Malinowski’s Beach: Notes on Play as Anthropology



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In March 1914 the bespec­ta­cled schol­ar Bronislaw Malinowski was put down by a greasy tug boat on the sands of Mailu Island in Papua New Guinea. Standing awk­ward­ly for a while on the too‐hot earth, he described him­self as feel­ing – for a moment – a sense of deep dis­com­fort and revul­sion.

Straightening his tie, the cot­ton of his shirt stick­ing in patch­es to his skin, Malinowski made his way from the rolling break­ers to a group of women stand­ing at the edge of a for­est clear­ing. He was there to live among them, a “par­tic­i­pant observ­er” whose role – as an anthro­pol­o­gist – was to describe and under­stand their lives in terms of social orga­ni­za­tion, fam­i­ly, and rit­u­al. He is an out­sider who not only peered inside, but attempts to clam­ber through the win­dow and join them for tea. He will have a lo   t of ques­tions before he’s through. He goes on;

Imagine your­self then, mak­ing your first entry into the vil­lage, alone or in com­pa­ny with your white cicerone. Some natives flock around you, espe­cial­ly if they smell tobac­co. Others, the more dig­ni­fied and elder­ly, remain seat­ed where they are […] the first visit leaves you with a hope­ful feel­ing that when you return alone, things will be eas­i­er. Such was my hope at least”

Putting aside, for now, Malinowski’s rhetoric – the civilised white man enter­ing an “other” place – what stands out from his con­fes­sion­al writ­ing is one of the first thor­ough engage­ments with what it is to be an anthro­pol­o­gist, and of what his “method” strives to under­stand. That is, to “get at” and explain the social mechan­ics behind a whole, com­plex world. To be both on the out­side, know­ing noth­ing, and to be on the inside – know­ing every­thing. The job of the anthro­pol­o­gist, then, is per­haps to under­stand a soci­ety in terms that would be both recog­nis­able and unrecog­nis­able to the peo­ple who actu­al­ly live in that soci­ety. To under­stand it in an exter­nal (etic) way that peo­ple with­in the soci­ety would them­selves not nec­es­sar­i­ly see (the emic).

The open world game – for all of its illu­sion – is ulti­mate­ly an attempt to give the impres­sion of a real, func­tion­ing world. Its envi­ron­ment is sup­posed to be both con­gru­ent and acces­si­ble, pop­u­lous and ancient. As I said, this is an illu­sion — unlike the “real” world out here, there are arti­fi­cial and for­mal con­straints on our actions and behav­iour in this world. We can­not go against what is not pos­si­ble – what has not been coded for. If that build­ing over there is sim­ply a shell, a frame, then we can­not go inside it. If there are no dia­logue options for that char­ac­ter, then we can­not speak to them. The trick is to give the impres­sion of con­gru­ence and real­i­ty. Done well, we won’t notice. Or care. We believe it, and so sus­pend dis­be­lief.

To put it briefly, my con­tention is this; that the play­er – or, more accu­rate­ly, the act of engag­ing in an open‐world game — is anthro­po­log­i­cal. We – the play­er – are dropped, quite like Malinowski, an out­sider, into an “other” world a world in which we must both retain our out­sider sta­tus and con­tin­ue to engage and explore. In the open­ing scenes of Skyrim, for exam­ple, we are lit­er­al­ly an out­sider – cap­tured attempt­ing to enter the great north­ern land. To us, at this stage, it is a beau­ti­ful and com­pli­cat­ed rid­dle – our map is empty, out inven­to­ry bare. We have few signs to under­stand the sig­nif­i­cance of the things we see around us. Our inter­pre­tive tools are very lim­it­ed. In order to under­stand the world – and thus to “beat” it – we need to enter it both as out­sider and insid­er, at both the emic and etic lev­els. Compare what you knew two min­utes into Skyrim against what you know two, and even twen­ty, hours in. The mys­tery is stripped away, the signs read. We have learnt its secrets and thus have “mas­tered” it, but we remain – for­ev­er – an out­sider. We are not a native, and can never be one .

So what does this actu­al­ly mean? Put basi­cal­ly, like the anthro­pol­o­gist – like Malinowski – we need to make our “first entry into the vil­lage”. As he puts it later, “there is all the dif­fer­ence between a spo­radic plung­ing into the com­pa­ny of natives, and being real­ly in con­tact with them”. If we sim­ply list about the place, never absorb­ing our­selves into the world, then we ulti­mate­ly remain out­side of it, unable to make head­way against its con­fu­sions. In Skyrim, we have to do quests, pur­sue tasks, work as a sol­dier or inter­me­di­ary in dis­putes. This gains us new knowl­edge, mark­ers on our map, sta­tus in the world. For assist­ing at Whiterun  – the first major set­tle­ment stum­bled upon – we move from being an out­sider to becom­ing a val­ued mem­ber of its com­mu­ni­ty. For this, we are grant­ed even more oppor­tu­ni­ties and infor­ma­tion. A game rewards our being part of it – real­ly “in con­tact” with the world – rather than spo­rad­i­cal­ly plung­ing into and out of it. As Malinowski points out, we begin to look “for­ward” to events, to par­tic­i­pate in gos­sip, to help oth­ers and build friend­ships with them. As time rolls on, our close engage­ment with the world is reward­ed with our being absorbed more fully by it. We grad­u­al­ly build up a pic­ture of it that is struc­tur­al, rela­tion­al and sym­bol­ic (we under­stand how it is organ­ised, how to tell types of per­son apart, to iden­ti­fy spe­cif­ic types of places or roles). Our “field notes” expand (lit­er­al­ly, often, in our inven­to­ries and “quest logs”).

However, if we were fully absorbed by the game, the “meta” plot would never unroll. We would set­tle down in Whiterun, raise chick­ens, and loll around on bench­es. “I used to be an adven­tur­er like you”. We’d be that guy. But, com­pelled by our ambi­tion and inter­est – our curios­i­ty about the world and our role in it – we plunge on, ever the out­sider caught between not being part and being part. Our tools of acqui­si­tion and knowl­edge accu­mu­la­tion are those of an anthro­pol­o­gist – we fill our glos­sary, don many guis­es, join dif­fer­ent and even con­tra­dic­to­ry guilds and groups. We “taste” a soci­ety but never set­tle in it.

Take, for exam­ple, Adrianne Avenicci. She is one of two black­smiths in Whiterun. While at the forge, she does not have – unlike the play­er char­ac­ter — the abil­i­ty to level up and spend skill points. If she takes part in com­bat, as with the town guard, then she stays the same – her knowl­edge of the world and her role in it cir­cum­scribed by her social/structural posi­tion in it. She won’t, we know, wan­der off to become an adven­tur­er, or study at the College of Winterhold. Her role is cir­cum­scribed by the game. This is the life she knows and cares for. She is part of it – with­out game sta­tis­tics to account for her actions in the world. Statistics are the tool of the anthropologist‐player, the one always gath­er­ing data and stuff of “exter­nal” inter­est to the world we par­tic­i­pate in. We see their world – Adrianne’s world — in a way not famil­iar to them – hav­ing both a broad “overview” of it and an glimpse of being inside, per­son­al­ly. It is the dif­fer­ence between being “a” local – a native, for want of a bet­ter word – and of being a tran­sient who, for just a lit­tle while, is part of a local­i­ty.

The meat of the chal­lenge – for the devel­op­er – is to cre­ate a world that is con­gru­ent. This means that you should be able to “skim” through it, dip­ping in here and there, with­out the guise of “the whole thing” being dis­turbed. Take Red Dead Redemption, the open‐world Western game from Rockstar. As John Marston, you should be able to – say – ride through Tumbleweed as if Tumbleweed exists while you are not there, and will con­tin­ue to go on after you’ve left. It’s part­ly about size – if it were only a gen­er­al store and a saloon we’d see the unre­al­i­ty off the bat -, but it’s also about atmos­phere, aes­thet­ic and inter­ac­tion. Doors can be opened; con­ver­sa­tions can be struck; cit­i­zens will respond to you in ways that are, while con­ver­sa­tion­al­ly lim­it­ed, also quite “real”. We are, here, a tran­sient – we want to gain skills, equip­ment and infor­ma­tion from this place, and move on. We know – we know – that we (John) will never be a cit­i­zen or res­i­dent here. We have a quest, a “log” of mis­sions and tasks. Our hori­zons stretch beyond those of the town itself. And so, we do what Malinowski does – we allow our­selves, for a while, to be absorbed by the place, for­ev­er aware that we still have anoth­er foot in the “exter­nal” world (John’s pri­ma­ry quest). We want to gain a “pic­ture” of the place, an inter­pre­ta­tion of it, so that we can ulti­mate­ly move beyond it.

At first glance, in any open‐world game, we’re on Malinowski’s beach – all unfa­mil­iar and new and unas­sail­able. But, once we “dip” in and let our­selves be absorbed for a while, we begin to know things. We know where the Sheriff is and what his rela­tion­ships are with the towns­peo­ple – who respects him, who doesn’t like him. We know where peo­ple gos­sip, where they get drunk, and what they think about devel­op­ments in the wider world (loco­mo­tives, tele­graph wires and elec­tric­i­ty). We gain an etic pic­ture of the place by being – tem­porar­i­ly — emic   . That is to say, our exter­nal pic­ture of a soci­ety or cul­ture is enhanced by the virtue – as many have said – of “being there”. Anthropology is all, when it comes down to it, about “being there” and the pos­tures and impli­ca­tions of that encounter.

Of course, this too is an illu­sion. What there is “to know” is not unlim­it­ed, in a game world. Probe too deeply into this “open world” and its shal­low waters become clear. You sim­ply can’tlive there as a native because there is no “liv­ing” to be done. The world is ori­ent­ed, quite like the strange man­nequin cham­bers of Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading, sim­ply for the grat­i­fi­ca­tion and pos­si­bil­i­ties of the play­er. For our delu­sion. As such, there is nec­es­sar­i­ly a dis­tance that we must main­tain from these worlds in order for the bait to be taken. And so, if we actu­al­ly think about Whiterun  then it doesn’t real­ly hold togeth­er – there are more mer­chants than cit­i­zens. There aren’t enough hous­es. There is no agri­cul­ture beyond the walls, or not much – not enough to sup­port a thriv­ing town. It is – ulti­mate­ly – a stage, all props and smoke and mir­rors.

The prob­lem is extend­ed, and explod­ed, when we also take into account the changes that have ruf­fled and rip­pled through anthro­po­log­i­cal field­work itself. Malinowski’s essay — quot­ed from above – rep­re­sents a par­tic­u­lar moment in the ethno­graph­ic  mind. In more recent years, “field­work” has become some­thing con­tin­u­ous and ongo­ing beyond the field itself. Disciplines change, as do peo­ple. The old assump­tion that anthro­pol­o­gists were folk who turned up to some “trib­al” soci­ety, sta­t­ic like a pho­to­graph in time, and described their social struc­tures as if they were root sys­tems for plants, is long dead. But, as it hap­pens, this is not so for games. Whereas real soci­eties do change over time, react­ing to the anthro­pol­o­gist just as they react to glob­al­i­sa­tion or the World Cup or defor­esta­tion or soap operas, game worlds do not change. In this sense, the Malinowskian anal­o­gy is sort of main­tained. The beach is still there, the waves still rolling, the “natives” still stand at the forest’s edge wait­ing for us to approach.