Playware by Gerfried Stocker

(Artistic Director, Ars Electronica Linz)

The ability for interaction between the digital and real domains of our modern world has become a major challenge. Since playing also describes a certain modality to explore our world, the exhibition Playware has to be also considered as an exciting experiment to deal with the deep going implications of digital technologies onto our culture and society.

Due to the possibilities of interactive media we have already learnt to extend the role of the visitor and spectator to a user and participant, or even further to the idea of a co-creator. The projects selected for Playware are characterized by this playful engagement and a wide range of participation. They involve people in spatial and physical interaction as well as in social multi user — or even remote and telematic experiences.

Already in 1938 the philosopher Johann Huizinga (1) described the game as the origin or source of culture and coined a new term -besides Homo Sapiens he came up with the term Homo Ludens (2).

Being used to talk and think in the German language it is always tricky to deal with the many different words that the English language offers: game, play, gamble, act... In German we only have “Spiel” and the same word is used for “Spielzeug” (toys for kids) or “Glücksspiel” (gambling) as well as for “playing” an instrument, for “playing” theatre or “playing” football, and we use it for “Wortspiel”, “Liebesspiel” as well as for “Machtspiel” (3). I would say that is quite an impressive proof for the very deep roots of our culture in game/play.

According to Huizinga each game/play needs its rules/common agreements that frame it. But it is also profoundly based on the possibility to act freely which means that the rules don’t have to be the ones of our real world, neither physical nor social.

While our notion of games is usually linked to the achievement of certain tasks and goals (winning or losing belongs to the fundamental issues of games) the term play describes also a certain modality to encounter and to explore the world that surrounds us.


No matter, whether it is the real physical world that we can touch Playware - Playfully Probing the New Reality Gerfried Stocker Artistic Director, Ars Electronica Linz with our hands or the conceptual construction of our world that we create in our brains.

Gaining competence is one of the central concepts of game/play as well as participation and engagement. But also the breakdown of the boundaries between the role of the producer and the consumer is an integral aspect of games/plays.

These are also major characteristics of interactive art. In the same way as games are highly social because they not only allow for but require the participation of others, also interactive art works require the visitor to become a participating user who assumes the role as co-creator. A truly interactive art work reacts much like a chess player on the moves or actions of its user. Such an interactive scenario needs its rules or algorithms within which it again can “create” its responses to the user. Needless to say, this has to go far beyond any simple type of touch or click selection (4).

Playfully probing the new reality

A game, if it’s a good one, is nothing else than a tool, a tool that can be used in playful ways, a tool it is enjoyable to use but still a tool that enables us to achieve something, that allows us to perform tasks beyond the native capacities of our body and brain.

But then, why don’t we want to call these projects toys? Why do we think it is important to make a lot of fuss to disguise this very powerful aspect? Of course because in our world of low level commercial entertainment these words have been devaluated and ruined – and maybe also because the world of art is still too worried to get too close to its very popular stepsisters.

So lets no longer talk about games or playing but about interacting and no longer about tools or even toys but about interfaces. And here we are right in the middle of one of the most important challenges of our time: the development and creation of strategies and interfaces to connect our real/physical world with the omnipresent second nature of digital data that is not only surrounding us but has already started to intrude into our bodies.

In this dual-reality of our time we have our digital identities stored in networked databases; we leave our traces in this digital world every moment of the day, no matter if we are even actively using a computer and the internet.

Considering the importance and the massive presence of this virtual second reality it becomes ever more important to develop interfaces that allow us not only mental awareness but also physical, bodily, sensual consciousness of these encounters.

The human body doesn’t have any native capacity to see, feel, smell digital data; we need ways to artificially translate them into the languages of our body and brain. Considering how often we cross this invisible and intangible border into the virtual realm it is almost a bad joke that the portal that we usually use is still a small screen with a lousy resolution and a keyboard and a mouse that give you an inflammation of your tendon sheath when you use them a lot.

The prototypical projects of this exhibition demonstrate in a convincing way that the artistic exploration of interactivity not only reflects the ongoing social and cultural transitions but also creates far reaching synergies between art, technology and society.

  1. Johan Huizinga, Dutch historian, one of the founders of modern cultural history. His book Homo Ludens was published in 1938 (Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: Beacon Press, 1971. ISBN-10: 0807046817)
  2. Homo Ludens – Latin, from ludus play. “Man the Player” or “playing human”
  3. As far as I know Spanish is quite similar, except when it comes to playing music.
  4. If you are interested in these analogies, I strongly recommend reading Vilém Flusser, but I am afraid that very few of his brilliant theories have to this date been translated into Spanish or English.
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