Fictional Games

Stefano Gualeni and Riccardo Fassone


Gualeni, Stefano and Riccardo Fassone. Fictional Games: A Philosophy of Worldbuilding and Imaginary Play. London, UK: Bloomsbury Academic, 2022. Hardcover: 9781350277090.


“What roles do imaginary games have in story-telling? Why do fiction authors outline the rules of a game that the audience will never play? Combining perspectives from philosophy, literary theory and game studies, this book provides the first in-depth investigation into the significance of fictional games within fictional worlds. Drawing from contemporary cinema and literature, from The Hunger Games to the science fiction of Iain M. Banks, Stefano Gualeni and Riccardo Fassone introduce five key functions that different types of imaginary games have in worldbuilding. First, fictional games can emphasize the dominant values and ideologies of the fictional society they belong to. Second, some imaginary games function in fictional worlds as critical, utopian tools, inspiring shifts in the thinking and political orientation of the fictional characters. Third, a few fictional games are conducive to the transcendence of a particular form of being, such as the overcoming of human corporeality. Fourth, imaginary games within works of fiction can deceptively blur the boundaries between the contingency of play and the irrevocable seriousness of “real life”, either camouflaging life as a game or disguising a game as something with more permanent consequences. And fifth, they can function as meta-reflexive tools, suggesting critical and/or satirical perspectives on how actual games are designed, played, sold, manipulated, experienced, understood and utilized as part of our culture. With illustrations in every chapter bringing the imaginary games to life, Gualeni and Fassone creatively inspire us to consider fictional games anew: not as moments of playful reprieve in a storyline, but as significant and multi-layered expressive devices.”


Foreword, “Playing Fiction-Games with Fictional Games,” by Daniel Vella

Cites Olga Tokarczuk, Primeval and Other Times, 1996

“the first available transmedial corpus of fictional games” (x)

“making a case for the polyvalence of the games we encounter in works of fiction” (x)

“fictional games as embodiments,” “representations,” “deceptions,” “hallucinations,” and “contexts for transcendental possibility” (x)

“inherently multidisciplinary, being informed by game studies, literary theory, media studies, cultural studies and philosophy” (x)

“One of the most enduring tenets in the field of game studies has been the idea that the game scholar needs to be an engaged player-researcher (Aarseth 2003), and that the perspective which is most fundamental to understanding the significance of a game is that of ‘the game as played, as referring to the object of study for game studies from the player’s perspective (Leino 2009: 6)” (xi)

Challenged by “zero-player or idle games (Fizek 2018)” and “posthumanist, relational understandings of gameplay (Janik 2018)” (xi)

“how does one develop a critical and analytical perspective on games that are … unplayable?” (xi)

“Patricia Waugh notes that the idea that the creative activity of art is inherently playful … is an established one (1984: 34). Similarly, in philosophy, Hans-Georg Gadamer claims that the work of art is the ‘transformation into structure’ of the free movement of play (2013: 114)” (xi)

Commentator’s Note: This got me excited. I never see anyone cite Gadamer in game studies, but he is a key source for me!

“The foregrounding of fictional games within works of fiction, then, can be understood as a mise en abyme of the process of imaginative creation” (xi)

“the meta-reflexive qualities of fictional games—the way the can lead us back to thinking about games, play, representation and fictionality, by foregrounding their complex interweaving within the texts and the fictional worlds they are contained in” (xi-xii)

“fictional games are, by necessity, incompletely specified and unattainable” (xii)

“what we have is the symbol of an unreachable origin” (xii)

Of the game in Primeval: “The game, then, is as vast as the world, containing an entire cosmology in miniature; at the same time, it is as small as the contents of one person’s consciousness” (xii)

“It constitutes an example of what Waugh termed the ‘black boxes’ so prevalent in postmodernist fiction (1984: 39)” (xii)

“The game, then, becomes a physical token of an unreachable, solipsistic interiority” (xiii)

Games that “codify the ideological structures of the society that produced them,” that “present themselves as hermetic systems,” that “expand and blur the boundary between themselves and the world,” that “speak to the unattainable centre of meaning of the individual human consciousness,” and that “embody private worlds of imagination and obsession” (xiii)


Games function as “shared customs and beliefs,” to “train and educate,” “influence cultural shifts,” and define “a social group’s tastes and aspirations” (1)

“Playing games is a cognitively complex and socially multilayered activity” (1)

“Very little attention has been devoted to games and playful activities that are solely encountered in works of fiction, where they often play an important narrative role” (1)

Games as “a synecdoche for some of the moral or political assumptions underpinning a certain social group” (1)

Or as “background elements that contribute to making a fictional world feel vibrant and interconnected” (2)

Fictional games “indicate playful activities and ludic artefacts conceptualized as part of fictional worlds” (2)

They “cannot actually be—or at least were not originally meant to be—played” (2)

Not “typically formally complete” (2)

“authors often simply hint at these games’ rules, affordances, boundaries, exceptions and criteria for success, defining them just clearly enough to achieve their intended functions within the work of fiction” (2)

“unplayability” (2)

“Inspired by Christopher Thi Nguyen (2020), we could characterize our aesthetic relationship with fictional games as ‘an aesthetics of imagined agency’” (2)

“we do not take a hard stance on what constitutes a game” (2)

“when an artefact or structured activity is literally (i.e. non-metaphorically) presented in a work of fiction as a game, we simply consider it to be one” (2)

Analysing a “subset” that does not include such works as “Dostoevsky’s The Gambler (2017), Kawabata’s The Master of Go (2006) or Bolaño’s The Third Reich (2011), as these works describe games that also exist outside the realm of fiction” (3)

Fictional games as “philosophical and literary devices” (4)

“This book integrates and extends the disciplinary boundaries of academic fields including game studies, the philosophy of fiction, science-fiction studies, the philosophy of games and narratology” (4)

“we embrace a nominal and rather loose definition of what a game is” (5)

“we also consider a fictional game to be a game by virtue of its being literally understood as a game or a sport by the characters inhabiting a fictional world” (5)

“we attempt to use the speculative and often prophetic lens of fiction to explore what games could potentially be, as well as the sociocultural effects that could be pursued through them” (5)

“philosophical thought experiments” (5)

Potentials of fictional games: “thematic,” “critical,” “deceptive,” “meta-reflexive,” “comedic,” “utopian,” “transformational,” “political” (6)

Four “uses” or “thematic categories” of fictional games (8):

  • “reflect (and can influence) the values, beliefs and political orientations of [a fictional world’s] inhabitants”
  • “provide [these inhabitants] with access to forms of spiritual and corporeal transcendence”
  • “infiltrate [these inhabitants’] reality, becoming deceptively indistinguishable from it”

Commentator’s Note: They only list three distinct uses, but in the following chapter outline, they distinguish “repetition and normalization of ideologies” versus the “subver[sion] [of] the sociopolitical status quo.”

The “four functions … should not be considered exhaustive” (8)

Authors draw from “existential philosophy, the philosophy of fiction, literary criticism, game studies, film studies and media studies” (9)

Commentator’s Note: The authors conclude the chapter with chapter outlines that do a great job introducing each section of their argument and outlining the contents therein. This is followed by a glossary of key terms. These inclusions are a nice touch in an academic book, helping provide entry points and handles for readers. Furthermore, footnotes are included as actual footnotes, not endnotes, which I think more scholarly books need to do. I want to see the note on the same page, rather than flipping back and forth to the end of the book.

Chapter 1, “On Fictional Games”

Some early examples of games in fiction: Aeschylus, Seven Against Thebes (467 BCE); The Book of One Thousand Nights (c. 850); Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron (1353); Pietro Aretino, Le Carte Parlanti (1543); and Torquato Tasso, Il Gonzaga Secondo (1581).

“As discussed by Fassone and Huber (2017), early modern Italian literature abounds with examples of games having a focal relevance in texts that straddle the line between fiction and theory” (20)

“Greater scholarly efforts have been dedicated, instead, to both the role of fiction within games (see Aarseth 2007; Van de Mosselaer 2020) and the possibility for literary fiction to be playful or game-like for readers (see Hutchinson 1983; Suits 1985; Edwards 2013)” (20)

Robert Detweiler, “Games and Play in Modern American Fiction” (1976)

Patterson, Games and Gaming in Medieval Literature (2015)

In Hutchinson (1983), the “literary devices” of “parallels” and “enigmas” are of interest (21)

“defines parallels as occurring when a work of fiction is represented within another work of fiction in cases where the former mirrors the wider narrative development of the latter” (21)

Examples: Thomas Middleton, Women Beware Women (1657); George Bernard Shaw, John Bull’s Other Island (1904); Vladimir Nabokov, The Defense (1930).

“expressive uses of parallels” include “adumbration,” “allusion,” and “parody” (21-22)

“enigmas as mysteries existing in a fictional world that are typically leveraged to introduce uncertainty and suspense” (22)

Domain of sports sees other paths of inquiry: Christian K. Messenger, Sport and the Spirit of Play in American Fiction (1981); Neil David Berman, Playful Fiction and Fictional Players (1981); Mike Oriard, Dreaming of Heroes (1982); and Seán Crosson, Sport and Film (2013).

Commentator’s Note: I appreciate that the authors include sports in their discussion without fuss, an area of study underrepresented in games studies today—especially, it seems, since the shift from the study of play and games in general to the study of digital games.

“When conducting research for this book, we were surprised to discover that, to date, the representation of games in fiction has received no dedicated interest from disciplines such as the philosophy of fiction or game studies” (23)

Related works that get close to “fictional games” include: Will Slocombe, “Games Playing Roles in Banks’ Fiction” (2013); Esther MacCallum-Stewart, “The Gaming of Players: Jamming Azad” (2018); Chris Bateman, Imaginary Games (2011); and Staffan Björk and Jesper Juul, “Zero-Player Games” (2012).

“The inaccessibility of fictional games in terms of being experienced playfully and interactively (i.e. their unplayability) is clearly a feature that is central both to our definition of fictional games and to Björk and Juul’s understanding of hypothetical games” (24)

“neither playable games within digital gameworlds nor actual games that were originally conceptualized as part of a work of fiction fall within our scope” (25)

“effectively playable sub-games constitute the majority of cases where a game is encountered within the fictional world of another game” (25)

“the rare instances where games within games are not interactive playthings but maintain, instead, a degree of under-specification are the only ones that can be considered fictional games” (25)

Such as: Kepesh-Yakshi in Mass Effect 3; Wicked Grace in Dragon Age: Inquisition; and Wirrâl, The Viticulturist, Archipelagos of Insulinde, Raubritter, and Suzerainty in Disco Elysium (25-26)

“Games that are actually playable within a digital game can certainly be called ‘games within a fictional world,’ but we argue that they are better categorized and understood as actual games than as fictional games” (26)

Sub-games “are characterized by aspects such as formal completeness and playability”—“minigames” and “nested games” (26)

Minigames are typically “uninfluential with regard to the main narrative line” (26)

“Canonically, players obtain useful rewards for achieving a certain standard of proficiency in these activities. Trophies, achievement markers and pieces of gear are the almost universally expected rewards for succeeding in minigames, and can be shown to other players as a testament to one’s commitment to a particular activity or standard of in-game performance” (27)

“nested games are a ‘playable enclave’: they are ludically isolated from the wider gameworld that contains them” (27)

“such as an in-game arcade cabinet, fictional game consoles or specific tables dedicated to that activity” (27)

Another example: “the collectible card game of Triple Triad in Final Fantasy VIII”—to which I add Gwent in The Witcher 3, Machine Strike in Horizon Forbidden West, and Caravan in Fallout: New Vegas

This argument “extends to the case of games that were originally unplayable components of a work of fiction but were later developed into playable artefacts” (28)

“once fully resolved into playable artefacts, what were once fictional games take a different media form (28)”

“many of the philosophical and meaning-making possibilities of fictional games emerge from their ‘fictional incompleteness’ … that is, from the particular kind of under-specification that makes them possible to be imagined and speculated about in a great variety of different ways” (28)

Fictional games are “elements of a narrative whose functioning and playfulness are aspects that are meant to be imagined rather than experienced directly by the fiction appreciators” (31)

“four causes of unplayability” (31-32):

  • “Their fictional incompleteness”
  • “The current impossibility of their magical or advanced technological features”
  • “Their not being meant to be accessed or interacted with by human players”
  • “Their clashing with ethical standards and norms that are common in the actual world”

Fictional incompleteness can “serve various expressive purposes,” including “surprising the audience,” “bewildering the audience,” and “hinting at the instability and contingency that ultimately define any situation” (35, 37)

“their capability for stimulating imaginings of social and political arrangements that are alternative to the ones that currently characterize our existence” (37)

Commentator’s Note: Compare Cameron Kunzelman, The World Is Born From Zero (2022) on “mechanics of speculation.”

“magical and outlandishly advanced technological features signal the significant alterity of a fictional world” (39)

“the realm of speculation” (39)

Sometimes fictional games are “incompatible with the qualities and possibilities of our subjective experience” (40)

“when discussing the nonhuman, we refer to forms of being and experiencing that are inaccessible to humans and that cannot be bridged by means of technological or medical enhancements” (41)

“radically alien forms of play in works of fiction” either emphasize “the profound otherness of nonhuman minds,” or convey “that there is a vaster background to existence and reality” (41)

“It is especially in the pursuit of this second expressive objective that fictional games can constitute a playful experimental context in which various forms of (non-radical) transcendence can be anticipated, communicated in agential form and even actively pursued by the player” (41-42)

Sometimes, fictional games show play as “not necessarily a joyful and liberating activity” (43)

“games cannot be considered objects whose design is impermeable to ethical concerns” (43)

“the paradox of transgression in games: the tendency of certain playful activities to provide experiences and generate dynamics that can be considered transgressive of ethical, moral and legal boundaries in specific contexts” (44)

“an operational grouping of how these immoral or ethically questionable games are used in fiction” (44-45):

  • “extreme blood sports”
  • “as synecdoche for a morally deranged society”
  • “as morally or ethically untenable to serve as thought experiments”

Aaron Trammel, “Torture, Play, and the Black Experience” (2020)

“The Gestalt of fictional games” (46)

“Fictional games that serve as background elements” (46)

“Fictional games that have a more focal, central role” (46)

“we can understand games as expressive forms that reflect (and are reflected upon in) their ideological and socio-technical apparatus” (48)

“This phenomenon also partly explains why it is difficult for us to imagine games (regardless of their fictional or actual constitution) that are not characterized by activities related to an attitude of instrumental rationality such as the accumulation of resources or the optimization of certain outputs of the game system” (48)

“To contextualize the idea that fictional games can function as clues about trends and values characterizing a fictional society or civilization (ex ungue leonem, so to speak), we want to offer a relatable example. One can interpret the rules and criteria for success in chess as a testament to our actual society’s orientation toward individualism and the competitive, instrumental utilization of resources and rational faculties. Accordingly, one is invited to imagine fictional societies that play fictional variations of chess to also be undergirded by a feudal-capitalist socioeconomic system or, at the very least, as attaching importance to individual success and the strategic use of one’s cognitive faculties. Based on these premises, it is reasonable to expect such a fictional society to be hierarchically stratified, be prone to conflict and hold notions such as instrumentality and efficiency in high regard. Any assumption pertaining to games and playful activities as stand-ins for larger cultural tropes, however, also needs to be understood as contextual. On understanding chess as the epitome of rational instrumentality, for example, H. J. R. Murray (1913) noted that, before it came to exemplify the intellectual game, chess meant different things in different contexts and was used allegorically for a variety of rhetorical purposes. Similarly, in his paper, ‘How to Play Utopia,’ Michael Holquist argued that chess is a kind of langue, in the sense that its model of battle is so abstract that it can be injected with any kinds of values, themes and meanings without affecting the structure of the game itself (1968: 117; see also the concluding section of Chapter 3 in this volume)” (48-49)

“Fn. 10: In the case of contemporary fiction, the reliance of modern chess on instrumental rationality has come to epitomize the dominant values of capitalist societies. This is far from a neutral representation of a societal orientation, however, as one can imagine different societal structures or values being typified by different kinds of games that may privilege, for example, postcolonial or indigenous points of view (see LaPensée 2020)” (49)

“the first category of fictional games can be understood as contributing to the ‘feedback oscillation’ between familiarity and unfamiliarity that is central to the experience of fiction and to its transformative effects” (49)

Functions of “focal” games (50):

  • “Fictional games as social instruments”
  • “Fictional games as contexts for the indirect characterization of fictional characters”

In the case of the former, “fictional games that have utopian qualities and direct transformative effects in the fictional worlds of which they are a part” (50)

In the case of the latter, “to cast a new light on the present state of the fictional world” (51)

Chapter 2, “Fictional Games and Ideology”

Janet Murray: “symbolic dramas” (59)

“games synthesize and compress aspects of human experience into finite regulate objects” (59)

“fictional games as narrative devices that communicate or reinforce certain ideological arrangements” (60)

  1. “because games are specific types of systems produced under precise socio-technical conditions, they always replicate, at least in part, the systems that maintain and inform these conditions” (60)
  2. “because we all possess some form of systems literacy … we cannot help but project our knowledge of systems onto the games we play” (60)

Commentator’s Note: Wonderfully, the authors relegate discussion of the ludology/narratology debate to a footnote. This is how it’s done!

Commentator’s Note: Footnote 2, they cite Latour, Pandora’s Hope (1999) and Ihde, Technology and the Lifeworld (1990). Of the latter, specifically, a great citational pull. Like Gadamer, a book that has been very influential for me, but which I don’t see cited all that frequently.

“The values ‘embedded’ in games are by no means univocal or universally shared, and they can be a source of disagreement and conflict” (61)

“ideology” is the “sum of values” that affect “social relations, economic transactions and political or legal arrangements” (62)

“Ideological adherence is actively enforced by institutions such as the state or the juridical system” (63)

“These apparatuses, which include institutions such as schools, media and cultural industries, do not act repressively … but rather persuasively” (63)

  1. ISAs “reproduce [ideology] by representing it” (63)
  2. ISAs “reproduce the ruling ideology by ensuring its continuation” (63)

Dyer-Witherford and de Peuter conclude that “digital gaming may prove to be a cultural practice so deeply mortgaged to an economy of technophilic, high-energy overconsumption, and to ideologically toxic memes of domination, that it must be jettisoned completely from any postcapitalist future (though we hope not!)” (2021)

Issue of “isomorphism: are games really able to accurately map the ideological status quo that produced them?” (64)

“interacting with games as either a player or a designer has the potential to call into question and even transform one’s world view by presenting an individual with various alternative possibilities to the current state of things, thus encouraging speculative and critical thinking” (64)

Commentator’s Note: This is Kunzelman’s argument in The World is Born From Zero.

“unplaying (Flanagan 2009)” and “counterplay (Dyer-Witherford and de Peuter 2009; Meades 2015) aim at disclosing anti-hegemonic scenarios for the players by deliberately countering the game’s intended use” (64)

But this chapter, focus is on “fictional games that can be understood as acting as proxies for certain ideological arrangements … as playable allegories of a moral kind” (67)

“Folk games are traditional games that are passed along informally and whose ruleset are subject to subtantial variations that depend on the historical and cultural contexts in which those games are palyed. Folks games can be embraced as a particularly obvious example of how shared values, social orientations and aspects of a collective identity are condensed and manifest themselves in play” (68)

“They are often … playable moral allegories” (68)

e.g. Snakes and Ladders, which “historians believe may be a variation of the ancient game of Dasapada,” and more recently Morsha Patamu, Gyan Chaupar, Parambada Sopanam, and Golok Dham (68)

See Mukherjee, “Gamifying Salvation: Gyan Chaupar Variants as Representations of (Re)Births and Lives” (2020)

Mukherjee “clarifies that understanding the game as a race towards the finish line is a relatively recent, Western development. Scholars of Sanskrit and Indian history are also careful to point out that, just like the karmic cycle of death and rebirth, a new game is always ready to begin and that the idea of rushing towards the end tile therefore did not make sense in the context of ancient Indian culture” (69)

“virtues and vices are ideological icons serving as cues for the desired conduct that the game present explicitly and reinforces behaviourally” (70)

Some fictional games can have “critical, satirical or meta-reflexive intentions” (73)

Cite some big names in game studies: Suits (1978), Caillois (1958), and Huizinga (1955), but then frame them as “romanting play theories,” citing Möring and Leino (2016).

“Whereas Marxist theorists of play maintain that games entertain a quasi-isomorphic relation with the material and ideological conditions of their production, a different strand of game studies posits play as antithetical to labour” (75)

“play can also be the context in which the individual can access world views and possibilities for existential projectuality and self-realization that stand outside the prescriptive sphere of one’s work (see Gualeni and Vella 2020)”

Of the fictional game Quintet: “in a world where there is no ideology or set of values for a game to simulate, the simulation is all that is left … ‘the only intelligent expression left is the game of Quintet: all things of value feed the game’” (79)

“the game has devoured its surroundings and taken the place of the very values it was supposed to represent with their corresponding ludic simulacrum” (79)

Commentator’s Note: This segment on Quintet had me thinking of Baudrillard, and the authors were too. In footnote 12, they remark that Baudrillard was “one of the few admirers of the film,” discussing it in his Cool Memories (1990). They speculate that Baudrillard’s interest derived “from the game of Quintet functioning as a fitting example of what the philosopher calls a simulacrum,” which is precisely what I thought when reading the above from Gualeni and Fassone.

“a reliance on existing games may limit our ability to imagine other ludic forms or to spot the potential for playfulness in activities that are not immediately recognizable as games (e.g. formal practices that do not rely on competition among actors or the optimization of fictional resources)” (81)

Chapter 3, Fictional Games as Utopian Devices

Previous chapter, “the ideologies that were persuasively integrated into the various games we analysed were those of established power” (87)

Commentator’s Note: In Stuart Hall’s encoding/decoding model, games from the hegemonic position.

“Given the future orientation that typically characterizes utopian and dystopian fiction, this chapter will mostly discuss fictional games appearing in works of science-fiction” (87)

“Understanding science-fiction as an imaginative gateway that allows the reader to speculate on the possible consequences of future political and technological developments dates back to the ‘golden age’ of classic science-fiction” (88)

H. G. Wells, science fiction helps “domesticate the impossible hypothesis” (88)

In a footnote, cite Darko Suvin’s “estrangement” (1979), Viktor Shklovsky’s “unfamiliarity and uncertainty” (1917), and Bertolt Brecht’s “distancing” (1964) (88)

“utopia as a critical device that prompts its recipients to rethink their political and moral contexts and to imagine attainable alternatives” (89)

Footnote 2: “We thus understand utopia as a mode of thinking (and a genre of fiction) that is typically oriented towards potentiality rather than practicality … Very much like fictional games, utopias must thus be constituted by unrealized possibilities, and, if they are ever actualized, this can only be in a temporary fashion” (89)

Commentator’s Note: Perhaps why making games for the Applied Hope jam was hard! Imagining solarpunk (utopian) futures demands very different kinds of games.

“According to Gundolf S. Freyermuth (2019), the forward-looking approach (as well as its frequent reliance on technological advancements) is the result of cultural transformation that began in the renaissance” (89)

Footnote 3: “The longing for a mythical past as a sort of unattainable utopia became one of the rhetorical tools of twentieth-century reactionary politics, usually inspired by traditionalist thinking. As observed by Jesi (1979) and Staudenmaier (2020), among others, the racial politics of Italian fascism were informed by this sort of aspirational ‘passatism.’ In this case, one could argue that a weaponized version of pre-modern utopias existed alongside modern technological utopias and was employed as a tenet of reactionary political discourses” (89)

“the kinds of utopias that could be encountered in pre-modern literature—for instance, in Plato’s Republic (c. 375 BCE), Virgil’s Eclogues (c. 38 BCE) or More’s previously discussed satirical novel, Utopia (1516)—used the toolkit of fiction to propose and explore alternative social values and more desirable forms of political arrangement” (89)

“fictional worlds as objects of critical reflection and philosophical speculation” (90)

Jameson’s “utopian impulse” (2005) (90)

Utopian fiction’s “defining trait is the intention to stimulate our moral and political imagination” by (90):

  1. “a call to action” (utopia)
  2. “a warning” (dystopia or anti-utopia)

Footnote 4: “The difference between the dystopian and anti-utopian genres of fiction has historically been rather vague and confusing … To put it simply, there is no hope in an anti-utopian work, but there is always hope in a dystopian work” (91)

“In their utopian function, fictional games are often used to suggest the potential for change, to incite a shift in mentality and political orientations or even to directly spark a revolutionary cultural shift within a work of fiction” (93)

“How can artefacts that were previously defined as fictional systems of control and interdiction become utopian elements?” (93-94)

  1. “Structural indeterminacy”
  2. “The possibility of transgression”
  3. “Rhetorical and transformative effects”

Azad in Banks The Player of Games (95)

The Culture is “a functioning anarchist, utopian, post-scarcity, galaxy-spanning society of pan-humans, nonhuman species and advanced artificial intelligences” (95)

Described by Suderman (2023) as “a sprawling, inter-galactic left-libertarian thought experiment” (95)

“games are frequently found in Banks’ fictional worlds,” wherein they “are presented as structured systems of rules that replicate certain ideologies, moral orientations and ways of living in the societies in which they are played” (95)

The Player of Games’s protagonist, Gurgeh, “whose scholarly work is motivated by a fascination with ‘the way a society’s games revealed so much of its ethos, its philosophy, its very soul’” (97)

“Banks also shows that, by understanding relationships of power through a game (and ultimately, as a game), one can reveal their fragility and contingency” (98)

Of Azad: “its players are not simply taking part in a ludic activity defined by aspects of randomness and strategic thinking; rather, they are proposing competing political claims that are implied in their in-game interactions” (98)

“The utopian function of the game of Azad is thus to show that power relationships are ultimately indeterminate and potentially subject to change, even in the darkest dystopian and most oppressive of scenarios” (99)

“types of indeterminacy”: “randomness,” “unexpectedness,” “ambiguity” (99)

Typically experienced through “designed randomness,” “players’ choices,” and “unanticipated malfunctions” (99)

Connect to “modernist artistic practices” like Dada, Surrealism, and Situationism, that “most obviously embraced chance and interactivity in artistic production as expressive ways to oppose instrumental rationality, the dominant paradigm of Western thought” (100)

Alternative, “subversive players … can negate the game’s authority, reveal the arbitrariness and fragility of power and actualize utopian aspirations” (103)

Compare Caillois’s “cheat” and “nihilist” (103)

“Both types of players—the cheat and the nihilist—may be stigmatized by players who are competent and respectful, as the subversive players’ actions highlight the precariousness of the game” (103)

“For the sake of simplicity, in this book, we collapse acts of cheating and challenging a game’s authority over its players into the category of ‘counterplay’” (103)

Commentator’s Note: The authors briefly cite Elio Petri’s film The 10th Victim (1965), which adapts a story from Robert Sheckley’s excellent Store of the Worlds (2012). I had no idea such an adaptation existed!

Jameson’s “moment of truth,” the “main function” of which is “presenting the satisfaction of a utopian impulse as the only viable option” (109)

Referencing Michael Holquist (1968), the authors write: “Just as chess is a distilled version of war, utopia is a condensed and intuitively graspable representation of a new and desirable sociopolitical arrangement” (111)

“utopias are always utopias for somebody in particular” (111)

Footnote 11: “The ‘somebody’ for whom a utopia is actually utopian (within a work of fiction) is always a rationally competent and benevolent being. We cannot recall a work of fiction that offers a utopian perspective framed in the desires and ambitions of the mad or the deranged. Speculatively, this may be simply because the moral sensitivity of fiction appreciators would likely perceive these thing things as profoundly dystopic. To put it in simpler terms, a utopia is always for somone, and—for the utopia to be recognized as such—that someone must have moral and political orientations that are compatible with those of the implied fiction appreciators” (111)

“the readers of utopian texts are also somehow playing” (112)

Chapter 4, Fictional Games as Deceptions and Hallucinations

“this chapter examines instances in which fictional games seek to blur or even erase the line that separates the fictional characters’ actual lives from their experiencing being in a gameworld” (117)

Footnote 1: ambiguity of “real life”—real life as the actual world, or real life as in “productive life” (117). In the case of the former, play is real; in the case of the latter, it is not. See Fassone (2017)

Magic circle: “This understanding of play has sparked a lasting debate within game studies and has often been challenged for essentializing play and games, partially disconnecting them from the larger contexts of society and culture and almost turning them into ineffable concepts” (118)

Zimmerman (2012): it “seems to have become a rite of passage for game studies scholars: somewhere between a Bachelor’s degree and a Master’s thesis, everyone has to write the paper where the magic circle finally gets what it deserves” (118)

“A useful re-evaluation of the concept is offered by Schrank (2014)” (118)

“for Schrank, the magic circle of play does not segregate players from their ordinary existence; rather, it allows them to confront and revist this existence in a somehwat safe—or even ‘sacred’—context. To him, play is a sort of incantation—an invitation to summon certain forces” (118)

Commentator’s Note: Compare Isabelle Stengers on the “lure” in Reclaiming Animism (2012).

“we adopted a similar stance in the previous chapters when discussing fictional games as ideological proxies and catalysts for utopian realizations and impulses” (119)

Commentator’s Note: ideology—proxy; utopia—catalyst; deception—incantation. What is the comparative term for the final chapter, transcendence?

This chapter, “analyse fictional games that aim to temporarily or permanently invade or even take the place of a player’s ordinary life” (119)

“the superimposition of a deceptive game onto one’s actual experience constitutes the starting point for narratives in which the charaters’ sanity or sense of themselves is at risk” (119)

Reference Gadamer: “his understanding of play is important to explore here because it advances a position that goes against the common-sense framing of this activity as inherently vital, joyful or liberating” (119)

Commentator’s Note: I don’t find their reading of Gadamer here wrong, but it almost comes across as a ‘dark’ Gadamer. He does not make the all-absorbing power of play out to be something sinister—it is simply a structure. Deception is one particular end of such a structure.

Gadamer: “All playing is a being played … the game masters the players” (120)

“casinos and other gambling facilities actively seek to retain players by amplifying and weaponizing play’s endless cycles to extract value from their customers (see Dow-Schüll 2014)”

On Nozick, and Roy: A Life Well Lived in Rick & Morty: “the best of both archetypes of experience machines, as a device that—from the outside—invites a playful approach while—from the inside—is existentially and experientially totalizing” (132)

On The Game: a “puzzle film” (Buckland 2009) (134)

Puzzle films “reject classical storytelling techniques and replace them with complex storytelling” (134)

Commentator’s Note: Compare Sam Barlow’s games, and especially the recent Immortality. A puzzle game that makes puzzles out of movies. If puzzle films emerge in response to audiences adapted to video games (see below), then Barlow’s games are at another step forward in this path of development.

“Seeing the fictional world through the eyes of Shelby or Van Orton, the viewer needs to split their effort in terms of making coherent sense of the situation by interpreting the film’s narrative … while simultaneously engaging with the complexities of the narrative structure engendered by the presence of a fundamentally unreliable protagonist” (135)

Puzzle films “ask the viewer to find and arrange the pieces of a disjointed, reticent, contradictory or overly complex narrative” (135)

“Puzzle films, the argument goes, are geared towards consumption by an audience that has absorbed complex, multi-threaded narratives by playing video games” (135)

See Elsaesser (2021) on the “mind-game film” (135)

“playful interaction between the author and the appreciator of a work of fiction is typical of literary genres such as the detective or espionage story” (135)

“Unbeknownst to him, Nicholas is entering into a new relationship with the actual world presented in the fiction” (137)

Compare Gary Alan Fine (1983) on “role-taking” (137) and Gualeni and Vella (2020) on “en-roling” (138)

“Under normal circumstances, players of role-playing games voluntarily choose to adopt a ludic subjectivity (see Vella 2015)” (138)

“the frame of the game is not a cognitive construct that players uphold via an improvised narrative, but a situation generated by a series of rules and prescriptions imposed upon Nicholas’ empirical reality” (138)

Compare LARP “embracing the risk” in Mochocki (2020) (139)

Commentator’s Note: In The Game, “Nicholas repeating to himself that no physical harm can come from the experience is a way to ground the viewer’s perception of the events as being part of a game” (139). Compare Squid Game, in which this perception is annihilated. The game is deadly serious.

“de-roling as a set of techniques for cooling down and removing one’s fictional subjectivity that can be beneficial after experiences that involve a form of role-taking” (140)

“The protagonist of The Game is the object rather than the player of this pervasive game and is thus played by the labyrinthine machinations of its creators” (142)

Chapter 5, Fictional Games and Transcendence

“fictional games that function explicitly as transformative tools for their (fictional) players” (145)

“themes of human transcendence, post-biological evolution and the future of play” (145)

“playing the Glass Bead Game is often discussed as a close analogue to composing poetry, improvising on a musical theme or working towards the proof of a mathematical theorem” (146)

“In Hesse’s book, we learn that the process to become an elite Glass Bead Game player requires state-sanctioned training courses and many years of practice. Emphasizing both its complexity and its transdisciplinarity, the narrator of the novel initially describes the game as a ‘kind of of highly developed secret language drawing upon several sciences and the arts, but especially mathematics and music (and/or musicology), and capable of expressing and establishing interrelationships between the content and conclusions of nearly all scholarly disciplines. The Glass Bead Game is thus a mode of playing with the total contents and values of our culture’” (146)

“the bead configurations that are possible in the game couple reproduce the entire intellectual content of the universe” (176)

Commentator’s Note: Compare Borges’s library.

“The game, however, should not be understood as being capable merely of replicating various expressive and epistemic forms, but also as a generative device” (146)

“the Glass Bead Game is described as an instrument that grants access to a universe of possibilities and combinations to be explored and experimented with” (146)

“our approach to the idea of transcendence is not specific to a certain philosophical current or ascribable to a particular scholar. Rather, we adopt a broad and common understanding of the notion, which also aligns with its etymology. The word ‘transcendence’ is derived from Latin, in which the prefix trans- denotes the idea of going beyond and the verb scandare indicates the action of climbing” (147-148)

“the Glass Bead Game functions as a tool that guides and stimulates the novel’s characters to overcome their ‘thrownness’” (148)

Commentator’s Note: a broad and common understanding of transcendence, but the authors remain very much existentially and phenomenologically inclined.

The Glass Bead Game “does not feature elements of fictionality. The game does not encourage players to act as if they were someone else or something else or to feel that they are part of a fictional world” (149)

Like puzzle games, which “are often so abstract in their functions that a fictional stance towards their gameworld is not a necessary condition for playfully engaging with them” (150)

Or, like Go, Sudoku, Mastermind, Tetris, sports, folk games, and some children’s games (150)

“the absence of this common avenue for transcendence [i.e., fictionality] makes the Glass Bead Game a useful example of how fictional games can stimulate and guide their players to ‘go beyond’ their ordinary situations without depending on imaginings about oneself” (150)

“To be considered a tool for transcendence, we require a fictional game to effectively prompt and/or allow players to overcome their physical, perceptual and/or cognitive limitations, and not simply to cause them to imagine they have done that” (150)

“fictional games that stimulate and structure forms of transcendence that concern the playing individual” (150)

“the desire to transcend one’s condition … characterizes human existence” (152)

In Alastair Reynolds Diamond Dogs, “the Spire’s puzzles also venture into areas of mathematical knowledge that have not yet been developed or formalized in the socio-technical context of the novel’s protagonists” (154)

Commentator’s Note: Though I learned the whole plot of Diamond Dogs from the authors, the description has me extremely interested in reading it still. Added to the priority list.

“Blood Spire can thus be understood as a fictional game that—beyond a certain point—is meant to be unplayable for regular human beings” (155)

The Spire is:

  1. “a tool for stimulating and guiding a specific kind of transcendence” (157)
  2. “a narrative device that presents clues about the core values and inclinations of the civilization that built it” (157)
  3. “a constant source of occasions for the indirect characterization of its protagonists” (158)

“Accepting the challenge presented by Blood Spire means being confronted with radical questions concerning one’s sense of identity, the continuity of one’s selfhood and how meaning can be attributed to one’s existence” (158)

“Philosophers such as Eugen Fink (1960) have proposed understanding play as an alternative mode of existence; while our actual life is defined by certain non-negotiable aspects and particular possibilities and aspirations, during play, we are free from these fundamental constraints and can fictionally explore alternative possibilities of being” (163)

Building on Fink and Sartre, “several scholars have proposed theoretical approaches applying an existentialist understanding of play to video games—and virtual worlds more generally (Leino 2009; de Miranda 2018; Gualeni 2019; Gualeni and Vella 2020)” (163)

Commentator’s Note: I taught the de Miranda essay when I taught Life is Strange in Interactive Storytelling a few years ago.

Chapter 6, Concluding Thoughts

“the knowledge produced in game studies is not limited in its application to analyses and claims concerning games that exist (or that have existed) or of actual experiences of play” (178)

“whenever something within a work of fiction was described as a game, we decided to simply treat it as one. Such an operational and clear-cut distinction allowed us to keep the howling void of definitory matters at bay and to focus on offering analytical tools and observations related to the narrative roles of fictional games, as well as philosophical reflections about them” (179)

Commentator’s Note: howling void, yes!! Perfect description.

“some of the questions left unanswered in our work may be addressed by scholars in the field of literary studies, especially those exploring science-fiction” (179)

“From a literary studies perspective, then, one could raise the question of why fictional games tend to appear in certain genres more than others. One provisional answer is that genres such as science-fiction historically employ narrative tools such as technological or social speculation to suggest possible future scenarios and promote embracing a variety of new perspectives that often constitute alternatives to established world views and moral orientations” (179)

Commentator’s Note: yes, again, compare Kunzelman The World is Born From Zero.

“fictional games could even be considered among the defining tropes of science-fiction, along with, for example, space colonization, sentient artificial intelligences and dystopian technological systems of social control” (179)

“games are a constitutive part of the fictional worlds we encounter as readers, viewers and players” (180)

“fictional games are hybrid objects that variously combine elements of game design, worldbuilding and storytelling” (180)

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