Games: Agency as Art, by C. Thi Nguyen (Oxford University Press), £22.99/$35
C. Thi Nguyen’s Games: Agency as Art is a beautiful exploration of games as art, and the lessons we can learn from immersing ourselves in the agency within them. Nguyen proposes that our agency in games is akin to the relationship between the canvas and the artist: a medium for creativity, playfulness and aesthetic value. The book made me reconsider how I have been playing games all my life.
Nguyen defines “games” as a collective concept: sports, board games, computer, party and silly games, and many more, all having a family resemblance. His account illuminates the nuanced motivations of people playing games, where philosophical accounts have assumed “winning” as the all-encompassing goal. And this is precisely what I previously would have assumed myself. I would not identify as a “gamer” but when I play a board game or sport, I tend to play competitively and focus on winning.
If not winning, what is the point of playing games, one might ask? Well, this is where Nguyen’s work opens one’s mind by sharing, through his colourful anecdotes, his practice of playing games. He develops a compelling argument, concluding that not only do games offer aesthetic experiences, but further, they do so by virtue of making us reflect on our unique capacity to become aware of our agency.
Nguyen’s argument proceeds in four main steps, each elucidating the thesis that experiencing our agency via games is more potent than any win might be. He motivates the claims that 1) striving play is in fact a way of playing games; 2) game agency derives its value from its simplicity and limitedness – these are diametrically opposed to our ordinary yet complex experiences of goals and agency; 3) humans are capable of layering their agency, i.e. temporarily assuming a game goal only to reject it a little later, while being fully aware of the existence of “real life” agency; and finally 4) if all the above are true, the modes of agency acquired through playing games actually transcend games, and can be utilised to address (difficult) questions on how to act in real life situations. Games are thus not dissimilar to literature, in which emotionally intense events are dramatised, offering us insights as to how to deal with certain emotional upheavals in one’s own life.
To illustrate some of these points, I will briefly discuss the notion of striving play, which arguably is the crux to Nguyen’s argument. Striving play is a mode of playing games which reverses the means-end relationship between a game’s struggle and goal. To the striving player, the struggle is the end where the win merely is a means to submersion. Using witty examples, such as his enjoyment of squabbling with his spouse during games night, Nguyen sees games as most enjoyable where two opponents’ skills are fairly balanced, and both agree to fight tit-for-tat. Contrarily, an “achievement” player could decide to take lessons to advance their skills to beat opponents more quickly. This move, however, would diminish the tension end enjoyment of striving in a balanced game.
Nguyen also addresses popular worries about games, pertaining to whether and how games affect our lives. He is less worried about the player of a violent game turning violent, than he is about the simplicity of game goals and agency – without critical reflection – being translated into real life. He warns us of gamification of the workplace by, for instance, introducing scoring systems in which co-workers are publicly ranked and lured into competition (e.g. at Amazon or Disney). He is also rightfully wary of Fitbits, which supposedly motivate our staying fit, as well as quantified social approval through social media.
Nguyen purposely does not define his core concept, but the book made me wonder about the nature of the relationship between agency and actions: is it actually modes of agency that we acquire from playing games or rather modes of action? There is something about agency, as much as I agree with the main contention that agency is indeed art, that does not sit easily with the idea of agency as a collectible. Am I really assuming and removing different agencies when I am playing games, or is it rather different modes or sets of actions and reactions that I can subsume under the one real life agency that I occupy? I like to think that my agency is persistent yet expandable by ever new activities I engage in, actions I perform, and things I do.
Perhaps I will have to put Nguyen’s perspective on agency to the test, by playing games in which I consciously focus on enjoying the striving, rather than cherishing the winning, reflecting on the lessons I learnt on agency. I invite the reader to do the same and consider Nguyen’s book as their manual.