Wednesday, January 18, 2023

"Deliberative Play" - Articles now online for a forthcoming special issue of the American Behavioral Scientist

The purpose of this special issue on “Deliberative Play” is to explore from several approaches the occurrence of playful interaction in deliberating groups and its normative and practical significance for the communication process that constitutes democratic deliberation. 

Democratic deliberation can only occur within a communication process.  Communicatively achieved deliberative quality is a matter of degree and can be enabled by forms of interaction that are not per se deliberative. Thus, play in itself is not deliberation, but, as the studies in this special issue suggest, it may function in a communication process to serve deliberative ends, which may call for some further reconsideration of deliberative norms to take account of such a function. (from the Introduction)

The special issue will not be out for a while, but all of the articles are online. Below is the table of contents with links to the articles, followed by an excerpt from the introduction that further explains the idea of deliberative play. You can read the article abstracts online for free, but access to the full articles requires a subscription--check your library.


Introduction: Deliberative Play -- Robert T. Craig

Storytelling and Deliberative Play in the Oregon Citizens’Assembly Online Pilot on COVID-19 Recovery -- Laura W. Black, Anna W. Wolfe & Soo-Hye Han   

Facilitating Deliberative Play -- Leah Sprain

New England Town Meeting and the Cultivation of Deliberative Play -- Rebecca M. Townsend & Trudy Milburn

Freedom of Discussion versus Predetermined Futures in Deliberation Processes -- Anna Przybylska, Marta Bucholc & Shin Mazur

To Play Is the Thing: How Game Design Principles Can Make Online Deliberation Compelling -- John Gastil

From the Introduction:

Conceptualizing Deliberative Play

A principle underlying the concept of deliberative play is that practical action that displays the virtue Aristotle called phronesis or practical wisdom involves a certain kind of play in the process of deliberation and judgment that leads from uncertainty to action. This normative concept of deliberative play is informed by insights from Aristotle's philosophy of praxis or deliberative action (Aristotle, 1941; Dunn, 1993; Koch, 2014), Hans-Georg Gadamer's philosophical hermeneutics (Gadamer, 1981, 1989), philosophical pragmatism, especially John Dewey’s theory of inquiry and reflective thinking (Dewey, 1938, 1989; Craig, 2001), and Gregory Bateson's communication theory of play and fantasy, especially his concept of play as a metacommunicative frame (Bateson, 1972; Goffman, 1974). These ideas suggest four key features of deliberative play as a communicative practice.    

The first key feature of deliberative play is indeterminacy or uncertainty of outcome: The outcome of deliberative play is indeterminate until the moment of judgment or decision. 

For Aristotle, praxis was a kind of action that requires choice in situations of uncertainty. He wrote in Nicomachean Ethics that praxis requires deliberative judgment, that "all deliberation is investigation" and that deliberation is "concerned with things that happen in a certain way for the most part, but in which the event is obscure, and with things in which it is indeterminate" (Aristotle, 1941, p. 970). His theory of the virtues suggests that the indeterminacy of action arises in part the fact that the choice of what to do often requires us to navigate between opposing values that are both valid. For example, to act with true courage means to find the golden mean between virtuous risk taking and prudent caution which respects both values (Kock, 2014). Aristotle wrote little about the process of deliberation except to describe it is a kind of investigation. 

Dewey's pragmatist theory of inquiry also described practical deliberation as a kind of investigation, a thought experiment that moves from an initial state of doubt or uncertainty to arrive at a practical judgment by imagining and weighing the anticipated consequences of alternative courses of action (Dewey, 1989, pp. 193-195). Neither Aristotle nor Dewey seems to have described deliberation as playful, but it is arguable that the movement from uncertainty to practical judgment that defines deliberation in both philosophies requires a certain kind of “free play” of thought and discourse in considering alternative courses of action. 

A second key feature of deliberative play, then, is a free, loose, loping, to-and-fro form of movement (free play) in thought and discourse.

Gadamer (1981, 1989), who did write about play, explicitly placed his philosophical hermeneutics in the tradition of Aristotle's practical philosophy. Also inspired by Heidegger's hermeneutic phenomenology, Gadamer described our experience of living in the world as a process of interpretation or striving toward understanding. Gadamer wrote about play primarily in the context of art and aesthetics, but the free "to-and-fro" movement that is essential to play for Gadamer is also essential, in his philosophy, to the experience of art, to the practice of conversation or dialogue, to the process of translation, and to interpretative inquiry in general, including practical deliberation. For Gadamer, deliberation involves an ongoing movement back and forth between, and weighing up, of various possibilities until a resolution or decision emerges in experience. This deliberation is not purposively directed toward a definite end but requires losing oneself in the play of possible meanings or actions and being open to the experience of a resolution.

For Gadamer, this openness to the experience of deliberation is not just an intellectual recognition of the uncertainty involved in practical choice but is an existential stance that is also typical of philosophical pragmatism. For example, William James wrote that "the pragmatism or pluralism which I defend has to fall back on a certain ultimate hardihood, a certain willingness to live without assurances or guarantees" (James, 1987, p. 941). It is this existential comfort with uncertainty that allows the deliberating person to engage in a free play of ideas in the to-and-fro movement of deliberation without being driven to premature closure. The playful movement of deliberation is between alternative ideas, values, actions, or solutions to a problem and requires an "as-if" orientation to those problems or actions.

Thus, a third key feature is that deliberative play requires an "as-if" ontology of thought and action. What this means in part is that deliberation involves "entertaining" or “playing with” ideas that one does not necessarily believe, as if one might believe them, in order to consider alternative actions or solutions. This is one way to understand the quality that deliberation theorists call openness or open-mindedness—a willingness to consider various ideas or possible actions one does not necessarily believe or intend to do, a willingness to imagine what it would be like to believe or do those things, for the sake of giving them fair consideration. 

Bateson's theory of play and fantasy becomes relevant when we think about how this "as-if" ontology of deliberation operates in social interaction and dialogue. Bateson theorized that play depends on a metacommunicative frame in which we can signal to each other that actions that might appear hostile should not be taken literally. When animals play, for example, their interaction resembles a fight but is not really fighting. It has the free, loose, loping, to-and-fro quality of movement that signals play. The animals interact "as if" they are fighting. As Bateson (1972, p. 180) wrote, in a play frame “the playful nip denotes the bite, but it does not denote what would be denoted by the bite" (actual combat). Bateson’s theory explains how features of play identified in Huizinga’s (1950) classic analysis, such as pretending (the “as-if” quality) and magic circle marking a boundary between the play-ground and real life (the play frame) are accomplished in social interaction. 

A reasonable hypothesis is that deliberative play can involve a similar frame shift from straightforward argumentation to a frame of entertaining or playing with possibilities, speaking "as if" one might believe in them, and that this deliberative play frame is signaled by some metacommunicative cues that have yet to be identified or studied systematically. 

Of course, it is unlikely that deliberative play closely resembles the animal play that Bateson observed, nor is deliberative play necessarily nonserious “fun and games,” although it could be game-like. What exactly constitutes a play frame in deliberating groups is a question of frame analysis (Goffman, 1974); it is an empirical question that the studies in this special issue begin to investigate. It seems likely, however, that deliberative play can be metacommunicatively framed in a variety of different forms.  

A fourth key feature, extending the idea that deliberative play can be framed in different forms, is that it can be framed "as if" either cooperative or competitive. This may seem paradoxical because democratic deliberation is often thought of as an essentially cooperative activity, which it may be ideally and sometimes really, but even so, for cooperative deliberation to be accomplished interactively it has to be metacommunicatively framed "as-if" it is cooperative, because deliberation involves making arguments about potentially contentious matters. In other words, deliberation can look like fighting in some ways, and can be in danger of actually turning into a fight unless it is metacommunicatively framed as deliberative play by using signals of some kind. For example, cooperative deliberation might framed by signaling a stance of open-mindedness and willingness to hear other people's ideas (Sprain & Ivancic, 2017).  

However, deliberative play can also be framed "as if" it is competitive. For example, it can be framed as a debate. In a debate, the speakers metacommunicate "as if" they are fully convinced of their own side and largely unwilling to entertain the other side's ideas. They talk this way even if they are really open-minded people who may be personally undecided on the issue. But they frame their interaction as a debate, a competitive game that can be a form of deliberative play when it occurs in the larger context of a deliberative process in which it helps the audience of the debate to entertain opposing ideas by considering the strongest possible case for each of them. In other words, debate is not literally deliberation, but it can be framed as a kind of game, a competitive form of deliberative play.

The four key features outline a tentative theoretical framework of deliberative play that the five articles in this special issue apply, explore, and evaluate in different ways. The remainder of this introduction previews the five articles and concludes by reflecting on their implications for the future development of deliberative play in theory and practice.