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3rd Vienna Games Conference

Future and Reality of Games (F.R.O.G.) 2009: On the edge of


Vienna, City Hall, 26.9.2009

Keynote: “Games, reflexivity, and

Benjamin Jörissen,

Presentation script, not citeable! May be freely used under the following


This presentation’s slides are to be found here:

My talk is itself a bit on the edge insofar it will be a kind of explorative
crossover of two questions. The first axis is that of a certain contemporary
theory of self-education through media – Medienbildung, and I want to ask
if ideas such as reflexivity, articulation, creativity, which are crucial to it,
have to be more critically assessed with regard to subliminal, implicit
effects of power.

The second axis is that of the phenomenon of digital games in relation to

“self-education” (Bildung). The intended shift on the first axis – if self-
education is implicitly tied to effects of power – also touches this second
question. The whole sums up to the question: are Bildung and power
structurally intertwined in computer games (and if so, how)?

Why, you may ask, am I looking not only for the important issue of
educational benefits but also for a critical examination of this field, in a

situation where digital games and new media in general are still mostly
condemned by the mass media and politicians (except of course in this
beautiful city of Vienna)? It’s because I think that, thanks to the work of
very many practitioners and researchers, the educational relevance,
benefits, and potentials have meanwhile been shown in so many ways and
examples that they have to be at least basically clear for everyone who
dares to take a serious look upon this field. I personally focused for quite
some time on showing up potentials of various the realms of new media,
and I have the feeling that, on this basis, it’s just logical to take a further,
more differentiated step towards a constructive and theory-based
educational media critique.

I’d like to start with a little story of a gaming experience I made long time
ago – and I guess, many of you will have made similar experiences. It’s
maybe about 12 or more years or so ago when I used to play the Microsoft
Golf Simulator Version 3. It was just a kind of state of the art golf
simulator, very primitive of course for today’s standards, but very well
playable. I just played it times and times again and learned how to handle
those virtual golf clubs in a satisfying way. At that point, I began to explore
the areas beside the course. As you may know, in a golf simulator you
usually can’t just walk around; you’re more or less bound to the place
where your golfball lies. So the only way to move around in a golf
simulator is by hitting the ball in the direction you want to move. Luckily,
the game let me do this, hitting the ball in any direction (except the
appropriate) one time after the other, which was a lot of fun in itself
(because it’s deviant). Of course I was curious where this world would end.
When I finally reached the border, I was astonished. Unfortunately, I don’t
have a screenshot of it. What I saw was a mixture of the regular landscape
on the ground and a sky and horizon that was cluttered with smeared
blocks and pixels of the background graphics (some Canadian mountains)
all over. I had the feeling that I saw the graphics engine at work, as if I
would look right upon the embodied code of the game itself in a way. And
it was beautiful! (13th floor) You’d be in a place that shouldn’t be there,
wich has not been intended, which is kind of impossible. I’m a philosopher,
so I immediately felt like home at this strange, intermediate place. I was
not able to move beyond (though I would have loved to), but at least I was
standing just right on the border of the “regular” world simulation and this
area where the construction principles of this world had gone wild and
unveiled themselves to me in form of this unpredictably changing sky. It
has not been the last time I’ve been there, and as you see, I still
remember this experience with joy. The beautiful imperfection of this
game world was just perfect to me.

I have no statistics about this phenomenon but I strongly guess that

experiences like this, which are sometimes called “emergent gameplay”,
are not uncommon to most gamers. Where did this odd feeling of joy came
from? Is it just I’m a fan of cluttered, smeared pixel-horizons? (not in
particular). Should I be that kind of nerd which has a metaphysical
experience when he sees computer code itself at work? (no, not the case).
Or did it have something to do with the disciplined in-game practice in
trying to follow the conditions and rules in order to master the game? A
feeling of liberation, in a way? Was my initial idea of leaving the regular
paths of the game kind of subversive, did I enjoy to take over the
leadership of this situation? (And, would it still be like this when I tried to
be “deviant” in GTA 3, a game where it’s pre-programmed that the world
can be explored without focusing on the official goal?)

So, this was a personal example to illustrate kind of “edge” or border my

talk tries to discuss.

I’d now like to frame my point of view on digital gaming – in order not to
be unclear about my position in this field of research. As an educational
scientist, I focus on processes like socialization, learning, and education. I
worked on theoretical problems like issues of identity and subjectivation
and anthropology on the one hand, media phenomena on the other hand,
for example by conducting an ethnographical study about Lanparties
(which is rather unknown because media researchers, as I suppose,
seldom read books about social rituals).

Both fields bear of course multiple interconnections through issues like
virtual identities, virtual bodies, new forms of the social, and so on. Of
course, this approach implicates a rather broad view on things. In
consequence, my focus on media phenomena is likewise a broad one. I try
to gain a view upon the various types of what I’d like to call emergent
media, because I think that all these new transformative phenomena like
the social web, the revolution of digital photography and the
transformation of visual culture through it, the new forms of mediated
sociality in the realm of the social web, and of course digital games and
virtual worlds, form a progressively convergent media sphere and thus are
equally relevant to the question in which way these media transformation
affects the way people live, work, and interact today and in the future. Put
in educational terms, the question is how socialization, learning, and
education are transforming through emergent media.

My research spreads on different types of media (and eventually tries to

find theoretical and methodological interconnections between them), and
possibly this points toward something like a comparative educational view
on media. That said, depending on how you define the young field of
digital game studies (if as a new scientific discipline in its own right or
rather an interdisciplinary research field of an emergent phenomenon that
is complex, but not sharply defined at its borders), I’d not call myself a
“native” to game studies but rather someone who tries to recognize,
interrogate and include this field into that broad view of ongoing
transformations. The following thoughts are meant as a further, tentative
step towards this. I promise btw. to raise much more questions than I’ll
answer today.

1. Media “Bildung”

The broad dissemination and great popularity of computer and video

games have made digital gaming an integral part of the everyday culture
of very many people. It is therefore not really astonishing that a great deal
of work is dedicated to considering the possibilities of taking advantage of
this development by adapting and applying digital games for training or
instructional purposes. The results are promising, obviously. For example,
a report of the US-council of science and public health officially confirmed
in 2007 that “video games have been shown to have beneficial effects as
learning aids within the health care sector” (CSAPH, 2007, p. 3). However,
while considerable attention is being paid to this instrumental approach—
that means, using digital games for pedagogical purposes—the informal,
self-educational relevance of digital games is equally important.

Now, what is exactly meant with the concept of Bildung? If that german
term should be uncommon to you, you may know pragmatist philosophers
and educational theorists such as John Dewey or George Herbert Mead.
Dewey, for example, has promoted the notion of “experience” as a means
of understanding rich processes of learning and identity development,
resulting in new habits and attitudes, in new ways of seeing and
interpreting the world.

Much of this pragmatist idea resembles the concept of Bildung as

developed in German idealist philosophy, especially in Hegel’s
understanding of the individual as being involved in a constantly ongoing
process of confrontation and negotiation with his sociocultural
environment, thus developing a unique, but nonetheless culturally specific
personality. Similarly, Wilhelm von Humboldt’s concept of Bildung is based
on an active individual. He forms his individual intellect and mind in a
permanent process of encountering different cultural worlds and

The common understanding of Bildung is often reduced to something like

being well-educated or having good general knowledge. The very core of
the scientific concept of Bildung, as educational theorist Winfried Marotzki
pointed out (Marotzki, 1990), is the idea that individuals gain and grow
into cultural worlds only through social participation and the experience of
difference, of resistance, and of otherness. This includes creative forms of
action, such as play or the creation of artefacts, as well as the
confrontation with one’s own and foreign languages, cultural forms and
manners. Put shortly, Bildung is all about a form of experience that leads
towards a structural transformation of the individual’s world view.

Bildung in this sense involves a kind of deep, orientational knowledge that
cannot simply be acquired by learning in the sense of “adding new
information to a stock of knowledge”. What we address as processes of
“self-education” thus transcends the horizons of the common everyday
world and is bound to change the way a person makes sense of his world
as well as of himself. Far from being a plain learning process, self-
education points at the reframing of former world views, thus leading
towards a more reflexive, flexible and complex relation to the world.

With regard to the extraordinary importance that attitudes such as

reflexivity, the ability to recognize others and otherness, and a flexibility of
world views and thinking, have gained in postmodern, post-traditional, and
globalized societies, it is evident that every opportunity that helps to
achieve a tentative attitude towards the world must be recognized as a
valuable resource and educational opportunity.

Media play a major role in this respect, and even more so the new media.
Bildung as a process can hardly be thought of as a purely individual
matter. It rather has to be understood as participative process placed
within a social or even public sphere. World views have to be expressed in
order to become reflexive, and they deserve the recognition of the others
for the same reason. “Who articulates himself”, as philosopher Matthias
Jung expressed it, “interprets his qualitative experience by putting it into
language, into an image, into music or wherever.” (Jung 205, 126).

The active participation in social or societal discussions and discourses

demands the ability to articulate oneself, and to stage those articulation
within public arenas. Articulation, thus understood as a quite basic
anthropological term, involves the formation of experiences as well as the
reflection upon them through interaction and communication with others.
In this perspective, Bildung appears to be a matter of performative
processes, of educational cultures.

As far as media in today’s world provide vast stages for articulation, for
cultural social encounters, it is evident that Bildung is inevitably tied to

participatory media as realms of gaining reflexivity and orientational
knowledge in a hypercomplex world.

Thus, the analysis of the structural presuppositions for such processes is a

central concern of the research field of media Bildung, which leads to
various methods of structural analysis, depending on the type of media
product or social media arena, such as films, photography, the complex
networks of the social web, virtual worlds and, of course, digital games.

Cf. Dimension Model:

reflexivity-and-governance p. 16 (used for the following analysis)

This is so to speak the core idea of a structural theory of media Bildung as

it has been developed and published recently. Before I’ll go on adding a
second, more critical layer to this approach, I’d like to show an example
how it is applied to digital games.

2. Self-educational dimensions of digital games (example)

Most of you will at least have heard of one of the most sold games ever,
The Sims. The Sims is a game that is very open and expressive, made for
building and furnishing a house, styling your virtual character which of
course is called a Sim, making decisions concerning the wishes and goals
he utters, and last not least making friends and enemies, letting your Sim
marry and have a family, and care for him until he dies of some illness or
so. It’s also possible to reanimate a dead Sim in order to play on with his
ghost, which is capable of the same actions as living Sims, including giving
birth to little baby ghost Sims.

The Sims is a perfect example for what Johannes Fromme, well known in
german educational game studies, calls a “playful semiotic domain” in
accordance with James Paul Gee.

“New semiotic domains provoke reframing of former world views, because

they call for new cognitive patterns of perception and interpretation.
In order to assess critically the ‘educational capacities’ of a particular
game, its demands for new and different ways of acting and thinking have
to be taken into account. A ‘close reading’ of a particular game is suitable
for revealing whether the required patterns of actions, the structure of the
gaming environments, the involved characters, etc. bear the necessary
potential of irritation, demands of creative action, or identification with
new, unknown roles—playfully experiencing new identities and learning to
take perspectives from other in-game characters bear valuable
educational potential.” (Fromme/Jörissen/Unger 2008, 763)

Put shortly, because the potentials of The Sims in this respect are pretty


• understanding what a city basically is (as a whole; reduced

complexity makes it possible): functional aspects: economy,
infrastructure, cultural life and so on
• Getting to know some basics about the organization of an adult’s life
• Gaining knowledge about jobs and careers, prices etc.

• Problems of proper communication,

• ethical conflicts and interest conflict between opposing sims (e.g.
money is offered for doing harm to another sim which could be your
• decision making in terms of becoming or not becoming deviant;
experiencing paradoxical aspects of everyday life such as having to
work while having to take care for a child, etc.

• Ghosts at night on the cemetery; depending on your sim’s character,

he will be frightened (handling anxiety)
• any Sims may become seriously sick, sims die of illnesses or
accidents (though they may be revived and live on as ghosts)

• Many possibilities for self-expression such as building and furnituring

houses, styling your Sims, assigning character features, choosing life
goals, making “existential” decisions
• Possible to build own items and share them

3. Bildung, power, and governance
Now for the” second layer” to the educational theory I spoke of. What we
did not refer to so far is an issue in the background of this conception of
Bildung that has raised some serious questions in the (at least german)
educational discourse in the recent years. When we talk about knowledge
we may immediately remember the critical role this term plays in the
thought of Michel Foucault, who conceived knowledge as a major
instrument in the social games of power and regiment. To Foucault, power
is not something that is in the hand of a few in order to dominate the rest.
Instead, relations of power traverse every part of the social, even the
smallest social interactions. Power gains its effects by constituting (and
being reproduced by) discourses and practices, which establish certain
ways an individual may address himself and be addressed (an issue of
identity) or certain practices, like practices of discipline, which constitute
subjects through subordination (the subiectum can be translated as the

Identity and subjectivity thus appear as effects of a power which is not so

much one that punishes and forbids, but one that makes certain ways of
living possible or preferable, and which positively enables subjects to act –
though in a controlled, regulated way. In this perspective, every
articulation is an utterance within a game of power, positioning the
speaker within a certain social field in order to gain certain effects.
Creativity itself appears as contaminated, because the creative subject
has already been produced as a subject of power. It plays the same game,
so to say, and tends to reproduce the effects that constituted it; not
because someone forced it to do so, but because this is an established
way of acting. The same goes, of course, for reflexivity, which is the core
moment of becoming a subject. Important to mention for those who do not
know Foucaults theory is that there is no outside of power, no position
from where it would be possible to conceive, speak or articulate anything

What Foucault thus was searching for were strategies of resistance. Of
course, every “simple” act of resistance just doubles and reproduces the
power, at least if the individuals act as subjects.

Now, if power is conceived as something that is widely spread, it is not a

sufficient concept in itself to explain effects of unequal distribution of
power relations.

There’s another important concept in this context, which Foucault called

“Governmentality” (built from to govern + mentality). I surely won’t do
justice to this complex term of the later Foucault here, but it might be said
that Governmentality is kind of a bridging concept between the fluid
relations of power and the fixed forms of the regiment, as well as between
power and subjectivity. If people can’t escape from their networks of
power relations, they may at least try to govern themselves instead of
being dominated by a regiment, such as modern societies were to

The discussions about the concept of Bildung (in germany) have rather
lately adopted Foucaults cross-grained ideas. The outcome varies, starting
with those who judge that the idea of Bildung is too deeply contaminated
with power issues. Educational Philosopher Norbert Ricken, for instance,
concludes in his major study on the impact of Foucaults work on the
concept of Bildung that it would be rather unlikely that Bildung would ever
be able to serve as a critical concept again (Ricken 2006, 347). However,
other voices, like Judith Butler, show that Foucault wasn’t all that
pessimistic. The strategy she makes up basically lies in constructing, or “a
radical making” of subjectivity while refusing “the historical hegemony”
which embraces us (Butler 2001, 100 f.). This is not possible against the
dominating power but, as a subversive strategy, by repeating it, for
instance, so that the hidden logic of power relations becomes visible (the
queer movement would be a classical example for this sort of re-

Educational Philosopher Jenny Lüders concludes likewise that, if the idea of

Bildung as a critical concept under the auspices of Foucaults theory of

power would be furthermore possible, this would only be so by
productively subverting discourses of power by means of marking the
dominating discourses and possibly subverting them this way (Lüders
2004, 66).

In both cases, the strategies of resistance consist of performative

practices aiming to make dominating discourses visible. This could be
seen as a kind of performed reflection upon discourses and practices. A
certain discourse of power, once made visible, will hardly be ever the
same in that context, and what is performed will not lead to a new
identity, but rather break this form.

3. Back to the games

How are relations of power and rule structured in the realm of digital

According to the “ludologic” view of Jesper Juul, games can be

conceptualized as rule-based systems with appended fictional elements.
This approach raises quite some questions – concerning his concept of
rule, which does not really relate itself much to sociological and
anthropological discussions, concerning the concept of fiction, which
seemingly mixes narration and the game imagery into one category,
finally questions concerning the role of the interface and the body, which
obviously becomes more and more important to gaming (Wii, but also
iPhone). Nonetheless, I think that Juul’s focus on rules contributes a lot to
our understanding of digital games. Here’s his definition (Juul 2005, 36):

1. Rules
2. outcome
3. valorization of outcome
4. player effort
5. player attached to outcome
6. negotiable consequences of the outcome

"A game is a rule-based system with a variable and

quantifiable outcome, where differences between outcomes
are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in
order to influence the outcome, the player feels emotionally
attached to the outcome, and the consequences of the
activity are negotiable."
Against the background of Foucaults theory of power, it is obvious that
digital games are an especially interesting subject. The rules in digital
games significantly differ, as I think, from traditional game rules that. As
far as I can see, Juul does not make this difference, but it’s relatively clear
to see. The official rules of the American Go Association for example
include a passage for the case that one player sets two stones in a row
(without waiting for his opponent to set his stone). In this case, he has to
remove the second stone from the board and hand it to his opponent
(which is a slight loss in points). The opponent has to recognize the fault
before setting his stone. If he does not do so, the game goes on as usual,
and the first player has gained a very significant time advantage (by now
having legally set two stones in a row).

What happens here is that the rules of a supposedly closed system

transcend their own realm by passing the responsibility for the following
game state to an instance outside of the rule system (the players may
negotiate to eliminate the failure and restore the former state of the

I do not know a single Computer Go Game which allows a player to

accidentally or intentionally place two stones in a row. The algorithmic
version of the go rules could have been exactly implemented according to
the AGA rules. But as the computer is able to perfectly monitor the series
of alternating draws, this special rule has been eliminated. While now the
computer has full control, the player is de-subjectivated insofar he is no
longer responsible for his attention management in this respect. This is
maybe just a little detail, but it’s kind of striking, because GO is a very
traditional and very regulated game.

So, computer games are maybe even “more” closed rule systems than
non-computer games are – which makes them a perfect structure for
processes of subjectivation. Playing a game generally requires the gamer
to subordinate himself to the rules of the game. It’s interesting to note at
this point that rules themselves have no power. Rules themselves can’t

force anyone to do anything. The source of power in non-computer
multiplayer games are the gamer themselves as a group, as the GO-
example shows. But the more closed a rule system is (in the sense that
the rules are perfectly transformed into algorithms), the less may this form
of power exist in that field.

So, if rules don’t force the gamer, they govern him. Systems of rules are
systems of governance in this respect. Playing a digital game thus requires
the gamer to subordinate him to the game, transferring his power to it,
from every single moment of the gaming process to the next, iteratively.
And this is surely as ambivalent as all power relations are, but it is not
necessarily a bad thing. Just like the subversive performative power that
Butler talks about, the subordination can first be enjoyed (and maybe this
is a major source of joy in gaming) and afterwards subverted. It seems to
me that what I did in my beloved Microsoft Golf Simulator 3 was just that. I
iterated that very gesture of subordination which was central to this game
and subverted its rules by doing so: Striking the ball with the club, just like
I had learned it through in-game practice – now just in a slightly different
direction, directly led me to the edge of this game.

My question was how a concept of “Bildung”, related to digital games,
would look like if the effects of power are taken into account. I’ve surely
just strived that very complex matter here, but I think it’s at least possible
to keep this somewhat odd perspective in mind. To this, I guess it would
be possible to transform the heuristic, or to add this as an additional layer,
focusing on issues like which discourses and practices are in which way
performed in a game as well as how the body and the gamer himself are
involved into the gaming process.

How would The Sims be assessed with this heuristic? Probably not that
enthusiastic, as is governs to perform a certain normative scheme of
living, and it’s quite sure to say that it employs many patterns of
hegemonic discourses.

Aditionally, it’s not unthinkable that the subordination under the rules of a
appropriate game may be a realization of something like the care of the
self – another Foucauldian topic of interest in relation to Bildung.


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