Archives for the month of: April, 2012

Photographer: Derek Mawhinney on Oct. 23, 2005

The physical challenge of Jenga! demands a certain appreciation of embodied mass vs the abstract economics of some games.  Jenga! involves removing oblong blocks  from a stack. Typically, a Jenga! game comprises 54 blocks, stack in layers of 3 blocks, with each layer oriented perpendicularly to the previous  layer. As  each block is extracted it is added to the top of the stack. The objective is to build the stack up as high as  possible, before the structure  collapses.  The game can be played alone or with several players. Dexterity and an intuitive grasp of mass are critical to the game.  Some questions that occurred to me as I played both the wooden and digital versions of the game were: what role can we ascribe to chance(alea) in this game? Although the physics can easily be described and modeled, it is only the sense of looseness that allows to extract a Jenga!brick. Contrast that with a digital brick. Here the brick is extracted by means of a gesture, and the disturbance of the digital stack becomes entirely visual. Contrast this with the ‘massive mouse’ effect-  how do they differ both in  experience and mechanism?  Consider  games that use  tiles as abstract  representations( that area game that Will Robinson & co were playing)  These games  have a specific expression of indexicality compared to  dominoes,  and other tile and block based game, including the humble game of dice.

This sense of chance in assemblage extends to collagists in the art world. Artist Christian Marclay says, regarding the video mashup “The Clock” ,”There’s this chance thing that happens— you don’t always control things… But you’ve got this thing, and you  make it work. It’s the way life is, I suppose.” Marclay’s comment(New Yorker, 12March 2012, p.54)refers to the decisions made by his team of helpers who collected video clips. There is existential resonance with Sartre’s comment the main difficulty in a soccer match are the other players on the pitch. In Marclay’s case he says he would have chosen different clips than those of his team, but he specifically chose to make editing the core of his creative process in making “The Clock”.

We can think of the movement of objects through space, as in Jenga!when the tower topples but also in throwing dice as in

© 2012 NaturalMotion Games Ltd

Craps, where the dice themselves embody the game, or innumerable other games from Snakes & Ladders to Dungeons & Dragons where dice represent the contingencies of the life world. We can extend this analysis of contingency to digital games where the chance of a successful action varies, as in the character stats represented in avatars in World of Warcraft. Yet these stats still do not represent the variability of life because, I argue, a game is an imperfect representation of material life, although it may be a perfect representation of symbolic actions in life. Jenga!, on the other hand, cannot be other than it is because of it’s materiality. At the same time it has no explicit symbolic or mimetic elements. These can be ascribed to it, but it has no explicit narrative. I am making an ontological claim here that Jenga! is real, but the nature of the ontology of the digital version is more problematic as it is so highly dependent on the intentions of the game designer, who can warp physics magically by changing code.

This leads back to an axiom that I think is necessary to restate. The Game is in the Player. Thus Jenga! and digital Jenga! are games because of how they are experienced by the player, as one who plays. This conceptualisation can first be discussed in from the theoretical point of view of Aristotle and his causes, translated from classical Greek as the Efficient, Material, Formal, and Final causes. In Aristotle’s view these causes, the ‘why’ of something were necessary to understand something. The tension between contemporary science, which eliminates intentionality from explanations of physical properties, and our experience that demands some form of intentionality provides a starting point for dealing with the wooly debate of what constitutes a game, and how to analyse sociological and anthropological accounts of game play.

Briefly, let us look at Jenga! in the terms of those causes. The material cause of Jenga! are the wooden blocks which remain unchanged in shape or weight through the game. The formal cause is the initial tower, which changes as blocks are shifted then moved then stacked on top and finally as the tower becomes too unstable and topples due to gravity and the effect of the players on it. The Efficient cause are the makers and distributors of the game who make it available to the players who then use the blocks as a game. This description owes much to my previous exposure to Actor-Network theory and the ramifications of this are important, bu I will deal with them later. The Final cause was the purpose of the thing; this explicitly addresses intentionality, but is thus the most fraught of Aristotle’s causes, and the most involved part of my discussions as regards play and human experience.

A lab set in the future, looking back at a convergence of media and the human mind.

Sabina Rak’s “The Connector Lab” was an temporary installation in one of the spaces at Concordia University’s Hexagram center. This work reflects RAk’s current practice in print media, but also places print in juxtaposition with the digital realm. The central conceit of the work sets it in a laboratory in 2062, looking at the convergence of the human mind and thinking machines. This theme of techno-optimism reflects Rak’s attraction and amusement at mid-twentieth century speculative fiction such as Star Trek. Her work however, like that the famous science series, is actually hand crafted icons that create an imaginary of a technological future. A table features an array of what appear to be hand-shaped control pads– suggesting haptic interfaces similar to the increasingly ubiquitous touch screen we use today. Rak’s work suggests that these are more than that, connecting us directly to our computing devices, yet the presentation has a ‘retro’ quality, reminding us of the large, brightly flashing buttons of mid-sixties space vessels.

Another element of “the Connector Lab” are the large panels that suggest data streams, perhaps of DNA pairs or some kind of computer code. Yet these patterns are hand drawn, each “data point”  slightly different. This use of subtle variation appears in the formal aspects of Rak’s earlier work as with Briques de couleur/Bricks of colour, a watercolour painting from 2010.

Despite the references to human computer interaction and the possibilities of what Ray Kurzweill calls ‘the Singularity’ where the barrier between human and machine dissolve entirely, Rak’s vision of the future suggests a less utopic vision. Gently, with humour she observes “The administration has your interest at heart” suggesting a cynical pose  underlies the quest for greater knowledge and technological power. The work relies on the intentionality of the audience rather than digital systems. The printed circuit boards apparently attached to the touch table do not actually operate. Although the wires extending from them are apparently connected to the touch pads, these devices have no electricity to power them, and the wires are merely wrapped around components, rather than actually attached to connection points. This was not immediately obvious to some visitors who were concerned they might receive an electrical shock if they touched the paper panel, with its pen and ink ‘touch screens’.

Hands drawn onto the paper suggest a tactile electronic interface.

As a print installation, this piece creates a fetishized laboratory, which doesn’t actually have a digital underpinning. Perhaps its most compelling aspect is how it throws agency back onto an audience who expect a more energetic response. in this respect it makes reference to the notions of art and agency developed by the anthropologist, Alfred Gell. He observed how different cultures activate objects, granting them an agency that seem grounded in the metaphysical rather than a materialist world view. In that respect, “The Connector Lab” interrogates the relationship of people to the technology we operate, and the uneasy relationship between our technology and self-expression.

Close up of wall panel.

The wind harp is a musical instrument that works by having the wind blow across its strings. This sets the strings to ringing, causing harmonics to interact, creating a unpredictable series of tones and chords. The wind plays the instrument, but without intention. This chance interplay of wind with strings, and the ethereal music it produces suggest an interesting experience. As a young boy I mad a simple wind harp or Aeolian Harp (named after Aeolus, the greek god of wind) and was often entranced by its sounds as it captured the energy of the wind blowing through my window.

As wind blows across the strings, aethereal music is produced of random tones and harmonics.

How could we look at such a mechanical device as the basis of a toy? How could we look at play, when the play is created by random airstreams?

Roger caillois defined four elements of play, with one being alea, or chance. The others were agon(conflict), mimickry(simulation) and ilinx (giddiness). Games incorporate more than one of these facets in a given game, but all can co-exist. For example, Rock Band has all these elements in its game mechanics. The conflict as players attempt to outdo each other, the mimickry of pretending to be a rock musician, the giddiness of the performance and even an element of chance in the free-style sections of the game.

Can we say that play is involved(and I am aware that playing, as in playing a musical instrument is different from playing as in playing a game, which is in turn somewhat different from playing as in free play) when we cannot characterise intentionality as an element, except in the construction of the device? Certainly, ANT theorists such as Bruno Latour would say that intentionality could exist in the design, construction and deployment, not essentially with the movement of the strings.

Here are some links to the sounds of wind harps:

ImageWhen we look at a die, we see an object. We also see a simple device for playing a game; perhaps for gambling. But as a game, it carries with it a complex history for each person viewing it. Obviously, at any given moment my experience of a die(or any phenomena) will be different from another. You could object that this difference is not significant. After all, a die carries only so much significance. But you could also consider that if something as apparently simple as a die can be experienced so differently by different people, then how can we examine more complex phenomena? For much of his life, Edmund Husserl carried a die in his pocket, and in unoccupied moments pulled it out to regard it. He considered how he was experiencing it, visually and tactilely, how his mood affected his perception, how this perception differed depending on time and space, from one day or location to another. Most of all, he thought about how we could regard the thing itself, unencumbered by history or social pressures. The final goal of his work was to know that most hidden phenomena, another’s experience.

My thought on these problems pervades my thinking about my dissertation. Husserl’s questions inform my thoughts. The use of a die as the object of consideration drew me for several reason’s. It is an object of play and almost a game unto itself. It has an element of chance in its use, and that element, which play theorist Roger Caillois refers to as alea, is personally interesting to me.

Husserl introduces his work as approaching a kind of neo-cartesianism, but obligated to abandon most of Descartes’ doctrines(Husserl p.1). However, like Descartes, Husserl turns to the subject(Husserl p.2). He describes Descartes as embarking on a radical doubting of all foundations, and rests on the ego as the sole sure thing (Husserl p.3) . Husserl challenges this approach, arguing that the positive sciences, rather than embracing this approach, simply ignore it(Husserl p.4). Husserl suggests that the diversity of philosophical thought reveals a weakness in need of correction; of a field in need of unification (Husserl p.5). The upshot is that Husserl embarks on what he calls a transcendental subjectivity (Husserl p. 4) that avoids the contradictions and aberrations of other lines of thought (Husserl p.6)


Husserl, Edmund. Cartesian Meditations: An introduction to phenomenology. Dorian Cairns, Trns. Dordrecht, Martinus Nijhoff, 1988(1960).