Game/Play is a recent UK based exhibition project that highlights the work of artists whose practice critically references electronic games and/or seeks playful engagements with their audiences. Initially created as a dialogue between two venues Game/Play creates a rhetorical construct that points towards the dichotomous relationship that can exist between these two terms. The two parts of the exhibition will merge and tour the UK in 2008.

The spatial and critical relationships set up between artworks, active participants, and different organisations involved in the project, is Game/Play’s subject. This paper will focus on some of the works exhibited that provide different types of audience engagement. The types of approaches involved requiring either affective or kinesthetic engagement from the audience or seeking to form collaborative or critical relationships with them. It will also examine the production process that led to the creation of the work ‘Aquaplayne’.


Game/Play is an exhibition project initially constructed as a dialogue between two venues, Q Arts, Derby and HTTP, London. These organisations exhibited two sets of artworks that explored notions of playing and gaming in the context of media arts practice. The venues, networked together for the duration of the exhibition, invited their audiences to interact with one another via works positioned on the Internet and others, whose interface was accessible online, but which also had a physical presence in the galleries.

Game/Play provides entry points for diverse audiences ranging from children and families to academics and critical theorists. Many of the works exhibited in Game/Play called for a collaborative approach to their formation from an engaged audience. While it is in the nature of much media art to invite such participation from its audiences, Game/Play explores the transformative zones between technologically enabled artwork and active participant, the works exhibited providing a space in which to play. Many of the exhibited works invite playful exchanges, and the online aspect of the show offers entry points for new audiences. The individuals and groups exhibited come from diverse backgrounds and their projects explore many themes; creating evocative environments and spaces for social engagement, playfully provoking the audience to engage with critical and social issues, or providing humorous commentary on contemporary relationships with technology. There is a playful approach to the territory, balanced with a critically rigorous examination of its themes via the Game/Play website and catalogue;

Many of the works exhibited engender an affective, kinaesthetic, or creative response from their audiences and enter into a dialogue with them as active participants. They employ playful mimesis, or create spaces for socio-dramatic play through physical action and response. For psychologist DW Winnicott (1991), the space between a mother and young child, which becomes the space between the individual and society, is the space where play begins and develops, and which eventually leads to cultural life. Game/Play foregrounds this transitional space as a cultural place, and it is this essence, as explored by the works exhibited, the spatial and critical relationships set up between these, and the organisations involved, which is the subject of the project.

Affective engagements via gaming environments

The Endless Forest by Tale of Tales is a multi-user online ‘game’ that creates a three-dimensional model of a tranquil woodland landscape. Visitors to the space take on the guise of stags, male deer, for the duration of their stay. The device of the stag avatar limits communication between players, which is largely restricted to the use of body language and grunting. Visitors engage with one and other by rubbing trees, rolling over, bowing, and in a playful manner, butting heads. It is a space for non-purposive engagement: there are no rules and very little game-play. Despite the limited vocabulary of these communications, and the simplicity of these engagements, The Endless Forest creates emotionally rich spaces, even for those who would never consider playing computer games. The experience of roaming through the woodland landscape and running into other deer can be described as peaceful and serene, and the interchanges with other players, while lacking in the complexity that spoken or written language provides, as occurring on a primal and emotional level. These encounters are a world away from the often visceral and violent experiences involved in the playing of conventional online multi-user games.

The Endless Forest provides a social space that exists conceptually in a pre-enclosure, and even pre-arable epoch which is created by utilising the private space of the internet and the tools enabled by modern communications technology. The work provides us with opportunities for social interaction, a common ground, while elsewhere the continuing privatisation of public space erodes these opportunities.

Technologically enabled kinesthetic engagements, active participation

When one is fully and completely at play the experience can be described as blissful. ‘Unmediated’, unstructured and consisting of only those rules that are developed through the particular playing, a state of mind can be approached that the French term ‘jouissance’. Beyond mere transgression, this heightened sense was described by Walter Benjamin in his unfinished opus, The Arcades Project , as potentially revolutionary, Buck-Morss (1990).

Aquaplayne by Giles Askham provides a space for play, the nature of which is socio-dramatic and creative. The user's relationship to the work is that of significant, active participant, and the interface is physical and kinesthetic. Aquaplayne is an interactive projection that creates a metaphor for a pond and allows many participants to play with it simultaneously. It consists of a vinyl mat approximately 3 by 2.5 metres in area, fitted with multiple pressure pads positioned on the gallery floor. The pads respond to pressure created by the audience standing, walking, running, or rolling over the mat’s surface. These events trigger the projection of ripples back onto the mat via a projector fitted on the ceiling directly above it.

The visual phenomenon of the ripples is accompanied by associated audio clips of the sound of splashing in water. Intersecting ripples provide further sounds of tumbling waves, which provide an ever-changing soundtrack of the audience’s engagement with one and other.

In order to engage with the work, the audience must occupy a space that is mapped-out on the gallery floor. Aquaplayne provides a space for transaction, a surface as an interface in which the physical is united with the cognitive. By ‘playing’ with one another via the installation, the users of Aquaplayne create abstracted visual imagery and complex soundscapes that represent phenomena of playing, splashing over the surface of water. These phenomena provide traces, which quickly appear and then fade, of their movements and interactions.

The initial concept of the project was to bring children’s socio-dramatic play into the gallery setting, and to make it the subject of a work. The piece needed to offer opportunities for engagement and active participation as well as allowing non-participating audience members the opportunity to observe the types of play facilitated by the work. Aquaplayne was developed through a round of action research into audience participation and engagement within the gallery setting. Pre-school children were invited to play with an early version of the work in the gallery to assess its viability. This early experimentation revealed that once the children became aware of the possibilities that the work allowed, they were very keen to participate. What was lacking, however, was what Andy Polaine has termed an “invitation to play” Polaine (2006).

The work provided no real entry point for the audience to engage with it. Its original passive mode consisted of a random repeating pattern of ripples, and while in this mode the program was doing the audiences work for them. The addition of a passive mode to the program in which bubbles gurgle up to the surface of the pond and then pop, invited the audience to ‘jump in’ in an attempt to burst them. Once they had done this, they then became instantly aware of the possibilities that Aquaplayne offered for play.
In as much as Aquaplayne provides a space for play, the audience’s engagement with the work completes the creative process, while their physical actions trigger a limited range of programmed events, the combinations achieved are multifarious and varied.

Another Game/Play work that explores technologically enabled physical engagement is [giantJoystick] by Mary Flanagan, a scaled-up model of the Atari 2600 games joystick. Reproduced at a height of nine feet, audiences play classic arcade games with this outsized piece of ‘social sculpture’. The nature of this play differs markedly from that intended by the makers of the original stick. The size of the work negates the possibility of playing on one’s own, as it is impossible to control the interface single-handedly. Players are thus required to engage socially, to work cooperatively. Their engagement is also kinesthetic and physical since they need to clamber up on to the work and use their whole bodies to control the stick. Other members of the audience are able to witness the spectacle of collaborative performance that such an engagement produces, and have also felt able at times to goad the players into action. For Christiane Paul it is this engagement that makes players:

“…acknowledge not only the notion of shared space but also the necessity for shared strategies and approaches in order to pursue their goal” Paul (2006).

[giantJoystick], by hugely increasing the size of the Atari joystick, foregrounds the computer interface as a place of social engagement. Through playing with the work and observing others at play our awareness of Human Computer Interfaces is heightened. Mary Flanagan calls ‘playculture’

“…the arena of ordinary, day-to-day computer-based activities that have passed as invisible and unimportant..” Flanagan (2006)

Her aim with [giantJoystick] is to reveal the technological locations for play, to highlight the activities that occur in these spaces, and to show them as social and political acts.


“Fluxus is a creation of the fluid moment. The transformative zone where the shore meets the water is simple and complex.”3 Friedman (1989)

Fluxus, from ‘to flow’, describes art that is intermedial, which is created at the intersection between different media and physical spaces. Fluxus artists always experimented with the technology that was available to them at any given time, and made full use of the communication systems that this enabled, including international telecommunications and postal networks. Contemporary media artists have taken up this baton, using the further developments of the Internet to enable people from diverse regions and countries to come together, to have a dialogue, to create work collaboratively, and in so doing to be artists.

In the post-industrial world, communication technology provides the tools by which much of our work is produced. While this technological implementation has ultimately failed to provide us with more time away from work (unless of course you count being permanently out of work), it has enabled us to develop our relationships across physical boundaries, and has changed how and with whom we play. VisitorsStudio by Furtherfield takes notions of collaborative production to new levels by providing a real-time, online platform for social, creative practice. Multiple users are able to upload files to the website and create an audio-visual mix from this and other material residing in the VisitorsStudio database. It provides an online space for networked performance, and its collaborative nature breaks down divisions between audience and viewer. Active participants are thus able to create an ever changing, and in some senses, negotiated online montage, which serves on one level as documentation of these transactions.

“VisitorsStudio ..offers a readily accessible channel for collective creation and community building with minimal toolsets” Lichty (2006).

While Patrick Lichty has described VisitorsStudio as formally a ‘stone soup’ model for collaboration between remote users, what it provides is a space for performance and creative play. Much like The Endless Forest, VisitorsStudio is an online social space that enables certain forms of playful engagement. However, with VisitorsStudio, the engagement facilitated is creative, collaborative and based on social production and performance.

Critical Engagement

Further playful provocations are made by other Game/Play works that necessitate our engagement with various critical and social issues. TAG By Low Brow Trash examines urban transitional spaces such as underpasses and waste-grounds, and re-creates them in the gallery setting. These places, where we do not normally linger, are populated by an assortment of characters that the audience is forced into a discourse with. TAG thus creates an uneasy dialogue where normally there is none. Confrontation is the subject of Façade, a work by Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern, although the setting this time is initially a more comfortable middle class domestic one. Façade places us at the heart of a domestic dispute and asks that we referee the conflict in which even our best efforts do not always bring our friends back together. The Golden Shot (revisited) by Simon Poulter in a similar vein examines the spaces between viewing and playing, and asks us to consider the consequences of action or inaction. Critical psychological positions are considered in Second Person Shooter by Julian Oliver. The game plays with notions of first and third person agency by inviting the gamer to witness their own demise, as observed through the eyes of the assailant. Notions of objective truth are brought to question, and the space between, as with TAG and Façade, is emphasised.


Brian Sutton-Smith (1997) describes play in its ambiguity as multifarious and our understanding of it as best understood through a set of related rhetorical constructs. These include notions of play: as fatalistic in games of chance, as having competitive characteristics in sport and contests, and very importantly as having ‘adaptive potentiation’. The rituals, games, jokes, fantasies, experiments, and so on that make up play are what enable us to respond to the daily challenges of social living, beyond our basic survival needs.

Game/Play is constructed as a project that engenders a dialogue between different organisations, occupying different geographical and cultural spaces, as well as one between artists from different working contexts and between our divergent audiences. Game/Play explores the physical, cultural, and psychological spaces between us all through the mechanism of different forms of play. It is our call for playful exchange and engagement via the transformative possibilities provided by technologically enabled artworks.


1) Debate has been taking place this summer on a range of topics on the Game/Play website, Facilitated by Ele Carpenter, who is currently researching for a doctoral thesis on activism in media arts at Sunderland University, topics include: collaboration, utopia, and survival. The Game/Play brochure available on the website contains twenty essays by contemporary writers including: Pat Kane, Patrick Lichty, and Christiane Paul.

2) Susan Buck-Morse’s book provides an excellent insight into Benjamin’s unfinished project in The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press

3) A full version of Friedman’s text can be found at:


Buck-Morss, S. (1990) The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press
Flanagan, M. (2006) Game/Play. Derby: QUAD publishing
Friedman, K (1989) Fluxus and Co. New York: Emily Harvey Gallery
Lichty, P. (2006) Game/Play. Derby: QUAD publishing
Paul, C. (2006) Game/Play. Derby: QUAD publishing
Polaine, A. (2006) Game/Play. Derby: QUAD publishing
Sutton-Smith, B. (1997) The Ambiguity of Play. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press
Winnicott, DW. (1991) Playing and Reality. New York: Brunner-Routledge