Why I Love Games: Slutty Ontology
When Ian Bogost showed the slide of two turtles copulating and riffed on the term, “slutty ontology”, the room giggled along.
Welcome to academia. And fair warning. You might want to dig out your copy of Sartre and brew a cup of espresso before continuing on. Things are going to get epistemological.
Last week I round tripped 10,000 miles and slept in a dorm room for a week in order to enjoy the company of a global cadre of academics who study videogames at the Digital Games Research Association. I went looking for answers and, as usual, left with a bunch of questions. Like that freshman freakout you have after your first philosophy class where you realize that the universe might just be a projection of your own mind, or maybe an illusion created by an evil demon or maybe just something your parents talked you into, but surely isn’t that concrete thing you were sure of before the semester started, the cutting edge of intellectual thought happily leaves you bewildered.
At least it did for me.
Of course, I’m a closet academic myself. I have an ID card that says faculty and students have often referred to me as “professor” when protesting their grades. I know the secret college professor handshake (there isn’t one) and drop K-bombs with the best of them (that’s Kant you know).
So with fuzzy headed jet lag slowly draining from my body, I finally have the wits to to ask: Why bother? Why spend a week asking questions that may never find answers?
In the world of awesomeness we call videogames it’s a special kind of thrill to take a couple hundred of the smartest people in the world, cram them into a couple of rooms and let them loose on videogames for a few days. And you know what? They cannot, no matter how hard they try, consume the subject. Like maniacal flesh eating beetles of concept, these academics tear at the body of videogames, trying to turn it into something intellectually digestible and all they do is come away stuffed and games left as fascinatingly complex as before. No matter how you try, you can’t think the fun out of games.
Which, to my mind, is a rare thing in popular culture.
It would be easier to take a part a Quentin Tarantino film or a Cold Play song than to figure out why players take joy in the sloppy lightsaber simulation in the Wii version of The Force Unleashed. Videogames are these rich objects that entertain us effortlessly but send professional theorists into the depths of philosophy looking for answers as to why.
Back to Bogost: In a keynote speech that ranged from ludology versus narratology (games as a form of story versus games thought of as a set of rules), the new field of platform studies (looking at games as interlocking layers of hardware, software, interfaces and players) and, if course, metaphysics (you always get extra points for talking about Kant), Bogost constructed a complex, persuasive argument about game studies ontology.
This branch of philosophy asks what brings things into being. And like all good philosophy questions, trying to answer it sends you like Alice in Wonderland, head over heels into surreal space. Because the best answer to “What causes something to be?” is “We don’t know” or “It depends.” Is it the mind working on the material of the real world or the real world working on the mind? Is it agreement amongst the tribe that worms taste good or do worms just contain something necessarily tasty? Maybe it’s everything at once or nothing at all.
Bogost chose not to get embroiled in the conversation by suggesting that, when it came to studying games, it didn’t matter. Or at least, the room that game studies occupied was big enough to hold every perspective, every form of social scientist, every philosophical tradition and that there was no reason to assume that you should look at games from a certain point of view. He didn’t come right out and say it but the implication of his argument was games are not Sweet ‘N’ Low saccharine substitutes for real culture. Nope. You can’t take a game apart with a handy sociological framework or a convenient philosophical argument.
Instead, games are as rich a mine of possibility and cultural meaning as your tattered paperback of “As I Lay Dying.” If games are just silly past times for kids, then “Moby-Dick” is a book about some guys who went fishing.
As a gamer, and as an academic, to know that games raise more questions that they answer is, well, to use the most precise philosophical term, just awesome.