ENG 730: Player Experience, Identification, and Identity

I feel that Roger Caillois, in some ways, offers a helpful rejoinder to some questions (or critiques) to Huizinga from last class through his focus on “games.” While Huizinga seemed more concerned with a broader concept of play, Caillois seemed to take a more more grounded approach. As Caillois says early on, “[Huizinga’s] work is not a study of games, but an inquiry into the creative quality of the play principle in the domain of culture” (4).

In particular, I thought Caillois taxonomy of games proved helpful, particularly as it further acknowledged the hybrid mixes that could take place within the terms. As he lays them out: “I am proposing a division into four main rubrics, depending upon whether, in the games under consideration, the role of competition, chance, simulation, or vertigo is dominant. I call these agon, alea, mimicry, and ilinx, respectively” (12). To this “rubric” he adds a further axis between the more open play of paidia (a tem Huizinga also takes up in tension with agôn) and the more structured ludus.

While I could see areas where one may disagree the taxonomy, it provides something to work with when looking at games beyond a vague and oddly arbitrary view of competition, sacredness, and “ordinary life,” as Huizinga sets up. I think part of this more concrete approach is Caillos’ focus on the experience of the player over a pre-set appeal to an abstracted set of ideals.

For example, agôn  describe attitudes and roles of competition, skill, contest, and trial between two players, two teams, or within a player. Ilinx presents a radically different player experience: “the pursuit of vertigo and which consist of an attempt to momentarily destroy the stability of perception and inflict a kind of voluptuous panic upon an otherwise lucid mind” (23). While agôn refers more to sport competitions or chess, ilinx refers more to thrill seeking and roller coasters.

Into these player experiences or situations, I think, one could position the frames approach by Gary Alan Fine (à la Goffmann) and the rhetorical identification approach of Brian Sutton-Smith (à la Burke). I confess that I had a certain fondness for Sutton-Smith’s approach (woo rhetoric), but I think that both speak to the expectations and narratives that inform play. Sutton-Smith draws from Burke’s identification-oriented approach to rhetoric, arguing that we bring certain assumptions or narratives into how we talk about or see play.

For example, the rhetoric of “play as progress” refers to the way that we often see some play as part of development, a view that Caillois seems to exhibit as he narrates the child’s movement from paidia to ludus. “The rhetoric of the self,”  on the other hand, refers to more solitary play, like hobbies or thrill seeking, and “play as identity” refers to more communal festivals that confirm positions and structure of power. In each case, a sort of unspoken reason for playing underscores the act. And as the reasoning changes, the play and the way we look at play changes. Our identification gives meaning to play, even if we are not aware of it.

Fine focuses the role of expectation into player experience, drawing on fantasy games. Here, what I found most interesting was the tension between the player and the character. Players know things that their characters do not and vice versa. In the technology example, my player-self may know that one could craft a cannon, while my character-self does not know what a “cannon” is.

And most interesting, he notes, “frames are not merely a shared individual schema that is triggered by the objective properties of a situation: rather, they are part of a dynamic consensus that can be bracketed, altered, or restored through the collective action of the participants” (600). In short, he is pointing at the magic circle.

I didn’t leave much room for Flux or Coup, I guess because these readings really interested me. So maybe moving toward a conclusion, I think part of what made our play of Flux interesting was that we were all learning the game at some level. This itself is an experience or attitude, a frame or rhetoric, that constitutes playing games. It is one that makes allowances for slower play or mistaken moves, and it may involve steps like “let me see your cards” then pretend that I don’t know them, highlighting a potential tension between player and character.

It also lowers the agôn element and softens the element of ludus, giving more impression that “we’re in this together,” even though we technically are not. Like the “let me see your cards” action, we may also narrate our moves in ways that clarify the rules but betray our strategy. In terms of Sutton-Smith, though, I’m not really sure if it fits his rhetorics, as it would be more a “rhetoric of structured socializing” than his rhetorics. As learners, we’re entering the magic circle as if in an estuary between game and everyday life.


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