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Play and Protest

Earlier this month I had a great time at the conference “The Internet as Playground and Factory.” I focused on the “factory” presentations, and I’ve had a bit of trouble digesting the “play” side of the conference (such as the Bureau of Workplace Interruptions). At first some of the interventions reminded me of the bizarre juxtaposition of activism, appropriationism, and absurdity in this Seether video:

But on the other hand, the same style works to brilliant effect on this ACLU “Demand Your Dot Rights” campaign. And I imagine it’s about the only way to get a larger number of people to think about topics like the ones Sheldon Wolin discusses in Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism. As Mackenzie Wark puts it, “The real world appears as a video arcadia divided into many and varied games. Work is a rat race. Politics is a horse race. The economy is a casino. . . . Games are no longer a pastime, outside or alongside of life. They are now the very form of life.” When people no longer care much about privacy, they need to be shown how its lack can directly undermine their “reputation score” in the game of life.

8 thoughts on “Play and Protest”

  1. Frank, I grabbed that line from Wark too (for my book). My sense, from the rest of the book, is that he was making an ironic claim with those words — i.e. his “Gamer theory” is something he spots but doesn’t endorse. Do you agree?

  2. Can’t wait to see the book, Greg!

    As for Wark–I can’t imagine him endorsing the casino/horserace state of affairs. At least as I understood the book, it was suggesting that there are fair and unfair games, with the former serving as templates for reforming the latter. There can also be appropriate and inappropriate games–so the idea of a political horse race or an economic casino is meant to intimate (ala Walzer) that inappropriate standards of conduct are invading realms they should not be influencing.

    The DotRights video, for me, brings home the idea of a government that may inadvertently capture “good guys” as it dragnets data. The Seether video’s “Wall Street Fighter” nicely suggests both that a) the average person can only “fight” the purveyors of the casino economy ala a Walter Mittyesque fantasy of Karate Kid-like transcendence and b) any temporary victory merely sets up the sequel, as a “golden parachute” deus ex machina-tically spirits the villain away.

    So for me the Seether thesis is: let’s skewer Wall Street in a fun and entertaining way. The antithesis is: this is idle distraction that substitutes for the real work of political change. And perhaps the synthesis is that we need this first step of raising awareness and framing the problem in a reductive and entertaining way before hoping that anything can happen politically. (I asked a question along these lines at the Zittrain/DeNardis/Holmes panel.)

    I focused on that synthesis at the end of my talk–basically noting that the rightwing characterization of even the most watered down ideas for social change proposed by Obama necessitates a countercaricature. If the Palin/Rand party sees a world of “makers” robbed by redistributive taxation designed to pay for programs for “takers,” it’s time to start showing how many of the “makers” are really “fakers” (enriched by sweetheart deals, inheritances, and luck).

  3. We should talk sometime. I think you’re seeing these 8-bit videos as a rhetorical tool to engage the numb-minded masses who need things watered-down and gamed up in order to become politicized. Play actually has some political implications that go beyond its rhetorical purchase — Wark references these in his book. At one point he references the academic game, for instance…

  4. Well happy thanksgiving to you, too!

    What should I read (or play) to mature beyond my condescending views of play’s politics?

  5. The ACLU’s “Demand Your Dot Rights” video is in fairly rigid conflict with its free speech rhetoric, isn’t it?

  6. Frank — sorry!! That was a little abrupt. I should have left it at “we should talk sometime,” because that’s all I really wanted to say. I do hope you had a nice Thanksgiving!

    As to what was going on in my head: for various reasons you might guess at, I often find myself challenged by the view that play, and videogame play in particular, is a frivolous distraction. So maybe I’ve become a little oversensitive as a result of being on the defensive for so long? Apparently.

    Anyway, you don’t need to read anything, really. But if you’re curious about what spiked my eggnog, see:

    Brian Sutton-Smith, The Ambiguity of Play
    Thomas Henricks, Play Reconsidered
    Bernard Suits, The Grasshopper
    David Elkind, The Power of Play
    Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens
    TL Taylor, Play Between Worlds
    Bart Giamatti, Take Time for Paradise
    Plus articles on the philosophy of sport, Foucault on heterotopia, Piaget, Seymour Papert, multiple journals in the arena of “game studies,” and Foucault on Heterotopia

    Again, apologies for my reflex reaction! I think I am *personally* rather politicized about play at this point.

  7. Ann–Yes, the ACLU has some issues in terms of progressive social change…my bete noir is their campaign finance stance. But it seems that the most fierce criticism they get is from those who think they are not libertarian enough! (e.g., Wendy Kaminer’s book).

    Greg: Got it! I do see your point about the frustration of having to fight the same battles over and over. I think Sutton-Smith was brought up a lot at the conference, and I’m sure I’ll learn some important angles on the issue once I go back and view those panels on play . . . . as well as take the time to look at some of the works you’ve recommended.

    On a possibly related note…I was just listening to a podcast of Amy Goodman, Bill Moyers, and Glenn Greenwald, and all agreed that about the most meaningful media reform we could do for Sunday morning talk shows would be to make Jon Stewart the host of Meet the Press.

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