July 23, 2003

Irony and situatedness

by Nick Montfort · , 1:21 pm

In some ways I hesitate to discuss Hipster Bingo, even in its exciting randomized form, because it is only superficially computer-based and is a pseudo-game. People don’t really play it – I don’t think. It’s more like some sort of gristly, low-quality blog fodder rather than being an interesting work of art or literature or gaming. But it’s a somewhat interesting mockery of a game, nonetheless, and it’s going to give me an excuse to briefly go off (in different directions) about irony and the use of computers in social situations.

But first, let me invite responses from anyone who has actually played (rather than just ironically admired) this “game.” Please, if you’ve printed out a bingo card for use, or sat wirelessly in Verb or Alt (or your local equivalent) covering your laptop’s monitor with “Stickies” notes as you spot those people who seem to have stepped out of Vice magazine, let me know about it. How was Hipster Bingo’s gameplay? I want to read the review.

The problem with irony – at least irony of this sort, which is perhaps better described as sarcasm, for those of us who remember the definition of irony given in Reality Bites – is that it is a severely limited mode for critical discourse, only slightly more interesting that sticking out your tongue. Hipster Bingo seems like some not-very-nuanced remnant of the amusing but often aimless attitude that lingered like an addiction until the last days of Suck, but when you get right down to it, it’s more like something that was pilloried back in 1996 on that site. This should serve to remind us all that however limiting irony is, it’s better than pure stupidity. (After all, Suck did largely outlive the Web startup targets it lampooned, carrying on for a while like cockroaches after a nuclear war.) And this is the part where I should write something about parody and pastiche, but, whatever.

Anyway, it’s not the irony that I actually like about Hipster Bingo. Rather, it’s the suggestion – even if it is just a suggestion – that our computers can work as part of our in-person social environment in novel ways. Mapquest explains one way, rather banal by now, that the computer can be helpfully aware of our environment. Oddly, I’ve found that computer hardware (Oo! Nice little notebook computer you have there!) seems to have been more socially engaging, if only as a conversation piece, than any Web site or software has been. There are mobile phones that are beginning to take on interesting new roles (as some of you would surely SMS to tell me, if you could) and certain PDA-based location-aware projects out there (yARR!) but I wonder about whether there has been much done in terms of actual Web games made for wireless social play on notebook computers. As Hipster Bingo demonstrates, such games don’t even have to be multi-player in order to involve others who are there around us in “non-simulated reality.” Perhaps the niche is too narrow, or perhaps I just haven’t found where these sorts of games (or artworks, or literary works) are online. I guess I’ll start looking for them instead of watching out for hipsters.

5 Responses to “Irony and situatedness”


  1. andrew Says:

    This is not exactly on the topic, but has anyone been using Friendster? Robin Hunicke first mentioned it to me. Looks pretty cool, I think I’ll give it a try.

  2. Peter Says:

    I’m late to post, but I think what strikes me most about Hipster Bingo is, at the risk of being too serious, is the sentiment expressed by Emma Bovary: “That is true, that is true!” I am close to sure that people were playing this “game” well before it appeared on the web. (though I did give it somewhat of a try last weekend in D.C.) To follow Nick’s feeling that it is a pseudo game, I think that maybe we can take this to question of what “play” means. In other words, I myself think of Hipster Bingo as less of a game than a social commentary. This leads to “big questions,” such as what is the difference between play and narrative (can they be seperate?)

  3. nick Says:

    This does lead to big questions, although the main one that occurs to me doesn’t have to do with play and narrative. Consider that we’d probably agree that someone with a Hipster Bingo board who is actually placing tokens on it in reaction to what he or she sees is playing a game, even if this game was actually made for the purposes of social commentary, not for the purpose of play.

    But what if someone actually memorizes a bingo board and plays without any visible sign, having learned to remember where tokens are placed and which spots are still open? My intuitive sense, and one that seems consistent with anthropological ideas about games, is that if people are playing a game (even a one-person game like solitare) it should somehow show in their activity or behavior – you should be able to see this gameplay going on in the world, since in the usual case it has a social function.

    But perhaps that assumption is unexamined. People can certainly play plenty of games without any equipment, without boards and tokens. (Even chess can be played without a board and pieces by some pairs of people.) In the strange degenerate case of one-player games, there seem to be some that could be played this way also: License plate bingo and kindred observation games seem to be good candidates. The autistic protagonist and narrator of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time seems to play a one-player observation game in counting cars of different colors, to offer a fictional example.

    I suppose this shouldn’t be so upsetting, but it means that for these types of games it may be very difficult to even know whether or not someone is playing a game. It may be just as hard as knowing what a person is thinking…

  4. Jordan Davis Says:

    Why is ‘irony’ one of the terms in play here? Isn’t “Hipster Bingo” a satire, and a welcome one, if eight years too late to have saved me from a dread of anyone in a gas-station uniform shirt out of a service station context…

  5. nick Says:

    Click on the link and you’ll see spaces labeled with “ironic trucker cap” and “ironic mustache,” to indicate the delicious levels of meaning that are in play when such caps or mustaches are worn by hipsters.

    In some respects I think calling Hipster Bingo a “satire” is a bit flattering (suggesting literary quality and some nuance), although that term could apply. To me it seems better characterized as mockery.

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