October 7, 2007

High Museums, High Modernism, and Activist Games

by Mary Flanagan · , 1:46 pm

The designer, artist, and architect “Le Corbusier” may be quite familiar to many of you, the architectural grandaddy (1887-1965) born under the name of Charles-Edouard Jeanneret. Le Corbu altered world architecture forever with his modernist passion for clarity, line, modularity, and what can only be described as ‘legibility.’ His book, The Decorative Art of Today, was a polemic against craft and ornamentation in interior decor (translated by James Dunnett, published by MIT Press in 1987). His other works, The City of Tomorrow and The Modulor series were also published by MIT in translation. His 1925 “Plan Voisin” for Paris, for example, will be a familiar style of modernist urban architecture:

The new Le Corbusier exhibition in Tokyo at the Mori Museum —

on the 57th floor of a great glass tower — the massive show features three to-scale interiors of his design (his Paris atelier), a life size three bedroom apartment from

“Unité d’Habitation,” his design for a 1,600 person apartment block in Marseilles, and a reproduction of his country cabin, “le Petite Cabanon,” which seems a design almost too good to be true for the prefab architecture community.

In this major Japanese exhibit, as in many pockets of planning and scholarship, Le Corbusier is celebrated as a hero of modern design, a symbol of a new social and cultural era. The Mori exhibit extolls the human-centered virtues of the Le Corbusier designs: the wisdom of the daycare centers, for example, to be designed into apartment blocks, or the green spaces designed near every dwelling. Mori curators noted that Le Corbusier’s ideas inspired much of the postwar construction in Japan. The same is true for the Soviet Union, where designs such as his plan for the “Palace of the Soviets”

built in response to a 1931 open call for an administrative center and a congress hall in Moscow, near the Kremlin and on the site of the demolished Cathedral of Christ the Savior.

Le Corbusier’s built buildings such as the “House of the New Way of Life” in Moscow are now facing the wear and tear of age. This building, designed by Moisy Ginzburg for the Narkomfin (the abbreviation for the People’s ‘Commissariat of Finance’) in 1930, had several common areas such as exercise area, nursery, and roof garden.

While the Mori celebrated one of the most well known architects of the 20th Century, many scholars, however (among them Jane Jacobs and James C. Scott) have found Le Corbusier’s high-minded and idealist work also highly problematic. He firmly believed in a strong spatial separation of human functions (workplace, play-place/entertainment, and living should be in distinct districts) in the city. Mixed use, including the corner store, was unfavored and visually unorderly. His ideas for public spaces (such as his plan for the Palace of Soviets competition, 1931) were often cold, grandiose, and sterile. Humorously, his plans and models rarely include more than one or two streets to hold the impending traffic he certainly could not have anticipated. It seems that a visibly legible city should, by the likes of modernists, be a pleasant one to live in, but generally, a New Yorker might voice another opinion.

The reasons I’m interested in discussing architecture here on GTxA are several fold, primarily because, as someone interested in social change (a focus of my lab Tiltfactor), I’m drawn to utopian projects overall. Seeing the disjuncture between this architect’s lived design and the planned design leads to a serious gap between theory and practice. Did Le Corbusier’s designs fail merely because they were only partly executed? Day care and communal kitchens, for example, are lacking in the public housing projects modelled after his designs…

In the early days of interactive design, the best designers were always architects: they anticipated humanity’s penchant for behavior and choice, and their job is to make immersive experiences. Second, architecture such as that of Le Corbusier was embedded with a strong activist, almost utopian, premise: Build a better system, a better city, and we will all have better lives. Time has shown, however, that this is not true. Many such utopian modernist schemes have fallen awry—sometimes, as in the case of public housing towers, seriously awry.

For those of us interested in the political potential in games, we can learn from this design cycle. First, while we cannot merely reskin games and expect the mechanics of the game to embody our desired meaning by association, we also cannot impose radically new player paradigms onto existing systems and expect success. This would be rejecting what people, what players, already like to do; in the comparison with the city, it would be like urban designers ignoring everyday life for something ‘better’ that they designed. Learning from the larger cycles of social movements or the challenges historically faced by activist groups is something I am trying to explore for my work with the games for change community. In effect, I am arguing here for “incremental alterations” and player-centered, or even more specifically, player centered experience-centered, design practices to make sure modernist practices of overdesign for logic, purpose, and aesthetics do not overrun the intent of game designers wishing to embody social change.

5 Responses to “High Museums, High Modernism, and Activist Games”

  1. noah Says:

    It’s a pleasure to see this set of thoughts being woven together. I think you’re right that digital media has a parallel set of utopian projects that are still worth thinking about today — and that were similarly compromised. Just as day care centers and communal kitchens are missing from the public housing projects modeled on Le Corbusier’s designs, the web lacks many of the elements of Doug Engelbart’s NLS and Ted Nelson’s Xanadu.

    Of course, this observation also leads me to challenge your suggestion that, “In the early days of interactive design, the best designers were always architects.” Engelbart and Nelson were hugely influential in the early days of interactive design, but one is an engineer by training, while the other trained more in the humanities and social sciences. In fact, in my thinking about the early days of interactive design (also including people like Kay, Papert, Sutherland, etc) I’m not aware of many influential figures besides Negroponte who had architectural training or an architecture-inspired outlook. But perhaps the issue is that we’re thinking of different eras as “the early days”?

    As for reskinning versus radically new modes of gameplay, I think you’re right that the dichotomy is too simplistic. Pong may have looked radically new, from one perspective, but it grew out of physical types of play which were long familiar. Dungeons and Dragons may have looked radically new, but it was built on a foundation of familiar mechanics (from tabletop war games) and story tropes (from fantasy fiction). SimCity may have looked radically new, but it was built on simulation mechanics that people already found fascinating to think about, even if they hadn’t been quite so “playable.” On the other hand, all of these opened the possibility for rather new kinds of play experiences — and none rewarded playing in previous modes.

    For activist games, part of the question may be whether it is worth risking that a new mode may fail (the innovative games we don’t remember, as opposed to those above) in order to explore new approaches to play that embody certain ideas and values. Or, maybe it’s better to use small changes on accepted modes of play (less chance of game failure) and risk that the play lacks a meaningful connection to the ideas and values of creators and players. I’m curious to hear you, if I understand correctly, coming down hard on the incremental side of this question. I’m a strong supporter of explorations of both types, this early in the game.

  2. mary Says:

    hi noah,
    you raise several good points. First when I’m referring to architects in interaction design, I’m thinking of my own experience as a software designer, not quite in your Englebartian early early days…My thinking here, and I should have clarified this, is in the late 1980s – early 1990s “content rich” media days, the dot com era, where “infospace” reigned as a still-rather-novel spatialized datascape, and software architects from Mark Pesce to those involved in “desktop VR” were creating massively used 3D systems for the masses, in parallel with the rise in 3D gaming experiences.

    Regarding the thinking about incremental design, yes those designers who can break the mould should definitely try to do so, as artists do in their work consistently. As someone with a background in experimental approaches to artmaking, I am certainly positive about new paradigms and I hope we do develop these…but — the radical new paradigms will realistically be few and far between, and for the majority of emerging social impact games developers, this aim may be out of place or simply not achievable. In addition, the message may be far more powerful if we see gaming practices as a literacy that can be used (and tweaked, and subverted, and displaced) for more powerful ends.

    I’m not sure my own approaches will even follow the provocative declaration i have made on all accounts in the activist design work, but I do use this call as a reminder for those of us who tend to think radically about interaction, expression and form — there is the danger in such conceptual design practice of simply losing an understanding of the existing literacy, preferences, and patterns of the audience/player/participant. Since there is discussion of the [giantJoystick] in another thread here, it seems that this piece works so well because it ties into so many players’ familiar knowledge — and thus is accessible in a way that some of my other artwork (not design, though) is not.

    So, is this a discussion about art and design, ie, asking questions or solving problems, or is this about a certain conservatism in my thinking? I would hope to say the former. In this light, a more accurate and tempered conclusion for activist designers seeking to shed light on social concerns or involve audiences who may not have been included in the design and testing of games, might be to make a call for participatory design practice in activist games, one that takes into account familiarity, and uses this familiarity in novel design solutions and games.

  3. noah Says:

    Mary, yes, I think we’re pretty close together on this. We’re both interested in the gameplay space between “radically new” and “reskinning” — both for our own work and when selecting an approach for an activist game. And I think we both want to explore different parts of this space for different projects.

    My own piece in the GTxA show, Screen, very much builds on those old familiar kinds of “collision detection” computer gameplay, even if it’s not an exact reskinning of a previous game. Whereas the big problem with the current version of my “textual instruments” (like Regime Change) is that the play mechanic is so unfamiliar that there needs to be more interface support for the interaction.

    There’s a real power in building on existing skills and literacies. And, of course, in involving the community that will use what’s created. I have to admit that I don’t know much about participatory design work being done in the activist computer games space — beyond Rapunsel. Are there others I should check out?

    And, of course, it’s important to say that “conservatism” would be one of the last words I’d choose for characterizing your thinking :)

  4. nick Says:

    Mary, inspired by your post, I went today to revisit Le Corbusier’s only North American building, Harvard’s Carpenter Center (my photos, everybody’s photos), which happens to be not many steps away from me. While I like the building in many ways, as you can see, it looks a lot like a really nice parking garage, and it fits into the Harvard campus, if it does, only by being a bit artsy and arrogant. It’s hard for me to make many generalizations about utopian projects based upon this visit, but there clearly is something to be said about balancing one’s radical principles and the reality of siting, architectural context, and familiar modes of use.

    I think the architect building public housing projects has a different sort of responsibility than does the game-maker creating an activist game. No one is forced by economic circumstance to live inside your game; people can play it or abandon it. But there is certainly something to be learned from the architect’s dilemma – the impulse to try to reconfigure living spaces played against the well-worn paths of traditional modes of living.

  5. Mark Says:

    Nick– as far as nobody being forced by economic circumstance to live inside a radical experiment goes, that’s one reason I find some of Le Corbusier’s projects that aren’t public housing or office buildings interesting, since it seems more justifiable to experiment in those cases. In particular, his designs for a church, a monastery, and some villas are quite interesting imo.

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