LARPing and playing the game well.

The moderators of Ask Again Later clearly stated that all territory outside of the Gray Center constituted “another LARP.” This comment evokes a notion of games as mirrors. The Ask Again Later LARP, is as Huizinga describes of play, “a ritual activity that takes place under rules that are separate from everyday reality.” In AAL there was a distinct narrative setting in which characters had clearly defined capacities, tendencies, and characteristics that they deployed within loose but demarcated constraints. Within the overarching narrative of course, smaller narrative proliferated, creating something of “a world.” Isn’t it true that the “real” world is in fact just another LARP under a different name? The “real” world is defined through its difference from the LARP, and the LARP is defined by its difference from the real world; they each reinforce a notion of what the other is and isn’t but only by refracting qualities of themselves.

Where do games begin and end? Montola writes that in a pervasive game, the “game no longer takes place in certain times or certain places and the participants are no longer certain” (12). Montola poses this question to refer to the boundaries of specific games; he suggests that a pervasive game will destabilize the player’s notion of where and when it begins and ends, reinforcing the dichotomy of game/no game as a standard model for life. Isn’t it the case, however, that games such as LARPs, insofar as they are modeled off of “real” life, obscure not the boundary between game and real life but rather between one game and another? The LARP made clear that it is often entirely difficult to distinguish between one’s self and the self that one is playing; one has to essentially, “play a different self”–a concept that insinuates that there were always multiple selves at play.

All social interactions can be conceived of as having, much in the way of magic circles, certain spatial, temporal, and/or social guidelines that define whether or not a given situation is “in play.” It is often the case however not that many different individuals ascribe to the same game or type of play, but merely that they intersect in some aspects as they live out divergent games. Such was certainly the case in AAL where one character was busy pecking another character’s eyes out while another group was busy digging a grave. Though they all seemed to be at different types of play, their actions were united into a sort of “meta-game” through engagement with a specific common set of rules that were not all-encompassing, but rather discrete. It was their discreteness in fact that allowed for creativity that manifested through the proliferation of what could arguably be acknowledged as multiple games.

What unites LARPs and everyday reality as “games” is the notion that one engages in “playing out” certain situations; one “plays” by donning a certain set of characteristics that enables one to tune into–or be recognized as tuning into–one scenario or another. The common underlying factor is the “true,” underlying self–an unconditioned self–that always plays but which we never see “at play.” It seems the nature of both “everyday” life and LARPs that participants are “no longer certain.” The lack of certainty isn’t however, about whether one is entirely in a game or not–for one always is–but rather what is beneath the play and the character–or who the self is when it is not at play. It seems inevitable that “bleed” will occur between the “self as is” and the “self at play.” Perhaps playing a game well means distinguishing ever more clearly between the two; it is not about identifying moments when one is or isn’t playing the game, but rather about identifying which aspects of the self are engaged in game as a method of arriving at the self that is not.

Alternative reality art, social agency, and collective action

In 1992, Rikrit Tiravanija held a solo show where he cooked Thai food for visitors at 303 Gallery in New York. Of the experience, he stated, “It is not what you see that is important but what takes place between people” (“WTF is…Relational Aesthetics?). Similarly, performance artist Robert Karimi (the Peoples Cook), cooks meals for audiences on stage and throws dinner parties in public spaces to promote community and address issues “from food justice to displacement and violence” (“Art and Social Change”). Karimi’s project is vocally political. If as McGonigal state, the effect of immersive aesthetics is to “create access to new sources of collective empowerment, especially through the forging of a strong sense of community” then the works described above–what Nicolas Bourriaud would call “relational aesthetics,” accomplish just this. Relational aesthetics, as Bourriaud defines it, is “a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space” (113). One cannot always easily define the boundaries of relational aesthetics. Mary Flanagan’s giant Joystick (2006), for example, invited the public to collaborate in controlling a ten-foot joystick to collectively navigate classic ATARI games. Where Tiravanija and Karimi forge community through shared consumption, Flanagan fosters community through collaborative action. (Is it coincidental that she utilizes a game aesthetic?)

Relational aesthetics differ from immersive games in their methods of cultivating community bonds. While immersive games such as Beast engage participants over a comparatively longer stretch of time, relational aesthetics is often fleeting, or as one might say, “here one moment and gone the next.” If we take as our premise that extended group experiences have a greater capacity to incubate lasting group bonds, then we might conclude that immersive games have an advantage over conventional works of relational aesthetics. Nonetheless, the types of experiences that relational aesthetics invites individuals to partake of are often grounded in concentrated, in-person interaction rather than sporadic digital interaction. Its ability to invite viewers to partake in an intensive, face-to-face social experience may lend it to be more conductive to forming lasting, “grounded” relationships. While relational aesthetics does meddle in reality to create environments in which, “everything phenomenologically speaking, is real,” it often take place in galleries, museums, and other spaces under the header of “exhibition.” If it is not declared an exhibition, then the project will typically be advertised as one of a known artist. The maintenance of an overt conceptual boundary between “the real” and “art” (play) arguably makes relational aesthetics a less fertile training ground for collective activism. If group bonds are seen as internal to and contained to the experience of a work of art, then little conviction of the “reality” of the experience remains after, save for the effects of potential “bleed.” That said, relational aesthetics claim its own domain of effectiveness by openly conflating the conceptual distinction between the terms “art” and “reality.” If immersive games question the boundary between reality and play by way of evading the question, then relational aesthetics attempts to dissolve the boundary through open acceptance of their commonalities.

Parafictions operate more covertly and directly than works of relational aesthetics in realizing political change. Michael Blum’s A Tribute to Safiye Behar was an exhibition erected at Istanbul’s Ninth International Biennial to highlight the life of a fictionalized historical figure, Safiye Behar, who purportedly enjoyed an intimate friendship with Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic. For the purpose of the biennial, he constructed a historical house museum where he featured materials alleged to be from historical societies, archives, and Behar’s descendants. As Carrie Lambert-Beatty describes it, Blum:

Set up vitrines featuring her letters, photographs, and books, and arranged original furnishings in the rooms of the apartment, to be peered at over Plexiglass barriers. He relayed Behar’s life story with both bilingual didactics and a certain flair for stagecraft (a side table bore a dish of roasted chickpeas, Kemal’s favorite snack). A video interview with Behar’s grandson, Chicago architect Melik Tutuncu, brought her family legacy up to the present (52).

While A Tribute was contextualized within an art biennial, Blum capitalized on the audience approaching his project as a historical exhibition by way of the common conflation of the presentation of art and the presentation of its history. Most art, after all, is presented as a relic of the artist’s process rather than mobilized to work its process on the audience. Moreover, like the producers of the Beast, Blum, when questioned about the reality of the exhibition, would reply that Behar as “real to me” (Lambert-Beatty 53). Finally, unlike works of relational aesthetics, parafictions create an “in-group” in which individuals are aware of their membership but often estranged from the bulk of other members in the group.

The power in a work like Blum’s lies within its ability to mobilize individuals to have direct, collective effect rather than in its tendency to promote collaborative campaigns. Michel de Certeau describes that “to make people believe is to make them act” (McIntyre 6). Capitalizing on veristic detail and the proclivity to regard history as factual, Blum’s work cultivated a sizeable cohort of “believers,” who continued (or began) to believe long after the exhibition was over. As Lambert-Beatty notes, a newspaper article written years later mentioned Safiye Behar as a real historical figure completely estranged from the context of art (53). Incidents such as this hold greater social import than merely spreading misinformation; they can catalyze the formation of political beliefs that have the potential to motivate groups to create change. Lambert-Beatty writes that the fiction, presented as reality, undermined stereotypes about Turkey as “backwards, other, and ‘Islamist’” at a critical moment when Turkey’s application to the European Union was being actively considered (52-53). A piece such as Blum’s primes those who experience its parafiction, either firsthand or secondhand, to alter their political and social outlooks. These effects have, in turn, the ability to translate into “real” sociopolitical action, even by route of the individual, whose actions in the case of voting become public and collective, or in the case of social media, become viral and efficacious. Parafictional works are unique in directly impacting a believer’s affect rather than acting as a tool of persuasion. While this sounds good, its ethics remain questionable. Surely Blum’s project cast a more accurate light on the sociopolitical mindset of Turkish citizens than its corrupt government sought to impart, and so, was using a falsified means of achieving a more accurate impression unethical? Could it not have been the case that a more subtle though accurate intervention would have made less progress towards confronting the Turkish government’s own manipulative tactics? Are parafictions really just vehicles for corrective, manipulative action, and if so, is it truly problematic for artists to take up the same as oppressors?

The difference between relational aesthetics and parafictions highlights a crucial difference between games that prep their participants for directed collaborative activism and games that prep their participants for individual activism with collective effects. McGonigal’s interest in Beast is directed at how it motivated players to lead a collaborative investigative effort, namely regarding the events of 9/11. The lingering question is, in what contexts could the social dynamics of Beast be effectively deployed? It is certainly the case that many a grassroots effort has aided formal investigations, it is also the case that grassroots interventions often interfere. A December 2018 article detailing the search for a missing person notes, “Although police are grateful for the offers from citizens to help with the search, they said it could hamper the ability for dogs to track scents, which can interfere with the operation” (“Body of missing Roanoke County man found on hiking trail). Group-led efforts are moreover indirect in their political effects. Whereas changing individuals’ beliefs has the capacity to translate into their direct action, the activities of groups are typically motivated towards effecting changes in beliefs that then translate to direct actions. For example, lobbying groups are designed to influence public opinion and policy, whereas those whose opinions’ are influenced are expected to vote for or implement a change in policy, directly. Of course, collectives can organize direct action campaigns, whether that means public protest or constructive public actions. Do games such as the Beast though, serve as effective platforms for organizing individuals on the basis of social and political beliefs or do they simply serve as conduits for collective sensation? I’m hesitant to have faith in the ability of “apolitical” games and works of art to harness group energy and repurpose it for productive forms of collective action. If anything, the potential for capitalizing on group bonds for the purpose of an alternative agenda highlights not that groups are powerful, but rather that they are highly manipulable.

Finally, I would ask what it would look like if games did operate like parafictions. Would a parafictional game cultivate an internal fiction, or is that too similar to what alternate reality/pervasive/immersive games do already? Would a parafictional game entail more explicit interaction between the “in-group” of the game and the “out-group” of the world at large? Is there really a difference between playing “mind games” and playing games that induct the public into parafictions? Isn’t the post-truth trend towards manipulating information a sort of game played by its political perpetrators? Do we need to combat games with games, and, even if we don’t need to, might “games” be more effective than taking the “moral high ground”? Is the moral high ground more heavily determined by outcome, intent, or process?; regardless, might there such a thing as beneficent vice? In serving society at large, there are in practice always “tolerable” individual sacrifices made in order to serve the greater good; is the manipulation of reality a tactic within the realm of the humane, and if not, why isn’t it?

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?

Dewey, Collingwood, and the “When” of Art

Keith Sawyer’s “Improvisation and the Creative Process: Dewey, Collingwood, and the Aesthetics of Spontaneity” highlights the improvisatory qualities of art as they are framed by the communication theories of John Dewey and R.G. Collingwood, respectively. The theories of both Dewey and Collingwood rely on regarding art as process and thus as extended in temporality. Dewey frames works of art as psychological processes that work upon players (“viewers”). Entities work as art when they enable players to create their own experiences and thus perceive rather than recognize the entities at hand (153, 157). Collingwood frames the imaginative experience as the work of art, demarcating it as existing in the artist’s mind rather than in the visible results (products) of artistic processes (153). Whereas Dewey’s theory focuses on the reception of art, Collingwood’s theory lends more attention to its generation. Both theories intersect in exploring how the imaginative conceptualization of entities lends them to be perceived as works of art.

The temporal unfolding of entities as art enables them to exhibit features of novelty. Dewey conceives of the experience of art as being characterized by perception rather than recognition. Recognition arises “in time” once the novelty of a work has worn off, or, instantaneously if the viewer immediately subsumes its contents under “readymade” concepts. Either way, an entity exists as a work of art prior to but not after the application of concepts, thus lending it the quality of existing at discrete junctions of space and time as determined by the mental state of the player. Collingwood supports this conclusion when he states that artistic activity does not use a ready-made language; rather, it creates languages as it goes along (157). The “ready-made-ness” of a language should not be perceived of as an objective characteristic if we want to assert that works of art have longevity over space and time; Van Gogh’s Starry Night is “fresh” to a player who has never seen it or read about its history and context . To those who have already seen it and subsumed it under concepts, it is merely an entity that is “recognized.”

Players’ perception of entities as art ties in to the experience of alternate reality games. Alternate reality games employ a “this is not a game” aesthetic, which is more a mode of belief than an appearance. Players exist in a state of limbo in ascertaining whether or not the game is indeed a game, and that is what makes the alternate reality experience one of a game, as such. It “teases” the player with something new; it does not provide answers but rather asks the player to seek them out his/her/their self. The alternate reality experience is confirmed as a game only at the very end, at which point the game cannot be repeated because the “answers” have been found out. Entities that function as art, too, employ a “this is not art” aesthetic until the “game” is over and the perceived entity is subsumed under concepts that dictate what type of thing one is engaging with is and thus should be. Entities are experienced as art as they toggle between perception and recognition. Once recognized, the entity in question no longer functions as art to the player in question, for that game has already been played and that puzzle has already been solved.

All of this is not to say that alternate reality games and works of art cannot be appreciated over time, or multiple times. In fact, they can, but their process of materializing “as art” cannot be replicated; it can only unfold along paths divergent to the original one. For example, an alternate reality game could feasibly be replayed by the same player if the diagrammatic layout, content, and rabbit hole changed enough to lend it to be unrecognizable. Similarly, a work of art encountered in entirely different circumstances, say facing backwards, or upside down, may enable the player to experience it as art until recognition of it as art (if not as the same work of art) sets in. Nelson Goodman broaches the temporal existence of entities as art in, “When is Art?”, by speaking of the environmental contexts that lend entities to be perceived aesthetically. I argue that the aesthetic perception of works as art is mentally rather than environmentally determined, and thus that the temporal quality of works as art are contingent upon the setting-in of concepts rather than of spaces.