Saturday, December 6, 2008

Nerdin' It Up Again

I wrote a short paper for a class as a precursor to a larger project. Thought I would post it here, cause, you know, I can?

The Work of Online Poker in the Age of Digital Reproduction

Internet gambling and online poker are recently new phenomena, but in their brief history they have already stirred up extensive discussion and debate amongst their users regarding issues of ethics. In the past year alone, members of various internet poker forums uncovered no less than four major cheating scandals and at the heart of discussion and debate regarding each scandal are questions of identity and presence. In two of the scandals, employees of these sites were discovered using “super-user” accounts which allowed them to see what cards their opponents were holding; they are able to play the game as if everyone’s hands were dealt face up. The remainder of the scandals typically dealt with an accusation that a player is “multi-accounting”. To briefly elaborate, the terms of service of most every major poker site stipulate that each customer may only have one account which is identified by a user name, or screen name, that serves as your virtual identity every time you play. There are many varieties of multi-accounting, but the common thread tying them together is that users play on more than one account in order to gain a competitive edge over other players.

While the participants in these ethical debates may not directly identify super-users and multi-accounting scandals as issues of identity, I would argue that their ethical frameworks are rooted in concepts of identity and presence that are applicable to a person in an actual, physical space, but become problematic when employed in a virtual realm. A detailed exploration of the specifics of these frameworks will have to wait for another time though, as I would like to focus my discussion here on an examination of why one’s identity at a corporeal poker table in a casino differs so greatly from its digitally represented counterpart. To help guide this analysis, I would like to examine the virtual replication of an actual space through the lens of Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. Though Benjamin’s work focuses of the loss of aura in a mechanically reproduced work of art like a film, many of his ideas and concepts are equally productive when considering a digitally reproduced text like a virtual poker table. By considering the detachability of a reproduction from the original, the relationship between aura and presence, and changing modes of perception it becomes increasingly clear that one’s virtual self cannot be evaluated and considered in the same way as one’s actual self.

The title of Benjamin’s essay may suggest that his discussion of replicas and reproductions is limited only to man-made artifacts and cannot be effectively applied to an intangible concept like identity, but within his argument he expands his definition of a work of art to include instances of theatrical performance as well. If we consider performance using Richard Bauman’s conception of the term, which considers it to be a “distinctive frame” that can be used not only theatrically but in everyday communicative interactions, one’s presentation of self fits into Benjamin’s framework (Bauman 10). Moreover, we must also remember that a virtual identity is, in fact, a replica of self. While a player may control the actions and decisions of their avatar at a virtual poker table, that avatar is not an actual person; it is a signifier of that person.

In his discussion of film actors, Benjamin denotes the difference between the person and his filmic counterpart as such: “the projector will play with his shadow before the public, and he himself must be content to play before the camera” (740). This description is a useful way to consider the detachability of a reproduction from its origin and how this removal from its origin leads to what Benjamin terms “a loss of aura” (734). In the case of online poker, it is precisely this inability to authenticate a virtual identity as an extension of the actual player it is supposedly signifying at the heart of the multi-accounting debate. Since online poker is still in its incipient stages, it is overly reliant on the rules of its traditional counterpart to serve as its ethical guidelines. However, as Benjamin notes, not only is a reproduction detached from its original, it also, “detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition” (734). Therefore, this attempt to regulate this digital frontier with traditional rules has, for the most part, been problematic and unproductive. In addition to problems of authentication, the very nature of presence is fundamentally different because players may occupy seats at multiple tables at a time when playing poker online. Like a mass-produced book, the numerous copies of a digital avatar coexist in an online poker room and none of them can singularly claim the status of being “the original”. In this constructed virtual world, there is indeed no place for the original because everything from the avatar to the image of the poker table to the cards themselves is nothing but a representation of an actual object. This absence affirms Benjamin’s assertion that, “technical reproduction can put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach of the original” (733). While this may seem self-evident, online players still problematically refer to everything that transpires in this virtual world in concrete terms despite being fully aware that it is nothing but a reproduction of reality.

As a result of this troublesome paradox, players also conceive of presence at an online poker table in the same way as they would if the players were sitting directly across from them. As a reproduction of an actual space though, the loss of aura is also indicative of an absence of presence according to Benjamin. One might suggest that since there is a present, actual human being controlling the actions of their avatar some semblance of presence remains. A comparison of this particular instance to Benjamin’s discussion of motion pictures helps to clarify the situation though. The filmic actor makes decisions about how to depict a particular character, but his performance is ultimately controlled by the mechanical device recording him—the camera. Benjamin suggests the illusory nature of film, in which the divide between the real and the medium presenting the representation of the real is masked from its audience, removes the “unique appearance of a distance” that defines an object’s aura and, in turn, its presence (735-40). The online poker player is aware they are playing a game on a computer, but the divide between their opponent and the representation of their opponent is as blurred as a film. Because the players at a poker table do not share the same physical space, though they are consciously aware of a person controlling the actions of the digital avatar, there is no evidence of such on their computer screen. Additionally, when someone plays at multiple online tables at one time, there is not even a guarantee that they are directing their attention to a particular game. Their avatar may be occupying a virtual seat, but it cannot be considered to be present and accounted for.

As I have mentioned, an avatar at a table is not an indicator that a player is fully engaged with the virtual game transpiring within it. Multi-tabling several games at once is a common practice amongst internet poker players and is a prime example of Benjamin’s distracted viewer. Unlike the live poker player, who is considered to be focused and concentrated on his immediate surroundings, competing windows vie for the online player’s attention. Benjamin suggests this distracted viewer is a byproduct of the mechanical age. He compares the concentrated and distracted viewer and argues that while the concentrated viewer is absorbed by a work of art, the opposite is true for the distracted viewer, who absorbs works of art. At the heart of the concentrated vs. distracted polarity is a change in the mode of perception that has arisen as a result of the proliferation of the masses according to Benjamin (749). As he mentions earlier in his work, mass production has divorced the work of art from ritual practices. In turn, the sense of the sacred previously associated with the work of art and its aura has begun to dissipate and with it, the solemn and pensive engagement between art and its audience. Taking its place is a distracted and detached engagement embodied in present-day computer usage. Overlapping windows, pop up ads, and simultaneously operating programs are specifically designed for the distracted glance of its users. Online poker is no exception and this awareness of a different form of engagement provides even more context to understand the fundamental differences between what appears to be the same game.

Returning to the debate of what is the optimal, ethical way to engage with the world of internet poker, it is now clearer specifically why the metadiscourse of how to play this game is still unsettled. Players continue to grapple with the detachability of their digital replications because they often perceive it to be inextricably and problematically linked to their human original. These scandals consist of incidents in which the disconnect between the user and their virtual identity is unavoidably foregrounded. What I have tried to do here is draw our attention to these moments of discord by framing the virtual identity as a performance or text so that we may decontextualize it and consider it in and of itself. As Bauman and Briggs note in their “Poetics and Performance as Critical Perspectives on Language and Society”, performance is a helpful frame that intensifies entextualization (Bauman & Briggs 74). As noted previously, the frame of this virtual identity is blurred when the user never sees the performer controlling its actions. It is my contention that until online players more clearly distinguish between the user and the username this debate of ethics will continue to discover more problems than solutions when it comes to internet poker regulation.

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