On Radical Freedom and Its Persistence in Gameplay Situations

xbox-1602822_960_720This article is a response to a paper written by Marta Matylda Kania, a Polish philosopher and game designer, entitled Spirit of Seriousness and Bad Faith: On the Meaning of In-game LifeIn the paper, Kania argues for an existential distinction between what she terms gameplay situations and a life situations. A gameplay situation is defined by Kania as “one of possible situations that can arise between a human being and a  game,” and a life situation, though not explicitly defined in the paper, would most reasonably be defined as any situation in which we are not currently playing some video game or otherwise interacting in some virtual reality.

The difference, she claims, has to do with a disparity between how two of Sartre’s defense mechanisms, bad faith and spirit of seriousness, act in a game world as opposed to the real world. In a life situation, as Kania and Sartre argue, we cannot escape neither our freedom nor our responsibility for it. We are responsible for the decisions we make, as we are free to make them as a transcendent self – that is, since we are able to see ourselves as an other to ourselves, we make all of our decisions from a position of freedom (whether or not we admit it). This is where the defense mechanisms of bad faith and the spirit of seriousness come into play.

The first, bad faith, is “a conviction that one is determined by and limited to a performed role.” As an example, consider a woman who defines herself as a waitress and performs differently due to this self-assigned role. She might act politely around guests towards which she would otherwise act differently – say, a sexist patron – using her role as a waitress to create a false limitation on her freedom. She might say “I would have done X, but my role as a waitress kept me from doing X,” when in reality it was her own freedom, namely her choice to perform the role of waitress, which kept her from doing so. Such a person is acting in bad faith according to Sartre, as they are limiting their own freedom in a dishonest manner in an attempt to shift responsibility and blame from themselves to a role they are performing.

The second, spirit of seriousness, is a conviction that the reason for one’s actions, and therefore their meaning, can be found in the facticity of the world rather than from within. The person claims the meaning for their actions can be found in the world, perhaps claiming they are a “slave to the world’s demands,” and thus again disingenuously denies the responsibility they take for their actions.

In a gameplay situation, however, Kania claims that one is not held to the same responsibility. She claims that in the game world  “there is nothing absurd and there is no freedom,” and thus that “every player will find herself in this facticity [of the game world] and her situation will be determined by it. She will find the set of in-game meanings with no relation to her individual freedom, but related to self-avatar instead.” Kania claims that since the game world and the self-avatar are interconnected, “the obstacles … offered by a gameworld are mute demands [to use Sartre’s words] designed to mirror abilities of the self-avatar.” The game world is then, according to Kania, unique in contrast to the real world in that it holds meaning and purpose. Thus, when we are playing a game, Kania claims we cannot authentically take responsibility for our freedom and can thus experience a reprieve from it and the responsibilities it entails.

While Kania’s article is convincing, it does seem that there are a few rebuttals which may be offered to show that suspension of freedom and responsibility is not possible through the mechanisms mentioned. I will turn to three different rebuttals of Kania’s arguments, which I will call the Argument Against Suspension, the Argument Against Necessarily Meaningful Gameworlds, and the Argument For Gameworld Freedom.

The Argument Against Suspension

At the beginning of her paper, Kania draws a distinction between life situations and gameplay situations, claiming that “the moment I make the decision of turning the game on becomes the moment when I enter the self-avatar’s facticity in the gameworld.” This claim seems to ignore, however, that the facticity of the life situation in which one finds one’s self is not suspended with the push of a power button. Every decision the player makes is not just a decision relative to the gameworld, but is also a decision relative to the real world. Every time the player pushes a button on the controller they are not just interacting with the gameworld, but they are also making a conscious decision in their life situation, namely, the decision to continue playing the game. Furthermore, every bit of the gameworld also exists, to some extent, in the real world as well. It is not as if the player is transported to a different world through the self-avatar interacting with the game world. I do not dispute that there may be some level of interaction between the self-avatar and the game world (and, in fact, in the code behind the game, there must necessarily be) just that there is also an interaction between the self and the real world in parallel to the interactions in the gameplay situation. Just as our self-avatar reacts to the monster by swinging her sword, so too do we interact with the appearance of the monster on screen with the pressing of a button on the gamepad. Thus while we may not be responsible for our freedom in relation to the gameworld (though I argue later on that we might), this does not mean any responsibility has been suspended, as our freedom in relation to the real world remains as intact as ever. Can we not, for example, chide ourselves for our overplaying of video games? Can we not say things like “I meant to press the X button instead of Triangle” when trying to pull off a combo in a fighting game? Are we not responsible for the decision we make to continue playing the game while playing it, even if the majority of our attention is perceived in relation to the self-avatar rather than the self? It seems that our freedom to play the game does not cease to exist when we hit the power button. We are, in fact, making a continuous series of conscious decisions to continue playing the game; at any time we could cease playing (and we need not even save it).

The Argument Against Necessarily Meaningful Gameworlds

Kania argues that gameworlds, as opposed to the real world, have inherent meaning. She claims that a gameworld’s  “meaning is predesigned and inscribed into it, and can be perceived only as factual while taking a position of the self-avatar.” She further claims that the game world, as opposed to the real world, is not absurd, claiming that “games create obstacles: but not [the] kind of obstacles against which my own freedom can be realized [emphasis Kania’s].” While it is true that the game world is designed, even, one could say, designed to be played in a particular way, it is not necessarily the case that the game world is not, in some sense, absurd. In many, perhaps even all games, the goals of the game are merely suggestions to the player. Take, for example, open world games such as Skyrim or the Fallout series, which offer a staggering number of both side quests (those which do not contribute to the main suggested goal but other, though admittedly premeditated, suggested goals) and more importantly, non-goal-oriented activities (such as cooking meals, or following NPCs around to see how they go about their days).

It must be understood that the gameworld need not be meaningful; just as the meaning in the world is created by the player, the meaning in the gameworld is created through the actions of the self-avatar. Take, as an example, the watermelon delivery mission in Super Mario Sunshine. While the goal of the mission is suggested to be delivering the watermelon to the watermelon festival, it need not be the goal of the player or the self-avatar. There is nothing about the environment that requires the player to deliver the melon, it is merely a suggestion. The player could, instead, spend the entire time climbing trees and collecting coins, only to cancel the mission and never deliver the melon. Would this not be an example of the player acting in an absurd world? It is no different than the suggested goals of the real world: love, say, or money. Just as we need not live life in a way to fulfill its suggested goals, we need not play a video game in order to fulfill the suggested goals programmed into it by the game developer.

It might be argued that all of these contribute to the main goal in some fashion and are thus meaningful, say, for instance, one completes a side quest to obtain a better weapon with which to fight the final boss, or the coins Mario collects, while not directly related to the mission, still benefit him in some way. However, while they may contribute to these suggested goals, they need not. They might instead fulfill some goal of the player rather than the self-avatar, or fulfill no goal at all. For example, someone might begin a side quest to obtain a weapon which looks cool – and not just cool to the self-avatar, but cool to the player themselves. Indeed, it would be quite strange, though not unheard of, to make choices on the aesthetics of weapons based on the perceived preferences of the self-avatar rather than one’s own preferences. In cases such as weapon choice, the player will often pick the weapon which is most aesthetically pleasing to them, not to their self-avatar. Similarly, while collecting coins might impact the suggested sub-goal of a Mario game to get more lives, this does not stop the player from collecting the coins and then abruptly shutting the game off without saving, thus undoing any contributions the coins may have made towards the progress of one of the game’s suggested goals.

The Argument For Gameworld Freedom

Kania seems to suggest that games can only be played in a goal-oriented, or, at very least, environment-oriented manner. This is not the only way games can be played, however. They need not necessarily be played as intended, and the goals suggested by the gameworld may not be shared by the player, as hinted at earlier.

One example of gameworld freedom is the imposition of goals by the player onto the gameworld that were not in any way shaped by the environment of the game or the suggested goals of the developer. For example, many players have played so-called ‘pacifist runs’ of Skyrim, in which they placed a self-imposed limit to not deal any damage to any living creature for the entirety of the game session. This is not a goal that relates to the environment (in fact, the environment was designed with lots of violence and killing in mind). Both the player and the self-avatar have freedom in this scenario, as they are acting on suggestions not present in the gameworld – in this case a prerogative coming from human morality and pacifism. Thus we see that the gameworld can still be imposed upon, much as the real world can. And these impositions can come from the self-avatar, as it may have been decided by the player prior to the session that the self-avatar would be an honorable pacifist, and thus, upon entering the world, the self-avatar would impose that meaning upon the world.

The suggestion here is that games can be played in a completely non-goal-oriented fashion. One could run around the environment doing whatever one wished, the only limit being the physics of the game (much like we are only limited in the real world by the physics of said world). There is nothing stopping someone from racing the wrong way in Mario Kart, or trying to see how many players they can get ejected from the game in Fifa Soccer, goals which are not in any way suggested by the developer or the gameworld. The mere fact that something is possible in the gameworld does not mean the action is inherently meaningful just because some actions in the gameworld might be.

Some games, in fact, like Minecraft, are more often played in a non-goal-oriented way than any other. While it is technically true that the game has a story line and can be beaten, the majority of players and self-avatars create their own meaning in the game world, by adding houses and other structures which they can view for aesthetic pleasure and interact with. While the physics of the game world allows this kind of activity, it does not require the player to take any actions other than those necessary to interact with the physics of the game, just as someone in real life might be constrained by the physics of the universe, but can nonetheless build a house.

Furthermore, it is possible for players to not only engage in non-goal-oriented play, but even non-environmentally-oriented play. By exploiting glitches in the game, for example, players are able to do things which the gameworld itself never intended to be possible. Players completing speed runs of old pokémon games exploit bugs in the hex code in order to modify memory space in the program’s stack, allowing them to reach the end of the game as quickly as possible. Not only is this an example of a goal which was not within the realm of the gameworld, but it is also an action which lies in direct contrast to the game’s environment, not only for the player, but for the self-avatar as well. Not only is the player exploiting the bug, but the self-avatar is acting in a manner that the physics of the gameworld otherwise denies.

Conclusion

I find that there are at least three plausible arguments which, if found to be correct, contradict Kania’s claims. It seems that while it may be true that certain actions made in a gameworld by a self-avatar are meaningful, and while certain aspects of a gameworld might not be absurd, it is not necessarily true that actions made in a gameworld by a self-avatar are meaningful, nor are they necessarily tied to the environment of the game. Thus, I find that not only is someone who is playing a video game still acting in bad faith and spirit of seriousness when playing a videogame, but they are still acting freely and are responsible for their actions on Sartre’s conception.

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