A few weeks ago we hosted Kristian Lukic. Kristian is a curator, artist and thinker, whose work has often been intersecting with video games and digital culture. He is currently the director of the Institute of Flexible Cultures and Technologies – Napon. He has been one of the founders of Kuda.org, a center for artists and theorists based in Novi Sad, Serbia. In 2002 he also co-founded Eastwood – Real Time Strategy Group, a collective of artists who deals with games and new technologies, exploring the political implications of contemporary forms of digital play. One of the most famous works of Eastwood is the Civilization mod Civilization IV, followed by its ‘sequel’ Civilization V. In these two modifications of Sid Meier’s strategy game, Kristian and his colleagues have been proposing an alternative form of war: no more between historic civilisations as in the original game series, but between IT workers (in Civilization IV) and corporations of the Web2.0 age (in Civilization V). The focus of both games is on the war-like scenario which underpins the digital economy and the new forms of competition allowed by immaterial labour. We had the chance of speaking with Kristian about his personal history and his interest in video games. We also discussed about gamification, a phenomenon which Kristian links with Post-Fordism.
Gamification Lab: Your background is mostly in art history and art theory. How did you first approach games?
Kristian Lukic: Being student and relatively having much time, I seriously started to explore games when I bought my first Pentium computer in 1997. Serbia in that time got Internet due to the end of UN embargo and the country was flooded with computers, since there was market need due to trade sanctions in the first half of the nineties. I never bought console, mostly because of economic reasons . Computer was in that sense really universal machine, both for work and play. In that time Quake, Age of Empires, Warcraft 2 were dominant on the market, and Serbia was also capital of pirated CD-s that you can buy cheap on the streets. By playing games I was quite surprised with the power of the medium and sophisticated ways of implementing different narratives. Besides the very play, its interactivity and technological miracle, these AAA games were often bringing specific cultural, social and political messages and narratives. Having in mind that in that time (and still dominantly also today in hardcore games) majority of gamers were young males, it was quite new to me to be introduced with militarism, radical patriotism, brutal violence, political incorrectness and almost full freedom (meaning non-censorship like in “old” media). Playing major AAA games in the second part of nineties I experienced post 9/11 atmosphere, much earlier. The level of militarism and cultural right wing content presented in major games was way beyond what Hollywood could have ever imagined. We still need some serious research about the connection between the game industry from the end of the nineties/beginning of 2000 and current right wing youth enthusiasts in the Europe.
GL: In the modification of the game Civilization that you been working at as part of Eastwood – Real Time Strategy Group players take the role of IT workers. Can you tell us something more about how you first conceived this idea, and why did you choose to modify the game Civilization? Is there any plan to expand the concept through other video game series?
KL: Civilization is the first (and maybe the only one…) endeavour to encompass all aspects of the development of the civilization. It is way more powerful than encyclopaedias, although encyclopaedias contains much more content. It is more powerful than social sciences and humanities in trying to explain social and political conditions of human development. In the end it is more powerful than “old” media, because it gives you feeling that the development of civilization is exactly how it should be done. The Civilization series is classic cybernetic dream of managing society by practising feedback loops and following certain paths. The idea of creating Civilization is in a way total and the way how Civilization is made, shows its bias to the idea that the world is a dangerous place, full of competition, bellum omnium contra omnes. Although not being idealistic about the general social conditions, we thought that this idea of radical hobbesianism was not exactly how we would see the world, but rather, the way how media and historical carriers of narration would “suggest” us to see the world and thus act accordingly… That is why we have chosen the world of New Economy that was part of IT social promise in that time. We researched typical (and also some bizarre) aspects of New Economy from the beginning of 2000 and made our Civilization IV. We didn’t want to expand to other video game series, because we were not interested in modifications as such, but in the total aspect of the Civilization games idea.
GL: During your presentation at the Gamification Lab you have been talking about the concept of ‘play’, its origins and its meaning. Would you like to tell us more about this?
KL: The main difference that I see is that the notion of play is changing. If one takes in account the classical definitions of play by Caillois and Huizinga, or even the Situationist idea of play, we see that their rather innocent (non-utilitarian, free) view on play is being changed. With the entertainment industry (also including the marketing of sport and the tourism industry) we see that areas previously being considered as leisure are becoming part of economical activities more than in previous decades, if not centuries. Even personal relationships, marriages or work relationships are being viewed through the lens of having freedom, play, personal expressions, feeling good time, rather than commitment, sacrifice and responsibilities. The “serious” work itself, through postfordist “creativeness” or gamified military is not being serious anymore, it should be fun and one needs to love it. Saying this I’m not neglecting the realities of hard and underpaid work, especially in non-developed and neo-colonized countries, but rather what is culturally desired notion of “play” and “work”. It could be seen as fully realizing the theories of Frankfurt school, of colonization of active free time of the subject. If one follows the recent research in neurosciences, we are not far away from the situation where the entertainment and play (but also areas of work and education) would enter the sphere of passive free time of subject, the sphere of dreams.
GL: What do you think is at stake in the emergence of gamification? What do you make of it? do you think it could become an interesting keyword for a critical approach to digital gaming?
KL: There are several relatively close concepts to gamification like playbour, ludocapitalism. I used the term “play cultures”. I see gamification as a part of a general drive for production efficiency, feedback flow between producers and customers etc. It is kind of Just in Time 2.0. It is in line with similar production strategies employed in the history like Taylorism, Fordism etc. The only question is how we can measure the “level” of gamification in society, and what exactly could we frame as gamification? What distinguishes gamification and Post-Fordism? Are they synonyms, or is gamification (or whatever it might be called) something that is the part of a wave that comes after Post-Fordism?