Imaginary Games
by Chris Bateman

Reviewed by Allen Zhang


Published by zerO Books, 2011   |   321 pages

In early 2010, film critic Robert Ebert declared tendentiously that videogames “could never be art.” Among the torrent of gamers outraged by this comment, Chris Bateman – author, philosopher, and game designer – rose to the occasion with this lucid and compelling defense of gaming. In Imaginary Games, Bateman does more than refute Ebert’s claim; he leads us through a systematic and multifaceted exploration of the historical, philosophical, social, and neurocognitive bases for gaming. In the process, he suggests not only that games and art have more commonalities than differences, but indeed that gaming constitutes the ineluctable fabric of our lives.

The crux of Bateman’s argument is an emphatic reversal of Ebert’s charge: not only are games art, but art is in fact a type of game. Leading up to this revelation is Bateman’s musing (but never meandering) and penetrating (but never pedantic) discussion of what a game is: is it a system of rules prior to the play, or do the rules emerge organically from the relations of the players? His conclusion is that games are fundamentally systems of contriving contingency followed by acts of interpretation from which players derive pleasure. Whether we are playing checkers or completing a crossword puzzle, we abide by certain parameters so as to enjoy the triumphant feeling of successfully navigating rules to grasp the meaning in our actions. According to Bateman, this same formula – contriving contingency to derive interpretative pleasure – can be found in art. Thus games precede, encompass, and surpass what we traditionally think of as art.

Bateman arrives at his insightful conclusion through a multidisciplinary, three-pronged approach: games and their derived pleasure can be a) philosophized as an aesthetics of representation, b) measured from a neurobiological standpoint, and/or c) historicized as a timeless cultural form. For example, much of the body of Imaginary Games takes the form of a history-cum-analysis of the centuries-old philosophical debate over the ontology of representation (i.e. the nature of how representations “are”). Bateman’s starting point is none other than Kendall Walton’s influential Mimesis as Make-Believe, which defines representational forms as “props” that prescribe imagination. Bateman places Walton’s text in dialogue with important prior works, like Colin Radford’s famous formulation of the “Paradox of Fiction,” as well as later works that speak more directly to the connection between contemporary gaming and the representational arts.

Bateman consistently draws – with equal finesse regardless of the topic – upon disparate fields, including evolutionary biology (here the discussion is of the nature of play in animals), cognitive neuroscience (and here, of the role of dopamine in gaming), etc. Likewise, he engages fluently with the heavy-hitters of aesthetic philosophy, relevantly distilling and convincingly adapting rarefied academic discourse into accessible yet exact prose. In a surprising and gracious move, Bateman even tips his hat at one point to none other than Robert Ebert, acknowledging that Ebert “at least had the respect for the medium of digital games to consider this topic seriously.” Refreshingly, Bateman’s references are not only bibliographic but also personal; his analysis includes casual but edifying email correspondences and the like.

Bateman encourages the reader to emphasize playing over reading – in his repeated admissions that he is first and foremost an avid gamer, in his peppering his work with pop cultural references and detailed descriptions of the design process of some of today’s most popular digital games, and also in the playfulness of his prose. This playfulness is manifest not only in his pervasive wit, but also in his willingness to transgress disciplinary boundaries. Given the rigidity of disciplinary borders and the unquestioned elevation of certain forms of art through the denigration of others, the fluidity and persuasiveness of his argument – as it shifts from Pokémon to Wittgenstein, from philosophy to biology to gaming – is as refreshing as it is remarkable.

Above all, Bateman seeks to realign games as a task “worthy of serious enquiry.” In other words, while gaming’s “fun” factor is – and must be – one of the central aspects of its form, he cautions us against devaluating its legitimacy in the process of privileging its entertainment function. The fact that children often play does not mean that play is only for children; Bateman definitively connects the make-believe of childhood to the realms of abstraction and conjecture, and, going further, links adult forms of play to a concept broader than the particulars of sports, the “fine arts,” and other diversions and amusements: codified social interactions. Which is to say: individuals (and, accordingly, society) never stop playing. While the spectacular popularity of digital games is in one sense a contemporary one, gaming, as a phenomenon, manifests itself across civilizations, histories, and even, Bateman suggests, species.

To the extent that Bateman aims to refute Ebert’s claims by treating games with the attention and rigorousness with which he feels they deserve, he succeeds unequivocally. His consultation of source material is nearly exhaustive – literally from A through Z, from Aristotle to Žižek, from the Atari game systems to Zuckerberg’s Facebook – yet the thoroughness of his research is rarely foregrounded due to the lucidity and congeniality of his writing. As someone based outside the academy, Bateman demonstrates splendidly that professorship need not be a prerequisite for scholarship.

Fittingly, Imaginary Games is published by Zer0 Books, which is committed to resurrecting the figure of the public intellectual. Chris Bateman, whose scholarship is astonishingly honest, refreshingly cogent, and thoroughly meticulous, earns that title.

Allen Zhang is a PhD candidate and Mellon fellow in the English Department at the University of California Los Angeles, specializing in postcolonial literature, speculative fiction, and the digital humanities. He was the recipient of the Arthur Feinstein award at Dartmouth College for his work on Chicana poet Gloria Anzaldúa.

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