Gamers are Standing By

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

June 28, 2006

Dave Elfving (of Machine Chicago) pointed me and others to this insurance commercial (“The Lord of Mishap”), which he first saw on television. Take a look and come back. I’ll wait.

Clearly, you’re in good hands with gamers.

But how did we get here? This is an industry (insurance) widely known for its conservatism in marketing and its focus on, above all, playing to its potential customers’ desire to feel safe and secure. Isn’t it remarkable, then, that we’ve reached a point where a long-established insurance company can reasonably expect to gain customers by saying, effectively, “You shouldn’t worry if you’ve got Farmers insurance, because gamers are standing by”?

Is this an index of how far gaming has come in the cultural imagination? It seems to me that we are in the midst of a transformation where the hallmark of frontline competence in business and technology is moving away from an engineering-style application of linear rationality to solve problems, and toward the application of the embodied, improvisatory, and multiple competencies that games instill.

But there are other interesting questions. Is this shift primarily generational, an attempt by Farmers to reach younger customers? Or do we think that this kind of appeal has broader reach? That is to say, how widely is gaming competence coming to be seen as the kind of competence you want on your side?

Also, does this reflect more a growing idea that gamers’ competence is what we need in a technologized environment (since we assume all of our long-term customer-corporate relationships are deeply technologized)? Or is it deeper than that, reflecting a growing cultural tendency to see the world, technologized or not, as a game? In this vein, note how the commercial draws upon its audience’s gaming competence as well, in the game-like interface that overlays the suburban setting, and which provides the first clues to what’s really happening to the poor Lord of Mishap. Marketing always aspires to get customers to identify with a product’s providers, so apparently not only are gamers standing by, they are also white-picket-fenced home owners and minivan drivers, and it makes perfect sense to them to liken everyday mishaps to the appearance of an otherworldly menace wielding arcane powers on Maple Street.

Legitimate Questions

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

February 4, 2008

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?


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Maxwell’s Hammer

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

May 7, 2008

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.

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.


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.

On Expertise

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

November 18, 2008

(Or, Notes from the Ludocapitalist Front)

No, not the melee dps (and tanking) stat, beloved by my feral druid though it is. This is a post about competence, and the shifting status of it as the twentieth century has turned. And it was all prompted by my ludocapitalist car.

We bought a Camry hybrid on somewhat short notice this summer (the computer on one of our cars had failed quite spectacularly), and it wasn’t long before we saw just how differently the Toyota’s makers had imagined the relationship between vehicle and driver compared to the more conventional cars we had driven before. Immediately obvious was the large variety of display options. The car is happy to let you know precisely whether the coasting (or braking) wheels are charging the battery, whether the engine is driving the wheels, or the battery is (or both) — this with the help of little icons for each and shifting arrows updated every second. In addition there are multiple displays with principally numeric information about miles driven, driving range, and so forth.

Another display is the stair-stepping one pictured above. Tracking your mpg since the car was last turned on, it begins to fill from the left once your mpg exceeds 25. With this display you can see from moment to moment just how your actions contribute to gas mileage, and before you know it (if you’re like me), you’re engaged in trying to inch it up ever further. You coast just a bit more, you moderate your speed, you avoid jackrabbit starts. And, if you’ve really done well, by the time you turn the car off you may have topped 35 mpg. What does the car do then? It flashes, in all caps, “EXCELLENT!” I half-expected it to ask me to enter my initials for the high score list.

That Dibbell character’s stuff has drawn our attention to the ways in which our work and consuming life seem to be increasingly game-like, and our Camry certainly fits the bill. What I want to muse about here is less the worthy ramifications of these developments for our Western conceptions of work and play, and more what they tell us about changing ideas of the human under (and maybe out from under) modernity in the American context. (I’m going to range a bit in the course of that, and I hope you’ll stay with me.)

We can see how complicated American ideas about competence are in several vastly different contexts. In the political realm we’ve recently endured another election season here in the US, and without getting too partisan I think it is safe to say that yet again an American ambivalence about expertise was on display. The cultural competence of performative command over a given subject or area can raise suspicions about “elites” and thus in such contests expertise can often be intentionally obscured (one is reminded of the contrast in the previous decade between Bill Clinton’s “Bubba” persona and his far less often-broadcast ability to do the Sunday NY Times crossword in pen), while populist claims about ordinariness are amplified. In popular entertainment media, and closer to our subject matter here, one might also notice the Pixar films of Brad Bird, The Incrediblesand Ratatouille, both of which seem to be meditations on this broad social problem with excellence. (I think it’s for this reason that they feel so different from the Pixar films of Lasseter and Docter, which are virtually all about relationships.) Where does the ambivalence about expertise seen in both of these domains come from, and how might the current moment’s broad incursion of games into the previously routine help us to sort that out?

I would like to suggest that, on the whole, the imagined user of technology (and imagined worker in a factory, or technician in a lab) in the past was quite different from what we are seeing today. The driver of a car from the 1970s was, yes, expected to apply competence to drive the car, but in some sense this competence was assumed to be pretty uniform. Its basics were disseminated through standardized driving instruction, and drivers were generally not asked to “perform” their driving to maximize things like mileage. Even efforts to respond to the 1970s gas crisis were broad recommendations, or universal speed limit adoptions, or simply more fuel efficient cars. The focus was on changing the conditions for a universal user.

This modern idea of interchangeable individuals, not asked to bring any specific competencies to the situation, was (and still is) reflected in many other domains. In the lab, a properly written lab report for an experiment is supposed to allow any schmo to come along and perform the experiment, with invariant results. Yes, there are broad assumptions of cultural competence, such as literacy, here, but those are qualities which are again defined by their sharedness. Individual distinctiveness here is suspiciously subjective, and collides with the positivist effort to have “neutral” experiments. Never mind the fact that critical expert observation and evaluation saturates scientific work. The modern idea of the individual gets bound up in some pretty silly claims about things like science.

In the factory, individual difference is not only politically suspect, but also often contrary to the material design of the space, as well as management strategies for imagining available labor. Consider the category of “rate busters,” in midcentury American manufacturing. These were workers who were able to perform tasks at a faster rate than their peers (or than their peers were willing to perform, an important point), and who were subject to abuse by their fellow workers for running the risk of raising management’s expectations for all.

The post-WWII American imagining of individuals and technology has slowly moved away from this model, beginning with the ideas of people like Norbert Wiener, who began to see participants in technological systems not as undifferentiated actors relatively independent of the technical systems, but instead as having the potential to affect those systems variably. Here are the roots of a specific version of homo ludens — the “gamer” we see rising to prominence today. But there is a modernist faith that persists even here, one that presupposes that, while there are performative differences among those users, they will in aggregate contribute unfailingly to optimal emergent effects. The digital hand at work, as it were.

What games do is complicate this picture in several ways. Incorporating game design into the making of technology reflects this new imagining of the human, one which makes performative demands on users. But it pushes against the ambivalence toward competence that has marked American social life. What is more, it disguises the emerging social distinction between the users, who have agency to act within contrived and complex systems, and those with agency of a different order — to contrive those systems themselves.

I’m not sure where this will all lead, of course. Perhaps de Tocqueville was right, and the drive for equality in the US (which began as the anti-aristocratic drive for equal treatment under the law) always tends to push aside and devalue liberty, in the sense of the distinctive or different individual view or ability. But I am more concerned that the rise of users as gamers leads us away from asking difficult questions about, for example, how the locus of governance and public policy may be shifting away from government — public policy under the hood, as it were. In a post-bureaucratic world, are we liable to mistake our agency within an array of game-like systems for all the agency we’ll ever need?

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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?
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Game as Cultural Form, Play as Disposition

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

February 7, 2009

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 wasnt 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.

Urbanist Games

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

Feb 8, 2009

In a recent post I raised the idea that, like religious experience for William James, play may best be thought of as a mode of experience. Less foregrounded in that discussion was a further lesson from James: that we should expect to find this disposition in as many varieties as there are times and places for human life, rather than in some universal form. Ive recently posted a paper to ssrn that aims to get us thinking about how play may be distinctively configured in different times and places, specifically in Europe directly after WWII and in the United States through the present day. In it I consider New Babylon, the fascinating project of Unitary Urbanism by Constant Nieuwenhuys (aka Constant), who through it sought to make a city for Homo ludens. I set Constants vision against Linden Labs Second Life, a world also deeply informed by ideas about games and play. In both, though in quite different ways, architecting for play held the promise of post-bureaucratic sovereignty.

Here is the abstract:

Constant Nieuwenhuys (aka Constant), 20th-century painter and architect and founding member of the Situationist International, is perhaps best known for his ambitious project of unitary urbanism, New Babylon, on which he worked from 1958 until 1973. This proposed city (which would, theoretically, cover the globe) was intended to prompt all people to express their creativity through their constant reconfiguration of its open and malleable living space.
Explicitly designed for Homo ludens, in it social life was to be constituted by architectural play. But, as Mark Wigley has noted, play was the whole point of New Babylon but not its mode of production. As designer of this universalizing and revolutionary play-space, Constants role entailed the contrivance of open-endedness, and thus implicitly relied upon the very artistic authority that the Situationists had rejected (Constant left the Situationists in 1960). Today, fifty years after he began his project, we can witness similar ideals and contradictions in the virtual world Second Life, an architected social space which also claims to be an infinitely malleable forum for creative expression. In this article I trace to what extent the ideological foundations of both of these projects can be linked to postwar attitudes toward technology and authority on both sides of the Atlantic, and explore how they each draw upon notions of play in distinctive ways. Arriving at the same ideals and contradictions via separate but related paths, New Babylon and Second Life reflect two responses to the challenges of design and post-bureaucratic hopes for the productivity of play.