“These Games Are Deadly Serious”: Games, Learning, and Safety

In chapter 2 of The Art of Computer Game Design, Chris Crawford (2011), a luminary in game design and one of the original founders of the Game Developers Conference, wrote that “these games are deadly serious.” In the book, Crawford is talking about the ways in which lion cubs learn by doing something—wrestling and grappling—but in a safe way.

Lion Cubs at Play with Each Other
Lion cubs at play with each other

Yet as Brian Sutton-Smith (2001) argued in The Ambiguity of Play, trying to correlate the act of animal play to animal progress expresses culture more than it expresses actual training. Play is often associated with a value that it provides an individual or a culture rather than having play for play’s sake (p. 18). This is not to dismiss the seriousness of play. Indeed, this statement acts to underline how serious it is. Play does not train the body for survival of the fittest (or at least, it doesn’t just do that); play—and its codification and control through games—is ideological control through both action and interpretation.

The difference between play and games is often arbitrary. We contend in this piece that play and games exist on a continuum, similar to Roger Caillois’ (2001) differentiation between paidia (free play, instinctive exuberance) and ludus (rule-bound, wherein mastery is rewarded). Yet as cultural anthropologist Johan Huizinga (1955) argued, play, too, is determined by rules. However, unlike games, the rules of play are impermanent, magically invoked within each play activity, only to dissipate at the end of play. Games, on the other hand, provide finite play. The rules are created and then recreated again and again each time that the magic circle is formed. It is within these game rules that the values of play are expressed. Games allow for disciplining; they allow for mastery; they allow for repetition. Games allow us to scale ourselves to the world. Thus, when Huizinga declared in Homo Ludens that people are animals of play even more than they are linguistic animals, he is commenting on the play function allowing for symbolic meaning making and cultural codification. Further, people play within games, and gamic rules dictate free play. And most of the time, play and games exist in what Huizinga referred to as the magic circle.

The magic circle provides an invoked space that is removed from the ordinary world, demarcated in both space and time. People who enter the circle do so voluntarily, subjecting themselves to the ambivalence between frivolity and ecstasy (Huizinga, 1955, p. 17; 21). The magic circle must be safe for free play to happen, in order to allow people to pretend to be a villain on the playground—the dreaded “it”—only to return to friend and classmate with no repercussions once the game is over.

Children Playing Tag with Each Other
Children playing tag with each other

Steven Conway (2014) built on Huizinga’s now famous theory, articulating it with Michael J. Apter’s theories concerning the psychological protective frame. Huizinga provided a social contract that allows for interpersonal play; Apter, according to Conway, created a protective frame that is individual and optional for play. In the case of this particular study, it is important to note these protective spaces in games exist precisely because of the safety that games represent to people who opt into them.

Games and gamification can provide a safe entrance into what might otherwise be a high-stakes event (such as a professional conference). In playing the game, the people are slightly removed, occupying a game space that is layered on top of the professional space of the conference. Participants can invoke the protective frame that allows for a sense of individual safety. In offering the types of quests that they did, the designers of C’s the Day make visible the structure of the CCCC world, the values and cultures that permeate it, rewarding people for playing within those rules. C’s the Day provides a structure that enables single people to scale themselves to a temporary world created out of thousands of participants. It provides a place where uncertainty, always present in games, can be tested interactively. To quote game designer Greg Costikyan (2013), “games are supposed to be, in some sense, ‘hard to use,’ or at least, nontrivial to win” (p. 16). So too, we would argue, are professional academic careers.

We have already created uncertainty through grad school, the job market, and the tenure process without the scaffolding of explicit rules and along-the-way rewards. C’s the Day makes explicit the rules and rewards for a small portion of the professionalization process in a finite space and time. Quests such as “Illuminate Me,” for example, which ask players to “meet a field luminary, without being obnoxious,” not only offer players opportunities to network at the conference, they also serve as windows into what is valued in terms of professionalization in the field (getting to know senior members of the field and being confident introducing oneself to others at conferences). However, what Sparklegate responded to, in part, was the expansion of the magic circle to include people who had not voluntarily entered it, who did not opt in. Thus, when one CCCC participant (a “field luminary” who was not playing the game) complained via social media that someone just ran up to her and asked for a signature to get an achievement, her complaint was legitimate. It was akin to walking from the swings to the slide and having someone run up and slap her on the back, yelling “You’re it!” But this is always the danger of the augmented reality game, or ARG, which is played in real time, often in offline spaces, and thus open to potential loss of control over what occurs during the game. And had the critique ended here, we would have agreed. However, the initial social media complaint drew over a hundred (122 as of July 18, 2014) additional responses as members of the rhetoric and composition community hashed out their responses to C’s the Day—including a fair number of complaints that this is not how professionals behave, and even worse, that this is not how adults behave. Yet as one of the authors can attest in this piece, at a previous institution, she and a number of other professional adults used to hand out and play Business Buzzword Bingo at faculty meetings. Huizinga remains correct; we are playing animals.

The Sparklegate event illuminates a whole series of ideologies and biases in the field of rhetoric and composition that in turn reveal attitudes about the field itself. Sparklegate was a flashpoint where a whole series of tensions occurred. In it, composition becomes synonymous with games. In the collapse of those two elements, composition becomes dismissible and rhetoric is put on a pedestal (as we explain later in this webtext). We see cultural ideologies around games (e.g., games are for kids) but also tensions in the field itself (e.g., this is why no one takes us seriously). Thus Sparklegate, while ostensibly over, is an important moment to look back at because it illuminates how tensions between emergent areas of scholarship, such as games studies, butt up against fields of study with a longer history, such as rhetoric and composition. Here, uncertainties about professional status and overlap come to a head over particular moments like interacting with a luminary during C’s the Day. With C's the Day returning for its sixth year in 2016, a discussion of the game and these tensions is timely.