Understanding Counterplay in Video Games
By Alan F. Meades
London: Routledge: 2014. ISBN: 9781138804920
An insightful and interesting read, Alan F. Meades’ Understanding Counterplay in Video Games explores one of the most problematic issues within multiplayer video games: the antisocial and oppositional forms of play, such as cheating, hacking, griefing and illicit game modifications, which is known collectively as ‘counterplay’. Meades’ intention is to reframe the debate, away from the suggestion that these acts are simply ‘childish’ or ‘malicious’, to recognise the meaningful value(s) that counter players attribute to transgressing the authority of game rules. The book shows that the motivation to cheat the game, modify the system or grief another player, is a complex and often contradictory experience, one which reveals a key tension within Western play philosophy: that violent, destructive and unrestricted play is not only pleasurable, but often provides the impetus for social and political change. Meades navigates this argument carefully, across seven chapters, and draws from ethnographic research with counter players to consider the moral imperative(s) that underwrite their transgressive behaviour.
Aptly, Meades’ theoretical journey begins with the work of Emile Durkheim, a sociologist of morality, who is known for his writings on the demarcation between the ‘sacred’ and the ‘profane’, the ‘normal’ and the ‘abject’, the ‘compliant’ and the ‘criminal’. For the uninitiated, Durkheim argues that the rule of law is pivotal ti establishing consensual solidarity amongst the general populace; it is a “visible symbol” of a functioning social order. Transgressive acts, like stealing or murder, are seen to violate this solidarity and so overtly punitive measures are introduced to manage the threat of such behaviour escalating. Meades suggests that Durkheim’s ideas are relevant to how we conceptualise counterplay today: cheating, hacking, griefing, etc., are all examples of behaviour that break with the rules and/or moral principles attributed to gaming environments. Values, such as ‘fair play’ or ‘free play’, are brought into question as the disruptive acts of counter players expose the player and/or the system to its authorial irrelevance. In other words, counter play challenges consensus by forcing the ‘compliant’ (player, system admin, game publisher) into an antagonistic dialogue with the ‘criminal’ counter player.
Meades presents this dialectic very clearly in his third chapter – a case study of ‘grief play’. He focuses on the act of ‘unbuilding’ from the popular video game Minecraft, where players intentionally destroy the building efforts of others. Meades suggests that on the surface it may appear that these griefers get very little benefit from the experience. Indeed, smashing another players’ house or homestead with a pick-axe in Minecraft only yields small and transitory rewards. Griefers will often be banned before these resource gains can be turned into any kind of meaningful progression. Instead, Meades argues that we should confront the true reality of griefing: that players derive value from transgressing the rules of the game and the normative conventions of Western play theory. This is no clearer than in the pleasures that players take from inconveniencing others. They will replace blocks of earth with lava or sand simply to watch their victims burn or sink-away; they will rain-down fire on victims’ worlds simply to incinerate hundreds of hours of play effort; and they will encase villages with deep layers of block simply to observe the ineffectual attempts of their victims to struggle through. In Meades’ own words, ‘this is about upsetting another player’ (p.51), and it is here that his core theoretical assumption about grief play comes into view: ‘… [it is] an act that appears primarily concerned with the generation of identity through the appropriation of game space that demonstrates mastery, dominating opponents and other players and forcing them to play under the grief-players’ terms’ (p.73).
Whilst it is tempting to link grief-play with Nietzsche’s ideas of power and control (see pp.34-35), Meades’ analysis of human motivation could go further. For example, his arguments overlook the role of ‘tragedy’ in motivating negative play experiences (Juul 2013) – an idea also inspired by Nietzsche – that has informed research on the benefits of (self-)abnegating forms of play (Brock, 2017). Indeed, there is a deeper psychoanalytic side to abject forms of play that Meades’ argument could engage with. This includes the psychological and sociological function of laughter – a phatic interaction that produces common goods (and evils) typical of carnivalesque environments. This would complement Meades’ (p.65) acknowledgement that the carnivalesque is an important dimension of the ‘laddish culture’ that underwrites grief-play, particularly as typically-offensive social cues, such as ridicule, can also operate to alleviate tension within game space. Indeed, ridicule can help to ‘break the ice’ and give players the license to ‘laugh off’ poor performances.
Though this short review cannot do justice to its many arguments and nuance, Understanding Counterplay is a thought-provoking and accessible book that I recommend to any games researcher interested in examining the ‘darker’ side of play. Meades takes a commanding stance on issues of continuing social and political relevance, and I expect that academics, policy-makers and the public alike will find his arguments thorough and compelling.
Brock, T. 2017. ‘Videogame Consumption: The Apophatic Dimension’, Journal of Consumer Culture. Online Version: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1469540516684185
Juul, J. 2013. The Art of Failure. MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Meades, A. 2015.Understanding Counterplay. Routledge: London.