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


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.”

Play does not only include the logics of the game

“Play does not only include the logics of the game – it also includes the values of the player. Her politics. Her body. Her social being. Play is a part of her expression, guided through rules, but still free, productive, creative. Without the openness of play, the player cannot express or explore their ethics, their politics. The player may be guided by reason, by the instrument of play, but that does not guarantee, as the fall of modernity and the critique of Enlightenment have shown, that rationality is enough to express politics or ethics.”

Miguel Sicart, Against Procedurally

“The rules just kind of got there…”

“The rules just kind of got there. They don’t make any kind of sense except in terms of themselves. But when you start to exercise those rules, all sorts of processes start to happen and you start to find out all sorts of stuff about people. In astrology the rules happen to be about stars and planets, but they could be about ducks and drakes for all the difference it would make. It’s just a way of thinking about a problem which lets the shape of that problem begin to emerge. The more rules, the tinier the rules, the more arbitrary they are, the better. It’s like throwing a handful of fine graphite dust on a piece of paper to see where the hidden indentations are. It lets you see the words that were written on the piece of paper above it that’s now been taken away and hidden. The graphite’s not important. It’s just the means of revealing their indentations. So you see, astrology’s nothing to do with astronomy. It’s just to do with people thinking about people.”

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (via Kars)

Players Make Play For Nothing

An insightful post by David Fono about community-based content generation in ARGs and MMOs:

A couple of posts got me thinking about the issue of player generated content recently. Tony Walsh writes generally about players as storytellers as a trend in multiplayer games. Meanwhile (well, a few months ago), Brian Clark writes about his plans for Eldritch Errors, which include a panoply of media products (book, comics, films, etc.) based on the events which are currently unfolding in the immersive narrative. Brian talks about the players of the game as effectively “starring” in the retellings, or at least being largely responsible for their eventual content. Of course, that’s a bit of an overstatement. Most of the creative sweat is being put in by the professional writers, designers, etc. behind the property. But it does represent a significant shift from the way games and entertainment generally is developed — it’s becoming a collaborative process, and the lines between the producer and the consumer are being blurred.

I’m pretty much a fan of this. And superficially, it’s all well and good. But there are some quandaries you get into when a significant portion of your content is materially attributable to an unpaid, uncredited player base. Specifically: Why aren’t they being paid? Why aren’t they being credited? Are the players being taken advantage of? If so, why do they let it happen? And if not, what safeguards can we put in place to avoid declining the slippery slope into outright exploitation? (Mobile Fono)

Ground-Up City

Ground-up City. Play as a Design Tool maps the continuing history of an urban design strategy for play in the city. Liane Lefaivre has developed a theoretical model for tackling playgrounds as an urban strategy. She steps off from a historical overview of play and the ludic in art, architecture and urban design, focusing particularly on the post-war playgrounds realized in Amsterdam as joint ventures between Aldo van Eyck, Cornelis van Eesteren and Jakoba Mulder.

The architecture firm Döll – Atelier voor Bouwkunst explored the possibility of applying the model in two urban redevelopment areas in Rotterdam, Oude Westen in the inner city and Meeuwenplaat in Hoogvliet, an outlying postwar district, refining it into a practical design strategy.

A second layer in the book gives an inspirational and refreshing new look at play in a picture essay with a welter of reference images illustrating play as an urban phenomenon.

Ground-up City places the playground high on the agenda as an urban design challenge. It also shows how specifying a generic, academic model for a particular situation can lead to a practically applicable design resource. (

More info, review and links: WMMNA

Narrative, Play and Social Space

I’m interested in addressing the question of how an increasingly mobile, ubiquitous and interoperable communications infrastructure can enable new forms of computationally-mediated narrative, both in terms of traditional author-to-audience storytelling and emerging modes of collaborative networked expression and participation. Three broad classes of activity inform this inquiry: the development of cross-media artworks that go beyond the frame of the screen; procedural approaches to drama management; and the role of play in creating hybrid forms of audience and community.

Key questions I will address in this context include: Can highly-mediated approaches to play and narrative, many of which involve the deep and tangled integration of story-telling and story-consuming into the fabric of everyday life, produce emotional and social effects analogous to those produced by the novel or the narrative cinema? What kinds of theoretical frameworks can help us to understand how ruleset-driven cross-media narrative experiences fit into the history of performance and representational art? And finally, as the lines between audience and community, author and participant blur in the context of highly personalized, network-enabled game-like story-activities such as SF0 or World Without Oil, is it even possible to address issues of identity and epistemology without inventing new terms and poetics?

Crucial to this study will be an examination of the intersection between structured social play and computational drama-management systems (e.g. Facade, Oz). How can procedural approaches to story-making help to guide massively-scaled improvisations in social space? What are the limitations of such systems, and what are their core affordances? Can game-like, goal-directed improvisational encounters be mediated by computational agencies such that the end result is a focused and clearly-articulated narrative? Or is the insistence on notions of dramatic unity, parsimony and closure an unreasonable intervention of “legacy” critical modes on a fundamentally novel medium?

An inquiry into the nature of this intersection is essential as we enter an age of ubiquitous information technology wherein the respective agencies of authors, crowds and machines promise to collide in productive and unpredictable ways. Drawing on recent research in the field of computational drama management, I will explore the notion of a “procedurally-authored Alternate Reality Game system,” both as a means of deploying cross-media artworks such as my ongoing Black Sea Tapes project, and as a way to enable massively-scaled narrative play systems wherein player/participants co-create game-like narrative objectives alongside a computational agency. In developing this system, I hope to explore a range of possible futures for the role of computation in cross-media narrative and structured social play.

Key readings include the critical theory of Deleuze and Guattari; drama management research by Michael Mateas, Andrew Stern and Joseph Bates; the “relational aesthetics” of Nicolas Bourriaud; Situationist polemics and manifestos from the “New Games Movement” of the 1970s; notes on the persuasive and political aspects of game play by Ian Bogost and Gonzalo Frasca; Jane McGonigal’s extensive research on Alternate Reality Gaming; and visions of the future of community and ubiquitous computing by Clay Shirky and Rich Gold.