Proceedings of DiGRA 2015: Diversity of play: Games – Cultures – Identities
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Postdigital Play and the Aesthetics of
The University of Melbourne
Bjorn Nansen, Thomas H. Apperley
This paper analyses reconfigurations of play in newly emergent material and digital
configurations of game design. It extends recent work examining dimensions of hybridity
in playful products by turning attention to interfaces, practices and spaces, rather than
devices. We argue that the concept of hybrid play relies on predefining clear and distinct
entities that then enter into hybrid situations. Drawing on concepts of the ‘interface’ and
‘postdigital’, we argue the distribution of computing devices creates difficulties for such
presuppositions. Instead, we propose an ‘aesthetic of recruitment’ that is adequate to the
new openness of social and technical play.
Hybrid games, interfaces, postdigital, practices, spaces, digital play, phenomenology,
‘Hybrid play’ designates recent trends in product and game design that take advantage of
new compositions of material and digital arrangements afforded by emerging
technologies. These include micro-electronics, embedded sensors, and the ‘app
revolution’, which are facilitated by a range of devices, infrastructures, protocols, and
applications such as mobile devices, wireless networks, near-field communications
(NFC) and tagging technologies such as RFID. Hybrid games include: location-based or
spatially-oriented forms such ‘pervasive’, ‘locative’, ‘augmented’ and ‘mixed’ reality
games (e.g. Montola 2011); as well as more technology or device-oriented forms such as
computer-augmented board games, appcessory games and connected toys (e.g. Bergström
and Björk 2014; Tyni, Kultima and Mäyrä 2013).
In turn, these game developments and associated idioms have challenged methods of
analysing videogames in terms of the classic arrangement of material devices (either
console or PC-based) and virtual spaces. In many of these emerging games, the relations
between embodied participation, mobile or sculptural devices and versatile digital
elements calls for the development of more theoretical and critical approaches to hybrid
forms of gaming. Here, we argue that the contemporary situation of widely distributed
computing complicates the device-focused ‘hybrid dimensions’ approach developed by
Tyni, Kultima and Mäyrä (2013) because we cannot pre-judge the spaces in which play
will occur or the devices and bodies that will engage in ludic behaviour. As Berry and
Dieter (forthcoming) argue, this reflects a ‘postdigital aesthetics’ in which relations
between space, time and bodies are ‘in a regular state of constant upheaval’. It is
necessary to conceptualise hybrid gaming within the context of postdigital aesthetics – a
situation in which it is not possible to pre-judge what will constitute 'the interface'.
Finally, we situate these examples within interface theories and criticism, and in
particular the phenomenologically-informed elements of Farman’s (2012) ‘mobile
interface theory’, to argue for viewing hybrid play interfaces as an aesthetic of
‘recruitment’ which enrols and blurs diverse spatial domains, significations, social
practices, and material life.
HYBRID DIMENSIONS: SYNCHRONY AND DEPENDENCE
It is important to acknowledge that videogames have always been ‘playful hybrid
products’. The recent passing of Ralph Baer enjoins us to recall his work and how it
shows that the commonsense notion of what a videogame ‘is’ or ought to be is a case of
false concreteness: there are other possibilities and potentials for how games could have
developed. Baer’s work (along with technician Bill Harrison) led to the Magnavox
Odyssey (1972), which was tied to the television and thus has some similarities with the
contemporary game console, but Baer also experimented with peripheral input devices
such as a light gun and visual elements such as translucent plastic screen overlays. The
Odyssey shipped with traditional play aids such as tokens, score cards, chips, play money
and game boards (Winter 2008, 50). Baer also worked on the electronic toy Simon
(Milton Bradley, 1978) (Donovan 2010, 69-70), which is a precursor to some
contemporary hybrid play products. Baer’s bricolage resonates with those of other early
creators such as William Higginbotham (creator of Tennis for Two), MIT’s Tech Model
Railway Club (inventors of Spacewar!), Will Crowther (creator of ADVENT) and many
others. The history of videogames, through arcade, console and PC generations, attests to
a long tradition of creating intensive relations between a wide variety of designed objects,
semiotic systems, forms of cultural capital, marketing techniques, and experiences of
play. Videogames are natively hybrid.
Current trends towards hybridity are thus something of a return to form. As in 2007 –
when the Nintendo Wii showed up the narrowness of the industry’s notions of
unidirectional innovation by emphasising a novel control scheme rather than more
powerful hardware – a renewed conceptual and scholarly emphasis on hybrid play is
warranted today, as Mäyrä et al. (2014) argue in their introduction to a timely collection
on the topic. The issue is all the more pressing because while the Wii’s gestural controller
re-deployed the relation between gamers and their domestic spaces, a survey of the
contemporary gaming situation indicates that designs, techniques, objects, networks and
bodies are proliferating and redistributing relations of play across multiple hybrid
dimensions – often challenging notions of public and private space.
Reconfigurations of material and digital elements, which are increasingly mobile,
‘pervasive’, ‘locative’, ‘augmented’ and ‘mixed’ (Montola, 2011), can be characterised as
postdigital in terms of gaming that is continuous with the digital, yet also exceeding the
digital through conditions that are technical and historical (Berry 2014; Schinkel 2014).
Broadly, then, the postdigital ‘describes the messy state of media, arts and design after
their digitisation...a media aesthetics which opposes such digital high-tech and high-
fidelity cleanness’ (Schinkel 2014), in which ‘the historical distinction between the
digital and the non-digital becomes increasingly blurred...computation is part of the
texture of life itself which can be walked around, touched, manipulated and interacted
with in a number of ways and means’ (Berry 2014).
This complexity reveals difficulties with the ‘hybrid dimensions model’ of Tyni et al.
(2013), which identifies two analytic dimensions: synchronicity and dependency.
Synchronicity refers to the degree to which digital and material are experienced
simultaneously in a given product (an app that can only be used in concert with a material
toy has high synchronicity). Dependency indicates how integrated the elements are (a toy
can be played with even if the app isn’t loaded, so there is a low level of dependency).
While this model is effective in characterising important differences between the games
that Tyni et al. study such as Disney Infinity (Avalanche Software 2013), the Skylanders
series (Toys for Bob 2011-) and Invizimals (Novarama 2009), the case studies are limited
to commercial ‘hybrid playful products’ which assert highly determined regimes of
production and consumption – they seem relatively clear and distinct both as designed
objects and as games.
The concept of the postdigital challenges such binary logics because of the highly
distributed state of contemporary computing technology. Where Tyni et al. tend to
distinguish between material toy and digital game space, for example, from a semiotic
point of view the material toy is a signifier which can be analysed in terms of ‘virtual’
signifieds; similarly, the virtual space of the digital game has ‘material’ impacts on the
bodies that engage with it (Farman 2012; Apperley & Jayemanne 2012). In the case of the
‘connected toy’, such as the controllable ball Sphero (Orbotix 2010), is the issue of
whether or not the ball works independently from the app really the most interesting
question for scholars to ask? In increasingly postdigital situations of play, there is clearly
a need for a more nuanced theoretical approach.
Furthermore, by attending to well-defined commercial products, Tyni et al. tend to
analyse the uses of each game from the point of view of ‘proper’ play that follows the
clear design affordances of the game devices in question. Games are not always played as
intended, and these forms of ‘counterplay’ are often considerably dynamised by people,
events and objects in the locations where play takes place. As such, the focus on game
technologies and their digital-material elements tends to leave aside questions about how
such hybrid games may reconfigure the subjects or spaces in which they operate: for
example, the complex domestic spatial ecology involving interrelations between family
members, architectural layout, social media engagements, physical toys, digital screens,
game consoles, wireless networks, and so on.
Instead of focusing on particular devices and therefore presupposing the contexts and
spaces in which they are used, then, this paper focuses on exploring the practices,
materials and spaces that are opened up, occupied, or challenged by these hybrid games.
Examples of hybrid play – which have seen game designs enter into new collaborative
arrangements with disciplines such as urban design (de Souza e Silva and Sutko 2009),
augmented board games (Bergström and Björk 2014), playground design (Poppe et al.
2014), fine arts practice and many more – go beyond the contexts of commercial product
design, and suggest a need to account for the way that technologies, spaces, games and
players enter into re-fashioned or unpredictable relations and thereby challenge designed
uses and values.
These configurations of hybrid play considerably complicate the ‘magic circle’ model of
play – so much so that the ‘circle’ can take on almost theological connotations (having its
centre nowhere and circumference everywhere). If not precisely theological, for Farman
(2012), the potential for pervasive games to make a magic circle appear in public and
communal spaces has significant ethical dimensions. He examines geotagging gamers,
whose behaviour can be confusing for onlookers. Players refer to non-players they
encounter as ‘muggles’, a reference to the way characters in the Harry Potter series of
books talk about people without wizardly abilities. Passers-by may be liable to become
unwillingly ‘immersed’ in someone else’s locative game. This leads Farman to raise the
ethical question of how a game that takes place in public space should be played to
minimise unwitting or unwilling participants.
A contemporary example would be Google Glass, which was recently discontinued as a
consumer technology (Warren 2015). The device caused discomfort for people who were
concerned that they were being recorded without their permission (the term for Glass
users changed from Google’s preferred ‘explorers’ to the vernacular ‘glasshole’).
Conceived as a kind of ‘everyware’ (Greenfield 2006), Google Glass struggled in public
space, but the company plans on re-releasing the device with an orientation to businesses
(with an emphasis on healthcare and construction) – a second life in more contained and
predictable contexts. Another example is the renewed interest in virtual reality headsets –
devices whose value putatively lies in the creation of a type of particularly bewitching
magic circle – shipped with ‘a nearly 1000-word set of “Gear VR Product Use
Warnings”’ (Orland 2014). Virtual reality, it seems, can’t help but keep crashing into
reality. The ‘magic circle’, therefore, may be better reconceptualised as spatially,
temporally and socially ‘expanded’ (Montola 2005) or perhaps as a set of ‘frames’ rather
than a unitary bounded space (Mäyrä and Lankoski 2009; Jayemanne 2010).
Hybrid play thus takes place in contexts that are increasingly post-digital: their limits and
characteristics cannot necessarily be predicted before they emerge in the process of play.
Here we propose to modify and expand on the hybrid dimensions method of analysis
from the point of view of diverse interface effects (Galloway, 2012), rather than pre-
defined devices or products.
This theory informs the analysis of situations in which the
set of playful actors, objects and spaces exceed discrete, pre-defined units (such as the
‘hybrid playful products’ Tyni et al. focus on) – accounting for a postdigital situation in
which ‘computation becomes experiential, spatial and materialised in its implementation,
embedded within the environment and embodied, part of the texture of life itself but also
upon and even within the body’ (Berry & Dieter, forthcoming, 3).
For Berry and Dieter, postdigital aesthetics involves navigating a complex field of
distributed computing devices which entail a state of agnosis or ‘not knowing’. This calls
for a kind of ‘agnotology’:
By ‘agnotology’ we are referring to the way in which computation facilitates a
systemic production and maintenance of ignorance. The tendency towards
automated and accelerated modes of action complicates and may undermine
structures of reflection and critique. One consequence is a twisting and turning of
computational logics into other contexts against attempts to orient and ‘get a grip’
on computational things. (Berry & Dieter, forthcoming, 5)
In the context of hybrid play, the concept of the postdigital challenges assumptions that it
is so simple to know what is digital/virtual and what is physical/actual (and therefore
whether they can be characterised as simultaneous or dependent) prior to analysing any
given situation. In short, the hybrid dimensions model needs to be able to account for
multiplying hybridisations. One way to approach this problem is to theorise the abilities
of interfaces to bring new bodies and spaces into relation – or, conversely, how an
interface arises as the set of these abilities rather than as a predetermined ‘thing’.
To achieve this, in the following sections we describe instances of hybrid play at three
scales of postdigital spatial practice: the conventional game space (such as the PC or
console setup or the board game), the domestic space, and finally the public space. In
each case, we focus on the way that asymmetric and contingent bodies and spaces are
organised by these interface effects. Following this, we draw on interface theories and
criticism, and in particular Farman’s (2012) phenomenologically-informed ‘mobile
interface theory’ and concept of the ‘sensory-inscribed body’ as a way of approaching
hybrid game play. The goal of this approach is not to analyse the synchronicity or
dependency of a given object, game or product so much as to explore the post-digital
synchronisations and dependencies at work in recruiting the playful objects and
participatory subjects of interface play. This aesthetic of recruitment enrols increasingly
diverse spatial domains, social practices, and material life.
CONVENTIONAL GAMES, NEW HYBRIDITIES
As has been noted above, while hybrid play is often presented as a newly emerging
phenomenon, videogames are already natively hybrid, postdigital constructs. However,
various types of hybridisation may be more or less successful – even if they have
considerable commercial power behind them. Microsoft’s attempt to force the issue of
hybridising the traditional functions of the console with always-on internet connectivity
and Kinect motion tracking for their Xbox One console met with significant resistance.
Introduction of new hybridities can also significantly alter the experience of play – for
example, the introduction of voice communication can lead to very different MMO
interactions than would otherwise be the case (Carter, Wadley & Gibbs 2012).
Videogames are renowned for their ability to create immersive effects, but immersion is
not limited to the attempt to recreate the ‘unmediated’ experience of phenomenal space –
as many FPS games are supposed to do. It is possible to become as immersed in the third-
person Dragon Age: Inquisition (Bioware 2014) or the godlike perspective of Civilisation
V (Firaxis Games 2010) as it is any FPS. In all such cases, the interface is highly effective
in organising the proprioceptive, cognitive and other powers of a human player with the
various capabilities of the devices that comprise the game apparatus. When videogames
work well they are excellent examples of what Farman describes as the sensory-inscribed
body (a concept expanded below): an interface that players almost see ‘through’, looking
as if through a window into another, virtual world.
However, as Consalvo (2007) has shown through the example of cheating, actual play
often belies the magic circle thesis even in conventional videogaming – players often
hybridise their experience of the game with ‘paratexts’ such as cheats, walkthroughs,
FAQs and the like. The FPS-MMO hybrid Destiny (Bungie 2014) saw players
abandoning the typical mission structure to exploit a (subsequently patched) ‘Loot Cave’
where an infinite supply of weak enemies could be harvested for drops, and more recently
adopt a method of beating a powerful raid boss by yanking the console’s LAN cable
(Schreier 2015). Even a successful effect of immersion may not last with a particular
player. Trying to play a once-loved game in an emulator can be an alienating experience:
the interface’s ability to organise the asymmetries between player and apparatus may not
match up to a fond memory, or the control scheme may ruin the experience: in the failure
of the magic circle, the hybridity of the game asserts itself against the illusionistic effect
that was once so compelling.
New types of hybridity are also entering into traditionally ‘bounded’ gaming situations
through internet connectivity. One example is the way that new games are hybridising in-
game time with real-time elements. Dragon Age: Inquisition, for example, utilises a game
mechanic called a ‘War Table’ in which they direct their subordinates to complete certain
tasks. Regardless of whether the player logs in or out of the game, these tasks will be
completed according to a real-world clock. The War Table thus opens up an interface
effect between the game time and the rhythms of everyday life, providing an additional
incentive to return to the game at regular real-time intervals.
A more comprehensive utilisation of an interface between game time and everyday life
can be found in Destiny, which staggers its missions across real time periods (some can
be done at will, some once a day, others weekly). While this is a structure that is common
to many MMORPG games, Destiny is primarily a FPS: the requirement for internet
connectivity in current generation consoles has facilitated the appearance of real-time
structures in other genres: “Each day in Destiny resets at 1AM Pacific, 4AM Eastern. At
Tuesday’s reset, the new week also kicks over, meaning that your weekly mark cap
resets, the weekly strike changes, and your raid progress and drops both reset’ (Hamilton
2015). Another increasingly apparent hybridisation that is affecting conventional
videogames derives from the capacity to easily stream gameplay to the internet via sites
such as Twitch.tv. A genre has formed around live play in which players specifically
tailor their performances to be disseminated across YouTube or Twitch.tv channels.
Often this will also involve interaction with viewers via the integrated chat stream (a
practice prevalent enough that Twitch.tv has developed its own emoji idiom). A new
element is added to the process of embodied spatiality of the game: one oriented to an
interface with a distributed public. Many live streamers attest that exhibiting their
performance in this way places new cognitive and performative loads on their embodied
interaction with the game apparatus. This can therefore be classed as a new type of hybrid
play in its own right. Popular livestreams are often made by expert players for the
purpose of disseminating effective styles of play, an element that complicates Consalvo’s
(2007) notion of gaming ‘paratexts’. Here, the paratext is not epiphenomenal: it is woven
simultaneously as a new hybrid performance of a given game.
Video sharing gameplay is not the sole preserve of expert players. In fact, the most highly
viewed YouTuber as of 2014, Felix Kjellberg or ‘PewDiePie’, has made his mark by
failing in an entertaining fashion. Utilising a webcam setup so that viewers can see his
reactions in an inset window, Kjellberg’s most famous performances are of horror games
such as Amnesia: The Dark Descent. In a powerful example of Farman’s concept of how
embodied spatiality is distributed through technological media, Kjellberg’s audience
jumps and screams along with his image projected across the livestream or in an archived
video. Although distributed across the world, the hybrid play of the video stream is an
interface that lets viewers participate in the horror game’s intensive processes of
generating spatial experience through the sensory-inscribed body. Another livestream of
Amnesia: The Dark Descent, made by Starcraft 2 commentator Sean ‘Day9’ Plott, saw
Plott’s friends send him text messages during the stream. Already terrified by the game,
Plott’s commentary expands from what is evidently a highly immersive game world to
involuntarily hybridise this new device: “I don’t know why I asked my friends to text
me… my phone went ‘bzz’ and it frightened me. I just have to mute this so it doesn’t
freak me out so much.” Slightly later in the stream, a text message causes Plott’s phone to
vibrate during a particularly harrowing gameplay moment, “Gah, stop it! Stop texting
me! Who’s watching? Friends! Don’t text me! Leave me alone!” Here the intensive
processes by which the horror game entangles physiological and perceptual human
capacities with various computer-generated stimuli are also distributed across the
networked public of the stream, and the personal network defined by access to an
individual’s mobile phone number.
HYBRID CHILDREN AND DOMESTIC SPACES
Whilst Tyni et al. treat the domestic space in a relatively neutral fashion in their analysis
of hybrid playful products such as the Skylanders series, game studies could benefit from
an engagement with research traditions such as technology domestication and parental
mediation (Nansen & Jayemanne, forthcoming). These fields both add considerable
complexity to the scholarly study of home life and the relations between family members,
particularly in terms of children’s access to technological devices. The rhythms of
everyday life (Apperley 2010) thus exercise a powerful influence over hybrid play in the
The advent of crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter has given impetus to many
playful products that operate at intermediary economies of scale. While they are unique
devices, many of these products rely on technologies that have already been subject to the
process of domestication – such as tablets and mobile phones, which are often themselves
hybrid ensembles of devices such as cameras, gyroscopes and so on – in order to operate.
An example of this is Osmo, a crowdfunded augmented reality product that hybridises an
iPad, a stand, a reflector that directs the device’s camera towards the surface that it stands
on, an app for download and physical game pieces such as a classic tangram. The app
dynamically reacts to activities undertaken on the physical surface through several games,
effectively turning the surface (typically, a table) into an interface.
Osmo’s marketing video shows an adult in a pure white room setting up the tablet for
play on a table. A child emerges out of this idealised domestic space and begins to
manipulate the tangram pieces to create shapes and perform other activities. This draws
another child, and then more, until a crowd has formed. While this is a typically
decontextualised advertising situation (nobody starts crying because they stepped on a
tangram piece, for example), the robust feedback between the children’s activities as they
collect objects such as a toy dinosaur to place before the device and witness its response
suggests a space in which many different processes of embodied interaction can be
The operative aesthetic of childlike fascination and proliferating possibility is common to
many of these devices. The intensive potentials for hybrid play exhibited by devices such
as Osmo represent an aspect of hybrid gaming that we term an ‘aesthetic of recruitment’.
That is, an enrolment of players by moving beyond the screen, as well as an enrolment of
many different material and digital elements that may be distributed through the
postdigital domestic space. This is a key selling point of the device, as attested by the
way the video depicts both children and many varied objects coming together to explore
the Osmo’s different interface effects and processes of sensory-inscription. Cameras and
other types of sensors, when combined with appropriate apps, diversify the number and
types of bodies that can be gathered within and hybridised through an expanded range of
sensory-inscriptions in a given play situation. In turn, the apparent ‘contagiousness’ or
fascination of playful behaviour encouraged by these devices informs the aesthetic of
As noted, however, the sterile background of the Osmo advertisement does betray the fact
that the system and its recruiting powers are curated for a very particular hybrid device:
the advertorial camera. The aesthetic of recruitment is taken further still by MaKey
MaKey, a circuit board which allows players to ‘make anything into a key’ by attaching
alligator clips to objects. This then enables the objects to work as keys for inputting
commands into a computer, opening up the objects of domestic space and beyond –
bananas to stairs to tubs of water and even pets – to become recruited as new types of
interface within a vastly expanded postdigital and material repertoire of hybrid play.
MaKey MaKey advertisements tend to take place in a far more cluttered mise-en-scene
than those of Osmo, reflecting the wider gamut of objects and player behaviours which it
can draw into a hybrid system. The digital elements are, however, less diverse: generally,
the technology seems to have been used to control existing games such as PacMan or
Super Mario Bros, but the physical and tactile experience of play is considerably
transformed by the introduction of highly unorthodox materials into the interface. The
aesthetic of recruitment thus expands the possibilities for new proprioceptive relations to
game-space by forcing players to re-balance, re-configure and re-consider their habitual
use of a versatile interface effect.
Osmo and MaKey MaKey represent two different styles or ‘grammars’ of hybrid
recruitment. Osmo draws players inwards to a relatively bounded space to play with a set
of pre-made physical objects that serve specifically designed digital games. MaKey
MaKey (at least as advertised) pushes a pre-existing virtual game world outwards to
hybridise with the environment and objects in new ways. The potentials for asymmetrical
recruitment offered by the latter are greater than that of the Osmo simply because of the
sheer amount of objects that are available for recruitment, as well as the way to activate
the powers or virtues of such bodies (a control scheme made of bananas ‘feels’ very
different than one made of playdough). Both of these grammars can be contrasted with
the hybridity offered by Sphero. This is a ‘connected toy’ consisting of a mechanised ball
that can be rolled around by a phone app. It can also be manipulated in the hand to
control game apps designed for the phone. The design is thus more of a ‘balanced’
hybridisation than that of either Osmo or MaKey MaKey, which can work reciprocally in
manipulating both physical and digital space. In all cases, we see the assembly of
asymmetric sets of sensory-inscribed bodies – less an interface than various practices of
POSTDIGITAL PLAY IN PUBLIC AND MOBILE SPACES
As a toy aimed more at adults than Osmo or MaKey MaKey, the ‘Sphero 2.0’ advertising
spot shows a rapid montage of the device rolling not only in domestic space and engaging
small groups of people, but also around public locales such as parks, beaches, city
squares and so on. The marketing is very keen to present the device as embodying an
aesthetic of recruitment – although here, the focus is on fun for grown-ups as the device
moves seamlessly from context to context in a world where everyone seems happy to see
it and is liable to crack a grin and be recruited in the fun. In reality, however, whether a
ball is a connected toy or not would have little bearing on its appropriateness in the public
spaces Sphero is shown moving through. The city square situation, close to moving
vehicles and many passers-by who could find it underfoot, is bad enough – in a previous
video, Sphero was even shown on a train platform.
Where recruiting players and objects within the domestic space has its own set of
concerns and issues, ethical concerns are more clearly pressing in public space. Issues of
privacy and consent become critical because not everyone will want to be recruited into a
particular game, and even if they do, ensuring that they understand the implications of
their recruitment becomes a significant issue. This is evident in a smartphone game,
which wirelessly connects to a rubber grip with inbuilt sensors, called Hybrid Play. This
setup has the explicit aim of transforming playgrounds into video games by attaching the
sensor clip to play equipment, such that playing on the physical equipment controls
digital game elements. The enrolment of children’s outdoor play spaces and playground
equipment raises ethical questions about the kinds of participants and audiences recruited
in hybrid play arrangements, and in particular the potential for digital ‘corruption’ of
traditionally physical materials and active interfaces.
However creating mobile interfaces in public space also creates opportunities for new
scales and types of play such as locative, mixed-reality and pervasive games. Scale plays
an important role in how these games operate. Large corporations such as Google’s
Niantic Laboratories have created location-based and mixed-reality games that recruit
large swathes of urban space. The game Ingress, for example, separates players into two
factions who have varying philosophical approaches to an influx of ‘exotic matter’ and
‘anomalies’ into our world. Players utilise their mobile phones, along with an augmented
reality app, to locate and capture points in space, and by linking these points can establish
areas of control.
The design of Ingress seeks to minimise the potential for players to overtly disturb or
‘recruit’ the people around them in two main ways. Firstly, the game’s fiction suggests
that public sculpture is particularly prone to anomalies. This means that players are
unlikely to stray into private property during their activities, and that the points are more
likely to be located in highly-trafficked regions that will help players incorporate their
gaming into everyday movements. Secondly, the ‘in-game’ actions are contained within
the mobile phone device. When at a location, the activity of the players will not appear
too different from a normal mobile phone user taking and manipulating a photo or video.
Ingress thus carefully tunes the bodies of its participants such that their sensory capacities
are magnified (through the augmented-reality app) while their culturally-inscribed
behaviours are restrained – although this is not always successful, as loitering, repetitive
movement and so on may still be perceived as suspicious in their own right (PiedType
This type of surreptitious public play can be contrasted with games in which postdigital
public space and digital technologies interact in a more overt fashion, such as public
games of Johann Sebastian Joust. Here the problem of recruitment is modulated by the
clear ‘playful’ behaviour of the participants (moving their bodies and controllers in a
bounded space), and connects with traditions of street art and theatre. One interesting
space which highlights the role of the sensory-inscribed body and the process of
recruitment, has involved the use of public transport tram networks enrolled in a locative
game in which the location itself is mobile. The movement of the vehicle affects the
physical design requirements of the game, while the movement of passengers on and off
the tram means that recruitment has to be versatile. ‘Cart-Load-O-Fun’, a game designed
for the tram system in Melbourne, Australia by researchers at RMIT University, took
these hybrid dimensions into account by using pressure pads to make controllers out of
the vehicle’s hand rails (Toprak 2013). Passengers could then partake in a game which
allowed them to maintain their balance in response to the acceleration and deceleration of
the tram, while squeezing the pads and playing a digital game.
DISCUSSION: INTERFACE THEORY AND POSTDIGITAL PLAY
We will now turn to theorising the aesthetic of recruitment by drawing on Farman’s
‘mobile interface theory’. The concept of a mobile interface as suggested by Farman
(2012) may seem like an odd one given that the common computing interface metaphor
of a ‘window’ gives the image of a static mediating boundary between two spaces (one
real and one virtual). In this metaphorical understanding, the interface is a facilitator of
movement rather than being mobile in itself. The idealised ‘user-friendly’ interface
almost disappears entirely, giving smooth and uncomplicated access from the world of
flesh-and-blood users to immense vistas of digital content – as Bolter and Grusin put it,
‘What designers often say they want is an ‘interfaceless’ interface… the user will move
through the space interacting with the objects ‘naturally,’ as she does in the physical
world’ (2000, 23). The seeming straightforwardness of this conception has, however,
been challenged by many scholars and designers, including Drucker (2011), who
critically engages with interface theory to challenge the concept of the interface as a fixed
thing rather than a performative relation:
Interface is a dynamic space, a zone in which reading takes place. We do not look
through it (in spite of the overwhelming force of the ‘windows’ metaphor) or past
it. The desktop metaphor at least suggests a space of activity in which icons stand
for objects with behaviours we enact…If we usually separate what we think of as
‘content’ from the wireframes and display techniques, then we are performing
acts of blindness. (Drucker 2011, 9)
For Drucker, the desktop metaphor is superior to that of the window because it involves
the manipulation and mobility of multiple objects across a dynamic surface, rather than
the scopophilic ‘view through a window’. The interface concept has a broader remit than
the digital technologies it is typically applied to: ‘we do not read content independent of
interface on a screen any more than we do when we read the newspaper. We have only to
strip away the graphical codes of a printed text – put its letters and words into a simple
sequence, remove paragraphing, hierarchies, word spacing etc. – to see how depended we
are on these format elements as an integral part of meaning production’ (9).
Two major points arise from Drucker’s discussion, both of which we have flagged in our
case studies. First, it is important to register the asymmetry of the spatial forms organised
by interfaces: the metaphor of the transparent window should give way to that of the
cluttered desktop. Where the spaces on either side of the window share an equivalent
status, the hybrid space of the desktop is one characterised by the different powers,
capacities and limitations of the objects that constitute it. Mediated space is thus not
conceptualised as an empty opening in which things happen to take place; instead, it is
produced in a set of operations that resemble Goffman’s ‘frame analysis’ of social
distinctions and the resulting ‘organisation of experience’ (1974). This is a point also
emphasised by Cramer and Fuller (2008), who trace the historical usage of the term
‘interface’ to chemistry: ‘Interfaces describe, hide and condition the asymmetry between
the elements conjoined. The asymmetry of the powers of these bodies is what draws the
elements together’ (150).
Second, because interfaces are often useful to the degree that they are ‘designed to
dissimulate their function as interfaces’ (Cramer and Fuller 2008, 152), they are often
most apparent and legible at moments of contingency, such as when the functionality of a
previously stable interfacial relation breaks down – we may take the complex operations
of an in-game camera for granted until it bugs out at a crucial gameplay moment, for
example. Reading is structured in graphical codes that ‘perform a quasi-semantic
function, not merely a formal or syntactic one’ (Drucker 2011, 9). Stripping the expected
conventions from the written word serves to make a message illegible, even if it is
otherwise the exact same sequence of signs. This failure exhibits the contingency of the
codes that govern communications systems: broken down or taken out of context, they
show themselves to be less universal and more prone to hybridity than we may habitually
acknowledge. Here, Galloway’s notion (2012) of hybridity as registered through various
‘interface effects’ construes interfaces as processes rather than objects of media. That is,
instead of seeing an interface as a surface or media device, such as a screen or keyboard,
moments of failure render visible their effects of mediation on the operation of accepted
cultural and material practices.
Postdigital play interfaces: from desktop to mobile interface
If the desktop has certain advantages over the window as a metaphor for the hybridity and
diversity of interface operations, it may be less apt with regard to an increasingly
postdigital world. Indeed, as Farman points out, one of the pioneers of ubiquitous
computing (‘ubicomp’), Mark Weiser, wrote an influential piece in 1993 called ‘The
world is not a desktop’. While Weiser overtly makes the case for ‘invisible’ interfaces
and computing, what is of more interest in this context is the way he goes about doing so:
that is, by expanding the set of metaphors that we use when we think of how interfaces
operate. In particular, Weiser criticises the tendency to imagine interfaces as replicating
contemporary conscious forms and modalities of behaviour. Thus where the multimedia
of the time sought to emulate the experience of legacy media such as TV, virtual reality
sought to emulate unmediated experience, and intelligent agents sought to replicate
human agents, Weiser suggests a certain, almost dialectical, relation between visible and
invisible technology (and hence, interfaces between technologies and bodies):
Invisible technology needs a metaphor that reminds us of the value of invisibility,
but does not make it visible. I propose childhood: playful, a building of
foundations, constant learning, a bit mysterious and quickly forgotten by adults.
(Weiser, 1993, online)
Weiser’s nomination of childhood as a metaphor for interfaces means that he has a claim
to being a forerunner of thinking on ubiquitous digital play in addition to ubiquitous
computing – or, at least, as a proposal of an intimate relation between the two fields of
possibility. This is certainly an aesthetic that MaKey MaKey and Osmo try to recruit. His
description of the fertile and energetic potentials of ubiquitous computing resembles
Caillois’ (2006) notion of the freeform paidea more than the rule-bound ludus. The world
is no more desktop (or for that matter, console) than magic circle. Digital play expands
throughout the street, the home, the park, the workplace and beyond. Importantly,
Weiser’s metaphor of childhood speaks to processes both of constant learning (the
negotiation and re-negotiation of asymmetric relations) and forgetting (entropy, failure
and error). The potentials of diverse and pervasive playful computing shift the critical
goal from analysing this or that bounded play situation, towards tracing and navigating
the emergence of what Fuller calls ‘seaminess’ (2007) across which the asymmetrical
powers of bodies for sensing, feeling and doing are hybridised in postdigital situations.
The postdigital calls for a conception of play that is capable of engaging bodies and flows
that we cannot necessarily predict without arbitrarily reducing either the asymmetry or
the contingency of the play situation – the very mobility of many of the devices crucial to
hybrid play designs means that it is not possible to definitively pre-judge their context of
use. The boundary of the play space must be left an open question. Adding to work by
game studies scholars such as Mäyrä, Tyni and Montola, as well as the tradition of HCI
scholars who have focused on embodiment since Winograd and Flores (1986) and
Dourish (2001), here we propose to draw on Farman’s ‘mobile interface theory’ (2011).
This was developed to trace the locative and pervasive effects that arise in the use of
devices such as mobile phones, and questions of navigation and the orientation of
embodied experience are highlighted. Farman combines two major streams of thought –
phenomenology and poststructuralism, with key references in Merleau-Ponty (1958) and
Derrida (1998) respectively, in order to produce a theory of the ‘sensory-inscribed body’.
In this context we will place the emphasis on the phenomenological aspects of the theory.
Phenomenology facilitates a focus on the integral relation between space, practice and
body: ‘embodiment is always a spatial practice… Bodies always take up space and, as
Lefebvre argued, are spatial in and of themselves’ (Farman, 19). A particularly important
nuance of this claim is that ‘embodiment does not always need to be located in physical
space. As people connect across networks on a global level, what many are experiencing
as they practice the space of the network is embodiment… we create our bodies across
digital media’ (22). This creation involves the adoption of determinate spatial practices in
which the interface – pace Drucker and Weiser – is liable to fade in and out of visibility.
During a mobile phone call, ‘the interface of the phone typically recedes and you are
moved into the space of conversation. If, however, there becomes an extended period of
silence, the sense perceptions immediately pull focus from the other person to the
device… You will move the phone away from your ear to look at the screen, determining
if you are still connected, if your reception is strong, or if your battery has died’ (28). The
shift between the co-location of interlocutors to the surface of the phone screen constitute
two kinds of embodied spatiality; two distinct ‘interface effects’ (Galloway 2012).
Farman also gives a more complicated example, which will be familiar to many scholars,
of a student’s phone ringing during a lecture. The confused behaviour of the individual
student, the lecturer and the rest of the class show different processes of embodied
spatiality, which usually flow smoothly, brought into focus at their moment of failure.
Farman argues that these situations indicate a need to reconsider the seemingly simple
distinction between the virtual and the real, ‘For, if it were an accurate opposition, then
that which is virtual would also be considered “not real”’ (22) – whereas the ‘virtual’
interface and digital content do perfectly real things: the pairing ‘virtual/actual’ is more
helpful. He traces the concept of the virtual back to the term ‘virtue’, as it was used until
the late 1400s, in the sense of the ‘virtues’ or powers and abilities of a given thing.
However, it is not always the case that all the virtues of an object are actualised at once
(as in the case of the mobile phone in the lecture theatre, where multiple possibilities for
behaviour are urgently possible at the one embarrassing moment). Where the virtual/real
opposition is a symmetrical relation in which the virtual ‘mirrors’ the real, the
virtual/actual opposition is ‘asymmetrical’ both because the set of virtual possibilities
tends to exceed any actual result, and because every process of actualisation is different.
This virtual/actual pairing informs another crucial notion that Farman derives from
phenomenology: the importance of the unconscious aspects of our embodied experience.
This once again speaks to the processes by which interfaces come into and recede from
‘visibility’ (although it might better be termed ‘perceptibility’ because this refers to all
the senses and not just sight). ‘While those things that we are aware of and perceive are
vital to our sense of being-in-the-world, our senses also work to block out much of the
sensory input that we are bombarded with. Thus, embodiment depends on the cognitive
unconscious…. Imagine that while you were having a conversation with someone, that
every other conversation in the room and every sound in the room became equally
important… We function as embodied beings because we do not notice everything or
sense everything’ (27). The senses are not simply receptive, but actively screen and sort
phenomena in the process of generating our self-image as spatio-embodied beings.
Phenomenology terms this process ‘proprioception’.
At the same time, this sense of
ourselves is inscribed by ‘cultural inscriptions of masculinity or femininity, the signifiers
of our cultures, or sexualities, our religions, among other aspects of our embodied
identity that we read in others and encode on our bodies for others to read’ (32).
Just as with our awareness of other subjects, objects can enter and become part of the
process of proprioception that informs the sensory-inscribed body and its relations to
space. They can also fade from prominence into the unconscious background. Where
Merleau-Ponty uses the example of a person wearing a hat who instinctively ducks to
clear a doorway without knocking it off, Farman extends the logic to technological
objects such as vehicles and locative media devices.
We argue that this approach can
also be fruitful in the context of doing game studies in the era postdigital play by
providing a means of analysing how sensory-inscribed bodies arise in asymmetrical and
contingent play situations.
As a critique of the hybrid dimensions model of Tyni et al., the mobile interface theory
both adds dimensions and inverts the method. Rather than an assumed situation in which
elements are symmetrical (at least to the extent that they can mutually enter into hybrid
relations of digital and material, dependence and independence) under ideal conditions (a
magic circle of prescribed behaviours and neutral space in which new and potential
hybridisations are left unregistered), tracing postdigital play interfaces enables us to
account for how sensory-inscribed bodies with asymmetric powers cohere and dissipate
in playful spaces in which new, contingent hybridities may always arise from the
postdigital background which had previously remained unconscious. The
acknowledgement of asymmetrical powers is one way of responding to the agnotology
that Berry and Dieter call for.
The interface approach thus helps us to analyse hybrid play – in each case, we can pose
questions about how spatial forms (locative, pervasive, bounded) are produced in relation
to what types of sensory-inscribed bodies. This allows us to place the ‘panoply of
devices’ foreseen by Weiser into relation with players’ sensuous and cultural capabilities.
Postdigital games (keeping in mind that videogames are, at least to a degree, natively
postdigital) enjoin us to take account of how multiple performances and spatialities are
produced by the ensemble of framing devices at work in a given gaming situation. The
magic circle as outward bound, should it be observed in a particular case, is produced by
the integral operations of the various participants in playful processes: multiple
synchronisations and de-synchronisations, multiple processes which result in various
degrees of dependency and autonomy. Any one of these processes may exceed any given
object or product – and hence, it potentially troubles any analysis which relies on such a
category because portable products can wind up in many different contexts that exceed
their design parameters. We have argued instead for viewing postdigital play interfaces as
an aesthetic of ‘recruitment’, in which an analysis of the asymmetry and contingency of
hybridity emerges through attention to the various spatial domains, social practices, and
material actors that are enrolled into, and distributed across, assemblages of play.
Farman’s concept of the mobile interface, through engagement with phenomenological
theories of embodied action and cognition, provides us with a useful framework with
which to study the burgeoning field of postdigital play. Moving beyond the metaphor of
the window or the desktop towards the ‘panoply of devices’ imagined by Weiser, the
mobile interface approach seeks to account for how the asymmetrical powers of various
bodies (which, as Farman argues, need not be limited to physical space) are organised in
a given play situation – effectively, expanding the hybrid dimensions that we can analyse.
This is particularly useful in the study of locative, pervasive and mixed-reality games
because it helps us articulate how sensory-inscribed bodies and the hybridisations of play
are co-generated in each case.
Our discussion has identified new hybridities in conventional games that are facilitating
the emergence of new practices of play (as well reaffirming the inherent hybridity of
videogames). It has also explored the mobile interface effects that are being created in
domestic and public spaces – facilitated by crowdfunding and other alternate revenue
sources – which operate to create new post-digital relations between digital and physical
elements under what we have termed an ‘aesthetic of recruitment’.
This research was supported through funding from an Australian Research Council
(ARC) Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (De130100735) and (ARC) Discovery
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Although it is not explicitly theorised, this point is implicit in Tyni et al. (2013) insofar as their
analysis describes degrees of synchronicity and dependence rather than setting up simple binary
oppositions. In several cases, they show how various practices can give different values with
regard to the one device.
The problem of navigating a field that is too complex for conclusive cognitive processes is also a
key theme in Galloway’s book “The Interface Effect”, in which he draws on Jameson’s notion of
‘cognitive mapping’. This process has its own complex relations between visibility and
invisibility, being a ‘necessary trauma resulting from the impossibility of thinking the global in the
here and now, of reading the present as historical’ (Galloway 2012, xviii).
A survey of all the examples that prominent phenomenologists have used to illustrate their ideas
would make for an interesting read.