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<nettime> Dissolving the Magic Circle of Play: Lessons from Situationist
Anne-Marie on Mon, 14 Apr 2008 09:58:47 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Dissolving the Magic Circle of Play: Lessons from Situationist Gaming

Hi nettime,

I thought I would post this article I wrote last year that I will be
presenting next week at Homo Ludens Ludens in Gijon, Spain. (It is
also for a game and art anthology being edited by David Getsy.) I
welcome feedback.


Dissolving the Magic Circle of Play: Lessons from Situationist Gaming
by Anne-Marie Schleiner

*"Due to its marginal existence in relation to the oppressive reality
of work, play is often regarded as fictitious. But the work of the
situationists is precisely the preparation of ludic possibilities to
come." *(Guy Debord, Contribution to Situationist Definition of Play,
Internationale Situationniste #1, June 1958)

In recent years, commentators on game culture and ludology have
undertaken the task of analyzing and structuring play. Such work has
been strongly influenced by the Dutch researcher Johan Huizinga's 1938
study of play, Homo Ludens and Roger Callois's later structuralist
elaborations of Huizinga’s research. In this article I want to
draw upon a different stream of thought from the mid twentieth
century, also informed by Huizinga but not exclusively, that of the
Paris Situationist artists and architects, including Guy Debord
and Gilles Ivian (also known as [Ivan Chtcheglov). A number of
important engagements with play and games by the Situationists are
newly relevant today. Rather than offer a historical assessment of
Situationism’s theories, I will take cues from their writings to
reconsider the potential of games in art. I find useful their critique
of play within but nevertheless resistant to capitalism (and by
extension imperialism and militarism), their architectural proposals
for "player" navigation and transformation of urban "psychogeographic"
zones (what we might call “ludic architecture”), their analysis
of leisure and non-leisure activities, and their repurposing of
Dadaist negativity. These proposals all have direct relevance to
what MacKenzie Wark calls our contemporary condition of "Gamespace.”
(MacKenzie Wark, Gamer Theory, Harvard University Press, 2007)

Lesson 1: Freeing play

A promising tactic for the early Situationists was the unpredictable
yet forceful potential of play — what anthropologist Victor Turner
termed the “liminoid,” or the freeing and transformational, moments
of play when the normal roles and rules of a community or society are
relaxed. (via Jon Dovey and Helen W. Kennedy, Game Cultures, Open
University Press, 2006) After these temporary (TAZ like) situations
"players" settle once more into fixed roles. The Situationists
proposed to adopt this liminoid "subjunctive mood", when anything can
happen, the carnival, Anarchy Online the RPG, the Society of Creative
Anachronisms, into a more general approach, a way of doing and being
in the everyday, in order to transform material life with ludic

*"We must develop a systematic intervention based on the complex
factors of two components in perpetual interaction: the material
environment of life and the behaviors which it gives rise to and which
radically transform it. Our action on behavior, linked with other
desirable aspects of a revolution in mores, can be briefly defined
as the invention of games of an essentially new type." (Guy Debord,
*Report on the Construction of Situations and on the International
Situationist Tendency's Conditions of Organization and Action, *June

Situationist games do not respect the boundary between play and
work, leisure and non-leisure, between “real life” and Huizinga's
"magic circle", the separation from “normal space” that facilitates
immersion in games and play. (Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, Rules
of Play) Situationist games are not sports and are not relegated
to sports stadiums, arcades, or Playstation home entertainment
set-ups. Situationist games bleed into the city, the workplace, the
buyplace, the personal computer, the mobile phone, public and private
transportation and communication, and into and inside escapist
rule-based game environments themselves. In transgressing the “magic
circle,” a Situationist gaming tactic attempts to give transformative
potential not just to play but to “normal” life.

Lesson 2: Wretched winnings, or challenging competition

*"The feeling of the importance of winning in the game, that it is
about concrete satisfactions — or, more often than not, illusions
— is the wretched product of a wretched society."* (Guy Debord,
Contribution to Situationist Definition of Play)

The Situationists were critical of the competitive aspects of play,
Callois' "agon". For them, competition was complicit with capitalism,
with the British working class fan's mindless absorption in football,
with the struggle to obtain material goods, investing in lucrative
defense stocks, doing whatever it takes to be the last Survivor
on the island, playing to get the biggest family home in the Sims
neighborhood. The Situationists, like avid gamers, rejected the
capitalist derived division between production and consumption, active
work vs. passive liesure. Nevertheless, they did acknowledge that an
element of competition might be necessary in their games:

*"The only success that can be conceived in play is the immediate
success of its ambiance, and the constant augmentation of its
powers..[ ]..play cannot be completely emancipated from a competitive
aspect"*(Guy Debord, Contribution to Situationist Definition of Play)*

In our adaptation of Situationist games, perhaps we allow for a degree
of competition, among other motivating playful components. Morever,
for the Situationists, ludic actions were also ethical navigations,
and therefore the goal of a competition should always be questioned.
(Guy Debord, Contribution to Situationist Definition of Play)

Lesson 3: Virtual game worlds: Toward a ludic architecture

*"The architecture of tomorrow will be a means of modifying present
conceptions of time and space. It will be a means of knowledge and a
means of action"(*Gilles Ivain [Ivan Chtcheglov], Formulary for a New
Urbanism, October 1953 printed in Internationale Situationniste #1)

Situationist Russian architect Gilles Ivain imagined a a
"playful-constructive" movement through a city's "psychogeographic"
zones, urban zones defined not only by streets, buildings and
businesses but also by how people inhabit the city and the collective
psychic ambiances they project. Or as Guy Debord later wrote,
while describing the now famous Situationist notion of dérive, or
drifting through a city: *from a dérive point of view cities have
psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and
vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain
zones*. High speed surviellance cameras tracking shopping patterns
in stores like the Gap map these hidden currents, a time based
techno-capatilist development of the study of psychogeographic zoning
the Situationists did not forecast for their fledgling "science."

*"With the aid of old maps, aerial photographs and experimental
dérives, one can draw up hitherto lacking maps of influences, maps
whose inevitable imprecision at this early stage is no worse than that
of the first navigational charts. The only difference is that it is
no longer a matter of precisely delineating stable continents, but
of changing architecture and urbanism."(*Guy Debord, Theory of the
Dérive, Les Lèvres Nues #9, November 1956, reprinted in Internationale
Situationniste #2, December 1958)**

Beyond the remapping of existing cities as psychogeographic zones, new
city forms were imagined. In "Formulary for a New Urbanism", from the
first edition of Situationist, Gilles Ivain describes a futuristic
situationist city's quarters, and public and private architecture that
would be in continuous flux and modifiable according to the whims of
the inhabitants, including zones such as a Bizarre Quarter — a Happy
Quarter (specially reserved for habitation) — Noble and Tragic Quarter
(for good children) — and a Sinister Zone. It is this last example
that games have provided countless imaginings, and Ivain described the
Sinister Quarter in a way that predicts the contours of many video
game worlds:

*"The Sinister Quarter, for example, would be a good replacement for
those hellholes, those ill-reputed neighborhoods full of sordid dives
and unsavory characters, that many peoples once possessed in their
capitals: they symbolized all the evil forces of life. The Sinister
Quarter would have no need to harbor real dangers, such as traps,
dungeons or mines." (*Gilles Ivain [Ivan Chtcheglov], Formulary for a
New Urbanism)**

* *

In contrast to a current rule-based "algorithmic" emphasis in academic
ludology publications, some game researchers such as Chaim Gingold
and Henry Jenkins have made convincing arguments for the importance
of spatial poetics in structuring game play.(Chaim Gingold, Miniature
Gardens and Magic Crayons, Master's thesis at Georgia Tech, 2003,
and Henry Jenkins, Game Design as Narrative Architecture in the
anthology First Person, MIT Press, 2002) This latter approach can
be informed by the psychogeographic characterization of the city
provided by the Situationists. Rather than seeing games as solely
algorithmic rule machines, there is a significant attraction in
players’ exploration of virtual game spaces provided by games like
Grand Theft Auto, Tomb Raider, and the classic exploratory Myst.
Activities within these games incorporate spatial puzzles and goals
tied to specific psychogeographic locations within the virtual game
environment or city. For level design of more action based shooter
games like Halo and Quake, ludic architectural design of multiplayer
fighting terrains, (for hiding, for sniping, for jumping, for flying),
and the placement of enemies and obstacles are a significant portion
of game level design. The avid gamer's extensive time involvement in
level modification, as was once common with PC games like Doom, Quake
and Unreal, is motivated by a desire to focus on and transform not
the telic aims of the game but the paratelic space of the game world
itself, invoking the Situationist's call for modifiable, changeable

*"Architectural complexes will be modifiable. Their aspect will
change totally or partially in accordance with the will of their
inhabitants." (*Gilles Ivain [Ivan Chtcheglov], Formulary for a New

Lesson 4: Situationist games beyond the virtual: intervening in real

Situationist games are not necessarily confined to virtual digital
game space. Guy Debord describes the original Situationists playful
exploits into Parisian cityspace:

*"Our loose lifestyle and even certain amusements considered dubious
that have always been enjoyed among our entourage — slipping by night
into houses undergoing demolition, hitchhiking nonstop and without
destination through Paris during a transportation strike in the name
of adding to the confusion, wandering in subterranean catacombs
forbidden to the public, etc. — are expressions of a more general
sensibility which is no different from that of the dérive. Written
descriptions can be no more than passwords to this great game."* (Guy
Debord, Theory of the Dérive)

This description, like much of the Situationists’ practice,
anticipates the emergence of new forms of game play as art practice
today, most clearly in the example of the London-based artist
collective Blast Theory. Blast Theory projects Can You See Me Now?
and Uncle Roy All Around You reinscribe urban space with the rules
and scenarios of their games. Can You See Me Now? players carry
GPS modified devices which contain a simple graphical Pacman style
game interface displaying the location of other players in the
city. Running panicked through the city streets of Rotterdam in the
first performance of Can You See Me Now?, players tried to escape
these non-corporeal pursuers who were less restricted by the actual
geographic and urban obstacles such as traffic and traffic lights,
pedestrians and hills. Similarly, Uncle Roy All Around You repurposed
existing city infrastructure like pay phones and car rides to play
a mysterious detective style game on the streets of London. Clues
and game play advance through text instructions to players' mobile
computers and planted "actors" (who seem like artificial intelligence
players in a computer game played by humans). Blast Theory explained:
*The city is an arena where the unfamiliar flourishes, where the
disjointed and the disrupted are constantly threatening to overwhelm
us. It is also a zone of possibility; new encounters." *(Blast Theory
website,* *http://www.blasttheory.co.uk/*)*

* *

Converging ludic activities and "real" cityspace are not the exclusive
domain of Situationist inspired artists. The Situationists did not
foresee that mega-players within the "superstructures" would also
engage in playing their games. For instance, during the annual E3 game
industry conference in 2003 in Los Angeles, the United States Army
staged a “playful” publicity stunt for their free recruitment shooter
game America's Army. They catapulted soldiers from a helicopter
into downtown Hollywood. Passersby on the street were confused and
frightened, and civilian city space became militarized through an
intervention blurring the distinction between a soldier's job and
playing soldier in a game. The use of game tactics and play to
equivocate and familiarize urban warfare has become increasingly
common. In one of the most extreme examples of the post-9/11 military
shooter games, KumaWar presented gaming as analogous to soldiering.
This episodic game enterprise released shooter game missions based on
current American military events in Iraq. In KumaWar, whose designers
regularly solicit advise from a retired United States general, the
player always is an American soldier battling “insurgents” in Iraqi
cities. Distinguishing civilians from insurgents becomes an important
skill for success in the "game". Again city space (civilian space),
military space and game space are conflated.

A Situationist-style game more covertly complicit with militarization
of civilian space through ludological means was the innovative I love
Bees designed by Jane McGonigal. Microsoft hired McGonigal, then a
doctoral candidate in ludology at the University of California at
Berkeley, to design a viral marketing campaign and Alternate Reality
Game (ARG) for their upcoming X-box release of Halo2. In public
places like pay phones, players of I love Bees retrieved information
and advances in the game story (a sci-fi “War of the Worlds”-like
scenario leading into the storyline of Halo2). When they received game
information players would make an ironic military salute (echoing
the gestures of futuristic American style soldiers in Halo) and were
thus able to identify other I love Bees players in public places
like concerts and streets. ILB players posted many photos of this
military salute on the web. Overall, the civic space of the city
became militarized — even if for a fictional conflict.

Lesson 5: A dash of Dadaist negativity: illegality as play

*"The dadaist spirit has nevertheless influenced all the movements
that have come after it; and any future constructive position must
include a dadaist-type negative aspect, as long as the social
conditions that impose the repetition of rotten superstructures
[..] have not been wiped out by force."*(Guy Debord, Report on the
Construction of Situations and on the International Situationist
Tendency's Conditions of Organization and Action, June 1957)**

Debord, after describing the role of Dadaism in combating "stale
bourgeois culture" and fascism in post-WWI Europe, postulated that
a dadaist-type negative aspect would be a necessary component of
Situationism as long as undesired social structures were still in
existence. These conditions continue today — rapidly globalizing
capitalism, imperialist exploitation and increasing militarization,
border closures and increasingly hedged in civil liberties in the
post-9/11 War on Terror are some powerful present day "rotten
superstructures". Beyond the apolitical or complicit works described
above, Situationist tactics have also been adopted as tools in

One artist group who have been playing some urban interventionist,
Situationist-like games with a dose of Dadaist negativity is Yo Mango,
an Italian/Spanish art collective based in Barcelona. Yo Mango,
slang in Spain for "I steal", regularly stage playful actions such
as potlucks where every dish must contain an element of stolen food,
Tango dancing in a chain supermarket while stealing, and distributing
stylish "Yo Mango" patches to cover the holes left in stolen clothes
by cutting out the plastic security clip. (They recommend stealing
only top designer brand name fashions.) Some members of Yo Mango
are also loosely connected with the European Squatter Movement, an
organized youth movement in opposition to private property who also
participate in other activist activities like protesting against

Mexican Artist Rene Hiyashi is another artist creating ludic
interventions in public space. In India and Argentina he has realized
playful architectural structures for street children. In 2006, in
collaboration with Mexico City based artist Eder Castillo, Rene
Hiyashi created Guatamex, an imaginatively constructed island with
computers with Internet access for illegal immigrants, floating on the
river dividing Mexico from Guatemala. (His own laptop keyboard was
water-damaged during this project.) Like the anti-corporate antics
and publicity stunts of the Yes Men and Rtmark, the older public
interventions of Critical Art Ensemble, and many of the political art
actions that took place during the 2004 New York Republican National
Convention, Yo Mango's and Rene Hiyashi's artwork can be described
as ludic activism in which societal rules (the laws) are willfully
broken. Within activist culture itself, maybe since the anti WTO
demonstrations in Seattle of 1999, Dadaist humor and ludic activities
are more prevalent.(Brian Holmes, The Revenge of the Concept: Artistic
Exchanges and Networked Resistance, Nettime 2003)

Lesson 6: Games inside games: Interventionist tactics in virtual

In their handbook for game designers, Salen and Zimmerman repeatedly
emphasize the importance of the "magic circle" and the investment of
the player in a separate, pretend space of play (whether abstract or
photorealistic, virtual or non-digital). They stress the pleasure
in following the rules of games within the clear-cut boundaries of
this magic circle. Situationist gamers, however, are more akin to
the creative cheater, the game "griefer" or the hacker. They blur
the peripheries of the magic circle, taking pleasure in changing
the rules of the existing gamespace, which they see as problematic
in a fixed state. Situationist mods and hacks intervening inside
preexisting games can be more entertaining than the original game.
For instance, the popular Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing
Game (MMORPG) Second Life has been playfully manipulated by the avatar
Gazira Babeli, one of the members of the Second Front collective of
Second Life artistic hackers. Her Gray Goo hack was an infestation
of Second Life space with out-of-control repetitive self-replicating
objects, inspired by nanotechnological disaster scenarios. Grey Goo
took various forms, from endless Mario character replications to
rampant Velvet Underground bananas. It was so effective it slowed down
Linden Lab's game servers, interfering with game play system-wide.
Babeli’s COME.TO.HEAVEN similarly exploited a loophole in Second Life
which allows players to create gigantic avatars in proportion to the
Second Life world, resulting in unexpected interesting glitches. While
the identity (identities) behind the Babeli avatar are kept secret,
the code for her Second Life interventions are always made public by
posting it online so others can learn from it and reuse it.

A similar, Situationist-themed interventionist game strategy is
offered by Pierre Rahola, a French gamer and DJ. During the early
phase of the US war on Iraq, Rahola and his collaborators would spray
anti-war graffiti inside online shooter games. When I interviewed
him in Paris in 2005, he admitted that “intervening in games is
more fun than playing the game.” Around the same time Pierre and
his friends were playing online shooter games with an activist edge
I began a body of work I would describe as situationist gaming. In
collaboration with the artists Brody Condon and Joan Leandre, we
initiated Velvet-Strike, tagging the then-popular online soldier
shooter game Counter-Strike with anti-war graffiti. Velvet-Strike
was not only visual modification but also included “recipes” for
disruptive actions designed to interfere with regular Counter-Strike
gameplay, like one for making friends with your enemy.

Recipe for Friendship

1. Find a Counter-Strike server with 0 or 1 other player on line.(If
you go to an empty one most likely someone will show up to see who you

2. Shoot a few times at your enemy.

3. Tell them you are newbie and ask them to show you how to plant the

4. Ask them which country they are from.

5. Ask them all about themselves.

6. Arrange to meet another time.

Operation Urban Terrain (OUT) was another project I initiated to warp
an existing gamespace — the free US army propaganda game America's
Army. With OUT, I wanted to counter the convergence of military and
civilian space with a kind of activism that merged virtual urban
game space wirelessly with cityspace. I invited many people whom I
had met online through Velvet-Strike to participate, including Chris
Birke, one of the original Counter-Strike game texturers, Mexico City
architect Luis Hernandez and Pierre Rahola. We projected our live
performances onto the walls and surfaces of Manhattan and Brooklyn,
connected wirelessly to five players around the world during the NYC
Republican National Convention of 2004. I matched virtual locations
within the America's Army game servers with physical New York City
sites, projecting a live performance of a virtual sit-in inside a
tunnel with yellow taxis onto a building in midtown Manhattan, where
there were many yellow taxis, and pairing a red brick warehouse in the
game with a brick building in Harlem. For the last location I merged
a live soldier dancing performance in the popular America's Army map
"Bridge" with projection onto the Manhattan Bridge in Brooklyn.

Riot Gear for Rollartista, another game inside a game, was a series
of machinima performances calling attention to European and British
police abuse of Islamic and African immigrants, with players
wearing padded "riot gear" costumes designed in collaboration with
artist Talice Lee. In the first performance of the project, two
player/performers roller-skated around the small Spanish city of
Castellon projecting the Playstation2 games Narc and Mechwarrior from
an ultra light projector attached to one of the player's helmets,
(technology had developed since the heavy battery and projector
of OUT). At each projection location in the city, one player
"roller-danced" and handed out flyers with stories of immigrant abuse
to interested passers-by while the second player performed with a
portable Playstation, controlling a dancing policeman character who
violently beats up on civilian city dwellers.


The Situationists predicted an age of expanded ludic possibilities for
artists and for anyone. Paraphrasing and remixing both gamer Rebecca
Cannon and Situationist architect Gilles Ivain, we are bored with
shooter games. We are bored with the suburbs, the stale imperialist
sexist engineering biased corporate game industry, and with new
academic ludology that reifies existing superstructures. We are ready
to play reality TV off camera. We are frustrated with our governments
and the military superstructures that control gamespace. We don't want
to play by rules we never agreed upon in the first place. Anyways,
even if we had fun playing those games to begin with, it is now more
entertaining to mess them up, or to invent new unsanctioned games
inside gamespace. If big players are intervening in gamespace, then it
is time for Situationist gaming.

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