Games: Agency as Art by C Thi Nguyen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
C. Thi Nguyen’s book,
Games: Agency as Art
, is getting a lot of attention. The current issue of the Journal of Philosophy of Sport has a symposium discussing it; and there was a session at the IAPS virtual conference this past year (both featured replies by Nguyen).
The attention and acclaim the book is getting is well-deserved.
First, Nguyen is an excellent writer. According to the book flap, he used to be a food writer for the LA Times. The writing is crisp and concise. He is funny and personable; bringing together amusing but relevant and insightful anecdotes and illustrations to help make his points. He doesn’t get bogged down in jargon or minutiae; but is still able to bring rigor and preciseness when appropriate.
Second, Nguyen faces a daunting challenge of balancing several disciplines: philosophy of art, philosophy of sport, game design, and game culture. Few have expertise in all of these fields, but Nguyen does a great job of explaining the relevant theories, ideas, and arguments in ways that allow the relative novice to follow along but without dumbing it down for the relative expert.
Lastly, Nguyen’s theories are novel and interesting; and they have had an immediate impact on my thinking about the nature of games. I can’t do justice in this brief review (I plan on writing up a long, more tradition book review soon), but the basic idea is that we can better understand games (and many sports as kinds of games) by seeing them as particular kind of art. If we think of art as capturing and stylizing different aspects of human experience: literature as capturing our narratives; music as recording our experience of sounds; dance as recording and stylizing our experience of human movement, etc., then we might approach games as recording and stylizing our practical agency. Within games of all kinds, we take on a temporary agency and play it out. We play with this agency through playing the game. This is comparable to how we might read Harry Potter and experience the world of wizardry. Playing Jedi: Fallen Order, though, allows to experience (at least in a stylized way) what it’s like to think and choose like a Jedi. The game allows us take on the practical reasoning and thought processes of the kind of character or agency that is created by the game structure. As part of taking on this agency, we get temporary goals and values that we pursue in the context of the game, allowing us to experience the striving and achieving of these goals.
This, argues Nguyen, gives us a better understanding of what games are and also what is so valuable and important about game-playing: both personally and also socially. He also discusses how there are some dangers to this – though I thought this is where the book was weakest (I'll get into this more in my longer review).
I learned a lot from this book. Nguyen’s ideas call for much more study (I‘ve already adjusted my philosophy of sport syllabus to include some of his work), and I am sure they will continue to influence my thinking. And his work will push the field forward his ideas are digested, criticized, and revised.
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