Tuesday, February 25, 2014

You Ruined My Game

(previously published in Anthropology News)
As the brief, terrifying passion for MOOCs slowly dissipates, your university administrators may be casting around for some other technologically enhanced pedagogy.  Might I suggest gamification?  It’s not a new idea, by any means—people have been applying game-based mechanics to learning for some time, but its latest incarnation focuses on online games, from single player to collaborative, multiplayer experiences.
Of course, there’s a good deal of potential for gamification to follow on other technologically-driven changes in university teaching—ie, towards another wave of expropriation as public universities “partner” with private capital in order to undermine the autonomy of faculty.  But I believe there’s subversive potential here for anthropology.
A screenshot of Manic Digger photo courtest Pierre Rudloff and wikicommons
A screenshot of Manic Digger image courtesy Pierre Rudloff and wikicommons
I’ve been thinking a lot about games and subversion recently, mostly because my children have entered their online gaming stage of child development, and are spending inordinate amounts of time either playing Minecraft or watching other people play Minecraft on screencast videos uploaded on YouTube.
Among the innumerable screen captures with stammering, preteen voice-overs, there are other, less innocent uploads that chronicle the efforts of teams of tricksters to trap, harass and prank other players.  This “griefing” runs the gamut from facile to sadistic—and if you play in any multiplayer environment, you’ll certainly have encountered behavior like that.
And while some of this simply looks like cyber bullying, I have begun to think of it in terms of anthropological approaches to gamification.  The true subversion of griefing is not that various pranksters refuse to play by the consensual rules of a multiplayer environment (although there are many, ham-fisted examples of this), it’s that the victims of their pranks believe that they’re playing one game, when in reality they’re part of other gaming logics of which they know nothing.  The humor (if it is that) lies in the victim’s realization that the game they thought they were playing is no longer possible and has been overturned
One of Gregory Bateson’s most interesting contributions was his theory of the “double bind,” the logical and discursive forms that trap victims in a vicious feedback loop where their behavior is castigated no matter what they do.  He initially theorized that double binds would precipitate schizophrenia, but later in his career began to explore the potential of double binds to stimulate creativity.  In particular, in Bateson’s theory of learning, “learning how to learn” (what Bateson later calls “Learning II”) can settle into a self-affirming cycle where positive or negative stimuli both serve to bolster a particular representation of the world.  The only way out of this would be to undermine the contexts of that understanding themselves—to move beyond rewarding or punishing behaviors and actions to calling into question not only what we might mean by reward or punish but the entire system of thinking upon which that logic rests.
In an anthropological approach to gamification, what might we be trying to subvert?  There are several: that play is competitive, composed of winners and losers,  that the environment around us needs to be exploited for personal gain, that winning and losing can be quantified as points.  Games that people play reinforce (and reinforce again) dominant understandings of people and the world, not only in terms of the politics of representation (e.g., depictions of gender in games), but at much deeper levels of game play.
For the last twenty years, people have been developing a whole species of pedagogical games (or serious games) that seek to unmask these dominant assumptions, and by confronting players with a double bind precipitate a critical understanding of the world.   For example, “Spent” (developed by an ad agency for the Urban Ministries of Durham) challenges players to survive economic hardship.  But there are no winners, really; even if you win, you end up with a couple of dollars left over at the end of the month and the challenge to survive begins again.  The message: if you are un- or underemployed and lack a place to live, you simply do not have the ability in contemporary society to pull yourself up.
Serious games like this can have a laudable impact on understanding, but anthropology, perhaps, can push critique even further, past the subversion of the game to undermining what we even mean by a game.  Something very much like the Situationist dérive, with its deliberate subversion of walking and living in the city by acts of randomness and deliberate refusal.   The idea that you might be walking in Paris following the dictates of social class and capitalist accumulation while the people walking alongside you follow the improbable logic of the dérive is profoundly unsettling and defamiliarizing.  That is, the game you thought you were in turns out to be a different game altogether.  Even various guerilla performances (like the No Pants Subway Ride) still fall short of questioning the city as primarily a growth machine.
Anthropology has long defined itself along a vector of cultural critique, although this has meant various things at various times, from a mild cultural relativism to a more piercing unmasking of the exploitation at the heart of processes of globalization.  With gamification, anthropology has an additional opportunity: to ruin someone’s game.