I’ll start with the background.
NYU Game Center professor Eric Zimmerman wrote a manifesto to appear in a forthcoming book, The Gameful World. In this manifesto, Zimmerman lays out an argument that the 21st century will be a century of ludic revolution as the 20th century was a century of information revolution.
About a week later, MIT Game Lab researcher Abe Stein publishes a retort on KillScreen. His fundamental concern is that Zimmerman’s manifesto relies too much on digital technology, and as a result marginalizes cultures and persons who aren’t privileged enough to participate (the poor, the non-coastal non-urban, the developing).
I think both are fundamentally flawed, for different reasons. However, there are things being addressed here that are scratching at a breakthrough, and I am of the belief that “it’s complicated” is more than a relationship status, but the way of the world.
The 21st century is barely begun. Not only is its eventual nature opaque to us at the present moment, but very few of us with any memories of the 20th century are likely to live long enough to see whether Zimmerman’s declaration bears itself out. While there’s nothing wrong with a manifesto saying “this is the most gameful century ever,” Zimmerman fails to follow this up with any prescriptive actions that inspired folk can take to ensure this promise is fulfilled.
A manifesto that lacks a call to action provides context for the world as it already is. Usually these types of manifestos offer a specific perspective that delivers a revelation—often religious—as to the true nature of these times in which we live. See the 1997 Cyberpunk Manifesto for a somewhat recent example. Otherwise, whether you’re talking Italian Futurism in 1909, Spanish poetry in 1918, Danish filmmaking in 1995, or indie video games in 2000, a manifesto about The World As It Shall Be needs a coordinated call to action.
Early 20th century labor organizer Joe Hill coined the phrase “pie in the sky” just over 100 years ago to mock the sermons of Salvation Army preachers who berated the working poor for prioritizing their basic needs over their personal salvation, or as he put it:
You will eat, bye and bye,
In that glorious land above the sky;
Work and pray, live on hay,
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.
Hill’s sermon to working folk was more straight forward:
You will eat, bye and bye,
When you’ve learned how to cook and to fry.
Chop some wood, ‘twill do you good,
And you’ll eat in the sweet bye and bye.
Zimmerman’s manifesto is less a manifesto than a Salvation Army sermon, and it is a sermon quite familiar to those of us already wearing our choral vestments. Games are the past, present and future, beautiful, powerful and without excuse. Amen. A lovely vision of pie up above with no notion of how to draw it down.
And yet, and yet.
What would it mean if Zimmerman is right and the 21st century is The Ludic Century, when all is said and done? Looking back from 2113, what would we need to see to justify that somewhat pompous title (though perhaps a sensible historian will exchange the definite article for an indefinite one)?
Where Stein goes wrong in his critique, I believe, is in the assumption that digital games are the sine qua non of this Ludic Century, when they are in actuality its catalyst. The digitization of gaming is significant because it makes games omnipresent for everyone on the fat side of the digital divide. Humans may have been playing games for longer than recorded history, but it is only very recently that any human had the thought that maybe there would be demand for a game specifically for people who want something to do while waiting to play a different game. The omnipresence of games can change—is changing—the way these people think about games and what might be possible with them. Digital games can only bring about a Ludic Century if they catalyze a renaissance of ludic thinking.
After an Information Century, we say “Show me the data,” “What are your sources?” and “What was the context?” We play Moneyball, and make a celebrity out of a statistician who accurately predicted a presidential election. We actually believe poker is interesting enough to televise. The ideas of information and data analysis are all over our popular culture, and notions like technocracy and meritocracy explore how we can use information to shape our society.
How would we need to think in order to make this a Ludic Century?
I am reminded of writer and game designer Mattie Brice, who said during a panel at the Different Games conference earlier this year:
"I am going to make you go through what I go through, which might be abusive since I am a marginalized individual." -@xMattieBrice
This is ludic thinking. Not “feel what I feel,” or “see what I see,” but “go through what I go through.” A ludic thinker is somebody who looks at her life and expresses it through an experiential medium. But a ludic thinker doesn’t see experience sharing as a one way street. When she wants to understand something, she wants to experience it for herself—not as a novelty, but because she knows when she is lacking a fullness of understanding for not going through what you go through.
And I don’t want to leave the misconception that digital technology is required to get these shared experiences. For several decades now, the Nordic countries have been quietly revolutionizing larp, transforming it from a medieval combat simulation into an exporation of the refugee experience in modern Europe, or being in an open relationship, or living with cancer. Because this revolution has been happening at the end of an Information Century, they have of course been exhaustively documenting the whole thing. That game culture’s cool hunters have only just in the last year or so begun to draw international attention to Nordic larp suggests not only that it’s grown into something quite new and distinct, but that more people are starting to hunger for this sort of immersive play experience. That Nordic larp developed terminology to describe the emotional fallout that can occur when a player steps into or out of character for an extended period of time suggests that we could well be poking at the edges of an incredibly useful tool to explore the experiences of others in a deep and resonant way.
And of course ludic thought doesn’t have to lead to “games” per se. A ludic thinker looks for understanding through experience, but makes clever use of verisimilitude—perhaps because an experience is particularly dangerous, or because it is pure fantasy—to experience as much as possible. Participating in a reenactment, a dance, or, yes, even a virtual version of some experience can help to merge the third-person into the first-person.
All of which brings me back to Stein, because the society of ludic thinkers from this nascent Ludic Century will actively look to understand the world in a ludic manner. Stein is right in that cheap computers aren’t going to make us a more gameful planet, but when wealthy societies find themselves with omnipresent computing, and their children grow up with a ludic view of the world, societal demand to know the world experientially is going to affect the way that they, with all their wealth and power, shape this, our Ludic Century.