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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