Article Analysis #1 by Jeremy Wildberger

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March 26, 2012 by jwildberger

In his article “Play and the Private,” Nis Bojin uses Wittgenstein’s private language argument to undermine attempts to statically define play by uncovering its essence. He argues that the conclusion drawn from Wittgenstein’s thought experiment gives us “a greater understanding of play, not through defining it but unraveling it for what it is: a contextual tapestry of cues, linguistic exchanges and situated subjective experiences expressed and shaped communally.” In Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein rejects the notion that words gain their meaning by attaching on to an essence or an object in the world. Instead, words gain their meaning through use within a form of life, or the social practices of a community. Words have meanings in certain social contexts, and we “know” their meaning when we properly deploy them within the appropriate social contexts. Bojin views this as a transition from an ontological approach to an epistemological approach.  

Bojin links the epistemological approach to Wittgenstein’s “family resemblances.” A word like play does not have a single definition, but rather we use the word play in a variety of situations, a family of situations, which only resemble each other. This can be confirmed by experience. We feel perfectly comfortable using the word play, yet we find it incredibly difficult to give a single definition of it when asked. If knowing this single definition is a pre-requisite to using “play” properly, and we use it properly in everyday situations, then we must know the definition.  However, the definition is opaque to us. Thus, either knowing the definition is not a pre-requisite, or we must doubt our ability to use “play” properly in everyday situations due to the absence of a clear definition. The latter option is absurd. It runs completely counter to experience.

From this, one can see why Bojin states that “the derivation of family resemblances never stem from an unimpeachable level of objectivity, but rather an assumed context, a paradigm of inquiry, an epistemological foundation.” Referring to as an epistemological “foundation” is slightly problematic, but the idea is that context provides whatever stability that exists. Context cannot afford us solid meanings, because context requires judgment on the part of the speaker. Since this view of language requires a speaker’s judgment, one may ask from where do the norms of language come. Are the norms whatever the speaker wants them to be? Wittgenstein’s private language argument deals precisely with this issue.

The private language argument is a thought experiment, in which Wittgenstein imagines someone experiencing a pain and recording it in a book with a symbol. Theoretically this would be a private language, as only the person who assigned the symbol to the feeling of pain would be able to interpret the symbol. However, Wittgenstein notes that this is not the case. While the pain is private, the rules regarding the proper application of the symbol are not essentially private. Anyone may learn these rules. The symbol therefore acts as a public cue that the person felt a pain. Bojin explains that “[d]espite any privately held experiences, these experiences can never be expressed in a language which only bears meaning to the user – such language will always be in the form of cues that are subject to communal mastery.” Language is social, and the rules that govern it develop out of a form of life, the social practices of a community. This suggests that if one wants to achieve a better understanding of play, one should examine the ways in which people use the word in particular social circumstances, instead of looking for an a priori essence. Bojin takes this approach in examining the term “grinding,” which is commonly used in MMO player communities.

Grinding describes “constant, repeated engagement with one or more (often already repetitive) tasks.” MMO players often grind in order to level up more quickly, receive better equipment, or acquire in-game currency. These activities require little if any thought, and may only require continuous mouse clicking from the player. Given that “grinding” is associated with actions that fail to fully engage that player, it is difficult to see how it could be classified as “play.” Despite this fact, grinding is regularly referred to as play. This is because some of the normal social cues indicating play obtain when grinding occurs. It takes place within a game, and the player (the name itself designates play) interacts with that gameworld while surrounded by other players.  Games designers may present these activities as play, and other players may enjoy the activities. All of these cues insinuate play, even though many would not classify these repetitive exercises as play.

Bojin observes this tension in an online discussion forum for the MMO Guild Wars.  He says that “grinding has become well-established as a normative cue such that even players who do not believe grinding to be representative of what they know as play often need to refer to their notion of play as ‘normal play’ in forums of public exchange.” Because of the other normative cues mentioned, grinding counts as play in these discussions. Although it publically counts as play, some players feel the need to make a distinction between grinding and ‘normal play.’ Normal play stands in for the non-grinding aspects of play, which are more engaging or fun compared to grinding. Simply, defining play and then looking at whether grinding fits into that definition stops one from noticing the complex social interactions and negotiations that make up this exchange.


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