Monday, June 1, 2009

You Mean It’s Only a Game?

In the article “You Mean It’s Only a Game? Rule Structures, the Magic Circle, and Player Participation in Pervasive Mobile Gaming” (2006) Alison Harvey brings ethics in pervasive games into focus. In game theory there is an implicit agreement that when playing the players find them in a magic circle, which makes out a conceptual and symbolic structure that surrounds the play world. Within this magic circle it is clear who is playing and who is not according to Harvey. In some pervasive games this divide is not fixed, which means that people can be part of the game without their consent.

The concept of the magic circle has to do with the rigidity of boundaries in games. Harvey quotes Huizinga for writing that rules are vital to a game as they create the play world by setting its boundaries and they determine what is acceptable inside the boundaries of the game.

The pervasive games can make the player aware of things in their environment that they normally would not notice. In this way, Harvey writes, pervasive games actually shift the boundaries of the real world for the players. This shift and lack of clearance of boundaries raise ethical questions when for example a non-player is integrated in the game due to the shifting boundaries. Harvey quotes Benford et al 2006 that makes a distinction between the primary user (player) as a performer and the spectators (secondary users). The secondary user is not only a person who watches the game, but also persons who have an indirect influence on the game as they can be asked for directions or even have a defined role in the game according to Benford and his co-authors. They refer to a framework “The frame of the game” that is pushed through mobile gaming. It is this framework that settles the roles of the users – primary and secondary. Within the framework there is a transition between being a primary user and a secondary user. The primary users have an unspoken contract with the secondary users that they confirm continuously through rituals, conventions, and both physical and intellectual structures. In this setting the performer – or primary user – is the frame constructor and the spectator – secondary user – is the frame interpreter.

This setup challenges the concept of the magic circle according to Harvey. The players are running around in the streets without a clear demarcation of what is inside the game world and what is not. In addition non-players or spectators can be part of the game without their consent. Benford et al do distinguish between audience members that are aware that the actions they are observing are within a performance frame, and bystanders who has not got clue of what is going on. However Harvey notes that it is pure chance who belongs to which group as there is nothing in the framework that supports the difference. Harvey criticises both Benford et al and Montola and Waern for not having serious concerns for the secondary users. Montola and Waern write that a “very engaging experience” can be obtained through the use of “social expansion” which is expanding the game socially and including non-players in the game. Harvey notes that they neglect to mention who is experiencing is for. Benford et al do realize that there is a risk when including non-players in the game. They purpose designing a “safety harness” that protects the players – not the non-players according to Harvey.

Harvey concludes that there is a lack of discussion on the ethical questions that come out of playing with frames and boundaries in public spaces. Her opinion is that play is something that the participants have to enter explicitly. She acknowledges that when games are been played in public they will draw attention and players can interact with non-players. But this should not be scripted into the design as a part of the game according to her. Harvey states that the boundary between players and non-players must remain intact for ethical reasons. She points out that this might change later, when conventions on the area develop, as they can give the non-players a clue about what is going on.

Harvey, A.: You Mean It’s Only a Game? Rule Structures, the Magic Circle, and Player Participation in Pervasive Mobile Gaming
; Proceedings of CGSA 2006 Symposium (2006)

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