Play as Cultural Technique On the Playful Use of Digital Media

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In this interview Daniel Cermak-Sassenrath from the Center for Computer Games Research in Copenhagen explains in what sense play is applied as a cultural technique in contemporary society.

Mr. Cermak-Sassenrath, play is an ancient human cultural technique, practiced by people around the world in a great variety of ways. How would you describe the connection between "play" and "culture"?

For Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, culture and play are deeply related and connected with each other; they develop and unfold together and within each other. This is not only to say that play is one aspect of culture. He sets out to show how "culture itself bears the character of play", and "to integrate the concept of play into that of culture".

But Huizinga is also quite skeptical about play's role in and contribution to today's culture. „To what extent does the civilization we live in still develop in play-forms? How far does the play-spirit dominate the lives of those who share [it]?“ He observes that "games and bodily exercises" were seen as "important cultural values" until "the end of the 18th century", when "the play-element in culture [...] was in full flower". But play begins to fade from culture in the 19th century. Cultural activities that once were deeply playful, have increasingly become calculated acts that have lost their initial purity. Areas such as sports, art and politics lose contact to genuine play. But he also observes the inverse phenomenon. "Certain activities whose whole raison d'être lies in the field of material interest, and which had nothing of play about them in their initial stages, develop what we can only call play-forms as a secondary characteristic."
I see culture as a participatory project to which people individually and collectively contribute. It is not a closed or static system, but constantly open and in flux. It is not only or even primarily received, consumed and assimilated; but people produce, invent, appropriate, subvert, (re-) mix and discard it. Culture is done every day.

What role do you think the internet and our digital age play in this regard?

Digital media play an essential role, and the networked computer has become a major cultural machine; Lev Manovich describes how "all culture, past and present, is being filtered through the computer", and how it mediates "all older forms of cultural production". Peter Lunenfeld observes that it "has colonized cultural production [...] a machine that was designed to crunch numbers has come to crunch everything from printing to music to photography to the cinema". For Ivan Illich, the screen has superseded the book as the basic metaphor of our time. The computer is now seen as a medium, a cultural object and part of everyday life. The interaction with it is perceived as an open-ended process characterized by creative, explorative, goal-oriented and challenging activities.  It becomes increasingly clear that the interaction with digital media invites play and cannot succeed without it. Examples of contexts into which digital media introduce play include politics (e.g. Twitter tweets from politicians), education, business (e.g. crowd funding) and tinkering (i.e. Maker Culture).

But is this play with digital media only an illusion, a misunderstanding or a fake? It is claimed that we live in an era of play euphoria, and that all areas of life can now be played. But Julian Dibbel wonders if this implies that games have taken over productive life, or that they have been completely assimilated in it.

Thinking about play as a cultural technique and the role it plays in today's media landscape: What can we expect in the future?

It is easy to say that people today are, in fact, not closer to Barack Obama or Lewis Hamilton, that discussions on Facebook about humanitarian aid or racism do not help a single person, and that, most obviously, people still consume rather than produce cultural content and structure, possibly in greater number, to a larger amount and with greater effect than before. But it is hard to deny that the medial landscape is changing dramatically and that the potential for participation increases. With Marshall McLuhan I argue that the medium is the message. Not what it transports is relevant for its use and reception, but how. Playful interaction with digital appears to (re-) introduce play into cultural contexts where it was not present or declining before, to naturally involve and engage many people, and to activate them to contribute to rather than merely receive or consume culture. Culture is what we all do, and with digital media, we can play it!

In his dissertation thesis, Dr. Daniel Cermak-Sassenrath discussed play as a perspective in everyday computer use. After stays in Bremen and Auckland (New Zealand) he now holds a position as an Associate Professor and teaches and researches at the Center for Computer Games Research at the IT University (ITU) in Copenhagen (Denmark).