Creating Power Through Play

We are used to critiquing power and seeking to diminish its effects. But what attention have we paid to creating power for those who don’t have any?

This is a sentiment I’ve heard from artists, activists, and other interventionists over the past year. It’s not something I’ve considered before; I’m used to pushing back against oppressive forces and focusing on restorative efforts to help withstand the enduring presence of power. Critiquing power is the usual mode of politically-engaged art and activism, because the abuse of power is a very real threat to vulnerable people. This is ultimately reactionary and not a direct enough tactic on its own to substantiate political ideals. What’s missing is the creative, creating power that can challenge power. We know power itself won’t go away, so the act of diminishing its effects are a stopgap at best. The task is twofold, first imagining what ethical uses of power looks like and then how to build it up for the people who need it most.

Power can be disciplinary and creative, taking liberties with how philosopher Michel Foucault describes it. We are most familiar with the disciplinary part, the kind of power that controls, suppresses, kills, limits. Creative power is more slippery since it is often a response to disciplinary power but stands on its own after it’s seized agency. This isn’t to say either power is inherently good or bad, just that it is much harder to gain and wield disciplinary power when you’re a marginalized person, but creative power is something we all have access to and can better exercise. Let’s take identity as an example. The power of identity is that you can essentially craft who you are and a lot about how you relate to the world. Clothes often help us telegraph that to the world, as how you dress yourself not only identifies you through cultural markers, but also implies how you want to be interacted with, or who you consider a community. You can disrupt expectations, insert yourself, be visible, manipulate dynamics. However, the other aspect is the creative power of the people who interact with you. Much like art, people get a gut feeling and a bunch of assumptions when seeing you and respond according to their life experience and social context. No one is completely in control of themselves because of this aspect of creative power, we are all also made up of others perceptions of us. This back and forth between performance and reaction is a type of a play that can be structured and manipulated for anyone’s use.

Games is no stranger to ideas of power. They are known for their power fantasies and illusions of agency and choice. Mainstream games allow people to wield disciplinary power in realms that attempt to separate themselves from life. Keeping to this paradigm reinforces the current dominance of disciplinary power and leaves creative power to be a neat flourish or a just enough tasty carrot on a stick to feel like we’re involved in developing our own agency outside of a system. I’m not the first to say that conventional games are machines for training players into being good denizens of current structures of power, internalizing a respect for disciplinary power over creative. It’s possible that a roadblock in games’ ability to grapple with important topics is this one-sided approach to depicting power, since true creative power on the part of the player could easily break the structures of contemporary design and ultimately be too expansive.

Thinking about creative power would lead us to thinking about game design differently, looking more to how people connect through play and use those moments to build power. It would be an ongoing practice, like only being able to take one action a day or responding with pre-established protocols to the spontaneity of life. We can play with identity roles, formality customs, fashion, courting rituals, ceremonies, education, labor hierarchies, politics. Since no one person contains or can express the ideal world that fits everyone in it, we all must act out our values and actively mix them together with those in our lives and those different from us.

Living in an increasingly fascist world, it’s time to come to terms with the fascist nature of interactivity in popular games. Games in a new world of resistance will have to reimagine design and accommodating this dream-making of creative power we need to build up to be a match against today’s problems.

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Games for people

Ever since my move to NYC, I’ve been spending more time hanging out with people who are not in the video game industry or related fields. It’s a breath of fresh air really, both because I’m not hearing about the same old thing everyone else is talking about, but whenever I say anything half intelligent about games and play, everyone is pretty impressed. I’m challenged to explain issues in our field to outsiders because not only do we have specialist language that comes along with a particular artform but a general barrier to entry when games considered ‘good’ have gamer-specific competencies and tastes tied into them. I find often that if someone didn’t grow up playing games frequently, they didn’t really get what is interesting about them on an artistic level, only that the industry is competitive with Hollywood.

Even in more progressive circles of games, there’s still a distinction between games that are made for mass audiences, often called casual games, and those made for those with extensive gamer literacy. While the industry is trying to include those who mostly play puzzles on their phones on public transportation as ‘gamers,’ media, developers, and scholars clearly look to games developed for gamers as ones with cultural meaning, the stuff worth calling ‘art.’ Yet at the same time, we are always bound by the low bar consumer entertainment creates, experiences are always deep “for a video game.” The creation of the term ‘mid-core’ for a kind of game that pulls casual players in the direction of more ‘hardcore’ experiences shows that the industry doesn’t want to expand what it does, rather indoctrinate more people into the existing model. Given the industry’s frequent image issues on the social front, it’s not hard for discerning adults to resist the temptation.

Brie Code shares similar thoughts in her attempts to get her non-gamer friends to play games that really touched her. This really got to me because of her reference to Tim Gunn and the fashion industry’s reluctance to create for the range of bodies that exist in the world. That is, we have to be more frank about the doublespeak in games being something for everyone while being so obviously for an already established consumer base. What does it mean to design games for people rather than gamers?

If I had to guess, it would be creating opportunities for people to engage with the contexts of their lives. We often look for parallels of ourselves in our media and project aspects of our lives into art either for catharsis or as a basis for reimagining our present situation. It’s common for video games to be escapes for acts of heroism or accomplishment we can’t get in our lives, and there’s a place for that seeing it powers a monolith of an industry. Yet it seems escapist power fantasies aren’t often linked with the kind of depth and universality we would need to make games for people.

At the very least, if we’re going to leave behind entertainment consumer products to be entertainment consumer products, games aiming at social engagement and public art have to think more outside of industrial standards to have a respectable impact on the inner lives of people without gaming literacy. It shouldn’t be how to get more people playing mainstream video games, rather how can we reach past gamers to find more universal elements of interaction and craft from there. We have to remember it’s not just themes and genre preferences that connect people to an experience. Our design process is geared towards thinking of gamers, and it might be that the act of creation also needs revision, to come up with new processes that build up from the ground up, a New Design, something that speaks to more than nostalgia of a chosen few.

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Making games during sad times

This month is soaked with deja vu. Habits and nervous ticks I hoped long-gone resurfaced and many of my friends wear tired faces. Two years ago I felt like I went through a natural disaster and had to cope with what the existence of large groups of hate mobs after me meant for my life online and off. In its natural evolution, these groups have seized the imaginations and fears of the country I live in and all the lives we touch. New Yorkers told me that the day after this election felt like 9/11, that something about the world was irrevocably changed and wrong. Despite the implications of 2017 and on in America, my mind switched to a survivalist mode. Not necessarily fending for myself, but reevaluating what I do in the new context I’m in.

It’s easy to feel like there’s little you can do to change the world when you’re a game developer. The industry spends so much effort to keep an image of frivolity that when disaster strikes, no one is looking at video games as an actual source of change, only further regression away from the world’s problems. I remember vividly watching the news of the shooting in Ferguson when I was in the middle of writing what seemed then another inconsequential piece about video game culture. I know it’s many of our jobs to entertain, and I felt yet that shouldn’t be at the expense of critically engaging with the world. If games were going to be my life, I had to have an approach that let me work on something that could be my part in creating a better place for those around me.

What this looks like for others depends on each person’s life situation. Very few can pivot whenever they want into new work, and it’s not really the current work we do itself that is at fault. Rather we’re often not given the time and energy to contribute to personal projects and action using games, especially not for mass-distribution. We’re all creators in some right, and can use our craft to explore the world’s events with each other. I’m reminded of how DIY game-making sometimes uses zine culture as an analogy and that one of the driving impetuses of promoting easy-to-use tools is so the act of game-making isn’t a drawn-out affair. Making a game and putting it on the internet can feel pretty official, so getting clamped up in making something look respectable can easily roadblock someone who isn’t the jack-of-all-trades type. But maybe we could stand to develop habits of making games for people in our lives instead of the general mass audience that could potentially exist.

My hunch is we’re in an increasingly connected world without the structure or support to communicate well on such a scale. The internet was never really a place for you to be both vulnerable and your public identity, and as learn how social media is affecting our lives I see more people retreat into themselves. We feel like we need to say something well-crafted to the whole world or nothing at all. This is an unsustainable impulse. We need to start thinking more about our everyday practice. If you could only spend one weekend on a game, who would you make it for and what would it say?

Despite having its own industry, no one really has games for social change figured out. There’s no one who can say the tiny, personal games you swap with your friends are impacting the world more than an iOS game about climate change. Games and play as communication tools is still experimental, and I have a feeling that it will only be figured out when a bunch of people do it. I don’t know if we’re stuck with social media forever, but at the very least we could aim to make online spaces more intimate and vulnerable spaces through digital art.

Which is to say, just because you’re in games doesn’t mean you have to retreat into just making entertainment products and feel useless about what is going on in the world. If the past four or so years have taught me anything, it’s when something goes wrong, you have to change your mindset and behavior to move past it. The way we’ve been communicating about our experiences and how they tie to current events hasn’t been working. There is much to play with and interrogate with the design values of the platforms we use and are used against us. We’ve reached a point where any person can make a small weird game in their pastime and not have their entire career revolve it. 2017 will be a great year to exercise this new language to help us untangle how we got here in the first place.

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Queerbaiting and Fan Futures

If I’ll remember 2016 for anything, it will be the year of the queerbait. This year I’ve seen a rise in subtle homoeroticisim in games and other media that leave it up to the player to connect the dots for a queer subtext. Queerbaiting is usually used as a critical/pejorative term, where it is clear that the creators signal the possibility of characters being queer but never fully close the deal. We’ll see characters flirt, make dirty jokes, or even intimately touch each other, but no relationship or sex will emerge to ground the characters as definitively queer.

This year in anime brought us Tanaka-kun is Always Listless and Yuri!!! on Ice, which skirt the border on queerbaiting and being outright gay. In Tanaka-kun we have two friends bonding over the main character’s unnatural amount of lethargy to the point where the title character often implies he wants them to spend the rest of their lives together because he wants someone to take care of him. It is clear that they have been good friends for a while and nothing overtly romantic ever happens, but Tanaka consistently implies he and Ohta should get married or at the very least live together forever. As the show develops we see more of their relationship and there is a stronger display of a heterosexual love interest, if Tanaka has the energy to be interested in anyone romantically, we see some story pressure for our main characters to conform to traditional roles but the show ends without much resolution as to whether they get together or even actually have any romantic interest. Yuri!!! On Ice is more explicit yet still ambiguous. The title character admires a world champion ice skater (Victor) who decides to coach him to win the last circuit of his career. Victor is constantly revealing himself in front of Yuri, flirting with him, touching his face, proposing to be his boyfriend, yet it somehow is still unclear whether either of them are sexually attracted to one another. It’s also unclear if Yuri has a crush on Victor or if it’s just professional admiration, especially with the introduction of a girl from the past seemingly being an old flame.

Long before 2016 have fans read queerness into their media whenever the opportunity presents itself, no matter how vague or twisted the logic has to be. I’ve always been fascinated by this function of fandom to populate this alternate universe of queer stories since so few exist in canon material. Over time, creators, particularly of works aimed at women, began to respond to these tendencies by including queer subtexts between characters that generated more fanfiction and art, but rarely if ever confirm that characters were actually queer in any way canonically. This became known as queerbaiting and it holds a precarious role in media and fan cultures. In an time where diversity and representation are increasingly prominent values, queerbaiting appears to be a cake-eating tactic by creators that want to appear progressive but won’t commit to outwardly queer characters. Many queer people wish to see themselves represented in media following a Harvey Milk-like model of being out and to imagine future landscapes where everyone can be themselves and love whomever they love. Queerbaiting in this light is insufficient for queer people to see themselves, and is a discouraged practice.

I’ve come around to want to at least partially defend queerbaiting. I definitely believe there should be more out and open queer representation just for more diverse characters and stories, but I also like how queerbaiting resists tokenization and exploitation in the way of primarily straight creators attempting to canonize queerness they find respectable. A large part of queerness is always being on the outside, or non-normative, pushed into secret spaces and hidden communities.  At least, this is the queerness I resonate the most with. In a way, fully representing queerness is more a fantasy-fulfillment than it is actual representation; it is only recently that there are a sizable amount of queer people who are able to live fully out lives in relative safety and have a more typical high school and college romance life. Being trans I still don’t know whether someone would be cool with me flirting with them or if they are flirting with me whether or not they know I’m not cisgender. Queerness to me has always been subtle, tense, a guessing game. Though it is unintentional, queerbaiting best ‘represents’ queerness to me, because it doesn’t exist without an oppressive normative force constantly on the lookout for deviation.

Would it be nice to see a game where a trans woman is perceived as normal and gets to date all the cuties without having to worry about a potentially violent backlash? Sure, but that is definitely wish-fulfillment, not representing me or my life in any real way. I have to say that I am also generally skeptical of asking non-queer creators to make queer characters, and that we have to wait for queer artists to rise the ranks of popular media in order to have proper representation. I think this is actually a critical opportunity for fan communities, to further reimagine the canon with a queer lens to better understand the complexities of queerness that mainstream media won’t touch. There’s something beautiful about creators using a show to mostly create subtext for fans to run off with and make their own works. In a way, that’s the most ideal form of art, something that motivates underserved people to create their own worlds, their own futures, with the body parts of the old hegemony.

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Curating Diversity for IndieCade

Among the many conversations around representation and diversity rest the dilemmas and strategies of curation. No one’s fully figured out how to exhibit games, most typically using the model of product expos that offered either demos or the impossibility of playing the full game in a crowded space and a line. With the expo model came a certain standard for what would is seen as exemplar, typically in line with what pleased consumer media largely made up by hobbyists. It can be a tough landscape when you’re cognizant of the lack of diversity in works, bodies, and identities in our exhibits.

Unless you’re doing something specifically about identity, it never feels good to include someone just because they happen to be who they are. When you’re given notice just because you’re marginalized, down the road you suffer a large amount of self-doubt when people actually don’t know your work in any real capacity, just that it’s neat that you’re a brown woman who’s in games. Thinking on this problem, wanting to get more underrepresented people in shows without using their identity as a basis, I knew that a strategy or process needed to expand how we value games, because those who are left out of the spotlight are so because they are saying more unconventional things.

Then came this year’s IndieCade, where I was asked to be a jury chair to help go through our submissions and choose who will be nominated. IndieCade is an interesting festival because it continues to reach out to games in different formats and generally accepts more weird things than GDC and the IGF. IndieCade and IGF use similar judging systems where essentially a large volunteer group goes through and rates games, and then someone or a group of people looks at the ratings and trends and tries to pick out nominees and award-winners. This brings up a lot of issues, since we have so many different perspectives, agendas, and tastes that it can be hard to corral everyone behind a curatorial mission. An advantage IndieCade has is trying to stick to judging based on innovation as opposed to strictly quality, because standards of quality in games encourage reviewers to produce a homogenous set of recommendations that represent the most mainstream instead of interesting.

Despite being used so much that it is basically empty, ‘innovation’ is a useful for getting a group of people who do not have much strength in the arts or humanities outside of their narrow if existent use in games to look for things outside of the traditional. The theory I wanted to test going through this process is that if we push innovation as the major weight in deciding whether or not it belonged at IndieCade, and to also stretch our imagination on what innovation means. This is harder than one might expect, because it is our inclination to reward ‘good’ things, and that popular criticism is all about assessing how well something is crafted with interesting ideas often falling by the wayside. We are trained to see value in polish, certain amounts of content, and a strict sense of ‘interactivity.’ There’s a tendency for incremental change, such as the next Journey or a 2016 Legend of Zelda or more interactive twine game. It’s my guess that if we can put these impulses aside, we will be able to discover and celebrate more people from the margins of games, because at some level our art is reflecting personal experience, even when it isn’t about saying our exact story, and we will see different experiments coming from those who see the world and games differently.

There were many arguments over this because of the function of festivals and awards and what it means to celebrate games in this given social context. By curating in these games we’re deciding what is noteworthy, implying they are a standard others should strive for. With an ever-increasing amount of games being made, there’s this general concern for best game-making practices to be wider recognized and to hold up independent successes. Where this falls short is assuming that what we have now is the general shape games will always be, when our understanding of play and games are so undeveloped that we close off many new forms of expression.

You can take a look at the nominees to see the results of my efforts. 50% of the games had creators who weren’t men in lead roles and 25% had people who weren’t white (this number doesn’t include white-passing minorities). It shook out to only 33% of nominees being exclusively lead by white guys, which is pretty darn close to their representation in US demographics (31%). Only half of the games are exclusively digital, there were installations, performances, VR, physical computing, bespoke game objects. Many nominees were students or people who never worked in the games industry. I cite all this because this was a result of holding to values of innovation instead of inclusion, where what is considered innovative was expanded to naturally include people typically not represented in games events. We only did demographic checks after we chose our shortlists, not before, and it wasn’t a huge surprise to me that a diverse group of people would result because we chose an honestly varied selection of games. I haven’t seen any games event come so close to gender and race parity and not be ‘about diversity.’

I’m proud to have gone through a process that allowed me to present such a diverse offering of games and creators without tokenization, no one was there just because they are a social minority and many games where being a social minority was the most interesting aspect of the game were turned down from nomination. I wanted to write about this experience because I feel like many others are struggling to figure a system out. Or I want to challenge those who continually show mostly white men’s work and shrug their shoulders. It shows the importance of constantly reevaluating what we find to be good in games and understand how we as event organizers, curators, networkers, or anyone involved in casting visibility on others can make sure we’re showcasing interesting work without excluding people based on conventional standards of quality. It would be nice to finally get past questions of inclusion to more critical issues facing our medium.

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The Grasshopper for the People

Welcome back for some more game studies condensed and contextualized for people outside of academia. Given the nature of canons, these works build pretty directly off of what came before them, and so you might want to check out the previous two posts I’ve done before getting to today’s, The Grasshopper by Bernard Suits.

The Grasshopper is highly influential in games studies and design, and especially anticipates/predicates so-called games formalists. Whereas Huizinga and Caillois were preoccupied with the cultural implications of games and play, Suits embarks on thoroughly defining games for its own sake. It’s unclear whether Suits actually cared about games as medium at all, since the reason he wrote The Grasshopper was more about the act of defining things, and reacted to philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s use of games as an attack on the usefulness of defining things. Nevertheless, we can see this as an origin point on many attitudes about what games are conceived, since every assumption about what games are came from someone else’s agenda.

Worth noting is that the majority of the book is written as dialogue between the characters talking out the process of defining games. It uses the grasshopper and ants from Aesop’s fable to relate the pursuit of defining games similar to envisioning utopia. For the most part I’ve grabbed whole quotes but I should say that because of this structure, the book is easily readable and takes you through every bit of rationale as a good philosophy book would.

 

 

“Let me begin, then, with the apparently outrageous assertion that there is no logical relation whatever between playing and playing games. […] I suggest that we ought to not concern ourselves with the word ‘play’ when it is used as equivalent in meaning to such words as ‘perform,’ ‘operate,’ or ‘participate in.’ Thus, we can play the violin, but this means simply to perform upon the violin. We can play a pinball machine, but this means simply to operate it. And, finally, we can play a game, but this means simply to participate in it. […] The existence of the expression ‘playing a game’ is not by itself a compelling reason for insisting that there is a logical relation between playing and playing games.” (pg. 220-1)

I’m actually going to start off with the end of the book to frame why I personally find The Grasshopper worth knowing about, that is, the fierce separation of games and play. Here, Suits posits that play is merely incidental in relation to games, more a hiccup of language than integral to understanding them. Since then there has been a disavowal of play, being something that is childish and too vague, for the preference of games as this idealized designed object. I imagine this was a popular stance when games studies was trying to differentiate itself for play studies, and game designers from toys and children’s activities. Now games are serious, professional, science-friendly. Suits did not necessarily mean for that to happen, more that he was sticking to his philosophical guns and needed to excise play in order for his definition of games to be sound. It’s worth keeping in mind as we read through the rest of these notes and when we think about how contemporary definitions are formulated in relation to play and the politics that arise from them.

 

“To play a game is to attempt to achieve a specific state of affairs [prelusory goal], using only means permitted by rules [lusory means], where the rules prohibit use of more efficient in favour of less efficient means [constitutive rules], and where the rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity [lusory attitude]. I also offer the following simpler and, so to speak, more portable version of the above: playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.” (pg. 43)

Here we have contemporary games studies boiled down to its essential core. There are many things that fluctuate in definitions of games, like whether or not there are rules or goals or the particulars of how players are involved, but there is a bedrock of this voluntary act of putting oneself in front of voluntary obstacles. Outside of this, such as involuntary play or necessary obstacles, completely upend thinking on games, or at the very least, aren’t considered to be relevant. Any connection to the real is disputed or at best garners highly ambivalent responses where games interact with culture, but by somehow being isolated from it.

 

“The attitude of the game player must be an element in game playing because there has to be an explanation of that curious state of affairs wherein one adopts rules which require one to employ worse rather than better means for reaching an end. […] Cutting across the infield is shunned solely because there is a rule against it. But in ordinary life this is usually—and rightly—regarded as the worst possible kind of justification one could give for avoiding a course of action. The justification for prohibiting a course of action that there is simply a rule against may be called the bureaucratic justification; that is, no justification at all. But aside from bureaucratic practice, in anything but a game the gratuitous introduction of unnecessary obstacles to the achievement of an end is regarded as a decidedly irrational thing to do. […] If playing a game is regarded as not essentially different from going to the office or writing a cheque, then there is certainly something absurd or paradoxical or, more plausibly, simply something stupid about game playing. […] I believe that we are now a position to define lusory attitude: the acceptance of constitutive rules just so the activity made possible by such acceptance can occur.” (pgs. 40-3)

Most profilc from The Grasshopper is Suit’s conception of the lusory attitude, which separates our day-to-day actions from games, that is, that feeling of entering what Huizinga called the magic circle, doing something useless for its own sake. This lusory attitude is valorized in conversations around positive aspects around games, getting players to exercise their imaginations and focus themselves in the pursuit to some (now elevated) goal. To be sure, Suits doesn’t believe in following rules for just following rules, so there is some sort of ‘use’ or need for the lusory attitude, though what that is is anyone’s guess.

 

“By amateurs I mean those for whom playing the game is an end in itself, and by professionals I mean those who have in view some further purpose which is achievable by playing the game. […] The attitude of amateur differs from these attitudes because he is motivated by a love of the game […] But although the attitudes of amateurs and professionals are markedly different, it is still the case that these differing attitudes are attitudes towards games, and not towards something else. […] If playing—rather than playing games—is activity which is always and only undertaken for its own sake, then ‘professional player’ is a contradiction in terms. On such a view we would be obligated to say that a professional athlete was not playing, but we would not be obliged to deny that he was playing a game. In the same way, while we would not want to say that a concert violinist was at play during his recitals, we would presumably want to grant that he was playing the violin.” (pgs. 154-5)

Suits follows Caillois’ impulses and aims to for good include games that are largely played for professional reasons or have some sort of gain in real life. Which is to say that professional football is a game but none of the players are deploying a lusory attitude. To be honest I’m not completely sure why this is such a contentious point for theorists, unless it’s just for this pursuit of a definition which real life is constantly trying to foil. There is this weird authenticity or purity at work in games studies that theorists aim to hold onto, and something like earning money completely ruins this purity somehow. I would say today that no one really thinks of professional players as markedly different from other players, but at the same time, that does reveal inconsistencies. This provokes questions regarding the opportunistic nature of games theorists and practitioners when it comes to how games are relevant connections to life and when they aren’t.

 

“It might be said that triflers recognize the rules but not goals, cheats recognize goals but not rules, players recognize both rules and goals, and spoilsports recognize neither rules nor goals; and that while players acknowledge the claims of both the game and its institution, triflers and cheats acknowledge only institutional claims, and spoilsports acknowledge neither.” (pg. 51)

Suits also continues the tradition of looking at the outliers of game players, with our old favorites the cheat and spoilsport joined by the newly minted trifler. While the former two are mostly the same just further pegged into a taxonomy, the trifler creates and interesting complication in way the many games pitch agency in games. According to Suits, triflers respect the institution of a game, going by its rules and customs, except they do not pursue established goals set out by the game. So if you’re playing RISK with your friends, where the goal is global domination, but you just want to take control of Africa so you can claim to be the new Nubian Queen and do nothing else, Suits would call you a trifler (trifling in slang is not wasted on me here). He doesn’t say it as polemically as this, but Suits ultimately considers a game, or at least a good game, one that has a goal in which the structure of the rules promotes you to obtain, so along with spoilsports and cheats (thought cheats are again sympathized with as being the most zealous of players), and professional players while we’re at it, triflers aren’t playing the game. It continues the lack of explanation by ‘formalist’ game theorists and designers on how cheating, mods, player-driven goals, and more are factored into tradition with something other than a handwave.

 

“The goal of participating in the game is not, strictly speaking, a part of the game at all. It is simply one of the goals that people have, such as wealth, glory, or security. As such it may be called a lusory goal, but a lusory goal of life rather than of games.” (pg. 39)

Here we have an interesting and short-lived turn regarding the application of play and games to life. For Suits life can be game-like and we can have a lusory attitude towards it but it seems that games are not the only thing one can be lusory towards. Because Suits is only concerned with defining games and not about games as cultural phenomena or their creation, we get to fill in the implications of thinking about our medium as either the games themselves or the attitude in which we approach things. At this point in time, the lusory attitude isn’t used to engage with life’s issues, rather games themselves are. Maybe it isn’t games that we really need to be concerned with in the first place? I think Suits would agree.

 

“I would define an open game generically as a system of reciprocally enabling moves whose purpose is the continued operation of the system. […] Heuschrecke thus correctly specified a game of make-believe as being ‘a reciprocating system of role-performance maximization.’” (pg. 146)

Here is where Suits addresses how games of make-believe fit into his definition of games, by turning the maintenance of dramatic effect into the goal of the game, separating it from performance in general through action-substantiated roles. To his credit, Suits at least questions why adults let go of open games and draws lines from preference for closed vs open games to capitalistic vs socialistic societies. These thoughts are still relatively untouched by most people in games who still valorize closed games and are more or less complacent as realms of business further mechanize games for profit. One would be hard-pressed to see the difference between open games and play at times outside of Suits’ very specific logic, but overall, inefficient means to an unnecessary goal stands as what’s allowed from the world of make-believe into games and what isn’t. Heuschrecke, by the way, is the grasshopper’s alter ego who has a scene of his own.

 

“H: You were playing a two-role, two-person, one-player game. It is also possible to play a two-role, two-person, one-player game where the person who is not a player (but, in effect, a device) provides you with dramatic opportunities with the conscious purpose of doing so. […] But the best way to get good lines is for your partner to be a player, because then he has a motive which is better than that of either of the others. The dupe is worst, of course, because he is least dependable, and most of the time he isn’t giving you lines at all but going about his own affairs. And the person who feeds you lines for some reward (or out of friendship or fear, it might be added), although we would expect him to be more constantly employed at his task than the dupe, is only indirectly motivated to provide the desired service. Only another player (or yourself as the other player) has a direct motive.” (pgs. 119-20)

Heuschrecke, or the grasshopper, shows how that games can indeed be played with unwilling or unaware participants, which differs from past theorists. Before, and with some after, everyone had to be within the magic circle to call what was going on play or a game, or else it’s real life and with consequence. As it turns out, open games can be played without the consent of all parties when those unknowing are treated like objects or devices rather than other players. Suits suggests these are poorly constructed open games because better ones would have another player who acts as a more active and intentional partner in perpetuating drama. Like most theorists, the deeper we get the weaker this life vs play distinction gets. Is there much use to keep the experience of the person playing an open game and the bystander apart? The only reason to is because Suits wants to reach a solid definition of games, no other reason. I feel the same impulse exists in games, that things are separated simply for the fact that a separation can be made, no matter how arbitrary that decision is. Given this example comes from ‘patients’ who didn’t know they were playing games, just that they enjoyed deploying roles, it seems like open games don’t require anyone to realize they are playing or in a game for it to be so. It really questions the need to hold onto this separation.

 

“S: But surely playing a part is the very essence of make-believe.

H: Playing a part is, yes. But playing what might be called a foreign or assumed part is not. One can also play, so to speak, native or proprietary parts.

S: What on earth is a proprietary part?

H: One way to define it is as follows: a part of such a kind that when one plays it, one is not conveying misinformation about one’s identity. […] Suppose that a Boy Scout […] dons his uniform and helps old ladies across the street. He is also playing a part, but it is his own part; that is, its performance conveys information rather than misinformation about the performer. […]

S: You are talking about role-playing in everyday life. […]

H: There are roles which enjoy a kind of objective or public status, so that they can be performed by different people for different purposes. They are in this respect like clothing. All kinds of apparel are for public sale, and I can purchase and put on something which correctly conveys my position in life, or I can purchase and put on something which misrepresents my position in life. For example, I can put on a business suit or I can put on the uniform of a full admiral. The only difference is that suits and uniforms are patterns of cloth and roles are patterns of behaviour.” (pgs. 121-2)

And on cue, roles that are used in games can include the roles we decide to have in life, through the requirement that the player, who may or may not know they are playing, is always trying to perpetuate their role through interactions with others. There’s a lot of implications on the rest of games when open games can basically pass for real life, or that the player can be ultimately unaware of their own playing. While Suits does his philosophical wheeling to serve his pursuit of definitions, I wonder how this can be used to press against convention and redefine convention and deployment of games outside of consumer entertainment products. It’s possible, though, that Suits was thinking of or anticipating LARPs and more formalized roleplaying.

 

“Our view of games occupies a middle position between two extreme positions which we reject: what may be called, on one hand, radical autotelism and, on the other hand, radical instrumentalism. Radical autotelism is the view that unless games are played solely as ends in themselves, they are not really games, that is, that amateurs alone are playing games. We have already rejected radical autotelism in arguing that professionals, too, are genuinely playing games. Radical instrumentalism is the view that games are essentially instruments, and we also reject that view.” (pg. 158)

To leave us off, we have Suits trying to complicate the use vs useless binary that games gets trapped in so often. He implicates basically all of games discourse, and even himself, since what is too autotelistic (something done for its own sake) and too instrumental is completely arbitrary. The only reason games would need to be completely for themselves is because there’s a value in separating them from life, and being instrumental is having some sort of end that amounts to something other the feeling of completing a game. I don’t know if any theorist has really addressed this deftly, it seems like something most don’t really want to deal with. At the very least it makes use have to consider aims like ‘for change’ or ‘education’ or ‘social impact’ when it comes to games, at least for Suits. It’s possible that the DNA of games from Suits and on resists proper use in areas outside of entertainment because of this attitude, and we’d need to revisit what it is about play and games we actually find to be at the heart of our practice to include them if these aspects are important to us.

 

 

And there we have it, another games theorist down. Let me know if these are useful to you and if there are any books I should consider for series. Until next time!

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Playing with UI

Once upon a time, I kept up with video game release cycles, Steam sales, and games Twitter fads enough to be aware of what games out there I should be playing. These past few years found me receding away from all these, and in conjunction with the exponential growth of individual creators out in the world, the ways games come across my plate is increasingly arcane. It’s a mix of (fleshspace) word of mouth, festivals, and student showcases that present a wide variety of ideas, audiences, and scale. So it stands out to me whenever I feel like I see a pattern coming emerging from a view of games not dictated by the press and whatever indie darling showed up that week.

In particular I’ve been thinking about a trend in metafictional use of familiar, pervasive UI that’s cropped up in games that catch my attention. Think Her Story, Cibele, and Killing Time at Lightspeed or even more close to what I’d like to talk about, Replica, Project Perfect Citizen, and Mystic Messenger. What all these games have in common is using the interfaces of technologies we’re familiar with as the the interface and setting of play. In Replica you’re playing with an iPhone interface (pity Apple probably wouldn’t let this game exist on its store) while Mystic Messenger mainly utilizes messenger apps like Line. Besides lending familiarity to a game that probably would prove more accessible to those who don’t consistently consume mainstream games, there is something innately more personal to these games by their very form.

This is useful to look at considering the particular brand of UI/UX craze that’s going on in design fields and now even seeping into games, despite the fact that the definition of game design should be designing experiences but, I digress. UI in games is largely taken for granted as just what’s necessary in order for players to operate the game. Meaning, it’s rare to play with UI in a way that it allows us to play in digital areas that are not usually considered ‘games,’ such as our computer desktops and mobile phones. In a way, UI might be the ultimate defining feature in digital games that signals what we play with, and to understand how to further engage with the world we have to think less of the content first but of how we can use UI to create unusual experiences.

What makes these types of games successful to me is the inherent transgression and indulgence of the public/private split in experience. A digital UI often designates a personal space only the user can see and therefore a place where private information is kept. There is something pleasurably invasive about these games that use non-game UIs because we are either making a new space our own or we’re looking into the private belongings of someone else. Intimacy, security, vulnerability, surveillance, all of these issues naturally reside when we use UI to knowingly create a private space for play that resembles actual ones we have in our lives.

These games, by effect, imply that there are hidden experiences or stories in our everyday uses of technology. Kinds of experiences that the current UI/UX designer isn’t really planning for because they aren’t considering their work as part of the playful act. In the height of experimental theater in the mid-20th century, happenings elevated the everyday lives of people to a more perceivable aesthetic plane. Performance artists who used happenings wanted to draw from life not just for content but for the form as well, to better relate the viewer who was almost always a participant, whether they realized it or not. I see something similar in the future of these UI games, where people are interacting with digital interfaces in a way they don’t realize is designed for playful experience or something other than pure functionality.

One could make the argument that video games often feel so much a like because UI design is strongly codified and similar between genres. Maybe the UI of a game has a stronger influence on what the game is going to be like than what conversations currently address. Why don’t more creators use the UI of other kinds of software to create their experience? Too meta? I feel like there’s a tendency in digital games that they perceive themselves as born out of nothing, when most people today encounter games within the UI of other experiences. In this way, loading up a video game might be serving the same function as walking into a museum, going in for a particular experience and leave ‘art’ inside and away from the rest of the world. But I think these ‘UI games’ (please don’t let that term become a thing) threaten that sacred space of games in only a good way. We should be thinking of the politics of the software and platforms we use everyday, and there should be art that complicates our uses of technology from the inside. Those who understand how experience is crafted in technology can undermine how top-down forces exert power through these sorts of interventions. And the idea of using a hack for a game, to actually alter the literal UIs we use themselves, has to be saved for another time. But I recommend you check and look out for these kinds of games because they have the potential to hold a unique creative power in games, that is, injecting play into spaces carefully crafted to hide their mechanisms from those who use them.

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Games, Art, and Design

I feel like a tennis ball hit between the rackets of Art and Design. When first exploring critical theory and occupying myself with creative writing and art history, I wasn’t really aware of an art vs design divide. My first university major was Interior Design & Architecture which sparked my interest in spaces and how they influence us even as I moved over to literature and writing non-fiction. Creativity was creativity to me, no matter if it dealt with functional objects or ephemeral forms of expression. But the apparent antagonism between the fields is how they mutually substantiate each other, that is, a lot of what makes design, design, is that it isn’t art, and also the reverse. The main tension is between design as utility and art being for itself; what a creative work is and isn’t useful for defines a lot of the conventions and values shaped around it.

 

Games have become increasingly bizarre and sometimes alien to because of my inability to locate it in either art or design, despite practitioners citing the medium being both. I am thoroughly interdisciplinary in my practice, so on that level games has intrigued me as, at the very least, needing art and design to work together to produce interactive experiences. It implies that there is this false binary between the fields and something exists beyond them that takes what’s useful to craft experiences. Yet I find in typical game development the less glamorous aspects of art and design, an unflattering utilitarian assembly line in the name of fun the cuts out a lot of the creative process for the expressive qualities of the game. Conventional game making practices reduce both design and art to gears of producing products instead of linking them through a shared creative process. I reflect on this because of widespread recognition of games not being very well made outside of narrow set of expectations of gamers. In my time lecturing around New York City, I find that there is, at best, still a stalemate at how many people treat playing games as a part of their life that they do with other forms of artistic media or designed experiences. We see this tension in games people still poo-pooing a dead critic for saying games aren’t art while very willfully resisting being held accountable for actually impacting culture in any meaningful way except for the act passing time for its own sake. People in the field of games are simply defensive if not apathetic about this dissonance since, when we boil it down, so much of games evangelism is done out of nerds wanting to legitimize how much time and money they spend on a hobby.

 

Being both a critic and creator implores me to wonder how to do better. It’s not a secret that the exemplar of games as medium are still lacking in effect to other disciplines; I was just at a panel where politicians and heads of games companies constantly harped on games being important because they make the most amount of money out of other entertainment industries. Not that they challenge how we think, not that they open up new forms of expression, just simply at the bottom line they make money for capitalists. This isn’t new, I’m sure you can look up any talk or article in mainstream venues about the importance of games and the first line will be how much more money the games industry makes more than Hollywood.

 

Researching design and art practices leads me to believe games as a discipline needs an overhaul for how it frames the creative process. More specifically, game design is so narrow in focus and shaped by industrial standards that severely limits the range of output because it excises many opportunities for imagination and exploration.

 

Let’s zoom out of game design and look at design more generally. Design is better identified by its process rather than what it produces, since design firms like IDEO can apply their process to whatever they are working on and produce a large range of things, from objects to organizational structures to live experiences. They could even make a game if they felt so inclined, and how they would differs from how game designers typically look at it. I feel it is pretty apparent that people in game design saw these design firms in their nascency and borrowed many of the terms superficially but barely evolved any of them. Most of the design aspect of game design rests in prototyping and iteration, with research into audience and needs being handed down from marketing as a given. That is, people want to have fun and the people we want to reach typically play games a certain way. In other design processes, who an audience is exactly and what they need start out way more vague and are identified as part of the creative process. Games are incessantly narrow because of this need for a ‘fun’ product and developers pulling in a range of assumptions of how people want to engage with play. This goes hand-in-hand with why there isn’t a strong idea of how social impact games actually impact the world, because the creative process rarely includes actually finding out what people need. The assumption is that people ‘need’ to have fun, to be addicted, or whatever usual game design buzzword you can come up with. Weirdly, games try to use a utilitarian creation process to create self-described useless work, and aim for a very specific kind of uselessness. Imagine if we exploded play outside the confines of market understandings of what the general landscape of gamers want and applied a process with engaging local communities and current events. Imagine what games would look like if everyone wasn’t in a rush to be the next blockbuster and understand their worth mostly through that level of revenue. I honestly wonder if games as a discipline truly grasps experience in its totality instead of continually drawing from the same dry well.

 

Art is disciplined by this process into livestock, meant to not imagine but lend to this very particular line of uselessness. We do see individual artists express themselves through games enough that we can see a creative output that is unmistakably at work with life contexts outside of game industry. This divide and conquer use of design against art rarely allows creators to engage with topics without first serving this industrial notion of fun or a waste of time. With the rise of 21st century independent game development this impulse is getting pushed back, however even much of this work is unable to imagine itself further incorporating an artistic practice, since game development is long held to be a drawn out and financially draining process that result in this one shot to make it all back. While they do exist, so few games creators display a creative practice simply because of how few games they are able to work on in any given amount of time.

 

It is worth noting that both art and design share the need for a creative process, and that one does not need to separate them on the basis of convention. Games are in a unique position to reframe this creative process to not be so skewed towards design and art industrial standards and create an honestly new kind of engagement. Every creator will have a different process and we can engage with different contexts instead of being held hostage by the traditional model of being a games creator. I’m actually super surprised with how different the field of design looks from games, and it doesn’t surprise me that so-called games ambassadors took business by storm because of how secluded the practice is. In a time when we’re struggling to understand games’ place in shaping culture, I don’t think we can afford to take any assumptions that the game design field hands down to us for how to create work. The most obvious benefit is for the social impact sector, but also just for our personal fulfillment as expressive humans who have a wider range of emotions than the current landscape of games would lead us to believe.

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Performance & Mimicry: Do Video Games Even Have Rules?

Performance and how it manifests in play takes up more of my thoughts as time goes on. We do see some mention of performance in games, typically that players perform with games as an aesthetic perspective. Players and objects as agents influencing each other, rolling into one another like improv acting is generally something I’m on board with. It allows us to see what sort of prompts each agent involved gives the other and the politics of the relationship that rises from the call and response that results. What trips this up however is a shallow look at what sort of prompting games give players, particularly video games. Instead of a performance we see the glorification of interaction and interactivity, or rather just the fact a call and response of any kind is happening. It influences game design, critique, and playing to understand video games as things that prompt interaction rather than objects with agency that lend themselves to performance.

Having just spent time going over my notes to Roger Caillois’ Man, Play, Games, I found myself thinking about his ideas on mimicry as a category of play and where performance fits into that. In this context, mimicry is the suspension of disbelief and evoking illusion over ourselves and the environment as a setting for play. Caillois cites games of make-believe to theater as the domain of mimicry, all of which performance is the evocative element that substantiates play. The quirk here is how in his classifications of games, mimicry is one of the types that doesn’t have rules: “the continuous submission to imperative and precise rules cannot be observed–rules for the dissimulation of reality and substitution of a second reality.” So there seems to be here a clash between performance and rules, because the sacred space of performance is marked by the act of performing rather than the bounds created by arbitrary rules. With rules, we don’t make-believe, we submit to the rules and act by their affordances. Performance, which is more than just literal action, requires manipulating illusion and revelation of the self in relationship to reality; being outside of it is like trying to have a call and response relationship with the void.

What looks like is getting in the way of creating, observing, and participating in performance with video games is the craft’s insistence that they are rules-based games. While there is ambivalence on this point for tabletop and live roleplaying games where there is performance with actual written rules that create the space one is in, video games have no such thing as rule-bounded realities for play. Instead, they have what designers call ‘material rules,’ or rules implied by what the code of the game and physical inputs does and does not allow the player to do. Thus follows the interactivity-based lens which looks at video games chiefly on what a player can and cannot do, and how they act within those constraints. Performance, narrative, and experience can only be described as an action report in this perspective because ‘what counts’ is that the player is doing, not necessarily what the player is doing.

We can shift focus then and see material rules as an attempt to classify video games as Caillois’ agon, competition or strife (the computer being who we play with) within established bounds of rules, when they actually do not have rules and are games of mimicry. Most if not all digital games do not have rules unique to themselves when it is recognized the game either will or will not let you do something. Unlike rules-based games in Caillois’ perspective, video games don’t dissolve away when a rule is ignored. Because video games are designed, analyzed, and played as rules-based games through convention, performance is rare. The times performance tends to happen is when perceived rules, said material rules, are broken or changed, much emblemized by the phenomenon of speedrunning. We see illusion and subversion in mods, hacks, glitches, and player-created challenges. While many designers embrace uncertainty in what the player will do and experience through creating multiple avenues of agency and adding procedural generation to everything, these are not used as prompts for performance as the creator could anticipate the possibilities of play down to a fine level of detail. Rules are more conventions that creators use as they make video games rather than what players eventually follow. For example, painters will use color and perspective to manipulate how the eye travels across their painting, but general viewers themselves are not following the laws of color and perspective on any lucid level. This is particularly apparent in fighting games, which are often described in performative language. Without questioning skill and dedication, all fighting game matches are predictable in concept by the creators, and in this perspective players are operating the game in the way it was made to operate. It’s obvious that creativity is at work in fighting games, and the community surrounding them attests to that, yet the games themselves are not platforms for generative play. The main way performance happens in video games currently is when a game is improperly used and purposefully broken which creators do not anticipate. When players do this we don’t see the game as necessarily ruined or dissolved, but evolved and on-going.

To nurture performance in video games, creators have to craft for it beyond the base of interactivity. Performance is generative, it creates. So far, the idea of performance is used as an on/off switch, that games aren’t ‘alive’ until performed. Performed in that usage simply means to operate. Crafting for performance means creating prompts and continuous calls and responses that you cannot possibly predict. The implications of performance and video games is most felt in their exhibition, and by effect how they are played overall. Despite being interactive, video games do not impart aesthetic experiences very well when put in exhibits or shows, since most are made for consumption in private spaces. That curators and event organizers only know to place a video game on a computer at a station shows that we do not fully understand the aesthetic experience video games have to offer. A computer in the museum is, in this context, no different from a picture frame on the wall. The art is dead and kept away from the people. In this light, I don’t think many people in video games have seriously considered games as artistic experiences outside the forms of entertainment consumption.

Performance has a history of interrupting the usual flow of commodification and consumption of art. Performance art challenged ownership, meaning-making, and methods of expression. Video games routinely run into what seem to be unsolvable issues that center around these sorts of issues, particularly engaging with social issues with any depth, interrogating relationships and intimacy, dealing with the subjective experience of shared events. This was an impetus of a work I performed earlier in the year, empathy machine, which moved a video game I made, Mainichi, into a performance context that activated its meaning through public engagement. It came after years of seeing Mainichi played in exhibitions on computers and completely lifeless. The proper context for a call and response was missing and instead people just glazed over it much like every other game curated around topics of social importance.

It’s possible what I’m talking about isn’t video games but something beyond them. Maybe this is to say that video games actually require a stronger presence of hacking, cheating, and modding for performance to come alive. Is it that they should be designed for maximum availability for exploitation or have vague enough material goals so players make their own? I’m only beginning to dig into performance and games, and these are just ideas, but I do think it’s a conversation worth having as games become increasingly absorbed into art and theoretical circles.

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Man, Play and Games for the People

Back with some more game studies theory where I take commonly taught text, grab the important quotes, and explain their significance for the non-academic and academic who needs a refresher alike. Last month I did Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens which is the oldest in the canon, and this time we’ll be looking at Roger Caillois’ Man, Play and Games which was inspired by Huizinga.

Caillois was a French sociologist who wrote Man, Play and Games in the late ‘50s specifically building upon Homo Ludens to create a methodology using games. At least in this canon, he seems to be the first to have clear classifications of games, separating from his predecessor who mostly detail with the vagueness of play and barely touched on games proper. And like Huizinga, Caillois cares more about what games imply about his chosen field rather than the construction of games themselves or any sort of discipline dedicated to them. So, let’s see what he has to say about games:

 

 

“The preceding analysis permits play to be defined as an activity which is essentially:

  1. Free: in which playing is not obligatory; if it were, it would at once lose its attractive and joyous quality as diversion;
  2. Separate: circumscribed within limits of space and time, defined and fixed in advance;
  3. Uncertain: the course of which cannot be determined, nor the result attained beforehand, and some latitude for innovations being left to the player’s initiative;
  4. Unproductive: creating neither goods, nor wealth, nor new elements of any kind; and, except for the exchange of property among the players, ending in a situation identical to that prevailing at the beginning of the game;
  5. Governed by rules: under conventions that suspend ordinary laws, and for the moment establish new legislation, which alone counts;
  6. Make-believe: accompanied by a special awareness of a second reality or of a free unreality, as against real life.” (pgs. 9-10)

In post-Huizinga texts, how a theorist decides to define play and/or games tends to reveal their agenda and show how they are building on those before them. Most of what we see here is pretty much lifted from Homo Ludens, with a small distinction. Caillois sees games as either governed by rules OR make-believe, not both. So not all games have rules according to him, and games with rules can only see make-believe as accessory to the experience instead of in tandem. This runs counter to many people that come after him, who believe all games have rules, no matter how obscured or loose. This division of rules vs make believe sets up his categorizations and the fundamental tensions he views when he takes a sociological perspective.

 

“After examining different possibilities, I am proposing a division into four main rubrics, depending upon whether, in the games under consideration, the role of competition, chance, simulation, or vertigo is dominant. I call these agon, alea, mimicry, and ilinx, respectively.” (pg. 12)

Here are the four main categories of the classification Caillois bases all his observations on. Agon comes from Huizinga’s ‘agonistic’ properties, basically referring to fair competition and honor. All competitive games fall under this category and anything involving conflict is read through agon. Alea covers all games of chance, including gambling, which is a hot topic we’ll get to. Mimicry centers around taking on roles, mostly characterized by make-believe and includes theater and all forms of acting. Ilinx, the one with the least amount of precedent, are experiences of intentional vertigo, from amusement rides to any sort of antic that evokes that cathartic loss of control. Caillois believed all games fit into one of these categories, and the categories interacted with differing levels of compatibility. Noteworthy is that agon and alea complement each other by virtue of being rules based and centered around the equal chances of success while mimicry and ilinx employ make-believe and suspension of the self. In true 20th century social science style, the former pair is associated with more ‘developed’ and Western societies while the latter with ‘primitive’ cultures and indigenous peoples of Australia, Africa, and the Americas.

 

“In general, the first manifestations of paidia have no name and could not have any, precisely because they are not of any order, distinctive symbolism, or clearly differentiated life that would permit a vocabulary to consecrate their autonomy with a specific term. But as soon as conventions, techniques, and utensils emerge, the first games as such arise with them: eg leapfrog, hide and seek, kite-flying, teetotum, sliding, blindman’s buff, and doll-play. At this point the contradictory roads of agon, alea, mimicry, and ilinx begin to bifurcate. At the same time, the pleasure experienced in solving a problem arbitrarily designed for this purpose also intervenes, so that reaching a solution has no other goal than personal satisfaction for its own sake. This condition, which is ludus proper, is also reflected in different kinds of games, except for those which wholly depend upon the cast of a die. It is complementary to and a refinement of paidia, which is disciplines and enriches.” (pg. 29)

There is a sub classification binary of paidia vs ludus, which is mostly forgotten after it’s described, but important to note because it seems to hold in language that exists today as what play vs games are. Paidia exists before any sort of codification of conventions while ludus is completely about the conventions. What strikes me as most interesting is how paidia seems indistinguishable from life at some level, that people from the outside wouldn’t really know you’re playing until focusing on the fact. Even though Caillois is strident about life and play being separated, paidia seems to somewhat flout this. I think paidia is used as the beginning phase of a game trending towards ludus, and a general timeline that Caillois makes, following Huizinga, of ‘primitive’ play to sophisticated modern games. I feel like ludus describes the main perspective in which the values of games are interpreted in contemporary discourse.

 

“In the confused, inextricable universe of real, human relationships, on the other hand, the action of given principles is never isolated, sovereign, or limited in advance. It entails inevitable consequences and possesses a natural propensity for good or evil.

In both cases, moreover, the same qualities can be identified:

The need to prove one’s superiority

The desire to challenge, make a record, or merely overcome an obstacle

The hope for and the pursuit of the favor of destiny

Pleasure in secrecy, make-believe, or disguise

Fear or inspiring fear

The search for repetition and symmetry, or in contrast, the joy of improvising, inventing, or infinitely varying solutions

Solving a mystery or riddle

The satisfaction procured from all arts involving contrivance

The desire to test one’s strength, skill, speed, endurance, equilibrium, or ingenuity

Conformity to rules or laws, the duty to respect the, and the temptation to circumvent them

And lastly, the intoxication, longing for ecstasy, and desire for voluptuous panic

These attitudes and impulses, often incompatible with each other, are found in the unprotected realm of social life, where acts normally have consequences, no less than in the marginal and abstract world of play. But they are not equally necessary, do not play the same role, and do not have the same influence.” (pgs. 64-5)

Here we see the qualities Caillois feels like the different classifications of games lend to societies during enculuration. This is what he means, to borrow from Huizinga, how play is lifelike but not life. Games are meant to create time and space to facilitate these impulses and that experience stays with people after they play games, but exerts itself in a chaotic manner in life. To Caillois and most games theorists, games are supposed to be safe and orderly spaces where we can indulge in lifelike experiences without consequence. What has been, and still is, vague is how games actually affect life while being separated from it, though he takes a decent stab at it.

 

“Games discipline instincts and institutionalize them. For the time that they afford formal and limited satisfaction, they educate, enrich, and immunize the mind against their virulence. At the same time, they are made for to contribute usefully to the enrichment and the establishment of various patterns of culture.” (pg. 55)

Huizinga saw the calcification of conventions from play as a plight of the modern man, but Caillois interprets this as how the values of play transfer to culture. Particularly interesting for people interested in power, the image of games disciplining human impulses into attitudes and aptitudes lends a lot to contemporary conversations around if and how politics manifest themselves in game design. This reads to me that games are ultimately always instruments and players trained through their mechanisms. Play is a wild force that must be cultivated into culture, and games acts as the translation process from this ‘primal’ state to a sophisticated one.

 

“It is certainly much more difficult to establish the cultural functions of games of chance than of competitive games. However, the influence of games of chance is no less considerable, even if deemed unfortunate, and not to consider them leads to a definition of play which affirms or implies the absence of economic interest.” (pg. 5)

Though it might seem to be a trivial point to most people, where Caillois disputes Homo Ludens the most is the treatment of gambling. Huizinga and by example theorists after him tend to separate gambling off from the rest of play since money is involved. I feel like much of Man, Play and Games is about how our perspective on games changes when games of chance are included. His logic is that games of chance might have resources exchanging hands but the net outcome of the game doesn’t result in a gain or loss. It’s seems like a lot of stretching to me, to try and have gambling games matter but still be inconsequential. Caillois has a couple case studies on gambling games in the appendix that are worth reading, and also kinda undoes his claim about gambling remaining inconsequential in my opinion, but I don’t find that a bad thing.

 

“Inasmuch as I am also convinced that there exist precise interrelationships of compensation or connivance in games, customs, and institutions, it does not seem to me unreasonable to find out whether the very destiny of cultures, their chance to flourish or stagnate, is not equally determined by their preference for one or another of the basic categories into which I have tried to divide games, categories that are not equally creative. In other words, I have not only undertaken a sociology of games, I have the idea of laying the foundations for a sociology derived from games.” (pg. 67)

And here is the main agenda of the book. Where Huizinga wanted to create a method of interpreting history from a cultural anthropology standpoint of games, Caillois wants to use games to create a method of interpreting societies. As far as I know, this still seems pretty unique and isn’t really used in games discourse too often. You see the classifications come up and their interactions, but in general parlance you don’t see games interpreting life, only life interpreting games. And though Caillois somewhat qualifies that there isn’t a one to one relation between the games preferred by a culture and the values of said society, he ultimately acts that way in his readings.

 

“Recourse to chance helps people tolerate competition that is unfair or too rugged. At the same time, it leaves hope in the dispossessed that free competition is still possible in the lowly stations in life, which are necessarily more numerous. […] To gamble is to renounce work, patience, and thrift in favor of a sudden lucky stroke of fortune which will bring one what a life of exhausting labor and privation has not, if chance is not trifled with and if one does not resort to speculation, which is partly related to chance.” (pg. 115)

Though I don’t really jive with how Caillois arrives to his method of interpretation, I have to say that what he does interpret is super relevant and surprising to see from a games perspective. He sees modern societies ruled by games of agon and alea and sees similar tensions from their differences in the values and problems we since in the world. Caillois believes that democratic societies value agon since it speaks to the values of egalitarianism, promoting fair competition for honor and wealth. But foiling this process is the presence of alea, which is the random force of nature that births people into different stations of life with different abilities. Even though society promotes equality through privileging competition and constantly undermines and devalues games of chance, alea cannot be fully erased and the idea of equality remains a farce since the accident of birth greatly determines people’s lot in life. Caillois observes that the disadvantaged rely on alea because they come to understand that the playing field isn’t even and true agon cannot manifest. Interesting implications for those looking at class and marginalization in games.

 

“Everyone wants to be first and in law and justice has the right to be. However, each one knows or suspects that he will not be, for the simple reason that by definition only one may be first. He may therefore choose to win indirectly, through identification with someone else, which is the only way in which all can triumph simultaneously without effort or chance of failure. From this derived the worship of stars and heroes, especially characteristic of modern society. This cult may in all justice be regarded as inevitable in a world in which sports and the movies are so dominant. Yet there is in this unanimous and spontaneous homage a less obvious but no less persuasive motive. The star and the hero present fascinating images of the only great success that can befall the more lowly and poor, if lucky. An unequaled devotion is given the meteoric apotheosis of someone who succeeds only through his personal resources—muscles, voice, or charm, the natural, inalienable weapons of a man without social influence.” (pgs. 120-1)

Caillois paints a fascinating image on identification and representation through this conflict of egalitarianism and the staying influence of chance. He sees identification as a sublimated form of mimicry that has been put into the service to maintaining agon, or its illusion. Because ultimately life isn’t fair and many people recognize that, the only way to keep people following the current social order is to use that element of chance is to glamourize the rags to riches storyline. So instead of actually being a system of fair competition for all, large portions of society try to replicate the situations that current lottery winners have, and eventually resign themselves to being disadvantaged.

 

“There is doubtless no combination more inextricable than that of agon and alea. Merit such as each might claim is combined with the chance of an unprecedented fortune, in order to seemingly assure the novice a success so exceptional as to be miraculous. Here mimicry intervenes. Each one participates indirectly in an inordinate triumph which may happen to him, but which deep inside him he knows can befall only one in millions. In this way, everyone yields to the illusion and at the same time dispenses with the effort that would be necessary if he truly wished to try his luck and succeed. This superficial and vague, but permanent, tenacious, and universal identification constitutes one of the essential compensatory mechanisms of democratic society. The majority have only this illusion to give them diversion, to distract them from a dull, monotonous, and tiresome existence. Such an effort, or perhaps I ought to say such alienation, even goes so far as to encompass personal gestures or to engender a kind of contagious hysteria suddenly possessing almost all the younger generation. This fascination is also encouraged by the press, movies, radio, and television. Advertising and illustrated weeklies inevitably and seductively publish pictures of the hero or star far and wide. A continuous osmosis exists between these seasonal divinities and their multitude of admirers. The latter are kept informed with regard to the tastes, manias, superstitions, and even the most trivial details of the lives of the stars. They imitate them, copying their coiffures, adopting their manners, clothing, preferences, cosmetics, and diets. […] It is obviously not the athlete’s prowess nor the performer’s art that provides an explanation of such fanaticism, but rather a kind of general need for identifying with the champion or the star. Such a habit quickly becomes second nature.” (pgs 121-2)

Coming out of nowhere, Caillios wraps up his application of a games sociology on Western society with the obsession of celebrity and the function stardom and heroics. It’s a really interesting premise since we see the values of games come full circle to dictate which games are fostered in our culture and how they are deployed. We can see contemporary games being used as escapes into heroic fantasies as a part of this process, where we can identify with achieving the success of agon in a system where it isn’t realistically possible. The other side of discussions around games training players to be in a society of capitalist labor now includes the pacifying element that encourages people to play along with the current system and its illusions. This implies that using games and their design as a critical lens actually has some legs, especially now that we live in a world of gamification and designed social platforms.

 

First anthropology, now sociology, next time will be philosophy with Bernard Suits’ The Grasshopper. Feel free to let me know if you use this or you find it helpful!

 

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Subjectivity and Reverse Difficulty

This past year has been an exercise in exploring the more fuzzy aspects of video game design, particularly around style and taste. These subjects have my interest outside of games and I’ve experimented in how to incorporate them, and at times these disciplines feel squarely at odds with game design. Expressing yourself often comes out in video games as completely extra and unaffecting, or overly mechanical and easily gamed. When it comes to play, the looser the bounds on the game are on separating life and play, the easier it is to incorporate more subjective expressions into the experience. Video games however attempt to completely isolate themselves away from the messiness of life to create simulated order, no matter how obscured. Because the game tries to contain the majority of the experience within its physical and digital bounds, it can only account for style and taste with its own arbitrary rules, which will mostly stay static from the moment it is shipped.

Staying within the conventions of game design, production, and distribution makes it hard for us to break out of these bounds. There are some online aspects that allow social elements to filter in and typically create what we would consider a fandom, however these aren’t central to the experience. Trying to get these subjective experiences into video games might just be a selfish task to further my consumption of them, but I can’t help but be interested in the possibility.

There’s a chance that what we think of as a good game might be standing in the way of understanding how we can incorporate style and taste further into game design. When gamers and designers look at works like Style Savvy and Happy Home Designer, they see a vagueness rather than a carefully constructed method where the player proves they’ve mastered the system. In both games, the player is presented with fairly easy quantitative obstacles to move around which in many cases barely constrain the amount of answers you can give. In the Style Savvy series, customers describe to you what they want, say a pink skirt or a sporty outfit, using words that you can use to filter through your stock room. As long as what you choose has those quality tags, the customer will be satisfied and buy what you offer them. Happy Home Designer is even less restrictive, usually only requiring the player to include a couple types of objects, but the specific objects and the design of the entire house and rooms can be anything and the client will be happy. The only degree of quantitative challenge is dispelled in the tutorial phases of both these games which leaves the traditional player bored only because a quantitative standard of difficulty isn’t present. It can be perceived as some sort of reverse difficulty, where the biggest challenge is upfront but also doesn’t severely limit what you can do. If essentially you can do anything and be ‘right,’ what is the point of the game?

This is a puzzle-solver’s mentality that is ingrained into both game design and playing. We expect to not only figure something out, but figure out a specific answer set up by concrete facts of the game’s rules and system. This can be as obvious as figuring out the placement of numbers in sudoku or instinctual for understanding all the physics of a fighting game and how that relates to what your opponent is doing. The designer creates an environment where the player has to grow through the material constraints of the video game, and the player expects to discover themselves through ever increasing challenge. This is a fundamental assumption present in the overwhelming majority of commercial products, to the point where games like Style Savvy can be described as vapid or lacking in substance not merely because it’s read as a ‘girl game’ and is about fashion, but because there isn’t this process of mastery involved.

At some point in time, this expectation molded both game design and playing to the point where current attempts to incorporate style and taste can be at best subpar. How do you quantify what we perceive to be unquantifiable in reality? Two people can look at an outfit, sit in a room, eat through a course meal, and have completely different experiences despite the identical processes. How is a video game going to account for that in the methods used for conventionally good games? It isn’t difficult to imagine that the lack of diversity in the kinds of interactions we have in video games is influenced by having challenge and mastery fixed as a cornerstone in how we create and play. To include commonly ignored, botched, or underdone subjects like style, expression, sexuality, and culture, video games would have to set aside this challenge-based call and response and expand it to where we can conceptualize how a computer can help us play with these topics. This doesn’t mean that the current methods for expressing style are the best, but rather an attempt to get players used to the ambiguity past the challenge. If you know that you will most likely surmount the obstacle in front of you, then surmounting the challenge is most likely not the point.

A solution would most likely appear in how we actually encounter all of these things in life. How is style expressed, recognized, created? Games that want to further dive into fashion would have to create societies with their own preferences, social issues, and methods of spreading trends that happen independent from the player’s actions. Look at today’s fashion for some examples: Why are hemlines longer and bigger? Why is there so much brown? Why are workout clothes replacing other parts of our wardrobe? It’s because a creativity industry that dictates what is made is being influenced by multiple factors, such as what are fashionable people on the street wearing that isn’t on run ways, what past decade is currently being revived for inspiration, seasonal conventions, and current social and design provocations. What is missing in Style Savvy is a living source of inspiration that prompts creativity. That is, the calcification of styles such bold or gothic in quantitative measures cuts the player off from being inspired or inspiring. Other characters will always react the same because their programming is looking for the bold and gothic flags and nothing else. It’s almost like the last vestige of challenge in the game is what holds it back the most. Some experiments in procedural generation imply the use of creating societies with their own biases and history as a way to actually explore style and taste. Because the point shouldn’t be to replicate real-world fashions and training players to understand them, rather understand the process of how taste and style are cultivated and expressed.

Applicable is the famous and much recited Yves Saint Laurent quote, “Fashions fade, style is eternal.” As much as I love Style Savvy, it is a game about fashion, not style. Fashion lends itself to games easier because there is a perceived right and wrong of what to wear. However what it is we want to play with is style, and that requires a system that is beyond right and wrong. And I think if we can wrap our heads around that, we can both design different games and play games differently than we’ve grown accustomed to through the height of video game consumption.

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UnREAL, Feminism, and the Reality Game

I recently wrote on the different ways reality TV games approach play and game design that differ from conventional attitudes on the topic. Despite how much film is seen by games people as a static medium, the form of reality TV using games to generate narrative, politics, and a wider scale of participation via spectacle all deserve due recognition. After writing about this, I’ve had friends tell me about the TV series UnREAL, a fictionalization of one of the creator’s personal experience being a producer on The Bachelor. It’s a very well done dark comedy and drama that also wrestles with contemporary issues surrounding feminism in a rather refreshing way, that is, everything is super fucked up and no one is holy. I recommend watching it if you can.

What fascinates me the most about this show is how it’s using a game as the central allegory for the struggles of feminism within contemporary society. Consider: first there is the literal game of a group of women who must woo the bachelor into letting them stay every elimination, with different motives not always romantic (bachelor included). Then there’s the producers who split the girls between them and receive financial incentives to goad them into drama and get them to the end. On top of that is the showrunner who has to produce high enough ratings for the network (and they usually want to degrade women in some way for such a purpose) so she can keep her show but also keep a bare minimum of loyalty with her production staff who are trying to retain any sense of conscience that they can. Most of this might not really be seen as a ‘game’ by most, and since this is a TV show everything is scripted so nothing seems to really be ‘played,’ but I believe the success of UnREAL shows the potential for a speculative wave of reality TV game design that could better access social issues on a populist platform. I have previously equated the struggle of personas on social justice twitter to reality TV, and the dynamics this show produces creates a heavy pause for reflection on how contemporary feminism is critically compromised.

Social justice and the general progressive mentality mainly deals with issues in large-scale political motions. Which is needed for sure, but also creates this ‘go big or go home’ attitude that has most people feeling like they can’t do much about all the crappy ways the world works if they don’t have a large reach of influence. Using reality TV as a game allows the show to reveal and unpack a complicated web of interpersonal struggles where decent people are stuck in a crappy situation and are compelled to pull each other down for their own survival. The focus of the show is how women are forced to use other women as stepping stones in order to get through the mess of their career, so the show features mostly women, but men appear around the edges to always fuck things up and make the situation worse. A reality-based game is well-suited to talking about this because they aren’t purely game theory strategy puzzles, rather largely dictated by how contestants struggle with social systems.

The striking metaphor for me is the relationship between producing and performing. UnREAL is completely meta, being a TV show about a TV show, using that distance and irony to reveal the process of how something seamless like a television program is produced in a very messy and contemptible way. The show of Everlasting, which is basically The Bachelor, is the reality in our imaginations, how we understand the world. There’s all the tropes you can think of, the bitch, wholesome wife material, spinster, angry black girl, the slut, the not-so-reformed dallying Ken doll. The ‘it is what it is’ or ‘that’s just reality’ part of us when we accept the subtle ways media and social systems have portrayed other people to us. But as we see in the show, the games are used as a structure to manufacture drama that can eventually be edited out of context in order to create this fantasy version of reality. Claims that reality TV is completely staged is way too simplistic; those things really do happen, we are watching reality, but there is an active force shaping those events, much like how we imagine systems of power in society. There are many lines in the show like ‘don’t blame me that America’s racist’ or ‘no man wants a dried up old woman’ that speak to how media and audiences are constantly reflecting each other in a never ending self-fulfilling prophecy, where the production staff is forced to twist women into nasty tropes and completely disillusion them from the fantasy world they were promised because audiences won’t watch it otherwise, and audiences receive a master cut of footage completely unaware of the context in which it was produced and on some level accepts it as ‘reality.’

It is fitting that the show chose The Bachelor to model instead of a game based of off athletic skill or conventional puzzle solving. The women of the show can’t display any sort of objective merit, the undercurrent challenge of the show centers around their worth and how they can shape others measuring their worth. Watching the show gave me many ideas for participatory experiences to involve people in power struggle on a social and societal level as opposed to a purely strategic. Different strata of people, the contestants, the bachelor, the producers, the showrunner, all have different forms of power and different sources of pressure while they all hurtle towards the final episode where it matters to every single person who is chosen to be the bride-to-be, just for widely different and typically unsavory reasons. Fairness isn’t really something that exists in this game, and the only rule seems to be that you can only leave once you’ve been eliminated. In this sort of game, it’s questionable whether anyone ‘wins,’ rather everyone just eventually gets to the end and has to reflect on what happened.

We can see UnREAL as film’s take on using the unique properties of reality games for commentary. It used the medium’s strengths of representation to show us mostly plausible parable and used suspense devices associated with reality games to keep us deep into the messy relationships as we try to figure what we would do in similar situations, and coming to the conclusion there is little wiggle room for the martyr narrative we have in actual reality. Good deeds are squeezed out of a great deal of compromises and the only people who can actually change anything are the rich and powerful who don’t really care about the pain of those under them until it comes to affect their routines. Games people interested in exploring social systems would do well to follow the example and look into reality games.

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Homo Ludens for the People

Going back into academia means having a long book list for research and summer is reading time to for me. While being acquainted with game design, designers, and game studies, I haven’t actually read much in the canon that informs contemporary thought on games. If you hang around games academics as much as I do, you start to become familiar with the names and the books, and seeing that I want to have a thesis about games, I figured I might as well take the dive and read up on what is institutionalized as the main thread of thought about play and games.

I don’t think reading academic work is for everyone, though many concepts are useful. There’s this exchange back-and-forth between institutions and the populace, much like high and street fashion, and I think it’s useful to help give light to some writing so non-academics can use it for their own devices. So I’ll be sharing a highly curated list of quotes from my note-taking and contextualize it for those interested in thinking about games at-large.

The first is Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture by Johan Huizinga, commonly marked as the start of the canon on games. It’s actually about play, and this play vs games distinction matters, though it can all get a bit vague, for these first few books, until games usurp play, and video games take over games. Worth noting is that at the time of writing Homo Ludens Huizinga was definitely an old white man in the 1930s, and being an early 20th century old white man interested in anthropology gives Huizinga the license to have some unsavory opinions to the contemporary reader. Rather than this being a case to disregard the book, I think it’s a good opportunity to understand how particular attitudes were baked into thinking about games that go relatively unchallenged. With that said, prepare yourself for some old dead dude language. But without further ado, some quotes from Homo Ludens.

 

 

“When speaking of the play-element in culture we do not mean that among the various activities of civilized life an important place is reserved for play, nor do we mean that civilization has arisen out of play by some evolutionary process, in the sense that something which was originally play passed into something which was no longer play and could henceforth be called culture. […] Culture arises in the form of play, that it is played from the very beginning.” (pg. 46)

A good place to start is at Huizinga’s central idea, which is that play is something that came before civilization and culture, and that all formation of culture has its origins in the playing of our ancestors. Huizinga spends most of the book detailing how everything we understand as culture rose out of play, from war to poetry to law. Though you would have to read the book to follow his exact logic, he traces the history of both language and various vestiges of culture to playful acts that eventually got institutionalized into their current form. It’s interesting to think about play being this widely diffused force, to the point where everything can be thought of being play or at some time once was play. Furthermore, Huizinga (possibly paradoxically, as you’ll soon see) casts play as something that produces culture, and things that don’t aren’t play, which cites this general attitude to not include gambling in play studies since it doesn’t have the best reputation. But overall we leave this thinking how contemporary play could be producing culture, despite further complications he brings up later.

 

“Play is a voluntary activity or occupation executed within certain fixed limits of time and place, according to rules freely accepted but absolutely binding, having its aim in itself and accompanied by a feeling of tension, joy and the consciousness that it is “different” from “ordinary life”.” (pg. 28)

If my reading shows me anything, it’s that everyone has to define play and/or games and it largely influences how they then talk about the subject. While I’m unsure of the true origins of defining games, Huizinga’s definition shapes everything that comes after him, something, if not all, of this is recontextualized for future writers’ purposes. This definition might seem like a no-brainer, but there are quite the few claims in here that narrow his focus despite how broadly he throws around play. First, we have play as a voluntary activity, one that a person must consciously accept to do, ruling out anything a person isn’t doing consciously or consensually. Along with being in a time and space that is separate from ordinary life, this definition eliminates looking at how people move through social systems such as gender and race as play, though the language of play exists in talking about those processes. Huizinga also sees play as a quite orderly affair, where the structure of play must be outlined clearly beforehand and delineating a sharp relief where the rules apply and when players return to ordinary life. Rules in particular will survive to live a long and overbearing existence after Huizinga, as well as needing a goal. We also see that main elements of play are the dual appearances of tension and joy, which characterize contemporary design imperatives pretty well. So that means if it doesn’t have the freedom to join or leave, bounds, rules, goals, tension, joy, and a separation from life, then it cannot be play, according to Huizinga. For the contemporary experimental creator and thinker, there’s a lot of conflict here.

 

“Not being “ordinary” life [play] stands outside the immediate satisfaction of wants and appetites, indeed it interrupts the appetitive process. It interpolates itself as a temporary activity satisfying in itself and ending there. Such at least is the way in which play presents itself to us in the first instance: as an intermezzo, an interlude in our daily lives.” (pg. 9)

I’d like to focus on the part about play being separated from life because it is the part I have the biggest beef with. According to this definition, if you gain or lose anything outside of play, such as money, influence, or anything with intention you are not playing. To Huizinga and many that come after him, play has to be for itself, it cannot be for some sort of practical purposes. So in Homo Ludens, professional players of games are working, not playing. Any type of creative act that is done for money cannot be play. Maneuvering social and cultural relationships and systems are not play, because there are actual consequences. The only thing one may seem to extract from games is honor, the distinction of being better. Play being consequence-free on life has implications for anyone who wants to create games for social impact. Whereas Huizinga sees play as an intermezzo in life, I see play more like a mezzanine, a vantage point, a plane of existence meant as a stopping point between two other destinations, not entirely distinct from its surroundings but also a separate feature with its own function. Elsewhere Huizinga codifies the term “magic circle” to describe how his idea of play is separated from life, and it is liberally used by games thinkers.

 

“The contrast between play and seriousness is always fluid. The inferiority of play is continually being offset by the corresponding superiority of its seriousness. Play turns to seriousness and seriousness to play.” (pg. 8)

Here starts the back and forth we will see forever about frivolousness concerning play and games. Huizinga essentially argues that play itself isn’t serious, but it is executed with seriousness. Since play is completely outside of ordinary life and has no real consequences, it itself can’t be serious, however he wants to account for the zeal we see in play, that players hold fast to the rules and put all their energy to achieving the goal. I feel like I’ve noticed waves and cycles of talking about play as though it is a serious pursuit to a frivolous one, often one wave that tries to utilize or mobilize games and the other that pulls it back over to the realm of leisure and uselessness. It is certainly a trend to watch whenever games come into the spotlight in broader current events or in politics. Huizinga also uses this binary to create an opposition between play and earnestness, and more notably, work.

 

“The player who trespasses against the rules or ignores them is a “spoil-sport”. The spoil-sport is not the same as the false player, the cheat; for the latter pretends to be playing the game and, on the face of it, still acknowledges the magic circle. It is curious to note how much more lenient society is to the cheat than to the spoil-sport. This is because the spoil-sport shatters the play-world itself. By withdrawing from the game he reveals the relativity and fragility of the play-world in which he had temporarily shut himself with others. He robs play of its illusion—a pregnant word which means literally “in-play” (from inlusio, illudere or inludere). Therefore he must be cast out, for he threatens the existence of the play-community.” (pg. 11)

I found this passage most fascinating, mainly because I never heard a mention of the spoil-sport in theoretical terms. I was also struck by how Huizinga observed how society prefers the cheat to the spoil-sport, a metaphor that can be applied liberally to our culture. I’ve actually noticed this in games, where the willingness to observe the rules enough to break them is preferable than the one who doesn’t want to. There are games that build its entire premise around the cheat, like the card game Bullshit (or Cheat, appropriately), and I’ve noticed a formalist enjoyment of cheating as a design feature. But the spoil-sport isn’t really allowed to exist. Huizinga goes on to describe the spoil-sport as “the outlaw, the revolutionary, the cabbalist” (pg. 12) and muses that spoil-sports are needed movers and shakers for new play spaces. The spoil-sport strikes me as an image of the Other, and curious if it describes how the dissenters of conventional games are viewed. It is interesting to think about taking on the posture of the spoil-sport as an ethical or maybe even aesthetic intervention.

 

“The differentiation between the plastic and the musical arts corresponds by and large to the seeming absence of the play-quality in one as compared with its pronounced presence in the other. We do not have to seek far for the main reason for this. In order to become aesthetically active the arts of the Muses, or the “music” arts, have to be performed. A work of art, though composed, practised or written down beforehand, only comes to life in the execution of it, that is, by being represented or produced in the literal sense of the word—brought before a public.” (pg. 165)

Here’s the seed of how performance is thought of in games, though with questionable consistency. It is the non-technological jargon version of ‘interactivity,’ but also takes it a step further. Huizinga sees playful art as only the performance of the game, not the creation or existence of games themselves. It’s actually up in the air whether Huizinga would consider video games to be games, and whether the object itself is anything but a mere tool to create something else. This suggests game design as a term might be something completely different than what it is we do to manipulate contexts for play. However, this is also the precedent for player-centric design, that a game is only complete or ‘alive’ with a player. This has legs if we consider the object itself also a player, which as far as I know is a common stance in games academia.

 

“In the very idea of “style” in art, is there not a tacit admission of a certain play-element? Is not the birth of a style itself a playing of the mind in its search for new forms? A style lives from the same things as does play, from rhythm, harmony, regular change and repetition, stress and cadence. Style and fashion are more consanguineous than orthodox aesthetics are ready to admit. In fashion the aesthetic impulse is adulterated with all sorts of extraneous emotions—the desire to please, vanity, pride; in style it is crystallized in pure form.” (pg. 186)

I was gratefully surprised to see style and fashion make it into Homo Ludens and really enjoyed a passage where Huizinga obsessed over 17th and 18th century wigs as the pinnacle of modern play. It’s interesting to see his take on style vs fashion, where style is this pure play with form while fashion is lowered into the muck of social dynamics. This brings up the search for style in games, and how style itself is this play with one’s own form as opposed to a small variance on a play strategy. Style and fashion serve as a connection between play and life, because while one could easily see fashion as frivolous, it’s undeniable that there’s a bleed out of any sort of play-sphere and into life.

 

“[The savage’s] aesthetic sensibility has brought the modern man close to [the sacred play] sphere than the “enlightened” man of the 18th century ever was. Think of the peculiar charm that the mask is an object d’art has for the modern mind. People nowadays try to feel the essence of savage life. This kind of exoticism may sometimes be a little affected, but it goes a good deal deeper than the 18th century engouement for Turks, “Chinamen” and Indians. Modern man is very sensitive to the far-off and the strange. Nothing helps him so much in his understanding of savage society as his feeling for masks and disguise.” (pg. 26)

Here is where we get to the not-so-great part of Homo Ludens. Ultimately, all of Huizinga’s claims comes from casting certain people as primitive and uncivilized and observing their behavior to create the tenants of what play is. Throughout the book, those he calls savages, which are typically the native peoples of European colonies, are grouped with pre-civilized Western people and compared to modern children. According to Huizinga, those in civilized (read: Western) societies are estranged from play and yearn to have it back, explaining and possibly justifying the exotification of non-Western people by Westerners (worth noting the use of masks by early 20th century art as well). These sentiments are not left out of video games, an industry based on the promise of transporting you to another world which is yours to explore and conquer. Especially with a history of assumed Western players going to non-Western locales to play, it’s interesting to think about what could be interpreted as the ‘mask’ video games evoke on contemporary audiences. I think this tension is pervasive in contemporary games thinking and design.

 

“As civilization becomes more complex, more variegated and more overladen, and as the technique of production and social life itself become more finely organized, the old cultural soil is gradually smothered under a rank layer of ideas, systems of thought and knowledge, doctrines, rules and regulations, moralities and conventions which have all lost touch with play. Civilization, we then say, has grown more serious; it assigns only a secondary place to playing. The heroic period is over, and the agonistic phase, too, seems a thing of the past.” (pg. 75)

When reading anything, it’s good to find out what the aims of the author are in presenting their theories. It seems like Huizinga went through all of this to tell modern audiences that society sucks right now because we’ve lost touch with play. Throughout the book he details how first there was play and eventually traditions grew out of it and soon crystallized into institutions, resulting in us just following conventions instead of actually playing anything. He sees professional sports vacant of play and that we have basically become a rule-following society instead of our old playful one. We are a society of games instead of play. With this launches the struggle between play and games throughout the canon where over the past decade or so play has lost to games (predictably, Huizinga might say). Despite sounding a bit petulant about it, he does color a sinister tone to anything akin to the coming of a “Ludic Century.” And while this does come off as an angry old white man yelling at a cloud (he bemoans the preference for the ‘slitherings’ in popular dance over ballet), I think it’s worthwhile tracking how play has lost favor for games, and why.

 

“In the 18th [and 19th] century utilitarianism, prosaic efficiency and the bourgeois ideal of social welfare—all fatal to the Baroque—had bitten deep into society. These tendencies were exacerbated by the Industrial Revolution and its conquests in the field of technology. Work and production became the ideal, and then the idol, of the age. […] As a result of this luxation of our intellects the shameful misconception of Marxism could be put about and even believed, that economic forces and material interests determine the course of the world. This grotesque over-estimation of the economic factor was conditioned by our worship of technological progress, which itself the fruit of rationalism and utilitarianism after they had killed the mysteries and acquitted man of guilt and sin. But they had forgotten to free him of folly and myopia, and he seemed only fit mould the world after the pattern of his own banality. […] Culture ceased to be “played”.” (pgs. 191-2)

I will leave you with the passage that I find to be quite strange but illustrative of some tensions in current games thinking. Huizinga recognizes that work and labor have become a more central concern in modern life but somehow completely disregards Marxism. He is so absorbed in games and play being so ancient as to dictate our culture that contemporary ideas of social systems seem completely absurd to him. Also fascinating is his disdain for technology, which makes me more curious of what he would have thought about video games. This also brings up a strange dissonance with past ideas of play and life being separated; if culture is played, and that has a distinct effect on us, how can life and play be pulled apart? I’m thinking that we haven’t stopped playing, but theorists are off about what play looks like.

 

And there you have it, some quick and dirty Homo Ludens with heavy editorial. The next will Roger Caillois’ Man, Play, and Games. Until then!

 

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Pokemon Go and Device-Mediated Relationships

Having spent the past several years hooked to social media and being a part of digital pop culture phenomena as they happened, it’s a new joy to witness trends on the ground. I usually get this with fashion but within the past few weeks it’s been Pokemon Go. I didn’t quite catch the bug, I played for about a day or two and found myself missing the main Pokemon games, and returned to those instead. But I do hear how others are affected by it, and it’s interesting getting accounts from people not in games or those who don’t usually play a lot of them.

Reactions tend to go two ways, the first being how players feel like Pokemon Go enables them to explore places they haven’t been, especially their own neighborhoods. The app places pokemon in parks and other public areas that seems to, by effect, help players engage with each other and those in their community. We’ve seen evidence of this with the various pictures and videos online of Pokemon Go gatherings or even the off story of philanthropic organizations using the context of the game to encourage people to do good. The Pokemon franchise itself is rather disarming and an almost universal symbol to those born in the 80s and 90s into video games, so it’s not a surprise that we can see such large-scale virality of this ‘bring Pokemon into real life’ sort of experience.

An other type of reaction is a natural outcome of the first, being that players rove neighborhoods feeling the effects of gentrification and most of these iPhone-wielding 90s kids remind locals of the threat to their livelihood. While it is true that Pokemon Go is getting people to explore and connect, the reasons for that are pretty thin, and potentially transient the moment people get bored of it and onto the next distraction. This is a common effect of gamification, where you might be able to get people to do things using games, but you probably aren’t going to make them care about those things, rather just the extrinsic rewards they gain by gaming the system.

There is this constant back and forth of what is ‘doing good’ for any particular kind of topic or action at hand. Many people are satisfied with any level of help or good, that is, if we can see things as helping in any sort of way, that should be enough to justify the action. On the other hand, much of what is being done as good is surface level and doesn’t get down to the actual problem, a constant chasing of the symptoms instead of curing the disease. If a more radical approach doesn’t come around, a problem will persist no matter how much Pokemon you slap on it. Are people joining together and being out and about because of Pokemon Go a good thing? Whether something is good or bad rarely extracts the value from what we are looking at, since we can see different answers depending on what we look at. Instead, looking at Pokemon Go as a product of our current condition rather than a moral story will help us understand how experiences like this change how we engage with our surroundings.

I’ve long been fascinated by how our experiences with relationships have changed with technology that facilitates connection and communication. From the dawn of ‘online friends’ to dating sites to social media to hookup apps, how people, especially young people with technology around most of their life, relate to one another has slowly changed. We’ve offshored more of our usual ways of linking to one another from offline to online, preferring the curation and swiping techniques to include people into our lives than the complete randomness of life. More people use social media and online dating than face-to-face methods of communicating. The change in economy and labor practices have a lot to do with this, with companies taking up more time of employees with the expectation that on-demand apps will do all the things they don’t have time for. How we interact with people online is typically different than in person, mostly documented by the amount of snark, hate, dick pics, and overall virality of entertainment that just doesn’t happen in purely offline relationships. These device-mediated relationships have users treating others like they are part of the technology itself rather than purely people. We can turn them off, block, left swipe, unfriend, ghost. The ease in which we can curate and the knowledge that there are so many people potentially available primes us to move through device-mediated relationships as if they were a part of an on-demand service, and attachment is thin since one can easily remove another from their experience.

Because of its pervasiveness and ease, people are relying more on devices to connect them with others rather to have their own intrinsic reasons to reach out to those around them. Again, there’s no value judgment here, but it helps show the messiness of what something like Pokemon Go and a lot of what I see in VR/AR reveal about contemporary problems like gentrification. Outside of the uncaring fashion of how real estate works, one of the major forces of gentrification is when people move to a new area and don’t engage with the community already present, only others who seem to be of their same class. So new pockets of people grow inside communities, attracting others like them but not integrating in what was already there. They don’t engage with their neighbors, or go to block parties, or do anything really but use the neighborhood as a sleeping place until a trendy cafe that alienates the locals shows up. Instead of seeing who’s physically around them, people use location-based apps that connects users of like-class and slowly converts an area from serving one group of people to another. Wanting to connect with others and using devices to do as such isn’t bad, it’s just an unintended side-effect is a distance from people not using the same services. Cultural biases slip into who we filter in these services and perpetuate inequalities bolstered by the in- and out-grouping of majorities and minorities.

This doesn’t even get into the design of said apps and services, the politics of those designs, and how cultural attitudes from before device-mediated relationships carry over to now. I haven’t said anything about the implicit concerns of surveillance and consumerism also at hand. It’s important to note that it’s totally possible to express resistance to troubling aspects of technology while using said devices, it’s just a matter of being aware that politics is being more readily and stealthily coded into our experiences as we move over to fully integrated experiences. The point isn’t to find out which games or experiences are ‘good’ to consume, rather acknowledging that everything is prompting us to consume and understanding how that consumption factors into culture processes. As games change with emerging technology, it’s important to question how games are being used to cultivate connection with others, and what that says about the kind of society we are.

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empathy machine

empathy machine is a combination of experiments concerning the current state of the video game industry, virtual reality evangelism, game design as a discipline, and activism. A previous game of mine, Mainichi, is projected on the wall through a veil of twine and hooked up to a Makey Makey which, along with conductive fabric, turned my body into a controller. I performed actions from the game, post-shower rituals, dressing, and putting on make up, and then the reverse to move in an endless loop. Objects from my house were used as props and players had to interact with me in spite of my movements and the intimacy the performance called for. It debuted at NYU’s Integrated Digital Media’s Spring 2016 showcase as a result of working with interactive installations and physical computing.

 

 

Some quick notes on why I made this project:

With the rise of VR has come this claim that one of its strengths was how the medium can act as empathy machines for people to understand one another, particularly advantaged people exploring the experience of the oppressed. Similarly in video games, the proliferation of games made by queer people about their experiences were dubbed “empathy games” which followed a pattern of the wider industry and games audience only caring about what marginalized creators are doing if it involves them talking about their pain and trauma. My game Mainichi is commonly used as an example of how to teach cisgender people about the trans experience, yet its design, critical engagement with other games, and my future work that isn’t about painful experiences are completely sidelined. My game was exhibited at events without my permission, conferences only wanted me to talk about harassment instead of my work and ideologies, and eventually after being on the receiving end of large-scale harassment produced by the industry, left unsupported. This was my attempt to reclaim Mainichi on my terms.

How games are curated and exhibited is a woefully underdeveloped conversation. For how much games advocates obsess over interactive differences between mediums, games mainly hang on walls barely played in galleries, sterile and robbed of any context. I believe that’s the lacking of both curatorial efforts and how most designers understand play. That there’s a performative element to games is commonly accepted, but rarely emphasized; games are showcased as objects instead of as vectors for experience. So this was an attempt to turn that around and show the crafted experience of Mainichi that I now would want people to witness. This part started in a conversation between Pippin Barr and I about performance, time, and the exhibition of games.

Finally, I wanted to put into practice some of my ideas about refocusing on play instead of the game object. This piece is the first of many in some practice-based research on alternative creative tools and theory for the field of game design and play. My aim is to bring the use of play to an activist setting through performance, coming up against conventional game design and analysis. This piece cannot be the same in every context and changes depending where it is exhibited. I plan to submit pieces like these to games events as interventions.

 

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