The ideology of self in ludic digital worlds
Mis en ligne le 14 avril 2011
Par Olivier Mauco
The self in videogames and digital worlds has previously been called a “second self” (Turkle, 1997), since the user creates an ideal identity in cyberspace. “Second self” implies a second world, another reality beyond what is socially defined as “real life.” This opposition between reality and virtuality must be interrogated further, as digital worlds are shared socially by users and exist through tangible practices, even if they reside in a computer program. These digital worlds are more likely “synthetic spaces” (Castronova, 2006), a mix between reality and fantasy. The player does not exist directly in these spaces ; rather, he appears through a computer figure : the avatar. The self in videogames is not an artifact because of player investments ; instead, the artifact is the representation of the self in this particular space. Because of this specific situation, the representation of the self in videogames is more a crossover between local social factors and computational constraints. The avatar is a figure determined physically by the producers of a videogame (the code that enables the cartoon to be displayed and animated), structured by the game’s telos (its aims and goals) and its imperative (game norms, gender and goals), and influenced by common and consensual representations (in game conventions adopted by the producers according to their idea of users’ preferences). Contrary to postmodern analysis (Poster, 1998) about the self in cyberspace, the ludic component produces a strong centration (focus on) of the subject, enabling the self to be ideologically determined through a multi-level procedural apparatus.
1. Digital Worlds as Ideological Utopian Devices
1.1. Ideological Travels in Utopian Spaces
Videogames are set up in an intermediate position between reality and fantasy. The producers’ imagination is materialized in an “inter-world” (Sfez 2002, 138) : images exist in an autonomous way, but are structured by both the producers who define them and the players who play with them.
While traditional games were a social activity defined by the group (Mauss 1926), videogames are different because of the production process : producers are not players. This dichotomy changes the nature of the ludic contract : When a player enters a videogame’s space, he must submit himself to game’s structure and the producers’ conceptions. The game space is “cut from reality” (Huizinga 1958, 30), and to play is to accept the system’s rules as a whole. Because of this, videogame spaces are predestined and predetermined : liberty is an illusion, the player must follow the rules, but at the same time this imperative is both achievable and exciting. Within this “legaliberty” (Duflo 1997, 232) the player can act and accomplish his desires, but all of these are conditioned and offered by the game’s producers. Unlike traditional games, videogames are pre-defined spaces filled with signs translating producers’ ideas. They make sense to the player only as he also becomes a consumer.
To play a videogame is thus to play with signs — “these images are a degradation of the imaginary in signs” (Sfez 2002, 138) — in an autonomous space organized by the game’s purpose. This characteristic makes videogame play a cognitive activity, a kind of bodiless travel. One of the main requirements is immersion : the technical apparatus, including the system and controllers, must be forgotten when playing. The screen is no longer considered a separation between player and game. Instead players “jump in[to]” (Microsoft’s Xbox 360 2006) videogame space, “living” their adventure (Sony’s Playstation 3, 2006). Game systems are promoted not only as objects, but also as doors to real worlds. Their marketing tries to establish a direct connection between player and game, erasing the console or computer. In this particular conception, the videogame should only be played : the activity should appear omnipresent and omnipotent. This is a naturalization process instituted by videogame creators and, more broadly, by all producers of digital technologies : the technology is presented as natural. In this “expressionist” approach, the medium should no longer be visible and people should be linked directly to one another. A videogame’s world is a “universe of recognition,” an autonomous rhetorical space where signs can be understood for themselves. This space can be compared to the non-place developed in the concept of “supermodernity” : “a closed universe where anything makes sense as it is composed by a-symbolic and self-referent signs” (Augé 1992, 46). According to supermodernity theory, political and social institutions’ loss of legitimacy and the growing number of repositories and references encourage us to construct our own universe of reference. From a pragmatic point of view, supermodernity is the theory of competitive “economics of beliefs” (Balandier 1992). This produces an ideological syncretism, with each one of us self-interestedly choosing aspects of different normative systems, mixing them into a melting-pot of beliefs. Videogames offer a strong normative frame, even if they can integrate multiple and contrary ideologies.
The utopian nature of ludic digital worlds makes this ideological syncretism possible. As “an ideological discourse with theoretical anticipatory value” (Marin 1973, 255), videogames propose an ideological experience in a utopian space. The topic is utopian in multiple ways : as a game (proper norms and telos), as an on-screen device (intermediate position between reality and fantasy), as a fiction of virtual worlds (political and social organization). Yet this utopia “deals with rationality” (Marouby 1990, 88) that is present in the code that structures the player’s experience, in the game’s norms, and in the ideological representations that legitimize a player’s actions. Utopian virtual worlds offer a mental experience, a kind of cognitive travel. They also propose a new way for understanding problems by establishing a system of rules, assumptions and laws designed to break with those governing reality. Players live in utopian worlds, and through the ideological organization of a videogame’s world they discover an alternative government, new values, and novel kinds of social relationships. Through its norms and goals, a game “creates order, it is order” (Huizinga 1958, 30). Indeed, the game “carries out in world’s imperfection and life confusion a perfect temporary and limited world” (Huizinga 1958, 30). Here a fundamental difference arises. The game is a parallel world, a momentary escape, a parenthesis cut off from the world but simultaneously within it. But contrary to games, a utopia can become a goal, a sort of guide for a political project. When videogames are used by producers to convey a political message they can also convey a social project as a “laboratory of social experience” (Mauss 1926).
Videogames propose an ideologically structured parallel world in a utopian space. According to Mannheim’s analysis of links between utopia and ideology, videogames are a kind of mirror of social aspirations :
Utopia is reaching more and more a close link with the historical and social situation of this world, this reconciliation is manifested not only in locating more and more its goal not even within historical framework, but in giving spirituality and raising to the social and economic structure immediately accessible. (1929, 100).
Then a videogame’s topic is both a discursive space and a spatial discourse, meaning that the virtual world, the way it is organized, is itself an ideological discourse. The personal experience in utopian worlds, the way it will be entered and lived is ideological.
1.2. The Avatar in Procedural Ideological Systemic Spaces
Marxist ideology provides a structural framework by which to analyze a competitive topic. Competition (agôn) is the very essence of videogames. Since Marx, ideology has been understood as a superstructure maintaining the balance of power between the different classes and “creating a subjectivity of this domination” (Marx 1848, 32). The use of ideology in a videogame is possible because it is a closed system, cut off from reality. At the same time, games offer a utopian ideological experience, where many ideologies can be simultaneously presented. Ideology as a practice only exists and operates through the process of interpellation : “ideology interpellates individuals as subjects” (Althusser 1997, 302). This process links the individual to the system as it shapes the player’s possibilities through avatar design and gameplay restrictions. Accession to victory will be as ideologically designed as what the player has won (peace, a cup, a princess, etc.).
A videogame is primarily a simulation of relationships (Frasca 2001). The player’s posture is rather like a musician in an orchestra, playing the score and adapting his performance to that of others. The definition of ideology developed by Althusser enables us to understand the dynamic level, the procedural dimension : “[T]his is not their real lives, their way of real life, that men ‘represent’ in ideology, but above all their relation to these conditions of life which are represented.” (Althusser 1995, 297). Videogames are political metaphors about such relationships, the real-world complexity of components ; they formalize and model the balance of power. In their very essence they promote a general system of exchange of immaterial goods — on-screen signs.
On a second level, videogames define the player as an ideological subject within the system’s rules. The rules of the game convey a specific message to the player : Every political representation faces many constraints, and conflict resolution is possible only through effective resource management. The meaning of the message is not only in its representation, but also in the interaction : “[P]rocedural rhetoric describes how political structures operate” (Bogost 2007, 75). For example, media representations of October 2005 riots outside Paris were critiqued through an amateur game, Paris Riots. The game’s players have the role of a policeman who prepares for a fight and searches for rioters — but doesn’t find any. This “non-game” postulates that events were not as dramatic as they appeared and that the media exaggerated the true situation (Mauco 2008). Videogame rules must thus be understood in terms of the laws governing ludic digital spaces as much as in terms of the ideology mobilizing the player.
Ideology in videogames is systemic. It produces classical forms of discourse within audiovisual dimension, and a new kind of production of the utterance through the action, a “procedural rhetoric” (Bogost 2006 ; Bogost 2007). The ideology is produced not only by words, but also by acts performed within a predetermined framework. As an ideological system with in-game interpellation process, a videogame produces new political conceptions and can be considered as a “machine producing subjectivity” (Guattari 2007, 24).
What is interesting about videogames is that multiple subjectivities can be produced according to different kinds of producers. All the post-modern debate about the “hyperreality of cyberspace” (Poster 1998) seems to be limited in the case of ludic digital worlds. The ludic component is a way to concentrate player attention, offering a normative telos that produces a strong focus on the subject in a rational reduction of this reality echoing producers’ ideologies.
1.3. The Self as a Multi-Level Communication Device
We could summarize life in videogames under a cybernetic conception :
« [T]o live effectively is to live with adequate information. Thus, communication and control belong to the essence of man’s inner life, even as they belong to his life in society. (Wiener 1954, 18). »
In a structural sense, videogames are communication games in which a player manipulates on-screen signs as he navigates through the patterns, like a rafting boat on a wild river. In another way, videogames are utopian spaces that propose ideological experiences. The link between cybernetic space and utopia enacts itself through the player’s figure : the avatar. An avatar is not only a character to play by and with, the narrator of utopia, but also a medium through which a player communicates. The avatar is the central regulatory device, crystallizing and focusing player interactions within the game system. That is why the player’s identity through the avatar figure is no more than a sign of all his past communications and actions.
Most game stories offer tales of peaceful places disturbed by enemies : Loco Roco, a kidnapping ; Zelda, a peaceful village ; Guild Wars, before the Charr invasion ; Bioshock, before the plane crash ; Far Cry, the initial hero’s holidays. The goal is to restore the peace, to return the initial order, and the best way to play is to adapt to the environment. Communicating effectively means manipulating signs without disturbance. To experience utopian space means to submit to utopia’s rules.
Most studies of virtual worlds tend to define them as panopticons (Mendizabal 2004, 115), with a centralized, omniscient authority. It is true to say that game developers are able to regulate the worlds as both monitors and creators. For example, if it one kind of profession or class is stronger than others, developers might modify their characteristics to balance the game. If a player is rude, irrelevant or has an attitude contrary to the game’s ethic (included in the end-user license agreement, or EULA), he can be easily banned. But all this is only true in the utopian space, within the game, cut off from reality. Being banned from the game means that the player’s avatar is not able to play anymore, but the player can create another and return. The avatar is the border, the point of passage between the player and the game, the reader and the utopia, the individual and the machine. Through the ludic dimension that enables play within the game, what appears to be an illusion of liberty is more like a wasteland waiting to be conquered. This notion resembles John Locke’s point of view : Everyone should be free to choose the normative system that rules his own life as long as it exists in the private sphere. It is the same with videogames : The multiplicity of universes should be an opportunity to sustain player liberty. Conversely, game systems always have a classical structure : player/avatar/system. The avatar is the “eidetic body” (Mendizabal 2004, 129) through which the game system gives the player an identity. In a utopian world, an avatar should be totally normalized. It is partially done in videogames, but the social and individual factors, the player’s knowledge and habits, skills and culture are filters.
Because the self in videogames is partially determined, we should revisit Foucault’s opposition of spectacle and disciplinary societies (Foucault 1975, 252-253). Videogames are both because technology enables the synthesis of antagonisms, as “utopia can link opposites” (Marin 1973). The dichotomy between the individual and the avatar is somewhat problematic as the spectator is an actor, the consumer a producer. The player is the “spect-actor” of this drama controlled by software ; he must control in order to win, consenting to his illusion as he co-produces it. Because the player can travel through worlds as diverse as there are games, his avatar will always be in flux (a warrior, a space ranger, a football team, a god, a secret agent, a cartoon, etc.). What remains constant is the way he interacts with the system. Digital utopian worlds are thus extensions of individual interiority. As the avatar is no more than a sign, as the body is not important, as everything is a matter of cognitive communication in a sign-based system, this liberation in the “field of possibilities” is the consecration of communication and libertarian ideologies that are socially produced.
2. Multi-level Ideologies : Libertarianism and Communication Imperatives
2.1. Entering “Brave New World” : Self Reborn
Within a videogame, each element is expected to interact with the player’s choice. It is a contextual game placing the player in a hostile environment (traps, gaps, enemies, etc.) to which he must continuously adapt. Actions are not created by the player but chosen from what is essentially a predetermined set of options. Programmers try to simulate a sense of freedom, but everything is calculation, the result of mathematical formulas.
The avatar in videogames is the entrance point by which the player can interact with the game. Not unlike Buddhists’ “god reincarnated on earth,” the player is reincarnated in the digital world. Two kinds of avatar can be observed. The first is more akin to a character out of classical fiction, one designed by the game producers, a puppet the player manipulates. The second is constructed by the player through software that allows him to create an ideal character. While the pre-built character allows game publishers to deals in licenses and establish franchises (Mario, Sonic, The Prince of Persia, Solid Snake, etc.), the second of avatar becomes increasingly important : it offers a way to develop a player’s immersion (and incarnation) by making him (or another of his “selves”) the hero of the adventure. Most games propose to construct a character, especially role-playing games like Oblivion, World of Warcraft, Conan, Dofus or social digital worlds such as Second Life, There, etc.
The digital avatar is not a god’s reincarnation but an individual investment determined by a player. The body is only a representation, just as the carnal dimension is only a coded sign. The construction of a player’s avatar is represents a simulation of freedom. The more the available combinations, the less deterministic the game feels. Bodily construction in videogames is a “hyperchoice” (Ehrenberg 2000), however. Self-sublimation would make the player choose a strong warrior, an attractive woman, or a wise magician ; others might choose an ugly character for shock value. The choices made are influenced by two logical threads : self-representation and social issues through gender, appearance, racial and professional choices. Gender : Sexual identity does not always match player identity, as a study revealed : 57% of game players engage in gender swapping (Hussein and Griffiths 2008, 52). Playing a woman in on-line games can constitute a strategy in a male-dominated environment obtain help or be more easily chosen for a multiplayer quest. Because on-line games are also social spaces, for some players told us that it was a way to experiment with sexual fantasies and to fulfill their desire to change their sexual identity.
Appearance : Players spend a considerable amount of time in body construction because it is the most personal part of the process. This conception of the body resembles that of the body-object, “the body becomes the sum of different parts, each patient can be separated at all” (Detrez 2002, 48). This is linked to technical and in-game constraints : body animation and figuration is an assembly of interactive parts, the middleware’s ability to render complex 3D graphics within the game’s variables. If the program can only offer a small number of criteria, the probability that a player will encounter his digital double increases.
Race : Players can often choose to be human or something more exotic like an alien, elf, or troll. Choosing a race is as much an aesthetic choice as a gaming preference, even if different races can offer the same gaming experience. The discriminating factor is not the in-game races, as most are heroic-fantasy shared imaginary (Orc, Elves, etc.), but skin color. For example, players can be less helpful with black avatars than white ones (Eastwick and Gardner 2009). Such racism is more explicit in political contexts : Members of the extreme-right National Front party in Second Life ask an avatar why it is black (Mauco 2007). Such actions illustrate how real-life beliefs and stereotypes can be transferred into digital worlds.
Profession : When the player chooses his class, he is choosing to belong to a particular occupation such as a warrior or a magician. Each profession offers different gameplay and sets up a system of individual actions specific to the profession. For example, warriors are made for close combat, with great strength and a high level of resistance. Magicians, while physically weak, are designed for long-distance combat, with powerful zone skills. So depending on the specifics of their characters, players will experience a different kind of game, as a striker and defender will not play the same way in a soccer game. The self is here is a “digital hexis” (George 2008), meaning the act to be in digital world. As a negotiated space between individual interiority and digital environment, this digital hexis describes the process of investment initiated by the player, the way he will conquer the digital territory and how he will exist in it. Nevertheless, videogame ideology reverses this process, as the self will not only be “the act to be” ; the self will exist by acting, action will determine the being : “[I]dentity is what makes the singularity of different ways of existing through one same and unique frame of references” (Guattari 2007, 93).
2.2. Communication Ideology Imperatives in Interactive Action
Together with the creation of the avatar’s body, communication is omnipresent in videogames. If computer code science is a mathematical language, it also pervades the conceptions of programmers. This approach is similar to that of those who understand the human being as an information process, where genetics is merely an almost endless line of code. This figure announced the Homo comunicans, the man who communicates as it has been developed in Norbert Wiener’s works. The body in Wiener’s works is a communication device that implies that the body’s essence is more a matter of organization than composition : “the physical identity of an individual does not consist in the matter of which it is made.” (Wiener 1954, 101). The nervous system is a matter of input and output, the brain an analogue to a digital device. What becomes important is the way the message is treated according to the taping process, the order of sequences decoding the message.
The biological individuality of an organism seems to lie in a certain continuity of process, and in the memory by the organism of the effects of its past development. This appears to hold also true for its mental development. In terms of the computing machine, the individuality of a mind lies in the retention of its earlier taping and memories, and in its continued development along lines already laid out. (Wiener 1954, 102)
Self-presentation in a digital world is driven by these conceptions : the body as the player’s sign of presence is also an interactive device that enables him to communicate with the machine. When the player controls an avatar, he interacts both with the machine and with the game. As a computer artifact, it incarnates the input-output : pressing a button produces a movement. As a gaming artifact, what you have done, have lost or have won, is shown on-screen and incorporated in avatar’s appearance. Self-incarnation is a sign structured by communication and game.
As the game progresses, the avatar’s appearance will be enriched by armor, weapons, and other objects won during the game. This part is important in on-line and off-line role-playing games : most quests will offer rewards, so if everyone accomplishes his duty, everyone would get the same object. The collected items are new capabilities for the player to communicate with his environment : new spells, new combinations of shots, etc. Moreover, acquiring a new item is the condition to get to a new level, to enter a new world. It can be the main goal of a game, especially in adventure and role playing games : In Zelda : A Link to the Past, the hero must get the Triforce in order to fight Ganon ; in Oblivion, the king’s amulet must be reconstructed. The ludic component introduces a random process : computer program generates rare items, kind of player holy grail.
All this will “generate a status inequality” (Castronova 2006, 107) whose corollary is a top-player oligarchy. As shown, this “civilization process” (Elias 1997) encourages the lower classes to imitate the upper classes, encouraging the aristocracy to develop new tastes and habits. So it is in digital worlds : Top players are recognized by the sword or the armor they wear and this is soon imitated by those below them. Introducing a new feature can modify a game’s equilibrium, encouraging players to spend time seeking out new items (“farming”) to preserve their superiority. But this inequality of status can also be understood in terms of communication skills, as some players will benefit from a wider range of ways to interact with the game system. Moreover, getting a rare sword is not just a gaming and communication issue ; it is also a social process inside a game device that allows player to enter the selected class of top-level players. What an avatar wears reveals the player’s level and abilities ; it is a sign of recognition and a distinctive label of valor.
Since the 1950s transparency ideology has become more and more efficient ; this rising idea breaks classical conceptions of man as a creature whose self-identity was once considered an autonomous private sphere. One postulate changed man’s conception : crimes and atrocities committed in secret during World War II, and “secret partly takes roots in this self interiority” (Breton 2004). The solution sets the figure of a transparent modern man who could not hide, guided by his impulses. To do this, it became necessary to present a human being turned outward, totally transparent and reactive. This point is interesting, because as long as the self is defined by an external context, it is possible to regulate and influence man’s interiority. In a larger perspective, the human self is no longer a matter of being but a problem of acting : In videogames the self is the player negotiating a place as he meets the adaptative environment. Most videogame missions involve delivering a message or getting information. For example, in Guild Wars the player has to travel from one point to another to inform a lord of the crisis and to offer help. It is the same process in Oblivion, where the hero has to reach local kings and transmit the new emperor’s needs. In GTA IV, Niko Bellic must assure the successful transmission of information. In Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighters, the commando must destroy enemy communication resources getting good information from an advanced communication device. Even if communication seems to drive these spaces, a player’s characteristics, his psychological history, personal career, and ludic and social capital are components of his subjectivity as the game strives to produce a normalized identity through his bodily representation. The most interesting issue is that this body, as the interface between the player and the machine, is a sign waiting to be invested with player aspirations. That’s why the game’s technological determinism is efficient through the normative devices and yet limited by individual identity “in real life.”
The player’s body is a place of utopian aspirations, marking “both a devaluation of the body and a revaluation of thought, first of rational thought” (Breton 2004, 56). He is the incarnation of the subject figure in videogames. It is a “body-sign” externalized, purely mechanical, under a process of rational choice, although subject to the desires of the player :
The Homo communicans is a being without interiority and without a body, who lives in a society without secrets, a whole turned to the social, which exists only through information exchange and, in a society made transparent through the new machines (Breton 2004, 50).
A player’s survival does not depend on the state of his avatar’s body, but on its gauge of life. This gauge corresponds to a number of points : As soon as the life gauge falls to the zero point, the player is dead, the game is lost. To avoid losing, there are healing potions or spells. The distinction is one between the body and the life of the player, however, because the number of life points is independent and may increase as the player gains experience. The externalization of the body translates into a deep denial of corporeality within the video game. In ludic digital worlds there is a passage from the “techniques of the body” (Mauss 1936, 366) to a technological body driven by an unnatural rationality. As the body in communication ideology is absent, it will be replaced by a technological artifact, an envelope that must not be fulfilled but animated. The player breathes life into it through manipulation, negotiating between the code and the norms.
2.3. Ideologies of the Self : Psychic Economy and Libertarianism
Videogames postulate an individual experience of digital worlds through the avatar, a communication device opposing an individual to the system. Freedom is the rule, self-satisfaction the goal. Videogames are libertarian in many ways : self property, private property, action and use of violence. Libertarian ideology postulates that everyone is his own master, but in videogames your avatar is both yours and the programmers’. Many juridical debates are dealing with issues of property : does the avatar belong to the game creators, as a computer program, or to the player as ludic and social identity ? The player’s avatar is not only a game character ; it is also an interface focusing his social networks, a way to be identified in those spaces. No one else can use a player’s avatar ; providers can be sued if they cannot secure access according to the EULA agreements and legal protections. Videogame stories frequently consecrate this personal property : the hero must defend himself against the world. The main example is the Grand Theft Auto series, in which a player must raise a little gangster and help him rise to the top of the social ladder. In an extreme case, lost of property might create a true drama, such as Shawn Woolley’s 2001 suicide after being robbed of his possessions in EverQuest. But personal property remains a utilitarian point of view (Mauco 2006), as everything composing individual environments, material or immaterial, should be determined as individual’s rights as a user, not a gamer. In videogame scenarios, preserving or regaining personal property can be one of the most important motives : a princess kidnapped in Mario, a sacred item, magical swords. Most games offer the opportunity to accumulate possessions so as to become stronger. This conception connects private property with the use of violence.
Contrary to most discourse about videogame violence, the player does not initiate violent acts without suffering from an original aggression. Many stories begin with a murder, a crime which must be repaired or revenged. In Guild Wars the world has been destroyed. In Oblivion the emperor was killed. In Grand Theft Auto you were betrayed. The use of violence against the player legitimates the use of violence against the environment. Even in the controversial Carmaggedon series (1997 ; 1998), in which the player kills though auto races, the use of violence is enabled by a totalitarian government that allows this kind of fight to happen.
As developed in the previous section, the man of action is almost always the main subject of videogames. Playing is acting ; fighting against the world is a player leitmotif. Self-identity is no longer a matter of existence, but of acquisition and action. What a player has done will determine what he is : hero or loser. In Oblivion, one of the main quests given by the emperor ends with this line : “Stop talking ; what is important is to act.” In GTA IV, consumerist critics exaggerate their ideology through in-game publicity parodies (be a millionaire, get rich and clever, act like a man, etc.).
As observed by Alain Ehrenberg, “The limits between the allowed and the forbidden, wanes in favor of a tearing between possible and impossible” (Ehrenberg 2000, 14). Videogames are domains of possibilities, but to play is to submit to a game’s rules. They are one of the most efficient ways to avoid contemporary “self-indetermination” (Ehrenberg 1995, 307). To extend Elias’s theory, videogames are a temporary technological apparatus of the self that enables self-control and fulfills this supply of individual and social norms. As videogames internalize technology, they are a powerful technology that channels “psychic economy.” At the same time, they can be considered as an extension of the inner self, this reason’s tribunal which can be defined in a double sense as an instance “out from any public determinism [...] and citizen’s interior deliberating space” (Rangeaon 1995, 109). As a cognitive process, the player, acting through the avatar, is a bodiless mind evolving in this digital solipsistic space. Even if these ideologies are not commonly shared by policy makers, videogames should be considered autonomous political projects, “satisfying expression and society ideals” (Huizinga 1958, 28), that produce new subjectivities strengthened by the digital communities’ social pressure. If today they are entertaining utopian runaways, tomorrow they may become political aspirations.
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