Against Exceptionalism: A New Approach to Games

[Note: This post originally appeared on Terra Nova.]

August 8, 2006

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.

 Abstract:

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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