"Play Redux excels in tying together intellectual traditions that are rooted in literary studies, cognitive science, play studies and several other fields, thereby creating a logical whole. Through this, the book makes service to several academic communities by pointing out their points of contact. This is clearly an important contribution to a growing academic field, and will no doubt become important in many future discussions about digital games and play."
---Frans Mäyrä, University of Tampere, Finland
"David Myers has researched video games longer than anyone else. Play Redux shows him continually relevant, never afraid of courting controversy."
---Jesper Juul, IT University of Copenhagen, Denmark
Play Redux is an ambitious description and critical analysis of the aesthetic pleasures of video game play, drawing on early twentieth-century formalist theory and models of literature. Employing a concept of biological naturalism grounded in cognitive theory, Myers argues for a clear delineation between the aesthetics of play and the aesthetics of texts. In the course of this study, Myers asks a number of interesting questions: What are the mechanics of human play as exhibited in computer games? Can these mechanisms be modeled? What is the evolutionary function of cognitive play, and is it, on the whole, a good thing? Intended as a provocative corrective to the currently ascendant, if not dominant, cultural and ethnographic approach to game studies and play, Play Redux will generate interest among scholars of communications, new media, and film.
David Myers is Reverend Aloysius B. Goodspeed Distinguished Professor at the School of Mass Communication, Loyola University New Orleans.
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PLAY REDUXTHE FORM OF COMPUTER GAMES
By David Myers
THE UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN PRESSCopyright © 2010 University of Michigan
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBad Play
You wanna play rough? Okay. Say hello to my little friend. -Tony Montana, Scarface (1983)
There are many encouraging things about the rise of game studies over the past couple of decades, but there are many discouraging things as well. One of the most discouraging is the degree to which the youngish field of game studies has gained credibility by reproducing existing research methodologies and assumptions. Since game studies involves the study of play and since play incorrigibly approaches all objects and topics in an abject state of disbelief and doubt-that is, in a state of play-it might be hoped that young game studies scholars, of all their academic colleagues, might display a similar attitude of skepticism, doubt, and disbelief that would lead them, at least in their very own and brand-new field of study, to question the values and beliefs of their academic mentors.
But, no. Computer game studies have quickly become, like all other forms of academic scholarship, very much like all other forms of academic scholarship: serious. And imbedded in this seriousness of method (not so bad in and of itself) is a set of seriously debilitating values.
While theories of play and games are generally regarded as serious and therein good, play itself is most often regarded otherwise. Play is notorious in that it is most frequently non-serious and therein bad-ignorant, destructive, and/or illegal.
In computer game play, ignorant play is often denigrated as "noob" play; destructive play would include "griefing" and the like; and illegal play in game contexts involves, among other things, exploitation of game rules and codes (including commercial rules) during pirating and hacking activities. But bad play is obviously a much larger category than just that associated with computer game play. The theoretical term for this bad play is often dysfunctional play, and most existing play theory has a hard time explaining why dysfunctional play exists at all. Here, by "most existing theory," I primarily mean developmental theories of play.
Contemporary theories of play ... are concerned with the ways that play benefits children's psychological development. They have continued to impact on early childhood programs, particularly in under-fives settings, where we now see play located at the heart of the curriculum and used as a vehicle for nurturing children's development across its various domains.
Implicit in all development theories of play is the assumption that the natural history and evolution of play documents some necessary and beneficial component of play vital to species survival. That is, play is deemed valuable, and that value is then awarded according to the functional benefits play provides.
However, if play is beneficial, then what exactly is beneficial about play that is risky, dangerous, and destructive? These and many other common and negative outcomes of play are either ignored by developmental theories or discounted by those theories as deviant abnormalities-or, in other words, as "bad" play.
Yet the subjective pleasures of bad play seem as direct, immediate, and engaging as those of good play. It is, then, difficult to explain why evolution has assigned the same visceral response to risky, harmful, and antisocial play as to safe, beneficial, and pro-social play.
There are some speculative answers. For instance, perhaps the pleasures of bad play are a vestigial response and, in humans, bad play indeed no longer serves the same species functions as it did and does within lower animals. Or perhaps the function of bad play is more positive at the group level of analysis than at the individual level; in this case, bad play would, in effect, sacrifice the welfare of the individual for the welfare of the group. Or, perhaps, on balance, bad play is more advantageous than its more obvious risks and harms would superficially indicate.
There is, at present, no firm evidence supporting these speculations. And, regardless, the perception of risky and harmful play remains clearly negative within developmental theories of play-and elsewhere. Even when the pleasures of bad play are acknowledged in less than serious, non-theoretical contexts-in popular works of art and fiction, for instance-these pleasures are commonly attributed to animal, primitive, or otherwise irrational and, thus, undesirable origins. Yet these pleasures, guilty or not, remain.
And so, why bad play? In the remainder of this chapter, I am going to try to answer that question regarding two potentially inclusive categories of generic bad play: play that is threatening, risky, or otherwise harmful to the self or others; and play that is against the rules. Of these two, the former can be considered a functional definition of bad play; the latter can be considered, in contrast, a formal definition of bad play.
Much play that is physically threatening or risky to players is also pleasurable and is, for that reason, actively sought by those players who put themselves most at risk. This category of risky but enjoyable play includes so-called extreme sports, as well as less competitive but equally dangerous behaviors: bungee jumping, skydiving, riding roller coasters, and the like. Indeed, the pleasures of these activities seem, to a great degree, determined by the amount of risk involved.
Putting someone other than yourself at risk during play includes bullying and other aggressive forms of childhood play-sometimes labeled "dark play." In fact, aggressiveness toward others has long been cited as an indication of bad, inappropriate, and antisocial play among children and adults. However, just as putting yourself at risk may be considered appropriate or inappropriate, pleasurable or not, depending on the context, putting others at risk may also be interpreted and valued differently in different contexts.
Many violent sports-boxing, for instance-assume some risk to the participants. More informal yet still willfully aggressive play, either during play fighting or during those circumstances in which play fighting and real fighting are blurred-for instance, within the movie Fight Club (1999) (or, perhaps, within hockey games)-provide pleasures and gratifications largely indistinguishable from those provided by non-aggressive and non-risky play.
This is true of many quite risky non-competitive games as well-as evident in the history of and popular fascination with Russian roulette. Originally appearing only in fiction (in a story written by Georges Surdez in 1937 for Collier's magazine), Russian roulette has become as widely known as it is infrequently practiced or "played." Indeed, the classification of Russian roulette as a form of play (rather than suicide) seems critical to its popular conceptualization as intriguing behavior. The movie Deer Hunter (1978) effectively dramatizes the peculiar appeal of playful acts of personal destruction-in this case, Russian roulette-which are representational and yet, simultaneously and paradoxically, have physically harmful and, therein, clearly non-representational consequences.
Significantly, many other types of pleasurable human behavior-most pointedly, sexual behavior-can also involve acts of aggression, dominance, submission, and, on occasion, pain, up to and including bondage and torture. Labeled abnormal and psychopathic-and, as such, conventionally discouraged-such extreme risk-taking (and risk-enjoying) behaviors nevertheless frequently appear within human virtual contexts, such as pornography. And these conceptual representations of bad play have demonstrable critical, popular, and commercial appeal, as with the writings of the Marquis de Sade, the stories of Anais Nin, Peter Schaffer's Equus, and even, to some degree, Mel Gibson films. In light of such acknowledged guilty pleasures-schadenfreude-it is unclear whether harmful or risky play can be rightfully characterized as "bad" without necessary reference to some preexisting normative context.
Fortunately, perhaps, digital media and computer games provide a relatively safe and less-threatening context for play than a more rough-and-tumble natural environment. Bad play with computer games poses little to no physical risk to players-although risky and harmful computer game play can still involve severe emotional and psychological consequences.
Nevertheless, within interactive digital media contexts, bad play is infrequently physically harmful and more frequently typical of a larger and more inclusive category of bad play: play that breaks the rules.
PLAY AGAINST THE RULES
Most often, bad play with computer games is characterized by play against the rules. These rules may include rules prohibiting risky or harmful play, so that these two categories of bad play-functional and formal, risky/harmful and rules-breaking-are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, if rules prohibiting harmful play are both conventional and widespread (most are), then the rules-breaking category of bad play subsumes the risky/harmful category of bad play. This is particularly the case when discussing play within virtual environments and-most pertinent to our discussion here-computer game play.
FORMS OF RULES
All computer games have some objective, explicit, and formal representations of their rules embedded in their software or code. For this reason, computer games provide a relatively straightforward context for distinguishing what is and what is not rules-appropriate play. This is true despite ongoing social negotiations regarding rules, which always seem part of playful social contexts, and despite the potential of emergent play resulting from either loosely constructed or poorly understood rules. Thus, to avoid any confusion over what the rules actually are, we can define rules-breaking play-and any so-called bad play associated with it-as play not explicitly allowed by the rules as represented by the game code.
Breaking some portion of a game's rules-for example, rules governing the mechanics of the game's interface-may make playing that game impossible. Also, players may-and, frequently do, particularly during initial computer game play-disconnect the game's power supply (i.e., pull the plug) or in some other way physically disturb, interrupt, or step beyond the game's coded rules context.
While these can be considered examples of transgressive and, therein, rules-breaking play, the most interesting category of this type of play involves players who break the rules while engaging (rather than destroying) the game code. Given such a circumstance, rules-breaking play can be understood as playing with (rather than within or according to) the coded rules of the game. This play is then in conflict not only with the rules but also with the "spirit" of the game as interpreted by other players and, significantly, by the game designer(s). Such transgressions in computer game play are commonly called exploits.
This particular class of rules-breaking play-exploiting-involves breaking game rules while still maintaining some level of integrity within the rules system (or game context) of which the broken rules are a part. Thus, bad play of this sort is one of the more paradoxical and, therein, one of the more formally interesting manifestations of computer game play.
Despite the programmed and tangible nature of rules embedded in game code, computer game players seem to play as often in disregard of these rules as they do in accordance with them. To some extent, this behavior results when computer game designs (either intentionally or not) hide rules from players-as is frequently the case when computer games involve themes of exploration, mystery, or subterfuge. However, a great deal of rules-breaking play can also be observed among players who have full access to and full knowledge of game rules yet still willfully choose to ignore these rules in order to access a freer (and usually more effective) style of play.
Examples of exploitive play are extremely common within complex online role-playing games, for instance, which typically display a characteristically incomplete and continually revised rules set. Here, for instance, Maleki, a World of Warcraft (WoW) in-game support manager, explains the nature and consequences of a particular WoW exploit:
To be a little more specific, the guild in question was using repeated line of sight exploits which prevented the mobs from attacking back. Also, using a pulling exploit which allowed them to only agro boss mobs. Both are considered exploits, and the guild in question was previously warned the night before. We want to reiterate that exploitation of high end content will not be tolerated.
Exploits which use unintended rules conflicts or consequences to aid play are common in offline, single-player games as well-even including exploits provided by the game designers themselves in the form of so-called cheat codes. In fact, realizing the widespread tendency of players to explore, manipulate, and transform game rules to their advantage, many game designers have attempted to incorporate rules-breaking play within rules-appropriate play through special forms of rules: self-reflexive and self-transformative rules.
These "special" rules allow, in effect, game rules to be broken as an acceptable, appropriate, and sometimes necessary component of game play: they are rules to break rules. While the most obvious example of such a formal rules-breaking design is the cheat code, there are other, more subtle variations.
Within the several popular versions of Sid Meier's Civilization series of computer games, for instance, there is the self-transforming feature of World Wonders. When World Wonders-the Pyramids, Michelangelo's Chapel, and such-are introduced into the game, they transform the game rules, including those rules that allow subsequent World Wonders to be built. And, in fact, within most other, non-computer-based games-sports, poker, even solitaire-there are also frequent rules modifications, variations, and transgressions that serve to extend and enliven play within, ostensibly, those same boundaries established by the original game context.
However, rules transformations in non-computer games are very often the result of social negotiations undertaken in normative contexts outside the game's rules system entirely. The interactive nature of digital media makes it possible to include something like this negotiation process within the computer game design itself. That is, computer game designs provide a formal mechanism for recursively transformative-rules-breaking-processes.
During all initial computer game play, for instance, players make important game decisions prior to full knowledge of the game rules. Players must decide where to build founding cities in Civilization prior to full knowledge of the game's world map; similarly, players must decide what sort of characters to build within online role-playing games prior to full knowledge of the relative abilities and disabilities of character classes in MMOs.
In the former instance, the game rules of Civilization might be considered purposefully hiding information from players in order to introduce random elements of play. In the second instance, however, the game rules (i.e., MMO rules manuals) are simply incapable of describing character abilities that are only determined most definitely within a constantly shifting and largely player-determined context of play. This latter circumstance is not merely the result of social play. It is equally true of all popular action/arcade games in which contexts are determined entirely through individual play. In both contexts-social and solo-the experience of play is considered by players to be a better teacher (and evaluator) of game rules than any text-based explication or secondhand account.
Excerpted from PLAY REDUX by David Myers Copyright © 2010 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission.
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