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Book Reviews

The Aesthetic of Play “horizon of intent.” As you read, you will


Brian Upton make decisions that explore your horizons
Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2015. and move you to new places within the
Acknowledgements, introduction, and overall phase space. Maybe you will skip
index. 336 pp. $29.95 Hardcover. ahead, maybe you will reread sections to
ISBN: 9870262028516 gain new insights, or maybe you will just
keep reading while also reflecting on how
Let us play a game. Let us imagine you, this piece relates to others you have read
the reader, are playing a game that I, the or designed. If I did my work right, you
author, designed. I set up particular sys- will want to keep playing and reading, to
tems intended to constrain the arena that continue exploring the space, to discover
you can play in—in this case, by explic- what is possible, possibly to come up with
itly laying out the contract between you some interesting moves within our explicit
and me and the piece you are reading. I contract. If I designed the game well,
determined pacing, sections, and the over- engaging with this reading has enough
all narrative of this piece; I worked with variability, predictability, and uncertainty
English on paper or a digital medium and to sustain your play-read. As you interpret
within the limits of this genre. Let us call this piece in very specific ways depending
these constraints the “phase space” that on your background experiences and your
you occupy through engagement with playing nature, maybe you will get out of
this piece. You, however, anticipate the this something worthwhile. And maybe
next move, imagine intent, and predict that is how you generally approach new
topics and discussion points. You move experiences.
within the phase space, such that, at any All of the new terms above are from
given moment, your possible moves shift, Brian Upton’s The Aesthetic of Play. The
limited by your immediate circumstances. first part of the book is immediately useful
We will call all your possible moves at any for game designers and scholars, as Upton
given moment your “horizon of action” describes this new framework for under-
and your set of desirable moves your standing and design that gives us a way to

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examine any game or narrative in the same to scaffold the reader into understanding
light. When we play, we make interpretive this discussion, he dedicates the whole
moves within constrained spaces, and for second part of the book to introducing
Upton, “anything that privileges one line epistemology, semiotics, and even neuro-
of action over another is a constraint,” science. While interesting and full of good
meaning the constraints can come from information, this dry background material
the formal design as well as what players interferes with the flow of the rest of the
bring to the space (p. 18). When we do book.
this, we anticipate possibilities and explore This is unfortunate because the last
the values and meanings we can get out of part of the book becomes good again.
the spaces. Upton bridges the gap between games
One side effect of Upton’s logic, and human experience writ large. He does
which, among other things, reexamines this by carefully building his arguments,
player choice and agency, is an update starting with his examination of play
or alternative to Mihalyi Csikszentmih- and how it brings us to make meaning.
alyi’s flow theory. Earlier games scholars We do so not just in formal games with
argued that sustaining engagement in goals, but also with more free-form play
video games required players to occupy and make-believe and with narratives in
a flow channel between boredom and general through our act of interpretation
frustration—feelings brought out when within the narratives’ boundaries (both as
players’ skill either outpaced or failed to performers and as audiences. In this way,
meet a game’s challenges. Upton gives us the framework provides a unifying inter-
a triangle of acceptable play experiences pretive lens that allows for both ludic (or
(p. 70), pitting boredom against confusion, gamist) considerations as well as narrative
which are brought out by having too few ones. In fact, they are the same thing when
or too many choices, and adding another actions are meaningful. Toward the end of
axis tracking satisfaction or frustration the book, after making the case for how
with outcomes from player choices. As a the framework can examine all narratives
guide for design, it is much more useful through play, Upton describes a way to
than the flow channel, which tracks player engage in critical play. It is not that hard
skill. Interestingly, this alternative to flow to imagine how this could help us make
for design is not presented as such, and meaning in all our realities.
Upton rightfully engages with and inter- Any game designer or scholar will
prets flow in a later chapter on mastery find the beginning of The Aesthetic of
and skill. Play very useful, because Upton provides
Unfortunately, this mastery chapter, a clear way to think about player move-
which ends the first part of the book, along ment in games within different possibile
with the entire second part of The Aesthetic spaces, and this framework works for basi-
of Play, are a slog compared to the rest of cally every video game from Candy Crush
the book. Upton wants to discuss play as to Ghost Recon. Designers might not take
interpretation and meaning making and away much from the latter half of the book
that this can happen outside of games, but, concerning how to think about games and
Book Reviews 89

what to design for. The latter half, however, in leisure research. While the field of play
is extremely important for game scholars studies has been informed by the classical
and humanists, adeptly bringing the argu- work of Johan Huizinga, Stebbins iden-
ment home as a universal means to exam- tifies some inconsistencies in the Dutch
ine interpretation and meaning in games, historian’s arguments about the nature of
other narrative forms, and possibly life in play—chiefly the manner in which play
general. can be disinterested and open ended as
Recommended, for sure. Thank you well as intensely invested in an area or
for playing-reading. Did you skip ahead? topic. This is most obvious in the distinc-
tion between casual play and more struc-
—Mark Chen, Pepperdine University, tured games with set rules players have to
Malibu, CA follow. Both involve play activities. Steb-
bins, then, to paraphrase, divides these
various types of studies of play into play
as disinterested activity, play as involved
The Interrelationship of in structured games that include sport and
Leisure and Play: Play as nonsport activity, and play as an activity
Leisure, Leisure as Play interested in art. This division into vari-
Robert A. Stebbins ous areas of concentrations, as he terms it,
London: Palgrave Macmillian. 2015. allows us to view how play moves across a
Acknowledgments, notes, references, wide variety of human activities, includ-
and index. 183 pp. $95.00 cloth. ing both scientific practices and artistic
ISBN: 9781137513014 creations.
With the notion of augmentative play
The study of leisure and the study of play Stebbins attempts to show how we can
have followed different tracks in the past, bridge the gap between leisure studies and
in terms of both disciplinary involvement play studies by looking at those instances of
and intent. Robert A. Stebbins’s latest work leisure where augmentative play operates
attempts to rectify this by demonstrating through the different concentrations he
the overlapping of play with leisure and, mentions. First, he defines augmentative
more specifically, by making an argument play simply as “the playful activity engaged
about what he calls “augmentative play.” in while following the recipe for it during
His work begins by looking at the scope an actual occasion of leisure.” He contin-
of both fields, leisure and play, and raising ues: “Such play is intended to enhance
the question why both areas of research or augment an ongoing leisure activity”
have followed such different paths. (p. 2). For Stebbins, then, play “is both
Part of the difference is that we treat an immediate end in itself and a means
leisure as a noun, but play as both a noun to the more distant aims of the unfolding
and a verb. This has meant that the very leisure activity” (p. 2). Following his earlier
idea of the ambiguity of play, as outlined work, Stebbins understands play “as a type
by Brian Sutton-Smith, does not lend of casual leisure” (p. 12). He fills this out
itself well to the structured studies found in his second chapter, which focuses on