Utopia of Rules

Utopia of Rules

I fell into an ambush, I had just finished The Elusive Shift and the next books calling me were Bullshit Jobs and The Utopia of Rules. I wanted to read something not about games, and Utopia felt lighter, less depressing, than Bullshit, so here I went.

It was all in the title "The Utopia of Rules", I was distracted, I opened the book and read on. And the third essay, the one that gave its title to the book, brings fantasy literature to the table:

Fantasy literature then, is largely an attempt to imagine a world utterly purged of bureaucracy, which readers enjoy both as a form of vicarious escapism and as reassurance that ultimately, a boring, administered world is probably preferable to any imaginable alternative.

And then Dungeons and Dragons closed the trap:

However, in another sense, D&D represents the ultimate bureaucratization of antibureaucratic fantasy. There are catalogs for everything: types of monsters (stone giants, ice giants, fire giants, ...), each with carefully tabulated powers and average number of hit points (how hard it is to kill them); human abilities (strength, intelligence, ...); (...) The books are distantly evocative of Medieval bestiaries and grimoires. But they are largely composed of statistics.

David Graeber cites Shiv Visvanathan:

A game is a bounded, specific way of problem solving. Play is more cosmic and open-ended. Gods play, but man is unfortunately is a gaming individual. A game has a predictable resolution, play may not. Play allows for emergence, novelty, surprise.

That gives us Play and Game. David Graeber goes on with them:

Games allow us our only real experience of a situation where all this ambiguity is swept away. Everyone knows exactly what the rules are. And not only that, people actually do follow them. And by following them, it is even possible to win! This — along with the fact that unlike in real life, one has submitted oneself to the rules completely voluntarily — is the source of the pleasure. Games, then, are a kind of utopia of rules.

"Everyone knows exactly what the rules are" might not map one-to-one to our role-playing games. Rulings, not rules. Play worlds, not rules. Etc.

In this sense, play in its pure form, as distinct from games, implies a pure expression of creative energy. (...) But this also makes play in a certain sense a higher-level concept than games: play can create games, it can generate rules — in fact, it inevitably does produce at least tacit ones, since sheer random playing around soon becomes boring — but therefore by definition play cannot itself be intrinsically rule-bound. This is all the more true when play becomes social. Studies of children's play, for example, inevitably discover that children playing imaginary games spend at least as much time arguing about the rules than they do actually playing them. Such arguments become a form of play in themselves.

It plays on:

On one level, all this is obvious: we are just talking about the emergence of form. Freedom has to be in tension with something, or it's just randomness. This suggests that the absolute pure form of play, one that really is absolutely untrammeled by rules of any sort (other than those it itself generates and can set aside at any instance) itself can exist only in our imagination, as an aspect of those divine powers that generate the cosmos.

That all points in my mind with last week's Fudging Designers post by Sandra Snan. She reminds us of Tension and Stakes. She seems to have travelled from Play to Game.

I have the impression that I fell in the trap of role-playing games because of Play, but that I also like to weave Utopia of Rules as Games. But I am turned off by remarks where game stands before play and people write "playing beyond the 6th level", which should be rewritten as "gaming beyond 6th level".

David Graeber puts the essay back in its "about bureaucracy" rails with:

Let me put forth a suggestion, then. What ultimately lies behind the appeal of bureaucracy is fear of play.

That's where the tail is bitten, "The books are distantly evocative of Medieval bestiaries and grimoires. But they are largely composed of statistics." Add random tables to that and we have Statistics and Probabilities. The bureaucracy necessary to turn the Play into a reassuring Game? Something that is winnable?


On Thu, 31 Mar 2022 14:45:03 +0200 (CEST), Robert wrote:

I would say that Bullshit Jobs isn't depressing. As is typical with Graeber, he kinda takes the thread and makes it go in a different direction. I found it affirming and real and it really sold me on his end suggestion where I was sitting on the fence before.

Not saying what the end was due to #spoilers. ;-)

I actually didn't know he wrote Utopia and have been wanting to do a deep dive into his work. I had to put Debt - The First 5000 Years down for some reason and want to pick it back up as well. Now I have yet another book to get!!

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