BrettSpiel is a blog about board game design, written by game designer Brett J. Gilbert.

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Pretending to Pretend

Inception: Cobb's Totem

Over at Futility Closet, Greg Ross recently wrote about a problem posited by philosopher David Lewis.

A singer sings this song:

I’m a stockman to my trade, and they call me Ugly Dave.
I’m old and gray and only got one eye.
In a yard I’m good, of course, but just put me on a horse,
And I’ll go where lots of young-uns daren’t try.

He goes on to brag of his skill in riding, whipping, branding, shearing: “In fact, I’m duke of every blasted thing.”

There are two fictions here: The singer is pretending to be Ugly Dave, and Ugly Dave is telling boastful lies. But why doesn’t this collapse? How are we able to tell that the fictional Ugly Dave is lying (which is essential to the song’s meaning), rather than telling the truth?

“We must distinguish pretending to pretend from really pretending,” writes David Lewis in Philosophical Papers. “Intuitively it seems that we can make this distinction, but how is it to be analyzed?”

I cannot answer the philosopher’s question, but the phrase ‘pretending to pretend’ has stuck with me.

When we play games what are we doing? Are we pretending? Or are we pretending to pretend? These feel like very different endeavours, yet both are predicated on the same falsehood: that the game world is real.

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone stand
in the desert…”

So begins Shelley’s famous sonnet Ozymandias. Like almost all fiction it is written in the first and third person: a story told from the author’s perspective about somebody else.

And we know that every part of it is a lie. No reader imagines that the poet actually met a traveller (although he may have done), nor that the ruins described by that traveller are real (although they might be). We ‘know’ this because we are armed with an understanding of the nature of storytelling, and so assume without concern that the events are fictional, even though none of us have any direct way of establishing if the author’s words are genuinely false.

Games are different. They may begin by declaring “You are a traveller from an antique land.” This is a fiction of an entirely different order. It is not just the inventive retelling of some unexperienced history or some unvisited world, it is a lie told in the second person about the reader themself.

If I play that game, I know that I am no such thing, and yet if I am truly to play it then I must be willing to become, at the game’s invitation, that very traveller, and explore those antique lands for myself. To do this I must deliberately, genuinely, honestly pretend; if I can only muster the will to pretend to pretend then I — and surely the game itself — have failed.

David Brain said...

January 23, 2013 12:51 pm

Which is why I think so many people have problems with games which prioritise the mechanical elegance over immersiveness of theme, although personally I tend to think this is often not due to any specific lack in the game but a desire on the part of the players to be invited to immerse themselves. I suppose this comes back to what a friend of mine described as the "anecdotal" aspect of games - you remember ones in which odd or unusual things happened*, and rarely games in which you selected and executed optimally a particular strategic path. And in games which focus more on the directly thematic experiences (closer to story-telling games), players will encounter such experiences more often, making it easier to pretend.


*I can only remember exactly two games of Princes of Florence (a game I have played countless times) really well. One of those was for mechanical reasons (I won without buying a single builder or jester) but the other was because the players chose to create a more thematic atmosphere by presenting their works as real things, and being rude about other players granting their artists freedoms etc. It overrode all the mechanical sophistication of the game and made us feel like competing families.

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