Jörissen, Benjamin (2009, Manuskript). Games, reflexivity, and governance


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Keynote: "Games, Reflexivity, and Governance"

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Jörissen, Benjamin (2009, Manuskript). Games, reflexivity, and governance

  1. 1. 3rd Vienna Games ConferenceFuture and Reality of Games (F.R.O.G.) 2009: On the edge ofgaming.Vienna, City Hall, 26.9.2009Keynote: “Games, reflexivity, andgovernance”Benjamin Jörissen, benjamin@joerissen.name http://joerissen.name Presentation script, not citeable! May be freely used under the following license: This presentation’s slides are to be found here: http://www.slideshare.net/joerissen/games-reflexivity-and-governanceIntroductionMy talk is itself a bit on the edge insofar it will be a kind of explorativecrossover of two questions. The first axis is that of a certain contemporarytheory of self-education through media – Medienbildung, and I want to askif ideas such as reflexivity, articulation, creativity, which are crucial to it,have to be more critically assessed with regard to subliminal, impliciteffects of power.The second axis is that of the phenomenon of digital games in relation to“self-education” (Bildung). The intended shift on the first axis – if self-education is implicitly tied to effects of power – also touches this secondquestion. The whole sums up to the question: are Bildung and powerstructurally intertwined in computer games (and if so, how)?Why, you may ask, am I looking not only for the important issue ofeducational benefits but also for a critical examination of this field, in a 1
  2. 2. situation where digital games and new media in general are still mostlycondemned by the mass media and politicians (except of course in thisbeautiful city of Vienna)? It’s because I think that, thanks to the work ofvery many practitioners and researchers, the educational relevance,benefits, and potentials have meanwhile been shown in so many ways andexamples that they have to be at least basically clear for everyone whodares to take a serious look upon this field. I personally focused for quitesome time on showing up potentials of various the realms of new media,and I have the feeling that, on this basis, it’s just logical to take a further,more differentiated step towards a constructive and theory-basededucational media critique.I’d like to start with a little story of a gaming experience I made long timeago – and I guess, many of you will have made similar experiences. It’smaybe about 12 or more years or so ago when I used to play the MicrosoftGolf Simulator Version 3. It was just a kind of state of the art golfsimulator, very primitive of course for today’s standards, but very wellplayable. I just played it times and times again and learned how to handlethose virtual golf clubs in a satisfying way. At that point, I began to explorethe areas beside the course. As you may know, in a golf simulator youusually can’t just walk around; you’re more or less bound to the placewhere your golfball lies. So the only way to move around in a golfsimulator is by hitting the ball in the direction you want to move. Luckily,the game let me do this, hitting the ball in any direction (except theappropriate) one time after the other, which was a lot of fun in itself(because it’s deviant). Of course I was curious where this world would end.When I finally reached the border, I was astonished. Unfortunately, I don’thave a screenshot of it. What I saw was a mixture of the regular landscapeon the ground and a sky and horizon that was cluttered with smearedblocks and pixels of the background graphics (some Canadian mountains)all over. I had the feeling that I saw the graphics engine at work, as if Iwould look right upon the embodied code of the game itself in a way. Andit was beautiful! (13th floor) You’d be in a place that shouldn’t be there, 2
  3. 3. wich has not been intended, which is kind of impossible. I’m a philosopher,so I immediately felt like home at this strange, intermediate place. I wasnot able to move beyond (though I would have loved to), but at least I wasstanding just right on the border of the “regular” world simulation and thisarea where the construction principles of this world had gone wild andunveiled themselves to me in form of this unpredictably changing sky. Ithas not been the last time I’ve been there, and as you see, I stillremember this experience with joy. The beautiful imperfection of thisgame world was just perfect to me.I have no statistics about this phenomenon but I strongly guess thatexperiences like this, which are sometimes called “emergent gameplay”,are not uncommon to most gamers. Where did this odd feeling of joy camefrom? Is it just I’m a fan of cluttered, smeared pixel-horizons? (not inparticular). Should I be that kind of nerd which has a metaphysicalexperience when he sees computer code itself at work? (no, not the case).Or did it have something to do with the disciplined in-game practice intrying to follow the conditions and rules in order to master the game? Afeeling of liberation, in a way? Was my initial idea of leaving the regularpaths of the game kind of subversive, did I enjoy to take over theleadership of this situation? (And, would it still be like this when I tried tobe “deviant” in GTA 3, a game where it’s pre-programmed that the worldcan be explored without focusing on the official goal?)So, this was a personal example to illustrate kind of “edge” or border mytalk tries to discuss.I’d now like to frame my point of view on digital gaming – in order not tobe unclear about my position in this field of research. As an educationalscientist, I focus on processes like socialization, learning, and education. Iworked on theoretical problems like issues of identity and subjectivationand anthropology on the one hand, media phenomena on the other hand,for example by conducting an ethnographical study about Lanparties(which is rather unknown because media researchers, as I suppose,seldom read books about social rituals). 3
  4. 4. Both fields bear of course multiple interconnections through issues likevirtual identities, virtual bodies, new forms of the social, and so on. Ofcourse, this approach implicates a rather broad view on things. Inconsequence, my focus on media phenomena is likewise a broad one. I tryto gain a view upon the various types of what I’d like to call emergentmedia, because I think that all these new transformative phenomena likethe social web, the revolution of digital photography and thetransformation of visual culture through it, the new forms of mediatedsociality in the realm of the social web, and of course digital games andvirtual worlds, form a progressively convergent media sphere and thus areequally relevant to the question in which way these media transformationaffects the way people live, work, and interact today and in the future. Putin educational terms, the question is how socialization, learning, andeducation are transforming through emergent media.My research spreads on different types of media (and eventually tries tofind theoretical and methodological interconnections between them), andpossibly this points toward something like a comparative educational viewon media. That said, depending on how you define the young field ofdigital game studies (if as a new scientific discipline in its own right orrather an interdisciplinary research field of an emergent phenomenon thatis complex, but not sharply defined at its borders), I’d not call myself a“native” to game studies but rather someone who tries to recognize,interrogate and include this field into that broad view of ongoingtransformations. The following thoughts are meant as a further, tentativestep towards this. I promise btw. to raise much more questions than I’llanswer today.1. Media “Bildung”The broad dissemination and great popularity of computer and videogames have made digital gaming an integral part of the everyday cultureof very many people. It is therefore not really astonishing that a great dealof work is dedicated to considering the possibilities of taking advantage ofthis development by adapting and applying digital games for training orinstructional purposes. The results are promising, obviously. For example, 4
  5. 5. a report of the US-council of science and public health officially confirmedin 2007 that “video games have been shown to have beneficial effects aslearning aids within the health care sector” (CSAPH, 2007, p. 3). However,while considerable attention is being paid to this instrumental approach—that means, using digital games for pedagogical purposes—the informal,self-educational relevance of digital games is equally important.Now, what is exactly meant with the concept of Bildung? If that germanterm should be uncommon to you, you may know pragmatist philosophersand educational theorists such as John Dewey or George Herbert Mead.Dewey, for example, has promoted the notion of “experience” as a meansof understanding rich processes of learning and identity development,resulting in new habits and attitudes, in new ways of seeing andinterpreting the world.Much of this pragmatist idea resembles the concept of Bildung asdeveloped in German idealist philosophy, especially in Hegel’sunderstanding of the individual as being involved in a constantly ongoingprocess of confrontation and negotiation with his socioculturalenvironment, thus developing a unique, but nonetheless culturally specificpersonality. Similarly, Wilhelm von Humboldt’s concept of Bildung is basedon an active individual. He forms his individual intellect and mind in apermanent process of encountering different cultural worlds andlanguages.The common understanding of Bildung is often reduced to something likebeing well-educated or having good general knowledge. The very core ofthe scientific concept of Bildung, as educational theorist Winfried Marotzkipointed out (Marotzki, 1990), is the idea that individuals gain and growinto cultural worlds only through social participation and the experience ofdifference, of resistance, and of otherness. This includes creative forms ofaction, such as play or the creation of artefacts, as well as theconfrontation with one’s own and foreign languages, cultural forms andmanners. Put shortly, Bildung is all about a form of experience that leadstowards a structural transformation of the individual’s world view. 5
  6. 6. Bildung in this sense involves a kind of deep, orientational knowledge thatcannot simply be acquired by learning in the sense of “adding newinformation to a stock of knowledge”. What we address as processes of“self-education” thus transcends the horizons of the common everydayworld and is bound to change the way a person makes sense of his worldas well as of himself. Far from being a plain learning process, self-education points at the reframing of former world views, thus leadingtowards a more reflexive, flexible and complex relation to the world.With regard to the extraordinary importance that attitudes such asreflexivity, the ability to recognize others and otherness, and a flexibility ofworld views and thinking, have gained in postmodern, post-traditional, andglobalized societies, it is evident that every opportunity that helps toachieve a tentative attitude towards the world must be recognized as avaluable resource and educational opportunity.Media play a major role in this respect, and even more so the new media.Bildung as a process can hardly be thought of as a purely individualmatter. It rather has to be understood as participative process placedwithin a social or even public sphere. World views have to be expressed inorder to become reflexive, and they deserve the recognition of the othersfor the same reason. “Who articulates himself”, as philosopher MatthiasJung expressed it, “interprets his qualitative experience by putting it intolanguage, into an image, into music or wherever.” (Jung 205, 126).The active participation in social or societal discussions and discoursesdemands the ability to articulate oneself, and to stage those articulationwithin public arenas. Articulation, thus understood as a quite basicanthropological term, involves the formation of experiences as well as thereflection upon them through interaction and communication with others.In this perspective, Bildung appears to be a matter of performativeprocesses, of educational cultures.As far as media in today’s world provide vast stages for articulation, forcultural social encounters, it is evident that Bildung is inevitably tied to 6
  7. 7. participatory media as realms of gaining reflexivity and orientationalknowledge in a hypercomplex world.Thus, the analysis of the structural presuppositions for such processes is acentral concern of the research field of media Bildung, which leads tovarious methods of structural analysis, depending on the type of mediaproduct or social media arena, such as films, photography, the complexnetworks of the social web, virtual worlds and, of course, digital games.Cf. Dimension Model: http://www.slideshare.net/joerissen/games-reflexivity-and-governance p. 16 (used for the following analysis)This is so to speak the core idea of a structural theory of media Bildung asit has been developed and published recently. Before I’ll go on adding asecond, more critical layer to this approach, I’d like to show an examplehow it is applied to digital games.2. Self-educational dimensions of digital games (example)Most of you will at least have heard of one of the most sold games ever,The Sims. The Sims is a game that is very open and expressive, made forbuilding and furnishing a house, styling your virtual character which ofcourse is called a Sim, making decisions concerning the wishes and goalshe utters, and last not least making friends and enemies, letting your Simmarry and have a family, and care for him until he dies of some illness orso. It’s also possible to reanimate a dead Sim in order to play on with hisghost, which is capable of the same actions as living Sims, including givingbirth to little baby ghost Sims.The Sims is a perfect example for what Johannes Fromme, well known ingerman educational game studies, calls a “playful semiotic domain” inaccordance with James Paul Gee.“New semiotic domains provoke reframing of former world views, becausethey call for new cognitive patterns of perception and interpretation.In order to assess critically the ‘educational capacities’ of a particulargame, its demands for new and different ways of acting and thinking haveto be taken into account. A ‘close reading’ of a particular game is suitablefor revealing whether the required patterns of actions, the structure of thegaming environments, the involved characters, etc. bear the necessary 7
  8. 8. potential of irritation, demands of creative action, or identification withnew, unknown roles—playfully experiencing new identities and learning totake perspectives from other in-game characters bear valuableeducational potential.” (Fromme/Jörissen/Unger 2008, 763)Put shortly, because the potentials of The Sims in this respect are prettyobvious:Knowledge: • understanding what a city basically is (as a whole; reduced complexity makes it possible): functional aspects: economy, infrastructure, cultural life and so on • Getting to know some basics about the organization of an adult’s life • Gaining knowledge about jobs and careers, prices etc.Practice: • Problems of proper communication, • ethical conflicts and interest conflict between opposing sims (e.g. money is offered for doing harm to another sim which could be your friend) • decision making in terms of becoming or not becoming deviant; experiencing paradoxical aspects of everyday life such as having to work while having to take care for a child, etc.Borders: • Ghosts at night on the cemetery; depending on your sim’s character, he will be frightened (handling anxiety) • any Sims may become seriously sick, sims die of illnesses or accidents (though they may be revived and live on as ghosts)Self: • Many possibilities for self-expression such as building and furnituring houses, styling your Sims, assigning character features, choosing life goals, making “existential” decisions • Possible to build own items and share them 8
  9. 9. 3. Bildung, power, and governanceNow for the” second layer” to the educational theory I spoke of. What wedid not refer to so far is an issue in the background of this conception ofBildung that has raised some serious questions in the (at least german)educational discourse in the recent years. When we talk about knowledgewe may immediately remember the critical role this term plays in thethought of Michel Foucault, who conceived knowledge as a majorinstrument in the social games of power and regiment. To Foucault, poweris not something that is in the hand of a few in order to dominate the rest.Instead, relations of power traverse every part of the social, even thesmallest social interactions. Power gains its effects by constituting (andbeing reproduced by) discourses and practices, which establish certainways an individual may address himself and be addressed (an issue ofidentity) or certain practices, like practices of discipline, which constitutesubjects through subordination (the subiectum can be translated as thesubordinated).Identity and subjectivity thus appear as effects of a power which is not somuch one that punishes and forbids, but one that makes certain ways ofliving possible or preferable, and which positively enables subjects to act –though in a controlled, regulated way. In this perspective, everyarticulation is an utterance within a game of power, positioning thespeaker within a certain social field in order to gain certain effects.Creativity itself appears as contaminated, because the creative subjecthas already been produced as a subject of power. It plays the same game,so to say, and tends to reproduce the effects that constituted it; notbecause someone forced it to do so, but because this is an establishedway of acting. The same goes, of course, for reflexivity, which is the coremoment of becoming a subject. Important to mention for those who do notknow Foucaults theory is that there is no outside of power, no positionfrom where it would be possible to conceive, speak or articulate anything“uncorrupted”. 9
  10. 10. What Foucault thus was searching for were strategies of resistance. Ofcourse, every “simple” act of resistance just doubles and reproduces thepower, at least if the individuals act as subjects.Now, if power is conceived as something that is widely spread, it is not asufficient concept in itself to explain effects of unequal distribution ofpower relations.There’s another important concept in this context, which Foucault called“Governmentality” (built from to govern + mentality). I surely won’t dojustice to this complex term of the later Foucault here, but it might be saidthat Governmentality is kind of a bridging concept between the fluidrelations of power and the fixed forms of the regiment, as well as betweenpower and subjectivity. If people can’t escape from their networks ofpower relations, they may at least try to govern themselves instead ofbeing dominated by a regiment, such as modern societies were toFoucault.The discussions about the concept of Bildung (in germany) have ratherlately adopted Foucaults cross-grained ideas. The outcome varies, startingwith those who judge that the idea of Bildung is too deeply contaminatedwith power issues. Educational Philosopher Norbert Ricken, for instance,concludes in his major study on the impact of Foucaults work on theconcept of Bildung that it would be rather unlikely that Bildung would everbe able to serve as a critical concept again (Ricken 2006, 347). However,other voices, like Judith Butler, show that Foucault wasn’t all thatpessimistic. The strategy she makes up basically lies in constructing, or “aradical making” of subjectivity while refusing “the historical hegemony”which embraces us (Butler 2001, 100 f.). This is not possible against thedominating power but, as a subversive strategy, by repeating it, forinstance, so that the hidden logic of power relations becomes visible (thequeer movement would be a classical example for this sort of re-appropriation).Educational Philosopher Jenny Lüders concludes likewise that, if the idea ofBildung as a critical concept under the auspices of Foucaults theory of 10
  11. 11. power would be furthermore possible, this would only be so byproductively subverting discourses of power by means of marking thedominating discourses and possibly subverting them this way (Lüders2004, 66).In both cases, the strategies of resistance consist of performativepractices aiming to make dominating discourses visible. This could beseen as a kind of performed reflection upon discourses and practices. Acertain discourse of power, once made visible, will hardly be ever thesame in that context, and what is performed will not lead to a newidentity, but rather break this form.3. Back to the gamesHow are relations of power and rule structured in the realm of digitalgames?According to the “ludologic” view of Jesper Juul, games can beconceptualized as rule-based systems with appended fictional elements.This approach raises quite some questions – concerning his concept ofrule, which does not really relate itself much to sociological andanthropological discussions, concerning the concept of fiction, whichseemingly mixes narration and the game imagery into one category,finally questions concerning the role of the interface and the body, whichobviously becomes more and more important to gaming (Wii, but alsoiPhone). Nonetheless, I think that Juul’s focus on rules contributes a lot toour understanding of digital games. Here’s his definition (Juul 2005, 36):1. Rules2. outcome3. valorization of outcome4. player effort5. player attached to outcome6. negotiable consequences of the outcome "A game is a rule-based system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where differences between outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome, the player feels emotionally attached to the outcome, and the consequences of the activity are negotiable." 11
  12. 12. Against the background of Foucaults theory of power, it is obvious thatdigital games are an especially interesting subject. The rules in digitalgames significantly differ, as I think, from traditional game rules that. Asfar as I can see, Juul does not make this difference, but it’s relatively clearto see. The official rules of the American Go Association for exampleinclude a passage for the case that one player sets two stones in a row(without waiting for his opponent to set his stone). In this case, he has toremove the second stone from the board and hand it to his opponent(which is a slight loss in points). The opponent has to recognize the faultbefore setting his stone. If he does not do so, the game goes on as usual,and the first player has gained a very significant time advantage (by nowhaving legally set two stones in a row).What happens here is that the rules of a supposedly closed systemtranscend their own realm by passing the responsibility for the followinggame state to an instance outside of the rule system (the players maynegotiate to eliminate the failure and restore the former state of thegame).I do not know a single Computer Go Game which allows a player toaccidentally or intentionally place two stones in a row. The algorithmicversion of the go rules could have been exactly implemented according tothe AGA rules. But as the computer is able to perfectly monitor the seriesof alternating draws, this special rule has been eliminated. While now thecomputer has full control, the player is de-subjectivated insofar he is nolonger responsible for his attention management in this respect. This ismaybe just a little detail, but it’s kind of striking, because GO is a verytraditional and very regulated game.So, computer games are maybe even “more” closed rule systems thannon-computer games are – which makes them a perfect structure forprocesses of subjectivation. Playing a game generally requires the gamerto subordinate himself to the rules of the game. It’s interesting to note atthis point that rules themselves have no power. Rules themselves can’t 12
  13. 13. force anyone to do anything. The source of power in non-computermultiplayer games are the gamer themselves as a group, as the GO-example shows. But the more closed a rule system is (in the sense thatthe rules are perfectly transformed into algorithms), the less may this formof power exist in that field.So, if rules don’t force the gamer, they govern him. Systems of rules aresystems of governance in this respect. Playing a digital game thus requiresthe gamer to subordinate him to the game, transferring his power to it,from every single moment of the gaming process to the next, iteratively.And this is surely as ambivalent as all power relations are, but it is notnecessarily a bad thing. Just like the subversive performative power thatButler talks about, the subordination can first be enjoyed (and maybe thisis a major source of joy in gaming) and afterwards subverted. It seems tome that what I did in my beloved Microsoft Golf Simulator 3 was just that. Iiterated that very gesture of subordination which was central to this gameand subverted its rules by doing so: Striking the ball with the club, just likeI had learned it through in-game practice – now just in a slightly differentdirection, directly led me to the edge of this game.RésuméMy question was how a concept of “Bildung”, related to digital games,would look like if the effects of power are taken into account. I’ve surelyjust strived that very complex matter here, but I think it’s at least possibleto keep this somewhat odd perspective in mind. To this, I guess it wouldbe possible to transform the heuristic, or to add this as an additional layer,focusing on issues like which discourses and practices are in which wayperformed in a game as well as how the body and the gamer himself areinvolved into the gaming process.How would The Sims be assessed with this heuristic? Probably not thatenthusiastic, as is governs to perform a certain normative scheme ofliving, and it’s quite sure to say that it employs many patterns ofhegemonic discourses. 13
  14. 14. Aditionally, it’s not unthinkable that the subordination under the rules of aappropriate game may be a realization of something like the care of theself – another Foucauldian topic of interest in relation to Bildung. 14