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).

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