Serious Games and the Study of Society

Understanding the games that play us all



The basic notion of a theory of serious games is that culture as an object of study can be described as a set of serious and non-serious games which involve its members in rule-governed and rule creating actions. The notion of “culture as serious game” is not presented as the ultimate explanatory tool, but rather as a description perhaps more apt than “culture as text” or “culture as drama.” Similarly, members of a culture can perhaps be better described as “players,” and “pawns” rather than as “agents” or “actors.” This brings to the fore the performative aspect of culture. The actual serious games that envelope us, the culture we belong to and others we encounter as “strangers,” are not strongly delimited by the theory of serious games. This theory provides the barest of form, a basis upon which any number of serious games, fantastic or not, can be (and have been) fashioned.

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“In daily life, games are seen as part of recreation and ‘in principle devoid of important repercussions upon the solidity and continuity of collective and institutional life.’ [from: Caillois 1957, p.99] Games can be fun to play, and fun alone is the approved reason for playing them.

Because serious activity need not justify itself in terms of the fun it provides, we have neglected to develop an analytical view of fun and an appreciation of the light that fun throws on interaction in general. This paper attempts to see how far one can go by treating fun seriously.”
(Goffman 1961, 17)



              The basic notion of a theory of serious games is that culture as an object of study can be described as a set of serious and non-serious games which involve its members in rule-governed and rule creating actions. The notion of “culture as serious game” is not presented as the ultimate explanatory tool, but rather as a description perhaps more apt than “culture as text” or “culture as drama.” Similarly, members of a culture can perhaps be better described as “players,” and “pawns” rather than as “agents” or “actors.” This brings to the fore the performative aspect of culture. The actual serious games that envelope us, the culture we belong to and others we encounter as “strangers,” are not strongly delimited by the theory of serious games. This theory provides the barest of form, a basis upon which any number of serious games, fantastic or not, can be (and have been) fashioned.

              Embedded in the following text is also an implicit critique of rationalism as Habermas would have us use this concept; that is, of rationalism as a mature/advanced state of cultural growth/evolution. At the end, it is hoped that the reader might consider instead that rationalism is a remarkably successful strategy for legitimizing certain aspects of serious games. As such it is a powerful alibi for actions, no more, but certainly enough of a role for any concept.

              Herein is presented a discussion of terms like “world creation” and “game”, “work” and “play”, “serious” and “trivial”, “risk,” and “action”. In their new (or rediscovered) meanings these terms become tools of the game of creating a theory of games. As the semantic space of such terms and many others changes, these changes are signals of the transformations I wish to describe, transformations as broad and profound as the Protestant Reformation, and as narrow—and yet profound—as the shift from the performance of a single Japanese matsuri as a festival to its performance as a pageant. The following theory of games may be seen as a part of the change from a modern to a post-modern outlook (à la Kroker), or it may not. What it demands of the reader is not that it be accepted as true, but rather that it be taken seriously, which is all that any game can actually demand.



It is not the act [of sexual intercourse] as such that the spirit of the language tends to conceive as play; rather the road thereto, the preparation for and introduction to ‘love’, which is often made enticing by all sorts of playing. This is particularly true when one of the sexes has to rouse or win the other over to copulation.
(Huizinga 1949, 43)


I: From Cultural Performances to Serious Games

              This paper will explore what Milton Singer originally called “cultural performances” (Singer 1955), however, not from his original perspective—where performances are dramatically framed action embedded within the larger universe of “normal life”—but rather from the perspective that social action generally takes place within frameworks or contexts that can productively (within the goal of understanding culture) be called “serious games.” Culture[1], particularly in its world-creating and sustaining capacities, can be discussed using terms defined in the theory of serious games. Before looking at this serious game theory’s more specific socioanthropolinguistic (it’s an ugly word but someone has to use it) extensions, the paper will introduce the theory’s place within the human sciences.

              In serious game theory, festivals, pageants, rituals, rites, breakfast conversations, working lunches, clandestine afternoon trysts (Huizinga’s winding road to copulation), supermarket checkout encounters, freeway driving, political conventions, supreme court sessions, military coups: each of the various social encounters that envelope our actions from day to day or minute to minute are individually determined by the game that promotes and sustains its context and its conduct. Donning a three-piece suit for a business meeting is actually much more than superficially analogous to donning one’s whites for a cricket match.

              The strength of this analogy, and of the theory that generates it with some sophistication, is that it allows for a further examination into the motivations of suit-donning and other actions, as well as a perspective on the controls that manipulate these motivations. The use of an extended theory of “serious games”—extended, that is from Erving Goffman’s original notion of “game encounters” (1961)—provides a methodological entrée to what Clifford Geertz calls “thick description.” When Geertz (and others after him) abandoned the methodologically “powerful” instruments of the social sciences—the rigorous methods of statistical reasoning and a recourse to the validity of emically verifiable description— he then suggested that semiotics was a good (at least better than structure or function) place to start. Instead of working toward a “scientific” vision of the human sciences, Geertz argued that humanists try again to address the problem of meaning. Given meaning as the object of study, he had little choice but to look into the (admittedly more quarrelsome) methods of interpretation, to what he called “thick description,” which amounted to a meaning-full interpretation of specific actions in specific places and times: i.e., in particular contexts. “As interworked systems of construable signs (what, ignoring provincial usages, I would call symbols), culture is not a power, something to which social events, behaviors, institutions, or processes can be causally attributed; it is a context, something within which they can be intelligibly—that is, thickly—described”(Geertz 1973a, 14 [emphasis mine]). What Geertz determined was that meaning must be approached through the study of performance. Humanists are thus presented with the task of connecting performance and meaning. Earlier models for this task equated culture with text (seen later as too linear), and then with drama (seen later as too programmatic—who is the playwright?). The model of culture as game allows performance to engender meaning with a range of motivations and attitudes. This is where serious game theory comes into play.

              Specifically, a culture is found in both performances (events and their contexts) and its texts (oral, written, and video), and, more problematically, in the unexpectedly “thick” region between these two aspects[2]. Serious game theory allows for explorations into the actions evidenced in cultural performances, into the semantic ordering of texts, and most significantly, of the structure of the hidden space between these.

              The goal of serious game theory is to provide the minimal form for culture, a description wherein action and concept (performance and meaning) are not transparently connected. As Geertz (and others such as Boon, 1982) have suggested, action must not be confused with knowledge. “You can’t wink (or burlesque one) without knowing what counts as winking or how, physically, to contract your eyelids,… But to draw from such truths the conclusion that knowing how to wink is winking…is to betray a deep confusion as, taking thin descriptions for thick, to identify winking with eyelid contractions…”(Geertz 1973a, 12).

              The problematic that Geertz uncovered with his call for “thick description” is one of determining what goes on between the worn-smooth surfaces of meaning, on one hand, and performance, on the other. Between these two hands, or behind them, something is said to be happening. What we get out of Geertz is talk of “deep play” and “meta-commentaries” (1972). What we need is just enough structure to pry these two surfaces apart. Between knowing how (and when and where and with whom) to wink and doing it, lies—a lie[3], or rather a whole passel of lies. (Actually, I prefer Barthes’s term, “alibi,” but am uncertain of the proper group adjective. We could be looking at a cohort of alibis.) The biggest alibi of all is actually the one that meaning gives to performance, and that performance uses on meaning (it never fails), and it is something like this: “I am good and true and beautiful, and I am just like you.” We can thus restate the problematic that started this paragraph: having recognized that meaning and performance are alibis for each other, why don’t people ever catch on?

              Serious game theory begins with the assumption that action and concept are not consistent, and for interesting reasons (not just dysfunctional ones). Under this theory, the performative aspects of culture earlier described by Turner (See Turner 1969, 1975, 1979) can be explored along with their conceptual, semantic counterparts (such as those presented in Lakoff and Johnson (1980) and other explorations into the semantics of metaphor (Ricoeur 1977, Sacks 1977, Lakoff 1987, Lakoff and Turner 1989)). The use of metaphor, particularly in its mythologizing role (again à la Barthes) can be brought into full play in descriptions of serious games. Recent social psychological studies into the motivations for actions, particularly those of Csikszentmihalyi (1975, 1988) and others (e.g. Mitchell 1988, Sato 1988), provide the initial conception of motivation necessary for a serious game theory, along with earlier theories of need fulfillment (Maslow 1943, 1954). Again, serious game theory presents only the most basic structure, just enough to allow these linguistic, ethnographic, and social psychological notions to begin to work in concert. It defines a vocabulary to be used in describing the participation of individuals in cultures, and, hopefully, it will dovetail with current sociological theories, which would describe in greater detail the actual contingencies of this participation.

              As a term, “game” seems at first look hardly qualified to encompass the actions, institutions, and world-views that it will have to control for serious game theory to be adequate to its own description. These cultural agencies and processes have been previously discussed under a variety of terms: “cultural framework,” “life world,” “religion,” etc. Decades of careful fieldwork and study have brought into perspective many events, actions, and meanings that have not heretofore been readily classified as parts of games. Partially, this represents our Post-reformation perspective on the efficacy of human action (the disengagement of humans from the symbolic control of natural processes [magic] in favor of the incremental “controls” provided by scientific knowledge)—we live in a world where “play” and “games” have been classified in contrast with “work” and “serious pursuits.” Serious game theory hopes to show that these notions can be rediscovered, and that we work at playing serious games every day. In order for serious game theory to succeed, it must provide some advantage over other perspectives on culture. This paper will outline some of these advantages. Some potential objections to serious game theory will also be discussed below.

If you are not part of the action, you are only part of the context

              Let us now look closely at the proposed theory of serious games. First, a few more assumptions: As with Geertz (and before him, Talcott Parsons, and before him, Max Weber and Émile Durkheim)—the basic presupposition that empirically observable actions are important in themselves is crucial to the serious game theory. What Geertz (and others) added to this presupposition (without really exploring this addition) is the importance of observable motivation. Motivations for actions are also important, says he (cf. 1966). What game theory adds to this mix is a basic parameter to describe these motivations and also a notion of observable attitude. (Attitudes toward motivations and actions are also important, says I.) These attitudes must also be observable. The study of human action is thus a study of what people do, why they do it, and what they think about what they do[4]. (From now on, the word “action” will be used to mean a behavior with its associated motivations and attitudes.) It is not enough to view individuals as merely “agents” or even ”actors” in culture; they must be “players” if the culture is to be performed and the performances to succeed and thus to recreate the impetus for the continuation of culture.

              Publicly observable actions have two general aspects: one, a performative aspect that shows up in events; and the other, a conceptual aspect, which gets written down or taped, or, in oral cultures, gets remembered. A telling of a story or a reading of a text forms the boundary between these two aspects. This is a “fuzzy” boundary and it is not all that apparent exactly where concept meets performance. The material requirements for performance—those artistic (visual, audio, kinesthetic, sculptural, etc.), spatial and architectural, sartorial, tonsorial, gustatory, olfactory, pharmaceutical, and temporal ingredients of the event—are part of the performance aspect, are its context, and yet these also contribute to the conceptual aspect as they engender theories, myths, histories, etc.

              To create and repeat specific performances, what I call technologies of experience are devised and maintained at the performative and the conceptual aspects of action. These, the knowing how to do the action are transformed into the doing of the action at the time of its performance (See: Hymes). Technologies of experience supply all the ingredients of the action and its required context. These inform the experience of the action during its performance. What is important here is that the flow experience is generated internally from the action and that it involves a perceived risk or challenge. “Internality” and “riskiness” are both key concepts for mapping actions into the serious game theory.

Encounters of the gaming kind

              In order to further explore the concepts of attitude and motivation, we must first expand the description of what a serious game is, and how this is “played.” The notion of a serious game as it will be developed below comes mainly from Erving Goffman’s work on events that he calls “encounters.” Goffman’s definition of an encounter begins with a general statement of potential event sequences:


              Encounters. I limit myself to one type of social arrangement that occurs when persons are in one another’s immediate physical presence, to be called here an encounter or a focused gathering. For the participants, this involves: a single visual and cognitive focus of attention; a mutual and preferential openness to verbal communication; a heightened mutual relevance of acts; an eye-to-eye ecological huddle that maximizes each partic­ipant’s opportunity to perceive the other partici­pants’ monitoring of him. Given these communi­cation arrangements, their presence tends to be acknowledged or ratified through expressive signs, and a “we rationale” is likely to emerge, that is, a sense of the single act that we are doing together at the time. Ceremonies of entrance and departure are also likely to be employed, as are signs acknowledging the initiation and termina­tion of the encounter or focused gathering as a unit. Whether bracketed by ritual or not, en­coun­ters provide the communication base for a circu­lar flow of feeling among participants as well as corrective compensation for deviant acts.

              Examples of focused gatherings are: a tête-à-tête; a jury deliberation; a game of cards; a couple dancing; a task jointly pursued by persons physi­cally close to one another; love-making; box­ing.

(Goffman 1961, 17-18, emphasis in the original)

              What is important here, rather than a specific list of actions, is the notion that the encounter creates a boundary, allows participants to enter this voluntarily, and then facilitates both communication and ex-communication. What is this boundary condition? How does it work? To illustrate, he chooses a small, well-defined example, that of the game of checkers:


              Here, games can serve as a starting point. They clearly illustrate how participants are willing to forswear for the duration of the play any appar­ent interest in the esthetic, sentimental, or mone­tary value of the equipment employed, adhering to what might be called rules of irrelevance. For example, it appears that whether checkers are played with bottle tops on a piece of squared li­noleum, with gold figurines on inlaid marble, or with uniformed men standing on colored flag­stones in a specially arranged court square, the pairs of players can start with the “same” posi­tions, employ the same sequence of strategic moves and countermoves, and generate the same contour of excitement.

              …Another example of this is seen in “wall games,” wherein school children, convicts, prisoners of war, or mental patients are ready to redefine an imprisoning wall as a part of the board that the game is played on, a board constituted of special rules of play, not bricks and mortar. (ibid, 19-20)

              The boundary condition then is a function of these “rules of irrelevance,” which determine for the duration of the encounter what is and shall be taken as serious or trivial. In order to maintain these rules for the duration, the encounter must localize all the ingredients necessary for its own completion, that is, all of its technologies of experience. The encounter provides the rules and the materials requisite for the expected outcomes of its actions. These rules and materials Goffman calls “realized resources.” (ibid, 28). The technologies of experience (See: above) transform “raw” resources in “cooked” ones for the event. There is thus an economy involved, a marshalling of resources[5], and a political force to regulate this economy, and a judicial authority to resolve disputes.

              Knowing that encounters define and determine attitudes does not explain why or how its participants allow their attitudes to be so determined. Why do people enter into these events in the first place? What is gained? What is the motivation? Goffman, perhaps reluctantly, posits a type of euphoria. He promotes the notion that these encounters are internally motivated and thus self replicating. At the same time, he adds that this sense of euphoria is dependent upon the reduction of “tension” in the encounter, similar to what Gadamer sees in his notion of “play:” “Like art, play comes to rest in itself, the sheer transformation of energy into a structure that ‘absorbs the player into itself, and thus takes from him the burden of the initiative, which constitutes the actual strain of existence’”(Gadamer 1985, 94; reported in States 1988, 126-7). This reduction of tension, of the burden of the strain of existence, requires the “spontaneous involvement” of the participants:


              …Focused gatherings…have unique and significant properties which a formalistic game-theoretical view of interaction tends to overlook. The most crucial of these properties, it seems to me, is the organistic psychobiological nature of spontaneous involvement.(ibid,, 38 emphasis mine)

              When an individual becomes engrossed in an activity, whether shared or not, it is possible for him to become caught up by it, carried away by it, engrossed in it—to be, as we say, spontaneously involved in it. He finds it psychologically unnecessary to dwell on anything else…(ibid, 37)


..tension refers…to a sensed discrepancy between the world that spontaneously becomes real to the individual, or the one he is able to accept as the current reality, and the one in which he is obliged to dwell. This concept of tension is crucial to my argument, for I will try to show that just as the coherence and persistence of a focused gathering depends on maintaining a boundary, so the integrity of this barrier seems to depend upon the management of tension.(ibid, 43)


              Spontaneous involvement is de facto voluntary, since it depends upon the participant’s willingness to enter into the encounter as though it were entirely autotelically motivated, to become engrossed in it—rather like a “player” gets engrossed in a “game.” Once this threshold of involvement is met there is then the further possibility of a reduction of “tension.” The reduction of tension is, however, not merely a negatively defined experience, but one that Goffman, like Gadamer, finds to be irresistibly attractive for the participant[6].

              The game “succeeds” only as long as it can reduce the tension between the world it creates and other possible worlds. Success is predicated first upon the spontaneous involvement of the players. Without this, the encounter is preempted:


Why should the factor of spontaneous involve­ment carry so much weight in the organization of encounters? Some suggestions can be made. A participant’s spontaneous involvement in the of­ficial focus of attention of an encounter tells others what he is and what his intentions are, adding to the security of the others in his pres­ence. Further, shared spontaneous involvement in a mutual activity often brings the sharers into some kind of exclusive solidarity and permits them to express relatedness, psychic closeness, and mutual respect; failure to participate with good heart can therefore express rejection of those present or of the setting. Finally, sponta­neous involvement in the prescribed focus of at­tention confirms the reality of the world pre­scribed by the transformation rules[7] and the un­reality of other potential worlds—and it is upon these confirmations that the stability of immedi­ate definitions of the situation depends.(Goffman 1961, 40)


              A game is thus tested every time it is played. For the game not to fail, its technologies of experience must create a world that is uniquely right and real for its players for the duration of its play. This is as true for serious games as it is for recreational and children’s games. In recreational games, for example, the play normally reaches a point where the internal risk of the game ends (when a predetermined score is met, a goal is achieved, a time limit is accomplished) or else the game is prematurely terminated when one or more players become weary or bored (See also Peckham, 77). Either end brings back the tension of other possible worlds, of other games and factors, such as the external motivations that were suppressed during the play of the game. The goalie returns to being your boss, and the other halfback your assistant.

              When a game ends, the arbitrariness of the rules and roles determined by the game’s transformation rules becomes evident and spontaneous involvement fails. Alternately, when these roles and rules are seen as arbitrary, spontaneous involvement fails and the game ends. Spontaneous involvement is predicated upon the attitude of the player toward the motivation of the game. The player must voluntarily enter into the game if his involvement is to achieve this spontaneous quality. External influences need to be filtered and transformed in such a way that the player becomes engrossed in the play of the game for its expected duration, otherwise the game has failed.


              Motivation, as this applies to serious game theory, has one primary distinguishing feature. It is either autotelic to the action, or exotelic to it. A theory of autotelic and exotelic motivation has been developed following the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi at the University of Chicago (See: Csikszentmihalyi 1975, 1988). This theory dissolves the dichotomy between play and work found in traditional theories of play such as those found in Huizinga (1949) and Caillois (1958) and well summarized in Giddens (1964). These latter theories held only that play, e.g. any “game,” as opposed to work, was a completely bounded experience, the risks of which had no effect outside the boundary of the game. What Csikszentmihalyi (1975) argues is that play is simply any activity that is internally motivated (hence autotelic). This means that work (labor) can also be play to the extent that it provides internal motivation. The notion of play can thus be applied to a broad array of actions, and, in fact, to action in general, for any action can be either autotelic (i.e. play) or exotelic (what should we call this?), according to the involvement of the individual, that is, to his perception of the source of the motivation for the action.

              Csikszentmihalyi’s theory makes a distinction between motivations using the location of the motivation vis à vis the action that results from the motivation. Autotelic actions are thus internally motivated (and perceived as such by their participants), and, as we shall see, voluntarily entered into. Exotelic actions receive their motivation from without, that is, from goals or sanctions external to the action. The notion of voluntariness is problematic for these latter actions, since both a positive goal direction and a negative punishment can be seen as forms of coercion. Praying for salvation, fighting for your country, laughing at your boss’s old jokes—exotelic action always places the goal of the action outside of the action itself.

              Autotelically motivated actions require certain ingredients or conditions. That is, certain varieties of actions create internal motivations. These motivations can be as diverse as the actions that spawn them, what they have in common is the fact that they are autotelic to the action, and that some performative requirements must be met for this motivation to occur: “Common to all these forms of autotelic involvement is a matching of personal skills against a range of physical or symbolic opportunities for action that represent meaningful challenges to the individual” (Csikszentmihalyi 1988, 181). And so, performance provides a differential potential for autotelic motivation depending on the opportunities for “meaningful challenges” to the the participant, and also depending on how the provided challenges match up with the participant’s skills and expectations. Because of this differential, an action, say participation in a collective ceremony, may be autotelic for one individual and exotelic for his neighbor.

              Autotelic motivation creates a particular form of experience. This experience Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow,” a term derived from a common element found in many descriptions of it. According to him, highly autotelic actions tend to reduce the participant’s awareness of time and of self.

              Similarly, the above “encounters” described by Erving Goffman create the “selective inattention” of concepts such as time and self:


A visual and cognitive engrossment occurs, with an honest unawareness of matters other than the activity; what Harry Stack Sullivan called ‘selective inattention’ occurs, with an effortless dissociation from all other events, distinguishing this type of unawareness both from suppression and repression. (Goffman 1961, 38; after Sullivan)

With all this selective inattention, one might be led to suspect that autotelic actions were confused, random behaviors. Quite the contrary. These actions involve intense attention to a perceived set of well-defined concepts, rules, and behaviors. Activities such as rock climbing and performing surgery—both of which have been described as providing deep flow experiences—require intense attention to immediate circumstances (Csikszentmihalyi 1975).

              Many actions seem to be paradoxically autotelic and exotelic. The paradox is real, for there is always a friction between these types of motivation. For example, actions that are motivated by coercion (and are by that exotelic) sometimes also offer the structures of activity that create the potential for autotelic involvement. [The actual structure of such an action is that of a sub-game (autotelically motivated) within a larger game, where the individual is coerced by the larger game into the performance of the sub-game. More about this later.]

              The explanation is a psychological one. The individual actually forgets the original coercion in favor of participation in the event for the event’s own sake—just as though his participation were originally autotelically motivated. Involuntariness gives way to voluntary participation. This describes a primary effect of actions that provide autotelic experiences: they mask other, e.g. exotelic factors. A horrorific and extreme example of this comes from a study of prisoners (and from his own experiences) in Nazi concentration camps by Bruno Bettelheim. Bettelheim (1960) writes that the result of the involvement of the prisoner in the event of his own imprisonment and torture, was “a personality structure willing and able to accept SS values and behavior as its own.” (169 [reported in Giddens[8], 126]). What I call “risky games” (See: below) are another example of the psychological force of flow experiences. Such games are voluntary from the start but they engender inherently serious risks to the participants. From sadomasochism to sky diving, people put themselves into potentially lethal contexts to create a deep experience of flow.

              Flow creating actions commonly include sequences of events that: a) engender immediate challenges (risks); b) demand a level of mental and/or physical participation; and c) reward this participation with a corresponding level of flow. Thus the effort to meet the challenges[9] provided by the flow event is matched with an immediate sense of pleasure/satisfaction. Such actions are performed and repeated in order to achieve and renew this experience. Participation is its own reward, and performance is the requirement.


              That such actions always prescribe what must be paid attention to, and what must not be paid attention to brings us to the role of attitude in serious game theory. Attitude, as this is mapped into the serious game theory, also makes one central distinction: that of an attitude of seriousness, characterized by careful attention, and that of triviality, characterized by careful inattention or denial. Attention is itself a combination of attraction and avoidance; that is, attention can be defined positively or negatively[10]. Sanctions against a behavior or object create attention to its avoidance. Sanctions are never explicitly applied to what is trivial. As it is not taken seriously, the trivial cannot be acclaimed as a threat. (We will see, however, that failure to follow any of the games rules—even by overt attention to triviality—can result in expulsion from the game—but perhaps in a different manner than an expulsion because of transgression of an announced sanction. It is perhaps the difference between insanity and criminality, between the asylum and the prison, which is a fine difference at that. Attention to the trivial is seen as an aberrance, rather than a transgression.)

A scheme of attitudes

              Games (serious and otherwise) demand that we pay attention to what is serious (S1), and that we treat as serious what we are told to pay attention to (S2) (note that these are not the same demands). Conversely, games demand that we do not pay attention to what is trivial[11] (T1), and that we treat as trivial what we are told not to pay attention to (T2) (these are also two quite distinct demands). Players, on the other hand may accede to these demands, or they may not. The game is stabilized because it offers a maximal flow experience for those players that follow its demands without examination, and who become engrossed in it and lose whatever external perspective that might affect their attitude.

              Given the basic demands of the game there are four main attitudinal stances available to a player toward the serious aspects of a game; they can be:

·       pakka [excellent] players, those who follow all the rules (+S1,+S2);

·       dilettantes, who play the game, but not “seriously” (+S1,-S2);

·       dissidents, who play the game against itself (-S1,+S2); and,

·       the avant garde, who deny the game, but still play by its rules (-S1,-S2)[12].

              There are also four more stances, based upon the attitudes toward the trivial aspects of the games demands: (+T1,+T2; -T1,+T2; +T1,-T2; -T1,-T2). These, we might call respectively the trivial stances of the pakka player, the skeptic, the deviant, and the clown. Because they take place in the realm of the trivial, these stances have escaped much notice and differentiation. For example, studies of culture have generally not probed the areas of denial that the culture demands. These are the various marginal positions heretofore relegated to footnoted descriptions of deviance and farce. The potential for the world of the trivial to affect the world of the serious has not been sufficiently explored. Serious game theory brings this dynamic to the fore.

              When combined with the first four attitudinal stances, attitudes toward the trivial describe a fairly complex range of possible attitudes toward any aspect of any possible game. There are thus 16 basic stances that an individual might have toward a whole game. It should be noted that to be a “player” in the pakka sense is only one of these 16. All other stances are dangerous to the completion of current game event, or to conservation of the current game rules. The most dangerous player of all is the “avant garde clown.” (These last are also the players most likely to be fitted for straight jackets.)

Players, Pawns, and Strangers

              A player, as Goffman uses the term does not include everyone physically within the game space (1961, 36). There is another, more general level of participation open to individuals, that of participant. A player is a participant who is empowered by the rules of the game to make plays. (A play is any action that affects the state of the game.) In the game of chess there are two players who make plays using pieces on a board.

              There are two types of non-player individuals who might also be within the localized game space, and which I will term the pawn and the stranger. A pawn, as the term suggests, is really nothing more than a participant that fills the role of a piece of equipment—a part of the context—in the play of the game. If this brings to mind regal levantine chess games where servants are dressed as pieces and ordered about on a courtyard-sized board, then the notion has been correctly understood. A stranger is someone who is not involved in the play of the game, but who finds or puts himself within the physical context of the game. As a rule, strangers bring dangers, as they tend to distract players by their unaware, inappropriate behavior or by suggestions for alternate games.

              In order to be empowered as a player, a participant must be chosen to fill a required game role, and must enter this role with that attitude of voluntary and spontaneous involvement that was described above. Because of this, an individual can be a player in only one game at any time. This is quite important, since (as will be presented below) some games have hierarchical levels of sub-games. A player in a sub-game is never simultaneously a player in the larger game.

              Pawns require no such attitudinal involvement, and can be pawns at different games at the same time. In fact, a player at a sub-game is simultaneously at most a pawn in the larger game. For example, the ticket-holding audience members of a sporting event are pawns in that they are allowed into the context of the event only when they agree to a non-player role. They are not necessarily strangers, however, because they agree to follow certain rule-governed behaviors, but they are also not players since they are not empowered to make plays[13]. As long as pawns can be made to follow the directions of the players, by coercion if not reward, then they are adequate to their role.

              Strangers are essentially non-participants, with no role to fill, although they may be potential participants in later game activities. A pawn that abandons his role and is replaced might become a stranger. Other strangers may actually be players or pawns in other games, the boundaries of which are intruding into the context of this game. They may, therefore, not be innocent strangers, but instead, agents of a foreign game. The anthropologist filming a Trobriand Island rite of passage is a stranger not to be ignored.

              Since their role is to create the action of the game, players are vitally important for the success of the game. A game fails mainly when its players lose their spontaneous involvement in its play. Certainly, problems with the context of the action, including mistakes by pawns and distractions of strangers can contribute to a “dis-engrossment” of the players and the premature end of the current game event. In the end it is still the role of the players to determine whether the game will continue to its normative closure. Even the premature death of players, while this might end the current event, would not prevent the next occurrence of the game from selecting a new set of players.

              It should also be noted that only the players experience the euphoria/flow of the game. A corollary to this is that players in sub-games experience a lower level of flow than players in the main game[14]. One possible outcome of this corollary is that players in lower-level games (who are thus pawns in the higher level games) should be susceptible to invitations of other, higher-level games that offer deeper flow opportunities. An example of this is perhaps the lure of the drug “culture,” or the inducements of religions that promise more attractive afterlives[15].

Games and social control

              The notion of games with sub-games has interesting extensions in the characterization of societies. However, a few preliminary observations are all that can be included in the space of this paper: Players will prefer to play at higher levels, because the potential for flow is higher there, yet it seems that games prefer to limit the number of players as a strategy to maximize the realizable resources-per-player, and to reduce indeterminacy in the play of the game. Remembering that players in a sub-game are at most pawns in the higher-level game, the higher level games might appear to have a small number of players and many pawns. Higher-level games tend to restrict access to themselves, and to promote, instead, varieties of long-duration sub-games. Since any game can potentially engross its players’ attention, these sub-games are potentially effective in distracting the attention of pawns, who might otherwise disrupt the higher-level game.

              Externally, this brings up the observation that most of the people are sacrificing potentially deeper flow experiences in favor of long-term lower level flow games. Radical changes in game states might succeed by offering higher levels of flow to more participants. But the dynamic within the stable periods of a ruling game is for that game to optimize the flow experiences and the realizable resources for its players, while promoting other, sub-games to keep its pawns in line. This dynamic between levels of games might thus be one more perspective on various aspects of social control.

The role of the player

              The actions of players determine the play of the game, and this determines whether the game will achieve its normative duration and whether or not it will be played subsequently. The game is thus highly dependent on the performances of its players. These performances are in turn dependent on levels of skills and knowledge—on the ability to approach the challenges of the game without becoming bored or discouraged. All games, but most particularly serious games, restrict the role of “playership” to individuals who have possess certain predesignated qualifications (Goffman 1961, 31).

              While the player might lose his sense of self during the play, his extra-game identity is a factor in his being chosen to enter this state. In this, the game both reinforces and abolishes social identity. This accounts, in some part, for the notion of “communitas” (Turner 1969) found in many games, such as Ndembu festivals. The contrast between status/role relationships in one game, and those of another, may be extreme to the point of an actual reversal of roles and status. According to serious game theory, the optimal flow experience would require that the participants selectively un-attend to external roles. However, on a non-conscious and most definitely on a bodily level, the contrast between roles and actions becomes a part of the challenge that creates the flow. The greater the performative distance between the role of the current game and that of the previous, the greater the challenge is in becoming spontaneously engrossed in the new role.

Time and Space

              All games, serious and trivial, have expected durations. They can, therefore, be distinguished according to this feature. Most trivial games, such as recreations like baseball or chess, occur in one day. Let’s call these “short games.” Inherently serious games (See Part II below) are often meant to endure throughout the lifetimes of their players. These might be called “long games.” Some apparently short games actually reoccur at set intervals (yearly, say) throughout the lives of their players and should better be classified as “intermittent long games.” Other games have no pre-set duration, merely thresholds where the challenge of the action or the realized resources no longer maintains them. War is such a game. These are perhaps “open ended games.” (This scheme is also perhaps open-ended. Serious game theory is less interested in providing an exhaustive typology of possible game types than it is in sketching the bare outline of their normative form. So this is enough typology for now.) What should be remembered is that a game must provide all the resources needed to sustain its action throughout its expected duration, and that the longer the game, the more there arise possibilities for players to lose their spontaneous involvement and to leave the game.

              All games have some way to mark their beginnings. There is always some action that signals the start of the game, or the introduction of a new player. Short games also have endings, while long games simply outlast their players. Intermittent long games have starts and endings every time they occur, but the ending also signals the preparation for another beginning. Open-ended games may end in disarray or they may have some form of closure. However they begin and end, games usually keep their own sense of time, marking this in ways that are important only to that game[16]. At the edges of this time are the temporal boundaries of the game, within which the game must provide all the time needed for its proper play.

              A player in a long game may, and probably will, become a player in a succession of short games. However, since an individual can be a player in only one game at a time, he must abandon his role as a player in the long game for the duration of the short game. During that time his role is limited to that determined by the short game. So a person can play chess this morning, soccer this afternoon, and join the festival next week. Games can also easily be embedded into other games as long as it is remembered that a player at a sub level is at most a pawn in a higher-level game.

              Games also keep a sense of place. They define the loci of their action. Serious games create serious boundaries. Players and pawns confine their attentions within these boundaries, and even boundary infractions by strangers might result in their expulsion from the game place. Within the outermost boundary of the game all the necessary resources for the game’s duration must be found, including the space it needs.

              The creation of game-space and game-time occurs on the conceptual as well as the performative surface. The histories and the lore of these are all part of the game. If this paper tends to dwell on the performative side of serious games, it is not because the conceptual side is lacking in form or features, but rather because serious game theory has more profound implications on the study of performance than it does on that of ideas. Most importantly, this theory permits an examination of both of these aspects under the condition that they do not transparently reflect each other. What the two aspects exhibit in concert is a culture created and invested with serious ideas and performances, with trivial ideas and performances, and with the inevitability of change.


Counterparts of anthropologists in less specialized culture includes shamans, tricksters, clowns, and kind-fools. These figures, like professional anthropologists, doubt the absoluteness of their culture; they displace the immediacy of their audience’s social lives. It is therefore appropriate to greet the work of anthropologists (and our equivalents) with a dash of skepticism….Perhaps ethnography is ultimately unverifiable. Because every “other” can only be known through translation, must anthropology dissolve its subject in the act of reaching it? Perhaps anthropology in any society necessarily produces only what that society’s internal conditions require it to conceptualize as other than itself. (Boon 1982, 6)


II: From games we play to games that play us

              What do we know so far about serious games? Well, participants enter the game through a voluntary, spontaneous involvement. With this attitude they are able to accept the foci of attention and inattention that the game’s transformation rules require. So they take as serious what the game tells them is serious, and they take as trivial what the game tells them is trivial. In return, the game is able to reduce the tension between its rules and those of other possible games. The game becomes uniquely true for its players, and provides them with autotelic, euphoric/flow experiences, which reward them for participating and help keep them focused on those serious aspects of the game for its duration. All of the necessary resources for the game are localized within the game’s boundaries. In short, a game—any game—becomes a world building activity. It provides all the ingredients, the resources, rules, histories, challenges, and players needed to complete its expected duration within a self-defined time and space, a world of its own making which systematically neglects alternative worlds.

              There are, of course, differences between creating an entire “world view” and creating a recreational game (such as, say, basketball), but these differences are all within a typology of possible games, rather than between something “serious-and-a-non-game” and something “non-serious-and-a-game.” Games are quite enough. Between the trivial game and the inherently serious[17] game there is only a distance of attitude and of scope. As will be shown below (See: Below, Part III) this distance can be crossed and even reversed with astonishing quickness.

              In any game, the world created by this game is continually tested in the process of playing it. If the game does not play, if the action (in either its conceptual or performative aspects) fails, the player(s) may cease to voluntarily continue his/her/their role(s) and the game may end prematurely. In any game, from tiddly-winks to thermo-nuclear war, action is determined first by the selection of players, by their motivations, attitudes, and then by their play of the game.

              World building (culture making, world-view creating, life-world establishing: however this activity is termed) is necessarily a game as it must select and attract its “players” into its self-defined boundaries, where, by selective inattention, they are able to become engrossed in their world and to identify themselves (regressively, if you are a Freudian, but in any case voluntarily at some level) with the roles their world establishes for them and through this engrossment and the lack of tension, they achieve a euphoria, an experience of flow that makes the world “worthwhile” of itself. The notion that games create their own worlds is by this reversed in the assertion that world building is always a game.

Game playing as world building

              Obviously these two statements:

              1: All games are world-building activities; and

              2: All world-building activities are games;

are not equivalent, nor is the second statement a necessary consequence of the first. If the first statement is granted then a statement saying that “some world building activities are games” would be true, but then why expand this to all world building activities[18]? From here it remains to look at some “real world” activities and see what the serious game theory does with them, and if this can be taken seriously.

              Let’s begin with Goffman, who, citing the work of Max Weber, proposed that his theory of encounters (part of what I call “games”) might well be expanded into “serious areas of life”:


              Just as properties of the material context are held at bay and not allowed to penetrate the mutual activity of the encounter, so also certain proper­ties of the participants will be treated as if they were not present.

...[the] effort to treat sociability as a type of ‘mere’ play, sharply cut off from the entanglements of serious life, may be partly responsible for sociol­ogists having failed to identify the rules of irrev­erence in sociability with similar rules in serious areas of life. A good example of these rules in the latter areas is found in the impersonal calculable aspects of Western bureaucratic administration. Here, Weber supplies an obvious text, providing only that… we accept as a tendency what is stated as fact: ‘The “objective” discharge of business primarily means a discharge of business accord­ing to calculable rules and “without regard for persons.” ’[Weber, 1946, p.215, stress in the original.](Goffman 1961, 20-21)

The processes of socialization belong to long duration games that use rules to describe and enforce selective inattention, particularly in its use of discipline on affective display (ibid, 25). Every social encounter includes demands on the attention of its participants, now- familiar demands concerning what is to be taken seriously and what is to be considered as trivial—that is, not to be considered at all.

              Religion, as a game, has been described in other, remarkably parallel terms by Clifford Geertz. For Geertz, religion makes the game-created world authoritative through a curious internal mutual legitimation of world-view and ethos: “It is the office of religious symbols, then, to link these [ethos and world view] in such a way that they mutually confirm each other. Such symbols render the world-view believable and the ethos justifiable, and they do it by invoking each in support of the other. …Seen from the outside the religious perspective, this sort of hanging a picture from a nail driven into its frame appears as a kind of sleight of hand. Seen from the inside, it appears as a simple fact.” (Geertz 1968a, 97[emphasis mine]). This is a clever description of how a game creates its own boundary from within itself, from the resources it has already legitimated as serious. Religion tells us that, not only do things act the way they do, but they do this necessarily and it is good—good for the players, good for the world (their game): good, and right, and fortunate—that they do so.

              The notion of a religion as a serious game raises certain serious theological objections (addressed below), but offers some interesting perspectives on this object of study, particularly on the performative aspect and how this relates to the conceptual aspect of a religion. It also brings back into the definition of religion, at an observable level, the notion of experiences. For example, the spontaneous involvement of the individual in a religious performance creates the potential for deep flow experiences by challenging the individual’s ontologically grounded self-identity. This has been done by creating the notion of communication with non-human entities, and/or by ritual killing (blood sacrifice). Since there is a direct relation between the perception of risk, the challenge this provides, and the potential for flow/euphoria, inherently serious games (such as those which have at times been called “religions”) offer levels of engrossment not available in inherently non-serious games, where the only real risk is that the game will be lost or fail because of tension due to boredom, fatigue, or distraction[19].

              To say that serious game theory asserts that a religion is a serious game is an oversimplification of the concepts of “religion” and of “game,” although this might have once been true in very small, isolated societies. It is more accurate to say that a society maintains a ruling serious game, which encompasses all forms of legitimation and which contain one or more (and possibly many) major sub-games that define domains of action such as the political and the religious domains. This ruling serious game is inherently serious for two main reasons: first because of the overlap between the survival needs of the various players and the objects required for the game (e.g., food, shelter, weapons, medicines, social approval, ego recognition, etc.); and second, because it enforces its rules with lethal (or near lethal) means (execution, excommunication, life imprisonment, etc.).

Games and needs

              The notion that some games are inherently serious, should not be confused with any notion that a game might provide access to “universal truths.” Games that control the survival needs of individuals, that include the resources necessary for these needs within their own realized resources, are inherently serious because the risks that they engender, the challenges they provide, coincide with the process of psychobiological survival of these individuals. It is possible to classify games according to the overlap between their boundaries and those of the needs, desires, and obsessions of their participants.

              Various configurations of human needs have been advanced, one of these is found in A. H. Maslow (1954). He presented a hierarchy of need levels. This type of scheme, however, allows that “primitive” societies are still grappling with lower level needs, while more “modern” societies have met these and are facing the higher level needs. This is not evidenced in the ethnographies, however, and so the notion of a hierarchy is perhaps not a useful one. The schema of four types of needs—biological, safety, group, and ego—seem fairly comprehensive. In serious game theory, these form the area where inherently serious games are found.

              Inside the area of survival need there are two more areas: the area of desire, and that of obsession. In these areas, the material requirements of the survival need area are transformed by other technologies of experience into harmless or harmful playthings. The preparation of food required for survival is transformed into the art of cuisine in the area of desire, and eating into an obsessive game by gluttony as well as by abstinence. A similar process occurs with sex. Copulation for reproduction becomes recreational sex in the area of desire, or an obsession in the games of nymphomaniacs or celibates.

              The area of desire is where trivial games are played. The failure of a trivial game has no effect on the survival needs of the individual, but rather on his desires. The area of obsession is that area where trivial games become risky again. In this area, both failure and prolonged success may present a risk to the psychobiological status of the individual.

              The need level is normally defined and bounded by the ruling serious game. It forms the outer boundary of this game. All games external to this are considered trivial unless they overlap this boundary. The boundaries between needs and desires and obsessions are also determined by this game. The determination of what constitutes a need vis à vis a desire vis à vis an obsession varies between ruling serious games.

              When a serious game overlaps a basic human need, it still creates its own common-sense rules about this need. Needs, even the most basic ones, are defined arbitrarily within the game. A well-documented example for this is the creation of rules about foods: rules that tell not only what can and cannot be eaten safely, but what types of nourishment are important, and how food resources are to be handled to assure continuing supplies. While an argument can be made that certain substances (cotton balls, say, or gravel) offer no possible nourishment even though they might be consumable, the range of cuisines, each with its own prescribed foods, around the planet is quite remarkable[20].

              The idea here is that even when a serious game controls one or more basic human need(s), it arbitrarily defines—within some rather broad psychobiologically based parameters—that need for its players and it backs this up with types of internal legitimation that have previously been called ideological or religious or simply mythological. What is more difficult for a game to determine and control are the risks involved in participation.

Risk and performance

              The perception of risk is an integral factor in all games. Since games must provide a suitable challenge in order to generate the experience of flow, every performance involves risk. Risk is a dynamic property of games, since it responds to the skills of the participants, and to their history of performance. For example a long game must provide challenges over the lifespan of the player, while short games must be able to match improved skill levels with greater challenges. The primary notion of risk in the theory of serious games equates risk to the challenge provided by the performance.

              A corollary to this notion is that of ritual as action in the performance that controls risk (See: Staal). Certain non-risky actions in the performance must happen so that other, risky actions can occur. This thread of non-risky action extends from the starting ceremony to the normative end of the game. It represents the fixed context that the technologies of experience have determined is necessary to support the challenge of the performance. In a basketball game, these rituals include (not exclusively) the arrangement of the court, the properties of the ball, the keeping of the time, and the notion of a “foul.” Games protect their boundaries by ritualizing actions that might threaten these. In serious game theory, ritual represents action designed to reduce risk.

              Of course, the reduction of risk at the level of the game cannot fully reduce risks to the game itself, to its completion and renewal. There is a “meta-risk” that even ritual cannot preempt. As Sophia Morgan pointed out:


Barbara Myerhoff has argued that rituals are paradoxical: ‘because they are conspicuously artificial and theatrical yet designed to suggest the inevitability and absolute truth of their messages. {They are} dangerous because when we are not convinced by a ritual, we may become aware of ourselves as having made them up, thence on to the paralyzing realization that we have made up all our truths.’ [Myerhoff, 1979, p.86] To exorcise the danger and the paradox, ritual on the one hand anchors itself in tradition, and on the other hand minimizes as much as possible the perceptual, cognitive or emotional distance between the participant and the text reenacted. It can neither articulate the arbitrariness of the text nor allow any disturbance of the participant’s immersion in it. For this reason, no matter how great the uncertainties, fears or hesitations of the shaman or initiate, there is one existential moment that cannot be contained in ritual: the moment—a common topos in literature—at which the hero stops to ask ‘What shall I say now? What is my text? What is the next step of this journey?’ Even if such a moment were ever to appear in ritual, by virtue of its necessarily being a ritual moment its function could only be to affirm the efficacy of the text…Thus, even though ritual is a privileged space of liminality, there is one type of liminal mixing and mingling that it can neither warrant nor perform without destroying itself—that categorical trespassing in which the work becomes the object of its own discourse, and which is the space proper of literature (Morgan 1984, 81).

A game forces the proper attitude of attention on its participants and rewards this with the promise of flow experiences. Yet the game is thereby vulnerable to changes in attitude. The most serious ruling serious game is undone when its players cease to take it seriously.


“What made the new Soviet situation so easy to miss was the phenomenon of double bookkeeping characteristic of authoritarian regimes: the same people would be the loyal servants of Brezhnev’s “stagnation” in their public lives and increasingly deviant in their private lives. ”(Hoffman, 18)


“Students started it. Small groups of them had been active for at least a year before. They edited faculty magazines. They organized discussion clubs. They worked on the borderline between official and unofficial life. Many had contact with the opposition, all read samizdat…But they also worked through the official youth organization, the SSM.” (Ash, 42)



III: Trivium redux

              This is a story of the twin (triplets actually, since the serious realm has a double nature) worlds that determine the course of human thought and action. Every game, it seems, creates not just one world, but three. The boundaries between these worlds are as fluid as attitudes, and just as certain. As attitude is also the barrier between belief and skepticism, commitment and apathy, so attitude also determines our stance toward the triple worlds engendered by serious games. Such attitudinal boundaries are drawn and redrawn during the course of each of our lives. The world of the trivial exists within every game, invisible to the serious discourse of that game because its profound neglect is a basic part of that discourse. Yet inside the inflatable shoes of the part-time campus (office, sidewalk…) clown wiggle the same toes that can also press the pedals of power. A preliminary result of serious game theory is a validation, or even a valorization, of the trivial, of the mostly unwritten world of the contra-serious.

              On its part, culture tells us what to take seriously. By this it also tells us what to neglect. What is neglected on the level of the serious is invariably pursued on the level of the trivial. It is here, where the socio-cultural structures need not be followed, where all the rules are subject to modification, that culture reinvents itself.

              In the world of the trivial all socio-cultural changes, great or small, have their unrecorded beginnings. Curious theories that were bandied around over drinks, utopian novels read on vacations, video poetics and marginal art: The trivial escapes by definition the ruling discourse. That is its power. Here is where the unplotted future creates its own history, writes its myths. Subversion, progress, decline: the changes that force great religions into hasty conclaves and governments into exile belong first to those games that people enter without notice, without risk.

              The irony is that the ruling serious game[21] creates a world of the trivial by its rules of systematic neglect (by denying attention to this world). Out of this world will come new games to challenge the ruling game. The study of this process is, however, made problematical by a gross imbalance of evidence. The ruling serious game controls the serious discourse of the society (what gets written down or remembered), defining itself, reinventing its history, and systematically neglecting various ideas and actions which then constitute, in a mostly ad hoc manner, the world of the trivial.

              In the course of a change from one serious game to another, aspects of the previous serious game become trivialized, and these quickly drop out of the ruling discourse, to be replaced by other aspects that were formerly trivial, and which occur in the discourse almost as revelations, astonishingly important, carrying their new-found seriousness on their sleeve. Often the new serious game contains dramatic reversals, rituals and meanings turned upside down. The question is then begged: how can people change so radically? How can they live with such inconsistency? Without being facetious, the answer is, of course, they just do not take the change seriously.

              Visible rapid, radical change in a serious game is not what it looks like from the outside at the level of the serious discourse. The changes at this level can appear to be extremely abrupt, but the evidence of this change at the serious game level is actually preceded by a longer period in which a number of potential changes have matured on the trivial level and, simultaneously, in which a number of the players of the game have ceased to play certain parts of the game as serious. This internal breakdown not only precedes but precipitates the eventual change, as the game cannot proceed for long without controlling those aspects that it describes as serious.

              Change in any serious game is thus a stochastically organized (that is disorganized) threshold event in which neither the threshold nor the outcome can be predicted. After the event, the new serious state is quickly reinforced by a new myth/history, and the abrogated, now-trivial, aspects of the game disappear from the ruling discourse. (The inflatable shoe is now on the other foot, so to speak.) The result is, from the outside, a sometimes-radical disruption in the game state[22]. From the inside, however, as new myths quickly and seamlessly harden around the new serious aspects, the changes are mostly imperceptible to those who still (figuratively or literally) keep their heads. Continuity is reestablished, and, where the old game cannot be banished to the world of the trivial, it is displayed in pageants or in museums as a nostalgic curiosity.


              The process of cultural change—now recognized as a disjunction in game states—cannot be characterized as a positivist, Hegelian or Marxist (or even hermeneutical, in Gadamer’s spiral notion) dialectic, but a tension between serious and trivial games: most interestingly, between serious games taken trivially and trivial games taken seriously[23]. For this reason, I will disambiguate this process from that of dialectic by coining a new term: “trialectic.”

              A trialectic is a process whereby any serious game is abandoned in favor of another serious game. This process requires the positing of two levels of participation, the serious level and trivial level. The governing process of the trialectic is not that of one serious game (thesis/tradition) confronted by another serious game (antithesis/avant-garde) resulting in a third serious game (synthesis/revolution), but rather the resonance between a serious game—with both traditional and avant garde components—and any number of trivial games that it engenders, which eventually coalesce into a new serious game or games, one of which will supersede the original serious game. Old games are thus never defeated as much as they are abandoned. They cease to be taken seriously.

              This subversion of the serious by the trivial is categorically paradoxical. Thus the trialectic can only fail in providing a systematic explanation of the processes involved. Because this failure is guaranteed by the object of study (socio-cultural forms and processes), the trialectic still succeeds in providing an understanding of the object. That this understanding falls short of systematicity means simply that it will not attempt to provide system where this is not evidenced. There is plenty of systematicity in the organization of serious games. Here is where descriptions of functions and structures come into play, and where phenomenology and hermeneutics are of value. Descriptions of games as they are constituted and interpreted are equally as important for the study of serious games as they were for world-views, religions, etc. Where a game is subject to change, however, the process of the trialectic comes to the fore, and explanation must give way to paradox and irony. Here is where understanding does not lead to explanation, but rather to a simple awareness and perhaps to wonder, or maybe laughter.

              Because the ground of change is continuous and contiguous with any game—all games change—the trialectic must be seen as a necessary aspect of the game (particularly on its defenses and reactions against change), and thus a necessary component of any game study. In fact, many (maybe most) of the systemizing features of serious games—particularly their over-coded ritual or mythological contents—are needed only as strategies against the trialectic processes of change. (The recourses to systematic ritualization and to scripture (i.e. to shruti) in religion, as examples of the over-coding of legitimacy, may be primarily defenses against the trialectic.) For this reason it makes little sense for any description of a serious game to exclude the trialectic simply because it falls outside the domain of the methods of systematic explanation (i.e. to attempt a description of a serious game within the limits of reason alone), or, conversely, to attempt to systemize the trialectic. The trialectic process disappears under either method.

There has to be something wrong here

              There are many types of objections to serious game theory. These include (not exclusively): the objection that this theory “reduces” objective truth to culturally mediated “truth”—to alibi (let’s call this is the theological objection); the objection that this theory is too “powerful,” since it admittedly creates a level of perception not available to members of the cultures it describes (this is the social-empirical objection); the objection that this theory reduces the grand agencies and institutions of culture to a level of games (the “C”ulture objection); and, the objection that this theory denies any praxis for positive cultural change (the petulant avant garde objection). Like a good theory, this one has its own defenses.

              To the first objection, it is noted that “objective truth” has not yet been verified and can no longer be taken seriously (the theory uses its own weapons here) as a basis for inquiry. The theory welcomes all efforts to establish that an objective universal truth does exist (futile games have long been played) but it resists the notion that previous or current ruling serious games are based on such adamantine ground. There is, for this theory at this time, no absolute or universal ground at all, only the arbitrary grounding of those notions that the game determines are serious by means of writing its own myth and history.

              Against the notion that it is too “powerful,” the theory notes that, just as phonology requires the positing of a phonetic level unavailable to speakers of the language (and yet nonetheless undeniable as a tool for inquiry into phonology, so too semiology requires the positing of a “semetic” [semEEtik] level in order to approach the organization of meanings. This is quite in line with current semiotic theories (cf. Barthes, Lakoff and Johnson). The fact that speakers of a language cannot normally explain how their language works (but are curiously adept at its use) has not stopped linguistics from seeking such an explanation. Furthermore, that the game of serious game theory grants itself a privileged position is both acknowledged and hedged. The hedge is this: serious game theory is only relatively privileged, in that it provides a level of awareness (not approaching explanation) over the trialectic processes of other games. It is unable to do this for itself, however, and awaits with trepidation the time when some unremarkable undergraduate at some unremarkable university will spit out the notion at a department seminar that will lead to a new game theory.

              To the objection that this theory also reduces very serious actions and contexts to the “level of games” is met by an expanded notion of the word “game” which encompasses more “serious” actions on battlefields or in corporate board rooms as well as the “trivial” actions on ball fields or in cruise ship card rooms. The move from “cultural performance-as-drama” to “cultural performance-as-game” allows for a unified theory of human action without postulating an a priori privilege for either “trivial” (e.g. festival) events or “serious” (e.g. “real-world”) events. Within certain bounds what is then serious or trivial is totally determined by the game itself. There is no a priori absolute or universal measure of seriousness, or truth, as this is commonly described. There are only differentially successful lies about what is serious and what is not.

              Finally, to the petulant avant garde (cf. Calinescu, Jameson, Habermas 1981), who look to influence the trialectic through radical thought and action at the serious level, serious game theory does, indeed, offer little comfort. The notion that rational action has little to do with the overall trend of cultural change does strike directly at the strategies of the avant garde (however, this has nothing to do with reasonability as a metaphorical construct that has had profound influence over the types of new games that have been created in the last five hundred years).

              Serious game theory suggests that real subversion takes place on the level of the trivial, that cultural change occurs when those aspects of culture that culture takes seriously (its myths) are subject to the trialectic process—a process that has no overt leaders or followers and no defensible agenda, no counter-culture, no planned covert actions. And so, a particular culture change cannot be orchestrated, the trialectic process cannot be aimed at anything specifically; the trialectic process of cultural change can, however, be generally nourished by encouraging the venues where trivial actions take place, where farce and fantasy are encouraged. Amateur theatres, dark cafés, underground presses, rock and roll concerts, back alleyways, pirate radio stations, street festivals, costume parties, dorm rooms, circus side shows, church socials, office parties, universities (ideally): wherever people meet, and whatever they do and think without risk, will feed the trialectic process. Conversely, the threat of trialectic change is best preempted by controlling these same venues, by colonizing the world of the trivial. In short, if the revolution is to come (and who knows where this will take us) the coffee shop must be recaptured from the underwriters (Lloyds of London was a coffee shop) and from the avant garde, who take it all too seriously, and preserved as a sanctuary for the trivial.

              By proposing this indeterminacy, the theory of serious games comes up against a dilemma it cannot escape: it proffers a performative aspect of culture that cannot be reduced to this culture’s conceptual aspect. In fact, performance cannot be properly conceptualized at all; there is no transcendent perspective on it. The depths of thick description lead us rapidly away from rational descriptions into darkly poetic regions at the edge of language, or, as Bataille might argue, beyond. Is there a reliable method that can transpose this type of performance into descriptive prose?

End play

              By now it is clear that serious game theory makes a lot of promises (and that this paper has assumed monographical—if not manifestoed—proportions). As it is only a couple months old (in 1992), some of the theory’s features are still forming (it is still cute as a button), and it retains as many lose ends as a plate of linguine. As an entrée into “thick description” this theory can, I propose, allow us to decide when to wink and to whom. By conjoining observable motivation and attitude with behaviors, suddenly the performative surface of action becomes available again as an object of study. The original promise of the study of “cultural performances” can be expanded to represent all performances, and performance, all action. At the same time, these are relinked with the semantics of action, the meanings that have become serious or trivial in the process of game-making.

              The study culture as serious games can now explore its performative and the semantic aspects and determine the alibis that keep these holding on to each other’s noses.


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