Language Games: Work, Play, Simulacra

  1. Our speech may not be rational, but it is motivated. When we choose to speak, we speak for reasons.
  2. Our perceptions alter our models, alter our decisions, alter our actions. Our actions alter others’ perceptions alter models alter decisions (ad infinitum).
  3. Advertising is communication with specific, narrow motivations: envisioned ends which, in conjunction with player perceptions of the game environment, alter the kinds of speech advanced.
  4. Advertising is a game of eliciting desired actions from observers—of luring in proximate (“ecologically huddled”) organisms who would not say they are “playing with the advertisers” so much as they are being “played with.” Similarly, a fly, if asked, would not say it is “playing” with the man who sets out honey traps. (This because neither feels he has chosen to enter the game logic, which they would reject as lopsided if offered to them explicitly.) Nonetheless, by fact of their ecological huddling with such a player, playing in such a way, they have entered a game with him: a space of mutual influence and a complex of conflicting and synergistic desires.
  5. Flies are trapped in honey lures through the pursuit of their own self-interest, predicated on their (mistaken) precepts about the environment.
  6. Advertising’s foundation is honest communication, in the sense of better guiding observers to make informed decisions before entering an interaction or making a binding or costly decision.
  7. Consider conversation: participants choose to enter an often prolonged linguistic engagement and ecological proximity, sometimes with a particular ends in mind (hashing out policy, making group decisions, practicing a foreign language, killing time) or because they are open to a wide range of possible developments, passively desired, which such an engagement is capable of bringing.
  8. (Why do they choose to enter? On the basis of advertising, which includes past interactions.)
  9. I say “passively desired” in that the player does not actively keep these desires in mind, and actively move toward them over the course of an engagement, but nonetheless prefers their realization over their non-realization, and if none such desires are realized in an interaction, the player will find it unfulfilling and/or exit it. (Or choose, in the future, not to enter similar such engagements.)
  10. Nevertheless, passive desires can act as local attractors: if a participant believes he is near a desire’s realization, he will often nudge play towards it. For instance, if the conversation approaches a topic on which he is curious, he may make inquiries of the other player, desirous of the information.
  11. A set of rules govern a conversation, and a set of expectations. The presence of expectations exacerbates what would otherwise “naturally” be communicated by moves which (would happen to) defy them. For instance, if certain topics would regardless cause mild offense to a conversational partner, this offense might be exacerbated by the existence of a norm against it. If a certain subject was expected by one player to be broached in a conversation, and does not arise, the player may be more disappointed than if he had not expected it to begin with.
  12. Often, speech will be motivated by a desire not to send certain messages, or to prevent rather than realize certain game states. These “negative” motivations should not be considered second-class citizens to what we might naively view as “positive” motivations or interventions, because their difference from the positive kind is purely one of convention and conceptualization. What matters, in motivating an act, is only that it creates a delta in the state of the acting player, his environment, or his co-players, compared to what would have been the case had he acted otherwise.
  13. For instance, in a conversation, a player may speak solely because, if his partner has completed his turn-taking, and expects or desires a response, silence by the player may offend. In other words, the player is “preventing doing being rude.” He has no real curiosities, no information he wishes to impart or glean, but acts as if, motivated precisely by the desire to not offend. He may ask a follow-up question whose answer he does not in actuality care to know, or already knows the answer to. He may quibble for the sake of “hitting the ball back,” into his interlocutor’s court.
  14. Much like organisms must constantly acquire new sources of energy to maintain homeostasis, conversation can require constant effort to keep routine. It is not so much that work must be put in to offend, but that work must be put in not to offend. When a social situation is “normal” we ought to assume that active effort is being put in to maintain this state of affairs, rather than effort being put in solely to create deviations from normalcy.
  15. What can the conventional tennis metaphor of conversation (e.g. “hitting the ball back”) tell us about its analogized domain? For one, the spot one player hits to partially determines the location the next player must hit back from. In this way, we can say one player “manipulates” the other player’s actions. This manipulation occurs in the same way a fly is lured to a honey trap: through the player’s pursuit of self-interest, premised on an environmental state and the player’s beliefs about that environment.
  16. But while the origin point of the next move is in some sense determined (provided the player plays by the rules, and does not catch the ball one place, and walk across the court to a new position re-serving it from there), the direction and way the ball is returned from its origin is—while constrained by the previous hit and direction, and the capacities of the returning player—largely up to the player.
  17. Just as a player can forfeit a “point” (note the continuation of the gaming metaphor—one “makes” a point just as one scores a point, by advancing an argument his opponent is unable to rebut) a conversational partner can declare bankruptcy on a topic and introduce a new one, albeit at a (perhaps slight) penalty.
  18. In high-stakes conversation, such as a political debate or the selection game of a job interview, these penalties are not at all minor.
  19. Depending on the conventional ruleset employed in the match, a player can opt to return the ball at different points in its path towards his side of the net—either before the bounce, interrupting the ball’s path at a place and time where it is advantageous (goal-advancing) or letting the ball bounce first. Different local customs will guide the acceptability of interruption or the necessity of waiting for a bounce, where the “bounce” is the intended, striven-for setup or destination of a player’s original hit.
  20. We can call games where participants have bright, actively pursued goals “work,” and those which have more open-ended, passive goals “exploration” or “play.” A significant difference between these styles is the local or global scope-kept-in-mind of motivation, attractors, and manipulations, as well as the relative narrowness or broadness of the goals pursued. (In other words, the degrees of freedom and indeterminacy entering an interaction.) That is, in casual socializing, one player may ask another player a question and thereby “manipulate” (attempt to effect) an answer—but the move is not part of a larger project, or subservient to some overarching outcome, other than perhaps a vague sense of sociability. A con artist, by contrast, manipulates his target into a sentiment of greater trust today precisely because it facilitates a money transfer tomorrow. I’ve called this “railroading.”
  21. The difference between work and play, or work and exploration, is a messy, partially subjective continuum relating to the extent to which players are railroaded, goals are fungible, and outcomes are collaboratively produced. Work is often accompanied by stronger power dynamics and dominance/submission hierarchies; play and exploration by collaboration and fluid role-taking.
  22. A manipulation occurs because the player who manipulates, at whatever level of goal, in whichever type of game, has altered both the game state and other player’s perceptions of the game state, thereby altering what they believe to be their own best move (and thereby altering their actual next move). The man leaves out honey to alter what the fly believes about the world, and to lure it by using its own self-interest against it. The remote worker who uses a mouse jiggler to keep his work status on “Active” is manipulating the perceptions of his employer to ward off a disciplining.
  23. In human affairs, we prefer to consider human players as operating on free will, and thereby their next move is “up to them,” freely chosen rather than “manipulated.” But to an observer who wishes to model player states deterministically, no other word is quite appropriate.
  24. Finally, on the subject of conversation, we can posit players as having layers of stacked goals, each relating back to the layer below it as instrument to the lower layer’s end. Thus, I ask a question to ascertain an answer, as part of a larger project of learning about my interlocutor, as part of a larger project of forging connection, as part of a larger project of establishing myself in a community or advancing my career, as part of a larger project of meeting cognitive and biological needs, etc. We will call this the provisionality of goals.
  25. Because the moves players will accept from other players partially relate to some standard of reasonableness (which is to say, justifiability), and partially to player goals or desires, there is significant leeway in a given player’s space of possibles for those moves which break rules of reasonability but advance the other (policing) player’s goals, and vice-versa.
  26. What’s more, the provisionality of goals still further widens this space of possibles, insofar as, while a player may desire or hold in mind some set of locally scoped outcomes (for instance, answering his interlocutor’s inquiry on some personal topic), that interlocutor may happily accept a response which fulfills a goal less provisional—that is, lower in the stack—e.g., the disclosure of other personal information which is intimate and thereby brings the players closer into alliance or trust.
  27. This expansion downward through the stack—through chains of provisionality—is usually limited to a small number steps, mainly because the exchange rate and fungibility across too many layers can be unclear (to both players). However, in cases where this fungibility is obvious, dramatic expansions may be successfully advanced and accepted.
  28. Consider two friends conversing at a coffeeshop. One is rather irritated at the other for historic reasons—perhaps he has had his goals recently thwarted by the actions of the other. But nonetheless he smiles along and plays “friendly” (with variable efficacy). A naive view of human interaction might dub this, pejoratively, “inauthentic”—a wrong move. A different tact would appeal to some longer-term “truth” which the smile channels, a more global affection of one friend for another, prizing this long-term truth over short-term oscillation of feeling. Alternatively, however, one could say the smile is being performed to keep the peace because this peace accomplishes long-term goals of the smiling players. It is authenticity only insofar as it reflects an allegiance to player desires (but not to feelings). But it would be more accurate, semantically, to call this pragmatic, strategic or even economic. “Economic” implies, perhaps, too much rationality, and too narrow a set of goals—but taken broadly, these three terms gesture the same direction with respect to human behavior (agent decision-making and action).
  29. We are fascinated spectators of others’ games (see drama, professional sports, politics, and Twitch), in part because we are so interested in tracking the tactics employed, and importantly, the pay-offs which result from these tactics. In our own play, we track this information carefully as well. The loose version of behavioralism is the idea that agents are strategic in their interactions. To say that interaction is strategic is to say that participants learn the effects of moves, and this learning affects the selection of future moves. Can any who believe in trauma, socialization, the effects of repressive governments, the functioning of incentive systems, the kinds of control exerted by school teachers, dog trainers, and prison guards, or who understand how evolutionary selection works, dissent that agents are not strategic?
  30. Of course, players do sometimes act in a way which some would call “genuinely authentic,” that is, truly loyal to their emotions and not desires, a play style could be alternatively dubbed hyper-parochial or myopic. This reflects the observance of, and allegiance to, crude strategic heuristics, which evolved from and for a far less strategically sophisticated period of human interaction. For a player who lacks a considered, developed map of causes and effects, or a conscious understanding of goals (one’s own, those of others), reacting in anger to a feeling of violation is more adaptive than not, in average—at least in the ancestral environment. (Otherwise, the response pattern would not have emerged in the first place.)
  31. Of course, even hyper-parochials act “for a reason” (are motivated, or strategic, even if myopically). They act to relieve an inner tension, whose observation is a heuristic for acting on a complex world. In this way, their “authenticity” is a sort of masturbation or wireheading. The outburst is “for” (phenomenologically) the relief of the anger, which is “for” (evolutionarily) provocation of the response pattern: a move or set of moves in the game, just as hunger provokes its relief through food. (But may be “overruled” at a higher level of strategy by a dieter, a spendthrift, etc.)
  32. Because I must simplify and be clear in the language I use, I have perhaps presented a misleading sense of what it means to pursue goals, and be strategic, in everyday life—one which appears overly Machiavellian. Play is justified in part by its instrumentalism to greater goals, but may reach a tipping point of endless deferral, revealing the play as in actuality auto-telic. And it is more that we “steer” directionally in a fog, than we concretely choose a narrow end zone and strive clearly toward it.
  33. Often, accordingly, we ask, “Why did a person do this?” and expect a meaningful answer to be available. And even if we pay lip service to the idea that our motivations are at their core unknowable, that the unconscious hides itself from interrogation, that post-hoc explanations are often more social justification than true reason, still we believe in the “true reason.” We implicitly believe that somewhere, however buried and hidden, there is an “in order to Y”—a clear, typically singular effect—which motivates the X. (A narrow end zone.) And yet consider a chess match played by amateurs (as we are all amateurs when it comes to living). The labyrinth of possible paths that you model, in making moves, is characterized by sharp turns, lurking cult-de-sacs, unknown outcomes past the horizon of your foresight. You might choose not to move, to do nothing in the face of uncertainty, but that too will have effects. Silence is a kind of speech, a writing which produces a reading. Your opponent, infuriated, may walk away (in a match between friends), or your time may run out (in formal matches). Not moving is a move, and a bad one. Taking a long time to move is also undesirable. You identify several moves that seem potentially advantageous, and consider them, quickly realizing they would prove disastrous, discarding them as possibles. You consider an alternative tact; it could potentially result in taking an opponent’s pawn down the line, and it doesn’t open you up to any immediate, glaring vulnerabilities. It seems reasonable enough. So you take it. Not so much for what it clearly accomplishes, but for what it does not leave vulnerable, for what it prevents ensuing (expiration of the timer, vulnerability to mate). And it is this kind of hazy navigation, of minding unwanted effects and keeping an eye to potential positive effects, which decision-making in games of life resembles. And to ask “Why did you move your piece in that way?” expecting a single answer, “In order to Y,” as if the move were made in a vacuum, is to misunderstand what in reality is the product of a complex, tentative, uncertain consideration in which one move must necessarily be selected, and is weighed relative to other moves. When one speaks, it is always partly weighed against the move that is not speaking.
  34. What is important, to being an effective player, is less the complete ability to strategically justify every possible ramification of a move, so much as it is necessary to merely make the advantageous move. When we are playing implicit probabilities, how can we be expected to verbally justify every call? A justification of one’s game moves would be a complete model of the game state, just as the “reason” for an organism’s evolved form is the set of environmental facts which give rise to it. A complete justification of the solution to a problem is merely a rephrasing of the problem.
  35. In work, goals are less lightly and less provisionally held. And this relates directly to the hardening of social roles and power dynamics, which in play are far more fluid and freely surrendered and swapped. And this in turn is a product of the increased adversarial nature, which is to say, the natural misalignment of goals. While it may appear that an employee and employer are brought into alignment by virtue of a legal contract and salary, it is only through regular monitoring and evaluation by the employee, and regular litigation or reputation sabotage by uncompensated employees, that this alignment is brought into place. And it remains an optikratic and thereby performative (more than actual or intrinsic) alignment.
  36. The lesson of Thomas Schelling is: no two players are ever fully aligned, and no two players are ever totally misaligned. This in turn means that there is no situation in real games of pure cooperation, nor of total conflict. What pure alignment might exist in closed games is precluded because no real game is closed; all systems are open; even a chess match or poker game bleeds into the real world, with its messy reputational work and legal codes etc.
  37. Let us speak then not of alignment or misalignment, but of situations which approach alignment or misalignment.
  38. In both work and player (or work and exploration), if not enough active or passive goals are met, respectively, that unsatisfied partner will exit the game. Insofar as it is in one player’s interest to maintain the game, he will be incentivized to grok and then take on, provisionally, the other player’s goals, so as to realize them and thereby keep that player in the game.
  39. The ends of games: world states, mental states—one’s own and those of others. The means of games: force and waves. Force uses energy to transform mass; waves are energy transferred.
  40. In short: players “play” by using energy to create deltas in the world. Physical force and communication are the two means of acting on organisms, which have evolved the capacity, via their sensory organs, nervous systems, and minds, to be altered by types and levels of waves which would not otherwise meaningfully alter them: sound waves too weak to knock them over, light waves too dim to burn them. In other words, such organisms have sensitized themselves. And in all cases of increased sensitivity, definitionally, one’s susceptibility to alteration grows.
  41. Crucially, our own cognitive state is the greatest attractor of intelligent behavior, since even as we optimize for the happiness of a loved one, we are really optimizing for the belief that a loved one is happy. How could we have it any other way? Their actual state of mind is inaccessible: neither culture nor evolution can train us on it, except via surrogate or proxy. Delusion, then, is a form of wireheading.
  42. I have said that all of living, all of social interaction and asocial interaction (i.e. with the environment) can be modeled and understood through the game-play metaphor. The game is an interaction between an agent and his world-environment. The agent is defined by his possession of an agenda, that is, a set of goals which emerge naturally and automatically from his having preferences w/r/t his own internal state. These preferences instrumentalize the world as a set of obstacles and affordances.
  43. To have such preferences is, similarly, definitional to possessing a nervous system which prefers pleasure to pain.
  44. The environment of the game necessarily includes other agents, each of whom possesses the ability to serve as obstacle or affordance. But these agents need not only be means. Player goals may include or account for other players’ well-being—at least nominally. In practice, what is really sought, by a given player (trapped as he is in solipsism) is a belief in other players’ well-being, as gleaned through public-facing cues. (Tears, testimonies, tones of voice.)
  45. In this sense, gaming—first-person shooters, athletics, gambling, conversation—is as real as it gets. On the other hand, there is a specific set of experiences which are not so much games (although agents partaking in them ostensibly bring with them goals such as enjoyment or entertainment) and this set of experiences I’ll call here “simulacra.” That is, Red Dead Redemption is “real”—but Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man is “simulacra.” The difference, of course, is interactivity.
  46. Simulacra: that which is built to be experienced as one surveys a painting—inspecting, pinching, zooming, the piecing together of a static state which perhaps encapsulates the past, and gestures towards a future, but offers no commitments beyond the one, which is the offering of a reading, with its possibility (inevitability!) of misreading. The question is not “right or wrong?” but “how wrong?” and there is no resolving it, only a perpetual confirmation of calling into doubt—by fresh angles, newly uncovered aspects.
  47. World simulacra: sonic, visual, mostly vibe. Pseudo-agents may exist within such a world, but they are pure affordance, pure environment. An NPC who sells milk. A stranger offering quests. They are to be interacted with as one interacts with a crate, a stool, at best a bookshelf.
  48. Game simulacra: One step forward, proper players are introduced, with agendas and governing strategies, psychologies, play styles; the world becomes drama. The novel, the historical re-enactment, the murder mystery, the cop procedural. Lawyers, Wall Street bankers, SVU detectives, Jack Bauer with 24 hours to save the world: the stakes are always too high; the environ and game state present real dilemmas; but the characters are projections, their response is always hypothetical, and the game is set up to accommodate their needs and development and that of a watching audience: here a struggle for personal growth, there a much-needed victory after regular tension. What “should” happen is a human construct—of the just, the probably, the entertaining, rather than nature’s determinism.
  49. One step forward, the games are still constructed, their rules more value-clear than “reality’s” games, but the players are now red-blooded agents with desires and ethics, and now they have skin in the game, setting them up for more inventiveness and more world-correspondence than a screenwriter’s imagination could generate. Drama is not preprogrammed but bubbles up naturally from the pursuit of conflicting goals and tangled allegiance. Plot emerges from the traversal of a tournament structure: the progression within games and between games, the evolution of tactics and scores measured in proximity to final goal. Every stage gets its meaning (to the audience, since that is the only perspective we are presently interested in) from this final contribution, is provisional to that one desired end state. A bucket now brings a team closer to match-point, brings them closer to play-off, brings them closer to culminating trophy and title (to legacy and victory earnings).
  50. What unites this continuum of simulacra and spectatorship is the passive role of the observer. He is immersed in theatrics, suspense, and inference, but never really commits himself. He perceives, yet never acts. He sums and infers, may even judge, but never writes the story. However high his emotional stakes become—and serious fandom comes with an emotional investment that underlies all its intoxicating highs, its melancholies, its solidarities—the spectator’s own choices, shortcomings, and failures never really affect the outcome.
  51. Where games are defined by the cybernetic control loop (perceive, act, perceive), simulacra are defined by the hermeneutic circle (perceive part, theorize whole through perceived part, perceive new part in light of theorized whole). In either case, these loops are modes of navigating experience machines.
  52. To spend time staring at a screen—questions of eye soreness, back pain, and carpal tunnel syndrome aside—is not fundamentally different from other simulacra, the “mediated” life. Time spent on the Internet alternates between reading a newspaper, passing notes in class, people-watching in the park. (And of course television and news channels reinvented.) To leave off reading online news coverage in favor of reading a physical newspaper is trivial. In some sense, so is the gap between the paper and listening to audiobooks, podcasts, watching sports, watching Twitch streamers, following political horseraces, HBO binges, even album listening. The substantial change in human life, since the printing press, is the abandonment of playing game for observing games and game simulacra. The games previously played were often shitty—menial factory jobs, the evasion of bosses’ fury, the digging of ditches, warfare on the Continent—but they differ in being active, rather than passive, in their mode of engagement.
  53. Why are we fascinated by spectating other players’ games? Perhaps in part because of the information these games give us. Perhaps because witnessed events may serve as a basis for social coordination and exchanges: for voicing opinions about player strategy, character flaws, speculation about what a given actor “ought” to have done. The cast of a television show—one thinks of FriendsCheersHow I Met Your MotherSex & the CityGirls—is both parasocial community and a safe space for gossip.
  54. Social information occupies much of our bandwidth, is like candy, perks up ears—because the behavior of others is one of the greatest variables, the greatest possible tool or obstacle, towards the realization of our own goals. Find out what society rewards, you unlock money, social capital; find out what the people around you think and believe, you unlock belonging, reputation, long-term allies. Screw up either calculus you risk entering hell: ostracism, alienation, sexless poverty. We are desperate to hear the opinions of others about those we know and interact with; we feel compelled to share secrets and rumors which come our way, even as we may opt to refrain. In part because so much social information is unverifiable, in part because the stakes are so high, social information in many cultures becomes taboo to pass around, prone as it is to sabotage, reputation damage that free-rides on the transfer of reliable data..

2 responses to “Language Games: Work, Play, Simulacra”

  1. […] is inflexible. But that just means manipulation is bottlenecked on convincing it of premises—which is how animal communication works too, anyways. How do you get played? By pursuing your own interest on shaky […]


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