Reconstruction Vol. 12, No. 2
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Myers, David. Play Redux: The Form of Computer Games. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2010. / Dan Tennant, Worcester Polytechnic Instituter
Keywords: play redux, anti-aesthetic, bad play, formalism
<1> In Play Redux: The Form of Computer Games, Loyola University New Orleans professor David Myers frames his argument for the socio-developmental validity of so-called “harmful” play within a broader, formalistic study of computer games – a study wherein play itself, and not its consequences or interpretations, is under investigation. Purposefully forgoing analysis of the creative intentions behind, consumer affectations toward, and cultural perspectives surrounding computer games, Myers instead analyzes their internal mechanisms – their fundamental forms – via the application of both early 20th-century Russian formalism and Myers’ own semiotic models of cognitive play. Though he admits the approach is potentially flawed and his arguments often seem presented as though deliberately in opposition to his peers’ more culturally centric takes on games studies, his application of those arguments in the book’s closing chapters are worth the price of admission to any audience, providing startling insight into social blindness in games.
<2> At 162 pages (excluding appendices), Play Redux is a short but provocative read. Most of its 12 chapters are adapted from thematically connected articles and presentations that Myers published in the mid-to-late 2000s, only rarely acknowledging other games scholarship and lending the book an air of polemic finality. It is organized into four sections that clearly showcase his formalist take on the value of games. Chapters 1 through 5, together “ What Computer Games Are,”introduce his assertion that “bad play” may in fact be a positive pastime, and define what Myers calls the computer game anti-aesthetic – itself a novel take on games analysis. Chapters 6 through 8, “What Computer Games Aren’t,”turn the argument to narrative in computer games and discuss how, by formalist reasoning, reliance on an extensive backstory is fundamentally detrimental to gameplay. In chapters 9 through 11, “the Self and the Social,” Myers turns from premising his assertions to applying them, juxtaposing his discussion of bad play in earlier chapters against the social environment of the MMO and justifying his own social activity with those arguments. Chapter 12, titled “Final Comments” but listed under the section header “ The Genie in the Bottle,”summarizes the previous chapters and reiterates Myers’ argument that bad play should in fact be considered good.
<3> The book’s foundation is laid in Chapter 1, “Bad Play,” wherein Myers laments that computer game studies have blindly followed in the footsteps of other areas of academic discourse to become formulaic and ‘serious.’ In Myers’ view, while play remains an intrinsically non-serious form of human expression, non-seriousness in play is often viewed as ignorant or even destructive by other games scholars; in order for play to be ‘right,’ it must be safe, beneficial, or otherwise constructive. So-called bad play – play that is against the implicit rules of the game – is not accorded its proper respect by Myers’ peers. But if play is indeed a non-serious semiotic experience, and play is free in form and function, then rules that restrict play will naturally be broken as players go about the business of playing; otherwise, he argues, the experience loses something of its ‘play’ component.
<4> In Chapter 2, “Anti-ness,” Myers introduces the reader to the titular characteristic he finds recurrent in all computer games. Games, he explains, are the anti-real: By placing any object or concept within Huizinga’s “ so-called magic circle of play,” it ceases to be what it is, and turns into the anti-form of that object (33). A child’s finger turns into the barrel of a gun, and so is no longer a finger but an anti-finger; virtual guns have no power to kill in the physical world, and so can be described as anti-guns. The rules of conventional society do not, ostensibly, apply within the magic circle, which is why play is inherently free. Yet when play becomes anti-play, it becomes socially forbidden; it becomes bad play and is derided rather than embraced for epitomizing play’s free-form station.
<5> In Chapter 3, “Formalism Redux,” Myers breaks sharply from his discussion of bad play to review the history of formalism and outline the core tenets of the early Russian formalists’ approach to literary analysis. He explains that as literature and other classic media have a universal form and effect – a universal aesthetic – they can consequently be studied by that form. Computer games are similar, a contemporary parallel to classic media with a comparatively universal form that begets study. Curiously, while the review and examination of formalism is thorough, and Myers acknowledges that “the great failure of [classic] formalism was its inability to reveal the origins” of “the universal patterns in literary forms” (48), he at no time addresses this admitted failure, nor any deficiency of the formalistic analysis of computer games – deficiencies that, if games are indeed contemporary parallels of old media, should accordingly exist.
<6> The universal structure of the interface and code in computer games are discussed in Chapter 4, titled simply “Interface and Code.” Myers describes the structure of interface and code not in how they define gameplay, but rather in how they serve to recursively contextualize their respective play experiences. A game’s interface, Myers argues, must be mastered before the player can experience a complete sense of play, much like a language must be learned before a work of literature can be appreciated. This process, however, is recursive – the greater mastery over an interface the player achieves, the more habitual the use of that interface becomes, and the more freedom the player has to play. The game’s code – that is, the laws of the game world that cannot, by virtue of their nature, be violated – provides the player with context for his or her habituation to the interface. Thus, a game’s interface and code will, regardless of genre or platform, always frame a game’s play within whatever unbreakable boundaries the designers deemed appropriate.
<7> Myers closes out his study of the core components of computer games in Chapter 5, “The Computer Game Anti-Aesthetic.” Drawing on his discussion of anti-ness from Chapter 2, Myers posits that if an aesthetic is identifiable by the interpretation of a form – a decidedly hermeneutic approach – then an anti-aesthetic is defined by that form’s assigned meaning. Consequently, while a computer game’s aesthetic emphasizes its interpretive value, its anti-aesthetic emphasizes the recursive contextualization of the game’s interface and code – that is, the assigned meaning of the game. Since all play, including bad play, that is possible within the defined meaning of a computer game can be considered valid, the computer game anti-aesthetic “includes and explains those experiences associated with computer game play that are considered risky, harmful, against the rules, or in some other way bad.” As Myers cheerily points out, “within an anti-aesthetic, ‘bad’ play becomes exemplary play” (68). It is a perspective that grounds his arguments in the book’s later chapters.
<8> Shifting his discussion from what he believes computer games are to what he believes they are not, Myers analyzes story in games in Chapter 6, “ Anti-Narrative,” and Chapter 7, “The Backstory.” Once again drawing on the “ anti-ness” concept, he points out that as narrative crosses Huizinga’s magic circle, it becomes an anti-narrative, for in games – quite unlike film, books, or other linear narrative media – narratives are incongruous with the required habituation of play. In film, disruption of the narrative breaks the fourth wall, but such disruptions in games are both expected and required. Play itself is self-motivated, while narrative is externally driven. Even bad play is suddenly and drastically inappropriate within the context of narrative, since breaking the rules of the game – an activity that, according to Myers, should be perfectly acceptable within the realm of play – concurrently breaks the game’s story.
<9> Though narrative may be obstructive, Myers argues that backstory allows players to contextualize their experiences, an attractive prospect given that any series of human events tends to motivate the semiotic contextualization of those events. People grow narratives out of their chained experiences, and backstory provides acceptable seeds for those personal narratives, along with fodder for cross-media commercialization. Myers notes, however, that even backstory can be lacking in many games; it might be quite important to role-playing games, for instance, but is often pointless in strategy titles. Action titles can even be identified in part by their lack of substantive narrative history: “ The Mario game series… has many superficial characteristics of role-playing games, but it remains rooted in the action genre due to, among other things, the inconsequential nature of its backstory” (89).
<10> Myers closes out his discussion of narrative in Chapter 8, “Civilization,” with an extensive analysis of Sid Meier’s bestselling game of the same name. By Myers’ standards, Civilization’s high replay value and lack of substantive narrative marks it as an exemplary title, while its later iterations would introduce disruptive narrative elements and offer “ less depth to explore and fewer masteries to achieve” (114). It is within the achievement of these “masteries” that the chapter finds its defining, if meanderingly reached, argument in favor of a formalist approach, not just to analysis, but to play. The expert player, Myers posits, plays the game without regard for its narrative – an element that will forever be steeped in cultural context. The expert player learns how to play the game as completely as possible, becoming “demonstrably and objectively better at winning the game.” His play experiences, and not his cultural perspectives, “eventually trump all other, non-game-related influences inside the game” (115, author’s emphasis). Put another way: Within the boundaries of the game world, the most effective player is the player that ignores cultural context, ignores narrative, and instead plays the game purely to win the game – an ideology that will find manifestation in Chapter 11.
<11> The final section of Play Redux, “the Self and the Social,” begins with Chapter 9, “Social Play.” Myers discusses a growing collective sensibility he sees among games scholars that favors socialized multiplayer gaming (exemplified by massively multiplayer online games, or MMOGs) as the most fundamental form of computer gaming. This, he says, is a fallacy: “In [World of Warcraft] and its related clones, despite the emphasis on social play, most players play most often alone” (118). Social play, he claims, is an extension of individual play and not vice-versa, since other players can refine a play interface and code experience, but they cannot replace it; without the original interface and code, a computer game ceases to have meaning. Anti-play, meanwhile, is utterly reviled in online games, despite being a “fundamental and default condition of human play” (125) and benefitting the game by allowing designers to test limits that would not otherwise be strained.
<12> Myers’ discussion of social play is concretized in Chapter 10, “City of Heroes,” with his breakdown of an MMO in which he possesses ample personal experience. He progressively applies his game-as-anti-aesthetic argument to City of Heroes’ various stages of gameplay, starting with its early solo tutorial play, which begins to instruct the player in the intricacies of the game’s interface, and progressing to various levels of group play. Of particular note is his analysis of low-level group play, which he contends forces players into defined roles that deprive them of their individual play freedoms within the game’s code: Unlike solo play, group play requires that players cease to be selfish for the benefit of the group, despite the intrinsic sacrifice this entails. In individual play, “bad” or anti-play is acceptable; in group play, it is anathema. Thusly, according to Myers’ computer game anti-aesthetic, group play is not true play at all.
<13> Myers’ arguments in favor of bad play come to a head in Chapter 11, “Play and Punishment,” perhaps the most entertaining and thought-provoking chapter in Play Redux. He regales the reader with the story of Twixt, Myers’ avatar in the MMO City of Heroes, who achieved significant infamy within the game’s community by blatantly and repeatedly practicing a combat tactic the wider community deemed an exploit, but that the laws of the game (i.e., the designer-written code) allowed, and which the game’s designers made no effort to prevent once Twixt’s use of it became widely known. The tactic allowed Myers to, within a team-based player-vs-player arena, gain tremendous advantage over his opponents, yet were almost universally considered bad form by players on both sides of battles. Believing anti-play to be a wholly legitimate expression of play within computer games, Myers used the tactic freely, following strictly the encoded laws and goals of the arena while attempting to achieve victory by whatever means available.
<14> What remains so fascinating about Myers’ practices is that he continued to brazenly use them – to “grief” other players, as social anti-play is commonly referred in multiplayer computer games – in the face of complaints about the tactic, requests for him to stop, and even vitriolic anger at its continued employment. After many months, across multiple world servers, Myers’ actions eventually earned his Twixt character utter hatred within the community; he was a constant recipient of verbal abuse and was eventually ostracized from his supergroup (the equivalent of guilds in other MMOs). Discussions on the official City of Heroes forums evolved over time from outraged cries for justice to expressions of genuine pity. As one player wrote, “Twixt seems totally unable to comprehend other players as real people, and plays his own solipsistic game deliberately making others miserable… I truly believe he simply does not understand the feelings that lay behind people shouting and screaming at him” (153). Yet despite all the resistance to his actions, Myers never elected to stop using the tactic, to cease his bad play even in empathy, utterly convinced that anti-play in computer games, wherever allowed by a game’s coded law, is an acceptable – even virtuous – expression of play. Near the end of the chapter, he describes the reactions of those in the game as “drastically and overly harsh, even unnatural” (157). Anti-play is resistance, and any attempt to stop it can only be interpreted, in Myers’ philosophy, as acts of repression by a dominant social hegemony.
<15> Myers closes the book in Chapter 12, “Final Comments,” with a summary of the critical points made throughout Play Redux: that computer games are self-referencing, self-contained forms and so can be analyzed formalistically; that the anti-aesthetic of games makes them recursively contextual semiotic media; that computer game play is a fundamentally individual activity; and that while play can happen in social contexts, it does so with restrictions placed on individual freedoms. For Myers, the latter points possess particular significance, as he believes that play can never be dangerous; the only potential danger stems from the “ rules and regulations of social policies” – the application of social order within virtual worlds which puts true play at risk.
<16> Play Redux could well be described as both a formalist manifesto on computer games, and somewhat more critically as a justification of anti-social action in social spaces. Myers’ arguments in favor of bad play are rooted in formalist assumptions, but his introduction to the concept of the computer game anti-aesthetic is a fascinating and worthwhile read for culturists and formalists alike. Of concern are the final chapters in the book dealing with social play. Games are social constructs, and when we play them with other people, we enter into social contracts with those players. We must be wary of the potential for a formalist approach to games studies to blind us to our social obligations within those games, lest we fall prey to selfishness and narcissism – accusations made by his fellow players and recorded by Myers in the book. While largely dismissing the social contracts that we enter as players in multi-player spaces in favor of the form of games, I would still argue that Play Redux provides useful insights and ways of approaching game studies. The chapters on the computer game anti-aesthetic will be of particular benefit to those interrogating narratology, ludology, and the gamer herself.
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