According to the mouse-over text in http://xkcd.com/903/, “if you take any article (in Wikipedia), click on the first link in the article text not in parentheses or italics, and repeat, you will eventually end up in ‘Philosophy‘.” I just tried it. Here’s the sequence, which the phrases that create the first link, almost producing a series of Backus–Naur Form expressions.
I started with the old pen-and-paper role-playing game Gamma World, which I was looking up while writing about games, rules and authorship:
- Gamma World is a science fantasy role-playing game . . .
- Science fantasy is a mixed genre within speculative fiction . . .
- A cross-genre (or hybrid genre) is a genre in fiction . . . 
- A literary genre is a category of literary composition. Genres may be determined by literary technique . . . 
- A literary technique, literary method, literary devices, or literary motif is an identifiable rule of thumb . . .
- A rule of thumb is a principle . . .
- A principle is a law or rule . . .
- Law is a system . . .
- System . . . is a set of elements . . . 
- In mathematics, an element or member of a set . . .
- Mathematics is the study of quantity . . .
- Quantity is a kind of property . . .
- In modern philosophy, mathematics and logic, a property is an attribute of an object . . .
- Modern philosophy is a type of philosophy . . .
- Mixed genre redirects to cross genre.
- Genre redirects to literary genre.
- If you violate the rule to ignore links in parentheses or italics, you wind up going to Latin, then Italic Language, Indo-European languages, Language family, language, human, taxonomy, science . . . and eventually back to philosophy. It is possible to hit a loop at some point, depending on where you decide to adhere to the “no parentheses/italics” rule.
Too often, “critical” whatever (film making, poetics, art practice) just means peppering a form with references to social or political concerns are at the top of the practitioners agenda: what was called, in Japanese film history, was called the “tendency” film, or art engagé. When these politics are well-understood, Mark J. Nelson’s somewhat snarky definition of radical critique makes sense:
radical critique (n.) – applying well-worn tools in the conventional way to reach the expected conclusion
If it makes sense to distinguish between engagé practice and critical practice, then, the latter should reveal and de-naturalize something which has become epistemologically unavailable, which has receded into the texture of everyday life as constitutive. This is harder and rarer than it seems, and many projects which claim to be critical are often, at best, merely oppositional.
A recent trend in marketing is “gamification” – the application of game mechanics and logics to presumably ungamelike things, such as consumption, routine work (exercise, dieting), civic engagement (cf. Jane McGonigal) etc. In some ways it is an outgrowth of the “serious games” trend, which sought to use games for purposes other than entertainment (even when those goals might be furthered by making the game entertaining: which leads us to ask whether every commercial title, whose “goal” is corporate revenue, should be characterized as a “serious game.”) The idea is latent in things like customer loyalty programs, frequent flier miles, even the old “send in 5 proofs of purchase to get the secret decoder ring” promotions from breakfast cereals and other youth-oriented food products in the 20th century:
The idea that systems of “points” would provide an extrinsic motivation for activity that is otherwise inadequately motivated informs Jesse Schell’s 2010 DICE talk (called, by some, “the gamepocalypse”) is an almost Swiftian interpretation of ubiquitous gamification:
What is, of course, obscured by this longing to colonize the banal with play in this way, is that there already is a very powerful and effective “point” system that motivates and de-motivates: money, as wages, as capital, etc. Aside from the obvious naturalization of capital that is implied by this appeal to an external point system that is more “game-like,” the development of these more “fun” types of alternative currency miss the mark that Huizinga and Caillois already made about fun, play and games – it is the very disinterestedness of play, the negotiability of its consequences, that make it possible to be experienced as play. When the signifiers of a “play” system perform in world-significant contexts, they cease being elements of a play system.
(To be fair to Schell, what is important to him is less the idea that the spirit of play inhabit the otherwise dreary quotidian, but rather how “points” – a surrogate for money itself – can use sensing and networking technologies to infiltrate the nooks and crevices of human activity at the smallest scale, to make every action and interaction an opportunity to influence the decisions, the attitudes, the behavior and even the attention of citizen-consumers. He is clearly ambivalent about this: that his vision here was dystopian is something he made explicit in subsequent talks.)
Alex Galloway suggested the term “counter-gaming” to describe game design against a certain grain. That many of the aesthetics – the invented physics, the foregrounding of mechanics, etc – have become part of the language of a style of game design that doesn’t really fulfill the critical ambitions of his “counter-gaming” concept is notable, yet the idea itself is a worthwhile one. But perhaps we can start to consider a “critical gamification” as a project: one the works by revealing the covert and invisible “gamification” that motivates the contemporary episteme. In organizations, in labor practices, in social relations, in cultural institutions, there are systems of value and invisible currencies which implicitly determine our activity and our conceptualization of the world we think we are inhabiting. Those which were easy to monetize – reputation, brand identity and loyalty – have become the target of many gamification projects; sometimes set in a language of democratization, but always with an ontology that is familiar, on bedrocks of systems of value that remain untroubled.
I think a practice of critical gamification needs to exert pressure against those bedrocks. Some ideas: representing the labor that each of us performs in different places, identifying who benefits, and capturing as a game-able resource the concentrations of work-for-another that is often tied, either physically or by networks, to nodes of wealth and power. Another: a marketplace for unfulfillable desires – not to fulfill them, but to diagnose them – that turns the engineering of disappointment into game mechanics.
I have been reading about otaku – a term that translates loosely as “geek” or “nerd,” but around which a more sophisticated set of questions around subjectivity, built environments, and narrative consumption has grown (more interesting than anything I’ve seen yet under the umbrella of fan studies.)
As part of the Japan pavilion for the architecture show at the 2004 Venice Biennale, Kaichiro Morikawa included photographs of “otaku rooms” by Kohei Masukawa (images above grabbed from the website for the book.). Crowded spaces filled with books, magazines, game software, and other media and merchandise, these spaces seemed to defy any aesthetic criteria for the design of lived-in spaces, reinforcing a narrative which characterizes otaku as disinterested in the real, disengaged from aesthetic sensibilities, and obsessed with their commoditized objects of desire.
However, I have just thought that these spaces really represent databased-space, like that of the library or the museum archive, the model from which these spaces have sprung. The room becomes an interface to a collection; the otaku-interior-designer is creating a database-UI for accessing (and apprehending) the elements contained therein. There is an aesthetic at work: a contemporary one, an info-aesthetic of the interface, rather than the modernist one of movement through open spaces, of volumes, or of the room as a stage for performance. The otaku-room is one in which the occupant sits as the CPU to a system of catalogs to content, and also as a kind of archivist-curator to the constellation of artifacts in their possession.
I think this conception of the otaku room is consistent with Hiroki Azuma’s theory of the otaku as “post-modern database animal.” What this suggests also is that the modernist notions of interior space is more tied to a narrativist conception of the consumption of space than we may have previously allowed.
One thing notable about the relationship between the otaku and this kind of interface/room is that it is also compatible with recent changes in the the relationship between entity and index in systems of cataloging and visualization. Recently, I participated in a show at the Calit2 gallery (details on the Software Studies initiative blog.) One thing that many of our visualizations feature is an inversion of the normal relationship between feature and representation in large data-sets: where once a single feature would stand for an object (its name, an ID number, a thumbnail) we now can generated and access universes of information about that object for which the object itself is simply an index: our graphs of images used the images themselves to illustrate their low-level features, their relationships to other entities, etc. Otaku rooms also use the object in-themselves as indexes for them, often indicating their relationships to other media, franchises, brands, characters and other features of the object.
I am very, very excited about this.
Sexy Videogameland: If You Run Out Of Ammo, You Can Have Mine: the perpetuation of a misguided notion.
An interview with Brenda Brathwaite and John Sharp, that indicates how breakthroughs are beginning to occur from game designers on just what it means to participate in contemporary art discourse.
Which brings up The Art History of Games conference, around which I may have to delicately schedule a planned trip to Japan.