Stuart Moulthrop: From Work to Play

[Readings] (08.29.08, 4:49 pm)


Moulthrop comes from a general background of Ludology, and spends much of his time critiquing Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck. The general idea of the essay seems to be an attempt to find other means of relevance for game studies, especially as a means of comprehending culture. Moulthrop strongly references Pierre Levy on collective intelligence, and is trying to derive some form of understanding of games and game studies as being critical to the realization of a molecular society.


Moulthrop opens his essay by noting the contemporary setting and peculiar position of game studies in the (particularly American) political climate. He references Donna Haraway on the current state of the cultural system, as polymorphous and informational rather than industrial. Haraway sees society as transforming to one oriented around play and deadly games instead of work. The idea of using play to express the cultural/political condition in the sort of post-industrial “neo-Taylorist” setting seems, as Moulthrop notes, inherently troublesome.

This idea is the first step towards realizing the molecular society, though. The essence of Moulthrop’s connection is that games are emblematic of a culture of configuration, rather than consumption (or “mere” interpretation). Configuration enables a new response to media, and a new kind of awareness hitherto disabled.

A connection is made between these ideas and the restrictive nature perceived by the role of literary criticism as applied to games. The objection here is the classic cry of attack made by ludologists, but it is posed in the context of this larger cultural dilemma. A division is posed between drama and narrative as compared to play, simulation, and game. The idea is that the so called narrativists expect these media to serve the function of telling stories.

The change in focus that Moulthrop desires is to turn attention to the configurative power that users/players might have over works, as opposed to the interpretive ones. One of the fundamental things that is appealing about games is the process of participatory freedom, at least in ways of engaging with the game in multiple ways. For example, seeing what happens when the puzzle fails rather than succeeds.

However, it is important to note that even in the “most interactive” of games, there are severe limits to this configuration. In GTA, I might have the freedom to commit many kinds of crime, to customize my character, to run free about the city, but there is a significant limitation in that this is all it is ever possible to do. I cannot make the game about anything else. This may be a shallow criticism, but it is exactly the same constraint posed by the practice of interpretation. The only difference is that with configuration, the openness of the work to the player is inscribed and represented within the world of the work itself, but with interpretation it is only in the mind of the reader. This difference too is not severe, since ultimately, nothing is actually *changed* in the game, at least not in the way that others might play it. From the perspective of networked games or communities, this could easily mirror the status of interpretive communities that share and communally shape interpretations.

Further difference is claimed in Alternate Reality games (such as those for the film AI and the Beast for Halo), and emphasizing their procedural appeal. At the same time, narratives to have their procedural mechanics, and furthermore the appeal of these, the mystery, is rarely the ineffability of the “puzzleness” alone. I would argue that the puzzle solving and the fiction of these sorts of games are inseparable, or at least, it is their intricate and deep connection that makes the game so appealing.

Moulthrop finds that one of his main differences with Janet Murray is the role of transparency in games. This perspective of Murray’s seems to originate from Don Norman, who views transparency as ideal. All media eventually find some transparency (ie, over time the television ceases to be a box and turns into a window). However, part of the power of computers (as found by Sherry Turkle) is their immersiveness and holding power, which derive from their inherent opacity. Transparency is furthermore not even the ideal in literature, since open works are deliberately ambiguous and inexact, and even sometimes seemingly contradictory.

A conflict is posed here, between the consumptive values of transparent media versus the values of participatory media. The example given is Citizen’s Broadcast radio, which fell because people supposedly found nothing to say. The trend for passivity seems to change dramatically after the introduction of online participatory culture, but the suddenness of that is debatable. From DeCerteau, we might find that individuals do more with the things they consume than merely absorb them.

Moulthrop’s conclusion nonetheless ties together the values of configuration (what one might even call openness) to the ideas of participation and procedural literacy and criticism.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorMoulthrop, Stuart
TitleFrom Work to Play
Tagsdms, cybertext, ludology, games
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

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