Neuroanthropology and the Contemporary Culture of Entertainment

Thriller Ipod
By Peter Stromberg

Over the last century, anthropologists have often chosen to study exotic symbolic systems — rituals, myth, art — and frequently managed to illuminate the cultural logic underlying what seem initially to be “irrational” practices.

So why haven’t anthropologists leapt to study one of the most exotic and powerful symbolic systems in human history? I’m talking about the Western (and predominantly American) system of “entertainment”. Not only is this system central to contemporary Western culture, it has arguably played a major role in the breakdown of the cultures of many indigenous communities.

Entertainment should be a significant focus of anthropological inquiry. Alas, it is not.

Admittedly, some interest in the topic has emerged in the last couple of decades. Much of this material is promising; often authors pursue the insight that in some ways entertainment activities are similar to rituals. This is not only an accurate observation, but it points to the possibility of beginning to map how entertainment works to establish some of the central meanings of contemporary life.

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Caught in Play: How Entertainment Works on You

Caught in Play
Get caught up in things? Fun things, obsessive things, pleasurable things? Then I’ve got a book for you – Caught in Play: How Entertainment Works on You.

Caught in Play is written by Peter Stromberg, professor of anthropology at Tulsa and blogger for PsychologyToday. Published by Stanford University Press, this book examines the following themes:

Most of us have, at some point, become so immersed in a book or game or movie that the activity temporarily assumes a profound significance and the importance of the outside world begins to fade… [Yet] basic questions remain unanswered [about this immersion].

What do we know about the overall effect of living in a society in which entertainment is so central? What do we know about how entertainment affects society and the people who participate in it? Why are entertainment activities so important to us, yet frequently dismissed as being unworthy of serious reflection?

Chapters begin with “Caught Up in the Game” and end with “Entertainment and Our Understanding of Self.” In between we get romantic realism, role playing, play and agency in legal drug use, and more.

Caught in Play matters because most psychological and neurological approaches reduce experience and activity to something run only through brain processes without attending to the nature of the activity and experience themselves. These real-world phenomena also bring foundational elements to the overall pattern. We get caught up because of brain and culture, and how experience and behavior link both.

Yet cultural anthropologists often want to cut out aspects of individual life, of processes located in and through bodies, from their analyses. Stromberg attends to play, boredom, imagination, and role taking as equal partners in understanding the captivating power of the streams of entertainment delivered to us today. He also shows how modern forms of entertainment, caught up in capitalism and consumerism, are distinctive in how they play on our own individual engagements, often to extreme ends and for the profit of others.
Caught in Play 2
Peter has set up a great website for Caught in Play. You can read an excerpt on romance and popular advice and keep up to date through Peter’s blog. I enjoyed this post on beliefs, explanations and why we really enjoy entertainment. Peter also considers the applied and negative side of his work on entertainment, play and modernity. He offers us resources on addiction, with more resources to come.

For those looking for other reviews, here’s an Amazon customer:

From the first page, Caught in Play captured my attention and opened my eyes to a world of entertainment and advertising that has become essential to our modern lives. Relatable and entertaining, this book gave me incredible insight to a side of my own character that I had not yet acknowledged.

Engrossing stories about the worlds of Role Playing Games, romance novels, and the development of television commercials left me laughing at myself and those I knew, for who among us has not, themselves, been caught up in their favorite movie, TV show, or book?

And Bradd Shore and Daniel Linger have the more academic views:

The surfaces of play mask some surprising hidden dynamics of modern life. Stromberg delivers a high-flying set of reflections on what lies behind our capacity to get caught up completely in the world of entertainment. Exploring our ever-intensifying ‘stimulus hunger,’ his excursion into the history of modern desire provides a new way to think about the forces shaping contemporary entertainment.

With its lively, ambitious examination of how entertainment has replaced ritual as a means of creating and affirming social ideals and motivations, Caught in Play extends the insights of major social theorists such as Durkheim, Weber, and Goffman. It is a stimulating read that will evoke productive debate over the effects of contemporary forms of imaginative involvement.

Charles Whitehead: Social Mirrors

In the depths of the Bad Semester (how I now refer to the last four months), Dr. Charles Whitehead contacted me to share notes on neuroanthropology. I’m trying to catch up with the immense backlog of material I need to work through, but I thought I would post a short note and a link to his website, Social Mirrors. It’s a pretty interesting spread of thinking, and Dr. Whitehead has provided numerous links to his papers and other material.

Dr. Charles Whitehead

Dr. Charles Whitehead

I especially like his piece with Prof. Robert Turner, downloadable here, on the effects of collective representations on the brain. In particular, the Turner and Whitehead article argues that the idea that certain areas of the brain are networked into a ‘social brain’ — implying that the rest of the brain is ‘not social’ — is hard to support. I’ll admit that I don’t necessarily use the same language or conceive of how the brain works in the ways described by Turner and Whitehead, but it is well worth the read to check it out, if for no other reason that it provides a corrective to some emerging ways of theorizing brain enculturation.

Turner and Whitehead take the multiple senses of the word, ‘representation,’ especially the conflicting use by anthropologists and social scientists, on the one hand, and brain sciences, as a point of departure. Normally, I just find the overlap annoying and have argued that it is one reason that anthropologists don’t ‘get it’ when it comes to neurosciences (for example, in Beyond Bourdieu’s ‘body’ — giving too much credit?). But Turner and Whitehead have something more constructive to say about the unstable term (from their conclusion):

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Gaming Round Up

As part of my on-going interest in video games, here is another round up. Besides some top picks, this one covers social issues, game design, academic research, some funny stuff, games and more games, learning and education through gaming, and a surprise mix-up ending.

I know, I know, this is way too long, but I guess this might be my own obsessive ritual. But if you really do want more, you can check out my last video game round-up, which had a brain/psychology flavor and linked to my own stuff here on the Neuroanth blog.

Top of the List

Brain Crecente, Three Developers Explain LittleBigPlanet Level Design to a 7-Year-Old
If you want the basic basic about how to make a great game, this is the place to start. Plus, how cool for this kid!
Designers have more insight into human nature than most anthropologists and neuroscientists (after all, they rely on people to get what they are doing…). And when trying to explain that to a kid, they get like your favorite uncle after a few beers crossed with Yoda. Some wisdom here… and a few exploding barrels.

Andy Chalk, LittleBigPlanet Delayed over Religious Controversy
The highly anticipated Sony game is delayed because a featured song contains Arabic words taken from the Qur’an. Some Muslims consider it sacrilegious to mix popular music and holy text; the initial discussion started on Arabic gaming sites.
For more on the song “Tapha Niang” by Toumani Diabaté, a Grammy-award winning musician from Mali, see this article. You can also listen to the song here.
Toumani Diabate defends the use of the Qur’an in his music, calling it both normal and a way to inspire people towards Islam. Even more reactions here by players, Sony and others interested parties. Finally, the American Islam Forum for Democracy objects to the censorship.

Jeremy Adam Smith, Playing the Blame Game: Video Games Pros and Cons
A balanced piece on how video games affect adolescents based on the research of Cheryl Olson and Lawrence Kutner

Social Issues

Michael Abbott, Games to Help
Several examples of games that aim to make a difference – money to cancer, social awareness, and more

Jay Alabaster, Japan’s Online Social Scene Isn’t So Social
“Welcome to Japan’s online social scene, where you’re unlikely to meet anyone you don’t know already.”

Kate Schneider, Video Games Social, Not Violent, Study Finds
Teenagers socialize through video games – not just sitting in a basement blowing things up alone

Newser, Online Gamers Leaner Than Your Average Couch Potato
Watching TV is the big potato; gamers just have more mental health problems. At least among EverQuest players. For more on this study, see here and here.

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Silent Raves

Silent Raves, where people get together to dance while listening to music on their headphones, came to my attention this week through NPR’s “Silent Ravers Dance ‘Together But Individually’.” Get together in a public place, turn on your music at the appointed time, and start dancing!

This particular Silent Rave took place in Boston’s Copley Square, and was promoted through both Facebook and MySpace. Here’s the MySpace ad:

WHAT IS A SILENT RAVE?? A silent rave is a dance party where everyone listens to their own music. Imagine looking out and seeing hundreds of people dancing, but hearing nothing. Pretty cool, eh?

This Myspace page will keep all you ravers updated on upcoming events. It’ll also help promote this event, and attract more people to the raves.

Basically, what you do at a silent rave is bring your MP3 player and headphones. After the countdown to the start time of the event (typically in the evening, but who knows!), everyone presses play at the same time, listening to their own favorite jams. Everyone then starts dancing (dancing, jumping up and down, flailing arms around wildly, it’s all the same at a rave!).

What’s the point? Well, it’s just an event where a bunch of people can get together to have fun, expend pent-up energy, and meet tons of new people with similar interests. These silent raves are supremely exciting (well, with the right attitude) and fun. Silent raves will normally be short and sweet, but everyone is more than welcome to stay afterwards to party and mingle with fellow ravers.

Simple guidelines:
-please Please PLEASE respect the locations where the silent raves are held, i.e. don’t litter and no violence. We don’t want to be attracting any unwanted attention from local authorities…
-Wait for the countdown to start raving, otherwise it’ll be a mess.
-Have fun.

In the States one of the biggest Silent Raves was held last April in NYC’s Union Square. Both the NY Times and ABC News covered it. I’ve included a photo from that rave. For some video go to this You Tube clip.

The odd thing for me was that the You Tube clip included music! I suppose that makes sense for showing off what you were listening to, but as a curious anthropologist (and a guy just out of current style, one of my students commented yesterday) it didn’t help me capture the overall feel of the event. So here’s a video from Calgary. A lot smaller silent rave, but this one gives a better sense of what it looks like to someone on the outside.

And then there was this massive flash mob silent rave in Victoria Station in London!

Video Games, Brain and Psychology Round Up

After earlier round-ups on video games (#1 on gaming in itself, as a social form; #2 on social science and game design), I am adding this third round up covering gaming and mind/brain research.

Together all three round ups provide the background for approaching video games through neuroanthropology. Ideally this background would then serve to inform specific research on gaming, which I have addressed previously in discussing avatars, MMORPGs, and Grand Theft Auto, probably my most synthetic piece.

To place that work in context, you can also check out the popular post One Day at Kotaku: Understanding Video Games and Other Modern Obsessions. See also: video games and the neuroanthropology of interaction and gaming and cultural perception.

This round-up draws more on published research than the previous two. At times the best I could provide is a link to an abstract; where possible, I have tracked down pdfs. And if there are other good papers out there that I don’t mention, please leave a comment!

Games and Neuroscience

Shawn Green and Daphne Bavelier, The Cognitive Neuroscience of Video Games
Pdf of a comprehensive chapter that appeared in the book Digital Media: Transformations in Human Communication

Klaus Mathiak & Rene Weber, Toward Brain Correlates of Natural Behavior: fMRI during Violent Video Games
“We propose that virtual environments can be used to study neuronal processes involved in semi-naturalistic behavior as determined by content analysis. Importantly, the activation pattern reflects brain-environment interactions rather than stimulus responses as observed in classical experimental designs.”

Niklas Ravaja et al., Spatial Presence and Emotions during Video Game Playing: Does It Matter with Whom You Play?
Yes it does—playing against another person is different than playing against a computer

CS Green & D. Bavelier, Action-Video-Game Experience Alters the Spatial Resolution of Vision
“Compared with nonplayers, action-video-game players could tolerate smaller target-distractor distances. Thus, the spatial resolution of visual processing is enhanced in this population. Critically, similar effects were observed in non-video-game players who were trained on an action video game; this result verifies a causative relationship between video-game play and augmented spatial resolution.” Gaming can also reduce gender differences in spatial cognition.

Fumiko Hoeft et al., Gender Differences in the Mesocorticolimbic System during Computer Game-play
“males showed greater activation and functional connectivity compared to females in the mesocorticolimbic system. These findings may be attributable to higher motivational states in males, as well as gender differences in reward prediction, learning reward values and cognitive state during computer video games”

MJ Koepp et al., Evidence for Striatal Dopamine Release during a Video Game
Pdf of well-received 1998 Nature paper on reward, dopamine and gaming. Slightly dated now with its view of reward and dopamine, but definitely a foundational piece.

Niklas Ravaja, The Psychophysiology of Video Gaming: Phasic Emotional Responses to Game Events
Ever wonder why it’s fun? Both positive and negative game events when players actively involved in playing elicited “positive emotional responses in terms of facial EMG activity” (pdf)

Games and Embodiment

James Paul Gee, Video Games and Embodiment
Recent article in Games and Culture laying out Gee’s view on gaming and human thinking as both “situated and embodied”.

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Video Game Round Up #2

I did a previous round up on gaming, which covered some basics on gaming, criticisms of the activity, some funny stuff, games as art, some anthropological work, and games and learning.

Here’s another round up, where I have focused on more traditional social science/anthropological themes, as well as related articles and blogging about game design.


Sande Chen, Towards More Meaningful Games: A Multidisciplinary Approach
“how to ratchet up emotional intensity – through narrative design, visuals, and music – to create more meaningful games”

The Brainy Gamer, The Elusiveness of Meaning
“Ueda’s process begins with an image and grows from that place, informing the way the game plays, how it feels, and what it means… The meaning of the image is conveyed through a beautiful weave of gameplay and narrative.”

Kyle Stallock, Diablo Fans Petition Against III’s Artistic Direction
New game demo with brighter environments and more color creates a fan backlash: they want a visual style for Diable III “coherent with the universe it belongs to”. See the video report here

The Escapist, The Age of World Builders
“That’s when it really hit me: This wasn’t just some level in a game. This was my vacation home in a digital environment.”

Ian Bogost, The End of Gamers
Gaming matures as a medium, and takes myriad forms

Owen Good, Can a Game Be a Tearjerker?
A journalist asks, and online readers respond about their saddest gaming experiences.

The Brainy Gamer, Narrative Manifesto
Video games and delivering “genuinely interactive narrative experiences to the player”


Brent Ellison, Defining Dialogue Systems
Dialogue as interaction, and how to build that into a game

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Video Game Round Up

On Games

Tom Chatfield, Rage Against the Machines
Do games stunt minds and create addictions? Good overview of what people really do when they sit down to play. “Games are human products, and lie within our control.” See readers’ comments here.

Eric Sofge, Video Games (Finally) Grow Up
Esquire article covers how video games have matured—storytelling, moral complexity, artistry and more

Rob Fahey, It’s Inevitable: Soon We Will All Be Gamers
Video games out of teenagers’ rooms and into everyday life

Louis Bedigian, Professor James Paul Gee Shows the World the Importance of Video Games
Learning doesn’t just happen in school, and that’s a good thing. Or, trying to understand why people put so much effort into mastering a game

Vaio at VG Chartz, Why We Game
Worth it for the starting photo alone. Illuminating discussion by gamers about why they do it


Susan Greenfield, Modern Technology Is Changing The Way Our Brains Work
Neuroscientist presents a critical take—games and pharmaceuticals are changing brain function and creating unhealthy dependencies. For more on Greenfield and her views, click here.

Etelmik, Self-Abuse in Game Play
“We talk about games being therapeutic, educational, beautiful, aesthetic, or enlightening. We also talk of them as being cheap, derivative, or boring. But it occurred to me in the last two weeks that sometimes they can be devastating, depressing, destructive and discouraging.”

Stephen Totilo, Are Games Our Fantasies?
“Let’s talk, finally, about what that means.” Racial imagery, murderous violence, and the debate between “it shouldn’t matter” and “it does matter”

Mike Smith, New Startup Tackles Stereotypes
Gaming just for boys? Here’s a company run by women! “Worldwide Biggies spans the gender gap”

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Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City

Grand Theft Auto IV comes out tomorrow. Looks like it might be the best in the series, certainly one of the best games of the year. The early reviews gathered at Metacritic have an average score of 99 out of 100 as I write this. Rockstar Games, the gaming company that has made Grand Theft Auto, estimates a pre-order demand around $400 million. So it’s big. Huge.

But why?

I will make a simple argument. It is the combination of creative anthropology, sophisticated game design and game play, and the right brain hooks that makes video games like Grand Theft Auto work so well.

And the reviews show it. In the rest of the piece, I will draw excerpts from three places, the IGN review, the New York Times review, and the highlight quotes from Metacritic.

Creative Anthropology

Take creative fiction, and add world-building and a do-it-yourself story, and then you have what I mean by creative anthropology. Some Geek Love through role playing and fantasy, mixed with narrative to get the cultural buy-in.

So here’s GameSpy: “The very nature of the American Dream is the central theme in Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto IV, a gaming masterpiece that is a picture-perfect snapshot of the underworld of today’s big cities.”

The New York Times gushes, “The real star of the game is the city itself. It looks like New York. It sounds like New York. It feels like New York. Liberty City has been so meticulously created it almost even smells like New York.”

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