update December 2021

Academic texts have a life of their own, and this one is a good example. Before I proceed, let me go through the publication history of this text. This text started as a set of ideas that derived from my teaching, specifically from teaching a bit about sex toys in my Play Design course in 2018, and the whole playful approach of technology in my PlayLab course. I needed to have a reference that allowed me to talk about materiality, embodiment, and my problems with the “ontology” of games and toys. So I wrote Playthings, and discussed it with my colleagues in a work in progress session at the Center for Computer Games Research. My colleagues’ feedback, especially Hajo Backe’s turned it into a text I was happy with, that did the work I wanted it to do. It was looooooong and really detailed in my appropriation of Barad and cyborg theory, and I thought it ready to submit to Game Studies. So I did, and it got rejected, with one mildly negative review and a very negative one.

I accepted the reviewers’ comments, changed the text, lightening it up, and submitted it to Games and Culture. The first response was revise and resubmit, with major edits. The text changed completely, becoming even more streamlined and perhaps more focused on the “ontology” discussion, and less on the new materialist angle. But it still does the work I wanted it to do. That is the published version, and I am happy with the work it does.

However, something was not right with this version of the paper, and Alex Layne and Cody Reimer properly and justifiably critiqued it in their podcast Game Studies Review, which is worth following if you’re in game and/or media studies! You should listen to their critique, but the summary is: the paper does not acknowledge its feminist roots, effectively silencing that tradition; it does not explicitly mention sex toys; and it ignores the negative connotation of the word ‘plaything’. Those are very valid critiques, and this feedback has been added to a book-chapter version of Playthings which is forthcoming in my book Playing Software.

But I wanted to address these shortcomings here, to improve the reading of this text:

  • This is a text that depends on feminist literature, and its part of a feminist-inspired project of decentering the roots of game studies. Feminist theory can help us move the study of videogames away from certain western/euro-centric traditions, and to diversify the field and methods of study. My own work is heavily influenced by Maria Lugones’ work on playfulness. However, there are other game and play studies traditions that can be critical in this or similar projects. After all, early game studies was the territory of Brenda Laurel, Janet Murray, Sherry Turkle, T.L. Taylor,and others who were skeptikal of (a certain type of) ontological projects (or, at least, that’s how I read that work).

  • Sex toys are critical to understand materiality and play, especially adult play! Not just the whole “teledildonics” area, but the fact that sex toys are material technologies for pleasure that are dependent on “feel” attached to embodied pleasure makes them inescapable. We need more and better game and play studies work on sex toys, because they are playthings! (and therefore, within the epistemological domain of “game studies”).

  • Playthings can also help us think about the negative elements of play. Undersood negatively, plaything can denote someone who is used only for pleasure and not respected. This negative connotation is really important: not everything in play is positive, or emancipatory. Play can also turn us into playthings, things others play with regardless of whether the plaything agress to, or enjoys it. In my article about playful capitalism I hint at a potential application of this negative understanding of playthings. I think Aaron Trammell’s excellent Torture, Play, and the Black Experience is also a good way of thinking about the negative elements of play.

I am happy with this version of Playthings. I think this paper does most of the work of thinking about epistemology and ontology (or, better, ontoepistemology) I wanted to make. Being read is better than being right, and I am so happy this text caused some responses that made it better.

Original text

While the world was busy trying to understand what lawyers and corporations mean with the concept of “game”, I wrote a paper trying to make things even more complicated (if possible!).

Playthings draws on new materialist philosophy to define a new concept, “playthings”, that should allow us to think and write about the properties of the things we play with without necessarily having to think them as “games” or “toys” or “playgrounds”. The paper is dense and academic, and you can read it here.

If what you want is the tl;dr on my take on games, here’s the summary of the paper, in understandable language (famous last words):

The problem with the concept of “game” is that we use it to try to define the nature and qualities of things that are very different from each other (Wittgenstein already made that point, I know). Furthermore, there are more playable things out there than just “games” or “toys”.

What we know is that when we play with things, new interaction and material possibilities take place. That is what I call a “plaything” - any thing that is part of a playful interaction. Most things can become playthings, because most animals like exploring the possibilities of the material world by tinkering with it. Sticks become fishing rods, fruits become balls, and even Excel can become a game engine.

Plaything is a way of describing what happens to things when we play with them. It describes how some things are easier to play with than others (for example). It also can help us explain why we can have playful user interfaces without necessarily needing to categorize them like “games”, or “toys”. A lot of my work on Ridiculous Software involves creating playthings that are neither games nor toys.

My intention is to work with the concept of playthings in two directions: one will be about “play feel”, trying to expand the excellent work that Martin Pichlmair and Mads Johansen have done on game feel. Game feel and play feel overlap, but there is a certain feel that is exclusive to playthings, that does not draw on and cannot be recognized as “games”. The second direction will be to work on the design of playthings, likely using my ridiculous software as a starting point.

So, what does this have to do with games? Well, the other point this article wants to make is that categories like “games” or “toys” cannot be used to describe the nature of anything (in philosophical terms, they are not ontological concepts). “Game” is a concept we use to make sense of a plaything in our culture. “Game” is a cultural concept. It is also an economic concept, and even a social concept. It’s a word we use to make sense of a plaything, and as such is not fixed but evolves with time, as it is used to describe more and more playthings.

For example, when Dear Esther was released, there was a massive discussion online regarding whether it was a “game” or not. That discussion has nothing to do with the nature of “games”, but with what we want to culturally, socially, and economically accept as a “game”. That’s why a few years later we wouldn’t blink when calling Death Stranding a game, or Firewatch. The concept of “game” stretched to allow us to describe all those playthings.

What does this tell us about the Apple vs. Epic lawsuit? Well, it tells us that they are using the terms correctly! These lawyers are not discussing what games are (even if that’s what they are saying). What they are discussing is whether we can use the (cultural)(economic) concept of games when it comes to categorizing playthings on the App Store. What we are seeing is not a discussion on the nature of things, but a debate on how we want to situate playthings in our economy and culture.

The tl;dr of this tl;dr is: use playthings to name the things we play with, and know that using “games” or “toys” implies using cultural, economic, and social concepts, tied to a specific culture and moment in time. Or, playthings are eternal, games are transient.

(sort of)