- Computer Games and the Social Imaginary by Graeme Kirkpatrick
In the two decades since its emergence, the academic study of videogames has outgrown its initial preoccupations with the way scholarship should engage with the new form of media. Early narratologists contended that videogames were narratives to be studied with tools based in the humanities, whereas ludologists argued that games were primarily systems of rules to experience and thus did not fit into a narrative paradigm. These debates have given way to questions concerning how gaming can help us learn, how games represent bodies, and how games navigate and implicate labor, among myriad other issues. The field of anthropology has contributed to the study of digital games in the form of in-game ethnographies (Boellstorff 2008, Nardi 2010, Pearce and Artemesia 2011). While these have examined gaming as cultural production rather than simply a reflection, they all view gaming synchronically—making meaning in the present. Any possible societal affects of gaming are relegated to some future abstraction or projection while, at the same time, the past developments of gaming and game technologies are not brought into discussion. Graeme Kirkpatrick’s study does the opposite, arguing that contemporary society has already been shaped by its relationship with gaming technologies. In fact, Kirkpatrick argues that gaming is one of the major forces that have transformed the way many modern Western individuals see society and themselves. Computer games, for Kirkpatrick, are not simply a product of social structure, but a cultural practice that shapes and is shaped by society. A part of Polity Press’s Digital Media and Society series, Computer Games and the Social Imaginary is not a long book, but it has the depth of one, communicating grand, sweeping ideas in its deceptively brief format. The book’s specific [End Page 199] aim is to “position the computer game and gaming as a cultural practice in a theory of contemporary society” (10). To this end, Kirkpatrick traces the effects of parallel and interwoven histories of technology and play in the context of the social and economic transitions of late 20th century capitalism, from the social upheaval of the 1960s to the changing relationships between the individual and technology in the digital age.
Kirkpatrick’s initial argument, presented in the first chapter, rests heavily on Boltanski and Chiapello’s (2005) article “New Spirit of Capitalism,” in which they assert that the bureaucratic, vertical, industrial mode of production has been replaced by horizontally configured labor, wherein jobs are creative but unstable. This paradigm creates what Boltanski and Chiapello call the streamlined worker, who works through day-to-day projects as if playing a game, rather than planning a linear career path. Kirkpatrick takes the argument further, using the term “streamlined-self” to describe the new reality of selfhood in a digital society based around computer networks and segmented modes of play. The instability inherent in this type of existence, both on and off the job, has created a fragmented sense of cynicism; workers are happy to be playing, creative, and autonomous, but insecure and anxious about the future. Kirkpatrick looks at three intersections of digital technology innovation and the corresponding changes in popular understandings of society in an effort to discover how this change to the streamlined-self has taken place. First, the user-friendliness of computer design that emerged in the late 1980s changed the way people looked at computer technology, from cold machines intended for specialized work to fun tools meant for everyday play. Second, the innovations in digital gaming from 1994 to 1995, alongside the proliferation of Internet accessibility and use, brought deeper levels of interaction and concepts of a cyber or virtual society into the mainstream. The third intersection Kirkpatrick focuses on is the more recent rise of the social network as a mode of social being—a game-like way to identify as a part of society.
In Chapter 2, Kirkpatrick traces the convergence of play, work, and life back to the student protests of the 1960s, a movement that Boltanski and Chiapello (2005) cite as an example of the “artistic...