Gesturing Towards Utopias

I gave a talk for a class titled “Design for This Century” at Parsons New School for Design working off a prompt that was loosely about applying design to topics such as gender, sexuality, race, and related oppressive systems. This is a topic uncommon in public discourse and most certainly for students on an accessible level, so I was excited to put it together and now share it, because it’s part of a conversation I’d like to see develop more. You can also consider this talk an outgrowth of a design manifesto I wrote, queer as in fuck me. I’m working on getting some audio/video for it, but for now, I’ll share the slides and some explanations as I remember it. Let’s start with the description of the talk:

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“The pressure to solve problems presented by systemic oppressions like racism and sexism isn’t new, but contemporary contexts of social justice activism and design paradigms illuminate new avenues for resistance. With games and play shifting back into focus as sites of engaging with politics, we are tasked imagining and creating designs that interrogate our relationships with power and oppression. Looking at political engagement with public and personal play along with complicated forms of resistance in identity politics, we can see design that allows us to make gestures towards new utopias. We will identify oppressive tendencies of game design, complicate purist ideas of social justice utopias, and aim to integrate design into people’s daily living experiences.”

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I think it’s a worthwhile venture to at least figure out what it means to be someone interested in both design and activism. What does it mean to use design for social good? Design is often associated with business, products, infrastructure, and other more conventionally practical uses that few actively think of being conduits for politics or activism. But given the increasing social awareness of society at large and many topics concerning diversity gaining notice in design industries, namely tech, this question is on everyone’s minds. This talk is going to answering this question, or at the very least, show how this question is incomplete in its imaginings.

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An advantage of a design perspective when looking at activist concerns is preexisting language to interrogate the social hierarchies we live in through systems design. Understanding the qualities of systems, how they can shape or organize information, being invisible forces to real phenomena, are all super vital perspectives. Since most people grapple with topics like discrimination and oppression from a lawful basis, that is, specific extreme acts that indicate a hateful inner disposition, it is difficult for the public to understand how these forces actually work in society, which is more typically in mundane everyday interactions by a system of accepted values, carried about by normal, good people since they’ve been socialized to do so since birth. Learning how systems work and intersect with each other is a major increase in competency when it comes to engaging with social issues as an activist.

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The problem with approaching these issues solely through design, however, is that culture doesn’t run like a well-oiled machine to produce exactly what some sort of directive sets out to make. People, and culture itself, is a creative force that makes messy meanings from within the bounds of the systemic forces. Gender, racial, sexual, and other identities are often described as being “expressed” or tied to some analogy involving performance. I find that this sort of expression is thought of as a nice bonus at best when designers go to tackle these problems, instead aiming to change some sort of behavior or level of knowledge. I think that if we’re going to use design to interrogate issues surrounding various systems of marginalization, we’re going to need as much of the arts’ sensibilities as we’re going to need design’s.

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There’s another problem with this though, as design and art are often separated, with what is good art and what is good design relying on this separation. This is troublesome for us because we need perspectives and sensibilities from areas dubbed either design or art, and we need institutions, organizations, spaces, and society to treat our potential work as both. Designed objects imply a sort of utility or popular use, such in architecture or furniture, while art is supposed to be ultimately useless and purely aesthetic. Neither camp can truly satisfy our needs here; we need the utility and usability of design with the creative expressions afforded to us by art. This is a false binary we don’t need to respect, but we still need to start somewhere.

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A useful example for a field of work that sits between the struggle of design vs art are games and game developers. Though most people in the game design industry are blissfully unaware of this tension in institutions outside of it, games, particularly video games, are trying to work out differences between the design and artistic needs of developers and players. Primarily thought of as a design field, games eventually became recognized as art and more creators are making games purely from an expressive point of view. In one hand, you had systems of rules that implored the player to display certain behavior, while in the other, the ability for the player to make meaning and appropriate games for their own creative uses.

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To further complicate this binary, I’m going to be speaking from a very specific conversation residing in games right now, about queerness in games, or at least, what could it mean for a game to be queer. Picking up steam in 2012, video games experienced a particular rise in DIY game making culture that was noticeably queer, mostly represented by trans women. As a result, creative and theoretical work that challenges the norms of game design were produced in relation to a population of creators that held activism or at least radical politics as a large part of their identity and work. Now, your work doesn’t necessarily need to be queer or a game to follow along with the ideas I’m fleshing out here, rather, I’m using this question of queerness in games and some leads on answers to it to frame how we could change our view on design and art and get to a practice that allows us to create for activism.

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Queer is a tricky term, and that’s kind of the point. I don’t necessarily want to give you a set-in-stone definition, but I like what Naomi Clark says here because it exposes a little of her design background. It’s a highly political term that designates a norm, something that is legible and valuable to wider culture, and implies there are different instances of illegibility outside of that. She would go on to describe queer as slippery, always shifting as what was accepted and normal shifted. Clark recognizes that there are systems at play here, but queerness is outside the ones that make sense. It is a meeting of the systemic and creative.

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Theoretical work in queer/of color critique and studies has some imaginings of this slippery identity. Both Norma Alarcón and José Esteban Muñoz make this figure to be in liminal, contradictory space, illegible to normative society but still very much a real body. Alarcón’s “not yet, that’s not it” requires an identity to be put forward and the recognition that it isn’t fully developed, it’s something, but not who the minoritized subject is. Muñoz’ writing on disidentification doesn’t see a subject purely identify with an experience in creative work but not wholly reject it either; this subject instead uses that imperfect imagining from dominant culture against itself. So as we see here, we can’t be creating work that just allows people identify themselves in it or act in a way that completely discards what society puts upon them. Instead, the implication is we’re to create for the appropriative impulses of identities we don’t have a full grasp on.

 

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This sits in conflict to the current paradigm of games for social change. Dubbed the genre of Serious Games, game design methodology from the entertainment industry and gamification were deployed in attempt to get players to care about various social issues. Though widely adopted and funded as educational, serious games are routinely criticized for being ineffective in their goal, mostly because they come from a strong design approach, missing the creative aspects afforded to people by play. Queerness in games intends to confront this problem through combining design knowledge with expressive intention, both on the part of the author and the players.

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One could say that the perspective of queerness in games is chiefly in conflict with normative game design from how much it’s preoccupation with being an entertainment object passes down oppressive values uncritically. Here citing Keith Burgun, merritt kopas delineates here how activities in games trains players in the values of capitalism by, first, designating games as something that requires leisure time, implying you must have work time, and then by using your leisure time to advance yourself. This sort of design doesn’t really help players think about systems nor how to creatively resist them, rather it teaches people how to be good citizens of such systems.

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It is common for designer to overlook the messages their games communicate to players for a multitude of reasons, but the main being few consider that the systems in games are political in nature and hold within them values that the player acts out. Even seemingly benign games like the pervasive Minecraft create a space where old colonial and contemporary imperialist fantasies are acted out in the common ‘virgin land is yours to completely conquer and mold’ video game scenario. It’s also worth mentioning that when games choose to represent marginalized bodies or themes, it’s in service to a presumed hegemonic identity and value system.

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These instrumentalized and exploitative methods of design come about from a conventional player-product relationship. Instead, Clark and kopas suggest elevating games from objecthood to agents in their own right, and focusing our attention on the relationship between people and games. It’s a relational approach that is open to people appropriating whatever the original context for the game is and allowing the game to stand for its own values without necessarily needing to entice a player based on the values of capitalism and imperialism. This highlights our relationship and bonds towards both designed systems and creative expression.

 

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Picking up references from actor-network-theory, there’s a clear link to how we can create around people’s relationships to politics through creative work that speaks to both design and art. Enter in Donna Haraway’s concept of the cyborg, which paints people not as beings with isolated, naturalized identities, but participants in networks of relations organized by politics. Using the blur between the organic and inorganic as a working image for our relationship with politics, Haraway shows that we cannot think of ourselves as an independent being with an identity etched in stone for us at birth. This imbues human-game relations with the political gravity that we need to manipulate for our activist work.

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This is a big challenge to how popular activism works, which is based on naturalized identities, focuses on the subjects as objects, and enforces a one-way hierarchical relationship. When we stay on this level for advocacy, we are stuck with questions and solutions for mere representation of identities as our method of resistance. When we open up our understandings of ourselves as nodes of relations, not only do we have a deeper understanding of how politics move about society, but we create systems of expression that link playful relations between humans and games with more contemporary and even futuristic activist concerns.

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All of this builds up to a small but very important shift in focus from creating games to creating play. Game design is product-oriented by focusing on what the player will be doing within the object, aiming to impart an experience directly within its bounds. Play creation would focus on exaggerating the relationship between agents, be them humans and games or humans with other humans, or even humans with the pervasive social systems of our lived lives. Game objects are completely utilitarian in in the way they exist with humans, most typically to entertain, but often also to get people to do something or gain certain habits. Creating play retains this openness, freeness that doesn’t need to be dominated by use in order to exist.

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However, we want to go beyond the binary of design vs art, which includes use vs uselessness. Tying this all together, queerness in games, and the possible perspective we need to take for activist action for contemporary issues, must be the struggle within the web of relations outlined by Haraway that makes movements towards imagined futures. Play in itself does not have to carry the baggage of uselessness in spite of conventional understanding of the word, but rather be a method of acting out and embodying new values that change the tenor of relations between ourselves, other people, and the systems that organize us.

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These are ways to act out our “not yet” identities, to create a disidentificatory relationship with the media we consume. In the current conversations about representation in media, there’s a clearly outlined end goal of the depiction of marginalized people in ways and places that serve the original interests of hegemony. Claiming relations of “not yet” is potentially infinite, a more honest representation of the relationships in our lives. Relationships don’t merely solve themselves and return agents to places of homeostasis, rather warp and change in little ways over time that settle some things while creating new ways of relating.

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I’ve been railing against design a lot, but there’s much to challenge on the art side of the equation as well. Back in the 1950s and 60s, performance art came into relevance and challenged the values of the art world, particularly by performing their art in the chaos of everyday life and emphasizing the participatory presence of other people. Happenings in particular were a strain of performance art that submerged itself into the motions of life outside the museum, often with a performer acting out their piece without anyone around them realizing anything is going on.

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In his manifesto on Happenings, which he coined, Allan Kaprow outlines numerous ways in how this art should fold into the fabric of the mundane instead of rupturing it for the purposes of art. In fact, Kaprow warns against using art as inspiration for creation, and implies Happenings and similar performances aren’t art, but something beyond such an institution. Happenings prove to be a super useful starting point to see how we can start creating relational work that, along with play and the cyborg, create space for us to proclaim “not yet” but still work to imagine what that “yet” might actually be.

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Because the influence of art would encourage us more into that realm of uselessness and suited for the gallery space, Kaprow suggests using the mundanity of our lives to inspire our creative work. This method forces a creator to look at the relationships already existent in life to emphasize in their work instead of making something so conceptual it becomes unattainable. This also focuses our creative attention on the lives we’re looking to express or change, involving whole bodies and not just conceptual imagined selves. I really believe that this honesty is important for work that wants to speak to the matrix of systems that influence our lives.

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This then sets the stage for enacting real change through creative expression, grounding performative spectacles through qualities of our lives and rupturing the essentialized narratives that society erects to obscure it dominating social systems. Through the performances of many queer creators, Muñoz evokes the concept of counterpublics, expressions of daily lives that society must ignore to keep its narrative intact. Creating these counterpublics acts as a model for intervention and lends agency to act out our “not yet” ideals.

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Performance is a strong theme in what I’m purposing, like taking the performative nature of identities like gender and race as inspiration for spectacles of performance to create counterpublics. Performance art has strong ties to play, politics, and activism that cannot be ignored by creatives looking to tap into interactive methods of resistance and expression. There is already some language surrounding games that deal with performance, and further delineating a history of play that involved performance art traditions would enrich our understanding of games.

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It is good to end this on a reminder that no one person or piece of work is going to solve social oppression. This sort of work needs to retain the “not yet,” looking forward while believing we can attain what we set out for. Much like queerness, our needs and ideals are constantly shifting, moving along as what was queer becomes normative, and new perspectives highlight areas for growth and resistance. This is attainable if we look around our lives for the basis of our creative process instead of the overarching narratives sold to us through the design vs art schism. Adopting this mentality would surely change the field of play and games as it currently stands, and challenge how institutions are involved with perpetuating dominating politics. With this, I truly think we can begin to surmount many of the obstacles design and art have with activism, including giving agency to those who are continually kept out to create for themselves.

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