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R.I.P. David Bowie – a Playful Icon

“Now Ziggy played guitar …”

The first rock/pop album I ever owned was The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. It was a birthday present from my friend Joanna, who was a huge Bowie fan at the time; I had barely heard of him. Just entering my teens, I was starting to tentatively explore rock music; boy, did that album ever propel me, head over heels, into an exciting new world. That 12” slab of vinyl (in 1979, before the commercial debut of CDs) spun for thousands of revolutions on my turntable, a soundtrack for my adolescent musings and flights of fancy. It still haunts my dusty collection, alongside other Bowie albums, mostly on CD. Nowadays I rarely listen to them, and seldom hear “Ziggy Stardust” on the radio, but I can still mouth all of its lyrics and half of the other songs on that LP; an earworm lodged solidly in the formative recesses of my brain.

OK, maybe I’ve got some “Bowie fan cred”; but so do zillions of other mournful bloggers who’ve been posting their heartfelt paeans in tribute to our fallen idol in the past couple of days. I’ll admit, a lot of their stories are more profound than my mine, or more compelling, or more poetic …

But my intention is not merely to sentimentally bury Bowie, nor just to praise him (with apologies to Shakespeare). This is a blog about games and play; as you’ve probably guessed, I’m aiming the spotlight on playfulness, and connecting the dots to games.

If you don’t already know the “Four Freedoms of Play” theory, check out a few minutes of the video below (starring a pioneer of the game-based learning world, Scot Osterweil). As I contemplated his accomplishments, it struck me that Bowie was a paragon of playfulness, because he embodied some of those Freedoms so well.

You want the “freedom to try on identities”? By the time I discovered David Bowie, he had already undergone a name change (ala frontiersman Jim Bowie and the eponymous knife) and risen to fame first as the glam-alien Ziggy Stardust, then as the Thin White Duke. His prominent androgyny in the 70’s was copied by a flock of New Wave artists, and emulated by hordes of “cool” kids I grew up with. Consider it as big-time (and high-stakes) LARP’ing, paving the way for modern media chameleons.

Above all else, Bowie exemplified the “freedom to experiment”: as this infographic shows, his music spanned dozens of genres, with Top-50 hits ranging across psychedelic folk, hard rock, glam, soul/funk, protopunk, minimalist/ambient, new wave, dance-pop, and industrial/electronica. He continued to experiment with genres (and identities) throughout his career, up to his final album that was released just days before his death. Along the way, he collaborated with numerous other artists as diverse as Brian Eno, Iggy Pop, Queen, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Trent Reznor, and Arcade Fire. That made it hard to answer, in just a few words, the question “What’s Bowie’s music like?” (luckily, it became so well-known that I was rarely asked that question)

How about “freedom to vary effort”? Bowie was a consummate multi-instrumentalist; best known for his trademark vocals and guitar work, but on many of his albums he also played keyboards, harmonica, sax, and a passel of other instruments. His numerous stage and film roles over 3 decades brought him critical and popular acclaim. You may have seen him as the Goblin King in the movie Labyrinth, or as Nikola Tesla in The Prestige; but did you know that he played the lead role in The Elephant Man on Broadway (without makeup) ?

Last but not least of the Four, Bowie’s early career illustrated the “freedom to fail (and recover)”: before he hit it big with the single “Space Oddity” in 1969, he had played in five different bands; their six singles, and his solo debut album, all failed to get on the charts (during that period Bowie even performed as a mime opening act for the band T.Rex!). Hard to believe that such a talented musician could have confronted so much failure, yet gone on to greatness. It’s all in the Wikipedia entry and his many biographies.

At this sad moment, it’s a little comforting to imagine that the next time I’m caught in the flow of a good game, I’ll be channeling the spirit of David Bowie.

May he Rest in Play.