Critiques of Purity – Two Studies on Player Agency & Game Studies’ Politics

[This is cross-posted from the Centre of Excellence in Game Culture Studies’ website]

Two recent studies of Professor Frans Mäyrä, both published in the open access journal GAME, deal with a key research theme of CoE-GameCult – the cultural agency in games. The first article is titled “The Player as a Hybrid – Agency in Digital Game Cultures” and it outlines how the power relations informing the agency of players have evolved into increasingly complex and hybrid directions. The second article is titled “Game Culture Studies and the Politics of Scholarship: The Opposites and the Dialectic”. This study deals with the socio-cultural character and agency of game studies more generally, in an intellectual and disciplinary historical context, providing also a historical framing for the agenda behind the Centre of Excellence. Both articles have in common that they deal and emphasise the role of cultural and historical understanding, focusing on dialogue and interplay between elements that are often perceived as discrete or even oppositional.


Image of the two articles by professor Frans Mäyrä

The separation of player and the game is not as clear and unambiguous as everyday thought might tell us. German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer theorized already in Truth and Method, his major work published in 1960, how an individual must surrender certain freedom of agency and start following the rules outside of their volition while playing games: in a sense, the game plays the player – or, as he writes, “All playing is a being-played” (Gadamer 2004, 106). The article connects this fundamental realisation about the complexity and intertwining of game and player in game cultural agency with several other orientations in game studies; firstly, with the work of David Sudnow (1983) and Brendan Keogh (2018) analysing the micro-level power dynamics of embodied-bodily relationships of games, players and game controllers.

Secondly, in the ambiguous positionality of players’ mental and physical relation to player characters in games: like Bob Rehak (2003) has analysed, players are simultaneously “using” the cursor-like character as a tool (external to their selves, yet as extensions of their agency) while also facing ambiguous potentials for identification and imaginative immersion with the in-game characters. The situation of playing and the constitution of game cultural agency emerges as a complex and tensioned phenomenon when all these analyses are brought together. The player agency is simultaneously human and non-human, connected both with the liberating and empowering potentiality of games being used for developing players’ skills while playing subjects become engrossed in the challenge and in-game fiction – while simultaneously also being defined and delimited by both the technologies, game rules and other in-game elements that largely determine the nature of this evolving complex of agency.

This mixed and tensioned agency is theorized further in the first article within the framework of cultural-technological hybridization: connected with Haraway’s cyborg theory (1988), anti-essentialist theories of extended selves and work in Platform Studies, “The Player as a Hybrid” article concludes by connecting a cultural history of technology perspective with contemporary concerns with physical-digital playful technologies and the growing awareness of multi-layered structural power relationships that saturate the contexts where game cultural agency is constructed and critiqued today. Thus, the “Cartesian dualism” of clearly separated mind and matter, physical and virtual dimensions of players and games do not provide functional foundations for studying game cultural agency without nuanced analyses into the related anti-essentialist and hybrid dimensions of agency.

The second recently published study, “Game Culture Studies and the Politics of Scholarship” continues on this realisation that a better understanding of power analyses is needed, in order to position the project and contributions of the cultural game studies. Set within the context of special issue of GAME on “Taboos of Game Studies”, the article turns an eye towards “culture wars”, “theory wars”, “ludology-narratology debates” and asks where this confrontational dynamic is coming from, and how it is related to the cultural study of games.

Adopting a long-range intellectual history perspective, the article discusses how even in the Antiquity there were fundamental disagreements between Idealist (later “Rationalist”) and Empiricist thinkers. There are good reasons for seeing “real knowledge” both as something that is based on humans’ internal, cognitive and cultural categories of thought, as well as for finding knowledge in the opposite direction, in the external reality. As knowledge is also power, there is a long history of power struggles underlining certain key fundamental positions that have informed science, scholarship and also the emergence of contemporary game studies. The article discusses in detail the postmodern (or post-structuralist) awakening in 1960s and 1970s, dealing with the (often rather slippery) capacity of language and conceptual thought to “produce” the reality it aims to represent or unravel. The conflict between two philosophers, Jacques Derrida (1988) and John R. Searle (1997), is highlighted in order to show that there are strategically different ways “To Do Things with Words” (rephrasing here John L. Austin and his work on “speech act theory”). In the end, the article argues that both philosophers are “doing violence” against the complexity of their topic, in their drive to make their theoretical position clear (that is, non-hybrid or “pure”). Theoretical priorities and political strategies appear as inextricably intertwined in the analysis.

The clear, pure and theoretically uncompromising positions are discussed also in the context of analysing game studies’ roots in literary studies’ theorization. The “New Criticism”, a formalist movement in the first part of the 20th century is discussed in the article for clarifying how formalism in art and cultural studies emerges with strategic motivations for separating the “pure” text or work of art from experiential, historical and bodily realities of human beings – as the classic “Intentional Fallacy” and “Affective Fallacy” papers (Wimsatt & Beardsley 1946; 1949) showcase. The early game studies’ emphasis on developing formalist tools for games as the isolated subject of study appears as a logical continuation of this project. The political consequences of this became soon apparent, as some early “ludologist” positions declared irrelevance of all representational and storytelling related dimensions of games, thereby willingly ignoring the obvious displays of sexism, stereotypes and political toxicity in games and game culture more generally. While upholding “pure” and uncompromising formalist position, this phase of early game studies was revealed to be unable for providing game scholars with solid foundation, at the latest when there was an urgent need for responding to #GamerGate attacks (as initiated in 2014).

The article concludes with some self-critique and re-reading of An Introduction to Game Studies: Games in Culture textbook (Mäyrä 2008), from the politics of scholarship perspective. While having its limitations, the main emphasis of this book is on emphasising the contextual character of meaning-making, and that at least still appears as valid and valuable: we cannot erase the player, nor the power structures and conditions surrounding both the development and uses of games, while making sense of games. The focus of game studies should be on the operation of these rich interactions, including structural, representational as well as dynamic, process and performance related dimensions, discussing also critically the effects of cultural, particular and systemic contexts for the agency, meaning making and research itself. The ensuing dialectical and inclusive research agenda is then discussed with the concrete example of The Centre of Excellence in Game Culture Studies, established as a multidimensional and multi-voiced site for doing cultural game studies – and one that can hopefully help to move the scholarly attention from dramatic oppositions and war-derived metaphors into the long-standing tradition of dialogue and dialectic in game studies.


Derrida, J. (1988). Limited Inc. (G. Graff, Ed.; J. Mehlman & S. Weber, Trans.). Evanston (IL): Northwestern University Press.

Gadamer, H.-G. (2004). Truth and Method. London & New York: Continuum International.

Haraway, D. (1988). Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies, 14(3), 575–599.

Keogh, B. (2018). A Play of Bodies: How We Perceive Videogames. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Mäyrä, F. (2008). An Introduction to Game Studies: Games in Culture. London & New York: Sage Publications.

Rehak, B. (2003). Playing at Being. In Mark J. P Wolf & Bernard Perron (Eds.), The Video Game Theory Reader (pp. 103–27). New York: Routledge.

Searle, J. R. (1997). The Construction of Social Reality. New York: Free Press.

Sudnow, D. (1983). Pilgrim in the Microworld. New York: Warner Books.

Wimsatt, W. K., & Beardsley, M. C. (1946). The intentional fallacy. The Sewanee Review, 54(3), 468–488. Retrieved from JSTOR.

Wimsatt, W. K., & Beardsley, M. C. (1949). The affective fallacy. The Sewanee Review, 57(1), 31–55. Retrieved from JSTOR.

New version of “The Demon” (retrospectives, pt. 1)

Louis (Brad Pitt) destroying the Theatre of the Vampires in Interview with the Vampire
(dir. Neil Jordan). © Warner Bros., 1994.

My first book published in English was outcome of my PhD work conducted in late 1990s – The Demonic Texts and Textual Demons (Tampere University Press, 1999). As the subtitle hints (“The Demonic Tradition, the Self, and Popular Fiction”), this work was both a historically oriented inquiry into the demonic tradition across centuries, and an attempt to recast certain poststructuralist questions about textuality in terms of agency, or “Self”.

The methodological and theoretical subtext of this book was focused on politically-committed cultural studies on the one hand: I was reading texts like horror movies, classical tragedies, science fiction, The Bible, and Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses from perspectives opened up by our bodily and situated existence, suffering, and possibilities for empowerment. On the other hand, I was also interested in both participating and ‘deconstructing’ some of the theoretical contributions that the humanities – literary and art studies particularly – had made to scholarship during the 20th century. In a manner, I was turning “demonic possession” as a self-contradictory and polyphonic image of poststructuralism itself: the pursuit of overtly convoluted theoretical discourses (that both reveal and hide the actual intellectual contributions at the same time) particularly both fascinated and irritated me. The vampires, zombies and cyborgs were my tools for opening the black boxes in the charnel houses of twisted “high theory” (afflicted by a syndrome that I called ‘cognitocentrism’ – the desire to hide the desiring body and situatedness of the theorizing self from true commitment and responsibility in the actual world of people).

I have now produced a new version of this book online, as Open Access. After the recent merger of universities, the Tampere University Press (TUP) books are no longer available as physical copies, and all rights of the works have returned to the authors (see this notice). Since I also undertook considerable detective work at the time to secure the image rights (e.g. by writing to Vatican Libraries, and Warner Brothers), I have now also restored all images – or as close versions of the originals as I could find.

The illustrated, free (Creative Commons) version can be found from this address:

I hope that the new version will find a few new readers to this early work. Here are a couple of words from my Lectio Praecursoria, delivered in the doctoral defense at 29th March, 1999:

… It is my view, that the vast majority of contemporary demonic texts are created and consumed because of the anxiety evoked by such flattening and gradual loss of meaningful differences. When everything is the same, nothing really matters. Demons face us with visions which make indifference impossible.
A cultural critic should also be able to make distinctions. The ability to distinguish different audiences is important as it makes us aware how radically polyphonic people’s interpretations really can be. We may live in the same world, but we do not necessarily share the same reality. As the demonic texts strain the most sensitive of cultural division lines, they highlight and emphasise such differences. Two extreme forms of reactions appear as particularly problematic in this context: the univocal and one-dimensional rejection or denial of the demonic mode of expression, and, on the other hand, the univocal and uncritical endorsement of this area. If a critical voice has a task to do here, it is in creating dialogue, in unlocking the black-and-white positions, and in pointing out that the demonic, if properly understood, is never any single thing, but a dynamic and polyphonic field of both destructive and creative impulses.

Frans Ilkka Mäyrä (1999)

Cognitive engineering of mixed reality


iOS 11: user-adaptable control centre, with application and function shortcuts in the lock screen.
iOS 11: user-adaptable control centre, with application and function shortcuts in the lock screen.

In the 1970s and 1980s the concept ‘cognitive engineering’ was used in the industry labs to describe an approach trying to apply cognitive science lessons to the design and engineering fields. There were people like Donald A. Norman, who wanted to devise systems that are not only easy, or powerful, but most importantly pleasant and even fun to use.

One of the classical challenges of making technology suit humans, is that humans change and evolve, and differ greatly in motivations and abilities, while technological systems tend to stay put. Machines are created in a certain manner, and are mostly locked within the strict walls of material and functional specifications they are based on, and (if correctly manufactured) operate reliably within those parameters. Humans, however, are fallible and changeable, but also capable of learning.

In his 1986 article, Norman uses the example of a novice and experienced sailor, who greatly differ in their abilities to take the information from compass, and translate that into a desirable boat movement (through the use of tiller, and rudder). There have been significant advances in multiple industries in making increasingly clear and simple systems, that are easy to use by almost anyone, and this in turn has translated into increasingly ubiquitous or pervasive application of information and communication technologies in all areas of life. The televisions in our living rooms are computing systems (often equipped with apps of various kinds), our cars are filled with online-connected computers and assistive technologies, and in our pockets we carry powerful terminals into information, entertainment, and into the ebb and flows of social networks.

There is, however, also an alternative interpretation of what ‘cognitive engineering’ could be, in this dawning era of pervasive computing and mixed reality. Rather than only limited to engineering products that attempt to adapt to the innate operations, tendencies and limitations of human cognition and psychology, engineering systems that are actively used by large numbers of people also means designing and affecting the spaces, within which our cognitive and learning processes will then evolve, fit in, and adapt into. Cognitive engineering does not only mean designing and manufacturing certain kinds of machines, but it also translates into an impact that is made into the human element of this dialogical relationship.

Graeme Kirkpatrick (2013) has written about the ‘streamlined self’ of the gamer. There are social theorists who argue that living in a society based on computers and information networks produces new difficulties for people. Social, cultural, technological and economic transitions linked with the life in late modern, capitalist societies involve movements from projects to new projects, and associated necessity for constant re-training. There is necessarily no “connecting theme” in life, or even sense of personal progression. Following Boltanski and Chiapello (2005), Kirkpatrick analyses the subjective condition where life in contradiction – between exigency of adaptation and demand for authenticity – means that the rational course in this kind of systemic reality is to “focus on playing the game well today”. As Kirkpatrick writes, “Playing well means maintaining popularity levels on Facebook, or establishing new connections on LinkedIn, while being no less intensely focused on the details of the project I am currently engaged in. It is permissible to enjoy the work but necessary to appear to be enjoying it and to share this feeling with other involved parties. That is the key to success in the game.” (Kirkpatrick 2013, 25.)

One of the key theoretical trajectories of cognitive science has been focused on what has been called “distributed cognition”: our thinking is not only situated within our individual brains, but it is in complex and important ways also embodied and situated within our environments, and our artefacts, in social, cultural and technological means. Gaming is one example of an activity where people can be witnessed to construct a sense of self and its functional parameters out of resources that they are familiar with, and which they can freely exploit and explore in their everyday lives. Such technologically framed play is also increasingly common in working life, and our schools can similarly be approached as complex, designed and evolving systems that are constituted by institutions, (implicit, as well as explicit) social rules and several layers of historically sedimented technologies.

Beyond all hype of new commercial technologies related to virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality technologies of various kinds, lies the fact that we have always already lived in complex substrate of mixed realities: a mixture of ideas, values, myths and concepts of various kinds, that are intermixed and communicated within different physical and immaterial expressive forms and media. Cognitive engineering of mixed reality in this, more comprehensive sense, involves involvement in dialogical cycles of design, analysis and interpretation, where practices of adaptation and adoption of technology are also forming the shapes these technologies are realized within. Within the context of game studies, Kirkpatrick (2013, 27) formulates this as follows: “What we see here, then, is an interplay between the social imaginary of the networked society, with its distinctive limitations, and the development of gaming as a practice partly in response to those limitations. […] Ironically, gaming practices are a key driver for the development of the very situation that produces the need for recuperation.” There are multiple other areas of technology-intertwined lives where similar double bind relationships are currently surfacing: in social use of mobile media, in organisational ICT, in so-called smart homes, and smart traffic design and user culture processes. – A summary? We live in interesting times.

– Boltanski, Luc, ja Eve Chiapello (2005) The New Spirit of Capitalism. London & New York: Verso.
– Kirkpatrick, Graeme (2013) Computer Games and the Social Imaginary. Cambridge: Polity.
– Norman, Donald A. (1986) Cognitive engineering. User Centered System Design31(61).