We were thrilled to host Mary Flanagan's visit to UC Santa Cruz this week. Mary is a leader in games as art, as an artist, creative, thinker, and scholar, as well as a fantastic game designer. For the occasion of her visit the Center for Games and Playable Media co-sponsored a panel discussion along with Brenda Laurel (another great thinker and designer, whose books have been immensely influential in the way we think about interacting with technology and media) and Susan Laxton. Kate O'Riordan moderated.
Mary's interested in investigating the bridge between artwork and design, using digital games and virtual spaces as her experimental ground. How do you move from art practice to design methodology? And what happens to the design process when we insert values we want the design to uphold? She showed a few of her pieces, one that experiments with moving through space; the well-known work Jump which splices together moments of "jump" actions in video games to offer a sort of catalogue or grammar of the game verb. As well, she makes games at her studio Tiltfactor, including a powerful iOS game, POX, about vaccination.
Brenda spoke a bit about her background and early exposure to computers and game design and how they fit into her training and research as a scholar of theatre, drama, and art criticism. She was fascinated by virtual reality and artificial intelligence and how they fit into theories of Aristotelian poetics. Games and virtual characters became, for her, a new way of embodiment and narrative play. These experiments are all part of Brenda's interest in using technology and understanding technology in the context of nature, especially human nature, and using technology as a way to understand nature rather than as something that sits in opposition to it.
Susan is an art historian and her work on Marcel Duchamp and his blending of visual designs with word play. By playing with words and puns, he was part of the Dadaist tradition that sought to explore the rules of language and expose and change the structures of language. The avant-garde used play towards their ends: exploring an instability of meaning (particularly in puns). Punning phrases are syntactically correct but empty of meaning. It's all form, no content -- a kind of abstraction. A second level of play is in interaction with the audience: a pun has to be heard and when it's activated, the audience understands the pun at the same time that the meaning breaks down.
Kate asks Mary, how do you put value into your piece? Mary notes that this is a difficult problem for makers. The act of making, especially for interactive media, and games, is that what you are making is a system that is not pre-defined. it has affordances that results in emergent behavior, and the maker doesn't know initially if those behaviors will match up with design goals. "Values" is also a loaded term that can be difficult to approach but Mary suggests unpacking the value words by thinking about the specifics. Then you have to verify whether those values exist in the players as they play the work. It takes humility, as a designer, to interrogate play and get feedback properly.
The conversation also touched on the need for human-centered research and design; the meaning of play and how Duchamp and other avant-gardists changed the role of play in our lives; how to manage conflicts between your design goals and what's absorbed by the player; how we might make games that change behaviors and how that might align with an artistic goal to point out and interrogate the problem.
Susan noted that "The rules are arbitrary, which means you can change them." Which I think is both inspiring and frightening.