The Lightness of Joy

Boyhood is a phenomenal film, perhaps the best I’ve seen in years. It is  full of life, full of humanity, the kind of art that continues when the lights are on, and will be there, with you, until.

There are many reasons why Boyhood is great: how it writes a strong female lead that is not a caricature of a strong female lead, embracing flaws as they are overcome by kindness and love and better judgement; how it is generous with characters, how even the worst are not judged, but understood. Boyhood gives a kind, generous gaze to how complicated and messy and difficult but also joyful and luminous it is to be human, to be alone and with others, to figure all this out.

The genius of Boyhood, though, is that it does all this without big drama, without big topics presented in a big way. It is a great gesture film without great gestures. It fills you with joy because it reminds you of your time, of your life, of how moments pass and that is what we have for each other, the moments we share.

Games and other playthings have been opening lately towards this expressive potential. We have great games about important topics: Howling Dogs, Lim, Mainichi, Cart Life, Dear Esther, The Graveyard. These are all important playthings, but they are also all grand gestures about big topics.

Boyhood shows another joy, another pleasure, another form of exploring and understanding what makes us human. It does not have to do with the big gestures, but with small moments. Like those moments when we play and we also make up our history and our being,  making memories and the present and the future for us and those we play with.

JS Joust is not a big game about big gestures. It is, in all honestly, a silly party game. But it gives memories, moments of joy that drives us together, that gives us others to talk with, that gives us memories. Proteus, a playground that looks like a game, reveals a time for us we didn’t know it existed, filling it with strange pleasures and recognition. Noby Noby Boy amuses us, giving us the pleasures of silliness without remorse.

Time will pass and we will remember the moments we spent playing these things, we will share them, they will bring back the joys and pleasures and togetherness they meant. They will soak us up in the joys of playing past and present, alone and together.

Play Matters, as a manifesto, is perhaps a bit too full of great gestures. But those big gestures are not the only ones that makes play an important way of being in the world. Sharing a game of Joust, jumping on trampolines, kicking a ball, telling stories about Spelunky, … all of these are forms of play that gives us togetherness, shared moments, kindness and generosity; moments that gives us humanity.

Play, in big and small gestures, gives us moments that seize us.

And we should embrace these moments, we should embrace the lightness of that joy.

[thanks to doug wilson for reminding me of the importance of togetherness in play]

On that which cannot be named

Of course, Gamergate.

There’s tons written about this now, but i particularly like this article.

These are my current thoughts about the movement, in no particular order:

1. Not everybody who identifies with gamergate is condoning or participating in the harassment of women. But that does not save the movement. Any social movement is defined by the radicals it accepts. It’s not enough to point them out and claim “they’re loonies but we’re good”. The only solution is to expel them. While harassers are part of the group, they contribute to define it.

2. There are ethical issues with games journalism. But start by following the money, not the indies. What are corporations paying, to whom, and why? Remember: corporations pay bonuses for metacritic scores because that improves sales.

3. Nobody wants to ban videogames (and if anybody wants, they are wrong). In fact, what many of us want is more diversity, and banning violent, sexist videogames would lead to less diversity. But we need Depression Quest, and Dear Esther, and Twine games. We need those voices, those games.

4. I see as a core problem the cultural capital given to the word “game”, which has also created the notion of gatekeepers of the concept of “game”. That’s why many of us don’t care about “games” anymore. Games should be liminal objects, things that for lack of a better name we call games, and move on. “Game”, noun, should be depleted of cultural capital since it is depleted of semantic value. Games are just things we play with. What matters is play, not the thing.

More generally, I find interesting how gamergate proves I was partially wrong in my optimism about players as moral beings (see The Ethics of Computer Games). Gamergate is an opening to the black hole of unethical behaviors and attitudes of players (or “gamers”). And interestingly enough, this happens because of the fixation with the (marketed, commodified) object called “game”. A comparison comes to mind:

Like hooligans, gamergaters have also a mob mentality, some political ideas thought to be worth defending, and an aggressive way of defending it. They have the same general disdain for women, racial and sexual minorities, and a tendency for totalitarianism (because, like the brown shirts and the Party youth, your collective is also defined by the radicals, remember). Like hooligans, gamergaters identify with an object, a game or a football club, and violently resist any change or challenge to its status. Here’s an interesting difference, though: both FC Barcelona and Real Madrid have banned the entry of the most radical (typically neonazi) hooligans in their stadiums, and generally see them as a problem they need to deal with (*). Intel, on the other hand, pulled their adds from Gamasutra at the request of gamergaters.

(*)ok, the relation between big european football clubs and their hooligans is a bit more complicated than that, but there’s a lot of effort done on reform and prevention, at least in Spain.

So besides the problems gamergate has with gender, minorities, indie development and their general understanding of the concepts of ethics (and kindness, and generosity), what I find fascinating is how this mob is partially fuelled by the commodification of “games”. These are individuals whose identity is defined by the objects they consume. Or better, their identity is defined by a corporate description of what the identity of the consumers of these products should be (and for all these months of incendiary discourses, nobody I think has really addressed the responsibility that the “games industry” has in this situation).

Finally, let’s go back to games journalism. Game journalists should not write consumer reports, they should help us understand why a game is important (while scholars explain why games are important, and how they work); they should teach to see and guide us to understand. This means that being a games journalist is not anymore about being objective – quite the contrary, it’s about having stakes in this culture. I read Leigh Alexander not for her taste, but for what she sees in games that I can’t see. The same with Cara Ellison, or Rock, Paper, Shotgun, or most of Polygon. I don’t want a consumer report, there’s demos for that. I want a voice to listen to, a companion.

I read The Guardian and The New Yorker, and I trust Keith Stewart and David Denby for what I should play and see. I know they have an opinion, they have a stake in what is good. I sometimes disagree and sometimes agree, but what they do is journalism – or better, criticism. They are games and film critics. My opinions, my taste is developed through what I watch, play and listen and what I read about those things. Criticism of this kinds help us develop – it does not reinforce opinions, it gives us words we sometimes did not have, opinions to disagree with. Reviews of that kind, proper critical journalism, forces us to take a stand, and to evaluate our own taste.

Those are personal words, of people that surely have personal relations with the producers of what they review. That is irrelevant. The role of critics is to give voices and words, to open worlds for us to take. They are not to be followed, but to be listened to, argued against, or agreed with.

But of course, if your concept of journalism comes from corporations who benefit directly from a particular type of review, then all that is wrong, and there is a possibility of being objective when dealing with arts and culture.

I prefer when people try to convince me, with arguments and their taste and their own opinions at stake. I prefer dialogues to guides.

So these are my random, disconnected thoughts on gamergate. And as a preventive act, no comments, thanks. Find me on Twitter, for a chat.

Oh, one last thing:

I never liked the word gamer. There’s no play in it.

Feeding the Trolls

Hold on, this might get thorny.

These might not be the best time to write about trolling, particularly for somebody interested in games and invested in them as a form of playful expression. These days, so-called “trolls” flood the internet with hate speech, illegal hacking, and misogynistic nonsense.

But these are not trolls. I want to vindicate the importance of the figure of the troll for online communities and digital culture. And I want to do so because trolling is a form of playing and of being playful.

I guess you’re wondering: if play is so good and important for being human, why such a potentially damaging attitude, such as that of trolls, is also play?

The idea of play being “good” or valuable has its roots both in Huizinga’s move to place play at the center of culture, and of developmental theorists to enforce the importance of play in learning and childhood. So much was invested in that argument, that play could not be possibly seen as dangerous, or immoral. That’s why Huizinga famously ends his book situating play outside of morality, beyond it. Play was a force beyond moral standards, and almost always positive.

Those were important cultural achievements, but now that the discipline of play studies has evolved, we should open the doors to considering the darker sides of play.

In Play Matters I argue that play is important because it is both creative and destructive, and that keeping the balance between both is an exhilarating, aesthetic experience. I am deeply inspired by Richard Schechner’s idea of dark play, or play actions that are not necessarily consensual, or fun; that are risky and potentially hurtful.

Playing is not always consensual, not always for “fun”, and its pleasures sometimes means the pains of others. Keeping that dark side of play at bay, or exploiting, is one of the reasons why play is important as a cultural force – it can create as much as it can destroy.

Playing is, like Allan Kaprow wrote, a four-letter word. And trolling is play.

Think about it – the most important troll of the XX first century is Marcel Duchamp, closely followed by Guy Debord and maybe Samuel Beckett.

Trolling is a playful act of intelligence. The troll takes over a situation and, with deadpan humor, makes it ridicule. Because nobody else in those situations is playing, the troll’s action can be harming. But they are so with an ironic laughter, with a sense of fun. For the lulz.

So next time we face misogynerds or other types of hate speech uttered by sociopaths from the sewers of the internet, think that they are not trolls. In fact, you should troll them.

Because trolls, proper trolls, darkly playful trolls, are intelligent, nuanced, engaged. They are playing with you, and it hurts, but it’s ok.

Take these examples: David Thorne, Fansy the Famous Bard, Team Roomba, PhD_in_Everything, Chanology. They are all taking over a situation, making it exasperating for many, ruining experiences. But they have a sense of fun, a notion of (dark) play that explains these actions as more than vandalism: a form of expression that tests the boundaries of what is possible thanks to the expressive, aesthetic capacities of play.

Trolling is a form of play that is appropriative, expressive, personal, and its purpose is often to mock, insult, or worse. But it is playing, and it is playful.

To troll is to play. The rest is silence.

You would look for yours on earth

When we think about political play, we tend to either consider the inner workings of complex institutions, using play as a metaphor for all the intrigues and blood-spilling of actual politics; or we think about games and toys like Class Struggle or Unmanned, that adopt the form of games to explore the rhetorics of politics.

These examples show how there is a relation between games and politics: both are systems with rules that people interact with, almost all the time trying to find wiggle spaces to play in, for orderly or disorderly play.

However, things get more thorny when we think about playful politics. Playfulness is often associated with lightness, with childish pleasures, and it might seem at odds with politics, always so serious, formal, and purpose-driven. But in Play Matters I argue that playfulness is an attitude towards the world that takes some of the characteristics of play (it’s personal, expressive, appropriative), without changing the goals of the activity. Playful interfaces, for instance, tend to be expressive, or allow us to appropriate the system we interact with, but they do not get in the way of productivity.

How can we then think about playful political action? The bright people at the Dutch interaction design studio Hubbub have created an app that explains precisely why politics can be playful: Standing.

Standing is a very simple app. Once you open it, it requests you to write what is it we are standing for, and then to press and hold a specific part of the phone’s screen to “start standing and broadcast your location”. As long as we are holding the screen, and we don’t move, our location and message (what we are standing for), will be broadcast to the app’s website. We will be sending a message to the world.

As Kars Afrink, on of the designers behind Standing, told us in a visit to Copenhagen, Standing was inspired by the non violent forms of protest. Quoting from the project’s webpage:

“The project was inspired by the standing wo/man protests, which were initiated by Erdem Gündüz, on 17 June 2013 by standing in Taksim Square in Turkey. The topic of ludic resistance has been a long-lasting interest of ours and after much speaking and writing on the subject we felt the need to make something that directly contributed to it. Seeing the act of standing being used as an effective way of civil disobedience delighted us and we felt it served as a perfect starting point.”

Standing_Interface

Standing is also an (unintended) ironic comment on the smartphone and the internet as revolutionary networks. We have read many pundits praise social networks as key elements of political uprising (without any comments on the politics of those networks, both as services and as infrastructures: who owns the networks?). The smartphone is seen as a liberating machine, a gateway to the “freedom of the internet”. Smartphone users are often portrayed, by pundits and Silicon Valley libertarians, as freedom fighters. Again, using proprietary software on private infrastructures that harvest data for commercial purposes.

The beauty of Standing, in my opinion, is that by using it you deny the smartphone as an instrument. When using Standing, you have to both stay still and continuously hold the phone’s screen. You cannot call, you cannot access a social network, you cannot even check if your protest is being registered. Basically, Standing turns your phone into a relatively inanimate object. To protest using Standing is also to stop using the phone, to nullify it. We are bound to a location, yes, and to a network, but that’s it. The smartphone might be a more pure instrument for social protest when we cannot do more with it than just holding it.

IMG 5114

What makes Standing a great example of political playfulness is its careful design for appropriation. Play is a form of being that appropriates the world for us to express ourselves, also politically. But for it to be play, it needs also to be expressive, personal, and to have the possibility of having a purpose of itself, besides the political intent. Standing allows you to be silly (some of the screenshots in this post were taken during an administrative meeting at the ITU), also when you’re being earnest. Standing allows a wiggle space of expression in the political action. That wiggle space is inhabited by playing, and it is what makes playing political.

IMG 5113

I’d say that Standing is a political toy – it opens the possibility for us to express political ideas, but always under the ambiguous mantle of play. This ambiguity does not devaluate the political message – in fact, it almost amplifies it: we are protesting, but we are also playing, and in that double situation we thrive, we can express ourselves.

And who is going to stop us? We are only playing!

SuperPlay

Social Pudding (2003) In collaboration with Rirkrit Tiravanija

Social_Pudding

“Workshops and events focusing on the making and sharing of a plate of pudding. participants were invited to come and exchange recipes and ideas and recipes while creating their own pudding. Rather than explore a ‘fabric of society’, _Social Pudding_ is interested in ‘the pudding of society, the convergence of social, business, personal and everyday activities”

——— An Artist with 6 Legs, 2014, p. 292

This is the first time, but surely not the last time, I will be writing about the Danish artist collective Superflex. With their careful combination of participatory aesthetics, political messages, and scandinavian irony, I think Superflex are a key example of the intersection between the arts, politics, and play.

Superflex are know, among other things, for works in which user participation is crucial for the creation of the artwork – in itself a reflection on the role of the artist as author, and on mass production. In the 2014 retrospective hosted at Charlottenborg Kunsthall in Copenhagen, one of the most interesting pieces in display was _Social Pudding_. It is also probably the only work of art I have in my office (or maybe not, what do I know about art anyway).

Social Pudding was just a table arranged with various cardboard boxes containing, in sealed plastic bags, the different ingredients to make a pudding. The work of art consisted on assembling these into a package, which also had to be prepared by the espectator, who could then take the social pudding package home.

The piece is a collaboration with Tiravanija, whose 1992 work Untitled(free) turned an art gallery into a convivial space, a sort of restaurant where the artist made food.

In the catalogue of the exhibition, the description of this piece is very much aligned with Tiravanija’s aesthetic ideals. But my experience was other – a more playful and ironic one.

Social Pudding was not about creating a shared space, or talking to others. It was about mass production of food and the isolation that these packaged products create. Those of use who took some Social Pudding home did not interact with the other assemblers. We did not share recipes. We just assembled, and left. The only social space was that of assembly line work.

Social Pudding is playful in many levels. The obvious one is with the notion of the object of art and its uniqueness. But more interestingly, I think, Social Pudding playfully appropriates the modern, western, wealthy-driven perception that eating is a paramount social event that is also self-expressive. Social Pudding, as I see it, is a play on foodies, an appropriation of their rhetorics to wrap around what is essentially an assembly line inside a museum.

Maybe food is art, or personal expression. What do I know. But what I do know is that Social Pudding was neither, but played with both. There is nothing social in this pudding, it’s just chemicals put together by strangers in a relatively sterile environment, at a very low price. And it tastes like disinfectant.

So I’ll leave this future Unilever product alone, and enjoy my antisocial puddings.

The Accelerated Flâneur

I spent months, years, writing Play Matters. I read play theory, I thought about play, and tried to play as much as I could, with as many things and people as possible. All that led me to this idea, perhaps not radically new but I think quite accurately described, that playing is taking over the world to make it ours. I was so happy with that phrasing, with that contribution.

And then I watched Kaspar Astrup Schröder‘s documentary about parkour and the city, My Playground. In it, three young american traceurs make the same points, almost with the same words. And then we see him effectively taking over the world and making it his playground.

I write a little bit about parkour in Play Matters, about how it identifies the city as a place to play, and how it playfully takes over our controlled spaces to make them playgrounds. In _My Playground_, traceurs from Denmark, China and the US, they all confirm this impression. To practice parkour is to rediscover the pleasures of playing, and of making the world a playground. You can read more about that in the book.

However, there are three things about parkour and play I did not write in the book and that are worth mentioning:

First, parkour gives you back the pleasures of (unruly) play and of creating a playground, but it also brings back the pleasures of body play. Bluntly put, our bodies are the best toys you can find: full of sensors, very mobile, resilient, and with capacity to network. Parkour brings back the pleasure of suddenly discovering what our bodies can do, and throw those capacities at the world, to change it. Can I do a backflip? Of course! Can I do it in those stairs over there? Much more fun! Parkour makes the world a playground, but it also makes the body a toy.

Second, we are now in the era of broadcasting play. Twitch.tv, the “share” buttons of the PlayStation 4, and even YouTube are opening channels dedicated to the broadcast of the act of playing. And broadcasting shows just how performative, or playful, can play be. It is not only playing to win or to finish the game, but also playing to see what happens, to see what I can do, to show others what I can do. Parkeur has a similar culture: traceurs gather and record each other feats and falls, an indispensable part of the culture of the sport. Parkeur is an example of how play and performance are deeply related – it’s often difficult to separate playing for “playing for others”. To be a trasceur is also to be a performer in a community; similarly, to play some games is to play also for others that watch, in a community. These communities are not defined by watching (as consumption), but by playing  (as production). These are communities of play(ers).

Third, traceurs are accelerated flâneurs that traverse the city at high speed, finding the impossible, challeging routes only to show that they can also be traversed, at high speeds. In this sense, traceurs are the speedrunners of urbanism – they take spaces we know and traverse, and by accelerating them, they show their other, different nature. Like videogame speedrunners, they modify existing architectures to reveal their inner, accelerated beauty. It is not anymore Monsanto Plaza or Unilever Allé – by speeding up, the space becomes theirs, blurring the world to make it more clear.

There is an uncanny sense of beauty seeing traceurs running in the city. They have a deservedly arrogant approach to urban spaces: what is yours is actually ours, and we shape it. In these days of start architects, it is bodies in speeded up motion that show us cities at human scale.

Play Matters: The Book

Play Matters is finally out. (MIT Press) (Amazon) (But it tastes better at your local bookshop)

This is my 3rd book, and one could imagine that at this point the experience of getting a book out is less exciting. But not for this book.

I am proud of everything I’ve written, but Play Matters is special. This is my most ambitious book to date, and also the most personal. This is written in my voice, with my opinions, to convince you but also to shake you, provoke you, and make you think.

Play Matters is a manifesto for a way of being in the world by playing. It is also a way of rescuing play so we can finally allow it to be a part of our day to day relationships with the world. And as such, well, it’s complicated.

Play Matters sometimes whispers, sometimes yells. It makes mistakes and it’s probably full of errors and opinions you will disagree with. But I stand by all of them, and I accept challenges – arm wrestling preferred, at dawn. Read this book as a million time bombs I put in your head that will trigger every time you are playful, or you’re playing, forcing you to pause and think and realize that I was right, or very wrong, but onto something.

In this blog I will be writing about these playful time bombs, about my encounters with things I play with, or that make me think play(fully). This website extends the book, and reaches to places I might not have thought about when writing it. All book is a dialogue, and all books are alive – this website is a way of keeping that conversation alive, and reaching to you, again.

So let me be arrogant: I am very, very proud of this book, and very happy it is out there. There’s a lot of people that need to be thanked for this book. Some of you are in the acknowledgements, but some others, you know who you are, are in the book – your voices and ideas informing mine. And thanks to MIT Press and the Playful Thinking editors for accepting to publish this manifesto. And a special thanks to Ann Hamilton, who made the artwork that illustrates the cover.

So here it is, Play Matters.

Shall we play?

All Play is Revolutionary

Take a white room. Fill it up with objects. Assign a white tag with words printed in Helvetica to each object or cluster of objects. Promote. Engage. Experience. You have a museum. There is art.

Of course, rebel. Make food in the gallery. Make art outside the gallery. Deny the object. Write about it. There is art.

Write a history. Start with the salons, then move to the private collections, the state museums, the galleries, the events and the festivals, this internet. Start with individuals, cluster them in collectives, schools, groups. They write manifests, anti-manifests, or nothing at all. You have artists.

Artists want to play, too. So they make games, they use props like toys and playground materials, they place them in the white rooms or in the designated spaces for arts, and you have playful arts, resisting the imperalistic, capitalistic drive of the culture industries, reminding us that man is only man when at play, and how important childhood is. Ah, the artists.

Or you can be more revolutionary. Go to a museum. Make an adventure playground. Push everything else to the sides. Start a revolution.

In 1968 the Danish playground designer and artist Palle Nielsen created the piece A Model for a Qualitative Society to be experienced at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. The Model was a pure adventure playground, designed for kids to paint, dress up, jump into a sea of foam, and essentially play out their world as they wanted.

In 2014 the Danish museum Arken exhibited a replica of Nielsen’s The Model. I visited it on a lazy August Saturday with my two kids, who were fairly sceptical about going to an arts museum. After this visit, I realised that I have seen a revolution in the making, and why play is not only an aesthetic mode of being in the world, but also a deeply political one.

Drowning in a sea of foam

As an adult, you are not supposed to play in The Model. This is a world for children, of different ages. We, the adults, the owners of the art space, we who define what is art and what is not and why it matters to have museums, are quite literally pushed to the sides. The Model in Arken was structured as a mirror image. On each side of a tent, there was the main adventure playground: a wooden, pool-shaped structure full with foam. Over the pool there was a bridge where children could jump in the foam. On one side of the tent, the structure was relatively high and deep, intended for children ages 7 to 12. On the other side, the structure was slightly smaller, for younger children. The tent in the middle housed an array of props children could use to dress up, paint, build and create. There were dresses, papers, glue, scissors, water, and all kinds of treasures.

And all around this structure, one could see the work of children: paintings on the walls and the floors, from abstraction to emotional pre-teen feelings. There were small statues and ambitious, crumpling installations. There were plants and residua of games and toys.

Residua of Play

The Model, a child of the 1960s, was designed as a revolutionary act. But we would be too quick saying that is revolutionary because it was a playground in the white room, or because children could play in a museum. The Model is revolutionary because it forces us to play, to be in the world as playing beings, in the least playful of all environments: the museum. That is why children get it: they know it’s not art, but an opening for being in the world in that way they find so pleasurable, and we adults find so attractive yet compromising. Children go in and play. In a museum? Who cares! They play – they build this fragile, qualitative society in the museum, as they so often do elsewhere. A statue

The Model is revolutionary because it literally pushes to the sides those who do not engage in the world through play (the central structure is designed so you have to walk around the play areas, or if you just want to spectate or take pictures, you have to stand on the sides). And if you engage in play, you are not anymore in a museum. There are no artists. There is only play, taking over, proposing an alternative.

Play is appropriative, aesthetic, and political, and in few occasions you are going to be able to witness that nature, and experience it, as in The Model. It negates spectatorship, or even audience participation. The qualitative society it wants to create happens only if you play, and if you, by playing, take over the context where The Model is situated. No more museum, no more artists, no more spectators, no more audience. Just people, playing. The revolution goes beyond “drawing on the walls of a museum”: The Model denies the museum, but it does so only if you play, if you let loose, if you open up to play.

So what is this “model for a qualitative society”? I could tell you it is the model of appropriation of the world through play, an inherently political act. But I would be already taking one step away from its actual meaning. You will understand the model only when you finally go up that bridge, look down at the pool of foam, and jump into it, head first.IMG 5047