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This talk presented 2/13 at Pecha Kucha Buffalo, Western New York Book Arts Center.

I am a game designer, theorist, and hacker. You might say that game design is my artistic practice. But I don’t really want to talk about games tonight, because I spend a lot of time talking about them in other venues. Instead, I wanted to take this opportunity to talk about a more personal aspect of my practice, one which is based upon my complex set of social identities — compiled into a single identity that we might call cyborg identity. This is the first and foremost way in which I am a hacker.

We are all cyborgs in a Harawayan sense. We are amalgamations of complicated histories of violence, socialization, and the internalization of the oppression that surrounds us. In her 1989 “Cyborg Manifesto”, Donna Haraway writes about the ways in which feminism has failed women of color and women in the Global South. She neglects to mention the group which has been failed most violently by feminism, transgender people. Feminism has a nasty history of erasing transgender people: denying the humanity and womanhood of trans women, fetishizing and degendering trans men, and rejecting legitimacy of all people who queer gender. This is a topic for another talk entirely — what matters tonight is that Haraway is not trying to squeeze all non-men into a certain framework. She is trying to pull apart the tangle of identity.

The interesting thing about Haraway’s exclusion of transgender identities from her discussion of cyborgs is that we are perfect examples of cyborg praxis. By that I mean, we have bodies mediated in complex, meaningful ways by technology which, in many cases must be separated into component parts (and we are often examined as medical curiosities and rarely treated as holistic people); we have a preoccupation with the technologies of writing and language; and regardless of the complex gender identity we claim for ourselves, we represent an embodied experience of dissonance, language-play, Deleuzian multiplicity, and mediation. Trans people are living rejections of a dualism that separates the mind from the body: by virtue of our trans-ness, we refuse that there is any division at all.

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This is a big-deal idea I’ve been developing for some time, and I kind of want to air it out, probably because I’m lecturing on future forecasting games tomorrow in class. I’ve been thinking a lot about the issue of praxis for the information age in activism and education, and what the logical outgrowth of a Frierian model would look like, were it to be adapted to the internet. I don’t think you can get better than alternate reality games, and I have a couple reasons why. I don’t think I’m going to delve too deeply into this at the moment, but this might evolve into a more serious paper at some point. For now I just want to sketch my thesis and show where I see the parallels that I want to draw out. (What I’m saying is, grant me some simplifications here, this is, after all, a blog.)

If we understand the Frierian pedagogical model to entail participatory education that encourages learners to draw parallels to their own experience, and values the experience of the individual, it seems to me that ARG is a great outgrowth of that kind of ethic in the area of gaming and play. I think that the focus on the real life of the player — and especially in recent models of ARG for social engagement — is key. Instead of making up a fantasy life from scratch, the player must deal with the advantages and limitations that are encountered in daily living. This forces the player to consider hir personal experience, and its potential as a tool for storytelling and modeling the world. That’s sort of radical in and of itself.

Using an ARG model to raise awareness about a social issue explicitly asks the player to engage in the social issue from their own experience, and also forces the player into encountering others’ personal experiences surrounding that social issue. This is valuable and humanizing. Also, the collaboration between people of varying perspectives and experiences engendered by this kind of play is very much like the kind of collaboration encouraged by radical pedagogical models that emphasize conversation and self-exploration in a group setting.

Another parallel I couldn’t help notice was that group problem-solving in both ARG and conversation-based radical pedagogical models leads to a sense in the player/learner that they have somehow stumbled on this information themselves. There is a sense of agency that arises from discovery instead of traditional, blunt presentation. In fact, at least as far as social engagement goes, many people don’t trust a straightforward presentation of information. (For good reason!) On the other hand, given clues and encouragement to think critically, people more often than not discover the important point — and their sense of ownership and discovery is key to creating the feeling that the information is important and impacts the player/learner personally.

All this is a great point of departure for the next steps in social engagement — actual organizing and acting. I think that the communities fostered by ARG-style play are enormously powerful for a number of reasons, the least of which is that they are more or less self-organizing, collectively driven, and have a sense of ownership over the information that they at this point possess. Give a community like this the right tools and information, and you have an empowered, organized citizenry. What I like best about it is the part where game play can empower agents who are part of a collective agent. As with radical pedagogical models, individuals are given knowledge and tools to do more.

The next question, of course, is what to do with this idea.


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