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The Simple Pleasures of Tresspassing

Jan
21

Explore the world, one rooftop at a time.


The ever-insightful Gus Mastrapa points to one of the central pleasures in videogames in a recent colum:

Video Games Make Trespassers Out Of Us All

We don’t realize it, but our everyday lives are full of limitations. Our daily rituals take place in a narrow channel walled by invisible barriers. When you take a stroll through your neighborhood you’re surrounded on all sides by off-limit space. And if I remember the life of a teenager accurately, those aren’t the only ways that choice is removed from the average American teen’s life.

Climbing ladders on the side of buildings, hoping down manholes, exploring the homes and computers of strangers–these are all the kinds of things that would get you killed, or arrested in real life, but form some of the basic tropes of exploration in games.

Mastrapa aptly blends how some of the most fun things in a game are really things that you could do today, but just seem a little too risky–like climbing that fence around an abandon building to see what’s inside.

I find this parallelism between games and life particularly apt since it fits well with my notion of fun as something that both is and isn’t what it seems. Maybe blowing the head off a zombie is exciting because it is so strange. But jumping a backyard fence in a game is that close to something you might do this weekend.

Games might be at their best when they remind us of how normal they are, and give us a quick escape from the normalcy.

Minecraft Urbanism and Taking the Fun Out of Place

Dec
17

Minecraft has become a recent obsession. A sort of SimCity meets Lego meets Dungeons and Dragons, the emphasis is on building and exploration. And all the while you click away at the endless landscape of blocks, you have a feeling that the game is more important than just your latest game habit.

This video walks right up to that question and offers some tantalizing answers:

By connecting Minecraft to history of playful architecture and urban intervention–from Cedric Price and Constant to Archigram and the Situationists–the author grounds Minecraft the game in an environmental impulse that has been around a lot longer than videogames.

And while I think he has opened up a great line of thought, the rhetoric of the presentation is pitch perfect to remove the fun from these games and urban speculations and turn them into design tools and critical theory. I think the impulse is a good one. But it’s also a perfect illustration of how we rationally dissect the ambiguity in play and games, and yank out the fun in the process.

Fun or Funny?

Oct
18

Peter McGraw

Fun and funny.

What’s the difference, how can you tell and why does it matter? The connection seems to lie right below the surface, but remains as quick as a fish and twice as slippery when you try to grab it.

In one of those unscripted moments in life where things comes together in such a perfect way that it seems improbable because it all feels conveniently coincidental, I gave a speech last August at TEDx Boulder on “What makes a place fun?” while Colorado University Boulder professor Dr. Peter McGraw gave a speech titled “What makes things funny?”

Anyone following the narrative will figure that the TED event organizers just matched Pete and I up to provide some poetic symmetry and maybe stimulate some debate. But I don’t think that is the case. I was invited to speak because I research videogames and architecture. So, there really wasn’t any specific guidance on my topic. I might have ended up talking about “What do games have to do with architecture?” During a last minute deadline, I opted for the topic, “What makes a place fun?”

For me, the coincidence has more to do with the zeitgeist. Fun and funny are in the air and the TEDx Boulder organizers have a good nose for popular culture news.

So what?

On face value, there is a particular question that deserves to be answered—what is the relationship between fun and funny? Is this another coincidence, one of language? Is it just luck of the linguistic bounce that two words that seem to have a relationship clearly have a structural connection? Or is it something else? Do the words grow from a common root in meaning? Do fun and funny share more than several letters in common?
Since Peter and I gave two speeches almost side-by side, it seems worthwhile to compare the two ideas and look for a connection and to search for meaningful discrepancies. I can see both.

Peter’s theory revolves around the notion of “benign violation.” Basically, the theory holds that we think things are funny when they violate some social or psychological convention, but do it in a non-threatening way. So, we laugh when a waiter drops a tray full of plates, but not if that was our dinner he was carrying. Tickling seems the case example. We react as if we are being attacked, but we know we are not so we laugh.

My notion of fun, distilled from Brian Sutton-Smith in “The Ambiguity of Play” and D.W. Winnicott’s “Playing and Reality” assumes that what we call “fun” are things that both are and are not at the same time. So, Cinderella’s Castle in the middle of Disneyland is certainly there and it’s shaped like a castle. But it’s not really a castle in any meaningful sense of the word. And since it is both a castle and not-a –castle at the same time, it seems wondrous, fantastic and fun.

Clearly Benign Violation Theory (BVT) and fun as the is/is not share a similar structure. Both rely on things that are both there and not there. Someone mocking an ethnic group at a comedy club is funny, because we both get the violation (you should not make fun of a minority group) along with the benign nature of the mockery (I’m only kidding!”). This matches the fun theory which would hold this is fun because the person IS mocking a minority group but IS NOT (“I’m only kidding”). If for a moment we think that the person is deadly serious, well then, we have left the comedy club and entered the no-fun world of political hate.

Where I see the big difference is this:

I propose that everything that is funny is fun. But not everything that is fun is funny. Laughing is always fun. But taking a nap may be fun, but it’s not funny.

The reason for this I think is a fundamental distinction between funny as a specific psychological effect and fun as a broader philosophical phenomenon. In a simple sense, fun subsumes funny, and by implication, is/is not consumes BVT.

This observation is not meant to collapse funny into fun. But to recognize that funny is a specific form of is/is not. The benign (the is) and its contracting violation (the is not), creates an explosive collision that results in laughter. In the process, the benign consumes the violation, otherwise the laughing stops. But fun is a more contingent and ongoing state, where the categories do not collapse, but stay present, neither consuming nor being consumed by the other.

Of course, this is a cocktail napkin sketch of the relationship, As such, this is a conversation started. And be sure to check out Pete’s thoughts on the same idea on his blog.

Fun: Abridged

Oct
15

What makes a place fun?


Prior to my TEDx Boulder talk on “What makes a place fun?” CU Boulder profession, and scholar of the concept of “funny” asked me for a a quick answer to the question I posed in my talk title.

Here’s the answer in under a minute on Peter’s site.

(Board) Games and Architecture

Oct
04

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Maharaja game box

A game about architecture? Maybe

There is an ongoing interest in the idea of games and architecture. Usually this means videogames. And usually this means how buildings are designed in games.

When you want to think more about the concept of games and the concept of architecture, I think it helps to look at board games. I have taught an urban planning class using games, and I found that board and card games were generally better at peeling back the principles of planning that I wanted to talk about. SimCity is a lot of fun. But you have to spend a lot of time pulling back the curtains on the software to get to the heart of the matter.

I have not tried teaching architecture with games. But the idea intrigues me. So, I was happy to find this list of board games that feature, or other, relate to architecture in some way or another.

Keep on tricky thing in mind. Games are very spatial things. They tend to happen on a board or a court or a screen. Their spatiality tends to be one of their primary attributes. So, when looking for games about architecture, there may be some wonderful games that don’t directly deal with architecture, per se, but may actually speak more to the subject that games that send you around building little buildings

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