Monday, December 8, 2008

new game new game new game

Language Hat quotes Remy de Gourmont in a post on The Writer's Capital Crime:

Conformism, imitativeness, submission to rules and to teachings is the writer's capital crime. The work of a writer must be not only the reflection, but the larger reflection of his personality. The only excuse that a man has for his writing is to write about himself, to reveal to others the sort of world that is mirrored in his own glass; his only excuse is to be original; he must speak of things not yet spoken of in a form not yet formulated...

(LH also gives the original French and a link to the post where he came across it.) One commenter asked how you can break the rules effectively if you have not mastered them first - a very common response to the sort of position Gourmont sets out, and one that misses the point.

Suppose I grow up in a family where people obsessively play Hearts. We switch around between different versions of the game - sometimes we play Black Maria, where the Queen of Spades costs you 13 points and you pass on three cards to the left before you begin play, sometimes we invent twists of our own. I also have four friends: A lives in a family of chess fanatics, B lives in a family of bridge fanatics, C lives in a family of go fanatics, D lives in a family of poker fanatics.

What I see at once is something remarkable. Languages are translatable, more or less; it may be more or less tricky, but it's intelligible to speak of Chinese being translated into Turkish AND Arabic AND English. Games are not translatable. Chess is a game for two players with complete information; you can't "explain" what's going on in a chess game in terms of bridge, which is a game for two sets of partners with imperfect information, a mixture of skill and chance which depends on skilful sharing of information between partners. And you can't "explain" either in terms of poker, which is a game for an indeterminate number of players, a mixture of skill and chance in which sharing of information between players would in fact be collusion and outlawed. A game is intelligible on its own terms - which means, paradoxically, that you can play a game with someone whose language you don't know, provided you both know the rules of the game.

You don't understand a game in terms of some other game, you understand it by learning to play it - but the more games you play, the more you will understand about the radical otherness of games. And this, it seems to me, is the sense in which Gourmont thinks each writer will develop his own aesthetics.

We don't have to agree with this position - it's perfectly possible to believe that a great writer may, on the contrary, be like a great chess player or a great bridge player, someone supremely gifted within the constraints of a particular established form. If originality is seen in terms of breaking rules, though, that presupposes that art is still comprehensible only in terms of constraints which already exist - originality is to be embedded in the sort of Oedipal drama at the heart of Bloom's Anxiety of Influence. It's as if one is actually incapable of understanding a form in which the rules one knows have no purchase. ("Yes, I realise it's a game for four people with cards, I know you don't have a board and you don't have pieces, but how can you expect to invent a game effectively if you haven't got the hang of the King's Indian?")


languagehat said...

A very interesting approach -- I've added a link to my post. (You might want to delete the excrescent "don't" in the penultimate sentence; I took the liberty of doing so preemptively in my quote.)

Helen DeWitt said...

Thanks for editorial eye, terrible the way mistakes creep in through slapdash revision.

Andrew said...

I liked your insight--it reminded me of my impression that chess--actually, sports in general--are a universal language that allows a limited form of communication.

I posted a link to your post on my blog, where several people commented but didn't quite get the point.

I'm also reminded of the character in The Citadel of the Autarch who comes from a totalitarian society in which people can only communicate using certain stock phrases. The character still manages to express himself elliptically using combinations of cliches. A wonderful metaphor for how all of us communicate to each other most of the time.

Jim H. said...


Anonymous said...

On the other hand, the more games you play the more you realize that they all draw from a larger pool of common play mechanics. While Chess is not at all like Bridge, it is a bit like Stratego or Checkers. Often, when explaining a new game to the group of people I play board games with, I find myself saying "this part of the game is just like [some specified part of some other game]." In the example above, for example, you might say that a piece in Stratego moves essentially like a king in Chess.

There's even something of a continuum of games. For example, you can easily see similarities between Go and Go-Moku, between Go-Moku and Sequence, between Sequence and Rummy, and between Rummy and Draw Poker. Go and Poker are about as unrelated as can be, but you can still manage a limited translation at each step along the way.

Poor Pothecary said...

> Parkrrrr

Yep. There are definite familial relationships too, such as trick-taking games in cards: Ruff and Honours -> Whist -> Solo Whist / Long Whist -> Bridge.

Also there are games that share certain principles mathematically - such as the applicability of combinatorial game theory - and even games that have a radically different appearance but are "isomorphic" (the same game under the skin). This AMS article (see page 5) describes a very simple game involving moves on a board that's isomorphic to Nim, a rather different game involving taking counters from heaps.

Interesting stuff.

(Visiting via Language Log discussion)

Helen DeWitt said...

Andrew, this book sounds great, I have ordered it off Amazon.

Jim H, some people think originality a necessary condition of excellence in art. If there are any who also think it a sufficient condition they will be worried by counter-examples in which original works of art prove to be sheer drivel. There is, of course, nothing in the post to suggest that I hold either position.

parkrrr, yes, of course as one plays a wider variety of games one does see similarities between certain kinds of game. And one can find oneself understanding / explaining a game in terms of another game with which it shares common ground. This still seems quite different from the way ordinary languages work - I can certainly see similarities between Romance languages, between Semitic languages and so on, but such similarities don't have to exist between two languages for translation to be possible.

Jim H. said...

Sorry for the eyesore on your Comment page; Blogger doesn't give us a lot of graphics options. Glad you made sense of it.

Indeed, the word "may" was crucial to my comment.

First, all games have 'playing' in common. Concepts differ, rules differ, strategies differ, tactics differ, counters (or pieces or tokens, etc. used) differ, but everybody plays. We know going in there is to be a winning—and, consequently, a losing. Competition is the form—as opposed to, say, cooperation. Playing, the context.

Second, as to originality. It's safe to say that, at some level, each new piece of art, let's take fiction, is original. In fact, Borges seems to have made something quite like this point in his Pierre Menard. Conversely, there's the 'there's nothing new under the sun' view. Things accumulate. There is extension, growth, development, perhaps progress, but nothing really original since, say, the Gilgamesh.

As to originality in games, or gamesmanship: would we have a consensus if I asserted Bobby Fisher's chess-playing was original? What about Big Blue?

So, what are we talking here?

Jim H.

Anonymous said...

Having invented a few games of my own, I know how challenging it is to translate a game into a language! That is, to write down the rules so that they are comprehensible to people who have never played before.

(And this is the bit where I ramble on about the games I've invented and provide the shameless promotional links. Only it's a bit off-topic, isn't it? So should I?)

Helen DeWitt said...


I came across a comment on Gourmont which seemed to assume that originality presupposed breaking rules. I suggested another way one might understand originality, one which seemed to me to be closer to what Gourmont was talking about. So that's what I was talking about. It's not clear to me that this is what you were talking about, so it may not make sense to talk about what 'we' are talking about in this context.

outerhoard, please do add a comment with shamelessly self-promotional links!

Anonymous said...

So I was talking about how difficult it is to encode the rules of a game in writing. I'd say that's partly because game rules aren't typically the sort of information that the verbal side of the brain is well-equipped to handle; they're often more a sort of mesh of interlocking themes and principles that might cohere into something relatively simple from an abstract bird's-eye view, but are not readily picked apart and turned into a list of rules to be read one by one.

But that's only the start. Another difficulty is that if you've invented a game, it's very hard to think yourself into the mind of someone who has never played it before, and to realise how much detail that person needs in the explanation (without overwhelming them by being too verbose, of course). What's more, once you've drafted the rules to a game, it's very hard to get feedback on it. Most people don't like to figure out how to play based on the written instructions; they tend to want verbal explanations, so it's hard to persuade anyone to read the draft and tell you if anything's not clear.

One of the games I've invented is called "Peaks and Pits". You need a set of dominoes, some small objects such as poker chips, and three to five players. The current incarnation of the rules can be found here. Now, I've re-written those rules on several occasions, because every now and then I read them and decide that I could have explained the game a lot better. I think I haven't done too badly with what's there now, but I haven't heard from anyone who's tried the game based on those instructions, so I can't be confident that I've done as well as I might.

I know that I did reasonably well at explaining the rules of the solitaire card game I invented, which is called "Elemental", and you can go play it on its own website. Several people have played this game successfully within an hour of reading the rules, so I must have got something right. But there's a difference: because Elemental is implemented online, people don't have to rely on the written rules alone. They can test whether they understand the game by trying it out and seeing if it works the way they expect.

For more thoughts about some psychological issues involved in explaining games to people, you can read something I wrote a while back on my blog.

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