A Critique of Play – Sean Cubitt

The concept of play has been a touchstone for cultural studies since the translation of Mikhail Bakhtin’s work on carnival (1968), a natural and liberating resistance to domination. As the neo-baroque constructs its spectacles, it requires a spectacular, unquestionable depiction of both Evil and the Good (Bather 2004). Articulated as it is with the markets for consumer goods, through product placement, tie-ins and merchandising, all pitched at the youth market, play offers itself as the royal instantiation of good. The ludic may well be instinctual, but only in the same way that hunger and sex are instinctual. Humans, mammals, are born with an interest in play, but that interest is as thoroughly socialised, as thoroughly historical, and as thoroughly open to exploitation as the other primal forces acting on the human psyche. Play can no longer be thought of as an instinctual revolt against domination, a kind of instrumental irrationality. Instead, like hunger or sex, it has become an integral element in the imbrication of the somatic into the social. Integral to the management of creativity in the sunrise industries, play is also a privileged vehicle for socialisation into the contemporary. To be specific, contemporary capital opposes evil not with good but with innocence; and play constitutes the single most manipulable tool for the construction of innocence, on screen and in life. The predilection of postmodernism for play in all its guises is inadequately critical. Which kind of game? Are all games equally and essentially good or are there distinctions to make between them and histories to tell? Is the celebration of play merely a reaction to the imagined high seriousness of modernism? Is there a cultural task remaining, to build new modes of play?

In the game of patience, or solitaire, you submit your will to the fall of the cards, a kind of lexicon; and to simple rules, the grammar. The first and most primitive delight of patience is a flirtation with luck. The meaninglessness of each card is part of the purity with which it can speak, the purity of mathematical probability, cool as numbers themselves. What makes patience special is the solitary pursuit of order, the way the cards and the rules governing them exert that fascination that can have you playing for hours, losing sense of surroundings, lost in this abstraction. Games and mathematics share the capacity to lose their devotees in structured play without the need for human figures as points of identification. In play as in mathematics, we lose ourselves in a world, not an alter-ego or a function. In the case of patience, this world is scarcely even a mise-en-scène: the décor is Spartan and, to some extent, despite its symbolic origins, practically invisible. The patience world is in this sense almost entirely formal, like mathematics, reliant on the shuffle to produce that variance in the starting point that gives each game its unique geometry. Once the rules have been internalised the central skill demanded is pattern recognition, and it seems to be the satisfactions associated with that skill that make the game so capable of drawing in the player. The changing patterns, the pattern of change and the way the final order draws the game toward itself can take over the whole of consciousness—or perhaps initiate a kind of unconsciousness. This unconsciousness, however, is pre-Freudian, belonging to that mid-nineteenth century discovery, through the practices of mesmerism: “that human beings owe a surprisingly large proportion of their cognitive and behavioural capacities to the existence of an ‘automatic self’ of which they have no conscious knowledge and over which they have little voluntary control” (Miller 1995, 27-8).

Alternatively, this mesmeric unconsciousness evokes even older mental practices. As Roger Caillois insisted, in the wake of André Breton, certain forms of play are linked specifically to sacred technologies (Caillois 1968).

In a world which takes pleasure in worldly conditions and which is made unrestful by the sense-objects, he dwells in solitude indifferent to worldly conditions, as one who has attained his object, who is tranquil in his heart. The solitary man then drinks the nectar of the Deathless (Ashvagosha’s “Nanda the Fair” extracted in Conze 1959, 106).

Brahmanic meditation begins in this self-loss. The perfect, enclosed time of the game of patience allows a loss of time but also a loss of that absolute moment of mortality. Consider the way our engagement in patience, in mathematics, in computer programming or solo computer gaming loses the sense of a goal, an end, an audience, to become a practice which is pure, abstract and valuable for its own sake, without reference to other people, to worldly conditions, to sense-objects or to the finality of death. Whether the techniques be spiritual or mathematical, hypnosis or games, the outcome is profoundly similar. In patience, as in math or programming, there is a sense of achievement in completion, the restitution of order, the closing of a symmetry. In that satisfying closure, there is also a return to the self and with it the step outside the game world. The world we leave behind—the sorted cards, the solved problem—is the pledge that we still exist beyond its confines. Yet it is also the mark of the capacity we have to move from the real world of the self into the patterned universe of the meditative game and our ability to surrender selfhood for the trance of the not-self. While there may be an ‘ontological’ basis for play in the innate tendencies and instinctual life of mammals, and while the social quality of play may be natural, that we no longer live, as a species, in the natural world is clear from the modulations of the game of patience. In our time and in Western cultures, the drift has been towards an individualistic engagement in play. If Eugen Fink (1968) is right in his provocative aside that play may contain in it a description of the universe, then it is a description which includes the role of the describer, a description embodying the individualism of contemporary Western culture and centring the universe on the individual perspective. Nor is it any individualism that is in play, but an individualism formed in those symptomatic qualities of solitaire: the abstracted contemplation of enclosed, formal but randomised, timeless worlds predestined towards order. Solitaire derives from its contemplative history as well as its reconstitution in such exemplary contemporary forms as handheld computer gaming and software authoring, the satisfactions of truth, a truth which is limited to the world of the game, which that world makes possible, and which today replaces the satisfactions of classical narrative with the joys of pattern-recognition and the total mapping of a world controllable according to regimes of truth that no longer hold good of the lifeworld.

In competitive games like chess, backgammon and cribbage, the structure of the endgame is so familiar that it can be foreseen at least a few moves in advance: the teleology of victory is prefigurable from the constellation of pieces well before the final move. Like patience, such games gravitate towards a destiny that draws the pieces towards it, but with the difference that the presence of an opponent interposes new vicissitudes in the trajectory towards the empty board. Backgammon, for example, unlike chess, is a zero-sum game, one in which there are always a winner and a loser, yet the symmetry of the board as much as the repetition of games in some ways minimises the sense of victory or defeat, while the presence of the dice adds to the play that random quality which gives the player the impression of playing not only a human opponent but the chaotic force of the dice. It is then a shared environment composed of rules and chance which the players have in mutual possession: in all but the most professional tournaments, the goal is more a good game than a convincing series of victories. Within the game world, there is infinite variety. Seen from outside, however, there is only the endless repetition of the same narrow set of rules. The unification of variation and repetition is however too narrowly defined and has too few rules too inflexibly applied to generate evolution, not least the evolution of new rules.

From the point of view of the solitaire player, the addition of an opponent appears only as a further randomising factor in the game, like an extra shuffle of the pack, adding complexity to the fundamental goal of restituting order in the chaotic flow of cards and pieces. The humanity of the opponent is in a certain kind of play less relevant than the mere fact of competition. The allure, in this sense, is not conviviality but the abstract pleasures of pattern and its repetition, of a timeless destiny in which the end is present in the beginning, and the abstraction and formality which once again promotes meditative withdrawal from the world, its distractions and its friendships. Mathematical studies of games tend towards theories of winning, the origins of probability theory in the works of gambling-obsessed Pascal and the doomed profligate Evariste Galois. By way of contrast, the classic works on play which have informed cultural studies approaches deploy a more instinctual and even mystical sense of play as natural derived from Mikhail Bakhtin’s work on Rabelais and the carnival. “During carnival time”, wrote Bakhtin, “life is subject only to its own laws” (1968, 6). But Bakhtin also, like Eugen Fink (1968) and, rather earlier, Johan Huizinga (1949), stressed play’s social aspects. What an inspection of patience and backgammon seem to suggest is that, while the pleasures of mutuality are available to the player, they are not always taken up, and that contemporary gaming has a tendency to encourage the meditative and formal aspects of play rather than their conviviality.

The philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer makes the crucial distinction between: “the forms of play discovered and created by men, and the uninhibited movement of play exhibited by superabundant life”. He concludes:

It is precisely because what we encounter in the creative forms of art is not merely the freedom of caprice or of the blind superabundance of nature, that their play is capable of penetrating all the dimensions of our social life, through all classes, races, and levels of cultural attainment. For these our forms of play are forms of our freedom (Gadamer 1986, 130).

In their resolution of the dialectic of freedom and constraint, the artistic, artificial forms of play at work in art are universal expressions of what remains a human essence, an essence at odds, as it is in Bakhtin, with repressive culture and allied to the realisation of a fundamental humanity. It is curious that Gadamer, writing in a period of violent contestation over the nature of democracy and legitimacy in Germany, could have so misunderstood his own distinction: the way in which play, as formal reconciliation of freedom and constraint, was already becoming a central technique of corporate management. Historically it is very hard to find an example of the carnival of life that is not circumscribed by both a time and a place: the studies of Peter Burke (1978) and Le Roy Ladurie (1979) for example describe the immense powers brought to bear on the maintenance of carnival boundaries, while contemporary examples abound in the management of carnivals from Notting Hill to Rio de Janeiro. Bey’s influential anarchist tract even defines the utopian moment of political carnival as a specifically temporary autonomous zone (Bey 1991).

If even the ‘superabundant’ can be locked within a spatial and temporary horizon, how much more so is it possible to contain and control artificial playworlds, whose horizons are bounded by rule-governed anarchy in pursuit of order? The meditative lure of the timeless and deathless trance may well take its origins in some spiritual or unconscious functioning of human nature, but as that nature is profoundly socialised and constructed in the contemporary world, its ‘natural’ function, like the sexual instinct, is open to reconstruction in the image of the epoch. For contemporary consumer society, that image is a mirror of a deep, solipsistic individualism. Even conviviality is remade in the competitive team structure of modern corporate management strategies.

In some ways, we should welcome the emergence of such horizontal structures: within the horizon of the playworld, there is something very like democracy, even if it is a democracy centred on the solipsistic egoism of the player’s ‘I’. The strategy emerged from a struggle against hierarchical management structures in an effort to produce corporate cultures with a greater depth of involvement and ‘ownership’ in the interests of increasing managerial access to employees’ creativity and decision-making. The strategies of play have been moved into the workplace, at first in sunrise industries like computer engineering and software design (see for example Kidder 1981; Levy 1994; Moody 1995), soon after in highly mobile and adaptable industries like advertising and public relations, and more recently into the broad range of increasingly networked corporations. In all sorts of ways the rhizomatic structure of the new corporation has learnt from chaos theory and even from the radical political philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari (1972, 1980). Manuel Castells’ study of The Network Society (1996; see also Castells 1997a, 1997b) demonstrates that corporate culture today incorporates the rhizome—the democratic webwork of interconnected networks—which for Deleuze and Guattari characterised the resistant culture outside the state and its static, located model of determinacy. Critical Art Ensemble (1994, 1996) add that the corporate culture has acquired the nomadic quality of rootless creativity which likewise Deleuze and Guattari see as typifying resistant cultures. To me this signals that the universe of play—structured randomness, rule-governed anarchy—is no longer a utopian force but a property of contemporary capital. We cannot look to gaming or chaos for an exit from contemporary oppression without seeing already ensconced in perpetual play the dishevelled pizza-and-coke fuelled, beer-bash and baseball culture of Silicon Valley, the party animals of the new Hollywood.

It would be rash to say that play has no part in the future, or that because the revolution must be virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale. But it is equally foolhardy to believe that play, uncritically naturalised, equated with a liberated human essence and deprived of its history, can generate a magical community and a utopian conviviality. It is particularly dangerous in an era in which play has been naturalised as the relation people take up towards a denatured human environment, and in which what is ultimately in play is their identity.

For the purposes of argument, and without pretending that we have some privileged access to the origins of play, let us agree that once upon a time, either in infancy or lost in the history of the species, there existed a natural form of play. Natural play we would consider to have certain basic properties, following the ideas of Huizinga, Bakhtin and Gadamer. Such play would be extravert, involving the player in the environment. It would involve the exploration of time and space without boundaries or rules. Somehow, over the ages, and through who knows what shifts of emphasis and in response to what travails, there emerged the spiritual play evoked still in the game of patience. Here almost every aspect of natural play has been negated. The extravert has become introvert. Play comes to be defined by its common boundaries with the mundane. It has abandoned the exploration of time and space in favour of a timeless present. There, in the newly bounded playworld, it pursues truth, in the sense that play becomes an instrument of meditation, a pursuit of self-loss in an external entity, whether that be God, mathematics or the deck of cards. Of course, the self itself has histories and indeed geographies. The self that was lost when Bacon proposed that reason should subordinate itself to nature rather than dogma is a different self to that which Gautama Buddha sought to release from the mire of illusion. Yet the techniques of meditation and truth-play are deeply similar in structure: to lose the old certainties that define the self in an oceanic truth.

A similar process of negation is involved in the genesis of the form of play which it seems dominates corporate culture. We are still involved in techniques of absorption and in a bounded and timeless playworld, but now the goal of play is self-realisation in the face of a more thoroughly alienated environment, both natural and human. The players seek neither to meld with others nor to subordinate themselves to a greater external environment, but to ratify their existence as separate, definite and defined individuals. Such play is simulation because it involves the abandonment of the sense of truth. Losing the sense of some reality beyond the self, the self loses its sense of depth and becomes superficial, a creature of surfaces. Yet it retains from the spiritual disciplines of truth-play the timelessness of the eternal playworld, its abstraction from mundane space and from the rigours of history, rigours which include the players’ own deaths. Suffering and death were already excluded from the world of truth-play: that was the point of meditation. Truth-play and simulation-play share, in this way, an abstraction from the body, a kind of mentalism stressing the separation of psyche and soma, with the body reduced to an element of that environment which has become external to the self. But where the environment was the great container of the not-self in truth-play, simulation-play is simply another void against which the player strives in the effort at self-realisation. The external is even more external now than it was in the regimes of science or religion.

The transnational culture of corporate simulation-play is configured around the solipsistic individual. The regimes of both truth and simulation depend upon a divorce between self and environment and an opposition between them, the former submitting itself to a larger external truth in regimes of representation as well as absorption, the latter denying the very existence of what it regards as other to its own representations. This summary of the analysis is not, however, an adequate reason for undertaking it: as the eleventh thesis on Feuerbach has it, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point is to change it” (Marx 1975, 423). So the first step towards a new form of play would be to try to negate this opposition of self and environment, not by stressing irrational body against rational mind (itself only a mirror image of the dominant form) and so challenging the privilege given to mind, but to negate the distinction between self and environment by attacking the concept of self.

The geneticist R.C. Lewontin sets about correcting some misapprehensions concerning Darwinism by noting two critical factors:

First, while there is, indeed, an external world that exists independent of any living creature, the totality of that world should not be confused with that organism’s environment… Second, every organism, not just the human species, is in the constant process of changing its environment, both creating and destroying its own means of subsistence (Lewontin 1995, 131, 134).

A phrase used in fleshing out this argument is especially relevant to the discussion of emergent game forms: “Because organisms create their own environments we cannot characterise the environment except in the presence of the organism that it surrounds” (Lewontin 1995, 133). An ecological game is then one in which the act of externalising and objectifying the environment as other is broken down by insisting on the mutuality of production, the interaction of multiple users to produce an evolving rule-set.

Such a game would devolve upon situated and personal existence and memory. In some ways, like pain or death or hunger, these qualities are incommunicable, yet their incommunicability is the grounds of communication in an individualistic culture. It is precisely because of their obdurate reality that we are urged into the endlessness of sign-making. Their importance lies in the way their reality functions as the dialectically ineluctable antithesis of the playworld. Like hunger or desire, memory forces us outward from purely internal experience toward communicative interaction with the environment which it informs. The playworlds of simulation emphasise at times the extremes of bodily sensation—the grotesque, the sexual act, pain, even boredom—as a mode of resistance, but that resistance is doomed to be the mirror of dominance as long as it remains trapped in the strictly personal, individual and incommunicable. Such an evolving, mutual interaction is perhaps at play, in play, and reformulating play in the online environment.

The new, communicative, ecological play derives then from the failure of either truth-play or simulation-play to answer the fundamental questions from which they have arisen: the questions of death, suffering, personhood. To open the boundaries between self and other, natural or human, is to reintroduce the temporal dimension, to free the post-self to both the pain and the glory of its shared temporality. Without the endless present of the Deathless, the time of the game might be freed from the closure of destiny that governs our archetypal games of patience and backgammon, the same closure that governs classical narrative construction tailored towards its ending. Yet even in dismantling the borders between self and environment (the green world or the human environment of the city) it retains from its forebears the rule-governed structure of artificial play. This is what makes such technologically mediated, communicative play fundamentally different from the Edenic carnival, and renders it human because it becomes again communicative. While the task of cultural studies involves of necessity the description, analysis and critique of actually existing worlds, to retain the utopianism that shaped its beginnings it must also confront the utopian dimensions of cultural practice. The emergent forms of cultural play are one way in which we can undertake that part of our work. To escape the playpens of corporate culture, we need more than celebration of what is—that is the job of advertising and public relations. We need also to register the critical utopianism that shows us how we might produce a future, rather than the indefinite continuation of the timeless present.


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Author Bio

Sean Cubitt was born in Lincolnshire of Irish parents. He studied at Queens’ College Cambridge and McGill University, Montreal. In the 1980s he worked freelance in art schools, community arts, journalism, the Open University and as National Organiser for the Society for Education in Film and Television. He spent the 1990s in Liverpool, where he became Professor of Media Arts at Liverpool John Moores University, and was involved in developing the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology (FACT). In 2000, he moved to New Zealand with wife Alison and dog Zebedee, where he was Professor of Screen and Media Studies at the University of Waikato. In 2002 he was appointed Honorary Professor of the University of Dundee. He now holds dual nationality with New Zealand and the UK. In July 2006 we moved to Melbourne.