Three Journal Articles: “Games and the art of agency” and more

Three new journal articles in the philosophy of games have recently been published by C. Thi Nguyen.

First, “Games and the art of agency” (official version and free pre-print) has been published in Philosophical Review. This paper argues that games are the art form that works in the medium of agency. Game designers don’t just create environments; they design who we will be in those environments. Game designers designate goals and abilities for the player; they shape the agential skeleton which the player will inhabit during the game. And players often submerge themselves in an alternate agency, taking on alternate ends temporarily, for the sake of their aesthetic experience of struggling. Game-playing, then, illuminates a distinctive human capacity. We can take on ends temporarily for the sake of the experience of pursuing them. Game play shows that our agency is significantly more modular and more fluid than we might have thought.

Second, “Autonomy and aesthetic engagement” (official version and free pre-print) has been published in Mind. The paper applies the account of games from “Games and the art of agency” to offer a new theory of the value of art. Here is an old question from the philosophy of art: we seem to care about getting the right judgments about art, so why don’t we just defer to aesthetic experts? We seem to want more independence from our aesthetic lives than our scientific lives. The best explanation is that art is rather like a game. In games, we try to win, but often, winning is only the local goal, and not our larger purpose for engaging in the activity. Our purpose is to struggle to win for ourselves. Similarly, with art, we often try to get the correct judgments. But getting the right judgment isn’t our real purpose; our purpose is to engage in the activity of struggling to get them right. The paper then suggests a unified account of the value of art and games: the engagement account, where, often, the value of the activity comes not from achieving success, but in the activity of trying to succeed.

Third, “The right way to play a game” (official version) has been published in Game Studies. The paper argues, against some contemporary writers, that there are very good reasons to follow the rules of a game. Recent analytic philosophy of art offers a useful distinction between the material substrate of an artwork, and the artwork itself. An artwork isn’t the same as its material; it is the material as encountered according to certain prescriptions. You haven’t experienced Melville’s Moby Dick if you read all the words out of order; you haven’t experienced Van Gogh’s Irises if you closed your eyes and just tasted the canvas. Similarly, you haven’t encountered the artwork which is the game unless you play by the rules and pursue the specified goals. The paper suggests that there are two distinct interests: free play and aesthetic communication. And these interests often run contrary to one another. To play freely, you should ignore the rules. To receive aesthetic communications, you should play by the rules. Finally, the paper provides a taxonomy of game types in terms of their distinctive implicit requirements for an adequate encounter. Party games need to be played in the right spirit of silliness and low-skill competition. Heavy strategy games need to be played many times. And community evolution games, like Magic: the Gathering, need to be played while embedded in the live and evolving community meta-game.

Book Preview: Games: Agency as Art

oxford-university-press-logoMy book, Games: Agency as Art, is now forthcoming from Oxford University Press! Oxford has given me permission to offer the first chapter as a preview.

The book will offer a sustained defense of the value of games and game-playing, from several perspectives. The book says that:

  • Games are the art form of agency. Game designers don’t just create environments and obstacles. They set our goals in the game and our abilities; they create the agency which we will inhabit in the game.
  • Games can work in the medium of agency to create aesthetic experiences of acting and doing. They can offer us crystallized, designed, and refined versions of our everyday experiences of practicality.
  • One way that games are satisfying: they let us inhabit a world that’s easier to make sense of, one in which the values are clearer, simpler, and easier to apply. Such games offer us are rare experience of clarity of purpose. They are an existential balm against the rest of our lives, which are full of a plurality of subtle and competing values.
  • This also leads to a danger: games can seduce us into expecting that simplicity elsewhere. They can serve as a morally problematic fantasy of clarity. 
  • The fact that we can play games teaches us something remarkable about ourselves. We have the capacity submerge ourselves in alternate agencies, to slip in and out of temporary agencies. We can take up ends that we don’t usually care about and dedicate ourselves to them, for a time. We can adopt different modes of thinking, acting, and deciding. And then we can put them all away when then game is over. Games teach us that our agency is notably fluid. 
  • A big bonus: it turns out that stupid drinking games and party games are incredibly important to understanding the nature of our own practical rationality and agency.
  • Just as narratives are a technique for writing down stories, games are a technique for inscribing and preserving modes of agency. With them, we can create an archive of agencies – we can experience different ways of being an agent. Games are a technology for us to cooperative to help develop each others’ autonomy.
  • The book offers a unified account of the art form of striving games. It discusses, under a single conceptual umbrella, computer games, board games, card games, party games tabletop role playing games, live action role playing games, and sports. (There are many other sorts of games besides striving games, however, and the book doesn’t purport to cover them all.)
  • Also: discussions of the aesthetic ontology of games, the nature of interactivity in games, a taxonomy of game types, and a comparison of games to contemporary practices of relational aesthetics and social practice art.

Journal Articles: Philosophy of Games and The Aesthetics of Rock Climbing


My article Philosophy of Games is out now in Philosophy Compass. (A pre-print draft is also available for free.) Philosophy Compass is a journal which focuses on producing surveys of particular sub-fields of philosophy, especially new and breaking ones, largely for use by newcomers. It is designed to orient. They are often used by academics to help develop syllabi for undergraduate classes in unfamiliar train.

In this Compass, I quickly cover basic foundational works on games (Huizinga, Caillois, Suits, the ludography vs. narratology debate), and then dive into particular issues on the art status of games, the nature of interactivity, the magic circle, debates about value, and ethical issues in the philosophy of sport (like doping) and video games (like the gamer’s dilemma). This article was intended to cover primarily work on games in analytic philosophy (analytic aesthetics, philosophy of sport, and analytic game ethics) with just the barest smattering of Game Studies material for minimal orientation. The article is not intended to summarize the field of Game Studies, nor does it intend to cover continental approaches to games. In fact, I would strongly urge specialists in those field to write their own equivalent summaries; they are badly needed.

Scholars from Game Studies will likely find the first half familiar. The second half, however, may prove useful, especially the section on philosophy of sports. Consider especially the discussions of internalist accounts of value in sport, the relationship between philosophy of law and the justification of sport, and the discussion of the origins of norms of sportsmanship.

Second, my essay The Aesthetics of Rock Climbing is online in The Philosopher’s Magazine. This is a popular article which adapts ideas from my forthcoming book. I say that rock climbing is a game, and one that many people play for aesthetic reasons. Many climbers climb because responding to the challenges of the rock evokes graceful, delightful movement from them. It is something like problem-solving dance:

“…Dancing, I think, is exactly the right place to start to understand the aesthetic dimension of rock climbing. So let’s start there: climbing is something like dance – not just in skill, but in aesthetic reward. You can hear the similarity when you listen to some climbers talk about their climbs. They talk about climbs with nice movement, with good flow, with interesting moves. They’ll talk about ugly climbs, beautiful climbs, elegant climbs, gross climbs. At first you might think they are just talking about the rock itself and how it looks. And sometimes they are; every climber loves a clean crack up a blank face, or bold jutting fin to climb. But if you interrogate a climber, and watch as they explain where the beauty in the climb is – with arms out, legs in the air, imitating the odd precise movements of the climb – you’ll figure out that what so many of them care most about is the quality of the movement – about how it feels to go through the rock, about the glorious sensations in the body, and the subtle attention of the mind.”

CfP: Values in Games – 2018 Philosophy of Computer Games Conference in Copenhagen

800px-Nyhavn_copenhagencroppedThe Call for Papers for the 2018 Philosophy of Computer Games Conference in Copenhagen is now available.

The conference will be part of a Game Studies Triple Conference, with Games Lit 2018 and History of Games 2018. Please submit, and please circulate the call!

The call is here:

Call for Papers

Values in Games

We hereby invite submissions to the 12th International Conference on the Philosophy of Computer Games, to be held in Copenhagen on August 13-14.

The theme of this year’s conference is “value in games”. The topic will connect central themes in the study of games, including questions about the importance of games in a human life, the ethical value of games, and the values communicated through games. For this conference, we invite papers that explore these and other aspects of value in games.

We welcome submissions on (but not limited to) the following questions:

  • Can games contribute to a meaningful life?
  • Is there a special value to games, distinct from other social practices?
  • What is the value of difficulty, achievement, excellence, and skill in games
  • What is the relationship of the artistic value of games to their other values?
  • How do games transform the values that normally attach to activities outside the gaming context?
  • Are games an integral part of ideal society?
  • Can games contribute to an ethical life, and in what ways?
  • How do games encode systems of values, especially in their mechanics and game-play? In particular, how might they encode biases and other problematic attitudes?
  • How can the values in games be studied?
  • What value might games have for thinking about issues of race, gender, and sexual and romantic orientation?
  • How might we justify the inclusion or exclusion of transgressive content in games (violence, pornography, racism)?
  • How do players relate to, resist, shape, or appropriate a game’s values?

In addition to papers that are directed at the main theme we invite a smaller number of papers in an “open” category.

Accepted papers will have a clear focus on philosophy and philosophical issues in relation to computer games. We strongly encourage references to specific examples from computer games, as well as reference to diversity of games and game types. We are especially interested in papers that aim to continue discussions from earlier conferences in this series.

The abstracts should have a maximum 1000 words (maximum 700 words for the main text and 300 for the bibliography).The deadline for submissions is May 21st. Please submit your abstract through All submitted abstracts will be subject to double blind peer review. Notification of accepted submissions will be sent out by June 1st. Participation requires that a paper draft is submitted by August 1st and will be made available on the conference website.

We also issue a call for workshops or panels to be held on August 15th. Please submit a short proposal to the program committee chair by May 21st if you are interested in organizing an event.


Program Chair:
C. Thi Nguyen, Utah Valley University

Conference Chair:
Michael Debus, ITU

Program Committee:

Pawel Grabarczyk, Rune Klevjer, Anita Leirfall, Sebastian Möring, Stephanie Patridge, Jon Robson, John R. Sageng, Mark Silcox, Daniel Vella


Journal Article: Competition as Cooperation

downloadI’m pleased to announce that my paper, Competition as Cooperation, was recently published in the Journal of the Philosophy of Sport. (For those without institutional access, I’ve also put a pre-print draft online for free access.)

The paper argues that, under certain very specific conditions, games can transform competition into cooperation. Other accounts have tried to explain that transformation by focusing exclusively on player attitudes – their playfulness, or their consent. I argued instead for a distributed account of transformation: successful transformation depends on not only on players having the right motivational state, but also on aspects of game design, player fit, and extra-game community.

C. Thi Nguyen

CFP: Workshop for the Philosophy of Games, Oct 2016


We’re proud to announce the first Philosophy of Games Workshop in October 14th-15th, 2016, in fabulous Salt Lake City, Utah. The call for papers is below. Please submit!

Call For Papers

Inaugural Workshop on the Philosophy of Games

Sponsored by Utah Valley University, the University of Utah, Westminster College and the American Society of Aesthetics

Salt Lake City

October 14 & 15, 2016

Gam8297692520_4e7a43ffcf_zes are growing in cultural weight and importance. There are many philosophical questions that can and have been raised about games: What are games? What is their value? Can games be artworks, or possess aesthetic value? Are there ethical issues that arise with gameplay?

In the philosophical world, discussion of these topics has been split over several communities, which rarely speak to each other, including computer game studies, the philosophy of sport, and digital aesthetics. It is the belief of the conference organizers that these various conversational threads have tremendous relevance to one another, but have remained isolated from each other for sociological reasons. Though there have been conferences specifically on the philosophy of sports, of play, and of computer games, there have been no conferences that seek to address these topics in a unified manner. This workshop aims to unite the various strands of work on the philosophy of games. Furthermore, the workshop aims to unite the discussion of the many forms of games, including videogames, sports, board games, card games, role playing games, and more.

Possible topics to be addressed include, but are not limited to, the following:

-What is the ontological structure of a game? Is it to be identified with the rules of the game, the physical apparatus that supports it, or some larger social structure? In particular, are games such as sports ontologically similar to, or distinctive from, computer games?

-What is the definition of a “game”, and how does it relate to other closely allied concepts, such as “artwork”, “sport”, “play”, and “social contract”?

-What are the norms of game-play? Are there norms for good and bad play, above and beyond simply following the rules?

-Is there an aesthetic value to games? Is there a distinctive aesthetic value to the physical aspects of computer games? Is there an aesthetic value to the play experience? Is there an aesthetic experience to the spectators of game-play?

-Is there a moral value to games? Is there a particular moral problem to enacting fictional violence in a computer game which goes beyond the moral problem of seeing fictional violence in a film? Is there a moral problem to consenting to interfere with one another? Is competition, in itself, problematic or good?

-To what extent is game-play a part of normal life, and to what extent is it removed from normal life?

As this is a workshop, papers will be presented in a round-table format in a single stream. Thus attendees will be able to be present for all papers and presenters will be able to expect all attendees present.

Travel funding compensation will be available for presenters and commentators. We aim to provide at least $500 of travel support for each presenter and commentator.

We invite scholars in any field of studies who take a professional interest in the philosophy of games to submit papers to the inaugural workshop on the philosophy of games. This includes, but is not limited to, scholars in the fields of analytic aesthetic, philosophy of sport, and philosophy of computer games, the philosophy of technology, and the philosophy of play.

Submissions should not exceed 3000 words and be prepared for blind review.

The deadline for submissions is July 1, 2016. Please send your submission and any inquiries for further information to  Notification of accepted submissions will be sent out by August 1.


Organizing Committee:

Thi Nguyen

Brock Rough


Advisory Committee:

Andrew Kania

Jerrold Levinson

Christy Mag Uidhir

Stephanie Patridge

Nick Riggle

Mark Silcox

Grant Tavinor


With partial funding from the American Society for Aesthetics:

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this conference do not necessarily represent those of the American Society for Aesthetics

Updates will be posted to: