Thursday, 11 February 2010

All in the game

What is the role of play in art?  Why have I chosen to turn my desire for exploration and getting lost in the city into a sort of game?  Why not just choose a location and head off, camera in hand, till I have taken the photographs I wanted or until I have had enough?  I have been asking myself these questions and wondering perhaps if it is just that I have never grown up? Or is there a child in all of us, one who still likes to play games, to be bound by the rules, and yet to have that uncertainty that playing a game involves?

In the book Man, Play and Games sociologist Roger Caillois claims that play can be recognised by a number of defining characteristics:

1.  Free - it is a voluntary activity
2.  Separate - it is isolated from everyday life, usually engaged in according to precise boundaries of time and place
3.  Uncertain - its course and result cannot be determined in advance
4.  Unproductive - property or money may be exchanged or won, but no goods are produced.
5.  Governed by rules - which suspend ordinary laws, establishing new ones which are the only ones that count whilst the game is in play
6.  Make-believe - accompanied by a special awareness of a second or free reality  as opposed to real life

He further divides games into four different classifications:
Agôn - competetive, where equality of chances is artificially created and where each player desires to have his superiority recognised.  It implies discipline, training and a desire to win.
Alea - chance, from the Latin for game of dice, denoting games based on a decision independent of the player, where the player has no control over the outcome i.e. games of chance
Mimicry - simulation, where the player takes on the character of someone other than himself, thus temporarily shedding, disguising or escaping his personality
Ilinx - based on the pursuit of vertigo, in an attempt to destroy the stability of perception of the rational mind.  Characterised by extreme physical activity such as spinning around, whirling, loss of balance, giddiness, funfair rides etc.

Games can be a combination of several of these characteristics, but agôn and alea, although implying opposites, are governed by the same laws - the creation of pure equality not available in real life.  Both merit and chance are an attempt to substitute perfect conditions for the normal confusion of everyday life, a way of escaping the real world and creating another.

Many contemporary artists use play as the basis for their work and I shall be looking at some examples in future posts.  The Surrealists used play as a pursuit  undertaken for its own sake, a prime example being the technique of errance, a form of aimless wandering, the precursor of the dérive, where through a disengagement of the will and the use of chance strategies they attempted to stimulate the production of unconscious imagery.

Games mean many different things to different people.  In my case, they signify the misery of enforced games on the school playing field or the unmitigated tedium of board games such as Monopoly or Risk (though I was always partial to card games from a very early age and would happily spend hours engrossed in Patience).  In trying to untangle the motives which underlie my own chosen strategy, what appeals to me is the uncertainty of the outcome, the idea of a suspension of the norms of everyday life but probably most of all the notion that I am making up my own rules with no-one telling me what to do. I wonder what a psychologist would make of that!


  1. Very interesting reflections about playing and game- they reminds me of my time as teacher as we tried to define the term 'play'/Spiel! I love to play with words, to do acting, to watch children at their play, actors at their performance...- but I don't like playing around with someone's feelings and I don't like hiding the truth, although the hide-and-seek-plays belong to the oldest favourite kinds of play!
    I understand very well your "motives which underlay (your) own chosen strategy", and I wish you much pleasure, photographical enrichment, and new- exciting experiences! As you were researching about this subject, you surely read the famous essay by Friedrich Schiller, About the aesthetic Education of Man: "Man only plays when he is in the fullest sense of the word a human being, and he is only fully a human being when he plays." ('he' and 'she' we would now say) I also dealt with the book of J.Huizinga, Homo ludens- yes, we should play more and more often but life is often so serious and wants to be taken seriously!
    Your pics visualize some of your words, the second heart-card is a bit unsual for me? And your red shoes, also a kind of acting, are wonderful! What had I photographed? Perhaps children playing one of their plays or men coming from Arabic countries whre the used to play their board games while sitting outside of their shops and letting run their chains through their hands- I could imagine that in London we could find those men following familiar traditions. An inexhaustible theme! - oh, I forgot, playing is only a kind of "strategy" in your case, not a new Richard Tr. photo- subject or an absorption- theme by blackdog!

  2. Hello Philine. I'm afraid I must admit I have not read Schiller's essay though have found it mentioned in some of the work I have been studying, the same as the work of Huizinga which is mentioned in Roger Caillois' book. I have limited time to do the research for this project. I am glad you noticed the card - it is part of a very special pack that I own, the illustrations taken from the work of a famous Latvian artist of the 1920s and 1930s - Karla Padega. Follow the link to see some other examples from the pack. His work reminds me of the German artist Otto Dix. And yes, you are quite right, the red boots are all part of the game, though sadly they are now so old that they are letting in the rain!