Please pay special, close attention to chapter 3, “Play as Aesthetic Experience,” which introduces the concepts of activity theory and aesthetic experience that are integral to Nardi’s project.
If you review Nardi’s work, you will see that activity theory (Wikipedia) is her primary theoretical grounding. (Parenthetically, one of the things I like about teaching online is that I can point you to a Wikipedia page about activity theory rather than writing some version of that here myself, or lecturing in class about it; btw, you’ll see that Nardi is extensively cited on that Wikipedia page.) However, I will review a few main concepts here that Nardi introduces. Basically activity theory examines psychology and behaviors in terms of socio-cultural structures. Nardi identifies three primary elements of activity: object, conscious actions, and operations (see pp 41-42). The object is a goal you want to achieve. Conscious actions are the things you focus upon to achieve that goal. And operations are other activities that support conscious actions but do not require conscious attention (e.g. for me, the physical act of typing while I consciously act to compose this post for the object/goal of teaching you something).
Nardi connects activity theory with John Dewey’s (Wikipedia) concept of aesthetic experience. Dewey’s work is closely associated with activity theory and with the work of Vygotsky, whose psychological theories are foundational to activity theory. As Nardi explains, for Dewey, aesthetic experience is “a subjective disposition toward activity” (43). In other words, its how you feel about what you are doing. We can also thread this work back into our earlier discussions of Csikszentmihalyi and flow (which Nardi also does). Nardi then introduces three elements of aesthetic experience: means-ends relations, phases, and collective expression. For Dewey a positive aesthetic experience has to be more than a means to end (e.g. you go to work to get paid or maybe take a class to get credit or a degree). The means themselves have to be meaningful and enjoyable. Aesthetic experiences also have phases, so you can continue to develop; you’re moving forward in some structured way. Finally, there are opportunities for collective expression, so that we are fully participating in our experiences. Clearly, for those who are passionate about World of Warcraft, the game delivers in these ways even though each person will have unique aesthetic experiences and find different parts of the game engaging.
In chapter five, Nardi introduces some game theory and discusses how games interact with Dewey’s concept of aesthetic experience. This discussion invites us to think about the ways that play and games interact with other aspects of our lives: school, work, church or other institutional associations, family and friends. We can “play around” without playing a game, which is a particular kind of activity. Nardi talks about the “magic circle,” the notion that a game invites us into a separate social space, though she also recognizes how games and “real life” interpenetrate. Part of McGonigal’s argument is that we can import game logic and the aesthetic experience of gaming into other parts of our lives.
Dewey is best know as an educational philosopher. He wasn’t writing specifically about games. He wanted to make school an active, engaging, and positive aesthetic experience. However we see most of the gamers Nardi studies do not have positive associations with work or school. Maybe they are just playing a part online, but I think there’s more to it than that.