Computer Gaming and Protocols of Improvisation


"Seated in the old mammalian brain, improvisation is a process originating in play in mammals....With these new types of animals, a new brain evolved, a horseshoe shaped structure called the limbic system....The limbic system is the center of emotions, parenting, social organization and play. And play is the device which permits all mammals to have fun, but gives them the means of mastering the skills needed for survival" (Edward Hall 224)

"You can play games with toys. But you can also engage in more freeform play with toys. It doesn't have to be a goal directed activity. I think of toys as being more open-ended than games. We can use a ball to play a game such as basketball, or we can just toss the ball back and forth, or I can experiment with the ball, bouncing it off of different things. So, I would think of toys as a broader category. Also, toys can be combined. I can strap Barbie to my R.C. car and drive her around, thus making up a new activity by combining toys. Games tend to be isolated universes where there's a rule-set, and once you leave that universe the rule set is meaningless."(Will Wright, qtd. in Richard Rouse, Game Design: Theory & Practice. 2001.

Richard Schechner's description of performative consciousness is influenced by the work of anthropologist Victor Turner who conceived of play as a liminal, or boundary-crossing experience. Synthesizing the research of van Gennep, Huizinga, Caillois and others, Turners argues that, in play, we combine what we have at hand--what is, the indicative function--with what could be--the subjunctive, or provisional function (From Ritual to Theatre 28). For example, we might take a stick or a pencil and play as if it were a magic wand. We make paper airplanes. We create virtual worlds. We are bricoleurs who assemble the materials at hand into something new and heterogenous, often on the fly. As did the Surrealists, we make radical juxtapositions to shock the unconscious into awareness. In so doing, we participate in an activity which is highly engaging cognitively since we are integrating analytical (indicative) and associative (subjunctive) mental processes.

In his essay "Body, Brain and Culture," Turner argues that "at the neurobiological level play might have something to do with the sensitization of neural structures of an interface type, like the limbic system at the core of the brain..." (167) He locates this playful function at the intersection of energy-expending (ergotropic) and energy-conserving (trophotropic) processes within the nervous system. Turner cites the research of d'Aquili and Laughlin which suggests that "when either the ergotropic or trophotropic system is hyperstimulated, there results a 'spillover' into the opposite system after 'three stages of tuning,' often by 'driving behaviors' employed to facilitate ritual trance....[T]he rhythmic activity of ritual, aided by sonic, visual, photic, and other kinds of 'driving,' may lead in time to simultaneous maximal stimulation of both systems, causing ritual participants to experience what the authors call 'positive, ineffable affect'." (Anthropology of Performance 165)

In effect, repetitive "driving" behaviors, whether sustained by meditation, ritual, music, or computer gaming may create a state of satori or ecstasy.

To what extent do the protocols of computer games engage the performative aspects of play? How are participants enjoined to combine what is--the indicative mode--with what could be--the subjunctive mode? How do games initiate and sustain cognitive driving behaviours?