Wrap up: Wandering Monsters

Thanks to everyone at the Institute of Play for making this conversation happen. While it certainly only scratched the surface of a variety of topics, a lot of intriguing ideas came forward. I have included the text of my introduction below.

We are here- inhabiting a world of creative cultural production, which includes things called art and things called games. From one perspective, there is a large area of overlap. Both of these things have creators or authors or designers. Both have complex histories that involve philosophy, aesthetics and social investigation. Both forms can critically explore the potentials of narrative or conceptual ideas of ontology. Both can investigate forms of aesthetic design strategy, which attempt to bring people (audiences) into participatory relationships with the artwork or game.  These are the creative and authorial contexts that lead game designers and artists to strive in similar directions. Coincident with this, there has been a rise in institutional support, both from the art-world and the growing critical study of games, to create more experimental and hybrid platforms for these two forms to be seen in an inter-related way.


However, from another perspective, games and artworks are fundamentally different, and produce different affects in the world. This is not seen within the context of their creation and design, but in the patterns of their use. Simply put, audiences for games and art not only use them differently, but they structurally “inhabit” or “own” them differently.   Games have players; People who frequently, dedicatedly and/or seriously play games become (or are) gamers. Gamers, in many cases, are able to have an impactful relationship on the world of games without becoming professionals within the world of game production.


 Art has viewers; While people who are seriously involved in viewing art can, in certain circumstances, become more deeply “involved” in the world of art production, most of these routes of involvement are professional (i.e. they can start to work within the institutional art-world) or financial (they can become art collectors). Unlike gamers, there are no “arters” –someone, a fan or enthusiast perhaps, who uses art in an active and participatory way.


Just because there is no such thing as an “arter”, does not mean that there is no interest in discovering that such a person or role might exist. One of the most notable trends within the institutional art-world, its museums and biennials, is a steady increase in programming art projects and artist led events that attempt to more wholly and dynamically involve art-viewers, to bring them into the frame, so to speak. This is more complex and complete than earlier attempts to dissolve viewers and audience through the elimination of the “fourth wall”- which sought to transform the passive spectator into an active viewer.


One of the key-words in this trend has been the word “participation” and participant- a word which describes an interesting sub-category of audience- a semi-empowered viewer, one who has the power to decide to participate and who actively supplies specific content, even if they only fulfill a circumscribed role within the work itself. The dynamics and politics of participation then, have become quite important ones within the art-world. I believe that it is this interest in participation is one of the forces that is leading the institutional art-world to more seriously consider games as both viable artworks in and of themselves, but also as strategic forms for both modelling and generating participation.


The dynamics of this interest are probably too broad for full consideration within a one hour panel. There is a great deal to say about it. Just this morning I read a particularly interesting piece by the game designer and conceptual artist Zach Gage which explored the aversion to considering “play” as an aesthetic term that might have a similar gravity as would be found in terms like beauty or criticality or narrative.


Before we move on to the individual panelists, I wanted to add one final thought, from my perspective both as a writer who thinks about the economy of participation within the art-world, as well as a long-term gamer, with over 40 years of experiences playing everything from chess to dungeons and dragons to Warhammer to Carcassone, that these questions are persisitant because they are somewhat difficult to answer. Both designers, artists and the institutions that support them are often, in the framework of the philosopher Michel De Certeau: Strategic thinkers- interested in creating structures that steer situations and people toward desired ends.Ultimately, in De Certeau’s construction- the strategic creator approaches the task from a position of power.  Audiences, if they are to have any power at all, are tactical thinkers. And most gamers that I have met exemplify this position. responding to the stategems that they inhabit, constantly trying to work within a given framework and derive a temporary (or ongoing sense) of meaning and satisfaction with what they are given. How we bring together not just these forces, but also these roles, is at the heart of the questions that we are discussing on this panel today.

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