How to Cite

McCormack, P. (1998). Play. M/C Journal, 1(5).
Vol. 1 No. 5 (1998): Play
Published 1998-12-01

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, or so the story goes anyway. Equally perilous, of course, is the opposite scenario of all play and no work. I'm not quite sure what that might make poor old Jack; unemployed perhaps? For my part, it made me a 'mature student'! Whatever else it may be, though, play is pervasive. It's one of the first things we get to do as human beings (once we've gotten the more immediate concerns of getting fed and changed out of the way), and if we're lucky it will be one of the things we get to do at every other stage of our lives too (again, along with eating and...). It is probably fitting that play should be the organisational concept for this particular issue of M/C, coinciding as it does with one of the more drawn out periods of play in the Western world: Christmas. Coming at this time, it has certainly brought home to me the relationship between work and play, and where to fit the former into the latter. It's probably no surprise, then, that a couple of the articles here should seek to engage with this particular divide.

In the feature article for this issue Belinda Barnet explores the idea of hypertext as an avant-garde alternative to the controlled regularity of the linear text, a playful reaction to predetermined possibilities. Reading hypertext is a bit like playing, it's spontaneous, interactive, and a little subversive in that it rejects the notion of following the single linear text all the way to its hidden but preferred meaning. The nodal leaps of reading hypertext leave us always in a state of something like blissful possibility. Thus hypertext should be considered to involve the active translation of being into becoming in an imagined, or virtual space. Though the danger exists that such a reader risks disorientation in the face of the infinite potential offered by hypertextual linking, just as much as he or she risks being subsumed by the passive subject position "demanded by infotainment culture and the encyclopaedic desire it encourages to seek the satisfaction of closure by following seamless links to a buried 'meaning'".

Sherman Young examines the point at which playing and living meet; in the dual context, here, of driving simulation computer games and Baudrillard's precession of simulacra. As driving simulators become more and more sophisticated and 'realistic', embodying the thrills and spills of pushing the car to its limits on the open road, or on the Formula One race track, driving itself becomes more and more (for the majority of us at least) of a daily rush-hour crawl, one foot on the clutch and one hand on the wheel, unexciting and not very challenging. Has the play version of driving left the real behind, or is it a fact that the real is no longer real, but hyperreal?

Axel Bruns engages with the recent proliferation of what he calls "musical exhumations": the re-forming and touring of well known and commercially safe musical acts on a large scale, playing either old songs, or new songs that sound like old songs. At the root of this 'replay', he contends, is the mainstream music industry's desire to both make a dollar, and respond to a changing mediascape which may well leave the giants behind as it continues to evolve and diversify. At the core of the problems which the music industry monoliths face is bandwith -- the huge number of 'channels' which something like the Internet provides --, and as a consequence, the opportunity on the one hand for marginal operators and audiences to proliferate, and the lack of opportunity on the other hand for the industry to achieve complete coverage for its preferred (i.e. most profitable) products. So, while the new players spread out on the cyber-airwaves, the old players come together in the better class venues; but in the longer term, it seems, the days of the almost complete domination of large-scale industrialised music may be numbered.

Kirsty Leishman takes the work of Michel de Certeau on the art of making do as practiced by individuals going about their everyday life, her own experiences as a convenience store employee of five years standing, and the idea of play as "taking delight in inventiveness, trickery, guile and ruse", and melds them all into an explication of how opportunities for play may be found in even the most mundane kinds of work-a-day existences. In doing so she outlines the tactical use of the store's facilities, pursued as much in an effort to find relief from boredom, as to procure an abundant supply of toiletries and confectionary. This article will make you rethink your own ideas on how the Seven-Elevens of the world operate.

John Banks starts from the observation that, even if only for their huge sales and the associated hype that goes with that, the playing of computer games has become "a crucial component of the popular cultural terrain". It is also a problematic one in the sense that so many of the games seem to inscribe somewhat questionable gender roles and relations. But Banks wants to go further than merely examining the representational, or textual level of computer games, critically engaging instead with the activity of playing: a visceral event, and one which is repeatedly described by those in the know in terms of the ephemeral concept of Gameplay. This term, he argues, "functions as something of a shared horizon or assumed knowledge" amongst gamers, and may consequently describe something about the attraction of games that hitherto escapes the vocabulary of cultural theorising: that they're fun, but it's hard to explain exactly how or why. The upshot is that because it does not easily lend itself to theoretical explication this does not mean that the eventhood of the game, as expressed in the term 'Gameplay', is to be devalued in seeking to understand computer games as cultural activities; just as issues of representation should not either be simply abandoned.

Rebecca Farley, like Kirsty Leishman, also engages with the divide between work and play, but deals with the animation studio as a workplace rather than the convenience store. In doing so she addresses the twin questions of what exactly is play, and how is it practiced? Is it, as Johan Huizinga would have it, a separate thing, to be done in a separate time and place? Or is the distinction more fluid, play being something we do alongside work, or sprinkled in between bits of work? The answer might, of course, have a lot to do with who you work for.

Nick Caldwell briefly charts the history of the computer strategy game, in particular its sub-genre, the "God game". The point he is seeking to make is that the parameters of these games, and the symbolism which they both draw upon and reinforce, are resolutely Western in their nature and detail. Success for the player-God in a game like Civilisation, for example, is contingent upon him or her skilfully leading the flock through a human-scale history of exploration, conflict and technological development; all of which, Caldwell argues, amounts to an imposition of an "ahistorically Westernised path of conquest and colonialism" upon the broad canvas of human history in general. Thus, computer strategy games such as this, by so attractively packaging and promoting what is, after all, just one politico-historical model among many, may simply become little more than "effective tools of the hegemonic apparatus".

Ben King closes this issue with some thoughts on an aspect of play that would not seem obvious to most of us: playful murder. He explores the genre of yuppie horror films in which the villain, far from being portrayed as a hideous outcast creature, is actually just the same as the victims: young, beautiful, rich; the playfulness coming from the kind of "selfish revelry" they display in their macabre acts.

All that remains for me to say at this point, I guess, is that all of us at M/C hope that your revelry over this holiday season has not been of the too macabre kind, (though, if that's what turns you on...), and that you find these offerings enjoyable, informative, or maybe even both. Read on then.

Author Biography

Paul McCormack