Tobias Unterhuber is a PhD candidate and lecturer at the Institute for German Literature at LMU Munich. He is also an editor and author for the e-journal Paidia. His research interests include game studies, gender studies, pop literature, economization of culture, literary and media theory.
Editor’s Note: First Person Scholar has paired up with Paidia, one of the first German-speaking journals for game studies. In the coming months articles previously published on our respective sites will be translated and cross-posted. Our hope in undertaking this process is to establish cross-cultural conversations on games and game studies.
What have gardens, graveyards, brothels and videogames in common? What might sound like the beginning of a joke for one, is in fact the introduction of a theoretical approach towards videogames which uses a concept popularized by the French philosopher Michel Foucault: the heterotopia.1
Michel Foucault’s concept of heterotopia originated in the 1960s and was – besides a short paragraph in Les Mots et les choses and an article in Architecture, Movement 2 – only explored further in a radio report for France Culture on December 7th 1966.3 Nevertheless it was used extensively by academics in the fields of film, literature and culture studies and there were also some ideas to make it fruitful for Game Studies, for examples look at Keith Challis’ Games as Heterotopias or at Gamereader.net. But I want to start with the basics and show, at least in sections, that the concept of Heterotopia is related with Johan Huizinga’s notion of play. Then, in a second step I want to focus on the question if the concept can be transferred and productively applied to videogames.
Not without reason both Foucault’s and Huizinga’s remarks begin with the children:
“Amidst all these different places [of a society] there are those which – in a way – differ completely from the others. Places, that resist all the others and that are in a way destined to erase, replace, neutralize or purify. They are in a way counter-spaces. Children know these counter-spaces very well, these localized utopias.”4
Paidia is a platform for media-cultural studies oriented approaches towards videogames . Since its inception in 2011, Paidia gives dedicated scholars from various backgrounds the chance to conduce their thoughts and theories to the widening of the field. Contributions to Paidia can take the form of individual (double-peer-reviewed) essays as well as the contribution to periodical special issues.
One may stumble at first, what would count as a heterotopia following this definition. A derivation of the term might help here: other spaces. They are different from the rest because they transform space and so they actually are “mythical and real negations of the space we live in”5 Right now we can already find a similarity to Huizinga. The spaces of play which includes “the temple, the stage, the screen” (10) he says, “are temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart” (10). Foucault in turn mentions very similar places (“Les heterotopies” 44). But he begins with less solid, not yet conventionalized places that possibly can’t be conventionalized at all:
“And this is – on a Thursday afternoon – the parental double bed. On this bed you discover the ocean because you can swim between the covers. But the bed is also the sky because you can jump on the springs. It is the forest because you can hide in it. It is the night because you become a ghost under the sheets.”6
The one word that comes to mind and which Foucault doesn’t mention nevertheless starts to speak between the lines on its own: it is the word ‘play’. Because what else does Foucault describe than the unbridled play of children? So the play creates heterotopias which at least exist as long as the game continues. The magic circle of play is – from this perspective – just another expression for the temporary heterotipization which the play causes. Thus games are not heterotopias. But spaces of playing are. Interestingly enough spaces of playing – I intentionally don’t say game spaces or spaces of games because it could also mean spaces in videogames whose status is not clear to me at the moment7– are in contrast to other heterotopias not place bound. There might be favored places of playing in a society, the game room, the football field or a paintball arena. But those places are not the exclusive ones in which we play as the parental double bed in Foucault’s text indicates. It would even be imaginable to apply the distinction between paidia and ludus to the possible types of heterotopias. Thereby we could distinguish between mobile heterotopias, the ones that have not yet gained a stable place in a culture and all such that already have an assigned space. All the more fascinating is the type of non-stable heterotopias because they are – more than the others – a form of transvaluation and reframing of the actually existent as they occupy other places:
“What we doubtlessly encounter here is the true essence of the heterotopias. They query all other spaces, namely in two different ways: either […] by creating an illusion which exposes the entire remaining reality as an illusion or, to the contrary, by creating another real space, in a real way, which is also perfect, meticulous and disorderly arranged like ours, badly ordered and tangled […]”8
This questioning also transfers to heterotopias themselves since they are always at stake: Their own transvaluation can in turn be transvalued at any time as soon as the game ends or the playing is disturbed from the outside. With a modified quote of Wolfgang Iser: “In the game/play everything is always on the rocks” (350); one might claim: The game itself is always on the rocks. Its status is always endangered and so playing is a second order game, the game between game and not-game, between play and not-play. I think the same holds for heterotopias even though their conventionalization tries to secure its status. The cinema isn’t a heterotopia any longer if the film reel breaks or the other spectators stop complying with the rules. The graveyard is no longer a graveyard as soon as I start partying there.9 The huge advantage compared to the unstable spaces of play is that these spaces can revert to their status of heterotopias once everybody starts complying to the rules again. The game on the other hand can neither rely that it will be continued nor that it is continuable. But at least it has the feature of repeatability (Huizinga 10).
We haven’t even really talked about videogames and still it has already been shown that a combination of the two terms heterotopia and play and in addition game can be fruitful especially for videogames. Admittedly the term heterotopia can’t be applied straight to videogames themselves – it is even questionable to what the space of videogames could be a counter-space as it is rather the simulation of space. Here we touch the debatable status of virtual spaces. What we can cherish is videogames being a visible representation of being located in a heterotopia. We see images of the spaces on the screen and, following the established perspective on the avatar-player-relation,10 we are in front of and beyond the screen simultaneously.
To what the definition of heterotopia can be transferred very well is the playing of videogames. Because every time we pick up a controller, start a game, we create temporary heterotopias no matter where we are – even in public spaces whose status we torpedo by doing so. When we transform something we unsettle, as Foucault attributes to heterotopias (The Order of Things xviii). This perspective might provide us with a whole new outlook on the massive proliferation of mobile games. Because as Foucault remarks when he declares the ship as a paramount example of heterotopias:
Civilizations without ships are like children whose parents do not possess a double bed on which they could play. Then, their dreams run dry. Surveillance takes the places of adventure and the hideous police take the place of dazzling corsairs. (51)11
Foucault, Michel. “Les heterotopies“, in: Die Heterotopien/Der Utopische Körper. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp 2005.
–. The Order of Things. An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Vintage Books.
Huizinga, Johann. Homo Ludens. A study oft the play element in culture. Boston: Beacon Press 2013.
Iser, Wolfgang. Das Fiktive und das Imaginäre. Pespektiven literarischer Anthropologie. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp 1993.
Neitzel, Britta: “Point of View und Point of Action – eine Perspektive auf die Perspektive in Computerspielen”, in: Klaus Bartels u. Jan Noel Thon (Ed.) Computer/Spiel/Räume. Materialien zur Einführung in die Computer Game Studies, Hamburger Hefte zur Medienkultur, magazine 5, 2007.
Post Image from Oh No by Cameron Kunzelman