Playing for Change event

Last week I went to ‘Playing for Change’ hosted by Scott Gaule (RIHSC, MMU) and Nic Whitton (ESRI).  It was the inaugural event of the Games for Social Change Network, funded through an AHRC grant (read more here).  The network’s website explains the potential of games/ play for change:

“Participation and involvement are integral to processes of social change. Play and games have a tradition of contributing to this type of work, notably through sport, routinely used as a tool to facilitate personal and community development as well as promote inter-cultural understanding.

Outside of the world of sport, the potentials of play and games as agents of change are seldom acknowledged and explored. However, the landscape of game making and playing is undergoing a radical transformation. Recent developments are highlighting the possibilities of game design in engaging wider social processes, aligned to activism, journalism, public pedagogy, interpersonal communication and community development, for example.

A key factor in this transformation is the growth of computer and videogame culture. In the last decade, changes have occurred on the edges of the mainstream game industry, whereby a variety of independent making communities are emerging.

These scenes are enabling more diverse people to get involved and this diversity is creating more experimental and nuanced play experiences and pushing the boundaries of what games can be used for. Many of these independent communities (e.g. Game Jam cultures) are actively engaged in the democratisation of game production, blurring the boundaries between playing and making, supporting gamers to get involved in designing and producing their own games.

This phase of maturation is helping to highlight the possibilities of play and games as significant cultural forms for personal expression, inter-personal communication and social commentary. It has also given rise to new forms of play. For example, mixed and alternate reality games (ARGs), played across virtual platforms as well as in physical locations, enable players to warp the boundaries between everyday and fictional realities. Far from being trivial, examples from this genre of play are pointing towards its potentials to supplement tool-sets for community practice.”

As might be expected the conference was full of thought-provoking games and activities. Manchester’s very own The Larks demonstrated their Super Political Street Fighter that uses the arcade game Street Fighter to decide which political idea is the best.

The Copenhagen Games Collective also ran a wonderful workshop that presented games with a common theme that varied through the utilisation of technology, from Turtle Wushu (I’m not even going to try to explain it – see here for details) to Oculus Joust (read this about Oculus and check out the picture).

Matt Adams from ‪@blasttheory gave an overview of the games (he was relaxed about what they actually were) that place people in immersive experiences such as I’d Hide You. An interesting issue emerging from Matt’s talk was the certain ambivalence to risk within the games.  In A Machine to See With individuals receive instructions via a phone that places them in a situation where they rob a bank, where the bank is not aware of the game.  So the crux is: do people rob the bank?

So all great stuff and lots of people enjoyed the day but what does it all mean for change, social change and society?  A running feature of the day was what do we mean by ‘play’, ‘games’, ‘social change’, ‘change’ and every other idea that everyone has numerous definitions and competing ideas?  There were some answers to these questions in Joost Raessen’s (Utrecht University) talk and I’ll link to the slides when they are available (here).

For me the most interesting question is why play/ games and social change now? I’m aware of the risk of turning up to an event and wondering ‘why now?’ on a field of research that’s being going for 15-20 years. The ‘now’ is my contingency. However, Matthias Fuchs (Gamification Lab, Leuphana University) noted that interest in games and play after economic downturns.  So in the 1930’s after the Great Depression there were examples such as Mary Poppins that instructed us,

In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun, and SNAP! the job’s a game!

But in whose interests is it that we think of work as fun or a game?

Mathias focused on visual and ludic representations of “involuntary servitude” and “drudgery of play”, drawing on critical theorists Adorno and Benjamin. Adorno the “repetitiveness of gaming” is nothing but “an after-image of involuntary servitude” (Adorno 1970) and for Benjamin the gamer’s actions resemble those of the proletarian worker as they perform what is derived of all meaning: “drudgery of play” (Benjamin 1939). As a way of developing out of this, Fuchs gave examples of what Daphne Dragona calls “Counter-Gamification” the subversive potential of mini-games, videos or images to offer an alternative to the Californian Hurrahs on gamification as the general problem solver. An example of this sort of game is CAMOVER where anarchists in Berlin compete to destroy as many CCTV cameras as possible.

So lots of interesting stuff going on but I’m waiting to see what games/ play can do for the type of social change that I’m interested in, leading to more co-operative and democratic communities and societies. An indication of this might be the Variable State Network, which is,

"A cooperative media conglomerate located in the Rough Sedge region of Second Life. It has a weekly budget of L$300 dedicated to expanding the secret agenda of "another world is possible" within the most inclusive definition of North America, and particularly the NAFTA region (ergo its name). It was founded in Tijuana, Baja California, in december 2008 within the context of the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle of EZLN, to be presented in Festival Mundial de la Digna Rabia, in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas. Since january 2010 it has been temporarily located in Denver, Grand Lake, Krems, Los Angeles, NYC and Vienna.

The main project running under the co-orp umbrella is Spacebank, but there are other important initiatives under its sponsorship like Collective Intelligence AgencyEl ZorroFiction DepartmentMundo Posible,, Partido CyberPunkPossibleworldsRomaCondesa.comVariable Network State."

But describing that in detail is a whole other post.

James Duggan

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