Welcoming Chancellor Mone

Last week, Serious Play welcomed UWM’s Chancellor Mark Mone, as well as Provost Johannes Britz and Chief of Staff Sue Weslow, for gameplay and conversation over Super Smash Brothers. The game, which began as something geared to a party context (something Nintendo has long made a priority in their game catalog), has become an e-sports staple, particularly popular on college’s campuses, including UWM.

As one can tell from the stream, the conversation was ongoing (and left us with some layered and disorienting audio), but several things were highlighted in the gameplay. It is a testament to Nintendo’s ability to design games that SSB was so accessible for our guests, who had next to no console gaming experience. Such skill in design strikes me as consistent with an ethic that informs many Nintendo games, and even more their approach to console design, and that is a commitment to co-present experience that includes, in one way or another, every one in a family or group of friends who might pick up a controller, and even those who simply sit back to watch.

This is important, because having a focus of common attention is highly productive of human sociality, especially when it is something that allows for conversation (as this clearly did). Contrast this with a theatrical performance, movie, live music, or storytelling, where side conversation virtually always becomes discouraged in favor of the delivery of the performers. This kind of effect happens in some games as well; in computer rags, for example. In multiplayer, co-located games like SSB, by contrast, the fast-paced action on the screen invites engagement through conversation.

Some anthropological theories of early human society suggest that domesticated fire became that object of common attention that drove the development of human language. The flickering flames, in their combination of pattern and unpredictability, capture our attention in a way not entirely unrelated to how well-designed games similarly balance that tension. It was a pleasure to feel fueled by SSB as we introduced our Chancellor and his staff to what our Collab is all about.


Thomas Malaby (PhD 1998, Harvard) is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His research interest is in the ever-changing relationships among institutions, unpredictability, and technology, especially as they are realized through games and game-like processes. He has published numerous and widely-cited works on the status of games in human experience. Dr. Malaby’s work suggests that the increasing use of digital games by institutions marks a fundamental transition in modern governance. His book, Making Virtual Worlds: Linden Lab and Second Life (2009, Cornell University Press), is an ethnographic examination of a San Francisco high tech firm.

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