Politics and Play

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged, and an especially long time since I’ve blogged “for fun” outside of a class requirement, but with the semester starting up again, I wanted to start off with positive habits, creating a space to think through things. For now, I’ve been thinking a lot about politics and what my own interest in play can bring.

Wary of becoming another “It’s Time for Some Game Theory” guy or the writer of a naive think piece that praises some creepy gamifying tactic, I nevertheless think that play, games, etc., have a lot to offer how we consider politics.

Game theory
Image from Know Your Meme

A fair amount of writing describes the competitive nature of play, often using the Greek term “agon” and “agonistic.” Johann Huizinga, the grandfather of game studies, for example, writes this:

The agon in Greek life, or the contest anywhere else in the world, bears all the formal characteristics of play, and as to its function belongs almost wholly to the sphere of the festival, which is the playsphere. It is quite impossible to separate the contest as a cultural function from the complex ‘play-festival-rite.'”

The role of contest and competition shows up in play from national football rivalries to an over-competitive uncle on a family vacation. In ancient Greece, as Huizinga argues, contest held a particular role in the rituals and “playsphere” of their society, showing up in arenas of play and sports, but the role of competition in broader cultural rhetorics or practices remains central.

While Huizinga discusses this thread, the game theorist and anthropologist Brian Sutton-Smith takes up this idea in his “rhetoric of play and power,” which “is about the use of play as the representation of conflict and as a way to fortify the status of those who control the play or are its heroes.” Activities oriented through this particular outlook value winning and the status it brings to the winning party.  In a Roman context, for example, one can consider the Triumphal Arch and the parades and festivals that accompanied victorious legions.

This agonistic spirit also has strong roots in rhetoric, as Debra Hawhee’s Bodily Arts argues, and rhetoric was integral for politics in Ancient Greece and the Roman Republic. In a Roman trial or meeting of the polis, being able to “win” a debate or win over an audience impacted the lives and futures of citizens and the state. And while this debate can be fruitful, this agonistic impulse has dangerous pitfalls.

In The Well-Played Game, game designer and theorist Bernie DeKoven discusses many of the integral paradoxes to playing well. Most relevant here, he details the role that winning and losing can play in dividing players who were once unified in the playing of the game. “Needing to win,” as he puts it, places the arbitrary win condition above the heath and harmony of the play experience and the “player community” of those involved, dividing their capacity to work together for general enjoyment and poisoning the experience for all. It may even lead to cheating or unfair strategies, including the exploitation of beginner players.

Bernard “Bernie” DeKoven, image from his site

In the case of checkers or Pictionary the stakes may be lower, though family and friendship may be on the line, but in the case of politics, the agonistic can have a similar problem, dividing us into teams that value winning over the health of one another and the country.

In Aristotle’s Politics, he stresses the need for us to live together. As he wrote, “Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.” With humanity as a “social animal,” healthy politics and governing, much like DeKoven’s “well-play game,” should consider the whole of the nation and those involved. While particular instances of contest may be productive, I think that its capacity to divide us into rival parties cuts against this social need for government and politics. Like DeKoven warns, needing to win divides and poisons the whole.

I recognize the flaws in much of this, including the bizarre way that this avoidance of competition can take place, like Jefferson’s secret campaigning or the use of decorum to exclude certain voices. I also recognize that many would critique ideas of “the common good” or the whole state. These debates deserve consideration, but I don’t have time to get into them here. Instead, I wanted to note the allure of agonistic politics and the danger its uncritical uptake may have.

In 1985, Niel Postman wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death, arguing that electronic technology and the show business culture it fostered poisons our political and public discussions, turning them into shallow entertainment. While perhaps overly pessimistic and conservative, his points have a certain gravity with our first “reality show president.” But I think the politics of contest represents a more fundamental factor in our current political division–though is by no means the only factor.

I’m reminded, for example, of Washington’s fears about political parties and their capacity to over-represent constituencies, like North and South, at the expense of the whole nation, competing for power. I also fear Trump’s own rhetoric of “winners” and “losers,” the media’s tendency to use phrases like “looking for a win,” the bizarre similarity of poll numbers and points, the team-like mentality that seems to calcify political parties, the excitement and contest of races, the callousness from many on the right toward so many fellow citizens with their instance on the “mandate” of their victory. I worry that a campaign politics prioritizes winning over governing.

As a final note, I don’t want to simplify or soften the  realities of this current situation by using play as lens to consider it. Actually, I want to stress how people obsessed or intoxicated by winning can oppress the less fortunate or lose sight of the impact and implications of a win for those on “the other team.” Furthermore, I want to provide a way to consider why one believes in a candidate or policy: Is it because they are from their team or because it is genuinely productive, thoughtful policy that considers the needs of the whole community?

In general, I can’t ignore the pervasive, almost unconscious role that agonistic rhetoric has in politics and the pitfalls that it brings, historically and in the structure of how rule-bound systems, like games, function. I’m not quite sure where the next step leads, but I think it goes with recognizing potential areas of agonistic toxicity.

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