Global gaming networks are heterogenous collectives of localized practices, not unified commercial products. Shifting the analysis of digital games to local specificities that build and perform the global and general, Gaming Rhythms employs ethnographic work conducted in Venezuela and Australia to account for the material experiences of actual game players.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Draft Copy of Thesis Chapter

Opening Ludology's Magic Circle:
Videogames at the Margins of Play and Space

The old and new game components, their dynamic combination, the registers, the necessary manipulation of temporal, causal, spatial and functional relations and properties not to mention the rules and goals and the lack of audience should suffice to set games and the gaming situation apart from narrative and drama, and to annihilate for good the discussion of games as stories, narratives or cinema (Eskelinen, 2001: 7).

Eskelinen desires to isolate videogames in order to get to the roots of the ‘gaming situation’. This desire reflects the problems inherent in defining videogames as a new area of study. Tension arises between notions of videogames as a unique medium and notions of it as one of the many new digital mediums. While many have argued in favour of one or the other of these positions. While those that favour understanding videogames as unique are faced with (re)-inventing a unique discipline, those that regard games in a continuum are in danger of obscuring the substantial difference involved between playing a game and watching a film, for example. That is the videogames mode of participation and the form of communication and community that it engenders. In this chapter I will argue that videogames should be understood in terms of both positions. This tension need not be resolved; I suggest that it is not a case of an either/or polemic, rather videogames are both a unique medium and located in a dominant media paradigm that share many common characteristics.

While it must be acknowledged that in the contemporary media age of digital convergence videogames share many of the same networks of production, technology and marketing, as do other entertainment media such as cinema. Nor do videogames operate alone to produce meaning; rather they exist in a vast mediascape that has among many other characteristics a notable tendency towards self-referentiality. However, this aside, videogames are also distinct from other media in several senses, the most prominent and oft refrained by advocates of isolation is that videogames are games. Tautological as this claim may seem it makes an important point. Marshall McLuhan once claimed that new media was old wine in new bottles; in the case of games I suggest there is something new in the bottles. While games certainly existed prior to the invention of videogames, the new videogames in addition to repurposing old media content introduced play into the media system. While other media may be used playfully, to experiment or create an aberrant or parodic reading, it is only videogames that must be played, and furthermore can only be consumed through the act of playing.

This chapter will begin by surveying the field of Game Studies, in particular the influence of – and reaction to – those scholars who argue that videogames should be studied in isolation from other media, and theories that have arise from the study of those other media. Second, the notion of play as it pertains to the study of videogames will be discussed, with a focus on critiquing the use to which it has been put by those scholars who construe the field narrowly, in order to establish ways that play theory can be used to make connections between the play of videogames and the culture(s) in which that play occurs. Key also in the discussion of play is Roger Caillois’ notion of play existing in a margin or latitude of freedom within the rules. Finally, strategies by which the diverse field of videogames can be conceived of as a coherent field are outlined, highlighting four key ordering features, for distinguishing between games – variance in platform, genre, mode and milieu – and locating one general feature which all games share, an intersection of space and play within space that resembles the latitude or margin of freedom outlined by Cailois.

The Field of Game Studies

In Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature Espen Aarseth argues that: ‘to claim that there is no difference between games and narratives is to ignore essential qualities of both categories’ [my emphasis] (1997: 5). This claim establishes the basic opposition that can be found in the study of games between scholars who seek to understand games as narratives, and those that prefer that they are understood on their own terms. In the following section, first the merits of the latter position will be explored, and then it will discuss two crucial shortfalls of the approach. The isolation of videogames in an attempt study them purely as games ignores both the way that games deploy narratives and the cultural context of the games production and consumption.

Introducing Ludology
At the core of the contemporary game studies debate lies a rather questionable dialectic. This ostensible opposition is posited between two theoretical camps: the ‘ludologists’ and the ‘narratologists’. The key texts that mark this divide in the field are Aarseth’s Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature (1997) and Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck: the Future of Narrative in Cyberspace (1998). Murray’s work in the course of exploring the narrative potential of computers, applies narrative theory to videogames. To Aarseth Murray’s exploratory project is a case of ‘narrativistic colonialism’ (2004b: 49). A grossly problematic application of the ‘theories of literary criticism to a new empirical field, seemingly without any reassessment of the terms and concepts involved’ (Aarseth, 1997: 14). In the editorial of the inaugural issue of Game Studies (2001), he outlines his position further: videogames were simulations that presented a ‘radically different alternative to narratives as a cognitive and communicative structure. Simulations are bottom up; they are complex systems based on logical rules’ (2001: 2). Videogames from this perspective are simulations, and simulations and narratives are mutually incompatible.

Murray’s position is deprecated further in Markku Eskelinen’s article ‘The Gaming Situation’ (2001). He argues that ‘Instead of studying the actual game Murray tries to interpret its supposed content, or better yet, project her favourite content on it’ (Eskelinen, 2001: 6). I suggest that Eskelinen is correct in this claim; however, the way that he (and the other ludologists) demarcates the argument suggests that in many ways the disagreement stems also from an incongruent understanding of the object of study. Aarseth’s notion of the simulation argues that games are rule-based systems, which limits the object of enquiry into how these rules and systems operate with the contribution of the player to deliver an experience that is understood as playing a game. His notion of the distinction between description and narration illuminates the ludological position regarding the object of study. Aarseth divides narrative into two levels: description and narration, arguing that videogames contain description, but not narration. He states: ‘the game may be narrated in a number of ways, but like football, narration is not part of the game’ (Aarseth, 1997: 95). Ludologists are solely concerned with the game. In ‘Simulation versus Narrative: Introduction to Ludology’ Gonzalo Frasca elucidates this position, while ostensibly games and narrative both contain the descriptive content that make up a narrative, in games they are produced by a different signifying system: simulation (2003: 224). It is the operation of this signifying system that is the object of study for ludologists.

This desire to isolate the object of study has shifted the focus of analysis from what is traditionally regarded as the text to the relationship between the player and the text. Videogames are characterised by the player both reading the ‘output’ from the screen and ‘inputting’ responses. As Frasca remarks: games ‘cannot be understood just through output’ (2003: 224). While this approach is able to adequately conceive the feedback loop relationship between the player and the game, it also, to the discipline’s disadvantage, conceives this feedback loop hermeneutically. The consequence of this is demonstrated in the argument between Aarseth and Stuart Moulthrop in First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game over among other things, the status of Lara Croft vis-à-vis the game Tomb Raider. Aarseth claims that Tomb Raider would be the same game with or without Lara Croft (2004b: 48). Moulthrop then argues that Aarseth’s approach ignores the cultural implications of her ‘salacious anatomy’ by focusing on ‘the player’s engagement with the rule system’ (2004: 47). To which Aarseth replies that while Lara Croft has significance that extends beyond the gameplay that it is insignificant in terms of what it can tell us about the gameplay it self (2004a: 49). Aarseth’s rebuttal reflects the problem of defining the object of study for videogames in such a narrow manner. Here, I suggest that Moulthrop and Aarseth’s failure to see eye to eye is caused by a underlying disagreement as to what precisely is the object being studied, and consequently over what is the scope of the field defining itself as ‘game studies’. Moulthrop is correct to argue that by constricting the study of games to the formal elements, or rules that make them work, Aarseth, and the other ludologists, are ignoring other equally important issues in the study of games. However, the ludological position is that these issues are separate from the experience of playing within the bounded rule system of the game simulation, and that this experience is non-narrative. As Eskelinen succinctly puts it: ‘If I throw a ball at you I don’t expect you to drop it and wait until it starts telling stories’(2001: 1).

While ludologists seek to maintain the integrity of the videogames unique status, their efforts reflect what Patrick Crogan describes as a basic ambivalence towards narrative and literary theory (2004a: 13). He notes that the foundational works of ludology, in particular Eskelinen (2001), but also Juul (2001a), Kücklich (2003), and Aarseth (1997) all use basic narrative theory, in particular semiotics to make their ‘anti-narrative’ arguments (Crogan, 2004a: 13). There is also accompanying their resistance to narrative, an underlying resistance to capital ‘T’ theory in the ludologists work. Frasca explicitly states that ludology is a ‘formalist discipline’ (2003: 222). While he acknowledges the limitations of this approach he argues that it is ‘probably the easiest way to uncover the structural differences between stories and games’ (Frasca, 2003: 222). Here I suggest that Frasca is marking ‘ludology’ as non-equivocal to game studies, but rather as a ‘formalist discipline’ within it. This dissertation will argue that the study of ludology, as a distinct area of game studies has much to offer the study of videogames. However, what ludology has to offer must be understood with a strict caveat regarding the limitations and underlying assumptions associated of the approach.

Narrative in Videogames
I suggest that the primary flaw in the ludological approach is its desire to understand games in isolation. By reducing the study of game to the study of their formal rules and structure they neglect what Aarseth has designated as ‘cultural inputs’(Crogan, 2004b). Crogan uses the notion of cultural inputs to refer to both narrative and broader cultural context of production and consumption, the first of these issues will be explored here and the second will be discussed in the flowing section. In this first sense cultural inputs are the way in which videogames “draw on narrative modes of more traditional media” (Crogan, 2003: 282). James Newman in Videogames suggests that the narrative elements of games, such as the cut scene, are equally important to understanding the experience of play (2004: 72). The existence of narrative element in videogames is for Crogan evidence that narrative remain crucial but secondary concern (2004a: 14). Newman, however, focuses on the way that narrative elements have been worked into the structure of the games (2004: 98). Newman, I suggest, is highlighting the imbricated nature of the narrative into the ‘ludic’ structures of the game. The net effect of opening up the narrative aspect of games as a relevant field of inquiry, is to acknowledge their connections to other cultural forms, and in particular their relationship to other media (Crogan, 2004a: 7).

Ludology ambivalent relationship to narrative, combined with its rather audacious claims lead Crogan to describe it as a ‘somewhat notorious provocation’ (2004a: 11). However, he quickly, and correctly, acknowledges that ludology has been valuable in ‘generating the necessary discussion on the nature of the objects of study for this emerging field of empirical work’(Crogan, 2004a: 12). For Crogan and Whalen the provocation of ludology is a strategic move that usurps the smooth application of narrative theory to new media (Crogan, 2004a: 12; Whalen, 2004). The polemical position taken by Aarseth and the other ludologists in defining games in opposition to literature, I suggest, is a deliberate move to prevent videogames from being unproblematically absorbed into literary studies. The ludologists point has been made, it is now generally accepted in game studies that narrative is no longer the primary defining characteristics of game, but rather one among several (Aarseth, 2000; Crogan, 2003: 275; 2004a: 13; Darley, 2000: 155, 194; Flynn, 2004: 53-4; Frasca, 2003: 222; Tong & Tan, 2002: 99). This is supported by Sean Cubitt’s argument that narrative is just one possible system of organising new media, and suggests that the structure and use of new media like Photoshop encourages a system of organisation that he dubs ‘post narrative spatialization’ (2002: 27; see also Manovich, 2002). The ludologists concern that narrative is not entirely relevant for understanding games is accompanied by a more deep-seated ambivalence among some scholars within the field of new media towards narratives.

The notion of games as simulations that has been developed by Frasca (2003) and Aarseth (2004), addresses the ludological position on narratives. While narrative theory can adequately describe parts of the game, to rely on it potentially proscribes a limit on the analysis. Crogan describes the difference between simulation and narrative as distinguishing between a system designed for modelling a simulation for solution and a past sequence of events that is recalled for contemplation and interpretation (2004a: 16). This is not to say that videogames are not interpreted or regarded contemplatively, indeed for Newman one of the functions of the narrative interludes in games is to allow this kind of activity, a point to which Aarseth and Crogan agree (Aarseth, 1999: 37-8; Crogan, 2004a: 15; Newman, 2004: 79). This point is crucial, as it both emphasises the way in which simulation and narrative intersect and inform the overall experience, and the way in which they are differentiated temporally. The process of simulation generates the material that is then retrospectively constructed into a narrative during an interlude in the play. This process is informed by videogames’ use of traditional media aesthetics during these interludes to frame the past events and potentially to foreshadow the next episode.

However, this turn away from narrative should be accompanied by an acknowledgement that videogames, as well as being games are also, at least in part, textual. That they make reference to what is outside of the game. Newman and Mia Consalvo rally against the notion that all meaning in games are derived independently of context (Consalvo, 2003: 331; Newman, 2004: 128, 143). Videogames, they argue independently are understood intertextually, through other media texts and through the shared experience of gaming. Aarseth – based on his understanding of games as rules only – argues that games cannot be understood intertextually (2004b: 48). Consalvo contradicts this arguing that games are understood intertextually, and that game players bring to bear a wide range of medium-specific and general media to bear in the production of meaning from a game: ‘They do not... …discard knowledge of all other media while engaging with a primary text. Rather, they approach all of these media intertextually with knowledge of all informing all of their actions’ (2003: 31-2). (2003: 231-2). In support of this notion Newman states:

Videogames do not exist within a vacuum. Rather, they reside, are produced, and are encountered within a web of intertextuality in which explicit and implicit references to other media forms proliferate in videogames, and in which videogames are referred to aesthetically and stylistically within other media. As such, advertising and marketing materials, not to mention the various and extensive tie-ins and spin-offs such as movies and cartoons, must be considered alongside the content of the game (2004: 57-8).

Here Newman alludes to what Kline et. al. would call the ‘circuit of marketing’ in which computer games are located. In New Media Cultures, Marshall discusses the way in which the commodity status that intertextual marketing creates through its various permutations across the media creates a structure that regulates and organises play and engagement, importantly marking that within these systems of circulation the various texts will contribute and shape, or ‘cue’[i] particular meanings (2004: 23). This notion that certain meanings may be cued is supported by Sharon Sherman’s analysis of Super Mario Brothers in ‘Perils of the Princess: Gender and Genre in Video Games’ in which she notes that the games meaning is constructed through intertextual references to other texts and mediums. Sherman notes the divergence in the kind of reading that the game would be give by a child, and the reading given by someone involved in ‘drugs subculture’[ii] pointing to the games’ potential for myriad and polysemous meanings which are dependant on the knowledge of the player (1997: 254).

Broader ‘Cultural Inputs’
Crogan is also gesturing toward the cultural context within which games are produced, distributed and consumed. As he points out, by making contextual issues marginal to the understanding of gameplay, the ludologists ignore the impact that cultural factors, in this case the computer and the simulations origins in the military-industrial complex, have had on their development (2004a: 15-6). He is not alone on this point, in Digital Play: The Intersection of Technology, Culture and Marketing Kline et. al. devote some time to trace the connections between the US military infrastructure and the development of cybernetic theory on the development of the technology of gaming, and argue that these origins are reflected in the kinds of games simulations that are available (2003: chapter four; see also Marshall, 2004: chapter two).

Kline et. al., Sue Morris, and P. David Marshal all advocate a more holistic approach to understanding computer games. The approach outlined by Kline et. al. suggests that the videogame is a ‘complex composite of technological, cultural, and marketing forces’ (2003: 59). That is located in a imbricated, interactive nexus of the circuits of marketing, culture and technology that ‘interpenetrate and dynamize each other’ (Kline et al., 2003: 58). In order to understand this mesh of influences both Morris and Marshal adapt the cinematic apparatus theory. For Morris this is important as it recognises the ‘interconnected technical, environmental, textual, psychological and social processes… …involved in audience interaction with the media form’ (2002: 81). The play of videogames has implications far beyond the ludological structure of the game simulation, earmarking an opening of the hermeneutic feedback loop between the player and their game that draws connections to the social, economic, technological and political systems within which videogame play is located. Marshall argues that the ‘technological’ apparatus of new media operate together to produce the new form subjectivity: ‘Like the cinematic apparatus the technological apparatus surrounds, mediates and becomes part of our identity and relationship to the world’ (2004: 33). The authors vision of videogames is a far cry from that conceived by the ludologists, however, there is a danger that in some cases in their efforts to trace the context of games through these circuits they lose site of the play of the game itself (Kücklich, 2004). Here I will argue that Kücklich’s criticism of Kline et. al. is a pertinent reminder for scholars of computer games to mark – as the ludologists’ do – the specificity of gaming as a practice whilst also exploring the context in which it occurs.

This section has earmarked the key contribution of Ludology to the field of Game Studies. However, it has also highlighted the shortcoming of that approach in adequately explaining certain key issues: First Game Studies needs to understand the interplay of narrative and play, and the way in which videogames are understood intertexually. However, in this enquiry narrative should not be seen as the medium’s dominant organising principle. Second, Game Studies needs to be able to critically conceptualize the relationship between game play and the wider cultural spheres in which its consumption is located. However, these wider concerns need to be grounded in the specificity of play as a practice distinct from other forms of media consumption. The distinctive qualities of play will be discussed in the following section.

Play Theory

Frasca places Ludology in a continuum with the study of pre-digital games (2003: 222). By strategically claiming their historic roots in the study of play, ludology positions narrativism as an outside influence. However, in this section I will demonstrate that the ludologists reading of pre-digital play theory is idiosyncratic, focusing on particular arguments that support their claims, while ignoring aspects of the theories that would problemitize their arguments. The section will reflect on the readings of the foundational works of play theory Roger Caillois’ Man Play and Games and Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens. Then it will turn to a more contemporary source: Brain Sutton-Smith’s The Ambiguity of Play in order to propose a more general and open method of defining play, that includes in and expands upon the ludologists narrow definition.

Paidia and Ludos
In ‘Ludology’ Zack Whalen points out that the problem with narrative theories of games is that they are often too far removed from the act of playing. It is this that Murray is accused of by the ludologists. It is not that she does not play, but rather that she does not engage in her writing with the act of play, instead she relies on what Marie-Laurie Ryan dubs the ‘holodeck myth’ (2001: 3). This myth suggests that videogames are the current technological expression of what will one day be three-dimensional virtual reality environments. Murray is theorizing what play could be, not what play is. Theories of play have for decades existed independently from literary or narrative scholarship, usually within social sciences disciplines. A key part of the agenda of the first Game Studies journal was not only to criticise the narrative approach, but also to demonstrate exactly what it was that this approach lacked. This demand that understanding of videogames be routed in the context of the notion of play remains the crucial contribution of the ludological scholars. This notion highlights new medium’s existence in a continuum with practices that are more commonly understood as a social or cultural, rather than as a media form. Ludological scholars emphasized this link as an important critique of narrative derived understandings of games. In particular Jesper Juul in ‘The Repeatedly Lost Art of Studying Games’ earmarked the work of the anthropologists Brian Sutton-Smith and Julian E. Avedon as being key to the structural understanding of games (2001b: 2-3). Later works of ludology also adopt, and adapt, prior scholarship on games and play to the study of videogames, in particular the work of Roger Caillois in Man, Play and Games(1961). He has been used by Frasca to make a key categorical distinction within videogames (2003: 229-31). Caillois categories of paidia and ludus – and to a lesser extent agôn, alea, mimicry, and ilinx – have been accepted as key categorical tools by a remarkable number of scholars within the field (Darley, 2000; Lister, 2003; Newman, 2004; Perron, 2003; Salen & Zimmerman, 2004).

As Frasca points out Caillois’ categories are loosely defined (2003: 230). In response he reframes the two categories in a way that I will argue, according to my reading of the text obscures a key aspect of ’ original configuration. describes paidia as “an almost indivisible principle, common to diversion, turbulence, free improvisation, and carefree gaiety…” while ludus is characterised by “effort patience, skill or ingenuity” (1961: 13). Ostensibly, has set up games into two more-or-less opposing camps. However, Frasca argues that to understand ludus and paidia in opposition is incorrect, he prefers definition based on allying paidia with play and ludos with game. They are two separate categories that are demarcated according to their goals: while ludus games have a clear winner or loser, paidia games lack one (2003: 230). Subsequently, all videogames are defined as either ludos or paidia (Frasca, 2003: 230-1). I believe that Frasca’s use of the terms misses a key point in Caillois argument that I suggest elucidates the practice of playing itself, irrespective of the kind of game that is played.

Frasca over-emphasises the distinct qualities of the category. By marking the notion of a clearly defined goal as the fulcrum by which a game is designated ludos or paidia he is setting up a binary opposition between types of game that, I ague, could be more usefully understood as existing within games. The two concepts – far from being the static markers that Frasca suggests – exist together in productive tension. As Caillois states:

The game consists of the need to find or continue at once a response which is free within the limits set by the rules. This latitude of the player, this margin accorded to his action is essential to the game and partly explains the pleasure which it excites. It is equally accountable for the remarkable and meaningful uses of the term ‘play’, such as are reflected in such expressions as the playing of a performer or of a gear, to designate in the one case the personal style of an interpreter, in the other the range of movement of the parts of a machine [the author’s original emphasis] (1961: 8).

This passage, come before Caillois defines paidia or ludos, thus I believe they need to be reconsidered with those categories in mind. sets up a certain dynamic, a contradiction, a ‘margin or latitude’ within the rules that is free within the limits set by them. To follow Frasca and align rules with ludos, and consequently this margin of freedom with paidia, highlights the imbricated quality of the two categories. Games are not characterised by their ludos or paidia, but by ‘the margin or latitude’ afforded to the player by the dynamic interplay of these two contradictory forces.

Huizinga’s Magic Circle
The extension of the notion of play by Caillois into the metaphorical dimension of the movement of a machine foreshadows Henry Jenkins’ emphasis on videogames as spaces characterised by ‘freedom of movement’ (Fuller & Jenkins, 1995; Henry Jenkins, 1993, 1998). The space is created from within this latitude or margin and thus it is the extent and potential of this marginal space that is the key factor in delineating the experience of play. In Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (1970) the seminal work of Johan Huizinga, first published in English in 1949, play is distinguished from everyday life by its temporal and spatial boundaries. Play requires the recognition of a spatial and/or temporal boundary within which everyday rules do not apply (Huizinga, 1970: 28-9). Huizinga argues that within the limited time and space of play, play “contains its own course and meaning”(1970: 28). It offers the player an ephemeral world “within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart” (Huizinga, 1970: 29). The space created by and for play is a space that, for Huizinga, is both outside and within the space of the everyday. The temporary world of play is established through rules; however, manifest within the rules is the intervention of uncertainty – which I suggest is what Caillois would describe as paidia – which is the central attraction of play. Thus the pleasure of play arises from a contradiction - to rephrase Caillois and Jenkins – it comes from the margin of uncertainty that provides freedom of movement within the rules. These rules not only define the practices of play but also its temporal and spatial bounds.

Huizinga’s invocation of the ‘magic circle’ to describe the separation of play from everyday life resounds throughout ludology (1970: 28). The notion of play as a space apart has been challenged by Rebecca Farley in her article ‘Game’ where she notes that the conflict of play continues outside the time a space that is set aside for it (2000). Not only does Farley’s critique disrupt the notion of the ‘magic circle’ it suggests that to examine games in isolation from the cultural context in which they take place ignores the way in which events within the magic circle impact upon the broader social sphere. Newman takes this point and uses it to point to the limitations of the ludological approach vis-à-vis the audience and culture engendered by videogames (2004: 109). However, those who have used his notion of the space apart to justify analysis of game outside of strict cultural contexts have obscured Huizinga’s own position. He argues that: “the feeling of being ‘apart together’ in an exceptional situation, of sharing something important, of mutually withdrawing from the rest of the world and rejecting its usual norms, retains its magic beyond the duration of the individual game” (1970: 31). Clearly Huizinga believes that the ‘magic circle’ extends into and affects relations in the everyday. Here is where the ludologists depart from Huizinga, to their more agreeable, particular structuralist reading of . For, ultimately, Huizinga argues “culture arises in the form of play” (1970: 66). Thus the two concepts: play and culture are inexorably linked. It is not that ludologists necessarily are denying this link; it is simply that they wish to understand the relationship between the player(s) and the rules that govern the game.

In this sense of wishing to examine the object of play in isolation, the ludologists move from an understanding of play as inherently social and thus focused outward, and subject to influences from beyond the ‘magic circle’, towards a more hermeneutic understanding of play akin to Brian Sutton-Smith’s definition of ‘toy’ in Toys as Culture (1986). Unlike play, which is a particularly difficult notion to isolate, the toy is a concrete and isolable play object (Sutton-Smith, 1986: 66, 76). The toy, according to Sutton-Smith is a play object designed to teach children the skill of solitary concentration (1986: 75). While this notion has some very interesting applications to understanding the pedagogical role that games might play in contemporary society, the fact remains that videogames are not consumed in this manner. To illustrate this, Sutton-Smith notes that approximately half the time spent playing videogames by children could be more accurately described as socializing (1986: 67). What is lost in the strict ludological approach is any understanding of the games outside their isolated ‘toy’ function.

Defining Play
In The Ambiguity of Play (1997) Sutton-Smith explores the ambiguous nature of the concept of play. To him the key reasons for its ambiguity are: the diversity of play forms and experiences, the diversity of players, play agencies and play scenarios, and the diversity of play scholarship (Sutton-Smith, 1997: 3-7). It is difficult to understand ‘play’ as a unified concept as it takes place across heterogenous groups, in diverse context and in multiple forms; furthermore, it is studied under many different scholarly rubrics. For Sutton-Smith concepts of play are constructed rhetorically and reflect the underlying cultural assumptions towards play (1997: 8-12). In order to move away from studying the rhetorics of play, and to understand the activity itself, he draws attention to the divergent ways in which the object of study for play has been constructed. Sutton-Smith notes three major ways in which play is conceived: as an intrinsic system, as an extrinsic system and as something that is defined by its players (1997: 16-7). To extrapolate these concepts, first, the intrinsic system refers to a system of classification that is based on mapping the boundaries and rules of the play and the patterns of behaviour that occur within those boundaries, this position is that of , and is similar to that taken by ludologists. The second, extrinsic classification of games suggests that games reflect culture in some way and that what is studied is the connection between play and culture, this is the position of Huizinga. The third category is where the scholar allows the players’ to define the meanings of their practice, which is similar to the ethnographic approach taken by Sue Morris, outlined in ‘Shoot First: Ask Questions Later: Ethnographic Research in a Online Games Community’ (2004). I would suggest that each of the three rubrics that Sutton-Smith mentions as defining play has a particular place in the study of play. Ludology closely adheres to one of the positions, leaving the field of Game Studies open to ‘extrinsic’ and ethnographic inquiry.

By combining these three approaches an accurate understanding of the phenomena of videogames can be developed. As I have suggested previously although the ludological position has certain limits, it is not without its benefits, primarily that they seek to understand games, as games. While this position is ostensibly a tautological one. I suggest that it is important to note the benefit of understanding them intrinsically, or as Aarseth would describe it as ‘a bottom up hermeneutic’ (2004b: 52). The advantage of this approach is that it focuses on the specificity of the videogame medium, in an era where engagement with new media is characterised by the notion of play. As Marshall states: ‘play has been colonized in the era of new media cultures to expand the impact and investment by users in the new technologies’ (2004: 44). Both play, and interactivity have come to stand it as characteristics of the new media as a whole that marks the break between old and new media. Videogames uniqueness within the grouping of new media can only be established through an examination of the structural and mechanical nature of play. Otherwise the specificity of the medium will be overlooked in the general technological and aesthetic convergence that characterise the new media age.

The intrinsic perspective is also valuable. Primarily because it seeks to draw connections between play and culture. In this case the extrinsic perspective opens up the study of games to include the ‘cultural inputs’, first this locates the practices of the videogame audience in the wider culture of new media, and second it opens videogames to broader enquiries vis-à-vis the marketing, technological and cultural forces that shape them. Crucial in terms of the development of game studies beyond ludology, the extrinsic approach allows videogames to be understood in the context of intertextuality. By opening play to an intrinsic examination the connections between play, everyday life and the ubiquitous media are marked and mapping the intertextual web of polysemous meanings that can be attributed to the text becomes possible.

The third strategy for defining play, that which involves seeking knowledge from the players’ perspective is crucial, as through this first we can begin to understand not only the intrinsic pleasures that the play excites, but also the way in which the players make meaning from the extrinsic material. Key in this last factor is the social way in which the games are played and the communities or networks of players that arise from play. Furthermore, by investigating the players’ own definition(s) of play, an enquiry into what is at stake in play becomes possible. While in theory, videogame play – like most pastimes – is considered a pleasurable activity; the practicality is that game play often involves intense frustration, confusion and boredom. Clifford Geertz in ‘Deep Play: a Description of the Balinese Cockfight’ argues that in play what is at stake is status rather than pleasure (1976: 667). Certainly game communities involve status, but Geertz argues it is the status that is at stake in the game that makes it meaningful to the player and to the culture as a whole (1976: 668). Obtaining data on the communities of play makes it possible to interpret the cultural significance of play within that community.

The player-defined approach will require a clean negotiation of the disjuncture between the ‘commonsense’ understanding of everyday life and the complex critical enquiry demanded by academia. By understanding and utilizing categories that are meaningful to the informants an emic perspective of videogame play can be usefully contrasted with the etic perspective where the categories are defined by the researcher (Schroder, Drotner, Kline, & Murray, 2003: 81). By mapping an etic perspective on to the emic understanding, the validity of the informant’s categories acknowledged, while retaining a critical perspective.

Despite the Ludologist favouring an approach to videogames that incorporates prior scholarship on play. Their use of such theories to validate their approach is questionable. First the creative tension between ludos and paidia that exist within games is overlooked. Second, while arguing that play is a space apart from the everyday like Huizinga, they ignore his argument that play extends into the everyday in the form of social connections formed through play. Finally, as Sutton-Smith illustrate, play may be defined in several ways, of which the ludologists use the most narrow, ignoring other definition which are also used in play theory. I have advocated a mixed definition, as I anticipate a broader definition of play will allow play to act as a unifying feature of the diverse media of videogames.

Locating the Medium of the Videogame

To address computer games as a consistent genre or medium is highly problematic. From Tetris on a mobile phone to Super Mario on a Gameboy to Everquest on a Midi-tower Windows machine there is a rather large span of different genres, social contexts, and media technologies (Aarseth, 2004b: 46).

Aarseth argues that the videogame medium is so diverse that the defy categorization into a single cohesive felid. Certainly given the forty-year history of videogames and the divergence of aesthetics, genres, and technologies during that period, means that scholars are faced with a field that is characterised by diversity. This section will first examine various ways that the field might be organised into useful groupings or genres and then pinpoint two particular features of videogames that point to common characteristics within the medium despite its extreme diversity; space, and – harking back to the previous chapter – play.

The extreme divergence of games as a medium has a serious effect on scholarship. On one hand useful scholarship on one game, or several similar games can be difficult to apply to other games. On the other hand scholars who are making arguments about games in general are able to support their theory with one, or two popular games that appear to support their argument, while ignoring other games that are otherwise inconvenient. Thus both Jull and Eskelinen use Tetris to support their claim that videogames are not narratives (Eskelinen, 2001; Juul, 2001a). Darley is able to claim conversely that games share the same general aesthetics as cinema, precisely because he ignores these games and focuses on Myst and Doom (2000: Chapter Seven).

In response to the divergent characteristics of videogames useful scholarship has been done in an effort to establish a notion of genre. This helps to put a rough framework on the divergent field. Ludologists, in general, are resistant to any notion of genre that questions the established industry categories (for example see: Juul, 2001b: 3). Thomas Schatz’s notion that film genre classification a consensual agreement between the audience and the producers has been posited by Mark J. P. Wolf as relevant for videogames (see Schatz, 1981: 16; 2002: 113). However, I suggest that genre is another category that needs to be rethought with an etic perspective in mind. This is because the current established genres accepted by the audience and industry does not take into account the complex layering of genre that occurs within computer games. In the introduction to ScreenPlay: cinema/videogames/interfaces Geoff King and Tanya Krzywinska argue that games can be categorised on four levels: ‘according to platform, genre, mode and milieu’ (2002: 26-7).

· Platform: refers to the hardware systems on which the game is played, this includes personal computers, various consoles (Sony PlayStation 2, Nintendo GameCube, Microsoft Xbox etcetera), as well as hand-held devices such as Game Boy Advanced, PDA’s and cell phones. While this may seem unimportant, as it is common for popular games to shift across the various franchises, both Newman in Videogames and Will Brooker in ‘The Many Lives of the Jetman: A Case Study in Computer Game Analysis’ point to the specificity of design to a particular console, may not be replicated when the software is adjusted to other hardware. Consequently, the experience of playing the game may be drastically different because of adjustments made to cope with a different style of controller or graphic interface (Brooker, 2001; Newman, 2004: 44). Newman argues that playing the game on the platform for which it was designed is of particular concern to ‘hardcore’ gamers (2004: 52).

· Genre: refers to the industry/audience consensus that typically divides games into such categories as action, shooter, strategy, platform, puzzle, etcetera. I suggest that this particular level of categorisation needs a re-examination under a critical lens. David Myers in The Nature of Computer Games: Play As Semiosis argues that few games are ‘pure and simple exemplars of the genres to which they are assigned’ (2003: 92). He argues that particularly in expert play, that the styles of play associated with an individual genre become blurred (Myers, 2003: 67-8). Myers also points out that game genres are the result of a particular dynamic of technological contexts and popularity and are therefore neither ‘fundamental or stable’ (2003: 97). In The Medium of the Videogame Mark J P Wolf suggests an alternative taxonomy of genre, that concentrates on the types of interactions that are available in the game, as distinct from the visual iconography (2002: 114-6). I suggest that this notion replace King and Krzywinska’s notion of genre as it is a more useful critical category that is able to distinguish between games that are ostensibly of the same genre.

· Mode: this is the least clear of King and Krzywinska’s levels of category. This refers to the mode in which the game world is experienced by the characters, specifically in relation to the visual arrangement in the space of the game and the temporal arrangements of the game. I suggest that this be expanded to include the whole sensorium through which the game is experienced (the visual, temporal, spatial, aural and tactile senses are all engages in some way in the game play). Importantly, here King and Krzywinska note that multiplayer games can show important variations within this level depending if they are played single- or multi-player. This is supported by Sue Morris’s ethnographic work, in ‘First Person Shooters’ – A Game Apparatus’ she argues that the shift from single to multiplayer creates a different experience of game play (2002: 83-5).[iii]

· Milieu: this level refers to the generic iconography of the videogame. Several distinct established game milieus exist: science fiction, fantasy and horror being prominent. While Aarseth claims that this kind of ‘visual’ aspect of the game is irrelevant to the mechanical rules of the simulation (2004b: 48). Running counter to this a growing body of work on horror genre games, argues that the effectiveness of the horror milieu is enhanced by using particular structural rules (Carr, 2003: 2, 7; Kryzwinska, 2002: 207; see also Ndalianis, 2002). Thus, I suggest to construe this element of games as completely irrelevant is to ignore a key element of how games are structured, and – as noted by Angela Ndalianis –how game genre operates intertextually to produce understanding of the games structure and the players motivation goal during play (2002: 512).

While King and Krzywinska’s levels of description aid in fleshing out the concept of genre in videogames by setting up useful categories they no do not locate a common aesthetic factor that allows videogames to be construed as a continuum. I suggest that turning to the considerable work that Henry Jenkins has done on videogame spaces, will solve this problem.

In the article ‘Nintendo and New World Travel Writing: A Dialogue’ (1995) Jenkins and his co-author Mary Fuller compare the exploration process of videogame play to the descriptive travel writing of the explorers of the New World. Arguing, by way of Michel de Certeau’s notion of spatial narrative that the process of playing computer games involve exploring and unfamiliar ‘place’ and turning it into a ‘space’ that was inscribed with the readers – or, in this case the players – own meaning. Jenkin’s continues in this vein, in his article ‘“Complete Freedom of Movement”: Video Games as Gendered Spaces’ he contests that the virtual space of play is replacing the kinds of outdoors and unsupervised play that characterised boys play in the first half of the twentieth century (1998: 263). However, the crucial point that Jenkin’s makes in his spatial oeuvre is in ‘The Art of Contested Spaces’ co-authored with Kurt Squire (2003). Here Jenkins consolidates his work on videogame spaces, arguing that videogames are spatial not narrative: ‘if games tell stories, they do so by organizing spatial features’ (2003: 65). I suggest, what Jenkins is inferring here – given his past work on, and predisposition for de Certeau – is that the narrative is derived from the audience actively organising the games spatial features. However, it is Jenkins and Squire’s overarching analysis that gestures towards a useful link that enables videogames to be regarded in a continuum. The article illustrates how the idea of space cuts across game genres and the various aesthetics and technologies that games might use. Thus space organises all games into a continuum where they can be compared and analysed with one another and not with a similar aesthetic medium. This is done through a similar framework as Murray’s notion of the maze and the rhizome, by contrasting free movement, with movement which is basically linear (1998: 130-1). Jenkins and Squire use the rather less theoretically (and politically) invested terms, ‘hard rails’ and ‘soft rails’ to distinguish between games in which the players movements are tightly structured and those games which are multi-directional and multi-linear (2003: 69). Recalling from the previous section ’ notion that the experience of play came from exploring the margin of movement – like the play of a machine – that the game allowed within its rules. I suggest that Jenkins and Squires taxonomy of games that characterises them according to the flexibility of movement implies that the common feature that videogames have is their ‘margin or latitude’ of play. Thus the common characteristic of videogames is the intersection of space and play within the virtual environment.

While it is difficult due to videogames extreme diversity to characterise them as a genre it is not impossible to find distinctive organisational categories. Suggested by King and Kryzwinska are platform, genre, mode and milieu, I suggest that these are useful for making distinction between games with the proviso that genre be understood in a critical etic manner in relation to interaction, rather than the everyday usage. Following the work of Jenkins I locate the common feature of videogames at the intersection of space and play. I suggest that this usefully enables a conception of computer games as a coherent field as they all share these common characteristics. Furthermore I argue that this intersection of space and play is aligned with what Caillois describes as the central feature of play: the ‘latitude or margin’ of response that is free within the limits of the rules (1961: 8).


While I do not agree with the ludology position, I argue that ludology makes a crucial argument in favour of videogames being understood as play. However, ludologys' focus on the formal attributes of videogames means that key issues involving the convergence and connectivity between media and the shaping relationships of other cultural factors are overlooked. In their demands for an understanding of videogames grounded in an understanding of play, ludologists have taken some liberties with the arguments of those they use to provide an alternative foundation for the Game Studies discipline. The canonical works on play do not shy away from connecting play with its cultural context, indeed Sutton-Smith demonstrates that the ludological position represents just one – the most narrow – of several definitions of play. Thus I argue ludology does not comprise the entire field of Game Studies, that it is one of several positions; a self acknowledge formalist one. Finally the chapter argues that videogames are a distinct media, which despite extreme divergence in aesthetics contain several common distinguishing features and a unified aesthetic depiction of virtual space. This virtual space is characterised by different degrees of flexibility of movement, or play within the physical parameters of the videogame.

Videogames cannot be understood in isolation. The ludogical hermeneutic between game and player focuses on the specificity of the relationship between the player and the game, to the detriment of all other relationships. I argue that the game player rests on a nexus of relationships, all which contribute to the meaning of the experience. Not only is the do games have the potential to create communities of shared experience, this experience must be contextialised vis-à-vis both the global subculture of gamers or otaku and the local culture(s) of which the player is a part. Furthermore, the player is located in a global network of participatory media. This means that the games’ meaning is shaped intertexuallly through these other media, as also is the experience of participation. Videogames demand participation, and in many cases order to solve the various challenges that the videogame poses the player will resort to some form of communication with the wider community of gamers. In this sense they provide a forum for the player to experiment with the boundaries of production and consumption, providing a valuable introduction to participatory culture.
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[i] This is the terminology adopted by Tony Bennett and Janet Woollacott in Bond and Beyond: The Political Career of a Popular Hero (1987) to describe the relationship between the various promotional media could shape the meaning of the primary cinematic texts.
[ii] For those readers unfamiliar with the game Super Mario Brothers the particular contested site for subcultural meaning in the game is the giant mushrooms from which Mario gets his various powers.
[iii] For example she notes that the single player version of Half-Life is played in a series of incrementally different levels against the computer, while the multiplayer is played against other players, either in teams or a free-for-all, in which the difficulty is determined by the skills of the other player(s). Civilization 3: Play the World also features several different versions for multiplayer, all based around finding a way to increase the pace of the single-player game, by offering a number of different real-time goal-based scenarios.

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About Me

This blog started as a PhD blog, for my project 'Global Rhythms: Video games and the Transformation of Play'. It finally become a book. This is a "historic" record of the trials a tribulations.