Archives for the month of: June, 2013

So I presented my paper on “Individuals of Play” at CGSA 2013 at U. Victoria earlier this month. Briefly my argument was that play describes the possibility of doing something differently. This is an ontological claim and views cultural play(ludos and paidia) as a subset of the phenomena I am talking about. My ideas stemmed from the writings of Eugen Fink, a German philosopher and phenomenologist, Johan Huizinga and Hans-Georg Gadamer. The idea specifically of play as doing something differently comes from Prof. Bart Simon. The substance of the argument was that the possibility of doing something differently, in the face of a material universe, allows us to be individuals. In humans, play, the possibility of doing something differently, allows us the possibility of individuality. But this means that both art and games arise from this same ontological quality. Humans can do things differently.

Are Games Art?

The question as to whether games are a form of art seems to arouse great passions. I will avoid the sociological approach of ascribing a title to what ever a given group assigns it. perhaps the biggest difficulty is that creating a definition of art that encompasses everything from the cave paintings of Lescaux, to the abstract impressionism of Jackson Pollack and Barnett Newman to “Fontaine”(1917) by Marcel Duchamp. Where do Halo, WoW or other digital games fit into this? We can imagine a circle representing “Art” with a smaller circle that represents games overlapping it. How much of the one would overlap the other?

Art Games

A growing number of game designers frame their work as art. The work of the Kokoromi Collective, and other are examples. In this case, they specifically make games that subvert the conventions of both commercial games and mainstream art. Hacking games to cause them to address ideological concerns, such as Wafaa Bilal’s “Virtual Jihadi” are examples of how games are re-purposed. However, these are again primarily sociological arguments- the designers assert the “art-ness” of their works. They see games as entirely within a gretare art circle.

Art as Game

As I begin to think this through, my thought was that perhaps it is better to consider “Art” in all it’s variegated forms as a subset of games. I reverse the field. The vast circle of games, which exist as a subset of cultural play, in turn begets art as field within it. But while reversal of the perceived relationship of games to art is provocative it fails to allow for the “thickness” of art, play and games. Indeed, these metaphors of fields and circles may not be remotely adequate. Perhaps more dimensions are needed….


Games and the relational aesthetics of genre

Perhaps the breadth of the term art fails to represent the range of possibilities afforded by different genres. Thus we address the concerns of Clement Greenberg, that a genre must be judged in its respect to its medium (A painting best achieves painting-ness when it is supremely flat. Impasto is an aberration) but without having such a didactic approach to artistic media. Like Klein bottles nested within each other, they never fundamentally merge and never separate. Art becomes a word meaning the fluid movement from one genre into another with no clear delineation between one genre and another, yet contingent stops reveal differences along the loops.




“Play” has many different uses when we speak or write about something.
For example ” the supplementary motor area but also
the Ml-SI might play an active role”(H Shibasaki et al 1983) or “with respect to imaging and acupuncture with the aim of defining
both the current state of play”(GT Lewith et al 2005) or “work, love, and play are the primary symbols of normality”(GP Prigatano 1989) or “biochemical mediators, such as endorphins, endocannabinoids,
dopamine and nitric oxide, may play a role in the musical experience”(M Boso et al 2006) or “Complex psychologic factors play an important role in the variability of perceived pain”(HL Fields 1984).
In all these cases, play suggests the use of the word as in role play. When something “plays role” we generally think of it as causing a change of some sort. Thus certain chaemical in the brain change our behavior, as we may draw from the examples above. To have a role seems to imply to have agency.
You may object to this and say that these are just words, and arbitrarily used as metaphors for physical processes that are inferred from human behavior. However, those metaphors seem to represent an ongoing process of human experience. That is to say these metaphors are not in some way reflective of the world in which we exist seems rather perverse: If language has no indexical relationship to being, the how can we make even contingent claims about anything?
In response, i would at least tentatively argue that metaphors such as “role play” used in describing the chemical reactions with in brain chemistry have a descriptive value.
The leap i will make here, and which i hope to span with my future research, is that “play” is an ontological category based on similarities between uses of the word. the metaphors are meaningful because they provide a signal of a phenomenon that is physically present. The phenomenon is play is to do something differently, and underlies such qualia as creativity, cultural play( such as games) and art.

I gave a talk at this years Canadian Game Studies Association conference about play as a cultural and ontological category. Using conceptual arguments drawn from Eugen Fink’s essay “The Oasis of Happiness” and Hans-Georg Gadamer’s discussion of play in his “Truth and Method” I argued that play, as an ontological category, underlies that which individualises us. The same ontological qualities that allow play as a cultural form to occur, also allows for a universe of differentiated objects.

Briefly, this underlies the importance of play as liberating as it allows us to realise ourselves, as Gadamer, Fink and Huizinga argue. This same argument for at least relative freedom also suggests to another conclusion that can be drawn from this argument. This argument is that play begets both art and games and that the delimited nature of art, though over determined in the writing by thinkers such as as Clement Greenberg, is more a subset of games than a distinct category in play.

Prof. Lynn Hughes questioned whether I wasn’t conflating the terms of play and creativity; if so what would be lost by such a move. I had not intended this, so this reflects a rhetorical weakness in my presentation. Although I am not ready to reply, the relationship of play to creativity should be a fecund source of questions.

I was also asked about the relationship of Heideggerian tool use to play and briefly mentioned Fink’s discussion of play as implying tools or toys. As I replied, in the back of my mind were thoughts of Latour’s Actor-Network Theory, as well as discussions of objects- Gilbert Ryle’s account of Le Penseur, Heidegger’s discussion of a silver chalice and painting of a peasant’s boots by van Gogh, and Merleau-Ponty’s essay on Cezanne.

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To illustrate my argument, that play could occur without requiring a metaphysical origin, I appealed to Kasuo Ishiguru’s book and the movie made from it, Never Let Me Go(2005 & 2010).
The plot concerns an alternate reality where cloning is used to create organ donors. At one school, the clones are educated, play, and encouraged to create art as is revealed in the film’s third act, to determine whether the clones “have souls”. Politically, the advantages to naturally-birthed humans meant the answer was of no interest. To the audience, the clones seem as human as we, and we have little problem believing we are watching beings much like ourselves. As Fink writes, they play, love and work. This idea that a synthetically created human would be as we acts as a counterfactual example that high-lights our own experience by presenting them as individuals. This suggests that we cannot sacrifice our individuality to become commodities, and that that our individuality stems from fundamental qualities of being.

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This conference was stimulating and enjoyable on many levels. The calibre of papers presented were very high, and often produced by relatively junior scholars, which speak well to the discipline’s future. I occurred to me that more undergraduate students should be encouraged to attend their discipline’s conferences. this would go a long way towards focussing their attention on prior scholarship, and also letting them understand much of what advanced studies entails.

A special thanks to my old friend Donna Dowling, her husband Dr. Larry Aspler and their son Gideon, who hosted me at their home. Their very kind hospitality was most appreciated.