Team Symposia

Feeling Risky?: Meaning, Embodiment, and Edgework in Gam(bl)ing Spaces (2021)

The talks by our team members Dr. Erin Lynch and Pierre-Olivier Jourdenais explored the concept of risk in relation to gaming and gambling, through the lenses of edgework and sensory ethnography.

Pierre-Olivier Jourdenais: This presentation examines how gamers describe their experiences of playing  games in permadeath mode, where the death of their character effectively ends their game. These  experiences will be theorized through the conceptual lens of edgework, noting some of its limitations as  well as how it can be adapted to develop an understanding of permadeath play, and a critique of games  user research literature. Edgework, defined by Stephen Lyng as when individuals engage in voluntary  risk-taking as a form of boundary negotiation to gain emotional rewards, assumed risk to be tied to  one’s physical reality; the risk in edgework was physical, or pertained to one’s material existence. But as  our worlds move further online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the boundaries between physical and  virtual reality find themselves blurred, and thus what is defined as dangerous or risky is as well. Through  an analysis of screenshots, strategy guides and Reddit forum posts regarding some of the themes found  in the turn-based tactics video game XCOM 2, I propose a critique of edgework both from the macro  sociological theories of risk as well as from the psychological perceptions of risk prevalent in games user  research literature. I suggest that what is deemed and perceived as being risky from the part of the  gamer is the meaningfulness associated with the gaming experience, and not the type of risk at play.  But, as games are constructed by game designers and game researchers to be maximally meaningful for  players, this raises questions pertaining to the thin and ambiguous line between making meaningful  versus addictive games, and whether edgework in the context of intense video game experiences can  truly be deemed to be voluntary risk-taking threading the boundaries between order and chaos, or life  and death. 

Erin Lynch: There have been sensory murmurings in critical and cultural criminology for some time. An  attention to the sensual has underpinned feminist criminologies on landscapes of fear, but it has also  informed scholarship on risk-taking, where cultural criminologists have responded to the call for a  “criminology of the skin” using the embodied practices of edgework. Notably, Jeff Ferrell (and other  cultural criminologists) have also championed the notion of criminological verstehen, which embraces  voluntary risk-taking as a method to “get inside” the immediacy and situated experience of crime – a  kind of ethnography as edgework. The embodied experience of taking a risk has thus emerged as both  object and ethos of some of cultural criminology’s more multisensuous offerings. I argue that taking a  cue from cultural criminology’s embodied approach – and its insistence that the meanings we make around risk are both corporeal and co-produced – might help gambling studies better make sense of the fraught atmospherics of risky gameplay. After all, the sensory marketing of casinos and gambling spaces  at once trades on the idea that gambling feels like taking a risk (with games designed to “keep you on  the edge of your seat” or “reeling with excitement” as “your heart skips a beat”) while at the same  curating sensory atmospheres and interfaces in which the act of risk-taking may become routine and is  often rebranded as “all part of the fun.” This talk will explore how a sensory ethnographic approach to  gambling spaces can offer insight into both the playfulness and routinization of (techno-mediated) risk taking in these spaces. It will also examine the marketing and enduring allure of “feeling risky” as part of  the broader experience economy.

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