Malaby— Anthropology and Play

Anthropology and Play: The Contours of Playful Experience

by Thomas Malaby

[Malaby, Thomas. 2009. “Anthropology and Play: The Contours of Playful Experience.” New Literary History 40 (1): 205–18.]

Points

  • The use of play as a theoretical tool, rather than being brushed off as a leisure activity, has taken hold across academic disciplines within the humanities and social sciences. Malaby wonders why Anthropology hasn’t been invested before now.
  • He argue that “while the ingredients of a more useful conception of play as a disposition (as opposed to an activity) were always present, and even found expression on occasion, the field as a whole stressed only two viable possibilities: play as nonwork and play as representation” (205-6).
  • BUT, “Departing from this pattern prepares us to recognize a better model for thinking about play, one that draws ultimately on the pragmatist philosophers’ portrayal of the world as irreducibly contingent. On this view, play becomes an attitude characterized by a readiness to improvise in the face of an ever-changing world that admits of no transcendently ordered account” ( bold added, 206).

Historically, play is divided in Anthropology

  • Non-work—position held by Materialists
    • Callois: “play is an occasion of pure waste” (206).
    • play cannot be commoditized, so it is worth nothing
  • Representation—position held by representationalists (gasp)
    • Ex. Geertz & Deep Play
    • play stands as a symbol of larger and deeper cultural meanings
    • BUT WAIT: “What should interest us about this treatment of a game, however, is the way it trades one kind of reductionism for another. In his zeal to trump whatever material stakes were in play with the different stakes of meaning-making, Geertz eliminated from consideration any consequence beyond the affirmation of meaning. On his view, games become static appraisals of an unchanging social order; and thereby, one element that is vital for any understanding of the experience of play is lost” (207).
    • “That element is the indeterminacy of games and the way in which, by being indeterminate in their outcomes, they encapsulate (albeit in a contrived fashion) the open-endedness of everyday life” (207-8).
  • So the point is that games are indeterminate, much like our complexly contingent lives.
    • “an approach to games that acknowledges this indeterminacy looks quite different from its past treatments. It connects games to other domains of experience by showing how they contain the same kinds of unpredictabilities and constraints that saturate our experience elsewhere, albeit combined in a contrived fashion. Viewed this way, games assume a powerful relationship to human practice and social process.”
      • “What is more, this view allows us to see how games may be related to a particular mode of experience, a dispositional stance toward the indeterminate. This is an aspect of experience that disappears from view when practice is left out in favor of materiality or representation” (208).
    • in Play and Work: A False Dichotomy, Stevens makes “a vital point that game researchers (and social scientists generally) are still prone to forget: if by “play” we are trying to signal a mode of human experience—a way of engaging the world whatever one is doing—then we cannot simultaneously use it reliably as a label for a form of distinct human activity (something that allows us to differentiate categorically between activities that are play and those that are not)” (208).
    • So then “when the work/play distinction is left behind, we see instead in ludic practice a more useful contrast between a cultural form (a game-like activity, no matter how playfully engaged in) and a mode of cultural experience (a playful disposition towards activities no matter how game-like)” (209).
      • Csikszentmihalyi’s flow is a mode, for instance
      • For Huizinga, it is the play-element
  • In the world, we also have this type of indeterminacy or contingency
    • can be compared to Heideggerian thrownness
    • also fits well into the concepts behind practice theory
  • There are three main features to this disposition of play in the world
    1. “First, it is an attitude that is totalizing in the sense that it reflects an acknowledgment of how events, however seemingly patterned or routinized, can never be cordoned off from contingency entirely …”
    2. “Second, the disposition of play is marked by a readiness to improvise, a quality captured by Bourdieu in his development of Marcel Mauss’s concept of the habitus …” 
    3. Finally, play is a disposition that makes the actor an agent within social processes, albeit in an importantly restrained way; the actor may affect events, but this agency is not confined to the actor’s intent, or measured by it. Rather, it allows for unintended consequences of action” (211).
  • The playful disposition does not need games, but can be leveraged to other means: “just as with ritual, it is the power of the mode of experience associated with it that makes the deployment of the cultural form a tempting project for individuals and institutions”

Play and institutions:

  • “In its study of ritual, anthropology undertook with great success a similar project, whose enabling insights should inform our current inquiries into play not least with regard to the relationship of these institutions to a social form they are beginning to deploy for purposes of their own …”
    • “games, as outlined above, manifest a playful disposition that, seeming to lift them above institutional interests, can, by the same token, be seen to validate those interests impartially” (213).
    • examples given
      • Linden Lab and its semi-successful attempts at gamifying the in-house decision making process
      • “gold-farming,” tying gameplay to actual capital accumulation IRL
      • TopCoder.com having coders compete to write the best code for specific commercial uses—the company then owns the code

Game vs. Ritual

  • There is an important “difference between the cultural forms of ritual and game. Rituals, despite the fact that they can go wrong—the fact, that is, they are subject to contingency—aim to bring about determinate outcomes …”
  • and “Games, while also a contrived cultural form and subject to similar kinds of sponsorship, are marked by the legitimacy of their indeterminacy; that is, their outcomes are supposed to be contingent” (214).

and finally—BIG POINT

  • “What is most provocative about the current moment, then, is how the explosion of thoroughly digitized games prompts us to confront the play element and its powerful yet indeterminate relationship to the emergent cultural form of computerized games. As institutions are coming to deploy games in their governance and in their engagement with a computer-mediated public, we may be well advised to see their efforts as similar to the age-old and ongoing attempts to employ ritual to prompt sentiments for nations or other groupings. The disposition of play is, in many ways, the latest sentiment to have been turned into the object of institutional desire. Some of us are prepared to bet that its roots in indeterminacy will be a bulwark against corporate takeover; but a bet is probably the most we can hazard. “

Annotation Summary for: Malaby – Anthropology and Play

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Anthropology and Play: The Contours of Playful Experience Thomas M. Malaby”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “It has become difficult to deny that play is often productive and that work, rather than always a matter of routine, can be shot through with the open-endedness we most often associate with play.”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Along the way, it has also become more difficult to sustain claims that play is essentially about “fun,” “pleasure,” or other positively charged sentiments. ”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “I suggest, however, that it is surprising that this questioning of our ideas about games and play has taken so long and especially surpris- ing that my own field, sociocultural anthropology, did not lead the way many years ago.”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “In what follows, I outline the tendencies of twentieth-century anthro- pological work on play and argue that anthropology, despite its ostensible neglect of the matter, nonetheless has much to offer the current aim of rethinking play. I begin by suggesting that, while the ingredients of a more useful conception of play as a disposition (as opposed to an activity)”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “were always present, and even found expression on occasion, the field as a whole stressed only two viable possibilities: play as nonwork and play as representation. Departing from this pattern prepares us to recognize a better model for thinking about play, one that draws ultimately on the pragmatist philosophers’ portrayal of the world as irreducibly contingent.On this view, play becomes an attitude characterized by a readiness to improvise in the face of an ever-changing world that admits of no tran-scendently ordered account. ”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “the trajectory of the anthropological study of play during the twentieth century is a familiar one: it falls more or less neatly into a divide between followers of primarily materialist and primarily repre- sentationalist approaches.”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The first treated play as an activity defined by its lack of productivity; that is, by its status as nonwork.”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “As Roger Caillois put it, “Play is an occasion of pure waste.”2 The echoes of this unhelpful assertion continue to resonate through some scholarship on games to this day.”

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Geertz brought an approach to culture strongly in- fluenced by the ideas of Max Weber in which there was room for mean- ing-making as something other than epiphenomenal.”

Page 4, Underline (Red): Content: ““Deep Play: Notes on a Balinese Cockfight.”3”

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Geertz imbued the occasion of a cockfight with the highest stakes of all, that of a culture’s meaning in a grand sense: the cockfight becomes the portrait that the Balinese culture paints for itself.”

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “What should interest us about this treatment of a game, however, is the way it trades one kind of reductionism for another. In his zeal to trump whatever material stakes were in play with the dif-ferent stakes of meaning-making, Geertz eliminated from consideration any consequence beyond the affirmation of meaning. On his view, gamesbecome static appraisals of an unchanging social order; and thereby, one element that is vital for any understanding of the experience of play is lost.”

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “That element is the indeterminacy of games and the way in which, by being indeterminate in their outcomes, they encapsulate (albeit in a con-”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “trived fashion) the open-endedness of everyday life.”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “As I have presented elsewhere, an approach to games that acknowledges this indeterminacy looks quite different from its past treatments.5 It connects games to other domains of experience by showing how they contain the same kinds of unpredictabilities and constraints that saturate our experience elsewhere, albeit combined in a contrived fashion. Viewed this way, games assume a powerful relationship to human practice and social process. What is more, this view allows us to see how games may be related to a particular mode of experience, a dispositional stance toward the indeterminate. This is an aspect of experience that disappears from view when practice is left out in favor of materiality or representation.”

Page 5, Stamp (Star (Frame, Red))

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “While the status of work as an analytical category continued largely unquestioned through the 1970s, the anthropologists of play, while proceeding from the same assumption, began to confront and think about its limits. The published proceedings of their meetings in that era began to point to the limits of a work/play distinction.6 A number of human societies, they found, simply did not make a distinc-tion between “work” and “play,” even when pressed by researchers to do so. ”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Phillips Stevens “Play and Work: A False Dichotomy?”8 There he made a vital point that game researchers (and social scientists generally) are still prone to forget: if by “play” we are trying to signal a mode of human experience—a way of engaging the world whatever one is doing—then we cannot simultaneously use it reliably as a label for a form of distinct human activity (something that allows us to differentiate categorically between activities that are play and those that are not).”

Page 5, Underline (Red): Content: ““Play and Work: A False Dichotomy?”8”

Page 6, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “when the work/play dis- tinction is left behind, we see instead in ludic practice a more useful contrast between a cultural form (a game-like activity, no matter how playfully engaged in) and a mode of cultural experience (a playful dis- position towards activities no matter how game-like).”

Page 6, Underline (Red): Content: “Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi. ”

Page 6, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Csikszentmihalyi. In 1971, he coauthored with H. Stith Bennett an article on play in American Anthropologist stating explicitly that play should be seen as a state of experience. Specifically, play for them is “a state of experience in which the actor’s ability to act matches the requirements for action in his environment.”15”

Page 6, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “They zero in on the issue of possibility (what I would term, following philosophical usage, contingency), and they contrast this play state with states of anxiety (too much contingency) and boredom (too little). It is true that the model they offer ultimately leans too heavily toward a “flow”-based model for play, wherein actors seemingly can be in a playful mode only when they enjoy complete mastery over a contingent situation.”

Page 6, Highlight (Yellow): Content: ““flow”-”

Page 6, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Csikszentmihalyi and Ben-”

Page 7, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “nett offered a different perspective on play at a time when few heeded it. We may usefully take from it the principle that play as a disposition is intimately connected with a disordered world that, while of course largely reproduced from one moment to the next, always carries within it the possibility of incremental or even radical change.”

Page 7, Underline (Red): Content: “Johan Huizinga.”

Page 7, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Huizinga set the tone for much of the inquiry into games and society in the latter half of the twentieth century with his book Homo Ludens.16 This book bears much responsibility for fostering the unfortunate view, developed more rigidly still by Caillois, that games are activities, culturally sequestered and consequence-free.17”

Page 7, Underline (Red): Content: “Homo Ludens.16”

Page 7, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “As Huizinga’s argument develops, near the end of his text he focuses on something quite different: “Civilization is, in its earliest phases, played. It does not come from play . . . it arises in and as play, and never leaves it.”18 Huizinga is much more enlightening when he speaks of the “play-element” (just the type of experience or disposition that interests us here), rather than of “play” as a (separable, safe) activity.For him, the play-element—marked by an interest in uncertainty and the challenge to perform that arises in competition, by the legitimacy of improvisation and innovation that the premise of indeterminate circum-stances encourages—is opposed above all to utilitarianism and the drive for efficiency. ”

Page 7, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Huizinga felt that the play-element had been on the wane in Western civilization since the eighteenth century, threatened by the drive for efficiency and the routinization of experience it brought.20”

Page 7, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “the universe was, as Louis Menand put it, “shot through with contingency.”21”

Page 7, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The phenomenologists also gestured toward it, notably in Martin Heidegger’s concept of “thrown- ness” (which was developed in anthropology by Michael Jackson).22”

Page 7, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The ideas of “practice theory,” as Ortner described it,23 are also consistent with this picture of the world as an ongoing and open-ended process: Pierre Bourdieu, Marshall Sahlins, Michel de Certeau, and Anthony Giddens each have sought in different ways to overcome determinative”

Page 8, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “pictures of the world. ”

Page 8, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “What are the features of play as a disposition toward the world in all its possibility? First, it is an attitude that is totalizing in the sense that it reflects an acknowledgment of how events, however seemingly patterned or routinized, can never be cordoned off from contingency entirely Second, the disposition of play is marked by a readiness to improvise, a quality captured by Bourdieu in his development of Marcel Mauss’sconcept of the habitus.25”

Page 8, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Finally, play is a disposi- tion that makes the actor an agent within social processes, albeit in an importantly restrained way; the actor may affect events, but this agency is not confined to the actor’s intent, or measured by it. Rather, it allows for unintended consequences of action.27”

Page 9, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “we may say that a game may prompt a playful disposition, but then again, it may not. Playful experience is not irrelevant to games, on this view, of course. All the same, and just as with ritual, it is the power of the mode of experi- ence associated with it that makes the deployment of the cultural form a tempting project for individuals and institutions.”

Page 10, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “While the echoes of materialism obscured the cultural import of play from anthropological view over the course of the past century, the ele- ments of an approach that enables us to confront play’s greater promi- nence were there. These include attention to practice, the pragmatist’s claims about the open-endedness of the world, and the study of ritual as decoupled from religious experience.”

Page 10, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Anthropology is well positioned to connect these dots because its methodology has always put disciplinary practitioners in intimate relation not only with the (Geertzian) plays of representation, and the (Marxian) constraints and contingencies of materiality, but with social practice in all its exigencies.”

Page 10, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “In its study of ritual, anthropology undertook with great success a similar project, whose enabling insights should inform our current inquiries into play not least with regard to the relationship of these institutions to a social form they are beginning to deploy for purposes of their own.”

Page 10, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “games, as outlined above, manifest a playful disposition that, seeming to lift them above institutional interests, can, by the same token, be seen to validate those interests impartially.”

Page 10, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Just as ritual provides a context for the experience of a transcendent order, so games provide a context for the display of a ready and capable disposition, one that acts amid the disorder of the game and, by exten- sion, the disordered world itself.”

Page 11, Stamp (Star (Frame, Red))

Page 11, Highlight (Cyan): Content: ” difference between the cultural forms of ritual and game. Rituals, despite the fact that they can go wrong33—the fact, that is, they aresubject to contingency—aim to bring about determinate outcomes.”

Page 11, Stamp (Star (Frame, Red))

Page 11, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Games, while also a contrived cultural form and subject to similar kinds of sponsorship, are marked by the legitimacy of their indeterminacy; that is, their outcomes are supposed to be contingent.34”

Page 11, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The institutions making use of games today are increasingly the digi-tal institutions that inhabit our computer-mediated world. My work has recently concerned Linden Lab, the makers of the virtual world SecondLife, and in that work, I explore at length how Linden Lab has incorpo-rated games into its attempts to govern its creation and itself.35 In making Second Life, Linden employees drew upon a number of techniques and elements from computer game design (a background that many of thedevelopers at the company shared). The result was a creation that was designed, like a game, to balance a compelling mix of constraint and possibility for its users, who then would create objects and experiences in Second Life’s virtual world, retaining in the process the intellectual property rights to their creations. ”

Page 11, Underline (Blue): Content: “Linden Lab,”

Page 11, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “But this intentional open-endedness of their product created a prob-lem for Linden Lab, which was continually challenged to respond to the swiftly changing landscape of the world they had made. Top-down authority, whether bureaucratic or charismatic, was disallowed by what I have termed Linden Lab’s “technoliberal” ideology, which made gen-erating legitimate decisions doubly difficult.36 One way out of this bind was a kind of corporate recursion: they turned to games internally, as tools with which to solve the problems their own game products had en-gendered. In one case, Linden Lab implemented a game that simulated chess matches into their internal decision-making process. An employee wrote a computer game that, on a Web site, pitted two company tasks against each other. Employees would choose from each matched pair a winner (by deciding which task was more “important”), whereupon two new tasks would appear in a new match. Over time, and via the incorpo-ration into the code of a chess-ranking algorithm, the game generated a list of company tasks presumably ranked by their importance to the company as a whole.”

Page 12, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Dibbell, for example, has written about the difficul- ties in nailing down an understanding of “gold farming” in China, an example of the phenomenon he calls ludo-capitalism.37 Gold farming is the name given to the number of ways in which people, usually in low wage economies, are paid to play an online game, such as World of Warcraft, to accumulate its in-world currency (“gold”), certain in-world items that confer advantages in play, or to “level up” a character in the game—accumulations any of which can then be sold over the Internet for “real” money to a player typically negotiating the deal from a privileged real-world niche in a high wage economy.”

Page 12, Underline (Blue): Content: ““gold farming””

Page 12, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “How, Dibbell asks, should we make sense of being paid to play, albeit in a different and somewhat routinized way, a game that is compelling enough to attract more than ten million players worldwide? What are we to make of the fact that Dibbell found some of these workers playing their own World of Warcraft characters, on their own accounts, after work hours?”

Page 12, Highlight (Cyan): Content: ” these are concerns not limited to virtual worlds.This example is the online code-writing contest located at TopCoder.com. TopCoder hosts contests (weekly, with a larger one biannually) to code (for example, write software for) solutions to complex real-world prob-lems. TopCoder owns the code submitted to them in the competitions, paying out a one-time cash award for each”

Page 12, Underline (Blue): Content: ” TopCoder.com.”

Page 12, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Here, game design forms the incentive to voluntary participation, specifically the application of effort and cultural capital (competence) to perform in a compellingly”

Page 13, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “contrived, indeterminate system. TopCoder’s players are competing to demonstrate programming ability in the application of their expertise to a novel problem in urgent circumstances, against time and againsteach other.”

Page 13, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Further research would be needed to evaluate the nature of this ludo-capitalism, but along with the use of games to attempt to colonize creativity, we should also notice the implicit distinction here between “players” and the sponsoring institutions that create the conditions for such play. What we are beginning to see is the bifurcation of creativity, separating those who are creative within a ludic system from those gamedesigners creatively contriving the ludic system itself. ”

Page 13, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “What is most provocative about the current moment, then, is howthe explosion of thoroughly digitized games prompts us to confront the play element and its powerful yet indeterminate relationship to the emergent cultural form of computerized games. As institutions are coming to deploy games in their governance and in their engagement with a computer-mediated public, we may be well advised to see theirefforts as similar to the age-old and ongoing attempts to employ ritual to prompt sentiments for nations or other groupings. The disposition of play is, in many ways, the latest sentiment to have been turned into the object of institutional desire. Some of us are prepared to bet that its roots in indeterminacy will be a bulwark against corporate takeover; but a bet is probably the most we can hazard. ”

Page 13, Stamp (Star (Frame, Red))

Page 13, Underline (Red): Content: “Roger Caillois, Man, Play, and Games, trans. Meyer Barash (New York: Free Press, 1961),

Clifford Geertz, “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight,” in The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 412–53.”

Page 14, Underline (Red): Content: “Sherry Ortner, Life and Death on Mt. Everest: Sherpas and Himalayan Mountaineering (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1999).”

Page 14, Underline (Red): Content: “Bonnie Nardi, My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, forthcoming).”

Page 14, Underline (Red): Content: “Alex Golub, “Being in the World (of Warcraft): Raiding, Commitment, and Knowledge Production in a Massively Multiplayer Online Game,” Anthropological Quarterly, forthcoming. ”

Page 14, Underline (Red): Content: “Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Stith Bennett, “An Exploratory Model of Play,” American Anthropologist, n. s., 73, no. 1 (1971): 45.”

Page 14, Underline (Red): Content: “Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens (1938; New York: Beacon Press, 1971).”

Page 14, Underline (Red): Content: “Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (New York: Harper & Row, 1962); Michael Jackson, Paths Toward a Clearing: Radical Empiricism and Ethnographic Inquiry (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1989).”

Page 14, Underline (Red): Content: “Ian Hacking, “Nineteenth Century Cracks in the Concept of Determinism,” Journal of the History of Ideas 44, no. 3 (1983): 455–75.”

Page 14, Underline (Red): Content: “Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge: Cam- bridge Univ. Press, 1977).”

Page 14, Underline (Red): Content: “Anthony Giddens, The Constitution of Society : Outline of the Theory of Structuration (Cam- bridge: Polity, 1984).”

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