The Darkening of Play

These are some comments from my keynote at Rutger’s Extending Play conference in 2016, co-presenting with Shaka McGlotten.

Hasn’t our sense of play suddenly become quite dark?

There is a change in our primary conceptions of playing, and game-playing. In Brian Sutton-Smith’s Ambiguity of play, he lists 7 common rhetorics of play, meaning 7 common ways in which play is framed.

When the field of game studies began, we probably used four quite positive rhetorics of play:

  1. Rhetoric of play as progress.
  2. Rhetoric of play as fate.
  3. Rhetoric of play as power.
  4. Rhetoric of play as identity.
  5. Rhetoric of play as the imaginary.
  6. Rhetoric of the self.
  7. Rhetoric of play as frivolous.

This is not surprising. The field of game studies started out arguing against negative views of video games (“they make children crazy!”), and we therefore celebrated play, and games.

We emphasized learning (play as progress), playing with identity, we emphasized the positive creations of the imaginary, and we emphasized the me-time of playing (the self).

But now it seems we are in a darker place. This became clear to me when I rediscovered Howard Rheingold’s 2002 book Smart Mobs. Compared to this book, there is a distinct dystopian feeling now. We rarely discuss internet or game culture as something positive.

We no longer talk about smart mobs, just mobs.

We discuss game culture as a problem, and we think of self-organized online groups as dangerous, both in games, and in, ahem, politics.

Returning to Sutton-Smith, the primary framing of play now seems one of power and domination. Play now appears to be a dark place from which grows discrimination, dominance, and threats of violence.

  1. Rhetoric of play as progress.
  2. Rhetoric of play as fate.
  3. Rhetoric of play as power.
  4. Rhetoric of play as identity.
  5. Rhetoric of play as the imaginary.
  6. Rhetoric of the self.
  7. Rhetoric of play as frivolous.

My hope is simple: I hope we can keep our focus here, that we can be aware of what is happening and do what we can to change things. But also that we don’t become the school that bans recess for fear of lawsuits. That we can be aware of what is happening in the world around us, while we still remember the good sides of play.

 

 

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