Cross-Cultural Understanding Through Game Analysis

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Game analysis reveals a deep structure that allows people from different cultures to play and enjoy games, like chess, without knowledge of the cultural context behind them.
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Brian Upton examines the experience of play in “The Aesthetic of Play,” from the role of play in developing meaning to how the existence of play elucidates the relationship between our thoughts and external reality.

In The Aesthetic of Play(The MIT Press, 2015), game designer Brian Upton analyzes the experience of play—how playful activities unfold from moment to moment and how the rules we adopt constrain that unfolding. Upton also explores the role of play in the construction of meaning and what the existence of play says about the relationship between our thoughts and external reality. The following excerpt is from chapter 1, “Defining Play.”

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Everyone plays.

From the pre-Columbian ball courts of Central America, to the board games of the Indian subcontinent, from the rope-skipping games of the Outback, to the pebble-and-pit games of Africa, from the chivalric tournaments of medieval Europe, to videogames in modern Japan—everywhere we look, in every era and every culture, we find games, and humans playing them.

More important, everywhere we look, how we play is the same. As long as I take a few minutes to learn the rules, I can play a game that originated in Germany, or Ghana, or Peru, or ancient Mesopotamia, and it will function properly for me as a game. It will contain the same mix of obstacles and affordances that all games do—the arbitrary restrictions that block easy progress, the obvious opportunities for meaningful action, the delicate balance between knowledge and uncertainty. As a beginner, I may not play well, but the experience of playing will nevertheless feel comfortable and familiar.

This is a remarkable thing. Most cultural practices aren’t that portable. Most of the time when we encounter something from an unfamiliar culture our initial experience is a bit detached and awkward; we aren’t able to jump right in and fully engage. For example, if I attend a performance of Chinese opera, I may be able to appreciate it on a superficial level as a vivid spectacle, but my lack of knowledge of Chinese culture will cut me off from the bulk of the performance. If I want to participate as an audience member, I need to learn a lot more about the context of what I’m looking at. I need to learn thousands of little details about Chinese history, etiquette, music, mythology, and family relations. This process of acculturation can take years, sometimes even a lifetime.

Games aren’t like that. With games, the normal rules for cross-cultural experiences don’t seem to apply. For example, the game of go was invented in China more than 2,000 years ago; its origins are far more remote than Chinese opera. Furthermore, until the nineteenth century it was virtually unknown outside of Asia, so its influence on Western culture has been vanishingly small. Yet a twenty-first-century American can learn to play go in about ten minutes. You don’t need to be a historian to understand go. In fact, you don’t need to know the first thing about ancient China. Translated into modern English, the old rules still make sense; they still structure an entertaining play experience. And if you follow those old rules, you aren’t just pretending to play go, or going through the motions of playing go. You are really and truly playing go. In fact, if you continue playing, you can become very good at go without ever learning anything about Chinese culture. Go’s ability to function as a game doesn’t dependent on cultural context. Go is portable in a way that Chinese opera is not.

Now, this doesn’t mean that the full experience of an American playing go in the twenty-first century will be identical to the full experience of a Chinese aristocrat playing it in the third century. Besides being a game, go is also a cultural practice, and so the wider significance of playing the game will be different when the game is played in different times or places. The meaning of playing the game will change depending on its cultural context. But the mechanics of the game, the obstacles and affordances that govern how the game unfolds, will function the same regardless of cultural context. The game doesn’t feel broken, or unbalanced, or unplayable, even though it was invented in a culture very different from our own.

Game Analysis Reveals Deeper Structures

What is true of go is true of games in general. And I propose that the reason it is true is that there is a deep structure to play that transcends cultural boundaries. The mechanics of all games feel curiously familiar because in order for a game to function as a game it must meet certain universal conditions. There are rules for rules, as it were—a collection of meta-rules that must be followed if a rule set is going to structure a successful play space. Very simply, games that follow these meta-rules are playable, and games that don’t follow them aren’t. It doesn’t matter if a game was invented 3,000 years ago in sub-Saharan Africa—in order for it to work as a game, its rules must conform to the deep structure of play. And if its rules conform to the deep structure of play, it will function properly as a play experience for anyone who tries to play it.

If we look closely at a wide variety of games, we can see the outlines of this deep structure. Furthermore, once we are aware of this structure, we can begin to observe how it exerts its influence on other types of play besides games. For example, the rules of narrative can be shown to be grounded in the meta-rules for successful play spaces; stories work as stories because they are structured to accommodate particular sorts of reader play. Music, theater, painting, or architecture (really, any activity that can be called “art”) can be analyzed and understood within a play-based framework. And so, through the close study of games, we can arrive at a broadly applicable aesthetic theory that explains a number of different artistic experiences.

How this deep structure manifests itself in different cultural contexts will vary, of course. Just as the meaning of a game of go depends on who is playing it, so the way that play emerges in other artistic experiences will depend a great deal on the cultural work those experiences are doing. We can’t always separate meaning and mechanics as neatly as we can with go. This is particularly true when we consider experiences in which it is meaning itself that is being played with.

Expanding Play with Aesthetic Theory

This shouldn’t be construed as a claim that “everything is a game.” Games are a particular manifestation of play, not its totality. They happen to be a good starting point for an investigation of play because the formality of their rules makes the machinery of play easier to observe and analyze. But many traditional features of games don’t translate well to other types of play spaces. For example, it doesn’t make any sense to think of “winning” a Bach cantata, even though listening to a Bach cantata involves a great deal of play.

In fact, one of my motivations for inventing a cross-disciplinary framework for understanding play is that it highlights which elements of current game design practice are load-bearing and which aren’t. For example, it is easy to fall in the trap of thinking that winning is an integral part of play. But, as Wil Wright has amply demonstrated with “software toys” such as The Sims, it is entirely possible to construct a successful play space without asking the player to work toward any specific victory condition. Understanding which features are essential and which are negotiable makes it possible to expand the sorts of aesthetic effects that games can produce.

Reprinted with permission from The Aesthetic of Play by Brian Upton and published by The MIT Press, 2015.

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