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.

On The FenceThe ludology vs. narratology debate is white hot. Hot with anger and attitude. Hot with pretentious academics (present company excluded of course) wrestling over the validity and value of their established or burgeoning field’s right to study games. Both sides make sense in the context of their field and knowledge. Both sides have strong reasons why theirs is the better way to examine games and, yet, neither side appears ready to believe that they could be equally important.

Ludology – The focus of game studies should be the rules. Games are to be understood on their own terms. 
Aarseth (2004) argues that games have three aspects: “rules, a material/semiotic system (gameworld) and gameplay.”  A narrative is just an (unnecessary) overlay for these three aspects. In Aarseth’s view, games should be studied on their own terms and in their own rule set despite any narratives. Aarseth believes that the “value system of a game is strictly internal, determined unambivalently by the rules.” That is the ethics of a game are based on the code from which it was created and should only be studied for their manifest expressions.

To Aarseth a game like Doom has no need for a latent moral dilemma via narrative because “in doom, there is no moral dilemma resulting from the killing of probably innocent monsters.” In this way the killing of monsters is an understood aspect of gameplay. This rule is coded into the game, if not required for gameplay. However one could argue that there may be moral obscurity within some gameworlds which may or may not be accounted for in the rules.

The first example that comes to mind is the player’s possible moral dilemma of “harvesting” little girls in BioShock. The game presents the player with the option of “harvesting” the “little sister”, a morally bad decision, and gaining an immediate reward vs. “rescuing” the “little sister”, a morally good decision, and reaping the benefits of a reward in the long run. The possibility of being neutral is only available if one harvests and rescues little sister non-player characters in equal amounts. Thus the player has only three choices. The rules within the gameplay do not allow for shades of grey and perhaps that is part of the reason why ludologists dislike the idea of narrative leading the way.

At their core, games are their rules. Specifically video games are 1s and 0s, yes and no, black and white codes– but that may not always be the case going forward. Given the speed of technology in the past 20 years, one has to begin to wonder what happens when there is an infinite decision system for morality built into games. Although current triple A games can be morally dichotomous (i.e. you can be good or you can be evil) a future where game development budgets are expanded to allow for a larger decision pool may not be that far away. We’ll talk a little more about the financial robustness of the game industry in a moment but first let’s take a look at another game example where the morality and rules are not explicitly programmed?

Each game in the Grand Theft Auto series is a set of rules which the developer created to structure the gameworld and gameplay. Although these rules establish the value system of the game, a user can still implement their own rules into the gameworld thus causing ambivalence to the developer’s rules (or lack of).  For example, I am notorious for stopping at red lights in GTA. This is a self-imposed rule. A rule that is at odds with the base-level presumption of the game – kill, damage things and ignore the civility. It a rule part and parcel to the moral dilemma I face when interacting with the GTA gameworld. The rules of the game allow a player to stop at red lights so it is well within the game’s programmed rules but is not an explicit (read: coded) part of those rules.

It is also understood that the characters are not sentient but it should not be taken for granted that we do not have the capacity to feel for them. In a 2009 study, Mast assessed children’s experiences with artificial companions and found that “children saw Furby more as a real animal than a plush animal.” If our capacity for empathy toward pseduo-sentient non-human furry toys is possible then why not the soon-to-be photo realistic video game characters as well?

Game Sales Through 2008

© 2010 Hudson Square Research, Inc.

Scholarly Criticism
All of the authors are guilty of making assumptions which appear to have no scientific evidence for support. Although I am willing to assume that the information is correct, it is difficult to determine what is conjecture and what is hard science. For example, Aarseth claims that “Culturally, especially in ‘high culture,’ stories dominate still, but are currently losing ground to the new simulation-based discourse types, e.g., in the entertainment market, where movies are being outsold by computer games.” This would be easy enough to prove with evidence but Aarseth gives none. Aarseth had this article published 2004 at a time when the video game industry was bringing in less money than the movie industry. But in 2008 that all changed (see graph above) and in 2009 the game industry hit another milestone – outselling DVD and Blue-ray globally (Sliwinski 2009).

Narratology – Games are novel forms of narrative and narrative theory should be used to study games (Murray)
Murray (2004) makes some great points regarding the need to study the narratives which are interweaved in gameplay but I am not familiar with the scholarly study of narrative (beyond these call and response essays) and would really like to hear the commentary from the class. Unlike Aarseth, Murray appears to be open to studying the rules of the game but only secondary to the narrative.

On-The-Fence…It’s both! (Harpold)
Harpold (2007) sits on the fence regarding this debate. Specifically, Harpold claims that perhaps it is the intersection of narrative and gameplay which should be studied. This incorporates both view points and brings forward a third option. I am more inclined to agree with Harpold if only because it moves us away from this haughty debate and into some neutral grounds.  Harpold allows for a grey area to this debate – not too conservative (ludology) and not too liberal (narratology) but just right smack in the middle.

And the winner is…
In the end games should surely be studied and respected on their own terms. Scholars should investigate games for the core, novel and interesting ways they present their rule sets and maneuver the intersection between the rules, the gameworld and gameplay. But scholarly study should not stop there. If we ignore the obvious narratives which are also created in games then we are only looking at half (or a quarter) of what games have to offer society. If my choices are ludology or narratology then I’m with Harpold and I choose both.

Discussion Question: What about games (interactive narratives?) like “The Lost Experience” (extended from the Lost television series) where finding narrative easter eggs and discovering untold character development through online sleuthing is the game? The rules are not obvious and the line between reality and fantasy becomes blurred (e.g. A “Hanso” site appeared to be real all the way to the WhoIs lookup). This is not a game that is programmed. Players can continue to seek (and probably find) more information but there are no rules on where to find that information or what you might find when you get there.


  1. Aarseth, E. (2004). Genre trouble: Narrativism and the art of simulationFirst Person New Media as Story Performance and Game, 45-55.
  2. Murray, J. (2004). From game-story to cyberdrama. First person: New media as story, performance, and game, 2-11.
  3. Harpold, T. (2007). Screw the Grue: Mediality, Metalepsis, Recapture.Game Studies7(1). Retrieved from
  4. Hudson Square Research. (2010). Plugging into the video game market: Trends, challenges and opportunities in the interactive entertainment market. Last retrieved from on February 15, 2012.
  5. Mast, D. (2009). Doe kaa wee-naa oe-nai boo: Assessing children’s experiences with active and passive artificial companions. Proceedings from the 13th Computer-Human Interaction Netherlands Conference. Leiden, Netherlands. Last retrieved from on February 15, 2012.
  6. Sliwinski, A. (2009, January 26). Games outsell DVD, Blue-ray at retail globally. Joystiq. Last retrieved from on February 15, 2012.

Not mentioned: Jenkins, H. (2006). Game Design as Narrative Architecture. In K. Salen & E. Zimmerman (Eds.), The game design reader: A rules of play Anthology (pp. 642-670). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Short Game Assignment 1: Analyze a board game that is over 1 hour in length and allows for 2+ players. Use the class readings for support and guidance.


BeezerWizzer Game Session

The game used for this analysis is BeezerWizzer (Mattel – $28.99). The game night included two couples and a last minute fifth player all of which had never played the game prior to that night. The social ties between players added an interesting layer to the play. During the game both of the couples used their personal affiliation to influence their partner’s decision on whether or not to make a strategic move against them (ie – “You shouldn’t switch my categories because you are going home with me…). The group sat in as much of a circle as we could create with a rectangular coffee table but it is interesting to note the literal circle formed for our own “magic circle” (Huizinga, 2006) of play.

Round One – Cooperate!
In considering the play and game aspects of the evening, the first time through Beezerwizzer was much more play than game. Much of the first round was spent examining and re-examining the game rules. Tuckman’s (1965) “forming, storming, norming and peforming” occurred as the group dynamics began to develop around the discussion of the game rules. Where rules were unavailable or unclear (eg – Can you zwap after someone puts down a beezerwizzer? Can you zwap your own tiles?) the group brainstormed and came to a consensus which essentially created house rules.

Round 2 – Fight!
Once the rules were established and understood, more strategic and less cooperative play developed. At this point everyone had taken ownership of their play, were comfortable with the rules and were now motivated to win.  There was a sharp change in the social atmosphere of the game the second time around as well. The group dialogue was lively when the group was discovering the rules but quickly dissipated once the rules were set and the “serious” game began. This is what Tuckman would have called the “performing stage” and it was during this time when “higher-risk trust activities and values exercises” (Thompson 2010) were explored. During this second round, when trust was at it highest, one player decided to try a deceptive and tactical move by pretending not to know the answer to the question. In response, another player tried to “steal” the question by providing another possible answer. As a result, the first player (who knew the answer from the start) received full points for the question and the challenging player was forced to move back 1 space due to an incorrect answer. Interestingly, the player who challenged felt slighted after the game which may or may not be attributed to the loss in trust which resulted from the tactical move the first player made. Although there was a “magic circle” of play for the game that night it would appear that this “magic circle” may have a longer half-life than just the space and time in which the game was played.

BeezerWizzer Game Board

BeezerWizzer Game Board with category and action tiles

Gameplay explained: Beezerwizzer is a trivia game wrapped in a strategy game surrounded by a game of chance. The team (or individual) that makes it around the board first is the winner. Each team chooses four six category tiles from a bag at the beginning of the game which correspond to categories of trivia questions they may be asked. Each category tile is placed on a board below the point value that the team anticipates they could earn if they got the question correct. Ostensibly, the more knowledgeable you are in category, the more points you would give that category. Each team also has two “BeezerWizzer” tiles and one “Zwap” tile. The BeezerWizzer tiles are used to “steal” a question from another team by answering the question correctly when/if the other team cannot. If an attempt to “steal” a question is made and the thief gets the question incorrect as well then the would-be thief’s piece is moved back one space. The Zwap tiles are used to swap any two available tiles; including two of your own or those of two other players. The BeezerWizzer and Zwap tiles add an element of strategy to a genre of games (ie – trivia) which usually do not entertain strategic gameplay. Using these “Beezerwizzer” and “Zwap” tiles makes it possible for the other team to steal your top category especially if they consider it a strategic advantage to do so. The game is designed to go through at least two rounds in order to traverse the entire board and these Beezerwizzer and Zwap tiles are recharged every round. This means that there are at least four chances to “steal” a category and two chances to swap categories each time you play the game. The points collected allow you to move your piece around the board and the first team (individual) to the last square wins. 

On a side note:
The choice of game was originally limited to the assignment criteria and a price point at or under $10. However, this price point was adjusted to allow for an actual choice of games. It was disheartening to find only a handful of games for under $10 at Target. It was no great surprise to find a few more than that at Walmart. In both stores, “cheap games” for under $10 were either table games (ie – checkers, chess, mancala), card games (ie – Uno, traditional deck, Go Fish) or low budget games (ie – Don’t Break the Ice, Memory, Yahtzee). Award-winning games were the highest priced with some coming in at over $45. As developers continue to create cheaper mobile versions of these games for smart phones, tablets and e-readers one begins to wonder about the future of the physical board game market. If one can purchase a mobile, electronic version of Catan for $3.99, why would you spend $41.99 for a bulky off-line version?


  • Huizinga, J. (2006). Nature and Significance of Play as a Cultural Phenomenon. In K. Salen & E. Zimmerman (Eds.), The game design reader: A rules of play Anthology (pp. 96-120). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Thompson, P. (2010). Play and Positive Group Dynamics. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 19(3), 53-58. Last retrieved on February 1, 2012 from
  • Tuckman, B. (1965). Developmental sequence in small groups. Psychological Bulletin, 63(6), 384-399.

Both Callois and Huizinga (Salen & Zimmerman 2006) argue that play has rules. I am skeptical regarding the evidence provided for this characteristic as most of it is based in esoteric thought instead of scientific fact. I would contend that play may not (necessarily) have rules and that this is what distinguishes it from games. A game has the characteristics of having rules but play can be free form enough to not need them. Play is the chaos and anarchy to the order and meaning of games. There are no distinct rules that animals pass out prior to romping. They just play. Play can be spontaneous and freeing. It can involve rules (however loosely or strictly defined) but then it becomes a game as well as play. A game always has elements of play but play does not necessarily always have elements of a game.

Callois recognized that “man merely adds refinement and precision by devising rules” (Salen and Zimmerman 2006, pg. 132).

Logically, man must be adding these rules to something which does not have rules and I am proposing that the something which man adds rules to is play and those rules, in turn, create a game.

I start to see a possible break in the sky when reading Vygotsky’s 1933 (Gray 2008) view of the paradox of play being spontaneous and yet ruled. In this case, the most salient point is that the unspoken rule of play is to continue to along the path that gives you the most pleasure. But one tree does not a forest make.

“The … paradox is that in play [the child] adopts the line of least resistance—she does what she most feels like doing because play is connected with pleasure—and at the same time she learns to follow the line of greatest resistance by subordinating herself to rules and thereby renouncing what she wants, since subjection to rules and renunciation of impulsive action constitute the path to maximum pleasure in play.”

In reference to the four characteristics of video games provided by Callois (i.e. -agon, alea, mimicry and ilinx), I am curious as to where hand games (e.g. Mary Mack & Pat-a-cake) and other cooperative games would fall? These games can involve technique and practice.There are rules to hand games like Mary Mack (slap hands in rhythm with the song) so that would make it a game rather than play (as per my belief above). However, a game like Mary Mack only encourages opposition in the physical sense where children are facing each other and that may be a stretch to justify classifying it under agon. Also, Mary Mack is not a game of chance and there are no bets placed so that should rule out alea. That leaves ilinx and mimicry. Mimicry seems obvious since the children playing Mary Mack are literally mimicking each others movements but ilinx could also be argued since (based on some playground rules) the song may increase in speed and “attempt to momentarily destory the stability of perception and inflict a kind of voluptuous panic” (Caillois in Salen and Zimmerman 2006, pg. 138) where the speed of the song outruns the players ability to keep with the hand movements and words. Can Mary Mack have figurative feet in both pots?

The sentiment of this comic came to mind as I read through Huizinga’s chapter. In Huizinga’s world, play can have unwritten and loose rules but it has rules nonetheless. This chapter was very esoteric and “deep man” but almost to the point of being extravagant and not parsimonious enough for my taste. Callois was more succinct and easier to read but I could not reach all of the same characteristics for play as he proposed.  I was also unable to create a concrete representation of “whirlwind” games and felt that this was more of an example of our link with other animals than it was a real example of a common game characteristic.

Salen, K., & Zimmerman, E. (2006). The game design reader: A rules of play anthology. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Gray, P. (2008). The Value of Play I: The Definition of Play Provides Clues to Its Purposes. In Freedom to Learn blog on the Psychology Today website. Last retrieved January 25, 2012 from

I came across this graphic as I was investigating some home energy efficiency ideas. It’s from 2008 and the NRDC was looking at ways the game industry (and console owners) could help the “nation’s electricity bill” by using better power management features.

Source: NRDC Study “Lowering the Cost of Play: Improving the Energy Efficiency of Video Game Consoles.”