Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Research in Anthropology and Sociology

A Medley of Meanings: Insights from an Instance of Gameplay in League of Legends

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Research in Anthropology and Sociology

A Medley of Meanings: Insights from an Instance of Gameplay in League of Legends

Article excerpt


In this article I engage with the notion of insightful gameplay. In the first half of this article, I introduce some of the general approaches that scholars have taken to discussing what, if anything, makes play meaningful. Through this discussion, I illustrate how some games are explicitly designed to foster insightful gameplay, though most are not and many are considered by some as downright meaningless. I conduct this discussion keeping in mind that the more one discusses how playing games can be meaningful, the more one raises the question of what playing means. I then strive to reconcile these two interrelated questions with the notion of a medley of meanings. What I mean by a medley of meanings is that each player brings their own subjective disposition to playing to a particular instance of gameplay; no participant to gameplay should be considered as in a state that is "not playing". Because these subjective dispositions to playing can be quite divergent, players can and often do clash in instances of gameplay. I then contend that these clashes can in turn render the most seemingly meaningless games potential hotbeds of insightful gameplay.

In the second half of this article, I turn to an ethnographic example of gameplay in League of Legends. I do this to both illustrate one of the many instances that gave rise to my notion of a medley of meanings, and also to show how a medley of meanings can be a useful tool for analysing gameplay. I ultimately conclude with a summary of the potential limits of a medley of meanings as an analytic tool.

Before proceeding, it is worth more specifically noting the intentions and scope of this article. I want to render clear that by no means do I intend the notion of a medley of meanings to supplant much if any of the very good work on play theory that has been done and which I will shortly recount. Quite the opposite, I intend it as a tool that can help render clear how, in practice through gameplay, ostensibly divergent theories of play are bridged. In this framing, it is a notion that I have found useful for comparing and understanding the often starkly different dispositions to gameplay that I have witnessed amongst gamers in my broader and more longitudinal research. While I have found it a useful notion for structuring my broader longitudinal work, it is worth noting that the instance of gameplay on which this article's second section is based occurred in 2013 during a year-long period of online fieldwork that I conducted. For reasons of brevity, I have herein opted to focus on this one particular instance, eschewing both longitudinal and quantitative analysis in favour of what I hope is a finer grained reading of a particular instance than I could otherwise provide. Thus while in this article I contend that this notion has broader relevance than to the particular ethnographic example around which I frame it, I recognize that the extent of this will be borne out in further research. Part of this will be my own, but I also hope that other scholars doing longitudinal work on digital games and play, as well as those deploying more quantitatively oriented methodologies to studying gameplay, will test its usefulness and probe its limitations.

Different approaches to meaningful play

Is playing games meaningful? Perhaps unsurprisingly, if one turns to classical theorists of play like Johan Huizinga, the answer is a resounding "yes". In Homo Ludens, Huizinga argues not simply that play is a crucial element of human culture, but takes the thinking one step further and posits that human culture emerged from the fount of primordial play (Huizinga 1949, 1, 2). Thus in Huizinga's schema all kinds of forums for play, from games, to music, to even war, are intensely meaningful. Meaningful in the sense that playing games is a significant and important activity for people, but also that it can be and often is, in its most heightened forms, serious. In this articulation, Huizinga's insight offers a stark departure from some of the pre-existing and more skeptical approaches to the question of meaningful gameplay; stances that, as Roger Caillois has described them, view games as "a kind of degradation of adult activities that are transformed into meaningless distractions when they are no longer taken seriously" (Caillois 1961, 58). …

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