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Abduction, Enaction, & Play

In this post I explore the notion of abduction—inferring what is probable from what is actual—in relation to games and play. Abductive reasoning shares a number of commonalities with the hermeneutic circle and by extension enaction and sensemaking. By taking a closer look at abduction, we gain insight into how players enact the gameworld and in the process communicate meaning, reasoning, and knowledge situated in various worldviews.


The concepts of abduction and abductive reasoning come from the pragmatist philosopher and logician C.S. Peirce. For Peirce, the logical processes of deduction and induction are preceded by a preliminary process, what he calls abduction, “the process of forming explanatory hypotheses” (CP 5.172). Abduction involves inferring what is probable from what is actual. Peirce illustrates this with the following formulation:

The surprising fact, C, is observed.

But if A were true, C would be a matter of course.

Hence, there is reason to suspect that A is true. (EP2: 231, CP 5.189)

Abduction marks the beginning of inquiry, a process that is further refined through experimentation, deduction, and induction. Peirce writes that “[abduction] is the only logical operation which introduces any new idea” (CP 5.172) and that it encompasses “all the operations by which theories and conceptions are engendered” (CP 5.590).

The process of abduction is rooted in Peirce’s pragmatism and thus emphasizes observed behaviour and lived experience. When we observe behaviour or undergo an experience that falls outside of our expectations, we have cause to invent or discover an explanation for that behaviour/experience: “the explanation must be such a proposition as would lead to the prediction of the observed facts, either as necessary consequences or at least as very probable under the circumstances. A hypothesis, then, has to be adopted, which is likely in itself, and renders the facts likely. This step of adopting a hypothesis as being suggested by the facts, is what I call abduction” (EP2: 94-5).”

To help bridge the gap with games and play below, we can think of abduction as a process of inferring rules that explain our experience of in-game events. Consider the following description from the Wikipedia entry on abduction:

“Peirce treated abduction as the use of a known rule to explain an observation. For instance: it is a known rule that, if it rains, grass gets wet; so, to explain the fact that the grass on this lawn is wet, one abduces that it has rained. Abduction can lead to false conclusions if other rules that might explain the observation are not taken into account—e.g. the grass could be wet from dew” (Wikipedia).

Abduction and the Hermeneutic Circle

Peirce’s formulation of abduction shares a number of parallels with the field of hermeneutics and the notion that understanding arises from a circular, interpretive process, called the hermeneutic circle. Richard Coyne, in a blog post connecting abduction and hermeneutics, points us to Winfried Nöth’s Handbook of Semiotics and specifically this passage in the hermeneutics entry:

“For…hermeneutics, textual understanding (and human knowledge in general) is possible neither by induction, i.e., by beginning with the textual (or experiential) data and arriving at a general explanation of the text (or law, concerning other phenomena) as a whole, nor by deduction, i.e., by beginning with a general law or knowledge of the whole and explaining the data through it. Against these unidirectional models of scientific discovery, the hermeneutics [sic] propose an alternative model of understanding, not unrelated to the alternative which Peirce introduced under the designation of abduction, the method of explaining data on the basis of assumptions and hypotheses about probable, not yet certain laws” (336).

Coyne goes on to write that:

“Scholars describe abduction as an iterative process. To abduct is to interpret. As an interpreter you start the process with some kind of hypothesis, a series of propositions about the meaning or value of the thing you are interpreting (e.g. a building, a film, a book, a blog or an utterance). Then you subject that hypothesis to testing and revision in light of the encounter. You revise the hypothesised meaning, and do so repeatedly…This abductive process is iterative and circular, or some would say a series of nested or overlaid spirals or helixes. It’s the hermeneutical circle.” 

This is relevant to game scholars and designers as the hermeneutic circle is strongly associated with games and play. In The Play of the World James S. Hans explicitly adopts the hermeneutic circle as his model of play, while scholars like Miguel Sicart have coined phrases like the ludic hermeneutic circle to explain the player’s subjective, iterative, and emergent understanding of a game as a meaningful system in which the player comes to locate or situate themselves (The Ethics of Computer Games).

Play as Abductive Reasoning

So, if abduction is synonymous with the hermeneutic circle and the hermeneutic circle is synonymous with gameplay, is play abductive? Let’s put that another way: is play typified by the inference of provisional rules that explain observed behaviour? That certainly seems to be the case. When playing a game for the first time, we often observe in-game behaviour that prompts us to infer the existence of rules that circumscribe that behaviour. In a card game we play an ace and think we’re going to take the trick only to lose to the two of hearts, leading to the inference that in this game aces are low, not high. Or we fall off a ledge in a first-person game and land unscathed, leading to the inference that in this game there is no fall damage.

In both instances, the inference points to a possible rule, one that explains the observed behaviour, but such a rule is only provisional, subject to revision should a subsequent experience give us cause to revise the rules, or, more specifically, our subjective interpretation of the rules. In the case of the card game, there may have been other factors at play when we lost the trick, such as twos being wild or hearts taking precedence over cards in another suit. In the case of falling off the ledge in the first-person game, the lack of damage could have resulted from a glitch (e.g. the player-character could have clipped the wall as they fell) or it could simply be that the height wasn’t sufficient enough to trigger the conditions for fall damage.

Here gameplay is seen as a means of generating novel behaviours and experiences that lead to the inference of provisional rules that can explain such behaviours and experiences. In the aforementioned card game, we play an ace in a distinct scenario and we win the trick; in the first-person game, we fall from an even greater height and take damage. Each observed set of actions and outcomes contributes to an open-ended, iterative understanding of the game as a system of meaning, perpetuating the hermeneutic circle of play.

Importantly, the provisional rules discussed here are less about the written rules of analog games or the encoded rules of digital games. Rather, it might be more accurate to describe such ‘working rules’ as the hermeneutic conditions of play. Such conditions would refer to the player’s subjective understanding of the game as a system of meaning-making. The player who infers that aces are high has situated their thinking and reasoning within one set of hermeneutic conditions, conditions in which aces are to be interpreted as the highest value card and thus capable of taking any trick. Likewise, the player who infers that there is no fall damage in a game situates their thinking and reasoning within a set of hermeneutic conditions where traversing the map involves jumping from great heights without consequence. When the outcomes of our actions fall outside the hermeneutic conditions of play, we engage in abduction, inferring a revised set of ‘working rules’ that can explain our experience of the game.

It is through this cyclical, iterative, and abductive process that we develop an understanding of how to make sense or meaning in the game space. In this way, to borrow a phrase from Gadamer, the player doesn’t come to master the game, the game comes to master the player (Truth and Method). In particular, players come to situate themselves within particular hermeneutic conditions that are disclosed through abduction, learning how to viably interpret or make sense of the game space in the process.

Abduction and Social Sensemaking

My goal with Hello, Worlds is to explore the relationships between gameplay, cognition, and sensemaking. More specifically, I’m looking for answers to the following question: in what way do games contribute to social sensemaking and our capacity to viably interpret the world from various situations or perspectives in the world?

One of the challenges of mobilizing meaning (Gee), reasoning (Alcoff), and knowledge (Haraway; Harding) situated in various embodied perspectives is that one needs to understand the social situations or conditions in which such perspectives have emerged and taken shape in order to locate or situate that meaning, reasoning, and knowledge in the first place. What is the meaning and significance of a missed paycheque, for instance? What kind of reasoning would that give rise to? What kind of knowledge would be required to respond to such an occurrence? Answering that question involves situating the discussion within the socio-economic conditions of the subject or subjects in question. For some, it means taking out a high interest loan, balancing various credit cards, and/or asking friends and family for support. For others, it’s barely an inconvenience. What meaning, reasoning, and knowledge such an event engenders relies on understanding the hermeneutic conditions in which the event itself occurred.

However, this situated or contextual understanding of communication isn’t exactly common. Some sender-receiver models, for instance, ascribe a diminished role to the situation or context, preferring instead more of a linear model of encoding and decoding messages, oftentimes regardless of time, place, or situation (though fields and subjects like rhetoric, hermeneutics, and feminist epistemology have contested such models for some time now).

Games are often subject to this sender-receiver view, especially when it comes to communicating lived experiences. The game Spent, for example, attempts to convey the experience of living in financial precarity. And yet the game may actually produces apathy towards the poor, not empathy. With Spent, players seem to abduce a situation in which people are simply making poor decisions; if you sell your possessions, embrace a long commute to work, and live a meagre life, you can scrape by in Spent. And yet, the actual situation faced by those living in poverty is far more nuanced, structural, and immutable than the gameplay suggests.

Instead, we might be better off thinking of intersubjectivity and the process of understanding one another as a matter of communicating hermeneutic conditions, of sharing the ‘working rules’ people have come to rely on in order to make sense of or interpret the world around them, what Varela, Thompson, and Rosch refer to as “a history of sensemaking” (The Embodied Mind). From this perspective, we come to understand one another not by undergoing the same experiences, but by learning how to interpret or make sense of the world in ways that conform to the same or similar hermeneutic conditions by which others have come to live their lives.

Gameplay, from this perspective, allows us to communicate ‘a history of sensemaking’ by providing instances of abduction situated within the hermeneutic conditions experienced by others. As players, we enact the hermeneutic conditions of a game by iteratively abducing those conditions throughout the course of play, progressively changing our assumptions and presumptions until they conform with those prescribed by rules of the game. This occurs because our actions and interactions produce behaviours and experiences that lead us to infer ‘working rules’ or hermeneutic conditions that can explain those behaviours and experiences, shaping and conditioning how we interpret the game space.

Games communicate situated meaning, reasoning, and knowledge, then, not directly through vicarious experience (a highly suspect model of knowledge sharing from the perspective of embodied cognition) but rather indirectly by sharing novel conditions in which players are situated as sensemaking subjects. As player’s enact the gameworld through play, we might also start to think of how they might, at one and the same time, re-enact the social worlds experienced by others and the hermeneutic conditions that follow therefrom.

By looking at games and intersubjectivity from the perspective of abduction, we might conclude that just as our understanding of the ‘working rules’ of a game are subject to iteration and revision, our understanding of others is likewise open-ended, provisional, subject to change. And just as the player, in seeking to understand the game, adopts the position of an apprentice who is mastered by the game as a system of sense- or meaning-making, so too should we cultivate our understanding of others by becoming “apprentices of listening rather than masters of discourse” (Gemma Corradi Fiumara The Other Side of Language 57).

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