March 1st, 2021

📝 Life as Adventure Game

What's the gameplay like in the open world game of life?

It's a long-standing fascination of mine to compare real life with an adventure game. In my small Swedish hometown, games like Morrowind, Diablo, and Ultima Online were like the fairytales of my adolescence, fantastic worlds of heroism, charm, and Salience.

Horizontal Freedom and Vertical Quest

I see two different aspects of this kind of game that make them so interesting as a lens to look at life. Maybe we can call them the Horizontal and the Vertical aspects.

The Vertical is about Quest, Plot, and Narrative, while the Horizontal is about Things, Places, and Characters.

Gameplay happens in both the horizontal and vertical aspects. The primary way of playing "vertically" is to follow the Main Quest. Playing "horizontally" is a more diverse mode: exploring, tinkering with your Equipment, fighting critters just to boost your skills, etc.

I see the Horizontal as Phenomenology and the Vertical as Teleology.

I think my main philosophical interest is how those two relate to each other.

The Freedom of Open Worlds

In adventure games, there's the notion of the Open World, which I wrote about a few days ago in 📝 The Charm of Open-World Games.

The main feature of Open-World Games is that they open up the Horizontal aspect by making the Vertical aspect less predetermined. For the player, this is experienced in terms of Freedom.

In the article 📰 Roam Free: A History of Open-World Gaming, we read:

But to really classify a game as open world, it's got to be about freedom. There should be a sense that, within the rules of the game world, you can do anything at any time while freely moving about the space. It's essential for true open-world games to offer the freedom to decide when to do things, which by extension means a freedom to do things other than moving on to the next main story beat. *

Life, then, is an open-world game, because we do experience that kind of freedom. Even in highly constrained situations, we feel Agency instead of Determinism.

But as we see in 📙 Experiences of Depression, even this basic agentic freedom can be diminished. The depressed life is less “open” not because of external coercion, but through a malfunctioning in the Horizontal aspect.

Depression involves a change in the kinds of possibility that are integral to experience, amounting to a diminishment of freedom. *

When the vertical aspect is removed altogether, the game becomes a Sandbox or a Playground. This is the style of play that Ian Bogost explores in his book 📙 Play Anything, which is basically about seeing life as a vast open meta-playground.

A Playground is a place where play takes place, and play is a practice of manipulating the things you happen to find in a Playground. *

Through 📙 Experiences of Depression, we can see how a collapse of the Vertical can be an existential issue in forms of “manic” depression where salience and action are present but disconnected from larger structures.

A self that does not live into the future, that moves around in a merely playful way in the here and now, and, at best, still lives only from the past, is but momentarily ‘attuned’, not steadily advancing, developing or maturing, is not to borrow a word, an existential self. *

Playing with Teleology

So Open-World Games tend to emphasize the free play of 📙 Unit Operations in playground worlds, but that's not the whole story.

Here I think a quote from 📙 After Virtue is a good provocation:

There is no present which is not informed by some image of some future and an image of the future which always presents itself in the form of a Telos—or of a variety of ends or goals—towards which we are either moving or failing to move in the present. *

Sandboxes and playgrounds are places where children have fun and exercise their bodies and skills. We can see the implicit Teleology: the child is growing towards adolescence, adulthood, and civic participation.

For Aristotle, that kind of child's play is the preliminary practice of Virtue. Health, strength, and agility are virtues developed through exercise. After childhood, we move from the playground to the Gymnasium to train these virtues further. Philosophical debate trains intellectual virtues.

As described in 📙 After Virtue, Virtue Ethics has a Vertical axis centered around Flourishing and the Common Good. Life may be a kind of playground, but it has structure and directionality.

In games like Morrowind, there is a Main Quest and a strong Vertical dimension, but the player isn't predetermined to follow it. There is a wide variety of Side Quests.

And in following the main quest, the player also encounters a rich and colorful Guild system, drawn out in fantastic detail.

There's a set of "imperial factions" which come from the traditions and politics of the Tamriel empire: the Imperial Knights with virtues of war, the Imperial Cult with virtues of religion, etc; and another rival set of "houses" from a different non-imperial civilization.

Of course Morrowind is inspired by medieval history, the Roman empire, and so on, so it's not surprising that we can look at it from the perspective of 📙 After Virtue, which revolves around how modernity came to be so different from this type of world. MacIntyre talks about the medieval notion of the Quest, and the notion of a Tradition as a community of practice is central to his argument.

Tentative Conclusion

I'm out of time for today.

In the future, maybe tomorrow, I want to explore MacIntyre’s Critique of Modernity using this framework of Open-World Games.

And I want to keep thinking about how all this relates to 📙 Phenomenology and Virtue Ethics.

I'll end by just dragging in some relevant quotes to inspire thought:

From 📙 After Virtue:

The unity of a human life is the unity of a narrative quest. Quests sometimes fail, are frustrated, abandoned or dissipated into distractions; and human lives may in all these ways also fail. But the only criteria for success or failure in a human life as a whole are the criteria of success or failure in a narrated or to-be-narrated quest. A quest for what? *
At the heart of the aesthetic way of life, as Kierkegaard characterizes it, is the attempt to lose the self in the immediacy of present experience. The paradigm of aesthetic expression is the romantic lover who is immersed in his own passion. By contrast the paradigm of the ethical is marriage, a state of commitment and obligation through time, in which the present is bound by the past and to the future. Each of the two ways of life is informed by different concepts, incompatible attitudes, rival premises. *
So when an institution—a University, say, or a farm, or a hospital—is the bearer of a tradition of practice or practices, its common life will be partly, but in a centrally important way, constituted by a continuous argument as to what a University is and ought to be or what good farming is or what good medicine is. Traditions, when vital, embody continuities of conflict. Indeed when a tradition becomes Burkean, it is always dying or dead. *
Thus the Narratives which we live out have both an unpredictable and a partially teleological character. *
Mythology, in its original sense, is at the heart of things. *

From 📙 The Utopia of Rules by David Graeber:

One reason I have seen fit to spend so much time on fantasy worlds is because the topic opens up some fundamental questions about the nature of play, games, and freedom—all of which, I believe, lie at the core of Bureaucracy’s covert appeal. *
Administrative procedures are very much not about the creation of stories; in a Bureaucratic setting, stories appear when something goes wrong. When things run smoothly, there’s no narrative arc of any sort at all. *
And of course by the time we get to Harry Potter, we have also traveled all the way from expressly heroic realms like Cimmeria or Elfland or Hyperborea, to an antiBureaucratic narrative that’s set within a classic Bureaucratic institution: a British boarding school, in a magical world that is nonetheless replete with banks, Wizard Boards, Commissions of Enquiry, and even prisons. *
What ultimately lies behind the appeal of Bureaucracy is fear of play. *

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