Play and Mortality

Why do we play?

The other day I was walking down the halls at UC Santa Cruz and a poster presented at a genomics conference caught my eye. The poster introduced preliminary data on tumor imaging and prognosis prediction for patients with glioblastoma multiforme.

I’m often tempted to think that there is some research that is more important than trying to understand play and playthings. Saving lives, saving the world, one academic paper at a time, seems to be a better use of intellect than making sense of playful people and things. So what’s at stake with understanding play? Why is it so important? Why do we play, and why is it worth studying it?

Brian Sutton-Smith gave one possible answer to this question: we play because life is crap.

I propose another answer: we play because we’re all going to die.

Play is a way of dealing with our own mortality, with the inescapable fact that some years or weeks or days or minutes from now everything will be over. Being conscious is knowing that self-reflection itself will go away. At the same time, it is our conscience what anchors us to the now, and to the then we have lived. To be human is to deal with our own temporal limit, to find strategies to cope with our certain death.

And so play, like the arts, like the sciences, is a way of reaffirming us against the certainty of death. We play because we are alive, because without play, without the arts, being alive is nothing but a mere biological condition. Knowing the origin of the universe, being aware of the middle of the journey of our lives, writing impossible music, playing together, they are all forms of celebrating life because life will end.

Playing gives us the opportunity to make our mortality matter. Playing is affirming that we are alive, in the face of our own mortality. The act of playing will also end, but when we decide, and not before it has radically changed the world, for a period of time. Being able to decide when a world of our make ends is a triumph over our own limited lives.

Are these thoughts more valuable than research that could have saved lives? That poster I wrote about caught my eye because my mother died of a variety of glioblastoma. Is my work less important than research on cancer? That question is a fallacy. We need the knowledge to live long, but we also need lives that are worth living. Understanding what makes live worth living, like playing, is as urgent as understanding how to preserve those lives, or the world we live in. Because if we cannot play, imagine and question, what are we but mere biological machines?

Playing is an affirmation that we exist now, because we won’t exist then. Playing is an affirmation that we are living, and not just surviving. And that’s why we need to study play, why we need to make people play – because being healthy, living long, reaching the stars, they all need to be put in the context of our own limits, and we deal with those limits by singing, by writing, by math and though, by playing.

We play because life is crap, and it will end, but we can be more than slaves to those inescapable facts. Mortality gives us meaning and purpose, and being human is embracing that meaning and purpose as forms of expression, of celebration, as a victory.

That’s why play.

Hazy Cosmic Jive

I am deeply enjoying No Man’s Sky, and I think it is a memorable videogame in a year of memorable videogames (like Pokémon Go). So this is a post about No Man’s Sky, the divisive videogame that has puzzled, infuriated and inspired half of the internet. Some great people have written about it: Pippin Barr, Bart Simon, Brendan Keogh, Evan Narcisse, or Rob Remakes: some great people have been interviewed about it, like Kate Compton; and Twitter has witnessed great conversations about it from the likes of, for example, Ed Key. These are my scattershot reflections about the game, far less coherent than many of the texts I’ve just linked to.

First, I think NMS is a failure of game design, or at least of a very particular way of thinking about game design. NMS presents players with the possibility of flying around in a potentially infinite universe. Yet it drags players down to earth by forcing them to engage in mining for resources while limiting their inventory space, which can be upgraded by paying money that can be earned by mining resources. It is a classic game design trick: squaring resource demands with limited storage space scaffolds player progression.

Which would be great if this was a game with a sense of progression. But NMS has no progression: it is a videogame of wandering in space, towards a mythical meaningless centre. So why use classic game design techniques? Maybe because NMS is so aesthetically bold that as a commercial product it needed some kind of hat tip towards its “core audience”? [1] For whatever reason, I think the dissonance between the aesthetic experience and the dull “gameplay” is a cautionary tale about conventions in game design, plus it opens up for a convincing critique of what we mean by “game design”, or more specifically, what is the “design” in game design [2].

Especially if we consider the colonialist undertones of the game mechanics: we explores plunder plants for resources while we name the flora and fauna (that already had a name!). There is always a political and ethical tradeoff when designing game mechanics, and in NMS the tradeoff is very paradoxical: the game has strange ideas about what space exploration is or should be about, and the model promoted by the mechanics is arguably that of colonial thinking (even a very old fashioned form of anthropocentric colonialism, where the wild nature is at the service of the explorer). Players become Humboldt again, naming the edges of the world because nobody was there – despite the fact that others were there! We are erasing the names that these things, these plants, these planets were given, just because we landed in them, and just because that is what “the game is about” [3].

What I find fascinating, though, is how NMS manages to be a great videogame despite the failures of game design. NMS is a videogame about  our embodied, kinaesthetic experience of (being in a simulated) space. The feel of the spaceship when flying is astonishly satisfying: there is no absolute manual control, but thrusting though space, entering warp speed, or just jumping from planet to planet feels just so good. It is a pleasure to exit the atmosphere of a planet and feel the carefully tuned rumble of the controller. Or enter a planet at full speed to automatically glide over its surface, with sufficient heft to feel the spaceship around you. The jetpack is also fundamentally pleasant to operate, making you not weightless, but impossibly athletic. It is aesthetically, and kinaesthetically pleasant to be in these worlds, to travel to and from these planets, to be in space, and that physical reward is what makes it great videogame design.

This embodied experience is heightened by truly excellent sound design and a rich, varied soundtrack. Again, the multimedia aspects of game design are more important than the systemic ones. NMS is an example of how videogame design can be about creating a rich embodied experience without the structures of games. NMS is not a game, it is a playground for the senses.

That’s why I think NMS is a failure of classic game design: because it does not need a game to be playful, to bring us the pleasures of play without the limits of games. Perhaps we are too obsessed with game design being about scaffolding player experiences via what they have to do. Game design is also about this feel, about the kinaesthetic engagement of the player, and NMS excels at putting our own physicality as players at the center of the experience, an absolute success of design.

The other aspect I would like to think in public about is NMS and procedural content generation. NMS uses algorithms to create infinite variations of worlds, plants and creatures, and so it promises the infinite variety of the universe, at our fingertips. And of course this variation is limited: algorithms can only create variations with their limited parameters. The universe is large, with great variation, but this is variation in degrees. And apparently that is seen as a failure of what the game promised. If you want to know more, read Michael Cook’s take on NMS.

Yet I find the procedural content generation a success. See, the worst thing about procedural content generation is the word “content”. We have cornered the meaning of that word, and now it is all about the “stuff”, the “things” that are made by algorithms. We should actually listen to the people that have really thought procedurality through, from Janet Murray and Ian Bogost to especially Michael Mateas and Noah Wadrip-Fruin, and stop thinking that procedural content generation is about making the computer make “stuff”. Procedural content generation is an expressive technique. It not about making stuff but about harnessing the qualities of computational media for expressive purposes.

In that sense, NMS is a success: it creates a universe of properly alien words, worlds that were not created by humans but by processes. In my opinion, the fundamental aesthetic success of NMS is making us experience what Bradbury or Lem wrote about: we are aliens in the universe, that there are forms of being out there that go beyond our humanity, that we are just another set of beings, another result of a combinatorial algorithm. Our (cartesian?) rationality, our being at the centre of the universe [4], is challenged, or better, humbled by the infinite variety of worlds we face, worlds that are indifferent to us.

I think that is the result of the application of procedurally generated content as expression in NMS [5], and it is also another lesson this videogame makes: there are computational forms of expression that are worth exploring, but they cannot be seen just as technical prowess, they need to be framed within an experience that gives them aesthetic, cultural meaning. Creating endless words without human interference [6] results in a space game about an alien traversing the universe, astonished at is variety, in search for an ever elusive meaning.

To me, NMS evokes what David Bowie, ever the starman, sings about: we are beings floating in space, drifting in a hostile universe, creatures of the starts that look up and dream. We are aliens that listen to a hazy cosmic jive in the infinite variations of our worlds, and look out for more. Maybe that’s the meaning of it all: to travel the universe looking for brief moments of cosmic beauty.



[1] I am ignoring here the whole discussion about how many people are angry because NMS is not the game they were promised by marketing. It is a fascinating discussion, but I want to focus on what NMS is, rather than what it could have been, or what corporate companies thought would be profitable to market.


[2] I think the best way to approach NMS is to follow Doug Wilson’s idea of a distinction between game and videogame. NMS is a great videogame that has a less interesting game in it.


[3] For those interested in Humboldt, Daniel Kehlmann’s excellent novel Measuring the World is a fascinating read. I intuitively know there is a connection to be made between it and NMS, somewhere.


[4] And all games are about us being at the center of the universe, because that’s what games are about: the creation of bounded, formally consistent universes that react to our actions (actions that are often the result of mastery). NMS is a refusal of that logic in almost all accounts: the worlds are not there for us.


[5] And I don’t care if that was the goal of the developers or not – I sure hope so, but it is also irrelevant.


[6] Yes, the algorithms were written by humans, but the worlds are not the result of level design. So of course the algorithms are the result of human hand, but what they generate is beyond what a human could decide. That is procedural content generation as expressive form: a collaboration between human and computational ingenuity, for aesthetic purposes.

The Lost Chapter

For a long time, Play Matters was a longer book, with even more footnotes. The missing chapter in the final version is a chapter on ethics and play. The book’s reviewers considered that the presence of that chapter made its argument somewhat confusing, so I decided to eliminate it from the final draft of the book.

But enough time has passed, and I think it is worth to publish here that chapter. Please take into consideration that this an unfinished draft, and it’s stylistically horrid. But since some of my new research is taking me back to philosophy and ethics, I think it will be worth publishing it here. In the next few weeks I will write about this new work, and hopefully things will start making sense. In the meanwhile, here’s Play Matters‘ lost chapter:

Moral Play

I have dedicated my professional academic career so far to the understanding of the ethics of computer games. I am a firm believer on the ethical possibilities of computer games, but I am also concerned, to a certain extent, with the potential moral dangers that some aspects of computer games culture has. However, I am not going to be writing about that in this chapter. Neither am I going to be writing about ethical philosophy, or other complicated and abstract academic arguments. In this chapter I am going to write about play being valuable for our well being, about play being a moral activity, one that can contribute to our well being, to our flourishing as human beings, but one that also presents dangers and risks and challenges.

I am not going to portrait play as a morally neutral, or even morally positive activity. There are ethical risks when we play, in excessive play, in addiction, in power play. But my argument will differ from those who might be interested in sensationalist and oppositional arguments to play. Play is important for the moral fabric of society not only despite its potential risks, but also because of these risks. Playing is learning to navigate, playfully but also deeply seriously, the activity of play as a way of being in the world, as a form of expression. Because play is dangerous, and because it is also a creative, human form of expression, it has value for us, it makes us grow; it makes us better human beings.

In philosophical terms, I am taking the position of what is called constructivist ethics. I believe, like Aristotle, that ethics is a practical science, and that we develop our best by practicing what makes us best as human beings, by practicing virtues. To be a morally sound human being we must develop our potential, we must exercise, practice, test and expand our virtues, from empathy to love, to courage. We are ethical beings not only because we are virtuous beings, but also because we can develop those virtues through time, through practice. That practice takes place in all instances of life: when we work, we love, when we are idle and when we excerpt effort. A way of understanding this active, constructivist approach to ethics is to think about morality as another way of being in the world, one that is defining of who we are, one that determines how we engage with others and how we take decisions.

Given that ethics is a practical science, a way of being in the world that underlies all of our actions, activities and ideas, its relation with play as a way of being in the world should be relatively simple. Play is a way of being in the world, a mode of existence. The ethical nature of play, then, should be evaluated looking at how play helps us develop our values, become a better human being, create virtues that we can then develop. The ethics of play should be then seen as the value of play, the way in which, through play, we become better human beings.

This is, of course, not a new problem to address. In the history of philosophy, and particularly in the tradition of sports philosophy, there have been numerous accounts on the virtues of play, and how play is an exercise of values. However, most of the reflections on play and virtues, while pointing at the idea that play is an exercise of virtues, struggled with two main issues: first, the clearly huizingian roots of the theories of play in which these analysis were developed, which meant that they had to deal with the explicit claim made by Huizinga that play was outside of the ethical domain. And second, these theories were mostly concerned about how play, enacted through games, can be used to develop and practice values, without giving much though to the importance of the plaything in the development of the ethical meaning of play; that is, the relevance of the game being played in the development of values.

The theory of play I am presenting in this book is an ecological one, that is, one that advocates that play is a way of being in the world that appropriates, and is sometimes mediated, by objects, things and circumstances. In this sense, the importance of the game, or the plaything, in the way play can contribute to our betterment, is obvious, since it affects the way of being in the world through play. Dystopian fictions have provided us with numerous examples of unethical sports, like Rollerball, most of which are inspired in the idealized idea of the Roman gladiator games. More than a shortcoming, this is a minor issue: a detailed analysis of how play contributes to our development as virtuous beings also has to take into consideration the context of play, and the vehicle for expressing play. Games matter, as much as those with whom we play.

The most important problem, though, is the huizingian theory of play, and its influence in the way we think about play. As I’ve mentioned before, I have an academic career focused on understanding the ethical importance of computer games. This line of work has often led me to discuss the issue of violence and video games. However, this moral concern is also extensive to topics like addiction, grades, and the general importance of play for those who play. In other words, play is suspect, even though we acknowledge that it does foster some virtues. But still, it is unserious, not valuable, a pastime at best to which we add some values to justify its existence.

This notion of suspect play is rooted in Huizinga’s general idea that play is something “separate” from life, something we enter into, doted with its own seriousness but ontologically separate from reality, and furthermore, separate from the ethical domain. In fact, Huizinga goes as far as to say that play is not, and cannot be coupled with ethics, they are almost antinomial: in the realm of play, there are no ethics.

With this basic idea lurking into our argumentation on the value of play, it is not difficult to understand why play was suspect. Even though we understand that through sports, and through play, we live and enact and test and learn values, our dominant theory of play insists on the separation of play and real life, on play being based on disinterestedness, a reality of its own.

If we separate play from real life, from being in the world, we also deprive it of the capacity of affecting us. It becomes moderately harmless, yes, but also less important, just a pastime, a banal way of interpreting our being in the world. If we want play to be important, if we want to defend the idea that play matters, we have to do so by acknowledging that it is a strong force, a way of understanding and expressing and being that can be dangerous, but that can also be profoundly illuminating, a way forward in our betterment as human beings.

We need, then, to leave behind the idea of play as something that happens separate to the world, that has a seriousness of its own, that is not affected, and does not affect, the contexts and objects through which it is manifested. Play is valuable through its capacity to be appropriative, expressive, and disruptive – the ethics of play have to be seen in the way play itself allows us to explore, train, and develop our better sides as human beings.

This is not to say that all play is good, and that there are no moral risks with play. Play can seduce us; through playthings we can forget that play is just a mode of being in the world, and we can lose the relative distance between the action and the context that we need for play to be ethically and culturally valuable. Play can become an addiction, in that it can turn into being the dominant mode of being in the world, not allowing us to develop other relations with others, and with the world, that are not through play.

Many playthings are created with the intention of engaging us exclusively in play, to be addictive. In fact, in the lingo of computer game culture, addictive is seen as a positive adjective, without giving much thought to how it can be damaging. Besides the obvious social and health risks of addiction, there is also a moral concern: if our only way of engaging with the world is through play, we miss out on the extreme richness of different modalities of being in the world. Our experience of the world will be limited, partial, and ultimately uninteresting and damaging for our development as human beings. The addictive risk of play, the temptation of engaging exclusively with and through play can harm us more than nurture our well being. As such, play can be dangerous, and morally harming.

There are other possibilities for harm through play: dark play, or subversive play can not only challenge situations and unearth political statements, but it can also be used to marginalized people because of their reluctance to play. While the benefits of dark play as an expressive mode assimilate it to some of the most interesting and influential avant-garde movements, it is also a risky deployment of play, one that is often unleashed in contexts where many others don’t know that play is happening. Dark players find pleasure, and meaning, in that direct interference in other modalities of being, a secret one of sorts. However, that interference, that occupation, because it is not been clearly demarcated, risks harming others, and therefore constitutes a moral risk. 1

Play can be risky for our moral well-being, then, when it becomes the exclusive mode of being in the world, and when that mode of being in the world is not shared, in its consequences or practices, with those who might be present in some form or another on the act of appropriation through play.

But as I’ve already expressed, play is also a valuable way of being in the world. In fact, it is because play can be dangerous that it is so valuable: because it has that power of expression and appropriation, because it can be subversive and engaging and unexpected, an aesthetic expression as much as a political appropriation, play can be morally good. In fact, play is more than morally good, morally necessary.

For a good life to be so, for us to be able to develop our potential as moral beings, for us to develop virtues and become better human beings, we all need play. In fact, play is a fundamental part of the well being, of the healthy and mature and complete human life. In huizingan play, we almost take for granted the importance of play, yet we keep it separate from the world, we seclude it in its own seriousness, in its own environment.

But play should not be secluded. Through play we experience the world, we construct it and we destroy it, and we explore who we are and what can we say. Play frees us from moral conventions but makes them still present, aware of their weight and presence and importance.

We need play precisely because we need occasional freedom and distance from our conventional understanding of the moral fabric of society; because we need to see values and practice them and challenge them and break them and reconstruct them in order for them to become more than mindless habits, true practices. Through play we engage with our moral being, we are pushed to see morality and ethics and the way it also operates as mode of being in the world, and by that double play, by that back and forth between morality and play, we develop our own moral being.

Play is not a secondary mode of existence, nor it is the domain in which we practice play-specific values. In play we explore, practice, develop and test the same values that we then use as moral beings in the world. However, play is different because of its very constitution as a mode of existence. Since play is defined by being appropriative, ethics, that is, the moral principles and rules that are determining our condition as moral beings, are also subject for this appropriation.

That is why play is morally important, ethically valuable: because it appropriates ethics itself, because it makes morality a prop for play, much like it makes rules a prop for play. This is why Huizinga, and Nietzsche, considered play outside the realm of morality. However, they were wrong: play is not outside, but a different mode of engaging with morality, one in which ethics is not the primary mode of being in the world, of experiencing the world, yet a mode in which ethics and values can play a particularly important role.

When play is about ethics, it is so because it appropriates and explores values, like in the case of games created for educational purposes, or games that use ethical dilemmas as a way of emotionally engaging their players. But play should not be reduced to being ethically significant when it explicitly addresses morality. Like any other way of experiencing and expressing the world, play is always moral, it is always the expression and being of a moral being in a world that requires that type of understanding. That is not to say that play is always concerned about morality, but it is not devoid of it. In fact, ethics as a structure of behavior, as principles for how to act, are a fundamental part of play as experience.

As said, what makes play important for our moral life is how it allows us to explore, as props, our own assumptions and ethical principles. Play gives us distance, but also engagement with our own moral fabric. To lead a balanced life, to explore and become who we can become and flourish as ethical human beings, we need to understand our values and principles not as an act of faith, but as the structural elements of the practical science of ethics. And play, because of its appreciative nature, allows us to do precisely that: appropriate, strange us from our own moral being, and at our own risk, allow us to explore who we are, and what our values are.

To play is to be moral. We need to play in order to become better human beings, to explore morality. There is much talk and importance given to games and other playthings as important because they can address serious topics. But that is an unnecessary argument: play in itself is already important; play in itself is already necessary for living a good life. Because through play we practice morality, through the balancing act of avoiding the perils of play, but also through the appropriation of morality and ethics to question them, to explore them, to make them too subject to play.

The values of play do not reside in whatever ethics a particular plaything or situation wants to communicate, or on the values of players or the rules. The values of play are important because of the way play can appropriate all of the former, and let us, players, explore their meaning and experience them while we also create them. Play is a path to the better life, an experimental and experiential route to the betterment of our own moral fabric. Play is necessary to be human not only because as humans we play, but also because through play we better express what it means to be a moral human being.

Playful Loops

I have a confession to make: there are many, many shiny iOS apps out there, but my heart belongs to two, and only two. One is obvious, Noby Noby Boy. The other one is my dark secret. I love my Danish bank app.

You see, I want play to be political and revolutionary and bring up new forms of emancipatory expression. But I am also interested in smaller achievements, in bringing play to more modest forms of interaction, on letting play brighten up and make more bearable the drudging of interacting with our shiny glass surfaces. I am interested in designing more playful interactions with these terrible, absorbing machines we call computers, and that sometimes means admiring the design of a bank app.

I am aware of my duplicity, of the inherent contradiction: how can I call for the revolution, and yet love an app for a bank with an appalling track record? Because this app shows how we can turn small interactions into pleasurable interactions, and so, we could imagine how to extend the lessons learnt from this app into other applications. I don’t appreciate this design for the company that commissioned it; I appreciate it because it managed to turn a terrible interaction into a pleasurable one, one that makes us even appreciate a bank. A bank! Imagine what we could do if we learnt the lessons from this interaction design and we applied it where it really matters, where it could make a difference.

So why is this design so brilliant? First of all, it uses a great metaphor for a bank: the basic interaction resembles that of a lock, which you have to turn to access your data (though they don’t carry the metaphor through, and the input is still done with a boring number pad). But, most importantly, the interaction is enormously juicy: the “lock” is animated with springy physics, making it a pleasure to switch between tabs, and also to find the different services the bank offers. And that springiness also makes it possible to play roulette, spinning the dial to see if it falls on the right service under your thumb.

When I first started looking at the design of playful interactions, I was framing successful examples using the concept of juiciness, taken from casual game design. Juiciness is the positive experiential effect that an excess of positive feedback and good feel on a user’s interaction with a game. Of course, to define “feel” is complicated, and so I often just qualify it as the design of a continuous interaction in which the kinaesthetic expectations (that is, the ways in which our body expects something to react, or feel) of a user are always met instantly by the system’s behavior and feedback. So good playful design is both juicy and has good feel. But how do we integrate this into the experience of an interactive system? How do we design more playful services?

One of my favorite recent texts on interaction design is Dan Saffer’s Microinteractions, a catalogue book that identifies successful design by cataloguing the way small interactions with a system are designed. ADD AN EXAMPLE HERE. So good playful design would be that which adds juiciness and feel to key microinteractions. Therefore, step one in the design process should be to define what microinteractions are key for the user experience, in terms of feel, and then design those with juiciness in mind.

In the case of the bank app, the key microinteractions are those of accessing the different, varied services offered by a bank – the user needs to be able to access their bank account, the bank’s contact information, the currency converter, the office locator, and the transfer and payment services in a fast and intuitive way. The locker metaphor helps with intuition, but also provides a model for the juiciness: accessing each of the services is spinning in the lock to the bank account. And so, the main microinteraction with the service is turned into a playful interaction.

However, I am not satisfied with leaving it there. I think we can be better at understanding and systematizing the design of playful interactions. The process so far only tells us what to do, but not why. And so, I look again at game design and play theory to come up with a concept that can help frame this process.

In game design, we often talk about the creation of loops that engage the player in the activities of the game. Loops are repeatable sequences of mechanics tied to a particular action that is meaningful in the game. But loops are not exclusive of game design: many of our interactions with online services, via the browser or via apps, are loops: open the bank app -> find the currency converter -> perform an operation -> exit. Each step in these loops is a microinteraction, so in the interaction design of a service, a loop is a sequence of microinteractions that lead to the completion of the task the service is designed for. And so, the playification of a service consists on adding juiciness and feel to one or more of these microinteractions.

But let’s go one level deeper: how do we know which of these microinteractions can be turned into a playful one? I propose here a concept that helps identify and discuss potentially playful microinteractions: autotelic loops.

In Play Matters I argued that play has a negotiated autotelic nature, that is, we play for the sake of play, but that sake is contextual and renegotiated as we play. Most of the interactions we design for services are not autotelic, they serve a purpose: to complete a particular activity. However, if we dissect the service into different microinteractions, we will be able to design some of those interactions to have a double purpose: first, to satisfy a service requirement, and second, to be a toy to play with.

Looking at the bank’s app, the microinteraction of rotating the wheel to access one particular service is an autotelic loop: we perform that operation to interact with the service, but we can also just spin the wheel for pleasure, without a goal, and the system is designed to reward that interaction – reward not by giving points, but by making that optional interaction juicy.

And this connects back to Play Matters’ ideas on play and playfulness: to play is to appropriate the world for expression, to subvert its purposes and give it new purposes. And so, the design of autotelic loops is the design of openings for that appropriation, it is the purposeful design of cracks in seamless interactions so we can express ourselves by play.

There is still abundant work to do with this concept. So far, I have only identified autotelic loops that provide kinaesthetic pleasure, and I believe that other loops can be created that allow for the playful interaction with systems, or just with aesthetic elements. But I believe the basic skeleton of a process for playful service design is ready. The process would start by identifying the microinteractions that structure a service. Then, some of those microinteractions would be designed to become autotelic loops, that is, interactions that would keep their role in the larger interactual loop of the service, but would have a purpose of their own. That autotelic loop would then add juiciness and feel so just performing that microinteraction would be playful on its own, and within the context of the service interaction.

As I said, there is much work to be done here, but I particularly like this project. I spend too much time interacting with well-designed, boring services and systems. They all look sleek, but they all feel flat. Like many, I make many compromises, dealing with apps that just want my attention, all the time. I want some of them to be mine, to be silly, to be less rigid and “obviously” fun, and to be properly, ingenuously, purposelessness-fully playful. There is too much “canned playfulness” in service design, too much “gamification”, but no play. We need more silly pleasures, more uselessness, we need less drive in our app-managed life. We need all that is not needed, because with those excesses we build our playgrounds, we have our fun.

— This is the third and last post on the research I am conducting while on sabbatical at UCSC. It is also a post on the project that is both smaller in scope, and newer, so much may change in the following months. I regret nothing.


These ideas have been inspired by a workshop I run together with Gry Bauer at the IT University’s IxD lab in 2013. Thanks to the participants, Kah Chan, Anna Vallgårda, Clint Heyer and Jarmo Laaksolahti, who called bullshit on all my bullshit. I hope there’s not that much left of it.

Play, Human and Animal

A recent review of Play Matters reminded me of one of the unanswered questions in the book: why is it that I insist on qualifying play as a form of human expression, if there is so much research on animal play? Why do I disregard animal play? Here’s a short answer to that question.

Play Matters is not the work of an ethologist. I am not interested in animal play as I am not interested in child’s play: these are well-defined, fascinating and important areas of research, but not for me. I want to study adult play – and currently, I want to study adult play with computers. I have said it often, this is a Romantic work, and that comes with a certain degree of anthropocentrism.

This is not to say that we cannot study adult play without thinking about it’s biological origins: Jaakko Stenrosbrilliant PhD thesis provides an excellent argument that builds on the biological condition to play, and extends it to look at all forms of play and playfulness.

But what do I gain by excluding animal play? Or, why do I think that animal play is related, but also different than human play?

One first argument could be that humans can control the urge to play and apply it outside the contexts of play – that is, humans can be playful without playing. While we can see the play activity in many animals, I doubt we could see playfulness, as it is a contextually-aware attitude towards specific elements of the world (though this could be counter-argued by looking at the cultural activities of apes and dolphins, for example – I still think that we read too much into our analysis of these animals’ actions, which is a form of covert anthropocentrism: let’s make those animals more human by defining some of our actions according to our human measure and epistemology).

The second argument, and the most important for me (but also the one that will most likely annoy those readers who do not buy the Romantic background of my ideas) is that play is expressive, it’s a specific mode of being in the world that produces the expression of an individual. By playing, we reflect (and rebel against) the world as we see it. It’s an act of creativity that puts our own being at stake. In this sense, it overcomes the biological reasons to play (excess of energy, training for adulthood) to become, like language, an instrument for human expression.

Is this enough? No, of course it is not. Animals play, and I would be surprised if we could not extend these ideas to mammals: the best research on this is, in my opinion, Hanna Wirman‘s, but one should also read Kars Alfrink on designing games for pigs. Hypothetically, the dolphin equivalent of Miguel Sicart would argue that dolphins play to be dolphins, and so that dolphin version of me would write (dictate?) the dolphin equivalent of Play Matters, and that would make sense.

But what I am interested in, what Play Matters is about, is humans. Why and how do we use play, what effect does it have in culture, in society, in the tools we create for playing, and the tools we appropriate for play. Play Matters is, in fact, a specialised book on animal play, an exclusivist one, a book that focuses on one animal only, the human.

Play Engines

Left to our own devices forever, We watch the sun rust at the end of its days Alicia E. Stallings, ”

The Machines Mourn the Passing of People

I want to write now about machines. Not as enemies, not as future fictional technologies that will supplant us, but as devices that, as the poem goes, “[…] were kicked like dogs when [we] were broken”; devices not all too human, nor too alien either. Machines as things we play with, and by doing so we give them a different status. Elevated or not, it depends on your view on humanity – but a different status, nonetheless.

I want to write not about kicking the machines, but about being complicit with them. I don’t want to write about exploits as dangerous practices, but as exploits as forms of misunderstood collaborations between machines and people, combined forms of resistance. Exploits as aesthetics, as perhaps a most desirable form of aesthetic collaboration.

I want to write about play engines, not game engines. That means I don’t want to write about “game design”, but about making people play, about a world more playful. I won’t write about the kind of objects we can create with and for computers, to play. I write about the computer itself as a machine of play.

When we think about making people play with computers, our instinct is to look at how to turn anything into a game. I am not going to write now about how this is a complicated issue – the best approach to it was formulated by Sebastian Deterding. What I am interested in doing is following the logic, just a bit: if we want playful interactions with computers, it is only logical to use, or at least be inspired by, the technologies that facilitate the creation of videogames.

And so we look at game engines, and how they enforce certain aspects of what we consider “playing with computers”: game engines help with rendering things onscreen (and that includes VR); game engines run the game loops, managing the assets and calculating a game state on regular cycles; and game engines facilitate certain types of interaction, via dedicated controllers or the appropriate use of keyboard and mouse. Or it can get worse: I fear the future of a successful Facebook running only on Oculus and powered by Unity: 3D VR gameful social networking. Global warming cannot save us fast enough.

We think too narrowly. We think about what can we do with the computer, not what we can make the computer do. We must think beyond game engines; we must think about computers as potential play engines.

There are many things modern computers can effortlessly do, many more now that they are all part of centralized, privately owned “cloud” networks. All of these things are apparently at the service of our leisure and work: we can play games, alone or with many others; we can work, alone or with many others; and we can be alone, with many others. Computers are social, work, and leisure engines: much like game engines streamline and facilitate the creation of games by providing a support for the most common structural requirements of games, computers also structure work (unlimited undos, automatic backups, online sharing), socialising (liking, disliking, retweeting), and leisure (winning, losing, participating). All of these are, of course, re-ontologization processes.

So how are computers play engines? There are many different ways – most of which rely on re-appropriating the computer and its context, with mischievous effects. But I want to look at other forms of expression, ones that actually use the computer as a collaborator, and as a material. For these forms of expression, the computer is a gateway device for the re-ontologization process. Before the world is changed to be processed and computed, it needs to go through (but also made for) the computer. Any expression needs to be translated for the computer machine to be able to act on it. That translation is the moment for play. And a key process for appropriating the potential of computers as play engines is that of piping.(*)

Think about the computer and its networks as basically a series of tubes, if you wish (this line of thinking will take you far). These tubes “transport” data from one place of the computer to the other, where algorithms process that data into information. But with a little bit of knowledge, we can do our own plumbing. For instance, piping the data from the mouse, the memory, or the fantastic dev/urandom to the soundcard is not only possible, but also fun and playful. If you are on linux box, just try cat /dev/urandom | aplay. Or try the same with any picture: cat summer_holidays.jpg | aplay. This is not hacking. It’s simply taking one set of data, and literally piping it somewhere where it does not belong, but has an effect. It is playing – appropriating the machine, taking over the re-ontologization process.

Most of the systems we work with, most of the systems we make -even those we want people to play with- are subject to the rational myth of efficiency and functionalism. This is of course not a new reflection. I want to think about computing machines not as data churning devices, but as playthings. Computers are things we can play with. If we want to, computers become play engines – perhaps the most powerful, most radically transforming play engines we have ever witnessed.

So what is a play engine? Play engines are machines that reconfigure the world so we can play, or be playful, in it. Toys are play engines. Playgrounds are play engines. Our bodies are play engines. Computers are play engines. Not because we can make or play games with them, but because they open up, and make worlds for us to play in, and with.

What’s at stake with this idea? Let’s face it, we have all stopped being humans, if we have ever been, and one of the things we are now is obedient data producers. The expansion of the infosphere, the revolution of cheap, networked, ubiquitous computation, has transformed users into not just users, but also (unwilling, unknowing) producers of data. Your phone produces data about you, and so does your smart tv, your console, and your sex toys. Now, what’s interesting is that we produce too much data (big data, they call it), so companies (specially marketing companies) are on an arms race developing the best algorithms to make sense of all these data.

Another way of dealing with this data deluge, historically entrenched in the paradigms of open computation but far from its idealism, is the proliferation of open APIs. Facebook has one, and so does Twitter, Google Maps, and even LinkedIn (it’s API probably wants to join your professional network). APIs are great because by tapping on the mix of hope and desperation of many that want to access the tech industry, lured by its (inhuman office hours, rampant sexism and agism, and gentrification capacities) bright future, they became instruments for free labor. Give people free access to (most of) our data, and someone will come up with a clever solution we can then cheaply copy.

But open APIs can also be forms of resistance. That’s why they are so heavily monitored, because the risk of rebellion, of misunderstanding, of purposefully breaking things is too high. We should take those risks. APIs are made to comfortably, easily transport data from user/producer to algorithm. But we can break that pipe. We can make our own pipes. Piping is a mode of resistance, driving data not to be processed at the algorithmic slaughterhouse, but in other places, for other purposes: for fun, for exposure, for pleasure. Piping allows us to own the stream of data, and turns the computers into something else than efficient processing machines.

You want examples? Look at things like Infinite Adam Curtis, Ad Nauseam, Sans Bullshit Sans, Mountains of Mouthness, Do Not Touch, or Antenna. These works, to some extent, reflect some of the qualities I write about – the will to bend computed data to a will different than that it was originally intended to please.

Computers are play engines when we use them as deviant tools, when we do not surrender to their corporate imprint of tempting, streamlined, pleasurable interpretations of the world. Computers are play engines we can play with, together. Much like videogames excel when they overcome the stretches of their engines and their inscribed rhetorics, computers are play engines when we see them as fooled instruments, when we feed them the wrong data to model more interesting worlds than the one they were expecting. And in their generosity, these play engines often return to us more interesting worlds, invisible or unthinkable until then. The computer play engine creates new worlds and joyfully presents them to us, twisted and beautiful in their own weirdness, drunken worlds dreamt up by data drunk machines.


This is part two of the posts dedicated to the research I am conducting at UCSC as part of my sabbatical. It’s very much a work in progress, if you haven’t noticed yet. Part three will be on play loops.

(*) I am appropriating the concept of piping here, and translating it from a purely technical term to whatever it is it becomes in this theory. It might be imprecise and technical readers will probably pull their hair and raise their fists, form a mob and DDoS me. However, my appropriation of the concept builds on that technical definition of piping, that is, it is not merely a descriptive concept but it can also be an actionable one: piping can be used to describe a process, but it should only describe those processes that we can effectively implement. My use of piping only works for understanding how to make changes/interventions in the flow of IO in a computer. Any other use will go beyond the boundaries of the use I am making of the concept.

[Note: I understand I am being weirdly optimistic, but read me right: I am not saying that thanks to APIs we can play in the world and make it ours. I’m saying that despite APIs, despite the ways in which we are being marketed and mined as just another Thing in the Internet of Things, we can resist. Resist by misinterpreting, by appropriating what’s given to us but also what we are made of. It would be easy to be glib, to complain about the rhetorical excesses of the new data era, to tweet and write ACM or Medium articles about it. But I want to propose alternative ways of thinking, forms of dissent I think can be productive, in the hands of the right people. Because, paraphrasing Brian Sutton-Smith, play is the opposite of conformity.]

Play as Interface

[theory post ahead. tl;dr: play is a human interface for computation]

It all starts by asking a very simple question: why do we play with computers?

Let me qualify that question, though. Computers are not extraordinary things, even though they have had an extraordinary effect in our world. And like many other things, they are subject to playing (with) them.

A quick look at the history of computing machinery reveals an interesting pattern. Even though computing machines were mostly developed as both financial and war technologies (Flamm, 1988; Edwards, 1997), they have also been used, from the very beginning, to play. More specifically, computing machines were applied to playing and making games almost from their inception, as mechanical turks or SpaceWar! demonstrate.

There is something that makes the computer a particularly fit “thing” for playing with. The computer is a material for making play, a prop in play, and even a play companion. This is my hypothesis: there is something in common in the nature (ontology) of play and computation (or, at least, computing machines).

I like academic one-liners. When good, they expand your own ideas in unpredicted ways. And they don’t need a lot of work to be cited. One of my current favorite one-liners is Floridi’s concept of re-ontologization (2013), “a very radical form of re-engineering, one that not only designs, constructs, or structures a system (…) anew, but one that also fundamentally transforms its intrinsic nature, that is, its ontology or essence” (p. 6). Computing (machines) facilitate a re-ontologization of the world by progressively turning, and processing, all data into digital data, radically changing the nature of our world (i.e. our culture, our society, …).

Let me give you an example of re-ontologization: I like running. I like running with an app that tracks my steps. My steps are not my steps, of course. They are the algorithmic translation of the data an accelerometer inside my phone registers, processes, stores, and presents to me as “steps”. My 10.000 steps are not steps: they are shakes of an accelerometer as interpreted by a computer program. The step has been re-ontologized. (of course, cue here interesting issues on embodiment and technology that are not new, but are still exciting).

Interestingly, play has the same re-ontologizing capacity. It also designs, constructs, and structures systems anew, transforming their intrinsic nature. When we play tag, if I touch you, “you” are “it”. My pen is my drumstick, or my microphone, while I listen to music. A toy is a world, and a marble a source of moral order. To play is to re-ontologize the world so we can play, or be playful.

Play and computing (machinery) are both re-ontologizing strategies/attitudes/activities/technologies. And hence their shared history.

When using computers, we need to re-ontologize the world so the computer can process it; when we play, we re-ontologize (≈ appropriate) the world, so we can play in it. And it matters what comes first, of course.

I am interested in exploring how play can be an interface for the computational re-ontologization of the world. That is, I am interested in seeing how we take over the world for play, and how that process is facilitated, enhanced, and even re-ontologized by computers. Play is/can be an interface for computation(*).

I am using interface here as a metaphor, inspired by Alexander Galloway but also by Paul Dourish, specifically his paper “Seeing like an Interface“. What does this mean? Essentially, that I am misinterpreting the common understanding of what interfaces are (both as shiny utilitarian modes of communication with humans, and in their object oriented understanding). To me, an interface is a sociotechnical construct, an assemblage of sorts that combines technical elements, like algorithms and UI elements, with interactual behaviors and cultural practices. An interface is a crossroads of the technical and the cultural; a melting pot of habits, humans, machines and metaphors. It is the human opening to the machine, and the machine opening to the human, a construction ripe for expression and repression. In this sense, play can be seen as an interface to a computerized system – a system that might be designed for accepting, embracing, or engaging in different types of play. Or play can be a critical, expressive way of interfacing (forcefully) with a computerised system. Play as exploit.

What do we gain by taking this perspective? Being a Romantic, I’d claim that we gain the human expression, the human angle, the humanity for the computational world. We gain an instrument for human expression, and perhaps also a companion.

If we think about play as an interface to all the re-ontologizing processes around us, we can turn the Internet of Things into the Internet of Playful Things; Smart Cities can become playable cities; and Videogames can finally break free from “games”, those pesky drunk uncles. Play can be a mode of interfacing with the material presentations of computers, with the limits of computation as materialised in machines. Play interfaces with the ways computing machines re-ontologize the world.

By looking at play as the interface for computing (machines), we can also allow agonistic politics and aesthetics to take over the way we design, develop and consume computational things. By taking this expansive, sometimes destructive, always Romantic understanding of play, we can resist, take over, and expand what computers can do, to us, and to the world.

This is the first post of a short series about the research I am conducting during my sabbatical year at UCSC. Comments are welcome, but will be moderated.

Next on this series: Play engines.

[Inspiration for these ideas come from the work of Luciano Floridi and Johnny Hartz Søraker, as well as from (mis)readings of Alexander Galloway’s brilliant The Interface Effect and Lucy Suchman‘s Human-Machine Reconfigurations. My ITU colleagues Nanna Holdgaard and Anders Sundnes Løvlie, and the students at Hajo Backe and Espen Aarseth‘s Digital Game Theory course heard this idea first, when it was just ramblings]

(*)(the same way that computing machines can be seen as interfaces for computation, I think – there’s some thinking I need to do here. and there. and everywhere).

I am Charlie (or, satire as dark play)

“Next to the universality of medieval laughter we must stress another striking peculiarity: its indissoluble and essential relation to freedom” Mikhail Bakhtin,

Rabelais and His World

, Indiana University Press, p. 89)

This is me getting in trouble.

The January 7th massacre in Paris, the following day of terror in France are world-changing events. But not as much as the 1.5 million people demonstration in Paris on January 11th. In the wake of horror and hope, and joining many others expressing their opinions online, this is my reflection on why I am Charlie.

First, to know more about my position regarding Charlie Hebdo and their brand of satire, read this. Second, I understand why some people react against the extreme topics treated in extreme ways that Charlie Hebdo covered. But I also think they are wrong, they misunderstand what this type of satire is about, and how to (re)act to it.

In Spain, Charlie Hebdo is relatively well know – after Franco’s death, they dedicated quite many covers to mock to “turn to democracy” in Spain, guided by a king appointed by a fascist dictator. Among the many republicans in Spain, Charlie became a well-known magazine (and it spawned a similar one, El Jueves). That’s the extent of my knowledge of the magazine.

So, it is a satirical magazine that publishes horribly provocative drawings. Charlie Hebdo it’s a child of the (French) Illustration (via 1968), and of its culture – it is, literally, a French satirical magazine, deeply rooted in an anticlerical, left/anarchist tradition in French culture. And that’s why I disagree with those who see the drawings as “racist” or “hate speech”. Charlie Hebdo is a jester – it has as a mission to poke and make fun of power, of establishment, of conventions, of good taste and good faith. Not to construct, to argue, or to promote ideas, but to question them, to mock them, to provoke us to defend them. For them, politics, society, are a carnival were nothing is sacred and everything is, should be, excessive. These are not journalists writing opinion pieces, these are jesters: childish, offensive, but much needed.

Charlie Hebdo never asked for power, and never wanted the power or the moral stature they are now given. Unlike proper political cartoonists, like Joe Sacco, Charlie Hebdo always stays away from power. It is the only possible position for the jester: to refuse everything so they can mock everybody. Charlie Hebdo does not want to be Newsweek, or Time. It is a magazine of satirical, juvenile, carnivalesque cartoons. Build them a pedestal, they will burn it.

In the context of Play Matters, I’d say that Charlie Hebdo, like the Spanish El Jueves (in its good old days) or other similar magazines, are the outcome of a cultural tradition of satire as _dark play_: offensive, provoking statements made against power from outside any power, to provoke and de-sacralise. It is dark play because it wants to hurt, offend, irate and provoke, but it is “just” cartoons, drawings that could be dismissed as “juvenile crap”, and that’s where they draw their effect from. It is dark play because it constantly shifts between being play and not-play, between being serious and not being so, and in that shift its cultural power resides. It is an old form of carnivalesque dark play.

Bakhtin argued that modernity came from the carnival, and for carnivals we need fearless jesters:

“Laughter purifies from dogmatism, from the intolerant and the petrified; it liberates from fanaticism and pedantry, from fear and intimidation, from didacticism, naïvité and illusion, from the single meaning, the single level, from sentimentality. Laughter does not permit seriousness to atrophy and to be torn away from the one being, forever incomplete. It restores this ambivalent wholeness. Such is the function of laughter in the historical development of culture and literature”

Jesters can, ought to be offensive, and we can be hurt by them. But the answer is not to denounce them, to call them names. It’s enough not to laugh, to refuse to play their game. If you are offended by Charlie Hebdo, don’t look at it, don’t take it seriously, don’t play along. The worst offence for them is not to laugh. This type of dark play needs, wants, demands your enragement, so ignorance is the best response to outrage.

This whole situation reminds me how much we need to have offensive material of this kind out in the public. We need to acknowledge that there are, and we need, particular modes of speech that hurts without being hate speech. Satire is an instrument for enlightenment, a questioning of what we take for granted, what we assume is right, it’s a reminder that we are not always meant to be comfortable. In fact, from this discomfort, from this extreme agonistic position, we can become better, individually and also collectively.

What does it mean, then, to say “I am Charlie”? I cannot make a general claim, so this is my personal, individual take. I am Charlie because I am a coward. I would never dare saying what Charlie says, because it can hurt, harm, offend, and I am too complacent, too conservative, maybe also too kind to say things like Charlie says them.

But I also need them said. I need (something like) Charlie to exist to offend and enrage and make fun of the power I am afraid to offend. I need Charlie to say what I don’t dare to say, to think what I don’t dare to think, to remind me that it is possible to be free from all these assumptions, constraints, conventions, powers.

I need Charlie to exist even if it hurts and I disagree and I am offended. Even if the jester makes (hurting) fun of me too, even so, I am Charlie.

_____ (most of this was posted before on a Facebook conversation – thanks to TL Taylor, Gillian Smith, Gonzalo Frasca, Sean C. Duncan, Doug Sery and the others who contributed).

____ Notes for those who want to read more: The French satirical tradition is deeply rooted in a form of culture that emerged with Rabelais, and that Bakhtin defined as the carnivalesque. In Spain, our satirical tradition is defined by Quevedo, and that’s why though we might be closer to French satire than the anglosaxon world, there are still differences (many of which are also explained by the fact that Spain never had a proper Enlightenment movement).

And to finish, a great reflection by Bakhtin (from Rabelais and His World):

“Laughter at the feast of fools was not, of course, an abstract and purely negative mockery of the Christian ritual and the Church’s hierarchy. The negative derisive element was deeply immersed in the triumphant theme of bodily regeneration and renewal. It was ‘man’s second nature’ that was laughing, the lower bodily stratum which could not express itself in official cult and ideology”

Si no hay galope, se nos para el corazón

(curious about the title of this post?) Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, “Carnaval toda la vida“)

2014 is almost done, and this is the obligatory “end of the year” post in Play Matters. To keep it within the comfortable traditions of the Internet, this is a list of the best things I’ve seen, read, or played in 2014:

My favorite film was Boyhood, but that should not come as a surprise. There’s been other excellent films, and TV, but nothing with the kindness and the humanity of Linklater’s film.

The best thing I’ve read this year, hands down, was Kate Tempest‘s Brand New Ancients:

“We are perfect because of our imperfections. We must stay hopeful; We must stay patient – because when they excavate the modern day they’ll find us: the Brand New Ancients.”

The game of the year was Brazil 1 – Germany 7. If 9/11 was the end of the XX Century politics, this game was the end of XX Century football.

I have also enjoyed playing Desert Golfing (which would be even more amazing if it had a hidden multiplayer, so say after 5000 holes you could see another ball, and that would be another player, Demon Soul’s style!), Galaxy Trucker, Spelunky and Hohokum. It’s been a terrible year for videogame culture, but a great year for playthings – like Sportsfriends, the perfect vehicles to hang out with people you love or hate, and show them how you feel about them.

It has also been the year of this book, Play Matters. Thanks to veryone who has read it. We’re now on the second printing, something I’ll celebrate with a giveaway as the new year starts. I am very happy with this book, but much happier with the conversations it has opened, and the people I’m meeting thanks to it.

But stay tuned! There’s more to come in 2015: I will open a new website to compile my silly experiments with things that are playful, and I will write here about these projects – including an exploration of dark play that went very wrong, and so also very right. There will be posts on incredible playful applications by Hubhub, about Superflex and art, and about digital art/aesthetics and play.

In the meanwhile, surrender to your inner wisdom, buy yourself some proper toys and find someone to play with; succumb to all the excesses you can, of food, of drinking, of family, of love; and welcome the year stuffed with life.

Participatory Republics

(this is a written, summarized version of a lecture I give on my Playful Design course. A longer, more academic version might be submitted for the Foundations of Digital Games Conference 2015).

(tl;dr – play can be political. go make the revolution).

In Play Matters I dedicated a chapter to the question of play and politics. That is very much a manifesto chapter, one in which someone (coughmolleindustriacough) claims I spray “play” all over and thus weaken my argument. That is slightly true, so as a correction, here is a more detailed reflection of the relations between play and the political.

In my theory of play, appropriation is a key concept. When we play, we appropriate the world and we make it ours, for the “us” who is at play. To play is to redefine the world as a place in which we can play, or in which we can be “at play”.

Similarly, revolutionary political thinking works with the idea that the world needs to be appropriated in order to change it. (My take on politics is left-leaning, though these rhetorics of appropriation of the world to change the status-quo are also used by right-wing political ideologies).

Before establishing the connection between play and the political, I need to explain the relation between play and critical thinking. My understanding of critical thinking comes straight from Paulo Freire:

Finally, true dialogue cannot exist unless the dialoguers engage in critical thinking—thinking which discerns an indivisible solidarity between the world and the people and admits of no dichotomy between them—thinking which perceives reality as process, as transformation, rather than as a static entity—thinking which does not separate itself from action, but constantly immerses itself in temporality without fear of the risks involved. (Paulo Freire,

Pedagogy of the Oppressed

New York: Verso, p. 93).

Play is a way of engaging in this type of critical thinking. To play, we need to appropriate the world. To appropriate the world we need to perceive it not as “a static entity”, but as “a process, as transformation”. Appropriative play can only happen when we perceive the world as ready for the transformation that takes place when playing (a transformation that is a re-ontologizing process – more on that on a later post).

Play requires critical thinking to be possible. But that does not imply that all play is political. Political play happens when critical thinking is used for an action that leads both to a particular reflection, and to a particular transformation of the world.

It is Augusto Boal who better explains this:

The poetics of the oppressed is essentially the poetics of liberation: the spectator no longer delegates power to the characters either to think or to act in his place. The spectator frees himself; he thinks and acts for himself! Theatre is action! Perhaps the theatre is not revolutionary in itself; but have no doubts, it is a rehearsal of revolution! (Augusto Boal,

Theater of the Oppressed

New York: Verso, p. 135)

In Boal’s work, the classic, Aristotelian theatre is seen as the poetics of the oppression:

(…)the world is known, perfect or about to be perfected, and all its values are imposed on the spectators, who passively delegate power to the characters to act and think in their place. (Augusto Boal,

Theater of the Oppressed

New York: Verso, p. 135)

A new, critical thinking-based, revolutionary theatre, happens when participants “are invited to ‘play’, not to ‘interpret’, characters” (p. 107). Similarly, political play happens as a transformative act in the world through play, it happens when the act of playing brings forth the possibility of a transformational change, or a questioning of the status quo. In Play Matters I mention a number of examples of this type of political play, like Camover and Metakettle.

However, this does not explain yet why is it important to understand play as a strategy for political action. For that, we need to start thinking about what do we mean with the political, and so I turn to Chantal Mouffe’s distinction between the political and politics:

I am putting forward, the distinction between “politics” and “the political”. By “the political”, I refer to the dimension of antagonism that is inherent in human relations, antagonism that can take many forms and emerge in different type of social relations. “Politics”, on the other hand, indicates the ensemble of practices, discourses and institutions which seek to establish a certain order and organize human coexistence in conditions that are always potentially conflictual because they are affected by the dimension of “the political”. (Chantal Mouffe, “

Deliberative Democracy or Agonistic Pluralism

”, 2000 p. 15)

What interests me in this distinction is how structures, practices, institutions are challenged by the political, or how

“politics” consists in domesticating hostility and (…) trying to defuse the potential antagonism that exists in human relations. (Chantal Mouffe, “

Deliberative Democracy or Agonistic Pluralism

”, 2000 p. 15).

Carl DiSalvo has written a fantastic book on design strategies for engaging with the political, but my project wants to understand what is the contribution of play as a form of being in the world to the political, emancipatory action.

What is unique about play is its carnivalesque nature. The activity of play has the capacity, through appropriation, of subverting social, cultural, and other forms of power structures. For instance, play makes sports culturally, but also politically important: play is also a subversion of rationalit, when we care about points, scores, winning or losing. But most importantly, the carnivalesque nature of play can be used to appropriate social and cultural contexts for expressive purposes.

An example of carnivalesque play I write about in Play Matters is Anonymous’ Project Chanology. We could consider the politically engaged work of Banksy another form of carnivalesque play. Both are instances of play because they appropriate the world to subvert it, and they do so preserving a certain element of joy, of humour, of chaos.

Political play is a mode of thinking critically about politics, and of developing an agonistic approach to those politics. This agonism is framed through carnivalesque chaos and humour, through the appropriation of the world for playing. By playing, by carefully negotiating the purpose of playing between pleasure and the political, we engage in a transformative act.

So where does this leave us as designers of play? One tradition argues that the rhetorical effects of procedural systems, in this case games, works as an act of political engagement. However, in the tradition of Boal and Freire, I think that play, and not the object of the game, toy or playground, is what constitutes a transformative act. For it to be political, the critical reflection fostered by rhetorics needs to be coupled with action.

Molleindustria’s Unmanned, with its focus on the repetitive, mundane interactions, can be understood as an opening not just for reflection, but for questioning our own actions. Similarly, Newstweek is an example of how a particular mischievous use of technology, the man in the middle attack, can be appropriated as a carnivalesque reflection on the “embedded” politics of computer networking and online media. (this section needs a more detailed analysis – I know you can’t wait, but you’ll have to).

As designers, then, we need make playing a political act, by placing us, players, as political beings in agonistic conflict. We need to design emancipatory systems, liberating rules for the joys of the carnivalesque.

(this piece has been inspired by the work of Gonzalo Frasca and Douglas Wilson. Special acknowledgements to Enric Llagostera, who showed me how to read Boal and Freire as critical play theorists).