Game Over: How anonymity in digital technology has fundamentally changed games and play

Developed from a paper looking at how the ethos of capitalism and commodification has often resulted in the falsification of branding product placement as games and play. It also explores the consequences of how the Internet as a Transformational Space has resulted in a new game, one that encourages symbolic violence and trolling, particularly towards females.

Games, the innocuous pastime that allow personal growth and reflection through communication and connection.  Marshal Mcluhan proposed that both games and technologies were mitigants for the natural tensions caused by society. The digitization of the games industry has been a key contributor of the globalisation of western and eastern societies, the appropriation and distribution of merging cultural aesthetics has been a core feature of digital game development. Known in the industry as ‘hybridisation’,  it occurs through company collaboration or the outsourcing and procurement of new games onto other platforms.  The United States has had a far greater cultural influence over the industry than any other dominion.

As the result of a capitalism, a commoditisation of culture has resulted in consumerism and citizenship [becoming] seemingly interchangeable concepts.  –  Staci Tucker, 2012

The notion of citizenship as a commodity is exemplified by Massively Multiplayer Online games, where the effects of commodification have far reaching implications. The development of synthetic worlds within which tangible products by way of point or status accumulation has become a regular part of digital play.  This directly contradicts the customary notion of play proposed by sociologist Roger Caillois. Game playing, for Cailois, is an activity which should be  “essentially: Free (voluntary), separate [in time  and space], uncertain, unproductive, governed by rules, make-believe”. Callois’s description of what constitutes play is that it “creates no wealth or goods, thus differing from work or art” and that whilst “property is exchanged”, “no goods are produced.”

Yet even at the very beginning of gamer culture there was evidence that the digital game space was to be dominated by the consumerist culture of modern-day America.  Players within the early text based game LambdaMOO were all found to have designed their virtual-selves as Home-Owners.  It is the ability to modify and constantly redevelop digital games that has resulted in the development of a commodity culture within them.

Digital platforms lend beautifully to cross-cultural communication, and the benefits of this feed into the fundamental pillars of game play which are about personal development through performance of identity. Experimentation of gender and sexuality is a widely known and accepted phenomenon of online gameplay. Whether this be on officially recognised ‘games’ or overflow spaces such as discussion boards and chat rooms, individual’s self-determine how they participate in online group communication and interactions and also in their level of privacy. The result is recognised as the Internet becoming a ‘transformational space’.

However, transformational spaces affecting positive personal development are also responsible for the polarising effects elicited by anonymous exchanges. A study by Chu and Wu on the effects of anonymous online collaboration identified the resulting psychological state of “depersonalisation” caused by a lack of individuating cues. Another study led by Le Hénaff, found that anonymity led to an “extremization of opinions” and to cheating behaviour. Game cheating has proven to be a normative behaviour within the online gaming community. The propensity to move outside of the boundaries of existing game play suggests that different rules and guidelines: a sub-culture within the borders of the original games, sets new rules to play by.

Trolling Behaviours and Activities

Thacker and Griffiths’s survey of gamers revealed  that the behaviours and activities being experienced range in severity and persistency.

  • ‘Flaming’ or ‘Griefing’, described as an aim to interrupt others playing and enjoyment of the game.
  • Textual or audio abuse has proven to be customarily racist or sexist in nature.
  • Misleading or providing inaccurate information was also identified as a form of mistreatment.

Trolling stems from the dis-inhibition that results from the perceived safety of relative anonymity. Symbolic violence has been experienced by players world-wide.

The revelation of this ‘game within a game’, has been drawn to public attention by gender activists from within the gaming industry over the past several years. The male-dominated workforce, entrenching the stereotyped ‘gamer’ identity, has fueled the patriarchal and misogynistic structures upon which gaming culture has formed. Mayra theorises that game play provides opportunity for escapism from “social roles and related constraints”, many of these performances of hyper-masculinity are occurring directly because of the anonymous environment within which they are born.

violently themed games provide opportunities to feel powerful and in control in a complex society which often limits the possibilities for those experiences not only for children and young people, but for individuals of any age – Frans Mayra

Cultural change however, is on its way, underlined and reinforced no doubt by the growing recognition by the industry and gaming communities that female video gamers within Western countries make up nearly half of the market.

Whilst the game industry continues to contribute to globalisation and cross-cultural blending, the ability for digital game content to be commodified destabilises the traditional purposes of games and play.  As players are lured into games seeking personal development through amusement and interaction with others, they will continue to find opportunities for escapism and be faced with decisions about their own actions and behaviours. Such decisions will be impacted by the globalising and changing socio-economic world in which gender imbalances are slowly correcting and online anonymity is becoming harder to attain.

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