Thursday, April 28, 2011

Spissify Da Gamify

In this article, game designer David Calvo explains spissitude and why the gamification of life needs to be more transcendent to truly affect us as human beings.
“When the fat gets thinner, the thin dies.”
Darryl. F. Zanuck.
I often get the same question, when I talk about my job. From mothers, teachers, activists.  Don’t you think games are dangerous? Don’t you think they worsen the problems of our world, isolating individuals in immersive realities, while letting the bad guys take care of the REAL reality? Don’t you think the Roman Empire was destroyed by breads, and games? Don’t you think the gamification of brushing your teeth is a bad thing for humankind?

This is the Godwin point of all discussion about games.
This is how I usually get out.


Why do we play? Let me try my hand at a definition. We play because we want to be engaged in play. All the stuff you hear about FUN, JOY, MEANING, is an extra layer of an evolved discourse. I love game discourse, but when dealing with people who don’t play, we have to rely on old jedi tricks, like tautology. Here is one: Play is play. It is what brings the animals closer to humans, or the reverse. Otters playing hide and seek. It is an instinct. It is not rational. It is. Here is something Reason should not get a hold on. Ever. It is NATURE. Get it Mum? It’s like pissing. Don’t do it, you’ll die.

I don’t want to create a sub category of games, that would be more “playful” than others, but why should we add a new layer on reality to make it fun? Reality is not played. That’s why it’s not a game. We need reality. We need patience, we need boredom. We need constraints. I’m pretty sure nobody likes constraints, but I’m also sure a constraint with a cherry on top is still a constraint. The balance between what is played and what is lived is a neat tool to keep us on the edge of ourselves, perpetually changing our assertions about the world, one side challenging the other.

I know I sound like my father: oh, keep it boring, keep it real. Life is tough, eat your soup. I do think we need to change the world. I’m, as Steffen Walz put it, part of the Californian Sunshine School. I love Jane. But what experience has taught me is that we cannot help something that doesn’t want to be helped. Reality and its tenants are OK with the states of things. They want fear, tsunamis, nuclear toasters. People want comfort, entertainment, washing-machines. How can we change their perspective on life? By making more cows?


I often feel something is missing from games. Something essential. But is this something missing from the design or from our appreciation of play? A little of both actually. What matters is Interdependence, and to define the space in between life and play. Because we have forgotten how to see it, and designers have never known how to turn it into gameplay. This thing has no name, it is a monad, in the pythagorician sense. Ludeme has often be quoted as the basic unit on which design is built. This Monad would the basic unit on which Meaning is built. Not symbolic meaning. Not systemic. Spiritual meaning. Let’s give it a name. Spissitude.
Now, that’s a big word.

Spissitude is a dimension where dwells the invisible. It was theorized by Henry More in the 17th century. Spissitude is everywhere. It is part of everything. It is the secret place where 5D dwells, observing us, appearing briefly as slices of saucers in the skies. It is the place where dwells the Soul, this HUGE part of us, immanent or transcendent, who cares? It is a massive realm, untapped by our human activity too busy surviving, not allowing itself the luxury of spiritual self-actualization. Of course we need to survive. But can we survive only on bodies? Can we survive in the dark, grey areas of this shrouded world? Ask David Foster Wallace.

Now, I have a writer’s perspective on this, I believe games are texts that can be interpreted in many ways, not always obvious. Call it postmodern hermeneutics. More was a theist, I’m not, but I can see his point. I am no church goer, I am an agnostic. I believe in an invisible grace that makes things greater than the sum of its parts. Where is the friggin’ soul? The spine of what we do, why we do it. Fun is no longer relevant, in my opinion. Reality has become a trap. And we, as designers, are part of it. We cannot design Soul, we cannot create it from nothing. We need constraints, we need a source. To channel Soul, we need something more than a process.


I was one of the people to see Brian Moriarty at the last GDC, talking about how true Art is devotional, and the rest is Kitsch. I don’t agree. I don’t agree in the split between high and low. I disagree that we should worship. But he was making a big point, in this era where believing in the invisible is an insult for the Empire of Reason we’ve built. We need something to devote to. We need a goal in our game to make games. What can we devote our craft to? We have no Gods. We have no horizons. We can’t even believe in reforming the system, except by adding extra rewards to it. Where does lie this new motivational trigger? Rapture is not a moment, Rapture is now a place. This is Real. How can we unmake the Real?

This is for me the true essence of the so-called Gamification of life, which I would call the Vivification of Games, as someone brilliant put it before me. Bring Life unto Us. Grace cannot be engineered. Because Grace belongs to what we do and how we do it. It can’t be a “layer”. It is not a by-product. It is inside. It matters. It is personal. It is an individual relationship to something. In Arts and Entertainment, traditionally, Soul comes from the creator. The Uber director. The mastermind. But games are also collective, right? We can have powerful creators, telling strong narratives or branding this or that kind of games, but wouldn’t it be more compelling to deduce a soul from all individuals ? A noosphere of games. A cloud of ourselves, FROM ourselves, to connect with a higher sky. Immanence, bridging transcendence.

If gamification is adding an external motivational pull to our daily activities, to our suffering, then here is what I choose : every game is a prayer for a better world. As all prayers, Games will not change the world. It will change us. Make us humans again, in this vast pool of green goo. What kind of world do we want? Would making a game out of brushing my teeth bad for civilization ? A vast majority of us don’t brush their teeth to prevent them from rotting. They brush their teeth to have a nice smile. This is seduction. The act of brushing one’s teeth has already become a Game. We need to consider the essential place of Play in our lives. Not make it our lives. Because to live is to play the biggest game of all: how do we learn to play death?

David Calvo is a writer, cartoonist and game designer. he spends his life between France and the USA, busy building bridges between dreams and real time earth. His work can be found on


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