Don’t grief my conference!

So here I am, on the last day of the DiGRA 2007 conference, Situated Play, trying to wrap my poor suffering brain around the contents of two conferences while Tokyo glitters and calls with delicious beeps and bells of consumer electronics just outside of the airconditioned lobby. I am in the lobby of the hotel, as the Wireless does not reach my 5th floor room, surrounded by similarly engaged researchers. The tapping on lap-top keyboards resembles rain on tiles, a constant and soothing background noise to people coming and going.

It’s been an intense experience on many levels, and as this is, surprisingly, my first DiGRA conference, also a new and overwhelming one. Conferences are about new people, new experiences, new connections, but also reinforcement,  rediscovery, reassurance. We go here to see not only what we haven’t thought of, but to be reminded that what we do is part of something bigger than ourselves: A network of thoughts and ideas spreading around the planet.

It was in this mood an assembly of happy game scholars sat down to listen to Edward Castronova, a well-respected economist invited to deliver the first keynote. He started out well, if somewhat simply, with playing a game. A few mutters along the lines of “Marinka Copier did the same in….” stilled as he took it a step further, and used the game to illustrate his points. He sent the voluntair players away with their hands full of shiny coins, and the audience was happily warmed up and ready to play.

That’s when everything changed. Castronova lowered his voice to a register of intimate persuasion, and started qouting scripture. No, not the Bible, but Tolkien and several other heroes of the gaming nerds. With powerful emotional reinforcement, he drove his message through: We have to protect the magic circle. Play must be protected, if we are to protect the world within which we live.

So, why does this message bother me, and so many other who were present?

First, there was the content. Castronova, inventive and interesting as his economical analytical writing is, is not a game scholar. His use of “magic circle”, “fantasy” and “play” is highly simplified – certainly not up to the standards of sophistication of many in the audience.

Second, there was the emotional manipulation. That was not a scholar up there, delivering a talk based on logos. That was an evangelist, drawing on the style of religious agitators, pushing buttons ruthlessly at a non-analytical level.

It is interesting that this talk is what has really made me think this time. Rather than being inspired by exellence I am working through my own surprise, investing energy in understanding. A conference is, in many ways, a game. It has a limited amount of players, it has rules, it has an arena. It is even, in many ways, possible to win a conference. Or, you can grief a conference. Castronova neglected the common rules of academic discourse and played his audience according to a whole different set of rules. Oh yes, he made an impact, he did move the audience and he got attention, but so does a griefer in a game.

Writing this, I wonder if this was the act of a brilliant evil genius. If so, it’s possible to imagine that it was all set up to deliberately make people angry and unhappy, to drive the point home: Respect your role, respect my space. It was a clear demonstration of the rules of engagement in Academia, and how intensely uncomfortable it is to have them ignored. And that is a lesson about ritual space, perhaps even more strongly demonstrated than intended.

No matter how good or bad we think this was though, it will go down in the history of the Digital Games Researchers Association’s history as a shared moment. And such things communities are made of.