Issue 19 : Fall 2010








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by Fragenord Berscht

11 Sep 2010

Mary Flanagan. Critical Play: Radical Game Design.
MIT Press, 2009 353 pp.

Gameplay is often considered childish, its importance within society largely ignored, misconstrued, or too difficult to discern. Mary Flanagan's Critical Play does much to uncover the hidden cultural exchanges that make play more important than we might think it is, while shedding light on the growing momentum behind current avant-garde game design. Her text considers the importance of artistic gestures that have involved play (--play as a salient, motivating feature), and thankfully it does more than simply follow along a nexus of technological chronology. Marcel Duchamp's excessive use of puns, Fluxus anti-europanism and Guy Debord's psychogeography can now emerge as essential starting points for today's gaming revolution. Flanagan's research into the field energetically dissects European (post)modernist traditions and their stochastic, game-like subversions. Her insights give an astounding color to the history and function of games, both within and outside an art context. She considers games within literature and poetry, computer science and new media theory, as well as in public spaces with vast cybernetic arenas of collaboration.

If the notion of a 'difficult' or 'transgressive' game seems odious or otiose, consider the even more disturbing scenario: a lack of inquiry into the importance of play, its place in history, and what it means for the post-human era. How will games become critical? How will games become functional social technologies?

The older we might be, arguably the more out of touch and distant we may become from what play originally signified in an older time and place. But various artists, theorists, and admirers have bypassed this and broken free of cultural conditioning and non-play tendencies. Edgar Allen Poe, Stéphane Mallarmé, Arthur Rimbaud and others used rude and abstract wordplay to actively seek 'scenes of monstrosity.' Alfred Jarry created shockingly radical theater projects using language games to stir controversy. As ways of voicing social criticisms began to take on a new focus, the emphasis on lexicons explicitly outside popular cultural expectations reflected the ever more extreme and intricate ambitions of the 20th century. Reevaluation of the structure of expression itself was at the crux of these impulses, and it spread beyond language. The Surrealists used pure psychic automatism not as an escape mechanism but because it countered the rigidity of predefined trajectories of thought; it was a rebellion against seriousness.

In the 1960s, Fluxus artists stood against the art object itself. The Situationist International advanced radical processes of signification revolving around their anti-political maneuverings and their re-contextualizations of urban space. All of these movements happened with a subtlety, vigor and vision which we can now see aligned them with what Walter Benjamin had earlier called 'the intensification of everyday experiences'--a state which he considered key to a transformed relationship with the world. Intoxication. The availability and intensity of daily pleasures diminish in a high-modernist culture with sophisticated diversions, and intoxication serves to renegotiate the shifting social impulses arising from within a turbulent cultural domain that seeks to free itself from traditions and modes of thinking which are no longer relevant. This is why ambiguities in authorship were viewed as revolutionary; a culture's ability towards self-destruction negated its need for artistic production--it would have been incapable of appreciating it. The rejection of hierarchy and authorship was the animating principle of Dada, which brought to the forefront notions that one could in many different ways (outside of 'art') appropriate objects and spaces to confront sociocultural expectations. The importance of games in these experiments has been outstanding and significant. Yet, behavioral psychologists--who have already understood the importance of this unique activity play in the lives of children--don't often stress the application of its power in the lives of adults. According to Flanagan, play is justified, as educational and moral. And the human fascination with play has functioned as a fundamental component of our social evolution.

A Gutenberg-like revolution in disseminating conceptual mastery is giving rise to serious games, games whose goal is to trigger discussion and explore devastating conflicts. The classical prejudice against video-games is waning as its seemingly detrimental effects have paradoxically become the subject of allure and debate--in one the most active and innovative fields of academic research today. We have been warned against regarding ourselves as abstract reasoning machines, but the steady advance of artificial intelligence and neurology means that 'wetware' remains a compelling hypothesis for many.

Problems of identity loss associated with increasingly complex and multitudinous technologies (ubiquitous enough to supplant us?) tend to crop up in a discussion about the age of widespread use of gameplay to enhance intelligence and configure identity. This future is advancing closely. But so this classical prejudice, compounded by the psycho-motor-social generational gap in perceptions (the psychological difficulties of interacting with rapidly evolving interfaces a problem in itself) have perhaps caused older generations to fail to grasp the implications of these technologies. Flanagan doesn't directly confront the impulse to view video games as suspicious. She does frequently refer to the advances in psychology, medicine, and technology that shaped the last century, as well as notions of public space and how it is managed and used. She invokes a definition of a capitalist space as 'a system of proprietary relations, surveillance and consumption.' The text carries a keen awareness of various artists' tendentious representations and how they (could) lead to empowerment (especially in the more interesting sections on recent locative media: urban games, hybrid games, alternate reality games, and flashmob art --the U.K. group Blast Theory comes to mind).

The general content of most games is still somewhat vapid, implies some sort of entitlement, and is uncritical--which reinforces the view that games are a waste of time, mere diversionary products of entertainment (albeit diverse and impressive in their range). What we are learning in the second modernity is that the opposite might be true. Games have the power to carve our mental capabilities and improve our reflexes. They allow us to renegotiate economic and social disempowerment. They can be utilized as instruments of knowledge building, and they can be used to critique capitalist modes of thought. The psychological effects of play are justified, a reflection of the sublime.

Virtual reality is older than sin. It is extrusion vertigo, hallucinatory access to heaven. But games promise more than just sensory skepticism. One such game from 2008 titled Hush, conceived by the Values at Play Project, explores subjectivity in the 1994 Rwanda genocide, helping to 'move from a broad statement to a personally moving experience.' Another, titled Oil God, connects the dots between devious strategies of oil corporations and record-breaking profits. Flanagan believes that acts of subversion against systems of power and dominance still have the power to trigger social change when used creatively and on the right scale. The magic and ritualistic sensibilities of ancient neolithic play are undeniably still with us. Their sudden momentous acceleration--beginning with 18th century class informed notions of free time, Rococo investigations of vernacular space, and the new relationship between industrialization and leisure--led to rapid shifts in awareness and a new engagement of seemingly infinite sites of negotiation and control fantasies. It is ironic that, several centuries afterwards, the Dadaists exploited games--turning them against the very process of industrialization to which they owed their new-found ubiquity. The horrid destruction of World War I and its associated groundbreaking technological developments intertwined with emerging fascist social programs to galvanize the Dadaists into forging a global network critiquing the grandiose claims of civilization's sacrosanct march towards ever-increasing and ever-consolidating mechanisms of control, knowledge, and deployment.

Like the disinformation of counter-intelligence, virtual intelligence orients us treacherously. The author is right in believing that we can no longer be 'constrained by something planned and canned.' The larger question remains whether (and in what way) VR and avant-garde game design will work to correct deficiencies in the organism, and--in the words of Debord--to transform "the whole of life into an exciting game."