Sunday, May 6, 2012

Towards a Cultural Theory of Gaming: Digital Games and the Co-Evolution of Media, Mind, and Culture: Janet H. Murray

I originally read this paper last week, but no new readings were assigned this week yet, so I settled down to annotate the reading and then post on it.

I actually have comparatively little to say about the essay, except that I felt it had some valid points. The author primarily took the work of Michael Tomasello and Merlin Donald (who wouldn't want a name like 'Merlin'?) and applied it to games.

Because I'm so used to the idea that games are valid, and that play is an integral part of human existence, It's hard for me to give a faithful and detailed account of all the points that Ms. Murray was mentioning.  It's sort of like writing an essay about rain forest conservation. YES it's important and valid, but you sort of already know it all- or enough of it- already.

She makes an argument that play is fundamental not only to the existence of all higher order animals, but that it is one of the primary mechanisms, coupled with humanoid evolution, that lead to a rapid boom in intelligence => which resulted in the quick evolution of modern day human intelligence. So, differences in human play that set it apart from animal play resulted in human intellect.

The primary idea she took from Tomasello has to do with Joint Attentional Scene, which I have heard before in other contexts. Basically, many animals understand cause and effect. They know that if you push something, it can fall down. If they pee on the floor, they get punished. They can also register properties of things they see. A cat sees a fish, and instincts tell the cat that the fish may be good to eat. Often they are also social, and can reason about social causes, states, and relationships. Cause: Human is the boss Effect: Must do what Human says. But only humans will attribute effects to unseen, uncertain causes. For example....

A dog knows it is not allowed to pee on the floor. It knows if it pees, I will shout at it. Cause: pee on floor, Effect: I yell. It may understand other things about this situation. It may think Cause: I'm mean, Effect: I yell. It may understand the property: Floors are not for peeing on. It may even comprehend the more complex idea that Cause: I dislike it when dogs pee on my floor Effect: I will yell if the dog pees on my floor. As a dog, it most certainly understands Cause: I (Alpha) am in charge, Effect: dog (Omega) must please and obey me.

But a human can comprehend the fact that I do not like the smell of urine, or the hassle of cleaning up a mess, or that I like keeping a clean house, or that the carpet the dog peed on is particularly absorbent and difficult to clean odors from, or that I've had a bad day, or that I just got divorced, or that I'm bringing over a friend today to see my home and now my house stinks, or that I'm particularly unhappy about the peeing because it means my dog has a bladder infection and I'm stressed about bringing it to the vet's- even though I love the dog I'm overwhelmed.

This means that the human is aware of other entities as distinct agents, with distinct motivational forces. Humans then pass a great deal of information culturally from one another by understanding eachother's motivations. For example, if a mother's attention is on something, a child's attention will be drawn to that same thing. With this shared focus, the mother can then pass information concerning an object to the child. The importance of this phenomena to human intellect is justified by the fact that apes, if left unexposed to humans, do not exhibit Joint Attention for learning purposes. They do not point to objects, or bring one another to witness items or scene.

In addition, play, she explains through use of various sources, in all animals is a means for expanding one's conceptual understanding of the world, and building a model for how things work. It allows a creature to form mental models for future life use. These mental models may be of social relationships or social forces, or an understanding of one's own physical capacities. But in humans, games exhibit all the traits of a Joint Attentional Scene, which allows extremely complex cultural information to pass from human to human, even among children who have yet to reach speaking age. Play and the Joint Attentional Scene human phenomena combine together into a powerful learning tool.

She also talks about Merlin Donald to address the relationships between play and narrative in games (to address that age old narratology/ludology debate). Donald theorized that culture (in terms of the evolution o f human cognition) had four components, which had evolved chronologically along with our social skills, culture, and capacity for intellect. These are episodic culture (which is the most similar to animal understanding), mimetic culture, mythic culture, and theoretical culture. Episodic and mimetic are largely pre-language. Mythic culture involves the development of language and media, in which everything is explained with a narrative. Theoretical culture involves the abstraction of these narrative into a more formal and logical understanding, and is related to the development of writing and 'education' (as a system).

While I liked reading about Murray's theories and reasoning, and felt that they were very applicable and interesting to further our understanding of play, I usually refrain from permitting a one-dimensional definition of play. I do really like, however, that she explains play as a means by which creatures grow their own intellectual, cultural, and social abilities, not just their physical ones (as is often the case when play is linked to the development of survival skills). In Murray's estimation, play appears to be a medium for learning- and specifically, for learning abstract things (ie, even the dog's ability to understand social relationships, instead of just holding an internal list that looks something like: 1) 'you yelling => you spanking me' 2) 'me peeing=>you yelling'.

And that definition works well enough for her purposes. Productivity in experimental non-productivity, so to speak. But it does sort of violate the heart of play: which is activity for the sake of activity, and not for any external, meaningful reason. The distinction is what makes exercise 'work' and Dance Dance Revolution 'play.' Well, I reserve my judgement, and add her words to my repitoire of video-game-related-understandings.

I should note in one place she swapped definitions of 'myth' in her discussion of mythic culture, and started using it (and mythic culture) to mean real myths, superheroes, larger-than-life, exaggeration, etc; when previously it was defined as the explanation of everything using a story. However, this usage may be supported in Donald's writings, I'm not sure. For now I'll let it slide, as it was really minor and had no impact on her point.

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