[-empyre-] The Playsthetics of Experimental Digital Games: Games as Public Experiments

Bart Simon simonb at algol.concordia.ca
Wed Mar 5 01:58:33 EST 2014

The Playsthetics of Experimental Digital Games: March Discussion

Greetings all,

Thanks to Sandra for the provocative opening. Its been a while since I 
have done one of these listserv discussions so I will do my best to 
extrude in short provocative snippets without too much rambling.  By way 
of introduction I'll maybe lay some (post)disciplinary cards on the 
table.  I come at game studies and design as a cultural sociologist with 
a background in science and technology studies. I have been working at 
this game stuff intensely for well over ten years now (starting with a 
lark project on Everquest) in rich collaborations that have grown into 
not just a research centre (TAG) but an experiment in remaking and 
refashioning academic life.  Games and gaminess are at the core of this.

Digital games, for me, are knotty cultural objects that coordinate the 
action of humans and machines under under the aegis of "mere 
entertainment", "play" and/or "fantasy" and "imagination."  They are 
implicated in new political economic formations of the culture industry 
(complete with the usual domination and resistance stories) but they are 
not necessarily reducible to these.  My first impulse is to treat 
digital games as mundane sociotechnical performances that are utterly 
banal and ideally not worth getting too worked up about as Art or 
Education or Politics or whatever else (more on that later).

I like the idea of thinking about experiments.  Not 'experimental games' 
as much as 'games as experiments.' Games as experiments in what?  If I 
had to venture a trope for the sake of this discussion I'd say I am 
interested in games as experiments in 'otherwise being'; in being 
off-kilter or doing-things-not-quite-the-same. These kinds of social 
experiments (think of classic American utopian and dystopian 
collectives) are not specific to digital games but digital games as 
experiments draw our attention to two key elements that are difficult to 
see in other kinds of social experiments.

1. DIGITAL games implicate the nonhuman -- material culture, machines, 
software, interfaces, infrastructures, platforms, etc...
2. digital GAMES necessarily undermine the conditions of their 
production -- games are not forms of life. They are bounded but 
ephemeral processes and they are necessarily disjunctive as such. To 
say, "let's play a game" is to introduce a disjunction in the normal way 
of going on as a matter of cultural definition.

I'll have to unpack these ideas a bit (or a lot) later but it stands to 
reason that Sandra's category of "experimental games" will simply be, 
for me, games that are to some degree self-conscious of themselves as 
experiments in 'otherwise being'.

As a final idea to get started consider the difference between 
experiments and demonstrations in the context of science.  The 
distinction is nicely articulated in Steven Shapin's old book, The 
Leviathan and the Air Pump (with more discussion in The Social History 
of Truth) and there are numerous references to this work in Latour, for 
instance.  In the 17th century is was common for natural philosophers to 
do public experiments of their devices (Shapin's book is ostensibly 
about the debate between Robert Boyle and Thomas Hobbes over the 
operation of the vacuum pump) but in such cases the public was enrolled 
as a device to generate the "truth" of a principle as a demonstration - 
a kind of epistemics of collective witnessing.

This is a far cry from the idea of experiment as a risky, open-ended 
investigation and tinkering with the nature/culture divide. 
Demonstrations are foregone conclusions and their epistemic power 
derives from the collective experience of those foregone conclusions -- 
the cleverer the scientist or author.... or game designer/producer the 
more "effective" the demonstration. Experiments, in contrast, are much 
more chancy, mundane and humble (though no less social). We will have to 
be careful not to reify this category (I am worried about Sandra's 
"radical honesty" in this regard though I appreciate the trajectory of 
this idea a great deal).

I would suggest that demonstrations are the rule for most technology 
today and video games are no exception.  Most games, the games we most 
often think of and consume are demonstration games not experimental 
games.  Good gosh I do believe Lyotard wrote about this somewhat with 
idea of the paralogy of the inventor in the Postmodern Condition (I am a 
theory child of the 80s sorry :)

One can also think about failure in relation to this distinction between 
Demonstration and Experiment -- in demonstration, failure is a condition 
that should be overcome (failure as economic implications afterall). It 
is something that should not have happened (even if it often does) 
whereas in experiment failure is necessarily to generate reasonable data 
(experience depends on failure).  So how a game frames failure for 
instance might tell us much about its status as experiment but this is 
just one of many possible directions to explore this distinction.

That's enough to get started I hope.  I am looking forward to the month 
ahead and to pushing some new ideas back and forth.  Thanks to Sandra 
and to the empyre community for inviting me.


Bart Simon, Associate Professor of Sociology
Director, Technoculture, Art and Games (TAG)
Concordia University, Montreal

bart.simon [at] concordia.ca

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