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Play in the city: from analogue structures to digital networks

Part 1 Dissertation 2006
Lucy Styles
University of Cambridge | UK
Enter the Urban Play, ground yourself in the ludic rhythm of the city and do not hide behind the tassled drapery of the proscenium arch as you begin to explore the centrality of play in the urban situation. Johan Huizinga’s notion of play as inextricable from the unfolding of civilisation marks a point from which I trace the ludic dimension of urban frameworks, through the analogue proposals of the Situationists in the form of New Babylon, to their implosion with the rise of a digital culture. This digital sphere can intensify the richness of play by precipitating an overlap of behavioural activity; in a century becoming defined by its ‘networked’ systems it may not be enough to scatter the urban environment with semiotic play basins.

Overlaying the city with a digital skin seems to be precipitating two new modes of ludic activity that can be referred to as that ‘in two-and-a-half dimensions’ and that ‘in four’. Our information society is often perceived through a membrane that separates the space of our bodies from that of cyberspaces, creating a ‘superflat’, two-and-a-half dimensional environment. I try to ascertain to what extent this is resulting in the superflattening of our experience of play and how this coexists with the potential for play in four dimensions that can be unleashed with the hyperspatial qualities of the wireless communication system. I further assess the extent to which a desire for ubiquitous play is precipitating a shift in the very framework of our lives, collapsing thresholds between work, play and transitory space.

As we begin to define ourselves by the caricatures that the branded world imposes on us, participative play rooted in physical interaction may be superseded by a return to the stage. I assess the importance of innovative playful mediums remaining, in internet terminology, as 'open source'. But our society is no Montessori nursery: violence and play share a diaphanous boundary. The imposition of strict restraints merely creates tension within the Huizingan magic circle, the fluctuating space of play.

Lucy Styles

Lucy Styles’ dissertation is a rich and punchy take on the place of urban play after Huizinga. She traces the recent history and brings it up to date in a series of observations upon the possibilities for technological innovation and overdrive, consumerism, violence and, ultimately, participation. Styles is able to combine her futuristic imagination with an ability to closely read and analyse the necessary philosophical and sociological tracts needed to assess the topic. She has presented a fluid, insightful, creative and, I think, moral, interpretation of an urban vision that haunts our near future.

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