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.

Money & Games blog note, #moneygames

A quick note about the Money & Games seminar, based on the first day: I was expecting the relationships between money and games to be diverse and rather complex field, and I was not disappointed by the seminar. The idea that game could be seen as a straightforward product that someone just builds, and then sells to someone else for a fixed sum of money is not how things play out – and, as the historical reviews of the seminar pointed out, is not that typical about how things have been in the past, either. For example, the entire era of game arcades was based on coin-operated games, where the economic incentive was to design for short, micropayment style transactions: every time the player failed, the was room for another coin to be spend (something that Sebastian Deterding’s ambitious “Toward Economic Platform Studies” paper and presentation was particularly emphasising). Value of games and monetary and time-based investments are intricately intertwined, and it is clear that e.g. putting a higher price tag on something can mean that pleyers are more likely to expect it to be of higher quality, or value, than a cheap game. Thus, setting the right price involves theorycrafting practice of game business economics of its own – or “valuecrafting”, like the paper presented by Mia Consalvo suggested about indie developers. Free-to-play business model and the associated monetization strategies were particularly discussed in the seminar, with several interesting case studies focusing on that, plus the more philosophically oriented paper by Olli Heimo et al. used it, plus industry advertising practices as a target of (Aristotelian) virtue ethics based criticism. There were comments expressed in the seminar that the political economy angle of the entire free-to-play sector would be something that would be valuable at this point. On the other hand, while Janne Paavilainen presented the first results from a detailed micro-ethnography in Armoured Warfare game, pointing out the multiple “dark design patterns” or manipulative tricks that tempt the free-riding player to become a paying player, Markus Montola was quick to point out that many of the analysed design choices actually sounded just like good, regular game design that is balanced and appropriately both challenges and rewards the player – and Janne agreed that Armoured Warfare is an example of good game design; free-to-play payments are just used to make an already good game to play even better. Great papers, presentations, and discussions, thanks everyone! Also, our invited commentators, Pauliina Raento and Juho Hamari, did excellent job in providing commentary and guidance, Pauliina also giving a keynote talk of her own about doing gambling studies, about the lessons she personally has learned from her history in this field, and that made the valuable point about importance of bridge building between isolated academic communities. – Link to the seminar program page:

Playful Identities: The Ludification of Digital Media Cultures

Playful Identities (cover)
Playful Identities (2015)

Long in the making, this highly interesting book on ludification of culture is finally in print and available; it includes also my chapter on the culture and identity of online casual play:

Frissen, Valerie, Sybille Lammes, Michiel de Lange, Jos de Mul, and Joost Raessens, eds. 2015. Playful Identities: The ludification of digital media cultures. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Table of Contents

1. Homo ludens 2.0: Play, media, and identity 9
Valerie Frissen, Sybille Lammes, Michiel de Lange, Jos de Mul & Joost Raessens

Part I Play
Introduction to Part I 53
Valerie Frissen, Sybille Lammes, Michiel de Lange, Jos de Mul & Joost Raessens

2. Playland: Technology, self, and cultural transformation 55
Kenneth J. Gergen

3. Spiritual play: Encountering the sacred in World of Warcraft 75
Stef Aupers

4. Playful computer interaction 93
Daniel Cermak-Sassenrath

5. Playful identity in game design and open-ended play 111
Menno Deen, Ben Schouten & Tilde Bekker

6. Breaking reality: Exploring pervasive cheating in Foursquare 131
René Glas

7. Playing with bits and bytes: The savage mind in the digital age 149
Valerie Frissen

Part II Media
Introduction to Part II 167
Valerie Frissen, Sybille Lammes, Michiel de Lange, Jos de Mul & Joost Raessens

8. Location-based mobile games: Interfaces to urban spaces 169
Adriana de Souza e Silva & Jordan Frith

9. The playful use of mobile phones and its link to social cohesion 181
Rich Ling

10. Digital cartographies as playful practices 199
Sybille Lammes

11. Ludic identities and the magic circle 211
Gordon Calleja

12. Play (for) time 225
Patrick Crogan

13. Playful identity politics: How refugee games affect the player’s identity 245
Joost Raessens

Part III Identity
Introduction to Part III 263
Valerie Frissen, Sybille Lammes, Michiel de Lange, Jos de Mul & Joost Raessens

14. Playing out identities and emotions 267
Jeroen Jansz

15. Playing with others: The identity paradoxes of the web as social network 281
Jeroen Timmermans

16. New media, play, and social identities 293
Leopoldina Fortunati

17. Playing life in the metropolis: Mobile media and identity in Jakarta 307
Michiel de Lange

18. The conflicts within the casual: The culture and identity of casual online play 321
Frans Mäyrä

19. Afterplay 337
Jos de Mul

About the authors 347
Index of Names 353
Index of Subjects 359

OASIS: Season Two

There are no rules (Kati Heljakka)
There are no rules (Kati Heljakka)

Today is the opening of Second Season in OASIS, our experimental play/library/living-room space in School of Information Sciences. There will be bubbly wine and heady ideas available in OASIS today, starting 2 pm – welcome! The invitation is here: Pictured: “There are no rules”, playful work of art by Katariina Heljakka.

Quantum Angel

kindle & butterflyThere has been much talk about science fiction turning from its themes and milieu from the outer space adventures of “classic science fiction” to the “inner spaces” of modern sci-fi — I prefer the “ontological dominant” thesis, put forward by Brian McHale: Western fiction in general has turned away from the prior epistemological themes to ontological questions, as we have moved from modern times to the (increasingly self-reflective) post-modern ones.

This summer, I have had the rare pleasure of reading few novels that I have really enjoyed. One was the Blindsight by Peter Watts — a complex novel outwardly narrating a desperate expedition to intercept an alien artefact, which actually turns into discussion about the nature of consciousness, whether we humans are actually “conscious”, and to a what degree, and whether being “conscious” is really necessarily an evolutionary benefit. Another one was The Causal Angel by Hannu Rajaniemi — the final book in the “Jean Le Flambeur” trilogy. Also here, the ontological themes dominate: what constitutes a “world”, or a “self”, how multiple both can be, and what kind of opportunities for innovation (both scientific, as well as dramatic) will those multi-realities open up.

For a game studies scholar particularly one faction, the zoku, of this far future civilization scenario are of interest. Their culture is one that appears to descend from MMORPGs and their players, and they provide a counter-force to another posthuman group, the sobornost. The name of sobornost refers back to a concept of Orthodox Christianity, the harmonious spiritual unity, and it is interesting to note that even while the mixed, polyphonic and conflicting world of Rajamäki’s trilogy carefully avoids any simple good versus evil opposition, the opposition between “orthodoxy” and “ludic mindset”, or seriousness and playfulness perhaps, emerges as one of the clear division lines in the work. There are also many amusing references to pick up (“Saint McGonigal”, “Huizinga-zoku”, etc.) for those versed in gamification and game studies. For a Finn, the Oortians, living in the cold margins of the Solar System, carry many familiar elements, even while their culture is more like some general, archaic Finno-ugrig shamanism, than the culture of Finns themselves — just the occasional Finnish word underlines the cultural connection.

The complexities of quantum entanglements, nano-scale technologies, simulated realities and multiple-copy personalities go beyond my science literacy, but it is remarkable evidence of Hannu Rajamäki’s storytelling gifts that even this very dense novel, moving at high speed, remains genuinely interesting and even emotionally touching — a true sign of lasting value. It is finally Mieli, the female, winged Oortian fighter spirit, who becomes the true main character of this final novel, and it is also she who becomes the titular “Causal Angel”, who is capable of turning the end of the world into a new beginning. This is a book series which clearly profits from multiple readings, to appreciate its multiple threads and dimensions.