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A 'Playbour' of Love for the Next Twenty Years - Pat Kane

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This is an entry in The Future We Deserve - a collaborative book project about the future. See all the entries or talk about this entry.



To measure the impact of the new mainstream culture of play on the rest of society, we have to be specific about what kinds of play we're talking about. There are two essential dimensions to play: it takes reality lightly, and it is something voluntarily entered into. So there are many opportunities for organisations of all kinds to read play cultures wrongly. For example, it may look as if the guild loyalty, commitment to routine and skill-acquisition, and lust for success and awards that are on display in the average synthetic world (e.g. World of Warcraft) is the return of a new work ethic online - a 'playbour' that can be redirected to enterprise efficiency. In my view, that would be a bad judgement. Players in these games are freely choosing their worlds and are embracing the labours within these worlds as an attraction of the overall immersive experience. Make a game out of the day screen-job of selling insurance, and there's a great risk of extreme alienation. Play is a step towards a semi-utopian alignment of passions and opportunities, or it's nothing. And a generation of players is much more of a challenge to the very divisions of labour and occupations we currently toil under than it is an opportunity to adapt them (via a few avatars and power-up competitions) to the exigencies of Business As Usual.

"Playbour" - incidentally, first coined by the video-game theorist Julian Kucklich, and as a pejorative, not an aspiration - is a critical term that can be applied to any interaction, simulatory or networked experience that uses the techniques of play (absorption, immersion, repetition, recombination) to extract some kind of labour from a user that might contribute to a corporate bottom-line. A paradigm example is our interactions on Facebook through chat and games, enriching their database so that 'sentiment analysis' can take place to better serve their advertisers. Apple's various touch interfaces are potential playbour moments.

I'm not sure how it'll specifically develop in the '10s, other than to become a commercial aesthetic that will smear across most screens and interfaces, but I am vaguely interested in the possibility of 'civic playbour' - that users can be appealed to as good citizens and asked to use their devices to help process information that clearly has social or collective use, the grind of the labour in playbour being mitigated by its ethical outcome. SETI@home or Wikipedia meets the game platform. There are early versions of this (see The Extraordinaries[1]). And I think public services might get smarter at gameifying their services, under the general constriction of funds over the next few years, which are compelling the discourse of 'co-production' of services. Games can be 'co-productions' in that sense. But the danger is, as ever, that too much coercion and duty presses into the game experience. The voluntarism of play is always key.

There might be an opportunity for new models of citizenship for the Millennials, based on play-game offers coming from social enterprises and the state. But there is a crucial consequence involved in bringing play cultures into the heart of your infrastructure - they are sprawling, messy, generative, and always pushing at bureaucratic or commercial time-money constraints. The New Economic Foundation's recent report on the 21-hour week can be read as a plea for more 'play-time' in our lives - meaning more time beyond strict economic considerations to proliferate lifestyle experimentation, self-determination, and processes of conviviality and creativity in our lives. 'Playbour' as a ludic dressing-up of the same old produce-to-consume paradigm of Western capitalism will easily be rumbled by the Multitude (see Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt).

'Playbour' as the ideal reconciliation of social duty and semiotic flexibility, in a steady-state, sustainably-aware post-carbon economy, might be an entirely new social ethic. A true 'play ethic', as I would say.

  1. http://www.theextraordinaries.org/