Wednesday, March 09, 2011

A Series on Virtual Life #2: Are we playing?

Some of the friends I've made on Second Life responded to my first post in this ongoing series on virtual life by clarifying to what extent they consider Second Life to be a "game." This is a helpful clarification. For example, Jayzz wrote,

I don't speak of Second Life as a game. To call it a game misrepresents it to gamers and non-gamers alike. Non-gamers will think it is just a way to while away time; gamers will try Second Life and will be at a loss for what they are supposed to do. I stick to calling it a virtual world, and sometimes point out that you can play games within SL just as you can within RL.

I agree that getting clear on the terminology of second life is important. Life together on second life is not real life (RL). It's virtual, on-line. However, it has some features of other games, inasmuch as it is a simulation of real life (for example, would you consider a flight simulator to be a game, or have features of a game?) Furthermore, it's true that on Second Life much of the world is not a game, but you can play games within SL. There are whole sims devoted to role-playing (in fact I met a chaplain today who travels to a sim where everyone role plays being in 1860s Colorado, complete with the clothes and roles appropriate to the time period... when he travels to this sim, he offers worship to role-players there). There are also less involved games available while in SL, such as checkerboards, etc. And there are simulated "games," like water slides.

So, by offering clarification here on games and what we mean by play and gaming, I don't mean to contradict Jayzz, but I do think SL offers an opportunity to approach the philosophy of gaming in a way fruitful for the study of worship and theology. The content of this blog post should also point up just how innovative SL is as a platform. It's so generative that it requires the exploration of new philosophical categories and the reconsideration of the definitions of terms like gaming and play.

"Ludwig Wittgenstein was probably the first academic philosopher to address the definition of the word game. In his Philosophical Investigations,[5] Wittgenstein demonstrated that the elements of games, such as play, rules, and competition, all fail to adequately define what games are. Wittgenstein concluded that people apply the term game to a range of disparate human activities that bear to one another only what one might call family resemblances." (Wikipedia)

That's about right, and important. So, considering Second Life again, although there isn't direct competition in the way there is competition in World of Warcraft or other fighting games, there is "play." You choose an avatar, a playful way of being in the world. The avatar is not you... it is your avatar. I don't think I'm diminishing what being an avatar is by saying it is like playing with dolls. Just watch small children play with dolls and you'll see what a "serious" activity it is. 

Most avatars also have a name that is not the RL name of those who are in SL. This is important for privacy, but it also lets participants "play" by role-playing a name or character different from RL. I remember doing this back when I was French class when I was in high school. I was Eduard. And while I was speaking French, my Eduard avatar was slightly different from my non-French persona.

In fact, all of this draws attention to the fact that pretty much all of our life is mediated, we just don't always notice it or admit it. Each of us "plays" almost everywhere without calling it that. I play a role as a pastor, dad, father, friend, blogger. In fact, who I am on my blog isn't quite who I am in person, and that's interesting. Everything is mediated, and SL simply points this up a bit more strongly than other mediations because it is digitally mediated.

Consider this definition of play from the book Homo Ludens:
Summing up the formal characteristic of play, we might call it a free activity standing quite consciously outside 'ordinary' life as being 'not serious' but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings that tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress the difference from the common world by disguise or other means.
One commentator on Homo Ludens writes, "The important thing for the reader to understand is that Huizinga does not think that play is in any way trivial or less than serious. In fact, he argues that play is a wider, more all-embracing concept than seriousness. Because the idea of seriousness excludes play, whereas the idea of play can very well be taken seriously."

Or consider this approach to a theology of play in Johnston's The Christian at Play:
"I would understand play as that activity which is freely and spontaneously entered into, but which, once begun, has its own design, its own rules or order, which must be followed so that the play activity may continue. The player is called into play by a potential co-player and/or play object, and while at play, treats other players and/or "playthings" as personal, creating with them a community that can be characterized by "I-Thou" rather than "I-It" relationships. This play has a new time (a playtime) and a new space (a playground) which function as "parentheses" in the life and world of the player. The concerns of everyday life come to a temporary standstill in the mind of the player, and the boundaries of his or her world are redefined. Play, to be play, must be entered into without outside purpose; it cannot be connected with a material interest or ulterior motive, for then the boundaries of the playground and the limits of the playtime are violated. But though play is an end in itself, it can nevertheless have several consequences. Chief among these are the joy and release, the personal fulfillment, the remembering of our common humanity, and the presentiment of the sacred, which the player sometimes experiences in and through the activity. One's participation in the adventure of playing, even given the risk of injury or defeat, finds resolution at the end of the experience, and one re-enters ongoing life in a new spirit of thanksgiving and celebration. The player is a changed individual because of the playtime, his or her life having been enlarged beyond the workaday world." (p. 34)
I seem to have shifted into creating a common place book on the topic of play, but maybe that's ok. I'm playing with a new concept, and these definitions are helpful. Now try this. Go back and read the Johnston quote above. Is this not a fairly awesome definition of worship? Or prayer? Are play and worship close to the same thing? In which case worship on SL is as authentic as worship elsewhere, and perhaps even more so because it is play nested within play...

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