Published OnlineEdited and Accepted Articles

Capturing Urban Play at the Digital-Material Nexus: an Interfacial and Social Practice Research Approach / Larissa Hjorth, Ingrid Richardson


Larissa Hjorth
Distinguished Professor, Design and Creative Practice, RMIT University, Australia

Email: larissa.hjorth@rmit.edu.au
Web: http://www.larissahjorth.net/

Ingrid Richardson
Associate Professor, Creative Arts, Murdoch University, Australia

Email: i.richardson@murdoch.edu.au

Reference this essay: Hjorth, Larissa and Ingrid Richardson. “Capturing Urban Play at the Digital-Material Nexus: an Interfacial and Social Practice Research Approach .” In Urban Interfaces: Media, Art and Performance in Public Spaces, edited by Verhoeff, Nanna, Sigrid Merx, and Michiel de Lange. Leonardo Electronic Almanac 22, no. 4 (March 15, 2019).
Published Online: March 15, 2019
Published in Print: edit
ISBN: edit
ISSN: 1071-4391
Repository: edit

Abstract 
This essay explores the intersection of play and performance to capture the relationality between the digital and non-digital that increasingly constitutes our urban environments. In Branden Hookway’s sense, it is suggested that the dynamic relation between digital games, embodied play and public space generates a performative interface or productive encounter that affords a different experience of urbanity. Through a series of workshops with young people focused on play across digital and material contexts, the chapter considers how innovative research interventions can themselves facilitate an ‘interfacing’ of playful media, embodiment performance and urban place. In particular, it considers how creative social practice effectively informs ethnographic methods and alternative modes of data gathering and knowledge transmission.

The workshops were part of a performance at the Centre for Contemporary Photography (CCP) in August 2015 and the temporary civic space MPavilion in Melbourne, Australia, in February 2016, in which primary and secondary school children were asked to make site-specific corporeal games that responded to their digital play. The exercise not only asked participants to design, test and perform their own games, but also through this performance to consider the relationship or interface between digital and place-based play in the urban context. The chapter discusses how the project enabled researchers and participants to reflect critically upon the relation between everyday perceptions and experiences of contemporary playfulness.

Keywords:  Creative social practice, digital media, interfacing, urban play, ethnography, performative

Introduction 
Urban spaces are dynamic environments with contesting cartographies that are both digital and non-digital. [1] Increasingly, our experience of urban life occurs at the interface of physical location, public screens and mobile location-based media, as networked digital information impacts upon our navigation and movement through the urban environment. At the same time, the playfulness of contemporary media, as identified by Joost Raessens, Fräns Mäyrä, Miguel Sicart and others, becomes integral to this hybrid experience of place. [2] For example, mobile augmented reality games such as Pokémon GO become diffused throughout our daily routines, pedestrian movement, and interaction with the familiar strangers populating our neighborhoods and urban spaces. [3]

As the material gets entangled with the digital, tracing and understanding the playful nature of contemporary media at the digital-material interface can provide much insight into our everyday movements and practices. It is not by accident that many indie game designers are looking towards earlier models that implement corporeal techniques in urban spaces—such as those deployed by Situationist International (SI) and the New Games Movement of the 1970s—as a way in which to rethink contemporary forms of play. These earlier movements encouraged collective, political play in everyday life through techniques like drifting, and non-conventional ways of moving through the city (such as dérive). More recently, the New Arcade initiative—typically a space for ‘indie’ (independent) game designers and creators—seeks to contextualize contemporary digital gaming and play within these older communities of practice. [4] The integration of digital play into corporeal urban encounters facilitates a better understanding of the relational interface between the material and digital. Informing all of these movements is the notion of social practice—that is, the social as a medium that informs and shapes how we inhabit both material and digital worlds.

Social practice theory brings together two parallel worlds—in the humanities, it is captured in the work done by Pierre Bourdieu, Theodore Schatzki and Elizabeth Shove on understanding agency and structure in everyday life, and in art, it speaks to the rise of the ‘social’ as a medium in art practice within a post-relational aesthetics. [5] This essay reflects upon the latter phenomenon, and how combining participatory art and ‘indie’ game techniques that re-envision the urban through play can be used to explore the way the urban interface informs social practice. Through co-design activities that focus on the digital and material relationality of urban interfaces, play and place become entangled in new ways. While much of the work in this area of research has focused on the critical cartographic turn which suggests that we shape digital maps and places as much as they shape us, [6] there is still more work needed to be done on the creative potentialities for understanding digital and material entanglements as part of an embodied experience of place.

This essay considers the intersection of the digital and material in co-designing playful engagement within the urban environment, as part of a broader development of ethnographic creative practice. The participant activities discussed here play a key role in a broader ethnography of mobile gaming in Australian households conducted over three years. That is, rather than simply producing traditional outputs, the project also sought to engage in creative ways with the communities involved. This included an participatory art exhibition on digital and material connections across various forms of play (primarily Minecraft and Lego), and a series of play workshops in which young people co-created their own physical gameplay based on their experience of digital games; it is the latter that will be the focus of discussion in this essay. This approach sought to not only speak to current debates around urban and digital play, but also explore how an ‘interfacial’ research approach might be impactful in terms of generating different ways of gathering data and alternative modes of knowledge transmission and translation. In this manner, games as participatory art were effectively embedded in the ethnographic methods, and the innovative research interventions facilitated a gathering of playful media, performance and urban place. Several theoretical and practical trajectories are integral to this approach.

Firstly, the emergence of urban media studies points to an increasing scholarly interest in the way media interfaces—from mobile phones and locational data to the proliferation of urban screens—impact upon our movement through and experience of the city. [7] Secondly, as a number of theorists have noted, [8] the methodological entanglement of contemporary art practice and ethnographic inquiry has existed for more than a decade in the form of “relational aesthetics,” where the artist and audience collaborate in a reflexive and participatory process. [9] Here the social becomes the medium. This ‘social turn’ can also be seen in the exploration of more complex and holistic methodologies and approaches.  [10] Theorists such as Shove and Schatzki have pointed to the importance of social practice as a way to inform theory, a shift that has also occurred in the visual arts. [11] When located in urban space, the coming together of performance-based art and ethnography, while complex and often tacit, has provided important insights into media-inflected place-making practices. More specifically, the deliberate interfacing of digital, non-digital and hybrid forms of creativity and play in the urban context, as a mode of research, can effectively generate spaces to consider, reflect and rethink mundane and intimate practices and how they are emplaced, or integral to how we dynamically perceive and ‘make’ place.

Thirdly, over the past ten years the concept and activity of ‘play’ has come to the attention of many researchers across the disciplinary fields of creative art, media and communication studies, cultural theory and game studies. [12] As games scholar Sicart observed in Play Matters, within current practices across art, games, urban architecture and design, the playful has become a pivotal attitude in the expression of the contemporary. [13] Digital media cultures have undergone a process of ludification, [14] and within the ubiquity of contemporary media, the playful has become all-pervasive—across mobile and immobile screens, domestic and urban spaces, work and leisure.

Yet in its cultural and social specificity, play can usefully be understood and applied as an activity, attitude, probe and research method. [15] As aforementioned, movements such as the Situationist International that sought to intervene in everyday urban environments, tactically positioned play as a mode of critical inquiry and intervention. [16] More recently, the New Arcade movement recalibrates our understandings of play and social interaction in cityscapes. This chapter focuses on how digital play and mobile screens translate into our embodied experience of urban places. More specifically, it brings together each of these domains—participatory performance art, ethnography, media and play in the urban context—to suggest that such an interfacial mode of research can provide new insights into the way our existing perceptions of play and dynamic enactments of the playful attitude, which are deeply informed by our engagement with game media, can impact upon our experience of the urban environment.

The essay begins with brief overview of urban media play, and suggests how the intersection between play, performance art, and urban spaces can provide productive pathways for innovative research approaches. It then turns to a description of the project as set of dynamic and participatory design activities, with a discussion of key critical insights gleaned from the enactment of digital and material play in urban spaces.

 

A Short History of Urban Media Play

Historically, location-based games—also referred to as urban games, big games, pervasive games, and hybrid, augmented or mixed reality games—emerged out of avant-garde new media art, and involved creative experimentation with nascent media interfaces, platforms and networks. Such work deliberately sought to challenge or disrupt the mundane and familiar by transforming public spaces into playful places. [17] Yet, although location-based social games were once considered experimental in their enablement of geosocial play practices, they have more recently been mainstreamed, [18] normalized and commodified, part of the more general cultural shift towards gamification. Against this trend, creators of urban and community games such as UK new media group Blast Theory continue to deliberately ‘hack’ public space, inviting players to undergo a de-familiarization of their everyday perceptions and experiences of the urban environment.

In this way, location-aware and hybrid reality mobile games can transform urban spaces into participatory gameworlds. Sybille Lammes and Clancy Wilmott have explored the way location-based games (such as RunZombieRun and others) effectively “foreground the fluidity of mapping” such that “maps simultaneously function as (urban) navigational interfaces and gameboards.” [19] For Jordan Frith, the way that mobile apps and map-based games interweave digital and physical information to create hybrid spatial interfaces impacts upon “spatial legibility,” or the way urban environments appear as coherent and recognizable patterns. [20] With developments in mobile technologies and the rise of collaborative platforms, making and sharing digital maps has taken on new playful, ambient, and co-present dimensions, and become a new form of interfacing with urban space. This is evident in our involvement with location-based hybrid reality games such as Pokémon GO; games that require us to adopt an ‘as-if’ structure of experience, such that we move through the environment as if it were game terrain or an urban playground.

Across the disciplines, play can more generally be understood as a creative, social, cultural and political concept, and mode of inquiry and practice. Artist, designer and theorist Mary Flanagan has noted that art history is replete with artists deploying various modes of “critical play” to undermine convention. [21] As Thomas Malaby observes, anthropology and play also have a long history, which has seen ethnography emerge as a dominant suite of methods for understanding game cultures in context. [22] More recently, games such as Minecraft (a remediated digital form of Lego) have become key vehicles for contemporary media literacy workshops in pedagogic research. [23]

A number of theorists have noted the transformative affect of playful and creative practices in contemporary media culture and everyday life. Hameed Chughtai and Michael Myers suggest that Huizinga’s ludic perspective “can be used as a framework to help understand everyday practice” in terms of the way play often resides in the “betwixt and between” of our daily routines, and that people’s day-to-day use of technology frequently involves playful interaction, both communicative and creative. [24] Similarly, Aphra Kerr identifies play as a “key concept for understanding the interaction of users with new media,” while Valerie Frissen et al. claim that “digital technologies in general have an inherent ludic dimension” [25] that is intimately linked to their capacity for connectivity, interactivity, participation, virtuality, and the sharing of creative content. Indeed, they argue that the ubiquity of digital and networked media effectively prefigures our perceptions, experiences and practices in a “playful way.” [26]

While all media interfaces could be said to be part of the “collective playful media landscape,” it is the mobile media device that exhibits and affords a capacity for play that can be carried around with us, thereby embedding playfulness in the interstices of everyday life wherever we happen to be. [27] For Michiel de Lange, play is enacted on, with, and through the mobile, as an increasingly illimitable platform that elicits playful communication and creativity. [28] In Sicart’s terms, mobile play happens in a “tangled world of people, things, spaces and cultures.” [29]

Within urban play scholarship, play must be understood as part of the performance of place. [30] Here, place describes, in Doreen Massey’s sense, our individual and collective “stories so far,” which points to the ongoing dynamism of everyday place-making. [31] It is through this active performance of place that play gets enacted. Correlatively, the important work by Brian Sutton-Smith highlights the way play is intrinsically embedded within local cultural practices. [32] For these theorists, the lusory attitude is an intrinsic part of our culture and identity, one that has become increasingly infused in the digital-material interface that informs our experience of urbanity.

Playful expressions in and around digital media are particularly heightened in the case of children’s usage. [33] In bringing together childhood and play studies with human geography, John Horton documents how his young research participants integrated Pokémon play into the structure of their mundane spatial practices and daily space-time routines, effectively re-making their homes, local shops and neighborhoods as intervolved with the Pokémon universe. [34] In this sense, the recent mobile game phenomenon Pokémon GO can be seen as another instance of the way the ‘stuff’ of media permeates our everyday geographies, and an actualization of the location-based and augmented reality that was experienced by children over ten years ago. [35] As Horton argues, popular media forms have always been “intimately, contingently and formatively co-implicated with/in everyday geographies”; that is, they have always been a prominent mode of interfacing with our local surroundings and urban environs. [36]

Thinking through the implications of play as a performance also recalls the significant theoretical insights of Richard Schechner. [37] As one of the defining figures in the field of performance theory, Schechner’s understanding of performance is heavily influenced by the anthropological and structuralist work of Clifford Geertz and Victor Turner. For Schechner, ritual and play are central to understanding performance within contemporary culture. As Schechner observes, the very act of “being” a human is a performance. [38] Performance studies is concerned with the how—how processes are enacted, how rituals are iterated, and how they are embedded in and flexibly shape cultural practice. It is in this vein that the ethnographic project discussed in this chapter sought to integrate performance and participatory art—what is now called creative social practice—into the research method.

Through the multiple cartographies of location-based mobile games, which act as interfaces between our material and digital realities in contemporary life, the performance of place becomes hybrid or mixed, as we adeptly reconcile sensory, location-aware and networked information, and immediate and mediated communication, perception, and experience. Far from undermining place, the history of mobile media has been one in which the important stories of place and locality are reinforced. [39] This is especially the case with mobile games, yet much of the scholarly work has focused upon big urban games without considering the complex ways other mobile games move in and out of everyday life. In the research project that is the focus of this essay, the intersection of mobile media play and the performance of (and through) place was of deliberate significance in both series of workshops. In the next section the process and outcomes of these workshops are discussed in more detail.

 

Interfacial Research Methods: Adapting Digital Play to Urban Spaces

As mentioned, this project stems from a three-year ethnographic study into mobile games in Australian households, entitled the Games of Being Mobile project (GoBM). Rather than just produce academic outcomes such as publications, which many participants are unlikely to read, the project conducted a series of workshops for young people designed to achieve an embodied knowledge transmission about our findings. One of the key findings concerned the complexity of what constitutes mobile play—a dynamic process that involves play moving from the background to the foreground, from digital to material and back again, across human, more-than-human and multiple media contexts. The workshops explored an interventionist and interfacial mode of research that brought together ethnography, urban space, creativity, performance and mobile media play.

Through a series of workshops with young people focused on gameplay and creativity across digital and material contexts, the project considered how participatory and performative art and design—what might be called creative social practice—can inform ethnographic methods and generate alternative modes of reflection, understanding and interpretation for both researchers and participants. Here, this somewhat unorthodox form of knowledge transmission is one significant outcome of the interfacial method, which seeks to translate scholarly findings (concerning the increasing embedment of the lusory attitude in everyday life) into an experience that is accessible and meaningful to participants. These workshops were part of a performance at the Centre for Contemporary Photography (CCP) in August 2015, and conducted at the temporary public site MPavilion in Melbourne, Australia in February 2016, in which primary school children were asked to make site-specific games that responded to their digital gameplay. [40] The exercise not only asked participants to design, test and perform their own ‘location-based’ games in public space, but to consider and reflect on the relationship between digital and corporeal play. These play workshops drew from the broader ethnographic study of mobile gaming in Australian domestic life, and based on this research presumed the ubiquity of mobile media and play in young people’s lives.

In the series of play workshops conducted at both sites the researchers collaborated with school children to develop playful interventions in and around the two urban spaces. In these workshops participants were familiarized with urban and collaborative physical games such as PacManhattan (in which people dressed as PacMan and PacMan ghosts become ‘avatars’ for players geo-located elsewhere, and are chased around New York), flash-mobbing (where a group of people assemble suddenly in a public place to perform a random act, typically organized through the internet, social media and/or mobile phones), and the Massively Multiplayer Thumbwrestling game (a thumb wrestling exercise involving group interaction. [41] Participants were also introduced to the relatively emergent movement of the New Arcade, which seeks to recalibrate the relationship between digital and non-digital forms of player embodiment and emplacement, and recapture the feeling of co-located play in a social space that mimics the traditional arcade. The discussion and activities were informative while also prompting a collective ‘playful attitude’ among participants and researchers.

Participants then worked in small groups to re-design, test and play a digital game they had adapted into a physical game. This process involved a lot of translation work, requiring participants to adapt, expand and literally ‘corporealize’ their existing perceptions and experiences of a familiar mobile game (played in-the-hands on a small screen) to fit a restricted area of public space, effectively enacting a unique urban interface combining digital and material ontologies, play and performance. In each context—the gallery and the urban public space—the young people deployed different forms of play and performance, and reflected on their place-based and mobile media practices.

 

CCP Workshop: An Indoor Gallery Intervention

At the CCP, five workshops were conducted as playful performances in a designated gallery space over two weeks, consisting of groups of primary (7-11 years old) and high school (13-16 years old) students from three diverse schools. In total, 250 young participants worked collaboratively to adapt to the physical constraints and rule restrictions. In the workshops at CCP, the gallery space was transformed into a game design incubator.

However, as a public indoor space, participants had to negotiate the coming and goings of familiar strangers. Some of these strangers became involuntarily involved in the playful workshops or actively adopted and performed the ‘playful attitude.’ At times participants enjoyed the play too much, and became overly noisy and active, exceeding the bounds of ‘appropriate’ gallery behavior. In the workshop they also had to negotiate each other’s preferred game play and work together in the designing and testing of the game. For example, the digital game of Crossy Road (by Hipster Whale in 2014, see Figure 1), where the objective is to avoid moving obstacles to ‘get to the other side,’ had to be creatively modified to the gallery space. In their adaptation, participants had to observe gallery etiquette (such as being quiet and not running), and work with the constraints and enablements of the gallery as a temporary game space.

 

Figure 1: Students adapt the digital game Crossy Roads to the CCP gallery space, 2015.
Figure 2: Conceptualizing and sketching the adaptation of digital game to physical play, 2015.

 

Figure 3: Conceptualizing and sketching the adaptation of digital game to physical play, 2015.

The CCP workshops sought not only to make students active participants in the designing and testing of adapted digital games, but also to reflect upon the experiences, pleasures, connections, and disconnections between non-digital games (e.g. Lego) and digital games like Minecraft. Throughout the CCP workshops, participants moved between occupying the roles of game designer, game player and ethnographer. They reflected on everyday narratives and experiences of place in the gallery and tried to translate their experience of digital play into their immediate spatial environment. The participants both talked through, and kinesthetically engaged with, notions of play, place, and participatory performance. As primary school student Luca commented:

Today we went to The Art of Play. First we watched a video of a flash mob, the biggest one in Paris. Then we played a thumb wrestle game where you played two people at the same time, one with each hand. After that we made a physical version of Crossy Road and people were the trains and cars. There were parts that you could stand on, some parts you could only stand on the crosses, and parts that you had to dodge the cars and the train, and it was really funny. It made the gallery into a fun place. And also it made me think about the Crossy Road game, like how it would be in the real world.

Many of the children reflected that the play workshops made them think “differently” about their videogame practices by providing them with both the physical and conceptual space to consider the relation between digital and material gameworlds. As secondary student Sophie reflected, “I’ve never thought about what games might look like if they were life-sized. This workshop has definitely made me think differently about the videogames I play.” By adapting gameplay from a mobile game into a physical context and then back again, participants expressed a shift in their understanding and experience of the relation between play, digital interface and place. In terms of trialing a research method, the creative juxtaposition of digital and material gameplay worked as an effective performative and ethnographic technique. Through enacting digital play writ large as a public performance, the workshops elicited reflective insights from the participants with regard to their perceptions of play and place. These insights sprung from an ethnographic intervention that involved the deliberate ‘interfacing’ of digital games, embodied performance, urban space and social and communicative practice. This technique was further explored by taking participants into an outdoor urban space to consider how the different contexts—one a formal art gallery, the other a temporary pavilion in an urban public space—affected, if at all, these perceptions.

 

MPavilion: An Urban Play Intervention

 Expanding upon the earlier iterations of workshops in the gallery space, the researchers conducted a series of workshops at MPavilion with primary school children aged between eight and ten years old (around 120 participants) in February 2016. MPavilion is a temporary innovative civic space and meeting-place located in Victoria Gardens in Melbourne’s Southbank Art Precinct. The site is a venue for cultural events, interventions, performances and workshops from October to February every year. In the play workshops run by the researchers, the activities aimed to explore how creative social practice could inform ethnographic methods and alternative modes of translation and transmission in public urban spaces. As noted earlier, there is a long tradition in art practice, with movements such as SI, that repurposes public space as a way to intervene, circumnavigate and subvert everyday practices of urban mobility and place-making. Historically, urban games have often been political and social activities. [42] However, these activities are mostly practiced by a select few such as artists or urban designers. The MPavilion workshops sought to impart this sense of playful subversion to school children so that they might enact their own intervention and reinterpret their familiar engagement with the urban environment.

These workshops were conducted as a performance-and-play intervention in which the participants were asked to make site-specific games that responded to their digital play. We showed the children examples of urban games that adapted digital games into urban spaces, and asked them to consider the differences between what constitutes ‘good play’ in a digital space as opposed to physical space. As with the CCP workshops, the exercise asked participants to design, test and perform their own games, and to consider the relationship between digital and material play, but this time in the more exposed context of a designated urban greenspace where play—and particularly child’s play—was accepted and encouraged, although populated and traversed by familiar strangers immersed in the routines of urban life.

 

Figure 4: Participants at MPavilion design their adaption of a digital game for the urban park context, 2016.

The MPavilion play workshops ran for two hours. We began with a warm-up flashmob game, where participants received a (generally silly) directive, were given five minutes to find a spot for themselves within a 50-meter radius, and then required to perform their action as instructed. The participants then split into groups, decided which mobile game to recreate, and were allowed 30 minutes to sketch out a paper prototype. Over the next 45 minutes, they tested, tweaked and adapted the game. The small groups then reconvened and showed their games to the whole group. These activities invited participants to explore how a digital game could be effectively re-imagined and reenacted in an urban park or recreation space, and to consider the correlations and possible translations—both conceptual and physical—between mobile games, embodied physical play and performance.

As participants engaged in the translation process, the researchers observed each group enacting quite disparate play performances in the relative behavioral freedom of the Pavilion park. One group of girls focused on the visual aesthetics of the game, deploying colored tape and pens to identify, demarcate and claim specific spaces in the park as more-or-less stylistically representative of the mobile game space. For these game aesthetes, it was all about the authentic ‘look’ of the game. Another group of children focused on the game “feel,” seeking to replicate the affective experience of the mobile game in terms of requisite bodily movements and gestures that simulated the in-game physics. [43] These ambitious participants became frustrated in their effort to capture their game’s embodied affect; as they realized, game feel is often a tacit and nebulous aspect of gameplay, and partially determined by specific game contexts and devices. Another group were less concerned with appearance and affect, and more intent on replicating the game mechanics and ‘winning,’ and their play quickly became quite intense and competitive. As one of the play facilitators Chad noted, “basically we made a very hard game, and the children weren’t ready to give up winning over having fun.” What became apparent, both here and in the CCP workshops, was that protocols of social interaction in public space were, on the one hand, reinforced (e.g. in the ritualized form of competitive play, or ‘being quiet’ in a gallery) and also, subverted (e.g. enacting unconventional, unfamiliar, conspicuous or noisy gameplay amidst strangers). Here the normalized rubric of social practice is a key aspect of the interfacial relation between play, games, bodies and place, and crucial to our understanding of how performative play can work as a way of subverting ‘usual’ or habitual behaviors in the urban environment.

Interestingly, when comparing the two series of workshops, it was those at CCP, in the confined indoor space, that groups became most transgressive, readily testing and contravening gallery rules around etiquette, noise, and performativity. In the outdoor site of MPavilion, groups were more intent on dividing and colonizing the location for their purposes, as the space was intentionally designed as a playful domain and thus experientially commonplace for the young participants. For passersby, some groups may have appeared like typical children playing in the park; other groups, such as the aforementioned aesthetes, visually transformed and marked out the game space, while those seeking to simulate the feel of the game enacted a more obvious choreographed performance. Especially for these latter two groups of participants, the process of collaboratively adapting, designing and performing a game in public resulted in a de-familiarization of, and consequent reflection upon, both their ordinary gameplay and urban place-making practices.

In both sets of workshops the participants were defined as ‘co-researchers,’ ‘experts’ and ‘artists,’ and led many of the playful activities, from discussion and design to testing the games. The workshop tasks invited them to challenge digital and non-digital binaries through spatial adaptation, and to playfully explore the interface between digital and non-digital modes of experience in the public space of the city, as the merger of virtual and actual perception, precipitated by the ubiquity of mobile media, is fast becoming a mundane fact of urban life. As research methods, the workshop activities unfolded out of the collaborative labor of participants and ethnographers, and the process of interfacing the disparate contexts of mobile games, embodied and performative play, social practice and urban space, was an effective way of facilitating knowledge transmission and critical reflection.

In the workshop process design was positioned as a creative practice akin to ethnography—that is, concerned with reflexive, nuanced explorations into cultural practices. Through the deployment of both gallery and park as participatory performance spaces and sites of digital-material interfacing (both conceptually and corporeally), the various settings and activities operated as a means of not only gathering data but also communicating and translating the project’s knowledge to participants, by explicitly focusing their attention on the correlations between digital and emplaced experience in urban space. This transmission not only involved those actively participating in the workshops; members of the general public often became involved too by way of proximity. These workshops not only sought to investigate new interfacial research methods for thinking about and implementing transmission through creative-play-as-performance, but also explored how digital and physical realms coalesced in the dynamic process of these enactments.

 

Conclusion: Ethnographic Practice at the Fertile Interface

 In his landmark text The Interface Effect, Galloway argues that we should reconsider our attribution of “thingness” to media interfaces, and instead suggests that an interface is always a “process or a translation,” a dynamic “fertile nexus.” [44] The research intervention described in this chapter sought to put this idea into action, and at the same time explore how reflexive awareness might be elicited through such an interfacial process of translation. That is, creative social practice. Through the deliberate entanglement of digital and non-digital forms of play, enacted through the merger of urban space, creative art, performance and mobile games, we provided participants with both the conceptual and material means to consider, reflect upon and rethink their everyday playful and place-making practices. In this way, the project explored ways in which ethnography and participatory performance art can foster alternative methods of conducting research, gathering data, and producing and transmitting knowledge.

The workshop process, as it unfolded, revealed and challenged participants’ assumptions, evoking perceptual shifts about the ‘making’ of public space, the actual and potential modalities of everyday play, and the intersections of social and mediated practice. In effect, a complex layering of interfacial modes of research and reflexive participation was revealed. This included the use of the urban environment as both a ‘living lab’ for playful intervention, testing and research, and as a temporary material medium for gameplay; the translation of embodied memories and embedded habits specific to digital game interfaces into a physical space of co-located collaboration; the game as an experience that can be adapted across digital and material contexts (i.e. from screen to urban space); and more broadly performance and public play as an interface that enables us to experience our interaction with place and others differently, and to reflect critically on that experience. Through a series of play intervention workshops in public spaces (one in a gallery, the other in a public park), this project pilot-tested a research procedure that might, in turn, creatively disrupt participants’ experiences and perceptions of their own ‘ways of being’ in the contemporary urban mediascape.

Digital humanities offers new challenges to traditional modes of data collection and knowledge translation and transmission, and researchers in the field are continually seeking and developing new interdisciplinary techniques, strategies and interventions. [45] Performance through and as research, as was practiced in the exploratory methods discussed here, aims to usefully contribute to these endeavors. Working with people as participants, performers, designers, players and collaborators effectively demonstrates how knowledge gathering and transmission can be a fertile reflexive and generative process.

 

Acknowledgments 
The Games of Being Mobile project was kindly funded by the Australian Research Council Discovery scheme.

Authors’ Biographies 
Larissa Hjorth is a digital ethnographer, artist and RMIT Distinguished Professor who studies the socio-cultural dimensions of mobile media and play cultures in the Asia–Pacific. Her recent books include Understanding Social Media (with S. Hinton, 2013) and Gaming in Social, Locative and Mobile Media (with I. Richardson, 2014). She has co-edited The Routledge Companion to Mobile Media (with G. Goggin, 2014), Gaming Cultures and Place (with D. Chan, 2009), Mobile Technologies (with G. Goggin, 2009), Art in Asia-Pacific (with N. King and M. Kataoka, 2014), and Studying Mobile Media(with I. Richardson and J. Burgess, 2012).

Ingrid Richardson is Associate Professor in Creative Arts at Murdoch University, Western Australia. She has a broad interest in the ‘human-technology relation,’ and has published widely on topics such as scientific technovision, virtual and augmented reality, games, mobile media and small-screen practices, urban screens, remix culture and web-based content creation and distribution. She is contributing co-editor of Studying Mobile Media: Cultural Technologies, Mobile Communication and the iPhone (Routledge, 2012, with J. Burgess and L. Hjorth), and co-author of Gaming in Social, Locative and Mobile Media (Palgrave MacMillan, 2014).

 

Notes and References 

[1] Nanna Verhoeff, Mobile Screens: The Visual Regime of Navigation (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2013), 133; Clancy Wilmott, “Cartographic City: Mobile Mapping as a Contemporary Urban Practice,” Refractory (2013), http://refractory.unimelb.edu.au/2012/12/28/wilmott/.

[2] Joost Raessens, “Playful Identities, Or The Ludification Of Culture,” Games & Culture 1, no. 1 (2006): 52-57; Frans Mäyrä, “Playful Mobile Communication: Services Supporting the Culture of Play,” Interactions: Studies in Communication & Culture 3, no. 1 (2012): 55-70;  Miguel Sicart, Play Matters (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014), 1-18.

[3] Larissa Hjorth and Ingrid Richardson, “Pokémon GO: Mobile Media Play, Place-making, and the Digital Wayfarer,” Mobile Media & Communication 5, no. 1 (2017): 3-14.

[4] Jesper Juul, “High-tech Low-tech Authenticity: The Creation of Independent Style at the Independent Games Festival,” in Proceedings of the 9th International Conference on the Foundations of Digital Games (Caribbean: Liberty of the Seas, 2014), https://www.jesperjuul.net/text/independentstyle/.

[5] Pierre Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1990), 52-65; Theodore R. Schatzki, “Introduction: Practice theory,” in The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory, ed. Theodore R. Schatzki, Karin Knorr Cetina and Eike von Savigny (New York: Routledge, 2001), 1-14; Elizabeth Shove, Comfort, Cleanliness and Convenience: The Social Organization of Normality (Oxford: Berg, 2003), 1-16.

[6] Clancy Wilmott, “Cartographic City.”

[7] Scott Rodgers, “The Urban as Emergent Key Concept for Media Theory: An Introduction,” Mediapolis Journal(2016), http://mediapolisjournal.com/author.srodgers/; Zlatan Krajina and Deborah Stevenson, The Routledge Companion to Urban Media and Communication (New York: Routledge, forthcoming).

[8] Heather Horst and Larissa Hjorth, “Visualising Ethnography: Ethnography’s Role in Art and Visual Cultures,” Visual Studies Journal 29, no. 2 (2014): 125-127; Larissa Hjorth and Kristen Sharp, “The Art of Ethnography,” Visual Studies Journal 29, no. 2 (2014): 128-135.

[9] Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (1998; France: Les Presses Du Reel edition, 2002), 1.

[10] Celia Lury and Nina Wakeford, “Introduction: A Perpetual Inventory,” in Inventive Methods: The Happening of the Social, ed. Celia Lury and Nina Wakeford (New York: Routledge, 2012), 1-24.

[11] Schatzki, “Introduction: Practice theory”; Shove, Comfort, Cleanliness and Convenience.

[12] Jon Dovey and Helen W. Kennedy, Game Cultures: Computer Games as New Media (London: Open Uni Press, 2006), 1-12; Sicart, Play Matters.

[13] Sicart, Play Matters.

[14] Valerie Frissen et al., “Homo Ludens 2.0: Play, Media and Identity,” in Playful Identities: The Ludification of Digital Media Cultures, ed. Valerie Frissen, Sybille Lammes, Michiel de Lange, Jos de Mul and Joost Raessens (Amsterdam, Amsterdam University Press, 2015), 9-50.

[15] Brian Sutton-Smith, “Rhetorics of Identity,” in The Ambiguity of Play (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 91-110.

[16] Adriana de Souza e Silva and Larissa Hjorth, “Urban spaces as Playful Spaces: A Historical Approach to Mobile Urban Games,” Simulation and Gaming 40, no. 5 (2009): 602-625.

[17] Wilmott, “Cartographic City.”

[18] Rowan Wilken, “Locative Media: From Specialized Preoccupation to Mainstream Fascination,” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 18, no. 3 (2012): 243-247.

[19] Sybille Lammes and Clancy Wilmott, “The Map as Playground: Location-based Games as Cartographical Practices,” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 24, no. 6 (2018): 648, https://doi.org/10.1177/1354856516679596.

[20] Jordan Frith, “Turning Life into a Game: Foursquare, Gamification, and Personal Mobility,” Mobile Media & Communication 1, no. 2 (2013): 249.

[21] Mary Flanagan, “Introduction to Critical Play,” in Critical Play: Radical Game Design (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), 1-16.

[22] Thomas M. Malaby, “Anthropology and Play: The Contours of Playful Experience” New Literary History 40, no. 1 (2009): 205-218; T.L. Taylor, “The Assemblage of Play,” Games & Culture 4, no. 4 (2009): 331-339.

[23] James Hooper and Penny de Byl, “Towards a Unified Theory of Play: A Case Study of Minecraft,” in Proceedings ofthe 2014 DIGRA Australian Symposium, (Melbourne, 2014), http://digraa.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/29_hooper.pdf; Mizuko Ito, “Why Minecraft Rewrites Playbook for Learning,” boing boing, June 6, 2015, https://boingboing.net/2015/06/06/why-minecraft-rewrites-the-pla.html; Valerie Hill, “Digital Citizenship Through Game Design in Minecraft,” New Library World 116, no. 7-8 (2015): 369-382.

[24] Hameed Chughtai and Michael D. Myers, “A Ludic Perspective on Everyday Practices: Evidence from Ethnographic Fieldwork,” in Proceedings of the 20th Americas Conference on Information Systems AMCIS2014 (Savannah, 2014).

[25] Aphra Kerr, The Business and Culture of Digital Games: GameWork/Gameplay (London: Sage, 2006), 69; Frissen et al., “Homo ludens 2.0,” 10.

[26] Frissen et al., “Homo ludens 2.0,” 36.

[27] Ibid., 29.

[28] Michiel de Lange, “The Playful City,” in Social Technologies and Collective Intelligence, ed. Aelita Skaržauskienė (Vilnius: Mykolas Romeris University, 2015), 426-434.

[29] Sicart, Play Matters, 6.

[30] Frissen et al., “Homo ludens 2.0.”

[31] Doreen Massey, For Space (London: Sage Publications, 2005), 130.

[32] Sutton-Smith, “Rhetorics of Identity.”

[33] Jackie Marsh, “Ritual, Performance and Identity Construction: Young Children’s Engagement with Popular Cultural and Media Texts,” in Popular Culture, New Media and Digital Literacy in Early Childhood (New York: Routledge, 2005), 28–50.

[34] John Horton, “‘Got my shoes, got my Pokémon’: Everyday Geographies of Children’s Popular Culture,” Geoforum43 (2012): 4-13.

[35] Hjorth and Richardson, “Pokémon GO.”

[36] Horton, “‘Got my shoes, got my Pokémon,’” 11-12.

[37] Richard Schechner, Performance Studies: An Introduction (London: Routledge, 2002), 4; Ibid., 67.

[38] Ibid., 29.

[39] Larissa Hjorth, “The Game of Being Mobile,” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 13, no. 4 (2008): 369-381; Mizuko Ito, “Mobiles and the Appropriation of Place,” Receiver 8 (2003), http://www.receiver.vodafone.com.  

[40] See MPavilion, “MPavilion,” accessed May 27, 2019, http://www.mpavilion.org.

[41] See monochrome, “monochrome’s massive Multiplayer Thumb-Wrestling,” accessed May 27, 2019, http://www.monochrom.at/daumen/netzwerk-eng.htm.

[42] De Souza e Silva and Hjorth, “Urban Spaces as Playful Spaces.”

[43] Steve Swink, “Game Feel and Human Perception,” in Game Feel: A Game Designer’s Guide to Virtual Sensation(New York: Morgan Kaufmann Game Design Books, 2008), 35-60.

[44] Alex Galloway, The Interface Effect (New York: Polity, 2013), 32-33.

[45] Celia Lury, “Introduction: Activating the Present of Interdisciplinary Methods,” in The Routledge Handbook of Interdisciplinary Research Methods, ed. Celia Lury, Rachel Fensham, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, Sybille Lammes, Angela Last, Mike Michael and Emma Uprichard (London: Routledge, 2018), 1-26.

 

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De Lange, Michiel. “The Playful City.” In Social Technologies and Collective Intelligence, edited by Aelita Skaržauskienė, 426-434. Vilnius: Mykolas Romeris University, 2015.

De Souza e Silva, Adriana, and Larissa Hjorth. “Urban spaces as Playful Spaces: A Historical Approach to Mobile Urban Games.” Simulation and Gaming 40, no. 5 (2009): 602-625.

Dovey, Jon, and Helen W. Kennedy. Game Cultures: Computer Games as New Media. London: Open Uni Press, 2006.

Flanagan, Mary. “Introduction to Critical Play.” In Critical Play: Radical Game Design, 1-16. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009.

Frissen, Valerie, Sybille Lammes, Michiel de Lange, Jos de Mul and Joost Raessens. “Homo Ludens 2.0: Play, Media and Identity.” In Playful Identities: The Ludification of Digital Media Cultures, edited by Valerie Frissen, Sybille Lammes, Michiel de Lange, Jos de Mul and Joost Raessens, 9-50. Amsterdam, Amsterdam University Press, 2015.

Frith, Jordan. “Turning Life into a Game: Foursquare, Gamification, and Personal Mobility.” Mobile Media & Communication 1, no. 2 (2013): 248-262.

Galloway, Alex. The Interface Effect. New York: Polity, 2013.

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Hjorth, Larissa, and Kristen Sharp. “The Art of Ethnography.” Visual Studies Journal 29, no. 2 (2014): 128-135.

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