Importance of Play to Politics

Reading Huizinga’s Homo Ludens and struck by discussion of how fundamental play is to the formation of culture and thus human civilization, as well as its relationship to politics and political life. Per Huizinga, “Now in myth and ritual the great instinctive forces of civilized life have their origin… All are rooted in the primaeval soil of play. …genuine, pure play is one of the main bases of civilization.” (p. 5) For him play produces an alternative mental, social world in which new rules govern behavior (mental, emotional, social) that allows the participants to transcend the rules and structures of ordinary life.

But this magic circle doesn’t just apply to frivolous games but also to serious concerns, such as religion and politics. For play to work, people have to agree to abide by the rules that sustain this alternate world. Play only exists through co-construction. Co-construction relies upon symbolic exchange, or communication, to manifest this collaborative act.

Animals communicate when they play. A cat’s body language, actions, and verbal noises provides messages to another cat as to the cat’s intention: play or fight. Playing — or engaging in this alternative world to socially engage and complete tasks — existed before civilizations, humans, humanity (p. 141).

What separates animals from humans is how this play has become ingrained in the sacred, in our development of culture as organized structures for meaning-making. Our ability to imagine about the world around us is fundamental to our very species. Play elevated to the level of culture through co-construction and collaborative communication aided the construction of human civilization and thus the development of our species. In denigrating play as frivolous, we’ve forgotten how important play is to maintaining civilization.

Towards the end, Huizinga discusses the importance of play to politics: for a democracy, in particular, to function well it requires the “play-spirit” whereby individuals agree to follow certain rules of engagement (i.e. civil discourse) when engaging in political actions, and to recognize that such political action occurs within this alternative world that is co-constructed through the agreement of playing the game not for personal glory but the common good as the ultimate goal.

Without such an agreement, or “the spirit of fellowship,” democracies cannot function as they are meant to. “The elasticity of human relationships underlying the political machinery permits it to ‘play’, thus easing tensions which would otherwise be unendurable or dangerous — for it is the decay of humour that kills” (p. 207). The danger then is in calling politics a game in the formulation of something meant to be won for personal goals, of playing professionally, which Huizinga does not see as truly embodying the play-spirit (p. 195). Such serious and agonistic approaches to play fosters partisanship, which worsens with fandom, since an important aspect of play is how “success won readily passes from the individual to the group” (p. 50). Individuals who become fans of a particular politician or ideology, who become loyal, thereby “surrender of the self to a person, cause or idea without arguing the reasons for this surrender or doubting the lasting nature of it” (p. 104). Fans who do this present potential problems for democracy when they don’t ask their representative to engage in fair play with the common good in mind. Under these conditions, politics become less play and more adolescent puerilism (p. 205). Indeed, in describing this problem, Huizinga’s descriptions align quite well with contemporary political discourses and even fractured fandom.

But it doesn’t appear that he’s blaming the emotional nature of politics for this lack of any play-spirit. Indeed, with how he discusses play, emotions go hand-in-hand with play. It may be that our focus more on personal over common goods is a problem, but what lead to that? What led to our lack of desire to co-construct, collaborate, communicate, and thus play?

I think the answer lies in the conclusion: “Civilization will, in a sense, always be played according to certain rules, and true civilization will always demand fair play. Fair play is nothing less than good faith expressed in play terms. Hence the cheat or the spoil-sport shatters civilization itself” (p. 211).

I think the reason for our political breakdown partly comes in because people feel the social contract, the American Dream, the meaning of life — whatever you want to call it — has broken down because certain people have cheated. That’s partly what is behind #BlackLivesMatter, after all: the social contract of the American Dream and egalitarianism of the US society/culture has always been broken, despite what those with privilege, with power say to the contrast. Rich whites aren’t playing fair.

The anger fueling #MAGA and #Qanon is partly that as well: a sense that certain people are not playing fair. Now, often that critique is distorted by rich whites so that those “economically disenfranchised” whites blame minorities as cheating the system and not playing fair. Even Incels have this mindset, as they blame women for not playing fair and for Chads to be manipulating how the game is played, with PUAs literally trying to learn how to be players with the goal of winning the woman, but only for personal sexual gratification.

If this is true — if a mindset crying foul when desiring fair play has led people to focus on themselves over the common good, thereby degrading political actions and democracy as a whole, then how can it be repaired? How can we restore people’s sense that everyone plays fair?

I don’t have all of the answers for that. I just know one thing: if play requires playing by the rules, then those who are not need to become aware of their deviance from playing by the rules. Protests, dialogue, education — however we can communicate to open eyes is needed.

Because until people are willing to play fair, to play by the rules, to play — until they are willing to collaborate, co-construct, and work together — the magic circle will remain broken. Our politics will remain broken. Our world will remain broken.

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