This is very much a game.

I’m posting about this week’s reading because I think posting today still counts for this week?

As I was reading the Chess and Booth article, “Lessons down a Rabbit Hole” in relationship to the Flanagan piece, I started wondering where the “this is not a game” aesthetic fit into a classroom ARG.

Chess and Booth mention that a good way to start teaching ARG creation is to, of course, have a lesson regarding what an ARG is before starting to play one. Admittedly, this kind of class was meant to learn what an ARG is, so wouldn’t the “this is not a game” aesthetic disappear altogether? Even the “this is a game” sense of fun seems difficult to find in such a scenario, as the game is the subject on which you’re learning about. In other words, wouldn’t it feel more like a lesson than a fun game? More like a requirement than a voluntary adventure?

Let me try to break down my thoughts a little more.

It seems to me that playing an ARG in an ARG-creation class, while likely very helpful in getting to know the medium, is not an embedded game and thus likely to cause the mental defensiveness to learning that Flanagan mentions.

An ARG in a non-ARG-focused class, where either the “this is not a game” aesthetic is held true (perhaps by making clues/the game occur outside of class and having the game basically be a secondary way of learning) or where the “this is very much a game” aesthetic creates a fun/non-traditional atmosphere (like in the McGonigal book) would be two ways that I can see an ARG in a classroom working to better students’ learning.

Then, this semi-conclusion of mine got me thinking – while the “this is not a game” aesthetic seems inherent to Flanagan’s description of embedded games, I think a strong and careful “this is very much a game” aesthetic could work as well, and I think that was seen in the McGonigal reading about the schools that were based on games or even about Chore Wars. The concepts of intermixing and obfuscating would certainly be powerful tools in a “this is very much a game” structure, though there would be other elements that would allow for a lesson to be a fun game without having to cloak it in too much or even any misdirection. For instance, for some lessons, simply the element of wonder is enough to make a lesson fun and disable mental defensiveness, such as those high school chemistry teachers who dress up as wizards on the day they’ll be teaching about color and light, turning flames green with a copper penny and such. Or, as in the chore wars example, perhaps simply giving a lesson a familiar or nostalgic structure is enough to make it fun. Another example could be those addicting typing games that we used to play in elementary school computer lab class.

I feel like there are more elements to how the “this is very much a game” aesthetic can create “embedded” (or perhaps a better word is “interwoven”) games to advance student learning. Let me know if you think of any or if you disagree entirely (and why!).

Post-Truth and Parafiction


Note: Posting this for next week since classes are over for this week.

As Carrie Lambert-Beatty remarks in her article, “Make-Believe: Parafiction and Plausibility” (2009), fiction is an important category in art post-1998 (54). Parafiction, as Lambert-Beatty describes it, is a genre of fictiveness in which a work of art has one foot in fiction and the other foot in the real (54). Contemporary artists have launched campaigns for imaginary products, hacked museum audio tours, staged a marriage proposal, created false archives, and more (Lambert-Beatty 54). Playing with the pragmatics of trust, these parafictions formed deceptions that achieved truth-status for some people, some of the time (54). Though they altered the worldviews of participants, sometimes in truthful ways, they always did so by way of untruth (Lambert-Beatty 54). Parafictions, like alternate reality games, are pervasive. Para-fictional entities are bounded in space and time to those who confront them in-the know; for the maker of a work or an “insider,” the boundary between truth and fiction is clear. For the average “viewer,” parafictional games operate outside of the magic circle; they infiltrate reality and capitalize on the presumption that one what sees is true. Unlike alternate reality games, the ones who know the rules are the ones who aren’t playing; those outside the game are the gamers.

Parafictions overlap with post-truth by appealing to personal belief; for a para-fiction to be accepted as truth, it needs to find root in what the average person finds to be plausible. As McIntyre notes, in “Trumpspeak, belief is a signal of the truth” (168). In the context of McIntyre’s article, the public believes that a statement is true, thus signalling to the deliverer that there is truth in what he/she/they have said. In Parafiction, belief signals to the spectator that what the deliverer said is true; the believability of the project consequently signals the success of its falsehood to the creator. In other words, conventional processes of post-truth and parafiction have inverse processes of reception. This is all to say that post-truth might be understood to derive in part from the authority of the speaker, thus translating belief in someone to trust in something, whereas para-fictions succeed by way of the authority of their objects and fictions, thus translating belief in something to trust in someone–the creator of the parafiction. McIntyre notes that post-truth earns its title when practitioners try to “compel someone to believe in something whether there is good evidence for it or not” (McIntyre 12). Parafiction involves no such persuasion; in parafiction, the objects serve as good evidence and thus compel; believability comes before belief rather than the other way around.

In some sense, all artworks create fictions; they ask viewers to suspend belief in their everyday realities to enter the narrative or logic of the artwork. Artworks of this sort however, declare themselves as such. Though it is unlikely that any artist is completely unaware that their work creates or embodies “another world,” parafictional artists are highly aware of this fact and try to conceal it by capitalizing on common sense. Common sense holds that what we see is real; “reality” isn’t always truth, however, and it is this which makes parafictions pervasive. By blending reality and fiction, revealed parafictions force viewers to confront that reality does not equal truth, and that fiction does not equal unreality. In other words, parafictioneers rely on common sense to perpetuate fictions rather than to quell them. Detractors from post-truth rely on the opposite function of common sense; it is common sense which they hope will persuade the viewer that what is incorrectly presented as reality is blatantly fiction (McIntyre 155).

Needless to say, post-truth is seen, at least by a sizeable portion of the population, as an enemy to be defeated. The danger in post-truth, as McIntyre frames it, is not only that “we allow our opinions and feelings to play a role in shaping what we think of as facts and truth, but (also) that by doing so we take a risk of being estranged from reality itself” (172). Despite the seemingly complementary rather than parallel forms of post-truth and parafiction, parafiction is in danger of realizing the same effects. Lambert-Beatty notes that being “taken in” by a parafiction is both epistemologically destabilizing and humiliating (82). In other words, it confounds what is and isn’t true about the world and causes the mind to allow for untruth to perform the same effects as truth. As Lambert-Beatty finds: “parafictions in general are performative, in that they affect or produce something rather than describe or denote it” (61). Like alternative facts, or other forms of post-truth parafictions persuade if not by intent then by proxy to what Stephen Colbert termed, “truthiness.” How, then, is parafiction to be defeated? McIntrye recommends supporting critical thinking, promoting investigative reporting, and calling out liars as tactics in defeating post-truth (161). These same tactics would backfire in a parafiction; in “calling out” a parafiction, one makes even more apparent its potency and efficacy. Parafictions after all, are expected to deceive temporarily whereas post-truths are arguably treated as lasting interventions.

Perhaps the more pertinent question is whether we should want to abolish para-fictions. Parafictions, unlike post-truths, have most often been used to promote a neutral viewpoint or content rather than conveying an overtly political, often conservative message. This for one, draws attention to whether “post-truth” can have positive applications rather than merely negative ones; is it inherently a negative to live estranged from reality, or can a step back from reality allow one to form and work towards, greater, more positive goals? As an example, two artists, Eva and Franco Mattes, who go by 010010111010101101.Org, created a convincing replica of the Vatican’s website where they made a variety of alterations, including one which worked the acceptance of abortion into archived encyclicals (60). Now, I do not claim that this was the most convincing alteration made, but it is a compelling example of how a parafiction can capitalize on some overlap with post-truth to work towards liberal rather than conservative causes. By promoting acceptance of abortion via a fictionalized proxy of authority, the artists’ fiction presumably achieved some level of truth status if for a limited period of time. Nonetheless, the parafiction would have effected a change in the certainty of those who bought into it; their belief systems would have been shown to be more fragile than not.

This is all to ask whether parafiction can be used as a strategy to combat post-truth. Parafiction doesn’t rely on blind belief in authority figures; rather, through its ultimate revealing, it causes one to question whether what one sees and hears is really the truth or whether it is merely an artifact of reality. If, as McIntyre claims, post-truth has roots in the evolution of cognitive irrationalities, then might revealing just how faulty rationality is contribute to the public’s ability to recognize that that which has the appearance of truth need not necessarily earn that title? To what degree can causing people to doubt their own sense of what is fact and fiction be a productive endeavor? We live in a society that is still defined by binaries: yes or no, true or false, fact of fiction. The move away from dichotomy, however, is sprouting. The increasing authorization of “they” as a gender category draws attention to how “he” and “she” are no longer satisfactory ways of seeing the world, much less ways of embodying it. Can we learn, as a public, to be objective observers of a reality which includes both truths and falsehoods? How would our way of being in the world change if we became skeptics of the process whereby data is converted into knowledge?

The Power of Improvisation: Murder Mystery Party

This Saturday night I had the opportunity to partake in a live action role play (LARP) murder mystery party along with 30 other University of Chicago students. Having just covered the power of improvisation this week, I aimed to actively bring forth the material we learned and apply it in practice. Primarily I focused on the five characteristics of improvisation that Keith Sawyer draws attention to from John Dewey and R.G. Collingwood’s aesthetic theories in his article, Improvisation and the Creative Process: Dewey, Collingwood, and the Aesthetics of Spontaneity. The night began with each of us having already read our character’s backstories along with our motives and abilities. The setting was an Italian mob-ridden speakeasy in Chicago in the 70s. We all dressed in character, some people even going as far as to wear detailed makeup and glued on mustaches. My character was a secret intelligence agent posing as a news reporter, trying to lock up all the various criminals.

The first of Sawyer’s characteristics is the emphasis on creative process over product. Creative process as referenced by Sawyer is the process of actively participating in and experiencing an art medium rather than the focusing on the final product. (Sawyer, 152). Though I knew my character’s background and intentions, I made sure to utilize the first characteristic by not centralizing the completion of my motives one by one like a checklist, and rather focus on the process of actively experiencing the character I was embodying and learning about every other character in the room.

The second of Sawyer’s characteristics is an emphasis on problem-finding rather than problem problem-solving. Problem-finding utilizes a collaborative and emergent mindset to approach a problem or scenario at hand (154). As one can imagine, within a LARP thematically set around a murder mystery, there were no clear approaches to solving the several problems I had been tasked with. While bouncing around the room and meeting all the other characters, I found myself constantly forming new emergent questions and approaches to my character’s motives.

Comparing art to everyday language use was the third of Sawyer’s characteristics of improvisation. He believes improvisation is analogous to everyday conversation, almost like a branching conversation where two characters perpetuate a dialogue that is spontaneous (155). Embodying a secret intelligence agent undercover as a reporter allowed me to have some interesting impromptu conversations with the other characters because I was constantly creating novel excuses for my presence of a reporter at a crime heavy mob-ridden speakeasy.

The fourth characteristic and perhaps the most fun one that I was able to use during the LARP was collaboration with the other characters. With a murder mystery it was only a matter of time before alliances began to form and secret plans began to take place. One of my most brilliantly crafted rouses that night was to frame one of the criminals with having moonshine, as an experiment of manipulation for myself. As the night progressed, I received intel that one of the characters was an incredibly powerful mob boss. After solving who was secretly responsible for the illegal selling of moonshine, I made a bargain with them to confiscate all their paraphernalia and let them off the hook so long as they collaborated with me to take down the alleged mob boss. Along with this character, we devised a plan to have the moonshine dealer sell some of it to this character. Upon falling for the bait, I was able to finally arrest the other character. This was such a fun use of collaboration with the other characters and it all happened through improvisation.

The fifth and final characteristic is to use of ready-made in improvisation. Ready-mades, according to Sawyer are stock phrases that are drawn upon while improvising that help steer and structure the performance (157). I would argue that perhaps the fact that we had such detailed backgrounds and motives could be comparable to such ready-mades. We drew on them to give our character’s direction, supplementary to the constant improvisations we all had with each other.

Reference: Sawyer, R. K. (2018). Improvisation and the Creative Process: Dewey, Collingwood, and the Aesthetics of Spontaneity Author (s): R. Keith Sawyer Source: The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 58, No. 2, Improvisation in the Published by: Wiley on behalf, 58(2), 149–161.

Application of Types in Improv & ARGs

Frost and Yarrow mention, during their discussion of the initial format used by the Second City, that a number of “social types”—including the “blond all-Americans and the Jewish schlemiels”—as well as some “regular ‘characters’”, reappeared on stage from time to time (47). They note that such social types are not “archetypes”—stock characters common to literary works, myths and legends (47). Such use of types specific to the time and place of the improv reminds one of how ARGs often abides to existing story genres or well-known motifs in stories during their initial stages—examples include the secret society of ParaSite, the meteor of DUST and the game’s identification with the science fiction genre, as well as the secret ridden house in Mystery on Fifth Avenue reminding one of similar architecture in detective novels or thrillers. Spolin as well as Sawyer et. al, helps explain why types are applied in improvisations or ARGs.

Types are useful in that they immediately spark recognition in the audience—knowing the cultural stereotypes of their time, or having experienced recurring elements in widely used genres, the audience is able to recognize the type advanced, to be aware of connotations the type is connected to, to expect certain outcomes of the story and to notice whenever the type betrays their expectations. Spolin praises how in uninhibited improvisations the audience is engaged in “a group agreement” with the actors, able to be “part of the game, part of the experience” while nonetheless “each member of the audience must have a personal experience” (13-14). As knowledge of types is shared between audience and actor, types help the actors engage the audience in a shared experience and to penetrate the surface of the type, to look at certain groups of society in a new light as the actors themselves build the type gradually into something more complex—a character, even. Sawyer et. al explain why each member of the audience experiences differently in their discussion of the “mind as internalized social interactions” (159)—due to each member of the audience having different experiences, their knowledge of types slightly differ and actors’ transformation of the types are bound to impact them differently. This also explains the exclusion of archetypes–since archetypes originate from stories instead of experience, every member of the audience would be likely to have similar, impersonal comprehensions of archetypes, and may experience similarly if archetypes, instead of social types, are used.

Yet the theory of the mind as internalized social interactions reminds one that types are built from social interactions in the first place—the “expectancy of judgments”, of “approval/disapproval”, of “competition” with other actors or of the audience as mere spectators or judges, all of which Spolin mentions as blocking experience and energy (8-14), have originated as social interactions and were internalized. As games and improvisation performances can transform known formulas of social interaction or install new ones, may an internalization of such interactions come about? Is such an internalization aimed for, or ought players be wary of the outcomes such internalization may bring?

the ‘imagination’ in ARGs and improv

In my class on Gender, Sexuality, and the Imagination, we spent this week developing our conception of what “imagination” and “imagining” mean. This concept is also intertwined in our conversations and readings about alternate reality games and improvisation, especially since words like “imagine” seem to come up a lot.

In Haiven and Khasnabish’s writing on the imagination, they provide a sort of history of the concept as well as different theorist’s opinions on it. For philosophers like Kant, imagination is the thing that separates humans from all other life – our ability to “make up” things in our minds and then bring them into reality seems really unique to us (vi). (As an aside, Yuval Noah Harari also discusses this idea in his book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, which I really recommend especially in thinking about the environment and climate change.) Their article goes on to discuss how other theorists and disciplines have included different conceptions of the imagination in their thinking, from Marxists to radical feminism. Interestingly, imagination becomes both a source of exploitation – in that the systems that perpetuate oppression are often thought of as imaginary – but also a source of revolution and change (vii). Picking that thread up, Haiven and Khasnabish question how we can mobilize the imagination and create social movements. That’s why, in their piece, they call it the “radical imagination.” Certainly the role of art is clear here, as art is often thought of as both radical and a manifestation of our imagination.

A key part of this is also that any radical imagination includes using the past, present, and visions of the future. This brings up important questions of how we can use the existing tools and conventions around us to create new things, or whether it’s possible to “use the master’s tools” to create a revolution. While that in itself is a worthwhile debate to pursue, I’m going to focus on how the idea of using the past and present relates to our reading on improv and our discussions of ARG cases.

As we talked about in class, the Sawyer reading contains a section on the role of “ready-mades” and cliches in improvised performance (157). To me, this part maps really well onto Haiven and Khasnabish’s conception of the imagination: imagining new things and inventing skits involves using what we currently have. As Sawyer notes, all art includes ready-mades in some way. Even though some may say that cliches might limit or dampen creativity, I think that using these shared icons, symbols, situations, genres, and characters actually allows for a lot of space to play with these things in new ways. In my film classes, we often talk about how genre films use their own conventions to create interesting narratives based on the subversion of tropes. I think we could make the same case for ARGs and cliches in general.

In things like ARGs and improv, cliches and genre become an opportunity for clever subversion as well as a way to seek connection with the audience. Using those things that are familiar to people might foster a kind of shared experience between the players and designers or audience and performers. They become part of a shared language, something that people can easily tap into. When we see certain actions – like the pantomime of lighting something – we can already start to guess that it’s a “cigarette.” While Sawyer’s questions about originality still stand – as pieces can pull more or less from these cliches – I do think they afford the players, audience, performers and designers a lot of room to experiment.

As for the “radical” part of the imagination, I think this fits well in many of the cases we read about and ARGs that deal with public health issues. I’m thinking here about the cases in Reality is Broken – Quest to Learn, Superbetter, etc. Using our imagination, we’re able to come up with narratives and puzzles that invent new ways of doing chores, taking care of our health, or pursuing education. Using both what we had, have, and want in the future, we’re able to create new roles within these games. As players, we can take these roles on and imagine how we can help with problems that we normally feel unable to intervene in. Our capability to imagine, in this case, seems central to ARGs, especially with how improvisation on both the player and designer’s part comes into the experience. It would be interesting to think further about how the imagination figures into the design process but also encourages the player to use theirs, as well.

Works Cited

Haiven, Max and Alex Khasnabish. “What is the radical imagination? A Special Issue.” Affinities: A Journal of Radical Theory, Culture, and Action, vol. 4, no. 2, 2010.

Sawyer, R. Keith. “Improvisation and the Creative Process: Dewey, Collingwood, and the Aesthetics of Spontaneity.”

Play and Innovation

I wanted to speak more on the question from Tuesday about how can aspects of play allow us to solve problems. I am taking a course centered around Science and Technology studies. Our most recent discussion was about how the way we produce scientific knowledge has traditionally been thought of as a retroactive process. The image the world carried was that a scientist came up with a hypothesis, went into a lab, proved or disproved their hypothesis, then left.

Anthropologists such as Andrew Pickering point out that this is seldom the case. Instead, ideas and new technologies are what he calls ‘temporally emergent.’ Instead of a scientist going in with a set goal, they go in open to a new goal, and usually come out with something different than what they started. To relate it a bit more to the general class, it’s like when you write a paper. If you start out with a thesis, it likely won’t be the same thesis by the end of the paper. There are an infinite number of factors at any given moment (both social and physical) than open up the possibility of new experiences, or ideas.

This idea of temporal emergence in the science field is very similar to what Spolin describes. Specifically, when she states that when is a moment where “the answer just comes.” I believe that as people grow older and switch from a “play” mindset to a “work” mindset, play becomes something almost taboo. Our reading on the Situationists International expands on this subject, arguing that society has created a dichotomy of leisure time and work time, leaving little to no room for play to be embedded in our lives.

But to tie it all together, I believe that the childish nature of play and improvisation, mainly that of being open to new experiences, and focusing on the process rather than the final product that in the way that Spolin describes, is essential to finding innovative solutions to problems. There is one story that I believe is a testament to this.

Srinivasa Ramanujan was a mathematician from the early 20th century. He never had a formal college education, but went on to solve problems in mathematics that were considered unsolvable. These theorems he came up with still have a deep impact on stem fields today. At first, no professor was willing to believe that this uneducated man just came up with the solution to an impossible problem that they had been working on for years. But once he was given the opportunity to explain himself, professors were shocked, noting that his methodologies were of the most obscure that they had ever seen.

Many note that the reason Ramanujan was able to come up with such great theories is because he was not confined to the same rules of mathematics that college-educated mathematicians were. There were no mental routes that seemed unworthy of pursuing for Ramanujan. One can say that he was more open and “playful” with how he approached math, and as a result, was able to solve incredible problems. There are more examples that I recommend looking into, such as George Dantzig, but the point is clear: “playfulness” allows for innovation and solutions to problems that could not be solved without this approach.

Improvisation and ARGs

Viola Spolin discusses improvisation as the “free[dom] to experience,” saying that only it can “bring about spontaneity” (4) and continues to describe certain factors that stand as obstacles to reaching such a freedom, factors that thus prevent people from truly experiencing, such as the fear of disapproval and need for approval, competition, and the valuing of the product over the process, as well as factors that promote reaching personal freedom: a non-authoritarian power structure, mutually beneficial collaboration, and a focus on the process for its own sake rather than for the sake of producing a product. Spolin describes certain methods through which one may create an environment that encourages people to develop the personal freedom needed to experience their environment, the foremost of which is through games and play. She argues that games unite the elements required to create such an environment. They reject authoritarian structures, as within games, “players freely choose self-discipline by accepting the rules of the game;” (6) they are “highly social” (5)—most games cannot be played by one individual alone, requiring a group or community of individuals working together; and they focus on the process rather than ignoring it in favor of a product as the process is the only product of play.

Reading this, it occurred to me that this, while true of games in general, seems especially true of ARGs. I would challenge Spolin’s claim that all games are completely free from an authoritarian power, that within the structure of a game, all that is governing players is “self-discipline” (6), for while it is true that players may freely choose whether or not to accept the rules of a game, they have this choice only in choosing whether or not to enter the framework of the game. Once they have chosen to enter, they are bound by the game’s rules, and choosing to reject them brings with it consequences, such as the censure of fellow players, and potentially, removal from the game. Thus, even in games, one cannot escape the fear of disapproval that Spolin argues precludes personal freedom. ARGs, on the other hand, truly are free from authoritarian power structures. Rather than having a set of rules constructed by game designers that players are bound by if they choose to play the game, they have a fluid structure created by the back-and-forth between game designers and players. The shape taken by any particular ARG is determined as much by player responses to narrative elements and challenges set by game designers as by those narrative elements and challenges. In such a structure as this, in which the game adapts in reaction to player response, there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ player response, removing the need for approval and fear of disapproval from the framework of the game. Furthermore, ARGs are certainly highly social, as the puzzles within them are often constructed so that they require a large variety of diverse skillsets, requiring that many people work together to solve them. An example of this is the ARG I Love Bees, in which messages were sent in many different languages, making it such that people who speak each of those languages had to work together in order to piece together the information that was being communicated to them. While many games are similarly social in that require multiple people to play, the collaborative nature of ARGs along with the fact that they are often sustained over a relatively long period of time promote the formation of meaningful connections.

Spolin argues that experiencing is the only way to learn (3), and in order to experience, one must “become part of the world around [them]” by “investigat[ing]” and “question[ing]” it, (6-7). By investing a sense of wonder and mystery into the ordinary day-to-day world, ARGs serve to encourage just that, not only during their play but even after they have concluded, making them, in my opinion, the answer to Spolin’s question of how to create an environment of true experience and learning.