Jukka Vahlo

Jukka Vahlo MA, PhD (c) is the program manager of an interdisciplinary game research network at the University of Turku, School of Economics. His research focuses on the dynamics of gameplay, first-person gameplay experiences, and player profiles. He is currently finalizing his PhD thesis at the Department of Folklore on videogame gameplay experience.

Contact information:
jukka.vahlo at utu.fi

An Enactive Account of the Autonomy of Videogame Gameplay

by Jukka Vahlo


Regardless of its significance in gaming cultures and the game industry, the concept of gameplay has remained elusive in academic research. In this paper, the phenomenon of videogame gameplay experience is analyzed from the framework of phenomenological enactivism as an account for social cognition. Enactivism is an interdisciplinary program of cognitive science that focuses on investigating the dynamics of couplings between embodied social agents and their environments. From the enactivistic stance, gameplay is argued as being the achievement of dyadic and reciprocal coupling between a player and the game. In this reciprocity, gameplay arises as autonomous organization that is both self-sustaining and precarious. Coordination and exploration are offered as constitutive principles of videogame gameplay. If either of these interactive principles is lost, then the autonomy of the gameplay is destroyed. This article also aims to showcase that the enactivistic second-person approach to gameplay may provide important new insights on the constitution of gameplay as both a subjective and social phenomenon.

Keywords: gameplay, enactivism, dynamic systems, autonomy, phenomenology, social interaction, second-person viewpoint



In this paper, the phenomenon of videogame gameplay is investigated from the theoretical stance of enactivism. Enactivism was initially coined by Varela, Thompson, and Rosch in The Embodied Mind (1991) as a program to use to understand embodied cognition. Using the enactive approach for gameplay, the focus is on investigating the embodied and material interplay between the player and the game during the actual activity of gaming.

Gameplay is a widely used vernacular term in the myriad of gaming cultures. For both game developers and players, "good gameplay" indicates that a specific game is worth playing. The importance of the popular concept of gameplay is displayed by Kirkpatrick (2012; 2013) who has shown that since the mid-1980s the concept has remained constitutive for recognizing gaming as autonomous cultural practice. Mateas and Stern (2000, p. 643) indeed maintain that "The ephemeral quality of gameplay, the experience of manipulating elements within a responsive, rule-driven world, is still the raison d'être of games".

As a research concept, however, gameplay has remained elusive and difficult to define. Some researchers doubt that a full clarification of the concept is even impossible (Kirkpatrick, 2013, p. 167; Shinkle, 2008, p. 909). Leino (2012, pp. 58-59) also argues that the elusiveness of gameplay is due to the ontological hybridity and temporality of the phenomenon: Gameplay overlaps the domains of subjective experience, activity, and technological materiality.

Most typically, gameplay is referred to as the interaction that takes place between the game and the player (see Landay, 2014). Rouse (2001, p. xviii) states that gameplay consists of the modes of interaction in the game, including how the player can navigate the gameworld and how the game reacts to the player's choices. For Adams (2014, p. 9), gameplay consists of the challenges that a game provides for the player and the player's enabled actions when overcoming these challenges.

Juul (2005, pp. 83, 88) underlines the importance of understanding gameplay as the way that a game is played instead of equating the concept with rules or game fiction: Gameplay is an interaction between game rules, the player's pursuit of the goal, and the competence of the player and his or her repertoire for play strategies. Jørgensen (2008) further writes that "[G]ameplay is... an emergent aspect of interaction between the game system and the player's strategies and problem solving processes... gameplay is how the game is played".

To date, there exists only a few full-blown attempts to define the concept of gameplay for videogame research purposes. In one such undertaking, Arsenault and Perron (2009, pp. 110-119) pointed out that gameplay should not be equated with spatial usages of the metaphor of "the magic circle" where a certain space can be argued to demarcate play activity from non-play activity. Using this view, a videogame can be described as a symbiosis between the game and the player.

This article develops an enactive understanding of videogame gameplay and proposes that defining gameplay as a theoretically solid research concept may have considerable potential for both interdisciplinary game studies and game development. It thus pursues open research questions, including conceptualizing gameplay as a form of human-technology interchange by examining the conditions in which gameplay may appear and disappear. The focus in this paper is on single-player videogame gameplay, but it will be argued that its core arguments are applicable to all forms of videogame gameplay.

The article begins by introducing the theoretical approach of enactivism and its research concepts. It then proceeds to examine how gameplay arises as self-sustainable autonomous organization from the couplings between a player and a game. This is followed by an analysis of changes in the autonomy of gameplay in three videogame experiences. Finally, I discuss how the enactive approach to gameplay can reveal new aspects of research to gameplay experience.

The Enactive Approach and Game Studies

Enactivism has been described as noncartesian, nonreductive and nonfunctionalist naturalism that focuses on researching the dynamics of coupling, that is, the mutual situational influence between an embodied agent [1] and its environment, from which meanings are understood to emerge (Di Paolo et al., 2010, p. 36; McGann et al., 2013, p. 204). It is an interdisciplinary program to cognition that draws strongly from existing theories of neuroscience, dynamical systems theory, theoretical biology, and Merleau-Ponty's and Husserl's phenomenology--which it strives to naturalize (Thompson, 2007, p. 14).

In enactivism, cognition is conceptualized as a contextual practice of enacting [2] a perspective to the world instead of capacity of being a "database" of information. Cognition is thus not an event happening inside the brain--such as a mental representation--but it is instead a relational process between an embodied agent and its environment. (Thompson, 2007, pp. 4-10; Thompson & Stapleton, 2009, p. 26; Di Paolo & De Jaegher, 2012, p. 2)

By approaching cognition from the entire brain-body-environment perspective and being-in-the-world position, enactivism takes the subject's vantage point into a careful consideration in its analyses. This positions enactivism firmly as a theoretical tradition which builds from a first-person view to cognition (Thompson, 2007). While enactivism does not differ from other contemporary cognitive sciences by emphasizing embodiment and agency, for example -- which can indeed be considered rather general notions -- its focus on first-person experience is nevertheless distinctive. Froese and Stewart (2012) specify that enactivism differs from other branches of embodied cognitive science also by emphasizing biological autonomy: "circular processes of self-production provide an organism with an intrinsic autonomy, and this autonomy plays an important explanatory role in accounting for the relational phenomenon of meaningful and intentional agency".[3]

The central concept of autonomy in enactivism derives from Maturana and Varela's (1980) theory of autopoiesis as an organizational principle for all living systems. Living systems constitute themselves as unities by establishing a boundary between themselves and their environment in actions that regenerate the conditions of their own survival (Weber & Varela, 2002, p. 117). As far as the system sustains, defines, and regenerates its constitution in its own dynamics, it has autonomy [4].

An autonomous system is argued operationally closed and precarious. Operational closure means that every constituent process in that system is conditioned by another process or processes within the same system. This self-organized network of processes brings about and maintains the identity of an individual. An autonomous system is also precarious since a given process of such a system will stop or run down if the recursive networked relationships that enable the process are absent. An autonomous system is, therefore, required to interact with the world, and these adaptive interactions have intrinsic value for its self-individuation. According to enactivism, this renders cognition inherently affective. (Cuffari et al., 2015; Stapleton & Thompson, 2009; Di Paolo & Thompson, 2014; Colombetti, 2014)

In game studies, Aarseth (2014, p. 484) writes that game ontology can refer to the formal and functional characteristics of game objects or to existential ontologies which ask what kinds of existence a game has and what games are as processes. Enactivism, which focuses on ongoing couplings between agents and their environments, offers a stance for investigating specifically the latter ontology of game, and therefore also gameplay experience.

Ermi and Mäyrä (2007) note that studies on gameplay experience have remained scarce partly due to the "disciplinary tilt" in game studies: Many game scholars have a background in academic disciplines that study the manifestations of games as objects rather than games as processes. I propose that enactivism is a relevant framework for game studies not only because it offers an analytic view on understudied ontology of games as process, but also because enactivism is an interdisciplinary program which investigates the first-person view of phenomenal consciousness.

As a framework for examining dynamics of gameplay and the gameplay experience, enactivism has relevant affinities with interaction analyses in the lineage of Erving Goffman, for example (see Deterding, 2013), and activity-theoretical as well as system theoretical approaches on gaming (see Klabbers, 2009). Although the central research concepts of enactivism -- such as autonomy, embodiment, meaning, and agency -- are used commonly in different branches of game studies, these concepts are only rarely utilized rigorously in the framework that is rooted in theoretical biology, first-person phenomenology, and cognitive neuroscience.

De Jaegher and Di Paolo (2007) have developed an understanding of social cognition that I find valuable for research into gameplay experience. Their theory is based on second-person approach to intersubjectivity [5] and the concept of participatory sense-making, which they define as "the coordination of intentional activity in interaction whereby individual sense-making processes are affected and new domains of social sense-making can be generated that were not available to each individual on her own" (p. 497). According to the authors, participatory interactions can emerge [6] as autonomous organizations in social interaction.

In the social interaction of two or more autonomous social agents, "(1) the co-regulation and the coupling mutually affect each other, constituting an autonomous self-sustaining organization in the domain of relational dynamics in which (2) the autonomy of the agents involved is not destroyed" (De Jaegher et al., 2010, pp. 442-443). In an autonomous organization, the coordination that arises when agents couple within the system facilitates its own continuation and modulates what kind of coordination is more likely to take place in its dynamics. Social interaction can affect the individuals in ways that invite them to sustain the encounter which thus comes to have a tendency of facilitating its own continuity. Di Paolo, Rohde and De Jaegher (2010, p. 78) offer social play as a prime example of autonomous organization that emerges from co-regulated social interaction because it engenders a network of activities that sustain itself.

In what follows, it will be argued that autonomous organization emerges in videogame gameplay, regardless of the number of the players above one. To rephrase this argument in relation to the theory of De Jaegher et al. (2010), I contend that an autonomous organization may emerge also in an agent-environment coupling if certain preconditions are met, and that these preconditions are indeed met in single-player videogame gameplay. More precisely, I will argue that since gameplay as an emergent phenomenon achieves temporary autonomy not unlike an engaging debate between two humans, gameplay is to be understood as an autonomous form of social participation. Gameplay has an autonomy to it, and an experience of gameplay is an experience of its ephemeral autonomy.

To be able to investigate this argument, I will next analyze the two requirements for an autonomy of interaction as defined by De Jaegher, Di Paolo, and Gallagher (2010) to emerge in relation to videogame gameplay: 1) the co-regulated coupling and 2) the need for two social agents. Let us first investigate the two systems of the player and the game and how they are coupled in the real-time coordination dynamics (Kelso, 1995) of single-player videogame gameplay.

Player-Game Coupling in the Autonomy of Gameplay

A game is a dynamic system, which can be described generally as a network of related processes that an observer conceptualizes as a single whole that changes over time (see Thompson, 2007, p. 39). What changes over time is the state of that system where future states of the system depend causally on the current state of the system (Barrett, 2011, pp. 129-130). As a dynamic system, a game is heteronomous, that is, other-governed and state-dependent. This condition can be contrasted with the autonomous, self-governed living system of the player.

Heteronomous systems have an algorithmic composition and they are made for some purpose. They cannot maintain or reproduce themselves; they need to be activated and sustained from outside. (Thompson, 2007, p. 98) The organization of a heteronomous dynamic system is defined by its input-output information flow, internal processing of the input, and the external mechanics of control (Varela, 1979; Barrett, 2011, p. 130).

A self-individuating system, such as a player, maintains itself as metastable (Tognoli & Kelso, 2014). It has tendencies and transients rather than states. Such a system is always on the move; it focuses on an attractor for a while and changes its focus once again to focus on another attractor. (Kelso, 1995, pp. 26, 140, 225, 255-257, 288) A game, on the other hand, can be described as a state-machine (Juul, 2005, p. 142). The paradigm of autonomous systems is a living cell (Thompson, 2007, p. 44) and the paradigm of a heteronomous digital game-system is a binary digit, a bit. A heteronomous system processes information, while an autonomous system is meaning-constructing (see Brier, 2013).

In enactivism, regulation is understood as intentional and value-laden activity by which a subject modulates its coupling to achieve meaningful goals for its own autonomy and individuation (see Cuffari et al., 2015). Since only autonomous agents are able to regulate their behavior, then gameplay between a player and a videogame is not co-regulated in the same fashion as the social interactions between two humans. Rather, gameplay is co-coordinated in its own reciprocal dynamics.

The player does not merely regulate the player-game coupling, however. She also regulates herself as being the player of the game by adopting playful attitude, which in the earlier literature has been coined lusory attitude [7] (Suits, 2005 [1978]). According to Mead (2015 [1934], p. 140), to adopt a player position, one has to be able to self-reflectively situate oneself as an object. "We cannot play if we are not conscious of playing" (Arsenault & Perron, 2009, p. 111). To rephrase Mead's well-known words (ibid., p. 147), a person who is playing a game is also playing a game of herself, otherwise she does not know that there is a game going on.

For the player, participating in the gameplay thus consists of regulating herself and her actions in relation to the coupling. For the game, "participating" equals coordinating its states accordingly to an external input and the rules or code. In the case of the heteronomous system of a game, that coupling can be depicted as input/ output; in the case of the autonomous system of a player, we then can speak of monitoring dynamic affordances [8] and taking effective complementary acts.

From the perspective of the player, taking complementary acts can often be conceived as requirements for a specific kind of participation and performance: the game provides normative affordances that act both as possibilities for and restrictions on the player. However, the player constantly chooses to continue to regulate the coupling. Gameplay emerges from the dynamics of this reciprocity, and it is an accomplishment of the dyadic system that requires constant overcoming by both its constituents.

The temporary autonomy and emergent identity of gameplay can sustain itself only if the autonomy of its constituents, the player, and the responsiveness of the game are also sustained. Gameplay can be described as precarious since the tendency for both the player and the game is to stop. As a phenomenon, gameplay manifests as a dynamic co-emergent (Thompson, 2007, p. 38) in which the whole "gameplay" not only emerges from its constituents, but the parts, the "player" and the "game" also arise from the whole, that is, as long as we consider game from the perspective of its ontology as process.

The whole and its constituents co-emerge and mutually give each other their own identity that lasts only as long as the coupling is reciprocal and autonomous. This reciprocity means that gameplay is both an original and an irreducible phenomenon. I call the player identity that arises in the dynamic co-emergence of gameplay player proper and the game identity game proper, since "the primary phenomenological reality of games is that of action... it is the act of doing... that imbricates the player with the game" (Galloway, 2006, p. 83).

In contrast to De Jaegher's, Di Paolo's and Gallagher's (2010) argument, I argue that the autonomy of gameplay does not require co-regulated coupling similarly than social interactions. Instead, the co-coordination between a self-regulative player and a dynamic game system suffices, because the game is designed to be responsive to the player's self-regulative and coordinative acts in ways that enable the coupling to continue. Next, I analyze the second requirement De Jaegher, Di Paolo and Gallagher (2010) offer necessary for autonomous organizations to emerge, namely, the need of two social agents. By doing so, I will argue that single-player gameplay can be understood as a form of social participation.

Social Participation in Single-Player Gameplay?

In individual forms of agency, an agent acts to achieve only her own goals without the need for co-regulating or co-coordinating the acts. These individual acts are then contrasted with social acts that involve at least two autonomous agents. Cuffari, Di Paolo, and De Jaegher (2015, p. 1101) give the act of gift-giving as an example of a social act. An act of giving is initiated by a social agent, but it requires another agent to be completed. Such an act has a double nature. It is simultaneously a change initiated by a constituent (the gift-giver) and a move in the social encounter (the act of gift-giving) between the constituents.

When the acts that a player conducts in a single-player videogame gameplay are compared to individual acts and social acts, an important tension is revealed. The acts in single-player videogame gameplay are individual acts in the sense that there is only one agent present who aims to fulfill her own desires. However, she cannot succeed by adopting an attitude to follow only her own norms. If she does, the gameplay may face a breakdown. The player has to involve the dynamic game system in her consideration. I call this choice the performative normativity of gameplay: The changes that take place in the game artifact as well as the actions taken by the player may or may not contribute to the self-sustaining autonomy of the gameplay.

In the enactive view on gameplay, lusory attitude means abandoning the demand of individual acts in our agent-environment coupling and adopting instead patterns of social acts. The player has to perform shared actions with the game system by adopting the game's "point-of-view" in her own sense-making. Just like we cannot schedule a meeting with our friend if we do not make suggestions and consider them to find a shared deliberation, we cannot progress in the game if we do not embrace our own social skills. Shared normative actions in gameplay are self-constitutive for the identity of the player proper: "action is self-constitution... what makes actions good or bad is how well they constitute you [as being the player]" (Korsgaard, 2011, p. 25).

The dynamics of co-coordination between a player and a game bear phenomenal similarities to the co-regulated couplings between two humans in social interaction. I argue that precisely these aspects of phenomenal sameness of performative normativity render the autonomy of gameplay possible also in single-player videogame gameplay. However, the game nevertheless remains invariably a heteronomous system that is unable to produce meanings in and of itself or shape the player's intentionality directly. The game belongs to the environment. But as an environment a game is distinctive since it is approachable in ways that echo the dynamic patterns of social interaction with an autonomous other.

The proposed account on videogame gameplay holds that game players are profoundly social creatures, and that all players rely on their social interaction skills in their encounters with game media. This view is supported e.g. by Reeves and Nass (2002) who observed, based on the empirical evidence of more than 35 studies, that our interactions with media share extensive similarities with our human-human interactions. "[H]uman responses to media are determined by the rules that apply to social relationships and navigating the world" (Ibid., p. 10). [9]

In the case of single-player videogame gameplay, we expect, for example, that the game we play responds to our communicative acts, that it evaluates us and praises us when we succeed, and provides us with consistent, reliable, clear and relevant information. All of these expectations are derived from the very foundations of interpersonal social interactions as argued originally by Grice (1975). As Reeves and Nass (2002, p. 27) revealed, this effect is not primarily due to advanced AI or realistic representations, but it does rely instead on our human way of perceiving media automatically as social.

De Jaegher and Di Paolo (2007) describe human-to-human social interaction as an activity in which a person must alter her actions contextually to re-encounter the other participant. Within this process, the person must encounter also herself inasmuch the other participant's sense-making modulates her own. We can now note that these dimensions exist also in the coupling between a player and a dynamic videogame system. Playing a videogame is a practice of re-encountering the other "participant", i.e., the game system. The person must also metaregulate herself and her own sense-making as she encounters in-game situations that require self-reflection (e.g., strategic planning or decisive dialogues).

The profoundly social character of the player is further illuminated by Mead (2015[1934], pp. 144-164) who discussed the differences between "play" and "game" when tracking the origins of the social self. In play, a person plays at something, such as playing at being a doctor or being a mother, in other words, by taking on a social role of the other. In a game, however, it is not enough to take on the role of the other. Instead, one has to take on the role of everyone else. For Mead, play and game represent a continuity of the social self from being able to take on the role of the other to self-reflective understanding of the organizational dynamics and structure of different roles as a unit or community, that is as the generalized other. In my reading, this view is congenial with the observations made by Klabbers (2009, pp. 3, 99-116, 120) who argues that games are social systems that are also models of other social systems.

I agree with De Jaegher, Di Paolo and Gallagher (2010) and postulate that a dynamic social process is required for autonomous organizations to emerge. I differ, however, by arguing that such an autonomy can emerge also in single-player videogame gameplay, because single-player gaming is 1) co-coordination between an autonomous player and a heteronomous game which can be argued sufficient for a temporary autonomy of interaction to emerge, and 2) because the specific kind of co-coordination enabled by a game converges gameplay phenomenally to social participation.

I argue that gameplay as a phenomenon is a form of social participation because we automatically perceive and respond to the dynamically changing game media socially. It is social participation because social interaction skills and shared actions are constantly required to make progression in the game, and for sustaining gameplay at large. Finally, it is a form of social participation because each instance of gameplay necessitates adopting the position of the social self as the player of the game [10] which renders gameplay a meta-regulative and self-reflective practice.

Next, I consider how precarious autonomy of gameplay comes forth and manages to sustain itself in the interactional domain between a game and a player -- or faces a breakdown.

Precarious Gameplay and the Practices of Coordination and Exploration

In participatory sense-making, two or more systems are coupled in dynamic interrelations of coordination and exploration. The concept of coordination comes from dynamical systems theory, which analyses it as a ubiquitous phenomenon in physical and biological systems. Coordination means "the non-accidental correlation between the behaviours of two or more systems that are in sustained coupling" (De Jaegher & Di Paolo 2007, pp. 489-491). Coordination is interactional if two or more social agents correlate their behaviours on purpose during the ongoing situation and find similarities or coherences in their relations. If the coordination between two or more social agents aims to continue the interaction, it is called functional coordination. (Di Paolo et al., 2010, pp. 62-69)

Bateson (2002 [1979], pp. 130-131) offers exploration as an example of behaviour that is both self-validating and addictive. According to him, exploration is always a success, whether the result is pleasant or unpleasant. Interestingly, Bateson connects exploration and play by stating: "The game and the creation of the game must be seen as a single phenomenon, and indeed, it is subjectively plausible to say that the sequence is really playable only so long as it retains some elements of the creative and unexpected. If the sequence is totally known, it is ritual." (Bateson, 2002 [1979], p. 128)

I argue that both processes of coordination and exploration are pivotal in gameplay. A player participates in gameplay by exploring and coordinating the contingencies between herself and the environmental other, the formal dynamic system of the game. In social interaction, these contingencies are not fully transparent but negotiated during the encounter itself (McGann & De Jaegher, 2009). In gameplay, however, the contingencies are partially predefined by the game artifact and thus only limitedly negotiable by player agency. Rather, the contingencies are enacted, discovered, and mastered by the player.

Through coordination, the player regulates her coupling with the game through processes such as synchronization, anticipation, mirroring, or imitation (see Semin & Cacioppo, 2009, p. 114) in order to achieve the accord needed for producing an effect. Exploration, however, can be interpreted as the counterpart for the rules of the game: Rules of the game restrict and enable gameplay, but exploration is the element of the player's creativity to traverse and test, bend, and even break the rules. The recursive and environmental process of exploration and coordination is adaptive. As De Jaegher and Di Paolo (2007, p. 496) state: "viewing interactions from this perspective is akin to understanding the growth of an adaptive system".

In gameplay, an adaptive player proper must be able to determine how the current events she is facing are shaping her trajectory or progression in relation to her viability within the autonomy of the gameplay. Moreover, she must have the means to regulate the conditions of this trajectory and do so appropriately. As it is argued in enactivism, adaptivity is integrated into the capability of evaluating the needs and expanding the means for both realizing and preserving one's own identity (Di Paolo, 2005, p. 445; Froese & Di Paolo, 2009).

Let us next examine how the principles of coordination and exploration may manifest in first-person experiences of videogame gameplay. This may be best illuminated by considering a few gameplay examples in which the balance between explorative and coordinative practices becomes endangered.

In Okami (Capcom, 2006) the player will eventually face a character called Mr. Orange in an event known as The Konohana Shuffle. During this event, the task of the player is to use the Celestial Brush to rejuvenate the divine cherry-blossom tree of Konohana. After a rather long cut-scene, the player has to pause the game five times at the exactly correct moment to call up a canvas, draw five circles to rejuvenate the cherry blossoms, and succeed in this task as a perfect sequence within a very limited time-frame. If she fails, then the sequence starts over and another cut-scene is initiated.

Now, when the player first encounters the event, she finds herself watching the cut-scene in which there is no coordination whatsoever, but only the story of the game to be explored. As the cut-scene ends, the player may or may not grasp what to do. I did not, and thus I missed the possibility to draw the first circle. This moment I missed was a moment of active exploration of the gameplay possibilities. Mr. Orange immediately re-appeared to announce that I had failed. After this cut-scene, which again did not include any coordination and only very limited exploration, I was prompted to try again. This time I knew what I was supposed to be doing, but nevertheless, I failed to draw a "perfect" circle.

Figure 1: The Konohana Shuffle (Okami, 2006)

The remote controller of Nintendo Wii can hardly be described as accurate, and the little circles I tried to draw failed one after the other. It took several tries of active exploration and coordination before I knew how the circles were supposed to be drawn. During this process, my frustration started to grow, as I realized that the circles did not need to be perfect. Instead, it was more important to draw the circles in a certain rhythm. Sometimes drawings that resembled more a spiral than a circle were accepted by the game. After dozens of tries and forced viewings of the cut-scene, I knew exactly how I must move my wrist to generate acceptable drawings. All of my exploration in the sequence had vanished. What was left was the mere coordination of my movements and, frankly, I now hardly felt like playing the game anymore.

When a player's character hits level 70 in Diablo III: Ultimate Evil (Blizzard, 2014), the game experience changes. Quite typically, exploring the main story at this stage is only a memory, and the player is engaged in grinding levels and, especially, in collecting endless amounts of rare loot in the procedurally generated levels. For some players, this is where the game starts. For others, its marks the end of the game.

It is up to the player to choose a difficulty level of her own liking for her constant adventures of grinding and looting. If one chooses a difficulty level lower than the current skill level of her character, then the gameplay practically has no coordination. The experience is one of mere exploration that consists of finding out whether those anticipated green and orange lights that shoot to the sky after massive killings do appear. Because if they do, you just may have found an extremely valuable weapon or amulet.

My local co-op playing ended because the experiences of many consecutive nights of playing the game started to resemble each other too much. We decided to quit playing the game since it did not seem to lead anywhere anymore. We realized that the stuff we had collected did not provide any kind of growth or adaptation for us as players of the game. There was no coordination left in the gameplay and only little to be explored, and because of this perceived lack of balance, we ceased to play the game. The experience was not necessarily boring, but it started to feel pointless. It did not make sense for us to continue.

Figure 2. Loot in Diablo III: Ultimate Evil (2014, Blizzard)

The autonomy of gameplay suffered greatly in the episode of Konohana Shuffle in Okami and also in the endless looting of Diablo III: Ultimate Evil. Both games failed to generate changes in the player-game coupling that I perceived as meaningful for my self-experience as the player. In Diablo III, I was not able to evaluate the need for my efforts anymore; in Okami I suffered from my lack of expanding the means to overcome the unfairly difficult challenge.

Finally, Dungeon Master (FTL, 1987) provides an example of the disappearance of both the dimensions of exploration and coordination in its autonomous organization. Shriekers are the second creature type that the player will encounter in this classic dungeon crawler game. Beating these shriekers does not require much effort from the player during the first encounter and even less so when the player meets them again as she descends further into the dungeons.

Figure 3. A Group of Shriekers in Dungeon Master (1987, FTL)

After running for my characters's life from the menace of magenta worms, I found myself in a room full of shriekers. The room had a closable iron door, so I was safe there from the deadly worms after I killed the shriekers. I decided to rest in the room. To my surprise, I was woken by a new group of shriekers that had respawned in the room. At the time I was a 10-year old kid, so I figured this was an excellent opportunity to gain some highly needed levels. I figured that by connecting a QuickShot II Turbo joystick to the Atari ST instead of a mouse with which Dungeon Master was supposed to be played, I could gain priest and fighter levels automatically if I put the "auto-fire" mode of the joystick on. I watched the process in action for a moment, then turned the TV set off, and went to school.

The re-encounter with shriekers did not include any coordination. It consisted of mere routine operations since there was no real need for player skills. However, when I understood that the shriekers respawned in the room according to a certain pattern, exploration also vanished. In the absence of both coordination and exploration, the autonomy of the gameplay withered, and I found myself without performativity. I was no longer a constituent in the gameplay of Dungeon Master. The game was not playable, because it appeared to me as fully known and mastered in that room.

In many games, we may find ourselves within activities that are completely known. Yet if there is no element of exploration, these activities no longer necessarily count as playing the game. Moreover, there is no coordination in those activities that we have mastered. If there is no experienced effort in adjusting oneself in relation to the gameplay events, then the experience does not strike us as full-fledged gameplay since it does not demand our attention or our effort. As an experience, it may converge to riding a bike. We become self-conscious of how we do it only during rare and unexpected occasions.

Without any coordination, the player appropriates the game for what Roger Caillois (2001 [1961], p. 9) called "playing at 'playing chess'", and what has more recently labeled toyplay (Bateman & Boon, 2006; Sicart, 2009). Correspondingly, without any exploration, she will just be trying to use the system. Furthermore, as argued by Goffman (1986 [1974], p. 358), "an individual can be overthrown as an interactant and find himself sustaining no particular role" in interaction. This "self-removal" was indeed what happened to me when playing Dungeon Master.

Goffman (1986 [1974], p. 509) has noted also that complete knowability is not a quality of proper interpersonal interactions. We can here notice again the profound social character of games: gameplay remains intriguing to us by retaining an element of uncertainty, which has been offered as a definitional quality of both gameplay (Costikyan, 2013) and social interactions (Goffman, 1986 [1974]; De Jaegher & Di Paolo, 2007, p. 504).

The absence of exploration or coordination in the gameplay experience does not equal an instant breakdown of the autonomy of gameplay. Sustained lack exploration and coordination do, however, neglect the performative normativity of gameplay. As long as the game does not provide changes that emerge for the player as novel affordances for exploration and coordination, the game artifact will deprive the self-sustaining autonomy of gameplay instead of nourishing it.

Preserving gameplay is the shared responsibility of both the game system and the player. Game mechanics (Sicart, 2009) are the tools for the player to use to fulfil this responsibility. Although all game mechanics are not triggered by player actions (Adams & Dormans, 2012), mechanics do indeed frame the possible interaction modes for the player. Only by triggering game mechanics can a player co-coordinate the gameplay reciprocally with the dynamic game system. For instance, the coordination that takes place in toyplay is not truly reciprocal. In toyplay, the player appropriates game mechanics for individual acts instead of shared social acts guided by the normativity of gameplay.

Some games emphasize coordinative practice, whereas others offer a plethora of possibilities for explorative activity (see Barr, 2007). Experiences of exploration can be enabled by an element of randomness, for example, or other elements such as a complex story, multiple endings, an extensive gameworld, role-taking, or character customization. Correspondingly, coordination can cover such tasks as solving logical or spatial problems, adjusting oneself to the rhythm of the gameplay and coordinating fine motor skills, and making tactical moves. To put it differently, coordinative practices are more immediately connected to the game's challenges than explorative practices.

The relationship between the player proper and the game proper is mutual and not unlike that found in adaptive living systems: "The changes in environment that organisms produce generate new selective pressures as an integral part of this process, and as organisms adapt, they again, simultaneously, change the nature of their environment" (Barrett, 2011, p. 78). By exploring, our repertoire of possible actions extends. By coordinating our actions successfully, our skills develop. Gameplay can thus be described as a sociocultural practice of growth in adaptation that is achieved by the intentional processes of exploration and coordination in player-game coupling.

Figure 4. Growth in adaptation in videogame gameplay consists of explorative and coordinative player practice.

In gameplay, the player evaluates the needs for her growth in adaptation and thus the needs for making in-game progress, and then explores the possibilities the game offers. She then expands her means by coordinating her couplings as they relate to the challenges she encounters. By learning how to cope with the game environment better, she gains more efficient tools for evaluating any additional needs for successful adaptation. Then she explores the environment again from her renewed vantage point (see Figure 4).

The notions of exploration and coordination in gameplay bear significant similarities with the concepts of paidia and ludus, as described by Caillois (2001 [1961]). Caillois (ibid., pp. 13, 27-28; see Deterding, 2013, p. 145; Barr, 2007) famously articulated paidia as the play of free improvisation, spontaneous self-expression and carefree gaiety whereas by ludus he referred to play as an institutionalized activity that requires effort, skill, and patience from the players.

In this article, the concepts of exploration and coordination are understood as general and focal processes that manifest in all forms of social interaction. First-person experiences of gameplay entail practices of exploration and coordination not unlike other forms of social participation, but these practices are not unique to gameplay. Thus exploration and coordination are not in enactivism reducible to "ways of playing" similarly to paidia and ludus (cf. Caillois, 2001 [1961] p. 53). Instead, they are players's regulative, interactive and constitutive practices to encounter dynamic systems -- whether these systems are humans or games -- at large.

Constitutive principles describe the ways in which an agent directs herself in a certain activity. For example, putting one foot in front of another is a constitutive principle of walking. If you are not guided by this principle, then you are not walking. (Korsgaard, 2011, pp. 28-29) I argue that both exploration and coordination are constitutive principles of playing a game. If you are not guided by the principles of exploration and coordination in gameplay, then you are not performing game player activity. [11]

Discussion: Let's Play Master and Servant

In the course of this article, we have seen that enactivism argues for an imbalance between a living beings and its environment: a living being is able to modulate its environment because it is both autonomous and adaptive. This generates interactional asymmetry between a subject and its environment. Thompson (2011, p. 121) contends that "[i]f we lose sight of this interactional asymmetry, then we lose the ability to account for the directedness proper to living beings in their sense-making". When the enactivistic stance to interactional asymmetry -- which it surely shares with many other branches of cognitive sciences -- is considered in the case of gameplay, it becomes evident that the player regulates the parameters of the player-game coupling. This view of coupling between a player and a game differs, however, from how self-sustaining gameplay has been understood in prior game studies.

Following Ihde (1990), Leino (2012, p. 59) defined computer games as a subtype of technological artifact "which makes players responsible, in an existentialist sense, for the freedom it endows them with" (Leino, 2012, p. 59). This environment he coined the gameplay condition, which he argues is an invariant in the game experience. Leino stated that the player's desire to play can be assumed as a given: "[I]t is only lucid to assume the player as someone who desires to remain a player, as someone onto whom the gameplay condition is imposed" (Leino, 2010, p. 147). This argument led Leino to revisit Aarseth's (2007) writings on the "implied player".

Aarseth (2007, p. 130) stated that by following Gadamer, "[T]his defines the player: a person subjected to a rule-based system; no longer a complete, free subject with the power to decide what to do next". From his phenomenological first-person stance, Leino then argues that players do not subject themselves to the rules of the game, but rather they find themselves as being subjected to the gameplay condition: "In the player/game relationship... the player is fulfilling the requirements set by the game... the player and the materiality of the game are not equal partners when deciding about the nature of the relationship" (Leino, 2010, pp. 272-275).

From the framework of enactivism, the asymmetry between a player and a game appears differently than in the writings by Leino or Aarseth: our environments cannot impose a condition on us which would dictate how we act. Rather, it is the autonomous agent, the player, who intends to continue the activity regardless of the resistance she may encounter. "There is always an intention to the play", as also argued by Sutton-Smith (2001 [1997], p. 198). Or as Karhulahti (2015, pp. 16, 18) observes: "[V]ideogames can never (en)force me to act in a "particular" way even if I salute their gameplay conditions by fighting resistance and maintaining my player position".

Rather than being able to shape the intentionality of the player, dictate the continuity of the gameplay or its meanings, a game generates opportunities and possibilities for actions, i.e. affordances. This demarcation designates that in first-person enactivism the player's desire to play, and hence the autonomy of gameplay, should not be understood as a given but as precarious.

Kelso (1995) showed that the dynamics of coupling are typically not fully determined by any one participant or an object of a situation: Instead, the dynamics emerge from their mutual influence (McGann et al., 2013). I argue this is also the case in the autonomy of gameplay where there exist mutually constraining characteristics between the player and the game, and the emergent yet precarious state of gameplay is based on the intrinsic dynamics of both.


Gameplay is the self-sustaining autonomy that arises in a dynamic reciprocity of between at least one autonomous agent and a responsive game artifact. In this reciprocity, the agent both regulates itself and its coupling with the responsive game artefact in processes of exploration and coordination. When the autonomy of gameplay emerges, it brings forth new identities for the player proper and the game proper.

We can consider exploration as the dimension of playful and creative experimentation within gameplay that helps us recognize new patterns and relationships. Coordination, respectively, is the dimension of adjusting oneself to these recognized patterns to achieve a beneficial change. Taken together, the processes of coordination and exploration build up experiences of progress and growth.

A game system is capable of changing its states and impacting the coupling of gameplay in ways that resemble the dynamics of social interaction between two living systems. We do not, of course, have full-blown social interactions with a game. Instead gameplay is a form of social and cultural participation that both requires social skills and incorporates patterns of social interaction in its dynamics. A dynamic game system is approachable, indeed playable, only by applying social interaction skills to the gameplay.

By analyzing videogame gameplay from an enactive stance, I aimed to showcase that the theory of participatory sense-making into social cognition dovetails well with research to the phenomenon of gameplay. As a research framework of embodied cognition and first-person experience, enactivism appears to me as a potential stance also for investigating meaning-construction and emotional gameplay experience. These are indeed intriguing subject areas for future research of applied enactivism in game studies. Finally, I wish that presenting an enactivistic take on the phenomenon of gameplay will open new dialogues on how "gameplay" should be conceptualized in interdisciplinary game studies at large.



[1] An agent, as understood in enactivism, has constitutive autonomy. It is capable of organizing and creating itself. It thus has intrinsic teleology, which is not yet found in non-living things (De Jaegher & Froese, 2009, p. 447).

[2] "Enaction" connotates the performance or carrying out of an action (Thompson 2007, 13).

[3] However, several leading researchers of cognitive sciences have criticized the enactive stance and questioned whether its ideas are "radical" or "revolutionary" after all. See Dennett (2011), for example, and his extensive critique on the rhetorical moves, i.e., "ratherings", appropriated by Thompson (2007).

[4] This view was originally suggested by Aristotle: A living thing is designed to maintain and reproduce itself. It is its own end (Korsgaard, 2011, p. 35).

[5] The second-person view states that understanding of others' minds results primarily in a participatory interaction with other agents in the environment in which those interactions take place (Schilbach et al., 2013).

[6] Emergence is a novel process that arises in the dynamics between existing processes or events (Thompson, 2007). An emergent process has its own autonomous identity and mutual constraints with those processes that enable the emergence to happen. (Di Paolo et al., 2010, pp. 36-45)

[7] Although Suits developed the argument of lusory attitude from a very different stance than enactivism, the notion of playful attitude as a requirement for gameplay is congenial also in enactivism.

[8] I agree with Chemero (2009, pp. 145, 201) by delineating that affordances are not properties of environment, but relationships between ourselves and our environments. To perceive something as an affordance requires corresponding abilities and skills in the perceiver.

[9] Although Reeves and Nass (2002) represent a clearly different field of cognitive research than enactivists, it is nevertheless notable that their findings in The Media Equation (2002) concur with the view I present here.

[10] The social aspects of single-player gaming have been earlier discussed by Stenros, Paavilainen and Mäyrä (2011), for example, who note that players of single-player games can be also argued to be conscious of the game designer and others playing the same game.

[11] Exploration and coordination as the constitutive principles of gameplay are congenial with Piaget's (1962 [1951]) theory of assimilative and accommodative practices in intelligent adaptation. However, exploration is not pure assimilation because exploration is directed to the game's challenges: exploration is subordinate to the purpose of making progress in gameplay. Similarly, coordination in gameplay is not accommodative imitation for its own sake but in relation to expanding the means to make in-game progress.



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