A Manifesto, With Footnotes. A Review of Miguel Sicart’s “Play Matters”by Sebastian Deterding
Play Matters is a manifesto. To properly assess its merits requires reading it as a specimen of this genre: A manifesto is partial, not balanced. A manifesto is normative, not analytic. A manifesto moves in declarations, not arguments. A manifesto wants to affect change here and now, not describe eternal truths. A manifesto is as much a formal performance of its own program as a description thereof. A manifesto, in short, is a rhetorical intervention that expresses an aesthetic/political vision through form and content in order to shape the present (Caws, 2001). Every aspect of Play Matters makes sense against this horizon: its brevity (100 pages without notes); its joyful combativeness; its will to aphorism; its unashamedly personal stance; its rhythmic repetition of the same thesis in ever-new variation, sentences looping from rephrasing to rephrasing. Not futurism, then: Playism! In contrast, to expect a measured synthesis on play from the book is to set oneself up for disappointment. For that, readers may to turn to Sutton-Smith’s still-essential The Ambiguity of Play (1997) and Henricks’ now-essential Play and the Human Condition (2015).
And as any good manifesto, Play Matters is as much against something allegedly old as it is for something allegedly new: “Games don’t matter. Like in the old fable, we are the fools looking at the finger when someone points at the moon. Games are the finger; play is the moon.” (2) Sicart posits a decidedly “romantic theory (or rhetoric) of play … that acts as a call to playful arms, an invocation of play as a struggle against efficiency, seriousness, and technical determinism.” (5) Instead of tying play to specific objects (games) or activities (ritual), or contrasting it against other phenomena (work), Sicart frames play as “a mode of being human” (1). This widens the scope of his analysis to the whole ecology of playthings, playgrounds, and all life spheres we can play in, specifically art, politics, and computers.
Play Matters unfortunately doesn’t explain much what a mode of being is, other than echoing Schiller that it is the highest realization of humanity: “play is what we do when we are human.” (6) Instead, the book provides a “minimal definition of play” (6) comprising seven features:
- “Play is contextual” (6), understanding context with Dourish and others as the “network of things, people, and places needed for play to take place.” (7) Contexts of play are characterized by a tension between offering rational Apollonian order and creation on the one hand and inviting emotional Dionysian disorder and destruction on the other — concepts Sicart borrows from Nietzsche’s analysis of Greek tragedy.
- Therefore, “play is carnevalesque” (11), this time appropriating a term from Bakhtin’s study of medieval carnival: play temporarily inverts the norms of society, which results in the body releasing fearful inhibitions in laughter, all the while revealing the workings of the social reality we live in. Good play integrates creation and destruction into this form of carnival.
- “Play is appropriative, in that it takes the context in which it exists and cannot be totally predetermined by such context.” (11) In this manner, contexts designed for play (playgrounds, games) afford but don’t determine play, and players can re-appropriate other spaces or objects for play.
- As a consequence, play is necessarily “disruptive” of the order of the context it appropriates (15).
- “Play is autotelic”, “with its own goals and purposes” (16).
- “Play is creative” (17), that is, it provides a form of expression, and as such,
- “Play is personal” (18), an expression of our individual and collective character.
Despite this longish list, it is fair to say that Sicart posits a rhetoric of play as expressive appropriation. For over the course of the book, it is these two aspects he consistently highlights.
Like others (Bateson & Martin, 2013; Deterding, 2014; de Jong, 2015; Stenros, 2015), Sicart distinguishes play from playfulness:
“play is an activity, while playfulness is an attitude. An activity is a coherent and finite set of actions performed for certain purposes, while an attitude is a stance toward an activity — a psychological, physical, and emotional perspective we take on” (22).
Following this logic, we can be playful (or not) in a play activity like gaming, but also in e.g. giving presentations. Playfulness shares all features of play save autotelicness: Even if we give a presentation playfully, we have to honor the ultimate purpose of the activity — in this case, conveying information. Yet in doing so playfully, we enrich and re-ambiguate it with a second purpose, pleasure (26—27). Playful design, like Apple’s voice control software Siri, invokes playfulness by serving a purpose, but underspecifying, ambiguating or complicating its own use, thus inviting creative appropriation (30—32). (Unfortunately, it remains quite unclear how play can be at once a mode of being and an activity in contrast to playfulness as an attitude, when modes of being are conceptually much closer to attitudes than activities, and when Sicart casts playfulness itself as “a mode of being” ).
Easily the most novel part of Play Matters is its analysis of toys as a form for play. “A toy is an opening for appropriation that suggests playing.” (42) Sicart distinguishes intrinsic openings for imaginary play with the toy itself (building and telling stories with Lego) from extrinsic openings where the toy invites enrolling other spaces and things in play, like a Frisbee encouraging us to turn a courtyard into a playground (38). “Mechanical or procedural toys” like automatons or SimCity allow us to be both performers playing with them and spectators watching how these objects play for themselves (41).
As part of the total socio-material context of play, “toys play the role of semiformalized embodiments of elements of the play activity.” (44) Sicart distinguishes two ways in which the material affordances of toys factor into play. First are “filtering dimensions”: toys cue, highlight, focus specific functions that can be best performed with the toy in its context. A ball can be thrown and bounced. Against that stand the “manifestation dimensions” of the actual material: the sensual qualities and associated sentimental memories and emotions of the soft leather ball (44—47). Moving from playthings to play spaces, while adventure playgrounds directly invite appropriation by giving children tools and materials to create their own play contexts, skaters show that people can also appropriate non-playgrounds like public stairs and rails for play (49—59).
Inspiring and timely as this analysis of materiality is (Apperley & Jayemanne, 2012), it is also a more contestable part of the book. Sicart consistently speaks of toys and other things as “props” that “cue” certain meanings and actions, analogous to Walton (1990). This notion of materiality is overly semiotic. When Sicart writes that “a toy has no way of enforcing behaviors” (42), or that “a ball’s filtering dimension is essentially the same regardless of whether it is a cloth, leather, or synthetic ball” (45), I humbly suggest playing soccer with a ball made of concrete and barbed wire. Relative to most people’s physical strength, the concrete ball would be impossible to kick (a negative enforcement), and afford a high risk of injury, spoiling one’s playful mood. The relation of materials and bodies matters directly, before (and in interaction with) any signaling or meaning-making. In other words: Sicart’s materiality has too much Norman (1999) and not enough Gibson (1986) to it.
Having established his theoretical framework, Sicart applies it to aesthetics, politics, game design, and computers. With regard to aesthetic beauty, he develops a “nonformalist aesthetics of play … as the action of appropriation and expression of and within a context” (62—63). As in the case of the iOS game Flingle (or the traditional party game Twister), play can provide relational aesthetics in creating a context for social interaction. One step further, live-roleplaying games that explore “extreme” topics like bullying show how play may embody dialogical aesthetics were play prompts dialogue generating new knowledge and values. Finally, like happenings, abusive games can engage players in breaking norms and reflecting on them in the course (61—70).
Applying play as expressive appropriation to politics, Sicart reiterates his previous manifesto “Against Procedurality” (2011) by denouncing political (persuasive) games as mere propaganda and reaffirmation in favor of play: “the true political effects of these objects take place when we occupy them, that is, when they become instruments for political expression.” (73) Characteristic for such “truly” political play is an ambiguous duality: “an activity that critically engages with the situation without ceasing to be play …, on the fence of autotelic play and meaningful political activity.” (80—81) Examples are playing Metakettle, satirizing the kettling or surrounding of protestors by police by forming play kettles within those real kettles; Anonymous rickrolling the Church of Scientology in real life; and Newstweek, a man-in-the-middle attack device that allows to tweak the headlines of news sites received through wireless networks, e.g. replacing the word “ceasefire” with “custard”.
All three are undoubtedly playful political expressions, maybe even giving voice to those otherwise unheard, as Sicart suggests. However, their stark contrasting with persuasive games like September 12th only works thanks to a rhetorical sleight of hand: with the latter, Sicart exclusively talks about players as receptive audiences, neither speaking about the games’ authors (who undoubtedly expressively appropriated the media of games and computers), nor about what players do with those games apart from playing and understanding them co-intentionally.
Conversely, with Metakettle, Anonymous, and Newstweek, Sicart only talks of their players as creative authors. Newstweek is expressive appropriation to those who designed it, sure: but what about the receptive audiences reading those tweaked headlines? And how is deploying Newsteek as intended by its original creators not just as reaffirming of the creator’s intent as playing September 12th? By elevating expression over reception, Sicart’s play rhetoric risks becoming rather non-dialogic, just as his book spends dozens of pages on playthings and playgrounds, but lacks a chapter on playmates or play communities. (Larp theory around live role-playing as participatory culture where everyone is an author and first-person audience at the same time could have provided useful inspiration here.)
In continuation, Sicart looks at game design as “the culture-dominant manifestation” (84) of play today. Once more, he recants contemporary game design as a system-centric, rational, instrumental creation of “systems that … determine play” to generate predefined meanings and experiences (86). In contrast, not only are action and meaning-making for Sicart loosely coupled to the actual game, necessarily arising from a process of player appropriation: good games ought to maximize appropriation potential: “The designer of games should not act as a provider of anything other than a context.” (90) Instead of game designers, “let’s become architects of play.” (91) Thus, in avowed opposition to but actual union with Bogost, Sicart effectively demands that all games and play contexts be high modern, open works of art (Eco, 1989). To me, this point deserves stressing: openness to appropriation is just as much an aesthetic norm and practical accomplishment as closedness — not a lost, more ‘natural’, ‘authentic’ state. Relative to my bodily and cultural dispositions, it is hard to read a love poem as a speeding ticket and vice versa, while it is easy to let my mind drift to novel meanings over Finnegan’s Wake or Proteus.
Sicart closes with the role of “play in the era of computing machinery” (93). Capable to register, store, calculate, and network vast amounts of digital data, he holds, computers have given rise to a new way of being in the world, “system thinking”, which is often anathema to play: “play seeks appropriation, while system thinking thrives with reduction.” (97) In short, like games or design ‘as such’, computation reinforces the instrumental rationality and reductionism characteristic for the modern technological way of being. Yet paradoxically, “all computation is play” (100) as all human programming of computers is de facto appropriating a universal Turing machine to emulate another machine of our liking. To make computation truly “human”, we have to realize this potential for expressive appropriation (99), which entails creating computers that “play with us” (99) — with some reference to non-human actants and twitter bots for good measure. Granting the evocative poetry of these sentences, I have to nitpick that in order to define all computation as play, Sicart has to loosen his already-loose understanding of appropriation, and heavily re-appropriate his own definition of play, dropping aspects like disruption, autotelicness, or the carnivalesque in the course.
In summary, Play Matters infuses fresh blood of references and authors into the game studies canon: Noby Noby Boy, Johann Sebastian Joust, GIRP, Desert Bus, Larp, Metakettle, Proteus and Newstweek go hand in hand with Mikhail Bakhtin, Alan Kaprow, Friedrich Nietzsche, Walter Benjamin, Paolo Freire, Augusto Boal, Phoebe Sengers, and Paul Dourish. Even readers already engaged in this underground play discourse are bound to discover something new. To those unfamiliar with it, Play Matters provides a great service in collating these threads in a short and accessible form.
In a postmodern hedging, Sicart openly admits that his is a deeply partial, romantic “rhetoric”. He consistently and explicitly highlights and values openness, ambiguity, expression, transgression, the player, agency — in short, good-old-fashioned progressive, high modernist, avant-garde politics and aesthetics. What forms of play Sicart devalues and neglects; that pre-structured and co-intentional forms of play may likewise have practical, aesthetic, and ethical value; what political economy affords and constrains his play rhetoric and its realization; whether expressive appropriation is really an effective political intervention, let alone the most needed one today; to what extent his examples of transgressive play are always already coopted as a hipster feel-good commodification of dissent: such questions Play Matters does not reflect.
But again, as a manifesto, it need not. Just as Sicart declares play to be appropriating, carnivalesque, personal, expressive, autotelic, and disruptive, so is his book: unashamedly appropriating other voices; expressive of a personal vision; full of destructive glee; wanting to be a portable prop for engaging the world playfully; palpably written with joy and the hope to disrupt the circles of scholars and designers instead of swaying them with reason. Put differently: Sicart is trolling game studies (in a nice way).
Or at least, he tries to. For the tension at the heart of Play Matters is its own counterplay of Dionysian manifesto and Apollonian treatise, manifest in its vast underbelly of hundreds of footnotes. Over and over, the book makes a bold charge — ‘PLAY! MATTERS!’ —, only to then follow with a strategic retreat: ‘Also, games. See footnotes.’ Few MIT Press books would have needed their endnotes to be actual footnotes living at the bottom of each page as desperately as Play Matters, to engage in a Talmudic dialogue of scripture and commentary.
Somehow, Sicart the Dionysian designer cannot fully shake off Sicart the Apollonian academic. This could be a strategic move: rendering a political intervention powerful by casting it in the form of academic knowledge. Whatever Sicart’s intention, maybe the ultimate measure of Play Matters is to what extent the book achieves for its readers to unite these poles in one form, like Greek tragedy did (at least according to Nietzsche). Play Matters, then, is an attempt at a Greek tragedy of play and games, art and theory, manifesto and footnote. There are far worse ambitions.
 All single numbers in the following refer to pages in the book.
 Readers familiar with Sicart’s earlier work (e.g. Sicart, 2009, pp. 83-84) will recognize the nod to Gadamer’s (2004) analysis of the “mode of being of play”, as well as (post)phenomenology more generally. Philosophically, to posit play as a genuine “mode of being” is a consequential, contentious, and more than anything interesting claim that would have merited more explanation.
Following Heidegger (1967), there are two main modes of being in our everyday relating to the world. First and foremost is “readiness-to-hand” (Zuhandenheit), meaning we engage with most things more or less inattentively, as a habitual means toward some end. Reading this text on a screen, you are not attentively aware of the screen as a screen — it disappears in the act of reading. More rarely, we engage with the world as “present-at-hand” (Vorhandenheit), meaning we take on the attitude of a dispassionate scientific observer distinguishing us and the object observed. In his later writings on technology, Heidegger (1962) held that our modern way of life is defined by a technological mode of being that casts everything, including human beings themselves, as nothing but a resource for some instrumental purpose. It makes us blind to the very fact that this casting is just one (pretty violent and totalitarian) way of being in the world, and it makes us indifferent to this loss. Sicart’s “invocation of play as a struggle against efficiency, seriousness, and technical determinism” (5) can be read as a continuation of Heidegger’s romantic criticism of the technological mode of being, positing play as an opposite: toy-being not tool-being.
It would have been interesting to see how Sicart squares this highly human-agentic view of play with Gadamer’s view of the mode of being of play as universal, pre-human, decidedly not constituted by a human player: “play is not to be understood as something a person does”; “play does not have its being in the player’s consciousness or attitude”: “all playing is a being-played. The attraction of a game, the fascination it exerts, consists precisely in the fact that the game masters the players.” (Gadamer, 2004, loc. 2714—2804).
Similarly, if play is a tool “to see values and practice them and challenge them” (5), then how is this not itself instrumentalizing the world, only for progressive not conservative ends (Deterding, 2015, p. 26)? If the essence of the mode of being of play is expressive appropriation, if “we play to express who we are” and “through play we make the world ours” (101), if to the player, everything becomes but a toy to be wrestled from social meanings and ends in order to be appropriated for personal expression, how is this not doing reductive, totalizing harm itself? These are very immediate and real questions in the cases of trolling and grief play, or children abusing animals in the course of curious play — and questions Sicart unfortunately does not address.
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