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Ludology: Some Cultural Aspects of Online Gaming

Two comments

Game Cultures By Jon Dovey and Helen W. Kennedy New York: Open University Press 2006 171 pp. hardcover

The Players’ Realm: Studies on the Culture of Video Games and Gaming By J. Patrick Williams and Jonas Heide Smith Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers 2007 308 pp. softcover

Gaming as Culture By J. Patrick Williams, Sean D. Hendricks, and W. Keith Winkler Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers 2006 224 pp. hardcover

What actually goes on inside the minds of players? And how do they engage with virtuality in immersive gaming? What does gaming say about the larger social realm? How is meaning made and decoded in online games?

Jon Dovey and Helen W. Kennedy’s Game Cultures, J. Patrick Williams and Jonas Heide Smith’s The Players’ Realm: Studies on the Culture of Video Games and Gaming, and J. Patrick Williams, Sean D. Hendricks and W. Keith Winkler’s Gaming as Culture engage the individual player’s experiences and the social aspects of gaming.

Those who would use games for educational purposes may find that a quick tour of these three recently published texts helpful.

The anthropology, social, psychological, political, and historical frames all strive to reach into the substructure of gaming to understand the subconscious and very human needs met by games.

Game Cultures: Computer Games as New Media

“…play is a rotten character tainted by unreality, inauthenticity, duplicity, make-believe, looseness, fooling around, and inconsequentiality” -- Schechner 1988: 3, Dovey and Kennedy, 2006, p. 22

J. Dovey and H.W. Kennedy offer a theoretically thick, academically sound text with Game Cultures. They draw from a range of analytical frameworks—structuralist paradigms, rhetorical analysis, psychoanalytical critique, anthropology, and performance theory—to create a tightly written and thoughtful work.

In the context of new media studies, Dovey and Kennedy set the ground rules for analyzing games not as traditional textual media (narratology) but as an active in-play phenomena (ludology). “Interactive” and “actively interpreting” media should not be conflated. (p. 6).

These authors see learning (as “decoding”) as a foregrounded activity in computer games. “Playing requires this decoding of its structure or system (of levels, or architectural organization, of scoring systems, timing of events, of non-player characters’ actions and interactions, etc.). This process must take place with each new genre of game, as each has its own mode of interaction, its own conventions and controls—and each game within the genre invents its own variations, different combinations of buttons to press or peripherals to add. Mastering the controls of each game is essential, and a fundamental pleasure in its own right. Video games are, as Provenzo has argued, ‘literally teaching machines that instruct the player….in the rules…as it is being played’ (1991:34),” they write (p. 7).

Systems Complexities in Immersive Games and Sims

Systems theory and cybernetics are applied to the study of immersive gaming and simulations. “Simulation is used by Friedman to represent complex processes with multiple agents and causalities at work—in this way it seems to answer a theoretical need for ways of producing knowledge that take account of the levels of interaction between micro-level agents and macro-level forces. It also addresses a need articulated by post-modern theorists for a method of representation that takes account of rapid change” (p. 11).

In the context of a post-modern consumer culture and a technologically mediated world, play has become part of the cycle of insatiable consumption (Oriard, 1991: 484, as cited by Dovey and Kennedy, 2006, p. 19); identity creation; learning, and social meaning-making.

The types of games, building on Huizinga (1955) and Caillois’ (1961) work, include the following types of play formations: agon (competitive play requiring skill and training), alea (games of chance or fortune), mimicry (games which require imagination and pretend), and ilinx (games that are an inducement to dizziness and disorder) (p. 24). Two types of play involve (1) rule-based and (2) improvisational, or ludus (rule-based games) or paidia (open-ended play) (p. 25).

To define the basic game, the authors turn to Jesper Juul’s (2003: 40) Game Studies definition of basic game elements: “rules; variable, quantifiable outcomes; value assigned to possible outcomes; player effort; player attachment to outcome, and negotiable consequences” (p. 26). Games may not have any required minimal material supports, but they often require immaterial support in terms of the upholding of rules and “computation” (p. 27).

The Roles of Play in Society

A range of rhetorics of play may be found in the research literature, based on Sutton-Smith’s work (2001: 11). For example, play is seen as a means for children’s moral, social and cognitive development. It is fate—an exercise of free choice in a world of random possibilities (or less-random possibilities). Play is a form of identity for a community of players. It is power “as the representation of conflict and as a way to fortify the status of those who control the play or are its heroes.” Play is described as the imaginary to laud human creativity. There’s the rhetoric of the self where play fulfills player needs for “their fun, their relaxation, their escape—and the intrinsic or aesthetic satisfaction of the play performances” (Sutton-Smith 2001: 11). And lastly, there’s the rhetoric of play as frivolous with online game spaces as “a carnivalesque space in which the violence and fear of the contemporary social order is made excessive and played out as a game” (Dovey and Kennedy, 2006, pp. 30 – 31).

Indeed, these various works show play and gaming as playing roles in cultural production, identity creation, psychic health, social being, and weighty aspects of personhood.

The Effects of Games on Players

One central question for pedagogical purposes has been the effect of games on players. Various terms have been used to describe the entrancement and immersiveness of online games on players, such as Csikszentmihalyi’s “deep flow” (pp. 104 – 105), which stems from individual production and mastery over a skill.

While there may be benefits to learning and training with a kind of “addictiveness,” there have been observations also of the loss of critical distance in such immersiveness particularly for those who want to trigger critical thinking in a game “for educational, social and / or political reasons” (Frasca 2004: 87, as cited by Dovey and Kennedy, 2006, pp. 9 - 10). Both activity and passivity have been observed in the playing of a game—the active engagement with the action but passivity in the face of working within restrictive rules (p. 26).

Instead of arguing that going into online spaces is a disembodied experience, some theorists are now highlighting how games are a physical experience with its sensorial perceptions and embodied emotions (p. 106). It is tactile, kinaesthetic and experiential (p. 107), with the avatar offering a kind of “re-embodiment”.

Players re-embody as a kind of “cyborg.” “This understanding of gameplay as a cybernetic loop in which player and game are inseparable for the duration of the game is a compelling literalization of the ontology of the cyborg—a subjectivity that depends precisely on this collapse of boundary between the human and the machine” (p. 109). Other researchers have taken this cyborg concept even further with the assertion that boundaries between human and machine disappear, and lived identities may dissolve and reform in this mesh (p. 118).

Computer-based games may offer the simulation of “transitional phenomena” in the world—in which subjective and objective observations are inter-mixed and volitional user actions are mediated in a shared social “space” (p. 32). Liminal play refers to play or ritual that is a kind of rite-of-passage in a community; liminoid play refers to more individualized and commodified play (p. 34). The latter is seen as more creative but a way for a generation to experiment with “alternative social orders, for political interventions, for utopian imaginings” (p. 35).

The Gaming Context

The origins of online gaming are seen as a kind of off-shoot of “the military / industrial / capitalist complex” (Haraway, 1991a) (p. 36). “There is an ethos, an attitude and a culture at work here that is produced by the conjunction of particular kinds of young men, technology and the mathematical systems of coding that are the language of computing” (p. 38). An underlying law-breaking hacker culture pervades—with unauthorized “cowboy” coding and pranksterism.

These authors argue that there exists a very small margin of creativity given the global market and business model. “When market conditions, technological limitations and existing cultures of production are taken into account, the space left for producers to innovate is often very small indeed. The game in your local game store is produced through the interplay of these three systems—economic, technological and cultural—which will be considered in turn as a way of understanding the forces which determine the production of mainstream console games” (Dovey and Kennedy, 2006, p. 43). Market consolidations have resulted in fewer differentiated games.

The commodification of users’ digital assets. As a co-created shared media, this innovation is seen as either an empowerment of the “prosumers” (consumers who producer) or a harsh cooption of their creative skills in the service of the mega-game industry “oligopolies” (Dovey and Kennedy, 2006, pp. 9 – 10). Modders, skinners, and hackers all contribute to this shared phenomena. The prosumers accrue symbolic wealth (status and recognition) for their efforts but in some cases may attain economic status and power in the capitalist economy (p. 15). They offer classifications of co-created works from aspiring independent game producers, fan art, mod art and tactical media (Dovey and Kennedy, 2006, pp. 126 –127).

In addition, the pressures of perpetual innovation in a “permanent upgrade” culture have made this field highly competitive and high pressured. This model has no theoretical stabilization point but rather a line to infinity in terms of changes. Newer realities are made ever more embellished, with polygons and mesh.

Light and Maths. Game makers bring various types of sophistication and training to their work. After all, millions of lines of code undergird most game worlds—for image rendering, in-world physics, artificial intelligence (AI) agent behaviors, music functions linked to excitement meters, and other functions (p. 58). The authors describe a character review meeting among a producer, a company director, two character designers and two animators, with a delightful turn of phrase: “On a big screen at the end of the conference table we can see all the game’s characters hanging like puppets made from light and maths, waiting to be animated in a kind of virtual holding pen” (Dovey and Kennedy, 2006, p. 56).

They describe at least three orders of realism re: the above characters: 1. “a technologically mediated aspiration towards a photographic realism” by the level of detail”; 2. the representation’s “reproduction of a real world referent,” and 3. “an appeal to the internal consistency of the ‘world’ of the game itself” (p. 56).


A key factor to understanding game culture is “technicity” or the interconnectedness of identity and technological competence. “People’s tastes, aptitudes and propensities towards technology become part of a particular ‘identity.’ This identity then becomes a basis for affiliations and connections with like-minded others,” observe Dovey and Kennedy (p. 64).

Cultural Hegemony

Games do not exist in a vacuum but within a social context. They are products of the so-called “technological imaginary,” or “the desires and fears which we project onto technologies” (p. 66). Games may be read to include ideologies, and the “It’s just a game” defense is not sufficient—because societies put differing weights and values to games (through privileging, through rhetorics, through interpretations).

One key factor that appears in game culture relates to power structures in the world. Dominant cultures may be seen as having stronger voices in gaming (p. 64). The ethos and mythos of the gaming community seems to laud an exclusivist male dominant worldview, and in so doing, excluding women and others (pp. 66 – 68).

They observe: “Representation has always been a contested field, and despite the argument that games are more kinaesthetic than representational, the politics of representation are embedded in every discussion about game violence and effects, about the marginalization of ethnic groups and women in game scenarios or the psychological pleasures of being able to act out any number of fantasy roles from alien splattering commando to vampire slayer” (Dovey and Kennedy, 2006, p. 99).

In Chapter 6 “Bodies and Machines: Cyborg Subjectivity and Gameplay,” the authors offer some areas of inquiry that could be used to build an analytic framework for game studies. These questions involve the types of games, its production history, its platform, player actions and perceptions, as well as attached meanings (pp. 120 – 122).

Certainly, as more works delve into the many-meaninged aspects of games, having structured methods of inquiry would make such understandings easier to obtain.

The Players’ Realm: Studies on the Culture and Video Games and Gaming

J. Patrick Williams and Jonas Heide Smith’s The Player’s Realm uses a person-on-the-street understanding of culture to approach the world of online gaming. They bring a practical and applied angle to these works. Both clearly have feet both in the real and the virtual, and do a fine job balancing the two. The benefits of long-term engagement with this issue brings a depth to their collection of essays and to their own writings.

A Sense of Shared Endeavor

Jonas Heide Smith highlights the game universe’s own sense of physics and reality in “Who Governs the Gamers?” “Hobbes’ premise of equal physical power, for instance, is blatantly disrespected as leveling within these games creates an extreme dichotomy between experienced characters and new ones. Other breaks with physical-world assumptions include the fact that some players cannot be attacked by others, the convention that death is never final, that players often cannot steal from one another and, of course, the use of magic” (Smith, “Who Governs the Gamers?”, 2007, p. 21). When players invest their time, effort and real-world moneys into an immersive game, they may find it very hard to move to another without losing their investments (p. 28). Smith shows how gamers do often bring a sense of strategy and ethics to their play—even though some types of harassment and dishonorable combat do occur situationally.

He takes a refreshing approach by showing how players and game makers are in a kind of shared collusion and cooperation in some ways. “Players enjoy the vast, and often beautiful, expanses of game worlds and feel that the service provided is worth the monthly fee. For their part, game developers are not just power mongers but also artists working to challenge the boundaries of a rapidly evolving medium” (Smith, “Who Governs the Gamers?”, 2007, p. 30).

Child’s Play

Sara M. Grimes’ “Terms of Service and Terms of Play in Children’s Online Gaming” suggests that while the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) has been in place federally for years, many commercial entities do not abide by the spirit of that law. American children have indirect control of significant discretionary funds, and beginning at age 18 months, most of them become some of the most highly marketer-studied peoples on Earth.

She suggests that corporations that would use “advergames” and “branded chats” to attract young players (and consumers) should follow higher ethical standards than those she observed. She found that various marketers used their sites for “cool hunting” (p. 36) in order to understand what the young find attractive (in order to plan their next products). She found that many children misunderstand privacy policies, many full of legalese, (p. 38), and many do not have a clear sense of the value of their private information. Many others sign away many of their own privacy rights by just logging in and starting to play.

Few children’s privacy policies advised the children to read their policy in the company of a parent or guardian (p. 42). Many did not have child-friendly language in their privacy policies. Most did not empower them through awareness-raising. Children as minors have special legal status, which may mean the voidability of agreements that they enter into, and most sites did not address this (pp. 44 – 45). Few sites verified user ages. The media’s “super-system” positions young consumers “as the active agents of their own commercial manipulation and ultimate commodification is particularly evident in the cases reviewed herein” (Grimes, 2007, p. 48).

This author cites another concern of the co-option of children’s work and creativity as cultural producers. “A further concern in the case of child players is the negative impact excessively stringent copyright systems could have on children’s emerging rights as cultural producers. Whereas children are encouraged through the press and media education programs to participate in online culture and form online communities, TOS (terms of service) contracts undermine many of the potential benefits and value that children might otherwise derive from their newfound roles as cultural producers” (Grimes, “Terms of Service and Terms of Play in Children’s Online Gaming,” 2007, p. 49).
Shared Storytelling. Nadezhda Kaneva’s “Narrative Power in Online Game Worlds: The Story of Cybertown” describes this ethnographer’s visit to Cybertown to chat up the local avatars, examine digital artifacts and surface the cultural codes and practices here. As a new digital “immigrant,” she delves into the master narrative of the game makers and also the shared storytelling of the various players, known as Cytonians.

The shared online space involves constant construction. There’s an embedded democratic structure for governance by players (p. 66), and the intervention of the Founder (creator of the interactive game) is minimal (p. 69), which results in both complaints and some kudos.

The author who starts in as a newbie experiences a boost in her in-game status and finds that she has some deletion power over some messages, and others who have higher ranks can delete larger amounts of messages and those posted at higher levels (p. 70). She finds that the people here play because of the entertainment value and the sense of community that is built over time (pp. 70 – 71). Creating Order out of Disorder. Mel White’s “Law and Disorder in Cyberspace: How Systems of Justice Developed in Online Text-Based Gaming Communities” offers a strong on-ground feel of policy-making in online spaces in response to virtual world messiness.

Early multi-user domains or dungeons (MUDs) had feudalistic leaders, whose words were law. “After a MUD reached a certain size, coding issues and player quarrels became frequent enough that they were difficult for a single person to handle. Although there is no hard and fast rule about the preferred ratio of wizards to active players, experience has shown that a ratio of about 1 wizard to ever 75 players connecting simultaneously is enough to ensure that requests for help are answered in a timely manner” (p. 78). The research literature describes a range of those who indulge law-breaking impulses online.

Players who would not conform to the rules of an interactive playspace would be spoken with by archwizards and wizards, with varying results. Others turned to purposeful anarchy, which often left immersive spaces unusable (pp. 79 - 80). Some players joined gangs of roving assassins that would do away with characters in one MUD, until the coders had to step in to make members unkillable without their express permission; the default position was virtual immortality.

White uses an anecdotal writing style and well-described examples. In one situation, the publicizing of an anti-harassment policy against females was put into place and ultimately made that gaming space much more civilized and engaging (p. 84). Real world threats and criminal behaviors would encroach in online spaces and force actions by the heads (p. 85). She shows the limits of global mediation in another case where a divorcing wife felt threatened by her husband’s presence in the shared gaming space (p. 87).

Avoiding Propagandistic Uses of Games

“From The Green Berets to America’s Army: Video Games as a Vehicle for Political Propaganda” builds a case that is similar to Aldous Huxley’s “Propaganda under a Dictatorship.” Huxley had asked rhetorically how Hitler could activate the masses with mere print, radio and shoddy newsreels to commit mass violence and murder, and if he could do so much damage with the media levers of that day, how much can people do with the immersive medias of today?

Aaron Delwiche compares a game by Hezbollah called Special Force and by the US Army called America’s Army, both of which this author suggests are for propagandistic and recruiting purposes (pp. 91 – 92). The “immersion, intense engagement, identification, and interactivity” of online games have a power to affect attitudes and behaviors powerfully (p. 92), this author suggests, and should be used with ethical means in mind.

While this work has a clear anti-establishment stance, Delwiche does demonstrate the need for ethical considerations, given gaming’s cathartic / reinforcement or other effects. Lars Konzack’s “Rhetorics of Computer and Video Game Research” offers eight kinds of influential lines of discussion in gaming: technology, economy, anxiety, learning, gender, ideology, narratology, and ludology (p. 110). This works well as an initial reading in striving to understand some frames of discourse about gaming. He also offers some early analysis of rhetorical interplays between various contested interpretive views (p. 124).

Offensive Game Design

A player finds himself severely alienated and offended by a game’s design in Rafael Miguel Montes’ “Ghost Recon: Island Thunder: Cuba in the Virtual Battlescape.” This author reviews various theories of identity creation in the postmodern age (pp. 154 – 156) resulting in a fragmentary creation of the self. Then after a brief background as a Cuban American, he described his interactions with a US-centric fighting game with simplified graphics and storyline showing Cubans as emasculated and ineffectual, and the land as composed of military structures. The fighting itself was not fair (the weaponry, the fighting skills between the avatars and the players), and the politics were over-simplified for this author’s taste.

“As a Cuban-American player of Ghost Recon: Island Thunder, I am asked by the dominant narrative of the game to inhibit my own multiculturality and national allegiances and to embark on a military and political crusade against those with whom I share, at least partially, a common heritage,” Montes writes (p. 163).

What is patriotism and national loyalty in a multicultural world? With such poor senses of geography and history and politics, is feasible that some may use games as a kind of point of reference for their knowledge base? Are people expecting too much from games beyond what they were designed to do? Mirjam Eladhari’s ‘The Player’s Journey” argues that play is an art (p. 171). An avatar is an expression of the direct self of the player online (pp. 172 – 174), with real selves emerging only under situations of deep pressure and duress. This author includes a potent example of cultural clashes that occurred in A Tale in the Desert that surfaced both differences and intolerance when a “trader” offensive ideas regarding women and a possible selling or trade in them (pp. 182 - 183).

Torill Elvira Mortensen suggests that games may be engaging because of a seductive quality, brought on by lowered inhibitions (p. 190) and the desire to “lose control” (p. 198) in “Mutual Fantasy Online: Playing with People.”

Not Making the Leap to the Immersive Online Dollhouse

Mia Consalvo’s humorous “From Dollhouse to Metaverse: What Happened when The Sims Went Online” begins with her moment of self-discovery. When The Sims went from a box game to an immersive online game, she found that she didn’t quite enjoy it as much. Why not? She played to be asocial.

It turns out that many other players who liked the dollhouse boxed version also did not transfer to the metaverse, even though the game’s makers had hoped to crack the mass market with this (p. 205). Consalvo goes on to investigate the differences between the boxed version and the online one. For one, her avatars had to engage in real conversations instead of the mysterious Sim-speak that didn’t involve actual words (pp. 209 – 210). The characters would save up Simoleans (the Sim money) and could set up their own goals for their lives, whether it be building up their possessions or creating social relationships virtually (p. 212).

One telling moment came in one of her avatar’s diaries. “Had $92 visitor bonus. Party tonight at our house. Got there about a half hour late. Darla (or someone) had put up bunches of balloons around our dancing room. Very cool. There was a female Sim dancing on the floor, but did not respond to chat. Kandy and Darla both there, but no other roomies. Who are these people?!” (p. 217) Who are these people?!

While Consalvo described some of the gamemaker’s strategies to add more objects and complexity to keep the game engaging (p. 219), she brought an insightful view—that of a gamer who played through her passion for a game and then could analyze that experience in the coldness of a new day. Lesser-Studied Game Types. Where’s the attention needed for console games and single player games? asks Laurie N. Taylor in “Platform Dependent: Console and Computer Cultures” (p. 223). She argues that game platforms or systems spawn their own unique gaming cultures because of the affordances of the devices (p. 226). Patches and mods are easier on computer-based games and harder on consoles; cheats are more readily available on computers than consoles (pp. 233 - 234). She argues compellingly that more studies would be helpful on these less-studied forms.

Jason Wilson’s “Mapping Independent Game Design” covers a broad range of different games, many of which may not be on the radar of game theorists. These include games which require gallery spaces in which players have to jump from lighted square to lighted square to affect the screen experience (pp. 243 – 244). There are highly politicized alternate viewpoints in games discourses. There are children’s games. (pp. 244 – 252). There are arcade games and vintage remakes (p. 252).

Mike Molesworth and Janice Denegri-Knott’s “Desire for Commodities and Fantastic Consumption in Digital Games” views the presence of brand placement deals in games and the purchase of branded virtual computer goods sims in games with real money as examples of intensifying player enjoyment rather than rational utilitarian marketing (p. 272). These authors show how players enjoy consumerist lifestyles and put symbolic meanings onto particular brands and products. “It is players’ everyday desire for commodities that makes consumption-games fun,” they observe (p. 271).

Interactive Fiction

Daniel Keller’s “Reading and Playing: What Makes Interactive Fiction Unique” introduces a genre that is little known today—that of interactive fiction (IF). He writes of the lesser interest in the field of IF and text-based computer games: “Certainly the scholarship was happening all along, but the intersections of print and digital media seemed to become clearer in recent years after writers stopped ordering funerals for print, revised the well-written obituaries (all-text, no picture—of course), and generally realized that Gutenberg could rest easy” (p. 277).

He places the origins of IF with D&D; (1974). “Before D&D; swept through college campuses in the mid-1970s, text games had been short and unsophisticated (King and Borland 2003)” (p. 280). These came in boxes that mimicked books, folios, and other tangible objects ripe for exploration (p. 283). These came in a range of genres: “fantasy, mystery, sci-fi, comedy, romance, adventure, and horror (Infocom 2004)” (p. 282). Some focused on wordplays and puzzles, others on adventure. There was even the phenom of the one-move game, with all materials building up to the one decision and that decision having implications for the game’s total outcome (p. 287).

Writers had to create scenarios and plotlines to give players more of a sense of control, more options, and some choices to influence the story. They did not want to just experience a “preset story” (p. 290). Keller suggests that there’s a nostalgia for text in gaming (p. 293) and imbues this work with a sense of hopefulness that this form may once again gain some attention.

Gaming as Culture: Essays on Reality, Identity and Experience in Fantasy Games

“The mental sphere from which the drama springs knows no distinction between play and seriousness.” -- Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens (Waskul, “The Role-Playing Game and the Game of Role-Playing,” 2006, p. 22)

J. Patrick Williams, Sean Q. Hendricks and W. Keith Winkler’s essay collection Gaming as Culture takes a ludology approach to study play. Their work offers a sense of gaming in its various incarnations, beginning with card games and D&D; (Dungeons and Dragons) all the way to the present-day immersive virtual multiverses. This text offers works on social reality, identity and the gaming experience, and offers especially thoughtful works on American manhood and gaming, what creates addictiveness to gaming, and the lived experiences of vicariousness.

Players in fantasy role playing games “negotiate themselves in the precarious margins between reality, imagination, and fantasy” according to Dennis D. Waskul’s “The Role-Playing Game and the Game of Role-Playing: The Ludic Self and Everyday Life” (p. 19). This author focuses on the lively interchange of mental interstices between persona, player and person (p. 22).

Players must bring a sophisticated sense of consciousness-switching and control in gameplay. “Some circumstances require the participant to act as a persona while others require a player. As a person, the participant must control non-game related elements so that they do not interfere with gameplay. Of the three, non-game related aspects of the person are the most potentially disruptive. This is not surprising. These are role-playing games by design and intent participants are expected to be players or the personas they are playing” (p. 26). They may have to willingly suspend particular knowledge that they know outside of the game if it cannot be realistically known by the in-world character (p. 30). Table-top Fantasy Role Playing Games. Sean Q. Hendrick’s “Incorporative Discourse Strategies in Tabletop Fantasy Role-Playing Gaming” reveals language to be a crucial part of human integration with virtual worlds: “Since these games often have very few, if any, physical representations to serve as reference points, incorporation into the fantasy world must be effected primarily through language”(pp. 39 – 40). Language is the tool through which individuals position and reposition their avatars, and this enables linguistic anthropologists to surface insights about human interactions and meaning-making here.

The selves are formed as blended entities. Individuals subsume themselves into their roles. Hendricks notes: “Tea and Lee (2004) discuss how player and character entities within the context of a computer-mediated role-playing game can become blended, where knowledge, skills, emotional responses, and other resources are drawn from both entities as the game play takes place. Taking the theoretical background of mental spaces and conceptual integration (Fauconnier and Turner 2002), the authors argue that this blended entity can account for the referential ambiguity shown by participants in the computer role-playing environment” (p. 46).

Hendricks discusses tabletop fantasy role playing games (TFRPGs), which have fewer immersive sensory artifacts. These are facilitated by a game master (GM), who works to create a sense of shared vision or “keying of the primary framework” among the players by using language from in-world (p. 43). “Each individual will have a slightly different mental picture of the fantasy world, and a different understanding of its social and historical contexts. In order for the shared vision to act as a focus for a gamer to extend into, each individual keying must have as much intersection with the others as possible” (p. 43).

Analyzing Speech during a Game

Csilla Weninger’s “Social Events and Roles in Magic: A Semiotic Analysis” addresses collectible strategy games (CSGs) as a genre. Here, players maintain a reflexive awareness of each other. Using the semiotic resources of talk, gesture, the body and material structures, players engage continuously and sequentially (Goodwin, as cited by Weninger, 2006, p. 59).

Other cited theorists focus on another angle of semiotics. “In their theory of geosemiotics, Scollon and Scollon (2003) are particularly concerned with four factors that contribute to human action: (1) the social actor with his / her ‘habitus’; (2) the interaction order as a relational framework for social interaction; (3) visual semiotics that involves representation through images; and (4) sets of semiotic systems (place semiotics) that shape the meaning of a given place” (p. 59).

Having set the stage, she uses an hour-long interplay of Magic between her and her husband via a qualitative research method. She closely analyzes a videotape of their conversations and interactions during the game, and plays off her findings against their intimacy (which includes references to their irritations with each other and the baking of an apple crisp during the game).

The two engage in various frame-switching during this dyadic exchange. She created a diagram to highlight the different types of interactive communications events during the gameplay. Weninger writes: “Each event can be described as involving a certain contextual configuration or sets of semiotic resources, including language, gaze, para-linguistic features and gesture, upon which participants rely. By invoking these resources, participants negotiate events and roles and successfully maneuver the interaction in meaningful ways” (p. 73)

She adds an element to Fine’s theory (1983) which identifies three factors that affect the stability of frames in fantasy gaming: “the degree of engrossment; whether a frame is voluntary or mandatory; and how much fun players are having in a particular frame” (p. 74). Her fourth dimension is the interactional and narrative structure of the game (p. 74).

The Need for Authenticity

J. Patrick Williams’ “Consumption and Authenticity in the Collectible Strategy Games Subculture” looks at gaming—appropriately it seems—as a product of leisure, and a subculture of collectible strategy games (CSGs) as “a collection of leisure worlds grounded in the rational consumption and use of collectible game items” (p. 77). Here, consumption feeds identity, with collectibles defined as valuable by their power within a game and their rarity (p. 79).

Williams uses various qualitative methods—field notetaking, journaling, audio recording—to explore how leisure commodities (such as Magic and Mage Knight) meet human needs (p. 78). “Overall, there seems to be a growing consensus among many scholars that people rely increasingly on commercially available products, including leisure commodities, to construct status- and cultural identities (Beck 1992; Dayan 1986; Giddens 1991; Hodkinson 2002; Warde 1994) (p. 81).

Here, the organizational subculture may be seen as including the objects and the flow of material and non-material cultural objects in the space among the producers, distributors and consumers (p. 82). There’s also an expressive sub-culture demands a kind of “authenticity” to verify their identity—by maintaining and communicating particular in-world values (p. 89).

Status identity is built up from both tangible objects and win-loss rankings and limited edition cards and figures (p. 87). Players themselves may be differentiated between recreational ones who use the space to socialize and bond vs. competitive ones who play to win and accrue status (p. 90).

One strategy of winning is to build a winning deck through purchases. “Championship-winning decks are often based on an ‘infinite combo,’ a combination of a few cards that, when played together, result in an instant victory. Such combos do not sit well with players who cannot win against them, especially when the opponent did not think up the combo her / himself” (p. 94). This shows a kind of rejection of the purely acquisitory approach.

Williams does not support the popular stereotype of isolated players. Rather, he depicts gamers here as having outside lives and engagements with other games.

American Manhood and Gamng

Kevin Schut’s “Desktop Conquistadors: Negotiating American Manhood in the Digital Fantasy Role-Playing Game” serves as agent provocateur in its analysis of the sex and violence as lures for male players. “Specifically, I argue that FRPGs (fantasy role playing games), due to their unique combination of computer technology, gaming culture and the Fantasy genre, are particularly effective texts for men to use in negotiating the often-contradictory ideals of respectable manliness, rugged masculinity and eternal boyhood” (pp. 100 – 101).

This author asserts that there are competing ideals of manliness, which is “contested ideological ground, where men must either choose between sometimes sharply contrasted alternatives or try to simultaneously live out very contradictory ideals” (p. 102).

While he finds plenty of examples of militarized and aggressive manhood, he finds few of “responsible or productive manliness” (p. 107). A pseudo-medieval chivalry exists, but that’s alongside a widespread marginalization of females. “Men appear as powerfully built warriors, trim and agile thieves, or respectable and wise-looking wizards. Women, on the other hand, are almost always, regardless of their character-role, beautiful and voluptuous, with tight fitting, revealing clothes. In other words, men are powerful and women are eye candy” (p. 109).

Many of these games do offer a strong moral element of fighting evil (p. 111). Another theme is that of a small band of fighters triumphing. The mostly male protagonists explore new gaming spaces and fight for good (p. 113). The players experience visual rewards such as special effects as they attain higher levels of efficacy and points (p. 114).

Spaces for Female Gamers

Michelle Nephew’s “Playing with Identity: Unconscious Desire and Role-Playing Games” opens with an ethical dilemma. What would players do if they’re able to make themselves invisible and can commit any crime in virtual space with impunity? She asserts: “The role-playing experience takes place primarily in the imagination, where the character becomes a self-reflective representation of the player’s fundamental drives” (p. 120).

Using a Freudian frame of critique, she describes the wish fulfillment aspect of gameplay ” to gratify either “the egoistic cravings of ambition or thirst for power, or the erotic desire of the subject” (Freud 1960: 103, as cited by Nephew, “Playing with Identity: Unconscious Desire and Role-Playing Games,” p. 126). These spaces may be used to break cultural taboos (p. 127), to engage in voyeurism, and to indulge a deep-seated misogyny (p. 129), which is “endemic.”

This author argues that many fantasy gaming environments are andro-centric, and this sense of superiority puts down females: “From this perspective, including the historical facts of sexual inequality and other discriminatory practices as part of the game setting allows male players to escape into a game world that validates their own sense of worth by making their characters physically and socially superior to others around them, whether those ‘others’ happen to be monsters or women.” (pp. 130 – 131).

The tropes of women in such spaces tend to exclude them. “Casting female characters in typically male roles as a method of disallowing women a place in the game may also occur in part as a product of the influence of fantasy tropes in RPGs, since the fantasy genre traditionally leaves no one with whom women can identify and provides no story structures that break women characters out of the confines imposed by male fantasy” (p. 131). Many of the nonplayable characters (NPCs) are female (p. 132). Those that do exist tend to be accessories to the protagonists: women as “mother, wife, lover, or maiden” in relationship to men but not their own stand-alone worth.

W. Keith Winkler, in “The Business and the Culture of Gaming,” argues that a shared culture between game makers and the gamers themselves makes for a unifying effect (p. 140). His description of the game industry seems to address a fringe gaming culture, which includes those that make role-playing games, collectible strategy games, collectible trading card games, collectible miniature games, and online multiplayer video games.

Instead of describing a well capitalized and popular global industry, Winkler describes a very different scenario with employees fueled by their enthusiasm for gaming but poorly paid. “The gaming industry simply does not have the economic leverage to command and retain top talent, but it does offer a less restrictive, more creative environment in which to work, and this carries significant weight with many creative individuals, and makes the industry attractive for entrepreneurs that do not subscribe to conventional corporate models,” he writes (p. 144). “Flash-in-the-pan products (and companies) are not unknown, and cash flow issues, late shipments, late payments, and all manner of other operational problems have historically been part of the industry” (p. 146).

The Interactional Self

Florence Chee, Marcelo Vieta, and Richard Smith’s “Online Gaming and the Interactional Self: Identity Interplay in Situated Practice” asserts that the thin line between play and reality may well be less defined than many assume. Instead of becoming more isolated in gaming, gamers come together because of a greater need for community based on a “will-to-communicate” (Jaspers 1957/ 1997, as cited by Chee, Vieta and Smith, 2006, p. 155).

These authors highlight the intersubjectivity of EverQuest’s play. They engage with informants in this environment to find out why this popular game is so addictive. They find that the economic and rewards structure offers some motivations for player persistence. “In addition, ‘grouping’ and / or more the more committal form of joining a guild, forming an avatar cohort, and feelings of obligation to the community were compelling factors in one’s decision to play the game for prolonged periods of time” (p. 163).

EverQuest is no closed world experience. The players experience virtual accomplishments as real (p. 164). They may simulate character drunkenness. They may forage for food and resources in-world. “These players feel as if they are changing the world of EverQuest as it changes them” (p. 165).

Their immersion is not only cognitive and emotional, but also physical. “Our players experience EverQuest not only cognitively but also viscerally and bodily. They lost sleep while engaging with EverQuest. They described physical discomfort and even pain when engaging in EverQuest activities. They also articulated the tensions that can emerge when they neglect their loved ones who do not share their EverQuest activities. Further, when describing their online interactions, the players interviewed referred to the other characters they knew on Norrath as ‘people,’ not avatars” (p. 169). They often don’t leave until they’ve played out as much as they can get from the game and have a waning sense of personal accomplishment there (pp. 169- 170).

Heather L. Mello’s “Invoking the Avatar: Gaming Skills as Cultural and Out-of-Game Capital” reveals how some players engage with their online avatars over time and develop both history and nuances to their characters: “What starts out as a single game session may stretch on through years, becoming a grand campaign where players animate their characters through unpredictable yet largely formatted adventures” (p. 177). In this socio-cultural environment, they build cultural, social, and human capital (p. 178).

This process of avatar character development reads engaging like actors preparing for roles (p. 182). Intriguingly, the fantasy gameplay involves educational takeaways: emotional skills, math skills, knowledge application, weaponry knowledge, empathy and leadership attributes (pp. 188 – 190). The carryover seems to involve a greater sense of self-efficacy and confidence (p. 192). Tim Marsh’s “Vicarious Experience: Staying There Connected with and through our Own and other Characters” shows how the three-Vs [“voyeuristic, visceral, vicarious” (Marsh 2001, 2002, 2003a) (p. 196)] of fantasy gaming enhance the fullness of the game experience. This vicarious experience is facilitated by three main threads: empathy of one’s own character and others’ characters, (digital) artifact manipulation, and navigation and exploration (in the virtual immersive site) (p. 198).

The empathy may be classified in various ways: “For example, compassionate empathy can be demonstrated by p[layer-characters responding kindly to other characters. Cognitive empathy can manifest itself through players knowing how other characters are feeling by observation or spectatorship, or through interacting with other characters. Emotional empathy is similar to cognitive empathy, but in addition to knowing how other characters are feeling, the players feel these emotions as their own” (p. 203). This author shows how being in-character through empathy is a critical part of fantasy gameplay; falling out of character is to “corpse” (p. 211).


These texts enrich the intellectual conversation about how games do and do not enhance learning by showing the very human elements in immersive fantasy gameplay. Future research may well engage a range of extant questions: • How may users be primed for learning in immersive gaming situations (pre-, during, and post-sim)? • How may immersive spaces like Second Life be used for ethical learning? • How may learning be effective assessed in terms of gameplay and simulations? • How may the negative learning and social inequities in gameplay be mitigated? How may the addictiveness of immersive spaces be turned into positive learning? • Can a learner’s gameplay persona be “thin-sliced” (per Malcolm Gladwell) to understand the person behind the play?

References Dovey, J. & H.W. Kennedy. (2006). Game Cultures: Computer Games as New Media. New York: Open University Press. Williams, J.P., Hendricks, S.D., & Winkler, W.K. (2006). Gaming as Culture. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers. Williams, J.P. & Smith, J.H. (2007). The Players’ Realm: Studies on the Culture of Video Games and Gaming. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers.


Ry the Vacuum Guy 2 years, 7 months ago

it's amazing how far games have come in the last 25 years..i think that the younger generation will have much more hand-eye coordination than the previous as a result of gaming.

Steve Pan 2 years, 6 months ago

I agree with RY. Game has come a long way within 25 years

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