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).

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