Technoculture, Art and Games (TAG) is an interdisciplinary centre for research/ creation in game studies and design, digital culture and interactive art


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DiGRA report

Posted by Bart

With back to back events this past September its been difficult to find the time to reflect on all that has happened.  Better late than never though so I’ll start with DiGRA reflections.  DiGRA 2011 took place in Hilversum, Netherlands Sept 14-17 this year. Some folks had worried about the timing of the conference, the shifts in format, the ongoing fiscal crises of universities…   but the place was full, the program was full, and the audiences for papers seemingly substantial.

I say seemingly because the great innovation for this years DiGRA was in conference design… or rather I now have a new appreciation that conference organization is a genuine and worthy design problem. Marinka Copier took her task in this sense very seriously. Acting as more than a meticulous host, Marinka and the organization team created unique sites of engagement for conference participants and our collective objects of study.  Here are my highlights…

The Super BUTTON koala Party was an opening event that has been difficult for me to describe — a mess of causal party games curated by Doug Wilson, multiple performance DJs including the very gamey Kid Koala (I didn’t know he was a Montrealer), Dutch professional wrestling matches (really), good beer but terrible mixed drinks.  All this is the setting for the usual and all important social re-bonding that conferences are for… the necessity for a kind of collective reboot that allows us to clear the air (of gossip, griping and quotidian things) and remind ourselves of our mutual interests without becoming deadly serious.  I actually liked hearing the comments… “is this game studies?” and “I don’t know about this” – damn straight.  What would you rather have, a wine and cheese reception?  And tell me, what is it about academics and cheese?

The program was super jammed.  I’d argue that maybe we over programmed the conference with events running straight for 12 hours or so as a mixture of keynotes, panels and the new fangled Match format. Plus games and demos from the design studies of the Utrecht School of Art and Design and a good amount of interstitial  conversation aided by the outdoor setting and great weather (it would have been a total bummer in the rain).

Okay lots to mention but here are a few edifying items perhaps…

– A skype talk with Mary Flanagan and  Antanas Mockus. Mockus is a former mayor of Bogota who had some unique insights on social rule following, civic society and the politics of playfulness or perhaps unseriousness. It was difficult to really press him on his thinking about games and play in the context of his politics but I saw more openings for counter-gamification game studies theorizing in this talk than in most others.

– Reiner Knizia‘s keynote and the board game panel helped to get me thinking about European board game design in relation to game studies. Knizia is too much of a brand to provide much insight but board games are excellent for thinking about the rule-boundness of meaningful action in games. Missing from most of the designer focused talks was a conversation about board gaming as a kind of social encounter (a la Goffman) and since Jakko Stenros was there my mind kept wandering around the trifecta relation of board gaming, LARPing and video gaming. Assuming there is a unity there it would most certainly have to do with the social nature of rules.

Bernie DeKoven‘s keynote. DeKoven is the author of “The Well Played Game” and honestly I had never really heard of him before.  He is an important figure in the American New Games movement from the 60s and a kind of play activist (see this excellent little paper by Fred Turner on New Games). I can see why designers might idolize him but his very Californian feeling conception of social change through play doesn’t seem to rest easy with Antanas Mockus’ kind of pragmatic “playful”politics.  I don’t mean to be cynical, I am just not so sure…   after his talk we went out to play some “new” games…  I was still not so sure…

– my own talks.  The first one was a match format with the indomitable Espen Aarseth and while our match was very well attended with standing room only and folks jumping out of windows, we didn’t make the best use of the format as we could have.  Espen wanted to work through some new thoughts on Huizenga and pulled on some less magic circley aspects of his work as well as a more thorough and long duree historicism for the games we study.  I wanted to talk about the importance of considering “imagination” in the study of games and I had a few notes on imagination as a sociological rather than psychological concept.  The two talks didn’t quite go together so we said our piece and then went to town on the magic circle with Espen against and me wanting to defend the concept with renewed vigor.  Lots of banter and conversation on this  — if Espen and I had planned something more carefully together it could have been very productive.

– my other talk was a version of my Nintendogs as Companion Species paper in a panel with Seth Giddings and Patrick Crogan. This was a good example of a paper that did not belong in the ‘short and sweet’ formats of the conference and I take it as a sign that I should just rework the thing one more time for publication already…   research for the panel though did lead me to a Nigel Thrift paper on electronic companions though so I am psyched about that plus I think I understand a little more about Steigler after Patrick’s renewed attempt to explain it for us (never mind that Patrick thinks I got him wrong in my question directed back at him).

– last but not least there was the great sense of pride as our own Will Robinson took the stage for the championship round of Eric Zimmerman’s Metagame.  Will brings the trophy home for Montreal and for TAG — woot!