Designing for the Pleasures of Disputation

by Bernie DeKoven on August 20, 2012

Doug Wilson has finally released his dissertation Designing for the Pleasures of Disputation (subtitle: “How to make friends by trying to kick them!”). It is, like all dissertations, reference- and footnote-filled. But, like far too few dissertations, many of those references and footnotes refer to me. Hence, this post.

It is also to admit that I am not only evoked, but provoked into deep thought by Doug’s intelligent probing into the art of games.

The abstract:

In this dissertation I explore what it might mean to design games that aim to nurture a spirit of togetherness. My central claim is that games which are intentionally designed to be confrontational, broken, or otherwise “incomplete” can help inspire a decidedly festive, codependent, and performative type of play. Appropriating the political theoretical work of Hannah Arendt, I argue that her concepts of “action” and “plurality” provide useful definitions of performance and togetherness as they relate to gameplay. Drawing on theories of embodied interaction, precedents from the contemporary art world, and various folk game movements, I grapple with the messy relationship between designed systems and sociocultural context. I describe how confronting this relationship head on opens up fruitful design opportunities. Taking seriously Dave Hickey’s concept of “the pleasures of disputation,” I explore how we players and designers might transmute the acrimony of conflict into something joyful.

(Note: where Doug uses the term “codependent” read “coliberative.” I don’t think he means to imply any pathology, but something closer to what I describe as “coliberation” or perhaps “confluence.” At least, that’s how I choose to interpret his use of the term.)

He explicates:

My central claim is that games which are intentionally designed to be confrontational, broken, or otherwise “incomplete” can help inspire a decidedly festive, co-dependent, and performative type of play…

The game design philosophy I outline in the chapters ahead can be viewed as a middle position between the optimism of the New Games movements and Schechner’s harder-edged “provisionality.” Like DeKoven (and others), I believe that performative play can nurture a rewarding form of togetherness.

That said, my own games try to temper this optimism with a dose of cruelty and self-awareness. Drawing on notions of “abusive” game design (see Wilson and Sicart, 2010), “dialogic” game design (as discussed in Chapter 2), and agonist political philosophy (see below), the games discussed herein often take on a somewhat “punk” attitude in order to foreground the adversarial.

Admittedly, these kinds of self-consciously “agonistic” games can easily turn sour. Yet as I argue in Chapter 3, it is precisely because these games can go wrong that it feels so rewarding when we manage to keep them going “right.” Following Schechner, the insight here is that the intractable contingency of play is sometimes its main attraction….

A little more about Doug. He is a member of a design group called Die Gute Frabrik, who are the people behind Johann Sebastian Joust and B.U.T.T.O.N., the success of each of which have led him to much of the many insights into the nature of play of games, and have been much-reported in this very site. So his dissertation is far more than an act of scholarship, it is an authoritative and informed exploration of the very kind of play that was at the heart of New Games, and, given his remarkable energy and creativity, should prove to be the backbone of the next, and long-awaited evolution of computer-mediated play.


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