Tag Archives: Csikszentmihalyi

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. “

Continue reading Malaby— Anthropology and Play

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Luhrmann—When God Talks Back

When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God

by Tanya Luhrmann

[Luhrmann, Tanya M. 2012. When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. New York: Vintage Books.]

Points

  • Based on over four years of participant observation at Evangelical “Vineyard Christian Fellowship” in Chicago and Northern California.
  • trying to find an answer to the “deep puzzle of faith … how sensible, reasonable people, living in more or less the same evidential world as the skeptic, are able to experience themselves as having good evidence for the presence of a powerful invisible being who has demonstrable effect on their lives and are able to sustain a belief in that presence despite their inevitable doubts” (xvi).
  • Answer – “In effect, people train the mind in such a way that they experience part of their mind as the presence of God. They learn to reinterpret the familiar experiences of their own minds and bodies as not being their own at all—but God’s” (xxi).
  • Vineyard members learn a new theory of mind (participatory) which “asks congregants to experience the mind-world barrier as porous, in a specific, limited way” (40).
    • specifically meaning that you can hear things in your mind that did not originate there, but limited to God speaking to you
    • The 1960s were a ‘great awakening,’ significantly among the hippie movement in California, which espoused a new, friendly, personal type of Christianity that became evangelism throughout the next decades—which leads to churches like Vineyard
  • Vineyards basic view on the God-relationship: “God wants to be your friend; you develop that relationship through prayer; prayer is hard work and requires effort and training; and when you develop that relationship, God will answer back, through thoughts and mental images he places in your mind, and through sensations he causes in your body” (41).

Vineyard members engaged in many practices that trained their minds to work this way

  • Figuring out whether or not it is really God is a practice called discernment, based on four tests:
    1. Is it not something you normally would have said?
    2. Is it the type of thing you think God might say or imply?
    3. Is the message confirmed through others’ experiences or larger circumstances?
    4. Is it followed by a period of peace?
  • Another way Vineyard members practice hearing God—pretend you’re hanging out with him
    • set an extra place at the table, pour him a cup of coffee, or even have a complete ‘date night’
    • with practice, this behavior enacts a type of play that children have with imaginary friends—completely given over to the reality of the pretend, like in Huizinga’s magic circle
  • Another type of training is “opening your heart” through emotional practices
    1. “crying in the presence of God”—be openly emotional when giving or receiving prayer
    2. “Seeing from God’s perspective”—look at situations past your own limited view
    3. “practicing love, peace, and joy”—practice it consciously
    4. “God the therapist”—tell him your problems
    5. “reworking God the father”—sometimes dads are scary and demanding; God is not
    6. “emotional cascades”—sudden moments of epiphany, when you physically feel God’s love
  • “It is a profoundly social process. It is the evangelical church that teaches discernment, encourages the playI and models the six emotional practices. It is no small matter to become confident that the God you imagine in the privacy of your mind exists externally in the world, talking back. In the struggle to give the invisible being its external presence, the congregation surrounds the individual and helps to hold the being out apart from the self, separate and external. It is the church that confirms that the invisible being is really present, and it is that church that reminds people week after week that the external invisible being loves them, despite all the evidence of the dreary human world. And slowly, the church begins to shape the most private reaches of the way congregants feel and know” (131).
  • Vineyard gives classes in prayer and regards some practiced members as “expert prayers”
    • These practices are important even to non-believers because “we cannot understand how God becomes real to someone until we understand that a person’s experience of God emerges out of the vortex not only of what they are taught intellectually about God but also of what they do practically to experience God—above all, the way they pray, and what the bring to their prayer experience as unique individuals” (156).
  • Vineyard members practice St. Ignatius’s “Spiritual Exercises”— training the imagination to picture the imaginer as a part of the life of Jesus

So how does this work?

  • Luhrmann says that the congregants who have the more intense experiences and the most verbal relationship with God have high rates of the absorption personality trait.
    • when you get absorbed in something, it seems more real to you, and you and your world seem different than before. That is why it is related to hypnotizability. Both rely upon your ability to throw yourself into something and then to involve yourself intensely in the experience” (199).
  • This gave her a hypothesis: “that when people believe that God will speak to them through their senses, when they have a propensity for absorption, and when they are trained in absorption by the practice of prayer, these people will report what prayer experts report: internal sensory experiences with sharper mental imagery and more sensory overrides (sensory experience in the absence of sensory stimuli). Note the combination: an interest in interpreting a supernatural presence (the participatory theory of mind, taught by the social world of the church); a willingness to get caught up in one’s imagination (an individual difference); and actual practice ( they do something again and again, which has consequences)” (202).
    • So she tested it in Northern California by having subjects listen to training tapes for 30 minutes every day for a month.
    • She found that the subjects “entered the project with a broad, generic desire to hear God speak or perhaps just to get their prayer life moving again; they spent thirty minutes a day imaginatively immersed in the scriptures; and then they had unplanned idiosyncratic experiences that they saw with their eyes and heard with their ears” (216).

evangelical—based in three beliefs: literal truth of the Bible, one can be saved through a personal relationship with Jesus (being “born again”), and one should spread the gospel

absorption—the mental capacity common to trance, hypnosis, dissociation, and to most imaginative experiences in which the individual becomes caught up in ideas or images or fascinations. That is not to say that absorption is equivalent to hypnosis or dissociation or trance: manifestly it is not. But absorption seems to be the basic, necessary skill, the shared capacity of mind that allows what we choose to attend lo become more salient than the everyday context in which we arc embedded. It is the ability to use a book to take your mind off your troubles. That cuts both ways, of course. Some people use novels to keep the world at bay long enough to recover and regain the strength to return. Others use novels-or soap operas, or reality television-to escape and ignore the troubled marriage or the needy child. In both cases, individuals use their mind to change their relation to the reality they perceive … That is why absorption is central to spirituality. The capacity to treat what the mind imagines as more real than the world one knows is the capacity at the heart of experience of God” (201).

Golub—Being in the World (of Warcraft)

Being in the World (of Warcraft): Raiding, Realism, and Knowledge Production in a Massively Multiplayer Online Game

by Alex Golub

[Golub, Alex. “Being in the World (of Warcraft): Raiding, realism, and knowledge production in a massively multiplayer online game.” Anthropological Quarterly83, no. 1 (2010): 17-45.]

Points

  • an argument directly against Boellstorff, particularly on two fronts
    1. Immersion in virtual worlds is dependent on the realism depicted in the world—Golub says “no”
    2. virtual worlds are “places” that can be studied without reference to the offline users—Golub says “hell no”
  • Golub uses participant observation as part of a ‘middle-core’ raiding party in World of Warcraft (WoW) to deny both of these assertions; arguing that “the sociotechnical systems created and deployed by raiders ramify beyond the magic circle of World of Warcraft onto websites, Internet telephony servers, and actual-world gatherings” (20).
  • in his discussion of Boelstorff’s Coming of Age in Second Life, he argues “that Boellstorff’s decision to exclude from his study the websites, blogs, and other online sites where Second Lifers interact is as problematic as his decision to bracket out their actual world lives” (24).
  • Further, scholarly treatments of the nature of virtual worlds “short-circuit attempts to theorize what makes virtual worlds compelling because they appeal to taken-for-granted notions of sensorial immersion” (26).
  • He sees immersion as being based on “commitment to the game,” and his raiding party increases this immersion/commitment by “decomposing the visually and aurally realistic world of Warcraft into its component parts” (34).
    • players use mods to parse the visual input into less aesthetically pleasing pieces of info: threat meters, DPS, health, “maximize their knowledge of the game state, replacing realistic three-dimensional imagery with user-friendly measurements of underlying variables in the game. [He] call[s] this process “decomposing the world” (35).
    • players use audio plugins to speak to each other over an audio channel that is not included in the game mechanics—they both plan raids and socialize on this channel, this increasing immersion with the use of outside tech
  • take-home—”an account which takes seriously both virtual worlds and the anthropological critique of locality should focus on three things…
    1. we must follow participants in virtual worlds across all segments of their life-worlds that are central to their biographies, not merely those that are virtual…
    2. we must understand the intertwined systems of action and meaning which become projects for people…
    3. we must understand the way those projects engender publics, both networked … or otherwise” (40-41). (reformatted by me)

Abstract

This paper discusses two main claims made about virtual worlds: first, that people become “immersed” in virtual worlds because of their sensorial realism, and second, because virtual worlds appear to be “places” they can be studied without reference to the lives that their inhabitants live in the actual world. This paper argues against both of these claims by using data from an ethnographic study of knowledge production in World of Warcraft. First, this data demonstrates that highly-committed (“immersed”) players of World of Warcraft make their interfaces less sensorially realistic (rather than more so) in order to obtain useable knowledge about the game world. In this case, immer- sion and sensorial realism may be inversely correlated. Second, their commitment to the game leads them to engage in knowledge-making activities outside of it. Drawing loosely on phenomenology and contemporary theorizations of Oceania, I argue that what makes games truly “real” for players is the extent to which they create collective projects of action that people care about, not their imitation of sensorial qualia. Additionally, I argue that while purely in-game research is methodologically legitimate, a full account of member’s lives must study the articulation of in-game and out-of-game worlds and trace people’s engagement with virtual worlds across multiple domains, some virtual and some actual. [Keywords: knowledge production, phenomenology, virtu- al worlds, World of Warcraft, Second Life, video games, raiding]” Continue reading Golub—Being in the World (of Warcraft)