"Playing with play," John Cayley sets ludology on an even playing field with literature, but without literary scholarship's over-reliance on 'story,' 'closure,' and 'pleasure.'
Stuart Moulthrop's concerns in addressing networked and programmable ludology are strongly inflected by issues and values in the ethics and politics of "new" media, summed up for me in his reminder that "cyberspace is not a book or a moving picture but a complex virtual environment that should never be allowed to become second nature." Inclinations such as these are heartily welcome and always salutary, especially given Mouthrop's engaged stance and engaging literary persona, but here his chief counterpoint, Markku Eskelinen, represents a consciously theoretical approach to the game at hand. This leaves Moulthrop to speculate on mights, woulds, and shoulds, when he could, without compromising his ethics, be helping to tear down a few structural follies and categorically discard some prejudicial cultural baggage.
In the field of networked and programmable cultural production, many of us have, as theorists, spent a good deal of time reconsidering the supposedly novel, and have tried to demonstrate how its implicated tools, forms and resultant objects are more amenable to established cultural tropes and paradigms than was at first apparent. Or we have "moved on" (prematurely in my view, if this is a matter of shaking the dust from one's shoes) from poststructuralist literary models to poststructuralist cinematic analysis (cf. Lev Manovich's excellent The Language of New Media, reviewed in ebr). All of this is, for me, already a long way from any reconciliation with Aristotelian narrative, virtual closure, or "pleasure" as the desired end of artistic procedures and processes. New tools do not necessarily imply new forms, let alone new rhetoric; and new forms may not survive as anything more than one-offs, especially if their human-relative affect/effect is in doubt. Nonetheless, new tools have unfamiliar potential and, perhaps more importantly, they may allow existing but latent tropes and forms to emerge, and emerge in unfamiliar contexts. If a cultural object generates undisputed affect and significance in an unfamiliar way, then familiar critical schemata are not going to help us either to understand or make more of it. Narrative, closure, and pleasure are only any good at helping us to see why bad stories are bad.
The formulation: configuration for the sake of interpretation = art/work; interpretation for the sake of configuration = game/play is highly suggestive and useful as an articulation of distinct practices. However, the formulation itself implies and necessitates both an interplay of these overarching "user functions" (as they are called in the Aarseth/Eskelinen schemes) and the possibility of continuously varying admixtures of these same functions, such that, for example, culture objects (even single objects over time) might differ in their degree of determination by one or other function. This, thankfully, does not bode well for a breakaway, psuedo-autonomous ludology, and I am entirely in agreement with Moulthrop in hoping that ludology will continue to take itself seriously and allow itself to be considered as serious cultural practice, on a level playing field with literature, just as I expect writing in networked and programmable media to continue to play havoc with traditional literary work and value. My own direct experience of games in networked and programmable media isn't great, but the development of the Sims games is suggestive for me, since I understand that, for example, Sim Theme Park builds in facilities for the publication of successful Parks, which have, at the point of publication, been configured for the sake of interpretation without ceasing to be part of game play.
I think we have to play more on the ambiguities of "play" here: play as work; play as in playing instruments, which demands practice, skill, sensitivity, etc.; playing for and with others; playing the other herself. So not "From Work to Play," unless this means that we never allow ourselves to take one or other as second nature, as our default or preferred practice. We work to make art and we play games (sometimes in social networked spaces, sometimes pretending to "high" cultural value), but we now also need to develop a wide vocabulary in a range of transitional cultural objects which display and modulate time-based media and which are more like (poetic, musical, cinematic, ludic) instruments: they may have an art built-in, and be interpretable as such, but this interpretation is performed so that they can be configured or "played." For some practitioners the playing—the playing-well—will be the goal of engagement with such objects. For these people the instrumental practice becomes more like a game. For others, the playing—the configuration—will be done for the sake of achieving an interpretable moment or series of moments. The play or configuration will resolve time-based performances to objects of critical interpretation. The potential variety in such objects is overwhelming (as Eskelinen is only too happy to demonstrate), but then the variety of technique and form in books, (moving) pictures and games has also always been similarly unconstrained, long before Net and program entered the lists.