‘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.

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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