Quotidian Pin: Reimagining the Potentials of Pin as (and) Play


 

Jody Shipka
University of Maryland, Baltimore County

"[T]o know what something really is. . .we have to get beyond its immediately given state. . .and follow the process in which it becomes something else."
--Michael Shanks

"The ‘making of’ any enterprise—films, skyscrapers, facts, political meetings, initiation rituals, haute couture, cooking—offers a view that is sufficiently different from the official one. . . .even more important, when you are guided to any construction site you are experiencing the troubling and exhilarating feeling that things could be different, or at least that they could still fail—a feeling never so deep when faced with the final product, no matter how beautiful or impressive it may be."
--Bruno Latour

 

In “Show, not Tell: The Value of New Media Scholarship,” Cheryl Ball distinguishes between “scholarship about new media” and “new media scholarship,” maintaining that the term scholarship about new media be applied to scholarship that draws upon familiar conventions (such as print-based alphabetic text) to form an argument about new media, while the term new media scholarship be reserved for texts that “juxtapose semiotic modes in new and aesthetically pleasing ways and, in doing so, break away from the print traditions so that written text is not the primary rhetorical means” (405). In this way, a piece of new media scholarship might be composed of a mix of alphabetic text, audio, video, images, and/or animation (404). Cognizant that scholarship that breaks with linear, print-based conventions and draws on multiple sign systems and conventions “might cause readers to misinterpret these texts as too artistic to satisfy scholarly conventions” (404), Ball argues that “valuing these texts—and making them less rare” is crucial for new media scholarship to move forward (422). Like Ball, Cynthia Selfe has argued for increasing the value and visibility of texts comprised of multiple modes. Selfe underscores, for instance, the importance of having faculty in rhetoric and composition studies (an area of study that has long privileged the production of alphabetic text and adherence to print-based conventions) to demonstrate to students that they too “are willing to learn new ways of composing, to expand their own skills and abilities beyond the alphabetic by practicing with different modalities of expression that may be unfamiliar and difficult but increasingly expected and valuable in different twenty-first-century rhetorical contexts both in and out of the academy” (608).

As someone who has spent the better part of her teaching career creating tasks that invite students to experiment with different conventions, modes and media forms (both new and not-so-new, digital as well as analog), I believe strongly in the importance (to paraphrase Ball) of making sure that what we preach is also what we practice (409). Put otherwise, it makes little sense to advocate (whether in the classroom or in my scholarly work) the importance of experimentation, risk-taking, and play without engaging in these things myself. I share Ball’s concern, however, about whether (or how often) texts that play and/or break with traditional forms and expectations (read: linear, alphabetic, print-based) are taken seriously or seen as scholarly. I am concerned that those who might engage with these texts will look past (or simply not be able to appreciate) the time, effort, thought, and range of rhetorical, material, and scholarly moves that go into many of them, writing them off, instead, as simply creative, artistic, or crafty (read: not scholarly or intellectually rigorous enough).

One way that composers of scholarship that breaks with linear, print-based conventions can help audiences better recognize and attend to the richness, rigor, and complexity of their work is to share with them details of the rhetorical and material processes they engaged in while composing that work. Following Latour, we can work to offer rich and detailed views of our construction sites, or, to loosely paraphrase Michael Shanks, we can share with others the complex material, intellectual, and rhetorical processes both by and through which some thing becomes (comes to be) and/or is transformed into something else entirely.

Participating in the MLAracade project afforded me an opportunity to push beyond my own scholarly comfort zones and to take up the challenge of creating a piece of work that wasn’t strictly print- or video-based (my usual go-to modes for scholarly production), but that involved the purposeful selection, positioning, and photographing of tiny, HO-scale train figures arranged against the various surfaces of tabletop pinball games. In what follows, I provide details about how the posting of a single image to Facebook eventually resulted in a purposefully engineered series of still images that, taken together, invites viewers to rethink and reimagine the potentials of pinball, process, and play.

Notes from a Construction Site: On the Process of Becoming Quotidian Pin

On April 22, 2014 I posted to Facebook a photo of a one of my student’s repurposed wooden tabletop pinball game called “Clown Hood” that featured a rather menacing image of a zombie clown. “Clown Hood” was engineered in response to a task titled “(re)Designing Meaningful Play,” that requires students in my play theory seminar to redesign, “remediate” (Bolter & Grusin), or in keeping with a concept used by Erving Goffman “re-key” an existing game, thereby affording it new purposes, potentials, consequences, and audience appeal. Despite its rather foreboding appearance, “Clown Hood” was created as a pedagogical tool as the student imagined as her ideal audience children (as well as parents of those children) who might benefit from an interactive game designed to help children confront and move beyond their fears. To this end, the student juxtaposed the scarier images and artifacts (the clown image, spider webs, skull and crossbones) located in and around the game with happier, more cheerful artifacts (glittery stickers, cartoonish 3D figures), as a way of neutralizing the presence and appearance of things that she imagined might prove frightening for children. Throughout the course of play, players could win points and advance levels, by confronting their fears.

I posted the image to Facebook primarily to rankle those of my friends familiar with (but who definitely do not share) my interest in clown imagery and artifacts. But I was also struck by the fact that after 14+ years of seeing students create games in response to various assignments they’ve received from me, I’d never received a pinball game. I found this curious, and it was something I wanted to share with others.

On April 22, 2014 I posted to Facebook a photo of a one of my student’s repurposed wooden tabletop pinball game called “Clown Hood” that featured a rather menacing image of a zombie clown. “Clown Hood” was engineered in response to a task titled “(re)Designing Meaningful Play,” that requires students in my play theory seminar to redesign, “remediate” (Bolter & Grusin), or in keeping with a concept used by Erving Goffman “re-key” an existing game, thereby affording it new purposes, potentials, consequences, and audience appeal. Despite its rather foreboding appearance, “Clown Hood” was created as a pedagogical tool as the student imagined as her ideal audience children (as well as parents of those children) who might benefit from an interactive game designed to help children confront and move beyond their fears. To this end, the student juxtaposed the scarier images and artifacts (the clown image, spider webs, skull and crossbones) located in and around the game with happier, more cheerful artifacts (glittery stickers, cartoonish 3D figures), as a way of neutralizing the presence and appearance of things that she imagined might prove frightening for children. Throughout the course of play, players could win points and advance levels, by confronting their fears.

I posted the image to Facebook primarily to rankle those of my friends familiar with (but who definitely do not share) my interest in clown imagery and artifacts. But I was also struck by the fact that after 14+ years of seeing students create games in response to various assignments they’ve received from me, I’d never received a pinball game. I found this curious, and it was something I wanted to share with others.

Fast forward about a month and a half. On June 10th, I received an email from Geof inviting me to participate in this project. Geof is a Facebook friend, and he recalled seeing the image I posted of “Clown Hood,” and who had, in fact, had posted as a response to “Clown Hood” an image of the 1988 Williams Cyclone Playfield by Python Anghelo and his somewhat menacing clown. Once again, I found this curious. To explain: As an avid collector of various kinds of vintage oddities (old games, cameras, mannequin parts, 8mm and 16mm home movies, old writing and communication technologies, etc.), and as one who spends a good deal of time browsing antique stores, flea markets and yard and estate sales, I couldn’t recall seeing many pinball-related materials. I knew I certainly didn’t own anything pinball-related.

I responded to Geof on June 11th, expressing interest in the project, but underscoring concern about my access to resources. Doubting my ability to find (whether at local yard sales or antique stores) materials that were both affordable and useable, I turned immediately to eBay to get a sense of whether I’d even be able to obtain—in a timely fashion and at a reasonable price—materials for the project. I didn’t know it when I began my online searching (or couldn’t have articulated it as such, anyway), but the idea for “Quotidian Pin” came largely as a result of those first eBay searches. In that same email to Geof, I explained:

So far, my concerns and thoughts have been [about] technical/resource issues. There's also the matter of what I want this work to do, say, or mean. What strikes me now--an impression based largely on my ebay search and looking at the various items in my watch list--is that I tended to gravitate toward machines (all of which are tabletop sized or even smaller) that promise (at least in terms of visual/verbal design) great adventure and/or escape--las vegas, the jungle, outer-space, etc. It struck me how both my actions (as a consumer on ebay) and what I was drawn to both represent what I take to be really impoverished or stereotypical notions of play--play as consumerism, escape, adventure. So that might be one point of entry to think about--can I create small figured scenes that militate against that, respond to it, perpetuate it? etc. At this point, I'm particularly drawn to the idea of taking the pinball games and dissembling them, or piecing them out to such a degree, it makes people question whether it still qualifies (i.e., is recognizable) as one--play as a kind of decomposition/destruction and ultimately remediation. Not sure that I'm skilled or smart enough to swing this. Just a few starting thoughts or possible points of entry.

During the next week and a half the mail carrier delivered to my door about a dozen wrapped and rattling packages. As each new tabletop pinball game arrived, I’d spend time playing around with it, familiarizing myself with both its photographic and meaning potentials. Having had experience producing print-based as well as video-based scholarship, I was interested, with this project, to experiment with the potentials of object-based, three-dimensional scholarship or argumentation. In this way, my plan had always been to create and then photograph tiny sculptures of sorts featuring the pinball machines as well as my collection of tiny HO-scale figures. In this way, much of my time was spent trying to get a better sense of how these elements might be juxtaposed and combined to get the effect I was striving for. Curiously enough, while I spent a good amount of time playing around with the machines, I never actually thought to play any of them, something that might be explained by the fact that: 1.) I was becoming increasingly nervous about my not having committed to a clear point or focus of my contribution to the collection and 2.) I was becoming increasingly doubtful that I’d ever come up with anything at all. In short, my hope was that by photographing the machines, by taking them apart and recombining parts and pieces, I would eventually come up a focus, point or theme for my contribution.

I posted to Facebook some early test shots. In response to one particular image (an early version of the image titled “Crossing Main”), a friend, troubled by the highly stereotypical aspects of the HO-figures, asked, “Didn’t they allow any working women to cross Main?” [The original version of the image featured four men wearing business attire, two of whom are also holding briefcases.] While I too had noted the problematic portrayal of gender roles represented by the HO-figures (i.e., many of the female figures are cast in highly stereotypical roles—secretaries, housewives, mothers, brides, playboy bunnies, beautiful young nudes), what this conversation eventually helped to bring into focus for me—something I hadn’t noticed or considered before—is how these figures tend often to be engaged in very routine, everyday activities and practices.

As a result of this conversation, one prompted by my posting the image to Facebook, the focus of my series of images finally began to take shape. In an email to Geof, dated June 20th, I sent a few test shots and explained my thinking behind (or for) the Quotidian Pin project:

. . .as I indicated in an earlier email, when looking at ebay's selection of min pin tabletop games, I gravitated toward those with the most spectacular themes, scenes and figures (dinosaurs, outer-space, wild west). My collections of small figures, by contrast, depict rather mundane, everyday people and activities (women doing laundry/cooking, an office worker typing, people sitting on a front stoop, men doing construction/scaffolding, people at a yard sale, people eating in a cafe, people at a newsstand). The most exciting events depicted here are probably kids flying kites or buying ice cream from a truck. . . .For this series, I was thinking about focusing on the types of scenes and figures that you don't typically see in pinball games. The everyday, the every-, any- or no-body. I'd love to do one with cats and dogs up for adoption, but don't think i have these figures. For this series, I'm currently playing with the idea of featuring a really stripped down version of the tabletop game.

Concerned however that a “stripped down,” plastic-only treatment of the tabletop games would not convey for viewers “pinball,” the email continues:

I like the way the plastic photographs (and reflects) and I think if the photographs have the plunger and balls in it, it will still read "pinball" for viewers. In the attached examples, I only feature a photographer--at the time, I was mainly interested in seeing how the plastic, balls and red plunger photographed. In the actual pictures I would be setting up the everyday scenes on the surface of the plastic. I've attached a color image and a partially colored one. I had thought about doing this series in b/w to play up the contrast between the spectacular and everyday, but the figures are so small and difficult to photograph, it often seems a lot of necessary visual detail is lost when I do them in b/w. Again, still playing around with technique here, but I like the idea of showing everyday people and scenes depicted on/in the game.

Thus began three long weeks of arranging scenes and photographing them but I was unhappy with practically everything to do with this project, save for the general idea, focus or goal I had come up, which was again: 1.) to rethink the potentials of pin by playing with scale [i.e., juxtaposing the smallness and delicacy of the HO-figures with the much grander scale and durability normally associated with pinball]; 2.) to foreground the playful and creative aspects, the spectacle, so to speak, of the mundane, the everyday, the quotidian, and in so doing, 3.) to challenge dominant notions or stereotypes of play (i.e., play as temporarily and spatially distinct from the everyday, from the “real” world of work, play as escapism, play as a consumerist trap, play as child’s work, play as inconsequential, as non- or un-productive, non-generative).

I concluded that my dissatisfaction with the early shots had to do with the fact that they were, visually- and conceptually-speaking too much stripped down—that is to say, while they captured the everydayness of certain professions, activities, and practices, they were not playful enough. In the end, they failed to really bring together elements of the everyday, of the work world, and of play/playful impulses and possibilities. Ultimately, then, wanting to capture a bit more of the density, color, and complexity associated with pinball playfields, I began adding more elements to my scenes of the everyday and decided that, for some shots, I would photograph the games’ original playfields beneath the plastic surface I had arranged my scenes upon.

  

The cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstader maintains that making “variations on a theme is really the crux of creativity” (233). I would argue that the same holds true for pinball and, more generally, for play, and for many, if not all, processes of making. He suggests that little of what one sees or encounters is truly novel or original, but rather represents variations, albeit of different types and degrees, on existing concepts, ideas and materials—on what has been seen, thought, experienced, or produced before. For Hofstadter, creativity is not about coming up with something original—a “totally new idea” (233), but rather, demands of us the ability of seeing “one thing as something else,” (252), of seeing “further into the space of possibilities surrounding what is” (247) and, importantly, of devoting enough time, effort, flexibility, and patience to tease out the implications of that difference, of those possibilities. It requires of composers what the archeologist Michael Shanks calls “sensuous receptivity”—a greater awareness and appreciation of how “every new insight about an object literally changes what that object is, its identity, and thus our attitudes and actions toward it” (112).

And so, curiously enough, these notes on a process end much as they began—with an account of an individual’s attempt to redesign, remediate, or “re-key” an existing game with a mind toward providing it with new purposes, potentials, consequences, and even perhaps, audience appeal.

Close-up Images

Works Cited

Ball, Cheryl. 2004. “Show, Not Tell: The Value of New Media Scholarship.” Computers and Composition 21: 403-25

. Bolter, Jay David and Richard Grusin. 1999. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Hofstadter, Douglas. 1985. Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern. New York: Basic Books.

Goffman, Erving. 1974. Frame Analysis. New York: Harper & Row.

Selfe, Cynthia. 2010. “Response to Doug Hesse.” College Composition and Communication 61: 606-610.

Shanks, Michael. 1991. Experiencing the Past. New York: Routledge.