Monday, September 17, 2007

My Looming Comps

The reason I haven't been posting much lately, and won't likely be posting much or at all until sometime late next week, is that I'm finally writing my comprehensive exams this week, after much rescheduling, reading, rescheduling again, more reading and many hours of prep work. I've posted a little info about this process before, but haven't really shared as much about my progress through the comps as I thought I would when I first started this blog last fall. Oddly enough, however, maintaining Gamine Expedition has nonetheless been really helpful -- not only for my research, but also in terms of getting me into the habit of frequent spontaneous writing and pulling things/ideas/references together on the fly. Reading gaming news and kids' media blogs everyday has also been helpful in getting me in the right "reading mood" over the past few months.

For those of you going through the same process, or are simply interested in what I'm going to be writing about, here are my (very long) field definitions (which, as of August 2, are now officially on file with the School of Communication):

Theories of Play and Games
With the continued rise in the prominence and popularity of digital games since the 1980s, interest in play theories has mushroomed within communication and media studies, as scholars attempt to theorize and understand this new form of mediated play. While the works of a small number of play theorists, most notably Huizinga (1950/1955) Caillois (1958), and Sutton-Smith (1997), have thus far been singled out and established as canon in the study of digital games, the vast majority of communication scholars studying digital games have failed to adequately ground their studies within the full spectrum of traditions and perspectives that make up the field of play scholarship. Yet, a wide variety of play theories have enormous relevance for communications scholars, not only within the context of digital games, but also in terms of spectator sports, interactive media, consumer leisure culture, and children’s “branded” play. In order to truly understand the role of play within new media interactions, we must first construct a broader understanding of play that examines both why and how people play. This comprehensive exam will survey theories and research that provide a theoretically grounded context for future studies of mediated play and games. Included are readings that explore four key themes that I believe can better situate communication scholarship on games and play within a more comprehensive cross-section of play studies traditions: play and development; play, philosophy and critical theory; play and culture; and mediated play: toys, games and rules.

In the first two sections, I will review various functional and philosophical explorations of why humans play. An emphasis on purposive play arises within the first section, play and development, which explores the developmental function of play as expressed in a number of studies and theories originating from the field of psychology. One of the most important aspects of this section involves the relationship between play and child development. Play fulfills an important role within children’s cognitive development, wherein playing games and learning rules leads to the development of higher mental functions (Piaget 1965) and the internalization of fundamental social scripts (Vygotsky 1933). On the other hand, while the structures and systems of games are linked to developing brain functions, other scholars highlight the importance of fantasy and imaginative play in facilitating children’s socialization, as well as in providing a contained, “safe” outlet for children’s creativity, stress and aggression (Paley 2004; Bettelheim 1987). I will also include in this section theories that approach play from a more universal approach, relating play activities to a myriad of cognitive and emotional functions in adults as well as children (e.g., Csikszentmihalyi 1994).

The universality of play is explored further within the second section, play, philosophy and critical theory, which situates the question of play within philosophical, moral and social contexts. The primary problem that I will address in this section is the various ways in which play is delineated and defined, which relates back to the question of functionality through a questioning of the assumptions that shape our understanding of what play is in the first place. This section will explore debates around the purposiveness of play (Marcuse 1978; Bateson 1973), the parameters of play (Hans 1981), the biases and class dynamics that inform our understandings of play (Bourdieu 1991; Gruneau 1983; Lash 1979), as well as the metaphysical essence of play (Suits 1978; Winnicott 1971).

The third section, play and culture, will incorporate the question of ‘why we play’ with analyses of ‘how we play,’ drawing upon studies conducted from within the fields of sociology and anthropology. I will start with the canonical works of Caillois (1958) and Huizinga (1950), who were among the first scholars to construct a differentiated theory of play as a culture-creating activity. Their categorizations and definitions of play and games provided an early lexicon for discussing various aspects of play, while their positioning of play as existing outside of capitalist Industrial society launched a crucial debate among play theorists on the relationship between play and work (explored in depth in the next section). This theme is taken up again by Darnton (1981), for example, who repositions play within the context of the workplace and emphasizes the profane element of play, thereby problematizing the high/low dichotomy inherent within differentiated notions of play. Subsequent works by Goffman (1961) and Geertz (1973) represent a further shift, by approaching play as a representational realm of activity, wherein issues and relationships of social and cultural significance come to be represented and made sense of in the form of social rituals, which include forms of play. Their work on the representational function of play within different cultures and contexts leads directly into the work of Sutton-Smith (1971; 1986; 1997), a key figure within emerging constructivist theories of play. I will explore the recent evolution of Sutton-Smith’s (1997) theories about the cultural and symbolic significance of play, and the impact his research has had on other play theorists (Pellegrini 1995). Finally, I will review the works of Schwartzman (1978) and Vallone (1995) who represent the developing space for feminist discourse within cultural and representational theories of play.

The theme of ‘how we play’ will continue in the final section, mediated play: toys, games and rules. Here, I will review the artefacts and systems that have come to dominate and structure play within the technologized western world. In this section I will explore the various tools of play, by unpacking the technological and design features of toys (Goldstien et al. 2004; Formanek-Brunell 1998; Hendershot 1996), as well as their representational and symbolic functions (Sutton-Smith 1986; Erikson 1977), and the relationship between mediated play and commercially-mediated culture (Cook 2001; Flemming 1996; Kline 1993). I will also examine the structuration and systematization of play through games and rules. As rules and standardized games become integrated into technological, bureaucratic and economic systems, such as online digital games, they come to enact a form of rationalization of play. An overview of the literature on games and rules will thus allow a better understanding of how play comes to be defined by the parameters of a game (Dyck, 2000; Jenkins 1998; Avedon & Sutton-Smith 1986), which are in turn representative of larger social systems.

Critical Theory and the Politics of Technological Artefacts
The study of technological artefacts has a long tradition within communication and media studies. From the foundational works of Innis (1951) and McLuhan (1951), to the more recent contributions of political economists (Smythe, 1981; Castells, 2003; Mosco, 2004), communication historians (Eisenstein, 1983) and cultural studies theorists (Williams, 1974), communication scholars contribute a unique perspective into the social, cultural and political implications of technologies and their contents. In recent years, media technologies have undergone a series of profound transformations, in terms of their technological design, their corporate and regulatory infrastructures, as well as their relationship with audiences. With the advent and widespread adoption of domestic “new media” technologies in particular, audiences become reconfigured as “users,” entering into ever more direct relationships and interactions with the technologies that structure, disseminate and produce our shared “digital” culture (Barney, 2000; Livingstone & Lievrouw, 2003; Rushkoff, 2003). As the presence of technological artefacts, systems and users expands into increasing areas of everyday life, communication scholars are called upon to provide critical analysis of the impact this has on cultural and social experience. To this end, communication studies is experiencing a deepening compatibility with an emerging body of work that explores the complex dynamics between users, technologies, and social institutions. Deriving from a variety of disciplines, including anthropology (Suchman, 1987), philosophy (Berman, 1982; Winner, 1986; Feenberg, 1999) and design research (Kirkham, 1996; Druin, 1999; Graner Ray, 2004), as well as specialized approaches such as science and technology studies (STS) (Hughes, 1989; MacKenzie & Wajcman, 1999) and social construction of technology (SCOT) (Pinch & Bijker, 1987), these critical theories of technology have much to offer communication scholars in their quest to understand the changing role of media and other cultural technologies in contemporary society.

This comprehensive exam will review key texts examining the ways in which technological artefacts embody and interact with their larger social contexts, particularly in terms of dominant ideologies, political economics and the everyday lifeworld of the user. In order to provide a broad overview of the various methods and approaches currently available for deconstructing the ideological and socially-constructed dimensions of technological artefacts and systems, this exam will combine studies conducted by communication scholars with seminal texts drawn from the interdisciplinary fields of technology studies. These works can be further categorised around four major themes that are of particular relevance to discussions of new media technologies: philosophy of technology; studies of technological artefacts and systems; the politics of technology (with an emphasis on feminist critiques of technology); and children and technology.

The first section, philosophy of technology, explores major themes and theoretical issues involved in the study of technology within the contemporary Western context. These foundational texts reveal key social, political and cultural dimensions of the technologization of modern life, and set the tone for subsequent work in this area. I will examine how the technological determinism and technological disenchantment of the post-war era, as established in the initial explorations of technology’s role in Canadian life and culture embarked upon by Innis (1951) and McLuhan (1951), eventually led to a critical rethinking of technology in the form of responsive examinations of the limits of technological rationalization (Marcuse, 1964), and a reclamation of the active role of institutions, social groups and individual action in shaping technology (Williams, 1974; Franklin, 1989). I will trace the evolution of the critical theory approach to studying media technology into the contemporary context, through works which consider the materiality of communication technologies (Angus, 2000) and the rationality of the (computer) “networked society” (Barney, 2000). This section will also explore alternative and emerging critical theories of technology, focusing on Feenberg’s (1999; 2002; Veak, 2006) theories of instrumentalization and democratic rationalization.

In the second section, I will review studies of technological artefacts and systems, which provide insight into the historical and contextual backdrops of particular technological artefacts, as well as methodological frameworks for future investigations of this kind. These readings will include historical and applied examinations of technological development (Kumar, 1978; Eisenstein, 1983; Suchman, 1987), studies conducted within the SCOT approach (which also applies historical analysis) (Pinch & Bijker, 1987; Oudshoorn & Pinch, 2005), and studies of technological systems (Hughes, 1989; Star & Bowker, 2003). In terms of methodology, these readings will also provide an overview of recent reinterpretations of SCOT theory provided by the “social shaping of technology” approach (MacKenzie & Wajcman, 1999; Lievrouw & Livingstone, 2003). Lastly, this section will review interdisciplinary studies of new media technology, informed in part by SCOT and other applied theories, including Bakardjeva (2000), Flichy (in Livingstone & Lievrouw, 2003), and McMillan (in Livingstone & Lievrouw, 2003).

The third section will emphasize the political dimensions of technological artefacts and systems, with a special emphasis on political economic and feminist critiques of technology. From Winner’s (1986) controversial work “Do artefacts have politics?”, to Berg and Lie’s (1995) reworking of Winner’s thesis to include gender issues (“Do artefacts have gender?”), these readings challenge the underlying assumptions and biases of early technology studies by introducing questions of power and ideology to the analysis. The political economy of new media technologies is the focus of Castells (2003) and Mosco (2004) who, like Berman (1982), envision technological systems as conduits for the dominant ideologies of modernity—including hyper-capitalism and social rationalization. A similar emphasis on ideology is also found within feminist critiques of technology and technology studies, who demonstrate how political and social constructs—such as gender—become embodied within technological artefacts and systems, at both the level of design (Kirkham, 1996; Graner Ray, 2004), and at the level of social practice (Wajcman, 1991, Rothschild et al., 1999, Arisaka, 2001).

The final section comprises texts focused on an often-neglected user group within media and technology studies—children. While children figure prominently within social, cultural and political discourses around technology (Buckingham & Willett, 2006)—they are the focus of regulatory debates, the catalyst for the expansion of technological forms into new areas of social life (from the home to the school to the playground), and the locus of cultural hopes and fears about technological impacts—their role as users is a subject that is often excluded from academic discussions of technology. The works reviewed in this section demonstrate how conflicting social conceptualizations about the nature and function of childhood within late modernity are reproduced in the form of dichotomous, “moralistic” debates within academic deliberations of children’s unique relationship with new media and digital technologies (Hutchby & Moran-Ellis, 2000), ranging from the highly celebratory (Rushkoff, 1996; Holloway & Valentine, 2003) to the deeply pessimistic (Kline et al., 2003). The ideological and political dimensions of these discourses are further revealed (often by contrast) within emerging studies of children’s technological artefacts (Druin, 1999) as well as preliminary examinations of children’s experiences as users of technological forms (Suoranta &Lehtimäki, 2004; Seiter, 2005).

1 comment:

Izzy Neis said...


You'll rock it! ;) I'll send ya a virtual beer (ha!) once your through with all this craziness.