things to burn

things to burn

My second informative encounter was with a query and resulting conversation thread initiated on Facebook by game designer Grant Howitt, creative lead for the UK-based live games company Serious Business. Howitt posed the question, to a community of live gaming enthusiasts: ‘Would you cut off a lock of hair as part of playing a game?’ (Howitt 2014, pers. comm., 10 January).

Howitt’s question illustrates the concept of indexicality, which I had become fascinated with during my early research on pervasive games. Put forward by games scholar Marcus Montola (2009), it refers to a particular quality of mediation between player and play in which ‘gameplay allows doing things for real during the game’ (ibid. p. 20). Montola offers the example of the pervasive game Killer, in which players will often sneak up on each other during the course of day-to-day, material reality. In contrast to this kind of indexical action, games and other mediated situations may instead rely on a relationship between player and action that is either symbolic or iconic (ibid.). In symbolic play as demonstrated by a board game, ‘you would play a sneaking card to symbolically convey the act of sneaking,’ (ibid.); in the kind of iconic play frequently found in digital games you might ‘push the “up” arrow in order to sneak ahead’ (ibid.). As Montola notes, with indexical play ‘the pleasure of sneaking is in the sneaking itself, not in an elaborate simulation of sneaking’ (ibid.).

In response to Howitt’s query, a commenter asked whether the cutting of one’s hair was meant to test players’ willingness to “permanently” change their appearance for the sake of the game, or to give something of themselves. Howitt confirmed the latter, yet either option implies the same level of indexicality — the same sacrificial act of cutting one’s hair for real. I had sensed this same indexicality in the matchsticks from their first moment of creation, and when I shared them publicly Howitt was one of the first to confirm my own feelings about the work: ‘I can’t get enough of the idea that these are things that you can burn; that to burn them is, in a way, attention and veneration to the concept’ (Howitt 2014 pers. comms., 12 December).

The indexical as theorised by Montola places its emphasis on action: doing things for real. Objects are referenced only insofar as they are implicated by these actions. But in nearly all of the comments that I received about the matchsticks the emphasis was inverse. Here the object was foregrounded, its affordances dictating any implied action. As Howitt’s creative partner Mary Hamilton succinctly described the set that I had given her: Things to burn.

Since it was my intention to continue working with objects for a while, I went looking for more sources to illuminate this material indexicality. I found what I was looking for in the most unlikely of places: a rat. Charles Baudelaire’s rat, to be precise.

The connection is not as strange as it may sound, for the 19th century French writer was deeply interested not only in urban walking (Coverly 2010) but also in children’s play. Of particular interest to Baudelaire was the question of the real that arises between children and the objects of their play. In the essay Morale du joujou (1853, cited in Warner 2009) he writes of the “soul” of the toy, and describes how children ‘will turn about their playthings and shake them, hurl them to the ground, and often break them in their bafflement and even rage at their stubborn refusal to awaken into life’ (Warner 2009, p. 4).

Baudelaire elaborates on this idea in the poem Le joujou du pauvre (1862, cited in Warner 2009), which tells of an encounter between a rich child and a poor child who stand on either side of mansion gates. Behind bars the rich child clutches an expensive doll, ‘as fresh as its master, varnished, gilded, clothed in a purple dress and covered with plumes and glitter’ (Baudelaire in Warner 2009, p. 4). But the princeling loses all interest in his fancy doll when the street urchin lifts up a small cage to display his own plaything: a breathing, twitching rat, ‘drawn from life itself’ (ibid.).

Drawn from life itself. Perhaps this observation said no more about the real in play than Montola’s indexicality, but in separating object from action it also seemed to isolate a certain quality. Not perhaps that of consciousness or the ability to draw breath, but something nonetheless suggestive of the animate. T1

T1:Here I first began to conceive of a distinction that would eventually inform the essence of the game. This distinction was between the inert toy as constructed by Winnicott’s (1971) transitional object, and the animate counterpart as suggested by Abram’s (1997) ecology of magic. The theoretical aspect of this framing is partly retrospective, as I was yet to realise Abram’s relevance to the project. But the juxtaposition between doll and rat in Baudelaire’s poem shifted my engagement with Winnicott, directing my attention beyond the liminality of his key theory to its equally essential subjectivity. I saw that transitional space was not only a holding ground between inner and outer worlds, but was more specifically a space defined by ‘the precariousness of the interplay of personal psychic reality and the experience of control of actual objects’ (Winnicott 1971, p. 47). While Winnicott asserts this imagined control to be ‘the precariousness of magic itself’ (ibid.), I now began to question whether magic must always be such a wholly subjective affair.