I’ve just finished reading “‘Who should I call if no one shows up to pick up the dead? #movingout’ – On gameness, materiality and meaning in Cities:Skylines” by Olli Tapio Leino (2015).
If you would like a short summary of this paper, which gives a philosophical understanding to my argument further down, please click the link below. I shall be using his argument to highlight the need to exercise freedom justly.
Leino starts his essay by highlighting the fact that the meaning of a computer game cannot be fixed because as Frasca (2001) explains, games are more of a simulation that invites experimentation with their rule-governed system to create meaning. Similar to any other machine the ‘how-it-works’, is at least as important as the ‘what’.
Rules, goals, and game-like elements constitute gameness. If one looks at any single-player game, one notices that gameness describes the activities happening within the game. Having read so far, one can easily suspect that this blog is about games and brush it off as some kids’ talk. However, computer games are more than mere games (Woods, 2007), and thus cannot be compared only to traditional games.
Perhaps a better definition is offered by Aarseth & Calleja (2009) who refer to games as ‘conglomerate objects’ which constitute a bit game, a bit story, and a bit something more. The crux is in the latter. Woods furthers that single-player games are best termed as ‘automated challenges’.
And challenges necessitate risks and freedom. In describing single-player games, Leino echoes Heidegger’s parabolic hammer which categorises the ontic and ontological dimensions. Like any technology, there exists an intrinsic relationship between gameness and what it actually does – materiality. Heidegger’s distinction helps us to ‘correctly’ see any technology as a tool and human activity. This is the ontic dimension. However, the ontic hides the revealing function, that which is ‘true’, the ontological dimension. The ontological is a pre-condition of the ontic, and they both exist in relation to one another. The ontic dimension imposes gameplay conditions on the user. The ontological merges the gameness elements and exposes the gameplay condition.
Can the gameplay condition be absent? Absolutely not!
In other words, the gameplay condition is seen through the rules and goals. Can the gameplay condition be absent? Absolutely not! Else the rules and goals would be void of meaning. Only the responsibility for the freedom to enjoy gameplay grants meaning to the rules and goals.
Cities:Skylines and the populistic mayor
Cities:Skylines (C:S) is a single-player playable artifact (game) which puts the player in the mayor’s seat. The mayor is free to opt for any tactic to govern their city, and there is no upper limit to winning the game. You lose if you run out of money. However, while it may seem that no rules exist, the game-world exists in relation to a rule-governed behaviour. Thus, freedom exists only within this rule-governed scenario.
Since C:S comes with no clear-set goals, this absence of gameplay condition leaves unanswered the players’ questions about the meaning of any rules. Although it lacks any specific rule, like any similar artifact, it imposes responsibility for the freedom exercised by the players. If the mayor makes a mockery of the road infrastructure, the hearses picking corpses will be stuck in traffic and people might get sick.
Or with an example closer to home, if the environmental plans are totally an afterthought, don’t complain that funds are disappearing on health. With freedom, comes greater responsibility.
Attn: Politicians: please play this game!
As I was reading this paper, I couldn’t help thinking that our politicians need to play more C:S. Similar to what happens in C:S, populistic measures work only on the ontic domain. Skins in Fortnite do not add any value to the character: they are mere decorations and irrelevant to gameplay. However, in the ‘mechanics’ of the game, they play an important role: they are a status symbol.
It may be ‘correct’ for the government to gratify the high-brass of society and remain on the ontic dimension, however, given their Christian identity, Maltese politicians are called to search deeper for the ‘true’ ontological one.
As the government continues to gain increased power, trampling over the opposition, the freedom increases. But democracy, as reiterated many a time by the Venice Commission, needs a clear set of rules and goals. The goals should be the common good, and the rules should be the prosperity of all.
In a post-COVID scenario, it is somewhat easy for the C:S’s mayor to aim to further increase the words of praise by the many, but Christian morality dictates otherwise: this is no time for populistic goals, but to support those most hit: economically and health-wise.