Ganking the Meaning Out of Games

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

February 6, 2007

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.

Altered States

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

June 3, 2007


[Thanks to Mike Sellers for the link to the xkcd comic above.]

Ever find yourself reaching for the pause button while listening to your car radio? Picking up your home (land-line) phone to text someone? Both technology and games can shape our dispositions in such a way that, in other contexts, we may find ourselves seeing things, or trying to do things, on different terms…

I played a lot of pool in college — and I mean a lot. Sophomore and junior year, I would spend between 3-5 hours playing pool on the dorm’s pool table — luckily, a full 9′ one — every night, and lots more during the day on the weekends. I noticed a strange thing that would happen only after my longest and most intense pool playing sessions. Arriving back in my dorm room, I saw it differently. For a little while (the effect would eventually wear off), the first thing I noticed about any room I walked into was the relationship between all the objects (the furniture, people) and the corners of the room. The angles presented themselves to me unbidden, as if any rectangular space were a giant pool-playing surface.

So that’s an example from game-playing, but technology does it too, of course. Being a DVR user for several years now I often find myself doing things like unthinkingly reaching to pause or rewind the radio while in my car. So I thought I would ask the readership to share their experiences with how virtual worlds have, even if only briefly, shaped their dispositions toward other parts of their lives.

A point of clarification: one thing I’m not particularly interested in here are the metaphoric connections that we make between virtual worlds and other domains. These are interesting, of course, but what I’m after here are not the moments where we think that, “Hey, in this contentious meeting Linda’s like the main tank, and Roger’s doing mad dps from range.” Instead, I’m curious to hear about the surprising moments when we realize that we’re seeing/acting toward the world differently, if only for a while.

So, after that intense raid, SL building marathon, grueling 5-man, or solo quest grind, have any of you noticed yourselves approaching the world differently?

Class Begins In…

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

October 5, 2005

Recent conversations among many of us have been sparked by Cory’s remark that “WoW is the new golf,” riffing as it does on the apparent way that WoW has become a common diversion, meeting place, and source of friendly competitiveness for academics and developers. Extending this idea leads directly to a perhaps troubling outcome: the appearance of something like country clubs in our VW future (although not in WoW necessarily). So why might this be worrisome?

In my view, WoW as the new golf, and the Country Club extenstion of the meme, point to the way in which cultural practices–like golf, drinking single-malt scotch, frequenting the opera, or online gaming–can become a marker of class. It is true that big business has already found VWs, but that has been primarily on the production side. Instead, this would be a transformation that could take place on the consumption end (the increasing blurriness of the distinction between production and consumption aside). What I’m talking about is the development of a distinctive cultural practice for elites. Pierre Bourdieu, in his book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste outlines how a social group’s incentive to distinguish itself culturally leads to the valorization of practices like those above. But some of the practices are vulnerable to cooption by non-elites. When lower classes can easily adopt the same tastes (as they aspire to move up), then the highest class simply moves on to the next thing (what was single malt scotch is now small-batch vodka, perhaps). In contrast, when the wealthy or landed can restrict access to the most expensive (in terms of overhead) diversions, like polo, golf, tennis, or foxhunting, then they become more durably a part of a class’s identity, and competence in it (what he calls cultural capital) becomes a standard and more reliable index of class standing. This explains why many otherwise relatively unskilled folks who are excellent golfers make large sums as “club professionals” and golf instructors–they’re selling a competence that has continued, over many decades, to be deperately desired by many upwardly mobile professionals.

So will VWs be a site for broad-based social elitism with all of the techniques of exclusion (economic and otherwise) that implies? The architecture of VWs can certainly restrict access. Would the technical overhead for a distinctively “ultimate” VW experience (including a custom-built engine? extremely high server-user ratios?) be sufficiently beyond the reach of the masses to make it viable? This is also a question of scale; however elitist anyone’s activities are in VWs now, in no way is the techno-elite yet the ruling class. But once a generation or two grows up thinking of excursions online not as a private diversion for an individual or a small group, but as an arena for all those who are “the right sort,” then won’t something like Country Club VWs be on the way? If so, then the current guilds, or the powers-that-be residents in certain VWs without them, are just child’s play in comparison, but crucial training nonetheless (as all child’s play is).

Perhaps, then, we worry because there is a legitimate concern that VWs, once they become truly taken-for-granted by the (non-poor) public at large, will be sites for all the ugly aspects of society that we find all-too familiar.

Real Politik

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

June 7, 2007

Almost exactly a year ago I asked whether virtual world makers with significant economies and RMT should “‘open their books’ about how their economies operate, given how much control they have over the conditions and mechanisms of those economies.” Today, via the New York Times, comes this account that suggests that the makers of EvE Onlinehave answered in the affirmative.

In the wake of recent concerns over corruption (Nate provided many of the key links in this post), CCP has announced that they will hold elections among their players for an oversight committee, one empowered to visit CCP’s  offices and “audit” their operations. Scott Jennings chimes in, as do Endie and Mark Wallace.

Like many of you I eagerly await Nate’s take on the recent developments for EvE, but what does this mean for virtual worlds more generally? The broader issues generated by the power that virtual world makers wield over the the deep architecture of increasingly high-stakes economies are not going away. The analogy to gaming (gambling) commissions is apt, not because these virtual worlds are, effectively, virtual casinos (well, some of them might be), but because of the underlying principle that informs that policy-making; i.e., when a group of people puts real capital on the line in a broadly contrived environment there is a compelling public interest in ensuring that the conditions conform to some notion of fairness.

CCP’s solution is intriguing, striking even, because it breaks from a largely unspoken assumption that the relationship between players and developers should be distant — or, at least, heavily managed and regulated (by the developer). We’ll have to see how this solution unfolds in practice, of course, but for the moment at least it suggests a new ethic surrounding these environments with regard to accountability and political legitimacy. CCP may have opened its doors in the name of transparency, but is letting those who are not gods (in Richard’s formulation) check the gods’ work the direction in which virtual worlds must move?

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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