Academic journal article American Journal of Play

The Emotional Work of Family Negotiations in Digital Play Space: Searching for Identity, Cooperation, and Enduring Conflict

Academic journal article American Journal of Play

The Emotional Work of Family Negotiations in Digital Play Space: Searching for Identity, Cooperation, and Enduring Conflict

Article excerpt


Social scientists have long grappled with questions about game play- especially role-playing games, first tabletop and more recently online computer games-and identity. Although the myth of the lonely individual game player persists in the public imagination, the real environment for modern digital play (vis-a-vis or separate from popular social media sites) is far more social than many of its critics imagined (Lenhart et al. 2008; Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation 2002). Aside from the obvious network connections made through Facebook, Linked-In, YouTube, Twitter, and other forms of social media, the involvement of game playing fans in online competitions or exploring simulated fantasy worlds has expanded to include individuals, of all ages and from all walks of life and families. Moreover, new social networks have developed, and new types of social skills are required to assess both the truthfulness and manner of expressing comments by online players in different messaging forums.

Considered a subset of online social media, the simulated digital worlds of massive multiplayer online games (MMOGs) and massive multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORGPs), specifically World of Warcraft (WoW), form online universes where one can immerse oneself in a variety of activities both socially or alone. How do families negotiate conflict and cooperation both within and outside these online simulated environments? What are the issues families struggle with between game-playing members and nongame members? Further, how do families negotiate relationships among themselves and others when they engage with strangers in a virtual environment? These questions guided our research as we sought to understand the complex ways that simulated play worlds provide a public space in which families tackle conflicts, both personally and socially, as well as discover new forms of cooperation and feelings of accomplishments.

Although many have viewed video and computer games simply as a form of entertainment or play, as opposed to work, we argue that in fact such play constitutes a great deal of work. Indeed, we see it as a specific form of work, emotional work (Hochschild 1983; Lukacs, Embrick, and Wright 2010; see also Embrick, Wright, and Lukacs 2012) during which game players and their families engage in symbolic actions that maintain both online and offline social relationships. This often demands long hours of play for gamers, participating in dungeon runs or conducting raids with other online players. By "dungeon runs" and "raids," we are referring to group-oriented play within MMORPGs whereby players are forced to cooperate, negotiate, and play as a team to complete a mission or task within the game. Such time demands can easily become a source of conflict within families. In addition, differences in technical skills, social roles within the family, and a host of other variables can become a source of either irritation or of relief for couples and for those engaged in adult-child interactions.

Social Reality as a Continuous Process

We rely on Herbert Blumer's (1998) ideas in Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method about symbolic interaction to better understand how people interpret their actions within a given social context. In today's virtual environments, reality sometimes becomes obscured by personal interactions based on a virtual presentation of self-in addition to (or as opposed to) a more physical presentation of self. Thus, those playing characters online may not only mask their attitudes and tones of voice (through in-game texts or chats), they may also obscure their ages, ethnicities, and genders, characteristics that typically inform our perceptions of others and affect how we interact with them.

Blumer's central argument-that social reality (or perceptions of social reality) is created through a continuous process of interactions and interpretations-becomes heightened and exacerbated in virtual gaming environments where individuals must not only navigate their "real" lives but must also navigate their interactions with players whose behaviors may be even more unpredictable online. …

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