“In 1.2 Miles, Swipe Right”
by Alec Custer
In his seminal piece on play, Johan Huizinga coins the term “magic circle” to talk about the environment where play occurs (Huizinga 105). This circle, he writes, is a sacred “temporary [world] within the ordinary world” (105) where the rules of play govern all actions, and “the laws and customs of ordinary life no longer count” (107). When play is interrupted, so too is this sacred arena. My piece “Tinder Driver” explores the permeability and portability of the magic circle by introducing elements of play to a familiar task – namely, driving.
The popular dating app Tinder is already very game-like, and I would indeed argue that browsing user profiles on Tinder qualifies as play. Tinder users sift through a mountain of potential “matches” by swiping left and right on other users’ profile cards. A left swipe indicates “not interested”, while a right one says “yes, please.” Should two users swipe left on each other’s profiles, they are “matched” and can initiate conversation. In blending the familiar action of sorting a deck of cards with the lottery-like excitement of looking at “just one more” profile, Tinder fosters a highly engaging user experience – thus satisfying Huizinga’s requirement that play “[absorb] the player intensely and utterly” (107). Huizinga’s criterion that play be “connected with no material interest” (107) is a bit trickier to justify. Still, I would point out that Tinder works to remove (or at least postpone) the usual anxieties of finding a romantic partner. The app thus diverts the user’s attention from potential social gains or “profits” and directs it instead toward the fun of making snap judgments about strangers.
Having qualified browsing Tinder as play, I next looked for a way to hack the app’s magic circle. “Tinder Driver” is the product of this search. Using a MakeyMakey and included wires, some tape, my computer, and the third-party Tinder desktop client “Tinder++”, I turned my car’s turn signals into a controller for Tinder. Using the left turn signal swipes left on the currently visible user profile and the right turn signal swipes right.
My original vision of “Tinder Driver” would have mapped a left or right swipe to an actual leftward or rightward turning of the wheel, thus strengthening the piece’s commentary on the portability of the magic circle. Still, mapping swipes to the turn signals invokes an entirely different and equally interesting meaning. Turn signals are, after all, broadcasts intended for surrounding drivers. Granted, they are very limited messages, offering no information about the signaler’s destination or motives, and can be cancelled without notice. The same is true of Tinder’s swiping mechanism: swipes are purposely noncommittal, and reflect only an initial interest, not a guaranteed intent. Tying this to Huizinga’s definition of play, “Tinder Driver” is a reflection on the limited knowledge and power of observers – those standing just outside the magic circle, peering in. In spectator sports especially, player-audience communication is extremely limited, and typically does not extend beyond a player acknowledging an observer’s presence. Likewise, any observers of “Tinder Driver” in action – whether they be passengers in the same vehicle or other drivers on the road – cannot possibly know whether a given signal was first and foremost a Tinder swipe, or only secondarily so (and someone outside the vehicle would obviously assume the latter). In demonstrating the very limited communication between player and onlooker, “Tinder Driver” illustrates that the magic circle is only selectively permeable.
Though it is tempting to say that “Tinder Driver” enables one to browse Tinder while driving (or drive while browsing Tinder, whichever), a better description is that the piece enables one activity to become the side effect of the other. In other words, I may choose to place driving at the forefront of my mind and thus let my route dictate my actions in the app, or I may do the opposite, and let my Tinder preferences dictate my route. Since both actions are wired to the same trigger (the turn signal), only one scenario may exist at a time. Each touch of the bottom part of the turn signal thus represents a single intent from the driver/user to either swipe right or turn right, to play or to drive, to form the magic circle or dismantle it.
“Tinder Driver” may not allow one foot to be within the magic circle and the other to be outside, but it certainly does allow frequent jumps across the line. That is, I might first obey my GPS at a stoplight and use the right turn signal, but then seconds later notice a particularly unattractive stranger on my screen, and hastily swat my left signal. This hack is thus a testament to the fact that play can begin, end, and begin again as quickly and abruptly as we choose. Such a reflection seems particularly relevant in an age where smartphones fill in the smallest holes in our schedules. Though Huizinga’s essay, first published in 1938, paints play as an experience for which we carve out significant chunks of our time and undivided attention, this is often not the case for a 21st century smartphone user. Most mobile games and apps are deliberately built with bite-sized consumption in mind: playing a level of Angry Birds takes less than a minute, a swipe on Tinder less than a second. What’s more, the now-omnipresent sleep button offers a universal “time out” function that interrupts virtually any app or game without consequence. Play today can be paused and resumed at the press of a button (literally), and the magic circle is perhaps a little less magic for it.
Huizinga, Johan. “Nature and Significance of Play as a Cultural Phenomenon.” The Game Design Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology. Ed. Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2005. Web. 26 January 2016.