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This lecture uses footage from games and artworks for educational purposes only.
Images and footages used in the lecture:
Accidental Geopoetics, The Rodina, 2019
Elements of Style, The Rodina, 2020
Slow Signal: Carbon Performs Silicon, 2019
The Noise of Being, The Rodina, 2016
The Great Miseries of the War, Jacques Callot, 1632
The Post at Presnitz, Peter Snayers, 1641
Futuropolis: School of Emancipation, The Rodina, 2020
The Pong Experiment, Loren Carpenter, 1991, clip from All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace
Atari Tempest, gameplay, 1981
Playbour: The New Workaholism, music Ventolin, design The Rodina, 2015
Clandestine Anomaly, ZenFri, release trailer, 2018
States of Play: Roleplay Reality, design The Rodina, artwork Reija Meriläinen, 2017
AIDOL 爱道, Lawrence Lek, trailer, 2020
Animal Crossing - New Horizons, Nintendo, trailer, 2019
Death Stranding, Hideo Kojima, trailer, 2019
Everything, David OReilly, trailer, 2017
Finding Fanon 2, Larry Achiampong and David Blandy, trailer, 2015
Poetic Machine Unlearning, The Rodina, 2018
Playbour: Roleplay Reality, The Rodina, 2018
Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, Anita Sarkeesian, 2017
Never Alone, Upper One Games, trailer, 2014
AR Dragon: Pet Simulator, Playside Studios, gameplay, 2017
HADO, NexRealm Productions, trailer, 2017
Playbour City Engines: Transaction Party with Yessica Deira, The Rodina, 2020
Ingress, Niantic, trailer, 2014
2 A.M., design The Rodina, music Puto Chino Maricon, 2018
The Elephant in the Room, School SOS and The Rodina, 2020
The Map of Scattered Society, The Rodina, 2019
Notes on digital games: from education to reflection and transformation
Today, I would like to talk about digital games and how they are being enriched as a medium by artistic practices. Let’s look at selected concepts spanning from play as cultural phenomenon, motivational and educational tools, to digital games as counter-voices to current socio-political situations.
During the Great Depression, a Dutch anthropologist Johan Huizinga introduced a powerful idea that the condition for culture is a free act of play. But already 280 years before his book Homo Ludens elaborated the concept of a natural and fundamental need to play, this revolutionary idea was theorized by Czech-born philosopher, ecological thinker and school reformer John Amos Comenius. His book Orbis Pictus1 is the first picture-book ever made for children.
During the Thirty Years’ War, a collapsing middle-age European world order restructuralised during a violent 17-century religious war annihilating almost a half of the population, Comenius had to flee re-Catholicized Bohemia to Amsterdam. That became a safe haven for him as a Protestant. In exile, he developed a philosophy of education and revolutionised primary schools by integrating play-time and nature exploration. Comenius saw the play as an important didactic strategy. In his words: “the joy and play have the power to open the ‘Wisdom’s Gardens’.” Inspired by his emancipatory work, we’ve recently developed an educational project Futuropolis: School of Emancipation for the Czech Ministry of Education, that engages in critical and creative education by strengthening pupils to question and face current world issues with patience, imagination, and courage.
Comenius would probably have loved the rich abundance of games and gamification today.2 Even though he encouraged competitiveness in play as part of a learning curve, it is important to note that his vision was more one of a peaceful utopia with enlightened citizens rather than workers-playbourers-consumers performing their visibility in platform capitalism and competing for multiple jobs in the contract-less gig economy.
In his Schola Ludus, he introduced a theory of games and healthy competition in relation to learning. Comenius described seven criteria of “what makes a game A Game”: Movement; Spontaneity; Collective activity; Competition; Order – rules; Facility – imitation; and Purpose –“the relaxation of the soul”. This list was later refined during the boom of digital arcade games of the 1980s. Making Learning Fun3 publication analysed digital games to find out what it was in the game design that made them engaging and motivating. It introduced 'The Taxonomy of Intrinsic Motivation', which expanded Comenius's and Huizinga’s theories. It concluded digital games have the ability to motivate players internally by challenge, curiosity, control (choice), and fantasy. Whereas interpersonal motivation is about competition, cooperation and recognition. The key insight in this early digital game theory brings human interaction, empathy, and imagination to the centre. In 1991, motivation and education theories were tested as part of the interactive Pong Experiment4. A large audience became controlling a tennis player collaboratively, just with colourful paddles, without given rules. Much like DeepMind learned to play Atari games only with the pixel data, controls and scores, the crowd was able to figure out the situation with no instructions.
-When reality becomes like a game
There are 1.65 billion paying digital game users worldwide, which makes a $159 billion industry in 2020. Although nobody knows how many invisible players are simply pirating and/or borrowing licensed software. As society evolves from an industrial to information one, play, playfulness and games have a forming force in human lives.5 Even though play was for a long time considered childish, most of the digital games of today are designed by adults for adults. This change is ever more accelerated by digital technologies that superimpose the virtual designs on physical, such as augmented and virtual reality. These technologies overlay digital information, images and video on the physical world, blending the physical and the virtual worlds together and enhancing our perception and sense of reality. A digital media theorist Alfie Bown writes about the full immersion as a ‘form of intoxication’6–or Huizinga’s ‘vertigo’. It is now, via our phones, consoles, and computers, that life is really more dreamlike than ever.
Today 'virtuality' permeates both physical space and online experience. The capacity to depict the world in high definition has never been greater. Game developers as well as artists manufacture our reality. As tools for game-making are increasingly accessible to a wider range of creatives, it is essential that ‘the virtual’ won’t be seen as an escapist technology promoted by big game developers, but also reclaimed as a way to mobilize new political imagery.7 Like it was in the online multiplayer game Animal Crossing: New Horizons where Hong Kongese protesters customized their islands and used the platform to protest during the pandemic lockdown in spring 2020.
Games contain values of people who make them. However, many games still reinforce existing inequalities and appropriate marginalized communities – be it racial, gender, cultural and class biases. The Tropes vs Women in Video Games –a project by game critic Anita Sarkeesian– is a great example of unpacking some of the systemic bias problems. It examines the patterns and stereotypes associated with female characters in gaming. The games we play can affect our sense of self and the ways we relate to the world. Works of Rindon Johnson8 or Larry Achiampong & David Blandy9 delve into the politics of race, racism and challenge the post-colonial issues in digital games.
In our game Poetic Machine Unlearning the player explores a landscape revealing systemic bias. As an AI system engineer, you have to find and fix all the confused, biased and stuck ‘intelligence nodes’. Slowly, more sensitivity and reflection are brought into game development. An excellent job of incorporating a character’s cultural history is Never Alone. Folklore and traditions of the Inupiat –native Alaskan people– are present throughout the game in a respectful way that enriches the player’s understanding of these people and their experiences.
Digital games are important not only because of their cultural ubiquity or their sales figures but for what they can offer as a space for imagination and critique. These are significant not only to the game designer but also for the artist and an indie game developer who rethinks games. For example, Lawrence Lek’s fantastical simulated environment AIDOL 爱道 speculates on a near future and unpacking a complex struggle between humanity and AI.
Digital worlds are places for subversion. Games have a powerful force in constructing our imagination and desires – or else the digital dreamworld will fall into the hands of the corporations.10 Digital games expand the boundaries beyond the realm of pure entertainment. They offer a space for imagination and alternatives to current world-order. They educate us about how to live in the midst of multiple swirling crises: ecological climate breakdown, economic recession and uncertainty of Covid-19 pandemic. Kojima’s masterpiece Death Stranding reflects on the post-disaster world of life –and death– after the ecological catastrophe and mass extinction. A game that invites the player to think about deep ecological time. Digital media can bear witness to events beyond the scale of our perception and sense of time.11
The roles we play do not only expose our true realities, but allow us to become somebody else. The subjectivity of roleplay is therefore an important tool for navigating the perspectives of others.12 A multispecies theorist Donna J. Haraway offers provocative new ways to reconfigure our relations to the earth and all its inhabitants.13 Her vision of how human and nonhuman are inseparably linked could be experienced in a simulation game Everything.14 There, on micro and macro levels, the player takes the form of any object in the game and is able to interact with other objects, creating unique behaviors. Everything manifests digital games are new cultural genres helping us forge the bonds with ‘the other’, be it nonhuman species or ‘the planetary’.15
When Comenius reformed education, the Western World and it’s order were in chaos, agony, and collapse. Comparable turbulent times of the Great Depression in-between the two World Wars shifted Huizinga's attention towards play as a cultural phenomenon. Similarly, in the gig economy and precarious conditions of 2008 and 2020 economic crises that repeatedly put down the workforce of Millennials – we play with the notion of what a virtual world can offer to players. Uncertainty led us to experiment with rules, break and subvert them. We are interested in the lack of rules when the audience takes over and invents its own ways of play. Collapse steers the ground for the new imaginaries.
Through the means of roleplay, the transformative power of games allows billions of players to understand and feel empathically what it is to be ‘the other’. Apart from being motivational and educative, digital games can be a critical genre reimagining the world differently.
1. John Amos Comenius, Orbis Pictus, [The World of Things in Pictures] (1658) presented a rich collection of 150 pictures showing everyday activities, things, and phenomena shown in the natural context of landscapes, still lifes, or allegorical images.
2. Andreas Hellerstedt and Peter Mozelius, From Comenius to Counter-Strike – 400 years of Game-based learning as a didactic foundation, 2018
3. Thomas Malone and Mark Lepper, Making Learning Fun, 1987
4. Loren Carpenter, The Pong Experiment, 1991, from the BBC documentary All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace
5. Chin Jungkwon, Play and Labor, E-flux, 2017
6. Alfie Bown, The Playstation Dreamworld, 2017
7. Alex Klein, Dorothy & Stephen R. Weber, and Milena Hoegsberg, Myths of Marble, exhibition at University of Pennsylvania, 2017
8. Rindon Johnson, Away With You, 2016
9. Larry Achiampong and David Blandy, The Finding Fanon trilogy, 2015–17
10. Alfie Bown, The Playstation Dreamworld, 2017
11. Lukáš Likavčan, TANK magazine, Playing Against Extinction, 2020
Upper One Games, 2014
12. Lucy Sollitt and Lesley Taker, States of Play: Roleplay Reality, exhibition at FACT, 2018
13. Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 2016
14. David OReilly, Everything, 2017
15. Lukáš Likavčan, TANK magazine, Playing Against Extinction, 2020