“Digital Creativity in Little Big Planet” by William Robinson and Bart Simon
A l’occasion de la parution du numéro 28 de Tracés, “Matières à jouer”, nous publions la version originale en anglais de l’article de William Robinson et Bart Simon, “Digital Creativity in Little Big Planet“. Ce texte original est paru dans le numéro en français sous le titre “Little Big Planet : la créativité numérique à l’oeuvre”. La version française est accessible sur CAIRN.
Pour les théories critiques des médias d’inspiration marxiste, la culture des jeux vidéo constitue un terrain fertile. Les entreprises de ce secteur auraient réussi à mobiliser une armée de joueurs-travailleurs et joueuses-travailleuses qui travaillent volontairement sans rémunération, et à commercialiser et contrôler leur activité. Nous souhaitons remettre en cause cette perspective, en considérant les joueurs et les joueuses du jeu vidéo Little Big Planet, et de ses prolongements Little Big Planet 2 et Little Big Planet 3, comme les producteurs et productrices de valeur intrinsèque. Proposant plus de quatre millions de niveaux de jeu créés par des joueurs et des joueuses, Little Big Planet met à profit la connaissance tactique que les joueurs et les joueuses ont des objets matériels, en remplaçant la conception de niveau par un bricolage matériel virtuel. En dépit des gains financiers réalisés par Media Molecule, ces joueurs et ces joueuses deviennent des producteurs et des productrices autonomes. La pratique matérielle de la conception artisanale de niveaux dans Little Big Planet offre des valeurs alternatives et ouvre des possibilités de création qui sont aux antipodes des systèmes de production dominants dans le secteur des jeux vidéo.
Digital Creativity in Little Big Planet
William Robinson and Bart Simon
At times, it seems as though video games continue to face an uphill cultural battle. With their economic core rooted in large, multinational studio-driven franchises, everything that the new paradigm of media interactivity had promised appears to crumble in meaningless and facile button presses and banal cinematic spectacle. It is no wonder that critical Marxist media theory has found fertile territory in a renewed critique of game cultures (MacKenzie Wark, 2007; Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter, 2010; Trebor Scholz, 2013). The act of the button press on a standard controller serves as a near-perfect mechanism of neo-liberal subject formation. It is the ultimate interpellative gesture helping to produce a gaming citizen-subject complicit with the overriding late-capitalist logics embedded in the discourses of the game. One might suggest that the only thing separating the image of the button-pressing gamer from the lever- pulling factory worker is the gamer’s love for their job. Gaming fandom, even more than other sorts of fandoms, is fundamentally about the pleasures of labour reduced to its most abstract form.
Of course, there is resistance—there always has been. Intentionally or otherwise, players as media consumers always find ways of playing their games against the grain. They misread, reread and appropriate game play for their own—often contradictory—ends. But while everyone loves a good resistance story (even the major game studios themselves), the point of articulating the travails of these misbehaving players is often to illustrate just how badly the odds are stacked against them. This is how gamer resistance appears in the writing of Alex Galloway (2006) or Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter (2010). Counter-gaming as a resistive and creative practice only makes sense against a dominant gaming culture. Pockets of resistance stand out precisely because the system of control is so hegemonic.
This analytic language of gaming and counter-gaming is certainly useful in formulating alternative values around the production and consumption of games as media, but it is limiting as a perspective for making sense of the increasingly varied terrain that makes up game play as a space of technocultural practice. Where things become more muddled is in the supposed collapse of the distinction between production and consumption in gaming. From the perspective of counter-gamers against a dominant game culture, the phenomenon of user-created content (UCC) in games can only be viewed in one of two ways. As a form of resistance, UCC practices help break the ideological stranglehold held by studio franchises by allowing players to communicate and interact with one another. The more industry-mediated this interaction becomes, however, the less empowering the relation appears to be, what with censorship and stringent copyright enforcement. That is, the more player activity occurs outside the control of the producer, the greater the potential for resistant gaming. Thus, for counter-gamers, we look to unofficial or even banned fan sites, legal and illegal modding communities, and even pirate game servers. The argument is that resistant fan appropriation in official and monitored online forums, menu-driven player creation tools and licensed and sponsored mods have already been colonized by the system, and we are left with little more than fan polls, rants, viral marketing, and other more or less superficial gestures of gamer agency and creativity.
Indeed, from this perspective, the more the dominant game industry recognizes the value of UCC as a form of free labour, the more it will seek to contain, control and monetize it through the design of unique UCC tools, such as specialized interfaces and menus, online databases, custom programming languages, and arcane license agreements. Of course, there will be counter-gaming players who reject, critique and subvert all these shiny new baubles, but the greater worry is to have come so close to the promised land of player creation only to have it snatched away at the last instant by an increasingly agile appropriation of any significant consumer creativity in digital media spaces by corporate interests. This is exactly the worry, for instance, with the recent purchase of the Swedish independent game studio Mojang by Microsoft. Mojang is the creator of Minecraft (2009), which is one of the most popular and successful platforms for player created content in the world.
It is within this highly charged political arena that we wish to explore the question of player creation and creativity in the Sony PlayStation 3 (henceforth PS3) game LittleBigPlanet (Media Molecule, 2009) (henceforth LBP) and its sequels LittleBigPlanet 2 and 3 (Media Molecule, 2011; 2014). In many ways, the LBP franchise remains an exemplary case for the investigation of the material labour of gamers. Gaming-as-making not only exposes the myth of video games as matter of mere representation, but also highlights the processes of player production, consumption and exploitation as a model of what are becoming standardized practices in our digital culture writ large. Our aim in this paper is to demonstrate the creative material practices of gaming-as-making while complicating any simple analysis of these practices in terms of domination and resistance. We do this by exploring the materiality of the craftwork practice of LBP level design as a possible form of unalienating creative labour.
While LBP is seemingly an outstanding model for corporate success with console-based, player-generated content, it has not been without its problems. LBP is an economically successful franchise, but it is by no means a dominant industry model—nor is there much evidence that it is the vanguard for a new set of industry practices. At the same time, we would also argue that LBP is not the place to find resistant counter-gaming practices. Minecraft would certainly be a better place to look, as well as the creation practices of modders described by authors Olli Sotaama (2007), Hector Postigo (2007) and others. LBP represents neither the corporate mode of game-industry production, nor a site for resistance to that mode—and as such, it offers an instructive space for the investigation of other modalities of game culture that are not necessarily reducible to prevailing political-economic concerns.
Our central argument in this paper is that LBP’s players offer “free labour” in the sense that Tiziana Terranova (2000) describes in her influential essay, but that the character of that labour is not reducible to economic value. On the contrary, it is an intrinsically valuable form of labour in line with David Hesmondhalgh’s description of amateur athletes and musicians (2010, p.277). In this peculiar context, the Media Molecule-designed, Sony-produced and -marketed game offers a space where player creation and creativity become objects of consideration and reflection by the players themselves. To engage with LBP as a player is to engage with the very idea of player creation and creativity, even if the player does not choose to create anything as such. It is not that Sony and Media Molecule are marketing player creation so much as their efforts have afforded an indirect and perhaps partially unanticipated discussion about what creation consists of by those who engage with the game.
In this peculiar cultural space, the discourse of player creation as material production is everywhere. It is in the design and marketing of the game, the craftwork aesthetic, the foregrounding of the level-design tools, and the prominence of the level-building community. For players, designers and analysts, what LBP helps to expose are the contradictions and incompatibilities between the material fact of player creation and the situated practices and meanings of player creativity. As a case study, the game also helps us as analysts to shift focus to the conception of creativity as a somewhat orthogonal dimension to that of capital. It is in this sense that we conclude with the observation that the opportunity to be creative is a sellable commodity that can prompt users to produce monetarily valuable goods without pay. This is not necessarily a form of exploitation, and it could, on the contrary, be considered a form of self-empowerment. We will demonstrate this through a close analysis of LBP as a play experience designed to ease players into the subject position of creator and through a set of interviews with players who became notable LBP level creators. The virtual materiality of craft in LBP enables the conflation of play with a form of autonomous material production through two processes. The first is the materialization or concretization of otherwise abstract processes of game design and the second is through the facilitation of a shift from the imagination of possibility to shared implementation.
- Virtual Materiality and the Conflation of Play and Production
At first glance, it would appear that LBP is an extension of the genre of side-scrolling platformer or jumping puzzle games in the vein of major Nintendo franchises such as Donkey Kong or Super Mario Bros. The game is played by navigating the customizable “sack person” puppet-avatar through a series of increasingly complex levels that involve simple cognitive and perceptual puzzles, reflex challenges, and time trials. There is a framing narrative built around sack people as the inhabitants, explorers and heroes in a kind of parallel universe built out of childhood arts and crafts materials and zany contraptions. Emma Westecott’s comparison of the game world to a theatrical proscenium arch is well taken (2011, p. 96). The player’s sack person moves through lushly decorated spaces with only three levels of depth (a front, middle and back) in the z-axis, and in this way appears like a puppet on stage (an effect augmented by the non-gameplay-related control of facial expressions and arm movement). When combined with the prodigious graphics capabilities of the PS3 in rendering detailed facsimiles of real-world craft materials (felt, cloth, brick, string, etc.) the limited z-axis functions both as a gameplay constraint and as a means drawing the players’ attention to what is essentially a form of miniature set or panorama design.
This marks the beginning of the players’ encounter with the idea of creation in LBP. The stages or sets of the levels convey a double sense of both an objective and naturalized environment for the players to navigate—and an obviously constructed or designed environment for the players to watch themselves move through. The effect of this is enhanced by Media Molecule’s clever use of a simultaneously kitschy and geeky DIY-craftwork design aesthetic. Aside from the cultural references to both craft culture (etsy.com) and mainstream DIY (Martha Stewart) that this affords, there is the more immediate sense that set objects created in LBP are not beyond the grasp of everyday players, and as Westecott importantly notes, even many non-gamers. That one can encounter a background of buildings that look like they were cut from paper or cardboard suggests to a player that they both can understand how the “look” of the building was made but also that such a look might not be beyond the reach of their own capacity for creation in real life and thus in-game. The central notion being: if you can draw a rudimentary house on paper, cut it out with a pair of scissors, and stick a miniature fence to it with some glue, then you can create something like the set design you are experiencing. LBP’s core strategy in stimulating UCC is to deploy real-world knowledge through metaphors of scissors and glue because it so deftly simulates the physicality of the materials. Instead of textures and polygons, we have junk lying around, ready to be reorganized. The palpable consequence of this is to render complex abstract processes as easily apprehensible material things.
This is not a ruse but a functional translation. Players can interact with these materialized abstractions as objects in the level. The ability of for players to grab, push, pull, and topple objects in the game world contributes to the tactility of the universe, but also involves players very quickly in acts of creation as they drag and drop ubiquitous building blocks to climb over obstacles or open passages. This can actually lead to some on-the-fly level editing in multiplayer games where players change the arrangement of materials to help, hinder or amuse the other player—a practice we might compare to children sucking on crayons and using them as projectiles before beginning to color. The in-game experience of interaction with the environment also becomes important later, as the players draw on those experiences in building the environments of their own levels. Although the visuals in LBP are the result of coded algorithms and industrially manufactured silicon chips, what is depicted is a world built from everyday materials. This is truly a form of object-oriented programming. Its structure is transformed from an unknowable set of methods and procedures to an assemblage of buttons, strings, fabrics, magnets, bubbles, glue, wood, stickers, and fire—save for a few esoteric objects such as noxious gas, robot brains, and self-rotating bolts. Objects behave predictably in accordance with their real-world physical properties. The result of this translation from unintelligible code to knowable materials makes working in LBP intuitive, to the point where thousands of players use its editor, dubbed the Creator, to make levels. Pushed to an extreme, these everyday objects can even be reverted back to abstract number changers. User Upsilandre’s level “Little Big Calculator” effectively functions as a decimal/binary converter with Add and Subtract functions, all from a series of shapes, wires, magnetic switches, pistons, and emitters that have been arranged to recreate the hardware and firmware to produce a rudimentary computer. It might even be said that LBP is a virtual world of open-source hardware production, where players create machines and share their blueprints with others. Virtual hardware in this case is the tinkering of simulated physical objects into machines.
It is important to note at this point that we do not use the term virtual in opposition to material. Quite the contrary, virtual and simulated objects have a material existence (albeit different from the object being represented). What the term virtual connotes in this instance is a sense of displacement, mediation or hyper-reality of the non-virtual objects represented by an assemblage of media technology. For instance, virtual glue in LBP always dries perfectly and instantly and fabrics always cut smoothly without tearing. When things do break, it is often in an unexpected way, due to the failure of overheated processors or poorly constructed algorithms. The result is an imperfect simulation of one materiality with another.
Without the use of special coding or tools, the designers at Media Molecule built the entire single-player campaign with the Creator. They built each subsequent level with additional difficulty in terms of play—but also in terms of creation, showcasing what it was that the editor could actually do. They subtly embedded in their story mode a step-by-step guide to creating levels from things found in kindergarten arts and crafts sessions, usually offering very clean, bright, and otherwise pleasant spaces. This effect is only heightened as Stephen Fry voices a very paternal narrator, who guides the player with the most caring of voices. Meshing play and creation in this welcoming environment happens in several ways. First, players gain access to the editor’s materials and stickers by collecting them as prizes from the story mode. What this effectively does is constrain player-development tools in order to protect new players from being overwhelmed when creating. In addition, this means that creators who wish to have the greatest freedom must play often and perform extremely well, because so many tools and devices are positioned as rewards from later story mode play. Second, as was mentioned the story mode levels are elegantly designed to produce increasingly complex game play, while also showcasing increasingly complex work with the Creator. In this way, the game slowly ramps up the difficulty in ascertaining how to create through example. Thirdly, the Creator world is affected by the same physics engine and is traversed through by means of one’s avatar, in the way one might while playing. This not only allows the player to immediately test each piece of the creation with their own virtual body, but limits potential increases in complexity by refusing new User Interface (UI) as shown on the screenshot below.
Figure 1: Screenshot of the “Create mode” User Interface (UI)
The menu systems found in the story mode are of the same organizational structure as those in the create mode, further simplifying the process of going from one to the other. Fourthly, the Creator itself has tutorials that act as mini puzzles asking the player to reproduce constructions that require specific techniques that are demonstrated and taught in the solution of the tutorial. Media Molecule actively chose to integrate the mechanics of gameplay with the procedures of level building. It is not unusual for a digital game to include a level editor that players can use to produce their own content. However, these are more likely to deploy the UI strategies of spreadsheet and document design than the UI strategies from the game itself. Level editors are often simpler versions of the tools that game designers themselves use—and yet the interfaces are staggeringly intimidating, to say the least.
To be sure, LBP does not force players to start creating objects and levels, and it is perfectly possible to play the game alone or in groups (the game accommodates up to four players at a time) as a conventional puzzle-platformer—as well as to extend this experience by playing any of the millions of user-created levels available online on the community hub. In addition, the degree of sack-person customizability also makes the game interesting as a kind of doll dress-up game, and there is a fairly lucrative spinoff economy of marketing and selling new outfits for LBP sack people in the Sony Store online (often as tie-ins with other Sony game products). The gameplay in this sense is already meaningful enough to spark and sustain a robust fan community that—while carrying the usual flurry of video walkthroughs, tips and tricks, reviews, and the latest news—also sustains a fair amount of fan fiction, sack-person photography, machinima and real-world crossovers to craft hobbyists designing knitted sack-person dolls.
While all this is intriguing in its own right, we are especially concerned with the subgroup of LPB players who, for one reason or another, start to develop an interest in the Create mode of the game and begin building levels for themselves and for others. The notion of subgroup is accurate here, since to be an LPB level creator, it is generally necessary to have played through all or most of the levels in the game in order to collect the various objects one might want to use in Create mode. As it stands, only 12.59% of players hold the “crowd pleaser” trophy, which requires a user to publish a level that 50 or more people play (see “LittleBigPlanet Trophies”). This also presents a new kind of gameplay motivation, as players seek to collect all the objects they can—less for the achievement, and more so that they can use them to build levels. Indeed, for this form of collecting play, cheating, in the form of walkthroughs or forum hints, is almost perfunctory. Despite the integration of playing and creating, there is no definite sense that players must play the game before they create, and indeed, we can see from our own experience and from the conversations on community forums that players may quickly try out the Create mode and move through a few tutorials just to see what it is like.
Most will discover that, although Media Molecule has done well with regards to integrating the interface between the two modes, the Create mode quickly becomes bogged down in slow-moving tutorials, the uncertainty and ambiguity of a blank canvas, and the relative complexity of building in (rather than moving in) an awkward 2.5D perspective. In this sense, Create mode is the diametric opposite of the otherwise fast, fluid and linear action of the Play mode. Thus, while the game design might prime the player for creation, actually creating the simplest of levels requires no small degree of commitment. Despite this supposed intimidation, to date across both LBP and LBP2, there are over 8 million levels in the community network. Untold numbers are not shared to the community and many others that are censored by Media Molecule. The sheer scale of this creation activity is certainly one of the notable successes of the franchise, and, years after the game’s initial release, the official community forums (aided by savvy community managers) continue to see significant activity as new levels are continually produced, played and commented upon. The virtual materiality of this game-making process is particularly important when compared to alternate modes of digital game design. Today, major studios have 2D artists, 2D animators, 3D artists, 3D animators, lighting designers, script writers, plot writers, sound designers, game designers, level designers, programmers, etc. all working in a Fordist model using advanced tools which abstract creation, building worlds in a piecemeal fashion. Hesmondhalgh and Sarah Baker in their discussions of creative industries refer to this aforementioned practice as “bad” (or alienating) labour and use craft work as an example of “good” labour, emphasizing the autonomy provided to the labourer (31). We take on this view here, and argue below, that despite Media Molucule’s partial control and ownership of the created levels, the work users produce is “good” insofar as it is meaningful for them.
- The community of creators
To explore the transition from playing to making in LBP we conducted a series of online depth interviews with 10 notable LBP level creators. The players we interviewed were all spotlighted by LittleBigPlanet Central (henceforth LBPC) for their important contributions to the community levels. To find them, we posted a call for participants in the LBPC forums and then used snowball sampling to expand our pool of informants. At the time of the interviews (2012) there were fewer than two dozen spotlighted creators, most of whom knew each other through the forum. The purpose of these interviews was not so much to capture a representative sample of all the level creators of the game, but rather to gain insight into the concrete practices and motivations of a select group of extremely motivated players for moving from mere playing to making in the context of this game. We had no desire to generalize the process and instead We wanted to know more about how highly involved level creators conceived of their projects, how they went about putting their ideas into practice and why their degree of commitment was so high, given the fact that they were not being remunerated for their work.
One of the first things we observed right away was the way in which play bleeds into level creation as an aspect of game design. Each of the players we talked to indicated that they had collected all (or nearly all) possible objects in the Play mode of the game, even those made available only at additional cost through downloadable content. The difficulty of getting every single object is very high, even with the use of walkthroughs and the knowledge of each object’s location, for some objects are rewarded only through completion of long and arduous levels without dying (something both researchers found impossible to do on their own). Thus, the drive to be a good level creator, produces an urge to be a good player—and these two often-opposed subject positions of consumer and producer (or audience and author) become inextricably entangled in LBP.
Following this, the two major topics we explored related to self-conceptions of creative process and to the perceived relationships held between Media Molecule and the community. Setting out to consider the possible problem of exploitation, it became clear that this was not going to be a useful idiom for engaging our respondents. None thought of themselves as labourers in the conventional sense, although all considered themselves to be individuals creating value for themselves and others. We became curious about the collaborative relationship between Media Molecule and its players on the one hand, and respondents’ articulation of their creation work as an art practice on the other. To give a sense of this, we provide a selection of excerpts from our interviews as follows.
“I would say that you’re right. It wasn’t like that at first. It was a lot of fun at first. But whenever I’m working on a level design project that I have to work on (i.e. the Creator spotlights)… it’s definitely not as fun. I’ve had countless nights where I’ve stayed up until 2 in the morning because our video wasn’t done, and ConfusedCartman needed it by the next day. It definitely can be as stressful as a real job sometimes.” (A)
“That is one of the things that people scoff at when I tell them what I do with LittleBigPlanet. So it is always a concern, but I do it more for fun than anything else. It does a lot of times seem like work. But at the end of the day, I do really enjoy myself when I play the game. I feel like it is a creative outlet for me. I am a math teacher; I don’t get that outlet a lot of the time. When you say I don’t get paid anything, a lot of us have found some ways to make a bit of money off our situation. They do some TV spots that they need content created for. I am doing some work for Sony right now for an advertising campaign, which I won’t mention any more about, other than that.” (B)
“Well, I might say I’ve felt like that sometimes. But I’m just a bus driver that plays video games in his free time. And when I see the hundreds of thousands of people that have played my levels, I feel overpaid for all the effort I’ve put into them.” (C)
“I am not dissuaded from playing. It is the scenario. I am happy if my levels, if stuff that I make, sells more games, then cool, I am good with it. It has definitely been rewarding to me. I get a lot of free travel out of it. This was never motivated by money. I have had the opportunity to get into an area that I have always wanted to get into. I have always wanted to be a game designer. I would not make stuff anymore if I didn’t think it was a fair trade. I don’t create to sell copies of LBP.” (D)
Of course the presentation of excerpts from our interviews in this way does not provide much nuance in terms of the contextual conditions of these creators’ perspectives and we have done little to mitigate against the plausible interpretation of false consciousness. This would require a much different set of interviews and contextualized presentation of data in the framework of a different argument. Instead, we offer these four excerpts as a means of gaining insight into plausible actors’ categories for making meaning of their practice and we are looking to display rough synergies between the craftwork material practice of LPB play and creation and other conceptual lenses to make sense of this that are not reducible to a theory of exploitation in the last instance.
In these excerpts we can begin to see that while the use of everyday materials provides the game with a distinct aesthetic and intuitive use, it also contributes to a conceptual spillover whereby players consider themselves craftworkers or artists. Although all the creators indicated that they were creative, several active creators indicated during interviews that they considered themselves to be artists, while others either explained that their work was more closely linked to craft than art or to something entirely different. The distinction was usually invoked to avoid personal association with elitism or pride. (A) explained that he had never considered himself to be a true artist because he was only a graphics designer and a musician who took an electronic game and manipulated things like shapes, stickers, lighting and sound to create an experience for somebody. As exemplified below, for him level design is not labor but an intrinsically rewarding activity:
“It is kind of like artwork that you can play on. … Somebody could make the argument that we are working for Media Molecule for free, but they do give us quite a few cool levels to play with when you get the game, and you get quite a few cool tools to work with as well.” “Think of it as having a virtual world of any model kit that you can imagine, instead of having to go out on your own.” (E)
Consequently, like other level designers, to his mind, doing this activity did not exactly equate to art making,. However, when pressed, he contrasted himself to Vincent Van Gogh, while explaining that he was instead somewhat like a 21st-century Leonardo Da Vinci, given his ability to invent. (G), although trained and working as an artist, explained that work in LBP was never going to meet any heuristics for detecting high art, saying, “It is more a craft than an art. If you want to get really technical.” These two positions are difficult to parse, given that players claim be creative, produce some of the most acclaimed levels, and yet will not consider their work to meet their understanding of art. (E) indicated that the tone of the game and the general aesthetic of its palette offered did not mesh well with serious artistic expression. Instead, like many others, he insists on what contributes to his felicity:
“Well, those—I got the enjoyment out of making them. I enjoyed having an idea and putting it in the game and seeing it work.” (F)
The enjoyment at performing a level design activity emerges retrospectively from the experience of creation as a player. However, most of them still thought that their work was mainly artistic, creative and imaginative. For instance, when (G) was interviewed, she also accounted for this focus on creativity and art, explaining that “I am creative and this practice is creative. This game encourages creativity.” She understands that this kind of practice is not like her professional career in graphic design. Her everyday work, while creative, is not fulfilling to the same degree, and so she pays Media Molecule for the privilege of having a playful space rife with creative potential.
In general, then we have tried to illustrate how the discursive features of LBP in its transition from Play mode to Create mode set up the conditions for players to understand themselves as creators. Our interview data then goes some way towards articulating the agency of player-creators with respect to this, as the individuals we talked with each saw their creative practice in slightly different ways. We do not think we are describing a condition of “playbour” (Kücklich, 2005, de Peuter, 2010, Scholz, 2013) in which players are drawn into an exploitative relationship by producing content for Sony and Media Molecule in exchange for nothing but the pleasure of play. In our view, player-creators are just as likely to be exploiting LBP as a means of channeling an impulse or desire to be creative. Of course, this opposite is never so simple—nor do we suggest it can be resolved through recourse to crude theories of ideology.
- Creation is consumption
When one plays LBP’s pre-made levels, it is an act of consumption, similar to those of most players with most games. When one creates in LBP, while the gameplay of the platformer ceases, it does not cease to be a game—nor an act of consumption. Both LBP play and creation occur within a framework of late capitalist production. Each act of a player has exchange value at some level. This is certainly true of the game’s player-created levels, but even simple player choices like which levels they “like,” what in-game objects they prefer and what buttons they press become extractable resources for the information economy.
While it might be argued that LBP players are “labouring” without compensation, we would like to make a different claim. Specifically, that LBP players are not only labourers, but players. The consequence being that they generate value for themselves. Hesmondhalgh writes,
Without denying for a moment the fundamental importance of a living wage, it seems dangerous to think of wages as the only meaningful form of reward, and it would surely be wrong to imply that any work done on the basis of social contribution or deferred reward represents the activities of people duped by capitalism. Actually, it seems to me that this would run the danger of internalising capitalism’s own emphasis on commodification. We have to hold on to the value of work done for its own sake, or as ‘gift’ labour (see Hyde, 1983), and complaints about free labour – unless the normative basis for the complaints are spelt out very carefully – risk undermining that value. (Hesmondhalgh, 2010, p. 278)
We wish to echo Hesmondhalgh’s critique argument here, and, although he does not spell out what “that value” is, we are ready to theorize that it is creative freedom—and this can be seen in the acts and self-perceptions of LBP creators. In order to develop this idea, we must bracket the notion of labour and functional exploitation that most certainly exists in the deep structure of this system, and instead look for other conceptual tools that might help us to understand the motivations, practices and possibilities inherent in player creation.
One way to start is with our common cultural understandings of what games are in the first place. Analytic philosopher Bernard Suits writes in his work on games that,
… to play a game is to achieve a specific state of affairs [prelusory goal], using only means permitted by rules [lusory means], where the rules prohibit use of more efficient in favour of less efficient means [constitutive rules], and where the rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity [lusory attitude].” (Suits, 2005, p.55)
Some cite another version of Suits’s definition: “Playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome obstacles,” but this version lacks some of the nuances that make it useful (Kirkpatrick, 2011, 56). While Suits’ definition is relatively standard in most ways, given the necessity of goals and rules, he is the first to capture the requirement of intrinsically valuing the actions required by the game structure, (i.e. the “lusory attitude” towards the “lusory means” made possible by the “constitutive rules”). Without this intentionality accounted for, we run into situations where people are going through the motions of games, but perhaps without the intent to do so—or worse, under duress.
To be fair, Suits was not the first to consider the implications of cognition on gameplay. Mark Twain offered a similar insight into play in his book The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: “If [Tom Sawyer] had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do” (17). In the novel, Tom is aware that whitewashing a fence is work and cannot bring himself to conceive of it differently. He is, however, capable of fooling his friends into believing that whitewashing a fence is an intrinsically valuable activity, and so they paint the fence willingly, paying Tom for the privilege of doing so. The physical activity hasn’t changed, but the mentality of the actors has. This psychological division between play and work is based on the actor’s evaluation of whether the activity they are engaged in is worth doing on its own merit. This evaluation is flawed in the latter case, as it is through manipulation and sleight of hand that Tom deceives his friends into falsely evaluating the whitewashing as intrinsically valuable. This concept isn’t unique to Twain’s novel; today, there is a fear that the gamification of labour will result in people being duped into working harder for no additional pay (Deterding et al., 2011; Nicholson, 2012). While we would not disagree in certain instances, in the case of LBP creations, there is reason to believe that the labour is actually intrinsically valuable—on the grounds that it is a game and a creative practice, and not simply a series of tasks amplified by metrics.
With LBP’s Play mode, one might posit that the intrinsic value is generated by the presence of interesting choices and challenges of dexterity. Players are prompted to think creatively and develop mastery. However, with regards to the creation mode, intrinsic valuation stems from the same principles as creative production, specifically in an exercise of the creative imagination. The concept of imagination is somewhat nebulous, given its multiple uses. To lend some clarity to the term, we can say that to imagine something is to have in mind a proposition, without committing to its truth value. The capacity to imagine has an important impact on playing games, because it allows players to consider strategies, determine certain truths about the game state, and predict certain kinds of changes. With a game like LBP, the imagination finds an additional use in the creative play of building levels. Distinct from rule-based, goal-oriented gameplay, or ludus, creative play is closer to Roger Caillois’s use of paidia, “At one extreme an almost indivisible principle, common to diversion, turbulence, free improvisation and carefree gaiety is dominant. It manifests a kind of uncontrolled fantasy that can be designated by the term paidia” (1961, p.13).
For the analytic aesthetic philosopher, Berys Gaut play can produce unforeseeable results, an important element in determining whether an act is creative. He explains that “creativity is the kind of making that produces something which is original and which has considerable value” (2003, p. 150). What is more, a creative act must not be reached by mechanically going through possible products (like the computer Deep Blue playing chess) nor can the creative act be produced through chance. Instead, it must be produced with what Gaut dubs “flair” (2003, p. 151). Flair involves doing something without following a recipe; in the case of creating levels in LBP, it might be a combination of an expressive desire and the skill to manipulate the virtual objects well enough to be expressive. According to Gaut, flair, value and originality are sufficient conditions for us to declare some act creative or some object the result of creativity. Free play allows for original work capable of having value, without being the result of brute-force experimentation. This is where material practices become central to Gaut. In developing his idea of skill, Gaut argues against the notion that “the artist’s creativity consists in thinking up something new, and its physical making, involving skill, can in principle be left to someone else” (ibid., p. 89). For Gaut, it is in the playful manipulation of material objects that the artist can deviate from routine and demonstrate flair.
The painter, mid-brushstroke, makes aesthetically relevant decisions based on: the resistance she feels between the canvas and brush; the thickness of the trail left behind; the juxtaposition of the newly applied and former colors; etc. Here mistakes can be judged positively and kept. In addition, intended acts can be deemed unworthy upon reflection and rejected. It is only through training and dedication that the artist learns to adjust and adapt midway, regulating and unregulating the materials at hand. In the same way, LBP creators who spend hundreds of hours playfully creating, because of the virtual materiality of the software, attain a feel for creation. These players exhibit the kinds of skills critics expect from expert makers, particularly as they reshape the possibilities of tools at hand. Such a practice demonstrates a personal style, which can be valued. This position meshes well with interviewer responses; person (C) even indicated, “I want people to notice all of the ‘me’ that’s in the levels. I want them to notice exactly how much of my personality spills into the level. It sounds strange, but anyone who knows me can play my levels and say, ‘Yep, … [C] made this’ … or … ‘[C] had her hand in this somehow’… and I like that.” LBP offers players the ability to express their sensibilities creatively, giving them a sense of value and purpose that is not tied to capital.
Gaut’s project is to describe the creative process and make room for the importance of skill in highlighting the kinds of non-instrumental value that creative acts have. The latter are crucial in understanding the productive consumption (or prosumption, see Ritzer and Jurgenson 2010) of LBP players. The reason we value the creativity of these players, besides the fact that they make interesting spaces for us to explore, is because they display courage and freedom. Creative endeavors are necessarily non-routinized activity with unpredictable results. Given the rejection of preplanned or standard activity, “Creative persons, then, are free in the sense that they are not bound by the established practice of routines. Creativity manifests a certain kind of freedom in the domain of skills; and freedom is something we value for its own sake” (Gaut 2009, p. 101). A second value stems from uncertainty,
“The creative person must have a high tolerance for risks. But since he is aiming at something valuable, his risk-taking is not mere foolhardiness, like someone who has jaywalking as a hobby. In aiming at the valuable, but knowingly being prepared to take risks to achieve it, the creative person fulfills the definitional conditions of courage.” (ibid., p. 102)
Interestingly, creativity is able to manifest itself in many human activities, but it is unlikely that we find it in games or craftwork. Needlepoint, paint-by-numbers, and model car building, while certainly apt to be the products of creative work, are most often produced by traditional activities that arrive at clearly expected results. Their materials, while symbolic of the functional, are readily available to artists who blur boundaries between craft and art. In the case of LBP, it would be a mistake to think of players as painters-by-numbers, despite their work with virtual craft materials in a AAA videogame.
Thinking back to whitewashing fences in Tom Sawyer, our discomfort can be more clearly understood. Tom had tricked his friends into doing something and thus undermining the possibility of using creative imagination and freedom. Tom was able to conceptually trap his friends, exemplifying human gullibility and weakness of thought. We may also admit that there is value in the pleasure or feeling of creativity in the material act of painting the fence but for Twain’s Sawyer the deception is the key. Can all players be so easily duped? Although LBP players do pay for the privilege to play, just like Tom’s friends, and although their play benefits MM, just like Tom’s friends’ labour did Tom, the difference is that the LBP players are not deceived into valuing their play. They come to this on their own, and even then, it is only a subset of the total population of players. We should be cautious in assuming that all unpaid labour is exploitative. We should also be cautious of attributing the term labour to all productive activity. Producing valuable assets and playing games are not mutually exclusive propositions. This is particularly true because they exist in different modes of conceptualizations, in one case extrinsic value, and in the other, intrinsic value.
It is only once we frame this playful labour as productive in an extrinsic mode that we can begin to question its validity. For instance, some might make levels in LBP to develop their portfolio or to train themselves with Media Molecule’s tools. In 2009, MM hired multiple level creators for freelance work for the “Game of the Year” edition, and even brought creators onto their team. In this case, LBP might be exploitative insofar as it offers a free internship of sorts to anyone who would like to participate, and MM hires only the very best from the thousands who apply. We might also consider those players who rate levels and produce UCC for PlayStation Network trophies, and nothing else. These players are exploited insofar as their behaviour is gamified so as to produce monetizable content in the form of amateur reviews. Our argument, as it should be plain by now, is that only specific kinds of activities are intrinsically valuable—creative level design being one of any number undescribed here. It is not that play exists outside of capitalism or that LBP shines as a beacon of unadulterated artistry. For this reason, we are very sympathetic to those that critique it and other games like it—while still suggesting that the baby must not be thrown out with the bathwater.
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Pour citer cet article / Citation information:
– En version française : William Robinson et Bart Simon, « Little Big Planet : la créativité numérique à l’œuvre », Tracés. Revue de Sciences humaines [En ligne], 28 | 2015, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2015, consulté le 12 octobre 2015. URL : http://traces.revues.org/6201 ; DOI : 10.4000/traces.6201
– In English: William Robinson and Bart Simon, « Digital creativity in Little Big Planet », Tracés. Revue de Sciences humaines [Online], 28 | 2015, online publication on October 13 2015. URL : http://traces.revues.org/6201.