Tuesday 14 October 2014

Goffman and the Sociology of Video Games

Erving Goffman. Certainly a sociologist who hasn't had much of an airing round these parts. Not that I have anything against him or his body of work, it's more that we have very different problematics. He was interested in the micro level, of the practices, stratagems and conventions of interaction between individuals. And me? You know what this blog is all about. But on occasion, I like a straight foray into things sociological and this is one of those moments.

Goffman was interested in developing analytical frameworks for the study of face-to-face interaction. While he did develop a number of concepts for the highest level of sociological magnification, his work did not have a systematicity in the same way possessed by systems theory and Marxism. But there were a set of key premises he returned to time and again. There's a social psychology of expressiveness, a tendency for us to mobilise speech, expressions, gestures, inflections to convey information to the other person(s) involved in a particular interactional encounter. How this is done is constantly reflected on and modified in light of the response of the other to our expressivity. This rests on forms of co-presence (from fully engaged interaction to merely being in the presence of others), and behaviours Goffman divides up into ritual, theatrical and game metaphors. These respectively denote modes of regard and respect, of acting and performing roles, and approaching an encounter in a calculated way. It's gaming, sans any implied Machiavellianism that interests me here.

Commentary on video games has been parked up a cul de sac for too long. It's partly historical and partly the specificity of the medium. Indeed, the so-called GamerGate controversy owes something to self-identified, self-important "gamers" realising that the games they play can contain objectionable cultural content some people want to write about, call attention to, and critique. I digress. As artefacts of late 20th and early 21st century culture, sociology should have something to say about it. This is where Goffman might come in.

For Goffman, an encounter is a world-building activity that generates meanings for all who participate in it. There are a set of tacitly-understood rules determining what counts for appropriate conduct. Hence behaviours are produced and reproduced: social action is seldom if ever invented anew. Games are structured in this way, but the fun component - the reason why we play a game - resides in the imposition of a problematic on the situation, a win/lose dynamic. Fun resides in the uncertain balance between familiarity and uncertainty. We can appreciate the excitement of a footy match because we know the conventions. Whether it's Trivial Pursuit, British Bulldog, or competitive sports the uncertainty surrounding outcomes exists with the opportunity for players/participants to show off their attributes, to the entertainment of the co-present and gratification of the player. For Goffman, game playing is about dicing with fatefulness and overcoming the circumstances it can throw at you.

While multiplayer is big across all the top whack titles these days, for the majority of video game history the core gameplay experience is the traditional single player affair; of meat facing off against machine. Can the basic sketch of Goffman's approach to game encounters help illuminate video game interaction and kickstart a sociology appropriate to it? These suggestions, which might become the basis of subsequent work on this topic, bracket the wider social world and concentrate on what happens as a gamer games.

1. Video gaming generates meaning. Software is comprised of a set of responses that are pre-programmed or, occasionally, generated on the fly within tightly-defined parameters. Key enemies and major plot points are revealed at moments determined by the development team. The player responds to this in two ways: as a participant in the unfolding action, and as a meaning making animal. Some of the meanings are pertinent to how the game is played - for example, the appearance of puzzles or plot-relevant information, and another layer of "meta" meaning that locates the game and its game world in relation to their expectations and imagination. For example, how many players of Capcom's Commando played it straight as a military-style vertically scrolling shooter vs how many cast themselves as Super Joe mowing down the bad guys vs how many invented an elaborate backstory for the game to take place in? Interpretation and meaning construction takes place on a number of levels the game playing experience makes possible.

2. Video games have rules. Different genres mean groups of games have a lot in common with others. If you've played the Resistance trilogy, you have the competencies to do well in Killzone, Halo, Destiny, Call of Duty, etc. The player understands the behaviours the game demands of them. These can, to a degree be subverted in-game, but see how long you manage to get through Tetris without completing any lines or by racing backwards on Gran Turismo. One's accumulation of video game experience produces and reproduces certain game behaviours. Players are habituated and know what to expect. Like a normal co-present social encounter, conduct and strategy is followed but it is an encounter where one of the elements is an automated stand-in. In the absence of additional human input, game playing is a simulacrum of interaction.

3. Despite the bewildering array of game types, win/lose continues to structure the scene. The challenges curled up on cassette tapes and blu-ray discs are invitations to fatefulness. Pick up a game and it tries slapping your face with a glove. How a player comes to respond to certain challenges over others, how one's taste in games is formed is a formidable project in and of itself. How winning and losing is interpreted and experienced, is another. Does 'winning' mean running through the game to the end, abandoning or fighting shy of unearthing secrets and performing side quests? Or is a challenge only met when a gamer has experienced all there is to experience, that each and every ephemera has been hunted down, be it power up/weapon combination, vehicle, hidden area, or trophy? Is deep understanding an experience the hallmark of the hardcore gamer, or the capacity to whiz through the 20 hour solo campaign before taking on the next game?

4. If showing off one's mastery in front of others is another fun reason why we play, that makes perfect sense in multiplayer settings and one-on-one competition. Where does this leave the solo player during their sojourn to realms digital? The challenge provided by a video game might be a simulacrum of interaction, but they offer real enough tests of ability. As one plays, gets a grip on the mechanics and meets the trials laid out mastery and virtuosity is asserted against the software. Pulling off a brilliant combo in Tekken 3, dodging every bullet in Ikaruga, flying here, there and everywhere in Super Mario World sees the gamer as performer and audience for their exploits. To this end, if Goffman's interaction is about expressivity, of conveying information and meaning, the video game is a canvas on which the gamer presents their gaming self to themselves. In solo play the approval of other human beings is unnecessary. Gratification is a property of the private universe gamers engage and co-construct with a machine.


howard fuller said...

Out of interest has anyone done a Sociology of Comics? Just wondering.

Phil said...

Yes, there is some stuff out there. I'm not familiar with it so can't really point you at any literature. Back when I used to teach Cultural Studies (12 years ago!) I came across someone who'd done their PhD on Mexican comics ...

Anonymous said...

You're correct that Goffman has been under represented in your public sociology blogs - and mostly misunderstood by mainstream sociology. Although you didn't mention it, his study 'Asylums' is a major sociological classic. Within it is social life beautifully conceptualised, not as game theory or dramaturgical analogy but as the structured determinations of moral entrepreneurs constructing the deviant career & the monastic lives of the mentally ill. On their release from mental institutions, patients often failed to overcome the master status attached to them and failed to present themselves as credible social beings -as a result of the stigma attached to them being labelled mentally ill - becoming revolving door patients. Goffman was a genius. Like Marx, he is misread and under rated by Nietzschean post modernists.

Degree in gaming said...

Very interesting to know about Goffman and video games.