Hanna Wirman

Hanna Wirman is an Associate Professor and Head of ‘MSc in Games’ study programme at the IT University of Copenhagen, Denmark. She studies unconventional ways of making and playing games and has studied animal play through her design experiments for and with Bornean orangutans. Hanna serves as the President of Digital Games Research Association.
Contact information:
wirman at itu.dk

Play Redux is Solo-Play

by Hanna Wirman

“I’m torn between the desire to create and the desire to destroy.”
Lucy van Pelt

David Myers’ Play Redux: The Form of Computer Games (2010) is a book laced with concerns. One concern is grounded in the emergence of multiplayer games’ social norms which threaten the natural, universal and ‘selfish’ essence of play as a form of human, if not animal behaviour. Another related concern has to do with cultural and critical studies’ game analyses that, as the author claims, operate on the level of representation and backstory and leave out the functional meanings attributed to symbols and signs within a game system. Concomitantly, introducing the reasoning behind these concerns the book is an attempt to establish computer games as a unique aesthetic form that builds on a cross-disciplinary account on play. What Myers illustrates and exemplifies throughout the work is the unique meaning-making processes which in games cannot be studied without looking at their formal constituents. He approaches this from the point of view of cognitive science and semiotics and takes a task that he himself identifies as ‘pro-formalist’.

Halfway through the introduction, Myers informs the reader that his argument should be seen in in terms of Principia Mathematica, by focusing on its integrity and internal logic rather than on how it relies on external systems of referencing (I shall return to this later). This is analogous with how Myers himself approaches play as something that can be found within a broad cultural context regardless of the context within which it resides. He proposes a self-referential, universal form of meaning-making to be uncovered through objective means of cognitive aesthetics coordinated by biological naturalism. Such a framework should not come as a surprise to those familiar with Myers’ earlier work and particularly his book The Nature of Computer Games (2003). This review, however, comes from my personal perspective of feminist cultural studies and thus from a position which Myers himself establishes as an opposition.

The introduction proposes that the form of computer game play is powerful enough to divert our attention from the content of games. Its self-referential form, which the reader should know from the author’s previous book, entails a focus on semiotics. This self-referential form of play has a biological basis in human cognition. Such biological naturalism here aims to revitalize formalist theories in order to “assert the assumptions and consequences of a biologically derived human play that is most recognizable in its common formal properties” (p. 5). Hence Myers tasks himself to study “what properties of game designs and forms distinguish games from other, more conventional acts and objects on human creation and culture” (p. 8). What results is culturally independent ‘cognitive aesthetics’. Myers sees play as natural, unlearned behaviour rules of which “seem, at least in some significant part, performed and hardwired within human beings” (p. 30).

Chapters 1 and 2 are motivated by an idea that despite its seemingly dysfunctional and unproductive nature a kind of ‘bad play’ persists in human expression and must have a reason. Myers establishes a difference between harmful (bad) play and rule-breaking (bad) play. The latter will be a basis for a formal definition of play which is about breaking rules (as represented by the game code) in order to gain a more complete understanding of those rules and in order to access freer gameplay. A clarification is provided through a comparison to simulations. In simulations bad play turns into good play as we learn how the system works - - ‘good play’ results from learning the rules. In games, however, “rules-breaking play does not decrease” (p. 22), but is the whole point. Such play is a self-referential process as it concerns with objects from our natural, conventional environment, but attributes new values to them. In Russian Formalism this is called ‘defamiliarization’.

This is where the self-reflective, self-transformative anti-aesthetic of play, which is based upon ‘recursive contextualization’ of those rules, emerges from. Moving smoothly to the next chapter, Myers introduces the ‘anti-form’ of games. Such is founded in ‘playing with’ objects that essentially, in games, are located and meaningful in terms of their relationship with other objects. Players act upon believing in certain valuations of the rules and while so doing come to recontextualize and transform those very rules. Play hence performs an ‘anti’-form.

Anti-form embodies a reference to what it is not; it ‘re-presents representations’ (p. 33). This aesthetic is not ‘anti’ in a sense of being a negation of aesthetics. Instead it is ‘aesthetics of opposition’. The goal of the author for the remainder of the book is therefore “to attribute all functions of play--positive and negative--to a single set of formal properties. Or, in short, an anti-aesthetic, like an anti-play, is selfish: it is and is only about itself.” (p. 38). As a definition of play, Myers’ treatment introduces a universal form that is essentially a process, but definitely also a basis for a specific kind of aesthetic experience. The reason for the ‘anti’ prefix is unclear, since formalism already establishes ‘aesthetics’ in general as an anti-form.

From Chapter 3 onwards, game form is presented in relation to literature, poetry and its aesthetic form in particular. Myers begins the chapter from opposition: formalism is unfashionable, but we should acknowledge its misunderstood relevance for the study of games. He draws from Russian formalism an idea of ‘literariness’ according to which art itself is enough for its critical evaluation. Beyond intentional and affective fallacies, there is a ‘formal essence’ in games as there is in poetry. This can be achieved through close reading, by defamiliarization - or ‘ostranenie’ - which reveals the subjective but universal common aesthetic in artworks. Where formalist notions do not typically try to pinpoint the origins of such aesthetics and essence in the human brain, this is what Myers does. Myers goes as far as to claim that the resulting humanism of formalism is less vague than that of cultural and critical studies as it recognizes the aesthetic properties of human experience in the properties and mechanisms of the human alone.

Myers introduces cognitive science as a means of exploring the said formal essence. However, he notes how cognitive science has been and still is too young “to catalog properly the mechanisms of the senses that guide and influence human aesthetics” (p. 44) and that formalism failed to show the origins of these aesthetic forms (p. 47). Indeed, Myers does not even attempt to detail these mechanisms other than to suggest a vocabulary for studying what mental processes are involved in gameplay that establish game aesthetics in parallel to those of poetry.

Defamiliarization, as a basis of artistic form and thus aesthetic experience, is a process that is said to affect the raw senses of the species instead of the individual, and hence fitting for the study of the universal form of play. Specific to computer games are interactivity and immersion that the author introduces as a basis for games’ aesthetic experience. Computer games are considered to engage the human senses much more directly and immediately than literature.

Chapter 3 also includes one of the most compelling claims of the book; that computer games, through defamiliarizing conventional human experience, have the value in actually “preserving human species” as we come to revalue and revisit our notions of what remains outside play. Later in chapter 6 Myers refers to this as the ‘activating’ power of gameplay. He asserts that “an anti-aesthetic of play does not build human experience so much as it thwarts human experience and therein reveals otherwise hidden and binding processes guiding the building of human experience” (p. 85).

As Play Redux refers to and builds heavily on the author’s earlier book it is fortunate that it sufficiently describes the primary concepts drawn from it, such as ‘opposition’ and contextualization. Nevertheless, including some meta text to indicate what exactly is new in these concepts and how the author repositions them to talk about ‘recursive contextualization’ rather than the earlier separate entities ‘recursion’ and ‘contextualization’ would have been helpful.

Chapter 4 ‘Interface and Code’ reiterates and further specifies the concepts of recursion and contextualization. Compellingly, the game interface is suggested to merely facilitate access to the formal play experience; it is a ‘prelude to play.’ Game interfaces are habitualized and thus comparable to simulations as presented before. This proposes that rules and their recursive contextualization takes place within the fixed interface algorithms. But are not rules of the interface subject to the same recursive process as game rules and instead part of these rules? Does not defamiliarization take place with regard to interface as well, especially as the techniques and technologies used for gaming are also used ‘conventionally’? Is not part of the anti-aesthetic emerging from the new uses of the interface? For instance, the mere increase of difficulty in games - such as Tetris and Wii Tennis for example - forces the player to rethink their understanding of the interface. When tiles fall faster in Tetris, the player has to start paying attention to the next block display that she could have previously ignored altogether. A Wii Tennis player notices, at some point, that while the game gets harder, the sitting position is no longer suitable and learns to stand up. Various examples of learning to use an interface differently in advanced phases of gameplay, such as alternative ways of operating Street Fighter controls in skillful play or AI tricking in Starcraft through overlord swarm grouping, suggest the interface is as much part of gameplay and pleasure as game mechanics.

I have two further related criticisms to pose regarding interfaces. First, I wonder what exactly goes into these interfaces beyond hardware? Is the entire HUD (Head-up Display) part of his concept of the interface? How about character/avatar? How is the interface related to what Myers calls ‘game controls’? Second, the process of interface habituation lacks clear examples. What does habituation involve in gameplay? How long is the process? Where does it end and where does ‘expert play’ begin? As habituation is linked with the idea of immersion (= when habituation disappears from conscious awareness), a more elaborate reference to the specific theory of immersion would help understand the process.

Chapter 5 concerns itself with contemporary game studies literature and cites Grodal (habituation) and Aarseth (aporia and epiphany). This short chapter returns to bad play and discusses how such a form of play is both tied to broader bodily mechanisms and capable of covering efforts that are risky, harmful and against the rules. Here is also where the concept ‘psychophysics’ is most elaborately introduced. It is nevertheless left rather vague and without references. A quick Internet search supports it is not a concept a games scholar could be expected to possess in their theoretical repertoire. Given the transdisciplinary treatment throughout the book, such terms make the book a challenge to understand and further apply its concepts. Hence, without all relevant disciplinary competencies, I hope this book will be reviewed in other disciplinary domains such as cognitive science and anthropology, too.

In the following chapter entitled ‘Anti-Narrative’, Myers discusses the ‘fundamental incompatibility’ (p. 75) of narratives and game form. The chapter describes how literature, too, utilizes opposition, contextualization and recursion to a certain extent. Players’ bad play, however, creates continuous disruption of meanings and values. Computer game aesthetic comes identified as a player’s indefinitely incomplete knowledge of game rules and their investment in gameplay.

I find chapters 7 and 8 relevant for game designers as they describe some successful incorporation of story elements in games through apt examples based on different game genres. Chapter 7 in particular goes deeper into the role of story in games, with special attention given to backstory. The chapter presents a well-considered game critique based on the theoretical conceptualizations introduced earlier. Backstories teach, give clues, establish relationships between characters and objects, motivate, and so forth. But “the production of values and outcomes during play is neither causer nor determined by backstory” (p. 97).

The vague ending of chapter 7 leaps into an abstraction of human play as a pre-narrative act. It is not theoretically well grounded and appears detached from what preceded it in the chapter. However, this chapter is one that every good book has that engages with close-up empirical evidence and illustrates the author’s solid interest and investment in the topic under study. An uncritical definition of game ‘fanboys’ based on player community jargon and typically story-focused fandom of earlier media seems unfortunate.

Giving another example of backstory treatment, chapter 8 is named after Myers’ dearest example: the Civilization series. Here it serves as a game form that has been refined and cultivated throughout time based on player response. Its various iterations result in a ‘mature’ game for illustrating the recursive (both across different versions and during play of one such game) paradox of play. Namely, how the perceived completability, increased difficulty, recursive process, and other aspects of play create cognitive play that is based on 1) a perceived clear end state for play and 2) unwillingness to reach that end. Myers gives examples of how players are so invested in the latter they come up with their own intermediate goals to postpone the ending of play. Hence, “successful game rules do not construct play; successful game rules conform to a pre-existing set of natural-historical rules governing cognitive play” (p. 104).

Myers then goes on discuss exactly how extensive replay by expert players only can possess a full understanding of ideologies and values with real-life correspondence in games. Meanings with real-life counterparts gain new value and importance in gameplay as they become associated with instrumental value for achieving goals and proceeding in the game. For instance, expert players invent strategies that are not in accordance with the ‘real’ historical references in Civilization, but which are successful for creating fun and compelling game play experiences. Game challenges, as motivated through backstories such as believed historical facts, Myers asserts, are secondary to the cognitive practice of expert players who see the more complete context of values and meanings of the system.

Chapter 8 also involves a disciplinary backlash against cultural and critical studies. I do accept Myers’ concern that superficial readings of game content references to real-life that result in assuming straightforward changes in players’ values outside the game are insufficient. Nevertheless, expert players and players who spend less time replaying a game may end up being differently influenced by the game. Is Myers saying judging a game based on novice non-expert play is like judging a book by its first chapter? I am not sure, but if he is, the fact that less expert play can still bring lengthy pleasure should at least make us hesitate if only expert play is worth it as a cornerstone of establishing game form.

Furthermore, Myers’ example of barbarian tribe simulations in Civilization fails to solve the presented issue of ideological bias. Although barbarians appear less oppositional and more beneficial in expert replay, they are still instrumental and consumable in successful Civilization play and therefore propose a colonializing ideology that Myers attempts to disprove by proposing their positive functional value for the player. Many cultural theorists will also be ready to challenge Myers’ way to generalize cultural studies as those focused on the story and representation aspects of games. I hope, however, that my co-‘culturalists’ will not be put off by this chapter alone.

At the beginning of the following chapter on ‘Social Play’, the author acknowledges that “social play contributes to the experience of computer game play as a unique aesthetic form” (p. 119). In the remaining chapter he details aspects of solo and social play and proposes a kind of anti-social (my term), selfish play as that which best fits the form of computer games. “Individual and competitive play is core and fundamental to an understanding of human play behaviour - much more than cooperative and social play” (p. 128).

Towards the end of the book Myers introduces Twixt, a character that came to execute an elaborate breaching experiment in City of Heroes/Villains (later CoH/V). Most of us are familiar with the story of Twixt breaking social rules of the game in order to play successfully and gain an understanding of how these two layers of play can appear in contradiction in a multiplayer game. Twixt is an example of committed participant observation and a persistent attempt to play a game, even if a multiplayer, to win as efficiently as possible and, ultimately, exactly as one wishes, selfishly. Twixt adheres to the code-based rules of the game and meets harsh opposition in ignoring a player-originated etiquette. His play is successful in regard to his own accomplishments but harms other players’ pursuits. He receives hate speech, rejection and threats.

Chapters 10 and 11 encompass an elaborate exploration of player dynamics and community values, communication, hegemony and exclusion. According to Myers, social play like that in CoH/V, operates at the expense of the playing self and results in violating the anti-aesthetic of play. Twixt leaves no-one cold and is a beautiful controversial character as he invites both sympathy and hatred. Myers’ bold experiment has gained much negative attention, but remains intriguing and an efficient method for proving a point.

In CoH/V, Twixt is an expert alone. What is it worth? Does such expert play really help unravel the anti-aesthetic form of CoH/V if only one player is inclined to engage in it? Why does Myers not apply the ‘anti’ prefix to his antisocial play like he does in the anti-aesthetic and anti-form? Further, if the anti-aesthetic of play is based upon defamiliarizing the conventional human experience, why is not ‘social’ part of this? Why can we not assume that intersubjectivity is a fundamental aspect of cognitive humanness and therefore must be subject to defamiliarization too? And from another angle, why can we not ‘play bad’ as a collective? Why does it have to be solo play?

As someone interested in animal play, I would finally want to ask: who are the other species Myers often mentions? To what extent is the described anti-aesthetic limited to our species alone? Since play appears in species beyond our own, what is it that makes our play different? Myers discusses digital play, but does not state that this would be the foundation of human play as different from other mammalian, if not broader animal play. For instance, the self-referential form of play is discussed through Bateson’s meta-communicative nature of play (p. 32), which originally is an assertion of all animal play and not only human play. Myers, drawing on Huizinga and Sutton-Smith sees play as precultural and prelinguistic, yet species-specific. Is the answer in technologically mediated digital play? These are uncertainties which I hope Myers,or another invested colleague, will go on to explore.

What really makes the book an interesting read is the balanced combination of theory and versatile qualitative material. Myers moves from game critique and mechanics analysis to community insights, player story analysis, approaches within cognitive science, and, most prominently, Garfinkelian breaching experiments. These contribute to making the book an engaging read. An issue perhaps not so unusual for book-form research accounts is the question of how grounded all this is. Does the breadth of methods hold; are their epistemological standpoints compatible?

I give an example. An Amazon.com book review (http://www.amazon.com/Play-Redux-Computer-Digital-Culture/dp/0472050923) fiercely criticizes Myers for breaching professional, ethical and legal standards in using Twixt to gather material from clueless, often underage, co-players. In his defense, a comment reminds us of Myers’ disciplinary home department which should not necessitate taking into account the codes of conduct of neither sociology nor psychology. This exemplifies the risks of generous application of methods originating from areas of varying epistemological, theoretical and practical backgrounds. What is clear is that Myers does not describe these methods in great detail let alone consider the ethical aspects that they involve.

Another point to emphasize is Myers’ double footing as an avid player, an ‘expert player’ in his own words, and as an academic. When these roles are blurred, new issues emerge. Such issues, and ways to overcome them, have been broadly discussed among for instance fan studies scholars, (e.g. Jenkins, Hills). Furthermore, one is easily inclined to suggest applying at least the more general standpoints of ethnographic inquiry where participant observation is seen to necessitate considerations of power, reciprocity and reflexivity. These are topics Myers does not engage in at all. As a proper game scholar with an investment in his own play practice Myers seems to be personally concerned about how he can and will be able to actualize his game play preferences in the future. Reflections on this subjective experience is not the focus of this book, but would have been an interesting read.

Further regarding methodological treatments, then, I would keep praising the diversity but call for a more thorough introduction and epistemological, involving that of ethical, discussion. When all this is largely ignored by the author, the reader faces a significant challenge in attempting to evaluate both the empirical data and the theory that is built on it. I hasten to add, however, that the theory development and argument of the book is highly complex and based on a multitude of earlier articles, and my introductions above of the individual chapters remain general, undetailed approximations.

To conclude, it is notable how well Myers knows his games. It is a pleasure to read insights of a skilled and well-informed player. At the same time I can not help wondering what the other ways of playing these games are. As Myers himself does not recognize the value in non-expert play for founding the universal ‘game form’, could there at least be different kinds of expert play? If he argues that gameplay is that which recontextualizes the conventional human experience, is that not very subjective to begin with? Could we consider and accept the primarily autoethnographical methods used? Is Myers' experience enough to establish the anti-aesthetic of play where it excludes social relationships, interfaces and representations? I can see a lot of value in incorporating Russian formalism and the idea of defamiliarization in game studies and I am looking forward to seeing how this theory-inclusion will evolve.

Last I will return to Principia Mathematica and the formality of referencing. Early on in the book Myers suggests that his work aims for a citation style most commonly found in philosophy in which the focus is on an “extended examination of his own argument” instead of a “piecemeal” approach. He aims to present an argument “aided as appropriate but unburdened, if possible, by the sometimes overzealous ritual of citation” (p. 9). Lack of references, however, makes it difficult to identify Myers’ unique contribution. His argument could have been both better contextualized and strengthened through approppriate referencing. In this work social scientists and cultural/critical theorists serve as healthy straw men and objects of sometimes rather harsh criticism. The areas and earlier work in the same field of study, which Myers’ own argument could have benefited (and benefits) from are systematically left without references or credit. Chapters 7 and 8, meanwhile, call for comparisons with game design literature. And, if Myers claims to make a contribution to cognitive science, where are all the references to prior research in this field of study?

I cannot help drawing parallels to the way in which Twixt utilizes the existing social structure and its rules for his own benefit without openly acknowledging how it takes place at other players’ expense. An instrumental role given to all other players does not account for exactly how their social rules are created and maintained because the system simply would not work if everyone acted like Twixt does.

In sum, I propose that this book, which has high transdisciplinary ambitions, is worth reading despite the haunting feel that they forgot to list its co-author, Twixt. As an expert player and academic, Myers may be entitled to some dysfunctional and rule-breaking play.

The entire book is available to read for free at the University of Michigan Press website (http://dx.doi.org/10.3998/dcbooks.7933339.0001.001).

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