October 30, 2020

Folk Games

Jonathan Wynn author photoBy Jonathan Wynn

I came across a Twitter thread of folk games, which are not board games but rather interactions that appear to be highly improvisational. Take a few minutes to click through and get a few well-deserved laughs. 

But it got me thinking about games. Partly because COVID-19 restrictions have limited opportunities for in-person social interaction,  the video gaming industry is booming. Sales have been high, even if production has been down.

Although I certainly loved my Atari 2600 when I was a kid, I’ve not really kept up with gaming. There are others who are definitely gamer sociologists. Jooyoung Lee uses Twitch (a videogame streaming site owned by Amazon) to teach his classes, and Ian Larson is a gamer and a sociologist who hosts a blog about the sociology of video games. (Karen Sternheimer wrote a post about research methods and video games ten years ago.)

I think that the performative aspect of social media, the potential for capturing large audiences, has made a market for goofy and sometimes high stakes folk games. 

Game Theory” has a history in sociology, but it’s not really about video games. Game Theory is an area of study in mathematics and economics, and it has been imported into sociology (here’s a very detailed argument from the 1950s). Broadly, it is the idea of getting to think of social interactions as having players, strategies, wins, and losses.

This allows us to describe and model human behavior. Perhaps the most common game theory puzzle is the prisoner’s dilemma (video description here). There are some games that are zero-sum games (e.g., games where there has to be a winner), and there are others that are non-zero-sum games (e.g., the prisoner’s dilemma, or hockey: there can be ties!). This perspective works best when ignoring altruistic or irrational behaviors, and unequal awareness of the rules and stakes.

Good ole Erving Goffman has an essay, “Fun in Games,” that suggests that games not only help us understand interaction but set up limitations for understanding interaction. Games are, for Goffman, a special class of encounters that has a world-building structure to them. They are highly ordered activities: there are stakes involved (win, lose), rules for behaviors and conduct as actors attempt to win those stakes, and strategies people use in order to overcome obstacles and opponents to achieve those ends. Games are fun because outcomes are unknown and also because of the ways they disguise or conceal wider social realities.  These tacitly-held rules shape the meanings participants have about the encounter itself. 

These encounters include—and I love this phrase—an “eye-to-eye ecological huddle” that “maximizes each participant's opportunity to perceive the other participant's monitoring of him” (1961: 17-18). 

In another essay, he writes that game theory relies on “miniature scenarios of a very far-fetched kind.” He points out the key weakness of game theory mentioned above: “people don’t often know what game they are in or whom they are playing for until they have already played.” Game Theory doesn’t necessarily require that “eye-to-eye ecological huddle” aspect. (I had to use that phrase twice!)

Back to that thread of folk games. Many of those on Twitter thread use phone technology: This one uses the shuffle feature on a setlist of two songs, and this one is a game where friends text “hey” to see who gets a response back first. Then there are the games using the urban environment: This is a high stakes game where the loser walks home with only one sneaker, this one uses a lamppost. I love these interactional games: this Korean game of 재밌다 (or “Fun”) and variations on paperscissors, rock. Many of them have that great “eye-to-eye ecological huddle.” (Three times!)

Some of the folk games on this thread are zero-sum games (with all or nothing outcomes), others involve high stakes known by the players. But let’s take this one. Two people tapping the top of a container that has a raw egg in it. The stakes are clear: When one lifts the container the other one gets a handful of yolk. They get into a rhythm, faster, egging each other on if you will. Stakes improve. This seems like a zero-sum game: one person gets the yolk, the other doesn’t. The game of Fun seems to be more of a non-zero sum game, although we don’t see the ending. 

Please feel free to add folk games in the comments section. What interactional dynamics are at work? 


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