The Social Contract Put at Play’ at Lift12

This is a long over­due blog post for my talk at Lift12. It’s about what games can do for soci­ety. As such it builds on what I talked about in 2011 at FutureEverything and at dCon­struct. What I tried to do here is to be more artic­u­late about why I think the pub­lic sphere is in trouble. And also, to offer a more gen­eral frame for think­ing about what the mech­an­isms are through which games can make change happen.

I should thank Nicolas Nova for invit­ing me to speak at the con­fer­ence, and my col­league Alper Çuǧun for his con­tri­bu­tions to this talk.

Networked Publics

A use­ful model for think­ing about the pub­lic sphere is offered by Larry Lessig. He describes four modes of reg­u­la­tion that together con­strain what we can do in publics:

  1. Law
  2. The Market
  3. Social Norms
  4. Architecture

These four modes shape and influ­ence each other. The last one, archi­tec­ture, is the world as we find it. For instance, the built envir­on­ment, the bricks and mor­tar. At least, this is the case in the phys­ical world. In online spaces, archi­tec­ture is syn­onym­ous with code, with software.

But of course, due to the fact that tech­no­logy now per­vades phys­ical real­ity, archi­tec­ture and code together con­strain beha­vior. The inter­net isn’t a place set apart. There is noth­ing vir­tual about it. And so our pub­lics have become net­worked publics.

A com­mon way of think­ing about pub­lics is in terms of pri­vacy. But Paul Dourish and oth­ers sug­gest it makes more sense to think about net­worked pub­lics in terms of account­ab­il­ity. Law, the mar­ket, social norms and architecture/code make us account­able towards each other in myriad ways. And this account­ab­il­ity in turn give rise to publics.

Pranks & Riots

So how are our net­worked pub­lics doing? Clearly, the answer to this as far as I’m con­cerned is: Not so good. What wor­ries me most about pub­lic life is our col­lect­ive tend­ency for will­ful self-separation. Two recent Dutch report serves as a use­ful illus­tra­tion of why I think this is a prob­lem. The first describes how people tend to choose schools based on their per­ceived social class. We prefer to send our kids to schools used by “people like us”. You can see how this cre­ates a rein­for­cing loop.

The second report shows that whereas social strat­i­fic­a­tion based on hered­it­ary char­ac­ter­ist­ics and wealth may have largely dis­ap­peared, class based on edu­ca­tion is on the ascend­ant. So those two cre­ate a vicious cycle: I choose a school based on my pos­i­tion in soci­ety, and this pos­i­tion is largely derived from my education.

I’m not say­ing hier­arch­ical organ­iz­a­tion of roles in soci­ety is neces­sar­ily a bad thing. We can’t all be, or don’t even want to be CEOs. But what is an issue, is that this new lower class feels under-appreciated, feels it has less influ­ence than oth­ers and doesn’t have the same access to networks.

When I try to ima­gine what that must feel like, I am reminded of a post on oper­a­tional clos­ure by Levi R. Bryant, a concept from sys­tems the­ory which he describes as follows:

Operational clos­ure is not a happy thought. It presents us with a world in which we’re entangled with all sorts of entit­ies that we can hardly com­mu­nic­ate with yet which non­ethe­less influ­ence our lives in all sorts of ways. ”

So pub­lic life for a large part of soci­ety feels Kafkaesque. It’s kind of like an office job. You feel like you have very little agency. And what do we do to stay sane in the office? We play pranks.

Pranks, such as the infam­ous stapler in jello, are a way to reclaim agency. They func­tion as a kind of ritual or pub­lic event. They allow us to change some­thing about the state of the world, how­ever temporarily.

The social contract put at play lift12 017

These pranks play out on a dif­fer­ent scale in soci­ety. Recently, some of them have proven to be quite destruct­ive. But they are attempts at reclaim­ing agency non­ethe­less. A Londoner asked by a tele­vi­sion reporter if riot­ing was the cor­rect way to express their dis­con­tent replied:

You wouldn’t be talk­ing to me now if we didn’t riot, would you?”

It’s a way to game the sys­tem, a way of hack­ing the atten­tion eco­nomy of the over­lap­ping media landscape.

The social contract put at play lift12 018

The source of this dis­con­tent is described by Ben Hammersley as follows:

Indeed, a small part of the trig­ger for the London riots can be under­stood as the gap between the respect given to peoples’s opin­ions by the inter­net, and the com­plete dis­respect given by the gov­ern­ment and the rul­ing elites.”

So it can all be under­stood as Lessig’s four modes clash­ing. New archi­tec­ture, the emer­gence of massive social net­work­ing sites, gives rise to new social norms which in turn are not shared by all. Elected offi­cials and the people vot­ing for them don’t feel mutu­ally account­able anymore.

The ques­tion for me is if we can con­ceive of other rituals, other types of pub­lic events, other ways to prank our way out of this feel­ing of a lack of agency that are less destruct­ive. And at the same time if we can have these rituals effect actual change.

The social contract put at play lift12 022


This is some­thing we’re deeply inter­ested in at Hubbub. Many of our pro­jects can be under­stood as attempts to invent new tools for trans­form­ing soci­ety. These tools are games, because games are a medium nat­ive to net­worked pub­lics. Games can be rituals or pub­lic events for the 21st century.

A use­ful frame for think­ing about pub­lic events can be found in Models and Mirrors by Don Handelman, a book I was intro­duced to by Sebastian Deterding. Handelman argues we should under­stand pub­lic events first through their design. He describes two types of events: the events-that-mirror and the events-that-model.

The first class of events “reflect ver­sions of the organ­iz­a­tion of soci­ety that are inten­ded by the makers of the occasion”.

The social contract put at play lift12 025

The second class, the events-that-model, have a greater autonomy in rela­tion to the social order. They offer a con­trolled trans­form­a­tion of social phe­nom­ena. The event-that-models can do this because it is sys­temic, it has internal causal rela­tion­ships. Handelman talks about these events being ver­sions of the world, trans­formed through prac­tice, with changes sub­sequently affect­ing the lived-in-world.

The social contract put at play lift12 026

This concept of events-that-model is read­ily applic­able to games. They are sys­temic, they are made up for rules. As a player you inter­act with these rules, they afford and con­strain behavior.

They are also autonom­ous, com­monly seen as a sep­ar­ate from ordin­ary life. In How to Do Things with Videogames, Ian Bogost puts it this way:

When games invite us inside them, they also under­write exper­i­ment­a­tion, ritual, role-playing, and risk tak­ing that might be impossible or undesir­able in the real world.”

This idea has become known as the magic circle, which refers to games tak­ing place in a time and space set apart.

But not all games act on the world, as Handelman writes. They are not all events-that-model. In fact, many ser­i­ous games are more like events-that-mirror, or events-that-present about which he writes:

A tacit premise of numer­ous events-that-present is that one learns through repet­it­ive par­ti­cip­a­tion, rather than through forms of organ­iz­a­tion that gen­er­ate trans­form­at­ive experience.”

As such, ser­i­ous games suf­fer from the ludic fal­lacy. We should know by now that we can’t reli­ably sim­u­late the world. So why limit ourselves to pro­du­cing games for change that attempt to do exactly this? Also, these games rob play­ers of agency. This just won’t do for our pur­pose, which is to make games that improve people’s sense of agency.

Games can be trans­form­at­ive. They can be places made of archi­tec­ture and code that we inhabit tem­por­ar­ily. Where we can exper­i­ment with and even invent new social norms. It is pos­sible for these norms to be brought into the lived-in-world. The inter­play of online opin­ions and expect­a­tions of polit­ics as described by Ben Hammersley is an example of code affect­ing social norms. And social norms can also affect archi­tec­ture itself. Such as in Harbour Laboratory by Danish art col­lect­ive Parfyme. It is a play­ground for invent­ing new uses for the Copenhagen har­bor, some of which were later implemented.

The social contract put at play lift12 032

One way games can change the world is by affect­ing play­ers. Games are sub­ject­ive sim­u­la­tions. There is always a gap between our men­tal model of the world and the model a game presents us with. The pro­cess by which we resolve such ten­sion, a middle road between whole­sale accept­ance or rejec­tion, is described by Ian Bogost in Unit Operations. He calls our dis­com­fort with sub­ject­ive game mod­els sim­u­la­tion fever. And the way to cure this fever accord­ing to him is to work through it. To play a game and under­stand what it includes and excludes. So just like recov­er­ing from a phys­ical fever changes our immune sys­tem, crit­ic­ally under­stand­ing a game in this way changes our view of the world. So again, to draw a par­al­lel to Lessig’s four modes, here code affects social norms.

For instance: System Danmarc is a Nordic LARP which took place in 2005. It puts play­ers in a near future where social strat­i­fic­a­tion has been mag­ni­fied. They quite lit­er­ally lived on the streets for a couple of days. It’s neces­sar­ily a sub­ject­ive, incom­plete sim­u­la­tion of social injustice. It demands from play­ers to work at under­stand­ing in what ways it is incom­plete and in the pro­cess, ree­valu­ate their men­tal model of social reality.

The social contract put at play lift12 034

But per­haps this idea of sim­u­la­tion fever is too indir­ect for your tastes. Games can also dir­ectly act on the world, sim­ilar to how acts of speech can. At a wed­ding cere­mony, the words “I now declare you man and wife” changes some­thing about the state of the world. These are known as per­form­at­ive speech acts. In How to Do Things with Videogames, Ian Bogost labels games that do sim­ilar things per­form­at­ive games.

With per­form­at­ive games it’s import­ant we don’t just focus on the effects a game should have on the world. We should make sure play­ers are in on it. They need to under­stand the mean­ing of their actions both within and out­side of the game. As a counter­example, take Luis von Ahn’s ESP Game. The actions of play­ers in the game are lever­aged to improve image search. However, play­ers aren’t aware of this. So in this case, although the ESP Game changes some­thing about the lived-in-world, it is not per­form­at­ive. One could say it is exploit­at­ive. I find games like this mor­ally problematic.

The social contract put at play lift12 036

A bet­ter example would be Cruel 2B Kind by Jane McGonigal and Ian Bogost. It’s a street game that uses acts of kind­ness as player actions. These have mean­ing in the game and out­side of it. At the out­set play­ers aren’t aware of who the par­ti­cipants are. Because of this non-players are “caught in the cross­fire” of com­pli­ments and other pleas­ant­ries. So, non-players are affected by the play­ers’ actions. However, play­ers under­stand these con­sequences and play because of them.

The social contract put at play lift12 037

Playing with Pigs is a pro­ject I am involved with at the Utrecht School of the Arts in col­lab­or­a­tion with Wageningen University. We’re using both sim­u­la­tion fever and per­form­ativ­ity in an attempt to trans­form how humans relate to pigs. We’re design­ing a game that can be played by both spe­cies together. By doing so we hope to give these largely invis­ible anim­als an act­ive role in the eth­ical debates sur­round­ing animal farm­ing and meat consumption.

We don’t want to pre­scribe how people feel, but in stead we set up a sys­tem that pro­duces sim­u­la­tion fever. Humans are put in a sym­met­rical play space with pigs and accom­plish tasks together. This raises the ques­tion: who is play­ing with whom? Humans work through this and come to their own con­clu­sions. We think that is more powerful.

It is also a per­form­at­ive game, a game that does work. It acts on the world. Pigs, intel­li­gent anim­als that they are, get bored eas­ily in their mono­ton­ous pens. We lever­age human activ­ity to enter­tain them, and the humans are in the know and play because of it.

The social contract put at play lift12 038

So games can affect the world that don’t rob play­ers of agency but in stead empower them. We can do this in a dir­ec­ted and designed way without instru­ment­al­iz­ing games and exploit­ing players.


So that’s my pro­pos­i­tion for what games can do for our net­worked pub­lics, how they can be new rituals.

Last year at STRP, Bruce Sterling described four pos­sible futures. They were layer out on the oblig­at­ory two-by-two along two axes: high tech to low tech and high art to low art. Most of these futures were far from desir­able. The excep­tion was the high tech and high art future. In Sterling’s words, this quad­rant makes no sense, it seems logical but feels weird. In future scen­arios this is always the most valu­able quad­rant because it offers sur­prises. It lets you think about the future in a way you haven’t before. Sterling calls it Apple Boutique World. It is a civ­il­ized world with a civ­il­ized inter­net and its motto is “don’t be vul­gar”. And in this world, we have:

Social improve­ment games that actu­ally solve prob­lems… Places where there are mil­lions of people play­ing games and actu­ally improv­ing soci­ety by being in the game.”

I think that’s a goal worth pur­su­ing, and I hope I’ve given you a frame­work for think­ing about how to do it.

If you’re in policy, I would ask you to try and under­stand, engage with, and trust in the good that can come out of these games and what they can do for pub­lics. Because I truly believe these games can be engines for cul­tural inven­tion. Engines that are nat­ive to our net­worked pub­lics. That might give rise to new ways of restor­ing account­ab­il­ity and agency to our society.

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