ENG 730: Play, Agency, and Activism

My main takeaway from this week’s readings concerns questions of agency. More specifically, I saw the possible tension between the human players and the nonhuman elements of the game through its rules or “procedural rhetoric.” This is the more localized interaction of agency. But, in a broader sense, one also has the agency of the designer, perhaps distributed into the game, and the agency of the larger ideologies and structures that further inform the designer.

Rather than a “magic circle” outside or “ordinary life,” as Huizinga would see it, playing a game is more of a crossroads or gathering where human and nonhuman open up a particular form of interacting, an “assemblage,” to use Deleuze and Guattari’s term, where larger experiences and practices may emerge and where the constitutive components, themselves, may also change. I want to argue more what I mean below, but first a quick note on agency.

I’m using agency here in the way that people like Bruno Latour, John Law, and Michel Callon have taken it up in work in Actor-Network Theory.  In this outlook, agency is more about the possibility of acting and interacting in the world a  certain way. Different actors have different possible actions, sometimes passive or active, sometimes sentient or insentient. A mug can hold liquids. A dog can bark or run. A human can generally perform a whole range of actions. And as different actors interact, link up, or break apart, argues Latour, both new actions, situations, materials, relations, etc., arise.

His famous gun example makes this clear. A gun alone cannot do much, though it can shine or exert weight on a table. Similarly, a human without a gun can’t shoot anyone, though they have a considerable array of possible actions. In order to shoot, the human must grab the gun, creating a gun-human hybrid, then decide to shoot.

Through this framework, I think one can see that the agency of the game rules presents a certain experience when the human players interact. But this agency is fraught and contested, and as Bogost and Flanagan discuss, it can be used for different things.

On the one hand, Bernard DeKoven seems to especially value the human actors. In “Changing the Game,” he argues, “Rules are made for the convenience of those who are playing. What is fair at one time or in one game may be inhibiting later on. Ifs not the game that’s sacred, it’s the people who are playing” (523). He then goes through a range of different ways to change the rules, whether “bending” them or “borrowing” rules from another game. He discusses the benefits and dangers of this, like the possibility of cheating or even ripping the game apart into lusory chaos. Here, the human players are in charge, and much of the interaction takes place between them.

On the other hand, Bogost seems to push more toward the role of the procedures through procedural rhetoric, “the art of persuasion through rule-based representations and interactions rather than the spoken word, writing, images, or moving pictures.” The game tries to persuade us into particular ways of acting, thinking, or identifying (in Kenneth Burke’s sense) through their designed systems. As Bogost points out with political games, games can provide ideologically-infused models of how the world works. American Army, for example, makes certain implicit arguments about a hierarchical and apolitical approach to military action. As he points out, players have some freedom to negotiate this rhetoric, but the game is a rhetorical artifact deploying differing tactics.

Last, Flanagan, to me, points at the possibility for designers and players “disrupt,” “subvert,” or “intervene” into larger structures of power. On the design end, designers and construct games that are rhetorically directed at specific ends, like her example of September 12, which Bogost also discusses, though she looks at these in terms of art. Some games, like the examples she draws from Eldo Stern, can be particularly artistic. Also on the design end, she stresses a new iterative process that is more inclusive and self-critical, creating a system, or method, of design that leads to critical games–and critical play.

And from the position of the player, she also uses particular examples in which the player rejects the procedurality of the game, like disruptive language. In many ways, this is like DeKoven, but the stakes are more about changing or challenging systems. As she writes, “a disruption is a creative act that shifts the way a particular logic or paradigm is operating” (12). She stresses this “creative” element in particular with her framing of subversion and interruptions, and I think that’s key. As DeKoven warns, it is not about dissolving the game, per se, but about breaking the rules to achieve another iterative goal from the system as you inherit it.

In this way, she reminds me of what Camus writes in The Rebel: “What is a rebel? A man who says no, but whose refusal does not imply a renunciation” (13). In other words, one is refusing to sit with the status quo, but the refusal is not meant to dispel all value. Instead, for Camus, rebellion refuses what is immoral, cruel, absurd, etc., by asserting what he viewed as human values, particularly life.

But such a rebellion, whether done in a spirit of play or activism, always operates within an assemblage of human and nonhuman actors–who may have the agency to fight back.

[Featured image: “Games” by Letizia Barbi, via Creative Commons]

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