How Playing helps with Aporia

Kurt Kranz - Programming Beauty (1930)

Aporia is ancient Greek (ἀπορία). It means puzzlement, doubt, or a certain kind of confusion . The famous ‘I know that I know nothing’ might be rooted in this feeling. The origin of philosophy? Let us assume that testing before deciding gave birth to empirical science. Testing the possibilities and deciding later sounds familiar to everyday life, but what does this have to do with playing? And how does playing help with aporia?

Everyone should be familiar with the feeling from a similar situation: you want to buy a new hard drive, a monitor, or a printer. You think about a certain model you have seen lately. The first idea is to check some evaluations by professional testers about this model which has caught your attention. After reading the tenth online review in a tech magazine and/ or blog, one feels indecisive but not indifferent. The feeling of hovering over the ground, not able to make a decision. Some call it a crazy emptiness. One could be wrong or right. The terror lies not in the incapability of making the right decision but in the feeling that one will never really know.

The solution is usually simple. Think strategically and decide. What happens in unusual situations? For example, there are ten equal choices but only one can be taken. The more one broods about a decision, the more it is likely that one will regret the decision. No matter whether the consequences were clearly positive or negative. Mixed results worsen the situation.

This is exactly what people have to deal with in an information society. Every information is one click away, so does a different information. Often one finds reasonable arguments for both sides. There is a chance that people who believe something find out that this is not actually true. One click later, the thing you believed is presented as true again. One click more and procrastination turns into a vicious circle. Aporia strikes again!

What to do to prepare oneself against this dilemma, which seems so familiar to digital life? Being unable to decide and the ability to make decisions are both sides of the same poisonous medal. How to train decision making if not with playing? Playing is always situated between possibilities. Do I move my pawn or my knight in chess? The beginner might not plan more than ten moves in advance, but he has to train this skill of strategic thinking in order to master the game.

Playing trains the capacity to think strategically about anything. This can include visual, auditive, olfactory, and even haptic information. While playing, one imagines what is not yet there in order to make the decision easier.

Thus, playing trains the muscles to cope with the beast aporia. Constantly training what to choose in a volatile context allows to experiment with different strategies. In role-playing this kind of thinking is bound to a character, thus opening up the possibility to completely alter one’s behavior for the turn of the game. There is no coincidence that role-playing has been analyzed in psychology and is used as a problem solving method in workshops for professional decision makers.

The interesting fact about role-playing is that one plays together in a group, a team, or the so-called ‘party’. Below, a painting by Larry Elmore for the Dragonlance franchise of Dungeons & Dragons.

dragonlance acategorie
(c) TSR, Larry Elmore. Painting used in 1992’s Tales of the Lance boxed set.

The idea of role-playing is to play together in a party of specialists in order to overcome obstacles set in a fantastic story. Above, you see at least one mage, one warrior, thief, priest, and ranger among others. In a typical game, every player controls one of the characters by describing her actions. The challenge for players is to imagine one’s own character, the game world as narrated by the game master, and to connect to the imagination of the other players. Through play and verbal communication, the participants of a pen’n’paper role-playing game ‘synchronize’ their imaginations and form one version. Through trial and error, empathy and re-imagining the flow of playing occurs. And aporia? Aporia is dissolved in a constant process of making decisions about everything necessary to imagine a living world inhabited not only by oneself, but by one’s group of fellow players.

There is the possibility that playing makes it worse. Playing can support aporia when one sticks to the familiar, the best strategy, one group of players, one type of game, or a limited set of choices. Choosing always the barbarian and solving obstacles with violence is limiting one’s scope. the same applies for relying always on stealth or persuasion.

I finish this entry with this meme, created by Donna Miller. It’s ambiguity might elevate this musing further. Please visit her website


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