The Player as Political

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Image shared via a creative commons license by nikki_pugh on Flickr.

This is the paper I gave at the TAPRA Dealing with the Digital symposium today. Do comment and let me know what you think.

In scattered and barely noticed ways, the desire to construct one’s own life was shaping the twentieth century (McDonough 2004, 10)

From the bypassing of human interface devices (HIDs) such as mice and keyboards represented by the iPhone and the iPad, to the removal of a media interface represented by the increasing popularity of social media, the current trend in digital technology centres around the removal of the interface. This trend has recently been seen as becoming increasingly prevalent in theatre and performance.

[A] key ’09 [theatre] trend was the removal of performers from performances altogether. Whether directed by headphones or left to negotiate for themselves […] increasingly the spectator was becoming the spectacle. (Haydon 2009)

In 2009 the biggest selling entertainment item on Amazon.co.uk was a video game – COD:MW2 outsold both Harry Potter and Twilight on DVD. We spent 30% more on video games last year than we did on going to the cinema and purchasing DVDs combined. And in a recent survey done by the BBC, 100% of 6-10 year olds gamed regularly.

With gaming you’re involved and in control. With other things you just have to sit back and watch. I’ve been gaming for most of my life. – Callum, aged 10 (BBC 2005 Source (PDF))

Although digital strategies and ideas have been examined in a performative context since the 1960s, this technology and these strategies have reached a point where they are ubiquitous enough to form a real trend in narrative consumption. As thus ours is a culture becoming much more used to being embedded in its stories, political as well as social. In Theatre and Performance in a Digital Culture Matthew Causey discusses the political move from simulation to embeddedness, suggesting that

The site of power has shifted from the exterior screens of simulation to the interior body of the material subject. (Causey 2006, 179)

The example drawn by Causey contrasts the illusion of Gulf War I – of cut together clips, narrators, and news packages – to the rolling embedded coverage of Gulf War II. ‘This is happening now’, the spectacle says, ‘there is no room for editing, cutting, or simulation; this is reality’. In our age of so-called reality TV, 24-hour rolling news, and the advent of the ‘real-time’ and ‘social’ web, we are witnessing a corruption of the data-flow of contemporary life. We are led to believe that the data we receive is live, uncut, unmediated and true. As thus we lose the critical tools afforded us by distance and reflection. It is the ‘interior body of the material subject’ where the political battle for subjectivity must now be fought, in our selves.

Pervasive gaming and interactive theatre takes the digital idea of player-as-protagonist, and applies it to the lived body of performance. Pervasive games are ‘playful experiences’ which combine aspects of childhood parlour games and video game ethics and t to be played in groups across large urban spaces, interactive theatre moves these ideas into thicker narratives. Both forms allow the audience to become agent, and can be seen to expand their storytelling over space, technology, and/or time.

“All theatre is interactive. To call this diverse spectrum of work ‘Interactive Arts’, is only to suggest that it acknowledges that relationship and seeks, in some way, to interrogate it.” (Field 2010)


The player-as-protagonist form borrows from the actor of theatre and the avatar of online worlds, but removes the interface, allowing the user to play with aspects of the double and the void in the self. Allowing us to interrogate our selves as constructs, the player-as-protagonist format brings us back to a truer sense of self and reality, through their present absence.

Absences – of meaning, participation, reality, and identity – can constitute useful tactics in the struggle to unmask the social and economic relations of contemporary capitalist society. (Plant 1992, 181)

Though these pervasive games and interactive performances often involve recorded or other technology, which can disengage you, this is countered by the danger of placing you as the avatar in the world-constituting process. These kinds of performances represent:

An embracing of the total impossibility of getting away from the world around us. So much theatre strives to make the stage into an almost sanctified other place […] A space for coolness and distance and clarity. For conveying social messages and great untainted truths. But I don’t think you can hold back the weight of the world. It comes flooding in regardless. [interactive theatre/art] doesn’t just understand that, it relies on it. It swims in reality. (Field, In the World Not About the World 2010)

However it is important to note that one very integral aspect of the political power of theatre is in danger of being lost to immersion.

The major objection against immersion is the alleged incompatibility of the experience with the exercise of critical faculties. (Ryan 2001, 10)

Branding, politics, media and art are all exhibiting a shift towards the immersive, personal – or hyperlocal. A radical or uncritical shift towards the hyperlocal could be incredibly dangerous. If you forward politics only on an individual basis or understanding you lose a sense of the bigger ‘better good’. You lose the politics of community, the politics that acknowledges that in some aspects we are all alike, and should all have equal footing, privilege and rights. How far is the hyperlocal different from a proactive version of NIMBYism? 

Likewise we need to acknowledge the dangers posed to people’s sense of self and belief, by work that so directly involves audiences. We no longer rely on a set, actors, a whole audience to maintain the suspension of disbelief, but one person on whom the whole of their narrative rests. Although we are more and more used to traversing different worlds and identities in virtual and real spaces, we also need to acknowledge that these conceptions of the ‘self’ are still very rigid. There’s something to be said for easing people away from hegemonic visions of identity, encouraging fluidity, but we should also acknowledge that to assume a fluid transition, assumes identity is a blank slate, sculpted, opted. Does this also apply to people who aren’t white, CIS-gered, hetero, able bodied, middle class, developed-world men? What about the majority cast as an ongoing ‘Other’ – to whom identity is more important, or more integral, people who are defined by their difference? Identity is dangerous when it is thoughtlessly fragmented or assaulted.

However within this danger lies a new political power. When the arts immerse people in narrative we are asking them to augment their bodily identity, an action much more powerful and dangerous than its equivalent in a virtual space.

Our bodies are where we experience the intersection of our individuality and the cultural sphere. (Hillis 1999, 172)

There’s something of using our physical bodies to explore aspects of digital, political and mediatised embeddedness which is incredibly important – which seeks to reconcile our lived body with our virtual selves (mediated or performed). This produces a kind of ‘mixed’ or augmented reality that requires a gentler and more playful set of performative tactics to support participants and preserve a connection to community and critical faculties.

These tactics are best exemplified by the work of people and companies such as Duncan Speakman, Coney, and Blast Theory. These works are often locative and site-specific, they are rooted – allowing for the safety of the participant, and for a connection to the ‘bigger picture’. Blast Theory’s Rider Spoke and Duncan Speakman’s Always Something Somewhere Else are self-created and generative pieces of work that use GPS units

[…] to discover fragments of other people’s audio recordings, [creating] a space in which digital tracking equipment can do more than just map our place within a geographical grid. It can remake our relationship to the rich network of memories and thoughts and people that truly make up the city we inhabit.  (Field, Playing Games 2010)

The most effective of this work also uses the more traditional TIE ideas of role-play to explore issues of morality and community on a narrative/micro level, whilst the bodily presence and physical engagement acknowledges the macro/societal. In a recent series of blogs for the British Council, Andy Field describes how work such as Coney’s Small Town Anywhere and Blast Theory’s Day of the Figurines allow us to engage with

[…] a society at a point of fracture and collapse. We engage not by watching but by playing – by becoming one small fragment of this disintegrating world. (Ibid)

This is a profoundly political act, indeed, as Field goes on to say:

Politics is as much about form as it is about content. It is a way of doing things. Interpersonal relationships, the structure of our communities, our reading of and relationship to the place we inhabit. How we understand our being in the world. What [interactive arts] allow us is an opportunity to explore and experiment with how we do things. In displacing or undermining our usual, unconsidered way of relating to the people and things around us, they generate a vital context for reflection and experimentation. (Ibid)

These works deftly combine the intense and culturally relevant player-as-protagonist format with a political power that respects the weight of the immersive experience. The tactics are playful, but this does not mean they are trivial. By writing its stories on the bodies of its participants performance is able to hand people the critical tools to interrogate our culture of embeddness. We are able to locate the battleground of the ‘interior body of the material subject’ and the player-as-protagonist can become the player-as-political.

Rider Spoke from Blast Theory on Vimeo.

Works Cited.

BBC. “Digital Play, Digital Lifestyles.” BBC Creative Research and Development. Alice Taylor & Dr Adrian Woolard. December 2005.

http://open.bbc.co.uk/newmediaresearch/files/BBC_UK_Games_Research_2005.pdf (accessed March 18, 2010).

Causey, Matthew. Theatre and Performance in a Digital Culture, from simulation to Embeddedness. Oxon: Routledge, 2006.

Field, Andy. In the World Not About the World. Febuary 25, 2010. http://www.connected-uk.org/join-the-conversation/in-the-world-not-about-the-world/ (accessed March 16, 2010).

Field, Andy. Interactivity. Febuary 10, 2010. http://www.connected-uk.org/join-the-conversation/interactivity/ (accessed March 16, 2010)

Field, Andy, Playing Games. February 20, 2010. http://www.connected-uk.org/join-the-conversation/playing-games/ (accessed March 16, 2010).

Haydon, Andrew. The year in theatre: trends of 2009. December 30, 2009.  http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/theatreblog/2009/dec/30/theatre-trends-2009 (accessed January 1, 2010).

Hillis, Ken. Digital Sensations, Space, Identity, and embodiment in virtual reality (. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

Plant, Sadie. The Most Radical Gesture, the Situationist International in a Postmodern Age. London: Routledge, 1992.

Ryan, Marie-Laure. Narrative as Virtual Reality, Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media. . Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2001.

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2 Responses to “The Player as Political”

  1. Kyle Miller March 21, 2010 at 9:08 pm #

    That was a very interesting read–many thanks for sharing.

    The implications for this particular brand of constructed identity are truly fascinating to consider, particularly in regard to gender ideology. Since video games, like films, are almost exclusively designed to be enjoyed by the white capitalist male, it’s interesting to see how technological advances in the industry unconsciously inhibit this cycle. The partial removal of the HID, as with the Nintendo Wii, or the whole removal of the HID, as with Microsoft’s Project Natal, works to fulfill our fantasies beyond scopophilia. Curiously, by reflecting “who we really are,” the new resulting interactive gaze must necessarily be androgynous (as opposed to the male gaze described by E. Ann Kaplan and others).

    You also bring up a very interesting point regarding the “shift towards the immersive, personal – or hyperlocal.” I do think there’s an inherent risk in losing a sense of the broader good, but could we not also benefit from the deconstruction of artificial/counterfeit communities? In some ways, do these new media forms not celebrate our shared humanness–and consequently, humanity as community–above the myth of nationalism, for example? Or is this perhaps too idealistic?

  2. Hannah Nicklin March 21, 2010 at 9:27 pm #

    Hi Kyle, thanks very much for your. RE your question, I suggest that an uncritical or total shift towards the hyperlocal is good. I definitely believe that the removal of interfaces (the media in particular) is generally a force for good, but an uncritical or total shift to anything should be considered dangerous. There are many voices (mine included) who have and do suggest that for politics and the media the hyperlocal is a very powerful idea, but it’s also an addictive one. As a species we like to believe we are at the centre of the universe. Sometimes you need to check your perspective, and for the hyperlocal to preserve its potential power, it needs to not lose people’s sense of the hyperglobal.

    I’m going to stop before I make up any more new words.

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