Friday, July 18, 2008

Play and the "real world"

Here’s the fourth in the PPP series.

The provisional definition of “performative play practice,” again:
A PPP is an intersubjective performance that takes place in a cultural zone demarcated for play (that is, as not having a direct effect on material circumstances, although that demarcation does not mean in actual reality that material circumstances are unaffected). Within that zone conventions may be and usually are determined by rules analogous to the rules for the setting up of conventions in the misunderstood-as-unzoned "real world."
Now we’re getting to the hard, and interesting, part. It’s also the part that has a great deal to do with the discussion of games and performativity that Ian Bogost opened up recently (see here and here). And it’s the part that I believe really makes games and stories two kinds of the same thing.

The name for it doesn’t really matter very much, since it’s an idea I’m actually talking about rather than a word, but the English word that I think comes closest is “play.” It’s pretty much incidental, but the Latin word that Johan Huizinga chose for his seminal (though I think fundamentally flawed) study Homo Ludens, and which has been adopted by a substantial number of those who study games, ludo, means “play.”

The problem with using “play,” a problem I have to face up to here at the start, is that it’s such a common word that its shades of meaning are nearly infinite. I’m going to have to define it narrowly for my purposes, and use it narrowly, if I’m to make any headway. When I define it, though, I’m going to have to avoid assuming the thing we’re trying to prove—that is, I have to avoid taking for granted that “play” means “games and stories”—although that will be difficult, because I think the best, most useful definition of “play” pretty much is “games and stories.”

Here’s my definition of “play”: any practice understood not to have a direct effect on material circumstances. That is, if people are said to be “at play,” what is meant is that what they are doing, whatever they are doing, isn't going to change what’s going on in the “real world.” (I’m being annoying and putting “real world” in quotation marks because it’s going to be really important when I move further and talk about what we can do with the idea of the PPP that we remember that the “real world” is actually a construct in our heads and the heads of everybody else on earth—the biggest, the infinite Second Life. Or you can call it the Matrix, like the Wachowskis. More on that later, obviously.)

Now if you don’t like that definition of “play,” but you still think this idea that stories and games are two forms of the same thing has merit, there’s an easy work-around: every time I use the word “play,” substitute “understood-not-to-affect-material-circumstances.” It’s not absolutely necessary that we call it “play,” even though using that word links up all sorts of things very nicely—games and theater, for example (remember, “All the world’s a play,” after all).

At any rate, what is essential to what I’m trying propose in the PPP is that for any example of something that we might call a “story” or a “game,” we can either say that it’s understood not to have an effect on material circumstances or that it’s not actually a story or a game.

Before we move to the thorny problems of things that almost certainly are stories or games and yet that do affect material circumstances (such as gambling and world-changing literature like the Iliad), let’s look at the usual suspects:

  • Stopping at a red light: not a game or story; affects your societal status with respect to the law.

  • Reading a newspaper article (let’s say it’s an article about a lander touching down on Mars): not a game or story of the kind we’re interested in; affects your understanding of the material circumstances of the “real world”—that is, what actually happened on Mars.

  • Playing Boom Blox (a puzzle game): game; lacks a direct relationship with the “real world”; note, however, that the player’s hand-eye coordination will, almost certainly, increase in the process of playing the game.

  • Playing Halo: game whose story portrays a completely fictional science-fiction universe; note that in addition to greater hand-eye coordination that results from playing shooters like Halo, one could make (indeed, I have made) an argument that figures in that story are symbolic representations of figures in the real world, like real soldiers and real terrorists.

  • Reading a science fiction novel: story whose fictional world bears no direct relationship to the “real world”; again, though, as in Halo, the story may portray material circumstances of the “real world” in fictional representation.
You can tell that even before we get to the gambling and the world-changing literature, there are problems for saying that PPP’s don’t have “real world” effects. The key, then, is in the words “understood” and “direct” in the definition of the PPP (and of “play”).

Here’s the thing: while you’re stopping at a red light, you understand yourself, and you understand that the people near you are understanding you, as directly affecting the “real world.” If you run that red light, you may well directly collide with another car. When you’re reading a newspaper story, you understand yourself to be reading about actual events, portrayed directly in the words of the article.

While you’re playing Boom Blox, though, you aren’t, at that moment when you are playing that game, doing it because you’re trying to increase your hand-eye coordination. Think of it this way: what’s the difference between an exercise to increase your hand-eye coordination, and a game that does it? Or, why do we have games to teach typing?

I think the answer is that when you’re playing the game, you’re precisely not purposely changing material circumstances in the “real world.” That’s the whole appeal (such as it is) of “edutainment,” right? And it’s the appeal, I believe, at bottom, both of science-fiction and of serious, world-changing literature: because the effect on material circumstances is not direct, is not immediate, we can have that which is only (I think) very inadequately decribed as “fun.”

Above all, I think “fun” is inadequate because what we have is also appropriately called catharsis--but that’s yet another discussion I have to push down the road. Next up in the PPP series: rules and conventions.