Semiotic Play simply means to put something into a different context in order to make it more accessible, better integrated with other themes or ideas, and more fun. Every time that we approach a piece of writing, we view it through a series of predetermined, often unconsciously applied, contexts. These contexts are put into place by the form of the piece (is it a trusty news article or a questionable blog post), the author (scientist or middle school student), the time period (yesterday’s Facebook status or an ancient script from 500 years ago), and any number of elements that create prejudice and opinion in the reader. By breaking a piece of writing out of these predetermined contexts, we can better access the exact purpose of the author, or, in the very least have fun while playing around with what the author is trying to say. For example, let’s start with the dry old Krebs Cycle. It’s a vital part of cellular metabolism and a cornerstone of every AP Biology course. And it is boring. So boring, in fact, that RadioLab’s Robert Krulwich did an entire rant about it, ending in one of the finest examples of Semiotic Play I have ever seen:
Because why not make cellular respiration a rap song? Why not make everything into a rap song? That is the logic and genius behind Semiotic Play. Any topic can be reinvented into a modern and accessible context with just a little patience and creativity.
But Semiotic Play can go far beyond the creative unpacking of a dry piece of writing. It can work backwards. Given the right set of contexts, complete works of fiction (or even real works of mystery) can become beautiful and enchanting pieces of reality. Given the right tone, author, and backstory, a piece of writing—or a piece of anything for that matter—can take on its own history and reality, making it fun to imagine, and permanent in the mind. My favorite example of this is the video found below. Please enjoy Internet Story: