TED Talk: Using play for everyday activism

Well look at that, I gave a TED talk! I spent a lot of time on it and found out firsthand that this sort of public speaking is a completely different skill than stuff I’ve done before, so it was quite the experience. Watch the video and see an extended script of the talk below.



  • we can use play for everyday activism

Given current events, this is on everyone’s mind. Over drinks, through social media, the classroom, this is the question I get the most when discussing social problems through my work. Police brutality, settler and native conflicts, poverty, climate change, labor, all of these are huge, epic issues that we are now tasked to solve. “How do I end sexism?” It’s easy to be overwhelmed with not only trying to imagine a world without social oppression and irresponsibility, but how to even get there. Many people feel powerless in affecting the world in any tangible way. But with this heightened awareness, there isn’t a better time to activate grassroots efforts of ordinary people. I believe the answer to better futures is one rooted in everyday activism instead one that engages mostly on an epic scale. And the process of this everyday activism will be one of play.


  • we need to rethink how we are currently using games for social impact

I am not the first person to suggest games and play can be used to impact the world’s many problems. Six years ago, Jane McGonigal gave an influential TED talk about how epic gameplaying can help tackle epic social problems. It inspired me and many others interested in how culture works to pursue our interest in games as a medium of choice to enable social change. There is a whole genre called serious games that specifically uses play for education and social interests. You may have heard of Games for Change, an organization dedicated to social impact games that’s been around for more than a decade. These are epic initiatives, which stand in contrast to this everyday activism I am speaking about today. Game design here is typically used in a top-down system where a client wants to make people feel or do things differently and a game designer uses fun in order to encourage desired behavior or takeaways. My experience in the field finds that players of serious games are only really interested in the game part of that process, and as soon as their interest in the game fades, so does the underlying mission of spreading social messages. So how much are games impacting the world for good?


  • there’s not enough numbers on whether or not games are changing the world

We actually have no idea. I wish I could have a nice bar graph that showed you the issues of the world before and after serious games came around, but there is little research on the topic. Not only do very few companies and developers release data on how much they’ve impacted their target issue or audience, few even do that data collection in the first place. The discipline doesn’t have a good sense of how they are impacting the world, if they are at all. This is an issue when games promised to change epic problems. Instead we see game design deployed more for entertainment and business, which are fine uses on their own but are not the ways we as creators are going to enable people to change the world. We do need people working on epic problems, but I believe we ignore the people in our lives in order to be the hero for the final boss we don’t know how to reach.


  • what makes games a commercial success does not work for social change

The problem lies in how we fundamentally think of games and how to make them. Current design principles used for serious games come from the entertainment industry, using the interactions and themes of commercially successful video games hoping to capture the amount of people that commercial games do in scale. You’ve probably seen points, levels, quests, and leaderboards snuck into various spaces over the years in hopes to engage you in a social issue or service. Serious games are also known for taking popular game formats and adding social messaging to them, like adventure games, mobile puzzles, and platformers. Entertainment games focus on capturing the user’s attention and creating loops of fun to keep them playing as long and deeply as possible, and aren’t known for their sophistication in communicating complex topics to audiences. This is like choosing a spoon to cut your steak; you can technically do it, but it’s not going to work well and the result won’t be pleasurable for the person receiving said steak. Instead, we need to build from the ground-up new processes and design values that start with social impact instead of tacking it on a more superficial level.


  • playing with the everyday will change the world faster than epic games

Our new activism will have to draw from the everyday to find our resource material and interactions. Maybe instead of focusing on games as objects, we think in play as process. Creating play is manipulating environments, bodies, and social systems to reveal new possibilities. We are playing all the time without thinking. We play the roles of the genders, races, classes, and other social positions we choose or are assigned to us, moving to deeply ingrained scripts while making it our own. We are playing speaker and audience right now, informed by the rules we’ve learned through experience. But we also more explicitly play in economic systems with where and why we choose to spend our money. We play along with what life throws at us and sometimes we play with each other’s hearts or our food. Practically, we play more with everyday life than we do with games. This outlook enables grassroots movements, where epic games continue the tradition of only the few engaging with social problems.


  • it’s a method for granular, non-incremental change when epic change is impossible

The idea of epic games are too large in scale for any one person to actually find themselves in, distancing the average person from doing anything and leaving the action to those with the resources to tackle epic problems. Rather than trying to get everyone to pay attention to the same general social issues and rally as a united worldwide movement, I propose we all turn to the people next to us and work on our relationships. Can we even conceive of solving something so pervasive like racism when we haven’t creatively explored the topic with those close to us? I don’t mean to educate on the meaning and existence of racism, but to understand how the power dynamic of racism exists between you and the person next to you. This is intimate, vulnerable, and real, and work too few of us do. It is emotionally intensive and will continue for as long as you know someone. Imagine if our message was not for everyone to unite against one problem in one movement, but to engage on a one-to-one basis solving local and personal problems. This is a scale everyone can manage.


  • Gesturing Toward Utopias & Everyday Play

Referencing the work of queer and performance scholar Jose Esteban Munoz, my colleague merritt kopas sees games as model utopias where we can act out idealized futures. Understanding that we can find play in everyday life reveals infinite points of access for people to perform these utopia games with each other. This can come in the form of rituals, improv, remixing social rules, layering alternate realities in public spaces, anything that involves a call and response between people and social systems. But we can’t create utopia all at once through games. Unfortunately, there is no real metric for social change as a whole as our problems constantly shift and mutate as time goes on. What is one person’s utopia might be another’s hell. So play is used to gesture toward utopias instead of trying to make them instantly fully realized. Like fashion and memes, these gestures will beckon more gestures to create a connection with culture. Because the social problems we face aren’t purely mechanical, we have to work on changing culture, which can only happen with the participation of everyone inside of it.


  • games are instrumentalized instead of creating frameworks of relating

The games of today can’t do this because of how mechanical they are. First and foremost, they are products, designed to be used for a purpose. Games are made as objects that dispense experiences, whether it is to learn or feel something. They are ultimately authoritarian in the way they plan to affect those who play them by passing down preconstructed messages that don’t properly fit into people’s lives. Gesturing towards utopias through everyday play is a framework in how we all relate to each other. It aims to fill every moment of our lives with meaning and potential for creative and radical use. What I’m getting at here is everyone can make games that only require everyday life as their materials, whereas conventional game development continues to be gated and hostile towards marginalized people. Many games anticipate players who have excess in leisure time and resources to burn. Everyday play aims to be a pluralistic form of experience design.


  • gesturing allows us to imagine and express ourselves in ways achievement can not

Gesturing towards utopia isn’t about winning or productivity. The structures that allow those cannot contain the different ways we need to relate to each other in order to challenge social issues on a personal level. The design goals of entertainment games are notoriously narrow because of the prerequisite of fun being linked to winning. Instead, religious scholar James P. Carse points towards ‘infinite games,’ or a kind of play which seeks only to keep itself going. Think of it as an elongated and more subtle “yes, and” from improv, a kind of play that seeks out response that will want a reaction in turn. This constant back and forth is creative as much as it is a designed experience. The strengths of both art and design exhibit themselves in everyday play.


  • there is a diversity issue in types of play and tactics

Though it is getting better, we have a diversity problem in the tech sector. Women are beginning to get more lead positions but are often still kept from the top from decades of sexism entrenching men in roles that don’t change over very often. Even with more women being involved with making games, those who are making decisions in these epic games are overwhelmingly white. When homogeneity of perspective is coupled with minimal research, you get ineffective works at best, but most likely game experiences that are exploitative of its subject matter. I’m reminded of a conversation I had at a games conference where a white man approached me and wanted to make a VR experience about being a poor black woman. There are more ‘empathy games’ made by white people about everyone else than a focus on how marginalized creators wish to express their own experiences. Everyday activism wants to reverse this process and begin in the personal exchange of two people, gesturing to others who might want to gesture back.


  • Performance Art

I am in the middle of my research exploring the different tactics we can use to implement everyday activism in our communities, companies, and platforms, but I want to share some sources of inspiration that are helping me create a practice around gestures. The first being performance art, particularly happenings. Back in the 50s and 60s, Allan Kaprow created this term for performances that took place among the daily motions of life, sometimes unbeknownst to the people around the performer. He was firm in his practice of drawing from everyday life and resisting designated art spaces. The programs of happenings resemble a list of rules that the performer follows to start and complete the piece and is very specific to the time and location of where it will take place. I believe these programs hold the more formal nature of everyday play that links them to design and serve as a jumping off point for artists and institutions.


  • Video Game Zines

Back in 2012 there was a DIY revolution in games led by trans women that took game-making tools that didn’t require programming and made personal video games for their communities. Punctuated by the publishing of anna anthropy’s Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, there has been an increase in people making games for personal expression instead of entertainment products. Not requiring programming knowledge allowed marginalized people kept out of the discipline to add their voices to the growing medium, and the result was a more diverse rebirth of shareware from the 90s. It draws upon zine culture from the same time period that helped establish radical queer communities, so now we see games about self-care, prison abolition, safe and consensual sex practices, and many topics we rarely see in epic games. We can tap this ethos for our everyday play, a support network of gestures that shifts culture making into community.


  • Transition Design

Drawing from design disciplines outside of games also helped form my ideas about everyday play. Considering we can’t ignore how institutions and companies interact with people to create culture and social conditions, service design becomes a useful perspective when connecting our personal play to more complicated networks. More specifically, transition design, coming from Carnegie Mellon’s School of Design, takes the strengths of service design and moves them away from just corporate solutions to thinking about long-term sustainability. Where most of design is concerned with solving discrete problems, transition design wants to tackle ‘wicked problems,’ problems that have many moving parts, like needing a large amount of people to change their behavior or mindset about a topic.


  • Mainichi

Though much of the play I am thinking of isn’t discrete pieces, rather continuous lightly structured actions, I’d like to share some of my experiments that attempt to connect to people on personal rather than epic levels to communicate a social message. The first was my own zine-like game Mainichi that depicts a section of my everyday life and the problems I encounter as a trans woman. I made this game for my best friend who, while supportive of me and my struggles, couldn’t fully grasp the nuances of my decision-making in spoken conversation. I gave her this game where she went through the decisions I have to make before leaving the house, including how to present myself, and the impacts of how others treated me and my resulting mental health. When I released this game to the general public, it caught on because of its specific and personal nature and has toured event spaces for the past 4 years. This game took me a week to make, where most epic games take months and years.


  • empathy machine

The following years of Mainichi’s release saw a rise in ‘empathy games’ and using technology to enable users to empathize better with the subject matter at hand. Wanting to resist the experience tourism I saw happening in my field and to my work, I reimagined Mainichi into a performance and installation. Using physical computing to turn my body into a controller, players attempted to play the game as I performed actions from my daily life. At first I tried to keep silent and wanted this pure performance where people understood the intrusiveness of current empathic uses of technology, but soon I started to converse with players as they mentally worked through the dissonance they felt while playing. I realized during this performance that I couldn’t expect to enact change by putting up this one-way art, but by enabling a conversation in an uncomfortable situation.


  • EAT

Picking up on the influence of the happenings and the performative program as game, I created a calendar where a past partner of mine had to reenact a period of my life where the stress of acquiring student debt and trying to find work in a job market that didn’t have room for me was at its highest. He would have needed to act according to specific rule amidst his daily motions until he couldn’t anymore. The game runs infinitely on google calendar, acting both as a game reserve and a memoir to a particularly tough time in my life that I feel like I need to share with people who don’t experience the struggles I do.


  • we can activate everyday change by gesturing through play

The work for making everyday play a real force is still underway and not an effort that can be taken alone. It’s a process for communities, partners, friends, colleagues, institutions, not for a lone artist to dispense to everyone else. Games and play are exciting and new ways to engage with social change, but aren’t merely all fun as the words imply. The first step is discovering the play around us and learning how to use that play to speak to each other. Like all new processes we have to learn this new way of relating, but the barrier to entry is as low as one can get. If we can further anchor play into our everyday lives, gesturing towards utopias, I believe we will find ourselves in a new era of social change.

Thank you!

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