Thursday, July 10, 2008

The zone of play

Here’s the third 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 Symbolic Order (you can call that reality; I’ll unpack it much further in subsequent posts).

So what do I mean by “cultural zone demarcated for play”? The parenthesis that follows that phrase in the definition begins to describe what I’m talking about, but it also opens up other cans of worms that I’ll have to deal with in future posts. (In fact, the parenthesis has a great deal to with the discussion on performative language that Ian Bogost opened up a couple weeks ago [see here] , and that I’m trying to continue [see here].) I think it will be helpful to step back from the parenthesis and talk about “cultural zone” and “demarcation” before we get to “play” and the parenthesis about play.

By “cultural zone” I mean a metaphoric space that exists in the imagination of all competent members of a society. It’s metaphoric because although it frequently is represented in the real world by things like football fields and Monopoly boards, those tangible real-world objects are in fact secondary to the idea that exists in our heads. That idea is part of our unstated understanding of how our lives work: we know that things like football fields and Monopoly boards are to be found in the world, and we know basically how things like football fields and Monopoly boards work. (By the way, if you’ve ever wondered what the best way to define “ideology” is, here’s my suggestion: the sum-total of our unstated understandings [assumptions, if you want] about the world.)

So I’m saying that it’s not really a space, but that the metaphor of a space is helpful. This metaphoric space doesn’t necessarily have to be a cultural zone of play. One could talk about a great many other kinds of cultural zones as metaphoric spaces in this same way—for instance cultural zones for economic activity, which get represented in the real world as shops; or cultural zones for education, which get represented in the real world as classrooms.

The reason I think it’s useful to bring the term “cultural zone” to bear on games and stories is that I think the two share a cultural zone. That’s where the demarcation for play comes in, because I think it’s the practice of demarcating zones of play that makes both games and stories happen, and I think the practice is the same for both of them, even though the two are usually thought of as being separate practices: 1) the practice of playing or watching a game; 2) the practice of telling or receiving a story.

Here are the examples I gave in the last post in the series:
  • Stopping at a red light

  • Reading a newspaper story (let’s say it’s a story about a lander touching down on Mars)

  • Playing Boom Blox (a puzzle game)

  • Playing Halo

I was remiss in that post in not supplying an example of storytelling, so let me add one more:

  • Reading a science fiction novel

Each of the five examples takes place in a cultural zone demarcated as appropriate to the specific practice (you, your car, and the road-system; your head and the newspaper; your head, your hands, a game-console, and a monitor; your head and the text of the novel). The games and the novel, though, take place in zones that share one very important characteristic: the actions that take place within them are understood not to have any direct impact upon the world outside the zone.

I have a feeling that you’re thinking of counter-examples by the ton. If I’m right, you’re probably thinking first and foremost of “serious” fiction and the like, whose authors intend to make you think and to persuade you to change your outlook on the world. When I return to the PPP, though, I’m going to suggest that such examples actually demonstrate the truth of the basic concept of the zone of play; that, indeed, those real-world effects depend on arising in a zone understood to lack direct impact on the world outside it.

Teaser: by “understood,” I don’t mean “understood correctly.”

The series continues in "Play and the 'Real World'."