Computer Gaming and Protocols of Improvisation


Improvisation for performance involves a voluntary discipline when individuals come together to devise rules for their play, in an open-ended arrangement allowing individual expression within the ensemble of players. Chernoff elaborates: "...[T]he musical form is open rather than rigid, set up so it affords a focus for the expression of individuality that subtly distinguishes an occasion within the context of tradition" (126). Normative communitas--and improvisation--seek to strike a balance between the human needs for individual expression and social integration.

"Jazz is not just, 'Well, man, this is what I feel like playing.' It's a very structured thing that comes down from a tradition and requires a lot of thought and study" (Wynton Marsalis, qtd. in Berliner 63).

Berliner comments: "[D]espite stylistic changes over time, jazz retains the continuity of certain underlying practices and values associated with improvisation, learning, and transmission. These factors of continuity, moreover, rest at the very core of the tradition, contributing to its integrity as a music system" (14).

Turner uses the term "normative communitas" to describe times when "individuals come together and devise rules for themselves" (Anthropology of Performance 44). As a demonstration of normative communitas, improvisation uses protocols to create conditions which allow spontaneous expression in a communal setting. With a similar intention of creating a form of social organization respecting individual contributions, Joseph Chaikin--one of the founders of the Open Theatre--calls normative communitas a "voluntary discipline." The discipline is necessary, and related to notions of character: "Because of the way things are in this country, we often act out of a dictate that has nothing to do with ourselves. We must not take that into our work, for, if we do, we won't be able to recognize our own impulses..." (The Presence of the Actor 80). That the discipline is voluntary marks the practice as being non-coercive, not conceived for purposes of power and control, and thus culturally subversive in its contrast to any authoritarian cultural regime. Since the discipline is voluntary, individuals are encouraged to take a high degree of personal responsibility for their involvement.

The formation of gaming communities--both online and off--is fertile ground for improvisation. In these communities, tradition will play an increasingly important role, both as a source of cultural lore and popular culture, and as a system of transmission for important learning. When we are learning how to perform with computer games, what is it we are embodying with our practice?