Playing the non-playful: On the critical potential of play at the overlap of videogames and electronic art

We look at the opportunities for self-discovery, existential reflection - political and cultural critique within the relationship between the player and the game. Analysis of examples from the fringe territory between entertainment and artistic endeavors, contributes to a re-positioning of computer games in relation to electronic art, and furthers the development of critical strategies for charting the aesthetic territory between art, technology and entertainment.
Friday, 16 September, 2011 - 09:00 - 10:30
Chair Person: 
Olli Leino
Olli Leino
Lindsay Grace
Graeme Kirkpatrick

Chair: Dr. Olli Tapio Leino

This panel pulls together insights from game studies, game design, aesthetics and new media theory to examine the elusive concept of “play”. We assume common baseline in the distinction between playfulness and playability, and trace the significance of these concepts to the relationship between the player and the game. We look at the opportunities for self-discovery, existential reflection and political and cultural critique within this relationship. This panel, involving examples from the fringe territory between commercial entertainment and artistic endeavors, contributes to a re-positioning of computer games in relation to electronic art, and furthers the development of critical strategies for charting the aesthetic territory between art, technology and entertainment.

Paper Abstracts

From Playful Strategies to Playability

by Dr. Olli Tapio Leino

The technological make-up and interface conventions of many electronic artworks invite configurative audience practices which resemble those we are familiar with from the context of computer game play. Thus it is not surprising that some contemporary critics have seen it necessary to be concerned about the associations between play and media art. Previously at ISEA 2008, Daniel Palmer in The Critical Ambivalence of Play in Media Art, concerned with media art’s “association with entertainment spectacle” suggested that if “media art aspires to be taken seriously by the broader contemporary art world, the links between media art, children and mass culture are fatal.” In this presentation I seek to clarify the origins of the linkage perceived by Palmer, by reconceptualising the play-component evident in new media art through describing it simultaneously as a stylistic strategy, playfulness, with its roots deep in art history, and as a technological affordance, playability, inviting a unique kind of engagement best conceptualized through existentialist terms of freedom and responsibility. Recognizing playfulness and playability as separate characteristics, I observe that their coexistence in new media art is accidental rather than essential, and there is room for a variety of artistic strategies for negotiating their interrelations.

Discomfort Design: Critical Reflection through Uncomfortable Play

by Prof. Lindsay D. Grace

Do we reveal previously hidden or ignored values by discovering the unplayable from playful experiences? Consider that uncomfortable moment in life when people discover a playful experience ceases to be worth playing.  Just as an arm is broken on the playground, or a relationship can no longer be mended, there are explicit moments when art transgresses some unforeseen territory leaving us with a fear of its potential.  There are games that cross into the taboo and art gestures that are too eager in their playfulness. They leave us unwilling or even unable to play and in doing so, offer us an unforeseen opportunity for critical reflection.  Such work is sometimes political other times naïve in its pursuit, uncomfortably stumbling on that which may have been forgotten.

The discovery of 'gameplay' and the formation of computer gaming's aesthetic

by Dr. Graeme Kirkpatrick

This presentation explores the play of the video game as a kind of blunting of the promise of the play in artworks as the latter was understood by Adorno. In his ‘Aesthetic Theory’, Adorno suggests that a function of art is to ‘bring to light what is immature in the idea of maturity’. The artwork invites the subject to play and in so doing creates an opening to practices and urges that are kept out of view in the adult psyche, under the concealing rubric of  being a ‘grown-up’. This opening leads us to awareness that adulthood and its reality principle are illusory or deceptive and exploring the artwork makes us sensitive to other possibilities by allowing the energies of our own childhood selves a temporary, perhaps momentary expression. This leads to an altogether more mature sense of thwarted possibilities and of present selfness as a shell that could be broken in the direction of fulfillment. In contrast to this progressive-utopian play of art, I will argue the computer game offers a kind of play that, while it summons the same energies, freezes them and prevents us from growing through the experience. Play with a computer game resuscitates something of childhood but then holds it up to ridicule and blunts its utopian potentials. This positions it somewhere between the artwork and the entertainment commodity, in a culturally specific space of in-adequation and indecision.

Bios of the Participants

Olli Tapio Leino

Olli Tapio Leino is a new media scholar focusing on computer games, interactive art and contemporary media culture from the perspectives of critical ludology, philosophy of technology and existential  phenomenology. He earned his PhD from the Center for Computer Games Research at the IT University of Copenhagen, Denmark. His PhD dissertation Emotions in Play: On the constitution of emotion in solitary computer game play is a phenomenological analysis of the relationship between a computer game's materiality and the player's  emotional experience. Olli has published in the fields of game studies, new media art and philosophy of computer games. He has been involved in consultancy and applied research projects on computer game player's experience, game design for emotions, and pervasive and mobile media. In his current research Olli seeks to combine game studies  with critical aesthetics and media archaeology in order to assess the role of playability at the overlaps of interactive art and computer games and to rethink the sedimented assumptions underlying the paradigm  of game studies.

Lindsay Grace

Lindsay Grace is a professor, game designer, programmer, artist and  writer. Lindsay is the Armstrong Professor of Fine Arts within Miami University's Armstrong Institute for Interactive Media Studies and the School of Fine Arts. His research areas include game design, human-computer interaction, critical gameplay, and web design. He also writes about design and education. Lindsay has served industry as an independent consultant, web designer, software developer, entrepreneur, business analyst and writer. Lindsay's creative practice is focused on 
uses of interactive media to explore cultural standards. Extending the foundations of human computer interaction, play design and design anthropology, the work explores the ignored. This work is computer game, 
gallery art, animation, sculpture or some interdisciplinary amalgamation. Lindsay’s work primarily pursues educational experiences and editorial critique of the social relationship between computers, humans and each other. Lindsay has taught games, interaction design, and writing at the college level for more than 7 years. He is an alumnus the Electronic Visualization Lab at the University of Illinois and holds two degrees from Northwestern University. Lindsay’s new media work has been exhibited internationally in a variety of venues.

Graeme Kirkpatrick

Graeme Kirkpatrick's work combines philosophy, social theory and sociological research methods to explore technologies, especially digital artifacts, in social and cultural context. He is concerned to retain and develop insights from the Frankfurt tradition of critical social theory in the era of information technologies. He has published several books including 'Critical Technology: A social theory of personal computing' (Ashgate 2004) and 'Aesthetic Theory and the Video Game (Manchester University Press 2011). At present, he is writing a 
sociology of the computer game, to be published by Polity Press in 2012, and essays on the project of a reconstruction of critical theory by way of contemporary philosophy of technology, to be published by Bloomsbury Academic.