Play. We all know it when we see it but, rather like love and pornography, it is very difficult to precisely define. Most of us have some understanding when play is no longer playful but something else, like a competition or something ‘serious’. How is it that we seem to be able to recognise an ‘invitation to play’ (Pesce 1996)1 almost instinctively and what does this mean for artists and designers working in this area, what can guide the creation of their work?

Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens (1955)2, was arguably the first comprehensive attempt to develop a definition of the “play element in culture” It is also perhaps the most un-playful. Twenty years later French philosopher and writer, Roger Caillois, built on Huizinga’s work in Man, Play and Games (Les Jeux et les Hommes, 2001) and declared enthusiastically:

“A characteristic of play, in fact, is that it creates no wealth or goods, thus differing from work or art [...] Nothing has been harvested or manufactured, no masterpiece has been created, no capital has accrued. Play is an occasion of pure waste: waste of time, energy, ingenuity, skill, and often of money...” (2001, p.5 – 6).3

Caillois is, surprisingly, not dismissing play with this sentiment, but rather challenging us to re-appraise the contemporary view of play as worthless. Wasting time might be worthwhile after all, thank goodness, but drawing play away from any particular rhetoric, whether one of progress and biological development or of competition and socialisation is surprisingly difficult. The reason why humans play remains ambiguous despite our best efforts (Sutton-Smith 1997).4

At the same time, the boundary of gaming, play and art is becoming increasingly blurred as artists and designers explore new technologies. Art has always had a playful element, of course, but there is still a tendency for galleries to stick to being the whitebox “shrine for contemplating sacred objects” (Paul 2005).5 Yet I believe most engaging interactivity is based on play and play is based in such ideas as physical movement, humour, noise, activity and often transgressive behaviour (play is usually something set apart from ‘real world’ rules, after all). Most of these forms of behaviour will result in you being swiftly escorted from a gallery by security officers.

The conundrum for artists working in the Game/Play arena is exploring playfulness and games as an important aspect of culture, whilst avoiding the common dismissal of the Big Fine Art world that they simply turn the gallery into a playground (Huhtamo 2004,6 Polaine 2005).7 The danger when game art tries to subvert typical gaming categorisations and clichés to bring our attention to a particular issue, or to comment on videogame culture itself is that they fail to engage with the very medium they are trying to subvert. Often these are neither terribly interesting games nor particularly successful artworks.

Creating a seductive invitation to play is critical to those working with interactive media. Without this, audiences do not even begin to engage with the rest of the work, its meanings, its depth. Going retro, simple, small and lowbrow often works better than trying to emulate the technical sophistication of contemporary videogames, which is beyond the resources and programming skills of all but a few artists. Many successful examples are noticeably kinaesthetic, which is a defining aspect of play (Winnicott 2001).8

Ultimately, like the secret to falling in love, perhaps the secret to play will forever remain slightly mysterious, and therein lays its charm. A generation of artists and designers have grown up with videogames and as they cease to be a novelty and simply part of the palette of culture from which to draw, the boundaries will blur even further. This is already evident when we trace camera-based interaction from Myron Krueger’s pioneering Videoplace (1974)9 to the massive popularity of the EyeToy camera on Sony’s Play Station 2.

Perhaps the real exhibition space for videogames is the lounge room or arcade, not the gallery. When we extract games from this environment we risk viewing them as anthropological specimens examined under glass in the museum. Games and play do not require the playfulness to be sucked out of them to make them ‘serious art’ nor does art need to be serious to say something important about the human condition. Games should not need to apologise for being games, nor play for seemingly having no purpose.

Play is important to culture – more so in the current global political climate – even if we struggle to define exactly why. We can easily understand this by imagining a world without play. It is time for galleries and museums to relax a little and let them become playgrounds without apology. You can start by enjoying the Game/Play exhibition. Have fun and most of all, you are invited to play.

1 Pesce, M. 1996, Three Panels in Two Days,, viewed 24th May 2006 .
2 Huizinga, J. 1955, Homo Ludens, The Beacon Press, Boston.
3 Caillois, R. 2001, Man, Play and Games, trans. M. Barash,University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago.
4 Sutton-Smith, B. 1997, The ambiguity of play, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.
5 Paul, C. 2005, Challenges for a Ubiquitous Museum: Presenting and Preserving New Media, viewed 20th April 2005 .
6 Huhtamo, E. 2004, ‘Trouble at the Interface, or the Identity Crisis of Interactive Art’, Framework, The Finnish Art Review, vol. 2004, no. 2.
7 Polaine, A. 2005, ‘Why Big Fine Art doesn’t understand interactivity’, REFRESH! First International Conference on the
Histories Of Media Art, Science and Technology, Banff New Media Institute, Canada, .
8 Winnicott, D.W. 2001, Playing and reality, Brunner-Routledge, London.
9 Krueger, M. 1974, Videoplace, .