Abstract

Update: Been a busy PhD (Media Studies) student – submitted my first full draft, now editing chapters, strengthening arguments, etc. I thought I’d share this for now…

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Thesis title: Performing and configuring ludic identities: Exploring children’s digital gameplay in two settings in Cape Town

Abstract

This thesis offers new ideas about situated meanings of gameplay in the South African context by illustrating how gender, ethnicity and age play out for children in this context through domestication of gaming media within peer relationships as well as in relation to institutions that govern childhood such as the school and family.

It explores the diversity of gameplay and its various configurations, shifting it away from the focus on agonistic or conflictual play which is hegemonic in Game Studies and other dominant technicities. This contextual study of gameplay is situated in relation to Cultural Studies, Childhood Studies, Game Studies, New Media Theory and studies of digital literacies and game literacy.

The study explores how children in two Cape Town settings; an after-school Arts and Crafts club and a holiday club; construct ludic (i.e. playful) identities in various relationships. The study documents children’s identity construction through digital game play in their relationships with peers, and also in response to the gatekeeping role of adult regimes of control, such as parental rules and the regulations of ratings bodies. Children’s playground discourse mark digital games and related technologies as objects of conspicuous consumption that signify middle class assimilation. Boys and girls mark their gender identities through appropriations of particular games within same-sex and cross-gender peer groups. The children in the two research settings played a range of age-appropriate laptop and PlayStation 3 games. Fifty children participated in this study. More than 100 hours of gameplay were observed and recorded over a period of six months. Social network analysis and discourse analytic methods were used to understand children’s appropriations of digital games in relation to peers and adult authorities. The children’s interactions with the games and peers suggest that they valued particular kinds of play, interpreting game rules according to their own interests to make single-player games playable for more players at the same time.

Analyses of children’s negotiation of game rules question Game Studies definitions of ‘play’ and ‘games’. Theoretical contributions of this study include: proposing wider definitions of ‘play’ and ‘games’, challenging ‘magic circle’ (Huizinga, 1949) views of play which see such spaces as ideologically neutral, expanding on definitions of configuration in New Media Theory by considering children’s social configurations and meanings of games during play, recognising normative models of childhood and access inscribed by notions of game literacy, and how rhetorics of play (Sutton-Smith, 1997) position research on children and digital games in particular ways. It also provides a more nuanced understanding of how children navigate existing power relations with adult authorities in the process of constituting their ludic identities.

This thesis approaches children’s ludic identities as relational constructions, not residing in the minds of individual children, but rather performed and configured through discursive interactions. The children’s gaming practices in this study are treated as instances of appropriation (Silverstone 1994, Nyamnjoh 2002), which involves an assemblage of social practices and local meanings that children use to perform and configure gendered identities in relation to the platforms and games available, their peers and adult authorities. A cultural studies approach highlights the contextual nature of gameplay by drawing on Butler’s (1993) notion of gender performativity.