Hubbub has gone into hibernation.

‘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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