Playing with Play

Even when you’re caught up about it in a middle of a discussion, most conversations about the words we use can seem silly the moment we take a step back and look at things holistically. I find this happens most in the vacuum of definitions and the categorization that results from it, and it’s easy to see how power dynamics quickly come out with deciding rightness. I think about the times when a word takes on a new light, or is used for something unconventional, and how that can be exciting and stimulating. Specifically calling up an association while recognizing the process, not laying claim to a term, rather pulling subtext from our cultural subconscious.

This is my current relationship with the word play, and how I tend to use it to describe what I do and think. I wonder sometimes if there’s a difficulty with talking about more than video games in design and reach because of how solid and definitional games are as objects, and people tend to organize themselves by the objects they design and consume. As well, a lot of the posturing that happens in conversations about one tends looks rather flawed in another, when play as a concept holds them all together. I think this is because there is less conversation about how people relate to things, especially holistically as beings that do things other than be entertained, instead of how things work.

There are scholars who can go further and probably better into the play conversation than I can, yet I think the point I’m trying to make is easily done with whatever life experience any person has. What are all the instances of the word ‘play,’ directly related to games or not, that one can think of? There’s the play which means to act in a way for enjoyment rather than for practical reasons. A play can be a production, and to play in that kind of play is to assume a role that isn’t your day-to-day persona. Playing can be engaging with someone intimately and also being manipulative and careless. To make a play might just be a declarative action, or to play around with something might be figuring it out. When something plays out, it unfolds, or maybe it only appears for a moment.

When we play and design for play to happen, there is a broader language and range of approach we can take than I find is typically discussed. You can see traces of what games overall do in the descriptions above, but they move conversation from the game object and the relationship the person has with play. Most talk about design is focused on how to make good objects, but consider that a lot of play in life that we engage with doesn’t come from purposefully designed objects meant for play. That object design was chosen as the main focus of creating play experiences is a fluke, a weird kind of specialization that we don’t have to stick with as we move on thinking about play.

I’m going on about this because I think this is a viable path of thought if we’re going to think of the advancement of design outside of the current commercial space and into something that can create social change, be accessible to many more people, and tap experiences we feel mainstream and tech-focused games can’t or aren’t willing to. I also find it will be a more holistic approach to teaching design to others and let tools just be tools. We’ve focused s much on tools in video games that we’ve self-selected a lot of people out of participating in what is considered the games art movement, and if the concept of games and play is truly still a young one, than we need to change that perception and education as soon as possible.

I’ve been on a sabbatical of sorts for games, but due to my overachiever habits I’ve gotten into more event organizing for my side interests. For many of them, I continue my work as a safe space coordinator and consultant so events are both welcoming and prepared to protect marginalized people and overall make sure everyone is having a fun time. One of these events happens to be kink-related, where both socializing and play will be happening, and I’m in charge of creating rules for our space. What is really interesting about the intersection of kink and games proper is how many words and concepts are shared, but are utilized in completely different ways. There aren’t just rules to be made, but protocols and these are distinct things. Play is a solid concept when you look at it but disappears the moment you try to hold onto it. While having sex (and what is considered sex is extremely divergent person to person) is play, in that space so is asking if you can grab someone a drink. Simply sitting down looking elegant with a wristband that signals you want to be served is definitely play. But no one would really say the event is one large game, and that the event needs a designer by that term. Because I happen to be design-minded, I see that the structure of the event creates certain behavior and allows people to have certain experiences. I can notice how the inclusion and exclusion of certain rules and protocols create opportunities or reinforce status quo for marginalized individuals. In this way, each other’s safety, comfort, and also engagement are all part of the same play experience, and needs to hold as many ideas of play in it at once in order for it to function. In hindsight, I see how non-kink events I’ve helped with also promote certain kinds of behavior given the structure of this expanded notion of play, yet being in thick of planning for this one has really opened my eyes to it.

Before I was anywhere near games criticism and design, I was acquiring skills so that I could become a ‘life designer.’ When I was younger, I loved to watch HGTV, TLC, the Food Network, especially all those dating and fashion tips shows along with interior design. What I noticed as a connection between all these is how people needed to have certain aspects of their lives designed for them so they could see things differently, or maybe to move past that, experience life on another level. These shows were obviously porn for the affluent, yet it made sense that the people on these shows needed someone who understood the influences of the world around them and structured them in a way that made things better.

I recall that now as I do these events, that I’m designing ‘life,’ or I guess reality? It sounds really pompous to say that, not sure if I have language beyond that though. And it’s what I think would serve a better ideological center for designing play experiences than the digital entertainment industry, because the latter can evolve in a way that helps shapes experiences, but only if it’s released from being The Video Game Industry. I feel like this would better equip us to see the design of online platforms and to counter-design against them to make our own spaces. It’s a perspective that can help us go beyond the current problems of games without completely discarding them. Time to rethink our many relationships to play.

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