In 1938, John Huizinga characterized culture as a form of play and described man as a being at play, rather than knowing or working. In today’s media culture, his words seem to have become true. Everything seems more and more to contain play elements, from sports to Facebook, from the battlefield to the personal workplace. Is life really just a game?
A: He cheated. B: He’s lucky. C: He’s a genius. D: It is written. These are the choices presented to moviegoers in the opening scene of Slumdog Millionaire (2008). Jamal Malik, the protagonist, is just one question away from winning the first prize of 20 million rupees in the Indian version of the television quiz show Who wants to be a millionaire? Is it because he cheated, he had good luck, he was a genius, or was it fate? The presenter, Prem – played by the star actor Anik Kapoor – is convinced that the answer is the first, answer A, and has Jamal arrested just as he is about to answer the ninth and last question. In the interrogation that follows, which forms the thread of the film, we see flashbacks of Jamal’s life, and how it came to be that he could know all the answers.
1. Until last year, Who wants to be a millionaire? was shown on RTL television in the Netherlands under the title Lotto Weekend Miljonairs. Who was the presenter?
A: Robert ten Brink
B: Martijn Krabbé
C: Chazia Mourali
D: Bridget Maasland
It is remarkable that Slumdog Millionaire was the grand winner at this year’s Oscars, given that the tension of the film primarily depends on the format of an important popular television genre: game shows, or more specifically, quiz shows.1 One can say that this game format begins and ends with a ritual. In the opening ritual, contestants are introduced and we see how different they all are. Jamal Malik, for example, is an uneducated, 18-year-old Muslim boy who grew up as an orphan in the slums of Mumbai and earns his living by pouring tea at a call centre. At the moment when the game begins, all of the candidates are equal. The idea is that, despite their backgrounds, any one of them could in principle win. In the course of the game, however, it becomes clear that some of the participants have more appropriate knowledge for answering the various questions. Then comes the final ritual: the host congratulates the winner and presents a check for the amount that has been won.
The American media scholar John Fiske has identified this ritual-game-ritual format as symptomatic for capitalist ideology: despite all the differences, everyone has the same opportunities. Whenever someone ‘naturally’ proves to possess the right knowledge, along with a bit of luck, they can rise up the social ladder, with all the material advantages that provides. The fact that differences in people's knowledge also correlates with social backgrounds would thereby appear not to be visible.2 The fact that Jamal not only has the required knowledge but also the requisite touch of luck becomes clear when at first he is unable to answer three of the nine questions. But because director Danny Boyle has ingeniously interwoven the quiz show with the story of Jamal’s life, he is able to show how this ‘slumdog’ from the streets could acquire the necessary academic knowledge to win this television event, even though in earlier episodes the so-called experts – professors, doctors and lawyers – had been unable to get past the third question.
2. Slumdog Millionaire was the big winner at the Oscar presentations on February 22, 2009. How many Oscars did it receive?
Man the Player
The concept of play has rarely been the subject of research in media studies. Three developments at the end of the 20th century have changed that. Firstly, a broad socio-cultural development took place that meant that contemporary (post-) modern culture began to see itself ‘as a game without an overall aim, as play without a transcendent destination’.3 Secondly, we have witnessed the rise and success of digital media, whose very design encourages playful use. We are not thinking here of just the commercial computer games, but also of crossovers in the areas of new media, art and games. These crossovers are what primarily connects creative technological research to artistic practices capable of ‘initiating participation’, in the way achieved by the Frequency 1550 (2005-2007) and Fort Amsterdam (2008) games developed by the Waag Society.4 Thirdly, art and media curricula (at both vocational and university level institutions) have evolved new disciplines, such as new media studies and computer game studies, in which the theories of play by Johan Huizinga, Roger Caillois and others play an important role.5 Socio-cultural, media-theoretical and institutional changes have made additional research into the concept of play not only possible, but desirable and workable.
One individual who made an important – if not the most important – contribution to the debate on cultural significance of the phenomenon of play was the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga.6 According to Huizinga, people are not so much to be characterized as homo sapiens (the wise or knowing man) or homo faber (man the maker), but as homo ludens: a being who is and must be at play. This was also nicely worded by the 18th-century German philosopher poet Friedrich Schiller: 'Man only plays when in the full meaning of the word he is a man, and he is only completely a man when he plays.'7
Huizinga was not only concerned with identifying areas of play in culture, but with demonstrating that culture itself is fundamentally comprised of play. Paraphrasing Schiller, one could say that culture is only culture in as far as it does not deny its own playful character. In his book Homo Ludens, Huizinga discusses the element of play in and of various cultural domains and analyzes the element of play through the ages, with an emphasis on the present, while asking whether the play element has been lost in contemporary civilization or, indeed, has increased.
3. According to Huizinga, one art form is not very playful. Which is it?
B: the plastic arts
We can take the cultural domain of sports, for example, and soccer in particular, in order to illustrate the current validity of Huizinga’s ideas. In the game of soccer, we can immediately recognize Huizinga’s definition of play. Play is ‘a voluntary activity or occupation executed within certain fixed limits of time and place, according to rules freely accepted but absolutely binding, having its aim in itself and accompanied by a feeling of tension, joy and the consciousness that it is “different” from “ordinary life”.’ (p. 28)
Despite the increased importance of mediatised sports, they are moving ‘away from the play-sphere’ (p. 197). For Huizinga, sports are no longer an ‘aim in itself’, but have become professional and commercial, even a form of political propaganda, as we observed during the 1978 World Cup in Argentina and the 2008 Olympic Games in Peking. Even more important for Huizinga was the reduction of pleasure in play. The fact that we risk losing the pure quality of play was evident, for example, at the recent World Cup in Germany – ‘the laboratory of calculation’ – when Zidane pulled out of the game: ‘man the player who became unbearably frustrated by Materazzi, the ultimate guardian of the tactical system.8 To counterbalance that, however, there are images such as those of Maradona during the warming up for the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup in 1989, dancing with his ball to the rhythm of Live is life with the joy of a child, or the victory of Barcelona at the last Champions League final: ‘Latinos and Africans are the trendsetters, be their names Drogba, Ronaldinho, Robinho, Messi, Babel, Henry or Eto’o. Their play is characterized, aside from their skill, by playfulness and passion. In them, we discover the child playing outdoors.’
4. In the 2009 Champions League final, a playful Barcelona beat Manchester United by 2-0. Who scored the goals?
A: Lionel Messi
B: Samuel Eto’o
C: Thierry Henry
D: Samuel Eto’o and Lionel Messi
One important domain where play can be seen is media culture. Here, I would like to emphasize two interconnected elements of play: the fact that the game absorbs the player ‘intensely and utterly’, despite the fact that he or she knows it is not real. The first play element has to do with the fact that our society is saturated with media, media that inundate the user in a time and space that are distinct from ‘ordinary life’ and are characterized by new forms of freedom, rules and pleasure. The second play element concerns the fact that our experiences – both of the world and the ‘other’, as well as ourselves – are perhaps not immediately, but to an increasing degree, subject to the media. We are aware – if all is well, it is referred to as being ‘media-smart’ or ‘media-wise’ – that through the media we experience only perspectives on reality, yet at the same time, just like the media themselves, we behave as though these perspectives represented reality. Having a preference for certain perspectives and switching between them can also be referred to as a form of play.9
One of the media applications that can clearly be characterized as play is the computer game. Since the early 1990s, the market for computer games has enjoyed explosive growth, with Microsoft (Xbox), Nintendo (Wii, DS) and Sony (PlayStation) the absolute market leaders. Worldwide, in 2008, the game industry brought in 51.4 billion dollars, a turnover larger than that of the Hollywood film industry. More and more people, young and old, men and women, play computer games. The area in which we can directly witness the melting together of seriousness and play is the genre of the so-called serious games, computer games that are not only played for amusement, but also for serious purposes. Think here of political games, such as Food Force (United Nations World Food Programme) from 2005, and educational games, including the previously mentioned Frequency 1550 (Waag Society, 2005-2007), which try to entice players to certain insights and changes in behaviour. These games illustrate what Huizinga wrote: ‘Certain activities whose whole raison d’être lies in the field of material interest, and which had nothing of play about them in their initial stages, develop what we can only call play-forms as a secondary characteristic’. (p. 199) Wherever the game is no longer an ‘aim in itself’, but takes its right to exist from an ‘interest’ or ‘purpose’ – thereby becoming serious, however well intended – in fact risks losing both its purity and its attraction.
5. The genre of the Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) has four distinct subgenres. Which subgenre is the most popular?
A: Social (Second Life, The Sims Online)
B: Fantasy (World of Warcraft)
C: Science Fiction (Star Wars Galaxies)
D: Combat Simulations and First Person Shooter Games (America’s Army)
The MMORPG is an especially popular genre, played worldwide by millions of people. Following the words of Huizinga, it generates ‘social groupings’ (p. 13), here in the form of collective, virtual worlds that are accessible online 24 hours a day, even when individual players are not. In order to determine the specificity of this genre, researchers have called on the work of the French sociologist, Roger Caillois. In his 1958 book Man, Play and Games Caillois further developed Huizinga’s ideas. Where Huizinga spoke about play in general terms, Caillois distinguished four categories: agon (play with a competitive element, such as soccer); alea (play in which luck is a factor, as in lotteries); mimicry (play as pretending, as in role-play); and ilinx (play in which dizziness is central, as in roller coaster rides). And, where Huizinga declared that rules were central, Caillois distinguished ludus from paidea. In the ludus variant, the player subjects himself to the rules of the game, while in the paidea mode, play is characterized by creativity, improvization and spontaneity. Using both categories, MMORPGs can be categorized as games with high mimicry and paidea content. They offer the opportunity to take on roles that people are unable to assume in everyday life, calling on the improvization and creativity of the players because there are no specific aims or objectives.
In an examination of this genre, cultural psychologist Stef Aupers tries to find an answer to the question of how we can understand the power of attraction that these games exert. According to Aupers, they offer a virtual solution for problems that go hand-in-hand with the process of modernization. Because of their emphasis on mysticism and magic, fantasy games such as World of Warcraft, for example, offer an alternative to what Max Weber called the ‘disenchantment of the world’. Not only can problems of the real world be resolved in the virtual world of the game, but problems in the real world can be resolved by those playing the game. Research has shown that playing MMORPGs has important effects on learning, which can make players better suited to positions of leadership in business life. The players dare to take risks, are competitive, play to win, are willing to experiment and are accustomed to working towards common goals in a group context.10 Aupers’ researches a phenomenon that, referring back to Huizinga, we can describe as ‘seriousness becoming play’. John Beck, Mitchell Wade and IBM refer to phenomena in which we see the play becoming serious again. (p. 200)
6. In which game can the player enter the land of Albion, based on the legend of King Arthur?
A: Ultima Online
B: Everquest 2
C: Dark Age of Camelot
D: World of Warcaft
Keeping in the back of our mind Huizinga’s warning that we cannot extend the concept of play indefinitely, I consider play an important concept for the analysis of the use of media. When John Fiske, mentioned above, wrote about play in relation to television, he made a distinction between two forms of play.11 First, there is play in a text (a television program, for example), in the same sense that there is play – or latitude – in a door whose hinges are loose. This gives the viewer in turn space with which to play with the text, and in so doing, to playfully give the text an interpretation of his own. It is a characteristic of new digital media that they do not restrict the user’s playing space to this interpretive flexibility (or creative receptiveness), but expand it into the reconfiguration of existing texts or (re)construction of new texts. We see this respectively in the interactive use of commercial games, in which players play according to the rules of the game, and in the development of artistic game modifications, whereby artists play with the rules of the game. Just as the French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard played with the rules of the classic Hollywood film in his counter-cinema of the 1960s, nearly 50 years later, artists such as Jodi (untitled game, 1996-2001), Anne-Marie Schleiner (Velvet Strike, 2002) and Brody Condon (Adam Killer, 1999-2001) are in their turn playing with the rules of the commercial computer game (counter-gaming). Think for example of the way that Godard (in his jump cuts) and Jodi (in showing source code) no longer make the underlying technology invisible or transparent, but put it in the foreground.12
We also see this room for play on YouTube, the website for sharing online videos. Begun in February of 2005, with the motto ‘YouTube: Broadcast Yourself’, it was an immediate success. It is a website where users can upload and watch video films for free. Each producer has his or her own ‘television channel’, where all their short films can be seen. YouTube is a gathering place of existing audiovisual material, including films, television programs and video clips, of parodies and remixes (reconstructions) of this material, of material made by the users themselves (constructions) and the ongoing comments of other users. It is a website that is open in its objectives and its forms of use (paidea), so that everyone can play in their own way. YouTube does indeed play with the rules of television, but it also establishes new rules (ludus), for example, that the films cannot be more than ten minutes long, that they must not cause offense and that they respect copyrights. It is remarkable here that mimicry – playing television and ‘looking like a pro’ – is catching up with reality.13 Not only do YouTube users play television, but more and more television broadcasting corporations are playing YouTube, with their own websites, such as Uitzending gemist in the Netherlands, where viewers can see broadcasts they missed on television.
7. YouTube is the world’s most popular online video sharing website. In May of 2009, how many videos were watched on YouTube in the United States? (Source: Nielsen)
A: 6 million
B: 60 million
C: 600 million
D: 6 billion
An important cultural function of digital media is that they are increasingly being used for playing or experimenting with personal identities. Play can here be seen as an important form of (new) media wisdom: ‘Play – the capacity to experiment with one’s surroundings as a form of problem-solving’.14 Consider here the ways in which individuals present themselves on personal websites and in role-playing games, such as the previously mentioned World of Warcraft, or the study Sex is a Game (Rutgers Nisso Group, 2006), which researched how young people use the Internet to experiment with their sexual identity: how they came into contact with others, flirted and engaged in cybersex. The most important play media in this context are undoubtedly mobile telephones and so-called social media, such as weblogs and social networks, including Facebook, Hyves, LinkedIn and Twitter. These are ideal social connections that playfully express what the users think they are and how they wish to be seen by others. As Huizinga described, play is indeed ‘a very deep layer of our mental being’. (p. 6)
8. Social media connect people across the entire globe. Which of these networking sites is primarily focussed on the Netherlands?
The Ludification of Culture
Contemporary (media) culture appears to be increasingly comprised of play elements, a fact that leads us to refer to a ‘ludification of culture’.15 Nonetheless, we should exercise some caution here, not only because many media users only make limited use of the potential play elements (such as making game modifications and YouTube films), but also because, again as Huizinga had already written, ‘The attempt to assess the play-content in the confusion of modern life is bound to lead us to contradictory conclusions’. (p. 199) The tendency of seriousness to turn into play often goes hand-in-hand with the opposite tendency, as we saw above in speaking of MMORPGs and serious games. It is also often unclear whether something is used instrumentally or is in fact play (is Facebook communication or playing with identity?), or whether something is ‘pure' play or corrupted (as in soccer), or whether play is escaping the critical scrutiny of reality (playing according to the rules or playing with the rules themselves). In order to face these questions and problems, a ‘ludic turn’ must take place in media theory, so that serious attention can be paid to the concept of play, literally to games and metaphorically to a playful dealing with the media. It seems to me that theories of play, such as those of Huizinga, once subjected to critical analysis, brought up to date and improved, will be able to make an important contribution.
Let us finally return to Slumdog Millionaire. Boyle closely relates the game structure of the television quiz show to the narrative structure of a typical Hollywood genre: the rags to riches story. In this genre, ‘rivalry or competition’ (p. 133), described by Huizinga as a specific characteristic of play, has an important role. The hero (Jamal) must complete an extremely difficult task (winning the quiz show) which is connected to the completion of a promise (finding Latika, the love of his youth). The format of the quiz show, which invites viewers to test their own knowledge (agon), and the style of the film (the racing rhythm, hectic visual editing, the stirring music), giving viewers the feeling of being on a roller coaster ride (ilinx), all contribute to the playful character of Slumdog Millionaire.
9. Where Jamal puts his faith in love, his brother Salim sooner believes in the power of the pistol. Which French filmmaker said, ‘All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun’?
A: Jean-Luc Godard
B: Jean-Pierre Melville
C: Henri Verneuil
D: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Ultimately, the movie only partly has a happy ending. While Jamal wins a substantial amount of money and – much more importantly for him – finds Latika again, Jamal’s brother Salim is shot and killed. Moviegoers forgive Jamal the fact that he actually twice corrupts the play – he is not playing for the game but for the money, and he is not really playing for the money but for love. In one of the final shots of the film, we are given the answer to the question with which we began this article. ‘This is our destiny,’ says Jamal. ‘Kiss me,’ replies Latika. The correct answer is therefore D: It is written.
Joost Raessens is professor of media theory at Utrecht University.
- For an analysis of game shows such as Idols, Big Brother and The Weakest Link, see the issue of Sociologie on the theme of ‘De spelende mens’, Stef Aupers, ed., 2 (2006) 1. That elements of play can be the cornerstone for a film was argued by Jan Simons in Playing the Waves: Lars von Trier’s Game Cinema, 2007.
- ‘Quizzical Pleasures', in John Fiske, Television Culture, 1987
- Lourens Minnema, ‘Play and (Post) Modern Culture: An Essay on Changes in the Scientific Interest in the Phenomenon of Play’ in Cultural Dynamics 10 (1998) 1, pp. 21-47.
- Marleen Stikker, ‘Kunstraad schaadt kunstsector door verouderd kunstbegrip’, 2008. See also Nathalie Hartjes, ‘Spel tussen tafellaken en servet.' Brody Condon, Geert Jan Mulder et al – ‘Next Level: Art, Games and Reality’, 8weekly, 2006.
- Marianne van den Boomen et al., eds, Digital Material, 2009 and Joost Raessens & Jeffrey Goldstein, eds., Handbook of Computer Game Studies, 2005.
- Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture, Beacon Press, Boston, 1955, translation of Homo ludens. Proeve eener bepaling van het spel-element der cultuur, 1938. Homo ludens was rereleased in Dutch in 2008 by Atheneum Boekhandel Canon.
- The 15th letter in Friedrich Schiller’s Letters upon the Aesthetic Education of Man, published in German in 1795. For a plea for a playful society, see Pat Kane, The Play Ethic: A Manifesto for a Different Way of Living, 2004.
- For this and the following quote, see Willem Vissers, ‘Spelende mens herwint terrein op voetbalveld’, in de Volkskrant, 4 July, 2007.
- ‘Play’, in Roger Silverstone, Why Study the Media?, 1999.
- John Beck and Mitchell Wade, Got Game: How the Gamer Generation Is Reshaping Business Forever, 2004. See also Virtual Worlds, Real Leaders, IBM, 2007.
- ‘Pleasure and Play' in John Fiske, Television Culture, 1987
- Alexander Galloway, ‘Countergaming’ in Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, 2006. See also Joost Raessens, ‘Computer Games as Participatory Media Culture’, 2005, in Handbook of Computer Game Studies (see note 5), Britta Neitzel and Rolf Nohr, eds., Das Spiel mit dem Medium. Partizipation – Immersion – Interaktion, 2006, and Mark Pesce, The Playful World: How Technology Is Transforming Our Imagination, 2000.
- ‘Any amateur can (…) look like a pro,’ from Jim Feeley, ‘Lights! Camera! Vodcast! How to make your own viral hit’, in Wired, 14 May, 2006. For an analysis of YouTube, see Eggo Müller’s ‘Formatted spaces of participation: Interactive television and the changing relationship between production and consumption’, in Marianne van den Boomen et al, eds., Digital Material, 2009.
- Henry Jenkins, ‘Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century’, 2006. See also: www.playful-identities.nl.
- Joost Raessens, ‘Playful Identities or the Ludification of Culture’, 2006
1.A; 2.C; 3.B; 4.D; 5.B; 6.C; 7.D; 8.B; 9.A.
Joost Raessens is full professor of Media Theory at Utrecht University, see: www.raessens.com