Unstabletop Games (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻

Over spring break, my girlfriend and I played tourist in Charleston, SC for a few days. Since the weather was hot enough to be outdoors but too chilly for the beach, we spent most of our time walking around downtown and trying out restaurants. One morning, we decided to check out a popular and highly-rated breakfast spot near our hotel. As we likely should have expected, a good crowd of people had the same idea, and we were met at the door with a forty-five-minute wait for a table. After what was closer to an hour of standing outside the café, we were finally taken to a tiny, two-person table inside. In my relief to no longer be on my feet, I plopped down in my chair and leaned forward to put my elbows on the table.

As soon as my elbows hit the tabletop it tilted at least thirty degrees downward, like a see-saw in motion. The two water glasses already brought by the waiter were sent careening toward me, and though I was able to react quickly enough to keep them from sailing off the table, much of their contents were sent overboard, flooding the table.

My fourth hack is an ode to this tragedy. I created two small, simple games which are meant to be played atop wobbly tables similar to the one I encountered at that Charleston café. In both, the player must deliberately tilt the table and send things sliding around the surface. The first game is a maze, and has players guide a ball or round candy around a few corners and to the finish. The second game, a spin-off of the great Olympic sport of curling, is a bit more daring. Here, players precariously guide some object down the table’s incline and onto the center of the target. For a truly nail-biting experience, players should use a full beverage glass as the playing piece.

We’ve talked several times in class about the ways that technologies cease to be ‘transparent’ as soon as they break. Once this shift occurs, the technology becomes intrusive, and we become painfully aware of its presence, its features, and its limitations. Beyond just the frustration we harbor toward a newly-shattered technology, I’d further argue that we also exhibit a knee-jerk compulsion to fix the problem as quickly as possible, in order to return to the comfort of expected usage as soon as possible. Typically, these stop-gap repairs are neither efficient nor practical. These are the patches made of duct tape and the NES cartridges saved by blowing on them like birthday candles. When I sit down at a wobbly table, my reaction is not to whip out a toolbox and fashion a permanent fix. If I do anything at all, I’ll stuff a bunch of napkins under the faulty leg. It’s not the best repair, but it’s the one that preserves my sanity and lets me maintain the technology’s transparency with minimal interruption. Where most long-lasting and carefully executed repairs seek to erase not just the problem itself but all traces of its existence, these slapdash fixes are concerned only with the former.

My wobbly tabletop games don’t fit into either category, as they do nothing to resolve the core issue of the table’s instability. I’m thus hesitant to label it as a “dynamic repair,” as Sennett’s coinage of the term implies that upon reassembly, the original problem is replaced, hidden, or made otherwise irrelevant (200). Yet the term “re-purposing” doesn’t seem to quite fit either, as it doesn’t account for the hack’s purpose: to address – but not fix – a particular malfunction.

This hack thus prods the (arguably nonexistent) border between repairing and repurposing. The distinction may seem trivial, but a user’s choice to use one term over the other reveals something of his/her conception of the technology’s past, present, and future purposes. Take, for example, this video of a man using a shovel as a guitar:

Its absurdity aside, I’d guess that most people would brand this project as a repurposing, not a repair. A tool almost exclusively used for digging has been reimagined as a musical instrument; nothing was broken to begin with, so it can’t qualify as repair. Imagine, though, if the video started with a preamble from the guitarist (“shovelist”?) telling his audience that he made this project because he was having issues using the shovel “as intended.” Maybe it was difficult to handle, or the blade was beginning to bend. In any case, identifying some perceived flaw in the technology as the impetus for hacking it pulls the project closer to the definition of a repair. And yet just as with my own hack, turning a poor shovel into a guitar doesn’t resolve or erase its flaws. It only diverts our gaze from them.

Since neither “re-purposing” nor “repair” (even Sennett’s “dynamic” kind) seem to adequately encompass projects like my unstable-top games or the shovel-turned-guitar, I might suggest a new, third category for projects like these: distractive repairs. These are projects where the intent is, again, to re-interpret a flaw rather than erase it. These hacks are optimistic, as they look for the ways that flaws can become features. And yet they are also conservative, in that they deliberately let these flaws survive, and may not even provide a complete distraction from their presence. I can play beverage-curling to my heart’s content, but the second I tilt the table too far and topple the glass, I’m reminded that the game is merely a makeshift cover-up. The flaw, in other words, becomes intrusive yet again.


Works Cited

Sennett, Richard. The Craftsman. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.