on flickr as a game environment

I have a section in my chapter on Flickr about the structure of the network as an ‘architecture of participation’, where I go through the various levels of engagement that are possible or invited (from exploring to uploading to commenting to participating in group ‘tasks’ and learning communities, and so on). I know I’m not the first person to have the idea of user-generated content communities as MMOGs, and I am very far from being an expert on game studies, but I’ve found it really productive to think about these issues of structure (or perhaps structuration) through a game design model, which also gets us thinking about participation in the network in terms of multiple forms of play. Here’s a bit of the draft to that effect:

Many computer games, at least at the most obvious level, are a specific, structured form of play that has a clear and final result: they define a win and (sometimes) a loss. At the same time not all play, even within game environments, is ‘ludic’ in precisely this way, instead being characterised by more free-form and player-centred practices that are complementary or parallel to the success imperative. This approach can also be applied to ‘architectures of participation’ like user-generated content communities and, in this case Flickr, on the basis that participation in these environments, as in games, can be viewed as a form of play that occurs in a constrained environment and that offers both individual and social rewards which can be attributed to the actions of the participants. Accordingly, it is appropriate to view Flickr as an open and configurable, but at the same time deeply structured, game environment where a variety of forms of massively multiplayer online play are possible. The second feature of play that makes it a useful tool for the analysis of cultural participation in Flickr is that it is, as Kücklich demonstrates, an appropriate model for the structure-agency problem in new media contexts.

Update: Stewart Butterfield on Game Neverending:

The secret is, even though it’s called Game Neverending, it’s not really a game at all. It’s a social space designed to facilitate and enable play. The game-elements are there to provide both the constraints and the building blocks of interaction – since the thing you’ll notice about the kind of play I’m talking about above is that it is the kind of thing that goes on between people. Ludicorp was started because we imagine all kinds of social computing applications that we’d love to use and participate in, and no one else seems to be building them.

Something there about the pervasiveness of the original design philosophy, I think.

8 thoughts to “on flickr as a game environment”

  1. this is a bit out of left field, but have you read matt hill’s book on fans? he has a chapter looking at psychoanalytic conceptions of fandom and the relationship on an affective level between fans and ‘transitional objects’ in the winnicott sense. He draws on winnicott’s definition of play that is very similar to your use. The play was organised around particular objects, and hills calls it ‘affective play’. UNfortunately he takes Grossberg’s neo-structuralist account of affect (mattering maps) as a substitution for D&G’s approach so doesn’t properly follow it up, especially the work of Guattari. Hills doesn’t even mention Guattari and this is one example where the absence is *very* apparent.

    If I remember correctly in _Molecular Revolutions_ Guattari called such transitional objects the ‘object b’ (after Lacan’s object a), but he was more interested in the institutional level (as am I) which called the ‘object c’! I don’t go into any of this psychanalytic stuff in my diss because i haven’t read lacan properly only enough to understand what Guattari and Deleuze are doing when they argue the subconscious is a factory and not a theatre. Anyway, from this perspective what ever happens is always *transversal* between human and non-human agencies. It is more about enthusiast events (or fan events) produced in concert between agencies with the productive power of the subconscious rather than particular fetishised representations of it or the necessary fetishized objects of the infrastructure (which could actually be replaced, ie new cars).

    Ok, cool, that was a (transversal!) sidenote. the question I have about the gaming metaphor is that participation in gaming is essentially about how much fun or engaging something is, however in these online communities is it as selfish as this? how do you mediate between the selfishness of gaming as something you do to war off boredom compared to the sociality of online communities?

  2. ward off boredom! not war off boredom. that would change the meaning, but only a little… quick, back to Doooooom… lol

  3. interesting thought… there is a bit of history that you might not know. flickr is the second project of ludicorp, whose first project was a social software game called game neverending. flickr was part of that game as i recall that was broken out and developed as an indepedent application. you might want to look at game neverending…

  4. Glen, thanks for your effusiveness as always 😉 To take up your less transversal point, and with massive apologies to gamers and game scholars for ludicrous (heh) understatement: there’s a lot more to play than ‘fun’, and a lot more to games than ‘warding off boredom’, surely? You did use the word ‘engaging’ though – I’m suggesting it’s not too much of a leap from the forms of immersive hybrid textual-social engagement that make multiplayer games worthwhile to what goes on in flickr. Of course, relatively superficial, even disengaged participation is possible as well. Which is why I said flickr is a game environment – a space for multiple spaces of play – not a game. Cos not everyone’s playing the same game.

    So, anyway, I don’t think it’s a ‘selfish’ metaphor, I think it’s a social metaphor that allows me to talk about creativity and community and challenge and exploration and all sorts of other things that i’ve learned people use flickr for.

    Hi Jeremy, I did know that history, yeah. As you probably know the guts of the ‘architecture’ – the photosharing app – was originally part of GNE. And a bit of trivia – have a look at the internal flickr URLs sometime, they all end in .gne still. Also, I meant to note in my post that there’s a good interview about the development of the user interface here.

  5. Thanks Anne – interesting. I have another section called ‘is flickr changing photography’ 😉 it’s this relationship between the technological, the ‘aesthetic’ and the social (although the last category is already contained in the first two of course) that most interesting, and that everyone who’s studying flickr is trying to figure out.

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