Paper III:”Humbling Data in a Playful World”

How to reference this paper:

Pink, S., E. Witkowski, D. Wilson, J. Farman,  E. Gómez Cruz, L. Hjorth, H. Horst, F. Kato, P. Lacasa, I. Richardson, S. Sumartojo (2016) DATA ETHNOGRAPHIES (3): Humbling data in a Playful World. Available online at


Sarah Pink, Emma Witkowski, Douglas Wilson, Jason Farman, Edgar Gómez Cruz, Larissa Hjorth, Heather Horst, Fumitoshi Kato, Pilar Lacasa, Ingrid Richardson, Shanti Sumartojo

This third Data Ethnographies position paper explores data through concepts of play and playfulness. Our discussion is situated in the context of what scholars in this field have identified as an emergent ‘ludic turn’ in our media and cultural practices; a mode of playful interaction and engagement that imbues everyday digital materialities. We are particularly concerned with both creating empirical and theoretical entry points for investigating data and play ethnographically, and with the implications of such an approach for how we understand the way data is part of everyday experience and configurations of power.

Data and digital play are inevitably entangled. They are emerging as part of new configurations of things and processes in a contemporary context. Moreover they are both key areas of contemporary scholarship, research and practice. This makes it particularly timely for us to bring them together through a data ethnographies focus. Our objective in this paper is to explore the consequences of relating notions of play and playfulness with the ethnographically inspired reconceptualisation of data explored in position paper 1 and position paper 2. We also emphasise the need to bring these issues more closely into the radar of contemporary researchers and scholars: as our being-in-the-world now increasingly involves playful ways of engaging with data, what the implications of this are for our data-futures?

Briefly, play can be defined in various ways. It is culturally and historically specific. Much work has been done in and around videogames and digital media to explore the power of play to expose its relationality to the specific configurations of things that create the context where it occurs. Most recently, Miguel Sicart has argued that play happens in a ‘tangled world of people, things, spaces and cultures’ (2014: 6). Sicart (2014: 22) distinguishes between play and playfulness. He sees taken on the notion of ‘playfulness’ as an attitude, an orientation to an activity, which also characterises contemporary media. This attitude is not specific to games, but can be seen in the seamless integration of games and creative mobile apps into our everyday lives and modes of communication, the perpetual expansion of participatory media forms, and in the rise of ever-evolving social media services that enable users to upload, share and remix their own and others’ creative ‘small media’ content. These practices mean that we need to rethink contemporary media culture in terms of a flexible, paratextual, open—and often irreverent and playful—dynamic. Exploring playful practices and the lusory attitude from the position of games gives us different ways to think through the role of data and algorithm in media cultures, from the quantified self (QS) and gamification, to virtuoso play, creativity and playful resistance. Here the playful can be seen as an orientation to action, a mode of inquiry, a set of practices which can help to expose some of the tacit power relations in and around the rhythms of data in everyday life. Play is fundamentally a creative, political and social activity.

As discussed in the workshop, it is important not to romanticise play as a tool for subversion, even though it has a long history in fields such as art as a form of critical play (Flanagan 2009). Play doesn’t just subvert and it can, as Doug Wilson mentioned, be cruel. It is important to recognise the changing texture of play as labour practices become precarious, and that in turn reshapes the notion of what Kücklich called ‘playbour’. Play is entangled within the politics of what some call ‘neo-liberal’ constructions of labour, such that it is defined as both empowering and exploitative. As Trebor Scholz highlights, digital labour is riddled with paradoxes whereby the internet can be understood as both a playground and factory (2012). It is the power of play to expose these ambivalent relations; by studying and interpreting play practices in everyday life we can usefully operationalise ‘data ethnography’. Play moves between the data and ethnography, in ways that are soft and hard, humble and explicit, tacit and vocal. Being playful with data as with ethnography allows a space in which we can rethink the relationality, techniques and modalities of everyday media practices. Playing can humble data in various ways, as outlined below.

There are also particular issues that a discussion of play and data brings, due to the ways in which play has emerged as a concept in different disciplines of scholarship and design practice. These connected our discussion to STS, philosophy, media and cultural studies as well as to anthropology and included themes relating to the phenomenology of play, to the power and the politics of play, including identity politics, and human/non-human configurations and agencies, and the textures of data.

Big data harvesting, analytics and data-inspired interventions are increasingly part of the academic and business landscape. As outlined in position papers 1 and 2, personal digital data is increasingly part of our everyday environments, and leads us to a series of (re)definitions of data informed by ethnographic experiences, and ethical stances on objectification and value. When combined with attention to parallel and connected understandings of digital play as increasingly integral to everyday being-in-the-world (to varied degrees and in varied ways across different contexts) this raises important questions. These concern, on the one hand the societal and experiential issues that such a combination brings about, and the need for us to develop a critical perspective in relation to this through the generation of productive ethnographic-theoretical dialogues that interrogate the roles data is playing in the world. However, on the other hand it also invites us, and perhaps urgently calls on us, to explore ethnographically how the bringing together of play and data can be used to imagine, anticipate design for a better future or improved everyday alterities (see for example TL Taylor’s The Assemblage of Play, which stresses how the player-researcher is simultaneously playing and ‘played’ within the complexity of software-multiplayer relations – 2006: 336). It invites us to investigate how in doing so we might engage this relationship as part of a process of creative ethical, responsible, inclusive and equal future ways of living with data.

This workshop enabled us to identify a set of critical issues and key approaches that we argue need to be engaged (with) so that the implications of these emerging and possible configurations of data and play can be taken seriously. We also collectively identified the need for a (broadly) phenomenological approach, that sees both data and play as integral to our being-in-the-world. This approach brings together the shared interests and expertise of the authors of this paper, across theoretical, playful, digital and experiential fields.

Humbling the Data

Our first presentation/provocation was given by Emma Witkowski, looking at expertise in networked team play. Drawing on ethnographic and qualitative research with computer game players (involved in pro/am e-sports), player/competitors were shown to express their virtuosity by way of complex data processing, the production of personalised data, and an attitude towards default data (such as the packaged software) as something to be played with to cultivate expertise.

An e-sports tournament final in Quake Live (“ESL Classics”) illustrates some of the attentions to data in play.

ESL Classics_QUAKE_humbling the data through embodied play.jpg

In the replayed broadcast, a competitor talks the audience through the historic game. There is a careful consideration of the opponent. He is voiced as far more than a coded character on screen (embodiment is well documented in game ethnographies from Mark Chen; TL Taylor; Nick Taylor; Celia Pearce to mention a few), he has a personality through his movements as he constricts the field of play and the possible data to engage with. Though stock-standard equipment on the field, the more powerful weapon or defensive armour code is delicately placed out of play through such embodied movements, and the competitor fluidly sorts through which human/nonhuman data matters, how it seeks his attention and recedes as the game action unfolds.

Expert players engage with the game beyond the possibility of play within the code, as they feel the personhood of players, made together as experts, and in relation to the field. Such experts are constantly humbling the data that is presented. Every player has access to the default data, but only the well-practiced can toy with it and interpret it beyond its own design, move it in new ways, and think of it in terms of how other players might also expertly engage beyond default. In humbling the data, the players exert—through play itself—how the essential or formal qualities of the game as code are only a part of the expertise produced. Data comes from all sides, is formed relationally, in play. While numbers (as data) are certainly crunched (see work on theorycrafting by Chris Paul), players and in particular those complex multiplayer teams (the complex interplay of teammates, opponents and the data sensitivity involved in the process of producing for example a top level game of 5v5 Counter-Strike are thinking holistically of human/nonhuman data as social entities.


Expert teamplay brings added complexity to the construction of data for consumption by non-expert others, both produced in play and crafted as documents. Teammates ‘do data’ in particular ways, from preferences on peripherals to software personalisation.

Such productions are readily displayed on platforms such as Twitch – a broadcast service for video-game related content – where team players share their macros (a piece of code that is added to the game, to extend the basic functionality and personalise small inputs/outputs for the player) and display the vast differences in how play is processed and produced as a bespoke practice around ‘standardised’ games.


This personalised macro for WoW is used in expert teamplay, but also distributed publically on the Twitch channel to fans and followers alike.

Default data sets incorporated into play, from the packaged game software to obscure third-party add-ons, are always on the move being nudged and tinkered towards expert player needs. Sicart reminds us though that ‘Playfulness is a way of engaging with particular contexts and objects that is similar to play but respects the purposes and goals of that object or context’ (Sicart 2014: 21). And as such, tinkering is not outside of the expert game (tournament or competition), but rather by playfully engaging with the data, turning it about and seeing the objects and relationships otherwise, expert players find their virtuoso play.

In this context, and from the perspective of players, as Emma explained, data is what the expert participants use as their materials of play; the significant things produced, shared, or experienced and distributed from players/teams, technologies, networked space, software, strategies, player histories etc etc. Data in the expert play context is both produced and experienced in a variety of personal and distributed records, commercial and third party documents and (big) data sets, as well as sensuous practices – as explicit attentions to data but also as tacitly played with (many expert players are not able to articulate the stretch and depth of what data they are pulling into their play at for example, a grand final tournament at a LAN against a familiar rival team. Such tacit knowledge is pieced together through snippets of conversation – often post game, sometimes by expert spectato/players commenting on familiar teams, via more articulate players, and across moments where other kinds of data are rendered visible such as lag in play).

Emma’s provocation inspired us towards a several areas of discussion:

Broken data: The concept of ‘broken data’ or incomplete, inaccurate and dispersed data, which Sarah Pink raised, emerged again – this theme has been very present in some of our recent discussions of data in other contexts. It refers to how data has a mythos around being ‘complete’ (as opposed to broken-world thinking; and theories of the world that put repair/maintenance at the centre). In particular it also emerged in the discussions of self-tracking and personal data that formed the basis of position paper 1 as well as with specific reference to developing a concept of ‘broken data’ which will be discussed at a future workshop. It was important to realise here that the concept of broken data can stand for a key issue in connection to play and data.

Here data can get broken because of an unsatisfactory internet connection, and in this case we can also see inequalities globally and regionally (as well as socially) in terms of the ways that people can play with data, or play in a data-world/environment. This does not necessarily mean that our engagements are less playful when data is broken, but that they are different and that the situatedness of this is important to understand. The Australian internet (as was discussed in relation to Emma’s work) was compared to the Korean Internet by Larissa Hjorth. Heather Horst pointed out that these kinds of differences are emerging in William Balmford’s PhD research on Steam in Australia as well as in the Locating the Mobile project interviews with families in Melbourne. For this reason we should consider the limits of data, where material infrastructures – such as the NBN and ASDL connections in Australia – have consequences for participation. Ethnographic studies of the relation between broken data and play can reveal, for example, the way users experience the corporeal agitation of waiting and disconnection, or creatively deploy ‘workarounds’ into their playful practices (e.g. switching to gameplay on a mobile device when broadband connectivity is poor, moving to particular spaces in the home or urban environment that have better reception), or deliberately engage in ‘glitching’ and hacking.

Data, Play, Power and Disruption

Because Douglas Wilson’s talk focused on some of the power politics of play, it inspired a discussion of power and play. It led us to consider a range of questions, including the notions of disruption and dark play. That is, we can use concepts of resistance and resilience to describe and understand how digital play is active in the world and the kinds of human and non-human agency and intentionality it can bring about or engage (with). We asked how play could subvert the (Big Data) system, how gender relations and their power connotations might be articulated through play and data. One way to start to investigate the ways that relations of power are articulated through playful uses of data, or through uses of data in play, would be by building on existing concepts that have been used in ethnographic and theoretical work about play, and some of the lines of thought outlined in this section propose how this might be undertaken. Below we highlight a series of themes and questions that we propose would make fruitful topics of investigation through a data ethnographies approach.

Disruption: Our discussion turned to the notion of disruption, via Douglas Wilson alerting us to Richard Schechner’s notion of play as disruptive. On the one hand this could be interpreted as the idea of disrupting the system. This was discussed in relation to literature on tactical media: ways of seeing the system; and play as a way of disrupting that system. However, as we discussed, there is not really any coherent or whole system of data to disrupt, perhaps another theoretical option is needed. Here we are confronting a complex and messy context of the generation, production, analysis, storage and mobilisation of data. This is invested in and occupied by multiple interests and stakeholders, of different kinds, qualities and affordances, including human, machine and other non-human elements. This configuration of things and processes is moreover continually changing/emergent. Our interpretation of it would also depend on the definitions of data we were working with – which as discussed in position paper 2, might contest the idea of data as ‘given’ and objective. Therefore the question of how we see play as being disruptive specifically in a Big Data environment is critical, but it is also complex. One way to approach this complexity would precisely be through ethnographic engagements and potentially interventions in this context.

Dark play: The concept of dark play was defined by performance studies founder, Richard Schechner. Dark play builds upon Jeremy Bentham’s notion of deep play. For Schechner play is a fascinating term that never “settles” like ritual. It is ambivalent, ambiguous and processual. Deep play is when you choose to get involved with something you can’t get out of. Clifford Geertz further explored this concept in his work on the Balinese cockfights. Dark play, for Schechner, is when one person playing the game doesn’t know it is a game. He uses the example of con games. Dark play involves disguise and deceit and it might take the form of  a disruptive force. In relation to this, if there could then be dark data, this as Ingrid Richardson has suggested, could mean (i) the way big data is collected and used in ‘dark’ ways that are obfuscated, ‘blackboxed’ and for purposes unknown to us, or (ii) the manipulation of data for disruptive or deceitful aims (e.g. hacking, cheating), or (iii) data is dark because it is ‘machine language’, i.e. the complexity and scale is often beyond our understanding…?). These concepts also evoked, as Ingrid pointed out, an element of risk, which may provide a productive arena for both ethnographic enquiry and the development of innovative methods. That is, how can we effectively capture the way (dark) play practices and the ‘playful attitude’ are inherently (or potentially) unpredictable and transformative, illusory and confounding, provocative and conflictual, challenging boundaries between ‘real’ and ‘as-if’ ways of being-in-the-world? How do people experience and negotiate the riskiness of play and the dynamics of uncertainty (which includes the way the data of gameplay is deployed and hacked by users and makers)? Existing ethnographic work in disability studies that focus on technology use and the management and ‘dignity of risk’ may be useful here in terms of methods.

Resistance and Resilience: The question of power relations when connected to data brings to the fore a range of issues that we have already touched on in previous papers 1 and 2. These include surveillance or dataveillance (van Dijck 2014) as well as the ways in which everyday users of data collecting technologies subvert their intended uses. One example of this that we viewed and discussed is that of the Unfit Bits web site (also mentioned in a previous position paper) which describes a series of techniques through which to produce self-tracking exercise data without actually exercising, set in the context of the relationship between self-tracking data and insurance companies, as a response to insurance industries push to track fitness data. Our discussion turned to the question of the extent to which such strategies, as well as those discussed in paper 1, whereby personal data would be distributed across different devices, apps and platforms, might be seen as forms of resistance or if they were a form of resilience. Here resistance might be seen as a way of coming up against a power, which is direct and leads to a conclusions, whereas resilience is an ongoing way of living with or in relation to a power that is not desired, but is too great to resist in any definitive way. In this context we might also explore how we could see forms of play, which are ongoing rather than being a contest where winning is a conclusion of the play, as likewise being forms of resilience in a world of data-power.

Identity Politics: Questions of the relationship between play, data and power, also inevitably bring issues around identity politics onto the agenda. Emma Witkowski reminded us that issues concerning gender, and of queering play (Sunden), which raises the question of how we might also think of how some such forms of identity and identity politics might be implicated in disruptive ways of engaging with data, or how as Ingrid pointed out how some people do not take up the gender issue when playing (by deliberately not being explicit about one’s gender) and what the implications of this are for data. What indeed can data ethnographies of play tell us about how gender is playing out in relation to digital technologies and media in everyday life.

Textures: Larissa brought the concept of textures into the discussion. We note that while play can be deployed as a site of resistance, it can also, through its ‘softness’, create a space to escape the logic of neo-liberalism. This phenomenon requires us to re-examine definitions of play, especially in the face of gamification, big data and the quantified self. As noted by Larissa and Ingrid, “ambient play” can be used as a way to conceptualise the various textures of play, from more durable forms of networked gameplay to open and ‘soft play’ (small spontaneous creative resistances or ‘moments of fun’). The notion of ambient play also contextualizes games “within broader processes of sociality and embodied media practices, and is essential to the corporeality of play whereby play in, and outside, the game space reflects broader cultural nuances and phenomena” (Hjorth and Richardson, 2014).

Ambience is often used to describe sound and music but has also been used in computing and science. As a noun, it specifically refers to a style of music with electronic textures and no consistent beat that is used to create a mood or feeling, but more generally the term describes the diffuse atmosphere of a place. In short, ambience is about the texture of context, emotion, and affect. For urban theorist Malcolm McCullough (2013), the rise of ubiquitous media in and around the city has resulted in the need for us to rediscover our surroundings. He argues that understanding attention as ambient can lead to new types of shared cultural resources and social curation akin to a type of common that moves in and out of the digital and the everyday. Understanding the textures of play can help us to uncover the often ambiguous ambience data are creating in our lives. Some key terms here would be ambient play, ambient co-presence and mundane data.

Finally, a number of other themes in contemporary scholarship about play could likewise be followed up in discussions of data, both independently from or in relation to those noted above. These include the notion of playbour and data. Playbour refers a notion originally developed by Kücklich, which is used to refer to the exploitative deployment of gamers play for the game companies’ financial benefit (Kücklich, 2005). As Larissa suggested, a possible way of thinking about this would be to re-purpose the ‘playbour’ concept in order to consider how data is implicated in playbour as well as thinking about how forms of playbour might be disruptive to data.

Decentring the analysis – a non-data-centric approach?

Ingrid brought to the fore the point that data ethnographies can then mean much more than just ethnographic data, and than doing ethnographies of data, but also involves doing ethnography through data. This also raised the issue of how we go about this, and we discussed the question of an indirect approach to data, which would resonate with a non-media-centric media studies (Nick Couldry, Shaun Moores, David Morley) and a non-digital-centric digital ethnography (Pink et al 2016). Should such an approach be non-data-centric? – approaching data through play would achieve this, or on the other hand, approaching play through an ethnography of data would also be interesting.

This also brought to the fore discussions of the human and non-human, and while not everyone in our group would agree about the status of this concept, the important point it revealed is the need to account for data, for machine or algorithmic agencies and for code. For instance as Jason Farman pointed out doing research in this context inevitably invokes the question of the non-human, and specifically (given our discussions about the nature of data as broken and the contingencies of everyday life in this and papers  and 2) then this means that we need to account for the non-human as part of a messy and networked world.

Jason Farman asked us to consider how ethnography can elicit the complex network of humans, infrastructures, and objects (in-game; out of game, etc), raising two questions: what does ethnography mean after the posthuman turn? Would we be doing ethnography of things (game objects, interfaces, infrastructures, room layouts, etc) and what are the implications of the non-human turn and the capacity of ethnography to elicit the messy networks of participants and things in the world. This led to a discussion of how we might then do such a type of ethnography of data and play. We did not agree on one core method or approach but suggest the following as a spectrum of possibilities, some of which come closer to the perspectives of those who are interested in approaches that account for the non-human, and others closer to the work of those who put humans at the centre:

  • Follow the data, but in doing so accept the understanding of data as a ‘thing’, open and leaky as discussed in position paper 2 (Sarah Pink)
  • Don’t put data at the centre of the investigation but instead remember to situate the data. This could be a non-data-centric approach to data studies (Heather Horst)
  • Use play as a probe in data ethnographies (Larissa Hjorth), and as a way to develop and trial innovative methods to reveal the complex relations between gameplay, play practices, the playful attitude and data in everyday life (i.e. as ‘broken’, ‘black-boxed’, ‘dark’, ‘risky’, ‘ambient’, ‘soft’, ‘textured’ etc) (Ingrid Richardson)
  • Think of data as focussing the relationship between humans and non-humans – here data is about that encounter and therefore offers us a prism through which to research it (Edgar Gómez Cruz)
  • Work with a concept of ‘rich data’ (Fumi Kato)

The Potential Benefits of Playful Data Futures?

The end of our workshop took us to some of the issues that inform the whole series and that were raised in particular in workshop 2, in relation to building equitable, ethical, and responsible data futures. How can play and forms of playfulness in relation to data contribute to such an objective. how do idea such as those of rethinking notions of playbour, identity, resistance and resilience, and ways of humbling the data, take this field of discussion forward further?


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