I've been reading from Jane McGonigal's Reality is Broken, and I've come across what I think is an interesting notion about how games enhance our collective imagination.
Here McGonigal quotes Will Wright:
...if theres one aspect of humanity that I want to augment, its the imagination, which is probably our most powerful cognitive tool. I think of games as being an amplifier for the imagination of the players, in the same way that a car amplifies our legs or a house amplifies our skin.
The point being that by enlisting our willing involvement imaginitatively in game form, we can not only have an experience of flow, of fiero, of naches and the other positive emotions that McGonigal racks up as worthwhile aspects of games - we involve ourselves thereby in game activities that are by definition involving us in activities of collective intentionality. (The feeling is one of 'we-intend' as John R.Searle would put it.)And by gaming together, we build up massive amounts of collective intentionality. Games become a powerful force in, ironically, helping us work out our problems, together. But this notion collides with some of my other recent reading.
Games necessarily model an environment. There's a tension between imagination (which is often liminal, on the edges of breaking the rules or outright breaking them) and games, which exist because of their rules.
I've been reading Trickster Makes This World by Lewis Hyde, so my first thought is that Trickster, who is our embodiment of disruptive imagination, needs to be part of this process of amplifying the imagination. If we want to get the most out of human imagination, we need that force to be there. It will anyway, so we need to find ways of including it or at least anticipating the services we can provide for its positive side. (It'll still surprise, confound and delight us though).
My second thought links us to Douglas Rushkoff's Program or be Programmed. If anything digital has the role of the Trickster in it, it's programming, and certainly hacking. There are still boundaries on this though, but far more play to be transgressive and to go beyond the boundaries of a single system. But there are boundaries - at least ususally. The ur-hacker movie was War Games, and the thrill of that game was seeing how easy it was to unintentionally breach those supposed boundaries. That's a game, run amok. Yet its resolution was inventive and satisfying. Very Trickster, very Hacker.
My third thought is that novels/ideas of the transhuman (eg Neuromancer, etc) pay with the idea of the Trickster in the net, subverting and corrupting/enhancing what he touches. This notion of the imagination in service of the beyond is important, and games designers need to be aware (I'm sure they are) of how they can serve the idea that imagination wants to go beyond. Maybe it can go in other directions too?
Games need to approach this tension between the complex modelling by rules, and whatever there is beyond the rules that imagination can work on. Even though, as McGonigal later notes, 'chess is infinite' (to show how complexity can be built up from very simple premises), chess is just chess, whatever it teaches us. I'm not sure that the real world games that come later are classically defined games at all. I'm not sure about the flexibility of their rules or their purview. They seem more like roles than games, scenarios rather than gameboards. That's not to denigratetheir effectiveness or to argue that they are anything else, really. But if a game is about its rules, these games exist to transgress them. To go beyond, to grow.
This begs a further thought. Isn't this characteristic of our species' relentless insistence on expansion being the only way to survive. Isn't ecology the art and science of living on limited means instead? Of living, imaginatively as possible, within the rules? This is much more gamelike. If trickster needs to work in the ecological sense, he needs to work inside the game board. Lessons from programming can teach us that. You can't program what cannot be programmed. (You can program a computer but not an ice-cream cone) Similarly, what we see instead of 'further' is deeper: more fine grained modelling that helps us make better decisions, that helps us, also, to disappear not over the threshold, but 'through the floorboards'.