Playing It Is as If: A Perspective

Game designer Pippin Barr says, “I don’t make popular videogames. I make videogames to think about videogames.” Here he introduces two games that allow you to participate in the experience of playing them. Think about that.

Speculative play is a form of critical design and creation that prioritizes players’ own engagement with key questions around technology and human society through play. The speculation involved allows us to look into the future and consider where we’re headed and what it might look like once we’re there. The play allows us to tread lightly, even with humor, as we consider the path ahead.

The two scenarios posed in my games It Is as If You Were Playing Chess and It Is as If You Were Doing Work are speculative fictions that explore future possibilities for technology and how they might affect our lives. And yet the two pieces of software described are real and can be played right now in your web browser. They are examples of what my colleagues and I are calling speculative play, a design approach focused on creating playful software that explores possible alternate presents and futures through interactive experiences. In our projects, we are most interested in the expressivity of interaction itself and how this can be used to encourage curiosity, questioning, and exploration not just for us as researchers but for the players and users of the software. Speculative play allows us all not just to ask “what if?” but to play “It Is as If….”

Speculative play allows us to tread lightly, even with humor, as we consider the path ahead.

It Is as If You Were Playing Chess not only poses the idea of a chess game you merely pretend to be playing, but brings it to life and so allows you to participate in the experience itself. You really can ride a subway or bus, take out your cellphone, and load the game up in your browser. Hearing or reading about the game is one thing, but going through its motions yourself—raising an eyebrow or scratching your neck when instructed—places you in the alternate present the game comes from. With the game in your hands, it becomes possible to identify subtleties of experience, of context, and of emotion that might not easily come to you if you only read about the game. Likewise, It Is as If You Were Doing Work does not only suggest a potential future without human labor and the sense of value we draw from it, it positions you as an agent in that very world. As you click your mouse and tap on your keyboard, you are interacting with that future in ways that go beyond an intellectual understanding of its possibility: you are able to entertain how it might feel. You are able to experience the thrill of achievement associated with success in the game as well as the inevitable hollowness that the cumulative “achievements” lead you toward.

These two games are designed, most of all, for you to ask questions about possible futures or presents based on the interactions you carry out and experience. How does it feel to be released from the need to actively manage your responses? What does it mean when we willingly let go of our own agency with technology? To what extent do we perform with technology as a signal to others that we are useful, productive members of society? And how do and will these elements of technology transform us and our world? Rather than answer in words, these two games invite you to ask these questions of yourself, with the support of your own experience, however brief, in the worlds the games draw you into.

Look for more from Pippin Barr in February.

About Pippin Barr

Pippin Barr is an assistant professor in the Department of Design and Computation Arts and associate director of the Technoculture, Art and Games Lab at Concordia University, Montreal, Canada. A game designer, he is the author of How to Play a Video Game.

PLAY empowers the players.