John Sharp

John Sharp is the Associate Professor of Games and Learning in the School of Art, Media and Technology at Parsons The New School for Design where he co-directs PETLab (Prototyping, Education and Technology Lab). His research focuses on game and play aesthetics, pedagogies of creative practice, and the intersections of ethics and aesthetics. He is a member of the game design collective Local No. 12, which makes games out of cultural practices including Dear Reader, The Metagame, and Backchatter. John is the author of Works of Game: On the Aesthetics of Game and Art (2015), and the co-author of three books: Games, Design and Play: A Detailed Approach to Iterative Game Design (2016) with Colleen Macklin; Fun, Taste, & Games: An Aesthetics for the Idle, Unproductive, and Otherwise Playful (2019) with David Thomas; and Iterate: Ten Perspectives on Creativity and Failure (2019) with Colleen Macklin.

Contact information:
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Review: Transnational Play: Piracy, Urban Art, and Mobile Games

by John Sharp

Anne Marie Schleiner’s Transnational Play: Piracy, Urban Art, and Mobile Games (Amsterdam University Press, 2020) makes steps to shift and broaden the ways in which videogames and videogame play are approached and understood within game studies. Schleiner articulates the underlying issue: “... global game researchers would do well to query modernist assumptions about the First World, or what I refer to as the global North, inevitably steering progress and innovation in technical and digital fields such as gaming.” [1] The industrial-academic-media complex has mostly oriented itself along an East-West orientation, and as such, leaves little space for the study of videogames outside the privileged ecosystems of the United States, Europe and Japan. Schleiner again: “Rather than strict adherence to the geographic boundaries of the Northern and Southern hemispheres, the opposition South vs North is shaped by a view of economic world history that recognizes a global power imbalance since colonial powers laid claim to territories most of which have since become ‘Second and Third World’ nations.” [2] The consequences of the intersecting of mainstream industry, academia, and media on videogames and their players? Extraction, imposition, flattening, devaluing, depowering and erasure of those outside the traditional objects, people and regions of study.

Organized into three sections of case studies bookended by an introduction and a conclusion, Transnational Play considers how games can be understood as not operating on an east-west axis, and instead as truly international cultural objects and practices operating on a south-north axis via conceptions of the Global South and Global North. Key to understanding Transnational Play are the ideas of “centering,” de-centering” and “re-centering.” Schleiner asks us to recognize who and what has been made central to the assumptions and standards we use to understand videogames, their production and their play. This includes the economic and material considerations that created the East-West understanding, as well as a perspective largely limited to those perceived to have legitimate rights to produce and have the financial resources to procure the games through “legitimate” channels. Each of these systems--the commodity-based entertainment videogame industry, the research-oriented academic sphere from within which most studies of games emerge and the fan- and media-driven outlets for reviewing and discussing videogames--brings distinct and overlapping assumptions and biases that impact the who, when, where and how of what games are produced, who can play them, which are studied, who studies them and how they are understood and evaluated. Schleiner’s book raises important questions: If we de-center existing assumptions, how will our understanding of games shift? What will lose value and attention? What will gain value and attention? Who will become important to study? Who is best suited to conduct the studies? What methods will best support this de-centering, and the subsequent re-centering? Who should do this work? Where should this work take place? Who should learn from and benefit from this work?

Transnational Play’s introduction and conclusion make clear the basic problems, while the interior chapters model approaches that can complement the ongoing lens and methods already in the broad work understood as game studies. Central to the challenges Schleiner poses is the question of who: who should bring those excluded into the conversation?

“As the humanities scholar Gayateri Spivak famously posed the question from a philosophical angle, in response to the work initiated by the historians of the Indian Subaltern Group, can the ‘subaltern’ speak for themselves? Or should the more privileged attempt to speak for those they deem voiceless and lacking in agency, which could in this book be construed as a Northern academic writing of the concerns of game players outside the global North?” [3]

These questions haunt the urtexts of game studies in which a Northern eye fell upon othered cultures (Huizinga certainly, Stewart Culin and Clifford Geertz, too), making clear the importance of this line of thinking for a re-centered approach to the study of games. Schleiner brings self-reflective awareness to her studies, even if she falls short of her own intentions at times. The density of the evidence presented to support the underlying premise and then to give definition and depth to Schleiner’s arguments at times flattens out the topic, even while making a clear case for fertile material awaiting those with the fluencies necessary to study games in and from the Global South. The agency stripped from developers and players outside the centers of game industry, game studies and game media is perpetuated within the early chapters of section 1, “Reorienting Player Geographies,” even while Schleiner works to draw our attention to the lively play cultures outside the traditional vantages. To Schleiner’s credit, this sort of struggle to stay true to one’s goals is expected, even necessary, to effect change within stubbornly rooted infrastructures and processes.

Transnational Play is at its strongest in section two, “Ludic Perspectives from South of the Border,” and its two chapters, “Ludic Recycling in Latin American Art” and “The Geopolitics of Pokémon Go.” These chapters showcase a deft, knowledgeable listener open to points of view and expectations beyond her own experience, in the process giving us a glimpse at how expansive the impact of videogames is beyond the usual suspects. “Ludic Recycling” introduces a group of Latinx artists playing with game culture, imagery and materials. Each of the case studies--Giselle Beiguelman, Rene C. Hayashi, Carolina Caycedo and Arcangel Constantini--makes visible culturally-rooted practices otherwise invisible to those without the local fluencies necessary to see localized meanings and affects. A good example is Constantini’s Atari Noise, a work that could easily be understood and interpreted using the aesthetic registers of the global North as part of image-driven new media and rave culture rather from the environmental and material considerations of Constantini’s experiences with the abundance of electronic detritus found in global Southern metropolises.

“The Geopolitics of Pokémon Go” focuses even more precisely, diving deeply into the international phenomenon of Pokémon Go, its history, the ways in which the game is played and “played” via mapping hacks, and a self-reflective history and assessment of her methodology for her study of the game and its play. The chapter insightfully moves through history, theory and phenomenological experience, providing a mix of scholarly and personal insights not often seen in game studies. The individual and collective play experiences of Schleiner and M. (a woman living in Mexico) consider the U.S-Mexico border--a topic as familiar as it is polarized in American politics and media--in a way that makes visible the full range of lived experience videogames and game studies can surface.

Section 3’s “The Absence of the Oppressor'' feels out of place in this wide-ranging book, even if it sheds light on how global Northern perspectives flatten and contort the needs of the global South through the inevitable distortions of ludic solution making. Games for change--what others may call serious games--are an easy target for pointing out the mostly well-intentioned if misguided attempt to use Northern models of play to understand and “fix” Southern and global problems.

As a critic, an artist, an educator and a researcher who is also a woman, a mother and a family member, Schleiner herself has borne the brunt of issues inside academia and its research apparati. Though Schleiner’s name may not be widely recognized in contemporary game studies, anyone involved with or studying new media art and game art in the late 1990s and early 2000s will certainly be familiar with her. Schleiner was an early game artist best known for Velvet-Strike (2002, in collaboration with Brody Condon and Joan Leandre) and as the curator of “Cracking the Maze,” a 1999 exhibition of game art at San Jose State University. A decade later, her dissertation, “Ludic mutation: the player's power to change the game” (2012, published as The Player's Power to Change the Game in 2017, also by Amsterdam University Press), expanded her work to further open up games as sites for player expression. All to say: Schleiner is and was a central figure in this community and its history.

As someone who researched this space roughly a decade after the late 90s and early 00s, I was curious about what became of Schleiner. She seemed to have altogether vanished; I pieced together from mutual friends and colleagues that she opted for a life outside the centers of game academia and game industry, a reliable method for women falling off the radar if ever there was one. I had opportunity to briefly meet Schleiner at the 2018 Digital Games Research Association conference in Turin, Italy, where she was one of the keynotes. I was interested to learn that her work had shifted toward the global South, which seemed to correspond to her own life travels as someone living, working and teaching in Singapore and Mexico.

Fast forward a couple of years, and Transnational Play appears on the scene. As I read the book, I sensed a time lag between the present and some of the topics discussed. Looking more closely at the works cited and bibliography, I noted that some chapters relied on sources dating to 2013 or earlier. Books, by nature and production, are often out of date before release, but gaps like this are notable. Fear not, though: Transnational Play remains timely and relevant, even if the references aren’t always the most recent. While much has changed around videogames in the time since some of Schleiner’s research, and much-needed work has been done to de-center white male perspectives as developers, scholars and players, there is still much to be done. Let us not allow the passage of time to erode the value of this book. As dense and messy as its picture may at times paint, that is an essential part of the work required to undo the extraction, imposition, flattening, devaluing, depowering and erasure of the global South in the first twenty years of the global North of game studies.



[1] p11.

[2] Pp. 13-4.

[3] p.14.

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