When we speak of aesthetic participation, the most immediately suggestive image is of an experience resembling theater, where works hanging on a wall perform in manifold ways to silent audiences whose engagement with them is limited to a cursory browsing experience in the motion that leads from one exhibit to the next. It is in this limited and rather one-way sense that modernist sensibility has come to define or frame the bourgeois ideal of commitment to culture, by positing participation as a synonym of visitation. Naturally, in this model where participation is so emphatically passive there is notable dependence on what historical knowledge provides within the arts, and the presence of such cultural knowledge is part of the expectation that “something special” –tacit erudition — should be brought by the audience to the dance performance, theatrical reenactment, or museum exhibit. Within this notion of participation, we accept that communication between a creator of the work and the audience that receives it entails not only this avowal to knowledge of the codes that comprise genres and contexts of the medium or practice in question, whether theatrical, visual, auditory, or it kinaesthetic, but also that this communication is not truly mutual because it is not synchronous. The composer, choreographer, film maker, painter, or playwright conjures a narrative informed by the history of a particular social context, and speaks within that context to the elements of the work presented, whereas the work of the audience is always based on interpretation after the fullness of the work has been presented and experienced. It should be noted that I am referring to participation in the aesthetic sense, which is to say, that sense which has not yet been co-opted into the lexicon of the popular culture digerati’s digital aphilosophical musings and “punditry-qua-analysis”, disussions in which we find ‘participation’ as a catch-all but uninterrogated synonym for “addressing the collective” within the socialization that is addressed by the term “Social Media”, “Web 2.0”, “platform shift”. All these terms are hampered by a lack of transcendence in their logic because of their constraint to media-centric, rather post-medium, conclusions.
Beside such forays into the idea of digitally mediated “participation” — already problematic because it additionally conflates true communities exclusively with communication such that “social media” implies participation only for logging into the interface of a remote server and participating in social message exchange — every standard, passive, asynchronous sense of “participation” differs from participation in real (as opposed to merely hyped) contexts that are digitally mediated. For historical reasons, ones anchored in affordances of interactivity, what we really intend, and should signify through a more exact term like “digital participation”, is what defines a quality of engagement resembling distinctly active processes with specific motivations, forms exchange, social anatomies, and structures of activity. The most canonical of these is the category of game. The ontological structure of every game is located in the set of rules that define the spectrum of player behavior, and to the extent that every game entails this behavior, its dynamic is not merely based on ideas of active participation, but on ones of a real-time, synchronous kind. This is not participation of the casual sort, in which one can come and go at whim, but is more programmatic, with participation being formalized in the adoption for every person of a role and its rule set. Such highly conditioned behavior, when compared with what may compare against “publishing”, as is assumed in general “Web 2.0” or open-source thinking, points to a spectrum in what “participation” implies that is not properly addressed by current digital media criticism.
Moreover, in the traditional sense of games, participation is almost exclusively constrained to the closed system of signs in the game world, specifically the figure or foreground elements such as dice, marbles, cards, or other loose tokens and the background field, typically a table or game board. When supplemented by digital mediation, this arrangement becomes irretrievably opened out. In early technological days, for example, the single strategy of choice for introducing openness was randomization — the shuffle of cards or toss of dice ensured this. But in contemporary practice, the recent co-option of network culture has resulted in a sophisticated upgrade of this process, whereby randomness, which is to say, a source without causal meaning, is now replaced by collective input, which is to say, a source with distributed meaning. Thus, interaction with a system in which the rules are explicitly known and behavior is conditioned by them, while at the same time outcomes are permuted by collective or network activity as an input, constitutes in summary a kind of participation entirely distinct from that which non-interactive systems provide. And it is of course in the frame of the computer game that we find significant turning points of the broader kind, which could be seen as differing by aesthetic order from the non-game aesthetic experiences. Participation, electronically mediated, implies an ontological change in key categories of perception and engagement to the point that the context of a game now entails a redefinition of, and even a crucial escape from, narrative as a rule system. Similarly, notions of performance must be altered to reflect a more open and virtualized theater of activity; and in turn, such a venue calls for a crucial redefinition of empirical connotations underlying space itself.
It may seem up till now that by being condensed through digital media, aesthetic experience evinces a renewed dynamism that modernist practices do not possess. Indeed, the rather special energy that we feel with digital media does exert an accelerating influence on experience, which must be contrasted diametrically with the contemplation with which the reception of art has been associated in its sublimest potential — something that has for centuries remained a normative criterion at the center aesthetic philosophy. Contemplation, on one side, and reflex response, on the other, are mutually exclusive poles, a fact that awaits critical reconciliation in bringing digitally mediated art within the rubric of contemporary and conceptual work. And every variation between the virtual and the traditionally aesthetic needs theories that place these differences on some converging trajectory, some mode of productive relationship. To think of participation as an aesthetic activity within a game context is to define as well the constituents of participatory experience that have not formed the basis of material in contemporary art; the culture of the game revolves around icons of signification, instructions and indications, hints and cheats, and more that simultaneously reinforces and undermines rules of play. And as the context of gameplay has come to transcend its own conventions, digital communications processes constitute additional supplements to the material of the game as an art form, to include social media, network architectures and protocol, and database structures.
Complicating this expanded palette is yet another class of what we might call recursive participation whereby, as Wittgenstein noted with language use, the vocabulary of a game becomes extended by the objects that users can create by means of tools provided within the game environment itself. In the proverbial example, The SIMS, delay involves not merely interacting with the objects that are present in that closed world, but also call for the creation by the user of new objects, places, and even virtual characters. Such recursive or meta-participation is not manifestly evident either in art or conventional games, and we might imagine how such a process could enhance interpretive experience in these two creative realms. Games alone, however, do not constitute the primary means for meta-participation; a more common alternative is to be found in traditional rituals. The ultimate theater of Second Life, of course, holds up a funhouse looking glass to behavioral ornaments of real-life social rites like weddings and mediates them as intensifications of the virtual with the titillation of its environment’s over-embellishing snicker. In this territory of expanded participation, game and ritual lose any distinguishing ontological boundary.
Cambridge, February 2010.