While reading Aaron Hung’s wonderful dissertation about the collective construction of video game play (2009), something struck me again: Conversational Analysis, and indeed ethnomethodology with which it is closely related, has not faced quite systematically with conversational drift in longer sequences. Hung “unit of analysis” is something like two hours. Much of the analysis is about the shifting of the interactional orders, including moments when the shifting is actually brought to the conversational surface as participants offer different interpretations (meta-discursive comments) about what happened “earlier” so that different things might happen “later.” By choosing such a unit of analysis Hung takes himself out of classic CA to the extent that it is intent on demonstrating the making of orders and their reconstitution through various kinds of repairs under various kinds of stresses. He is far from the first to look at longer sequences heavily marked for particular settings (e.g. classroom interaction, counseling interviews, medical examinations, etc.). And much of the literature is about struggles to establish and maintain an order. But there is much less about the “failures” to maintain a particular order that eventually, and relatively seamlessly, lead to another order.
I have become fascinated by these events in which I see the best evidence we have for a separate human process that we might label “education” in the powerful sense of the word where it is not collapsed into either “schooling” or “learning.” Such evolutionary drifting also has to be ubiquitous to explain what anthropologists have been talking about when they have written about culture as a process of patterning—what I now write about as “cultural production.” I started pushing this in a 2004 address (Varenne and Cotter 2007) which I wrote when Ray McDermott, Jean Lave and I conducted a joint seminar on the “politics of ignorance.” What remains exciting is the attempt to base a theory of sociability, that is “culturability,” on the facing of ongoing and ever renewed ignorance about what is the feature of a current environment that is likely to make the most difference in the immediate future. This, of course, is but another take on classical Garfinkel but with the twist that my concern now is less with ordering and more with culturing as the process of the production of new arbitrary orders which, if I am right, must be a ubiquitous, ongoing process, at the most local of levels, as well as at the macro levels anthropologists have mostly been working at.
I believe we now have a good set of ethnographies exploring various possibilities (Varenne 2008). Hung pushes this at the most local of levels by showing how a young woman and use three young men to teach her how to play a video game first by finding herself necessary to their play (which required four players), and then by being shown multiply ignorant, eventually by discovering what it is that she had to manipulate, and then by getting at least some of the instruction she actually needed, thereby temporarily suspending “regular play,” and possibly then producing a still different order as the four started playing again with her as less incompetent.
It is only be pushing such ethnographies of everyday life that we can bring together the structural traditions ethnomethodology develops (Garfinkel 2002) with the Bakhtinian emphases on dialogical centrifugality.
One thought on “Aaron Hung and the collective construction of videogame play”
Thank you for your generous remarks on my dissertation! The exchange between the novice player and the experts was one of those moments when it was possible to see an underlying process of engagement that was otherwise embedded within the course of interaction. In this case the underlying process was the management of the “orders” of play and the realization that the organization of their play had to be restructured to accommodate a new activity (i.e. instructing her how to play). This seems to suggest that these orders are persistent, but are often hidden when nothing shows up to threaten it. Interestingly, I think videogaming, especially when multiple players are involved, often leads to disrupted orders, as I often hear players make up rules on the fly, such as “don’t hit me yet”, “ok, hit me now”, as ways of creating new boundaries.
A while back I had come across an article by Rawls (2005) called “Garfinkel’s conception of Time”, in which she connects time with Garfinkel’s notion of “trust”, and the importance of time “as a constitutive relationship between the parts of a developing interaction” (p. 168). I didn’t focus so much on the importance of time and sequence in my dissertation, but that is definitely a topic I would like to explore in the future. Certainly, in this case, one can see how the evolution of their play and the dynamics of their relationship changes over time.
There are still many stories in the data that didn’t make it into the dissertation, for example, the whole structuring of how many players get to play, and when it’s okay to gang up on another. There was even a moment when the novice accidentally discovered a move that the experts didn’t know. The novice kept asking them what the move was, and the experts didn’t told her even though they were discussing among themselves. It seemed like a moment when the experts’ “expert status” was threatened. (I didn’t include this because I didn’t feel it answered my research questions, but it would’ve been great for a focus on instruction and learning).
Rawls, A. W. (2005) Garfinkel’s conception of time. Time and Society. 14. pp. 163-190.