(p.186) Appendix B Notes on Social Games
(p.186) Appendix B Notes on Social Games
The theory of social games as developed, independently, by Michael Burawoy (1979) and Pierre Bourdieu (1976, 1997), attempts to bridge the agent-structure divide in a way that both comprehends the agent as a conscious decision maker and strategic actor, and, at the same time, recognizes (i) the constraints, limits, and obstacles posed by social structures external to the individual agent, and (ii) the constitutive power of social structures to shape the practices, strategies, and subjectivities of agents. Thus, for both theorists, the game metaphor accounts for our lived experience of strategizing and making decisions that have real consequences, while also explaining the patterned nature of actions and experiences in a given social context.
To explicate this conception of social games, it is useful to begin by contrasting it with other theories that also conceptualize social action as a kind of game, starting with the well-known theoretical tradition of game theory most often associated with economics. Game theory originated with John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern’s 1944 publication of Theory of Games and Economic Behaviour. This theory defines games as “any interaction between agents that is governed by a set of rules specifying the possible moves for each participant and a set of outcomes for each possible combination of moves” (Hargreaves and Varoufakis 1995). It attempts to formally model the decision-making processes of players involved in various kinds of social situations. In economics, game theory has been deployed to develop understandings of how agents attempt to maximize utility in complex situations involving interactions with other utility-maximizing agents. Depending on factors such as whether the games are simultaneous or sequential, zero-sum or non-zero-sum, different possible sets of strategies are analyzed for the optimal (p.187) approach. The essential assumption of game theory is that human actions can be understood, at least roughly, as mirroring instrumentally rational behavior and are therefore amenable to mathematical modeling. Behind this assumption lie two further related and often unstated assumptions. First, players’ strategies are constrained by the rules and structure of the game but are not constituted by it—that is, there is no conception of social structures exerting any positive or constitutive power in shaping players’ goals and strategies. Second, players have independent knowledge about the likely outcomes of moves to enable strategic decisions based on instrumentally rational calculations.
Social games theory is critical of game theory’s conception of the instrumentally rational player. Bourdieu argues that game theory is a “scholastic representation” that projects on to players a “conscious project aiming at ends” and engagement in deliberate calculations that can only seem plausible in the imaginations of scholars far removed from practical experiences of daily life (1997, 207; 1998b, 2005). Bourdieu claims that games are in fact embodied experiences where players are not engaged in conscious calculation or strategizing but typically make moves based on deeply ingrained dispositions, which he calls habitus, or a feel for the game. Habitus is Bourdieu’s conceptualization of the positive power of social structure to shape the very rationality of the player. For example, in analyzing marriage patterns among French peasants, Bourdieu (1976) finds that the regularities in practices are not based on obedience to any rule but are the result of strategies aimed to reproduce the family lineage and safeguard its patrimony. Bourdieu describes families deploying a whole array of “parries” and “moves” similar to those used in fencing and chess. The strategies, however, are not consciously considered but derive in a subconscious way from “strongly interiorized principles.” As Bourdieu (1976, 141) puts it: “These strategies are the product of habitus, meaning the practical mastery of a small number of implicit principles that have spawned an infinite number of practices and follow their own pattern.”
Burawoy (1979) implicitly shares with Bourdieu the same critique of game theory as ignoring the positive and constitutive power of social structures over the agent. Both Bourdieu and Burawoy see social games as shaping the subjectivities of agents, the logic underlying their strategies, and their interpretations of outcomes. They disagree, however, on the durability and stability of this positive constitution. Bourdieu’s habitus posits that structures forge a deep, durable, and stable pattern of thoughts and practices that are carried by agents across social games. Burawoy (p.188) theorizes a more fluid constitutive process resulting in sets of practices that are continuously reconfigured by the dynamics of the current game (Burawoy 2012).
It is this core difference regarding the habitus that leads to their different understandings of the relationship between games and social change alluded to in chapter 7. Whereas Burawoy’s (2012, 1979) more fluid conception of agents’ subjectivities opens the possibility of games with internal dynamics that ultimately generate resistance from players to their very rules, Bourdieu’s conception of the habitus makes this kind of resistance much less likely. For Bourdieu (1988), resistance may arise from external conditions producing a mismatch between a field and the habitus, but absent such a mismatch a habitus adjusted to its external conditions is deeply embodied and difficult to change without arduous and improbable counter-training (Bourdieu 2000, 172). Bourdieu (1976, 1990a, 1997) suggests that the play of games typically leads to reproduction of their underlying structures because the experience of playing “adjusts” players’ habitus—including their subjective hopes and expectations—to the objective probabilities of the game. This adjustment, Bourdieu claims, ultimately “ensures unconditional submission to the established order that is implied in the doxic relation to the world” (2000, 231). In other words, agents submit to external structures because the extent of their hopes and expectations are produced by such structures. This process, Bourdieu claims, “puts the most intolerable conditions from the point of view of a habitus constituted in other conditions, beyond questioning and challenge” by those whose habitus is thereby constituted (2000, 231). Bourdieu’s (1997) framework imagines that over time habitus and structure become so fused that deprivations inflicted on agents are made invisible by the deeply internalized and taken-for-granted understandings and expectations of the structure. Yet reflecting on the job-search games and dynamics described in this book suggests that social games do not always produce a relationship between agent and structure that moves toward fusion and adjustment of subjectivity to structure, but may instead produce a relationship of increasing tension. As described in chapter 5, playing the specs game generates anger because it intensifies the perceived contradiction between expectations of meritocracy and the experience of arbitrary exclusion. The chemistry game, as described in chapter 3, does not generate resistance; however, this is not the result of the adjustment of the habitus to “objective probabilities,” but rather is due to the dynamic of a growing inward focus and self-blame. Instead of experiencing a growing sense of fusion between agent and structure, like the proverbial (p.189) fish in water, American job seekers engaged in the chemistry game increasingly feel like defective fish unable to swim.
The theory of social games can also be fruitfully analyzed in relation to Johan Huizinga’s (1950) anthropological theory in Homo Ludens. While game theory focuses on rational strategic calculations, an entirely different dimension of games is highlighted by Huizinga, who argues that the act of playing is essential to the human species. He rejects both the Smithian idea of Homo Economicus and the Marxist idea of Homo Faber, and instead proposes Homo Ludens: “Man the Player.” Playing games for Huizinga is not about solving mathematical equations to find optimal strategies, but about the pull of “tension and solution,” and mirthful fun. Huizinga focuses on the lure of games. He claims that we must delve beyond rationality or even functionality to understand why “the gambler loses himself in his passion” (1950, 4–11). The power of the game is based on tension arising from uncertainty or “chanciness” and a striving for resolution. Competition with others can increase this tension to fervent levels, as a “testing of the player’s prowess: his courage, tenacity, resources.” With its suspense and drama, “play casts a spell over us; it is ‘enchanting’ and ‘captivating,’” such that the “consciousness of its being ‘merely’ a game can be thrust into the background.” One of the enchanting elements of games is that they create an order. “Into an imperfect world and into the confusion of life it brings a temporary, a limited perfection.” As Huizinga explains:
All play has its rules. They determine what “holds” in the temporary world circumscribed by play. The rules of the game are absolutely binding and allow no doubt.… Indeed as soon as the rules are transgressed the whole play-world collapses. The game is over. The umpire’s whistle breaks the spell and sets “real” life going again…. [The one who breaks the rules] [r]eveals the relativity and fragility of the play-world in which he had temporarily shut himself with others. He robs play of its illusion…. Therefore he must be cast out, for he threatens the existence of the play community. (1950, 11)
Huizinga’s portrayal of human play is powerfully resonant because it corresponds to a familiar experience of absorption. For Huizinga, games are defined as being removed and “different from ‘ordinary’ life” because, he claims, true play must be free and voluntary activity. The condition of voluntariness conjures childhood memories of carefree play, but renders most social action as beyond the limits of Huizinga’s theory. In sum, whereas economic game theorists examine the games of everyday life as if players were abstract mathematicians in a social vacuum, Huizinga explores (p.190) the very human and social qualities of games but insists on distinguishing games from the everyday.
This luring and captivating quality of games is also at the heart of the theory of social games (Burawoy 1979; Bourdieu 1976, 1997). Yet there is an important difference between the theory of social games and Huizinga’s theory. Social games share with game theory the presumption that games are a pervasive part of everyday life. Everyday life play may not be characterized by “mirthful fun,” but due to the “chanciness” of social life, it nonetheless constantly and deeply engages us in strategizing. Unlike Huizinga’s theory, the theory of social games recognizes that social activity admits of no easy or pure designation of “voluntary” versus “involuntary” action, and instead claims that for games to arise what is essential is that agents enjoy some minimal level of strategic “discretion.” For example, the machinists that Burawoy (1979) describes are hardly free from economic coercion in their need to work for a living, but discretion over the precise manner, tempo, and rhythm of work provides enough space to open up the possibilities of strategizing and, thus, of absorbing play.
In sum, there are three common threads to the theory of social games. First, a conception of games’ positive or constitutive power of the agent to account for agents’ lived experience of engaging in strategic action while at the same time explaining the patterned nature of actions in a given structural context. Second, theories of social games are also characterized by a premise, shared with Huizinga (1950), that humans are drawn to games by the pull of “tension” that arises from uncertainty or “chanciness.” Theorists of social games have emphasized the need for some level of uncertainty to generate the essential play experience of absorption. The outcome must be indeterminate exante, but not random or unattainable. A game will not “absorb” players if “uncertainty is too great and outcomes are entirely beyond the control of players,” or if “uncertainty is too slight” and outcomes are “completely controlled by players” (Burawoy 1979, 87). Or as Bourdieu puts it, for players to be invested in the game, the probabilities of fulfillment of the players’ expectations must be “neither nil … nor total,” but somewhere in between “absolute necessity and absolute impossibility” (Bourdieu 1997, 213). The third and final common thread of social games theory is the idea that ordinary life is infused with games. Games may arise in virtually any area of social life where social structures generate uncertainty over obtaining a desired outcome and where agents have some discretion to engage in strategic actions in an attempt to achieve this outcome.