Massively Multiplayer Online Videogaming as Participation in a Discourse
Constance A. Steinkuehler
University of Wisconsin – Madison
To appear in Mind, Culture, and Activity.
This paper has two primary goals: (1) to illustrate how a closer analysis of language can lead to fruitful insights into the activities that it helps constitute, and (2) to demonstrate the complexity of the practices that make up Massively Multiplayer Online Gaming through just such an analysis. The first goal is in response to the way we sometimes treat language in studies of activity, despite calls for more nuanced analyses (e.g., Wells, 2002), as a mere conduit for information in which its other (social, identity) functions are overlooked. The second goal is in response to the diatribes against videogames in the media and their frequent dismissal as barren play. In this manuscript, I use functional linguistics to unpack how a seemingly inconsequential turn of talk within the game Lineage reveals important aspects of the activity in which it is situated as well as the broader “forms of life” enacted in the game through which members display their allegiance and identity.
Before symbolic processing theory developed in the late 1950’s, psychology was dominated by theories of behaviorism that treated human behavior as nothing more than direct response to environmental stimuli (SR). Symbolic processing theory later rejected this assumption, concluding that human behavior could not be explained without positing an intermediate stratum of mental processes that occur between input (stimuli from the environment) and output (behavior). Human beings, it was argued, mentally represent information from the environment, process that information, then select behaviors accordingly. And so the mind, if only a reduced version bound solely “in the head,” was reestablished as a valid theoretical and practical concern. (Derry & Steinkuehler, 2003).
Since then, scholars have run up against the shortcomings of this model of cognition, finding it difficult to account for complex human behavior without also taking into account the social, material, and temporal context through which (note: not in which) the “mind” works. In response, many researchers interested in cognition have shifted their focus toward intact activity systems – structures of interactions between individuals and their social and material contexts – in which the individual is only one part. Such work includes a vast diversity of scholarship, including work in activity theory (Engestrom, Miettinen, & Punamaki, 1999), connectionism (Allman, 1989; Johnson & Brown, 1998), Discourse theory (Gee, 1992, 1996, 1999), distributed cognition (Hutchins, 1995), ecological psychology (Gibson, 1979/1986), ethnomethodology (Garfinkel, 1967), mediated action (Wertsch, 1998), situated learning (Lave, 1988; Lave & Wenger, 1991), sociocultural theory (Vygotsky, 1978), and situativity theory (Greeno, & Moore, 1993). Despite the internal diversity, researchers working under these paradigms share a view of cognition as (inter)action in the social and material world. To use a familiar quote from Lave (1988), cognition is “a complex social phenomenon…distributed – stretched over, not divided among – mind, body, activity and culturally organized settings (which include other actors)” (p.1). Thus, we have come a long way from studies in which information processing was mistaken for meaning making (Bruner, 1990).
Still, despite this more nuanced treatment of cognition as distributed and situated, our consideration of language as part of the activities that constitute “cognition” remains, at times, a bit more crude. Still relying on a model of communication that underlies symbolic processing theory (cf. Vera & Simon, 1993) and, for that matter, our everyday folk theory of how communication works (Lakoff & Johnson 1980), we at times still treat language as the mere transmission means for informational content. Yet, work in functional linguistics demonstrates that all language-in-use functions not only as a vehicle for conveying information but also and equally as important as part and parcel of ongoing activities and as a means for enacting human relationships (Gee, 1999).
To take a simple example, consider the statement “Mistakes were made” versus “I made mistakes.” In the first utterance, I am engaging in an “information giving” activity that foregrounds the ideational and shrouds agency. In the second, I am engaging in an “apology giving” activity that foregrounds my responsibility for whatever conundrum occurred and does repair work on my social relationships with whoever my audience may be. With only a “content transmission” view of language, these two statements are roughly equivalent. Yet, in terms of both the ongoing activity I am engaging in and my social relationships with the audience, the two are markedly different. There is a considerable body of work in functional linguistics (for example, Clark, 1996; Gee, 1999; Halliday, 1978; Levinson 1983; Schiffrin, 1994) that we, as cognitive researchers, might draw on in order to better account for language and communication; without such accounts, our analyses of human activity (read: distributed and situated cognition) might sometimes run the risk of missing the forest for the trees.
Gee’s Discourse Theory
To date, Gee’s (1999) Discourse theory and method of analysis has been the most readily applied to understanding cognition in all its distributed and situated messiness. Coming out of the New Literacy Studies (e.g., Barton, 1994; Cazden 1988; Cook-Gumperz 1986; Gumperz, 1982; Heath, 1983; Kress, 1985; Street, 1984, 1993), Discourse theory maintains a focus on individuals’ (inter)action in the social and material world, but, by foregrounding the role of d/Discourse (language-in-use/”kinds of people”) in such interactions, it provides a fulcrum about which theory and method can be coherently leveraged to gain insight into the situated meanings individuals construct (not just the information they process) and the definitive role of communities in that meaning.
In contrast to the transmission model of language, which takes the meaning of a symbol (what it “designates or denotes,” Vera & Simon, 1993, p.9) as a given kind of abstraction or generality, Discourse theory focuses on how the meaning of a symbol or utterance is situated (Gee, 1999) – a pattern that we assemble “on the fly,” from and for particular contexts of use that is multiple, varying across different situations, and based on how the current context and prior experiences are construed (Agar, 1994; Barsalou 1992; Hofstadter 1997; Kress 1985; Levinson 1983). Given this range of variability in interpretation, something must guide an individual’s sense making. This “something” is (often tacit) assumptions about how the world “works,” assumptions that hang together to form cultural models (Gee, 1999) – explanatory theories or “story lines” of prototypical people and events that are created, maintained, and transformed by specific social groups whose ways of being in the world underwrite them. These “ways of being in the world” or “forms of life” (Wittgenstein, 1958) are what Gee (1999) calls “big D Discourses, ” which are:
different ways in which we humans integrate language with non-language “stuff,” such as different ways of thinking, acting, interacting, valuing, feeling, believing, and using symbols, tools, and objects in the right places and at the right times so as to… give the material world certain meanings… make certain sorts of meaningful connections in our experience, and privilege certain symbols systems and ways of knowing over others. (p. 13).
Through participation in a Discourse community, an individual comes to understand the world (and themselves) from the perspective of that community. Thus, semantic interpretation is taken as part of what people do in the lived-in world; it arises through interaction with social and material resources in the context of a community with its own participant structures, values, and goals.