Fictional Games: A Philosophy of Worldbuilding and Imaginary Play. Stefano Gualeni and Riccardo Fassone. Bloomsbury Academic, January 2023.
Throughout the media we enjoy, from novels to films to video games, we encounter games that exist as “part[s] of fictional worlds,” games that “cannot actually be—or at least were not originally meant to be—played.” Games like Suzerainty from Disco Elysium, Calvinball from Calvin and Hobbes, and (originally) Pai Sho from Avatar: The Last Airbender are just a few of many such examples of fictional games from popular culture. For philosopher game-designers Stefano Gualeni and Riccardo Fassone, it is precisely this unplayability that makes games like these worthy of further study–a task they undertake in their new book from Bloomsbury Academic, Fictional Games: A Philosophy of Worldbuilding and Imaginary Play (2023).
While the question of agency in games is a common one in games studies, explored at length in recent books like C. Thi Nguyen’s Games: Agency As Art (2020), the question of agency in fictional games, in games that cannot actually be played, leads down less well-trodden pathways. Representations of fictional games are less interested in how these games work as complete, balanced systems, and more in what they do in the fictional worlds of which they are a part. For Gualeni and Fassone, what is required in cases such as these is an “aesthetics of imagined agency,” an inquiry into the new modes of action and possibility revealed by those games that can only exist within works of fiction.
Gualeni and Fassone structure their book around discussions of four specific functions or uses of fictional games. Fictional games can serve as proxies for the dominant ideologies of their fictional worlds, as catalysts for subverting these dominant ideologies, as incantations for deceiving and overpowering the inhabitants of fictional worlds, or as transformative tools for existential transcendence. The authors emphasize that these functions are not the only functions possible for fictional games, and this openness to conversation, along with the substantial compendium of fictional games included as an appendix to the book, makes Fictional Games an invaluable tool for ongoing research.
Chapter 1, “On Fictional Games,” presents numerous scholarly interlocutors (ranging from foundational work by Bernard Suits to cutting-edge research by Aaron Trammel), as well as practical examples of fictional games to help situate readers in the discussion. Gualeni and Fassone make careful distinctions between the various types of games that appear in fictional works, separating nested games and minigames from the fictional games that interest them. Properly fictional games are characterized, above all, by their “unplayability,” insofar as they are either fictionally incomplete (like Calvinball), currently impossible (like lightcycle racing in Tron), humanly inaccessible (like David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ), or ethically impermissible (like the many iterations of Rollerball across fiction and film, or the version of children’s games in Squid Game). The unplayability of fictional games marks them as instruments of speculation, and I could not help but draw comparisons between this line of inquiry and that of Cameron Kunzelman in The World Is Born from Zero (2022), also reviewed for ARB. Like Kunzelman, Gualeni and Fassone seek to understand how games shape subjectivity, how games and ideology interact, and the possibilities for transformation that games afford.
In Chapter 2, “Fictional Games and Ideology,” Gualeni and Fassone look at fictional games as “proxies” or “playable moral allegories” for dominant or hegemonic ideologies. Such games operate within their fictional worlds as “ideological state apparatuses” in the Althusserian-Marxist framework, working to “reproduce” ideology by “representing it” and by “ensuring its continuation.” In the final case study of the chapter, a reading of Robert Altman’s film Quintet (1979), readers encounter a fictional game—the titular Quintet, an assassination game played on a board mirroring the layout of the city—that is so ideologically powerful and pervasive that it remains the only trace of a society otherwise lost to an ice age, a simulation without origin. Fictional games that reproduce ideology stifle creativity and possibility, and often violently. Quoting from the film, the authors remark: “all things of value feed the game.”
The subsequent chapter, “Fictional Games as Utopian Devices,” considers fictional games that engage with the dominant ideology, but rather than seeking to reproduce it, resist and subvert it, catalyzing new possibilities. Gualeni and Fassone conduct an extended analysis of the game Azad from Iain M. Banks’ The Player of Games (1988). In Azad, players are “not simply taking part in a ludic activity defined by aspects of randomness and strategic thinking,” but rather “are proposing competing political claims that are implied in their in-game interactions.” For the authors, the political possibilities afforded by such games are akin to art practices like Dada, Surrealism, and Situationism, which “embraced chance and interactivity in artistic production as expressive ways to oppose instrumental rationality.” Even in dystopian settings, fictional games can present characters with “moment[s] of truth” to which the only possible response is the “satisfaction of a utopian impulse,” the refusal of the current order and the embrace of something altogether new.
Chapter 4, “Fictional Games as Deceptions and Hallucinations,” draws on the work of phenomenologist Hans-Georg Gadamer to theorize how fictional games can lure, enchant, and master their players. Much in the same way that fictional games as ideological proxies can ultimately come to replace the society they once represented, fictional games as deceptions or hallucinations are often used in stories “in which the characters’ sanity or sense of themselves is at risk,” causing them to doubt their reality. Games like the one at the centre of David Fincher’s The Game (1997) make thematic the shifting of roles, the embrace of risk, and the negotiation of the boundary between what is and is not the game.
The final chapter of case studies, “Fictional Games and Transcendence,” examines fictional games that function as transformative tools for the fictional subjects with whom they interact. Through readings of Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game (1943) and Alastair Reynolds’ Diamond Dogs (2003), Gualeni and Fassone examine the themes of “human transcendence, post-biological evolution and the future of play” that are explored by the fictional games around which these narratives revolve. Both Hesse’s titular Glass Bead Game and the Blood Spire challenge in Diamond Dogs teach their players new ways of thinking and being in the world, but do not do so by merely causing their players to imagine such cognitive or bodily transcendences. Rather, they “effectively prompt and/or allow players to overcome their physical, perceptual and/or cognitive limitations.” Writing specifically of the Blood Spire, the authors observe that to take on the challenge of such games “means being confronted with radical questions concerning one’s sense of identity, the continuity of one’s selfhood and how meaning can be attributed to one’s existence.” In such cases, play becomes a passage to realms of radical alterity.
However, despite the frequently radical nature of the games discussed throughout their study, Gualeni and Fassone decline to make any strong claims about games, preferring instead to remain primarily within the realm of description. Their conclusion is short and mostly summative in purpose, presenting some paths for future inquiry. They remind readers that Fictional Games is “an initial exploration of what is, to [their] knowledge, a previously uncharted scholarly theme.” To this end, their book is a resounding success, full of careful analyses and robust theorization. But in this conclusion, I miss the directness of a critique that might go beyond description, or a program for design that might mobilize the transformative elements of some of the games that they discuss. For those looking for further reading in this vein, I would recommend following up Fictional Games with two other books: the previously mentioned book by Cameron Kunzelman, The World is Born From Zero, and Patrick Jagoda’s Experimental Games (2020), reviewed for ARB here. Kunzelman’s “direct intervention” and Jagoda’s “art-science” present two possible routes forward. Perhaps with such tools we might be able to build on Gualeni and Fassone and endeavour to “stimulate and structure forms of transcendence that concern the playing individual” ourselves. Such is the territory of critique and design, a territory with much that remains for us to explore.
Eric Stein is a game developer, games researcher, and instructor of game development. He has written extensively on games such as Dark Souls, The Last of Us, and Kentucky Route Zero, with special focus on the intersection of narrative and gaming. He also has a strong interest in tabletop roleplaying games, publishing numerous game zines on itch.io, as well as conducting research on tabletop games like Dream Askew / Dream Apart and Trophy Dark. He can be found on Twitter, Mastodon, and steinea.ca.
This review was commissioned via emailed pitch from the author; the author and editors are acquainted through previous ARB work. It was edited by Misha Grifka Wander and copyedited by Cynthia Zhang. ARB arranged a review copy from the publisher.
ARB is a BookShop.org affiliate and may receive a portion of book sales purchased through links on this page. Please visit our Support & Transparency page to learn more.