In this post, the first part in a series on worlds and play, I draw together concepts from animal studies, cognitive science, and game studies to discuss how ‘worlds’ are created and communicated.
A Foray Into Worlds
Nearly a hundred years ago, Jakob von Uexküll published A Foray Into the Worlds of Animals and Humans. Therein the bio-philosopher envisioned how the world appears to various creatures, arguing that species are born into, live, and adapt to their own Umwelten (German for ‘environments’). An Umwelt is a space given shape and meaning by an organism, including its senses, needs, and lived experiences. Throughout the pages of Foray Into the Worlds von Uexküll illustrated these environments, showing how the world looks and feels from a range of perspectives, from katydids to canines, house flies to humans. In breaking the phenomenal world into various environments (Umwelten), von Uexküll laid the groundwork for a pluralistic understanding of the world rooted in the bodies, senses, and lived experiences of different beings. And while he was far from the first, he reinvigorated the notion that organisms do not exist within a common, shared world, but rather each of us exists in our own Umwelten, our own worlds.
This presents a unique paradigm for those of us researching how knowledge and meaning are created and communicated across bodies, communities, and cultures. If organisms exist in their own worlds, can we be said to exist in one and the same world? If the world is shaped by our senses and lived experiences, to what degree do we exist in one and the same space? What is happening when our senses, bodies, minds, and experiences differ from one another? Is the world of the d/Deaf derivative of the world of the h/Hearing (as is generally claimed) or are there meaningful differences between the two worlds, as d/Deaf people have long since argued (Cf. Understanding Deaf Culture by Paddy Ladd)? Do neurodivergent and neurotypical people occupy the same Umwelt when they’re in the same physical location or are they in fact experiencing distinct environments? While philosophers have for some time now discussed the notion of a lifeworld—that is, the world as lived and experienced—the idea that organisms perceive and persist in phenomenally distinct worlds suggests more fundamental differences in how the world is experienced, how meaning is made, and how knowledge is communicated.
The concepts and theories von Uexküll put forward almost a century ago have since been taken up by a range of scholars, including Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Verela. Together, Maturana and Varela studied the Umwelten of various creatures and concluded that there was no meaningful way to distinguish ‘the world’ from the Umwelt in which any organism exists. This realization would go on to inform Verela’s work in cognitive science and his embodied theory of mind. The world, Varela argues, is not there awaiting our perception of it; rather, it is enacted, brought forth through an organism making sense of its environment (Umwelt). Out of this notion the enactive theory of cognition was born.
Enactive cognition or enactivism argues that organisms exist in a circuitous, enactive relationship with their environments. Cognition is viewed here in its most rudimentary form as sensemaking. Organisms are cognitive system in that they make sense of or interpret their surroundings. Such sensemaking occurs in relation to the organism’s body and senses, producing meaning and significance located or situated within the Umwelt of the creature. Meanwhile, the organism takes its Umwelt not as an environment but as the world as a whole. In this way the physical and chemical world—what philosophers call the noumenal world—is distinct from the world of living organisms—the phenomenal world; and because each of us approaches the noumenal world through our own bodies, senses, and experiences, the phenomenal worlds we enact are distinct from one another. What von Uexküll—and later Muturana, Varela, and others—are suggesting is that the meaningful differences between our bodies, minds, and lived experiences correlate to meaningful differences in our perspectives or our world-views. If this is true, how is it that we come to understand and in some cases perceive the world as others perceive it? One answer to this question is through social sensemaking.
Social sensemaking is a concept that comes from cognitive science and builds off of Varela’s notion that embodied organisms enact the world around them by making sense of it. Social sensemaking is simply making sense of or interpreting the world from various social locations, situations, or perspectives in the world. Observing that another person is looking for something and joining in the search is an obvious example. Here we recognize the intent of another (e.g. to find something) and apply that intent to our own perception, interpreting our surroundings in the same or similar ways (e.g. bringing those locales where the object is likely hidden to the foreground of perception, while other areas fade into the background). Social sensemaking can be understood more broadly as our means of engaging in pluralistic interpretation, the capacity to interpret the world from various situations in the world.
The concept of social sensemaking is often illustrated in scholarship by appealing to games and play. This is because games provide players with ample opportunities to engage with distinct perspectives from which they need to learn how to view and interpret the world in novel ways. At the same time, gameplay itself can be seen as an enactive process, as players enact or bring forth a unique space or domain of meaning and significance throughout the course of play, drawing on what game scholars call the magic circle.
Following play scholar Johan Huizinga, when player’s play a game they enter the magic circle of play, a “temporary world” within the “ordinary world.” Salen and Zimmerman would goon to develop this concept more fully in their book Rules of Play, showing how gameplay creates a discrete space of meaning-making or sensemaking where the rule-bound actions and their outcomes have bearing on our interpretations.
Formally, then, games seem well-suited to the task of moving knowledge across bodies and between worlds. Players iteratively interpret and interact with the game space, using their roles and goals as players to make sense of the various elements and components, and in so doing bring forth the gameworld around them. This is less the ‘perspective-taking’ of ’empathy games’ in which players are passive recipients of a fully-formed world-view or perspective. Rather, from an enactive approach, players subject their interpretive faculties to the game and its rules; as they seek to understand the game—e.g. how it plays, what meaning and significance different objects and actions have— they come to learn novel ways of making sense of the game and by extension the world around them.
Von Uexküll’s notion of Umwelten, distinct environments in which organisms live and grow, can be seen as a more radical argument for the pluralistic nature of society than conventional accounts. Indeed, if we accept that the differences in our bodies, minds, and lived experiences correlate with distinct world-views—and in a sense distinct worlds—then what we would consider a healthy, informed, and compassionate society fundamentally relies on pluralistic interpretation, that is, the capacity for social citizens to make sense of the world from various perspectives situated in the world.
Media of all kinds—from print to television to analog and digital games—engage us in acts of social sensemaking and foster pluralistic interpretation. However, based on this approach, a vibrant, diverse media ecosystem is essential to a healthy society as media is the means by which perspectives and ways of making sense of the world are circulated throughout society. As a consequence, this means that marginalization from that media ecosystem would correlate with a diminished capacity for members of that society to interpret or make sense of the world around them from the perspectives of the most marginalized citizens. Here games, with their affinity for enacting worlds through play, offer a promising path forward for examining the mechanisms by which sensemaking is socialized in an effort to develop and grow our capacity for pluralistic interpretation from both the center and the margins of society.