Politicizing Agency in Digital Play After Humanism

Guest editors: Aleena Chia (Simon Fraser University) & Paolo Ruffino (University of Liverpool).

Since its inception, the humanistic field of digital game studies has been concerned with the politics and aesthetics of interactivity and its delimitation of player agency in relation to other screen-based media. Drawing from media and cultural studies, the humanistic study of games has adopted normative frameworks that divide audiences into active and passive, and media into new and old, in order to evaluate players’ power over and participation within architected environments. Today, discussions about agency in games has diversified from the analysis of interactive forms (Manovich 1996; Laurel 1997; Ndalianis 1999) to include considerations about the contexts of participation and co-creation in game production (Banks 2013; Joseph 2018) diversity and inclusion in game representations and communities (Ruberg and Shaw 2017; Gray and Leonard 2018; Stang 2019), and affordances of bodies, devices, and platforms (Keogh 2018; Brock and Fraser 2018; Nieborg and Poell 2018) that make up assemblages of play (Taylor 2009; De Paoli and Kerr 2010; Apperley and Jayemanne 2012). In 2018, The Velvet Light Trap featured a special issue on power, freedom, and control in game studies, and GAME: Italian Journal of Game Studies is planning a special issue on “Claiming Video Game Agency as an Interdisciplinary Concept.”

Agency continues to be a keyword in game studies. Agency is, however, at an inflection point in the cognate fields of critical theory and media studies. Marxist feminists have proposed ecological frameworks for living ethically in the Anthropocene by reconceptualizing capitalism through complex interdependencies and multispecies commons instead of the agency of individuals or institutions (Roelvink and Gibson-Graham 2009; Tsing 2015). Post-humanists have critiqued Western humanist ideals of reason and autonomy as masculinist, ethnocentric, and anthropocentric (Braidotti 2016) and proposed cognitive assemblages to understand linguistic and volitional acts as emergent from nonconscious biological and algorithmic processes and environments (Hayles 2017). According to this scholarship, once we shift the primary unit of analysis from the properties of objects and boundaries of bodies to intra-acting phenomena, it becomes clear that “agency is not an attribute but the ongoing reconfigurings of the world” (Barad 2007: 141). This shift requires a reworking of causality, which has been undertaken in game studies by decentering hegemonic play practices configured around goal-based challenges and mastery (Keogh 2018), and by using speculative design to challenge assumptions about humans as separate causal agents in locative media’s material entanglements with devices, interfaces, and infrastructures (Leorke and Wood 2019).

This special issue continues this line of inquiry by tracing connections between intra-acting agencies at different scales throughout the assemblage of play. By curating cases that connect devices and bodies to game forms, genres, and governance across infrastructural, material, and discursive scales, this special issue aims to inflect posthuman concerns in ongoing debates about interactivity, inclusion, participation, and co-creation in games. Guided by the pragmatism of the feminist eco-humanities, this special issue will deploy theories and consider methods (Hamilton and Taylor 2017) to politicize ways of conceptualizing, designing, and organizing games for agency beyond human centrism. How can critical game scholars address and advocate for more inclusive, democratic, and sustainable forms of play, understood as performative outcomes of an array of interdependencies between humans, environments and non-human entities? As an artistic and economic expression of the mediated technicity of our current age, videogames crystalize the conundrum of individual agency that has beset our screens and bedevilled our politics. Videogames also embed critiques of this conundrum that are often ambivalent but occasionally trenchant. How can critical game scholarship on post-human agency intervene in pressing debates about persuasive technologies’ manipulation of human volition and its long shadow over the mechanisms and institutions of collective decision-making that constitute democracy?

Prospective authors are invited to address the questions above, or expand the line of inquiry towards new critical trajectories.

Submission information:

Please submit a 500 word abstract inclusive of essential bibliography, and short bio (150 word) to both aleena.chia@sfu.ca and p.ruffino@liverpool.ac.uk

  • by Friday 9th October 2020
  • Notification of acceptance: end of October 2020
  • First draft due: February 2021
  • Publication: February 2022

*More detailed publication timeline to follow

A selection of authors will be invited to submit a full paper. Please note that acceptance of abstract does not guarantee publication, given that all papers will be put through the journal’s peer review process.

For any question please contact the guest editors:


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