Monday, April 27, 2015

Intro to Ludic Ecologonomy (Pt. 1)


Game Form is
 Ecological and Economical, 
neither one reducible to the other; 

Eco coming from οἶκος for household
Economy meaning Management of the household
Ecology meaning Ground of the household

The Economic aspect is described well by 
the optimal strategies of Game Theory
Games as RULES

The Ecological aspect is described 

Computer games are complex toys
Like financial derivatives
All software Toys:
"whose motion is only partially 
determined by the configuration"

The existence of computer games 
As Games
redefines Toys As Games
Because we call them games
But they are toys

All games have affordances
Not all games have rules
Ecology is the Ground of the Economy
Ignoring this Ground is proving deadly on a Global scale

This has been sitting around for a while. It's what I intended to speak about at the NYU Practice conference last year, but got sidetracked by some videogame prehistory-- Here’s a video of that talk, I start talking ~ 33 minutes in, after a nice Counter Strike level design talk and introduction from the wonderful Robert Yang: 

PRACTICE 2014: CS:Go & David Kanaga from NYU Game Center on Vimeo.


The point of the ongoing theoretical project I'm working on is ~ to attempt constructing a 'formalism' of games which allows GAME to mean (very broadly!) played form, no goals, optima, etc. required-- a FORMAL GAME which is as inclusive as possible of all the strange & diverse forms available for designers/players to work with. I am convinced that abstractions which accommodate new strange forms are better than no abstractions at all, because "no abstractions" just means "the status quo abstractions"-- so I am attached to formality and its search for new abstractions.

The goal is to be scientific about it. I am convinced that the raw materials of 'computer games' have radicalized the meaning of the concept 'game' more than some folks have yet caught on to. The machine is fully formal, already a FORMAL GAME. Logic and mathematics are its 'blood', and these are already games of a sort. As mathematician Paul Cohen writes, describing briefly a history of formal logic leading up to Gödel's famous proof --
"According to the Formalist point of view, mathematics should be regarded as a fully formal game played with marks on paper, and the only requirement this game need fulfill is that it does not lead to an inconsistency [...] In these notes, our first object will be to describe how a mathemarical system can be reduced to a purely formal game" (Set Theory and the Continuum Hypothesis, p. 3)
The play of any sting of computation, or what is computed-- a theorem-- is already a formal game, and there is nothing at the level of 'goals/no-goals' or whatever other epiphenomenal nonsense, which can prevent a piece of computation from being a game.

The animal (our self) who plays with the computer, however, is NOT fully formal, and thus what is perhaps an inconsistency is introduced, between the formal game of the machine and the informal game of the animal-- there is a fascinating tension at the point of contact between the mechanic and the organic, and this tension is the driving energy of the theory here considered.

To this end, LUDIC ECOLOGONOMY is designed as a partner piece to the flux dogma, that aesthetic doctrine which is obsessed with variability, and which I ‘articulated’ in the “Object, Substance, Organism” presentation from last year’s GDC: 

I described that talk as ‘wet’; 

This one, to the contrary, is my ‘dry’ take on games formalism-- forgetting the expressive particularities of the player for a moment... 

Alongside the variability or play of games, there exist its constants or invariants-- its “more rigid structure”-- alongside its liquidity, there is its solidity-- alongside its “free movement” or play--- there is the Form of The Game. In the case of a computer game, the strict form is the software object, including all of its outputs and inputs and internal machinations, but not including the player (only the PlayerObject). In the case of a non-digital game, sports especially, the Form can be more difficult to define, encompassing essentially both rules and bodies, abstractions and raw materials. 

In the past, I’ve claimed that games are music. I’ve not changed my mind about this, but I’ve changed the focus for the time being, the approach to asking how are games music? or how are games games? What is the nature of this formalism which is not so much anti-formal but is rather trying to describe a different (and I think more accurate) formal ground, which may resembles anarchy to defenders of the existing ground? 

The Form of Games is dualistic-- Economic and Ecological, the one dealing with rules which can be broken and changed abstractly, the other dealing with forces which cannot be broken and which can only be changed by concretely reconfiguring the materials conditions which cause them. This is the ground, not goals or optima or anything else-- those are economic categories.

The two "Eco" disciplines must be recognized and synthesized into a whole, with economics via game theory allowed to serve as connective tissue to political economy, and ecology via Eco-psych allowed to serve as bridge to the Earth sciences and aesthetics and natural philosophy as a whole. The political aspect of games, far from relying on narrative representations of political themes, exists innately in the ‘micro-ecologonomic’ relations of the game machine to the player, the feelings, tasks, duties, considered as affordance and as labor, or if we are lucky-- as play. Work and play are not quantitatively different, both are simply-- motion. The player is a worker. Thermodynamic work is thermodynamic play.‘Marcro-ecologonomic’ relations of player and game materials to the Earth follow, properly called ‘ecological economics,’ an approach which understands living things, non-human flora/fauna and human laborers both, to be essential to the play of the global economy, and only able to be reduced to commodity form (Land, Laborer) in what must be read essentially as an act of violence.

Lana Polansky wrote during the most recent games-formalism debacle “if your critical analysis for some reason absents structures of power: YOU SUCK AS A FORMALIST” My approach here does indeed suspiciously overlook structures of power for the time being. However, the bridges from economics and ecology to power are manifold, and I hope the absence can be felt not as a vacuum but as a ghostly haunting during this reading, making its absence felt between every line. Force and Rule, for instance, mean something very different, and often troubling indeed in the context of explicit class/privilege/political power dynamics than they do when merely describing the mechanics of football . These questions of power are already being explored beautifully by Polansky, Cameron Kunzelman, and others. As a small contribution, I would hope that the notion of Power could be used to describe the most ordinary, gentlest possible interactions between things in addition to bigger political questions. There is some enchanting ecological thinking in Plato's Eleatic stranger who says: “My notion would be, that anything which possesses any sort of power to affect another, or to be affected by another, if only for a single moment, however trifling the cause and however slight the effect, has real existence; and I hold that the definition of being is simply power.” (from The Sophist). Affect and affordance are closely related. Ground and power. And in John Coltrane's Love Supreme poem: "One thought can produce millions of vibrations and they all go back to God... everything does [...] His way... it is so lovely... it is gracious.It is merciful--Thank you God."

For the purpose of thinking of games as explicitly political creatures as well as for simply trying to come to terms with some of their most basic and apparently vacuous (but merciful!) qualities, like the feel of something,. the jump height which Andi McClure brings up in the above-linked quote from Polansky, I hope this approach might prove useful as one means of conceptualizing any number of other ‘cousin’ concepts in the eco-family considered vis a vis a dry and formal approach to games, from very big to very small.


This is all premised on the formal axiom that there are two and only two sorts of structural invariants which define the form of any given playspace. This dualism cannot be stressed enough. 

The first kind of invariant, rules, constitutes what is in effect an abstract legal system that play must abide by if it is to be considered lawful. It is against the rules to run while holding the ball in basketball. It is against the rules to perform a ‘Eb’ in an orchestral performance when an E is written. 

Rules can be broken.

The second kind of invariant, which I’ll begin by calling forces, compose a system of material-energetic tendencies which are fully actual and not abstract. They cannot be broken. In basketball, and in so many games, the ground is an example of such a force. If the court were made of jelly, the game rules would be unplayable, because dribbling would be impossible. If you are playing the flute, you will not be able to perform authentically one of Cage’s pieces for prepared piano. Hatha yoga is the yoga of bodily exertion, and hatha means force. 

Forces cannot be broken-- (their causes can, however, be exploited, and changed, which we will go into shortly).

(I am not using force in the sense it has in physics, which I don’t understand enough to use. I hope the intuitive usage is clear, and that it becomes clearer as we go along). 


Some formal definitions of games, like those proposed in Keith Burgun’s model, which develops a strict line of ‘game-essentialist’ thinking with good clear consistency, consider it necessary that the first type of structure, Rules, be present in a form in order for that form to be be called a game. Burgun defines a game as a ‘contest of decision-making’.

This model says-- if only forces are present without rules, then the form under consideration is not a game, it is a ‘bare interactive system’ or a toy.

This is a very good model to analyze, say, a game of chess, which indeed, is composed of many rules, which players are meant to keep in mind, and utilizes forces in only a few trivial ways (holding pieces to the board, different shapes to differentiate use-values of different pieces, different colors to differentiate teams, etc). Indeed, board games in general are largely amenable to a rules-analysis framework, and so an ontology of games which is rooted in board game history rather than, say, painting or swimming, is apt to emphasize rules at the expense of physical forces.

But run-time computer games, considered as active materials, are composed solely of forces and not rules

Before a game is compiled, when code is still being composed with as a raw material, the designer is subject to the law of the programming language as rule, and indeed can within this legal system change the rules of her game with simple abstract commands, sufficing that they are accepted by the programming language as legal.

But once the game is compiled and running, what was abstract becomes fully concrete, a force which cannot be changed but only redirected. It is enough merely to recognize that we can do whatever we please with a computer game, it is not our ‘ruler’ (as much as it may try to be). The 'win/lose' psychological prod is an illusion with computer games. We need not ‘believe’ we have lost if it tells us we have, we can enjoy the lose-screen as an aesthetic moment, we can seek it even (as I used to do playing Mario Kart, to turn into a bomb)-- when we have ostensibly 'losy', we have instead merely encountered a bifurcation in the system, a simple breaking point between two possible values of which one is not intrinsically better than the other. The only time a computer game becomes a ‘game’ in the strict sense like chess, where winning is certainly the right thing to strive for, is when we allow it to because we want to, because we find that rule beautiful, or (oftener, in my case) when a social community imposes this understanding of the form on us. 

In other words, computer games as objects, decoupled from their players, and considered in light of the strict game-essentialist formalisms, are not games proper, but are merely toys.  This is equally true of Civilization and Electroplankton.

They are rules transmuted to force. Formal games made to sing to the sense experience of our animal selves.

It is useful to nitpick about the form in this way, because strict categories with predictive empirical validity are useful, and as long as we are calling computer games 'games' in the classically strict sense of the word, we are being unscientific, and not very strict.

It is my present conviction that this is not a matter of subjective opinion. There are more and less valid ways of analyzing these materials. 

The goal is to produce a realistic account of the form. A Ludic realism which asks what games are, and how particular games (or classes of games in the case of computer games) are games.

Ludic, as I'm using it, means not only the stricter economic meaning of 'game' but also the looser form of 'play' broadly. English is somewhat unique in separating the concepts game and play .... Spiel is a German word signifying both..  Do you know other examples? A linguistic study along these lines would be interesting, maybe has been done, maybe I am missing something big... 

In any case, the insistence on there being a major difference between a 'game' and a 'played form'-- we might call this insistence the "Washington consensus" of game definitions, paralleling as it does the economic policy going by that name inasmuch as it prematurely declares consensus before all participants have agreed to the plan.

Ludic realisms seek a global or even universal consensus. Ludic Realism is a doctrine that insists that the concept of games and play must be made to scale and to pan, to be inclusive of all the senses in which these words are used, and to develop an ontology appropriate to that breadth, to acknowledge that there is a vast plurality of different forms of games, and that we may not get them all..

The Hindu Lila which considers play to be a divine ground of the universe, is an example of a ludic realism. 

So is the language of The Great Game used by Rudyard Kipling to describe the play of British Colonial forces dominating India and its neighbors in the late 19th century. 

So is this quotation from Elizabeth Warren’s recent book: “America’s middle class is under attack. Worse, it’s not under attack by some unstoppable force of nature. It’s in trouble because the game is deliberately rigged.” 

These are different sorts of games-- Lila being a game of everything; Kipling’s being a game of war; and Warren’s being a game of finance and neoliberal policy-- however, they all have in common the quality of being games that participants are not voluntarily choosing to play for fun, rather being games that involve involuntary participation on the part of players. Many games are games we do not choose to play; likewise, many things we choose to play which we do not necessarily think of as games. 

When Mattie Brice writes "i want to fuck the world when coffee at an unspeakable hour is fucking. when picking out a dress is fucking. when having sex isn’t the only way to fuck. jogging together is fucking. discussing your mistakes is fucking [...] i want to fuck the world when explicit consent isn’t just for sex but every type of relation," (emphasis mine, link) she is rightly celebrating both the voluntary/consensual as well as the radically open-form aspect of games(or 'fucking'), which makes them good-- but there are evil games, too, and these do not wait for consent, and we are drowning in them and drowning others in them every day.

We ought to enjoy cultivating an understanding of games and play that allows for inclusion of the most distant, expansive, and even oft-ignored but common-sensical usages of those terms, games played without consciously recognizing them as games.

Consider the efficacy of the classic game-essentialist formalism in light of this goal of ludic realism:

If only forces are present without rules, the form being considered is not a game, it is a ‘bare interactive system’ or a toy.

It follows from this ontology that the Earth is a toy, that our body is a toy.

But these are not toys! We are lives ! Players  (Games) !


The Toy / Game language is inadequate. 

There are better words on hand to signify the dualism of playspace-Form which has been roughly described.

These are economy and ecology.

What has been lately called ‘ludo-centric’ thinking ( is nothing more than amateur game theoretical analysis. Game theory can be considered alternately a branch of pure mathematics and/or an economic (pseudo-)science. It is a legitimate branch of pure mathematics because the forms it deals with are Real (at least arguably so) in the geometric-Platonic sense. It is a pseudo-science, because it is (patently) inadequate as a predictive tool, supposing as it does that all economic actors are rational agents.

Besides, whatever ‘purity’ game theory might have as a discipline of pure maths, it was indeed formulated as a practical tool-- described by Von Neumann and Morgenstern as “the proper instrument with which to develop a theory of economic behavior,” -- 

And thus we are not stretching definitions to call the kind of thinking which deals with rules and goals (a goal being nothing more than a Big Rule as to which end following a cascade of bifurcations is to be felt as most desirable)-- economic thinking

In many ways economic form deals with those components of a playspace which have no actual existence outside of rational player psychology. It is abstract and subjective. 

Ecological form, on the other hand, is real in a physical sense-- it is independent of player psychology, it is concrete and objective, it is actual. 

When there are scarce resources, ecological form can begin to take on qualities of economic form, and from this scarcity we derive the idea of e.g. evolution as an economic process as well as the poetic economy of making, for instance, a haiku fit the 5/7/5 pattern. This is a very interesting space in which the two concepts become intimately interwoven. 

In terms of the interface between player and space, ecological form demands something other than game theory’s rational agent models-- what it demands is in my view largely satisfied by the ecological psychology pioneered by James & Eleanor Gibson, developed by others, which is the source of the concept affordance, amongst other things. James Gibson’s book The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception outlines this concept in chapter 8 “The Theory of Affordances”: 
“The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill. The verb to afford is found in the dictionary, but the noun affordance is not. I have made it up. I mean by it something that refers to both the environment and the animal in a way that no existing term does. It implies the complimentarity of the animal and the environment....Let us consider the affordances of the medium, of substances, of surfaces and their layout, of objects, of animals and persons .... Air affords breathing, more exactly, respiration. It also affords unimpeded locomotion to the ground, which affords support. When illuminated and fog-free, it affords visual perception. It also affords the perception of vibratory events by means of sound fields and the perception of volatile sources by means of odor fields. The airspaces between obstacles and objects are the paths and the places where the behavior occurs .... Water is more substantial than air and always has a surface with air ... It does not afford respiration for us. It affords drinking. Being fluid, it affords pouring from a container. Being a solvent, it affords washing and bathing. Its surface does not afford support for large animals with dense tissues .... Solid substances, more substantial than water
Economic thinking is the more suitable tool for analyzing a game of chess, whereas ecological thinking is the more suitable tool for analyzing something like mud-wrestling with a dog, or playing with a vaseline-lubricated watermelon in a swimming pool-- also, for analyzing the ground of computer games, once the concept of affordances has been hooked into Turing’s description of the c-machine, it is possible to define ‘interaction’ in a way which is objective and not subjective.

At the very beginning of section 2, definitions:
“If at each stage the motion of a machine (in the sense of § 1) is completely determined by the configuration, we shall call the machine an "automatic machine" (or a-machine). .For some purposes we might use machines (choice machines or c-machines) whose motion is only partially determined by the configuration (hence the use of the word "possible" in §1). When such a machine reaches one of these ambiguous configurations, it cannot go on until some arbitrary choice has been made by an external operator. This would be the case if we were using machines to deal with axiomatic systems. In this paper I deal only with automatic machines, and will therefore often omit the prefix a-.”
Interaction is not so fuzzy a concept, this is what is meant. It is a free variable x which is afforded to the 'touch' or 'choice' of a player.


It is convenient that ecology and economy have a shared root in eco

The etymology reveals a lot and in a way which harmonizes quite beautifully with this dualism.

Eco comes from the Greek οἶκος, meaning household

“Playing house” becomes the new prototypical game.

Economy comes from Eco + nomos, meaning management, law, or Rule. Economy means “Rule of the household.

Ecology comes from Eco + logos, meaning ground, word, reason, order.. 

Indeed, in a game of Basketball, its system of rules is its economic component and the bounce of muscles and balls against the ground is among its most significant ecological components.


In economics, we hear of macro-economics, and micro-economics. 

Game theory is a model of micro-econonmics, concerning as it does the behavior of individuals, its fabled rational agents. The flux of global financial markets is an example of the sorts of things macro-economics deals with. The two, of course, are related.

For the purpose of our ludic ecologonomy, consider-- 

that micro-ecologonomics are BODY-centric, 

whereas macro-ecologonomics are EARTH-centric. 

Micro-ecologonomics are the manifestation of ecologonomic form, from the point of view of an individual body in general, and in our first-person experience of the environment, in particular. The study of computer games is a sub-field of micro-ecologonomics, concerned with the environmental relation between our body and machine and the software running on that machine. Stuart Kaufmann’s “candidate fourth laws of thermodynamics” as described in his book Investigations, are micro-ecologonomic concepts, concerning as they do the play of what he calls ‘natural games.’ His concept of movement toward adjacent possibility which maximizes its dimensionality to reach the edge of chaos is a striking model of not only evolution and other biological phenomena, as he intends it, but also, of game in general, games which are not limited to be game theoretical games, but which are rather the sort that dogs might play in the mud.

Macroecologonomics is the study of global ecological effects, e.g. climate change, in relation to the global economy. The game of geopolitics, new trade deals , the upcoming attempt to negotiate a treaty in Paris, etc. 

The field of ‘ecological economics’ is destined to deal with the specifics of the macroscopic with far infinitely greater nuance and efficiency than ludic ecolologonomics. Still, it is not a properly different field from the analysis of games that you are likely interested in if you are reading this-- it is not alien to the study of games, it is right at home, it belongs here, in the household.

It is my hope that a 'microecologonomic' study of computer games might aid in tuning into microeconomies/ecologies in general, and that tuning into these might aid in cultivating an interest in the bigger problems. More on this soon.....


I’ve got a work-in-progress draft of a much longer essay on this topic, and if you’d like to dive into that, it’s here:

I don't know if I'll return to it, or just move on, probably the latter!

I'm not so much in the mood to write these days, I might try out some shorter posts to expand the thinking here. I'm not too good at economizing my style, tho... keeping it from tl:dr



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