on 17 March 2011 at about 0:00

Learning objective for this lecture:

Splash! by Jim (jaytay)
Splash! by Jim (jaytay) on Flickr

Play - [Critical Media Concepts and Contexts]


This lecture is about play. Here are some puppies, playing:

We note that puppies are not human - they do not have what we think of as culture or language in the human sense. But they undeniably play. We should allow ourselves to think of play as something that is deeper than culture, older than human nature, underneath, beyond and preceding the realm of human affairs, rather than a luxury sitting on top of our rational, economic, cultural and social lives. Huizinga opens his classic study of play along these lines:

Play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing. We can safely assert, even, that human civilization has added no essential feature to the general idea of play. Animals play just like men. We have only to watch young dogs to see that all the essentials of human play are present in their merry gambols. They invite one another to play by a certain ceremoniousness of attitude and gesture. They keep to the rule that you shall not bite, or not bite hard, your brother's ear. They pretend to get terribly angry. And - what is most important - in all these doings they plainly experience tremendous fun and enjoyment. Such rompings of young dogs are only one of the simpler forms of animal play. There are other, much more highly developed forms: regular contests and beautiful performances before an admiring public.
Here we have at once a very important point: even in its simplest forms on the animal level, play is more than a mere physiological phenomenon or a psychological reflex. It goes beyond the confines of purely physical or purely biological activity. It is a significant function - that is to say, there is some sense to it. In play there is something "at play" which transcends the immediate needs of life and imparts meaning to the action. All play means something. If we call the active principle that makes up the essence of play, "instinct", we explain nothing; if we call it "mind" or "will" we say too much. However we may regard it, the very fact that play has a meaning implies a non- materialistic quality in the nature of the thing itself.
(Huizinga, 1944)

What does play mean to you?

Huizinga invites us to consider the meaning of play. Here are some of your responses in the lecture, and the courses from which the speakers hail:

Your suggestions underline some diversity in how we think of play, which we might expand on: play can imply things about 'who someone is' - "that's not how I play"; playing can be play-acting - performing, pretending, rehearsing, imagining; playfulness is not serious, it is joyful, frivolous, teasing, flirtatious, childlike; and play is a kind of freedom - the play of a wheel on an axle, the play in a system, the play of the moonlight on the water.

... but let's not forget one important aspect of many types of play: competition. Here's your running score:

First Score Card
TV take an early lead

How is play relevant to media practitioners?

Now we have the new motivation of a competitive edge to aid our thinking, the next challenge was to think of ways in which 'play' might be relevant to our discipline as media practitioners. Here are your suggestions:

- and from @ralphsaunders [IMP], via Twitter here and here:

I enjoyed the sudden alacrity with which you undertook the intellectual tasks, which I trust is only partly inspired by the inter-course (as it were) competition, which now stacks up as follows:

Second Score Card
TV maintain their early advantage.

Anyway, onto more serious, less playful matters...

Structure and Agency

Structure and agency are important ideas in the field of sociology, and they can help to give us an insight into some of the tensions involved in play. We're starting big, with some philosophical and existential notions about life and free will. Human existence appears to constitute a paradox - in which determinism and freedom both operate. We are, at once:

... and yet...

... or, put another way, we are, at once:

... and yet...

If 'structures' imply rigidity and determinism, then agency implies flexibility and freedom. Consider the idea that children are 'socialised' into a culture's norms and conventions, and yet we have a sense of self-determination. Consider the exertion of peer pressure on how we strive to look and act amongst our fellow humans, and yet our freedom to express ourselves in myriad ways. Or consider that who we are is shaped by the blind forces of genetic determinism, just as the universe is shaped by the blind laws of physics and causation - and yet our consciousness seems to transcend the material world and invite us to dwell in the realm of souls and spirits and gods. Or, finally, consider the psychoanalytical proposition that we have an unconscious set of faculties which drive us blindly into behaviour which we barely grasp, but nevertheless we are believe ourselves to be moral, responsible and accountable for our actions.

These tensions can be all be understood as instances of the conflict between structures, in the form of institutions in society, or conventions in culture, or genetic imperatives, or mental furniture - and agency, in the form of free individuals, with unique identities, with free will, freedom of choice, a sense of self and the ability to act independently in the world. But how does this relate to play? Let's use a scene from a David Cronenberg film, eXistenZ to think about some of these concepts.

This scene highlights some of the themes Cronenberg often explores in his work - the close relationship between human bodies and the technological machinery they use. There are other existential motifs at work here too: the fact that the game demands that the players perform roles and follow scripts echoes the problem of free will - the suggestion that the structures of society that we are born into impose behaviours onto us, and limit the range of our agency; perhaps we even feel an uncanny sympathy with Darcy Nader, the game character who, when left to his own devices, drifts into a 'game move' or reverie of unthinking automatism, from which he must be roused by an appropriate address or (to use a term from Althusser) interpellation; or consider the way that the script dynamic in the scene reflects on and models the instinctual and animal urges of the body's sexuality, at once irresistable, but traumatising for the detached mind of the character - who is worried about his body, feels insecure, exposed: an intriguing commentary on the prevalent mind/body dualism of Cartesian thought. These interpretations of the scene arise from the exploration of play as a mode of existence and the consequences which follow from such a premise.

There are other insights we might derive from a reading of this scene. For example, our attention is drawn to the 'smooth interlacing' between scenes, or the jagged, brutal alternatives, slow fades, etc. Notice also the way that we are reminded that a sexual experience is "a pathetically mechanical attempt to heighten the emotional tension in the next game sequence". Since the film invites us to compare actual human existence with the artificial world of game-like experiences, we might note that this accords with the postmodern view of thinkers of 'hyperreality', such as Baudrillard and Eco - that our lives are increasingly structured and understood through the grammar of mediation and representation, rather than authentic experience. Indeed, eXistenZ was released in Feb 1999, just a month before the Wachowski brothers' The Matrix (Mar 1999) which also references Baudrillard's characterisation of a world mediated beyond recognition as anything other than simulation and simulacrum. Our lives, from our supposed acts of free will, all the way down to our bodily necessities, are roles we act out largely undeliberately - either following predetermined necessities, or according to the learned grammars of mediated narratives.

Second Life

Here's a slightly different take on the indistinguishability of real life from the virtual... if you haven't experienced Second Life, it will mean nothing to you. Second Life is a virtual world developed by Linden Labs. Second Life is open ended: you can build your own avatar, get Linden Dollars and buy virtual clothes and prosthetics to extend your 'body', buy 'land', build 'houses', fly around, chat with other users, and so on. Unlike other online worlds like World of Warcraft and Everquest, Second Life doesn't have 'quests' or 'objectives' in the normal sense that online role-playing games do.

Second Life is, depending on who you ask, a playful alternate universe of performance and possibility, a pointless, deathly non-place littered with sex-crazed perverts poised and ready to invite you to masturbate with them during a cybersex session, or a cynical manufactured and branded attempt to exploit people's desire for escapism and turn their fantasies into consumption. It is either pointless, just like life, or pointless, just like games, or not pointless, just like life, or not pointless, just like games. You choose.

As well as a site for all kinds of play, it is something that people 'play with', either with their parodies, such as First Life ("fornicate with your actual genitals!") or with their videos, re-seeing the real world through the eyes of the virtual:

Typology of play

Let's turn to another way of understanding play. Roger Caillois contributed his influential sociological analysis of play in his work, Man, Play and Games in 1958. We can think about his ideas in two ways: the ludus / paidia axis, and the four categories in his typology of play and games.

Ludus / Paidia

Ludus / Paidia
Caillois' play continuum.

Caillois argues that all forms of play can be understood by considering opposing tensions in the nature of the activity: between what he calls ludus - the system of rules which proscribe what can and cannot happen, and paidia - the open-ended, freeform, experimental, exploratory joy of being free to do whatever one wants to do. These two opposing ideas capture in a simple form the tensions in many of the games and play-situations we encounter and participate in. Note, also, a resonance in which the tension between ludus and paidia echoes the tension between structure and agency.

A fourfold typology of play

Caillois' four categories or 'classifications' of play make up his typology. In addition to residing at some position on the spectrum between ludus and paidia, all games, and all play, can be characterised by four taxonomical definitions: agon, alea, mimicry and ilinx.

Of course, many games and much play may intermingle aspects of any or all of these categories. Chess may by pure agon, while poker mixes agon and mimicry (poker faces and strategy) and alea (the random shuffling of the cards) and maybe even ilinx (the thrill of the gamble).

How our favourite kinds of play fit into Caillois' typology

It's back to the quiz show, and this time you suggested ways in which your favourite play activities might be characterised through Caillois' classifications:

These contributions start to stretch the scores somewhat:

Third Score Card
IMPs start to fall behind.


Diachronicity and synchronicity are concepts which we can borrow from narrative theory to explicate some of the ways that games are constructed. As the 'chronic' part of the words implies, these terms refer to different aspects of time in a narrative or game - or indeed any system we may wish to understand.

We can apply these analytical tools to media forms such as films and games. In videogames, one of the common tasks is to try to 'get to the end'. Chucky Egg, Donkey Kong, Sonic the Hedgehog, Pacman - these games all demand that you survive until there is nothing left to survive - the end. Role-playing games have quests which are supposed to be undertaken in order for the player to progress and complete the game. All of these characteristics can be understood as working within the diachronic axis of the game-world.

Many games are designed to funnel' you through the diachronic axis - i.e. James Bond must shoot all the bad guys to complete the level, Mario must rescue Yoshi to rescue Princess - but may also provide some 'freedom to explore' at any time. The synchronic axis is where game choices occur, even if those choices have no long-term effect on the game. Even in Chucky Egg, you have the synchronic freedom to commit suicide repeatedly by running into the chickens. If you did this would you be 'playing about'? Would you be 'not playing'?

One of the logical entailments of providing some form of synchronic freedom is that it opens the possibility of diachronic changes. Different choices made at any given synchronic moment ought in principle to provoke alternative outcomes in the diachronic unfolding of causation. It is at this point we may need to consider some ways to analyse and understand narrative structures.

Ergodic narratives

Espen Aarseth in his 1997 book Cybertext: perspectives on ergodic literature, examines the notion of the ergodic text (as it might manifest in any medium - literature, film, electronic texts, etc). He defines a number of key conceptual models for thinking about narrative structure: linear, non-linear, multilinear, multicursal - as well as mobilising terms such as aporia to give force to his arguments.

Here's a multicursal narrative built on YouTube:

Here we can see clearly that though there are strong diachronic aspects to this story, there are also moments of dilemma - we can think of them as synchronic points - in which we must intervene. Note, though, that all of our choices here must have been foreseen, in order that the authors could create the different branches of the narrative. In this respect the choices offered can scarcely be said to be real, since they have no impact on the possible stories: we merely choose between stories, rather than influence them. Clearly, a story whose diachronic unfolding can be influenced by synchronic choices must be a reflexive one: a cybertext.

Ergodic narratives and reflexive cybertexts therefore present another existential problem. If we truly influence the story, do we therefore bear some responsibility for our choices? Consider some recent controversial examples from the world of videogames. RPGs offer multicursal paths through game-worlds, and we could argue that some examples are reflexive since each player's choices can, at least in principle, be unique in each playing. Fable II for instance allows players to choose good or evil storylines throughout the game, and those choices change the reactions of NPCs, the kinds of game-play possible, and the appearance of the player's avatar, and so the emotional bond the player creates with the characters. Here's an example of an 'evil path' quest, in which the player must massacre a village of innocent people.

More recently Modern Warfare featured a notorious 'airport' scene in which the player is invited to massacre an airport full of innocent people in order to remain undercover. Such examples of 'play' cause controversy, between, on one hand, those who believe they are morally repugnant and a bad influence on the players, and, on the other hand, those who argue that it is mere harmless escapism.

To what extent do media-makers have a moral responsibility?

We pursued this thorny question by offering meaningless points in the pursuit of victory in the TV-SW-IMP quiz. Your answers were as follows:

Some very interesting responses which highlight the precarity of the issue. The media effects debate is a large complex subject, so for now we'll limit ourselves to noting that the IMPs are struggling to keep up, probably because all they do is play videogames:

Fourth Score Card
TV & SW compete, while IMPs languish.


Finally we come to the notion of play as explored by Derrida in his essay, Structure, Sign and Play. Derrida is complicated thinker to follow through his writing, and we can return again and again to essays such as this one, and struggle with it, and find new things to take away, but never really take away everything that Derrida might have been tryng to say... so we'll limit ourselves to trying to draw out just a few of the ways he uses the idea of freeplay in this essay.

We should consider first that we are dealing with human ideas at the most abstract level - such as epistemes (ways of knowing the world), and structures (institutions, intellectual and social). But we should also remember that puppies play, and play is more fundamental than human ideas.

Freeplay is in tension with history, and in tension with presence, says Derrida. To get at what he means, we might need to work out what Derrida means by history, how history is told and understood by people Derrida mentions (such as Claude Levi-Strauss), and so therefore how 'freeplay' differs from that notion of history. Or we might want to understand what Derrida means by presence, and so we'd look at the notion of the 'center' which Derrida uses to characterise 'structures' (as in our use of the idea of structure at the start of this lecture), and maybe how humans use signs and symbols to stand in for things that are absent in order to speak about them.

However, there are good reasons we might decide not to do that - precisely because we would be trying to build some sort of structure around the meaning of 'freeplay', to pin it down, to center it within a structure, to make it feel 'present'. To do so would be against the very notion of, well, freeplay... Freeplay is the ability to move within structures, to bring about variation and change in systems which seem unchanging. Freeplay is also the freedom from structures. Freeplay is what cannot be pinned down in definitions, meanings, structures.

Let's think about Derrida's use of the bricoleur:

The bricoleur, says Levi-Strauss, is someone who uses "the means at hand," that is, the instruments he finds at his disposition around him, those which are already there...
(Derrida, 1966)

Bricolage, here is a way of borrowing and re-using, of making collages from whatever resources are around - of 'playing-with' things. The bricoleur is the opposite of what Levi-Strauss calls the engineer - someone who can build the world around them from resources of their own making. However, the engineer is a myth: there is no-one who can build things from nothing - even engineers must re-use the world around them. Everyone is always a bricoleur - borrowing ideas, re-using them, generating new combinations out of pre-existing resources.

Think of the remix-artist - appropriating pre-existing audio materials, but producing something new from them; or a writer, using words which are after all, not his own inventions (otherwise how would we understand them?); or scientists, developing new ways of comprehending the world, by understanding, re-working and re-using existing theories and models. All of these activities are a form of bricolage - 'playing with'.

Why does this matter? Well, it means these structures we face - institutions, epistemes, social imperatives, scientific ideas, socialised pressures - are all resistable. Think again of the paradoxes between structure and agency which we began with: each determining force, whether social, peer-generated, psychological or genetic, can be 'decentered' by freeplay. I read Derrida as asserting freedom in the face of apparently irresistable forces, including, incidentally, your freedom to completely disagree with, or even ignore, my views about Derrida.

Say something interesting

The final quiz challenge was simply - to say something interesting. Even with the retrospective point I might award to TV for @Lotikins' tweet which read "Something interesting", the scriptwriters romp to victory with anecdotal reports of erections.

Fifth Score Card
SW seize victory by appealing to toilet humour.


Lecture archive

  • Media & The Body Readings
  • The Use of Theory
  • Play
  • Production - [Critical Media Concepts and Contexts]
  • Narratives: Endlessnesses and Existence
  • Narratives: Endings, Meaning and Morals
  • Narratives: Performers and Players
  • Narratives: Performers and Players
  • Narratives: Familiarity and Strangeness
  • Intro to Media and Participation 2008 - 2009
  • Narratives: Stories and Structures
  • Narratives: Opening and Introductions
  • The Writerly Text: Part 1
  • Media & Participation: Identity
  • Media & Participation: Truth
  • Media & Participation: Citizenship
  • Media & Participation: Culture
  • Ownership of Ideas: Part 2: The History of Copyright
  • Ownership of Ideas: Part 1: The Romantic Author
  • Bournemouth Soundseeing: collaborative authorship
  • Marx's Critique of Capital: 101
  • Key concepts: Ideologies ...a historical view
  • Narrative and Structuralism and the brothers Grimm
  • Intro to Digital Media at BU
  • Small Print

    Joe Flintham 2000 - 2015

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