Thursday, February 15, 2007

Speaking Engagement: ACT Book Workshop

Update: You can now access the full program, abstracts as well as (coming soon) audio and video files of the presentations (including mine) on the ACT Lab website. Enjoy!

Next week I will be presenting an overview of the work I've been doing with Andrew Feenberg on expanding instrumentalization theory to the study of digital games, as part of a one-day workshop for the upcoming Applied Communication Technology (ACT) Lab book. Here's the official announcement:

Graduate students in the ACT Lab have been working for a year with Dr. Andrew Feenberg and several of his colleagues on a forthcoming book entitled (Re)Inventing the Internet: Critical Case Studies. This workshop is a report on the progress of their research. The presentations correspond to chapters that explore the social construction of the Internet in a variety of settings, from video games to online education, civic participation to music sharing. The theme is the shaping of the Internet by the practices of users who attempt to influence its design and impact. The Internet appears in these presentations not just as a functional device but also as a field of struggle within which a variety of social and technical factors meet, contend, and converge to produce new forms.

Presenters include noted philosopher of technology Dr. Andrew Feenberg, communication scholar and author of Internet Society Dr. Maria Bakardjieva and Dr. Norm Friesen (Canada Research Chair at Thompson River University). Other panelists include: Ted Hamilton, Cindy Xin, Michael Felczak, Florence Chee, Sara Grimes, Darryl Cressman and Kate Milberry.

Friday, February 23, 2007
Segal Graduate School of Business (500 Granville St.)
4800 Policy Room

The workshop is co-sponsored by SFU’s School of Communication and the Institute for the Humanities.
Admission is FREE but reservations are required. Call 604-268-7845 to reserve seats.

My presentation will focus on a chapter I'm co-authoring with Andrew called "Rationalizing Play: A critical theory of digital gaming." Here's the abstract:
Despite the rapidly growing body of research and theoretical discussion of digital games and gaming communities, few serious attempts have thus far been made to establish a critical theory of digital game technologies. Yet games exhibit rational features in all societies by their very logic, which implies equality of players whose moves constitute equivalents exchanged under strict classifications and rules according to strategies of optimization with precisely calculable results. In this way, games appear as a realm of rational behaviour long before rationalization overtakes society as a whole. As long as they were limited to individual activities practiced within traditional contexts, however, they did not represent a form of social rationality. With the spread of new forms and practices in digital gaming, particularly the growing participation in massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) on the Internet, the rational features of games become the basis for the production of a form of social rationality analyzable on terms similar to those employed in the study of technology.

This paper attempts to construct a new framework for the study of games as sites of social rationalization, applying Feenberg's critical theory of technology through an expansion and modification of his concepts of primary and secondary instrumentalization. We begin by making the case for a consideration of games as systems of social rationalization, akin to other modern systems such as capitalist markets and bureaucratic organizations. We then propose a differentiated conceptualization of play that allows us to understand play as a process through which the player focuses attention away from the undifferentiated action of everyday life. This approach also enables us to see how the experience of play changes as it becomes increasingly rationalized through the technological mediation and widespread standardization that occurs as a game becomes a large-scale social practice. Our theoretical framework culminates in the construction of a theory of the rationalization of play, which we have called ludification, which outlines the key components found in all socially rationalizing games. Finally, we will test our theory by applying our framework to the specific example of MMOGs.

MMOGs present a particularly compelling case study, for their players hold a high level of situated knowledge that enables them to engage with digital games technology in a number of ambiguous and unanticipated ways, and as such continue to have tremendous impact on the development, content and function of games within digital culture. Through these unplanned aspects of technical relations the "margin of manoeuvre" of digital games is uncovered, through which, we will argue, players have the potential to truly revolutionize this new medium. As sites of ongoing struggle between players and programmers over the design of the games and usage of the game elements, MMOGs allow for an exploration of ludification that also considers the potential for democratic rationalization inherent within all socially rationalizing systems.

If any of you are in the Vancouver area and would like to attend, I advise reserving asap, as it would seem spaces are quickly filling up. And if any anonymous readers are able to make it, please do introduce yourself to me after the talk!

Updated: Press Coverage of (Re)Inventing the Internet:
"Commerce 'a threat' to democracy of Internet" in the National Post
Same story in the Vancouver Sun
TRU Press Release

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