In Soviet Russia, game plays you!

by Thom Kiraly

As per usual when the end of a course draws near, I should really be doing something better than feeding my narcissistic tendencies by updating my blog, but hey, it’s not like I’m going to go back to doing what I really should be doing just because I feel bad about not doing it, now is it?
What’s really occupying my mind (#occupyyourmind) at the moment is something which has stuck with me ever since a discussion I had with my partner in crime, Mikael Vesavuori of Propaganda Bureau (f | sh)ame a couple of weekends ago. I visited Gothenburg to get some work done on our musical experiment, Civil Protection Unit, and since we spent most of the weekend holed up in the sound studio at Valand, many discussions revolved around art in general and Mikael’s art in particular. Without going into this too deep, I’ll just say that the basic problem I thought he was/is facing is the same one every other artist working within, around or simply interrogating digital games does: Is this art in itself necessarily game art, games or art games? What use is there in calling a digital piece of interactive art a game? What are the pitfalls? Why the confusion?

Now, I have to say that this was only the starting point of our discussion and what his art is, was or will be is up to Mikael to say and create. What I took away from this discussion was that the confusion many people aspiring to expand the artistic reach of games feel seems to be encapsulated in the divide between game and play. Here, I feel that English fails me. In Swedish, there’s a separation between what in English could be termed play activities (childrens’ games, word games, role-taking etc. ), which are called “lek”, and “regular” games, which are called “spel”. What, in my mind, separate these two concepts is the formal structures surrounding each respectively. A “lek” is very much an ad hoc activity temporarily joining a group of people in play. There is no “goal” in a lek in the way that goals exist everywhere in games and thus they do not leave much of a result after the event.

The distinct quality of a “lek” is that it avoids the formalization that games are trapped in. A play activity such as a lek allows for a freedom unlike what’s provided within a game. See, games are created and designed to be played through and explored within a certain framework, using certain strategies etc. Hopefully, this design was made consciously and with regards to all aspects of the game, thus creating a sort of total experience for the player. Such well-designed games can put the players into wonderfully unique positions of exploration and experimentation, but the player is nonetheless always stuck within that structure and there is very little negotiation going on. I think that much of the frustration I feel with games and game studies is the turn it has taken towards a strange behaviorist psychology where the issue is how to design the game in order to make the player perform certain actions in certain ways, giving them rewards and punishments to make them follow the right track. It all seems to come down to what the best way to get players to pull levers and eat the crackers is. This often goes hand in hand with the discussion of what “use” games are. Serious games and educational games supposedly teach us things, make us more productive or something or other. Critical games and art games force us to adopt new perspectives. The list could be made longer, but I won’t bother. (quick note before I move on: I’m not saying that games should be designed differently, because I’m not sure they should. Game design is, after all, mind control… Which is a good thing, kinda)

I’ve always looked at the fact that games don’t have to “mean” or “teach” as one of their fundamental strengths, but I’m slowly coming to the realization that I must have been thinking of play (or “lek” as it were) all along. Lekar (plural of lek) seldom have any demands for usefulness attached to them, and if such properties exist they are seen as by-products of play. Thus, for me, it seems that radical gamers really ought to focus more on lek (play) than on spel (games) for where games lock us into predetermined interactive structures, lek asks us to constantly reevaluate our relationships to the other players and to the lek itself. Lek is also powerful in that it’s much harder to commodify than a game is. A game is seen as a finished product to be packaged, sold and played by the consumer. A lek defies such rigid productive chains of creation and evades all attempts at pinning it down, for once a lek is formalized it has been turned into a game. The lek leaves no trace after the event. There is no high score, no experience points and no levels, nor are there any cash prizes, tournaments or sponsorship deals.

Lekar are utterly useless, pointless and unproductive. Therein lies their great potential.