Program - Day 9 - Thursday 7 August

Section ll - Virtual Worlds / Day 9

Ludic Media Theory and Virtual Worlds

Julian Kücklich (Coleraine)

Virtual spaces are embedded in the context of a mediasphere that is characterised by increasingly ludic ways of interaction. In this session, we explore how an understanding of play as a register of technicality enables new ways of understanding virtual worlds, their players and particular modes of agency.



The close kinship between play and ritual is not only obvious from anthropological accounts of different cultures, it has also been theorized by one of the most accomplished theorists of play, the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga. In his book Homo Ludens, Huizinga describes play as a quasi-ritualistic practice that takes place within a "magic circle", which insulates it from "ordinary life". It thus becomes apparent that theoretical models developed by scholars such as Huizinga, Caillois, Suits, and Sutton-Smith can be used to explore how ludo-ritualistic practices are embedded in everyday life, and which negotiations have to take place to safeguard the special status of play.

While play must be seen as an anthropological constant, both historically and diachronically, the recent rise of electronic media has led to an intensification and proliferation of ludic practices; a process which has been described as a "ludic turn". Play has become not only the primary mode of engagement with digital games in all their various forms, but also a means of exploring and familiarizing ourselves with new media in general. Cell phones, mp3 players, computers, PDAs, digital cameras, and other electronic devices have become increasingly playable, and their users are becoming increasingly playful.

"Ludic media theory" is an attempt to describe this playful engagement with technology, which also gives rise to a wide range of practices and artifacts, such as YouTube videos, Facebook applications, digital game modifications ('mods'), and various forms of user-generated content and fan art. Compiling and juxtaposing these artifacts and practices in a bricolagic manner is the primary method employed to assess the ludic qualities of new media.

While ludic media theory does not primarily focus on digital games, but rather attempts to bring a ludic perspective to comparative media studies, it can be applied particularly well within massively multiplayer games (MMOGs), or "virtual worlds", in which the ludic exuberance of players results in a plethora of artifacts and practices to be studied. TL Taylor's book Play between Worlds, an ethnographic study of the world of EverQuest, can be seen as the most accomplished application of ludic media theory to virtual worlds to date.

While Taylor highlights the agency of players, and the creative modes of engagement with game rules, other scholars emphasize the coercive nature of virtual worlds, and draw attention to the various practices by which players subvert the rules of the game. Both orthodox and unorthodox ('deludic') forms of play can thus be regarded as highly ritualized performances, which are used to negotiate the boundaries between online and offline life, between private and public persona, and between work and play. Ludic media theory can be used to study these practices, in order to come to an understanding of the complexities involved in leading a life that moves in the interstices of competing epistemes and ontologies.

Julian Kücklich
Julian Kücklich
Phd student, Centre for Media Research, University of Ulster, Coleraine, UK