CfP: Laborious Play and Playful Work

Abstract Deadline: Friday, 15th March, 2019
Edited by: Sonia Fizek, Mathias Fuchs, Karin Wenz and Pablo Abend

This double issue of Digital Culture & Society addresses the complex thematic field of play and labour dialectics. We will take a closer look at the problem of play and work from two overlapping, albeit non-mutually exclusive, perspectives: laborious play and playful work. With these terms we want to focus hybrid practices, phenomena and situations beyond the work-play dichotomy.

Laborious Play

The term laborious play points to practices and processes that turn playful activities into hard work. Laborious play happens whenever playfulness turns into work, and may be observed in such activities as e-sports, excessive play (Faltin Karlsen 2016), “goldfarming” (Nakamura 2009), and Twitch gameplay broadcasting, amongst many others. These forms of professional gaming and performing can no longer be considered ephemeral with the top professional player of 2017 earning a prize of $2,436,772.40 and the highest overall e-sports salary amounting to $3,626,277 (for Kuro Takhasomi, a Dota 2 player). The ”free voluntary activity“ of play that Johan Huizinga (1938/1992) located outside of what he calls “ordinary life” becomes entangled in the laborious rhythms of late capitalism. Digital play becomes subsumed by the logics of the profit; optimized, professionalised and as a result transformed into a work-related activity.

Playful Work

A complementary phenomenon to that of laborious play is the practice and concept of playful work. The promises of a joyful and rewarding working experience have been promoted as gamification (e.g. McGonigal 2011, Deterding et al. 2011, Werbach and Hunter 2015, Zichermann and Linder 2010). “Playful work” can be related to Raessens’ concept of ludification of culture, embedded in cultural transformations he observed as part of the digital (2006). Google’s offices with swings and slides for the employees are material indicators for the penetration of game elements into everyday work-life. Critical voices denounce such attempts as ideology (Fuchs et al. 2014), exploitation or simply “bullshit” (Bogost 2011). A recent paper by Martin and Alvarez (2018) looks into French elite education and argues that what happens there is a “dégamification” rather than gamification.

This is important as it shows that gamification is not a one-way street from the serious to the ludic, but that opposing processes work on the shifting borders between play and work. In an attempt to grasp this double logic of a gamification of everyday activities and a labourisation of play, Kücklich (2005) expressed the work and play dialectics in the portmanteau of “playbour” addressing the issue of free digital labour and a general trend to introduce digital rewards. Other theoreticians reflected on hybrid forms of play and work as “work/play interferences” (Fizekand Dippel 2018), a development of contemporary culture (Sotamaa 2007; Lazzarato 1996) and as an integral part of the gameplay experience, which requires time investment, concentration and a highly specialised skill-set, or the so-called “gamework” (Ruggil et al.2004). Terranova (2000) observed that this kind of free digital labour, however playful and frivolous it may seem, is “structural to the late capitalist cultural economy” and that it usually generates value other actors may harvest. Other, more recent studies have also looked at games from the viewpoint of politics and economy – rather than ludic experience and positive psychology – expanding the earlier, foundational works of Lazzarato, Kücklich and Terranova. Two examples worth mentioning in this context are Michael J. Robert’s “The Politics of Playtime. Reading Marx through Huizinga on the Desire to Escape from Ordinary Life” (2018) and Anne Dippel’s “Work”, a Benjaminian analysis of play in the times of automated reproducibility (2018).

To recall Huizinga again, “play turns to seriousness and seriousness to play (1938/1992, 8). We consider this overlapping not only particularly symptomatic of digital capitalism, but also crucial in a more in-depth understanding of digital play forms and practices. In the two special issues of Digital Culture and Society, we would like to open a much needed multilogue, investigating all the multifaceted practices and forms of laborious play and playful work.

Paper proposals may relate to, but are not limited to, the following questions concerning work and play (laborious play for the first of the double issues):

  • The potential of play as an emancipatory or liberating force in late capitalism
  • “Counterplay” as a form of resistance to “labourisation” and quantification of play
  • E-sports and its transformation of the digital play arena
  • Gender-related biases in E-sports and other forms of playbour
  • Labour movements in game industry
  • Pre-digital precursors of playbour
  • Theoretical approaches to laborious play and playful work
  • Methodological challenges in studying the shifting boundaries between play and work

If you have any other perspectives on work and play, share them with us in your paper proposal.

 Journal Sections

When submitting an abstract, please state to which of the following issue sections you would like to submit your paper:

  1. Field Research and Case Studies (full paper: 6.000 – 8.000 words)

We invite articles that discuss empirical findings from studies that investigate the shifting boundaries of play and work. These may include studies into work and play practices as well processes of playful work and laborious play. Studies may also trace attempts of turning play into work and vice versa by paying attention to the practices involved, or follow the practices to gain insight into these shifts.

  1. Methodological Reflection (full paper: 6.000 – 8.000 words)

We invite contributions that reflect on the methodologies employed when researching playful work and laborious play. These may include, for example, the specificities of ethnographic fieldwork in online/offline environments; challenges and opportunities faced when qualitatively researching work and play environments; approaches using mixed methods; discussions of playful and inventive methods; and reflections of experimental forms of research.

  1. Conceptual/Theoretical Reflection (full paper: 6.000 – 8.000 words)

We encourage contributions that reflect on the conceptual and/or theoretical dimension of work and play, and discuss how shifting boundaries between work and play can be defined, described, and differentiated. We also invite articles that interrogate terms such as gamification, playbour, ludification or labourisation and call for alternatives in the conceptualization of hybrid practices between play and work.

  1. Entering the Field (2.000 – 3.000 words; experimental formats welcome)

This experimental section presents initial and ongoing empirical work in digital media studies. The editors have created this section to provide a platform for researchers who would like to initiate a discussion concerning their emerging (yet perhaps incomplete) research material and plans as well as methodological insights.

Deadlines and contact information

Expressions of interest/Initial abstracts (max. 300 words) and short biographical note (max. 100 words) are due on: March 15, 2019.

Authors will be notified by March 30, 2019, whether they are invited to submit a full paper.

Full papers are due on: June 1, 2019.

Notifications to authors of referee decisions: July 1, 2019.

Final versions due: September 1, 2019.

Please send your abstract and short biographical note to Mathias Fuchs and Sonia Fizek. Based on the abstracts, the journal editors will pre-select authors that will be invited to submit a full paper. All full papers will be double-blind peer reviewed.

Publisher and Open Access

DCS is published by transcript. All articles will be published as open access on our website 12 months after the initial publication. Previous issues are available here:

Selected References

American Journal of Play (2018), volume 11, number 1.

Bogost, I. (2015). Why gamification is bullshit 2. In S. P. Walz & S. Deterding (Eds.), The gameful world: Approaches, issues, applications (pp. 65–80). Cambridge, Massachusetts: Mit Press.

Deterding, S., Dixon, D., Khaled, R., &  Nacke, L. (2011). From Game Design Elements to Gamefulness: Defining Gamification. MindTrek ‘11. Proceedings of the 15th International Academic MindTrek Conference (pp. 9-15). Tampere: University of Tampere.

Dippel, A. (2018). Arbeit. In: Feige, Daniel M., Ostritsch, Sebastian, Rautzenberg, Markus (Eds.), Philosophie des Computerspiels. Theorie – Praxis – Ästhetik (pp. 123-148). Springer.

Ferrer-Conill, Raul (2018). Playbour and the gamification of work. Empowerment, exploitation and fun as labour dynamics. In: Bilić, Paško, Primorac, Jaka, Valtýsson, Bjarki (Eds.), Technologies of Labour and the Politics of Contradiction. Palgrave Macmillan

Fizek, Sonia & Dippel, Anne (2018). Laborious Playgrounds: Citizen science games as new modes of work/play in the digital age. In The Playful Citizen: Civic Engagement in a Mediatized Culture. René Glas, Sybille Lammes, Michiel de Lange, Joost Raessens, and Imar de Vries, eds. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Fuchs M., Fizek, S., Schrape, N. & Ruffino, P. (Eds.) (2014).Rethinking Gamification. Lüneburg: meson press.

Huizinga, Johan. (1949). Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. London, Boston: Routledge.

Kücklich, J. (2005). Precarious playbour: Modders and the digital games industry. Fibreculture, 5(1).

Lazzarato, M. (1996). Immaterial Labor. In S. Makdisi, C. Casarino, & R. E. Karl (Eds.), Marxism beyond Marxism (pp. 133–147). London: Routledge.

McGonigal, J. (2011). Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World (Reprint edition). New York: Penguin Books.

Robert, Michael J. (2018). The Politics of Playtime. Reading Marx through Huizinga on the Desire to Escape from Ordinary Life. In: American Journal of Play, 11(1), 46-64.

Raessens, J. (2006). Playful Identities or the Ludification of Culture. Games and Culture, 1(1), 52-57.

Ruggill, J.E., McAllister, K.S. & Menchaca, D. (2004). “The gamework,” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, 1(4), 297–312.

Sotamaa, O. (2007). On modder labour, commodification of play, and mod competitions. First Monday, 12(9).

Terranova, T. (2000). Free labor: Producing culture for the digital economy. Social Text, 18(2), 33–58.

Werbach, K., & Hunter, D. (2012). For the Win: How Game Thinking Can Revolutionize Your Business. Philadelphia: Wharton Digital Press.


About the Journal:

Digital Culture & Society seeks contributions that display a clear, inspiring engagement with media theory and/or methodological issues. Emphasising the relevance of new practices and technology appropriation for theory as well as methodology debates, the journal also encourages empirical investigations.

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