I came across Mike Merrill via an article in The Atlantic detailing his journey into self-commodification. In 2008, he divided his ‘self’ into 100,000 shares and sold them at an initial public offering price of $1 a share. What started out as a creative experiment turned into a full-fledged simulated stock market with shares fluctuating , turning him into a publicly traded person.
- Should he get a vasectomy? (Rejected)
- Should he subscribe to Spotify? (Approved)
- Should he grow a mustache? (Rejected)
- Should he attempt polyphasic sleeping? (Approved)
I’m not sure I fully have the hang of the trading business yet – my offer to buy a share is still pending – but I already feel invested in the life of my “conceptual businessman” and look forward to weigh in on his next life-changing decision. He is now crowdfunding for his latest project, a ghostwritten book about a fictional version of himself that lets the public design the manifestation of his personal erotic fantasy – a collaborative Choose-Your-Own-Adventure process to have fun with what he terms himself a dumb genre by asking collaborators to debate and decide on what they want to read.
As with other projects launched by Mike Merrill, it’s holding a mirror to so many things: financial world, social networks, decision-making process, notions of authorship and readership… with a wonderfully absurd and deadpan strain of humour, but also some pretty serious theory bubbling behind. While his mantra – community through capitalism – can appear worryingly cynical, this reflection on markets as communities is a useful reminder of the role of money in our economies of life: an enabler of exchanges, a tool to build a platform, rather than something with intrinsic interest.
Have you noticed that, in itself, money is kind of one-dimensional and boring? What else can we talk about? These #81, Cluetrain Manifesto
Merrill’s creative response is to take this theory to its logical end: monetise everything, turn his blog into a shop and sell anything from digested reads (written by others), a random spreadsheet straight off his desktop, his attention ($5 for an email response) or his presence at your party (complete with Powerpoint presentation and laser pointer).
I discovered Molleindustria’s “radical games” around the time I was working at Unicorn, a Manchester-based vegan workers’ coop, spending a lot of time reading Corporate Watch and Red Pepper. Artist and game designer Paolo Pedercini describes his games as “homeopathic remedies to the idiocy of mainstream entertainment in the form of free, short-form, online games”, ranging from “satirical business simulations (McDonald’s Video game, Oiligarchy) to meditations on labor and alienation (Everyday the Same Dream, Tuboflex, Unmanned), from playable theories (the Free Culture Game, Leaky World) to politically incorrect pseudo-games (Orgasm Simulator, Operation: Pedopriest).”
The McDonald’s Video Game and Oiligarchy are old favourites, exploring the complex economies of the fast-food and oil industry and revealing how and why decisions are made. Molleindustria is now venturing into VR with a new experiential essay, The Short History of the Gaze… It requires Oculus Rift, so it’s not something I can comment on for the time being, but it makes me curious about the potential of VR for the performing arts.
At the low-tech end, Molleindustria also recently launched Casual Games for Protesters, “an ongoing collection of games to be played in the context of marches, rallies, occupations and other protests” designed to facilitate meaningful participation.
Co-designing the future: Games for Cities
At city scale, what can games and playfulness do for intergenerational and intercultural interaction and participation? Can they help to imagine more inclusive and sustainable cities?
Amsterdam-based Play the City is a city-building agency that creates bespoke games to involve stakeholders in creative problem-solving and imagine new ways to design and govern cities and systems. They respond to challenges ranging from affordable housing and digital development to social change and urban transformation. With a range of partners, they also run the collaborative platform Games for Cities, which recently organised its first international conference, bringing together designers, urbanists and decision-makers.
Paolo Perdecini – him of Molleindustria – was one of the keynote speakers, taking a critical view of SimCity and the simulation game paradigm. SimCity’s ideology is at odds with the real – messy – world, presenting a winning urban ideal that’s all grid-shaped, zone-based and car-centred, devoid of historical class and racial conflicts, and unreservedly buying into the idea of unfettered growth. Perdecini describes his own city games series as Magical Marxism, inspired by Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities – and the first chapter, Nova Alea, is a dreamy, intuitive user-led experience. He concludes by calling for a different kind of city game:
What we should make are not games that explain how cities work. But rather games we can use to think about our cities, past, present and future.
That’s where the performing arts approach – and its notions of process, participation and legacy – comes in. Toronto-based Mammalian Diving Reflex has developed an impressive portfolio of playful interventions and platforms for expression, giving voice to children, teenagers and seniors (talking about sex!). In France, public space collective La Folie Kilomètre imagines stories, promenades, poetry and mapping workshops to create new dialogues between people and cities. International platform Playable City platform – led by Bristol’s digital & arts centre Watershed – are working across a network of cities (to date, Bristol, Recife, Lagos, Tokyo, Sao Paulo, Oxford and Seoul) to prototype, develop and tour innovative projects that create sparks and disruption in the urban fabric.
Playable City puts people and play at the heart of the future city, re-using city infrastructure and re-appropriating smart city technologies to create connections – person to person, person to city.
Through interaction and creative installations it unlocks a social dialogue, bringing the citizens into a city development conversation – one which will vary in each location.
What’s the relation between the custom-designed civic games of Play the City, city simulation games and these playful embodied artistic experiments? Are they completely different types of ‘games’ responding to different needs and set apart by motivation, purpose, expected outcomes and evaluation methods? What can each type learn from and bring to the other?
We play games not because they are inefficient systems, but because the inefficiency in games—that means that the fastest path between point A and point B is not a direct line—provides some ability to make meaning from that process. (…)
A system with mere inefficiencies is something that’s frustrating. There is no clear opportunity for a meaningful encounter with a system or another person, it’s just about frustration with not being able to proceed.
Deliberation is a great example of a meaningful inefficiency within a democratic process. The quickest way for a group to make a democratic decision would be to vote. But the process of deliberation where there is dialogue that builds over time where multiple stakeholders are involved, and the positionality of those stakeholders matters. That very process is a process that people engage in not because it is efficient, but because it is inefficient. There is opportunity for people to discover things along the way. It is actually designed for that purpose.
In a different interview, he also points out the distinction between ‘gamification’ – making a particular situation more playful in order to nudge users/players to a particular behavior or a desired outcome beneficial to the provider of the game, in other words setting the agenda and employing a behavioristic strategy to motivate people to carry it – and ‘engagement’ or ‘empowerment’ – including play to empower users to set (or at least influence) the agenda themselves. Just like it is important to be aware of ideological biases in simulation games before using them as educational activities, considering the nature of participation is essential when setting up a game-inspired project. Artist-led initiatives and residencies – such as Mary Miss’s City as Living Laboratory – can enable conversations with and amongst residents that city planners and bureaucratic structures find difficult to foster.