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February 21, 2023

The Darker Side of Play

Anyone who has been bullied on the playground knows that play can be more than just fun and games. So why have definitions of “play” in game studies largely focused on pleasure? Aaron Trammell addresses this in his new book, Repairing Play: A Black Phenomenology.

Aaron Trammell holding a copy of his book

For almost a decade, Aaron Trammell has been thinking about the darker side of play. His Ph.D. dissertation at Rutgers University examined the terms “play” and “games,” touching on themes of war, racism, sexism and homophobia. As an assistant professor of informatics in UC Irvine’s Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS), he has explored historical connections between games, play and quantification in our culture. But in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in 2020, Trammell shifted focus, revisiting the notion of play from the Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) perspective. He shares his findings in his new book, Repairing Play: A Black Phenomenology.

“Let’s start with the problem: our definition of play is broken,” writes Trammell in his opening line, outlining how the traditional definition of play has alienated the BIPOC experience. “This book is an attempt to repair a definition of play that has been largely informed by scholars and philosophers working within a white, European tradition,” he explains. “A radical phenomenology of play centers on the moments when play is painful (as opposed to pleasurable) to recenter the BIPOC narratives that focus on the traumatic and violent aspects of games and play.”

When did you first realize that our definition of play is broken?
The conversation goes back to when I was in grad school. I did my comprehensive exams on the topic of play, and I went through all the theories that had been written about it. Such a boring origin story, but after I had written my exam, it led to a lot of heated debate in the committee. We discussed things like play and “corruption,” the “darker” side of play, and the limits of play. It took me a while — almost 10 years, I think — to wrap my head around that one conversation.

But after the George Floyd murder, and thinking more critically about Blackness in everyday life, it just clicked. The theories of play that we had been working with weren’t really thinking through Black people, Brown people, Indigenous folks, and other minoritized people. We had essentially and unwittingly been participating in the history and trajectory of European thought on the topic. After that, it became a theory … something I could explain to other people.

You write, “One need go no further than a game’s voice chat, Twitch stream, or Reddit forum to observe how neatly adolescent hate speech sits alongside gameplay.” Can you elaborate?
Everyone who I shared a draft of the book with — my friends who weren’t in higher education or academia — would read it and say, “Isn’t this obvious? We’ve all been on the playground, and we’ve all been bullied before.” They already understood there’s this really ugly, difficult side to play, so they’d ask, “Why is this a book?”

The interesting thing is that when we theorize play, at least in game studies, the painful side of play tends not to be the one that gets emphasized. So it’s just one of these classic cases where folks in the “ivory tower” are thinking about this idea and kind of missing what’s been right in front of them the whole time. This concept that does do a lot of wonderful things — brings joy, helps us learn, builds community — can also be violent and disturbing.

How does your book shift the conversation around play?
Mainly, I argue that the experiences of BIPOC people don’t fit neatly into the definitions of play we already have. There are tons of examples of games from Black game designers and developers that are meant to offer a more moody and reflective experience than the power fantasies we see typically in most blockbuster games today. This is no coincidence, either. The very philosophical foundations of play itself are engineered in such a way that they prioritize the pleasures of play.

In game studies, ever since Gamergate happened in 2014, there’s been a big conversation about toxicity in play spaces. You can look at Kishonna Gray’s work to see how this conversation has impacted the Black population, or you can look at other people, like Anita Sarkeesian, to see how Gamergate impacted women participating in games.

So this is part of that larger conversation of people getting a little more critical about what games do and what these “communities of play” do and think. And my humble contribution is to push back when people say, “Well, it’s just play.” That’s a bad excuse, because it’s never “just play.” Play is something that, although sometimes it can be a lot of fun, it can also be really hurtful and violent. We need to understand that there’s two sides to this.

And I would add that those two sides can also be a valuable design tool, because we shouldn’t just design for fun. We should design to have a more holistic experience around play too.

Can you talk about your reparative approach to play and why it must be aggressively anti-racist?
I’m playing a little with words when I use the title Repairing Play, so it represents a few things. It’s describing a kind of play, “repairing play,” which would be play that’s anti-racist. Chapter 5, for example, discusses the game “Steal Away Jordan: Stories from America’s Peculiar Institution,” which is a role-playing game that asks players to think critically about practices of slavery.

But also “repairing play” is a call to action. We literally must repair our philosophical understanding of the term “play” itself.

Finally, “repair” is also part of “reparations,” which is things owed to Black folk in the United States for the legacy of slavery and enslavement. So the reason that this must be anti-racist is because so much of play is uncompensated. It taps into this history of appropriation in a variety of ways. Music, for example, is a big part of this story. Thinking about all of the musicians who have had their music or their art appropriated from them, commodified, and then sold by other people. It really shows how play has become this form that’s not critically examined. 

In video games and game development, the work of Black, Brown and Indigenous people is often neglected because the games that have been successful and that have sold copies have been primarily marketed to a very specific white male population. And they’ve also been largely the products of white male design teams. And so, thinking about the crisis of representation happening there, repairing play is play that brings in a more diverse development sensibility and a more nuanced sense of aesthetic tools to dig in and design with.

And why is it crucial, as you argue, to rethink the politics of play in our present moment?
If you’re following the news, I think it’s obvious how anti-Blackness is everywhere right now, and how it is so painful for so many people in the Black community. BIPOC communities are really contending with a lot of discrimination. Things got worse during the past presidential administration, and with the continuation of crises such as COVID, the housing crisis, food shortages and more. So I’m hoping that my book pulls people together. I think that play is something that we can all relate to.

This is a philosophy book at its core, and part of that is trying to say that while the book itself is influenced by the world that we’re living in, it’s trying to come up with a definition of play that makes sense of how voiceless the Black, Brown and other minoritized communities have been in the conversation around play and games in today’s world.

Can you also talk about how your writing style challenges the norms of white European scholarship?
This book was a blast to write. I wrote it in a month. I just sat down and started writing. I put on jazz every day, and I found this amazing creative space. As I mentioned earlier, these were ideas that had been in my head for a long time, just wanting to get out. Part of the writing of this book was deciding not to code switch. I wanted to break from the traditions and legacies of white European thought.

I was really inspired by a scholar named Fred Moten who also does this in his writing; he’s a poet. Tapping into the associative space of poetry while writing this book was important for me as part of this statement. I thought it would be important to make the book a form of play itself, one that you couldn’t just read and say, “well, this is exactly what he meant.” One that would be challenging and that you could find different associations that all led you to the same conclusion.

Who is the target audience, and what do you hope is their main takeaway?
It’s for philosophers, game designers and for people who are curious about what play is. That’s not everybody, but for this specific group of people, I think it’s going to be an important statement on how to make sense of what is happening when we play.

The main takeaway that I hope anybody gets out of reading this book is that play is not just pleasure. Play is also pain. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. To live full, happy lives, just as much as we need pleasure in them, we need to understand and deal with things like pain, grief and suffering. Within this wonderful idea of play that we have, we actually have something that does both.

How does this fit in with Privilege of Play, another book you have coming out in April?
Privilege of Play actually tells the first part of this story, so they come out in reverse order. Privilege of Play talks about how games and play over the course of the 20th century have been cloistered in white male communities of “hobbyists.” This led to a “group think” that has excluded many BIPOC people from game design. The natural question that stems from that is, what should we do? And Repairing Play gives those answers through a theory of play that centers BIPOC people.

Shani Murray