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

[Note: This post originally appeared on both Terra Nova and]

December 31, 2013

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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