2009-01-09

Ny blogg igen!

Jag har bestämt mig för att börja blogga på svenska.

Jag överger den här bloggen tills vidare. Min nya blogg finns på:

http://kallebergman.wordpress.com/

2008-11-10

Games as politics

Can gaming be a tool for a progressive, Leftist politics? Some Swedish larpers seem to think so. They have argued that larping can be a means for exploring new subjectivities — new gender roles, for instance — thus putting existing structures in question and open the path for a transformation of society.

This idea — of creating a space, a realm, where certain structures of mainstream society are inverted or transformed through the medium of performance (and what is larp if not a species of performance?) — closely resembles what anthropologist Victor Turner called communitas. Communitas is a state, common in the ritual practices of traditional cultures, wherein social structures are inverted or eliminated. The king becomes slave, the slave, king. In communitas, the tension that exists in every society between hierarchy and collective is temporarily resolved. As such, communitas can serve a conservative purpose — it allows people better to deal with the existing social structure. But communitas can also be transformative, when it is brought out from the close confines of the rite of passage, the holy feast, the coronation ceremony, and made into a movement. Examples from history abound. Turner cites the 60s counterculture, the Indian liberation movement and assorted millenarian sects.

If we buy this notion of larp as a potential source of communitas, then it seems as if the main issue is whether this communitas will perform a conservative or a transformative function — will the experience of social rule-bending be brought over to "real life", made to found new practices and lifestyles, or will it serve to strengthen existing institutions by offering a temporary respite in make-believe form?

But is this really a proper analysis? Are the main sources of opposition to the left today of a symbolic-structural nature — the kind of symbolic structures one might hope to upend through communitas? Doesn't today's hegemonic liberal culture already encourage us continually to transform symbolic structures, encourage us to remain in a state of flux with regard to status, hierarchy and tradition? Marx said, apropos of capitalism, that "all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned". Is this not truer now than ever, in our post-modern era? Global capital requires us, the Western class of capitals "privileged" servants that drives the motors of economic growth, to be creative, flexible, accomodating... replaceable . As such, it could be argued that communitas is actually a cornerstone of liberal ideology — the ruling ideology of global capitalism. Far from being radical and transformative, communitas is already the telos of liberal politics.

The locus of oppression today is not the old symbolic hierarchical structures of the Western world which are in any case withering away. In the ideal liberal world, there is no difference between individual subjects with regard to society at large — oppression today is not the oppression by specific individuals whom society calls "masters" of specific individuals whom society calls "slaves" — the specific individuals are totally interchangeable, and what remains is the structure of oppression as such which is not symbolic at all (does not involve any fixed "roles" into which individuals enter) but purely material — a function of the flow of natural resources, labor, and commodities. In fact, to tear down the wall between, for instance, the man and the woman — as those Swedish larpers are trying to do — can only serve global capital in so far as it makes subjects less dependent on the categories enforced by tradition and hence more mobile, more flexible, more interchangeable.

This is not to say, of course, that trying to eliminate gender differences is bad in any way. It is one of those things about liberal politics which is actually good and which the Left ought also to strive for. But it is unreasonable to assume that such activities taken in isolation could serve the main leftist cause, which has always been and will remain to destroy the material structures of oppression and exploitation which bind people in serfdom, not through the mediation of symbolic categories but because of the exigencies of their material existence.

So if games are to be transformative (from a leftist point of view), it is not enought that they bring about communitas. They must rather help to create a revolutionary subjectivity in the participants. Is this possible? I would argue that it is not, on the basis that the purpose of games are precisely the opposite of creating revolutionary fervor: they act as a sedative. Remember that old Roman political principle of bread and circuses. Today's circus is, or is increasingly becoming, the game. The reason for this, I think, is that today's society is increasingly organized on the basis that each person should be able to live an unhindered, secure, unproblematic life and be able to reproduce him- or herself and to contribute to the reproduction of society without impairment. In its extreme form, this lifestyle, the purpose of which is of course to make the machinery of capitalism work as smoothly as possible, becomes a sort of vegetative "baseline life", a life without excitations, without excitement — the lowest common denominator of "life". Such a life is really a sort of no-life (in the sense that you might tell someone "get a life") — it is desubjectivizing. That part of the human spirit that strives for excitation, for a life that is not simply the flaccid reproductive cycles of fungi and bacteria but the life of a full human subject with all what that entails, must find an outlet outside of society, since society allows no such excitation. But since society encompasses all of the "real" world, the only source of outlet is in a world of make-believe — in games.

The above analysis is a simplification, of course. We do not all live the life of simple reproduction and there are other sources of excitations than games. But increasingly, it is becoming reality. Increasingly, games are becoming the only arena where we can exercise our "will to power". As such, games, far from being a potential training-ground for transformative sentiment, are sure to be the drain into which all such sentiments are flushed.

My thesis here is simple. Whereas games are fun, and can perhaps learn us to function better and smoother in liberal society, they will not be the tool that the Left is desperately seeking for upending the capitalist world order. If we want to do that, we will have to stop playing and start living in real life.

2008-09-17

Languages

I have recently discovered how much I prefer writing in Swedish to writing in English.

This is no less than natural, of course, since Swedish is my first language and English is, at best, a foreign language that I happen to have a rather good grasp on. But there are deeper reasons at work. Reasons profound, almost metaphysical.

English does, quite honestly, disgust me. It is a vulgar tongue, fit for vulgar men only. It is a base creole of Old English and French, lacking all the handsome ruggedness of the old Germanic vocabulary as well as the flair of antiquity that only a true Romance language can muster. It is spoken monotone, with a certain drone, sometimes interrupted by shrill screams. It nominally has vowels, but they all reduce to the same lazy 'schwa'. I'm not even going to go into the consonants.

To be certain, the English language has fostered its share of great men of letters. I presently can recall only Shakespeare, but I'm sure there must be others. However, it is arguable whether "fostered" is the right word to use, unless we by "foster" mean something akin to what old Josef Fritzl did to his (grand)children. That something good might nevertheless have emerged from conditions such as these, is simply proof of the unconquerability of the human spirit.

If I persist in tormenting myself by writing in this accursed tongue, it is only because it has somehow — inexplicably — become a Lingua Franca for all humanity. Every would-be man of letters must endeavor — this is my firm belief — in making his voice heard to all of mankind. If this means that I must sully myself with the Saxon tongue, then so be it. I just hope that someday, people will acknowledge my sacrifice, and shed a tear for a man of so young an age, lost irredeemably in the claws of English.

2008-07-25

Thoughts on the player-character relationship

A lot has been said about this topic. Here are just some additional thoughts:

We have an idea of the existence of something called "immersion", when the player tries to rid himself of meta-level thinking, and tries to "become" the character he's playing — to adopt his persona as naturally as possible.

And we also have an experience of the total annihilation of the character as character — of the character becoming nothing but an empty vehicle for the player's quest for phat lewt or some other kind of problem-solving.

Placed between these two extremes, the annihilation of the persona and the "annihilation" of the person, we have a continuum in which the person and the persona exist in tandem, parallel to each other, "alongside" each other, and where the person makes decisions about the actions of the persona from his own standpoint as someone different from the persona.

According to the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, in order for a fictional character to be properly aesthetic, he has to be viewed "in the mode of the other"; that is to say, as if he were another person than the one doing the viewing. Bakhtin argues that the activities and life of a person can only be invested with artistic value from the point of view of another person, because artistic values are such values as tragedy, justice, hubris etc, and from your own point of view, you can never experience your own life as tragic, just etc — you can be depressed but to really be able to see a life as properly tragic, it has to be the life of another.

Of course, the consequence would be that Bakhtin would not consider the kind of game, where one term in the dyad player-character is eliminated, as properly artistic or aesthetic.

In the intermediate spectrum, a possible field of investigation opens up. How do players view their characters? Can this be influenced by mechanics or other means? And even if the third-person view of the character opens up the possibility of an aesthetic sight, in Bakhtin's sense — to what extent is this possibility realized by players in actual games?

2008-07-22

New Blog: Calvinosophy!

Lately, I've had an increasing urge to write about philosophy. And since it's always funner to write about something when there's at least a theoretical chance that somebody else will read it, I've wanted to blog about it. However, I do not wish to clutter this blog with a lot of philosophical talk, so therefore, I've started a new blog. I present to you: Calvinosophy.

2008-07-11

Semiotics as a Way to Formally Model Role-Playing

In researching role-playing, we are basically dealing with three descriptive/analytical levels: the formal level, the functional level and the aesthetic/content level (one could argue that there is also a social/cultural level, but I find it rather boring). The aesthetic level is the level at which we analyze the fictional and artistic content of role-playing, investigate how it comes about, what it means and how we should relate to it. The functional level is the level at which the mechanics of role-playing are analyzed: basically, what makes it tick — this is what Forge theory has mainly been doing with its GNS triangles and new system design ideas and whatnot.

The formal level, finally, is the level at which role-playing is described as a purely formal structure without any reference to specific content. This post will be about the formal level. Some attempts have been made at devising formal models of role-playing, usually by creating hierarchies between interacting elements such as system, fiction, social contract, etc. This post does not contain such a model. Rather, it presents an approach to the construction of this kind of models, sort of a meta-model. To be specific, I think that the study of the formal level of role-playing should take its cue from semiotics.

To approach role-playing in a semiotic way, i e from the viewpoint of the science of signs and systems of signs, means to acknowledge the simple fact that RPGs are just such a system of signs. This would entail the added benefit that role-playing theory would be able to utilize the many insights of semiotic theory.

What is semiotics? It all goes back to Ferdinand de Saussure, and his distinction between the signifier and the signified. In de Saussure's terminology, every sign is made up by these two parts, constituting an integrated whole that is recognized and understood as a sign. Both signifier and signified are abstracta, a point seldom appreciated. This is to say, that when we hear the word "tree" spoken, it is not this particular, concrete sound that is the signifier, but the abstract sound-image evoked by the sound, and which is represented by our brain in some mental medium. Correspondingly, the signified of the word "tree" is not any particular tree, nor is it the sum of all actual trees, but it is the abstract concept TREE, as represented by our brain.

But the central insight of de Saussure was that this two-place relationship between signifier and signified could be applied to things that weren't words. For instance: the little stylized pictures found on toilet doors aren't words, but they are signs, and they can be analyzed as consisting of signifier (the little pictures) and signified (the mens' and the ladies' room, respectively).

An added degree of complexity emerges when one realizes that signs can take the role of signifiers for higher-level signs. This is what happens, trivially, in metaphor. For instance, George Orwell's novel 'the animal farm' consists of signifiers (words) and signifieds (the fictional content of the novel), but we all now that the novel as such is really a metaphor for Soviet totalitarianism. This can be analyzed as a signifier-signified relationship, where the literal content of the novel becomes the signifier, signifying the metaphorical content.

* * *

There are of course several modes of signification, several kinds of signs. They range from the very concrete (the way a picture of a meadow signifies... well, a meadow) to the very abstract (the way mathematical symbols signify... God knows what). Some of these modes of signification will be of high relevance for RPG theory, some will hardly matter at all. I will, however, not try to figure out beforehand which semiotic categories are relevant for us and which are not. Rather, I will just go right ahead and try to sketch out how a semiotic model of RPG might look, and point out relevant distinctions along the way.

We will start at a baseline level of content: the fictional content of the gaming world, what has been called the "shared imagined space", the places, people and events taking place in the make-believe world of the game. There is, hopefully, nothing weird about considering this to be the content of role-playing.

Although this content might, as already demonstrated, constitute the signifier of a metaphor, it is more natural to view it as a signified. The signified of what? What sets of signs have the fictional content of an RPG as their signified? There are many such signs, but most of them sort into two basic categories:
  • Linguistic signs
  • Mechanical signs
Linguistic signs are just what they sound like: language! Speech! Discourse! Of course, the majority of any RPG session takes place in the medium of spoken and written language. This is trivially true, but this simple fact holds great treasures in store for us: it means that a vast ocean of linguistic research can be brought to bear on RPG theory. In recent decades linguists have acquired an immensely increased understanding on how language is structured and how it is used to accomplish many things. Both the strictly formal as well as the social and cultural aspects of language use have been considered by an army of scholars. We are talking potential!

Linguistic signs affect the fictional content of RPGs in several ways. On the most basic level, a player simply describes something in the game world. For instance, I might say "my character opens the door and steps inside". This would be a two-level sign. On the first level is the purely linguistic content: the string of words and their meaning in the English language. On the second level, this English sentence is taken to signify certain events in the fiction.

The relationship between these two levels is not trivial. For instance, imagine that you are the GM, and you have decided that the door in question is locked. You now say "the door is locked". So, obviously, my character did not open the door and did not step inside, even though this was what I said. The ways in which the first-level linguistic signs affect the fiction on the second level is by no means straightforward, but is governed by a set of complicated rules.

Another use of linguistic signs is in-character speech. Imagine me making a serious face, adopting a slightly lower pitch and saying "By Pelor, this door is locked!" This is immediately understood, not as describing the game-world directly (we already knew the door was locked) but as describing what my character says. Once again, you — the GM — might theoretically say something like "you find yourself to be suddenly mute" (perhaps the evil wizard cast a 'silence' spell just then), thus annulling what I tried to introduce into the fiction.

Mechanical signs are more peculiar for RPGs. They are given by the game rules as spelled out in rulebooks and suchlike. Game rules, too, are two-level signs. First, we have the strictly abstract mechanical level. On this level, certain marks and numbers on my character sheet are understood to signify abstract mechanical magnitudes and concepts. The comes the fictional level, where these abstract magnitudes and concepts in turn signify facts and circumstances about the fiction.

For instance: take hit points. A certain number of marks or crosses, or simply a digit, on my character sheet will be taken to signify the purely abstract notion of "numbers of hit points left". This abstract notion will, in turn, be taken to signify the medical state of my character in the fiction.

* * *

But a heap of signs does not make a system of signification, and we all know that in any RPG, the linguistic and mechanical signs will interact in complex ways and, above all, that they will be used by the participants according to certain rules.

This is really where the semiotic approach to RPG theory comes to its forte, for what is a set of rules that governs the use of a system of signs if not a grammar?

The analogy with natural language now becomes clear. A conversation corresponds to a gaming session. The content of the conversation corresponds to the fictional content of the game. The words and sentences used correspond to the linguistic, mechanical and other signs constituting the "lexicon" of RPG. The grammar and the rules of speech correspond to the rules of the game, both explicit and implicit, both mechanical and social. And language as such corresponds to the RPG viewed as a semiotic system.

By now, the reader surely has at least a vague appreciation for how a semiotic model of RPGs would look. But why? What are the benefits of the semiotic perspective? What is gained by this approach that are lost in others? I will take a few paragraphs at the end of this post to try to answer these questions.

* * *

I've already alluded to one reason: Both semiotics in general and linguistics in particular are well-researched fields, and there are vast amounts of insight and material to be gathered once one starts to view RPG through semiotic lenses. In particular, it would be possible to apply the methods of semiotic research on RPG theory, thus giving the "field" what perhaps would amount to its first proper methodology (although it would of course only apply to the formal, and not the functional and aesthetic, aspects of role-playing).

More particularly, the semiotic approach would allow us to clarify a couple of somewhat vague notions. System, for instance, could be analyzed in terms of the "grammar" of a semiotic system. And we would be able to pinpoint precisely how the so called "shared imagined space" is shared, that is to say, how the "fictional content" of the game is generated by a process of negotiation.

Furthermore, the semiotic approach would give us a tool for analyzing the social dynamics around the gaming table. Phenomena considered in sociolinguistics and the field of linguistics known as pragmatics, such as turn-taking, speech acts and many other forms of dynamic linguistic behavior, could be "rediscovered" within the framework of role-playing. Types of linguistic behavior unique for role-playing, such as the complex shifts between different "frames" (In-character and out-of-character being the typical ones) and the negotiation of fictional content, could also be analyzed on this basis.

* * *

So, this has been a basic sketch. Little more can be provided in a blog-post. However, I will return to this subject in due time, perhaps offering some further ideas. Until then, all comments are welcome.

2008-07-01

Manifesto against self improvement

Every person seeks to do something with themselves. We all strive for success, money, respect, friendship, love, happiness. But recently and in our culture this basic aspect of human existence has mutated into an aberrant form, which I will designate by the name "self improvement". The idea of self improvement, as the name suggests, is not to improve the external circumstances of one's life, or to achieve something lasting, but to improve oneself, or, more to the point, one's self, one's personality, one's — to use some philoso-lingo — subject.

The method for achieving this is either psychological, mystical, or both. These methods are born from those two movements so characteristic of the twentieth century; psychoanalysis and New Age. But we shan't let the methods fool us; the true ideological source of self help is none other than capitalism.

It should be immediately apparent that the idea of "self-improvement" could only arise in a highly individualistic culture, in which few projects any longer are allowed to be "collective" or — God forbid — "universal". In our late modernity/capitalism, each man is an island. Capitalism is designed so that if each of us works only to further his own personal agenda, then the macroeconomical structures of society will channel this work into material growth for all of society. This tendency has been helped along by the abandonment of all other social institutions that could provide a counterweight to this individualism inherent in the capitalist system, such as religion, nation, race, class, family, and even truth (those things that Jean-François Lyotard calls "metanarratives"). This is not in itself necessarily negative, of course, but when all these things are stripped away, what remains is the individual in its pure nakedness.

The very word "self-improvement" brings to mind an image of the self as a sort of internal living-room which can be decorated, rearranged, refurnished, sometimes under the watchful eye of a professional interior decorator. Our image of the self, the mind, as a place, or better yet, a thing, starts — philosophically speaking — with Renée Descartes, who split the world into the res extensa (extended thing), the world of items having breadth, width and height, and the ego cogito, the nonspatial, nonmaterial thinking self. With Descartes, a tradition began in Western thought which viewed the self, also called the subject (as in "subjective"), as something radically separate from the world of things and experiences. Many confusing doctrines has been based upon this distinction, for instance, idealism, which viewed all of the world as simply a way for the subject to organize its own thought. The self, then, became the timeless, absolute ground on which all of creation rested. All of the world, simply a form of your consciousness. Sounds looney, right?

Looney indeed. And this loonieness lives on today, although in subdued forms. Today, most of us would claim to believe, neither that the world is radically separate from the mind (as Descartes would have it), nor simply a form of it (as the idealists claimed), but that the mind, on the contrary, is in the world, namely, in the form of a brain which is made up of matter that has formed complex molecules, nerve cells and so on. But despite this explicitly stated belief, which goes under the name of "materialism", the Cartesian doctrine continues to lead a hidden but thriving existence to this day. And the commonality of the idea of self-improvement is as good a proof as anything of this.

When man in late modernity/capitalism finds that his own private existence is the sole available focus for his dreams, hopes and strivings, and coupled with the well-ingrained Cartesian picture of the self as a thing, a substance, self-improvement is the result. It can take such forms as improving one's empathy, one's sociability, one's creativity, one's industriousness, one's courage, or to change one's way of looking at the world. It often goes by the path of self help-litterature, seminars, or courses. And the ultimate goal is, of course, to make a better person of oneself, which is interpreted in terms of taking this self-thing and improving upon it, decorating it, making it better and more beautiful. Not unlike how we, who live in a consumerist culture, constantly seek to improve upon and beutify our material surroundings by buying ever more things with which to outfit them.

The only problem is that the self is not a thing.

This simple fact has been recognized almost since the days of Descartes. One of its first proponents was David Hume, who, however, went a little overboard and claimed that the self doesn't exist at all, which is even more absurd. The fact was recognized by such philosophers as Immanuel Kant and Edmund Husserl, but the person who gave it its ultimate formulation was Martin Heidegger.

According to Heidegger, human existence is characterized by what he calls Dasein. Dasein is an everyday German word meaning, simply, human existence, but to Heidegger, it is a technical term, designating the way in which people, characteristically, are (i e, exist), as opposed to things like rocks, trees and chairs. Dasein is characterized by a number of features, the most general of which is Being-in-the-World (this hyphenated monstrosity is the attempt of the English translators to render Heidegger's somewhat idiosyncratical use of German, which has greater allowance for compound neologisms than English). Being-in-the-world means that Dasein (that is, human beings) are never radically separate from the world, like the Cartesian self, but are always already in it.

This is not to be understood as materialism. Materialism would make of the human mind a thing among others, no different from a rock or a tree. True as it may be from a purely scientific perspective, the philosophical problem of this doctrine is that it fails to account for the way in which human existence is undeniably different from the existence of a rock or a tree. This failure leaves the window open for Cartesianism to sneak back in. When the mind is made a thing among others, that quality which separates minds from things are left a mystery, and this mystery is unavowedly accounted for by some variant of the Cartesian doctrine.

When Heidegger says that human beings are in-the-world, he does not mean it in the sense that an object can be inside a container. The world is not a container, and human beings are emphatically not things. What he means is that all that which characterize human beings — thoughts, beliefs, emotions, fears, longings, loves — are directed towards or preoccupied with the world. You cannot have a thought without something to think about. You cannot have a belief without believing in something. There would be no fears with nothing to fear, no longings with nothing to long for, no love with nothing to love. And so on. Human beings are, from the beginning and in all their activities, engaged in the world. They are engrossed in it. They care for it. There is no feature of human activity which is not somehow directed towards the world.

For Descartes, to be a human being is to be a thinking thing, radically separate from the world of extended things. For Heidegger, to be a human being is nothing but this being engaged in the world.

When people, then, engage in self-improvement, treating themselves — their selves — as things to be worked upon, they forget what these selves are, what it means to have a self, what it means to be human — namely, to Be-in-the-World. Instead of directing their gazes outwards, into the world which is the ultimate horizon of meaning for all our human concerns, they direct it “inwards” into that thing which they believe are closest to themselves. But this belief is a delusion, brought about by Cartesian metaphysics and capitalist individualism. The self is not a thing and its direction is not inwards. To engage in self-improvement is to forget what is really important, namely, the world which we all share and which we are all in.

So what am I saying? That we shouldn't strive to become more creative, more empathic, more industrious? Yes, and no. What I'm saying is that the whole point of being empathic is to act with more empathy. The whole point of creativity is to create. The whole point of industriousness is to make industry. That is to say, all of these things are also in-the-World. The risk with the Cartesian self improvement program is that these simple facts are forgotten. That people start to see self-improvement as an end in itself, rather than just as the means to achieve some end which applies to the public world in which we all live. To be thus preoccupied with oneself to the extent that one fails to see the world, is simply egotism. It is vain, it is amoral and it makes no one happy except for the individual himself.

In this, it is neither better nor worse than that other child of capitalism, namely, consumerism. And truly, self-improvement might be seen as a kind of consumerism of the soul. The comparison is especially apt if one considers the enormous amount of money some people spend on self help books, seminars and therapy. Perhaps it makes you happier. But buying a bigger wide-screen TV than your neighbor might also make you happier. And sincerely, I doubt it. Because if Heidegger is correct, then the very meaning of being, say, empathic, is to act empathic. And why, then, go trough the circumlocution of first improving some ghostly self-substance that isn't really there in order to then be able to act in a certain way, when you can just go straight for the goal?