TfE: Corrupting the Youth

Here’s a twitter thread from earlier today, articulating some of my thoughts about the philosophy of games in general, and the nature of tabletop roleplaying games more specifically.

Here’s a rather different set of thoughts for this morning. Some may know that one of my many interests is philosophy of games. This is a topic close to my heart, but I also think it a timely one, insofar as games are now culturally hegemonic.

The concept of game cuts across everything from the philosophies of action and mathematics to the philosophies of politics and art. We ignore it at the risk of our own cultural and intellectual irrelevance.

If you want to know more about the history of the concept and my own take on it, check out my ‘What’s in a Game?’ talk.

To be concise: I think that if games are art, then their medium is freedom itself, and that there is a case to be made that RPGs, whether tabletop, LARP, computer based, or some cross-modal mixture thereof, realize this truth most completely. RPGs are experiments in agency.

This isn’t to say that they’re necessarily very good experiments. Computer RPGs have suffered from very obvious constraints for decades, and I’ve played enough dull dice based dungeon crawls to last a lifetime. But I’ve equally experienced heart-breakingly imperfect art.

Tabletop RPGs have given me the sorts of barely expressible, intensely formative, and deeply connected experiences that others hope for and occasionally find in art, literature, and the collective projects of politics and culture. People will no doubt laugh at this fact.

Again, most RPGs aren’t this good, and it is much harder to plan and execute good ones as you and your friends get older. Boardgames, a representational art form in their own right, become much more tempting for their ludic precision and easy self-containment.

But I pine for the days of dice and character sheets, exploring the weirder fringes of inhuman narrative and the familiar shores of the human condition simultaneously. Werecoyotes and Psionics, insatiable curiosity and crippling anxiety, joyous battles and crushing failures.

So, after this personal preamble, here is the philosophical thought I came here to express: RPG systems are procedural frameworks for interactive narrative generation, and they contain engines for simulating worlds.

They are therefore deeply philosophical, because they must contain a metaphysics (narrative/fate) and a theory of personhood (identity/agency/destiny), but they may also contain a logic (GM/PC/NPC interaction), a physics (simulation/means), and an ethics (alignment/ends).

My first encounter with philosophy wasn’t reading Nietzsche, Sartre, or Popper, but reading grimoire-like RPG manuals, searching for the hidden secrets of worlds they contained, many of which I have never visited even in play. What is creation? Why is there suffering? Who are we?

My partner in conceptual crime (@tjohnlinward) likes to say that RPG manuals are tour guides for worlds that don’t exist, but in many ways they’re more like holy texts. Many even have completely explicit and thoroughly fascinating theology.

An RPG system/setting is a universe in which the throne is empty, awaiting a new godhead, or a new pantheon to play the games of divinity. An adventure supplement is like an epic poem, awaiting heroes ready to test their mettle in struggle against the whims of fickle gods.

Narrative is a product, but the process that produces it is a complex, concurrent, and creative interaction between ideas and inspirations; brimming with contingency; some of which may even be embodied in distinct creators and muses. Games are our window into this process.

And that is why games disprove Hegel’s thesis regarding the end of art, precisely by being the most deeply Hegelian of art forms. The world-spirit arrives, no longer Napoleon riding into Jena on horseback, but Gary Gygax corrupting the youth with pens, paper, and polyhedra.

If you want to read more along these lines, check out my ‘Castalian Games’ piece in Glass Bead.

Not So Humble Pie

The NYT has just announced the finalists for its essay contest on the ethics of meat eating (here). Alas, my entry is not there, so I may as well stick it up for people to see (here).

This is one of those topics on which people are even more liable to disagree with me than usual, and even potentially to take offence at my opinions, so I should probably add a few qualifiers. The piece is very short (600 words), which is a very small space in which to express an argument. If you think it’s glib, well, that’s the reason. It also makes appeals to a few important notions: action, value, beauty, art, freedom, that I have almost no space to define adequately, though I give it my best shot. They’re all used fairly precisely, so, if in doubt, read it a couple times (it is short after all!). Finally, although I’m arguing for the ethical soundness of eating meat, I’m arguing for a general principle, not for the specifics of its application. There are all sorts of exceptions and qualifications that could usefully be added to what I say, but again, there’s no space for them.

Those points aside, I’m fairly pleased with the piece, and rather enjoyed writing something short for a change. May try more of it once my current standing commitments are out of the way. Till then, enjoy!

‘Only the Death of God Can Save Us’

My talk for the Newcastle Philosophy Society on Saturday (discussed in the last post) went very well . Although I didn’t get to prepare as much as I might have liked, the ideas came together in a way that people seemed to understand, and it provoked a lot of interesting discussion. Despite the controversial thesis of the talk, there was no hostility or incredulity in the face of the claims I was making. What a wonderful way to spend a Saturday afternoon: eating pizza, drinking coffee, and talking about the death of God with a bunch of non-philosophers who are just interested in the topic.

Anyway, I managed to record a video of the talk on my laptop (giving it a slightly weird angle), and I’ve uploaded it to youtube (see here). The talk takes up the first 30 minutes. This is followed by a 30 minute Q&A session with a respondent, and a further 50 minutes of less focused discussion.

As another point of interest. Ray Brassier’s most recent talk ‘How to Train an Animal that Makes Inferences: Sellars on Rules and Regularities’, is now available online courtesy of Lorenzo Chiesa (see here). It’s Ray at his best: clear exegesis of Sellars with wonderful and incisive commentary upon the consequences that must be drawn from it. It also contains a small exchange between Ray and Zizek, which fans of both/either may find interesting/entertaining.

Finally, I’ve just finished making the final edits to the submission draft of my thesis. It contains no substantial changes from the current available draft, other than the fixing of a few typos and the inclusion of an acknowledgements page. However, I feel bound to put it up here for the sake of completeness if nothing else. It’s available on the usual page, linked in the sidebar. Now I’m free to finish a paper I’ve been working on for a couple months now. I’m sure you’ll all be interested to read it once it arrives!

For the Love of Spinoza

Happy New Year everyone. Levi recently put up an interesting post about Spinoza’s account of the relation between causal knowledge and ethics (here). As some of you may know, I’m quite a big fan of Spinoza. Not just of his metaphysics, but also of his resistance to Aristotelian teleology and his resolve to think freedom in a way compatible with his completely deterministic metaphysics. As I’ve argued elsewhere (here), Spinoza reconciles freedom with the principle of sufficient reason in a much healthier manner than Leibniz, and a lot of contemporary debates on this issue can be interpreted as taking place between neo-Leibnizians and neo-Spinozists. I’m firmly in the neo-Spinozist camp, but this doesn’t mean that I agree with Spinoza completely. Levi’s post very clearly outlines one of the points where I have an important disagreement with him (and his heirs), so it’s useful to address it. It also gives me a good excuse to work through some of the ideas I’ve been having about ethics and politics over the past few months.

This post is another fairly long one (8,000 words or so), but it not only contains my thoughts on Spinoza, but also some thoughts on Kant, Foucault, Sellars, Hegel, and Plato, which it pulls together to provide the outline of a theory of Justice. That may sound a bit over the top, but I’m nothing if not ambitious. Anyway, on with the show…

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Brandom and Ethics

Jon Cogburn has just put up a post about the ethical implications of Brandom’s thought (here). As much as I respect Jon, I’m afraid I almost entirely disagree with the post. I think he’s being really unfair to Brandom. I mean no offence to him, but his claim that some of Brandom’s remarks (to the effect that pain has no intrinsic moral significance) are evil strikes me as hyperbole. I haven’t yet fully gone through Reason in Philosophy, but I’ve been thinking about the ethical implications of Brandom’s work (see my speculative heresy piece on ethics) and have come to very much the same position expressed in these remarks, yet without any of the more horrific implications Jon seems to see in them. To warn you, this is another fairly long post (coming up 7,000 words).

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Dissecting Norms

Levi recently launched a couple new salvo’s in the debate over normativity (here, here, here and a bit earlier here), and although he hasn’t mentioned me, I think his reference to ‘transcendentalists’ who are concerned with guaranteeing normativity is probably aimed in this direction, especially after our earlier exchange over Latour (here and here on deontologistics, which petered out in a comment exchange here on larvalsubjects), and his reference to the ‘howler’ that norms don’t exist.

The major thrust of Levi’s argument still seems to be that concern with transcendental normativity precludes the possibility of first analysing the real social conditions (and their causes) that underlie undesirable political states of affairs, and then acting upon these analyses in strategic ways to undermine these and potentially produce new and better social configurations. This is put in a slightly more inflamatory way in his comparison of philosophers of normativity with the kid in the playground that thinks shouting at the top of his voice that the bully is in the wrong is enough to stop the bully. I’ll try to take this jab in good spirit.

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