Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Citations and Spectacles: Chapters 3 and 4 are live!

I've been posting my dissertation chapters in serial format (my favorite rhythm for engagement, as I wrote about here). In case you missed them, Chapter 3 and Chapter 4 are now live!

If any of my chapters are going to be controversial, I suspect it is these two.

Throughout my dissertation as well as my blog, lectures and actual design work, I have expressed a fairly strong preference for certain game design practices: scalability and sustainability of participation and iteration, rather than "situated" play and one-off projects; transparent play that invites direct engagement rather than "dark"play that produces mostly gawking, confusion, or alienated spectatorship; and actualization of concepts and prototypes for a real, public audience so as to best support the discovery of emergent uses and desires. In these two chapters, I occasionally challenge some well-known projects in terms of their aesthetic choices and deployment practices. I hope that the fact that I hold their designers in high regard is clear even as I ask some difficult questions about the goals of different genres of ubiquitous play and performance, and the kinds of significant technical, social, cultural and personal impacts they are most likely to have--or to not have.

For years, most of us working in this particular gaming space have limited our discussion to cheering on the projects we like best. At the start of a field, I think this kind of positive support is extremely important. But by now offering a critical take on some of the original canonized projects of the categories of ubiquitous computing games and pervasive games, I am arguing that the field is strong and diverse and socially important enough that we can--indeed, we must-- ask the tough questions that typically have been left unasked. I certainly do not expect to have the last word in reply to these questions; I can already imagine (and hope to see written!) challenges to my own critiques and intrepretations. And I look forward to a real dialogue, where researchers and designers have enough confidence in the field to publicly disagree with each other, developing in this space.

Here's a sneak preview of the topics and themes of each.

From Chapter 3: Colonizing Play: Citations Everywhere, or, The Ubicomp Games

... In a lecture for the 2005 International Conference on Pervasive Computing, Laurent Ciarletta proposed a ubiquitous computing research and development strategy based on mimetic technological performance. In the face of ubiquitous computing’s failure to manifest itself in the present, Ciarletta suggested a playfully performative mode of redress: faking it. The title of Ciarletta’s talk, “Emulating the Future”, recommended imitating now an imagined, future state of truly ubiquitous computing in order to better understand the destiny of the field. In the accompanying paper, Ciarletta writes:

In order to specify good applications, it would be interesting to completely
emulate those systems, creating fake worlds where the specific piece being
developed can be embedded, tested, compared with other solutions and
demonstrated in its context, even though some of the technologies have not been
developed yet, or are available only as prototypes on a small scale (3).
In other words, by creating as-if ubicomp systems—working, local demonstrations of ubicomp technologies and infrastructures that are not ubiquitous yet, but which might someday be—the field can mimetically manifest ubiquitous computing’s hoped-for “there”.

Ciarletta’s suggested “fake worlds” call to mind a kind of theatrical play, a staged magic circle in which computing behaves as if it were already ubiquitous. To adapt theater-games activist Augusto Boal’s famous provocation, such emulation might not be the ubicomp revolution in itself—but it could be a rehearsal for the revolution.[1] If this language of revolution sounds rather confrontational, consider Schmidt’s proposed solution to ubiquitous computing’s problem of not being there yet. He encouraged his HCI audience to continue aggressively pursuing Weiser’ vision, “confronting real people in real everyday environments” with more and more functional ubicomp prototypes ([20]). If we are not at the desired “there” of ubiquitous computing yet, Schmidt suggested, perhaps it is because we have not staged a dramatic enough confrontation. Ciarletta’s plan to fake effective ubiquitous computing by “emulating the future” offers precisely such a dramatic means to advance the field.

The term ‘emulation’, of course, has a special meaning in computer science: emulators are programs that allow computers to masquerade as a different make and model. The most popular such emulators are those that allow users to run programs from the past. (For example: I can use an emulator program to install and run Commodore 64 code written in 1988 on my 2006 Sony Vaio laptop.) Given the close relationship of technological evolution and games development discussed in Chapter Two, it is not surprising that game programs for obsolete personal computers and consoles comprise the vast majority of available emulator-related downloads. Widely circulated emulators for various Commodore, Amiga, Spectrum, and Colecovision models, to name just a few, enable users to play literally thousands of classic and cult-favorite computer games.[2]

Whereas traditional computer emulators are designed to allow us to play games from the past, could ubicomp emulators let us play games from a specific, hoped-for technological future? What might we learn from such provisional, forward-looking games—about the present state of ubiquitous computing, and about the future of gameplay in a ubicomp society? Would emulating the future of play help define and advance the field toward the ultimate there of ubiquitous computing, the there where we are not yet?

In this chapter, I explore the role of experimental, emulatory game development in furthering the expansionist efforts of ubiquitous computing. First, I will examine how researchers create novel game prototypes that aspire to be both smart and persuasive. By smart, I mean designed to produce research insight about current ubicomp platforms, infrastructure and interfaces. By persuasive, I mean designed to convince future ubicomp users and technology gatekeepers that the manifest destiny of ubiquitous computing is indeed a vision worth pursuing. A smart ubicomp game aims to advance the field technically closer to its goal of computing anywhere and everywhere by revealing how to better construct, embed, network and deploy ubicomp technologies. A persuasive ubicomp game aims to advance the field socially and organizationally by demonstrating to the public the potential benefits of ubicomp technologies.

Then, I will explore the performative function of play in ubicomp games research. It is not enough to design smart and persuasive games; their arguments and results must be made citable, that is to say, replicable. As a fundamentally scientific practice, ubicomp gaming therefore constructs its own “theater of proof”, Bruno Latour’s term for the mechanism through which scientific aims and findings are introduced into a network of circulating references (The Pasteurization of France 85). Organizational sociologist Diane Vaughan argues: “For engineers, a design is a hypothesis to be tested. But tests only approximate reality. The proof is in the performance” (quoted in McKenzie 96-7). Ubicomp game design, I will argue, formulates hypotheses about the value and feasibility of ubiquitous computing. Playtests—a term frequently used to describe the prototype demonstration of ubicomp games—are the experimental performances that provide citable proof of these hypotheses. I will examine how the network of playtests attempts to make manifest, that is to say to make legible and credible, the destiny of ubicomp technologies—a destiny whose self-evidence is arguably called into question by the persistence of the field’s question: “Are we there yet?” The work of the playtests, then, is to provide better evidence, to construct a convincing map of viable future ubicomp sites—both in terms of contexts and locations.

Finally, I will consider the play values expressed through ubicomp game design. What are the particular qualities of play that are explored and enacted in these games? What kinds of gamers do they produce? As I have argued previously, ubicomp games represent the joining of two mutually supportive manifest destinies: the tendency of games to colonize new technological platforms, and the desire of ubiquitous computing to colonize new everyday objects and social spaces. I therefore will analyze how ubicomp technology values, as articulated in major manifestos of the field, subtly transform the aesthetics of digital gaming and, more importantly, how these values train the players themselves to embody and enact ubiquitous computing’s vision of an ideal network.

[1] Boal originally writes: “Perhaps the theater is not revolutionary in itself; but have no doubts, it is a rehearsal of revolution!” in the essay “Poetics of the Oppressed” from his 1979 collection Theatre of the Oppressed.

[2] Perhaps the best current emulator resource is The Old Computer (www.theoldcomputer.com), which houses downloadable emulators and game programs for 338 VIC-20 games; 842 Atari 2600 games; 913 Nintendo games; 2455 Commodore 64/+ games; and many, many more.

From Chapter 4: Disruptive Play: Spectacle Everywhere, or, The Pervasive Games

...The Situationists, in fact, wanted to accomplish with play then precisely what ubiquitous computing wants to do with technology now: to achieve a seamless integration into everyday life. In “Contribution to a Situationist Definition of Play”, Debord argues precisely this point: “Play, radically broken from a confined ludic time and space, must invade the whole of life” ([3]). And just as ubiquitous computing dedicates itself to imagining and constructing a technological infrastructure for the future, so too do the Situationists aim toward a future eventuality of more ubiquitous play, what they term “the coming reign of leisure” ([3]). Debord writes: “The work of the Situationists is precisely the preparation of ludic possibilities to come” ([5])

Debord wrote “Contribution to a Situationist Definition of Play” in 1958. Is it too early—or too late, for that matter, considering that the Situationist movement officially dissolved in the late 1970s—to ask precisely which ludic possibilities have already come in the wake and in the spirit of the Situationist movement? Where might we find examples of play radically breaking free of the magic circle and pervading the whole of everyday life? In the 1960 “Situationist Manifesto”, Debord et al write: “So what really is the situation? It's the realization of a better game” ([5]). Here, the Situationists use the term game metaphorically as a way to understand the potential for a more participatory culture and a more fully engaging quality of life. By a better game, they mean a better social structure. But I want to suggest that examining contemporary projects designed and deployed as real, experimental games offers an excellent opportunity to explore the Situationist philosophy in action as well as to understand urban computing’s application of Situationist techniques. Therefore in this chapter, I will explore the emerging category of pervasive games, a genre of city-based, ubicomp-inspired games that invade public spaces with highly mobile and visible play.

The Integrated Project on Pervasive Games (IPerG), a leading pervasive games design research group, defines their category of work: “Pervasive games are a radically new game form that extends gaming experiences out into the physical world” (“iPerG Welcome”). I want to make several points about this proffered definition.

First, the introduction of digital gameplay into the material environment can be understood not only as an interest in a more embodied gaming practice, but also and more importantly as a desire for more integrated gaming. IPerG writes: “Our vision: to produce entirely new game experiences, that are tightly interwoven with our everyday lives” (“IPerG Vision”). This vision statement strongly echoes the Situationist play strategy as well as quintessential ubicomp claims, such as Mark Weiser’s statement that “the most profound technologies are those that… weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it” (94). The physical world is appealing to pervasive game designers, then, primarily for the opportunity it provides them to create digital gaming that is not as easily compartmentalized as screen-based play. Material affordances of everyday things, I will demonstrate, are not necessarily explored or exploited by pervasive game design. Materiality is significant, instead, for the new sites and social contexts it provides, suggesting new arenas and occasions for gameplay. Indeed, pervasive games embrace the friction and fusion that occurs as a result of this relocation of digital gaming into novel physical settings. This creative relocation is what I call the gaming détournement.

Second, the verb used by IPerG in its pervasive gaming definition to describe the work of the genre is to extend. As this diction implies, the pervasive genre is an active exploration of how far boundaries can be pushed. To accomplish this exploration, the games use what urban computing researchers Eric Paulos and Tom Jenkins call “urban probes” to break the magic circle. Urban probes are “rapid, nimble, often intentional encroachments on urban places”—in the case of urban computing, designed to provoke awareness and discussion, and to collect data, about the role of technology in city life (““Urban Probes: Encountering Our Emerging Urban Atmospheres” 1). In the case of pervasive games, urban probes provoke awareness and discussion about when, where and how it is appropriate to play. But because these are gaming probes, rather than gaming installations, we will see in each pervasive game’s design a sense of mobility, of designed routes for channeling the flow of gameplay through different parts of the urban environment. This designed flow is what I call the gaming dérive.

Third, it is important to note how the IPerG definition adopts a rhetoric of design revolution. Just as the Situationists saw breaking the magic circle as a radical intervention, so do pervasive game developers. In the tradition of urban computing, pervasive games explore urban identity, critique habitual behaviors, and seek to construct experimental social structures. Such construction often requires highly disruptive design. Indeed, a sense of breaking the rules and defying social norms is fundamental to all of the pervasive games I will discuss in this chapter. These urban projects aim to shock the public into new ways of seeing and socializing; as a result, the aesthetic of these projects tends to be big (scaled) and visually arresting (spectacular).

Through a close reading of the design and implementation of four major pervasive games, I will demonstrate that pervasive games operate on two different, and often conflicting, levels: as both situation and spectacle. The former affords public game play opportunities, while the latter offers the public perception of someone else’s game. Measuring the degree and the ends to which a pervasive game creates an open situation versus the extend to which it operates as a closed spectacle is ultimately, I will propose, the most important evaluative tool for analyzing the socio-technological work of projects in the genre.

Can the aesthetics of public spectacle, when combined with iconic game imagery and interaction patterns, be used to organize and to inspire direct participation in a playful situation? If so, what kinds of urban communities and technological relations will emerge in and around this participatory spectacle?


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