Who dares to de-sacralise today’s play

(curatorial text for Homo Ludens Ludens, April – September 08, Laboral, Spain)

“All creatures live in a world of strong feelings and are dominated by those feelings. We constantly seek to manage the variable contingencies of our lives for success over failure for life over death. Play it self maybe a model of just this everyday existentialism.”
Brian Sutton-Smith (1997/2001:228)

“The goal of play”, the Situationists were stating in their Contribution to a Situationist Definition of Play in 1958, “must be at the very least to provoke conditions favourable to direct living.” Back in the ‘60s, play was considered by the situationists a decisive factor that could eliminate competitions and hierarchies, bring in passion and desires, and emphasize people’s subjectivities. “Only play can deconsecrate, open up the possibilities of total freedom. This is the principle of diversion, the freedom to change the sense of everything which serves Power;” (Vaneigem 1967) Some decades later, the total invasion the situationists were hoping for, partially happened in an unforeseen way, with play being present in many sectors of our lives, used as a tool, as a platform, as a medium. Play’s expansion can not be doubted but its freedom can be seriously questioned. Play today is enclaved in various politicised and commercialised forms that are considered influential to our culture. But does play itself has the power to change structures and provoke changes in our contemporary times?

Giorgio Agamben considers play a most important element in culture, explaining that it is the only one that can profane what is considered sacred. It can liberate humanity from the “sacred”, without negating it. It can profane the “sacred” without destroying the myth behind; it does not simply politicise. And if play is to cause changes and form our lives in better ways, this would be through its capacity to be an act of profanation by itself. But, unfortunately, this tendency according to Agamben is in decline and the need to regain it is a political necessity (Agamben 2006 : 127).

What are the conditions of play today? Can it seriously play a role in our everyday lives? Who could re-attribute its capability to profane?

Defining play

There have been many definitions of play from different disciplines and orientations. Sutton – Smith in his book The Ambiguity of Play refers frequently to Mihail Spariosu who had called play “amphibolous” describing a basic disagreement between the Western philosophers over whether play is an orderly and rule- governed affair according to the common western society norms, or a chaotic, violent and indeterminate interaction of forces, according to some more modern approaches (Sutton Smith 1997/2001: 80). Roger Caillois had also seen two poles in play, but as a continuum where diversified forms could be set. On one extreme we find “paidia”, an “indivisible principle”, common to diversion, turbulence, free improvisation and carefree gaiety which is manifested by uncontrolled fantasy. At the other end, we find “ludus”, bound with “arbitrary, imperative and purposely tedious conventions”. The more the “frolic and impulsive exuberance” of paidia is “disciplined by an inversed tendency to its anarchic and capricious nature”, the more play approaches ludus (Caillois 1958/2001: 13).

The Western European thought mostly followed the rationalistic common pattern and embraced the politicized, ruled form of play surpassing its anarchic and vivid features. This can be easily seen by the well known definitions of Huizinga and Caillois who, although they described play as free and unproductive activity, still insist on its dependency on the rules and its separation from everyday life. (Caillois 1958/2001: 43, Huizinga 1955: 13)

Is it play or game?

The old scholars, Huizinga and Caillois, did not especially differentiate the two terms. It seems that the rules that institutionalised play gave form to games. Play appears to be the idea, the notion, the anarchic and spontaneous basis, the activity based on fantasy, what Caillois called paidia, as Plato and Aristotle first put it. Accordingly, games seem to be the expressions and the forms of play that are governed by rules, demand discipline and form hierarchies, need a constraint space and time, reflecting more the ludus element. Generally, one could assume that play as a notion precedes games – it is their presupposition; it is the play ‘instinct’ that inspires the formation of forms. (Huizinga in Wark 2007: 181)

In our times, with the explosion of the video game industry, the two words seem to have enclosed different features and ideas. Edward Castronova highlights the difference as follows: “Play is an intense, survival- relevant action that is not serious… Play is make believe… Play is an easy- to- copy behaviour that brings joy… Games are not the same thing as play. Games are designed goal environments with uncertain outcomes. They are social institutions. Games are a perfect environment for creating play, but also they appear under other circumstances. Elections… stock markets… wars are games.”  (Castronova 2007: 100,101)

In the digital era, games in the form of video games distant themselves more from play. Games compared to play can be described, can be analysed; they become a product, a commodity; they can be copied, copyrighted and become a subject of control. As Alexander R. Galloway notes, the video game is a cultural object bound by history and materiality, consisting of an electronic computational device and a game simulated in software (Galloway, 2006: 1)

Risks of play

Mckenzie Wark writes in his recent book Gamer Theory that games are no longer a past time, outside or alongside of life. They are now the very form of life, and death, and time, itself (Wark 2007: 06) To a certain degree, every civilization can be described and characterised by its games but what happens today is that life itself has taken the form of a game; of game and not play. While gaming platforms today are being used widely for different disciplines we might need to wonder: What are the risks play runs in this context? How could they be faced?

The risk of contamination

According to the classic thinkers of play, there was one main threat for play, its “contamination” by the ordinary life. Play could only be considered as a “stepping out of real life, into a temporary sphere with a disposition of its own” (Huizinga 1955: 8). The world of play and that of everyday life were considered as two different universes, antagonistic to each other (Caillois, 1958/2001: 44, 53).

This austere distinction was what the situationists tried to break and to transcend. “Play, radically broken from a confined ludic time and space, must invade the whole of life”, they stated in 1958. The situationists with their notions of the psychogeographies, the derive, the situation and the détournement had proposed a fusion of play into the cities, a total swift where the player is in reality the “liver”.

In our days, a different fusion of play occurred. Our everyday life is a fusion in itself of the virtual and the real. As Edward Castronova mentions “the real world can be a terribly empty place.” Synthetic worlds may offer experiences and opportunities that one might not have in their real life. Of course, “reality remains reality, strongly sensated but unfiltered, raw. It will always command attention, but it has long since abandoned the claim to all of our attention. We already live partly in media. Games are just the latest improvement.”  (Castronova 2007: 30, 69)

The risk of productivity

Play is longer by definition an occasion of pure waste; waste of time, energy, ingenuity and skill. Play’s second major risk is the one formed by productivity, by players who belong to the generation of the prosumers, as they are producers and consumers at the same time.

Play nowadays becomes part of the immaterial labour, within which as Lazzarato notes ‘leisure time’ and ‘working time’ are increasingly fused, making play – in our case- inseparable from work (Lazzarato 1997). This affective labor of play produces the informational and cultural content of the commodity that at the end is defined as game. Within this content stand today’s synthetic worlds where the players contribute voluntarily with their work and behaviour to the formation of the gaming worlds and the augmentation of the virtual economy. Communication is continually improved as the power of this form is found in the collective process, in the users/prosumers social relations.

People of course might as well make profit for themselves. This kind of play can be to their advantage. But one can not overlook the fact that this era of ludocapitalism, as Dibbel frames it, is “a curious new post-industrial revolution, driven by play as the first one was driven by steam”. (Dibbell in Shaviro 2007)

The risk of being the alibi

The risk of play being exploited and being used as an alibi for economical or political profit is not a new one. The ambiguous –in ethic terms – economy of the casinos, the lotteries and the hippodromes or even the economy of the sports industry are such phenomena that have given birth to discussions, problems and even scandals for most of the countries of the Western world.

However, the highest risk for play today is found in the exploitation of play being made by the military entertainment complex. War as a game is an old metaphor. Chess and Go and especially the 19th century Kriegsspiel which was used to aid Prussian officers, could be considered as predecessors of the games that would be used for military entertaining purposes later on (Halter 2002).
But what the media and especially the video games changed was the possibilities given for nationalistic propaganda. Games like America’s Army, are at the same time a recruiting tool, an edugame, a test bed and tool and a propaganda game. Such games can influence attitudes and behaviours and win a communication battle that would otherwise be lost. Creating falsifying images of super-clean pure war, as seen on the screens, the games succeed in “using sweet power to win a war on ideas” (Neiborg 2007: 79)
Summarizing the risks above, the impression given is that we have “nowhere to hide outside the gamespace” (Wark 2007: 183). But, are we trapped within a total game or is play itself trapped as well at the end?

The sovereignity of the game over play today is a fact. Having been institutionalized, play has been accredited with the seriousness of an academic, social, political and economic value and has become an issue of controversial discussion accordingly. But in reality, again, it is mostly games we are talking about, not play.

Contemporary play is purposely sacralised and distant, used as an excuse for games’ abuses. Being considered sacred, play’s case reminds us of religion. Religion does not unify all; on the contrary it keeps the roles distinct and separated. It keeps people apart from the divine (Agamben 2006: 124). So it happens with play, keeping the players apart from play itself. Could this separation be broken? And could play become an important contributory factor to our lives’ amelioration?

Setting play free

“It was in fact from art that play broke free” Raoul Vaneigem wrote in reference to Dada (Vaneigem 1967).

To transcend rigid and crystallized forms, rules need to be broken. One can play by rules, or play with the rules. Freedom can be regained by those who can play with today’ s forms of play, who can appropriate them, see through and reverse them, by those who can profane what is considered sacred.

Following the famous predecessors of the dada, Surrealism, Fluxus and Situationism, artists today turn again towards play and use it as a means to challenge stereotypes, to offer new ways of reading and understanding, to break the constraints and offer new perspectives. Art merged with new media, activism, philosophy, politics and social sciences takes the role of the animator, the hacker, the player – “liver” today. Artists working on these fields through projects that do not necessarily need to be game – based, reveal play’ s multifaceted original character  and propose means for its use, liberation and expansion within different sides of life.

Play as play…

Play can not be doubted and its fundamental role, original features and continuous presence is what some artists highlight. Axel Stockburger’s Tokyo Arcade Warriors – Shibuya and William Wegman’ s Dog Duet (Two Dogs and a ball) showcase how play absorbs one in the most serious and utter way. Documenting only the figures of players and not the action itself, one can still not deny or doubt play even if it is hidden. Other artists working on the field, show how playfulness is kept intact, while common playgrounds are being transformed into new ones based on technology. Such are the cases of Himalaya’ s Head by Devart where a snow war takes place between physical and virtual players or Jumping Rope by Orna Portugaly, Daphna Talithman and Sharon Younger, where participants are invited to jump a rope which is being turned by two virtual projected characters.

Play back in action…

Artists like the Ludic Society and Gordan Savicic follow a neo – situationist approach of play; they bring action back to the real dimension and spread it in the cities. In their projects they create ludic ambiances and city walks where the notions of the “dérivé”, the “détournement” and the “psychogeographies” are being appropriated to raise questions about today’s everyday life and potentialities for playfulness. Objects of Desire by the Ludic Society is a playful metaphor where objects take the place of subjects, with obsessions and desires that they follow to find their home. Gordan Savicic’ s Constraint City / the pain of everyday life is based on a corset with high torque servo motors and a WIFI-enabled game-console, that when worn, can write and read the city codes while also being a fetish object causing pain according to the strength of signal it gets.

Following a different direction, David Valentine and MediaShed, also re-invite play back to the ordinary life, as seen on their video The duellists that documents a CCTV parkour performance. Two free-runners run an acrobatic competition in a shopping mall of Manchester Arndale. The fluid, uninterrupted movement of them acting as players re – energizes the environment in the most vivid and spontaneous way.

Play caught in between…

Other artists look into limits between the virtual and the real in today’ s play. The work of Silver and True named Sell your Rolex comments on the virtual dimension lived by millions of people today. Taking the roles of the user and its avatar, players note that behaviours of the virtual world are odd, funny and embarrassing when brought back to real life. How accurate is simulation after all in realistic terms? The MIT Lab with Stiff People’ s League mingles the two dimensions through a mixed reality game of soccer, happening simultaneously in the real space and in the world of Second Life. The common relationship between physical and virtual world is inverted as physical players need to rely on the virtual ones to play the game.

Play reclaimed…

Different questions are being raised by artists regarding play’s exploitation for purposes of political, nationalistic and ideological propaganda. Is morality a question? Are people conscious enough about what they are playing? John Klima in his project The Great Game.Epilogue brings reality into a game context as he incorporates in a child’s arcade ride true information from the conflict in Afghanistan, which has been collected by the Department of Defense of the US. John Paul Bichard with the Art of War addresses the issue of the representation of violence and its ways of interpretation through the contemporary media. Through two video works with footages from the army, one cannot tell what is real and what is imaginary anymore. In a similar direction, Vladan Joler has created the Schengen Information System, Version 1.0.3, a game where the player takes on the role of the activist who should intrude the building of the Schengen Information System and destroy the archives. Making use of publicly accessible technology and information, the artist has managed to make a realistic reconstruction and reverse the common use of games for military training purposes.

Derivart wishing to tackle a socio-economical issue -that of real estate in Spain – use play to situate a problem and raise people’s awareness. The Burbujometro,  showing the prices of apartments in different Spanish cities in the form of bubbles, that the user can shoot, criticizes the building boom of the 2000s.

Play 2.0…

The Folded-in project, created by Personal Cinema and the Erasers is a different critique on today’s play. The project examines the notion of borders in the era of the web 2.0 social networks. In the form of an online game application which reverses and criticizes the platform of YouTube, the projects seeks to find if players in the digital spaces could be liberated from their common prejudices and beliefs and to what extent they are supporters of immaterial labour, being the ideal prosumers. Taking this problem more to its extremes, one meets the phenomenon of the gold farming. Ge Jin with his documentary The  Gold Farmers examines how the growth of virtual economy has given birth to the phenomenon of the gaming sweatshops and aims to answer how it leads play to become real work and what facts are hidden behind it.

Play re-discussed…

But how far can games and their creators go when observing, reproducing and criticizing today’s real world? Danny Ledonne, a young artist from Colorado, polarised the audience when he made a videogame of the Columbine assassination in the 90’s. Wishing to express this controversy, he made a documentary about the game investigating the issues of games, violence, and ethics. A lot of answers regarding the strategies followed by artists today and the phenomenon of the play culture, are also given in the 8 bit documentary by Marcin Ramocki & Justin Strawhand where they examine the overall influence play has in our everyday culture.

CONCLUSION

Play in our times presents a paradox. Despite its wide use and continuous presence in different forms of cultures, it is distant and trapped in its own formations, the games. Games are being accused; play is being sacrilised and is placed on a pedestal. Running certain risks, within this structure, play’s influential role on our culture is questioned. If, following Giorgio Agamben, play’s significance lies on the fact that it can detach humanity from the “sacred”, play would need to liberate itself first from the constraints of the sacred. To achieve this, one should not deny play; because this would lead to its cancellation. What one should do is to profane, to neglect, to surpass the constraints and break the rules. And this again can happen only through play itself, through its anarchic and vivid features that are today being wept out. This is how the actions taken by the artists can be described: as actions of profanity where they appropriate the myth and reverse the ceremony of the sacred. This violation is also an act of play itself that is then set free from all constraints. But there is one last point to remember: According to Agamben, profanation gains its complete meaning only when what has been profaned, is then rendered back to the people, at their disposal to start all over again. So this act is not an act of cancellation or politicisation; it is an act about raising awareness and about re-assigning to play its capacity to become a passage for true life, as Vaneigem would describe it. Can art fulfill this? Let’s hope so and wait and see…


REFERENCES

1. Agamben, Giorgio. Profanations. Agra editions, Athens, 2005/2006

2. Caillois, Roger. Man, Play and Games. University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chigago, 2001

3. Castronova, Edward. Exodus to the Virtual World: How online fun is changing reality. Palgrave Macmillan, New York. 2007

4. Contribution to a Situationist Definition of Play, Internationale Situationniste #1 (June 1958), Situationist International online. viewed 10 February 2008. http://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/si/play.html

5. Galloway, Alexander R. Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2006

6. Halter, Ed. War Games: New Media Finds Its Place in the New World Order. 2002. Viewed 10 December 2006, The Village Voice, http://www.villagevoice.com/news/0246,172542,39834,1.html

7. Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens. The Beacon Press, Boston, 1955

8. Lazzarato, Maurizio. Immaterial Labour, viewed 5 January 2008. Generation online,   HYPERLINK “http://www.generation-online.org/c/fcimmateriallabour3.htm” http://www.generation-online.org/c/fcimmateriallabour3.htm

9. Nieborg, David. “We want the whole world to know how great the U.S. Army is!” – Computer Games and Propaganda. Gaming Realities: A challenge for Digital Culture, ed. Manthos Santorineos, Fournos, Athens, 2006

10. Shaviro, Steven, Money for Nothing: Virtual Worlds and Virtual Economies. 2007. Viewed 12 February 2007,  HYPERLINK “http://www.shaviro.com/Othertexts/MMOs.pdf” http://www.shaviro.com/Othertexts/MMOs.pdf

11. Sutton-Smith, Brian. The Ambiguity of Play. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts/ London, 1997/ 2001

12. Vaneigem, Raoul. The Revolution of Everyday Life, viewed 20 February 2008 nothingness.org. http://library.nothingness.org/articles/SI/en/display/214  HYPERLINK “http://library.nothingness.org/articles/SI/en/display/212″ http://library.nothingness.org/articles/SI/en/display/212

13. Wark, McKenzie. Gamer Theory. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, 2007

2 Comments

  1. Posted %A %B %e%q, %Y at %I:%M %p | Permalink

    always i used to read smaller content that also clear their motive,
    and that is also happening with this piece of writing which I am reading at this time.

  2. Posted %A %B %e%q, %Y at %I:%M %p | Permalink

    Nice post on play. I think of play as part of a larger concept of error, chance, humor, and “failure” as a form of resistance. Thanks.

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