Fake Corpses and Real Fun: Exploring Social Frames in Pervasive Games
Table of Contents
Figure 1: I lie dead on the floor surrounded by students going about their day.
Some students are working on their essays, homework, and other academic pursuits. Some are relaxing, eating, or just going along with their day. None of them know why I’m lying on the floor. None of them know that I’m dead. Soon, a single student comes over. He doesn’t try and resuscitate me. He doesn’t see anything strange with me lying on the floor in a public space. He just takes a quick photo, calls in my death to the rest of the team, and walks away.
This is not normal, is it? So, how did this situation come about?
In this short essay I’ll answer:
- Why I’m lying dead on the floor
- What it has to do with Suit’s Lusory Attitude and the Magic Circle
- Why any of this is important
- How this relates to our ways of being (frames) in society
Section 1: Why I’m lying dead on the floor
I’m not really dead. Obviously. I’m playing a student-made, pervasive game based on the popular mobile game “Among Us.” If you don’t know it, here’s a quick description of the game:
Among Us is a multiplayer social deduction game for 4 to 10 players. The game is set in a space station, where players must complete tasks to keep the ship running while also trying to identify and eliminate the imposters.
There are two roles in Among Us: Crewmates and Imposters.
Crewmates are tasked with completing a variety of tasks around the ship, such as fixing wiring, fueling engines, and emptying trash.
Imposters are tasked with sabotaging the ship and killing the crewmates.
The game is played in real-time, and players can communicate with each other using a chat function. Crewmates can use the chat function to discuss who they think the imposters are and to coordinate their tasks. Imposters can use the chat function to lie and deceive their crewmates to avoid being caught.
The game ends when all of the tasks are completed, or when all of the crewmates are killed. If all of the crewmates are killed, the imposters win. If all of the tasks are completed, the crewmates win.
BONUS: I’ve written a think piece on how Among Us could be used in language education here (York, 2020).
ඞ Digital version of Among Us
In the digital game, my agency to “act dead” in the spaceship is completely taken away from me. The game removes my ability to control the character avatar that represents me, and instead, I’m displayed as a kind of cartoon meat stick, bone sticking out to the left (Figure XX). I lose my character avatar and get to control a new avatar: a ghost version of myself which cannot interact with the other still-alive players.
Figure 2: A corpse avatar in the digital version of Among Us.
ඞ Real-life version of Among Us
In this real-life version of the game, however, there is no underlying computer software, or hardcoded rules which dictate how I behave or rob my agency. I decide. I know I’m to play dead, but it’s up to me to enact it.
So, in this case, and in the photo above, I’m doing exactly what is expected of me. My actions (lying down on the fourth floor of Meiji University’s Learning Square at Izumi Campus) are completely logical, and, if anything, the only thing that I should be doing at that point in time … if you know that I’m playing a game.
That is what this essay is about – explaining why lying on the floor in public was “the right and natural thing to do” although from the outside my actions look totally the opposite.
Section 2: The Magic Circle of Games
The pervasive nature of pervasive games
This semester in my Freshman Seminar (教養演習) students were tasked with creating a “big game” or what is known in game-design circles as a “pervasive game.” These are games that blur the boundary known as the “magic circle” between the real world and the game world. So let’s think about these concepts: game world, non-game world and the barrier(s) between the two.
The magic circle of (non-pervasive) games
One of the core concepts of game philosophy and game studies is defining where a game starts and ends in relation to non-game, real-life contexts.
The magic circle is a term coined by Dutch historian of culture Johan Huizinga in his 1938 book Homo Ludens, which describes the temporal and spatial separation of a game from the real world. According to Huizinga, the magic circle is a “temporary world in which the rules of ordinary life are suspended.” He argues that games create a special kind of reality, separate from the everyday world, in which players can experience a sense of freedom and escape. When players enter the magic circle, they agree to abide by the rules of the game. This creates a sense of shared purpose and cooperation among players, and it allows them to suspend their disbelief and enter into the game world.
As a concrete example, consider boxing. Just by observing a boxing match, we know a number of things clearly:
- Who is currently playing.
- What is and what is not allowed during play.
- Where the game is being played.
- When the game starts and ends.
These things exist within boundaries which are separate from reality. The physical boundary of the boxing ring separates the boxing match from non-boxing contexts. The social boundary tells us who is and isn’t currently engaged in the boxing match. Another boundary exists in terms of the rules of interaction which allow certain means and discount or prohibit others (that is: if one of the boxers puts horse shoes in their gloves, they are NOT boxing as we know it. They have cheated and thus NOT playing the game. Finally, the temporal boundary tells us that for 3 to 12 rounds, the two competitors are boxing. Once the time has expired (or someone loses) the game is over.
There is some debate as to whether the magic circle exists. Consalvo (2009) writes that there is no magic circle and Calleja, (2012) tried to erase it. But I’m on the side of there definitely being some kind of boundary between game and non-game context. So let’s first define it and discuss how pervasive games blur it.
Pervasive games and breaking the magic circle
Pervasive games break the magic circle of games by blurring the line between the game world and the real world. That is exactly what is happening in the case of me lying dead in the Learning Square.
As I have described above, in traditional games, the game world is a separate, self-contained space that is distinct from the real world. Players enter the game world by agreeing to abide by the rules of the game, and they leave the game world when they stop playing. Pervasive games, on the other hand, do not have a clear boundary between the game world and the real world. The game world can extend into the real world, and the real world can intrude into the game world. This blurring of the boundaries between the game world and the real world can create a sense of immersion and realism for players, but it can also make it difficult to define where the game ends and the real world begins. Which is great (IMO)! Montola et al. (2009) describe pervasive games as games that use the physical environment as part of the game world and that require players to move through the real world to play.
How the “Real Among Us” game breaks the magic circle
It might be quite obvious, but the real Among Us game breaks/expands the magic circle in terms of physical space.
As stated, this game was played on a university campus, where people are conducting their daily activities. As a result, this game takes over space in the real world as its playground. Real Among Us penetrates the real world. The clear distinction between “this area is for playing a game” and “this area is for studying” does not exist for the players of the game. Alternatively, consider this from the perspective of non-players. They are unaware that we are playing a game. The space they are using is for the purpose of studying. This intermingling of purposes is intiitely tied to the mental state of the people in the space, specifically players vs non-players mindsets (something we’ll look at shortly).
Section 3: Why it matters
Goffman’s Frames and the Performance of Play
Beyond the thrill of the game, the action of lying dead on the floor in public becomes a lens through which to explore how our mental states and actions in pervasive games relate to Goffman’s theory of “frames” and our broader societal interactions.
Erving Goffman’s (1974) concept of “frames” helps us understand how we make sense of the world around us. According to Goffman, we constantly organize our experiences into interpretive frameworks, or “frames,” that provide context and meaning to our interactions. These frames help us navigate social situations by establishing what is expected and appropriate behaviour. Another important concept for us here is Suit’s (1978) notion of the “lusory attitude.” This describes the particular mental state we adopt when playing games, a willingness to suspend disbelief and accept the game’s fictional reality as our temporary frame of reference.
Now, when we combine these concepts with the unique nature of pervasive games, things get interesting. By seamlessly blending the game world with the real world, these games challenge and blur the established frames of everyday life. In my case, lying dead on the floor disrupts the expected frame of a university hallway - students studying, walking, and socializing. However, within the shared lusory frame of the game, my action is perfectly rational – a deceased crewmate performing their role.
Section 4: Implications for Society
This blurring or shifting of frames that occurs in pervasive games doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It reflects and potentially influences the way we interact and behave in society as a whole. By encouraging us to consider different perspectives and adapt our behaviour accordingly, pervasive games could be seen as training grounds for flexibility and empathy in social interactions. Or, at least, we might realise that our day-to-day social frames are not fixed and can be changed or improved… 🤔.
Outside of pervasive gameplay, and as a concrete example of the importance of recognising our frames of engagement, Lowe (2023) wrote a short piece about how teachers of English as a second language might suddenly recognize the lack of engagement and hollowness of some classroom activities. That is, we might stop going through the motions of teaching and become self-aware that the content is perhaps pointless for our particular students; that we are engaging students in what Pennycook (1994, p.311) calls “empty babble.” This self-awareness can prompt teachers to re-evaluate the effectiveness of their teaching methods. Thus, by stepping outside the traditional “teacher” frame and considering the students’ perspectives, they can identify content that may be pointless or irrelevant, ultimately striving to create more engaging and meaningful learning experiences.
Ultimately, my dead-on-the-floor experience highlights the fascinating intersection of mental states, actions, and social frames in pervasive games. By embracing a lusory attitude (that is: to fully accept the rules of the game for the sake of bringing the game into existence) and navigating the blurred boundaries between game and reality, these games offer a unique playground for understanding ourselves and our interactions with the world around us.
- Frames: We interpret the world through “frames” that define expected behaviour and meaning in specific situations.
- Lusory attitude: When playing games, we adopt a special mental state, accepting the game’s reality as our temporary frame.
- Pervasive games: These games blur the lines between game and reality, challenging our usual frames.
- Performance and Misinterpretation: Players perform their roles within the game’s frame, while outsiders interpret their actions through their own “normal” frame, leading to potential misunderstandings.
- Consalvo, M. (2009). There is No Magic Circle. Games and Culture, 4(4), 408–417. https://doi.org/10.1177/1555412009343575.
- Calleja, G. (2012). Erasing the Magic Circle. In: Sageng, J., Fossheim, H., Mandt Larsen, T. (eds) The Philosophy of Computer Games. Philosophy of Engineering and Technology, vol 7. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-4249-9_6
- Goffman, E. (1974). Frame analysis: An essay on the organization of experience. Harvard University Press.
- Lowe, R. J. (2023). A note on authenticity, reflexivity, and subversion in the classroom. ELT Journal, ccad055. https://doi.org/10.1093/elt/ccad055
- Montola, M., Stenros, J., & Waern, A. (2009). Pervasive Games: Theory and Design (1st ed.). CRC Press. https://doi.org/10.1201/9780080889795
- Pennycook, A. (1994)._ The Cultural Politics of English as an International Language_. London: Longman
- Sicart, M. (2014). Play matters: Playful thinking in a digital world. MIT Press.
- Suits, B. H. (1978). The grasshopper: Games, life, and Utopia. Toronto/Buffalo: University of Toronto Press.
- York, J. (2020). 👩🚀 How to teach languages with “Among Us.” Ludic Language Pedagogy, 2, 269-283. https://doi.org/10.55853/llp_v2Pg11