A Paradox of Play

In my last post I presented reasons why play is an important part of life, is highly beneficial to both children and adults, and is most likely a biological necessity not only for humans but many types of animal as well.

This being so, why don’t we take play more seriously? I think part of the explanation lies in a paradox about play.

This is from Stuart Brown’s working definition of play:

… the first quality of play that sets it off from other activities is its apparent purposelessness. Play activities don’t seem to have any survival value. They don’t help in getting money or food. They are not done for their practical value. Play is done for its own sake… It is also voluntary — it is not obligatory or required by duty.

For something to truly be play, and give the experience of playing, it has to be something that you do for the heck of it, without attaching any greater purpose or significance to it. If you were to do the same activities but motivated by an earnest desire for self-improvement because you know play is meant to be good for you, the activity would automatically cease to be play, the fun would greatly diminish or go out of it altogether, and you wouldn’t get the benefits of playing!

Taking play too seriously destroys it!

Now of course one can “work at” aspects of one’s play. For example you might have a training schedule for your sport, practice sessions for your musical instrument and so on. As long as the ultimate context remains that you follow your pursuit for its own sake, and from your own choosing, this generally doesn’t undermine experiencing playfulness.

The sweet spot of taking things seriously but also lightly is often the most rewarding of all.

At times naturally our “taking things seriously” can get out of hand, and then the once refreshing and delightful hobby becomes another chore to be gotten through. When this happens we start to lose enthusiasm and eventually feel burned out altogether.

“Lightness” also has two major pitfalls. Firstly, while pure spontaneous goofing around is a necessary and rewarding form of play, in many kinds of hobbies that is not enough to make for a satisfying amount of progress. You might be writing your novel for the heck of it, but if you don’t seem to be getting anywhere after months of intermittent writing, you’ll probably get disheartened. Oftentimes your hobby becomes much more fulfilling when you “get serious” about it.

The second pitfall is where we came in: You take your play so lightly that you think it’s not important to make room for it. This can happen with an individual’s personal decisions, but also with choices that societies make. When there is pressure to be achieving ever higher grades, it’s easy for school authorities do decide that fripperies like sport, art and music are relatively dispensable. And when budgets are under stress, why not just sell off the playing fields? So we do that for while, maybe a generation, and then start to worry about inactivity and obesity in kids.

The paradox of play makes our play lives a bit of a balancing act. Sometimes everything is just great, other times it veers off too much one way or the other. Sometimes we need to “lighten up”, other times “get serious”. Perhaps we can take that as a fun challenge in itself!

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The “Gamer” Label

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What exactly is a “gamer”? Is it even a useful label?

The topic has been doing the rounds on the MMO blogosphere lately, and the very fact that so many people have felt compelled to comment tells us that people have strong feelings about labels, one way and another. (Either that, or they are just glad to have a topic to seize on for Blaugust!)

I don’t think it’s entirely a storm in a social media teacup, it’s something that is on people’s minds without the promptings of Twitter or questionnaires. For example…

Whether or not I would call myself a “Gamer” (let alone a “Real Gamer”) is something I do think about now and again. It’s not a label I usually apply to myself, even though I’ve played video games for thirty-five years almost without a break.

Bhagpuss

Are Labels Useful?

One school of thought is that labels like “gamer” are arbitrary and of little use.

Another topic going around has been an attempt to define what a “gamer” or a “real gamer” is. While I am not as dismissive as some, it does seem to be a futile effort to expand or contract a label to fit an imperfect and varying set of assumptions. I play video games. Isn’t that enough?

Wilhelm

Personally I think labels can be fairly useful, depending on what use you intend to put them to. Dividing the world into categories is a basic part of everyday thinking, even when most such categories are fairly fuzzy and vague. What exactly constitutes a “geek” or a “gamer” or “fantasy” is necessarily loosely defined. All the same, labels like that are important for thinking and communicating. For example we can make pretty meaningful statements that would otherwise be difficult to put in words, like:

  • Game of Thrones is fantasy that is enjoyed by more than just the usual geeks.
  • Raspberry Pi was meant to be for kids, but most of them are bought by adult geeks.
  • I play LOTRO, but I’m not much of a gamer otherwise

While labels make people bristle sometimes, it’s hard to think, talk and function without using them.

The Trouble with Labels

As essential as labels are, they can also be problematic. From what I can see, there are several major ways in which they cause problems.

Simplistic Understanding of Categories

Understanding the world through simple categories is where we all have to start. Whether it’s as children learning about life newly, or adults coming as newbies to some field of knowledge, the full complexity of any field is not something we can handle to begin with. And if we don’t need to progress beyond the beginner level, it may be that simplified understanding is all we’ll ever need or ever have.

Some of the over-simplistic thinking that we’re liable to:

  • Imagining there is a hard-and-fast cut off point, and the label neatly divides the world into two groups. You’re either a gamer, or you’re not.
  • Underestimating the diversity of the group. We have a picture of what a “gamer” is, and don’t realize that even if that picture might fit a sizable chunk of people who play games, there might be even more that don’t fit that picture.

Stereotypes – Good, Bad and Ugly

Gollum mural

Is there such a thing as a good stereotype? I’d suggest there kind of is, though perhaps it would be best to not use the word “stereotype” for it!

Dividing the world up into categories and having a picture of a representative member of the category that is used for thinking about the whole group is one of the basic ways the mind works. If for some reason you need to think about students, families, seniors or pets, your starting point at least will be some picture of a typical student, family, senior or pet. You might know perfectly well that there are all shapes and sizes of families, that some seniors run marathons, and some people have pet tigers, but for most everyday thinking and talking, it’s reasonable to go with the simplified stereotyped picture. If someone asks if a hotel is suitable for seniors it would be odd if you replied: “Absolutely, the rock climbing around there is great!” If they asked “Do they allow pets?”, it would be bizarre to reply: “Only dogs and cats, no chimps or tigers.”

A good stereotype is one that is fairly accurate and fairly representative of the group as a whole. It’s a simplification, but a useful one when you need to think or talk about the group and don’t have lots of time and energy to spend on sophisticated analysis.

A bad stereotype could be one that is inaccurate. For example if we imagine that the average age of MMO players is 17 when in fact it is 30, our stereotype is grossly misleading, and our thinking based on it will be deeply flawed.

More subtly, a bad stereotype could be one that is insufficiently representative. If the average age of MMO players is 30, but the age spread of players is so large that we’re nearly as likely to come across a 15 year old or a 65 year old as a 30 year old, our mental picture of the 30 year old player could still be seriously unhelpful.

In practice a lot of us have bad stereotypes in these senses in a lot of areas of our lives. This is for the simple reason that we tend to only come across skewed, highly unrepresentative cross-sections of the groups we talk about, and never know what the group as a whole looks like. That goes even when we are actually members of those groups ourselves – for example the people we hang out with in MMOs can be totally unrepresentative of MMO players as whole. Maybe we started playing with a bunch of our school or college friends, and as they’re all of the same age group, we imagine that age is the typical age of players. Or maybe we always gravitate to guilds with more mature players, and imagine that is the typical age. Or perversely maybe we imagine the players we know personally are unusual, but they are actually pretty typical of the player base.

The concept of “ugly” stereotypes meanwhile lead us on to the topic of the social dynamics of labels.

Labels and Social Dynamics

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Apparently, there was much discussion yesterday on Twitter about trying to define the term “Gamer” and specifically, who gets to claim the term.

Rowan

It seems that someone was spouting off in their lack of knowledge that tablet and mobile gamers were in some way lesser gamers than the those on the console or PC. This once again gets back to the definition of what exactly a gamer is. Over on the Moderate Peril blog he questioned exactly why we need a label at all. In other hobbies, you don’t see the attempt to exclude people the way that we do within gaming.

Belghast

As human beings we are social animals, with many drives and concerns that take precedence over thinking clearly or understanding the world accurately. In particular we are often preoccupied with matters of belonging, identity and status. Things like…

  • Am I really a part of this group?
  • Am I accepted by the others in the group?
  • What is my place in the pecking order?
  • What is the status of my group in society?
  • Does being considered part of this group mean kudos or derision for me?
  • Is my group better than group X?
  • How can I present myself so as to look good to the people around me?

I think Belghast was wrong in the quote above that: “In other hobbies, you don’t see the attempt to exclude people the way that we do within gaming”. On the contrary, with most kinds of activity that people engage in from watching sports to drinking wine there are all kind of snobberies, reverse snobberies, social hierarchies and ways in which people use labels to look down on others, or to give themselves a sense of superiority. In pretty much any hobby or activity you’ll find groups of people that match descriptions like:

  • Hard-core and proud of it
  • Casual and apologetic about it
  • Casual and feels superior to those they see as “taking it all too seriously”
  • Casual but tries to give the impression of being pretty hard-core
  • Hard-core but tries to give the impression of being pretty casual
  • Insecure about whether they deserve the label
  • Reluctant to accept the label because of negative associations
  • Eager to claim the label because of positive associations
  • Highly engaged and looking down on the less committed
  • Highly engaged but maintaining everyone is equal regardless

This kind of adding on layers of judgments goes with just about any factual label that can be applied to a human being. Any fact about you, someone somewhere will judge you based on it. And some will judge you negatively for the very things that others judge you positively for.

A Useful “Gamer” Label?

A couple of properties are probably important for a label to be useful.

  • Differentiation… the label identifies a somewhat distinctive group. There is not much point in having a label of “movie watcher” in a society where the vast majority of people watch movies to some degree. But a label like “movie buff” has a place.
  • Broad Agreement… while we’re all free to define terms however we want, for the purpose of holding sensible conversations and communicating our ideas, we need to have reasonably broad agreement about what the label means. It doesn’t have to be universal agreement, as long as most of the time most of us have roughly the same idea of what a movie buff or a gamer might be.

Defining anyone that’s ever played Angry Birds as a gamer is therefore not going to be useful. That’s not a judgment on Angry Birds or the people who play it, just a recognition that since nearly everyone has played games of that sort, it is not particularly useful to focus on those people as a distinct group. It also seems likely to be a recipe for confusion if we decided to call them gamers, because there are plenty of people that won’t be thinking of the term in that way, and we’ll be talking at cross purposes all the time.

I’m inclined to use “gamer” as a term similar to “movie buff”. That would be someone who is especially interested in games, and for whom they are a particularly important part of their life. That could be someone who plays a good deal, or someone who follows the scene with interest. They could be into PC, console or mobile games, but they do have to be “into them”.

So… am I a gamer then?

It seems blindingly obvious that I am a gamer, but I do cringe somewhat at the label.

While I’m undoubtedly more casual than many gamers, I do have a number of MMOs installed, a Steam account, a bunch of PC games etc. I follow game blogs, listen to game podcasts, and even have a game blog of my own, albeit that I don’t post here all that frequently. Any jury would find me guilty as charged.

If I resist the label, it’s only for reasons of the social dynamics and stereotypes alluded to before. There is still some stigma associated with being a gamer, at least in some circles. And there are probably few if any circles in which being a gamer is going to positively arouse anyone’s admiration and respect.

Being a gamer is an aspect of me, but not one that I would want to be principally defined by in anyone’s mind.

Is there still a stigma to gaming?

Recently some established gaming bloggers discussed the pros and cons of using real names versus screen names for their gaming blogs. (See Survival and Identity, Using a pseudonym and What’s in a Name?) They raised a lot of interesting points, but one major theme was whether there is any stigma nowadays to being identified as a gamer.

Here’s stand-up Dara O’Brien on the subject of gaming and how it’s perceived by some… (Note: Includes a bit of adult humor)…

The serious point is that while there are plenty of circles in which gaming is perfectly well accepted, there are others where it’s not much understood and people are likely to be judgmental based on stereotypes they’ve picked up. Times are changing, but they probably haven’t changed completely and everywhere yet.

The story of Colleen Lachowicz, a successful candidate for the Maine State Senate, cuts both ways. Her opponents tried to portray her as someone who “lives in a fantasy world”, which suggests there’s still plenty of stigma for them to work with. But whatever there was, it wasn’t enough to stop her winning the election.

An interview with Lachowicz and another about her unusual guild make for interesting reading. To some extent there’s a paradox in these interviews that while underlining that serious grownups play such games and there’s no shame to be attached to that, they also make a point of stressing not being “hardcore” and that the people in the guild aren’t “typical gamers”. Which maybe suggests that “typical” and “hardcore” players are viewed with disdain, perhaps even by those gamers that see themselves as non-typical.

Perhaps the thing is, none of us actually know if we’re what is typical, or if we’re exceptions.