Play: Spaces, Video Games, Texts, and Rules.


Brendan Gillett - Let us speak of play. In doing so, it seems necessary to refer back to Huizinga’s Homo Ludens; A Study of the Play Element in Culture. This text is one of the first to present a carefully constructed definition of play as an “interlude” to the rest of one’s social/cultural life (Huizinga 9). By voluntarily entering into the play state, one demarcates a distinct play space. Within this space, there is a set of rules, however loosely defined, that serves to shape the play and orient the player toward a goal (Huizinga 11). This goal, however, need not be the accumulation of points via the scoring of “goals,” as in soccer, nor must it be an attainable end to the play time that releases the player from the play space. Rather, the goal is a mutable orientation of the play activities.

In speaking of goals, it is helpful to define categories of play that can help to create bundles of play types, based partially on these goals, and set up relational differences between them. In all play, Huizinga says that there is a “function… derived from the two basic aspects under which we meet it: as a contest for something or as a representation of something” (Huizinga 13). That is, there is a central thrust in a known direction or a reference to another situation, complete with rules and actors realized in the play space. Caillois continues in the tradition of Homo Ludens, dividing play broadly into “paidia,” referring to free, less rule-based play, and “ludus,” referring to highly ruled moments of play (Frasca 8). The distinction rests in intention. The paidic serves to provide release from and contrast to other areas of social life by leaving the play space as open and undefined as possible. On the other hand, ludic play relies on structures to define the play space and direct the actions of the players. It would appear that the contrast between these two types of play is that of formlessness set against form. However, paidia and ludus are merely different iterations of the same play element.

In either case, the idea of the interlude, a suspension of the usual order, is foundational and necessary to the coherence of the play. This playful interlude is recognizable as a game, which players subject themselves to by agreeing to abide by the rules and conditions. These conditions may extend to include the environment in which the game takes place and the equipment permissible according to the rules. These components define what is possible in the gaming situation (Eskelinen) and roughly define the possible outcomes of engaging with a particular game. The types of goals possible in any game depend on the type of play, and the goals of the creator and/or players. The goals, rules, and environment should remain contained within the interlude that is the game.

Intertextuals – Texts as Play Spaces

            In discussing texts as play spaces, it is helpful to consider what “space” means for a text. There is the visual aspect, the actual written words that one reads. Texts are made up of a series of visual marks that stand in for something else. This in turn raises the question of what is represented in a text, what can be put into a text. If something is put into the text, there must be an understood space in which things can be encoded. In writing, an author works to define the space of the text while filling that space.

The tools and play pieces available to the author include other works, thoughts (Barthes 1325), and the signs of the writing system he uses. Derrida, while carrying out a complex series of playful moves centered around writing, speaking, meaning, and substitution, claims that the play of writing is “adventurous” and “strategic” (Derrida, 1984, 7). The author must remain aware of the rules of the system and decide if he wants to orient his project towards a specific goal – the five-paragraph essay, a literature review, a novel, etc. – or play freely within the system. In both cases, the written text will be the result.

A text can be thought of as a moment within a larger discourse, a set of discursive moves that work toward or in relation to a set of thoughts. These discursive moves and thoughts make up the informational body of the text, which the reader approaches by reading and thinking further.  The reader moves through the thoughts of the text while pulling in and layering on his own (Barthes 1325). Texts need not remind the reader of his place within the represented discourse. While the second person may be employed as a method of interpellation, there is not always an avatar for the reader to attach himself to as he reads. As such, the reader is able to forget his place in the text even as he continues to be present within the discourse.

By reading and thinking through what is present in the text, the reader does enter into the discourse, though play does not always lead to production. As such, a reader may participate in a discourse and explore the situations brought into being by the text and its related elements, yet he need not go on to produce a text of his own. This is play without the end goal of furthering the discourse in a way that others can see. Each reader sets his own goals when entering into a text, and each reader approaches the ideas and representations in a different way. However, difficulties with this idea of text as represented discourse arise when the nature of writing as a system for encoding is examined.

Discourse is encoded into texts via writing, which is, at best, an approximate system. Thought often occurs in abstract manners following untraceable jumps and pathways, and writing is an attempt to capture these movements and make them legible. Derrida sees the “detour of the sign” as something that we employ “when we cannot grasp or show the thing” (Derrida, 1984, 9). In this context, we may understand the “detour of the sign” to be the written sign, though it also applies to spoken signs, which are a further detour from “the thing” itself, which cannot be understood through writing. As such, the thing itself, or, rather, a thing that this piece may contain, cannot be described here. Instead, this writing can serve as a series of guideposts to facilitate reading/play towards a thing, yet the writing inevitably falls short.

Interactives – Video Games as Play Spaces

            In defining video games as play spaces, it is important to think about what “space” means in this context. This is a difficult matter to approach, as video games can be said to take place in multiple spaces. The most apparent is the digital space on the screen, the “video” aspect. The graphics of the game are representations of the world of the game. The player perceives a set of movable objects, governing rules, and a mythos that gives coherence to this world.  In the basic game of “Pong,” the world is made up of rectangles representing “paddles,” a “ball,” and a “net.” The players move the paddles to hit the ball and score points when it passes their opponent’s paddle. The ball bounces off of the paddles and moves at a constant speed. It refers to the real-world game of tennis. The combination of these objects, rules, and mythos makes an intelligible world.

Within this world, actions are seen to take place. These represented actions are frequently the result of the physical actions of the player who manipulates physical hardware in order to produce the desired effect in the digital space. This can be as simple as turning the wheel in “Pong” to move the paddle up and down or as complex as flipping two thumbsticks while pulling a trigger to run and shoot in “Halo.” Either way, there is a physical action in the player’s world that leads to a visible reaction in the world of the game. The player sees and feels a relation between the two actions and understands his place in the world on the screen through this combination of physical and visual.

The digital world can, if it is considered complete and distinct, receive the player into it. Once inside, the player can explore. Hansen, in his book Bodies Into Code, argues that the virtual world “… denotes a ‘space full of information’ that can be ‘activated, revealed, reorganized and recombined, added to and transformed as the user navigates…real space’” (Hansen 2). Hansen’s verbs all boil down to one action: play. The information that is encoded into the game is the material of play for the player. The game can be read through the manipulations or both the material and virtual dimensions, and playing opens up each pocket of information, the objects, environment, and rules.

This play is said to be interactive, as the player takes a role that is understood to be active and the game functions in the reactive register. In addition to the digital, coded world on the screen, there is also the physical world, the one that the player is present in bodily. This is the world of motor inputs and mediating hardware. By manipulating a controller, the player gives meaning to the visuals on the screen. According to Hansen, it is “…motor activity – not representationalist verisimilitude – [that] holds the key to fluid and functional crossings between virtual and physical realms” (Hansen 2). By this logic, the player must be engaged in a high level of physical activity to fully introject himself into the digital space and participate in the game. This overlooks, however, the potential for the space of the game, which in turn allows the informational world to enter into the player, thus dephysicalizing the play space.

Interpretations – Rules of Engagement

            1. Play.

This text can be said to be interactive, as “interactivity” need not be so based in physicality, and play need not rely on perceivable physical manipulation of the play pieces. Rather, to play you need only subject yourself to the rules, suspend usual time, and enter into the play space, whatever that space may be. A game is distinct in that it is not part of everyday life. However, this does not mean that the play space must remain discrete. While it may be an interlude, play does not have to cease the moment regular life resumes. Indeed, it cannot cease, but enters instead into the mind of the player. Mental play takes on a number of forms, ranging from replaying memories to active strategizing, rearranging the parts of a text in one’s head to make comparisons, or stacking “Tetris” blocks in one’s mind during dinner. It is a simple matter to extend the rule-bound play space and enacting new scenarios in the space of the mind. This mental play resumes beyond the moment of play, occurring simultaneously with non-play activities.

In opening the mind as a potential site of play, the concept of player action must be examined. It is permissible to say that one is acting, playing, even when one does not interact with one’s physical surroundings nor make any moves discernible by others. The player’s agreement with and subjection to the rules is thus of utmost importance when seeking to include mental play in the broader definition of the play element in culture.

As the reader finds the limits of the writing, the play space dissolves outward into the rest of the reader’s life. The work, which is to say the play, continues beyond the space of the text, having transferred in location to the mind of the reader and out of the ruled system of writing and/or speaking. The reader is now dealing with thoughts, which need not be an interlude to the rest of life but may occur simultaneously with other practices and participation in other systems. To read is to think, and the play of thought need not stop when the text is set aside.

A video game leaves traces of itself in the mind and muscles of the player, who may then take the play anywhere, stacking “Tetris” blocks in his head at the theatre or replaying moves from “Pong” at the dinner table. As long as the player faithfully reconstructs the world of the game in his head and continues to follow the rules, there is no change in the relationship between the player and the game. The play becomes immediate and mental, and the play does not stop.


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