Wednesday, June 27, 2007

It's All Fun and Games...Isn't It?

I've read two very useful (and non-academic!) articles this week touching upon the highly philosophical issue (well, for play theoriests at least) of fun in games. Today's Slate features an article on "the trouble with serious gamies" by Justin Peters, who has this to say about the recent profile-rise of edugaming and the serious games movement:
All of these ideas are premised on the notion that video games can and should be more than mindless fun. But all of this noodling about games' untapped potential raises some philosophical questions: When does a game stop being a game and turn into an assignment? Can a game still be called a game if it isn't any fun?

He provides a good (and funny) critique of some of the corporate training and "news" games to recently enter into the foray, which include plans for work-focused MMOGs:
The California-based company called Seriosity, for one, claims to be brainstorming a virtual work environment that mimics online worlds like Second Life and World of Warcraft. "[T]oday's multiplayer games," the company explains, "embody tasks that are analogous to corporate work."

Contrast this to the awesome article in this week's The Escapist on "how-to-catch a gold farmer" (in MMOGs) written by Darius Kazemi, who approaches these issues in a slightly different way. Here, Kazemi describes how gold farmers "play" MMOGs in a way that is immediately distinct from that of other (legitimate?) players:
You might believe a gold farmer could easily hide among the millions of other characters on a server, like a needle in a haystack. But farmers behave fundamentally differently than a normal player. The farmer isn't trying to have fun. In fact, if you look at the act of farming, it's probably the most boring thing you can imagine. But it's efficient, and efficiency is what the farmers are optimizing for. That efficient boredom sticks out like a sore thumb.

It's great to see this level of philosophical discussion unfold within more mainstream publications--I can't wait to see what readers...and especially players...think of the fun in games debate. There are game theorists, like T.L Taylor, who posit that MMOGs are "more than a game"...that virtual environments contain such a variety of social, communicative, even economic and political activities and meanings that they are best understood (and approached) as extensions of everyday life. From my understanding of this argument, scholars in this camp would fairly readily accept that an MMOG could (should?) provide a space for work-relations or even production. However, other theorists (myself included) are more in tune with Peters and Kazemi...maintaining that play and games--while certainly not exclusive of the communicative activities of everyday life--must also operate within a fundamentally differentiated state of mind or being in order to truly qualify as "play"...i.e. fun! These scholars are trying to capture/theorize the essence or uniqueness of play, and make space for the value of play and fun within larger debates around gaming. I find it immensely interesting that MMOG operators can identify famers by the lack of fun in their play patterns. Of course, all this opens up other issues, such as the impact of commodification/exchange value on the nature of MMOG play, the possibility for a dissolution of the traditional (modern, industrial) boundaries between work and play (playful work? productive play?), and various of other questions that currently drive and shape game studies.


Darius Kazemi said...

Thanks for the thoughts on my article!

Of interest to you might be the New York Times article from a week ago profiling gold farmers. In particular, the farmers have interesting things to say about how while they're working, they can't help but also play.

Requires registration, but here's the link.

Also, the "fundamentally differentiated state of mind" you speak of is similar to what Huizinga called the "magic circle."

And my general thoughts on the whole work/play thing: leave it to a capitalist society to impose work values on a play space. If a space exists that is not "productive" in some sense, it literally cannot continue to exist. We can't have people living in virtual temporary autonomous zones, now, can we?

This reminds me of a great quote from the beginning of Brian Sutton-Smith's "The Ambiguities of Play." He says that the "belief in play as progress [in developing skills] is something that most Westerners cherish, but its relevance to play has been more often assumed than demonstrated. Most educators over the past two hundred years seem to have so needed to represent playful imitation as a form of children's socialization and moral, social, and cognitive growth that they have seen play as being primarily about development rather than enjoyment."

In other words, there is a force out there that is trying to remove the joy from our play.

Sara M. Grimes said...

thanks darius - i'll definitely check it out. and yes, i agree that huizinga's magic circle is probably "the" foundational text for this (differentiated play) line of thought, with many more since who have developed more sophisticated models...the one i've been working with the most was constructed by Bo Kampmann Walther, which you can check out here ( if you're interested.

i also agree with you on the work/play thing--Lastowka and Hunter theorize that the basis for a reproduction of capitalist values is in some ways already built into most MMOGs from the outset, through the organizational structure provided by currency systems, etc., but of course the underlying force of modern ideology -- belief in progress and efficiency, the imperative that all activities, even leisure, be measurably productive -- cannot be underestimated. Anyhow, thanks for all the additional thoughts and've given me much to ponder further.