Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Comments on Huizinga (#3)

Play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society . . .

This opening quote from Huizinga is, to my mind, not so self-evident as its author implies. Huizinga asserts that even animals naturally engage in play without the accouterments of civilization. Thus even lone human individuals who live outside any society would still play. Culture may presuppose human society, but play has no such presupposition. "In culture we find play as a given magnitude existing before culture itself existed" (p. 4), contends Huizinga, so that "culture [is] sub specie ludi" (p. 5). Play simply exists, somewhere out there in the interstices between "instinct" and "will," possessing of itself "a meaning [that] implies a non-materialistic quality in the nature of the thing itself" (p. 1). But is this argument (which is grounded in the modernist project of striving to "know" an independently existing phenomenon by "re-presenting" it through language) sustainable? I am not so sure.

To my way of thinking, culture precedes play and not the reverse. First, a lone individual living outside of any society would not cognize play in the same way as persons-in-society. Huizinga contends that play is a stepping-out from "ordinary" life, an interlude. But there is no "ordinary" life to step away from, except within the context of society. The putative lone individual would experience "play" as a part of the natural continuum of ordinary life, for he/she would have no other standard by which to judge an activity as "ordinary" or otherwise. Without society there are no "interludes." How could a lone individual have any conception of "play" as being a "free activity standing quite consciously outside 'ordinary' life" (p. 13)?

Thus, secondly, play can only have meaning within the contexts of society and culture. Even in the smallest human grouping, already there are necessary interrelations of kinship and power. If we consider culture to be a shared organization of knowledge, then this social grouping already has a culture. Its members must, in order to function within the group, share a common way of organizing their knowledge regarding kinship and power relations. Thus they have an "ordinary" life, the precondition for any concept of "play" to have meaning.

Third, I would submit that society precedes play because a precondition for play is economic organization. Individuals preoccupied with survival cannot engage in "regular contests and beautiful performances before an admiring public" (p. 1) when their imaginative lives are oriented toward the next meal. Only as economic organization affords respite from such preoccupation can play emerge as a significant feature of individual and social life.

Do these musings have any bearing on our study this semester of serious games? I believe they do. If you agree with Huizinga that play is innate then you will look at the psychology of gaming with a kind of "natural law" orientation. But if you agree with me that play is social then you will regard gaming as an expression, not primarily of innate urges, but of socially constructed and coordinated meanings.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Comments on Huizinga (#2)

Huizinga (p. 19) quotes Plato:

Life must be lived as a play, playing certain games, making sacrifices, singing and dancing, and then a man will be able to propitiate the gods, and defend himself against his enemies and win in the contest.

Reading this quote in an essay on "The Play-Element in Culture" instantly reminded me of Goffman's work on frame analysis and his extension of Mead's symbolic interactionism by likening social relations to dramaturgy. Thus in explaining Goffman's thesis, Keesing (1974) sounded much like Plato when he wrote that culture consists not only of what individuals know and think and feel, but also each person's

theory of what his fellows know, believe, and mean, his theory of the code being followed, the game being played, in the society into which he was born. . . . It is this theory to which a native actor refers in interpreting the unfamiliar or the ambiguous, in interacting with strangers (or supernaturals) . . . and with which he creates the stage on which the games of life are played (p. 89).

In a paper (Ward, 2008) that I just had published for the Summer 2008 issue of the Journal of Holocaust Studies, I applied symbolic interactionism and frame analysis as a framework for explaining the willingness of ordinary Germans (and their non-German collaborators) to be conscripted for duty in the machinery of genocide:

Mead, who is accounted along with Dewey and Peirce as a leading early twentieth-century pragmatist, wrote prolifically but never published any systematic treatise of his ideas. After his death, students assembled his notes and published them as Mind, Self and Society (1934). The term "symbolic interactionism" was coined posthumously in 1937 by Blumer. According to Blumer (1969, p. 2), symbolic interactionism has three core concepts that revolve around meaning, language, and thought: (1) "Human beings act toward things on the basis of the meanings that the things have for them." (2) "The meaning of such things is derived from, or arises out of, the social interaction that one has with one's fellows." (3) "These meanings are handled in, and modified through, an interpretative process used by the person in dealing with the things he encounters."

From these three principles arise Mead's (1934, pp. xxiii-xxvi) view of the self and of the community. A consciousness of self cannot exist without community since talk is the precondition for the development a self-concept. The self, then, is a function of language. Mead regarded as unique the human ability to take the role of the other, so that symbolic interactionists believe individuals socially construct their identities by imagining how they must appear to others. In symbolic interactionist terminology this is the looking-glass self. Mead believed that construction of the self is ongoing as the "I," which represents spontaneity and creativity, symbolically (i.e., via language) interacts with the "me" of the looking-glass self. Individuals also make composite mental images of their communities—called the generalized other—in order to align their choices with the expectations of their societies.

Goffman’s writings extend the concepts of Mead's symbolic interactionism by proposing the metaphor of social interaction as a dramaturgical performance. "The perspective . . . is that of the theatrical performance; the principles derived are dramaturgical ones" so that Goffman (1971, p. xi) studied the ways in which an individual "presents himself and his activity to others, the ways in which he guides and controls the impressions they form of him, and the kinds of things he may and may not do while sustaining his performance before them." Thus, in his analysis, "the part one individual plays is tailored to the parts played by the others present, and yet these others also constitute the audience." Emerson (1994) explains how, for example, embarrasment at a gynecological examination is overcome as the participants enact their respective roles—an illustration that carries ominous import for comprehending the Nazi euthanasia program and death camp "selections."

Perhaps Goffman's (see especially 1974) best known contribution to social psychology is his concept of frame analysis—a process by which (1) social actors confront situations, (2) make (metaphorical) connections to recognisable experiences, and (3) build layered structures called keys that comprise sets of conventions by which actors can (4) stage their responses and thereby negotiate their identities with others. Thus the activity of flirting, as the primary framework for an interaction, becomes a social construction that is layered on the frame space of a dance performance, which itself is layered on the kinds of music that might be played. "Framing permeates the level of ordinary social action. We live in a world of social relationships, in which roles are acted out, with various keyings and deceptions played upon them. This is the core of practical activities and occupations, of power and stratification" (Collins, 1988, p. 61).

What does my crossing of Huizinga with Mead and Goffman suggest for our study of serious games this semester? In my view:

1. Mead's concepts of the "I" and the "me," and of "taking the role of the (generalized) other" to construct a "looking-glass self," may provide a theory for understanding how inhabitants of virtual worlds construct their virtual identities

2. Goffman's theory of frame analysis may offer an approach to understanding how gamers, well, "play the game" at the level of virtual interaction.


Blumer, H. (1937). Social psychology. In E. P. Schmidt (Ed.), Man and society: A substantive introduction to the social science. New York: Prentice-Hall, pp. 144-198.

Blumer, H. (1969). Symbolic interactionism: Perspective and method. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Collins, R. Theoretical continuities in Goffman's work. In P. Drew and A. Wootton (Eds.), Erving Goffman: Exploring the interaction order. Boston: Northeastern University Press.

Emerson, J. P. (1994). Behavior in private places: Sustaining definitions of reality in gynecological examinations. In J. Brien & P. Kollock (Eds.), The production of reality. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge, pp. 189-202.

Goffman, E. (1971). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Doubleday. Goffman, E. (1974). Frame analysis: An essay on the organization of experience. New York: Harper & Row.

Keesing, R. M. (1974). Theories of Culture. Annual Review of Anthropology, 3, 73-97.

Mead, G. H. (1934). Mind, self and society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ward, M., Sr. (2008). The banality of culture? Reassessing the social science of the Goldhagen Thesis on its own terms. Holocaust Studies: A Journal of Culture and History, 14(1), 1-34.

Comments on Huizinga (#1)

In reading Huizinga's connection between play and ritual, I immediately made a connection of my own to the fieldwork I did in 2003-07 and the subsequent ethnography I've been writing over the past year. During the previous four years I visited some 200 fundamentalist Baptist churches in 17 states and was a participant-observer in more than 250 worship services. Earlier this month, in response to a revise-and-resubmit invitation from the Journal of Communication and Religion, I described my observations of (among other things) the laic ritual of "sharing your testimony."

Initially I turned to Philipsen's speech codes theory as a framework for explaining my observations. The theory holds (among its six propositions) that cultural assumptions are inextricably interwoven into the very speech of a given culture. This interweaving is seen in patterned ways of speaking and as cultural members rhetorically invoke metacommunicative vocabularies (such as "sharing your testimony") through ritualized speech sequences, cultural myths, and social dramas. These vocabularies provide auditors with cultural resources to construction their identities and cognize their encounters.

The concept of social drama led me to Turner's works on performative anthropology, which is where we see a connection to our reading of Huizinga. Here is what I wrote, in my ethnography, to describe Turner's perspective:

Turner can be seen with Geertz as a leading figure in symbolic anthropology. As Deflem (1991, pp. 8-9) notes, Turner focused on symbolic operations in the social field (or "the groups, relationships, and social-structural organizational principles of the society in which the rituals are performed"), while Geertz explored the cultural field (where "ritual symbols are regarded as clusters of abstract meanings" embedded within the totality of a culture). Turner (1975, p. 32) departed from structuralist anthropologists when he argued that "ritual and its symbolism are not merely epiphenomena or disguises of deeper social and psychological processes, but have ontological value."

What I have been doing in all this, perhaps, is trying to provide an alternative notion to that of those anthropologists who . . . regard religious symbols as reflecting or expressing social structure and promoting social integration. My view would also differ from that of certain anthropologists who would regard religion as akin to a neurotic symptom or a cultural defense mechanism. Both these approaches treat symbolic behavior, symbolic actions, as an "epiphenomenon," while I try to give it "ontological" status (Turner, 1974, pp. 56-57).

Though Turner (1968, p. 7) allows that structuralism is "true as far as it goes," he contends the method "points to only one of many properties it [ritual] possesses" and then argues, "More important is its creative function—it actually creates, or recreates, the categories through which men perceive reality—the axioms underlying the structure of society and the laws of natural and moral orders." As such, Turner classified humankind as homo performans (1985, p. 187) and urged that "performance, whether as speech behavior, the presentation of self in everyday life, stage drama, or social drama, would now move to the center of observation and hermeneutical attention" (p. 182). He asserts that such a hermeneutic is appropriate to "postmodern ways of thinking" (p. 185). And Turner's proposal, that comprehending a culture's performances is the best way for analysts "to grope, in a more than cognitive way, towards an experiential or 'inside view' of the other culture" (p. 223), holds out promise for employing "the performative turn in anthropology" (Conquergood, 1989) to understand a Fundamentalist culture often disdained and dismissed by the academy.

According to Turner's method, ritual is "prescribed formal behavior for occasions not given over to technological routine, having reference to beliefs in mystical beings and powers" (1967, p. 19) or "a stereotyped sequence of activities involving gestures, words, and objects, performed in a sequestered place, and designed to influence preternatural entities or forces on behalf of the actors' goals and interests" (1977, p. 183). Rituals are also repositories for symbols, which in turn are "storage units" (1968, pp. 1-2) of meaning and interpretation. And because rituals inherently implicate transcendence, ritual symbols go beyond mere encoding of shared values and—when used in a ritual performance—become efficacious to transform adherents.

As vehicles of ritual, symbols (see Turner, 1967, pp. 28-29, 50-55; 1968, pp. 18-19, 81-82; 1969, pp. 11-13) can be dominant and possess a largely consistent and autonomous meaning across the total system, or be instrumental and only have meaning in relation to other symbols within the system. Dominant symbols are characterized by their abilities to: condense multiple actions or objects into a single representation; unify disparate symbolic meanings through common analogies or associations; and polarize the meaning around the two poles of social obligation and personal desire. Fieldworkers can discern symbolic properties through exegesis (questioning informants, consulting written sources or oral traditions of myth and dogma); operation (observing how the symbol is ritually handled or excluded); and position (seeing how the symbol relates to other symbols within the ritual).

Ritual itself is processual, a concept that Turner began to develop in 1963 (Deflem, 1991, p. 7) after reading Van Gennep's classic The Rites of Passage (1960/1909) which had recently been translated into English. If rites of passage could be a process, Turner reasoned, other social rituals could also be conceived as social processes. Van Gennep divided passage rites into three phases (pre-liminal, liminal, and post-liminal) by which the initiate is separated from the social structure, then placed in a marginal state between old and new, and finally aggregated back into the social structure with a new identity. For his part, Turner saw in the liminal phase of ritual a quality of communitas in which hierarchy is suspended temporarily and comradeship prevails, before the social structure reasserts itself. Out of this concept of "ritual not simply as a mechanism of redress, but as humanly meaningful cultural performances of an essentially processual nature" (Deflem, 1991, p. 22) emerges Turner's theory of social drama.

Such dramas, Turner (1974, pp. 38–42) proposes, are comprised of four phases: breach, crisis, redressive action, and reintegration (or recognition of a permanent schism). As Conquergood (1983) has summarized the process:

All cultural performances . . . spring from a pervasive human process for absorbing the tensions and conflicts of collective life. Turner names this universal strategy "social drama." Because we are individuals as well as social creatures, consensus is always imperfectly achieved and tenuously held. From time to time, omnipresent vested interests are made manifest through the public breach of a norm. This display of discord must be dampened quickly or it will escalate to crisis. Redressive measures are invoked to achieve resolution either through reintegration or public recognition of a permanent schism (p. 89).

Using Turner's theoretical tools, let us look again at the composite conversion narrative cited at the outset of this essay. These Fundamentalist narratives function to maintain the social system and constitute a form of knowledge that Fundamentalists employ to build their theories of how the world works. But as Turner would have it, there is more going on. "[W]henever ritual is inspired by a religious belief in supernatural beings or powers, its status is different from other, inner-worldly forms of knowledge" and furnishes "some kind of 'surplus value' over and above other, secular forms of thought," so that "religion is not just like any other system of ideas and does have supreme ontological value" (Deflem, 1991, p. 12). Fundamentalists, like other religionists, are creating supreme reality in their cultural performances. "Sharing my testimony" is not merely epiphenomenal, not merely an expression of deeper processes; it is ontological. The speaker and audience are creating a world in which "spiritual warfare" (a commonplace term) is quite real, where the dangers of straying from communal expectations brings temporal woe and spiritual jeopardy, and adherence to culturally normative behavior is approved by God.

The testimony ritual occurs in settings replete with the manipulation of symbols. The dominant symbol (to use Turner's scheme) of Fundamentalism, as mentioned before, is the Bible. Many churches, perhaps a majority, have no crosses (or none which are readily visible) in the public ritual space. Yet many have oversized Bibles prominently displayed on the communion table below the pulpit. Some have depictions of the Bible carved into the wooden front of the pulpit or prominently mounted on the wall. A stylized open Bible is the logo for numerous churches and Fundamentalist colleges and mission boards. Preachers frequently hold up the Bible when gesturing. A large faction within Fundamentalism prominently features "the old-fashioned King James Bible" as its defining rhetoric.

Much more so than the cross, the Bible unifies all other instrumental symbols within the total system, while establishing the two poles of moral obligation and personal desire. In Fundamentalist conversion narratives, fealty to God's Word unifies such instrumental symbols as home and church (where the Bible is taught), the Christian school (which reinforces home and church by inculcating biblical principles), the preacher or pastor (who publicly proclaims the Bible), the pulpit (where the Bible is declared), the Christian friend or spiritual mentor (who privately holds the speaker accountable to the Bible), and the "life verse" (a Bible passage by which God has impressed a unique personal lesson). Note in the composite testimony story, presented above, how salvation comes as "mom (or dad) took the Bible," how a lack of spiritual commitment is indicated by "never read(ing) my Bible," how the preaching of the Bible initiates change, and how change is signified "a hunger for His Word." Moreover the Bible, as dominant symbol, forms the two poles of Fundamentalists' moral obligation (to read, heed, proclaim, and defend God's Word) and personal desire (to know God better by reading His Word and commune with God as He speaks to the believer through His Word).

In "sharing your testimony" lay speakers embark on a rite of passage as they progress through pre-liminal (testimony unknown), liminal (testimony shared), and post-liminal (testimony accepted) phases. In the scores of testimony narratives I observed, for the brief shining moment that the layperson inhabited the public ritual space of the church, a spirit of communitas prevailed in which social hierarchy was temporarily suspended and all were accounted equal in their shared need of divine redemption.

The testimony stories themselves are easily analyzed as social dramas which follow a pattern of breach, crisis, redressive action, and reintegration. The breach occurs when the narrator falls away from parental and pastoral teaching, observing the letter of community norms without sharing in their spirit. Then a crisis ensues when the narrator realizes that he/she is afflicted with doubt and questions the reality of his/her salvation. Redressive action is undertaken as the narrator appeals to concerned members of the Fundamentalist community and ultimately to God through prayer. At last, reintegration happens as the narrator is truly assured of his/her salvation and endorses community norms both by letter and spirit. (Conversion narratives never testify to recognition of permanent schism, of course, else the narrative would not be offered in the first place.)

Based on hundreds of sermons and scores of testimonies that I observed in some 200 churches, the idealized Fundamentalist cultural norms for "the Christian life" include: expectations of daily personal devotions and "family devotions" (paternal Bible instruction at dinnertime); attending church "whenever the doors are open" and tithing regularly; being an "ambassador for Christ" in the workplace and neighborhood through personal rectitude and evangelistic "witnessing"; setting "godly" standards for entertainment choices and personal attire; and generally living a "godly life" according to biblical precepts. Testimony narratives reinforce these communal expectations as the social drama provides listeners with cultural resources to frame their own situations and identities.

So for me, as I compared Huizinga to Turner, the question arose: Is Huizinga a structuralist who sees in play/ritual an epiphenomenon of deeper structural processes? This might seem to be the case, since Huizinga describes play/ritual as stepping out of "ordinary" life. And if I am fairly characterizing Huizinga as a structuralist, then is his view correct? Or is Turner more near the mark when he asserts that ritual is ontological, rather than only symbolic, as participants create supreme reality through their performance?

This discussion of Huizinga and Turner leads to many questions that might be asked this semester about games:

1. Do gamers symbolically express social interaction or do they create supreme reality?
2. Do games manifest Turner's dominant and instrumental symbols?
3. Do games manifest liminality and communitas?
4. Do games encode social dramas that provide cultural resources for gamers?


Conquergood, D. (1983, November). From ritual to theater: The human seriousness of play [Review of the book]. Literature in Performance, 4(1), 89-90.

Conquergood, D. (1989, January). Poetics, play, process, and power: The performative turn in
anthropology. Text and Performance Quarterly, 9(1), 82-88.

Deflem, M. (1991). Ritual, anti-structure, and religion: A discussion of Victor Turner's processual symbolic analysis. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 30(1), 1-25.

Philipsen, G. (1997). A theory of speech codes. In T. L. Albrecht & G. Philipsen (Eds.), Developing communication theories. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Philipsen. G., Coutu, L. M., & Covarrubias, P. (2005). Speech codes theory: Restatement, revisions, and response to criticisms. In W. B. Gudykunst (Ed.), Theorizing about intercultural communication. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Turner, V. W. (1967). The forest of symbols: Aspects of Ndembu ritual. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University.

Turner, V. W. (1968). The drums of affliction A study of religious processes among the Ndembu of Zambia. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press.

Turner, V. W. (1969). Forms of symbolic action: Introduction. In R. F. Spencer (Ed.), Forms of symbolic action: Proceedings of the 1969 Annual Spring Meeting of the American Ethnological Society. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Turner, V. W. (1974). Dramas, fields and metaphors: Symbolic action in human society. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Turner, V. W. (1975). Revelation and divination in Ndembu ritual. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Turner, V. W. (1977). Symbols in African ritual. In J. L. Dolgin, D. S. Kemnitzer, & D. M. Schneider (Eds.), Symbolic anthropology: A reader in the study of symbols and meanings. New York: Columbia University Press.

Turner, V. W. (1985). On the edge of the bush: Anthropology as experience (E. Turner, Ed.). Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Turner, V. W. (1986). The anthropology of performance. New York: PAJ Publications.

Van Gennep, A. (1960). The rites of passage (M. B. Vizedom & G. L. Caffee, Trans.). London:
Routledge & Kegan Paul. (Original work published 1909)