Play as Bulwark of Uselessness

Luca Morini is a Researcher within the Disruptive Media Learning Lab of Coventry University. With a Ph.D. in Education and Communication and a background in psychology, he actually tries to spend most of his time playing, making games or helping people make their own, believing creative playfulness to be the keystone of true, liberating education.

Almost two years ago, halfway through my doctoral course, I found myself in Finland at the “Critical Evaluation of Game Studies Seminar,” where, above all the “big names” in the field of Game Studies who spoke there (among which were Aarseth, Deterding, Juul, and Mäyrä), one thing was indelibly imprinted in my memory: Canadian sociologist Bart Simon’s characterisation of Game Studies as a true, undeniable “bulwark of uselessness”. As a customary “tank” player in MMOs, always relishing the role of defending my teammates in our small, unnecessary virtual struggles, the image stuck strongly.

As I continued climbing toward the completion of my Ph.D. in Education and Communication, largely by playing and making games within communities of amateur game designers, I realized that this powerful image, “the bulwark of uselessness,” could be a conceptualisation relevant to all cultural endeavours in their conflicted relationship with utilitaristic economic forces, a conflict that is becoming especially relevant in times of economic crisis. While culture as a whole cannot be constructed or conceptualised on the mere criteria of efficiency and profit, nor in subordination to market imperatives, even public institutions devoted to education and cultural endeavors are being currently subjected to the push toward adopting more market oriented approaches and therefore abdicating the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. What I call “Bulwark of Uselessness” is therefore the diverse set of cultural spaces and activities that are not devoted to profit and production and that indeed can work to resist them. In the current historical-cultural moment, however, this Bulwark finds itself attacked in its very anthropological root, that of play.The “fall” of this bulwark its full exclusion by public spaces, cultures, and discourse would be nothing short of catastrophic, strongly curtailing the possibilities of human expression.

As a living example of the utilitarian pressures on the gratuitous and unproductive nature of play, having recently obtained a research position at in an institution aimed at promoting change in Higher Education, I find myself involved in a variety of game-related projects. These projects, each with different degrees of subtlety, involve employing play as a tool aimed at some very specific instrumental purpose, even if noble ones (e.g. sustainability or health). This dynamic reflects education as a whole, pushed more and more away from the general public values of knowledge construction and citizenship toward very specific technical ends, such as the training and upskilling of “employable” individuals. To have to engage with instrumental uses of play, most often directed to some kind of market utility or efficiency, is an uncomfortable position, if one that I am critically coming to terms with as an engaged pedagogist and game scholar.

The Gameful World Revisited

In the last few months, thanks to the positive interactions and discussions occurring in my new workplace, I had the opportunity to engage with gamification (as defined as “use of game design elements in non-game contexts”; see Deterding et al., 2011) in a more nuanced way. I came to appreciate how, when done well, gamification is more than badges and scores stuck onto unplayful activities, but a specific and highly elaborate form of game-design, if one bounded by an inevitably purposive element.

In doing this, I could complexify the utter condemnation of gamification as “bullshit” cast by Ian Bogost. While I still mostly concur with his positions, if not with his rhetorical approach on a philosophical and political level, condemnation is no longer sufficient, as we playful scholars must engage with actual cultural and historical contexts to keep our work meaningful. We can’t trivially reject these practices, but we must endeavor to dialectically understand them and highlight exactly when and how they can become means through which to insidiously convey curricula and ideologies, or even all out dehumanizing.

We need to do this particularly with the actual people who seek to explore the possibility for humane uses of instrumental approaches to games and play (under the variety of levels of gamification, “game based learning”, serious games, etc.), to come to a complex understanding of the possibilities and the space of games and play in our society. This exploration, however, starts by effectively acknowledging that we have long lived in a “gameful world,” one where societal hierarchies and structures are effectively defined by homologues of the “trivial” gamification techniques of scores and leaderboards. From being scored for our achievements in the classroom, to “gaming” electoral systems to maximise delegates, to leaderboards which linearly order and label the “employee of the month” or the “Top 100 Most Influential People”, we are already subject to gamification. The most trivial elements of game design, scores and leaderboards, have been an integral part of our society at least since the inception of Fredrick Taylor’s “scientific management”. And indeed, opposite to the gameful utopia prospected by Jane McGonigal, the understanding of hierarchical feedback systems (be them school or workplace) as assimilable to game mechanics and experiences has only increased, as has been discussed, among others, by Jennifer DeWinter, who straightforwardly frames Gamification as Taylorism 2.0.  This simplistic approach to game-like systems has even been criticised from within the gamification community, as much more humane approaches to behaviour and experience design begin when advocated by gamification’s most articulate proponents (see, among others Yu-Kai Chou or Sylvester Arnab). However, and despite this emerging plurality of approaches and considerable refinement to the field, most implementations still don’t seem to (and maybe can’t) be aimed at systemic, structural change, but instead at increasing productivity or learning outcomes that is, at orienting and directing behaviors. While the intentions of gamificators might be (in many cases) laudable, the conceptual tools that are being developed can be extremely dangerous if wrongly employed (as is the case with most technologies). Through the pervasive application of well-established game design techniques, the odds of the emergence of a panopticon is made to be accepted and indeed embraced through the bait of false playfulness have greatly increased.

See, for a paradigmatic example, the case of China’s gamified credit score system “Sesame Credit,” that purportedly will control access to credit and special benefits depending on a variety of scored variables, which go from the kind of purchases made to the scores of linked people in social networks. Despite having been probably overblown by western press due to cultural bias and vested interests in discrediting western economies’ main competition, Sesame Credit at least hints at the possibility of a whole new kind of systems of social control, where the feedback loops that ordinarily compose games are co-opted for surveillance and purposive behavioral “push.”

What is particularly worrisome is indeed the massive adoption of gamification by corporate and political subjects. This happens because, at some level, these typologies of games (or more properly, gamified systems) “work” in an explicit, measurable way, to enact similarly explicit, measurable “change” that is compliant with the currently dominant obsession for measurement and quantification. But, as game designer and activist Paolo Pedercini provocatively wrote: “If you can measure it, then it’s not the change I want to see.” Quantification and measurement can only amount to management and optimisation of the existent (which of course is, in the right contexts and times, a noble endeavour in itself), but it is not the generation of novel experiences that can only occur through deep, purposeless, playful and liberating engagement in cultural dynamics.

What is completely left out of the picture by all the “gameful” approaches, the design of which is strongly and explicitly self-constrained so as to provide the above discussed measurable outcome, is indeed the role of play as both expression matrix of culture, as discussed since Huizinga. The exclusion of culture (in its widest anthropological sense, including aesthetics, beliefs, meanings, values, and especially their diversity according to each context) from the discourse of gamification proponents is rooted in an adherence to the above mentioned management-oriented measurability model and therefore runs much deeper than the quasi-behaviourist implementations of the “exhaustible machines” of naïve gamificators, trivialising applications of game design elements that are denounced by their own more competent colleagues.

However, even those implementations that have leeways for playfulness are built with a purpose that comes before play and gives it hard boundaries: as a general rule, gamification proponents (paraphrasing Jeff Watson) have still to deliver an example of gamification that isn’t about compliance, surveillance, efficiency, and/or skill or information delivery all criteria which of course have their necessary roles at times and places, but are not to be mistaken for the cores of education, citizenship, or play.

Gamification ultimately seems to rely on an underlying, deep cultural disqualification of playfulness, as discussed by Jaakko Stenros (2015), who highlights how “there is an ideological stance found in much of the literature on serious games and gamification that posits that games and play are somehow inferior unless they are useful.” This stance  paradoxically takes the exact same form of Caillois’ highest praise: “Play is an occasion of pure waste.” While “waste” means lot of things in our (relatively) environmentally aware society, most core to our discussion is the fact that true play is, first and foremost, a waste of time. It is characterized by being unnecessary, as Bernard Suits wrote. This makes it radically and explicitly opposed to the above touched Taylorist “scientific management,” oriented to maximise optimization and productivity.

And yet, this very waste of time and energy is the messy cultural terrain upon which new possible societal configurations are explored and experimented. “Culture arises in the form of play, that it is played from the very beginning,” teaches Huizinga, and Salen & Zimmerman articulate at length the paradox conflict of play, the free movement within and with its rules. All “gameful” approaches, however, unilaterally favor rules instead of freedom, as their first and foremost objective is compliance (as poignantly illustrated by Jeff Watson), implying very specific uses and purposes.

So, what are the risks if we do not nurture, sustain and promote a cultural stance that allows for the above-mentioned liberating, anti-utilitaristic, even (paradoxically) anti-consumerist “pure waste,” for a more widespread resistance to purpose? What are the risks if we let this  “bulwark of uselessness” that is play be devalued and fall, conquered by purpose and utility?

The Tyranny of Necessity

The key of my argument is that the fall of this “bulwark” under the blows of efficiency and utility would indeed constitute the ultimate ecological catastrophe: to focus all of our efforts, and even all of our games, on the above discussed management and optimisation of the existent means minimising the spaces (both physical and cultural) where novel ideas can emerge through playful experimentation, not bound by efficiency or productivity, as also discussed by Deterding in a recent talk. To put it shortly (and dramatically), this means no less than the simultaneous destruction of not one, but all non-actual possible worlds, collapsed in the monolithic, eternal present of the capitalist “end of history,” as famously discussed by Francis Fukuyama after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I want therefore to conclude by echoing Miguel Sicart’s “call to playful arms” against efficiency, seriousness and technical determinism. My appeal is to the citizens of an insidiously occupied land, spaces no more completely public, but more and more colonised by market forces and imperatives. My appeal is to get involved wherever there is the possibility of free, purposeless play, something that, indeed, even gamification systems allow and provide space for, if often unknowingly, dangerously, painfully and implicitly. In this context, the most ethical “purpose” of play can be only and exactly to critique purposiveness itself, a critique which in its praxis comes in (at least) two flavors: to create safe spaces for the emergence of practices and systems which purposes are not known yet and might never find one, and to strip existing practices of their current purpose.

We can therefore preserve the “bulwark” with two parallel strategies. The first might appear to be simple and trivial: acting to build (actual and figurative) playgrounds, especially in public spaces. This is, again, akin to what Deterding means by “designing against productivity.” The second and more risky one is to overtly play with structure and invent new uses and spaces, both within and without games: this is a kind of subversive play, best exemplified by the massive cheating practices which characterized Foursquare, as a creative, playful resistance to measurement, or by more politically charged playful practices such as “meta-kettling”.

Subvert mere games into play, because, contrary to Margaret Thatcher’s famous saying, there are, indeed, infinite alternatives. As game designers our entire job consists indeed of creating these alternatives, these possible worlds, and this is something we can keep doing only by upholding our Bulwark, and resisting the instrumental purposes of our so-called “reality.”

Author’s Note: The present article is to be considered a “twin essay” to “(Higher) Education as Bulwark of Uselessness”, submitted to the digital journal Hybrid Pedagogy, one that you should really check out if you are in any way interested in teaching and learning. I wrote the two essays together at the same time, as a playful experiment in academic writing: beside some different choices of words or disciplinarily specific remarks the first and last paragraphs are indeed mostly the same, to highlight the deep, if most often distorted (as discussed in both essays), link between play and learning.


Works Cited

Deterding, Sebastian, et al. “Gamification. using game-design elements in non-gaming contexts.” CHI’11 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, 2011.

DeWinter, Jennifer, Carly A. Kocurek, and Randall Nichols. “Taylorism 2.0: Gamification, scientific management and the capitalist appropriation of play.”Journal of Gaming & Virtual Worlds 6.2 (2014): 109-127.

Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens Ils 86. Routledge, 2014.

Salen, Katie, and Eric Zimmerman. Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. MIT press, 2004.

Stenros, Jaakko. “Playfulness, Play, and Games: A Constructionist Ludology Approach.” (2015).

Suits, Bernard. The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia. Broadview Press, 2014.