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What Can the Socratic Method Tell Us About Gameplay?

Maybe the "future of game narrative" is actually in the past--in the Socratic dialogues, that is.
In today’s post (for the length of which I apologize), I’ll be attempting to establish the parallels between gameplay and the Socratic Method, and in the process try to define and expand our concepts of what exactly is a game.

The Socratic Method

Let’s first outline the salient features of the Socratic Method. Simplistically, the Socratic Method (or the Method of Elenchus) is the arrival at an underlying truth by bringing to light contradictory assumptions through dialogue. This description, however, fails to encompass the rules which Socrates insists the participants adhere to. They are as follows: A) At least two voices must be heard, B) The voices must be intimately connected to the positions they take, C) A participant must say what he really thinks, and D) Participants must sincerely defend their positions (Seeskin).

In a Platonic context, it is not enough to have a thesis, antithesis, and synthesis: there must be people willing to defend them…The key point is that Socratic conversation forces one to deal with another person while demonstration does not. No matter how alien the other person’s opinion may seem, or how certain one’s own, a Socratic discussion cannot move forward until something has been accepted by both parties. (Seeskin, 23-24)
For instance, in Protagoras, Protagoras makes the following comment: “I don’t think it is quite so simple, Socrates, so that I should grant that justice is holy and holiness just. It seems to me there is a distinction here. But what difference does it make? If you wish, let us agree that justice is holy and holiness just.” To this Socrates emphatically replies: “Oh, no! I don’t want to examine this ‘If you like’ or ‘If you think’ but to examine you and me” (Seeskin, 2; my italics).

Here then, we have the essence of gameplay. No progress which is made unilaterally, no cheating by taking a dishonest position, and no simply giving in to the other side for the sake of progression. As an analogous example to the above instance, a player who is new to Street Fighter will fail to be satisfied with a veteran “taking it easy” on them and letting them win. Indeed, such an act feels like an insult to their capabilities and, by extension, their very person.*

Necessity of Investment

In establishing these points, I must once again refer to the idea which I began to convey in my last post—that gameplay is essentially a matter of identity. Since “it is impossible in a Socratic context to defend a position at odds with one’s own behavior,”

The result is that the respondent has more at stake than the outcome of a philosophical argument: to the degree that he follows Socrates’ rule, he is putting his life on the line... Protagoras has a great deal to lose if it should turn out that virtue is not teachable, Gorgias if it should turn out that rhetoric is not an art, Euthyphro if it should turn out that prosecuting one’s father for murder is impious, Laches if it should turn out that courage requires knowledge not normally at the disposal of a battlefield general. (Seeskin, 2)
Similarly, to the extent that a player invests in his gameplay, it is impossible for a player to take up a position that is not a representation of his identity. Otherwise, there would be no meaning in losing (or for that matter winning, or even playing) a game. Indeed, gameplay without investment ceases to be a game, and instead becomes a simulation.

Consider the exceeding difficulty of really playing a game of chess by oneself, and how for many players it is not possible to equally invest in both sides. How can a player embody a set of assumptions and abilities other than his own? And just how easy is it to enter into a heated debate on the best possible methods of solving a ludic problem during cooperative play, because one is so invested in the idea that one’s own method is the most effective (or, in other words, how difficult is it for a player to knowingly adopt a losing strategy)?

As such, the rules of the Socratic Method are present not so much in order to facilitate a logical debate as they are in order to generate investment. “What is at stake in a Socratic dialogue is not, at least not primarily, the logical relations between propositions but the interaction of moral agents,” (Seeskin, 3). In the same way, what we care about in gameplay is not merely an unmitigated win, but winning meaningfully by experiencing engagement with significant entities.

”Procedural Narrative”

The Socratic dialogues, then, should help us break some false assumptions about games and interactivity. By this I mean the following: the dialogues, being written works, are clearly linear and static constructs. And yet the experience of reading them feels interactive and non-static. How can this be?

Plato himself specifically noted that the written word often fails to capture what he needs to convey the Socratic Method—“they seem to talk to you as though they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about what they say, from a desire to be instructed, they go on telling you just the same thing forever,” (Seeksin, 4)—which is why he chose to write dialogues instead. He provided the questions himself. That is to say, the dialogues work because they are not lectures or demonstrations (i.e., simulations) from the author to the reader, but honest exchanges between consistently defined and earnestly defended identities within the text.

This underlines a fundamental truth about gameplay which is not necessarily immediately clear: when game designers invoke buzzwords like “emergent” or “procedural narrative,” perhaps what they really mean is dialogical progression, which is, in fact, a process that has been inherent to gameplay all along (once again, unilateral progression is merely simulation).

The assumption, then, that ludologically derived progression is all that different from narrative progression is patently false. Indeed, the phrase “procedural narrative” itself undercuts the traditional dichotomy between narratology and ludology. In order for a game to be an honest dialogue, and thus create player investment, it must adhere to the rules of the gamespace, which means any resultant events will always be a subset of all possible events within the space defined by the rules. While ludologically derived events may significantly outnumber the narrative ones, nevertheless it remains the case that there are only so many methods to solve a given ludic problem, and the game can only respond (or allow opponent players to respond) in a set number of ways. In other words, these events are just as linear (despite this article) as any conventional narrative because they are the inevitable results that will be arrived at given that they start from the interaction of two (or more) quantified positions.

Then what is important is not that a game should be strictly non-linear, but that it must present an honest response to the player’s actions that are selected from amongst the options the game provides. And so we have the disconnect seen in Clint Hocking’s comment on GTAIV that, “I’m supposed to feel sad about the death of this character and yet I ran over 17 old ladies to get there,” and the stupidity of engaging in petty muggings in order to become an all powerful Sith Lord in Knights of the Old Republic. These are incidences where the identity the player is attempting to build and invest in is jarringly inconsistent with the game's response to or reflection of that identity, leading to player dissatisfaction.**

Towards a Definition

This finally brings us to the topic of defining the term “game.” Carl Jung once made an interesting observation: whenever he provided psychological tests to his subjects, his subjects invariably attempted to game the tests because they interpreted them as examinations of their intellect (not this one, of course, but you can experience what he means here). In other words, they always attempted to shape the outcomes to fit how they wanted them to reflect themselves. Once again, as with the Socratic dialogues, the written, pre-determined, linear and one-way communication of the psychological test was experienced by the subject as a distinctly two-way, interactive activity of guessing what the tester expects and influencing the answers achieve a supposedly desirable outcome.

Then, perhaps the answer to the perennial question “what is a game” is actually this simple: identity sculpting. That is, establishing an identity on the one hand and testing it on the other.

Gabe Newell pointed out that, “One of the theories of fun [Valve uses] is that the more ways in which the game is recognizing and responding to player choices, the more fun it seems.” I would then propose a tweak of that theory: A game is fun in direct proportion to the quality and quantity of responses to the player’s efforts to establish an identity.


My last goal with this post was to attempt to expand our understanding of what sort of activities the term “game” encompasses. To this end I’d like to make this closing observation: it is no coincidence that game addiction feels exactly the same as addiction to Facebooking, tweeting, or constantly checking up on your Blackberry. You feel less secure as an identity without constantly engaging in these activities, because so much of your definition of yourself is invested in them. The fact that all of these are essentially activities of maintaining an identity, and waiting for a response to that identity, completes the equation. The only difference, then, lies in our ability to modify a stance once it is taken. But the skills required to be able to distance ourselves from such incomplete portrayals are the same as the skills necessary to divest ourselves from our in-game attributes.

Continuing from the admittedly less than fully developed "procedural narrative" section of this post, I will next week examine "interactivity" and attempt to present a system of shared psychological mechanisms between narrative immersion and ludic engagement through the Jungian concepts of the archetypes and the process of individuation.


*The desire to cheat, or to progress unilaterally, however, is quite easy to succumb to:

"Elenchus, then, has as much to do with honesty, reasonableness, and courage as it does with logical acumen: the honesty to say what one really thinks, the reasonableness to admit what one does not know, and the courage to continue the investigation. Most of Socrates’ respondents are lacking in all three. Protagoras becomes angry, Polus resorts to cheap rhetorical tricks, Callicles begins to sulk, Critias loses his self-control, Meno wants to quit." (Seeskin, 3)

** To clarify, the goal here is not necessarily realism (and thus straying into unilateralism and simulation) but proportionality. Hocking’s comments are somewhat unfair in that it would be unilateral if GTA responded to every single traffic violation, civilian injury and minor car accident with a police response—the player would never be able to actually experience the content, and little to no progress would be made. On the other hand, the very point of games such as Demon’s Souls and Operation Flashpoint is to provide punishing challenge, which means the design must by necessity be that much more specific and detailed.
Works Cited

Seeskin, Kenneth. Dialogue and Discovery. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987.

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