Enabling Play

The new issue of Wired has a couple articles I found interesting, covering the Rock Band video game and Robot Chicken on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. To me, both of these cases represent new ways of making old media more accessible, so to speak. In the case of Rock Band, Alex Rigopulos, the CEO of Harmonix, compares the product to early MTV:

“Sitting down and watching music was a new thing — it changed the mass market’s notion of what music entertainment was,” he says. As we sit in his office, he describes how Rock Band could be the next stage of evolution for the music industry, as well as the game industry. […] “In five years, this is how people are going to consume the music they love.”

And in the case of Robot Chicken, we go from playing with toys to watching other people play with their toys:

“The show looks like what nearly every kid did: You got out your cars and G.I. Joes and smashed them together,” says Chicken fan Mike Johnson, codirector of the 2005 stop-mo blockbuster Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride. “The show works because it captures the joy of playing with your toys.”

In both cases, these products are about enabling us to do things we weren’t otherwise able to do as adults. “Playing music is one of the most blissful feelings life has to offer,” Rigopulos says, “But it’s too fucking hard to learn how. Almost everyone quits after six months.”

The barrier to playing with our toys, however, is one of social acceptability rather than difficulty level. We’re able to play with our toys, but perhaps we don’t feel we’re allowed to—unless it can be done through appropriately adult media. This means television in the case of Robot Chicken, or even video games in the case of Lego Star Wars, thanks to gaming’s new status as an adult pursuit. (Something tells me you’ll be hearing me describe a paper about this in a couple months.)

6 thoughts on “Enabling Play

  1. You draw an interesting parallel, Jason. I’d never viewed such activities as sharing the commonality of “play.”

    I think you make a valid point about the inherent social stigma associated with adults and play. Do you feel that this, in some way, accounts for the nerdy predilection to collect toys, be they classic or contemporary? In doing so, is the nerd really just grasping for the mental stimulation and sense of self-fulfillment associated with play without crossing that line in the sand?

  2. We’re able to play with our toys, but perhaps we don’t feel we’re allowed to—unless it can be done through appropriately adult media.

    Another situation where we’re “allowed” to play with toys is in the company of other children. I don’t often find occasion to make my own stuffed animals speak, but when I’m around a 4 year old they come to life pretty fast.

  3. I’m also struck by the ‘playful’ approach that coders often have. They will invest an enormous amount of time and effort into a side pursuit, but invariably describe it with a statement like, “I thought it would be fun to…”

  4. Yeah, I suppose I’m bouncing this of all of you now, but the long and the short of it is that I think this dissertation will be largely about adult vs. juvenile values exemplified in geek culture, especially the role of “play” in media use. Injecting something adult makes a geeky activity more socially acceptable: playing with kids (in a caregiving sort of way) makes toys okay to use; making money off writing sci-fi makes genre fiction less geeky; removing the “let’s play pretend” part from RPGs makes them less childish; and so on.

    Seeing how toys figured into just about every geek store I visit played a part in this, but it crops up in so many other ways, including programming, like Church mentions (but again, programming is acceptably adult because of its connection to work rather than play). I guess I’m still working on how using the word “play” to link these activities might make sense in the context of communication theory, though.

  5. In some ways the Rock Band model for music consumption described here is an old model: back in the day, many people received new/exciting/popular music primarily via the distribution of sheet music for piano. This is how lots of people would have first encountered major orchestral works — as piano reductions to be played in one’s parlor. In terms of media reception and leisure studies, I think there are interesting parallels to be drawn between playing, say, a Beethoven symphony reduced for piano four-hands with your friend from down the street and playing canonical rock songs on a console today.

  6. I completely spaced on this until I read this morning’s WSJ, but brickfilms (stop-motion animation with Legos) would fall squarely in this catagory. (article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB119161384425050432.html?mod=home_we_banner_left) Really, that’s all Robot Chicken is.

    And riffing off of what Kiri said, you can now draw parallels between how the youtube generation approaches video with that bottom-up approach to music that has been around forever.

    Only now, you can ‘play’ with someone across the planet, as well as down the street (mental note: we ‘play’ music. I’ll have to look up the etymology of that.)

    At the risk of tooting my own horn, one of my videos is the fruit of a bunch of different people playing Star Trek. A couple brothers decided it would be fun to make a “TV show” set on another ship in the original Star Trek universe. They brought in a bunch of other people and the result was the Starship Exeter videos. (starshipexeter.com) One of their fans collects Star Trek figures, and he thought it would be fun to mod some of Playmates’ Star Trek figures into Exeter ones. I saw the pictures of them that he posted and thought it would be fun to make a faux commercial for them based on the old Mego Star Trek action figure commmercials.

    An awful lot of stuff has been created by a bunch of grown men playing Trek.

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