[-empyre-] The Playsthetics of Experimental Digital Games: Week 2 subtopics and questions

Sebastian Deterding sebastian at codingconduct.cc
Mon Mar 17 04:33:58 EST 2014

Dear Bart,

I had hoped this would stir a bit of controversy :).

But more seriously, my point exactly is that the strong 
counter-reactions gamification instils often result from the offended 
being deeply wedded to the very same modernist romantic notions of play 
as the natural, the anti-rational, the non-instrumental that Huizinga 
exemplifies. That's exactly the argument Sutton-Smith makes with 
analyzing ancient and modern play rhetorics. That's implied (to me) in 
Malaby's point that our notions of "play" are modernist cultural ideas, 
not anthropological universals. That's entailed in Victor Turner's 
analyses of pre-modern liminal and modern liminoid phenomena (the full 
argument here: http://goo.gl/b1Fsxt).

Do "experimental games", as they are understood and practiced within a 
specific "art assemblage"/community, present something radically 
different? Absolutely. They represent (in that community/assemblage) 
traditional high/late modernist, avant-garde conceptions and values of 
art: authentic self-expression ("radical honesty"), critical reflection 
and transformation of standing social orders, formal and performative 
reflexivity and self-referentiality, etc. pp. (What Turner called 
liminoid, what Sutton-Smith named the play rhetorics of self and 

I do not claim that gamification is anything like that. In fact, within 
the communities/assemblages that currently practice gamification – 
marketers, psychologists, business consultants, etc. – you find 
classical technocentric, technodeterministic, instrumental, almost 
Baconian rhetorics of progress (what Mozorov so wonderfully labeled 
"technical solutionism"). They take the  ends and orders of society as a 
given and assume that we just need better technical means of achieving 
them, voilá: gamification. In a sense, gamification is a return to the 
pre-modern liminal, where play is fully integrated and funtionalized 
into the reproduction of social oder like as was in pre-modern rites of 

Thus, these two bundles of communities and practices and rhetorics 
couldn't be more diametrically opposed -- on one level of analysis. But 
my point is that on another level of analysis, both are deviations from 
the existing dominant modernist rhetoric of play as frivolity, as "the 
non-instrumental". I make this claim not to defend of justify 
gamification, let alone legitizime it as "just another form of 
experimental art" (that would be truly bizarre), but as a mere first act 
of analytic description of what is happening. I don't want to throw 
criticality out the window with that. I just, personally, see it as a 
second step.

That is, I do not say that gamification as practiced today doesn't 
entail many things I find ethically questionable or appaling (it does), 
nor that gamification as currently practiced engages in the 
instrumentalization of one of the last human practices that is framed in 
modern societies as non-instrumental, often resulting in a form of 
de-alienated exploitation, as e.g. PJ Rey argues, uncritically 
reproducing and reinforcing the standing social order -- it is guilty as 
charged, and something I personally find ethically troublesome as well. 
Aristotelian virtue-ethicist that I am, I see play as a human practice 
closest to eudaimonia (http://codingconduct.cc/Paideia-as-Paidia). But 
good Rortyan ironist that I also am, I am aware that these are my values 
and ethical norms, and I try to keep separate – ultimately in vein, of 
course, but as best as I can – the analytic description of gamification 
and experimental games as parts of a larger social shift from their 
critical evaluation. If one takes the stance that social research ought 
and cannot but be normative and critical, that's fine with me, but I 
continue to see value in keeping analytical and critical concerns 
separate, if only as a strategic ritual.

Adorno writes in the "Toy Shop" fragment in "Minima Moralia" (3rd ed. 
London: Verso 2005, pp. 227-228):

"A child seeing the tightrope-walkers singing, the pipes playing, the 
girls fetching water, the coachmen driving, thinks all this is happening 
for the joy of doing so; he can’t imagine that these people also have to 
eat and drink, go to bed and get up again. We, however, know what is at 
stake. Namely, earning a living, which commandeers all these activities 
as mere means, reduces them to interchangeable, abstract labor-time. The 
quality of things ceases to be their essence and becomes the accidental 
appearance of their value. The ‘equivalent form’ mars all perceptions; 
what is no longer irradiated by the light of its own self-determination 
as ‘joy in doing,’ pales to the eye."  Our organs grasp nothing sensuous 
in isolation, but notice whether a color, a sound, a movement is there 
for its own sake or something else; wearied by a false variety, they 
steep all in gray, disappointed by the deceptive claim of qualities 
still to be there at all, while they conform to the purposes of 
appropriation, indeed largely owe their existence to it alone. 
Disenchantment with the contemplated world is the sensorium's reaction 
to its objective role as a "commodity world."   Only when purified of 
appropriation would things be colorful and useful at once:   under 
universal compulsion the two cannot be reconciled. Children are not so 
much, as Hebbel thought, subject to illusions of "captivating variety," 
as still aware, in their spontaneous perception, of the contradiction 
between phenomenon and fungibility that the resigned adult no longer 
sees, and they shun it.  Play is their defense.  The unerring child is 
struck by the "peculiarity of the equivalent form":  "use value becomes 
the form of manifestation, the phenomenal form of its opposite, value."

In his purposeless activity the child, by a subterfuge, sides with 
use-value against exchange value.  Just because he deprives the things 
with which he plays of their mediated usefulness, he seeks to rescue in 
them what is benign towards men and not what subserves the exchange 
relation that equally deforms men and things.   The little truck travels 
nowhere and the tiny barrels on them are empty; yet they remain true to 
their destiny by not performing, not participating in the process of 
abstraction that levels down that destiny, but instead abide as 
allegories of what they are specifically for.  Scattered, it is true, 
but not ensnared, they wait to see whether society will finally remove 
the social stigma on them; whether the vital processes between men and 
things, praxis, will cease to be practical.  The unreality of games 
gives notice that reality is not yet real.  Unconsciously they rehearse 
the right life."

I really like that passage. I think it comes close to Aristotle's notion 
of eudaimonia, and my personal notion of what the good or right life is 
that we as humans should aspire to, and why play is important. I think 
gamification as currently practiced is the antithesis of this, and thus, 
the antithesis of what I personally value and aspire to. Learning  from 
play to me entails the *promise* of getting us closer to eudaimonia, to 
"the right life". That's why I'm interested in the whole "gamification" 
thing. But I am also aware that these sentiments and arguments are -- 
good ethological evidence regarding the universality of play 
notwithstanding -- culturally particular. And as an analyst of my own 
society, I see a shift happening in our contemporary rhetorics of games 
that I would like to describe before then engaging in critical evaluation.


Am 3/13/14 4:33 PM, schrieb Bart Simon:
> ----------empyre- soft-skinned space----------------------
> Well just to mix it up and generate some week 1/2 cross talk I thought 
> I would tussle with Sebastian just a little bit
> On 3/11/2014 9:50 PM, Sebastian Deterding wrote:
>> But finally to Sandra’s question regarding the relation of 
>> experimental games to gamification and the ludification of culture. 
>> If we take the analytic conception of “experimental” as “deviating 
>> from existing conventions”, then odd as it may sound, both 
>> experimental games and gamification present two instances of the same 
>> deviation – namely of our culturally prevalent conception of what 
>> games are *for*. If we take scholars like Huizinga or Caillois as 
>> representatives of the dominant modernist discourses about the 
>> “proper” social place or function of games for adults, then “we 
>> moderns” considered games to be “outside ‘ordinary’ life” and “with 
>> no material interest” (Huizinga 1955, 13), “separate” and 
>> “unproductive” (Caillois 2001, 9-10) – a space free from the demands 
>> of social norms and uses. Somewhat paradoxically, the expected, 
>> demanded, normalized social function and purpose of games in 
>> modernity has been to be without function and purpose. At most, we 
>> tolerated their value for childhood development or as leisurely 
>> restoration for work, but even in that, we reproduced very specific, 
>> modernist rhetorics of play and games. In Brian Sutton-Smith’s terms, 
>> our dominant modernist rhetorics of games were those of frivolity 
>> (they’re worthless) or progress (they support productivity through 
>> learning or rest).
> This has got to be the strangest defense of gamification that I have 
> ever heard (and don't get me wrong I love strange defenses). So 
> gamification as the functional extension of of game processes into 
> everyday lifeword (or maybe vice versa) is usually the critical 
> marxist's nightmare.  Henri Lefebvre wrote passionately of just this 
> sort of thing in terms of the colonization of everydayness (which has 
> a lot in common with play) and poor Huizenga who tried in vain to 
> argue that the essence of play as culture could resist modernist 
> rationalization and all its iron cage consequences. Suddenly, 
> gamification as the functionalization of play in the face of the 
> conservative play romanticists (the play theory equivalent of 
> tree-huggers perhaps) gets to be experimental and avant-guard. That 
> such an argument (everything has a function) is consistent with the 
> logic of capital itself is enough to make me try hugging trees again 
> (I know, I know... nothing is sacred, but honestly...  must we throw 
> in the towel so easily).  I am not yet ready to give up the idea of 
> experimental games as more than a matter of anything goes or even 
> "deviation from existing conventions."
> While I am on this though I thought I would mention something I never 
> got to last week which is the sense that experiment is also sometimes 
> a form of practice without commitment or responsibility, as in "don't 
> worry... its just an experiment. no harm, no foul." Such a phrase 
> often serves as a justification for "anything goes" simply because it 
> is an "experiment."
> In this sense one can experiment (with games or otherwise) without a 
> commitment to the consequences of one's experiment or experimental 
> attitude. In this mode, an experimental game is just a matter of doing 
> things differently (deviating from norms)  but I think we are trying 
> to suggest that experimental game design is predicated on some other 
> social, cultural and maybe even material commitments to specific 
> consequences of these experiments.  And so, I disagree with the 
> others... trying different things in game design is not the same thing 
> as experimental game design and I would try to stand with Huizenga and 
> keep gamification at bay as well. Function creep and the impulse to 
> see what we can make games do to us is definately experimental (with 
> almost no ethical oversight I might add) but it is not experimental 
> game design.
> Maybe we can also take on the art function question that Sebastian is 
> using as leverage for gamification but I'll save that for later
> cheers,
> Bart


Sebastian Deterding              | coding conduct
Mail: sebastian at codingconduct.cc | Twitter: @dingstweets
Web: http://codingconduct.cc     | Skype: sebastiandeterding
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