The Tyranny of Emergence: Modernity’s Romance of the Game

Games, Governance, Institutions, Philosophy, Politics, Social Theory

[Cross-posted to Terra Nova.]

This is a dusty space by now, but after some tumultuous times that got me out of the habit of putting my working papers up on ssrn and pointing to them here and at Terra Nova, I do have a piece that I wanted to share (I’ll be cross-posting to TN, as I do with all game-related stuff).

Last year I had the opportunity to give the keynote address in February at the Ray Browne Conference on Popular Culture at Bowling Green State University, as well as to participate in a symposium in April convened by the Potomac Center for the Study of Modernity on Modernity and Chance. Both venues seemed apt arenas for developing some ideas about game as a cultural form, one that we could place alongside ritual and bureaucracy in our understanding of institutions and the techniques for control at their disposal. The core question I’m asking is: What might we learn by examining the increasing use of games by modern institutions in the digital age through seeing it as analogous to their longstanding and effective use of rituals and bureaucracy?

These are not new ideas in my work, but I had long planned to set down my ideas about these cultural forms and their relationships to each other and to changing technology, in one place, mostly for my own satisfaction (for that reason, too, I am sure that many of the examples will strike readers of my work as familiar ones for my thinking).

The paper is still in a working state, without citations and still set up for oral presentation (and includes many of the images from these occasions – I do not plan on including them for final publication). You should be able to download the paper here. Here is the abstract:

The projects of governance at the heart of state and other institutional control under the context of modernity have been marked by a heavy reliance on two cultural forms, ritual and bureaucracy, each of which organizes action and meaning through distinctive invocations of order. The steady rise of liberal thought and practice, particularly in the economic realm (following, if partially, Adam Smith) has gradually challenged the efficacy of these cultural forms, with open-ended systems (more or less contrived – from elections to the “free” market) exerting more and more influence both on policy and in other areas of cultural production. It is in this context that games are becoming the potent site for new kinds of institutional projects today, whether in Google’s use for some time of its Image Labeler Game to bring text searchability to its image collection, or in the University of Washington’s successful deployment of the game Fold-It to find promising “folds” of proteins for research on anti-retroviral vaccines.

But even as they are so used, we can see how these contrived, open-ended mechanisms create new challenges to the structure of the very modern institutions which would seek to domesticate and deploy them. While a longstanding example would be Hitler’s unsuccessful use of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games’ results as part of his project of political legitimization, digital networking technology is making new and more complex gambits of this sort possible today. Linden Lab, makers of the virtual world Second Life, found itself in a state of organizational contradiction as it sought to architect, from the top-down, a game-like space premised (and sold) on a playful ideal of user freedom and control. Google’s recent and reluctant turn to curators for certain search terms also reflects the limits of their previous attempts to continually refine their algorithms so as to let search results reflect perfectly the aggregate actions of web users. In all of these cases we see that a turn toward open-ended, game-derived mechanisms (which often mirror the market) generate paradoxes for those who sought to leverage the potency of games for generating meaningful outcomes.

In this process digital technology has played an important role as well, making the use of games possible at a scale vast in both scope and complexity, while subtly changing even what a useful conception of games would be that could account for the game-like elements now proliferating in much of our increasingly digital lives. From this twenty-first century vantage point, what may we learn by setting the cultural form of game against these other cultural forms, with attention to their shared and distinctive features? By considering what has changed to make the domestication (as it were) of games possible, and also reflecting on how these other forms have been put to work by institutions, we can begin to chart the landscape ahead for games and institutions under the context of modernity and ask key questions about what issues of policy and ethics it raises.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. ron meiners  •  May 21, 2014 @12:52 pm

    Hi Thomas!

    Great stuff as always, and apologies for having been radio silent for so long, I’ve missed your keen thought. But, been a dad and all…

    Two thoughts occur on reading this – very intriguing and far-reaching stuff, welcome to the new world order, as it were. One thought is that the mechanics of navigating the potential, the conflicts, and the resolution fall into the same heinous stew of motivations and influences that are human social decision making in general – who said what when, what the implications are, what cultural forces are in play at any given time, what their antecedents and adherents are, etc. It’s all personality and conflict, who came up with a great idea and how did they sell it, and how was a potential change in the institution received? Even though we’ve a new sphere of application of our time-tested and unwieldy social decision-making process, we’re still likely to use that same process… we don’t know anything else.

    Though too it occurs to me that the sphere you’re talking about is interesting in the sense of the application of what is seen as a “pure” activity – the game – as a dedicated functional resource. No worries with the notion that game is experiment, closely tied to our real world lives, or something like that, but as such its application is purely personal (or social) in that the benefits are all educational. I learn, therefore I game. But thinking of that process as dedicated to some external outcome is new, isn’t it? It’s rather counter to the core of the experience, in a certain way, but too an intriguing concept? Not from the “gee look at all the productivity we can achieve, or problems we can solve” but from the standpoint of integrating personal and social experience in a flawless way that hasn’t been possible before.
    And to get really way out there, that smells to me like a possible answer to the issue you initially raised: how do we integrate this stuff in a socially meaningful and successful way?
    OR maybe that’s where you were already headed! :) Anyway, thanks for this, fascinating work!

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