Player of Games has always been my favorite Iain Banks novel, but I’ve never been sure how much of that is because it’s good and how much of that is because it presses my buttons. I like the Culture quite a bit as a universe, and I’m also pretty obsessed with games, so it’s only natural that I would gravitate towards a book that combines the two.

I reread the book this week, and it meant quite a bit more to me this time. The way Gurgeh is portrayed as not fitting into the Culture’s norms for gender and sexual behavior; but he fits somewhat better into traditional American norms. The way he finds aspects of Azadian culture somewhat intriguing, and slips a bit more into their point of view as he immerses himself in their language and their game.

But his point of view, his Culture background comes in as well: the game is explicit in this, in its requirement (at least in later rounds) that players register their philosophical premises. The link between your philosophical premises and your style of play is implicitly present in a lot of games that I play: most obviously in Android: Netrunner, but a philosophical approach is also there in, say, 7 Wonders or Race for the Galaxy. Heck, it’s even there in Ascension, in your choice of biasing towards combat or towards improved production, and it’s certainly lurking within go’s abstractions.

I don’t think it’s an excuse that the first examples that come to mind are board games, not video games. Video games do frequently foreground choices, but those choices generally have more of a class-based feel, in how you construct yourself and your powers. And that, to me, has less of a “personal philosophy” feel than the board game approach of choosing how to interact with systems that are global to the game. So, indeed, maybe Netrunner isn’t a good choice after all, or rather, if it is a good choice, it’s not one because of the surface choices (Corp versus Runner, factions within those two), it’s because of the web of underlying mechanics that everybody has an option of how they want to interact with it. Still, class-based mechanics are by no means divorced from philosophical premises, and some video games (e.g. the Civilization series) lend themselves just as strongly to a premise-based approach/analysis as board games do.


So: who you are. Who your people are. How well you fit within your people. And a systems approach to all of this. The Culture naturally lends itself to a systems approach, with multiple layers: the Minds are playing at a whole other level, with humans as pawns, albeit pawns with agency. You can think of that as a depressing depersonalization (and the Minds aren’t the only intelligences in the book treating people as pawns, we see lots of that in the Azad matches as well); you can think of that as a personalization of a Deming-style belief that individual performance is largely governed by the system that they work within. Which, of course, we see reflected within Azad, and all the other games that are played. (Deming also makes the point that you should understand normal variation within a system before looking at variation of individual behavior, which fits in well with a focus on games that are, in part, games of chance.)

This all comes together in that last game of Azad, where Gurgeh has to confront the fact that his play is suffused with his Culture background. Indeed, his play always has been throughout the series; generally, that’s been to his advantage, because it’s introduced a (literally) foreign element that his opponents had a hard time grappling with, but now it’s hurting him, because gameplay that is informed by habitual Culture behavior isn’t up for confronting the forceful violence of the Azadian empire.

This isn’t a sign that the Culture is weak, however; it’s a sign that the Culture has to behave differently (while still sticking to its core beliefs) when confronted with certain enemies. And so, with a shift towards the “Culture militant”, Gurgeh wins, though not without drama.


So: some clashes that are on the surface about something else are instead really clashes of philosophies, clashes of who you are at the core. And if the antagonists’ philosophies are different enough, you may have to shift the way you express your philosophy. (Hopefully not in a way in which you lose who you really are, something which the book perhaps doesn’t explore as much as it might.)

And if you do that well enough, and if you have enough skill at playing the game, you and your philosophy will end up being dominant. (And skill is very important: as the book says, if Azad had evolved before the Culture, the roles of victor and victim would quite possibly have been reversed, this isn’t manifest destiny at work.)

But, even if you win, that battle can drain you, can leave you empty. The very end of the book was the part that I found most unexpectedly personally moving: the way Gurgeh started falling into depression after his victory, how he wanted to do nothing other than sleep, sleep for years, sleep without dreams.

The book ends with a note of joy and optimism. But Gurgeh has a lot of self-reconstruction to do, too. I would like to think that, after that reconstruction, he’ll emerge with a richer life.

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