Five Assumptions for Real Play

(written for the Ludic Society magazine, issue 5)

Johan Huizinga once wrote:

Play is a free activity, standing outside ordinary life, as being not serious but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is connected with no material interest and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings which tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world by disguise or other means.

Master Huizinga may have been right in terms of play theory but if we try to apply this definition to the case of today’s virtual online gaming worlds, we might indeed need some adjustments. Online gaming worlds are becoming ordinary lives. They are connected to material interest and they even have their own economies. Time and space seem limitless. Users are absorbed more and more by their avatars identities, by their ‘second lives’, by their new characteristics and behavioural patterns. The new immersive gaming environments are fascinating and promising and maybe seem closer to reality than ever.

Pas mal!

But, how about real play? Play in real life? And how about real players? Where are they today?

1st assumption

Back to the streets, to the banlieues of Paris and anywhere in the world. “The suburbs in France and elsewhere are not built for living but for playing, either with cars or bikes or with your own body as a game character.” The building jumpers are players of today’s lives. Props can be added to them as it happens in the MMORPGs. Their play level can be indicated by a game status bar. A real life clip is then made, massively re-pixelated where play can regain its philosophical notion, as it is preserved for all the real players found in real cities today.

[the Ludic Society: ready played, video installation]

2nd assumption

In our own ‘real identities’. Big white letter signs can be created with your name, in a size appropriate to your body type. Like in WoW or SL, you are then able to move inside a city with your name on top of your head. Others will know who you are. They can address to you and talk to you by using your name. All can be possible, as it is in online worlds. NB: You will only need another person, a friend to kindly carry the sign for you so that you can move freely.

[Aram Bartholl: WoW, performance]

3rd assumption

To the margins, to exception zones where real people live and real video games are designed. In Madrid, a group of young Moroccans created a video game about their lives with the assistance of the collective Fiambrera. If you try to win or go very far in the game, it won’t be possible…only because in life it isn’t either. But play is for real, and it given as a tool to people to recover control over their own lives and environments.

[Fiambrera: Bordergames, workshop & videogame]

4th assumption

To geopolitical ex-war zones, where people form collaboration networks. Artists, art critics, writers, curators of the Southeastern Europe contributed with projects, experiences and beliefs for the creation of The making of Balkan Wars: the game. Focusing on the social and cultural issues of the Balkan Peninsula, the video game created, counteracted the sensational spectacle of war as this was presented by the media, deconstructed stereotypes, focused on the distortion of identities, and revised the dominant logic of explanation. With avatars inspired by classic Balkan characters representing local prejudices and beliefs, users were taken in a journey where their balkanisation was tested.
[Personal Cinema: The making of Balkan Wars: the Game, online 3D multiuser videogame]

5th assumption

To the military virtual training when intervention reverses the rules. In a game that thousands of young Americans log in and play, Joseph Delappe gets in and with his login name ‘dead-in-iraq’ types names, names of real soldiers that died in Iraq. His intervention has been considered as spam and anti-national and has annoyed users. But at the same time, it has been a political antiwar action in a propaganda game where play takes the form of a performance and reminds users of reality and of the real players in the war outside.

[Joseph Delappe, Dead-in-iraq, on line gaming intervention]

All assumptions stand. Life and play, play and life always merged and will continue to affect one another. Virtual worlds will continue to expand, to gain users, to offer exciting experiences. And at the same time artists following their famous predecessors of the 20’s and 60’s, the Dadaists and the Surrealists, the Situationists and the Fluxus, they can see beyond the dominant media structures and  use play as a means reversing the rules and present alternative ways of playing and perceiving. Stereotypes are challenged, hierarchies are hacked and rules are broken. The inspiration however is always out in the streets.

Everyday life is not everything – although its osmosis with specialized activities is such that in a sense we are never outside of everyday life. But to use a facile spatial image, we still have to place everyday life at the center of everything. Every project begins from it and every realization returns to it to acquire its real significance. Everyday life is the measure of all things: of the fulfilment or rather the non-fulfilment of human relations; of the use of lived time; of artistic experimentation; of revolutionary politics.

-Guy Debord

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