AKA, don't hate the player; hate the game.
In the context of the humanities gaming institute, I suppose it is unavoidable that one would ask questions such as "what is a game?" and "what is play?" I am sure such questions can be productively addressed in the context of serious game development. That is, I am confident that the process of answering such questions could become heuristic, compositional procedures… though such a becoming is far from automatic.
I would begin with this. Do we believe that objects that we call "games" share intrinsic, essential characteristics that make them so? Uh, not on this blog "we" don't. The same thing with play. So however one populates the answer to that question, one has to imagine the assemblage that is emerging as a mechanism for invention, at least one does if one is approaching these concerns as a composer of games.
Secondly, one's definition is firmly within the gravitational hold of one's answer to the question "what is agency?" (about which one must apply the same caveats). The relationship isn't deterministic; there could be variant notions of play attached to a theory of agency I would think. But they would have to bear some significant similarities.
So we're reading the introductory chapter of a book on gaming studies today. I don't want to name it because I'm going to put it to the knife now and that's not really fair b/c it is only a book introduction. The book takes up a quite familiar cultural studies approach to studying games. And I just have a fundamental beef with cultural studies, which is that it has come to remind me of the "magic" card tricks my kids like to play. I imagine you've been party to something like this. Basically the premise is that the magician always knows where the magic card is among the other cards, and then s/he manipulates your choices to end up at the magic card.
More specifically, in this reading, "critical play" is linked to "activist play" and enabled through process of subversion, intervention, and disruption. So here we are coming out of a Marxian/Foucauldian, avant-garde artistic and philosophical tradition. Again, we only get the introduction but, like I've said, I've seen this magic trick before. Maybe I would be pleasantly surprised reading the rest of this book, and maybe I'll get a chance down the road. But I'm guessing that I already know what the theory of power, ideology, critique, and subversion is already going to be. I already know how the theory dictates what cards will show up.
This is where we are with cultural studies. One opens the document, sees an epigraph from Foucault, and really doesn't need to read farther to know what is going to be said. My preference for assemblage-network theory is that it describes a philosophical-investigative process but it doesn't pre-suppose the output. Yes such a theory is ideological, but it doesn't come with a politics: and really we do need to be able to distinguish between the two.
So to return to the opening questions about games and play from a post-Deleuzian perspective? I suppose that one would begin by saying that these classes of objects/actions are territorialized as such through their emergent exposures within assemblages. That they are not games as such, but become games; subjects become players, are exposed to affective play states. But these are territorialized positions, sites of capture. We tend to define games by rules and procedures: these are the thought-out possibilities of an assemblage. However, one might also travel down potential to the degree-zero of the virtual.
The argument of the cultural studies, educational activist game is to embed some subjective shift in politics into the rules/procedures, the thought-out possibilities, of a game: to turn the game into a particular ideological apparatus of capture. I would think all assemblages pass through such moments of territorialization, though not necessarily in ideological terms. The other end of the spectrum is to investigate potentiality, exposure, and whatever the lines of flight that unfold from a singular encounter.
Now I'm very interested in all that kind of stuff on an intellectual level. I'm happy to talk about such things just to talk about them. They are valuable in their own terms. However I'm not sure how any of that helps one design a game. It could be helpful, sure. But I'm really going to have to think about how to turn such philosophizing into a heuristic.