Meaning, Games, and Bureaucracy

A while back in a comment posted in this thread, Ren posed an excellent question that I've been pondering for some time. Wondering about the implications of my model of games as process for the question of meaning, he asked:

Do we then just have that the meaning-generative property of games is just a fact of process [i.e., no different from other social processes] and the types of meanings [in games] are consequences of the contrived contingency?

Curse you, Ren! I haven't slept since August!

Puzzling through this in the wee hours of the night, I began with how I responded to Ren originally: on Weber and bureaucracy.  This has led to the beginnings of a paper that I hope to have up to ssrn soon, but I wanted to talk about it now because I gave my first airing of its ideas on a recent panel that I wanted to mention. Tom Boellstorff (SL: Tom Bukowski) and I co-organized a panel on virtual worlds and anthropology at the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association, where we were joined by Heather Horst and Mizuko Ito (co-authored paper, Ito presenting), Genevieve Bell, and Douglas Thomas, with the distinguished linguistic anthropologist Michael Silverstein as our discussant. The panel was filled with great ideas, on everything from virtual methodism in England to the Neodaq, and I hope to have news to those presentations' culminations in paper form soon.

As for me, I gave a version of my current and still-rough answer to Ren's question. I proposed that virtual worlds and their emergent effects demonstrate an aspect of the human condition that has largely been obscured under modernity – that of the human engagement with the unpredictable or contingent. Max Weber and his definitive account of bureaucracy and the state formed the backdrop for a century-long inquiry into the vanishing sources of meaning under the advent of rationalization; for Weber, charismatic leadership provided the only answer to the iron cage of rationality. But a consideration of bureaucracy, games, and virtual worlds alongside one another fills in this bleak picture. If bureaucratic projects are driven, at root, by an ethic of necessity (in their procedures and logic of consistency), games, and the virtual worlds based on them, are driven by its antithesis: contingency. As socially legitimate spaces for cultivating the unexpected, games provide grounds for the generation of meaning that is not ultimately charismatic. Virtual worlds like Second Life have largely retained this open-ended quality, and they rely on game architecture to create a domain that, while not utterly unbounded in possibility, has wide opportunities for success, failure, and unintended consequences, and it is this that makes possible the meaningful and emergent effects we witness today.

So the answer to Ren's question is that, in my view, the engaging mix of constraint and contingency that well-designed games (and the worlds based on them) have makes them more productive of meaning than those parts of our lives that are increasingly governed by regulatory projects which aim to eliminate the uncalled-for. (One might further say that those parts of our lives that are too contingent, too unbounded in possibility, also create a challenge of meaning.) Of course bureaucracy in practice is also a site for contingency (and regularity). Bureaucratic projects certainly do not perfectly realize the modern aim of consistency, but they always aspire to do so. Games, by contrast, are socially legitimate domains where unpredictable events are supposed to happen, and that is why they are valuable lenses through which to see key points of discursive and practical contestations over meaning and resources played out. Games, then, do not create "unbounded" contingency; they are not places where anything at all can happen. But they provide room for a contrived mix of constraint and contingency. By mixing the regularity and the sources of contingency just so, they create their potential for the meaningfully unexpected, as well as for unexpected meanings.

Claude Shannon in the mid-twentieth century presented the surprising finding from mathematical information theory that messages which contain the most information are those with 50% expected (redundant) information and 50% unexpected (noise) information. Katherine Hayles of UCLA expanded on this point during a visit to my seminar on ethnography and technology at UWM. Imagine, she said, a language in which it was impossible to say anything new; it would be meaningless. The lesson is that contingency is inextricable from meaning. New circumstances, new experiences, and new collisions between different systems of meaning are at the heart of meaningful human life. This is why we should be very interested in virtual worlds and the approach to cultivating the contingent which underwrites them. By leveraging the techniques of game design, Linden Lab and others have almost accidentally fallen into creating products which are supposed to do things they do not expect, and in this way they have made a choice that turns out to be strikingly anti-bureaucratic in its ethical stance. For Weber, it was only the individual virtuoso – a master of performance in a singular context – who could provide new meaning in an era of the iron cage. Virtual worlds show us another possibility; that meaning can be cultivated through techniques derived of game-making.

Comments on Meaning, Games, and Bureaucracy:

Ren Reynolds says:

Thomas > Curse you, Ren! I haven't slept since August!

sorry :)

Posted Nov 27, 2006 2:35:20 PM | link

Andrew Burton, aka Jarod Godel says:

I think it's adorably naive that you use "Linden Lab" and "anti-bureaucratic" in the same sentence.

Posted Nov 27, 2006 2:49:16 PM | link

Thomas Malaby says:

You may call it naivete, but the fact remains that Linden Lab is interesting precisely because they took a less-traveled path, as organizations go, by staking their future on a product that they intentionally do not control. Do not mistake my meaning, however. As I have written elsewhere, this peculiar feature of Linden Lab's initial stance toward its product does not insulate them from the many internal and external pressures to regulate and commodify. I'm not so sanguine on whether Second Life or Linden Lab will avoid rationalized transformations as a result of the pressures of money and power (Habermas' "steering mechanisms").

Posted Nov 27, 2006 4:03:16 PM | link

Andy Havens says:

"Unexpected meaning." Indeed. In my world, we call that poetry. An incredibly layered, rich and deep medium.

Games as interactive poems? Works for me.

Posted Nov 27, 2006 5:06:27 PM | link

ErikC says:

Poetry and poems, however, are not always the same thing:)
There are also variations and distinctions in value and meaning between surprise, shock, contingency, intrigue, and wonder. I think Scorates, Aristotle, Kierkegaard and Whitehead put it best when they suggested the beginning of philosophy was wonder.Perhaps a virtual world to be experienced as a world, has to also have thresholds of wonder.

Posted Nov 27, 2006 7:57:12 PM | link

Thomas Malaby says:

Agreed, ErikC, and that's the game designer's art, isn't it? To tread along that threshold, arraying a set of contingent processes and regularities (including received meanings) in just the right way to engage participants and ultimately evoke such reactions. (NB: contingency, as I'm framing it, isn't a reaction, it's a feature of the world.)

Posted Nov 27, 2006 8:34:17 PM | link

Verilazic says:

I find it interesting that inside games people tend to avoid contingency when possible, and systems sometimes develop to create consistency inside the game (i.e. DKP and guilds in WoW).

Posted Nov 28, 2006 6:26:31 PM | link

Thomas Malaby says:

Great thought, Verilazic. I'm not sure I'd agree that there's a general tendency to avoid contingency (else why play the game at all), but certainly at the individual level, if rationalized techniques can allow one to perform where competence fails, we shouldn't be surprised. At the institutional level, I *do* think there's a tendency, over time, to avoid (minimize) contingency in order for the institution and its resources to persist.

Posted Nov 28, 2006 7:46:48 PM | link

Verilazic says:

I've only ever heard of and seen it in MMOs, where time is much more valuable, probably because of the need to subscribe to play. It seems centered around maximizing ROI, and avoiding risk.

I personally think the want for consistency has as great of an effect as the presence of contingency on the realism of virtual worlds.

Posted Nov 29, 2006 1:19:06 AM | link

Thomas Malaby says:

Interesting thoughts at the link, Verilazic. I think the ROI issue is important, but I don't agree that players want to minimize risk, even though it may slow them down. So, in WoW, even if the most time-efficient way to get to 60 is to grind, grind, grind mobs 3-4 levels below you, there are a lot of players who don't do that, because there is not enough risk in those encounters for them to be challenging.

Posted Nov 29, 2006 8:39:12 AM | link

Gareth Eckley says:

I've read this article several times, read up on Webster this afternoon and theories of beauracracy.

It still doesn't appear to make any sense to me.

Could someone deconstruct it?

Posted Nov 29, 2006 8:57:22 AM | link

Thomas Malaby says:

Lol, as I said, it's still a rough response to Ren, so I'm not surprised it's a bit opaque, Gareth. Unfortunately, the wikipedia entries on Weber and his ideas are not great at all on the meaning issue, so that's little help. One could read Clifford Geertz, of course, since he basically explored this aspect of Weber's thought throughout much of his career, but here's an attempt in this limited venue:

In short, Weber believed that as our lives come to be governed by rationalization, meaning ebbs away. The classic illustration is in the forms of authority: charismatic, traditional, and bureaucratic. The charismatic leader is a meaningful leader, because he can articulate a moving vision of the world that makes a break from previous, rationalized ones ("It is written, but I say unto you..."). The charismatic leader carries this legitimacy around with him/her, in an inalienable way -- Gandhi could not transfer his charismatic authority to someone else.

But given the fact of mortality, there is a problem. Where does authority go after the charismatic leader's death? The answer is the first step of rationalization: a rule (of succession). Traditional authority then appears, where the authority still resides in the person (rather than the office, see below), but where the weight of precedent begins to shape that authority. The traditional leader, lacking the charismatic authority, has increasing difficulty ruling by whim (that is, inconsistently across cases). Precedent piles up, and a staff begins to appear that keeps track of these records.

Eventually, the authority leaves the person and transfers to the office itself, bound by rules and obligations. Bureaucratic authority is rule-bound, then, and governed by a drive to enforce consistency across otherwise singular cases. In the end, the rules should be followed because, well, they're the rules. This, Weber argues, is meaningless, and in general this characterizes the trend of our experience under rationalization (not just in politics, but also in economics and other "spheres"), when we increasingly do things without an ultimate (as opposed to proximate) end in mind.

Now, Weber didn't believe that this process culminates in people just living meaningless lives willingly. He argued that the loss of deep meaning wears upon us, and we do things like return to religion in hopes of rediscovering that meaning, or crave charismatic leaders to show us a new, meaningful vision of the future. As he put it (paraphrasing) "for those who cannot bear the fate of their times like a man [yes, he really said this!] the doors of churches are wide open for you." Scarily, he seemed to prefer charismatic leaders (or, tantalizingly, the camraderie at the local pub -- which I think relates to things I wrote about here). I hope that helps gives a sense of the ideas in the background here.

In any case, what I'm suggesting here is that perhaps charisma (and religion, but of course Weber thought this was a sham) is not the only source of meaning under these conditions. Games, as arenas which are anti-bureaucratic in the way they seek to cultivate the uncalled-for, are fertile ground for meaning. Unexpected windfalls (and tragedies) in games, as in life, prompt us to make meaningful connections between parts of our experience.

Posted Nov 29, 2006 10:55:35 AM | link

Ren Reynolds says:

I'm not ignoring this thread.
I'm taking a run up,,,,

Posted Nov 30, 2006 12:21:13 PM | link

ErikC says:

Thomas, I read your article, and some issues intrigued me, so if you are still reading this, can I pose a few?
Firstly, is there a danger that in your study of the Greek you are looking at a historically framed meaning to "game"? After all, their world was tough, hostile, and resource barren, so to build a temple or spend time playing a game may be more of a sacrifice to an Ancient Greek person. Should one base a definition of game so quickly in reference to a specific historic period, where fates themselves were forms or subforms of godly power that even the Gods were scared of? And when you have said that games change over time?
Secondly, how can one say contingency is part of the world and not a perceived affordance? A bit like "if a tree falls in a forest.."
Thirdly,as social artefacts, well what does that mean? A game has to be made? It has to be a thing? It can only exist when shared amongst people? I would have thought a game has to replayable but I don't know if it has to be shared (perhaps capable of being shared). I also don't know if a game has to be played by more than one person over time, to be a game. If a social artefact, (and I personally find such a phrase rather confusing), then surely a game must be a process, and not because it is a game, but because it is social?
I do see and agree with your point about the magic circle..

PS SSRN seems an excellent service, I hope they start a Southern Hemisphere mirror.

Posted Dec 4, 2006 8:09:13 AM | link

Thomas Malaby says:

Hi ErikC: I'm still here. A few quick responses:

-My work on Greece was on *contemporary* Greece, not ancient Greece. :-)

-Even so, your point (and comment in general) target the tension (and there always is a tension) between what we call, in a shorthand-fashion, the "emic" and the "etic"; that is, a point of view from inside a context, and one from outside it. Yes, there is a local set of meanings about any given game, and these cultural representations are incredibly important to studying them. But we should not feel that the scope of our study is, in the last analysis, determined by them. We should look for a productive fit between local cultural representations of "gameness" and the games we study. This is why my definition of games includes the word "legitimate". This is key. It anchors the things that we include in our purview of game study in how people in particular times and places construct legitimate arenas for contingency to play out. So local meanings are essential, though the word "game" is not the litmus test for whether that legitimate arena is in place. For example, the immigration lottery for the United States fits my definition of a game: it is a socially legitimate and semi-bounded arena for the contrivance of unpredictable and interpretable outcomes. This means it might be of interest to us, even if folks would deny that it is a "game". In fact, this definition allows us to recognize that kind of tension and boundary maintenance and explore how it is maintained, and why (what I've called elsewhere the "politics of contingency").

-If you are supposing that even my "universal" definition of games is colored in ways I don't realize by the (modern) Greek case, that is certainly possible, but you'd have to convince me. I've read widely and long (and included a lot of other, non-Greek examples in my work) in order to make sure this take on games is robust. In my opinion it owes more to a particular strand of philosophy and social theory than to a specific historical case.

-You seem to have a fine handle on what "social artifact" means here. Yes, it means that it is always a product of human effort in a particular time and place. Even if a given game has common features (processes) with all games, the point of saying this is to remind us not to think that the characteristics of games "spring forth" simply from their status as Games with a capital g. That would be like saying a newborn organism of a particular species has the features it does because it belongs to that species. We must not mistake a heuristic category for the reality, which is that a complex set of describable processes led that organism to be extremely likely to share a lot of characteristics with a rough group of similar entities. Species is just the label we use to group them together.

You do raise another point, which is the individual/group one. If an individual makes and plays a game, all alone, it is still a social artifact, because we are social beings, and the influence of society on the scope of our imaginations is inextricable from what we create. It, of course, does not determine what we do, but everything we do is social.

Posted Dec 4, 2006 9:36:18 AM | link

Thomas Malaby says:

Oh, I missed one of your questions.

-Regarding contingency as a feature of the world: the answer is I'm basically asserting this,but I'm not alone :-). While its possible to claim that we cannot assert anything useful about features of the world because we are prisoners of our own construction of it, and that may be true, I (along with Machiavelli, Vico, the pragmatist philosophers, and many, many others) am asserting that the world is not ultimately deterministic in a total, positivist sense (i.e., that the world operates according to finite and discoverable laws). At root, it is, indeed, a flat assertion, but if we disallow it, then I would venture to say that it would be the end of inquiry, as we would be trapped in a relativist conundrum.

Posted Dec 4, 2006 9:45:14 AM | link