A delayed reaction and some future research

Towards the end of the previously-posted video – in fact, really, at the end – Shane Aslan Selzer brings up a question, a question that could indeed be the focus of a whole new videochat, or videoconference, or videopanel, or whatever it was…

I see how the institution embraces game, because games have rules, but when Pedro starts to talk about the relationship between freedom and play, I think he’s really onto something important about this issue of sponteneity, and games belonging to this kind…that play, that play can’t truly be coopted, but that games perhaps can be? So I wonder if perhaps we’re making not enough of a distinction between when play becomes game, and what happens when that shift occurs?

Something that we have been considering within our little group, and that we attempted to address with Leaving Planet 5, was deeply related to Selzer’s question. Or, perhaps, was simply another version of Selzer’s question, namely: have games already been coopted, and if so, by whom and for what? Do the structures of games – in this case, role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, World of Warcraft, really pretty much any role-playing game – reflect this cooption?

In most role-playing games, the focus is on the hero, or band of heroes, or even anti-heroes, cavorting through a world: having adventures, saving damsels, finding treasure or sometimes getting paid. These heroes or anti-heroes are generally viewed as castaways, ostracized from their communities, or as people who have (heroically) chosen to leave their home society. In the player’s handbook for Pathfinder, a D&D spinoff, for example, each racial description comes with a justification for leaving one’s home. Dwarves are motivated by clan or racial pride; elves by a weariness of seclusion; gnomes by wanderlust; halflings by a sort of gambler’s curiosity; humans by ambition; and the half-races (half-elves, half-orcs) by the natural independence bred from being a racial castaway. The life of the adventurer closely resembles that of the mercenary or the assassin and the world the adventurer adventures in is usually ruled in some sort of feudal system, ruled by kings or emperors or dragons or even multinational corporations, as in Shadowrun – a system which, alarmingly, ever-increasingly looks like our own, sans dragons of course.

In any case, the environment in which a person plays a game like this is remarkably un-democratic. Sure, the adventuring party must come to consensus while adventuring, and sure, perhaps guilds – as in WoW or in other massively-multiplayer games – operate via democratic structures/forms, but these twinklings of democratic action exist in a feudal world and are justified by the logic of a feudal world. Further, the structure of gameplay, whereby a character literally accumulates experience in the form of points, not only would make no sense outside of a capitalist/progessivist regime but contains moments of gameplay that mirror this regime. For instance, in my 2 or 3 hours of experience of playing WoW, I mostly accomplished tedious, boring tasks that seemed to serve no other purpose other than to accumulate experience so that I could eventually start doing things that might be interesting, a feeling close to that of “bullshit jobs” described by David Graeber in a recent post on Randall Szott’s blog.

For Leaving Planet 5, we moved the setting of play from a feudal system to an anarcho-syndicalist one drawn from Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed. The plot of the gameplay had to do, more or less, with a villainous subversion of this system by a greedy and secretive scientist (if I’m remembering correctly – this is, of course, a very delayed reaction), and the players went on an adventure to locate this secret and/or this scientist. Our goal was relatively modest, to “address the lack of concern with political systems in role-playing games,” and our results were similarly modest: the players had an adventure that looked, sounded, and felt much like any other role-playing adventure – it just happened to be set in a loosely anarcho-syndicalist political system. During gameplay, the players did occasionally encounter this system, but I’m not sure that what came out of play – and perhaps this is something we should follow-up with the players about – was a direct encounter with alternate form of governance, or really any form of governance. Is setting a game within a positive (assuming one views anarcho-syndicalism as positive) political system any better than setting a game within a negative (assuming one views feudalism as negative) one if, either way, the player doesn’t notice it?

What’s worrisome, I think, is that the feeling of play is enacted within a system of oppression at least has the capacity to numb us to that oppression. Why would I be bothered by feudalism if I am used to “playing” within it? I wonder if this was the scenario that Selzer was worried about, that institutional co-option of games could mean an instrumentalization of play: play as a tool to distract from whatever institutional structure it occurs within. Play is limited by its horizons, not only in the sense that play must occur within some sort of boundary, but in the sense that play might serve to reinforce these boundaries. If Pedro Reyes makes a game where I am to do whatever the person I am looking at does – as he does, more or less, during the videopanel – I may have fun, but an institutional adoption of “do what we tell you to do! And have fun!” would be alarming, to say the least. This doesn’t mean that one should question oneself whenever one has fun, but simply that one should try to be aware of the framework within which one might be having fun and whether one approves of that framework. Insofar as the playing of any game involves the submission of oneself to some set of rules – even, I would argue, if one is cheating – I would say it is important to be aware of the framework that these rules exist in and whether or not we want to approve of this framework. In games, there is a potential to inculcate a sense of complacency within oppressive institutional structures. The “gameification” of everything should be regarded with a wary eye towards the environment in which the game situates itself. If, for instance, education is “gameified,” what is the environment in which learning occurs and what is possible within that environment? Are its limits visible?

I have a couple of ideas for future research, one that involves looking at the political boundaries within with the game Civilization V occurs, and one that involves attempting to play a “classic” computer role-playing game – Knights of the Old Republic as a dissident. I’ll be posting this research here, probably weekly.

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