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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. “

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