POLITICISING PLAYCULTURE by MARY FLANAGAN
As already mentioned, much of contemporary everyday life takes place on and through the computer, and this permeates expressions with technology with both the dramatic (cinema special effects, virtual characters, spectacle games) and the banal (email, web searching, simple graphics, computer hardware such as the mouse and keyboard, etc.). If one considers how de Certeau described the everyday as a political site, artists and activists may find a good deal of power in the area of expression that falls into the banal. After all, everyday activities are not homogenous across race, ethnicity, class, or gender lines, but rather are distinguished by a range of social differences; thus the technological everyday, or Playculture, is a site for work, gaming, communication, and, if necessary, tactical resistance (de Certeau 1984). “Everyday life is the measure of all things: of the fulfillments or rather the non-fulfillments of human relations; of the use of lived time; of artistic experimentation; or revolutionary politics” (Debord 1961, p. 69).
As philosopher Langdon Winner, scholar Diane Butterworth, and many others have argued, technological artifacts influence social order and embody political ideologies (Winner 1980, Butterworth 1999). Computer games, part of the essential fabric of everyday technologies, thus should be seen as vehicles for social and political paradigms. They are also mired in their own troubled history – being associated with both military technologies in origin (thus tied to combat in language, form, and narrative)and antagonistic themes in terms of interaction and content (violence and gore, genocide, problematic representations of bodies in terms of gender and race, consumerist-driven interaction, etc).1 Often, the ‘narrative’ of computer game origins follows a predictable, and one-sided, pattern which emphasizes technical origins. Such a history, for example, would most likely tell the story of the birth of the computer game in the United States at MIT in the form of the game SpaceWars (1961); then, computer game history might document Atari’s first arcade game, Pong (1972). Due to the lack of regard for participation by women, people of colour, and underprivileged groups, this history must remain only one part of the story. More important might be the historic changes in play practices, and an arts focus on this history, utilizing examples from Dada and Surrealist games (Exquisite Corpse, group games), Fluxus (game boxes, large instruction-based event/performances, and the gameart work of Yoko Ono’s such as the series of all white chessboards, “Play It By Trust”) (DeMaria & Wilson 2003). After all, computer gaming now involves an increasing number of educators, designers, scientists, and artists. How are artists countering or contributing to the growing number of computer games ‘out there?’ How can we articulate the methods by which social and political outcomes can be integrated as goals into the day-to-day practices of game design and artistic creation?
By now, there are many examples of alternate, artist’s games and ‘subversions’ of game norms by artists, where critique is generated through the practice of making and playing.2 As historian Carolyn Marvyn has noted, technological invention comes in waves, and with each new technological shift, there has always been liberatory rhetoric associated with such transformations (Marvin, 1990). Yet there also have been artists critically experimenting with given media at exactly these kinds of shifting junctures: experimental filmmakers, writers, and video artists to name some of many categories of practitioner who came upon a new technology as a means of expressing something embedded in the surrounding culture that the new medium alone could occupy. Think of the atonal, chance based music of John Cage, the algorithmic poetry of Alison Knowles, Tony Conrad’s Flicker film, Joan Jonas’ Vertical Roll video – to name just a few of the works which mark momentous shifts in art practice and technological development, where the technology of the time inscribes itself into the meaning of the work. So, too, do computer games make their mark: they flesh out the intricate relationship between individual and group; they ask, in the act of playing, important questions of collaboration and individual agency as they increasingly occupy spaces outside entertainment, such as education, health care, training the military, etc. From arcades to consoles to MMORPGs,3 the way the public engages with a game is in fact largely a social matter.
Thus contemporary computer games create and reflect popular culture in fascinating ways which can inscribe, but also alter, social and political paradigms. Theorists and anthropologists note that games provide a site of fantasy, escape, a “safe” space to explore fears, desires, and even simplified versions of human life within finite rulesets. But if, as I’ve argued, games are primarily social, then the implications for social life-interaction, communication, representation, goals, autonomy, equity – must also come under scrutiny in relation to them. Whenever games are created, difficult questions arise, for example, concerning character representation (including gender and race), social and hierarchical rewards (advanced players acquire wealth and power), interaction styles (killing vs. protecting), visual perspective, and a host of related values intersections requiring analysis. Yet it is taken as an assumption in many studies of game design that both the technology and the mechanics of game design are culturally neutral. Here is where we must politicise the everyday notions of Playculture; Play is a social act, and computerised play makes actual technologies into ‘locations’ for play.
If play is a social act, artists and scholars must find a way of theorizing about the impact of games and the rewriting the direction games might manifest, in order to challenge social, political, and economic norms that most currently embody. This is the key contribution artists working with games can make – ours is a practice-based challenge, in that we endeavour to create alternatives, to offer novel encounters and exchanges, to see the world always with fresh eyes, hands, and in the case of [giantJoystick], the body and the community.
Butterworth, D. (1999) Wanking in cyberspace: The development of computer porn. In: S. Jackson & S. Scott (eds). Feminism and sexuality – A reader. New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 314–320.
De Certeau, M. (1984) The practice of everyday life. S. Rendall (trans). Berkeley: University of California Press.
Debord, G. (1961) Perspectives for conscious alterations in everyday life. In: K. Knabb (ed & trans). Situationist international anthology. (1981). Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, pp. 68–75, p. 69.
DeMaria, R. & Wilson, J. W. (2003) High score! The Illustrated history of electronic games. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Marvin, Carolyn. (1990). When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking About Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century. New York: Oxford University Press.
Winner. L. (1980) Do artifacts have politics? In: Daedalus 109:1, pp.121-36.
1 For myriad debates on these areas, see at least: Anderson, Craig A. (2004). “An update on the effects of playing violent video games”. Journal of Adolescence, 27 pp. 113-122; Anderson, Craig A., Karen E. Dill. (Apr. 2000). “Video Games and Aggressive Thoughts, Feelings, and Behavior in the Laboratory and Life.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, pp. 772-790; Johnston, Chris. (July 1999). “Doom made me do it.” Electronic Gaming Monthly, p. 26; Media Education Foundation. (2001) Game Over: Gender, Race & Violence in Video Games. DVD; Melillo, W. (November 15, 1999). “Video-Game Group creates ads to deflect criticism” Adweek Eastern Edition, p.5.
2 Defined according to various accounts of subversion: Among the theorists called to this task are Butler and her work on subversion and identity, the work of Foucault on his query into power and subversion, Phalen’s notion of feminist subversion and performance, and Negri and his recasting of subversion in light of postmodernism. Gramsci, Deleuze, and de Certeau are also utilized in the analysis. Additionally, ‘intervention/disruption’ methods are culled from tactical media, critical Marxist and post-structuralist theories of tactics, disruption innovation (a business approach), and feminist intervention tactics.
3 An abbreviation for “Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games”, such as the Everquest game series or World of Warcraft.