Tuesday, December 7, 2004

Ludic ≠ playful

Flow, Seduction and Mutual Pleasures (pdf) by Torill Mortensen

I don't remember the last time I read a paper on gaming and play that I enjoyed so much!

Mortensen takes a look at Csikzentmihalyi's theories on flow and Baudrillard's theories on seduction as they may be applied to the pleasure players derive from online gaming. Her studies of MUD culture repeatedly point at the pleasure players get from playing with other people, and as she states, "This fits awkwardly into the pattern of Csikzentmihalyi's steps towards happiness ... The flow experience ... is one of achievement, not interaction, an achievement that is rewarding in itself, not through the rewards from others."

In contrast, Baudrillard holds up seduction as opposed to production, and Mortensen argues that the quest element in gaming is only seductive when it is unresolved; in other words, to solve the quest is to be productive, not seductive. "The social aspect of MUDs ensures that the quest of playing can never really be solved. Through the interaction of other players the story keeps changing and new elements are constantly added." Continuing along these lines, Mortensen explains how some game admins choose to evolve the game-play as they go, keeping it flexible, open and mutually constituted. Not surprisingly, players who want a more ordered game universe in which they can gauge their own mastery against a set of fixed laws are frustrated by this sort of openness.

From this, Mortensen points out that players who derive their pleasure from mastery and control of the game - from being functional and productive - fit Csikzentmihalyi's theories on flow. On the other hand, players who value the social, interactive and uncertain nature of gaming fit Baudrillard's theories on seduction. And Baudrillard describes the former sort of functionalism as ludic but not playful:

"Obviously, the ludic cannot be equated with having fun. With its propensity for making connections, the ludic is more akin to detective work. More generally it connotes networks and their mode of functioning, the forms of their permeation and manipulation. The ludic encompasses all the different ways one can 'play' with networks, not in order to establish alternatives, but to discover their state of optimal functioning."

Sweet! In the attempt to reposition play as something not wasteful or frivolous, to establish it as a viable and valuable activity, theorists like Huizinga and Caillois turned play into something productive and functional - but not particularly playful or full of fun. As I've written many times before, I believe the sort of structural-fuctionalism found in Csikzentmihalyi, Huizinga and Caillois attracts folks interested in "social software" precisely because it meshes so well with traditional computer sytems thinking about networks and control. And as Mortensen explains, Csikzentmihalyi's theories on flow mesh nicely with ideas of the "self-made man" or the individual who works hard to shape her or his life. Unfortunately, this view tends to ignore external social and cultural power relations that influence quality of life.

By focussing on the ludic - by measuring the pleasure of games and play by functional and productive criteria - we miss the chaotic, voluptuous, and seductive qualities of play. As Mortensen concludes, the real dangers of gaming are not exposure to violence or social isolation, but rather in promoting a "society where delight is used to reach goals" and seduction is rendered empty and meaningless.


More papers from last month's the happening-right-now (thanks Matt!) Other Players Conference are online here. (via)


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