No Game No Gain: Digital space, and the Emergence of the Homo Academicus Ludens

Cross posted from the HUMLab blog

As I recently visited the University of Adelaide, for a conference on ‘Censorship from Plato to Wikileaks’, I came to reflect upon the materiality of space and how it affects our thought processes. Fittingly organized by departments across a vibrant university campus, the conference invitation read: “we invite all scholars and researchers in all areas of the Humanities and all periods of history to explore important themes on the limitations of freedom of expression in act, thought, or speech. How do analogue and digital meeting spaces facilitate, inspire, and enhance our research? In the course of three full days, this question ran through my mind as I attended excellent presentations, engaged in discussion, exchanged ideas, visited art spaces: the social arena a conference signals. The materiality of any social space, let that be physical or digital is central to the composition of new, brilliant ideas.

From an organizational, spatial viewpoint, the University of Adelaide is a lot like Cambridge or Oxford; Every college is composed by a vibrant group of academics who live there: a multicultural community of individuals who pursue their research, dine and socialize in the same (analogue) space. Researchers and students originate from different disciplines and faculties; some people know each other, some others worked together in projects before, some are just about to start on a new promising position, and so on. No wonder so many interesting discussions came up at the dinner table. Indeed. The primal acts of dining together, exchanging information and making plans go well beyond the hunter-gatherer model –and onto the sphere of what I jokingly coin as the Homo Academicus Sedens;[i] the sitting, academic human (let’s face it, we spend most of our time sitting in front of our post-human extensions: screens, keyboards, and the like) and his peers are accounting the day that is over, sharing plans for an academic visit, even congratulating one another on a newly acquired grant. Great ideas come after verbal interaction in a designated meeting space. How do spaces ‘make’ our research and creative thought processes? Has the Homo Academicus Sedensin 2013 evolved since Darwin, Linnaeus, Erasmus?

Just consider the endlessness of global academia: travelling is extremely important for rounding up one’s academic experience. New spaces, new people, new thought processes. The European union indeed seems to support academic exchange from an early stage. Take, for instance, the Erasmus programme that supports academic exchange between European Institutions. In a recent article in La Europa, Umberto Eco spoke about the importance of culture. ‘It’s culture, not war, that cements European identity’. I would like to paraphrase Eco’s excellent point and extend this notion beyond Europe, or any other continent and nationality. It is culture, indeed, that cements any identity, but also the (social) materiality of space, and interactive play that enables communication in both analogue and digital spaces.  Allow me to add, please, that very notion of space as a place for social and physical interaction requires that we take into consideration both human culture and nature alike.

If I am allowed the banality of citing my long-term crush, Aristotle’s well-known passage in the Politics is an important insight into the classical understanding of the normative human condition as one sandwiched in-between these two extremes.

‘It is clear therefore that the state (community) is also prior by nature to the individual; for if each individual when separate is not self-sufficient, he must be related to the whole state as other parts are to their whole, while a man who is incapable of entering into partnership, or who is so self-sufficing that he has no need to do so, is no part of a state, so that he must be either a beast or a god’.

(1253a 27-29)

For Aristotle, any community is the consequence of nature and culture and it is formed through a delicate equilibrium between individual and the whole. Interaction and communication are the fruit of this crystalline, dainty balance. There are digital meeting spaces where communal identity is discussed, questioned, formed. Academics often share experiences and thoughts in the digital realm, through databases, social media, and so on. Database discussions, blogs, and mailing lists keep us together, from Warsaw to Honolulu, and Darwen to Afghanistan. Beyond the realm of our current engagement with technology as individuals, educators, researchers, is stronger than ever. Even our hobbies take place in digital spaces- for example, gaming environments. And there emerges the Homo Academicus Ludens[ii] the young and cheerful evolution of the Homo Academicus Sedens that enjoys dwelling in digital, interactive environments; She (or he) is fully aware that there is an extra technological, artificial space where the lonely or not-that-lonely-really scholar is required to cope with monsters, move libraries, excavate, eliminate zombies, and these may or may not affect her (or his) research. The very engagement with gaming, or even better, game-making itself also ensures that the Homo Academicus Ludens is aware of the basic components of a computer game: space, sprites, events. These elements are key to forming a decent conceptual image of the desired research objective.

The use of technology to convey information, through an interactive, participatory, engaging, even gaming space can facilitate traditional and avant-garde questions alike (See Drucker 2009 and Lindhé 2013). Take for instance my current project on reframing ancient entertainment spaces: the digital ludi- (term coined by Beacham: 2012). The very process of ‘making’ an interactive environment gently pushes the researcher to take into consideration space, sprites, events: arrangements of environment, embodied agents, incidents. In order for one to orchestrate materiality and social realism in a geographically and chronologically remote context, every little chunk of information matters. Tangible evidence (literary, material) is easier than intangible (movement, navigation, sounds) that one has to reconstruct with tender loving care. The Romans and ‘us’ might be the same species yet we are indeed divided by technological progress. To quote Betts (2011)

‘in the Roman period, the loudest sound heard would have been a thunderclap (120 decibels)… Compare this to a city of the early twenty- first century, where constant, average, traffic noise reaches 80 decibels.’

In other words, one can reconstruct a happy dinner at Kathleen Lumley college where Singapore Laksa is served, but they only reproduce its conceptual image. The Homo Academicus Ludens is still a happy baby, crawling about, considering the gamification of knowledge, testing things out, making mistakes, but overall having fun and learning through the process of conceptualizing images for a graphic, digital medium.

Back at the University of Adelaide, the inaugural professorial talk was delivered by professor Frederick Ahl (see caption below), perhaps one of the most influential Latinistis of our times. Professor Ahl’s speech was about his latest translation of Virgil’s Aeneid for Oxford University Press. Professor Ahl tried to incorporate elements of interactivity within the text itself that are identified in Latin but not in English. Puns, anagrams, overindulgence in sounds, were but some of his observations. He rounded up his comment with an interesting, anachronistic simile: ‘modern (and ancient) audiences alike should consider Virgil’s Aeneid an intensively interactive text that unfolds before the reader in the form of an interactive computer game.’ Imagination conveyed through visual media is one thing, however there is no doubt that if Virgil’s readers in 2013 see the parallel between an Epic as old as Europe and an interactive computer game, a toddler Homo Academicus Ludens is reframing old and new questions, and the communication of knowledge altogether through the primal action of playing.

PS: Last week I attended Carl-Erik Engqvist’s seminar on Gamemaker at HUMlabX. Note my mini game (Only two levels! Caption below). I called it Space Debris. It obviously takes place above the Earth’s atmosphere. I never thought it would be that easy. Too much fun…to paraphrase Levi-Strauss: Games are good to think with.

[i] Please allow me to remind you that Linnaeus coined the term homo in Latin to describe the genus that is separated from the earlier hominids because of the emergence of tool use, language and culture. Homo refers to human. Not man, unless you are a 1970s anthropologist who enjoys flying small planes over Borneo. It is 2013: get over it, we are gender-cool.

[ii] Homo Ludens (Playing human) is a book written in 1938 by historian and cultural theorist Johan Huizinga. He discusses the importance of the play element of culture and society. Huizinga uses the term play theory within the book to define the conceptual space in which play occurs. Huizinga suggests that play is primary to and a necessary (though not sufficient) condition of the generation of culture.