Can play be subversive?

We often hear a lot about the power of videogames. From the early days of digital entertainment when perhaps some slightly wild claims were being thrown around, to the present, where we still routinely hear of the power of videogames to influence mass murderers and young children, it is often assumed that gaming presents some sort of great influence not found in other media.

But can play be subversive?

For me, this is a very interesting question. This is mostly because ‘subversive’ is quite a loaded term. There are two interrelated points I want to make here (and both are culled from my recent thesis, but I thought they were worth presenting on their own).

First, as a term, subversion seems to me to presuppose a particular type of power structure: a traditional, top-down conception of power containing a binary of dominant and oppressed forces. In this sense, we’re talking a medieval sense of power – the kings and princes are the dominant force, and they keep the paupers in check by exercising their political, physical and social power. For the pauper, subversion means a sort of political jujitsu, whereby the oppressed force turns the power in around on itself. In the 70s, we had punk do this for example; in the 90s, there were things like AdBusters.

Videogames present a different equation here. Jesper Juul has an interesting suggestion on this topic:

…rules are the most consistent source of player enjoyment in games. We may associate rules with being barred from doing something we really want, but in games we voluntarily submit to rules. (Half-real, 55)

The system of power in videogames functions quite differently than in the ‘medieval’ situation described above. What we have here is a consensual power system. We gain pleasure from submitting to these rules; in many senses this is the whole attraction of the videogame. We enjoy working within rules to achieve goals. Soccer wouldn’t be as fun if we could just pick up the ball, knock out the goalie and score a touch down. That’s rugby. Likewise, Half-Life wouldn’t be fun in the same way if we could just run through walls and not worry about being shot or injured by enemies. Games reward me for playing within set rules; we might enjoy cheating, but it’s a different type of enjoyment.

In this light, can we ever see play as being truly subversive? When regarded within this power structure, it’s difficult to say. After all, as I’ve established, we enter into this power structure voluntarily, and for pleasure. It isn’t like reality, where if we don’t like the power structure we must fight against it and subvert it for our own means, or give in to it. If we don’t like the power structure of a videogame, we can simply hit the ‘off’ switch. We voluntarily enter it, so we can voluntarily exit it.

Play can probably still be subversive, but there isn’t a lot of point, to my mind. For example, the Mission Illogical series of YouTube videos create a certain type of enjoyment by playing a game ‘wrong’. It’s observing the behaviour a videogame is attempting to create and doing the complete opposite. It’s jumping with glee into GLaDOS’ burning pit every single time in Portal, or its smashing Link’s head against a wall over and over for hours in Ocarina of Time. From one view, it’s fascinating, and from another, it’s completely pointless for any other reason than slightly juvenile humour. So, we are perhaps limited in terms of being subversive within the videogame; of subverting against the power structures imposed upon us by the designer and ourselves.

Second, there are, however, other senses in which play can be subversive, and perhaps these have already been touched upon by writers like Ian Bogost. Play can be subversive in a political sense, when working in concert with the intentions of the designer, such as any number of Bogost’s own Persuasive Games titles. This notion of subversion reminds me very much both of Michel Foucault and Michel de Certeau’s conceptions of space. Both these writers suggest that the design of space may have its strongest effects in conjunction with the practice of the place. Foucault’s own analysis of Bentham’s Panopticon is illustrative here: it is designed for prison wardens to be able to view prisoners at all times and without the prisoners’ knowledge, thereby creating a culture of constant surveillance, and therefore, subservience. But if the power of the space is exercised differently, it may produce very different effects. It may not be used as a prison at all, for example. As Foucault stated:

After all, the architect has no power over me. If I want to tear down or change a house he built for me, put up new partitions, add a chimney, the architect has no control. (“Space, Power, Knowledge”, 137)

This hints at something crucial. The most powerful – and yet simultaneously powerless – form of subversion in a videogame is to become the designer. This is to tear down and change the house that the designer built. It is to put up new, political partitions, adding chimneys left, right, and centre. It is to tear down the house that Valve built and erect your own in its place.

Yet, of course, to do so is to in part abandon your status as a player. You are no longer a tactician and now a strategist, and you face all the same problems that the original architect faced. What is to stop players of Escape from Woomera playing the game in an entirely ‘wrong’ manner, as outlined above, and attempting to nullify the politics of the mod? You cannot force people to play. A judicious use of the ‘off’ switch could well be used by those who do not agree with your modification of the game. Further, what is to stop others graffitiing your mod just as you graffitied the original game?

Nonetheless, I think there are really two very interesting questions wrapped up in this whole issue. First, can play be subversive, and second (and perhaps more importantly), can design be subversive?

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Can play be subversive?

  1. Matt, a friend of mine, and I spent the whole of Saturday night, lazy as hell, playing games in a fun way even if the games themselves weren’t.

    For instance, we were spouting random crap into the EndWar demo to see what we could make troops do, like run in circles. Also, we favoured the word “whiskey”.

    After a while, we began playing NBA2K9 but, given our state of drowsiness, decided to limit our interactions with the game to two buttons only; X (pass) and Square (shoot). It was an hillarious game but quite enjoyable.

    Score 27 – 49.

  2. It’s an interesting question – what sparked the initial question about subversive play?

    Subversive design is probably the one I’m more interested in, because almost anyone can be subversive within a set of rules – you just do your best to disobey them (reject them?) and make your own rules. Whereas designing, say, a space to make people act subversively (again comes back to your definition of what subversiveness is) seems potentially harder to do, in my mind.

    Then again, if you design them to be subversive and they obey your ‘subversive’ design, can they even be considered as being subversive anymore?

    This could turn into an infinite regress very easily. =P

  3. Daniel Golding

    @ Daniel Purvis – yes, I’ve played a few games like that myself. My favourite was to enter the training mode of FIFA 99 and turn umpiring off, enabling us to slide tackle the goalie when he picked up the ball…

    @ Ben – well, my thesis really prompted the question. The last chapter revolves around how we can view the player through spatial means. One way I tried to phrase it was viewing them as a guerrilla (using space for their own means).
    But yes, you’ve hit upon the thing that most interests me: I’m not sure you can be called subversive if you’re following someone’s ‘subversive’ design…

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