Festival for Playful Public Spaces


From Ritual to Foursquare: The Paradox of Instrumentalizing Play

Today, the world is abuzz with companies promising to make every corner of our daily life fitter, happier, more productive by "gamifying" it – that is, by adding design elements gleaned from games. In doing so, they miss that much of the fun in playing (and playing games) flows from the fact that play is autonomous, a step out of the daily grind of means to an end into something we voluntarily do for its own sake. As James P. Carse put it: "Whoever must play, cannot play." Today's attempts to instrumentalize games and play for "engagement" paradoxically choke the very source they try to tap into: the joy of non-instrumental action. However, this is far from new. The instrumentalization of games and play reaches back to Plato and even further to pre-modern ritual. One strand in this history are ways of using games and play to affirm and reproduce the standing social order – rites de passage, serious games for training and learning, most of today's "gamification." The other strand revolves around play and games for social transformation and individual liberation – from medieval carnival to the New Games Movement and many of today's activist and artist pervasive games. Yet no matter whether conservative or progressive, both ultimately instrumentalize play for an Utopia that is either already here (and needs to be preserved) or out there in the future (and needs to be realized). In tracing this double history of the instrumentalization of games and play, this talk asks whether there is a third option we should pursue instead. Or to quote Georgina Voss: "If I can't choose to play, I don't want to be part of your future revolution."


Format: Talk

  • August 11, 2012 13:30 – 14:00

Sebastian Deterding (DE)


Sebastian Deterding is a researcher and designer working on playful and persuasive design and is usually flown in for some thorough German grumpiness. He is an affiliated member of the Hans Bredow Institute for Media Research at Hamburg University, where he currently finishes his PhD on the interaction of social contexts and technical artifacts in video game play. Before that, he was program manager multimedia at the Federal Agency for Civic Education and user experience designer at Gruner+Jahr. He publishes and speaks internationally on persuasive, gameful and playful design at venues like Lift, Games Learning Society, CHI, Interactions, DiGRA, reboot, Google Tech Talks, or Web Directions. His research focuses on how human interaction is increasingly outsourced into and ruled by software – and what ramifications this holds for design, ethics, and society. He currently hosts the Gamification Research Network and lives online at http://codingconduct.cc.