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Conference: Playful Identities 2010

The Playful Identities 2010 conference was held in Utrecht, The Netherlands, on November 17 and 18.  The conference was organized around the chapters of a forthcoming edited volume, Homo Ludens 2.0: Play/Media/Identity; authors gave short talks based on their chapter drafts, which had been distributed to conference-goers in advance, and then discussed, with dedicated respondents and with the audience ,the details and implications of their projects.  This format, with its emphasis on prior reading and extended discussion, afforded the proceedings their own sense of interactivity, as the audience was allowed, in a limited way, to participate in the formation of the forthcoming texts.

Ambiguity and tension were primary concepts or concerns that emerged from the proceedings.  While these terms may have somewhat unpleasant common connotations, they were here productively employed as ways to get away from conceptual polarities (freedom-compulsion, pretend-real, pleasure-displeasure) that have plagued game studies.  For the most part, these polarities were contested not from a destabilizing post-structuralist perspective, but rather from a more analytic dedication to the ubiquity of contingency, to the acknowledgment that a better description or explanation of a phenomenon could always come along.

The conference stretched and tested the very boundaries of the distinction between what is and what is not a “game.”  Participants such as Caja Thimm (University of Bonn) and Richard Ling (IT University, Copenhagen), in their discussions of Second Life and mobile phone use, respectively, opened up game-theoretical discussion of activities that are not commonly regarded as games, in a purist sense.  Kenneth Gergen (Swarthmore University) troubled the division between the “domain” of games and the real world, pointing out the increasingly playful character of the lived, social environment and emphasizing repeatedly, in his talk and in his comments to other speakers, the ludic character of the Wittgensteinian language-games that we inevitably play when discussing games and gameness.

A number of speakers took the site of interaction as their subjects.  Julian Kücklich discussed the Foucauldian/Deleuzian concept of “subjectivization” in the context of the negotiation of an algorithm, while Gordon Calleja proposed a new metaphor, “incorporation,” as a potentially productive description of the bodily effect (often called “immersion,” a term with which Calleja finds fault) of video game play.  To Calleja, game play involves a bidirectional absorption: the body takes the game-space into it (i.e., into the mind), as the game absorbs something of the body into its diegetic world.

A motif of many talks, and the foundational concern of some, was the use value--or the individual and on the societal level--of gameplay.  What, Thimm and Britta Neitzel (Siegen University) asked, does avatar-based participation in virtual worlds do for users?  What does the use of mobile or location-based games do for (or to) our navigation of our environments and our social interactions?   Discussants, refreshingly, were willing and eager to speculate about the possible futures of their areas of study: What might happen with location-based gaming?  How might new physical interfaces lead to new forms of gameplay?  How could perceptions of real places and real space be transformed by the increased ubiquity of gameplay and playful interaction?  These speculations avoided both utopianism and cynicism, finding a negotiated ground that lent the proceedings a progressive aspect, shedding some light on an issue posed by Gergen early in the proceedings: What do we want our work to do?

On the evidence of this conference, Homo Ludens 2.0: Play/Media/Identity is a volume worth anticipating; it should have a lasting impact on the field of video game studies. 

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