Karaoke is a particular pleasure of mine. I must confess that my love for karaoke is in no small part because of long ago dreams of being a rock star. I was in a band in high school with some awesome Metallica worshipping metal heads and nothing was more fun than screaming my guts out into a mic while my buddies played along with me. But, you know, you grow up, you adult, you convince yourself of all the responsibilities thrust upon you, often by your own doing, and you yield such dreams off into the ether. Not everyone gets to revisit those feelings. Not everyone gets to engage with dreams of their youth without foolishly abandoning everything else they've built. But every time I'm on stage at karaoke, I get a bit of that rush, a bit of that vibe, and I absolutely bask in it.
As time wore on, engaging with karaoke became much less about nostalgic wish fulfillment and became a past-time in its own right; a chance to wind down. I love the smell of a bar, the easy access to a citrusy IPA, and the total abandon of so many standard social norms. Like dancing with your blowup doll in public for instance, as happened at Durty Nelly's during karaoke tonight. So here we are, myself and my karaoke partner for the evening, watching social norms fly out the window in only that way that magic circle spaces (Huizinga, Salen & Zimmerman) can facilitate, and I'm dumbstruck by the realization that we're all playing a game!
Now, of course we are, really. In hindsight, everything about karaoke screams game by any reasonable definition. It is an "activity standing quite outside 'ordinary' life [...] connected with no material interest [...] within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules" (Huizinga). It is free, separate, uncertain, unproductive, and make-believe, yet governed by rules (Callois). "It is a contest to achieve an objective" with an agreed set of equipment and rules (Parlett). It is an "activity among two or more independent decision-makers seeking to achieve their objectives in some limiting context" (Abt). It is a "voluntary effort to overcome unnecessary obstacles" (Suits). It's a "form of art in which participants, termed players, make decisions [...] in the pursuit of a goal" (Costikyan). It is "an exercise of voluntary control systems, in which there is a contest between powers, confined by rules in order to produce a disequilibrial outcome" (Sutton-Smith). Or, as Salen and Zimmerman summarize in Rules of Play, "A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome." (Thanks Salen and Zimmerman for that handy list of definitions!)
We who would play set our own parameters and choose the song by which we will be judged; the KJ provides the equipment, the bar provides the space, the audience and the music provide the conflict, while round completion is the goal. These are all unnecessary obstacles— I could just sing whatever song I want, with whichever music I want, at any place and time I so choose. But I seek a willing audience, I seek the forced queueing to wait my turn so that others might also play with me, and I seek the inherent conflict with offering myself up to be judged. I know the stakes are low. No, I'm not going to win a prize, I'm not going to be talent scouted, I'm not going to get a record contract, and I'm definitely not going to become the rock star of my teenage dreams. But I am going to play and let my voice be my instrument.
Play on, karaokeists!