The Tyranny of Emergence: Modernity's Romance of the Game

It's been some time since I haunted the distinguished halls of TN, but after some tumultuous times that got me out of the habit of putting my working papers up on ssrn and pointing to them here (and at my own blog), I do have a piece that I wanted to share (and I'll be cross-posting this to Doubt is an Art, as I do with all game-related stuff). I'm sure my skin has grown thin from all this time away from the rough-and-tumble world of collaborative blogging. Be gentle. ;)

Last year I had the opportunity to give the keynote address in February at the Ray Browne Conference on Popular Culture at Bowling Green State University, as well as to participate in a symposium in April convened by the Potomac Center for the Study of Modernity on Modernity and Chance. Both venues seemed apt arenas for developing some ideas about game as a cultural form, one that we could place alongside ritual and bureaucracy in our understanding of institutions and the techniques for control at their disposal. The core question I'm asking is: What might we learn by examining the increasing use of games by modern institutions in the digital age as analogous to their longstanding and effective use of rituals and bureaucracy? 

These are not new ideas in my work (and especially not in some posts I've done here), but I had long planned to set down my ideas about these cultural forms and their relationships to each other in one place, mostly for my own satisfaction (for that reason, too, I am sure that many of the examples will strike readers of my work as familiar ones for my thinking).The paper is still in a working state, without citations and still set up for oral presentation (and includes many of the images from these occasions – I do not plan on including them for final publication). You should be able to download the paper here. Here is the abstract:

The projects of governance at the heart of state and other institutional control under the context of modernity have been marked by a heavy reliance on two cultural forms, ritual and bureaucracy, each of which organizes action and meaning through distinctive invocations of order. The steady rise of liberal thought and practice, particularly in the economic realm (following, if partially, Adam Smith) has gradually challenged the efficacy of these cultural forms, with open-ended systems (more or less contrived – from elections to the “free” market) exerting more and more influence both on policy and in other areas of cultural production. It is in this context that games are becoming the potent site for new kinds of institutional projects today, whether in Google’s use for some time of its Image Labeler Game to bring text searchability to its image collection, or in the University of Washington’s successful deployment of the game Fold-It to find promising “folds” of proteins for research on anti-retroviral vaccines.

But even as they are so used, we can see how these contrived, open-ended mechanisms create new challenges to the structure of the very modern institutions which would seek to domesticate and deploy them. While a longstanding example would be Hitler’s unsuccessful use of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games’ results as part of his project of political legitimization, digital networking technology is making new and more complex gambits of this sort possible today. Linden Lab, makers of the virtual world Second Life, found itself in a state of organizational contradiction as it sought to architect, from the top-down, a game-like space premised (and sold) on a playful ideal of user freedom and control. Google’s recent and reluctant turn to curators for certain search terms also reflects the limits of their previous attempts to continually refine their algorithms so as to let search results reflect perfectly the aggregate actions of web users. In all of these cases we see that a turn toward open-ended, game-derived mechanisms (which often mirror the market) generate paradoxes for those who sought to leverage the potency of games for generating meaningful outcomes.

In this process digital technology has played an important role as well, making the use of games possible at a scale vast in both scope and complexity, while subtly changing even what a useful conception of games would be that could account for the game-like elements now proliferating in much of our increasingly digital lives. From this twenty-first century vantage point, what may we learn by setting the cultural form of game against these other cultural forms, with attention to their shared and distinctive features? By considering what has changed to make the domestication (as it were) of games possible, and also reflecting on how these other forms have been put to work by institutions, we can begin to chart the landscape ahead for games and institutions under the context of modernity and ask key questions about what issues of policy and ethics it raises.

Any comments welcome, of course. It feels good to be back.

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Following up on my recent cri d'coeur about the misanthropy of multiplayer gamer culture, I have to say I'm heartened by the diligence of the Guild Wars 2 developers in trying to create a more friendly, less offensive chat culture from the first day onward.

There's a thread at Reddit where the developers have offered to tell anyone who has been suspended why they were suspended or banned. Basically it breaks down into two major causes: first, that the account has been hacked by gold sellers and second, because the player was saying racist, homophobic, or grossly offensive things in public chat. It's an interesting thread just in purely documentary terms, since developers normally maintain a steely silence about bannings and allow players to represent themselves as the innocent victims of a mistake or a vendetta. But there's also a real pleasure to be had in seeing a player put up their character name, ask in all apparent innocence why they were banned, and to read the community representative quoting back to the player what they said in chat.

I get that this is too labor-intensive to keep up indefinitely. But it's a sign of some smart social thinking to at least do it now and hope to "seed" the emergent culture of the game with a lighter, more inclusive feeling.

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Ethics of ARGs

In the latest Social Change Technology podcast Dr Burcu Bakioglu talks to Andrea Phillips about Alternate Reality games, their design and some of the interesting legal and ethical issues that come up. 

Those in the TN community that have been watching / making / playing ARGs for the last few years will be familiar with some of the issues - such as what if someone gets hurt, how far can a 'fiction' go before it is deception? 

While some of the issues raised in the podcast are specific to games that have a very physical element and a fictional layer that sits over the everyday - still raise interesting questions about the ethics of game design and what responsibility the designer has for the players' actions.

You can listen to the podcast and see the full show notes on the Virtual Policy Network site

Or by subscribing to Social Change Technology on iTunes or via our RSS feed.

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The aesthetics of video games

Are video games art?

Of course they are – the interesting question is, what type(s) of art?


This is a summary of a paper I’ve been trying to find the time to finish for the last year. To do basic art theory in a couple of lines: from a philosophical point of view there are two main camps on the ‘what is art?’ question; the institutional approach and the functional approach. Institutionalists say something is art just in case it is treated by certain institutions with a particular type of social power as if it were art – for instance it is in a recognised art gallery with the label art. Hence it’s an empirical question about material and social facts. Functionalists say that something is art just in case it functions as art, that is, we have certain responses when apprehending it. These responses, or at least a sub-set of them, are often termed aesthetic responses.

In application, the Institutional approach does not strike me as too interesting. Applying it to computer games we simply ask – are games recognised by Institutions as art. The answer is that it is varied but growing. In the UK BAFTA have video game awards (I’ve been a judge), in the US, the National Endowment of the Arts now includes video games in its endowment program (I’ve had discussions with them about this); and in many countries, images from games are exhibited in gallery settings, and game music is played in concert halls. Now it can be argued that these are still just elements from games, and that the works featured are done so as artefacts of the craft of video game production (art theory distinguishes between art and craft).

So it’s a judgment call as to the point where games make the category shift.

Here we should note that much modern, post-modern and avant-garde art is still subject to some popularist debate over the meaning of art, and forms such as photography, film and television have taken time to be accepted. In short under this definition evidence seems to suggest that video games are or, are in the process of becoming, institutionally accepted as art.

I think the Functionalist question is much more interesting;  as here we ask what are the characteristics of response we have to video games. Here I'm using the plural as I think that any given individual has multiple responses based on work, circumstance and person and that these differ by person. But I think that there are some characteristics of responses we can define particularly within the aesthetic sphere. So when noting any given type of response I’m not making the claim that everyone always has it nor that it excludes other responses / readings of a work, nor normatively which one(s) of these are correct.

First a small note about interactivity. I see aesthetic response as intrinsically bi-directional. That is appreciation of a work is a combination of what we apprehend (sense data if you will) and our critical faculties (basically see Kant on this one), thus there is a minimal level at which all aesthetic experience is interactive – this will become important in a moment.

I suggest that there broadly five attributes of games that characterise the aesthetic experience of a video games, four of these I note merely for book keeping purposes and more can be found in the standard literature on the subject, one I propose is unique to video games or works that share certain qualities with video games.

The five characteristics, roughly in order of level of abstraction are:

1.    Code
2.    Design patterns / gameplay i.e. as a non-animated design
3.    Content: Components such as graphics, music, story (if there is one)
4.    The act of game play i.e. as the animation of the design in a co-created act
5.    An artistic performance of play i.e. a form of performance that has particular artistic merit and might be appreciated by an observer

For the sake of brevity I’m not going to talk about 1,2,3 and 5 as I suggest that the experience that we have of these characteristics in the context of video games does make them categorically different from the experience we would have in other contexts. Hence when we hear video game music, the experience of that in-and-of-itself is just the experience of music (though not only the experience of music - which I explore below). Whether things such as (1) ‘code’ or (5) ‘watching game play’ are aesthetic experience are things that I think are well covered in the literature on the topics as mathematics and watching sport as aesthetic experiences respectively. 

The category of experience that I think is unique to video games is the aesthetics of game play itself. What I mean by this is the experiential qualities of the act of play that are a simultaneous combination of:

i.    Apprehension of other aesthetic qualities e.g. the visuals
ii.    The moment-by-moment interplay between the space of choices and affordances of the video game work, our choice among those options and the consequences of those choices
iii.    The game-literate reading of the gameplay within the context of a give genre
iv.    The kinaesthetics of game play

Basically I'm saying that it’s the experience that we as gamers have when we game, and what is important is that the experimental nature of it cannot be pinned down to any one element but is necessarily all of them together even if we are not conscious of one or more elements at any given moment. For example we might not be conscious of what we are doing with the controller as we may simply perceive our will giving agency to an avatar, but there will be some component of the experience that is related to the button pressing.

What’s more, it is implicit in what I have said that there is a form of literacy at work. As with much art, and much that is criticised in the popular media, some works need to be read in relation to others, forms take on a grammar that has to be understood to understand certain elements of the work.  Here we might think of Duchamp’s readmade’s – object that he chose and designated as art. Not only does one have to read these in their art-historical context of the time they were made, but also what is lost on non-French speakers is that the titles of many of the works also employ verbal puns.

Increasingly video games are making literacy explicit within the work – through referencing of other works, through using recognised mechanics and though playing with the expectations of the experienced gamer. For those that lack such literacy such elements are not even comprehended. While it’s not my focus here, so called video-game art often gives primacy to such elements e.g. Cory  Archangel’s recent Beat the Champ (Barbican London February – May 2011: where a succession of treated video bowling games play endlessly bowling gutter balls.

Possibly the most interesting element of the aesthetic experience of games is the sophisticated nature of the co-created experience. One way we perceive a game is through the unfolding and collapsing options that we are presented with and the possible outcomes of those options. In choosing or not choosing at any given moment we are performing with the affordances set by the designer(s), and they are creating a topology of choices that we navigate through decisions. The experiential nature of this is not the choices at any given time nor the act of deciding by the dynamic interplay of the two over the play session (see Aarseth on this also Bogost and others on how Rhetoric operates in this sphere). Of course one needs a ludo* somewhere thus this fascet I term the ludo-aesthetic propoerties of video games.

Now one might argue that this is just the same as any other experience such as theatre, as in addition to the bi-directional nature of apprehension there is some interaction between the actors and the audience even if not made explicit. However there is not the same nature of choice as in games – Hamlet will always have the same fate. Likewise one might liken this to dance or playing sport. In these cases the interplay between rules, other actors, and oneself is of a very different character to video games. Certainly team sports unfold over time and some options collapse such as when one side scores of when one is attacking or defending, but the interplay with the confining nature of video game affordances and the experience that this generates is of a different nature.

This characteristic of video games is problematic from a critical perspective as to appreciate some aspect of them one needs access to direct experience. As while computer gamer are in many ways ‘like’ other experiences they are sufficiently different to require use.  This is not to say that a video game cannot be studied without being played but there are certain characteristics there are unavailable with this. What’s more as noted above there are still further elements that are unavailable unless one has a certain literacy – though this might be likened to, say, the experience of jazz which is no doubt very different for those with a literacy in the form.

To speak to the popular debate for a moment, I feel that much criticism of video games as an art form derives from this lack of experience. A ‘cold’ use of a video game that does not willingly take on the nature of the experience cannot here be counted as experiencing a game, that’s like having music you don’t like on for a period that you endure. Another issues is saying video games are not art as they don’t provide a given aesthetic experience as well another form does e.g. games do not do narrative like films; but of course film does not do narrative like books. Thus it seems to me that the fact that video games lack features that some critics point to in other works by way of comparison – actually video games, in part do these things differently, and more importantly those particular characters of the aesthetic experience not the quintessential point of the form. That is it’s like normatively saying films are lacking because they don’t to just what books do in respect of narrative.

Lastly, from a more theoretic point of view I’m aware that in this piece I have merely asserted that experiences are aesthetic ones. Most of the ones I have pointed out are established the one that is not I have characterised but not defended the assertion that in virtue of these properties it constitutes an aesthetic experience by reference to the fundamental properties of aesthetics and extension of those in this case. There is an argument for that, but I’ll leave that for a philosophy paper as it’s mainly a technical category argument from analytical philosophy that’s not that interesting to most outside the field.

In summary video games are an art form, from a functional perspective, as they are capable of generating a range of aesthetic experiences, the character of one of these experiences is unique to video games in virtue of their particular interactivity and related literacy.

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The Meaning of Play

I humbly propose a new theory of what play is....

[edit 28 Feb 11: or do I...?]

I’ve never been fully satisfied with the definitions of ‘play’ and ‘game’ that have currency in Game Studies. Where I really have trouble is when I try to apply them to the fields of ethics and the philosophy of law in which I now tend to write.

In my recent analysis of sports law and the historical relationships between violence, criminal law and governance (focusing on duelling, boxing, rugby etc) I’ve been searching for an explanation of what is going on when sport is left to get on with it - free from ‘magisterial interference’, as the London Prize Ring Rules of 1838 put it.

I’ve touched on some of this in a recent post (People play online – but what I did not focus on there was a more formal characterisation of the thing at the centre of sport and games i.e. play.

Since Huizinga’s Homo Ludens (1938) there has been a modern academic debate about the meaning of ‘game’ and ‘play’. Readers not familiar with the history can quickly get up to speed by reading Juul’s excellent paper The Game, the Player, the World: Looking for a Heart of Gameness (, and Malaby’s Beyond Play: A new Approach to Games ( 

The cannon of theories all do useful jobs of work, however I feel that none of them successfully identified the correct underlying principles at the heart of play, or at the very least those that are operational when we look at play in respect of law and other forms of institutional power.

It seems to me that one core concept that explains what play is and how it operates should be founded on what’s happening at the semiotic layer. So let’s jump into my proposed definition (that will need a lot of un-packing): 

Play is the recognised, negotiated, process of a purposeful shift in the dominant meaning; and contextual attribution of value, of acts.

Games are normative forms of play.

[28 Feb 11 ludic]  play-meaning - the meaning that has been shifted or attributed

[28 Feb 11 ludic]  play-semiotics - the system of the signs product through play

ludic-capital - the degree to which these ludic-meaning and semiotics are operational in a given context e.g. when set against institutional-capital.

[edit 26 Feb 2011:
ludic-intent - the intentional attitude we hold towards acts where the internal meaning and value we attribute to them has primacy over external ones.

ostensible-play or hollow-play - where the intentional attitude that we hold towards acts holds the external value of those acts over the internal values and meanings]

Magic circle - the term we use to denote the bounds of the context wherein the ludic-meaning of an act prevails over the co-existing non-ludic meaning (or lack thereof).

 OK, let’s un-box that…



I’m being broad in my use of the word act. I don’t just mean physical things but also, speech, thoughts etc. So I’m including word games and purely cognitive forms of play.


Meaning shifts and recognition

Where I’ve always started puzzling about play is by wondering what it is I recognize when I see play occurring, and how it is that this thing seems to have so much power. Back to my favourite example – in the normal course of events we don’t arrest boxers or rugby players for Battery. So what is it that they are doing that is not the same as people hitting or pushing each other?

Of course, as I covered recently on TN, they are ‘doing’ anything different at all. Rather they, the officials, the sporting bodies, the law, spectators and many that might just happen to see the event attribute a different meaning to the acts.

Moreover, in sport a lot of socio-cultural signalling work goes into pointing out that the acts in question signify something other than we might expect. Language is an important sign - we tend not to talk about rugby players pushing each other, we talk about blocks and tackles. In boxing we talk about jabs and under-cuts. Visual signs are also important - people are wearing unusual clothes, usual ones that are different from ‘ordinary’ ones, they in a marked space during a marked period of time.

What all this is doing is facilitating all relevant parties’ recognition of the meaning shift. Indeed, a more systematic analyses might reveal that there is a correlation between the strength of signalling and gap difference between the juxtaposed meanings i.e. physical contact sports require a lot of signals so we are very sure that they are not ‘just at fight’, whereas playing-field cricket with a tennis ball needs very few signs to protect it form external influence as the what’s at stake when ludic-capital fails to have force are very low.

I also want to note here that ‘recognized’ entails at lest some degree of being ‘conscious of’ – I will pick this point up more in the discussion of ‘purposeful’.


 Negotiated process

Factors that are characteristic of the spectrum from free solo play to international sport are the parameters and processes of meaning negotiation.

In solo free play we create meaning: ‘this box is a castle, the cushions are my army, apart from that one I can’t reach, that’s just a cushion’ – here play involves the process of self negotiation of the signs we are attributing to artefacts, thoughts or acts. Knocking something all the way over with a ball might signify that it has been defeated, unless it falls against the sofa and does not fall over – then maybe it is defeated, or maybe it’s just injured and needs another strike to be defeated, maybe that will change in a few minutes etc etc etc.

When two or more people are involved in play they jointly consent to shift meaning and mutually give respect to the shifted meanings through the process described here. This may be a highly formal process involving actual contracts or unspoken and just understood through action. This mutuality is not perfect as the meanings somewhat internal to each individual. This is not a weakness in play or this proposed theory of play - it is an intrinsic characteristic and why negotiation is also intrinsic. Learning this is part of learning how to play.

Hence – when I mention shifted meaning or mutually understood meaning in a play involving more than one person, strictly speaking I’m allowing for non-perfect symmetry of meaning and negotiation processes (but that’s a bit long winded to keep repeating).

So, in some forms of play a sphere is play artefact that should be held or kicked in specific ways, and that getting it through hoop scores a point, and a point is valued more than not-a-point, and that if the ball goes into the road play stops for a while and there’s no advantage to either side because the road is dangerous, so the fact that getting the sphere might be dangerous often prevails over it being a ball (though of course not all the time – an area that’s particularly interesting when we think of injury and liability in ARGs and games that utilise the built environment).

This goes all the way to tacking someone in a game of rugby which can only be done in a certain way, too near to the head and it’s not a tackle, it’s ludic-meaning gives way to it’s non-ludic one: it’s an attack, or at least there will be some form of negation over the dominant meaning – ranging from unspoken thoughts and looks thought to court cases. For American readers - the NFL have recently re-interpreted what are “egregious and elevated hits”, issuing fines to those that fell foul of the new rules (


Dominant meaning

So, the process of negotiation is one of establishing which meaning; among many possibilities, is the dominant meeting to be attributed to a given type and token of act. In games and sport where this is well established, the emphasis of negotiation is in on whether individual acts fall within the parameters mutually agreed for the given type of act.

It is critical to note that the dominant meaning of an act for any given person or institution co-exists with other meanings, both those that are produced through play e.g. ‘I thought the ball was out if it was on the line’; and those that pre-existed e.g. ‘the man hit the other man’. The meanings given primacy and dominance through play exist in a complex, sometimes co-constructive, relationship to these other meanings. A relationship that can shift over time for any given act – see below for a little more on this.


Attribution where non existed

By ‘shift in meaning’ I include both: a shift from a previously understood meaning to a new one; and, a shift form there being no previous meaning, or an extremely diverse set, to a new mutually recognized. For example a sphere going through a hoop or between piece of wood tends to have no generally understood meaning – but in many games a very central and important mean is attributed to it.



As noted above the recognition of meaning shift implies that there is some consciousness of the process that is occurring. More than this, the process of meaning shift does not just happen to be occurring, people are actively doing it. So, to be playing you have to know you are playing – you can involve other people, such as in many Alternative Reality Games, but they them selves are not players unless they gain awareness of the game.

One of boundaries of my proposed definition is probably animal play and play in early childhood, as here I’m not sure what should be said about the nature of recognition or purpose as this gets into theories of self consciousness. I’ll probably defer to Winnicott here (


Dominant .. contextual attribution of valuation

Meaning and value are inter-twined, but in defining play it is worth recognizing what is happening to each. I’ve covered meaning so now let’s look at value.

Contextual attribution is where we are giving primacy to the internal value of an act rather than the externalities. Like with meaning, both exist and may be recognized, but are not on equal footing. So, running with a ball and kicking it though a net have the contextual values of being a goal, changing the score and determining which team may win. They may also keep one fit, make on happy, earning a living etc. Indeed these may be a motivation to play, but they are contingent to what play is.

This is important because there are things that look very much like play but are not play. For instance getting on a bus and taking a bit of paper from a bus conductor has many characteristics of play: the conductor wears a uniform, they give you a bit of paper you both call a ‘ticket’, the ticket has meaning within the context of the bus journey etc. However, in this case the value of the meaning shift (e.g. from bit of paper to ticket) is primarily instrumental, whereas one might play a game of collecting the very same tickets and seeing how many of what colour ink one could get.


What’s not in the definition?

The definition of play and game I’m proposing is one that characterises a process. This is because, like some others, I think there are attributes that are very often products of play or generally associated with it that are not themselves intrinsic to it.

 One issue with many definitions of play is that they sought to draw a bright line between play and not play. This definition tries not to do that. The shift and primacy of meaning and value is to a dominant role. One thing that is important about this distinction is that the other meanings and values do not go away. A push in rugby is still a push - it’s just that in many contexts it makes very little sense (but still some sense) to try to give primacy to that interpretation (see Peter Ludlow’s From Sherlock and Buffy to Klingon and Norrathian Platinum Pieces: Pretense, Contextalism, and the Myth of Fiction for more on this kind of thing in a philosophy of language style


From another perspective it is worth nothing that under this definition, play is a process that co-exists with many other things. We may be playing world of Warcraft at the same time that we are talking on the phone or doing our day-to-day job, but the meaning shift that is going on in respect of pixels and xp is still occurring.

 That is play is something that when doing we are also not doing.

 We can be playing and thinking about our tax return, which is not play. So the dominance of meaning, or the ludic-capital of play, is not absolute. In the case of a sport, especially highly organized sport, ludic-capital tends to be fairly well signalled and bounded in space and time. Though there are still areas ripe for negotiation e.g. the player that hits another player just after the final whistle – the type of case where the lack of an absolute notion is clear as the socially constructed understanding of the act and the relative power of institutional v. ludic capital will determine which meaning prevails, till the case goes to appeal…


Dear Thomas

 And this all ways brings my back to a conversation I’ve been having for years with the esteemed Dr Malaby, see:

Thomas and I agree on a lot of things. In particularly Malaby explicitly resists the notion of play as a exception and thinks of it as process. Initially I thought that adding ludic intentionality to Malaby’s definition would make it fit for purpose, but that felt wrong as the notion of ludic is part of what one is trying to define. What’s more I feel that the focus on ‘contingency’ is useful, but meaning is where the action is at.


Putting the definition to work

I’m now going to apply the definition I’ve proposed to a set of related concepts and debates about play. Given the space I’ve already taken up this is going to be really superficial but will indicate the direction in which I’m thinking and the way I apply the theory – of course, you might buy it but apply it completely differently. I kinda hope you do.


The definition of play that I’ve proposed includes the idea of value. I believe that games and sport are forms of play. Hence in the discussion above I have tended to move between them in the examples given.

 As asserted above: Games are normative forms of play. What I mean by this is that in what one might dangerously term pure-play the values that are given to meaning have significance in respect to the in-play and not-play contexts but much less significance, in terms of ranking, in respect of each other. In games the relative value of meanings within the context of play are very important. So the difference between the ball going through the hoop and not going through it is characteristic of a form of game. That is, the norms in question that are the defining characteristic between play and game are internal to the game. It may be, and very often is the case, that these norms gain external recognition (indeed I’ve argued that they can become moral norms: MMO’s as Practices: but that’s not an intrinsic quality.   

This tends to lead to codification in the form of rules and governance. But it is not, as some might argue, the rules that are important but the play norms that they codify. Similarly it’s not the outcome of a game, as such, that is an essential characteristic but the possibility of an outcome distinct from another. I realize I’m splitting hairs here.

Like most other things here this difference between play and game has its clear-cut cases but as a general matter is somewhat fluid as the relative normative value of something within play might ebb and flow, so we might just play within the context of a game and play might turn into a game, it’s all about emphasis and primacy at any given time.   


The definition of play I’m proposing stems from my long discussions about the notion of play and latterly my reading of sports law. Hence where it fits very well is in the area of law and ethics as both of these are, and can be seen to be when one examines the rhetoric, rooted in meaning – often played out in terms of metaphor.

Hence I think that the idea of social-cultural shifts that mean that certain meanings just don’t get traction in an institutional context does explain the mechanics of what is going on in sport and, what should go on in law and computer games (part of the subject of a book I’m currently working on with de Zwart and Humphries).


 Play and Playful

There is a continuum from being playful to play. In playfulness the shifted meaning is only partially or fleetingly dominant or is merely a peer of other meanings, hence playfulness can be easy to shift in and out of.



The definition does not require play to be fun [edit 26 Feb 2011: see my comment here for clafrication that forced play is hollow-play or ostensible-play].

or even voluntary. Someone might be forced to play at gun-point a game that causes them physical pain. Take football as an example - in respect of the process, the thing they are doing would still meet all the criteria above, sphere as ball, points etc etc  thought I can see an argument about dominance of externality in this special case.


Why do we play?

I don’t know. The definition I propose seeks only to provide what I think are the intrinsic characteristics of what play is. There are deep psychological and social reasons for why we play and how we play, I suggest readers look at Sutton Smith and others for these. I’m not sure my definition even helps understand these motivations, but I hope that my emphasis of meaning helps.


Why does play ‘work’ ?

Again, I don’t really know, but I do have some thoughts about why play and so-called gamification have an impact on efficiency out outcomes. Basically its about a change of focus and a the relationship between meaning shifting (making) and learning. But more of that in another post…


Why is play and learning so closely aligned?

Because operational knowledge of meanings is intrinsic to play and the process of negotiation of meaning is very intense knowledge work. There's a lot more to be said here.


Can play be work?

Sure. [edit 26 Feb 2011: maybe]



Under the definition I have proposed cheating becomes an act related to games which is a wilful corruption of meaning for an end that that simultaneously embraces and undermines the norms in operation. Cheating can be seen as one of the boundary conditions of game.


Narratology vs ludology

I don’t think there is any conflict between my proposed definition and these two ends of the spectrum of approaching play. Stories are engines for creating meaning as is play, they are deeply linked. There’s yet another paper in this I think.


Magic Circle

I believe this definition is compatible with a slightly re-defined notion of the magic circle. Critics of the magic circle seem to want to get rid of it in totality because, I think they see it as too absolute and rigid. I think we need to be less literal about Huizinga. As I’ve noted above play is co-existent with other activities this does not in any way reduce the fact of play nor the ludic-capital in respect of, say, institutional power. So the magic circle still seems a very good way of picking out a conceptual space in which play occurs and some of the characteristic of that space.



I submit that many other definitions of play have great value. I propose that the definition I have provided here has utility partially in the fields of law and ethics. To be less modest I hope I have picked out the intrinsic features of play that underlie previous definitions and thus have provided…. One definition to rule them all :)


This is starting to feel like most of a paper and the start of a book so I’ll be very interested in feedback.


[edit 28 Feb 2011

Much thanks to all those that referenced Goffman in their comments. While I was aware of Goffman and a vague notion of frames, well ‘contextual frames’ was what I had in mind, I had not gone back to source. Doing so was a frankly uneasy experience as I found from reading Goffman that my view of play is not only a bit like his, it’s uncannily like it – he uses pretty much the same logic, the same distinctions, the same examples. It was kinda freaky reading it. I came to the initial conclusion that while I still think my analysis is pretty darn clever given I’d not read anything like it, it might be that Goffman has said everything already, so it was pure re-invention on my part. This moved me from uneasy to positively queasy. 

I’ve now read a good chunk of Goffman and a bit of secondary writing, and I’m hoping there are some Goffman (Goffmonians?) scholars around that can help me out.

First, let’s revise some Goff.. 

In text below I’m quoting from the following edition of Goffman’s 1974 work: Goffman, E., Frame analysis: An essay on the organization of experience, Northeastern University Press 1986.

Early on Goffman defines ‘frame’ as: “I assume that definitions of a situation are built up in accordance with principals of organization which govern events – at least social one – and our subjective involvement in them; frame is the word I use to ref to such of these basic elements as I am able to identify” (ibid pp. 10 -11)

Later he talks about a concept called ‘keying’ which he says come in 5 types (ibid pp. 46 – 77):

  1. Make-believe
  2. Contests
  3. Ceremony
  4. Technical re-doings
  5. Regroundings 

Furthermore keying is defined as (ibid p.45)

“a. Systematic transformation of materials already meaningful…”

“b. Participants in the activity are meant to know and openly acknowledge that a systematic alteration is involved…”

“c. Cues will be available for establishing when the transformation is to begin and when it is to end”

“d. Keying is not restricted to events perceived within any particular class of perspectives”

“e. ...fighting and playing around at checkers feels to be much the same sort of thing…”

Goffman also notes that the activities have a “an inward-looking experiential finality”, and participants might enter into a “meaningful universe sustained by the activity” which we might call a “realm’ or possibly ‘world” (ibid p. 46).

Lastly I want to note where Goffman talks about a given instances of keying when: “during any one occasion participants felt that a particular frame prevailed and could be sustained” (ibid p.54)

Bringing frames and keys (or keying) together Goffman starts to add a few more terms: “Given the possibility of a frame that incorporates keyings, it becomes convenient to think of each transformation as adding a layer… the innermost layering, wherein dramatic activity can be at play to engross the participant. The other is the outer most lamentation, the rim, of the frame, as it were, which tells us just what sort of stat in the real world the activity has, whatever the complexity of the inner lamentations” (ibid p. 82).

Some things to note later in the work are, that dealing with out of frame activities Goffman talks about participants ability to “dissattend” (ibid p.202) i.e. withdrawing attention and awareness (ibid).

Lastly I want to note the notion of Frame Breaking where an individual breaks out of what would be expected within a frame through activities including “Flooding” (ibid p. 350) such as ‘dissolving into laughter or tears” (ibid), this might break the fame not only for them but for others. Goffman also talks about a shifted key where a response creates a sort of feedback loop which and produce an “up keyed” and “down keyed” response.  Downkeying being where a play or organized fight gets out of control, Upkeying where things take on a greater sense of unreality e.g. players might start to make larger and larger bets out of all sense of portion (ibid pp 359 – 366).

So, I defined play as “the recognised, negotiated, process of a purposeful shift in the dominant meaning; and contextual attribution of value, of acts.”

I think it would be fair for someone to conclude that I’ve done nothing more than provide an alterative definition of keying and cash things like ‘up keying’ out in very slightly different ways in the context of a limited range of frames i.e. those relating to play, sports etc.

However I don’t read my work as saying exactly the same as Goffman - this is where more knowledgeable scholars need to help me out. Where I see the difference is that in my notion of play I want to put the fluidity of meaning and value, and the continual negotiation of this as central to the theory. I certainly see that there is an overall frame or context in which the play is occurring and that this can be broken by spoil-sports (who break the frame). But the notion of frame, like the notion of magic-circle in the original seems to me to be too rigid to account for the nuance of individual actions and interactions. In a sense I don’t see negotiation as something that is happening just in edge cases and having a binary outcome of play or not-play, rather it seems to me that the process of negotiation is one of the things that is sustaining and re-configuring play at each instant.

 But, does anyone read Goffman as saying pretty much the same thing and I’m merely trying to save face (see what I did there) or thinking of the rigidity of frames in the physical world and carrying this over conceptually?] 

Comments (18)

People play online


…they play with each other. Peer-to-peer. Person-to-Person.

To some, this is a revelation. But we will return to that.

First, back to me…

I’ve not blogged properly like forever, well except for the other day, so this will be a splurge:-

Thanks to my wonderful friend Dr Aleks Krotoski and my equally wonderful co-author Dr Melissa de Zwart, Dr de Zwart and I have a paper out in the current special edition of the International Journal of Internet Research Ethics Issue 3.1, December 2010.

The paper is titled: The Duty To ‘Play’: Ethics, EULAs and MMOs. It examines some relationships between: play, contract law, criminal law, sports law, and research ethics (I’ll put the abstract as a comment to this post).

As great minds think alike Josh Fairfield, of this parish, has been working in a similar area. I’ve not read his paper yet, but you should:

The basic idea is one I’ve been formulating in bars around the world for some years now, so if you’ve been to a conference with me you’ve probably heard it in its drunken form – the paper is the sober version with the great help of a very clever lawyer.

For many years it has struck me as curious is that we don’t arrest boxers. What’s more this goes completely unremarked upon (in the main).

It has also struck me as curious that notions of human rights have been absent, or at least marginalised, in the discourse about virtual worlds in particular and online practices generally. I am happy to say that this is now not the case in the wider inter-governmental policy debate about the Internet (full disclosure: this is a debate that I now focus much of my time on through the Virtual Policy Network (tVPN) which I founded).

In the case of virtual worlds, issues have tied us up in knots of property this… and contract that... Pretty much every paper I’ve written in the area has objected to this rush to view all issues through the lens of commoditization. To a degree the discourse has been forced on the academy, as it is the frame that commercial actors have chosen to exercise power, so it is only right we debated it. And debated it we have. I’ve always felt that we have pushed human rights to one side but I’ve long suspected we can throw them a life belt in the form of sports law.

So why sports law?

Because it is where play meets statute.

And chaos does not ensue.

To dig just a little deeper into this – play came before law. Now, while much of the codification and institutionalisation of modern (Western) sports took place in the late 19C in a particular socio-cultural situation, specially the English class system, the hierarchy of heuristics and the interfaces between layers of governance structures is largely the model we use today (see, for example, applicability of R v. Coney (1882) 8 QBD 534).

What this set of legal-cultural structures does is fit around sport. In a sense sport, as a form of play, just happens, these structures are careful not to get in the way other than where exceptions occur, and then (on the whole) the right structures intervene in appropriate ways. From referees to criminal courts there are layers of sanction appropriate the infraction. What’s more much of this exist within an international dimension.

To put it another way, law, and its interpretation in the context of the cultural practice we call sport allows people do things which in one sense are very odd e.g. hitting each other some time so one person dies; but in other senses is the least odd thing we do (see animal play etc).

At the same time law establishes limits. But these are fluid, negotiated, and they are rooted in practice and tradition rather than simplistically imposed upon it from outside. A foundational case in modern law that applies a legal heuristic to this is Regina v Cey 48 C.C.C. (3d) 480, which concerns the legal boundary of violence in ice hockey. The judgment and established tests around the limits of what ice hockey players can reasonably consent to, what they can reasonably expect to occur to them and what they can reasonable do taking into account written rules and practice. Using the logic from Cey - try to bring action against someone for pushing you over in an ice hockey match people will laugh at you, if you do so in respect of seniors’ bowls people will not.
Returning briefly to virtual worlds, there are strong parallels. Some of the things that go on in virtual worlds can been seen simply as age old play using new tools. As such there are some questions that seem best answered by looking first at the practices that occur and in particular the reasonable expectations that actors may have. Indeed we have a growing number of cases where courts have done this. For example cases where someone has alleged a ‘theft’ of virtual goods. Some providers have held to the line that the contract and IP law is all, that there was nothing of the player’s to steal hence they have no duty to act. However courts, mainly in Asia – but increasingly (in some criminal matters) in the West – are starting to find that what looks to those who care to be theft is indeed theft. That is practices, their attendant semiotics and values, have legal primacy. Not contract. Not property. But what people actually do.

I view Virtual worlds court cases as important because of what they say about our view (especially our legal view) of what it means to be a human in a mediated environment. Hence cases that reduce all rights to property, that reduce speech to IP, etc worry me. So where does the EULA overturning cases point?

If you hung out with me in bars last year, you’d hear me going on about how we need to bring the notion of play into human rights discourse. This was sparked-off  by Prof Bartle and I talking with the Council of Europe about their recent interpretations of the European convention on Human Rights, in particular: Human Rights Guidelines for Online Service Providers (see tVPN page for links and summary). While I like the Council of Europe’s general stance on rights and their eagerness to look at areas where little rights work has been done, including ‘emerging’ technologies like games. I do not think that in this case they have understood that online play represent a cultural shift that has profound impacts on in interpretation of rights. Here is why…

People Play online.

They play with each other. Peer-to-peer. Person-to-Person.

This is important.

I kept telling people this in bars.

Let’s think of acting - just like we don’t arrest boxers, we don’t hold actors to be bound to a contract that we might clearly see them make on a stage in front of our very eyes. We don’t arrest actors in Schindler's List for anti-Semitism. Acts are not just acts they have semiotic content - they are meanings in context, in other context they have different meanings. Again, just like the physical act of hitting someone or tackling them to the ground.

Another important similarity between sport and acting is that the way we should interpret acts is heavily signalled to us. There is often a theatre, a stage, costumes, a beginning and end. Yes, if you will, a magic circle is well defined and protects the acts within its bounds.
But what happens when the signs are vague and hard to read? When the practice, particularly the play practice, is well established by those that engage in it but may be completely unrecognised by others? Don’t we still have to protect it? Don’t the actors still have a right to play? Or does there need to be an audience to make play legitimate?

At this point people looked at me blankly and told me this is a lovely idea but it has no application.

Then someone tried to take a plane in the UK. But there was snow. We don’t ‘do’ snow here. 

Specifically (details and quotes via Jack of Kent), Paul Chambers on 6 January 2010 tweeted: "Robin Hood Airport is closed. You've got a week... otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!"

On the 10th May 2010 he was convicted of an offence of sending, by means of a public electronic communications network, a message that was grossly offensive, or of an indecent, obscene, or menacing character contrary to Section 1271(A) and (3) of the Communications Act 2003.

“We are satisfied, on the evidence, that the message in question is menacing in its content and obviously so. It is difficult to imagine anything more clear. It fits the Oxford English Dictionary definition and the observations of Lord Justice Sedley, to which we have earlier referred. It is, in our judgement, menacing per se.”
Although the offence does not require the message to be seen, we take the view that an ordinary person seeing this, and we have no evidence that anyone did, would see it in that way and be alarmed.”

To anyone that follows Mr Chambers I’m sure it was clear that the tweet was a joke. Indeed to an average user of twitter it is pretty clear several hash tag based campaigns evolved around the so-called ‘twitter’ joke.

In a sense the judgment is good as it seeks to include the view of the ‘ordinary person’ – however of course it fails on two counts. First it does not seem to be the actual view of ordinary people but the view that a judge has of what ordinary people might have. Second, is an ‘ordinary’ person the right person to use as a yard stick. That seems like using me to judge what is good sushi. Ordinary does not come into it, what is needed is qualified, as the very point of a playful act (in this case the linguistic play of a joke) is that it’s a play between the teller and the receiver (there may be Lenny Bruce parallels here but (a) I don’t know the details of the case (b) US 1st amendment law is very specific in its sense of what constitutes speech and related rights).

Which brings us to a broad question of what rights we have to play where the games are between relatively small groups of people but occur in online spaces that have the odd property of being not fully public or private – a kind of online non-place to use Augé’s term.

Lastly this also touches on the other broad thesis that I’ve been mulling over for some time: that more and more we are returning to the ethics of the village. Where indeed people might do things that are kinda private to them but also kinda in the view of a wider community but possibly in view of people that know little to nothing of their customs.

As more and more this is what we do, in chat-rooms, MMOs (RP particularly), MUDs, Twitter, Facebook etc. We do things in small groups that when other see, they don’t ‘see’ or they go ‘huh’ or ‘wtf’ or ‘I’m reporting that’. Of course I’m not saying that any two or more people can call any practice a game and literally get away with murder. No, as sports law tells us there are bounds and there are ways to deal with them. In the main this is not what we are doing.

In short, when human rights are applied to online spaces we must remember that what we are looking at may be play and that makes a difference.


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Giving Up the Fantasy

Ksmn714l A major newspaper just reported on the sad moment when Bill Holcomb finally had to leave his fantasy world behind. Bill, in his 70s, had spent better than 20 years in a virtual world and finally got too old to keep it up. He had to retire. He had to step back out into reality and make the transition from Hero to Everyman. He had to experience The Return from the Hero's Journey. It's what the enemies of games wish we would all do, once and for all. Give up on the dream, stop living in a pretend world where we are somehow special and significant and capable of great things. Return to the real world, trudge through the day like everyone else; limit encounters with the heroic to the TV. Watch it, we are told, but don't live it. Look, don't breathe.

Mr. Holcomb's virtual world was a baseball fantasy camp. He was pretending to be a shortstop, not a sorceror. Interestingly, the paper's treatment was poignant and sympathetic rather than dismissive and critical. They didn't say he wasted his time or his money. They didn't insist that he was crazy for paying real money for a virtual experience.

It's not a little contrast. Fantasy Football has 18 million players. Playing with virtual football players is not subject to social criticism, while playing with virtual warriors is.

Comments (1)

Intended and Unintended Consequences (or the Nightmares of Dr. Bombay)

I am with A360 on the current child safety debacle, and it raises a conversation that needs to be had (and re-had) before we get a whole lot further. In 1998's My Tiny Life (free pdf) , Julian Dibell  chronicles, among other things,  the experiences of a virtual rape victim and (her) MOO community.  Seminal on multiple levels, the work explores many aspects of identity, ethics and permission in a post-modern, techno-centric age.  

So here's the question.  In an exodus recession, were do we draw the lines with economies made up of adult, child, and child-like beings in virtual worlds? With their child-like or grown-up avatars?  With AI(s), inhabited or not?  What's appropriate, what's not?  What's criminal, what's not?  What is slavery?  Labor?  How do we simultaneously allow freedom(s) and conversations and experiments and deviations and enterprise, and protect from harm?  Does hacking or enslaving one's or another(s) virtual being(s) to elicit behavior other than intended by the owner consitute criminal activity? At what point(s) are we complicit?  Which pathways of influence do we fear?  Applaud? What precedents exist? What forms can teaching a lesson take?  Is it/can it be therapy? Is it 'promoting hatred'to discuss such things openly, or is opening the can of worms a good thing overall?  Let's summarize and rule.


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The Gnostic Revolution

From my colleague Mark Deuze:
From TN's Armchair Philosophy Department: Gnosis means Knowledge. Not knowledge but KNOWLEDGE, you know? Understanding of Things Eternal, of the Forms, of the Ephemeral, of the Infinite, of the Capitalized.

Gnostics are people who Know. Gnosticism is a school, or a philosophy, or a frame, or what have you, grounded on the notion that there are things to be Known out there that are only poorly reflected in the "real" world. Indeed, you might identify a gnostic by whether she puts scare quotes around "real." In some extreme forms, gnosticism holds that the "real" world is not only only "real," but also bad, corrupt, yucky. All the good stuff is ephemeral and infinite; the stuff we can handle every day stinks in comparison, therefore a person should spend her life trying to stay connected to the Infinite and reject the ick that lies close to hand. 

Tolkien expresses a gnostic sensibility when he writes that a man who wakes up and finds himself in prison cannot be blamed for trying to get out and go home. For Tolkien, the prison is the real world, and home, for Tolkien, is Heaven. Some religious teaching aligns quite nicely with gnosticism, urging followers to seek Truths only within. Other religions emphasize that the world is a good place and absolutely deserves our attention. Moreover, when some people run around claiming that they have a Special Insight to The Beyond, all too often the Movement results in other people losing their money, their time, or their lives.

Gnosticism invites rejection of the real world and its status quo. A new conflict along these lines is going to play out quite directly through the emergence of virtual worlds.

If I were a Gnostic, having determined that the real world completely and totally stinks, it would be a natural move to create an environment better aligned with the Forms, as I understand them to be, that is, as my Knowledge has Revealed them to Me in the Infinite Void of Capitalized Stuff. I would then be quite comfortable spending every waking moment there. Moreover, I would urge others to do the same; I would raise that urging to the level of a Plea, an Evangelization, an Awakening, a Great Big Capitalized Movement inviting people to escape to the virtual. This of course would run head-on into those who incessantly bleat for the real, saying we must always get a real job, a real relationship, a real degree, a real politics, and so on. No scare quotes there.

It's not a new conflict, but Gnosticism now has a tool of programmatic implementation that it has never had before. Its ability to cause genuine social change is enhanced by currents in technology. Were we all to become Gnostics, we could quite easily exit the real world, rather completely, down to a few bodily functions. Gnosticism has the tools to foment a significant social upheaval.

One senses the emerging connection between tools and philosophy in the passionate self-justifications of all-night gamers and inveterate role-players (including myself at times). "What is so great about reality?" we ask. "What is indeed so wonderful about this outer world we have made?" "Exactly why is it better for me to sit in the suppurating hell of rush hour on the 91 freeway than in front of a computer?"

Well, that's a good point, and as long as abominations like the Southern California Highway System exists, gnostics will have a good case for escaping. A Gnostic Revolution might be the spur we need, to fix the real world before we lose everyone to the Forms of their choosing. Moreover, a Gnostic Revolution might be a good antidote to the Materialism of our day.

On the other hand, too much Gnosis is bad for the soul. The world is good and we ought to take care of it. Moreover, life in a computer alone is not a good life; we need to touch other people, not merely talk to them. Thus if there's to be a Gnostic Revolution, let's hope it runs out of gas before we all end up in pods.

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Game Design: The Art of the Human?

I can't get it out of my head or understand it when it is in there. Please discuss, share.

Artists :: Art as Game Designers :: People.

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Terra Novans Interviewed for Paper on MMO Research Ethics

Thomas, Constance and I (among others) were lucky enough to be interviewed for a fabulous paper by Miami University's Heidi McKee and James Porter on the ethical challenges associated with conducting research in MMO spaces. It has just been published in the International Journal of Research Ethics.  Woot!

Comments (7)

Game as Cultural Form, Play as Disposition

William James I've just posted a piece to SSRN about play. In the past I have focused on games as a culturally-shaped activity (what we anthropologists would call a "cultural form"), and in the course of that I have made explicit efforts to decouple games from the concept of play (see here, for example). I argued that it is not very useful to see play as an activity, with games as a subset of it, and suggested that play more usefully denotes a disposition, a way of approaching the world.

In doing that I wasn't trying to argue that games and play are not related to each other, but rather that we need to move beyond seeing them as intrinsically linked (where the question of, for example, whether something is a game boils down to whether it brings about a playful experience). The primary motivation was to make room for an approach to games on their own terms, but the issue of play has been simmering with me for a long time. The posted essay is the result – a long-planned attempt to articulate play as a disposition.

In the piece I look at how anthropology as a discipline stumbled a bit in thinking about play, but simultaneously managed to develop a useful approach to ritual. This approach avoided making the litmus test of a ritual whether it brought about religious experience, and therein is a lesson for those of us studying games and play. Pushing further in this direction, I assert that the ideas of William James and the pragmatist philosophers in general may hold the key to moving forward in our understanding of games and play.

Here is an excerpt (the many footnotes excised here, for convenience):

Huizinga set the tone for much of the inquiry into games and society in the latter half of the twentieth century with his book Homo Ludens. This book bears much responsibility for fostering the unfortunate view, developed more rigidly still by Caillois, that games are culturally sequestered and consequence-free activities. Still, here as in many such midcentury works of cultural history, illuminating contradictions abound. As Huizinga’s argument develops, near the end of his text he focuses on something quite different: “Civilization is, in its earliest phases, played. It does not come from play…it arises in and as play, and never leaves it.” Huizinga is much more enlightening when he speaks of the “play-element” (just the type of experience or disposition that interests us here), rather than of “play” as a (separable, safe) activity. For him the play-element -- marked by an interest in uncertainty and the challenge to perform that arises in competition, by the legitimacy of improvisation and innovation that the premise of indeterminate circumstances encourages -- is opposed above all to utilitarianism and the drive for efficiency. Caillois likewise, despite his misleading claim that games are occasions of “pure waste,” recognizes the centrality of contingency in games. Huizinga felt that the play element had been on the wane in western civilization since the eighteenth century, threatened by the drive for efficiency and the routinization of experience it brought.

     These tantalizing recognitions of the contingent nature of experience in the world direct us to sources and analogues in philosophical thought. American pragmatist philosophers broke from the Western tradition in their rejection of an ultimately ordered universe: for them the universe was, as Louis Menand put it, “shot through with contingency.” The pragmatists were not alone in this insight. The phenomenologists also gestured toward it, notably in Martin Heidegger’s concept of “thrownness” (which was developed in anthropology by Michael Jackson). The ideas of “practice theory,” as Ortner described it, are also consistent with this picture of the world as an ongoing and open-ended process: Pierre Bourdieu, Marshall Sahlins, Michel DeCerteau, and Anthony Giddens each have sought in different ways to overcome determinative pictures of the world. Although the scope of this essay allows only a broad description of these connections, I suggest that we are at a point where, in recognizing these commonalities, we can begin to forge a useful concept of play that will inform our understanding of experience in a uncertain world.

     What are the features of play as a disposition toward the world in all its possibility? First, it is an attitude that is totalizing in the sense that it reflects an acknowledgment of how events, however seemingly patterned or routinized, can never be cordoned off from contingency entirely. As the scientist James Clerk Maxwell put it, the “metaphysical doctrine that from the same antecedents follow the same consequents... is not of much use in a world like this, in which the same antecedents never again concur, and nothing ever happens twice.” The earthier popular sentiment in American English, “Shit happens,” signals the same conviction. Second, the disposition of play is marked by a readiness to improvise, a quality captured by Bourdieu in his development of Mauss’ concept of the habitus. To be practically equipped to act, successfully or not, amid novel circumstances is the condition of being a social actor at all, Bourdieu argues. One can also note Dewey’s argument that uncertainty is inherent in practice, and that it is in contrast to this practical open-endedness that theoretical claims to certainty seek to marginalize and denigrate practical knowledge. Finally, play is a disposition that makes the actor an agent within social processes, albeit in an importantly restrained way; the actor may affect events, but this agency is not confined to the actor’s intent, or measured by it. Rather, it allows for unintended consequences of action. This is consistent with Oliver Wendell Holmes' “bettabilitarianism,” his answer to utilitarianism; every time we act, we effectively make a bet with the universe which may or may not pay off.

I look forward to any comments.

P.S: I am moved to post this by the kick in the pants given to us here at TN by Keith Ellis, who has reminded us to continue to involve TN in our thinking through of these issues, even as our changing circumstances tend to sap our time and pull our attention elsewhere. Many thanks, Keith.

[UPDATE: As with some other posts on TN, the comments for this post have become borked, and are not showing up properly. My apologies to those who have tried to post, Chris most recently. -TMM]

[UPDATE II: Comments are fixed! TN has now incorporated the code that allows you to navigate through multiple pages of comments. See the "Next" link at the end of their first page (after 25 comments). Huge thank you to Greg for sorting this out this week! -TMM]

Comments (42)

Structures of Governance

From a governance perspective – what the key structural differences between Virtual Worlds and the Internet and what does this mean for national governments?

As part of the work that the Virtual Policy Network think tank is doing I’m going to be part of the UK Government delegation the to Internet Governance Forum in Hyderabad later this year where I'm supporting the organization of the workshop on virtual worlds (if you are a virtual world provider and interested in being a part of this please contact me via tVPN). It looks like I’ll be also be giving a short presentation on virtual worlds and particularly, as this is an ‘internet governance’ forum, the key differences between virtual worlds and ‘the internet’ as these pertain to governance.

I  thought I’d run through an argument here for TNers to take apart before my eyes.

At the top level I want to take a fairly technologically deterministic approach to this. Then potentially problematize this in latter debate or other wise. Hence while I’m well aware that Actor Network Theory instructs us that technological artefacts are not simply what they are, nor are their uses or regulation a given – we do have a set of current artefact-practice networks that we can discuss on the terms that have emerged. Of course we can then argue that these are not necessary (in a philosophical sense).

So, what we have at had is the internet and virtual worlds. What, then, is what?

First we have the internet. As TN readers will know, the net is far from the formless cloud that most people imagine it is. The internet is just that an interconnected set of networks that are controlled by individual organizations the basic unit of management being the Autonomous System (AS). These are then connected using standard protocols that pass data from one to the other, the key things here being the Boarder Gateway Protocol (BGP) that controls these interconnections (and the advertisement of routs - that is who connects to who) and peering / transit arguments – which are the commercial agreements between any two network owners who interconnect (transit being paid for peering not – on the assumption that two peers pass traffic to each other in roughly equal measure). These networks are broadly ranked in terms of size, the Tier 1 networks being the small number of big global network, Tier 2 being regional networks and Tier 3 being your local ISP. Physically all this sits on a set of actual networks such as big under sea optical cables owned by yet another set of players who often host many or the ISPs. There are then interconnection points between networks, access points and ‘last mile’ connections i.e the wire or wireless to your door.

All of the above works because of a set of engineering and governance principles. There are high degrees of mutual dependency and commonality of protocol. Broad principles such as end-to-end (the idea the net is ‘neutral’ and that protocol specific stuff sits at the edge i.e. clients and servers) are applied – thought this is not universal and in some areas (especially the US) there are on-going debates over issues such as ‘net neutrality’.

This means that there is a technical, organizational and structural difference between who runs the network and who, runs a given application and who uses it. This in turn has give rise to governance principles and law. A key one being the notion of ‘common carrier’ that is if you are neutral in respect of the content you carry, you are not legally responsible for it e.g. the phone company is not responsible for what you say on the phone. Again, of course, such principles are more complex as carriers have legal duties to be reactive in terms of content control, and in some cases (an increasingly in some areas of the world) pro-active (c.f. ISP filtering, Viacom vs YouTube etc.).

Touching briefly on more sociological issues I would argue that the relationship between internet and community is a broad one. ISP’s are, and the internet can facilitate and even give rise to communities, but one would not, in any strong sense, want to point to internet users as an identifiable community. Indeed the use of the net is increasingly invisible to us. I press a button on my phone and a picture I just took ends up on Flickr – it used the net, but frankly I don’t care.

Then we have virtual worlds. From the context above, a virtual world is simply a n other application. On the whole, virtual worlds are very different from the internet (though here I will focus on what I term the metaverse model of virtual worlds, as opposed to the emerging highly distributed model that Vast Park, MetaPlace and the like are using).

Virtual words are client sever applications that use either largely proprietary protocols and clients (SL, WoW etc) or standard things like Flash / Java /clients (Habbo etc). Virtual worlds sit on top of the internet (or could be access via direct connection) and are highly centralized in terms of control of servers, client, assets, registration databases etc. Virtual worlds are not interconnected. Management of virtual worlds, in terms of technical control and customer support falls into three rough models global (EvE, There, SL etc); Regional (WoW, LOTRO), National (Habbo). Virtual worlds have identifiable and self-identifying communities.

Given the above, I would suggest that the key differences between the net and virtual worlds – when looking from a very high perspective of global governance structures, are:
- the net derives its nature and  key benefits from being interconnected, global and ‘neutral’ (in terms of connection, content, protocol)

- virtual worlds derive their key benefits from creating ‘spaces’ with varying degrees of structure (often those structures being ones intended to generate game play) in which communities form

One might also want to differentiate between Virtual Worlds and some other internet based applications such as email. While one’s individual email servers is an island on the net that one connects to directly, email works because of the network effect of fact that individual servers can find and talk to each other.

Now, at this level of argument, if I were a national government I would not see any great reason why I should not regulate most virtual worlds on a national basis whereas I would see why I should be very careful about the application of nation law to the internet and would look to bodes such as the IETF, ICANN, IGF etc. After all, Habbo is national and there seems no strong argument why WoW etc should not also be, and why we could not either break up Second Life or strictly zone it around jurisdictional boundaries.

Personally, I think that one of the social goods that virtual worlds can bring about is the fact that they can create truly multi-national communities (on this point I have big issues with WoW etc making it hard for people to create global guild (I happen to be a member of AIE probably the most global guild in WoW)).

However, I think there need to be a number of strong arguments or more meat to the above argument, if the industry feels it should make a case against national regulation. Though I note there is a purely economic argument against it e.g. could something like ATITD even exist if it has to operate on a national basis? Of course on the other hand it might be the case that Virtual Worlds should operate like bricks and mortar companies – indeed we might say that the savings from greater clarity of regulation would be greater than the costs of national sharding (noting that data centres / customer service etc could still be centralized to a large degree).

So – what have I got wrong (my memory of the internet is rusty) and are what are the arguments around global / regional / national governance (on either side) that I’ve missed?

Comments (28)

Maxwell's Hammer

James Clerk Maxwell, image via Wikimedia Commons, time to time here on TN I've delved into methodological territory, and in my last effort, quite some time ago, I focused on the charges of "anecdotalism" that qualitative research in the social sciences sometimes faces, and argued that generalizable claims can be generated out of such methods. But, in retrospect, that piece did not confront the root of the problem directly, given the degree to which I do not there question generalizability itself as the core aim of scientific inquiry.[fn 1] As research on virtual worlds continues to increase, and as the different parts of the academy ramp up their efforts to fight for their funding (and perhaps thereby seek to discredit other approaches), it seems worthwhile (and consistent with the ecumenical spirit that largely characterizes TN) to consider how scientific the pursuit of other kinds of claims apart from the general are.[fn 2] And that's where James Clerk Maxwell comes in...

When it came to generalizability, Maxwell (yes, that Maxwell) was ready to wield a not-so-subtle hammer against those he saw as seeking to hitch science to a positivist view of the world. He said (in a speech the text of which is available here):

It is a metaphysical doctrine that from the same antecedents follow the same consequents...[I]t is not of much use in a world like this, in which the same antecedents never again concur, and nothing ever happens twice.

By highlighting the irreducibly contingent nature of the world, Maxwell joined Charles Darwin in a view of scientific inquiry that saw its provisionality as perfectly consistent with a world that was not, in the last analysis, law-driven and ordered. Instead, they argued that the proper aim of science was to explore the processes that are in place under different conditions, with an awareness that those conditions never perfectly reproduce themselves (for Maxwell, this anti-positivism was also tied to his religious views).[fn 3]

In a sense, all academic research is based on critical observation of such situated events and circumstances. It may be concerned, yes, with making provisional comparisons across them when possible, but it is just as often concerned with understanding the specific processes in place that led to unique outcomes not generalizable elsewhere. For this reason attempts to trumpet generalizability as the primary (or exclusive) aim of the social sciences (where I see it happening quite often) not only marginalize particularist work by historians, sociologists, anthropologists, economists, and others, but (ironically, to me) thereby also seek to exclude a vast swath of the natural sciences (such as much work in paleontology, geology, and biology, to name a few).

As work in the sociology of science has shown, expert critical evaluation (usually associated with the humanities), observation, and hypothesis-testing are all used by all branches of the natural sciences. Efforts to claim special status for the natural sciences (or any field) by pointing to hypothesis-testing ignore not only this, but also the fact that, as Maxwell suggests, hypothesis-testing in the absolute sense does not, in fact, exist (what you have instead are very very very very close approximations of it, and this is only possible for certain kinds of conditions).

What this means for research on virtual worlds is that we must be wary of how the drive to fight for resources may prompt researchers to claim that a certain kind of project (generalization, particularization), or a certain kind of methodology is "scientific" (or, one might imagine, "humanistic," although the comparative lack of money makes this more of a localized danger!), while others are not. A broad view of science, in all its variety, and, ultimately, of academic inquiry, should inoculate us from this kind of divisive maneuvering. Critical observation, exploratory research, and hypothesis-driven work are all going to be vital components of understanding what virtual worlds are all about.

[fn 1] Alert TN reader "Rex" (aka Alex Golub) pointed out this issue in the comments on that post, and I have long wanted to give that observation a proper response.

[fn 2] I am also moved to write this because there is something of an ongoing conversation about scientific "truth" and methodologies here on TN (one example).

[fn 3] For further critical discussions of the limitations of generalizability see the Preface of Anthony Giddens' The Constitution of Society, and Chapter 8 of Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue.

Comments (21)

Legitimate Questions

One of my longstanding interests in studying virtual worlds is governance and legitimacy. How are virtual worlds governed, and to what extent is this governance legitimate? When we think about political legitimacy, we can start to see a key difference between how political institutions have established their legitimate rule in the past, and how the multiple new institutions of governance in virtual worlds go about it. In particular, I am curious about how games may be making larger and larger contributions to political legitimacy in virtual worlds. To what extent are the outcomes that games generate not only legitimate in reference to the game (a valid, just, or fair win, if you will) but also contributing in some way to the legitimacy of associated institutions, such as guilds, gamemakers, and others?

The paradigmatic example of an institution which faces this question of political legitimacy is the modern bureaucratic state. As Max Weber famously observed, the state is the entity "that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory" (1946:78, emphasis in original; online version here). The legitimacy is important, of course, because ruling by illegitimate force is costly -- one wants to release the hounds only when necessary. But on what grounds is this legitimacy claimed? The bureaucratic state, by itself, can refer only to its procedures as right in and of themselves, and this is a weak foundation on which to construct a sense of belonging and legitimate rule amongst a citizenry. The nation, however, is a rich font of such meanings, containing as it does arguments about shared language, culture, history, and territory (all in the context of an "us" that is not "them"). So the story of the nation-state (as it is usually called in the literature) is one that involves an intimate relationship between the institutional apparatus of the state and the symbolic resource of the "nation". (NB: I am collapsing to an unforgivable degree what is an enormous body of scholarship on the state and its relationship to the nation -- this list is a place to start, at least.)

For virtual worlds, however, there is no central metaphor of the nation already in place. Certainly, as they persist they are generating shared languages, meanings, and practices, to a certain degree, and one sees attempts to port offline categories of territorial belonging into virtual worlds, with varying degrees of success. But I have noticed something else, and it leads me to ask whether games and the indeterminate outcomes they generate can be a source of political legitimacy.

Recently, a graduate student of mine, Krista-Lee Malone, posted a paper at ssrn (Malone 2007) based on the master's thesis she completed at UW-Milwaukee. The thesis was about hardcore raiding guilds in World of Warcraft, and the paper looks comparatively at the adoption of DKP systems by two guilds. Malone suggests that DKP systems create "player obligation to the guild through a rationalized system intended to measure commitment" and that they therefore constitute a core practical component of how guilds as institutions establish legitimate rule. The gameness is relevant in DKP, because player performance in the game is a factor (50 DKP MINUS!).

Similarly, when doing research at Linden Lab I noticed a number of attempts to deploy games as mechanisms to generate outcomes that could stand as legitimate and, importantly, be an alternative to, for example, top-down decision-making, or democratic voting. One such attempt was through the application of the Elo Rating System.

Second Life is a good example of a project – and Linden Lab has been a good example of a company – that is deeply informed by the “left-libertarian” attitude toward technology and its promise which has shaped everything from the structure of the early internet to the proliferation of personal computers, but about which I do not have sufficient space to say more here (see Turner, 2006). Suffice it to say that in a political sense Linden Lab in 2005 was characterized by an almost overpowering faith in technology, matched only by a similarly monumental suspicion of vertical authority – especially bureaucratic authority, although charismatic authority was suspect as well. The paradox for Linden Lab was how to realize the ongoing creation of Second Life in a way that was consistent with their idealized vision of individual creativity and liberty, while remaining indisputably and unavoidably the single most powerful institutional player on the scene.

Over the course of my field research at Linden Lab, I discovered that this tension between vertical control and horizontal, “emergent” governance was not only a key to understanding their struggles to make Second Life, but also of their struggle to make themselves as an organization. For as Second Life grew in size and complexity, so did Linden Lab, and this tension came to be the preoccupying focus of their own organizational lives as well. This preoccupation was the result of the same politically-charged disposition, one which tended to treat top-down or vertical decision-making as the antithesis of empowered and creative collaboration. As people at Linden Lab witnessed their creation and their company growing, this fear of a loss of liberty reached, at times, a fervent pitch, and in this ongoing predicament they are not alone in high-tech circles. Google, as recent coverage by several journalists has revealed, is similarly shaped by a disposition that combines a deep faith in technology with a rejection of vertical authority. Julian Dibbell has also recently charted the strange advent of what he calls ludo-capitalism, wherein labor experience is increasingly framed as (and constituted to be) a game. We should therefore be eager to understand how the entities that have their hands deep into the recesses of our digital lives are going about trying to solve their version of the challenge that famously preoccupied nation-states: how to establish legitimate institutional power in the face of practical and undeniable imperfections and limitations.

Elo rating systems are a group of statistical methods for calculating the relative skill levels of large numbers of players for two player games. Based on a system developed originally by Arpad Elo for generating a ranking of chess players, they have since been both modified and improved within chess and adapted for other two-player games. A ranking system generates a rating for each player, and is seen as legitimate in the degree to which these ratings seem to accord with the matches that do manage to get played. Thus, a key aim of these systems is also to predict the outcomes of matches between rated players, and its accuracy is thereby judged (and thus the system may also come to be modified). In this way, Elo rating systems generate an emergent ordered ranking, and this emergent quality made this technique an attractive solution for the challenge that faced Linden Lab: how to generate a ranked order of prioritization from a heterogenous collection of company tasks.

In mid-2005, one developer at Linden Lab, himself quite familiar with chess ranking systems, set about to code onto Jira a system built on Elo’s algorithm. He created a webpage that pitted two (and only two) tasks against each other for Lindens to choose. These “matches” would over time generate a list of highest-ranked to lowest-ranked Jira tasks. Rosedale enthusiastically supported this effort, and in two days the programmer had created the system and sent an email over the company-wide email list containing a link to the site. Upon arriving at the site, one saw a simple presentation of two Jira tasks, including each one’s title, unique Jira number, and a brief description. Employees were simply to pick one of the two (or pick a “draw”) and the system would record that match result and generate another match of two more tasks (soon after they were each asked to pick winners of ten such “matches” a day). Many Lindens tried out the system with some enthusiasm, as it seemed relatively un-“gameable”. Hundreds of matches were “played” in a short span of time (a matter of days), and a ranked list was generated. For Rosedale, this was a step on the road toward realizing an ideal of company decision-making from the ground up. For others, the system was suspect at the point of participation; presented with two entirely heterogenous tasks (add a urinal to the men’s bathroom vs. add a web browser to the Second Life client), they felt that picking between them was nonsensical. It was eventually abandoned in practice and other game-based (and non-game-based) initiatives to tap into the wisdom of Linden Lab’s crowd were tried.

So, I am left with a lingering question. Was the ultimate illegitimacy of the Elo-ranking system due to something deeper -- the fact that it was an attempt to incorporate a game into corporate decision-making? The suggestion I would like to make is that, for institutions, games are in fact quite difficult to domesticate, precisely because they can generate outcomes that challenge or outright contradict any existing, more coherent, narratives. And I would add to this another issue, just as important, and that is how the legitimacy of a game's outcomes is directly related to the community of its players or the institution which controls it (as in the case of organized sports). When games are mobilized for purposes other than the playing in and of themselves, who gets to interpret the outcomes, and say what they mean? The sponsoring institution, or the participating players? To me, these are central questions as we see more and more institutions attempting to govern through games. While Julian has rightly focused on what this means for labor and exploitation, in the Marxian sense, I think there is a related (Weberian) question that we must attend to as well -- how are institutions learning to use games to establish legitimate governance?


Malone, Krista-Lee. (2007). Dragon kill points: The economics of power gamers. Available at SSRN:

Turner, Fred. (2006). From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Weber, Max. (1946). From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, eds. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Comments (20)

The Lifetime to Master

It's taken me five years of on-again, off-again but often substantial playing of poker (don't worry, mostly not cash games) to really understand some of the game's concepts that I read about when I was playing but didn't properly understand.

Ludological scholars are right to insist, in this respect and others, that games require attention as games, that they have a character or nature that is intrinsic to games and not to texts or performances or sociality. Poker has a "deep game" that is not spelled out in the rules, but which powerfully sorts out the losers and the winners, given a sufficient number of rounds of play.

What's the "deep game" of virtual worlds, those that have at least some game-like character?

Poker really has two deep games that are not visible in its explicit rules. The first doesn't take a lot of play to understand or appreciate, and some players can never get good at it because they lack the capacity to do so. That's the ability to read another player's patterns of play and emotional posture, to look for his or her characteristic "tells". This is a cultural game, a social game: if you're good at it, it's because you can import sociality or emotional intelligence into the infrastructure provided by poker's rules. You can even do it online, where there are no faces or bodies to look at. The game's rules still play a role in using this skill correctly, and so does luck in terms of where the loose and tight players in a game are in relationship to oneself. I have gotten a bit better over time in reading other players, but people can be geniuses at that aspect of the game in a day, or never get any better at it in a decade.

The other deep game has to do with the value of position. This is structural, it's a consequence of the ruleset, but it's not visible in the rules per se. Every poker guide and handbook you can read will lay out this aspect of the game, but I think it is very hard to understand fully how and why it matters until you have played  a great deal, and played in games where players have at least some respect for the stakes on the board. (E.g., the chips are real money, or played for real money.)  In hold'em poker, there are hands you simply don't want to play ever from some positions that might be worth playing aggressively from another position, in dynamic relationship to the size of your own stack of chips versus others on the board.


Virtual worlds have a sociality game deeply embedded within in them, obviously. And as with poker, some players excel at this game from the beginning, in a variety of ways. Both scammers and guild leaders may be excellent social players, in their own fashion. Some people will never get good at it. But precisely because virtual worlds are so robust in their social dimensions, I think it's right to argue, as Constance Steinkuehler, T.L. Taylor and many other scholars have argued, that virtual worlds actually teach sociality, that many players improve in some dimensions of their social intelligence over time: in their functioning within organizations, in their coordinated response to collective action problems, in setting personal goals and achieving them through social networks, in communicating with other individuals. We can make fun of the dysfunctionality of a lot of people playing in these worlds, and even thirty minutes spent in the Barrens tends to make one feel that some players are losing rather than gaining social intelligence in virtual worlds. But I still think the social context of even a simple virtual world runs along so many more axes than poker, and is so much more mimetic to the real world, that this deep game can be learned quite well and often is. (The deep social game of poker, in the end, is limited almost entirely to performing lies and reading lies. Unless you're cheating or flirting, it's doesn't involve other kinds of emotional or social connection to the players. )

The other deep game, however, strikes me as rather like poker's: it is about the hidden, emergent, or unintended consequences of the rules or code that govern play in the world. This is where most of the discourse about "cheating" in virtual worlds lies, and where most of the moral debate about how they are meant to be played ultimately centers. Players frequently discover that some aspect of play has unintended consequences that are disproportionately advantageous. A character's powers can be used in some novel fashion that renders that character nearly invincible versus certain opponents. A computer-controlled opponent has some unexpected vulnerability that makes it a risk-free source of reward. A tactic interacts with the virtual physicality of the landscape in some surprising fashion.

Sometimes this behavior is straightforwardly banned or forbidden, and the game's code amended to prevent it. Sometimes the designers compliment the players for having discovered this deep aspect of play, and it rapidly becomes the new standard. Not too long ago, my own World of Warcraft guild was in Karazhan, working on some new trash mobs as we climbed up the tower, and somewhat coincidentally, we found out that a particular tactic that was not mentioned in WoWWiki removed some of the need for careful coordination around clearing them. (The tactic is now in WoWWiki, I noticed.)

So does this "deep game" require a lifetime to master? Yes and no. It does in the sense that you have to have played two or more of the commercial virtual worlds that have come out since Meridan 59 to understand where the opportunities for this kind of play are likely to exist, and more importantly, how to protect knowledge about these kinds of discoveries for as long as possible while also being knowledgeable about what kinds of discoveries may trigger designer intervention and even designer punishment, relative to the established behavior of a given developer. (E.g., in the first Asheron's Call, you could pretty much try and get away with anything without fear that the developers would punish you for it, whereas Blizzard is known to crack down fairly hard on players discovering unforeseen or emergent aspects of the gameworld in many cases.)

The problem is that because virtual worlds are almost entirely built on the same basic rule-structure derived from DikuMUD, and because their representations of physical and graphical environments are ultimately so similar, this deep game becomes more and more known to larger and larger numbers of players over time, all the more so since World of Warcraft has evolved into the new template for all subsequence virtual-world games. But unlike poker, this is not a deep game that opens up a vast new domain of contingent decisions for players that help to further distinguish or individuate them in their style of play. Once you fully understand how position works in poker, you do not play the same as everyone else who understands position. You simply make better decisions about your own style of play, craftier decisions about how to take the kinds of risks you want to take, and how to apply the deep game of position to the deep game of reading the psychology of other players.

The deep game of "find the unintended aspects of play and arbitrage the living hell out of them" in Diku-style worlds, on the other hand? It actually forces a convergence of play styles and limits the social variety of players over time, which is why the debate about this form of play stops being about rules and starts being about morality. That alone is a good reason for designers to think about the Diku template again. When players discover the deep game, you want it to be a new source of fertility, not a barren monoculture.

Comments (16)

What do we mean by ‘computer game’?

When we talk about computer games we are picking out a set of things in the world. Typically we will think of PC games, console games, flash games – that sort of thing. However I think that there is vagueness when we think about boundary conditions and, more interestingly, that these boundary cases tell us something about how we conceptualize games.

As this is a long post  it's worth putting the answer I get to, then running through how I get there, so this is my proposed definition:

    A computer game is a game where at least some of the bounds of game-acts are essentially controlled by information technology.

This is my thought process - at a brief glance it looks to me that there are two areas in which we might find necessary conditions for something to be a computer game. These are: display of action and decision-making.

[Three posts in a row, I’m sure I just heard a gong from the side of the stage]

Display of Action
An obvious definition of a computer game seems to be that that a necessary part of the game is that actions are displayed by technology. A broader argument would be that the game is mediated by technology.

The latter of these definitions seem weak. We might play a game of chess by email but here the mediation seems ancillary to the game and thus not something that would determine its categorisation.

The notion of display also seems too limited. We need to work out what we mean by technology and display here – something may be displayed on a TV and most TV’s these days are effectively computers, they certainly are technology. So mere display of action especially when that display is just a picture of the acts seems insufficient for our needs.

What I think people are getting at when they talk about display is representation. When we interact with a computer game our acts are displayed on technology and generally through some form of representation. We act on an interface device and the act is represented by a block or a ship or a wolf or something acting in either direct or indirect response to us.

But again I don’t think that representation is sufficient. The reason is that acts can be represented but the representation can be in direct relationship to the act i.e. we simply replace video display noted above with some kind of rendered display – motion capture would seem to fall under this definition. Also there are Eye Toy games where there is simply the image of us as a player.

It looks like the key point in the notion of display or representation that has been lurking back there is the fact of the necessity of interface, but again I think that all the counter examples above include the fact of an interface.

But I do think that interfaces have something to tell us.

What I think underlies these ideas is not display, representation or interface but rather boundedness. That is, it seems to me that the defining quality behind these notions that video games are those things where the affordances provided by the technology (interface, representation, code) are a necessary and essential boundary to game acts.

Decision Making
An alternative approach to the definition of a computer game is by looking at the role of technology in decision making, or more properly, in determining game outcomes.

We might argue that if decisions in a game are determined wholly by technology then that game is a computer game. We may then as whether partial decision-making also counts.

Here the argument would go that if decision making in a game is determined by technology then that is a computer game. One motivation behind this as a definition is that we picking out those practices where technology is essential to the outcomes practice. We might also argue further that such practices have a distinct character (at least within the general set of games) because of the character of the outcomes or their mode of determination.

This character is derives from the fact of technology making a decision as we can say that a characteristic of technology based decision making is that there is a strict relationship between input data and outcome. Thus for any set of conditions C there will be decision D, and that for every instance of the conditions C the decision will always be D.

This one might argue is different from games were humans make the decisions because while in the ideal case we might think that conditions C would lead to D, in practice humans have a much higher bandwidth so, in practice, there may never be absolutely identical conditions and / or there will be interpretation of those conditions leading potentially to different outcomes.

Thus there seems to be a difference in the contingency and the expectations about contingency between the cases where humans are making decisions and computers are.

A challenge to this comes in the potentially hypothetical case of functional equivalence, and here we reach into all kinds of philosophical arguments about what matters behind what we can see and know – so I’m thinking about Turning tests, Searle’s Chinese room, Chalmer’s Zombies etc.

The argument would go like this: suppose that decision making is done by computer but that that computer system uses techniques such as AI to replicate human decision making to such a degree that under observation the nominal referee would pass the Turing test i.e. we would not be able to determine from function whether a human or machine were making the decisions.

In this case does it still mean anything to say that one instance is a computer game and one is not – if so, what it is that is important that we are picking out; or do we simply have games and the technological component is neither hear nor there.

Bounds and decisions
Here I want to re-introduce the idea of the computer as a necessary boundary of the game. We might say that one way in which a computer can provide a boundary is by it being outcome determining. In this way we are giving primacy not to the functional aspects of the boundary but to its technical nature.

But I wonder if this works, even in the case where there is not functional equivalence (assuming here that where we see computers as being distinct in the way that they make decisions then something certainly appears to be a computer game to a degree that the functionally equivalent machine would not). Let’s take racing as an example – and here I’m being generic about the genre of game, it can be athletics, horse racing, F1, rally – what ever. Suppose that the outcome of the race is determined by a sensor picking up that at least one participant has gotten over the finish line, the sensor triggers an image being taken or the use of some other sensing device, the input from this is processed and the processor determines which of the participants was in fact the first over the line. So it’s a photo finish where image detection is determining what ‘won by a head’.

A specific example of this is the use of ‘Hawkeye’ technology in tennis to help determine whether a serve was out or not. Thought at present it is used only as an aid not as the decision maker – but we can imagine a rule shift to it primacy - as evidence seems to suggest that it is more accurate than line judges (also even in this case the technology is determining only part of the outcome of the match – though it may be crucial)

Here technology is outcome determining. What’s more we can see cases where the technology would certainly not be functionally equivalent to a human – a human may react in very different ways to effetely the same circumstance they may also participate in negotiation over the outcome. 

My sense is that determination of outcomes is not essential to the notion of computer game, because even in the examples given above where there might be a computer determined non-negotiable outcome, the acts involved in the game e.g. tennis, are not bounded by technology – thus it feels that the game is actually not a computer game despite this use of computers.

A refinement might be how replaceable the technology is. So in the examples given above we are in situations where the technology could be replaced by a human (as the examples posited are hypothetical where we have gone the other way). But there might be games where all the acts are completely non-mediated but the game is constructed on the notion that the outcomes that those acts lead to are and only are determined by computer.

Here I think we get harmony with the definition that started to emerge above because here we have a boundary that is not merely based on technology but is essentially based on technology the fact that the boundary happens to be related to outcomes seems not to the important point.

Lastly I want to touch on negotiation. I think that it seems inherent in the idea of the essential nature of the computer that the acts or the meaning of the acts is in the act of play non-negotiable.

However we must take into to account cases which are common in MMOs where players argue with GMs or argue on forums about the meaning of acts and whether they fit within the rules of the game or not, they also argue about aspects of the game itself.

I think we would agree that MMOs are computer games. But there is also negotiation – very like arguing over line calls in tennis.

What I think that this shows is that something can be a computer game under this definition and outcomes can be negotiable, that is I don’t think the that point has anything like the force that it seems to have when it’s examined in the context of practice.

Proposed Definition
I thus arrive at this very simple notion of what a computer game is:

    A computer game is a game where at least some of the bounds of game-acts are essentially controlled by information technology.

Comments (67)

Plato’s game

Rules are one of the things that define something as being a game. But I wonder what it is we refer to when we talk about the rules of a game.

Warning this is only of interest, and then only marginally so, to the particularly beardy.

Salen & Zimmerman suggest that we can understand the rules of a game as being made up of three layers: constitutive, operational and implicit. Where constitutive rules are the underlying logic of the game; operational ones are those that we often point to as the rules, ones set out in books etc.; and implicit include the social conventions around how we conduct given games.

I’ve wondered for a while whether it’s useful to think of rules along another axis. That is to think of rules in terms of a paradigm or quintessential rule set and a practical rule. This I think is what S&Z are almost, but not quite, getting at when they talk about constitutive rules.

For example: take any MMO with an economy. What artifacts are there that establish what the MMO is? Well, there are design documents, there will be internal emails and correspondence about aspects of the game, there will code, rule-books, forum posts etc etc.

But what happens when there is a ‘bug’? Say one that provides players with lots of funds. Now it may be the case that the code works fine, and that the code corresponds to the design document. And it is un-arguable (from a practical perspective) that this is part of the game as it is an affordance that the game artifact provides players. But if one uses it one might be accused of cheating. Here players might quite rightly say – but the game allowed me to do this, so by definition it must be OK or at the very least it’s your [the producer’s] fault that it went wrong.

It seems to me that the argument against this has to appeal outside any practical instantiation of the game and reach to some paradigm game. In this paradigm there is a perfectly balanced faucet-sink economy, where every element is in harmony and the code perfectly reflects this. Added to this there are notions of fair play and right conduct that game producers are also apt to draw upon when telling player’s what they should do – of course players have their own competing notions, but that’s another argument.

In this paradigm game, rules are also fully described and un-ambiguous. Whereas in the practical world rules are always under-determined as it’s impossible to fully describe every circumstance that a rule may conceivable be needed for.

What’s more as games evolve they tend towards a paradigm constantly being re-aligned to better meet the ideal. So in terms of sets, the practical rule-set and the paradigm rule-set overlap. In an MMO the majority of the practical rule-set my be in union with paradigm, but this is not to say that this is true for the majority of the paradigm, indeed I’d suggest (by the incompleteness of rules idea) that it is not and indeed cannot be as the paradigm rule set will always be substantially larger than any practical instantiation of itself. I think I would argue this for even the most trivial of games.

So when a producer talks about the game, I believe that the they are often making an appeal to a quintessential notion of game that can, in fact, never exist; but operates as a crucial concept in the way that we think about game and the way that norms are brought into operation. Thus any reference to a rule is potentially a reference to a highly abstract object and an appeal to an ideal. And it strikes me that this is different in character, in certain respects, from an appeal to the purely practical and explicit.

I offer this as a pure theoretical musing. I’m not sure it has any practical value. I’m not sure it has any theoretical value either, it’s possibly not even very original – I'm sure TN'ers you will tell me,,,,

[Ed. 6th Nov 2007: I realize that a number of people read this post then skip to comment. So just to update it, when I wrote it I had in mine a multiplicity of Ideals or an Ideal that was very complex in structure such that an individual or range of people could hold differing views of what the ideal is. For anyone that studies such things I would be interested if there is a stream of idealism that deals with a typology of ideals some of which are unitary in character some of which are multiple. - ren]

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This is Your Brain on WoW

A recent article in The Age entitled Ethical Dilemmas canvassed the question of the ethical obligations of game designers to players. According to the piece, Jonathan Blow, the designer of Braid, claims that the grind of MMORPGs is unethical:

Mr Blow believes developers need to think about what their games are teaching players when they reward them for performing certain actions.

"That kind of reward system is very easily turned into a Pavlovian or Skinnerian scheme," he says. "It's considered best practice: schedule rewards for your player so that they don't get bored and give up on your game. That's actually exploitation."


"I think a lot of modern game design is actually unethical, especially massively multiplayer games like World of Warcraft, because they are predicated on player exploitation," Mr Blow says

I've never seen it expressed specifically in relation to level grinds or raid farming obligations, but the concept is familiar enough. Julian has made it a number of times, under the rubric of "ludocapitalism." (Damn, give that itinerant wordsmith from Indiana a prize).

I'm not sure that I have a great deal to say about this. Well, apart from maybe one thing. I am a long way from being libertarian, except when I read statements like:

"Developers should provide activities that interest players "rather than stringing them along with little pieces of candy so that they'll suffer through terrible game play, but keep playing because they gain levels or new items", he says."

I mean there's paternalism and there's paternalism. It's one thing to suggest that people should read more Shakespeare and less Harry Potter; but surely it's another thing to say that people are actually wrong to find the grind compelling because it's not "interesting". And then further to assert that the designers are unprincipled in implementing it. (I leave for the reader a fully worked-through articulation of the limits of gamespace autonomy under right libertarianism, left libertarianism, Marxism, your five favorite flavors of liberalism, etc etc)

Actually, there's one other thing. When did it become accepted that games were drugs? This has been a trope for a while, of course. But we seem to now be at the point that we don't even trust the player to act in their own best interest because, you know, they just can't help themselves.


[Thanks to my dad (of all people) for spotting this article. And especial thanks to The Age for including art of a mostly nekkid nelflette in an article on ethics. Priceless.]

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All Bets Are Off

Linden Lab has recently changed their policy about gambling in Second Life, effectively banning it (find a clutch of news reports here). The specific demands, in terms of policy and regulation, that gambling and other significant-stakes gaming make on virtual worlds have drawn my attention on TN before. Here I'd like to ask TN-at-large the following: What do you think the effects of this policy are likely to be on SL? On virtual worlds in general (if any)?

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The State of Second Life

Second Life is at a turning point.

Second Life has been rolling down the road of ostensive libertarianism for a while now.

But recently Linden have made two significant moves: Keeping Second Life Safe, Together (daniellinden Thursday, May 31st, 2007 at 6:00 PM PDT) and Age and Identity Verification in Second Life (daniellinden Friday, May 4th, 2007 at 4:25 PM PDT with a number of clarification posts here and here).

Linden’s relationship with the notion of governance has always been vague. The front page of states “Join Now. Membership is free. Second Life is a 3D online digital world imagined, created and owned by its residents.” and the question has always been open, at least to some ‘resident’s, as to whether owning Second Life means that the residents are thus the only ones with any right to govern it. After all, if nothing, or at least very little in Second Life is actually owned by Linden, from where do they get the moral authority to govern the affairs of Second Life?

This is a question that we can take on many levels, all the way to arguments from cyber-exceptionalism for Second Life being a State in the international legal sense.

For the moment let’s focus on governance as a practical proposition. It’s tough. In the case of Second Life Linden has always made interventions using both the legal powers that it states that it has under the TOS and technical powers that it has by virtue of managing the servers. I’m sure the vast majority of these have not caused any more than local issues with the actors directly involved with the state of affairs.

However allegations of bad governance have ranged from badly handled in-world and forum squabbles to down right market rigging. The latter are allegations that CCP (creators of EvE) is now also facing and are probably part and parcel of running, what is seen by many, as simply an online market irrespective of how you actually run it.

But unlike conventional financial markets, spaces such as Second Life, EvE and indeed any Virtual World do not, as yet, fall under the kind of regulatory structures that aim to ensure that acts such as insider trading are kept to a minimum and actually looked for (though in the EU I would suggest that the only reason Virtual Worlds do no fall under such governance is that the EU has not as yet taken the time to look at them in the light of the e-Currency directive).  This odd status also leaves those that run such worlds in a potentially vulnerable position as they have not been forced by regulation (I’m a European remember) to put in the kinds of check-balances and audits that would be required to clear their name.

With all this as general background and the more specific background of the Bragg, German pedophilia allegations and the recently reported potential case in France regarding access to Second Life by minors – it’s worth looking at Linden’s governance moves.

Now there are the specifics of the most recent move, which are at the very least open to question, here is the text in full just so you don’t have to go linking around:

    Keeping Second Life Safe, Together

    The diversity of things to see and do within Second Life is almost unimaginable, but our community has made it clear to us that certain types of content and activity are simply not acceptable in any form.  Real-life images, avatar portrayals, and other depiction of sexual or lewd acts involving or appearing to involve children or minors; real-life images, avatar portrayals, and other depictions of sexual violence including rape, real-life images, avatar portrayals, and other depictions of extreme or graphic violence, and other broadly offensive content are never allowed or tolerated within Second Life.

    Please help us to keep Second Life a safe and welcoming space by continuing to notify Linden Lab about locations in-world that are violating our Community Standards regarding broadly offensive and potentially illegal content.  Our team monitors such notification 24-hours a day, seven-days a week.  Individuals and groups promoting or providing such content and activities will be swiftly met with a variety of sanctions, including termination of accounts, closure of groups, removal of content, and loss of land.  It’s up to all of us to make sure Second Life remains a safe and welcoming haven of creativity and social vision.

OK, first to get the quibbles out of the way.

“Safe” – I’d be interested to know exactly what, before this notice, was unsafe about Second Life according to Linden. Then further how it is now safe.

“our community has made it clear to us” - a Marxist analysis (from what I remember from lit classes) might suggest that given what’s going on at the moment the lack of any mention of negative press and potential legal cases provides us with a meaty sub-text here.

A deeper point though is this notion of community norms that is implicit in what is being said, and the related idea that such norms empower Linden to enforce them.

There are also wider points here about the notion of governance and where it derives authority, these are interesting questions, but for this post I want to keep to the middle ground of analysis and look at the logic of the text above.

From the text it seems clear that if one did a survey of Second Life residents and they said that rape of child porn that is entirely simulated (i.e. no actual children are involved in the production or consumption of the material) is fine by them, then Linden would defend these norms.

So, on this point: could Linden provide the evidence that the weight of the Second Life community is in fact against the practices.

To the world in general, can anyone point to any independent research that has been conducted on SL Residents’ attitude to the kinds of practices noted in Linden’s post, if not, could someone run a study please?

Lastly on this, can Linden confirm that if independent studies show that the community are neutral on or positive to people’s rights to practice, say, simulated Rape then they will defend and possibly promote such practices with the same resolve as they now suggest they will ban them.

The above of course follows the logic of the Linden post. But I’m not sure we should. Let’s assume for the moment that only a minority of Residents want to practice simulated Rape and that it is practiced between consenting adults where other Residents cannot be exposed to it.

What just happened to the rights of this minority?

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Ganking the Meaning out of Games

Steven "Play No Evil" Davis, in a great comment on Mark Wallace's thread, asked the following question:

Is griefing simply emergent play that some folks don't like?

I think this is an interesting question to pursue, and I'm going to take a somewhat provocative stance and answer "no," partly to explore some territory and partly because I think there's a case to be made against griefing that doesn't founder on a libertarian objection (i.e., that if some people do something in a low-consequence environment, then it must be fun to them/their choice, and therefore must be okay).

I should state at the outset that studying cheating, griefing, and similar topics is not a principal part of my research, and there are several esteemed folks around here that do it, so I hope to learn from them if they'd like to weigh in. Here, I'm just following through on some ideas that have been percolating on meaning and games, and how they might help us answer Steven's question.

To begin this speculation, the first thing I'm going to do is narrow the topic a fair bit. Rather than discuss "griefing" in the broad sense, I'm going to focus on one activity in MMOGs that is often seen as griefing: ganking. Very specifically, I'm talking about a human player, piloting a higher-level/better geared toon, attacking a toon that is much lower level, without any other circumstances (game objectives and narratives), histories (they, or their guilds, know each other or similar), or players (on either side) involved. This is simply the killing (frequently, one-shotting) of another toon by a vastly more powerful toon. I'm drawing my sense of this phenomenon from the open PvP servers of World of Warcraft -- other games/server types may vary considerably and interestingly.

What I would like to suggest is that this kind of PvP is meaningless. Or, perhaps more precisely, that the meaning it has is so narrow, rationalized, and improverished that it is outside of, or rejects, the game in which it is situated. Games, as ends in and of themselves, are things that can generate new meanings and experiences. For the ganker, however, ganking is a means to other ends ("Personal best crit!"), not a potentially generative new experience. (And, by the way, please keep in mind that I am not talking about all PvP -- there are many other kinds, both institutionally designed by the developer and emergent, which would not fit with the argument I'm making here.)

I'm speculating that ganking happens when a player who does not want to be challenged to play a game (i.e., encounters where the outcome is contingent), instead opts to do something where the outcome is a foregone conclusion: kill a player that is vastly lower in capabilities. If meaning is found at the meeting point of inherited systems of interpretation (cultural expectations) and the performative demands of singular circumstances (something I talked about here), then ganking is a denial of that meaning. It is a retreat from the demands of the new, and it signals a disposition that does not want to be performatively challenged. Ganking lower level players is, then, a somewhat pathetic attempt to feel, well, something. But that something is not the meaning that participating in a challenging game would create -- it is removed from that. If there is no contingency, it follows that there is no meaning -- all you have left is an impoverished environment where pointless negative reciprocity (I was ganked at L24, so I’ll gank at L60) reigns.

It might be argued against this that an environment of open PvP, rather than erasing contingency, actually spawns it, generating a wide open landscape of ganking possibility for the lower level players. This would be a way to argue that there is still a game, on a broader level, and it is a cat-and-mouse game. The difference in capabilities once the battle is joined is not in question -- the cat wins -- but the game is actually about avoiding that encounter (thanks to David Simkins for voicing this argument to me). This is an interesting way to go, and I agree that it can turn out this way, under certain game design conditions. I would argue, however (again, I'm being provocative to see where this leads), that in WoW this doesn't hold, because the architecture of the game is not very flexible about alternative places to go to accomplish objectives. The quests for any given level are in a small set of vastly distributed places, and the transportation costs (in time) for low level characters are high. This means that if someone is trying to get quests done in Stranglethorn Vale, there is not a viable game in avoiding the gankers -- they have every advantage also in the "meta" game of cat-and-mouse. For most players, this means that the ganking feels, again, like a foregone conclusion, it is only the question of when it will happen that is utterly contingent (that is, too contingent). In neither aspect is there a performative challenge for the gankee or the ganker. One is left with either too much determination, or too much chaos; either way leads to a loss of meaning.

So why does it happen at all, if it's so meaningless? To answer this, one would have to make a normative, critical claim (and goodness knows those are popular around here). One would have to say that what happens is that the game objectives get replaced by utterly personal objectives, individualistic and empty goals that are the simulacra of actual (new) meaning. Gankers, this argument would say, are getting their jollies in an endless circle of confirming their own expectations, mistaking the increasing number of notches on their belt for actual personal development. In fact, this line of reasoning would argue, they are each stuck in an iron cage of false objectives.

Now, I can spin this argument out, and understand how to get from point A to point B, and it's consistent with my experience and preferences. But, on the other hand, I have lots of friends who enjoy open PvP, even the random but inevitable ganking part of it, so I hesitate. I'm also certainly one to be wary of normative claims about other people's experiences ("Yes, yes -- you say you're having a good time, but you're really just deluding yourself").

On the other hand, the argument that if people choose to do something in these domains it is just a different "style of gameplay," and therefore morally unassailable, also rubs me the wrong way. It seems to rest not only on a separation of play from real experience (and I have a whole set of strong empirical objections to that view), but also on a modernist, individualistic ethic -- it's all about the individual experience, this seems to say, and that should be our final arbiter of all matters ethical.

I don't have any real answers here, but I'm quite taken with the notion that ganking is, effectively, not a game, and with thinking through the consequences for meaning and experience that follow from this. To what extent this could be extended to other kinds of griefing, I'm not sure, but it does seem to me that quite a few players out there actually don't seem to want to play a game at all.

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Discipline & Pwnage

Dp2_1 So I've been having my usual beginning-of-the-semester chats with my graduate students about their projects and progress. I enjoy these, and I think they do to (they almost never complain about the thumbscrews, or -- more of a shock -- having to read Habermas). One of them, Krista-Lee Malone, is a master's student and long-time gamer who is completing an excellent thesis about hardcore raiding guilds. During our chat she said something about how these raiding guilds went about preparing her to participate in their activities, and it prompted me to follow up on some ideas from here. It's about Foucault, bodies, institutions, and whether the relationship between developers and guilds is changing in important ways.

Krista-Lee plays a priest (one with more purples than I'll ever see for my druid, I'm sure), and what she said was (paraphrasing), "I can healbot Molten Core in my sleep, but if I'm thrown into a new situation, I can't heal at all." While that's probably an overstatement, it suggests something about the nature of raiding guild discipline -- at least, pre-TBC. It turns out, and this is not unusual, that the guild power-leveled her toon and then taught her to follow a very specific and detailed script for the instances they were running, starting with UBRS and then through Naxx.

Michel Foucault famously argued that the power of modern institutions is driven, at root, by the ability to discipline people, or, more directly, to discipline their bodies -- to mold those bodies and order their actions in ways that allow groups to achieve institutional objectives effectively. To do this, they draw on practical techniques developed first in places like early Christian monasteries and the Roman legions. Bodies are organized, regimented, taught to sit, to stand, to kneel, to match their singular shapes to the demands of regularity -- no pinky out of place, the leg held just so. The effect of this "bio-power", as he most convincingly shows in Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, is not only effective institutional control over otherwise unruly subjects, but in fact a re-shaping of their selves. They come to see this discipline as consitutive of who they are, as shaping their very desires. The classic (and idealized -- practice is messier) example is the panopticon, where prisoners are architecturally situated in view of an invisible and authoritative observer. The guard watches from in a darkened room while they are laid out in a brightly-lit Cartesian grid. It comes to matter little if the guard is there at all, as the prisoners internalize the surveillance.

I'm not saying that Krista-Lee was a prisoner of her guild. Um, exactly. Foucault argues (in later works) that this disciplining of bodies is something taking place all around us, particularly as we learn to act within highly-regulated contexts, like schools, the military, hospitals, and airports. And, like the prisoners, he asserts that we come to accept and even celebrate the kind of self the institutions have made of us.

All of this is to get us thinking about to what extent hardcore raiding guilds should be seen in a similar light. The essence of disciplined bodies is that they are malleable; they can be shaped to perform in lock-step (literally) under a command hierarchy. The tension, of course, is that this strategic control always involves a tradeoff with the tactical, the ability of a group to respond on the fly, to emergent situations. For Krista-Lee, this effect was directly discernible -- while she enjoys soloing and quest-grouping, she felt lost in new instances, when there wasn't an explicit script to follow.

As I've pointed out, for WoW, this had -- before the expansion -- created a mutually constructive relationship between the 5(10)-person instancing and the large-scale raiding. While small-scale grouping not only allows for, it depends upon, tactical rethinking on the fly, large-scale groups narrow and leverage the set of available class skills (maybe hunters begin to leave pets behind, druids get pushed into healing, only one hemo rogue is called for) into more strictly-defined roles. The small-scale was, perhaps like boot camp in the military, an intense and necessary part of enculcating a set of competencies (what is a pull, sheeping, aggro), but one that ultimately is left behind, smaller in comparison to the institutional ambitions which these competent bodies now serve to realize. Rationalized systems of resource distribution, like DKP, along with political structures and communications tools, play a role as well for these institutions, harnessing individual desire into organizational discipline, to get the 40 people needed together all at one time, ready to down Onyxia, or tackle a world boss.

The reason I think this is particularly interesting for us to think about now are the cases of both WoW and Second Life and some of the recent changes these VWs have undergone. The downsizing of endgame instances in WoW, the availability of soloable loot roughly on a par with Tier 1+ in Outland, and (to my unsystematic eye) the prevalence of small group quests there with excellent rewards, all suggest that Blizzard's moving away from supporting the emerging institutions (guilds) of its creation, ones which had dominated server culture for pretty much the whole game. This is an interesting contrast with past TN conversations, like the one here.

By contrast, the revamped estate tools in SL (which I'm sure many folks out there know more intimately than I), increase the amount of governance by island owners not only over a piece of property, but also over a group of people, and in fact these tools have thereby become deeply intertwined. To my eye, this enables the generation of institutional players on the SL landscape that LL has never had to deal with before. I'm not thinking first of the existing external institutions with a "presence" in SL, but rather of those entities that until recently we could somewhat reliably continue to think of as individuals, but which are now better understood as institutions. While the relationship of LL to some of its major content creators has been undoubtedly cozy, one can't help but wonder how long that will last -- institutions are competitive. The interesting thing about Second Life is the extent to which Linden Lab has had a "free-ride" for a long time, effectively being the only large institutional player in the arena. Social convention was emergent from the users, and was (is) something with which to contend -- a lot of time at Linden is devoted to this "community management". But architecture, the market, and "law" (others modes of governance, as I see it) were all firmly in Linden's hands. That's changing now, and the question is whether Second Life will fly apart at the seams once these other institutionalized interests find their footing.

All this is really just to wonder whether we're entering an era where the relationships between virtual world makers and the people involved them are changing. It is probably wise for us to get in the habit of thinking just as readily about developer/(in-world) institution relationships as we do about developer/individual player relationships. I actually think this will be a hard habit to break -- the idea of the game maker/game player relationship as primarily institution-to-individual is just one instance of the engrained tendency for those in industrialized societies to think about social institutions primarily as they relate to individuals.

WoW and SL both demonstrate, at a very broad level, different solutions to the emergence of institutions within their creations, an emergence that was, I believe, inevitable once resources began accumulating within these persistent and contingent domains. Foucault, like Weber, thought that people banding together to accomplish something was fine, but was wary of what happens next. Once any nascent institution begins looking for something else to accomplish, its primary raison d'etre has already changed. At that point, it's more interested in its own reproduction than in its original aims or purview. Once that happens, look out.

[Addendum: Ever-alert Julian Dibbell points to ShaunConnery's Rapwing Lair. Surely the script in Krista-Lee's guild never sounded so good.]

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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.

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Against Exceptionalism: A New Approach to Games

John William Waterhouse, The Magic Circle (from Wikipedia)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.


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Where am I?

As keen eyed readers will have spotted you can now see a map of where TerraNovans are currently located. It’s neat. But it’s not the map I wanted. I wanted a way to show you all where we are virtually. The problem is that I don’t think that map exists. I’m not sure we even have a metaphor for it. That is - the true metaverse; the universe of virtual universes.

Like other TNers and probably a good slice of our readers I’m all over the metaverse, sometimes in multiple spaces at the same time – Second Life, WoW, There, EvE, SWG and those ‘almost-spaces’ like Animal Crossing; heck I might even get a Cyworld account.

Now, there is the growing set of gamertag type services like onxiam (that’s ‘on x I am’ – geddit geddit). These site collate IDs – some in slightly more clever ways than others – but I want more.

I have this shadow in my mind you see. Like the cube is a partial shadow of a tesseract. I can feel the space of virtual spaces that I want to see mapped and made into a geographical metaphor. I want someone clever and creative to go invent a way to easily understand the relative positions in virtual spaces that we occupy. I know it’s not just a list of IDs, or a flat diagram – I know what it isn’t but I don’t know what is is.

If you done it; gosh, even if you know what I’m on about, do post and let me know I’m not going mad.

[ed. 8/8/6 Ren] Thanks to my friend Jo I now at least have a word for the feeling I’m trying to express: propinquity. Those darn crossword fiends, they have a word for everything.

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The Epistemology of Anshe


Second Life’s Anshe is on fire when it comes to PR. At the same time as s/he graces the cover of Business Week -leading this story on virtual economies, a fight has broken out on wikipedia about whether s/he should even have this entry.

I hardly know where to start with the questions that all this raises, so I’ll just list a bunch and you can jump in where you want.

First, I think this is more evidence of the WoW Wave that I wrote about a month or so ago. When TerraNova started, virtual currencies were still 'out there'. The fact of Castronova’s paper was as controversial as the content. These days – who has not covered virtual currency? What’s more since writing the blog post the phone and the emails have not slowed down with people from all kinds of odd places suddenly deciding that they need a virtual world and they need it now, but could I please tell them what exactly one is. The way it looks there certainly are going to be a raft of new project hitting development houses and possibly a few innovations along the way. Though whether this generation of virtual world designers and fans with recognize these products as ‘real’ virtual worlds is another matter.

Next up we have a set of what might be seen as nested questions about knowledge and the nature of Wikipedia. At the top level the Anshe discussion is yet another example of the contested nature of wikipedia. Is wikipedia a valid source of information? Is self-promotion or personal criticism a valid use? Should any reference to SL's sex industry be made at all or is wikipedia stricktly PG?

Getting deeper we might question whether it is possible to make true assertions about Anshe – here Ludlow’s philosophical work on the nature of truth assertions about fictional characters is an interesting guide (From Sherlock and Buffy to Klingon and Norrathian Platinum Pieces: Pretense, Contextalism, and the Myth of Fiction).

Linking back to the physical / virtual / legal. For some time I’ve been banging on about the nature of identity online. In the past I’ve speculated about virtual identity being just as important as physical identity – for certain commercial and thus legal purposes. Notions of right of publicity applying to avatars just as they might to TV stars and their characters, such as Norm from Cheers (see: Wendt v. Host International, Inc., 197 F.3d 1284 (9th Cir. 1999)), seemed a fancy when I started to argue about their application in this context. But this I think is one of the first steps carved into the stone of slowly shifting custom and practice that calls for identity in online spaces to be taken seriously and separate from the property rights in artifacts, and for the evaluations of virtual spaces as ones where rights such as free speech and privacy might to get a wider airing than the just those legal scholars such as Crawford and Balkin that have ‘got it’.

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Religion in MMOGs

Many MMOGs have within them some nod toward religion, some degree of religious trappings at least.  Priestly characters are common, as are holy warriors (paladins).  To say nothing of demons and angels based loosely on Christian archetypes, the former of which make regular appearances in online games. 

And yet, actual religion and theology are pretty much absent or at best non-operative in most MMOs.  In fantasy games the priest is typically a "healer" but otherwise the character is a façade.  In modern or science fiction games, religion is conspicuously almost entirely absent. 

I've been wondering for some time about enabling the presence of both real-world and made-up religions in MMOs as thematically appropriate.  Is this a good way to flesh out a world, to create gameplay surrounding a moral code and shared identity, and to bring a significantly missing piece of human community to the game, or would it just be a way to invite controversy -- in effect, to draw aggro from both religious and non-religious players and cause a heap o' customer service trouble?   

The companion to this question is a bit more introspective: to what degree does the answer to the question of operative religions in MMOs vary with our own degree of spirituality/religiosity?  Is the perceived  agnosticism of the game development community keeping religion out of MMOs?

When religion does appear in MMOs it does so as a vague prop that provides nothing in the way of gameplay based on themes of faith, adherence to a code of conduct, membership in and sacrifice for a larger organization, etc.  In game terms religion could become operative in a number of ways ranging from socially motivated achievement gameplay to role-playing to exploring somewhat deeper themes than we typically find in existing first-generation MMOs.  Even in straight achievement terms amenable to current games, imagine for example a paladin who gained bonuses for things like making a personal sacrifice for weaker members of a party (your paladin receives buffs when rezzing if by your death the mob was killed while other party members who had sustained over 50% damage did not die).

But if we open the door for gameplay with a religious component, is it desirable or even possible to keep the religions in an MMO entirely fantastic?  If a group of players want to set up an guild/organization that's avowedly Christian or Hindu, or one which has no relationship to any actual religion, is there any reason not to allow it?

Another way to ask this is, would players be accepting of having Jewish, Shinto, Lutheran, Puppeteer, and Flat-Earth organizations in-game?   Would "proselyting" -- people advertising their religion or religious organization in chat channels -- be a problem?  (Yes, there are echoes here of the recent GLBT discussion.)  And might people holding a particular religious belief in their own lives either be offended by its presence in a game, or use that presence as a lever to annoy others with their beliefs? 

One immediate problem of course with anything along these lines is that religion is one of those areas where people unfortunately often leave civility behind when discussing others' beliefs.  For the sake of this discussion, assume that any organization that in name or practice actively disparages another's philosophy is excluded or shut down -- though of course even that is open to the same sort of "giving offense" interpretation as has been seen in the latest GLBT flap in WoW.  By this thinking we wouldn't have to allow the KKK or Aryan Nations, but we probably would have to let players form the Church of All Things Chuck Norris.

Is this on balance a good thing or more trouble than it's worth?  Are there new forms of MMO gameplay that can be explored here, or is it better just left alone?  And again, how do our own individual religious biases play in to how we see the answers to these questions?

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