reality from which we can be removed.
This actually strengthens Nguyen’s case for the category’s importance because it addresses the book’s other major fault: its inability to recognize that the reversal of means and ends is never permanent, that the two run into each other constantly — and that this confusion of means and ends is a basic element of our emotional lives. Consider it: the football player whose college scholarship is riding on the outcome of a match. The almost comical number of video games that are metaphors for depression. The trauma survivor who plays Candy Crush to ease his symptoms. The concept of the “sore loser.” Such messiness has already motivated more than one academic critique of the book, and while Nguyen tries to accommodate them by putting up taxonomies, the simpler solution is simply that games are porous to reality and will always be so.
Of course, it is still possible to waste one’s time. Ironically, Nguyen’s defense of “unnecessary obstacles” allows us to evaluate whether the particular unnecessary obstacle we’ve selected is well chosen. No defense of games will shake off the idea that some people are getting up early for frivolous things, are running toward an empty chasm. There will never be agreement on how best to live life; life, as Nguyen tells us, is too complicated for that. “In a game, for once in my life, I know exactly what it is that I’m supposed to be doing,” he says. I feel this. There is never any shame in finding one’s purpose.
David Zvi Kalman writes about technology and religion. He is scholar in residence and director of New Media at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America and the owner of Print-O-Craft Press.