Selling games short -- it's happening all the time in games research scholarship and in books on game design. In the rush to carve out a special place for games scholarship, to demonstrate its importance, and to attempt to convey what we feel as gamers is powerful about games, games thinkers have relied on an exceptionalist approach to games, seeing them as a form of play necessarily set apart from the everyday, and therefore requiring a distinct treatment. In short, this inherited and largely unexamined theory of games assumes there is a rupture (in experience, in form) between games and other aspects of social life. But while understandable, this is precisely the wrong approach.
What people find fascinating about activities labeled "games" is precisely how they make the contingency of our day-to-day experience available to us, but within semi-bounded (never fully separable) spaces. It is because of this that they are able to take on the same stakes and range of meanings that we find in everyday experience. If we are ever going to be able to ferret out what is powerful and important about games, we must work from an approach that: (1) sees them as never fully separable from other aspects of experience, (2) recognizes what is at stake in them (they are never entirely "consequence-free"), and (3) avoids normative, culturally-located assumptions (about "pleasure" or "fun"). In short, this approach must see games as processual -- like everyday life, they are open-ended sites for social practice. Once we have such an approach in place, we will be free to do the more interesting (and challenging) work of exploring their stakes, relative separabilty, and affective or normative associations through empirically-grounded research, no longer assuming what we should be explaining.
I have posted a paper to ssrn, "Stopping Play: A New Approach to Games" (here), that presents such an approach to games (and briefly outlines the sources and limitations of the play assumption along the way). Any comments welcome.
Games have intruded into popular awareness to an unprecedented level, and scholars, policy makers, and the media alike are beginning to consider how games might offer insight into fundamental questions about human society. But in the midst of this opportunity for their ideas to be heard, it is game scholars who are selling games short. In their rush to highlight games’ importance, they have tended toward an unsustainable exceptionalism, seeing games as fundamentally set apart from everyday life. This view casts gaming as a subset of play, and therefore – like play – as an activity that is inherently separable, safe, and pleasurable. Before we can confront why games are important, and make use of them to pursue the aims of policy and knowledge, we must rescue games from this framework and develop an understanding of them unburdened by the category of play, one that will both accord with the experience of games by players themselves, and bear the weight of the new questions being asked about them and about society. To that end, I offer here an understanding of games that eschews exceptionalist, normatively-loaded approaches in favor of one that stresses them as a characterized by process. In short, I argue for seeing games as domains of contrived contingency, capable of generating emergent practices and interpretations. This approach enables us to understand how games are, rather than set apart from everyday life, instead intimately connected with it. With this approach in place, I conclude by discussing two key recent developments in games, persistence and complex, implicit contingency, that together may account for why some online games are now beginning to approach the texture of everyday life.
[Edit: One more piece, to fill out the picture I am offering here...]
Here is the short version of the definition of games I offer in the paper, plus a brief elucidation:
"A game is a semi-bounded domain of contrived contingency that generates interpretable outcomes." (p. 9)
All games, I argue, include the incorporation of one or more sources of contingency (the paper identifies four: stochastic, social, performative, and semiotic), carefully calibrated (by design or cultural practices) to create a compelling experience. This is the first aspect of games. The second aspect of games is their capacity to generate meaning. The outcomes that games generate (never perfectly predictable) are subject to interpretations by which more or less stable culturally-shared meanings are generated; the key point about this generation of meaning is that it also is open-ended, potentially transformed by the unfolding of the game itself.
Comments on Against Exceptionalism: A New Approach to Games:
Interesting thoughts. I look forward to reading the "games as patterns" responses. /grin
Meanwhile, from my non-academic perspective, I thought there were a couple of particularly interesting points made:
1) Games aren't always synonymous with play.
A good example of this might be taken from the movie WarGames. The W.O.P.R. computer asks, "Do you want to play a game?" and the protagonist focuses on the "play" aspect... but then we see that the game is actually a "wargame," which like the original Kriegspiel isn't about play at all. Even worse, it's a game that (in the context of the film) becomes frighteningly real, and is in no way "fun" any longer.
2) Games require both rules and randomness -- they must be predictably unpredictable. Like life generally, games require both order and freedom to be interesting.
I know this isn't a novel observation, but the presentation here is fresh. In particular, the exploration of games as "contrived contingency" get me thinking.
The main question I had was with the asymmetry of the argument. OK, games aren't always playful; that seemed to be a central argument... but what about play that isn't a game? Wouldn't we learn more about what "game" and "play" really mean, and how they are independent of each other, if we looked at both of these forms of action separately instead of focusing just on games as not always being play?
I now can't help thinking of games and play as separate but overlapping Venn diagram circles. On one side, we have games without play (wargames); on the other side, we have play without games (infants and cats batting at toys); and in the center... what?
If games aren't always about play, and play isn't always expressed through a game, then what's the best term for the intersection of the two as distinct from either "game" or "play" by itself?
Finally, it's probably a failure of understanding on my part, but I couldn't follow the line of argument leading from "games aren't always about play" to "treating games as forms of play is unwarranted exceptionalism." I don't necessarily disagree with either statement, but what's the link between them? What is the reasoning by which we must conclude that thinking of games as something outside regular human experience is what leads to mistakenly conflating games with play?
Posted Aug 8, 2006 6:44:21 PM | link
Thanks for the comments, Bart. I'd point you to the paper itself to answer your comments about play and games. In short, however, the paper suggests that play is bankrupt as an analytical concept if it is taken to denote a form of activity, rather than a mode of experience. I'm trying to rescue games from that, and build a robust concept of games as an activity that is not exceptionalist; i.e., that does not presuppose a separation between games and everyday life. It is theoretically possible to develop a concept of "play" as an activity in a similarly non-exceptionalist way (seeing only relative distinctions between it and other arenas of action), and thus avoid many of the problems I identify, but I am skeptical that it would be able to shrug off its historical baggage. It is too thoroughly a product of modernity. Games, on the other hand, is a concept that we're still in the process of coming to understand (and has long had useful treatments that avoid the play association in several fields). The normative associations of "play" in particular are sticky and murky.
[Added for clarity...]
To put it another way, Bart, I'm saying that the very idea of thinking about play as a form of action is problematic analytically, but even more I'm saying that the image of games as having clear boundaries around them, like a Venn diagram suggests, is the real obstacle to advancing game scholarship. Once we are freed from this "litmus test" approach to games, then we will be able to explore their features on the ground, instead of chalking up what they are to some imagined set of culturally-specific associations.
Posted Aug 8, 2006 7:06:01 PM | link
This is great, Thomas. I've posted a link to it on my site here: http://florencechee.blogspot.com/2006/08/games-and-everyday-life.html
Posted Aug 8, 2006 9:37:16 PM | link
Posted Aug 9, 2006 12:09:11 PM | link
Thanks for clarifying, Thomas.
As a practicing software developer, I'm comfortable (I suspect you'd say too comfortable) with "normative" approaches to design. For me, a definition that proposes what a thing is is more useful than one that tries to identify what a thing is not. A positive definition may be wrong, but it's a lot easier to test for validity.
That doesn't mean I think your approach is "bad" or wrong, however. Sometimes it's helpful to examine a system from a new perspective. Your suggested redefinition could prove to be a valuable step toward an improved human-centered theory of play.
I'm looking forward to hearing what the pros here at TN think.
Posted Aug 9, 2006 12:19:59 PM | link
Thanks again, Bart. I would only say that the contrast isn't between positive and negative definitions here (my definition for games is positive, since it identifies the components of games -- I only argue it is "not play" to clear the ground for my definition), but between absolute and relative ones. A helpful analog is "culture" which labored under an absolutist definition (as clearly bounded) for many decades before it was replaced with a far more flexible, relative concept, one that has not only served cultural anthropology far better, but has had a huge impact on other fields. Do relative distinctions mean we can't make any useful claims? Of course not. But they do raise the bar empirically, forcing us to ground with strong evidence the claims we do make; this is enough of a challenge, imho, that researchers instead trend toward absolutes distressingly often.
Posted Aug 9, 2006 12:59:40 PM | link
I really like this. The only suggestion I have is that comparing games in relationship to "everyday life" seems to be a bit odd. It's rather like saying, "lunch -- like everyday life -- is..." or "showers -- like everyday life -- are..."
These are possbily two useful analogies because eating and grooming are two semi-bounded areas with complex rules and rituals that have interpretable outcomes. Those rituals and outcomes are frequently taken for granted, unless we just happen to come across examples from an "alien" culture. (For example the discovery of cosmetics in Tut's tomb.)
Also, I think that players of chess, go, and crosswords would disagree with the need for randomness. For that matter, I suspect that even tic tac toe should qualify as a game, even though it is trivial to train something to consistently win or draw.
Posted Aug 9, 2006 2:35:23 PM | link
@Kirk: Great comments. I agree that the "everyday life" phrase is unfortunate -- it is a compromise to try to reach readers who may still think in terms of hard distinctions between arenas of social action. What we must instead recognize (and examine) is how this separability is always a cultural accomplishment, not a given of the category of activity.
About stochastic contingency: it is always present in games in the sense that all games are vulnerable to unforseen, "external" events, but it is also a part of the design even of many of the most "skill-based" games, like chess and go -- after all, how do you determine who plays first :-) ? As for crosswords, stochastic contingency is there as well; consider the following possibility: one sees a clue like "Notorous Alicia" a moment after happening to see Notorious appear on one's cable or satellite tv guide. Games that rely on shared cultural knowledge can never avoid this kind of accidental reminding. (Hmm...sudoku, however, might not have any contrived stochastic contingency.)
Posted Aug 9, 2006 2:48:45 PM | link
after all, how do you determine who plays first :-) ?
Oh, by "random," I was considering explicit random or pseudo-random events embedded within the game (such as rolled dice, shuffled cards, or their electronic impementation). Choice of who goes first for chess can be random, or determined by prior ranking within contest rules. (Which is another thing to consider is that "games" can be embedded within larger social structures like "tournaments" or "clubs.") Traditionally, first move advantage in Go is also based on relative skill.
But thanks for answering my comments.
Posted Aug 9, 2006 3:02:09 PM | link
Fascinating paper. But I wanted to hear more about meaning (and for me, thus value) generation. It almost sounds as if you are saying that games are only generative of meaning in respect of their outcome. But of course the very recognition of playing the game, the value given to the rules, kicking a ball one way and not another are all conjured up in games.
I used to think that this generation of meaning / value was unique to games, that it was indeed one of the core elements of the magic circle. More specifically the ability to for games to generated meanings that seem distinct from or even and inverse of the cultural norms in which they are sited. It seemed to me that what ever the norm was, a game could stand in opposition to it – and that this possibly fulfilling some wider cultural role.
Now I wonder. Games certainly have this property but many of the values we hold are contingent and rooted in circumstance and role – driving one side of the road rather than the other, the symbolism of a flag a police hat etc. In fact the more I just observed everyday life the more ritualised it seemed to me.
So now I err towards thinking that there is nothing special in the fact that I might say you are the winner if your card has a given symbol on it, or that the boxer does not get arrested for assault. As the police don’t get charged with locking people up or restringing them – though they can, just as a boxer can be charged with assault.
Do we then just have that the meaning generative property of games is just a fact of process and the types of meanings are consequences of the contrived contingency.
If so why then are games the practices that they are, sports are often physical with personal risk involved etc? Is it simply that we so construct society to allow for engage in risk based practices (all games must have risk I assume – at the very least the risk of not attaining the value that one had attached with winning) of this as this is part of human flourishing and everything else is just the structure needed to support this.
Posted Aug 9, 2006 4:08:31 PM | link
A few comments:
I think your definition is too broad. It claims things like beauracracies, fish tanks and torture as members. I'm also wary of turning such folk terms as 'game' into terms of art where the gap between the two is almost insurmountable. Yes, you've rehabilitated 'game', but it's at the cost of conceptual competence for nearly everyone in the world who uses the term.
I don't think you've made a strong enough case to suggest that either persistence or 'deep implicit contingency' explain the transfluence of 'everydal life' and virtual worlds. (On a side note, your use of 'persistence' is *much* looser than what most people think of as persistence when talking about virtual worlds.)
I see this paper as a move toward a rehabilitated kind of neo-ludism. To that end, it's quite successful. However, I think that the philosphical framework you provide needs some firming up. What is 'undpredictability'? What constitutes 'contrived' for instance. What, beyond simple unpredictability, does 'contingency' do in your theory? It's not a notion of contingency that most philosophers would easily recognize.
I do think one of your theory's strengths is the ability to acommodate game- and decision-theoretic concerns in a way the game/work construction can never hope to.
A concern is that you make critical assumptions about what gives human experience it's 'texture' that are drawn from a very narrow and contentious corner of philosophy--namely Heideggerian phenomenological existentialism.
Posted Aug 9, 2006 4:37:12 PM | link
@Ren: Agreed on all counts, Ren. I wasn't trying to suggest that meaning is only generated through the outcomes, if by outcomes we mean the "conclusion" of a game. I really mean outcomes in a very general sense, trying thereby to highlight the singularity of each game event/experience as a (potentially, even if rarely) generative moment. Not only generative of meaning, by the way, but of practice (or experience). This is key, if we want to avoid an overly meaning-centered account.
As for your last (and harder) question, it is hard to say without a lot more cultural historical work, but I speculate that we should make sense of this following Weber (okay, I think that about most things). If he was right that modernity was marked by the durable fulfillment of rationalization through bureaucratic (and now, technological) techniques, such that (unlike, it seems, any other such waxing of rationalization in other eras/places) escape from it seemed impossible (the "iron cage" of rationality), then perhaps games as domains of contrived contingency become, under the context of modernity, a particularly resonant (anthropologically speaking) departure from those (imposed, never wholly successfully) attempts to order.
What we're really talking about here is the dialectical tension between social reproduction and change, and that is an ever-present tension, but another aspect that I allude to at the end of the paper is the increasing ability of game designers to make the multi-layered, contrived stochastic contingencies of their games more and more implicit (what were rolling dice are now invisible algorithms). This, plus the persistence of virtual worlds, seem (to me) to account for their special potential and importance in the current moment in human history.
Posted Aug 9, 2006 4:46:00 PM | link
@monkeysan: Thanks for the comments. I understand the concerns, although I tend to see the philosophical underpinnings as owing more to pragmatism than to phenomenology (which in almost every case is too individualistic to be really useful for social theory).
The other philosophical underpinning here is Alasdair MacIntyre's account of sources of unpredictability (in After Virtue). I follow his usage of "contingency", so at least one philosopher (I'm not one) should know what I'm saying ;-).
"Contrived" is a word that is meant to signal how games are synthetic, created by people. I want to avoid anything that suggests intentional design strongly, however, since not all games are made by game designers -- most, I would guess, are created through shared cultural practice, modified and inherited through time. Contrived also points to the "semi-bounded" idea. All games are represented (culturally-speaking) as set apart to some degree, even though they are never completely separable.
The persistence and deep, implicit contingency conclusion is really just by way rounding off, and will likely become a paper in its own right.
Posted Aug 9, 2006 4:55:04 PM | link
@monkeysan: Oh, and about the broader conceptualization of "game." Yes, it is intentionally, even unabashedly so, but I think this already is in the air anyway, as a number of fields have used game as a metaphor (and more than a metaphor) for social practice for years (economics especially). Yes, they have done so incredibly parochially, but the benefit is that it is not strange for someone to talk about life (or some domain of it) as a game. My hope is that, instead of getting bogged down in useless debates about what is and is not a game, we instead study both games and game-like processes, with no real hard line between them. Those artifacts which are more obviously (culturally represented as) games become, as they did for my book on Greece, meaningful and illuminating distillations of particular cultural practices and concerns (I've now added a paragraph toward the end elaborating on this). By doing this, we will be advancing not just game scholarship, but our understanding of society.
Posted Aug 9, 2006 5:04:36 PM | link
"It is not strange for someone to talk about life (or some domain of it) as a game. My hope is that, instead of getting bogged down in useless debates about what is and is not a game, we instead study both games and game-like processes, with no real hard line between them."
Sure. But I think there is an important distinction between a system that is a game and a game-able system. It's a distinction that is not robustly served in your theory. That's not necessarily a flaw of the theory, but it's a motivation for the pressure I'd like to apply to it.
Posted Aug 9, 2006 6:06:14 PM | link
@monkeysan: I'm enjoying this back and forth a lot, and I appreciate the comments. Can I ask you to state why you think that distinction is important?
Posted Aug 9, 2006 6:10:30 PM | link
I think you are all confusing a "game" with a "good game". My dictionary definition is sufficient:
"an amusement or pastime, a contest for amusement according to a set of rules."
I think amusement is far better than "fun". What I find "fun" can be different to others. I agree a GOOD game IS fun for the people who think the game is GOOD.
In the military we generally added that a game is multisided (even playing solataire is really two sides).
There are too many bloody academics getting wrapped about the axles on all this. You are adding no value to actually how a game can be "useful" as well as being an amusement, rather than being just an amusement.
Posted Aug 9, 2006 8:09:01 PM | link
First note: I don't think Ted was the first to bring up the term "persistent"; I think that was in Bartle's Designing Virtual Worlds (2004). That said, I haven't actually read most of Ted's stuff in full, so the nature of the term might be different. (I cannot believe I made a note of that. =P I'm not personally concerned, it just felt... like it needed to be said.)
On "contingency" versus "unpredicted/emergent outcome": to me, I see the distinction as the former adding one more layer of meaning: games have rules for that kind of thing. For instance, in chess, your opponent might make an unforeseen move, but the game has a rule about what you can do from this new position. It was not anticipated, yet it is still inside the considered bounds of the game.
Does that sound right, Thomas, or am I missing something yet?
Posted Aug 10, 2006 2:28:38 PM | link
That's right, Michael. I think of the contingent outcomes of games (and life) as arising from sources of contingency, the kinds of which (contrived or otherwise) we can usefully distinguish for our understanding of games. The actual unfolding of outcomes (shaped by combinations of these sources) is experienced in specific moments in time by the person engaged in the game. So there is a distinction here between the potential for unpredictable outcomes that the sources represent, and the actual unfolding of outcomes, which of course exhibit a range of predictability and are unique to any given instance of a game event.
And thanks for the note about persistence: I'll make that change.
Posted Aug 10, 2006 2:48:53 PM | link
This is interesting stuff. I have been, for years, trying to unite (in my wee haid) thoughts of games, fun, work, play, art, creativity, marketing and game theory.
@Robert: You speak of the military; if you study game theory at all you will know that there are "games people play" that have nothing to do with fun; you use the term "useful" which is another reason for playing certain kinds of games. They can be useful. Right now there are all kinds of folks using less-than-useful game metaphors and totally misleading "game studies" that spring from the newfound popularity, growing ubiquity, profitability and media attention of video, computer and online gaming. Thomas (and others) are trying to narrow things down a bit. That's what they do. I wish they'd stop using sentences like this:
"...perhaps games as domains of contrived contingency become, under the context of modernity, a particularly resonant (anthropologically speaking) departure from those (imposed, never wholly successfully) attempts to order."
Because they make my eyes bleed. I'm an English major; we just make s**t rhyme... But if you can translate the stuff back into reg'lar ol' talk, it makes a bit of sense.
And then you can disagree with it!
Randomness: Unless you are talking about how the universe itself and experience is random (c'mon... what I looked at this morning counts as "random" in terms of playing crosswords?... that's pushing it, dude...), and, therefore, all players' abilities and all and everything when it comes together is, at some level, random... no. I disagree. Not all games are random. Any game where the main interaction is simultaneous need not have any element of randomness.
Example? Rock-Paper-Scissors. It's a game of psychology and mental acumen. I always choose which symbol to throw, as does my opponent. You may *think* you are choosing randomly, but you are not.
Another? Any kind of racing. The racers take off simultaneously at the sound of a pistol or "Ready, set, go." It is based on skill alone. Randomness is minimized; if there's any there, it is mistakenly so. Same with wrestling. Boxing. Skeet shooting, especially if it's solo.
Many children's games with no randomness in the rule-set choose "youngest child goes first" rather than flipping a coin. That's not random. The game "Battleship" is in no way random, other than the determination of who goes first, and if you use, younger player, as determinant... well... there you go.
And let's not forget that the appearance of randomness, in many cases, is just that. An approximation or appearance of such.
I'm not trying to be difficult. Well, OK. Maybe a bit. But I'm making the point because it's important to me, personally. Many of the games I enjoy do not involve randomness as an intrinsict driver of why I play. And so to include it as a core element of the definition... well... I'm not yet convinced.
I'll think more about the rest of the paper. I've printed it out, which is meaningful for me, Thomas... too hard to read it and make notes on the screen : )
Posted Aug 10, 2006 3:01:38 PM | link
Thanks Andy, though your highlighting of "...perhaps games as domains of contrived contingency become..." is painful (and I hope not representative! ;-) ). After all, Ren had asked just about as hard a question as you can ask about this stuff.
I don't recall saying that all games have stochastic contingency [edit: as part of their contrivance by design or practice]; if I did, please point to me to where. I do believe that all games (at least, all those played by humans ;-) ) have performative contingency, but I would be happy to be surprised by a counter example.
Also, about how broad stochastic contingency is supposed to be here (and, in fact, the others, too): Yes, it is that broad. So, I guess I am "talking about how the universe itself and experience is random." The reason for this, again, is that no game is perfectly bounded from the flow of time and social experience in which it occurs. They attempt to be, strive to be, often, and succeed to a certain extent (which should be explored empirically), but the brute fact is that they are never entirely insulated from the events around them, and this is why it is important to avoid a "bounded" or Venn diagram-like approach to games. [edit: Again, a game may not have contrived stochastic contingency, but it is never fully separated from the randomness of the broader world in which it is played.]
Maybe this quote from this article that I published this spring (in Games & Culture) is helpful:
I blur the distinction between these spaces and others where people act by more generally using the term domain. A domain is a semi-bounded arena for action, where certain conventional expectations apply and certain resources may be available. Thus, the domain of legal practice includes the conventions and expectations that apply to people acting within it, along with other aspects which similarly act both to constrain and enable, including the legal/procedural (that is, in the institutional sense), and, increasingly, the technical and technological (such as new avenues available for action including electronic filing, formatting, and so forth), and others. Similarly, synthetic worlds are domains that present for their users an increasingly varied and complex set of affordances, including technical and architectural constraints, market forces, regularly applied national and other law, and social conventions. Domains are not set apart from everyday life–their separability from each other is practical, not fundamental.
Posted Aug 10, 2006 3:17:59 PM | link
Oh, and another comment in your response to absolute randomness vs practical randomness. Thanks for reminding me of this issue. I have briefly presented this model in different versions before (in the context of more empirical work), as well as here (p. 5), where I noted that stochastic contingency is present "even when the randomness created is not 'truly' random – it need only be practically random." So I've now added the following footnote to this paper:
This randomness need not be “true” randomness; it need only be practically random; that is, indistinguishable from true randomness from the point of view of the participant (allowing for any technological or other aids available to him or her to identify patterns and thereby recognize it as otherwise).
Posted Aug 10, 2006 3:27:59 PM | link
Interesting argument, and one to which I'm not just a little empathetic. I've written before (in Unit Operations) a critique of the notions of separability and safety as necessary features of games, so I empathize with that direction in particular. I need to read the paper again and much more closely, but a couple questions:
(1) I'm not sure I agree that the hypothetically stable ludological approach focuses on the experience of a game. I think luduology in the "traditional" sense (if it ever existed) is much more commonly identified as a structuralist formalism ... a feature you seem to ascribe toward narratology, presumably because of the fact that narratology in the broader sense is, in fact, formalist. But as Frasca, Mateas, and I have argued, the real disagreeent seems to be one between ludology and narrativism, or the (over)application of story to games.
Thus, I think the distinction you make on pages 5-6 is really a tripartite one, between play theorists (like Huizinga, Callois, and their followers, which very much includes Salen & Zimmerman) and formalist theorists (like the "traditional" ludologists (one might think of Markku Eskelinen or the "early" Jesper Juul), and retro-narrative representationalists (like the "traditional" narrativists, Henry Jenkins and Janet Murray).
However, I'm not so sure I empathize with where you take this argument, namely The problem is that human experience is not reducible to a construction of meanings about it. It also consists in human practice, in the lived experience itself. Again, I need to read this again and more closely, but since my own admittedly humanistic approach, in Unit Operations (which you cite) and elsewhere, has been to look at games as representational systems, but not in the narrativist or formalist senses. Are you suggesting that human experience is not addressable through representation and interpretation? Or that in the case of games, the player coupling with the system is a required (primary?) consideration? Or something else?
(2) I'm not yet sure I buy in to your reliance on contingency as a guiding concept. The invocation of Weber strikes me as a tired one, and the idea that bureaucracy always creates an iron cage misses the fact that procedure in the bureaucratic sense also imposes constraints that found the possibilities of social expression (however overly rationalized modern bureaucracy may in fact be, even to the point of ideology). The rules of a game, or a software program, or a bureaucracy seem just as likely to found contingency. TurboTax, to use your example, operationalizes the tax code to create opportunities for experimentation with taxation rules, but also with loopholes, and exploits. From here, it strikes me that the kind of procedurality you attribute to Janet and myself is identical with stochastic contingency. Programming computers to represent behaviors is not reducible to so many random number generators.
Posted Aug 10, 2006 4:12:13 PM | link
@Ian: Thanks for the great comments. About narratology and ludology (holding my breath here -- I'd rather we not end up talking only about that), I believe they both made the mistake of formalism, but in different ways. That's not the contrast I'm primarily drawing between them in the paper, however. That is why I'm not treating Huizinga and Caillois as belonging to either of those camps (as you rightly say), although I might have some reservations about Caillois...
"Are you suggesting that human experience is not addressable through representation and interpretation?"
Not at all. I'm saying that it is not *reducible* to it. That is, we cannot think that an examination of games as a form of representation is going to get us more than part of the way if we want to understand their place in societies. We must attend to the practice (for phenomenologists, the "experience") of games as consequential in the flow of social reproduction and change. I love the humanities, but the tendency there is always to make too much of representation, that is to see it as the only site of consequence. I follow Latour's thinking about this (see We Have Never Been Modern). What the approach presented here does is allow us both to look at game practice, and its representations (especially, for example, the cultural work of separation, safety, etc). (I've called this work in cultural discourse the "politics of contingency" elsewhere.)
The player experience should not be thought of here, by the way, as an isolated thing. It is a socially and culturally constructed event, and thus we should not make the mistake (that I identify with *some* phenomenological approaches) of thinking only in terms of individual subjectivity. That is why I prefer the term "practice", following the pragmatists and, more recently, the practice theorists (as Sherry Ortner called them).
re: (2) You are mistaken about my take on bureaucracy (and, the invocation of Weber was only passing in the course of the paper; here, it was in response to Ren's cultural/historical question). Of course bureaucracy is also a site for contingency (and regularity). My point (with the TurboTax example) is only that bureaucratic projects aspire to reduce contingency. This is one of the central cultural ideals of modernity. Games, by contrast, aspire to produce unpredictable events, and that is why they are valuable lenses through which to see key points of discursive and practical contestation played out.
re: procedurality. Fair enough. In that case, procedurality as you and Janet treat it is the cultural work of game design as specifically possible in computing. I just think that the way it makes many kinds of contingency increasingly implicit is significant for our understanding of participants' engagement with games. I'll happily make the adjustment in the draft to better reflect your work.
Thanks again for the comments.
Posted Aug 10, 2006 4:45:54 PM | link
try "contingent" as opposite to "universal"
Posted Aug 10, 2006 5:19:31 PM | link
@?: There is more than one meaning of the word "contingency". My use follows that of philosophy (and specifically Alasdair MacIntyre's use of it). See here for a definition that's close enough: "a contingent act is an act which could not have been."
Posted Aug 10, 2006 5:30:28 PM | link
Good work, Thomas!
What is the mechanism behind bureaucracy that aims to reduce contingency as you claim (correctly in my view)?
I believe you are correct: "game" in our contemporary understanding is something like the inversion of "bureaucracy". So if you can explain what ther latter is you will be able to explain the former as well.
And of course what follows is that increasingly bureaucratized "virtual worlds" do not look or feel like "real worlds" by accident at all...
Posted Aug 10, 2006 5:57:50 PM | link
"contingent" as opposed to "universal" as in "universally true", "universally valid", "defined by a calculus based on universally valid laws (laws of nature, laws of history, laws defined by a divine will, laws of whatever...)
Posted Aug 10, 2006 6:03:47 PM | link
Thanks for the clarification. In general, I refer to those kinds of efforts at universalization as "structuralist" accounts, just as a kind of shorthand, to include all attempts to interpret the world according to a transcendent model (like Marx's historical materialism, or Freudian psycho-analysis). But the bureaucracy avenue is particularly interesting...
Again, I'm not in this paper engaged in an extended comparison of bureaucracy and games, but the question is one that I think about a lot, so it's nice to have a chance to explore it here. The "mechanism" that drives bureaucracy is the set of cultural practices of rationalization, again following Weber.
For Weber, the drive to rationalize (my offhand def: to create consistency across otherwise singular cases or events; the Wikipedia entry on this is also not bad) is one of two fundamental human propensities. The other is the drive to create meaning. I've always felt that one of his most important inquiries, into theodicy is revealing about the issues here, if one expands the term theodicy beyond the religious, and considers whether any contingent event (such as the puritans' otherwise unexplainable good fortune) can prompt a challenge of meaning. In the classic case of theodicy, it was the existence of evil in a world with a benevolent god, but I've always been tempted by the idea that at root here is a different tension, that between the singularity (contingency)of any moment in time and sustained cultural efforts to rationalize (if rationalization involves attempts to cement cultural meanings into classificatory schemas, ultimately draining them of meaning).
On that view, games become interesting because they are a site for culturally-sanctioned cultivation of contingency. This is what Victor Turner (in too strongly a Durkheimian mode) called, in the context of ritual studies, "anti-structure." In fact, ritual studies are revealing here, and in many ways parallel the problems of game studies, because they for some time held to an exceptionalist concept of ritual. Now we know that ritual is a useful frame through which to view many kinds of cultural events, and furthermore that it is empirically interesting and important to explore the contests of representation and practice surrounding ritual. (Of course, rituals can be contrived both to reduce contingency [so-called confirmatory rites] and to create it [rites of resistance]; the connections here are multiple and complex.)
In any case, I think that bureaucracies, as institutionalized projects that aspire to reduce unpredictability, are worth exploring side-by-side with games, empirically (and, in fact, I do so in the context of state-sponsored gambling and tax evasion in Greece in my book). There is a lot of ground to mine productively here, and, in a way, what I'm trying to do is clear the decks and give us something to start from in order to make it happen.
Posted Aug 10, 2006 6:21:46 PM | link
Thanks for the clarifications. I really need to go back and do another reading before continuing this conversation, but I'll throw out another salvo anyway, against my better judgment.
On Ludo/Narro, you're absolutely right that it is not the major point you make, but it's a rather important road you go down on the way to the major point, and I felt a little funny about how that road was paved, if you'll pardon the analogy. I have massive reservations about Callois and I think you're right to have them too.
About representation vs. practice: this issue is part of an ongoing and basically unspoken conflict in game studies, as in many highly interdisciplinary fields. I'm happy to read your clarification, as it is true that some game researchers of a social scientific persuasion (even some who blog here at TN, although I won't point fingers ;) do privilege individual and collective experience over representation. I'm unfairly generalizing without examples, but I don't have time to pull them out right now ... and besides, aren't blogs all about unfairly generalizing without examples :)
About bureaucracy, point taken, although I'd raise another question, whose answer I think lies in a closer reading of the paper and a return for another query, about your follow-up ( Games, by contrast, aspire to produce unpredictable events). I'm interested in understanding this claim better so I can consider it further.
Posted Aug 10, 2006 6:29:31 PM | link
"unpredictable" as in "originating in a decision directed by free will not neuro-bio-chemistry (of a human being primarily...;-)"?
Posted Aug 10, 2006 6:53:23 PM | link
on Weber: frankly, (and not jokingly) I guess one should go back to the case Sophists (and Sokrates) v. Plato if one looks for the roots of bureaucracy in the western hemisphere...
Posted Aug 10, 2006 7:02:05 PM | link
@?1: My view is anti-positivist, in that I hold the universe to be characterized by an irreducible contingency (and therefore never to be completely understood by a sufficiently elaborated system of laws). Therefore, the suggestion (as I take it) in your post that neuro-bio-chemical processes are (if we had sufficient information) determinative is one that I simply disagree with. Instead, I believe in emergent poperties to complex "systems," like people.
@?2: Actually, Foucault has some interesting things to say on this point, pointing as he did (especially in his work on ethics) to the practices of ancient Greece and Rome. I think as well of the places in Discipline & Punish where he suggests that it was monastic practices and Roman centurion discplinary techniques that were the practical beginnings of Western bureaucracy.
Posted Aug 10, 2006 7:07:06 PM | link
"universalization" (= to create consistency across otherwise singular cases or events) seems very different to me than the common sense meaning of "to rationalize". maybe a deviation from sociological terminology would help (thinking of Andy's comments). for example, there seems to be not much "irrational" action to be found in most game activity (except the initial impulse to play...)
in contrast, a lot of ideological (or magic or wishful) thinking "creates consistency across singular events" without any rational foundation I would recognize as such...
the premise that "consistency" created in language (applied to sentences involving metaphors) follows from "rationality" is imho a "myth" of the 19th (rationalist) century which has been rightly dissected first by the pragmatists, then by the analytical tradition and finally by postmodernism.
Posted Aug 10, 2006 7:24:23 PM | link
Thomas said: "On that view, games become interesting because they are a site for culturally-sanctioned cultivation of contingency."
Here you may risk to replace someof the more specific terms you are trying to clarify by the word "cultivation" thus starting to "move backwards" again... what does "cultivation" mean after all? more than that "game" and "play" are "somehow" part of "culture"? see what I mean?
Posted Aug 10, 2006 7:33:38 PM | link
@?: I would ask you to take more time to make your points, as at present you are being rhetorically coy (not to mention, that you've shifted my offhand definition rationalization to universalization -- rationalization doesn't necessarily try to create "universal" rules, though it often ends up doing so).
About terms: If you would like to better the terms forged by years of social theoretical thought, be my guest, but I won't sacrifice their hard-won nuance in the effort to "speak plainly." As someone pointed out on these boards a while ago, we do not ask theoretical physicists to put everything into "our terms" (though we like it when they do). If these terms confuse you and intrigue you, then they are worth learning in their own bailiwick. [edit: And Wikipedia, for all its limitations, is at least a starting point, which is why I point to it when possible (now we know what all those grad students are doing with their time while their paralyzed with anxiety about producing their dissertations; I've been there. :-) )]
About "cultivation": I would be certainly satisfied with "construction" instead, as that term has an established history. I like cultivation, however, because the organic metaphor suggests a back and forth between the human actor(s) (game designers, game players) and the artifact (the game) they are creating. This, of course, is similar to what the STS thinkers have been effective in conveying about social action in the lab -- I like Pickering's The Mangle of Practice in particular.
Posted Aug 10, 2006 7:49:31 PM | link
Since this isn't my academic field, and since I do respect others' fray... I'm not gonna ask Thomas to speak plainly... and I'm in way over my head on this one, so I'll back away slowly, try not to make eye contact, and hope that (someday) someone can 'splain to me some of the less granular points here and how they might end up affecting whether or not WoW2 pisses me off less than WoW in terms of how pretty it is vs. how goofy people act...
PS, though, 'cause I'm still hung up on the randomness thing... if the facts that people are different, and thus bring different notions/thoughts/experiences to games, and that games, of a necessity, are played in the world, and the world is (to many degrees) random... does it *matter* to the definition that games are random? Isn't that just like saying that "games are played by people and played in the world?" And if we're including the randomness issue because, as I think you're saying, the connectedness between games and the world *is* important... aren't there other aspects of worldliness or humanness or their definitions that are also important to games that aren't included in your current definition?
Posted Aug 10, 2006 8:40:34 PM | link
Thomas, I'll leave a response to your question, but it deserves more time than I have atm.
On another note, I will say that this diversion into contingent propositions versus universally qualified propositions and how they apply to laws of nature is a distraction and an error. You're wise to move away from it. Contingency is more appropriately contrasted with necessity. For one thing, there may be universal statements that are contingent--imagine a universe where only black swans have ever been born. The laws of physics may be universal but not necessary.
Here's the difference:
Necessary propositions entail universal propositions, but universally qualified propositions do not entail their own necessity.
If it is necessarily true that 1+1=2, then it is also true that 1+1=2 is universally true. But the entailment doesn't go the other way.
The proposition "If x is universally true than x is necessarily true" is false.
Posted Aug 10, 2006 8:58:03 PM | link
@Andy: An excellent question, and it takes us back to the heart of things. The reason that we need to highlight and reinforce the presence of contingency not only in games, but in all social processes, is that it is frequently forgotten. Why? Because it's hard. It's hard work, empirically speaking, to ferret out from the mess that is everyday life any generalizations at all. In the absence of that hard work, it's a lot easier to apply a theory, a model, a paradigm and just let the conclusions follow, presenting the evidence that seems to fit (for a recent example of this criticized thoroughly, see here). This is where exceptionalist special pleading comes in handy, because it allows one to exclude a lot of empirical facts that are, actually, pretty obvious. But we can make reliable generalizations, if we do careful work.
On that note, I should acknowledge that I tend, in my zeal to get us thinking and talking about contingency, to overstate its presence (or better, impact) to a certain extent. For games, for example, the contrived contingencies, on the whole, win out in almost every case; disastrous or utterly transformative contingencies are rare. And maybe that's the second part of your answer, Andy. We spend a lot of our lives building up from personal experience a reliable picture of how the world works. As Bourdieu points out here, [edit: we tend to mistake the model for reality, and that's why] it's easy to forget just how open-ended everything is, at least at root.
And I apologize for my snippiness about terms. I truly enjoy trying to explain them (it's why I love to teach), but I do get a little frustrated when I get the sense that folks would rather just have a term they know used in the argument, rather than one that has a lot of meaning behind it. Clarify, explain, point to helpful resources? Glad to do it. Substitute just because another term is more familiar? Can't do it.
Posted Aug 10, 2006 8:59:06 PM | link
@monkeysan. Thanks for the comments and excellent clarification. Nice to have the philosophical distinction conveyed so nicely. I'll look forward to the response to come.
@Ian (to pick up another thread): On the issue of practice and (vs.) representation, these don't have to be antithetical approaches at all, and in fact there are a number of fields which accomodate both in their efforts (social history, social geography, and cultural anthropology to name a few). But one must be armed with the appropriate methodologies to address both, ones that puts you in a position to explore the interplay of meaning-making and practice. Ethnography (done properly) is one such method, and that is why, imho, it's becoming so sought after as an approach in a lot of other fields. An absolutely stellar example of what ethnography can accomplish here, and it's incredibly well-written to boot (yes, a few anthropologists can manage to speak plainly!), is Keith Basso's Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache. Another great example is Sherry Ortner's Life and Death on Mount Everest. Highly recommended.
Posted Aug 10, 2006 9:22:41 PM | link
Are you creating a straw man in the article? The abstract states:
"In their rush to highlight games’ importance, they have tended toward an unsustainable exceptionalism, seeing games as fundamentally set apart from everyday life."
It is not obvious to me that any of the theory texts you cite make claims about some perfect unbreakable separation between game and non-game, or between play and work. I would say that most theory on the magic circle is basically identical to your point:
"Games are semibounded arenas that are relatively separable from everyday life, and what is at stake in them can range from very little to the entirety of one’s material, social, and cultural capital."
Cheekily, may I suggest that what you are doing is this:
1) To focus on a discussion within anthropology/sociology about the problems of a clear play/work distinction.
2) Projecting that discussion onto game studies, a bit hastily assuming all previous writing on games to be based on a (modernist) play/work distinction.
3) Concluding that there is no perfect play/work - even though your claim may not be too different from previous theory on games.
Or is that unfair?
Posted Aug 11, 2006 12:53:07 AM | link
@Jesper: Thank you for the comments. I am speaking generally throughout the article about the tendencies of game scholarship; this certainly allows for those moments when many of the theories mentioned therein have attempted to acknowledge the lack of a clear separation between games and everyday life. On the whole, however, those attempts have either been undeveloped or not taken up by those who follow those approaches. What I'm hoping is that game scholarship will realize that we need robust social theory to inform our treatment of games. Many of the problems I associate with theories of games up to this point are not actually unique to the field, after all. These are problems that arise concerning efforts to explain social phenomena throughout the social sciences. So, no, it's not just a sociology/anthropology concern -- the roots of these kinds of difficulties in thinking about society are deep and multiple in modernity (as the section on process shows). We're talking about a conceptual habit here, something that at times gets avoided, but not yet consistently.
Posted Aug 11, 2006 8:12:13 AM | link
Update: Thanks again, Jesper, for the comment, as it led me to want to make sure that I acknowledge more than just some of the recent (Steinkuehler, Galloway, Bogost) exceptions to the general trend I identify. The newest version of the paper (not sure when ssrn will post it) has an endnote that makes this clear, highlighting in particular your 2003 piece ("The Game, the Player, the World").
Posted Aug 11, 2006 11:00:00 AM | link
I read your paper and found it very interesting. The Games as Process section in particular struck me as perceptive and integral to game design.
> "...games are activities that... are not intrinsically consequence-free."
Can you expand on this? If I play Old Maid with my daughter, when we're done it seems pretty consequence-free. If I play (for the 1000th time) a game of solo Total Annihilation against the computer, it seems pretty consequence-free. Are you suggesting that these activities do not qualify as games? I sense from the paper that you have an explanation for this, but I'm not sure what it is.
> Games require both rules and randomness
Other posters have cited examples about randomness not being required by a game. I believe Diplomacy, one of the best boardgames every conceived, has no randomness whatsoever in the game. I have not played in some time, but IIRC the first person to move was chosen as part of a process, not randomly.
Some games rely on randomness to completely define the game (example: the cardgame War, slot machines, or Zaria which you discussed in your paper). Many physical games such as golf or fencing have very, very slight random elements to them, to the point where randomness approaches zero. I don't think random elements are required to define a game.
Posted Aug 11, 2006 1:14:57 PM | link
@?: About consequences: Many games may approach zero consequences, as in the examples you describe, but, from a social theoretical point of view, they still have consequences for your experience. That is, you have experienced another iteration of the game, and at stake in that was your own disposition toward the game, your command of it, which may change only marginally; i.e. you may wind up with your expectations of how to perform amidst the game's contingencies reinforced. This really connects strongly to the great stuff that Jim Gee and the other folks at Madison have been doing for years (and, as I see it, is captured in a way resonant with this approach by Constance's piece in Games & Culture this year).
About randomness: That was not my quote, it was from another poster. The more accurate term to put in its place if I were to express that thought would be contingency, as randomness should best be reserved for stochastic contingency. As we discussed above, there may be many games that are not designed to have stochastic contingency as one of their contrived sources of contingency (although they may still be affected by stochastic contingencies beyond those contrived). But I would not, in any case, contrast game rules with contingency, because a lot of the rules in games (this is why their different from bureaucratic rules) are about contriving contingency -- they are in place to arrange and calibrate the sources of contingency that the game includes in its design.
Posted Aug 11, 2006 1:51:59 PM | link
@ Thomas & monkeysan
o.k., i'm backing off...i was merely trying to suggest that trying out different "terms" or "metaphors" might be helpful for advancing the (otherwise still very illuminating) discussion. i will leave it there...you win.
Posted Aug 11, 2006 4:42:43 PM | link
@?: I appreciate that effort, ?, it was just that the comments were so short and cryptic that it was hard to feel constructive about the back and forth. There's no doubt that, while the core terms are there for specific and important reasons, there are always gains to be made in their explication.
Thanks, everyone, for all of the great comments and discussion; they will inform my revisions in important ways as I continue to work on the piece, and I welcome any more that may be on the way.
Posted Aug 12, 2006 11:20:50 AM | link
OK. I've now had the time to sit down with my print-out of the paper, highlight stuff, mark it up, and think about it while stroking my beard.
First off, nicely written and presented and, for the most part, easily digestable, even for a non-academic such as myself. Thanks for that. I had to look some stuff up, but that's good for the old think-bone.
Second, after having read the section about the various kinds of "contingency," I no longer object to your requirement of including it in the definition. It's not simply "randomness" as I previously understood it, but a variety of types of unpredictability and probabilities. Cool. Yes. Without those, a game isn't a game; it may be a story or a movie or me talking to myself or something. But some aspect of the conclusion *must* be unknown upon entering the process, or it ain't a game. Agreed. Thanks for taking the time to expain all the versions of "contingency" in the paper. That was helpful. When explaining it to a friend at work, the way I put it was that while playing rock-paper-scissors, there is no "randomness" involved, as each player makes a non-random, conscious choice... but as far as each player is concerned, the *outcome* is unpredictable; a combination (I think?) of social and performative contingency, then, is what makes rock-paper-scissors fun. Yes? Correct me if I'm wrong.
All that being said... I'm going to (in my usuual long-winded, "thinking out loud" way):
1. Agree that we need what you're setting out to do; define games, especially VW's and MMOs better within and without the community, because people are yakking about them in ways that don't make sense
2. Disagree with your main thesis, that games (as a whole) haven't been taken seriously, have been lumped with "play," etc.
3. Agree that any definition of "game" must take into account the fact that the "semi-bounding" of "games," "gaming," "players" etc. is important, as games can merge and meld with life at a variety of levels
4. Disagree with your current definition, as I believe it is too broad to be really useful.
* * * *
1 & 2. You say that the reason you're looking for a better definition of games, a process definition (which is fine by my) is because folks "have tended to [see and set] games apart from everyday life... as a subset of play, and therefore -- like play -- as an activity that is inherently separable, safe and pleasurable."
I'm not sure that's true at all. As you yourself point out, the play of all kinds of games are not "pleasureable," and many of those kinds of games have been studied at length and for decades, some for centuries. War games come to mind as a type of game that is taken with the utmost of seriousness by professionals concerned not one jot with play, fun or pleasure. They game to become better killers. Some atheletes may find pleasure in their activities, but many play because it is entirely their job. And when they practice those games, they play not even to win, but to better understand how to manage and affect the various contingencies. Even non-players -- coaches, scouts, team owners, support professionals, gamblers, etc. -- who are intimately involved in these games may derrive no "pleasure," per se, from the games, but may spend innordinate amounts of time and resources in the study of the efficiencies of the games. Baseball scouts, for example, are legendary in their (sometimes non-scientific, sometimes folkloric) efforts on behalf of their teams. We have the whole IBM Big Blue vs. Kasparoff thing. We have all the business crud surrounding any pro and many amateur sports. We have the psychology of "business as game." Both the direct metaphoric works and the indirect "business as football" or "business as war as game" works. We have the mathematical field of "game theory." We have all the talk of "players" and "don't hate 'em, hate the game." We have all kinds of "widget" type games for the training of economists and businesspeople. In short, games have been taken very seriously for a long time, I think.
It's just video games that haven't.
If anything, it seems to me that the world of "world" and the world of "games" is *alread* too enmeshed, and what we need is not a definition that helps point this out, but one that helps clarify and distinguish between when we're speaking metaphorically, and when we're talking about games per se, and to what degree. Which brings us to...
3 & 4. How "contrived" and "semi-bounded" the contingencies are, and how the various parites involved in a game value the derrived interpretations... ay, there's the rub. To the audience, it's just a play. To the players, it's their livelihood. To the players, it's an afternoon's fun. To the GM, it's 3 weeks prep, all his spare time, every night. To the casual card-counter in Vegas, it's "no big deal." Just a few extra bucks, eh? To the "house," it's a symbol of the anarchy and trouble that arrises when/if the contingencies become contrived by any *but* the house. To the no-good, cheatin', five-timin', low-life, player... "Hey... it's just a game..." To the one(s) whose heart he/she broke, it was real life.
And that, I think, is my main problem with your definition. And it also goes back to earlier discussions of RMT and other areas where various players/participants disagree on the "semi-ness" of the bounds. I completely agree with you that games are not always pleasureable, that their boundaries are very semi-permeable between the areas of "game" and "life," but it seems to me that your definition makes those boundaries even less important... less clear, not more.
For example, by your definition, how would my attendance at and participation in a liturgically complex and spiritually fulfilling religious event not qualify as a "game?" The domain of the event -- my religious beliefs -- are contrived contingencies. IE, they are not derrived (many would argue) logically. They have been assigned by the organization. They certainly generate emergent practices and interpretations in the minds of the believers. Depending on my mood, the time of year/day, the type of behaviors of myself and other participants, all kinds of contingent elements... many different outcomes can be expected. And the service is "semi-bounded," or certainly can be, from my non-religious life. And it can be differently bounded for other members of my sect. All of which sound, to me, like the practice of religion can be seen as a game by your definition.
Except that to do so or to call it such would, probably, offend a couple billion people pretty badly. Why? Religion is "real" to them, *not* a game. The difference is in how they interpret the severity/reality of the contingencies, practices, interpretations and boundaries.
Which is also the difference between how people decide whether or not they are breaking rules in a "real game," or "are really playing," or "just messing around," or what not. It is also how, in my examples in 1&2 above, in many fields, I think we've been distinguishing for a very long time, between "playing games" and "being real." Practice games in professional sports are played by the same rules as season games; but they are "less real" in some ways. Right? Professional wrestling is "less real" than real, Olympic wrestling... but professional wrestlers are hurt, for real, more often. These lines blur all the time, and we are pretty good at navigating them.
When someone says they're playing "to win" vs. playing "for fun," we have an inherent sense of what they mean. You want to separate out a definition of games from a definition of fun, and that's fine -- I think we need that; lots of games don't involve fun, or do to a lesser extent. I think it's close to being summed up in that differentiation: winning vs. fun. You mention a random toss of sticks to determine who inherits property after a death in Greece. That, to me, is the ultimate "playing to win" vs "playing for fun." There is *no* fun in that, agreed? No skill, no repetition, no joy, no social back-and-forth. One toss, winner take all. It's like drawing straws to see who gets eaten in the life boat.
You can argue that for some, winning is fun. Yes, that's true. And for some, pure play is more satisfying than victory. Depends on how our interpretations emerge, eh?
So... to conclude... I think that people have been seriously thinking about games for a long time, just not video games. Now that people (more people) are making lots of money and doing interesting things with video games, MMOs, VWs, folks are starting to take them seriously. I don't think that a definition of games that blends them so smoothly with "the real world" as yours does is quite so helpful, as it goes a bit too far, or maybe not far enough. But I really like the "contrived contingecy" and "semi-bounded" aspects. I just think your definition needs to define what games *are* that "real life" is NOT.
Don't know if that makes a lick of sense. Just thinking out loud here.
Posted Aug 12, 2006 5:37:45 PM | link
@Andy: Thanks for the thoughtful comments; they are very helpful.
About "games (as a whole) haven't been taken seriously": I *certainly* am not saying this; of course they have, and, as you note, by a number of different fields. I wasn't saying that game scholars haven't been serious in their inquiries! A "play" approach to games does *not* mean an unserious approach!
Beyond responding to that primary misunderstanding, I would also mention that there have been a number of fields that have focused attention on games, as you note, several of which were not taken in by Caillois' (nee Huzinga's ;-) ) misleading link of game and play. But I was pointing to game scholarship, by which I mean an interdisciplinary group of scholars that has, for the most part, not included many of the other subfields (economic game theory, military game theory, information theory). After all, I didn't say "folks" (have tended to [see and set] games apart from everyday life), I said "games scholars" (and it appears to have ruffled more than a few feathers, but so be it).
Finally, I said "tended;" I'm talking about a conceptual habit. It also bears mentioning that I made that point the centerpiece of the original post here, and that's because it is provocative, and it's the introductory section of the paper (for brush-clearing reasons), but it's *not* my "main thesis," as you suggest.
About the boundaries issue (and here's where it gets fun): This is a real challenge for how we move forward, and I'm so appreciative that you voiced your concern about it. As I mentioned in passing in a comment above, I tend to not spend enough time on how, given the "semi-boundedness" of the relationship between games and other aspects of experience, we might act on that so as to avoid the terminological confusion you describe (I tend, instead, to gleefully point out how no game is ever immune to everyday contingencies). The solution, as I often recommend, is to go to ground -- to do good, detailed, rich, empirical inquiry.
How, in the case of games? I should make more in the paper of the "artifactual" nature of games, that they are made by people, and are always socially constructed to be separable to some degree from everyday experience. This is good, because it tells us how to proceed in research. I alluded to this perhaps too obliquely above, but we should be very interested, in each case, empirically, in how that boundary is maintained, how it is violated, etc. Similarly, we should also examine the practices and cultural representations (claims) about games' safety and pleasurability (or otherwise) in every case. This leads to all sorts of great questions: Why is one game very separated and another, not? Why is one game associated with the risks of politics, and another the risks of business? We don't need (or want) our analytical picture of all games, in all places, to shut down those inquiries by answering those questions for us. Instead, we should know that we have good reason to believe that exploring that cultural project of boundary-maintenance (and breach) will yield significant results. This is the interplay of practice and representation at work; what is the relationship between the particular features of a specific game (does it highlight performative contingency? stochastic?), its practices, and its representation? In Greece, competence at poker is linked to business acumen, while backgammon is tied to national pride (and courtship, as it happens). Why? We don't need to begin our inquiry somewhere by wodnering how to recognize what the games are; we can proceed from the cultural representations and see if they bear fruit when examined closely.
This gets back to your related concern, where you wondered how this definition could be useful if it makes games seem to be indistinguishable from, say, ritual. That's a particularly tricky case, as ritual, as I mentioned, has a *lot* of similarities to games. But the definition that I offer should answer this (although it may need rewording). A ritual is not designed to generate unpredictable outcomes. Sure, there is always a lot of risk in the execution of a ritual; that is, the presence of many contingencies. Rituals are processual, and therefore open-ended. But rituals, if that analytical lens is to have any meaning, must apply to those events that are intended by their sponsors to accomplish something definite. It may not happen, but rituals are not *contrived* to generate contingent outcomes. Games, on the other hand, are, and, what is just as important, they are *socially recognized* as being about that. This means that they deal in powerful stuff in society -- they are places where contingencies are put together to flourish; in a sense, they're like basement labs where stuff can be combined just to see what happens.
Of course, this distinction between games and ritual itself, on close examination, would probably be a spectrum, but this is fine. The point is to be pragmatic in our analytical terms; any given event could be viewed through the lens of ritual, of games, of bureaucracy, etc., but all of these efforts won't yield equally illuminating conclusions (yes, the pragmatism runs deep here; this is very close to Holmes' take on how legal reasoning should work). Taking the lead from contextual (as we anthropologists say, "emic") distinctions is not a bad place to start; it's just such interplay between the particular and theory that generates new insights.
Thanks again, Andy, for giving me a chance to try to articulate these points; I hope it's helpful (it's certainly getting me going for the next major revision -- the folks here can expect a huge thank you in the final publication).
Posted Aug 12, 2006 7:15:09 PM | link
I may adjust the definition to avoid this misunderstanding. Something like:
A game is a socially legitimate, semi-bounded domain of contrived contingency that generates interpretable outcomes.
Posted Aug 12, 2006 7:27:28 PM | link
Just to provide a pointer to some of the existing work on theories of games (mostly from the computer game development community): http://groups.google.com/group/comp.games.development.design/browse_thread/thread/188067936c4a1a50/7a5e1ccbed641c46
Posted Aug 12, 2006 7:40:18 PM | link
@Thomas: Holy crap (pun intended, from the ritualistic side of the fence). I may have just had a minor revelation. And so I owe you one Eureka. Thanks, man. It relates to your point about games, as opposed to ritual, being generators of unpredictability.
Not sure how to articulate my wee zen moment here, but since I've already started thinking out loud in this space -- are we paying by the electron? I hope not -- I'll keep going.
Is, perhaps, one measure of the "game-ness" of a game... or the value that one player places on the value of a game, in some kind of proportion to the degree to which he/she is invested in the overall (system-wide; all players) and understood (which you hint at with "socially legitimate") unpredictability upon entering into the magic circle?
For example, if I claim to be a novice at a game that is part chance and part skill, and you do, too (and we are)... we will both enter into it with similar investments (assumptions) as to the degree of unpredictabilities inherent in the game. If, however, you are a master at the game and lie to me, still claiming to be a novice, there is an imbalance in our "contingent investment." I still think that our investment is rougly equal. I'm looking to have "a nice, even game." That is why I am willing to invest my time, effort, "face," perhaps even a buck or two. You, however (sorry to make you the bad guy), are investing a smaller contingency; to a degree, your hidden skill has "loaded" the situation. And if I discover the deception, I'll probably be pissed.
This is an easy "imbalance of contingent investment." But there are others that are not so clearly demarcated, I think. For example, in role playing games. I may play and not give a whiff about leveling, power items, guild status, etc. For me, it's all about story and character. And if my character is evil, and I'm playing with someone who does care about leveling, items, etc., there will be a variety of instances in which our play together will be seriously out of joint, because we're really playing different games, aren't we? And mostly because, I think, the stakes (what we are investing) the pay-out (reward) and the rules are all subtly different.
Games are where we go to measure, test and enjoy uncertainty. And if we are using different measures than our teammates or opponents, there is stress and friction. Fascinating.
PS: I'm not sure you gain anything by adding "socially legitimate."
PPS: I'll have to take your word for it if you say that game theorists are bolloxing it up in terms of how they're using games to describe reality these days. The only game theorists I know write for TN ; )
Posted Aug 12, 2006 9:31:52 PM | link
Happy to hear of your epiphany, Andy, but no Eureka is owed; this is what constructive discussion is about :-).
(Oh, and about rock-paper-scissors [two posts up], you're dead on.)
What you say (immediately above) is pretty much right, although in your example you have to add in the fact that, in a given context, it's very likely that the actors involved are fully aware of the possibility that they may be "hustled" (in the pool-playing sense), so this adds an extra layer of complexity to the situation. What you have here, on the part of the (successful) hustler, is a performative competence that allows him or her to bring off, in practice, the appearance of being a novice. This, then, would be a part of the game, wouldn't it? Especially if it is widely known (a social fact) that, when about to play with someone in a particular game, being hustled is a possibility. What it shows is how the challenges of performative contingency, for any game, may come to have additional layers, and in which an interplay of representations (collective to idiosyncratic) and practice complicates the situation immensely. This, after all, is the kind of thing that can make a game a *great* game, don't you think?
I wouldn't think of it in terms of "investment," since I'm not sure that's what's going on for the actors involved. I'd rather we make sense of the actions, to the extent we can, at face value. On that view, what is at stake for the "hustled" one might be, say, cultural capital (the competence to recognize a hustler when it's happening, and perhaps show that one can to friends), or social capital (this was someone with whom one had a reciprocal [trusting] relationship with), or material capital (there is money or similar on the table), or of course some combination of the three.
I agree with the suggestion in your example (if I'm not overreading it) that actors might be relatively aware of the deeper currents of contingencies in play, and of their differing positions relative to them (in this respect I agree more with Anthony Giddens then Pierre Bourdieu), but the sources of tension, or lack thereof, will depend upon more than the difference in competence that you describe (again, especially if it is socially recognized that this kind of thing not only can happen, but must be dealt with; "welcome to the real world" ;-) ).
As for the "socially legitimate," it's a first stab, but I'm trying to head off the misunderstanding by including in the definition something that signals how the local acknowledgement of a game as a game (as a legitimate domain for the generation of contingent outcomes) provides the best place to start in our inquiries about the relationship between games and broader cultural processes (and yes, for those keeping score, that is another implicit reference to Weber [his famous definition of the state]).
Posted Aug 12, 2006 10:51:59 PM | link
Oh, another thing, though, Andy: If you take your idea about different relationships of familiarity to the contingency of a particular game situation and, instead of having it mark the difference between two competitors, instead have it mark the difference between the makers and the competitors, then you have some really interesting implications which take us back toward the cultural historical/modernity stuff about games and bureaucracy. Because, after all, once some people *know* this power of games, the way that 19th-20th Century nation-state decision-makers realized the strategic power of ritual (culminating, of course, in things like the Nuremburg rally), then what would the strategic use of games by institutions look like, and how would this effort be furthered by the nature of code?
This takes us toward the absolutely fascinating and forward-reaching suggestions of Julian Dibbell's Play Money. There, as I read it (and Julian, correct me if I'm wrong), there is a suggestion that, in a way, the ludification of daily life (in our media consumption, or engagement with everything from tax software to atm interfaces) is the way it is beginning to be presented as game-like, providing performative challenges for the user. But maybe this is only a shallow contingency; that is, the latest game-like software can lead us to feel engaged in the performative challenges that we think of as a game, but without any (almost no?) deep transformative potential. These are really central issues right now, though difficult to recognize in the midst of it. As with My Tiny Life, Julian is leading the way here, imho.
Posted Aug 13, 2006 12:38:34 AM | link
following up on this (great) idea of contrasting *game* v. *bureaucracy*:
In today's world games are already used for *strategic* purposes by *institutions* - every commercial game imho fits this description if you accept that a game company is one form of an institution.
One difference between commercial games and games potentially used by a political party, the treasury department or the national government is that the game company as well as the players/consumers act in a diverse market place where one game offering is *bounded* by the next competing one.
The player/consumer can choose which *game world* he wants to enter. And the designers/companies can choose which *game world* they want to offer.
In the realm of national politics or the tax code there is only one offering and its validity for the context the players/citizens live in is absolute - unless the players/citizens find a way to change the rules/laws but this means to take on the role of designer/lawmaker, have a say in how the rules are made up. So from the perspective of a player/citizen the *game* defined and then put into practice by national government applies very widely, it is *unbounded* for all practical purposes.
To be the object of *unbounded*, *unlimited* or *total* power guided by an equally *unbounded* set of rules is a major part of the experience under totalitarian rule. And if there is no peaceful procedure to change the way how this unlimited power is applied the player/citizen can either start armed conflict or try to escape from the reach of totalitarian power.
Yet not only under totalitarian rule but also in a contemporary democratic country a player/citizen may choose *to play a different game* by immigrating to another country *where the rules are more appealing*. But in a globalized world the ultimate bound on this attempt to change the game is set by the planet itself (and the current limitations on human lifespan, health etc).
In this sense the *real world* is ultimately different from any *synthetic game world* by the bounds derived from the physical limitations (currently) imposed on human life and consciousness.
Now, given that this (admittedly radical) view is blurring (if not eliminating) the distinction between *game* and *not a game* it seems to follow that it is important to clearly state what one defines as *the world that is not a game* before one tries to propose a definiton of *game*. Otherwise, the proposed definition of *game* will always depend on the readers own ontological or metaphysical *beliefs* (as used by C.S. Peirce) about *the world*.
One reason why the field of *game studies* as well as multi-disciplinary *game theory* is so diverse and even inconsistent in its statements may be due to the fact that finding a commmon understanding of *beliefs about the world* is all but impossible (and will be under the current geoplitical and economic conditions). So who is going to clarify his *beliefs* first and thus make himself vulnerable at the fundamental level?
Posted Aug 13, 2006 7:44:44 AM | link
Great comments, ?. My answer to your last concern was voiced above, where I suggest a pragmatic approach, one that does not *begin* with a position of "belief" about where games begin and end, but instead takes its cue from the beliefs, and and practices!, on the ground in whatever case we're investigating. After all, that's what we're interested in understanding. Weber's definition of the state was so influential, I believe, because it made the social construction of the state (its legitimacy in the eyes of people) central to the definition. This avoids the problems of an overly formalist account.
Posted Aug 13, 2006 10:42:15 AM | link
@Thomas: Thanks for the in depth responses. They're helping me get a grip on this and come clearer in my thoughts as to the issues that are important to me in my line(s) of work and art.
RE hustling: I didn't mean in the example of someone bringing to bear a greater knowledge of the game than they let on that that couldn't be an aspect of a game that might make it more challenging, interesting, even "fun," etc. As you point out, the ability to bluff, con, etc., is often part of the social aspect of the game... the "uber game."
My point was that (and I'm working on clarifying it to myself, so thanks for bearing with me) the very definition of "game" may fall to one side or the other of the line of "semi bounded" depending on the interpretation of individual players.
Another example, perhaps. When I played certain "strategy games" (checkers, Stratego, Battle Ship) with my pre-schooler, he always won. Why? Because I was not trying to teach him (then) how to "really" play the game from a tactical, win/lose standpoint. I was teaching him the basics of game enjoyment, how to be social in a game setting, how to lengthen his attention span, game concepts, etc. At his age, the emotional pain of losing would have detracted from those lessons. When he got a bit older (6), I started letting him take a few hits now and then, but never brutally so. Again... the point wasn't for me to have a "straight up game" of Battle Ship with a 6-year-old. It was to help teach my son the enjoyment of such. And beating his wee self badly, every game, would not have done that.
Now... by your definition of gaming, from my perspective, there was almost no real upredictability in these games. I could have won at any time, but chose not to. They were more like stories, played out using game pieces, than like an actual game. It was "reverse hustling," if you want to call it that.
But not to my son. He thought he was striving mightily. Bombing my carrier and sub, doing everything he could and WHOOM! He felt great when he "won the game." His investment was total, he feeling that something was at stake was great (because kids are like that), and he created some deep meaning that (I hope) will help him appreciate games to the point where we can move on to play them in a more robust setting with greater, true "contingencies" from both our standpoints.
So... for him, it was a "game." For me, it was a "story." A lesson. Enjoyable, but I wasn't using any "game muscles" at all. I was doing dad, teacher, storyteller stuff. Similarly, I think that a really good hustler isn't really playing a game. He's working.
If you (hustler) know that I (mark) really, really suck... and you are playing to take money from me, you are seeking to decrease my odds of winning to where they approach zero. That you are using a mode of action that, in other circumstances others call "a game" is, I think, misleading. A salesman trying to close a deal faces contingencies. As does a potter trying to complete a piece without having it break in the kiln. There are "contingencies" implied and explicit in every field of human endeavor; some thrust on us by nature, some by the intersections of others' desires that run counter to our own.
I get it that games are created as spaces to define specific contingent circumstances. My point is that, at some point, two or more participants can so stretch their particular understandings and/or approaches to those contingencies or the boundaries of the system, that the game is no longer functioning as a game. I'm not sure if there's a way to get that into your definition, but it's still sitting like that in my head. The first hand of black-jack played by a 22-year-old kid from Nebraska in Vegas may feel 175% game like... but to the withered, 71-year-old dealer who's been slinging cards for 18 hours straight... is it a game? Or about as game-like as flipping burgers?
PS: As to ATM design and "game like." Industrial and graphic design often borrows all kinds of UI stuff from whatever is popular and buzzing the the culture. I'm not sure that's worth going on about. On the other hand, the star-reward system of eBay? Tag clouds? Those are game-like mechanics that bear looking into.
Posted Aug 13, 2006 11:28:07 AM | link
maybe the *meaning of the outcome* of the interaction has to be interpreted in the same way, using the same meaningful language in order to distinguish the "game interaction" from the "work interaction" or the "create interaction" (designing the new xyz convertible may sometimes look like a game but is it?).
Maybe in order to get to grasp the complete meaning of *game* one has to look beyond the apparent *end of the game* to what follows afterwards. Which of course makes studying games an ongoing effort (again similar to the study of ritual, socio-economic practices and the like)
For example, a game of Battleship between *equally skilled* players can be played over and over again as a form of competition, comparing "game muscles" etc. The lesson you want to teach a close person (or the essence of a story you try to convey) you can teach only a single time - the next time you either build on your shared positive experience or you try to "heal" hurt feelings, try to mend a tense relationship and so forth...
Posted Aug 13, 2006 11:51:10 AM | link
Yes, ?, that's my view too, and your wonderful example, Andy, goes a long way toward my understanding what you're getting at. I think it's very helpful for the discussion here, because it demonstrates how central practice and representation are to understanding "gameness" in any given context (?'s response covers the meaning side of it well). It's just such cultural patterns, on a broader scale (the cultural practice of teaching checkers, Stratego, what have you), that we should be very interested in. That's why it's not a problem if it was a game to your son, but not to you; what's happening there is the cultural work of learning how to "game" (much like similar cultural work on learning how to trade in the market, or to engage in reciprocity). Great stuff, ? and Andy.
Posted Aug 13, 2006 12:17:58 PM | link
One more aside on the issue of boundedness of "the world" v. "the game".
There are several rather well known movies that meditate on this issue, namely that in future the bound between "the game" and "the everyday life" may start to blur, and that this process might be caused on purpose by some powerful elite:
(dealing with the blurring of bounds between game/entertainment and ...just an offhand collection)
Westworld (1973): (theme park), robotics and AI technology
Rollerball (1975): corporations, the rule of law western-style
Running Man (1982): the legal-penal system, mass media entertainment
Wargames (1983): military planning, politics, defensive v. preventive(offensive) action
(And compare the attention to detail and practice in these movies to the expressionistic whole-sale doomsayers' style in "The Matrix Trilogy"...)
Is anybody aware of systematic or even comparative studies of this stuff?
Posted Aug 13, 2006 12:59:29 PM | link
And, of course, "The Game," (1997) starring Michael Douglas. The essential, pop "Alternate Reality Game" (ARG) movie.
@Thomas: I'm not sure if I'm concerned or not.
If we're defining a "process" here, then there is, by definition of types of definition, a kind of "bell curve of gameness" I suppose. In business and marketing, though, I do get concerned ("squidgy" is the technical term) when we try for definitions that are so loose that they end up allowing for all kinds of things that end up clouding the water more than clarifying it.
If we define gaming so broadly as to encompass all activities from the profit-motive (and highly refined) business-level risk-taking behaviors of giant, multi-national gambling consortia, and me and you playing a throw of rock-paper-scissors... I think we may be going down a similarly un-helpful path to the one you were trying to get away from. Namely, the association of gaming with play. Because I don't think that, at the corporate level, the games that are played in most casinos have a durn thing to do with chance. The house always wins, in the aggregate. Same as how my son always won when we first started playing Battleship. The fact that "game like" actions and pieces are being used, and that some level of contingency is involved doesn't quite convince me that a game is being played in either case. Unless we move the definition "up so high" that "playing a game" becomes synonymous with any social action that involves any level of uncertainty.
In which case asking a nice young lady if she'd like to go out a second time would qualify as a game. Dating may not be explicitly set up as a contingent siutation, but it sure as heck feels like that 99.99% of the time to the pimply faced boy on the asking end of the stick.
I guess my question has become: at what point do you stop calling a certain kind of game-like behavior a game?
Posted Aug 13, 2006 5:14:55 PM | link
I feel like I've tried to answer this question a number of times, but it must not be getting through. The idea, with this kind of concept (and there are many that work this way, in the qualitative social sciences, including governance, law, culture, ritual, and many more), is that you develop the reasons for applying it to a particular case close to the ground, taking the lead from, among other things, the things that people locally acknowledge as part of that category. So, in the case of casino gambling, when you look at it that way you suddenly have a very interesting research question: If the "house always wins," then how is the collective status of those games as games maintained through practice and representation? What accounts for it? The techniques of casino gambling, like a number of other bureaucratic projects, have become so well honed that it might make sense to claim, as an analyst, that these are no longer games, by any definition, but that's an interesting position to take only if one engages with the cultural representation of them as such. The point, again, is not to feel like we have to have answers to these questions before we do the research. That is what the research is for. And this makes all the more sense given the processual, moving-target like quality of games (and social processes in general).
Imagine if historians, instead of exploring how to understand wars in the particularity of each case, decided that they would be more comfortable defining war in a transcendent fashion, letting that dictate the "formal features" of war in all times and places. Then, they would spend all their time on a rather pointless semantic game of debating which conflicts were "wars" and which weren't.
The other analogy (a better one, actually) is to the shift, in biology, from the taxonomic system of species classification (such as that of Louis Agassiz) to the evolutionary model. (Louis Menand is very good at explaining this in the course of The Metaphysical Club.) Up until Darwin, most biologists (and scientists generally) proceeded according to clear, formal categories, like species, which separated species from each other with a hard, bright line. Darwin, however, through his theory of natural selection, upended that entire formalist position by proposing that, at a very fundamental level, species did not exist, at least not in that sense. They were only a relative means of distinguishing a group of living things that shared, on average, certain characteristics. This meant that investigations in biological variation needed to proceed with a clear eye to the range of contingency operating on the ground, beyond adaptation (as Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin argued throughout the 80s and 90s), instead of contenting themselves with "plausible stories" that reflected assumptions about categories of species (and their features) more than fact.
Posted Aug 13, 2006 5:54:11 PM | link
Thomas said: "...And this makes all the more sense given the processual, moving-target like quality of games (and social processes in general)...."
Since this to me is of real importance to this whole research endeavour i'll just risk to annoy everybody by citing John Dewey on how to follow up on a goal you set for yourself (J. Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct, Middle Works, Vol. 14, J.A.Boydson (ed.), Carbondale/Edwardsville, 1988 p.49):
"As soon as we have projected (the end), we must begin to work backward in thought. We must change what is to be done into how, the means whereby. The end thus reappears as a series of 'what next', and the what next of chief importance is the one nearest the present state of the one acting."
Posted Aug 13, 2006 6:10:01 PM | link
And just to complicate things a little bit more:
What about the "cruel games" often observed to be staged by school kids, pre-teens etc.? Are these kids "playing a game"?
("Lord of the flies" seems to have to do with the redefinition of the boundary between "world" v. "game" in the absence of adults and their "absolute" rules of civilization but does deserve a thread on its own.)
And what about the self-invented "games" of deception, self-justice and even torture coming into cinemas lately (and bookstores before that. i guess) like "SAW" or "Hard Candy"?
How to apply the term "game" in a meaningful way to that stuff ("Hard Candy" certainly is worth your time!)
Posted Aug 13, 2006 6:19:50 PM | link
It may be helpful to note that this approach to the game concept is consistent with exploratory, rather than experimental, research.
Posted Aug 13, 2006 6:47:48 PM | link
@Thomas: I appreciate your patience. Especially after I said I was going to shuffle out of this argument, not being an academic or game scholar. I just had to go and read your paper after making that comment, didn't I... ; )
I think I'm catching on...
The evolutionary comparison helps loads (wife is an anthropologist). It also reminds me of different types of categorizations built around behaviors and/or outcomes rather than observed attributes. And it reminds me of some of the debates going on in library sciences r.e. the relative strengths and weaknesses of top-down ontologies vs. tagging/folksonomies.
If the point is to say, "Games do these sorts of things for us," which is a continuum that can be described by a range of behaviors and outcomes, rather than, "Games are these things," which is a rigid set of codes that attempt to "adjective-ize" the pieces-parts of games themselves... I'm 100% behind you.
In marketing and business, where I have some little experience in comparing successful vs. not-so-successful methods, a process definition is almost always going to be more useful, long term, than a product definition.
Thanks for hitting us with some neat, weird, useful, new thoughts. They go in the brain blender with lots of other stew I've got in there these days. I am, once again, grateful for your taking the time to help me through some not-so-easy-to-grasp game concepts.
Posted Aug 13, 2006 9:27:07 PM | link
That's exactly it, Andy. Remarkable how it's always the right analogies that do it in the end; glad we (speaking of all who contributed) found them in the end. And I wasn't frustrated except at myself, for not being able to convey those points easily; I'm appreciative of the chance to learn how to do just that. Thanks.
Posted Aug 13, 2006 10:50:29 PM | link
?: Maybe it's the interplay of both, the "exploratory" and the "experimental" approach to research?
The audience: Oh, come on you guys, not another dispute on The Right Method...!
Posted Aug 14, 2006 2:22:57 AM | link
Please forgive me if this seems a bit glib, but if you are trying to locate an analysis of the game-as-such within the contexts in which they are engaged, you're pretty much just calling for a reception theory of play.
Since I didn't see any reference to Wolfgang Iser or Hans Jauss in your bibliography, allow me to take this opportunity to refer you to them.
Posted Aug 14, 2006 8:43:50 AM | link
Thanks for the comment, William, but I'm actually not just calling for a reception theory of games. Although there are similarities, by the time of Iser and Jauss anthropology had developed its own awareness of and approach to how audiences are never passive (especially in ritual and performance studies). Reception theory was, as I read it, the realization of this insight from the standpoint of literary theory, which is fine, but it's not the only place this was discovered.
Posted Aug 14, 2006 10:25:23 AM | link
Gamasutra points out an interesting blog entry by Tom Betts that considers the edges of "game-ness."
Posted Aug 14, 2006 4:30:37 PM | link
I thought I'd toss this quotation here from a review I just read:
"The opposite of play isnt work. It's depression. To play is to act out and be willful, exultant and committed as if one is assured of one's prospects." -- Daniel Pink, A Whole New Mind.
Posted Aug 18, 2006 3:37:04 AM | link
I'm hugely hesitant to post to this thread- this discussion has just been breathtaking.
I'm really grateful Thomas, and it looks like there's a lot of really exciting literature out there. I'm just a homespun provincial frontier community manager (but I have been looking and thinking about these dynamics for a while now).
My inclination of late has been to lump all of this stuff together: that the interior personal "mythology" is a dynamic interplay of culture, personal history, and the ongoing search for meaning or rational understanding of one's world. That the drive to survive and/or succeed impels game behavior, whether in ritual, onstage, in zen, or in some form of classically defined game, from flirting to war games. That the interior "landscape" as it were, constructs meaning from whatever fits: games, stories, pop culture, gossip: if we recognize and can learn from it, we happily incorporate it. That some "stories" are more widely accepted, given a mix of cultural context, presentation, and timing, and that this in turn fuels everything from sermons to media. Or to put it another way, that we as individuals are often, in many ways, very similar to our culturally similar compatriots, so that individually significant memes are often also the most popular and widely accepted. Hopefully, in addition to simply providing a basic cultural standpoint from which we can all proceed, there's an element of real understanding there too... that we really can learn accurate things about our worlds and our societies by engaging in this behavior.
And to celebrate the main thesis: that games become another element of potential personal and social meaning, and that the challenges we take up provide meaningful input to the individuals that choose them.
Posted Aug 22, 2006 1:40:34 PM | link
@Ron: Thank you for the kind words, Ron, and I sure hope you don't hesitate to contribute ever again -- you very nicely weave together the wide range of elements that are involved in the unfolding of cultural processes. I'm glad to hear that the paper and, probably even more, this discussion were helpful.
@Bart: Thanks for the link -- an interesting read.
@Michael: Interesting idea -- I think that quote needs some unpacking. The underlying assumption, as I read it, is that depression (in a general sense) results from a lack of engagement with the world. The basic idea is consistent with what I'm saying in this paper, but again I would say that "depression" (like "play") is too normatively charged to bear a lot of weight here.
I do think, though, that there is a lot of room to extend the argument of the paper in the direction of ferreting out the nature of engaged experience in the context of multiple contingencies. Again, I think "flow" is the place to start, and in the context of the model I offer flow begins to look like the specific case of practical mastery over the performative challenge of acting in a particular, complexly contingent domain. That is, there is a lot of engagement with games and game-like processes that is *not* (yet) flow, not (yet) so practiced, but is compelling nonetheless. Intriguing to think about, and work for another day, to be sure.
Posted Aug 24, 2006 9:49:57 AM | link
Thomas: "Again, I think "flow" is the place to start, and in the context of the model I offer flow begins to look like the specific case of practical mastery over the performative challenge of acting in a particular, complexly contingent domain."
Absolutely. And there is loads of stuff out there on "performative challenges" to build on, not only in the performing arts arena.
One problem though: the "performative" challenge of mastering a sport such as surfing or an art such as ballet dance seems to be based on experiencing your _body_ ...
Posted Aug 24, 2006 2:01:32 PM | link
Of course, and it's not a problem at all. The body is involved in everything we do, including sitting at a keyboard playing anything from Unreal Tournament to online poker. Gross motor, fine motor, it's all embodied, one way or the other (and culturally constructed as well). That's why this approach draws our attention to the *practice* of playing games, encompassing all that entails.
Posted Aug 24, 2006 2:34:38 PM | link
... that's what came to me as well, on second thought ;)
yet not many people currently regard "sitting in front of a computer" as an activity with a performative dimension... lot's of translation and clarifcation work to be done...
and a promising angle for the FPS debate... "Charlie, why don't you go out and play with the other kids, just for a change?" - "Oh mom, look at this research paper on TN, playing FPS with my platoon is practice, just as street soccer!" ;-))
Posted Aug 24, 2006 4:28:28 PM | link
I'm coming a bit late to the discussion - holiday season and all - and I have one question regarding games and rules, which Thomas states in the paper can not be taken as a starting point for defining games. As I understand the argument this is not the case because rules are there to generate stable/predictable outcomes, whereas games are taken to generate unpredictable outcomes. But should that not be variable outcomes, instead? At least if you look at the game as a system. It only to the human mind that the outcomes of the game may seem unpredictable. The outcome of even highly complex games can be calculated on basis of the rules. (Of course, the outcome I'm talking about is only the outcome of the game, not all the possible social conequences it may have.)
Posted Sep 1, 2006 7:52:51 AM | link
There are a few points you make with which I would take issue.
It [is] only to the human mind that the outcomes of the game may seem unpredictable.
Only if we hold to a positivist view that assumes that, given sufficient information, all outcomes are predictable. There are many who continue to hold this view about cause-and-effect writ large; I do not. I believe that the universe is irreducibly contingent. In the flow of time, there are always root contingencies, even absent human beings from the picture.
The outcome of even highly complex games can be calculated on basis of the rules.
Some games are closed systems, like chess (as I understand it), and therefore could theoretically be "solved" given a sufficiently powerful computer (someone correct me if I'm wrong). But even then what has happened is that the human element of contingency has been excised from the account. By contrast, tic-tac-toe is at the other end, being a game with a simple enough set of rules that an optimal strategy can be discerned and executed by anyone who has played the game more than a handful of times. In this case, the array of sources of contingency is shallow, or simple. Any given game that is played by humans and complex enough to be compelling (to provide a performative challenge) still contains the social and performative contingencies that make its outcomes unpredictable. But most games are not like chess anyway; their rules do not create a logically closed system.
(Of course, the outcome I'm talking about is only the outcome of the game, not all the possible social conequences it may have.)
I should restate that when I say "outcome" in this definition, I mean that term quite broadly, encompassing the multiple contingent events that an instance of a game generates; that is, I am not only concerned with an "end-state" outcome. Still, I would guess that you would not object to this kind of broadening, and extend your statement to include all of these outcomes "within" the game. But this is still a problem, because there is no hard line between the games' outcomes and the social consequences. The point is that the outcomes of games can always be invested with new meanings, and new effects, so this line is always blurry and inconclusive in practice. That is why particular examinations of games in their context are the only road to understanding the role of games in society.
Posted Sep 1, 2006 11:49:44 AM | link
I'm glad to see that other people are working on this same question, and realizing that our traditional, "dictionary" understanding of games isn't sufficient.
I was particularly interested by the comments above about "normative definitions", negative and positive ones. I'd like to throw out here that there's another kind of definition, one that I think is much more useful in game theory because it doesn't isolate games as a phenomenon of only this moment in history.
After giving it some thought, here's what I think a "game" is:
Posted Sep 10, 2006 10:00:56 PM | link
Thanks for the link, Julian. An interesting read. My only comment is that it may not ultimately be so fruitful to rely on the term "system" in a definition of games, because it may reintroduce similar questions of boundedness that the approach in my paper above seeks to transcend. Rather than an innate desire to comprehend a system, then (which assumes that humans want a kind of "completeness" in their understanding, innately), I instead built this framework on a reliabilist epistemology, which calls only for a desire to develop a reliable picture of the world and a disposition to act within it. Otherwise, we are supposing both (a) that systems are discrete, and (b) we have an "innate" sense of where these boundaries are.
Posted Sep 15, 2006 2:06:56 PM | link
The paper has been revised and is now up on ssrn (here, as previously).
Posted Sep 26, 2006 9:01:10 AM | link
New revision up, same link as above.
Posted Oct 16, 2006 10:33:02 AM | link
They should have RSS feeds for that kinda thing. And make First Monday publish their October edition; October's almost over! I want to read the articles!
Posted Oct 16, 2006 3:14:33 PM | link
Hehe. Sorry, Michael for the delay. I just proofed mine, and the middle set should be up soon; I'll post on the First Monday thread I created as soon as they're up. On the plus side: it's free *and* peer-reviewed, :-)
Posted Oct 16, 2006 6:58:15 PM | link
Oh, but you *can* subscribe to an RSS feed that will notify you of any revisions to any of my ssrn papers, including this one, via my author page. I can't promise frequent traffic, though ;-).
Posted Oct 16, 2006 7:01:59 PM | link
Traffic is for the benefit of the host, not the reader. =P Good to know; thanks.
Posted Oct 16, 2006 7:22:27 PM | link
The paper has been updated *yet* again, a bit more significantly this time, with the title, abstract, and intro adjusted to focus more on the new model. Also, the conclusion has been truncated; the previous last section called for its own paper. :-)
Posted Nov 21, 2006 12:01:56 PM | link
Update: The paper is now forthcoming as an article in Games and Culture, April issue.
Posted Mar 5, 2007 3:40:57 PM | link