Caillois and game classification

Caillois divides games into four categories:

AGÔN: competition

ALEA: chance

MIMICRY: simulation

ILINX: vertigo (linked to the desire for disorder and destruction)

He posits that games can also be placed on a continuum between two poles:

PAIDIA: diversion, turbulence, free improvisation, carefree gaiety. JOY.

LUDUS: rules, conventions: a discipline for paidia. DIFFICULTY.


With regard to one of the themes which I am focusing on, narrative, Caillois notes that ‘Identification with the champion in itself constitutes mimicry related to that of the reader with the hero of the novel and that of the moviegoer with the film star’ (p.22). Further, he proposes that, ‘bicycle races, boxing or wresting matches, football, tennis or polo games are instrinsic spectacles, with costumes, solemn overture, appropriate liturgy, and regulated procedures. In a word, these are dramas whose vicissitudes keep the public breathless, and lead to denouements which exalt some and depress others’ (p.22).






The Seven Rhetorics of Play: 

  1. Play as progress
  2. Play as fate
  3. Play as power
  4. Play as identity
  5. Play as the imaginary
  6. Rhetoric of the self
  7. Play as frivolous

Defintions of play: 

  1. definitions by players of their own play experiences and functions
  2. definitions by theorists of intrinsic play functions – players game-related motives for playing
  3. definitions by theorists of extrinsic play functions – the forms of play in terms of the functions they are supposed to serve in the larger culture.

Sutton-Smith, Brian., (1997) “Play and ambiguity” from Sutton-Smith, Brian., The ambiguity of play pp.1-17, Cambridge, Mass. ; London: Harvard University Press

Playtime and lack of time

I think I’m a Calvinist at heart. My work ethic is well-developed and honed, my ability to play, less so. At the moment, I’m waving not drowning when it comes to work and squeezing in the time to read about play felt somewhat ironic. However, Kane’s  passionate exploration of and defence of the importance of play in its multifarious forms was heartening and enlightening. Kane’s essay is a rallying cry is that ‘play and only play that makes man complete.’ (Eigen and Winkler)

Kane distinguishes between the modern and the ancient visions of play; the former ‘sees players as the ultimate embodiment of human freedom’, the latter ‘sees players as determined by forces largely beyond their control.’ (p.39)

In terms of the modern rhetoric of play, Kane identifies three core visions of play (summarised here in a playful (and, due to time constraints, necessary) stream of consciousness…

  1. Play as progress: play as necessity; powers of childhood play (as argued for in Rousseau’s ‘Emile’); play as a counter to ‘factory schools, producing factory minds’ (p.43) (this came to mind when I read that); Froebel’s concept of ‘play gifts’ – to enable children ‘to externalise concepts in their minds rather than have ‘the facts’ imprinted on their brains’ (p.41); Motessori; ‘play makes you live longer’ (p.44) (at the moment, it looks like I might dies young(ish))…
  2. Play as imagination: ‘Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up’ – Pablo Picasso; play as a transforming human process; play as imaginary; ‘the great instrument of moral good is the imagination’ – Shelley; ‘Man only plays when in the full meaning of the word he is a man, and he is only completely a man when he plays’ – Schiller; ‘Play, like imagination, could mend the broken soul’ (p.46); ‘…the imagination, the only thing that protects our freedom.’ – Buñuel; play as imagination should subvert play as progress…
  3. Play as selfhood: ‘Play is an attitude before it is anything else.’ (p.48); the ludic, playful self as self-determining.

Kane posits that ‘Modern play in all three of its definitions – as progress, as imagination, as self – can become an unlimited fuel supply of human dynamism.’ (p.49). He cites Howard Gardner: ‘We play to master our self, our anxiety and the world.’ (p.49).

With regard to ancient notions of play, what is acknowledged is that we are ‘often played with’ (p.50); we are ‘sport to the gods…’ (p.50):

  1. Play as fate and chaos: ‘Fateful play is a largely passive, not active practice…’ (p.51).
  2. Play as identity: ‘…we are players because others expect us to play.’ (p.52); Kane proposes that ‘collective play is the festival’ (p.52) and modern entertainment spaces aim to deliver the ‘collective tingle’ (p.53) to us as players in a ludic society.
  3. Play as contest: ‘While playing to win, they raise standards and levels of achievement in human society.’ (p.53). Our sports culture manifests the play ethic most overtly. However, arguably the flip side of this contest culture is the ‘playa’ which Kane characterises as being dominated by a ‘vicious agonism’ (p.55).

Kane goes on to examine what play might prescribe for us, for the way in which we lead our lives:

  1. ‘Living as a player is precisely about embracing ambiguity, revelling in paradox, yet being energized by that knowledge.’ (p.55)
  2. ‘…play (is) the fruitful, novelty-generating energy that sustains the vibrancy of a system…’ (p.56)

In terms of non-zero-sum games (such as life), there are rewards for those who commit to the long game and commit to being sociable and to extending the complexity and reach of their networks. A passion for the new, for novelty, is also key. Miller claims that all successful animals must be ‘neophiliacs’.

In order to succeed, I have to play more.

Other quotable quotes

‘…initial playful activity is an essential prerequisite of the final act of understanding…’
– Paul Feyerabend, Conquest of Abundance, 1999

‘To be a player is to try and live and thrive between freedom and determinism, chance and necessity.’ (p.40)

‘…play is a deep, natural and lasting resource for modern humans.’ (p.40)

‘Players needs to be energetic, imaginative and confident in the face of an unpredictable, contestive, emergent world. Players also accept the complex relationship between all forms of play whether ancient or modern.’ (p.41)

‘Play is about freedom. But it is also about the freedom to get it wrong; to imagine a future, and then have it tumble down around us in reality…’ (p.50)

‘Under complexity, our individual interactions – no matter how vigorous, singular and inventive they may seem to us – are merely part of the massive carnival, the implicate order, of the universe. The complexists’ player needs to radically temper his or her egoism – to accept that they are only a player in the ‘team game’ of life, co-evolving with others.’ (p.61)

‘A network is a possibility factory’ (Kelly)

‘For us nor to be daunted, crushed or demoralised by the complexities of the worlds, we have to reduce its burden upon us: we have to learn to create spaces to dream of alternatives, try out scenarios, give ourselves room to experiment, allow ourselves to say ‘maybe’ or ‘as if’ to our dilemmas, rather than always a definitive ‘yes’ or ‘no’. To invert the title of Milan Kundera’s famous novel we have to embrace ‘the bearable lightness of being’. We have to be able to transform the uncertainties and risks that our increasingly complex, twenty-first world presents us with – that is, we have to become players. And we have to believe that this activity is necessary and worthwhile – ethical, in other words.’ (p.63)

Kane, P., (2005) “A general theory of play” from Kane, P., The play ethic: a manifesto for a different way of living pp.35-64

Parallel processing and Pac-Man

I remember that I used to be good at Pacman. I played it three or four times a week at least on an arcade game in our local sports centre. I used to have the networks of paths and opportunities nailed: I knew in what order to eat each dot and when to eat the super, flashing dot which would unleash my super-powers and allow me to gorge on ghosts.

I played it again for the first time in about thirty years this week here: I missed the ‘wakawakawakawaka’ sound as Pacman ate the dots for starters and I was awful at controlling Pacman with the cursor keys. I kept over-shooting turns and not turning away from the ghosts quickly enough.

This are attempts three and four:

Multiple attempts beyond this didn’t lead to game-play which was very much better.

Thirty years on, then, and all my knowledge and skill about the game are gone. However, on reading the chapter “Video Games” from Greenfield’s ‘Mind and media: the effects of television, video games and computers’, I realise that, perhaps, I never was really very good at Pacman. For example, I never appreciated that ‘Each monster has its own characteristic behavior’ (p.99); I was so busy focusing on ‘me’/Pac-Man that I wasn’t able to note and analyse the ghosts’/monsters’ behaviour. I also didn’t recognise that ‘The relative speeds of the monsters and Pac-Man are different in different parts of the maze’ (p.100). My parallel processing skills, which Greenfield defines as ‘taking in information from several sources simultaneously’ (p.101) are lacking now and, it would appear, weren’t much better when I was a child playing the game in the arcade. When I play now and, I guess, when I played then, I am/was ‘watching Pac-Man’s behaviour alone’ (p.102) and therefore failed to appreciate the ‘interacting dynamic variables’ (p.102) of Pac-Man.

Greenfield’s analysis of computer games is fascinating as an historic snapshot of a response to the nascent medium of computer games. I am probably  around the same age as Mark, Greenfield’s son (however, I was never able to complete a Rubik’s Cube.) We take for granted, now, the fact that we are afforded a participatory role in visually dynamic media but Greenfield highlights the fact that video games were ‘the first medium’ (p.90) to afford us this possibility.  In terms of the appeal and popularity of games, Greenfield cites Malone, who ‘found that the presence of a goal was the single most important factor in determining the popularity of games’ (p.91). It will be interesting, as we progress through this course to ascertain whether this is still the case: what other factors now impact on a game’s appeal? Malone’s exploration of violence and the gender disparities between the appeal of ‘aggressive fantasy’ (p.94) are also considered. Again, thirty two years on, what evidence is there on the impact of solitary, ‘violent’ gaming on individuals (compare ‘Darts’ with ‘Call of Duty’!). Transfer is key here: what negatives and positives from the gaming experience have an impact beyond the world of the game? Another observation which is pertinent is Greenfield’s reference to Eric Wanner, who had ‘suggested that video games could be much more interesting if they provided for creation’. The popularity of games such as Minecraft (and The Sims, Second Life and Little Big World) suggests that the appeal of creation is, indeed, a powerful factor in determining the appeal of games. Finally, and reflecting Karen’s musings on gaming and addiction, I thought that this was a pertinent insight: ‘Perhaps the most valuable thing we can learn is not how to make the games less addictive but how to make other learning experiences, particularly school, more so.’ (p112).


Greenfield, P.M., (1984) “Video Games” from Greenfield, Patricia Marks, Mind and media: the effects of television, video games and computers pp.86-114
Malone, T., (1981) “What Makes Things Fun to Learn? A Study of Intrinsically Motivating Computer Games”, Cognitive Science (5) 333-370
Wanner, E., (1982) “Computer Time: The Electronic Boogey-man,” Psychology Today (16) 8-11

Back to SL

We revisited Second Life this week for an informal tutorial about the course. Some interesting discussions about what counts as gaming and play:

[03:50] Greg Zeilik (robbastin): Does SL count as a game? Lots of people would think it does, even after you explain what it is.

[03:50] Kimberley Pascal: How does it work in Minecradt Noreen?

[03:50] Simone Carlberg: I don’t think it does

[03:50] Greg Zeilik (robbastin): Agree with better than minecraft, the little I’ve seen of minecraft

[03:50] Simone Carlberg: Not that I’ve discovered yet

[03:50] Kimberley Pascal: Good question.  It is not a game.  It is just an environment.

[03:50] Greg Zeilik (robbastin): But then that is preference isn’t it

[03:50] Greg Zeilik (robbastin): ?

[03:50] Kimberley Pascal: In which games *could* be played, of course.

[03:51] Greg Zeilik (robbastin): But people perceive it to be one when I say waht I doing.

[03:51] Simone Carlberg: I find I can’t make an impact on this environment in the way I can in Minecraft

[03:51] Greg Zeilik (robbastin): Bit like WOW

[03:51] AMAPnotwithabrush: i went on an archaeological dig once…it was a sort of game

[03:51] Simone Carlberg: The building is too complex

[03:51] Kimberley Pascal: Games need rules.

[03:51] AMAPnotwithabrush: (in SL)

[03:51] Greg Zeilik (robbastin): But the world has rules

[03:51] Simone Carlberg: Even if they are just material ones like where you can place blocks?

[03:51] Kimberley Pascal: Oh yes.  There can be games *in* SL.

[03:52] Kimberley Pascal: And you don;t *need* to play in WoW.  You can just hand out.

[03:52] Simone Carlberg: Maybe ‘play’ is the key word there

[03:52] Greg Zeilik (robbastin): I like the profession side of WOW

[03:52] Simone Carlberg: If you can ‘play’ in any sense it’s a game

[03:52] Kimberley Pascal: But the “game”(WoW) will kill you if you don;t respond to the challenges it throws at you.

[03:52] Simone Carlberg: Building stuff in Miencraft is playing for me

[03:52] Greg Zeilik (robbastin): Pottering round mining, ignoring all the weird monsters and sticking to the edges

[03:53] Simone Carlberg: Yes, that’s me

[03:53] Kimberley Pascal: I guess.

[03:53] Greg Zeilik (robbastin): Fishing

[03:53] Simone Carlberg: That’s why I like to play in Creative mode – so I don’t get killed as Hamish says

[03:53] Greg Zeilik (robbastin): Ahh

[03:53] AMAPnotwithabrush: you can be killed?

[03:53] Kimberley Pascal: But yes, trying to define “game” and “play” is key here.

[03:53] Greg Zeilik (robbastin): haven’t tried that

[03:53] Simone Carlberg: We’re in creative mode in Minecraft in this module Rob

[03:53] SilverbackGrump: I’m looking forward to playin WoW – havn’t tried it yet. I have a reference point from childhood – used to play Dungeons and Dragons ON PAPER!

[03:54] AMAPnotwithabrush: do you “get more lives next time” or if you’re killed, that’s it?

Passionate players

At the start of this week and the start of this course, I was in a school in Scarborough, working with a fascinating Network Manager. He’d studied theology at uni, taught RE in schools and then began to get more involved in network management. He now does that and teaches IT too. He’s also a minister.

We were chatting over lunch and I mentioned that I was starting on this course and that a key element would be playing and thinking about World of Warcraft. And that’s when he really lit up. He’d been a passionate gamer for ten years (before his daughter was born) and he loved WoW. He talked about spending 12 hours preparing for a raid, about the relationships and skills which were developed through play. Mentoring was key – bringing on the younger and more inexperienced players, and he believed that his management skills were honed In WoW too. He spoke about the relationships which had been formed in WoW and which had extended into RL: he’s still in touch with many of the gamers he used to play with. One anecdote he told me related to Eve. A fellow player was terminally ill and, when he could no longer participate in RL, he could still ‘live’ and ‘function’ in the game. When he died, a memorial service was held in the game and a stone placed in his memory which was engraved with his avatar name. I found this moving and fascinating, particularly the notion of ‘living in the game’. Ideas which were explored in IDEL about the self and where ‘it’ ‘is’ when we are online/gaming/playing/reading began to re-emerge. When I mentioned this encounter in the Introductions forum, Hamish provided this link. What it has to say about experiential learning is fascinating:

Gaming tends to be regarded as a harmless diversion at best, a vile corruptor of youth at worst. But the usual critiques fail to recognize its potential for experiential learning. Unlike education acquired through textbooks, lectures, and classroom instruction, what takes place in massively multiplayer online games is what we call accidental learning. It’s learning to be – a natural byproduct of adjusting to a new culture – as opposed to learning about.


‘Learning to be’ – experiential learning – is a core notion to explore in relation to gaming and particularly to gaming technologies such as VR and AR. The article also has something interesting to say about failure, one of my ‘chosen’ themes:

Where traditional learning is based on the execution of carefully graded challenges, accidental learning relies on failure. Virtual environments are safe platforms for trial and error. The chance of failure is high, but the cost is low and the lessons learned are immediate.

Games provide a safe, no/low risk environment in which to fail. The consequences of failure have no (or little) RL implications or consequences and therefore risk-taking is, paradoxically, pretty much risk-free.

In terms of the focus of this course, this is another key observation from the article:

Once the experience is explicitly educational, it becomes about developing compartmentalized skills and loses its power to permeate the player’s behavior patterns and worldview.

Does accidental learning, rather than explicit education, ultimately have more impact? When thinking about using games/developing games for education, should the focus be on providing immersive, wide-ranging social experiences in a range of virtual contexts?

Like my game-playing, my blogging is rusty, so there’s no neat conclusion to be arrived at just yet. Just lots of questions to consider as the course progresses.