Fidget Spinners as Immaterial Culture

It’s midnight and the room is humid. My thoughts are muddled, suddenly coalescing and then scattering like a flock of pigeons. I need to find a reprieve from the endless carousel of thoughts, because it feels like my head is…spinning.

Reaching for my phone is a nervous tic, so inevitably I find myself swiping the lock screen and mindlessly scrolling through apps. This time, though, I try something new. Since I don’t have my analogue fidget spinner to hand, why not play with a virtual one?

In my last piece I speculated about the potential of fidget spinners as archaeological artefacts. This time, I want to examine the digital incarnations of fidget spinners that have been created and how they can be considered as examples of immaterial culture.

Spinners through the looking glass

“The fidget spinner quietly attests that the solitary, individual body who spins it is sufficient to hold a universe. That’s not a counterpoint to the ideology of the smartphone, but an affirmation of that device’s worldview.” It’s surprising that Ian Bogost, philosopher and computer designer, doesn’t proceed to discuss the digital doppelgangers of fidget spinners for his piece The Fidget Spinner Explains the World after he makes this point. Bogost considers the fidget spinner to be symptomatic of a growingly individualistic (presumably Western) society which is out of touch with the physical world, even contrasting the fidget spinner with the classic spinning top which at least requires being spun on some kind of surface. Surely, if we follow his reasoning, the digital incarnations of fidget spinners take the individual’s dislocation with their immediate physical reality even further?

Ironically enough, fidget spinner apps arguably have taken more direct inspiration from the ‘real world’ than most. The fact that fidget spinner apps were copying a trend which was originally embodied by actual physical culture renders them starkly different from the usual workings of what Megan Farokhmanesh calls “the mobile ecosystem.” App development trends tend to be the result of developers attempting to ride on the coattails of other popular mobile games, with Pokemon Go being an obvious example (although that game’s utilisation of its own self-styled augmented reality also has its own implications in terms of its relationship with the analogue world). Whilst there is no doubt that the surfeit of fidget spinner apps is a result of developers copying each other, they would not have existed without analogue spinners first gaining their initial popularity in the first place.

Immateriality

Archaeology is, broadly defined, the study of human material remains. Usually, this means studying analogue artefacts which have a tangible existence, such as an 18th century clay tobacco pipe, a sherd of Roman pottery or even contemporary detritus. As an archaeogamer, I consider that digital immaterial culture can also be studied by archaeologists. A digital fidget spinner, like its analogue counterpart, is an object which has been created by humans and appears within a specific context. Also like its analogue counterpart, and as discussed above, the sudden development of a vast array of fidget spinner games was very much a product of the cultural zeitgeist of early 2017. For these reasons, I believe that the digital fidget spinner is a particularly interesting candidate for the archaeological study of immaterial culture. To explore the fidget spinner as intangible heritage, I’ve chosen a few case studies which are expanded upon below. 

Ketchapp Fidget Spinner App

As of May the 18th 2017, Ketchapp’s Fidget Spinner App was the top free app in the App Store. The game involves attempting to get as many full rotations on your spinner as possible with five successive swipes on your phone’s touch screen. Each spin earns the player digital coins which can then be used to upgrade your spinner. This digital spinner experience offers the possibility of such instantaneous upgrades, interchangeability between spinner models and the easy application and removal of decorative stickers, an experience which isn’t as accessible with an analogue spinner. That being said, the game demands your time and increased spinner skill to ‘earn’ enough coins to access these upgrades. It’s an endless, self-perpetuating cycle of spinner labour for both mechanistic and aesthetic spinner gains.

screenshot_20170711-213845.png

A Ketchapp fidget spinner adorned with immaterial stickers

The core game mechanics of Fidget Spinner App (and this is also the case of many other games with similar game mechanics) are allegoric of capitalistic labour in the real world. In Jason Lipshin’s piece Casual Playbor he discusses how the Zynga Facebook game Farmville (essentially a game about maintaining a virtual farm) is characterised by routine, repetitive tasks for the accretion of digital social capital. He writes:

“…structures of labour infiltrate free time, as while laborious play would seem to be anathema to the very definition of gameplay, Farmville keeps its players hooked by structuring this core play mechanic around a system of extrinsic rewards – virtual consumer items and decorations for your farm gained by trading in your hard-earned Farm Cash.”

Just as the analogue, real-world spinner must be considered in terms of its status as a fad commodity, all the spinner iterations which appear in the game must be considered in terms of the context of their access to the player-through the ‘playful labour’ of repetitive spinning.

Google Spinner

Since at least June 20th 2017, if you type the word ‘spinner’ into google, the first search result will be an interactive fidget spinner that you can play with. If you type in ‘fidget spinner’ this particular Google Easter egg won’t work as that search leads to various Google shopping advertisements-the particular context of the immaterial spinner is to accommodate advertising revenue (as opposed to the Ketchapp Fidget Spinner game which is frequently interrupted by an advertisement literally blocking the screen). The Google spinner is very simple-it allows you to either use the mouse to spin the solitary dark blue spinner, or just press the word ‘Spin’ underneath it to do the same. In a sense, this renders the experience of playing with the Google spinner more akin to just sitting idly with an analogue spinner and repetitively flicking it.

2017-07-11

‘spinner’ is the magic word…

That being said, the particular way in which the Google spinner is accessed makes it particularly distinctive. Access to the immaterial object requires using a specific word-the act of searching for ‘spinner’ is akin to a magical invocation to summon a spirit, requiring a specific name. In The Power of Names : In Culture and Mathematics Loren Graham discusses the concept of knowing the name of something giving you power over it, and how that reoccurs in history and in various different cultures across the globe.  Fast forward to the present day and the power of names is still pervasive. To know something is to Google, and to Google well you need a name. For example, if I want to know more about a particular type of Dogū figurine made during the late Jōmon period in prehistoric Japan which has large eyes, I can find it more efficiently and with better search results on Google if I know that it is specifically known as a Shakōki-dogū (遮光器土偶) (“google-eyed type”) figurine.

To know the Google fidget spinner is to summon it specifically as ‘spinner;’ if you try ‘fidget spinner’ your invocation will fail and you’ll be brought to adverts for real-world, analogue spinners instead.

Date A Fidget Spinner

My last case study is the most bizarre out of the three, and certainly breaks the mould in terms of digital incarnations of Fidget Spinners. Date A Fidget Spinner by qualifiedbadger is a satirical fifteen-minute-long dating simulator that can be found on itch.io. As the protagonist, you join a new school and meet fellow student ‘Fidgey’ the female fidget spinner, who is essentially an animated spinner with a female anime-style face. The gameplay involves some limited dialogue options and a lot of very self-aware jokes about the protagonist’s apparent obliviousness, as well as Fidgey not being ‘like the other Fidget spinners I know’ (it should be said, the game has a misogynistic subtext, given it conflates a young teenage girl with a fidget spinner and the connotations of that).

2017-07-09-4.png

Satire aside, it is true that Fidgey is very different from the other examples of immaterial culture I have mentioned previously-I can’t class her as an example of intangible culture in the same way that I would the spinners in the Ketchapp game or the Google spinner. Even if the fact that she’s a person is the core joke of the game, that in of itself throws up some questions as to how I should consider her in the context of the simulator. In the real world, other people are sentient and create their own culture, contributing to the archaeological record and also being able to interpret it themselves. Characters in games, however, are part of the created immaterial culture of games just as immaterial objects are. However, the presentation of game characters is key-they are ascribed personhood and this can affect gameplay. In some ways, there are limited differences between the Google spinner and Fidgey-both are fidget spinners that rotate, the latter just has a face and ‘talks’ to you. Yet, even just the addition of a cartoon face and some dialogue options means that I can’t class Fidgey as an object in the same way that I would class the other two case studies.

I am spinner, I contain multitudes*

If you got this far, I’m both a bit surprised and very grateful. Fidget spinners, even (and especially) at the height of their popularity were derided, and now they’re fast slipping out of fashion and probably into the bins of many of their previous owners. It was useful to look at various fidget spinner case studies to pick out some interesting corollaries of the concept of immaterial culture. What’s clear to me is that none of these immaterial spinners would have existed without the 15 minutes of fame that the material, analogue spinner had. Fidget spinners may just end up being a ‘footnote’ in history, but I can’t help but wonder how future archaeologists will interpret and be affected by both their material and immaterial incarnations. Whilst they were just a fad, perhaps the agency of spinners will be preserved in a digital form, tempting our future colleagues to try, oh just once, to spin, SPIN!


* To paraphrase Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass

All screenshots taken by the author

Ludography

Google. (2017) Fidget [Interactive Flash animation] Mountain View: Google

Ketchapp. (2017) Fidget Spinner [Mobile game]. Paris: Ketchapp SARL

qualifiedbadger. (2017) Date A Fidget Spinner [Video game]

Bibliography

Bogost, I. (2017) The Fidget Spinner Explains the World. [online] The Atlantic. Available at:

< https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/05/the-fidget-spinner-explains-the-world/526521/> [Accessed 11 July 2017]

Farokhmanesh (2017) Meet the trend-chasing developers filling the App Store with fidget spinners. [online] The Verge. Available at:

< https://www.theverge.com/2017/6/1/15720264/app-store-with-fidget-spinners-developer-ios> [Accessed 11 July 2017]

Graham, L. (2013) ‘The Power of Names: In Culture and in Mathematics.’ Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society Vol. 153 No.2 [online] Available at:

< https://www.amphilsoc.org/sites/default/files/proceedings/1570204Graham.pdf> [Accessed 11 July 2017]

Lipshin, J. (n.d.) Casual Playbor. [online] Critical Commons. Available at:

<http://www.criticalcommons.org/Members/JLipshin/lectures/casual-playbor> [Accessed 11 July 2017]

 

 

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