[-empyre-] Week 2: Playsthetics of Experimental Games: reflections

Sandra Danilovic s.danilovic at mail.utoronto.ca
Sun Mar 16 10:59:01 EST 2014

Dear All,

Please forgive my silence this week. I have been meaning to chime in on everyone’s unique and exciting observations - Lynn, Matt, Sebastian, Bart, Felan and Emma, thank you for propelling this conversation into wonderful nooks and crannies, places I want to be! I have so much to discuss with all of you, but...due to time constraints, I will pick up on one controversial point addressed in this week's conversation.

I want to comment on both Sebastian’s and Bart's arguments on gamification - I actually see common threads in them that speak to mutual commitments (I am guilty of mind-reading here, so please reprimand me). Sebastian, please correct me if I am wrong, you argue that we should not ignore the ways in which games are functionalized, operationalized and instrumentalized for specific multiple, opposing and competing objectives, and I suppose, we need to differentiate between those very objectives. Sebastian asks us to suspend our aesthetic and political judgments in this act of framing gamification as a form of experimentation. Can we suspend those judgments and, shall I say, passions? It seems to me that this may not be possible, as demonstrated by the popular discontent surrounding the rhetoric of gamification.

Would it be productive if we were to differentiate between a variety of objectives, function, instrument and intentionality and the context-dependent ways in which they relate to games, art, experimentation, desire, subjectivity, aesthetics/pleasure, etc? In other words, we shouldn't necessarily conflate instrumentalization with gamification, the latter of which stands in for the opposing rhetorics that produce multiple meanings of the term. But also, the term instrumentalization has affective value for me. Instrument has a sinister sound to it, no? I think of horror films and medical instruments (the dentist).  We could get into Latourian concepts of instruments, but no time now...

I ask the above question of differentiation because, if someone asked me a very simple question such as: why are you interested in digital games, I would have very specific *reasons* — I am interested in digital games because: I find them exciting, I study them, I get pleasure out of learning how to play and make them. I like digital games because I have always been attracted to very complex technological processes as mediators of self-expression (my days in the darkroom, my days filming on 8 and 16mm, my days learning vectorscopes of which I don't remember a bloody thing, my days making a pinhole camera from cardboard, my days learning how to draw on 16 mm film inspired by Norman McLaren…) I like digital games because they come in a long lineup of practices representing my love of technology and the demystification that emerges out of experimentation with technology and...well, when I was a child, I was partly a tomboy and wanted to do what the boys were doing. ;-).

So, games are imbued with an affective value and objective, a personal and practical function for me and an intention of satisfying specific needs and desires, some of which originate in my childhood. I do not mean to construct a psychoanalytic argument here, but I do not play games for the sake of playing games. Games without a purpose or reason strike me as somewhat disingenuous in my specific situation and context. I stress context, subjectivity, affect, aesthetics, and temporality here.
Is the act of defining the intersections between games, art, experimentation, intention a losing battle? And is games for games sake or play for play's sake or art for art's sake, or experiment for experiment's sake or purposeless design just another way of talking about multiple intentionalities, identifiable and non-identifiable? I must be riffing on someone here, maybe the design and affordances people (Norman, Gibson)?

Having said the above, I see Sebastian’s argument as upholding a Neo-Marxist position in order to critique the exploitative and manipulative ways in which games are instrumentalized for capitalist or other pernicious goals, as forms of *procedural rhetoric* (Bogost, 2007; 2011), as operationalized forms of neoliberal and corporatist propaganda that upholds reward-centric and competition-centric paradigms for success. http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/08/gamification-is-bullshit/243338/. I don't mean to reify success and reward and competition as intrinsically bad. Not at all. It depends on the context and contingency involved. Bart, I think your disagreement with Sebastian's point on how experimentation relates to gamification speaks to the concept of philosophical normativity and ethics. In other words, the way I understand Bart's argument is, he is differentiating experimental games or games as artistic, creative, scientific, socially conscious constructs and processes, embedded with social and aesthetic values....FROM the exploitative and manipulative, underhanded, hidden, dishonest ways in which this instrumentalization (in the form of gamification) gives rise to? When Bart says *consequences*, he is worried about the *badness* of those consequences, right? For example, in the context of children's pedagogy, proponents of gamification see this as making school, instruction, teachers (authority), and abstract concepts accessible and relatable to children through games. What is so bad about that? Well, the critics of gamification would say, this is just another ideological prank for inculcating in impressionable children the idea that play is not just for play's sake, that in fact, play has to lead to Harvard or a Guggenheim Fellowship, or else! Or worse, play is instrumentalized as a way to get children to submit to authority.

Back to the philosophical concept of normativity: embedding values to aspire to in our material-discursive engagements with games, games as experiments, etc. would ensure that there is some kind of just, equitable, and pluralist (but not sinister) approach to games and play, but one that also critiques the instrumentalization of games and play as ideological weapons of mass inculcation, or differentiates between a variety of objectives in this regard.

I need to respond to Emma’s and Lynn's comments on game jams and  Emma's awesome "game sketches", but for later? I have so much to say....

Lynn, I would love to meet you in person too!

All my best,
Sandra ?


Sandra Danilovic, BFA, MA, SSHRC Doctoral Fellow
Faculty of Information, University of Toronto
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