"Zillion (Im)possible Cities: Urban Space and the Game Encounter in Astana"24.04.2016
This paper, based on long-term participatory fieldwork, ethnographically focuses on the game Encounter, the community of players, and their activities in the capital of Kazakhstan, Astana. I argue that the game offers an unusual prism through which to look at the cultural politics of urban landscapes in Central Asia and elsewhere. Playing Encounter entails creative, imaginative engagements with urban space: exploring industrial ruins, mid-construction buildings, and other nooks and crannies of the cityscape. It also involves staging surrealistic scenes in public view in the streets and plazas. The game is played in cities across the former Soviet Union and beyond. However, I contend, its cultural effects are particularly interesting—and politically reverberant—in a city where space and the built environment have been so heavily laden with political symbolism as is the case in Astana. The Kazakhstani capital has been explicitly constructed by the government to manifest a specific vision of the national future. Yet Encounter subverts the unity of that vision, opening up a multiplicity of whimsical narratives that can be inscribed into the material cityscape through ephemeral performative activity during game time. Players act out proliferating futures and re-enliven the city’s Soviet past by taking up Soviet-era spatial imaginaries. I trace Encounter’s connections to specific late-Soviet forms of ludic culture, especially the stiob, but I also highlight how the game creatively draws on neoteric, digitally mediated cultural flows of images and ideas. In sum, I explore how the game casts in sharp relief the capacity of urban space to germinate multiple, divergent visions of social, cultural, and political order; of history and futurity; and of the relationship between local place and the world at large.