Strange Toys

Imagine you’re in some medieval Kingdom and the king is a mendacious psycho and the reality is that his policies are going to a) harm pretty much everyone but the rich and powerful; and b) erase the good works of many generations. People will suffer and die. The consequences to the wider world will be dire. Things will be broken that will be impossible to repair.

Now imagine you work at a College of some sort in that Kingdom and your part of the College is supposed to teach people how to make toys. You’ve always loved toys. You know them as good and wonderful things. They help people to grow and discover and play, which is why you’re working at the toymaking department in the College. You believe in play.

However, toys have changed in the decades leading up to the rise of the psycho King. Accordingly, the toys the College teaches young toymakers to make are very different from the wooden horses, card and board games, and storytelling games of yore. Indeed, these new toys are so complicated that few people, even you, completely understand how they work or what they do. A vast network of personnel and business concerns is involved in their production. They require the support of a painstaking and continuous gathering and processing of resources: Magick generated by burning oil or coal; rare minerals dug up from faraway mountains by indentured labor; Wizards’ machines to carve secret summoning inscriptions too small for the eye to see; panes of enchanted glass that open hypnotic windows onto imaginary worlds and visions; the design and implementation of the imaginary worlds and their rules; and the strategic deployment of techniques for capturing, holding, and manipulating the attention.

The cost in blood, sweat, and tears of pulling together these materials alone might have been enough to raise your concern even without the psycho King there to jerk you out of your slumber. “Is this really about Play?” you might have asked. “Is this amount of Magick really necessary to confer the boons I wish to confer? Or is something more sinister going on here?” But you, like so many others, had trouble taking your eyes away from the glass.

Nevertheless: now you are awake. The glass is smashed.

“We must put away these strange toys and smash the King! The Kingdom is at stake!” you exclaim. “And then, once the King is gone, before we resume our toymaking, we must pause, remind ourselves of what matters, look in the mirror, and ask: to what end, to what end, to what end…?”

E3: Putting Play in its Place Since 1995

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There’s so much wrong with the videogames industry, and there will always be important work to be done within it. But sometimes, in our attention to urgent matters, we can lose the forest for the trees. The entire enterprise deserves our critical attention. Events like #E32016 (and many other games conferences and events) should remind us that this business exists because it is lucrative to corporations and their subsidiaries & dependents — from media conglomerates to resource extraction firms to hardware manufacturers to startup dev teams and beyond.

Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, we should never forget that this industry, at almost every level, is fundamentally about capturing and holding our attention and playfulness so as to convert them into various forms of capital — and that the preponderance of that capital ends up in the hands of a relative few. Events like #E32016 continue the process of normalizing this kind of capture (and our willing surrender to it).

It’s a dark irony that this supposedly pro-play industry is ultimately about disciplining play, rather than liberating it, by putting play and players into their “proper place” as controllable and measurable commodities. It is about using play to turn a buck or build a brand. Sure, all play is transformative, and all play activities can be understood in one way or another through a lens of “use” — but not all transformation is for the better, and not all uses bear the same relations to justice and equity. If we really want to talk about play and democracy (and take action accordingly), we have to talk about what videogames are, and how, if at all, we might resist this uniquely subtle form of spectacle that seeks to chew up and “monetize” our will-to-play.

TL;DR – the Latin root of the word, “entertain” is “to hold.”