The Malaby article points to fundamental differences in philosophy which affect all branches of the academy including game studies. Malaby strives to prepare us “to recognize a better model for thinking about play, one that draws ultimately on the pragmatist philosophers’ portrayal of the world as irreducibly contingent” however this aim may be overlooking some of the individual nuances (i.e. of purpose and/or gratification) found in play and games. To claim that the world is irreducibly contingent is similar to claiming that all phenomenon in the world are bound by laws which lead to universal truths that are contingent upon things which can be divided into smaller truths. However these “smaller truths” cannot be divided infinitum. In the pragmatist philosopher’s view there are contingencies which group truths together. Malaby wants us to think about ways that play can be categorized and, by extension, easily studied.

I would argue that these pragmatist philosophers are also likely to be logical positivists being philosophically more interested in general data sets than individual differences. The opposing philosophical force would be interpretive researchers who prefer to holistically examine specific phenomena within a larger population. As a loose popular culture example, positivists are more like Mulder from X-files believing the truth is out there. Whereas, interpretive researchers could be compared to Scully who insisted on examining each phenomenon for its own merit and in its natural environment or context.

The view of the individual is different for each philosophy as well. Positivists view an individual as similar to all other human beings and look to categorize general behaviors and beliefs of the population as a whole. This is a problem for interpretive researchers who believe that humans are fundamentally different and cannot be pigeonholed or stereotyped. These researchers look at single phenomena and come up with theories to explain them. Positivists take a different tact and test theories to empirically support or discount them by comparing them to other parts of the shared reality. They define the accepted reality first and test against it.

So why does all this matter? In Malaby’s examination of play, the accepted reality of play was broken into branches. The reality of play that materially contributes to the grounded world and the reality of play that is representational. The mere attempt to break play into two branches is drawing a epistemological line in the sand.  Although parsimony is a primary goal of any research, saying something as simply as possible can force “truths” and stereotypes where none may exist. Or, more importantly perhaps, these larger truths may not account for the phenomenon which is outside of those truths – the rogues and non-conformists among us can relate.  Compared with the readings from last week which called for researchers to consider individual differences and contexts, the epistemology of this week’s readings seem to lean in the opposite direction by calling for a more pragmatic and essentially quantifiable definition of play.

Each of the philosophies comes with its own set of advantages and disadvantages. It is up to the researcher to balance these with the known reality of studying the topic of interest. In the case of play, Malaby is interested in classifying play for a better understanding and more serious study of the field especially considering the lack of attention it was receiving. His aims are good but I am not yet convinced (personally) that there are truths out there to be found…only individual differences and realities.

The discussion around awareness in Fine’s Frames and Games chapter reminds me of this infographic.


  • Malaby, T. M. (2009). Anthropology and Play: The Contours of Playful Experience. New Literary History40(1), 205-218.
  • Fine, G. A. (2006). Frames and Games. In K. Salen & E. Zimmerman (Eds.), The game design reader: A rules of play Anthology (pp. 578-601). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Nardi, B. A. (2010). Chapter 4 “Play as Aesthetic Experience.” My life as a night elf priest: An anthropological account of World of Warcraft. Ann Arbor, MI: Univ of Michigan Press.