Play, technology and ethics
The aeon is a child at play with coloured balls Heraclitus, 54th Fragment, 500 BC

What has changed dramatically is the emergence of a military culture that accepts computer games as powerful tools for learning, socialisation, and training.
Michael Macedonia, chief scientist of US Army Simulation, Training and Instrumentation Command (STRICOM), 20021

Between Heraclitus and Macedonia, you have the dilemma – the energy and the ambivalent potential - of play and technology.

Play is one of the constitutive processes of the material universe,2 and most certainly of complex mammalian development. The ludic scholar Brian Sutton-Smith calls play “adaptive potentiation”. The many games, simulations, imaginings, experimentations, tricks and rituals that comprise play, in their sheer fecundity and diversity, are what keeps a human capable of responding to the challenges of social living, beyond the moment of sheer survival.3

Yet return to Heraclitus’s child at play – “adaptively potentiating”, no doubt, with her coloured balls. From idly sifting the balls through her fingers, holding them up to the sun or the late afternoon moon to compare sizes, or talking to them as imaginary friends, she suddenly decides to throw one ball against the other – and a flake of colouring comes off the sphere. Delightedly, she collides another pair of balls, and produces another little rainbow of disintegration. Until she is exhausted with this form of play, we will find the aeon in a storm of creative, violent, gleeful destruction.

Stanley Kubrick’s mind-wrenching jump-cut in 2001: A Space Odyssey – where a tossed bone, rising from the percussive, exploratory ecstasy of a group of early humans, rotates into an orbiting spacecraft – is the most elegant modern expression of how play’s open processes have driven our technological imagination.4 Yet it’s always worth remembering that the Cold War was only at a point of rapprochement in that future scenario (hammer and sickles meeting stars and stripes on the moon flag).

The agonism of play – the way that its core psychology of “taking reality lightly” (Friedrich Schiller) empowers us to strategise, outmanoeuvre, move on a field of possibilities with other contenders, and achieve victory (or court defeat) – deserves just as much consideration as play’s more carefree and expressive forms. Indeed, in a world where a ‘military-gaming complex’ has been forged in the US, where the current militial narratives of a new art-form (computer games) meets the recruitment and legitimacy agendas of an imperial superpower, we are forced to take play with as much seriousness as we can muster.5

Of course, not all play is win-lose play. For at least twenty years, Tim-Berners Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, has talked of his momentous construction as a “play project”, from inception in the labs at Cern in 1989, to his present ambitions for the Semantic Web.6 The internet has been best described by the American legal thinker Lawrence Lessig as an “innovation commons” – a shared, robustly constructed mutual space which enables a multitude of users to express themselves, create their projects, share them with others.7 Doesn’t that sound like the ultimate playground to you?

And while there’s always the possibility that little Aeon can use her balls to subvert or disrupt on the Net – leaving them out in the yard so that a lumbering adult can slip on them; distributing a virulent virus that can just as easily bring giants crashing to the ground – there is at least as much constructive, sociable and reciprocal activity in this play-space too.

This can be the consistent generosity of open-source software writers, for whom a modality of ‘sharing nicely’ (as we tell our kids to do in the park) sits easily alongside their involvement in a proprietorial market
economy.8 Or it can be the huge participation in online game worlds, where all the tensions of the social contract get played and gamed out across fantasy realms and inhuman avatars.9

The point is, as the old hippies used to say at the Whole Earth Review (and using a cosmic metaphor of play in the process), “we are as Gods, and we might as well get good at it”. Play and technology is part of that ‘history of abstraction’ noted separately by both McKenzie Wark and Mark Pesce.10

“Our ability to move atoms”, says Pesce, is a chart that starts with Neolithic obsidian tools (say, a billion billion billion), and ends up with nano-technology (our ability to move one atom at a time).

The problem, and the challenge, is that we need an ethical consciousness that’s adequate to this awesome
creative-destructive power – neither Luddism nor technophilia, but the beginning of a consideration of our true complexity as human animals. A ‘play ethics’, I would argue, that faces squarely our increasing capability (but often incoherent motivation) to ‘play with’ our materiality.

But as the redoubtable Mr. Macedonia demonstrates, the stakes are high around its formation. Those who play with technology need to be aware that a vision of the good life is implicit in their activities, and need to become explicit about how to realise it.

Heightening awareness of choices and possibilities? Surely, this is where the artists come in...

1 ‘Games, Simulation and the Military Education Dilemma’, Michael Macedonia, Publications from the Forum for the Future of Higher Education (2002)
2 ‘Play is a natural phenomenon that has guided the course of the world from its beginnings. It is evident in the shaping of matter, in the organisation of matter into living structures, and in the social
behaviour of human beings’. Laws of the Game, Manfred Eigen, Ruthild Winkler, (Princeton, 1993), p.3
3 Brian Sutton-Smith, The Ambiguity of Play (Harvard, 1997).
4 It’s worth noting just how playful Kubrick’s aliens/non-humans
were, both as the psychedelic reality-warpers in 2001, and as the gentle android simulators of mother-child play in 2002’s A.I.
5 Pat Kane, ‘Toy Soldiers’, The Guardian, Dec 1, 2005.,16376,1654070,00.html
8 Yochai Benkler, “Sharing Nicely”: On shareable goods and the emergence of sharing as a modality of economic production, I like this quote: “toys are shareable goods, and provide the first and central mode of cultural transmission of the values of sharing the excess capacities of one’s possessions. Anyone who sits in a New York City playground can only marvel at the paradoxical phenomenon of Wall
Street traders admonishing their children to “share nicely”, and will appreciate our deep cultural commitment to sharing some of our private, rival possessions as a mode of social provisioning”. See also his magnum opus, The Wealth of Networks,
9 See my collection of links and reviews on Edward Castronova’s Synthetic Worlds at
10 McKenzie Wark,, and his A Hacker Manifesto (Harvard, 2004).
Marc Pesce, interview with R.U.Sirus at Neofiles,