Games are Hyperobjects.
Thinking big enough to think about games.
In his 2013 book on philosophy and ecology, Timothy Morton provides a useful approach to talking about ideas that are beyond human comprehension. Working from the branch of philosophy knowns as Object Oriented Ontology (OOO)*, Morton explains that climate is a hyperobject. In this short post, I want to try and convince you that computer games are a hyperobject, and that realizing this allows us to work much more effectively. But first, a note about OOO.
Morton's book is excellent, and well worth the read, but for now, I want to share a simple notion from his masterful attempt at wrestling with the impossible:
Some subjects are so large that it is not possible for any one person to understand them.
Those from the worlds of programming and / or gaming will recognize the terms in Object Oriented Ontology because it is a philosophical system that draws on Object Oriented Programming. In some ways this is new, but as with any serious work in philosophy the roots of the connection run deep. I'll late you chase that rabbit on your own...
For now, allow me to suggest that when we think about games, the game industry or what gaming is a technology, an activity and as a creative medium, it is best to think of a hyperobject. When working on a hyperobject we benefit from immediately realizing that we cannot understand the subject, but we can work effectively. The way to do this is to focus on the area (the object or objects) where we have expertise, and then collaborate with those who are also interested in the hyperobject, but bring expertise from other areas. Your work then involves nothing more than your expertise and the recognition that any attempt to declare full knowledge is doomed.
The good news is that we have two things on our side when working on hyperobjects. The first is shared interest. For Morton, the challenge of climate change is worth getting the work right, and I believe that getting the work right on games is also worth the effort. The second, and more practical, reason is that people who make games are naturally predisposed to work this way. The collaborative nature of game studios is predicated upon hyperobjects. In fact, as someone who teaches people how to work on and with games, I would suggest that outside of the training one gets in areas of expertise all you really need to learn is how to live in a hyperobject.
Universities structure themselves as if the world is knowable from a few different disciplinary perspectives. That assumption is fundamentally incorrect, but we still work as though we believe in it, which is why the university's chief export these days is a delicious blend of insanity and existential dread.
So, give it a try. The next time you are working on games, or trying to talk to someone about work in the area, consider the notion of the hyperobject, then stick to your area of expertise and focus on effective collaboration with anyone who shares your interest but brings another set of skills or tools that can help you pursue the work you love. I think you'll find your work is more effective, and a lot more fun.
* It is important to define terms, and to do so from as authoritative, clear, and objective a source as possible, but defining OOO presents unique challenges. The Wikipedia entry is flagged for not being acceptable, and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (the best online source for philosophy) does not have an entry posted yet. It is a form of philosophy that is both exciting and relevant, so well worth pursuing. Fortunately, a number of OOO's leading figures have YouTube videos on the topic (I would suggest starting with a search for Graham Harman, but there are several others), but the best place to start for readers interested in OOO from a games perspective is the work of Ian Bogost. Bogost is one of the key thinkers in OOO, and also one of the best voices on the study of computer games. It is for that reason that I link his definition at the start of this post.