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Performing Play

University of Utrecht, Game studies, November 2012

Jelke de Boer

Play and performance studies In the introduction to Performance, a Critical Introduction Carlson is warning the reader that the wide range of disciplines, experts and according critical vocabulary in performance theory may seem overwhelming (pp1). Similarly, in Perform, or Else, Jon McKenzie states that Performance Studies has drawn upon many different, even disparate, disciplines. These range from a to z: anthropology, art history, cultural studies (especially gender, ethnicity, class, and, off late, queer and postcolonial theory), dance history, ethnography, folklore, history, linguistics, literary criticism, media studies, philosophy, political science, psychology, sociology, speech and nonverbal communications, theater studies and zoology (pp33). McKenzie is actually adding even more disciplines by discussing Performance in both economic and organizational practices. Despite this impressive listing its easily possible to add other disciplines such as Human Computer Interaction and Interaction Design in which performance plays an important role (Macaulay et al, 2006). A similar (and identically discomforting) introduction of the concept of Play could be made as it too can be found in a wide range of disciplines. The rise in importance of Play is well illustrated by the concept of Ludification in culture, which Raessens (2009) extensively describes as the emerge of Gameplay, Play and Playfulness in a wide variety of domains such as politics, media, culture and economics to name just a few. Besides the extensive spread in interest it should not come as a surprise to relate these two as both Performance and Play draw from the same sources; especially Huizingas Homo Ludens (1944) has been of great importance to both. To argue that Performance and Play are (therefor) related is neither a surprising nor a controversial position; the key question is exactly how they are related. It has been suggested that the concept of Play is merely a subdivision of Performance studies; this rather aggressive approach has not been very fruitful besides that it has lead to the relative independent development of a new field of research that has proven its significance; game studies. I will argue that the concept of Play is dialectic to Performance in the sense that embracing its supplementary value towards the concept of Performance offers a solution to long-standing difficulties. This can only be accomplished by accepting the

equality and not by forehand taking a position; the listed fields of interest already provide enough difficulties by themselves. Performance Before assessing the critical issues in both performance and play studies I will provide an initial framework by definition both Performance and Play and suggest a provisionary distinct. I ask of the reader to follow me along the argumentation to evaluate the given definitions as the real test will emerge by applying these to the structural difficulties that have arisen from critical theory; both in performance studies and in game studies. Therefore I will allow myself a small degree of freedom in setting the stage; this should be sufficient to at least provide an initial framework from which to build upon. Starting with the concept of Performance it is frequently suggested that it takes place towards an audience, such as by Bauman whom notes that Performance is always performance for someone, some audience that recognizes and validates it as performance even when, as is occasionally the case, the audience is the self (in Carlson, pp6). Bauman thereby adds an important aspect, that of validation. The audience is not only watching the performance but is also appraising it; some form of evaluation taking place. That would imply that there is a standard towards this performance is measured. Carlson (pp4-5) defines three distinct uses of performance; 1) the first involves a display of skills, such as a musician that can perform a difficult piece of music as a virtuoso or the athlete that performs in a specific sports contest. This type op performance can and is often used to describe the performance of technology, such as for example a computers processor speed. 2) Performance can also refer to the display of a recognizable cultural coded pattern of behavior similar (but not restricted) to an actor that by performing in a theatre is assuming a specific role. Schechner describes this type of performance as restored behavior (1985) in which there is a certain distance between the self and the performed character similar to the actor performing on a stage. Performing a role or function in a certain social context (such as the typical butler is performing in the context of traditional British society) fits this use of performance. 3) Finally Carlson distinguishes the general success of an activity such as sexual performance, linguistic performance

or the general performance in educational programs. Similar to Baumans notion of performance in all three indeed we find an idea of a standard that would benchmark the performance; a certain validation. The first is measured towards a specific standard, the second towards a cultural pattern and the third toward a social standard. In Perform or Else McKenzie further emphasizes this notion of performance being the subject of evaluation as he is evaluating the consequences of not meeting the assumed standards by these alarming threats: Perform, or else: be fired, redeployed, institutionally marginalized (pp7), be socially normalized (pp. 9) or outmoded, undereducated, in other words, youre a dummy! (pp. 12). Play The concept of Play seems to move in the exact opposite direction as it is Huizinga (1944) whom stresses that play cannot be seen as work: For us, the opposite of play is earnest, also used in the more special sense of work; while the opposite of earnest can either be play or jesting, joking (44). Huizinga further poses that play is set apart from daily life; this set-apartness is often referred to as the magic circle; a temporal space with its own set of unique properties. While critical on many aspects of Huizingas ideas Caillois (2001) supports the notion of this set-apartness; as he defines exactly this as one of his six core characteristics of play The notion that the rules within Play are not part of everyday life does however not implicate the absence of rules; they are merely different and temporal. To address this Caillois (2004) introduces Ludos and Paida, where Ludos is posed to be the disciplining and structuring force as opposed to Paida that represents the free and unstructured element in Play. Sutton Smith notes that most social play is not without an audience at least of the other players, who, as research shows, constantly monitor one others play (Sutton Smith, 1997: pp. 193) thus indicating that within the set-apart game space there surely is a continuous measuring of performance though he uses a similar quotation of Bauman as that provided earlier to dismiss the usefulness of performance for play theory as supposedly performance is firmly locked in the frame of the theatrical context (Sutton Smith, 1997: pp. 192).

Rules and regulations First I should note that by rules and regulation I also include shared (social and cultural) conventions; as both formal and informal rules influence performance and play. To evaluate exactly how players relate to rules (and thus also to conventions) I will return to Huizinga (1944) as he is offering a most useful disposition by suggesting that players can have four distinct attitudes towards the regulation of a game: 1) Submission to the rules of the game and accepting them, 2) Cheating, and thereby trying to irregularly benefit, 3) Ignoring the rules of the game and 4) reshaping or reinventing the rules of play. I suggest that the first and second concern Performance rather than Play, while the third and fourth can be considered to be playful. Even within the boundaries of a game the strict submission to the rules of play reduce the assumed playfulness to a measureable performance. The achievements can be validated towards the rules under which they were accomplished, as both the sportsman and the gamer perform by displaying skills as in the first use of performance provided by Carlson (pp. 4-5). The same could be argued for cheating accept that the display of skills here is mere illusion; the sportsman that uses illegal preparations such as doping and the gamer that makes use of cheat codes both pose as if their performance was legitimate. When ignoring the rules a new situation emerges as there is no longer a performance that can be evaluated; it is neither a display of skill towards a standard as it is uncertain what these standards are, nor is it a culturally coded pattern of behavior as it ignores these codes. It is in a sense possible to evaluate the ignorance of rules on the third use of performance as the success of the activity as in none at all (such as the child that deliberately skips school and thereby is underperforming). More important is that the possibility to ignore the rules indicates that there is an alternative to explore; thus to ignore the rules can be considered playful as it examines the extensions and limitations or the rules. This leads to the fourth attitude towards rules, that of reinventing or reshaping them. Here the game itself becomes the object of evaluation. I thus argue that Performance could be assessed as a disciplining force of regulation and that it is Play that challenges this regulation. This interplay builds upon the concepts Paida and Ludus as introduced by Caillois (2001) and the attitudes

toward rules and regulation as provided by Huizinga. These different attitudes are not to be seen as distinctions but rather as overlapping as there is a permanent imbalance between these attitudes. To further explain this interplay let me provide an example: In Being and Nothingness Sartre examines the behavior of a waiter in a caf, and suggests that he is playing at being a waiter in a caf. There is nothing there to surprise us as we are watching an unnatural and superficial condition, and by playing the condition is realized. Sartre is warning that this is of danger to the psyche as it might result in becoming the representation, a state that is well illustrated by the iconic image of the English butler that has become that what is expected from his role within this specific social-cultural context. Reviewing the example that Sartre provides the first thing to note is that here the waiter is performing his role rather then playing it; it is easily possible to measure his performed display of skill and he is performing towards the standards of a cultural coded pattern. Thus he (or she) is submitting to a strict set of rules and it is exactly this submission that Sartre was worrying about. Still the primary problem for the waiter in question is that it is not at all that clear what the ideal or even a preferable representation exactly looks like. A customer such as Sartre clearly demands a different approach then those that do appreciate that he is moving quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid (Sartre, 1956). It is here that play becomes of importance as the waiter is permanently reinventing his role. When a guest is unusual or difficult to serve the waiter might even, for a short moment, step out of his role by making a quick gesture towards his fellow waiters commenting the customer or situation. Thus it is not just the acting but also the perception of the audience (including the self) that is of importance, or as van Vliet concludes: in the reception process the attention should focus on the individual interpretation of rules, including conventions that are assumed to be valid in the specific situation (van Vliet, 1991: pp269). Similar to the artist that leaves his role as he leaves the stage the waiter is only a waiter within the context of the restaurant and even there how to perform this role is not always that clear.

Essentially contested, ambiguous In The Ambiguity of Play (1997) Sutton Smith poses that play is ambiguous, and illustrates this ambiguity by extracting seven rhetorics of play; seven critical issues that remain unsolved. He also argues quite extensively that there is little progress in broader interpretation of the discourses involving play as the distinct positions in the underlying debates are firmly locked to specific interests and ideologies. In performance studies a similar notion can be found in the suggestion that performance is essentially contested (Carlson, 2004: pp. 2), a term originally coined by Gallie. It is of interest to note that Gallie did not aim at the concept of performance directly, as he was primarily concerned with both democracy and religion. He did however use performance in sports as artificial example (1955: pp. 173-180) to illustrate his framework and to review critical issues when declaring a concept essentially contested. In performance studies the declaration of performance as essentially contested might primarily function as a pressure release as it relieves the distinct discourses of the pressure that emerges when different fields of interest with different traditions intersect. However both the ambiguity of play and the essentially contestedness of performance have proved their use as both Sutton Smith and Carlson provide an excellent overview of the issues that persist through the broad and varied collection of discourses. The ambiguities and contests in perform and play thus form a formidable challenge to put the proposed framework to test. In Performance: a Critical Introduction Carlson explicitly points to two discussions that he recognizes among a broad domain of studies as being contested. The first focuses on individual action in specific situation; as Carlson questions to what extend performance itself results from something the performer does and to what extend it results from a particular context in which it is done (2004: pp. 18). The second refers to a much broader context of cultural performance questioning whether performance within a culture serves most importantly to reinforce the assumptions of that culture or to provide a possible site of alternative assumptions (2004: pp. 15). Thus Carlson is primarily concerned with the levels on which performance takes place and how performance theory originating from a theatre context can be applied to other

social situations on both micro and macro level. Sutton Smith chooses a quite different approach as he assesses distinct issues that can be recognized among the different fields of interest. In The Ambiguity of Play (1997) he describes seven rhetorics of play that operate on quite different levels; some primarily focus on individual performance whilst others are concerning societies as a whole. These seven rhetorics are: 1) the rhetoric of play as progress, 2) the rhetoric of play as fate, 3) the rhetoric of play as power, 4) the rhetoric of play as identity, 5) the rhetoric of play as the imaginary, 6) the rhetoric of the rhetoric of the self and 7) the rhetoric of play as frivolous. Seven Rhetorics The first rhetoric that Sutton Smith examines addresses the question whether play is a form of education and if it is primarily a tool for progression. According to Sutton Smith three main discourses are of interest here; that of animal play, child play, and adult play. He points at the lack of empirical evidence to support claims of play as a vehicle for progression, though in the case of animal play he does note that it is widely accepted that play can be interpreted as a form of training of specific skills. The main issue emerges as Sutton Smith points on the assumption that play in child play (and thus excluding adult play) consists of specific development stages. Or as Sutton Smith questions if play is a preparation for maturity (Groos, 1976), then what are the mature doing when they play? Are they preparing for death? Perhaps they are not preparing for anything (Sutton Smith, 1997: pp. 47). Thus play cannot merely be seen as a training device of which the use ends as its training goals are achieved. It however also questions the relation between the child and the adult and assumes that maturing is a process that at a certain stage is completed. Of course learning, or development in general does not automatically stop at a predefined age at which one is considered to be an adult in a specific cultural context even though there is a long tradition of rituals that mark adultery. These rituals or rites of passage are of interest in performance studies and I will come back to these later. For now let me return to Sutton Smith and the issue of that the relationship between play and development has come to be so taken for granted that it is invoked almost any time an investigator finds an analogy between a

play process and some other development progress (Sutton Smith, 1997: pp. 36). It is striking that the same question, though formulated in the exact opposite direction, can be found in performance studies. This discourse is pivoting around the question of what comes before performance; weather performance is to be considered restored behavior (Schechner, 1983). It seems inevitable that there is some kind of standard, cultural coded pattern that is agreed upon before, or toward which a performance is taking place or as MacAloon (1984) states there is no performance without pre-formance. The interconnection proposed here assumes that play predefines and alters performance but it does not limit play to distinct stages in a development process nor does it suggest that there is always a form of progression. Performing different as a result of playful reinterpretation of a certain role or situation does not automatically mean that the performance is better or more successful; it primarily assumes that play is altering the scale or standard on which the performance is being measured, at least from the perspective of the performer that has been playing with the assumed behavior in his role. That what is restored has been playfully recoded to a different pattern. It is from here that Carlson (pp. 15) points on the essentially contested nature of performance as he questions if performance is maintaining or undermining tradition and if its primarily repressive or subversive. I will return to this issue when examining the third rhetoric, which concerns the notion of play as power. With the second rhetoric Sutton Smith turns to the notions of fate, chance and the unpredictable in play. He also points at the opposition between the rhetoric of progress that seems largely about rationality versus that of fate that is about irrationality. This distinct can also be read as contradiction between of modernity versus tradition. Fate, he argues is at the hart of most ancient of religions (animism and mysticism) and is at the deepest level of even modern minds, because life and death are, after all, fateful, not rational and not escapable (pp. 53). Thus fate may have historical origins it is not to be dismissed as something that has become irrelevant. Fate in modern times is expressed by the massive amounts of money spend on games of chance make them arguably the most important form of play in the modern world (pp. 73) thereby revealing modern times irrationality. In modern, western societies scientific rationality

may have become the standard; fate has, both in prior eras and in most parts of the world today a tremendous influence on human activity (Sutton Smith, 1997: pp. 65). These games of chance are described by Caillois as in all games that are based on a decision independent of the player, an outcome over which he has no control, and in which winning is the result of fate rather than triumphing over an adversary (Caillois, 2001: pp. 17). Fate may be irrational and merely a question of chance to the neutral observer, it may however not be so in the perception of the player. In the third rhetoric, that of power, Sutton Smith examines the cultural function of play. He assesses two mayor levels at which play is examined, the first is that of play as a civilizing influence (Huizinga, 1944), either by consolidating existing balances of power, mediating in social conflicts or as others argue as an opposing force with a subversive or resisting nature. Here a direct relation can be found with Carlson whom argues that whether performance within a culture serves most importantly to reinforce the assumptions of that culture or to provide a possible site of alternative assumptions is an ongoing debate that provides a particularly clear example of the contested quality of performance analysis (Carlson, 2004: pp. 15). Similar to Carlson Sutton Smith states that there are two distinct schools, those who put play into the category of order (such as Huizinga does) and those that view play as of disorder, chaos and chance, but his solution is not to declare this to be essentially contested but he refers to the previously mentioned rhetorics of progress and fate as a solution. It is remarkable how well both avoid using the opposed terms of Performance and Play (where Carlson prefers Performance and Sutton Smith Play) that provide the solution that I am advocating here. There is a great difference in both their approaches; Sutton Smith seems most concerned with sports as an extension or sublimation where Carlson is more concerned with cultural forms such as theatre. A third activity that both refer to is that of festivals. Both game studies and performance studies (and event studies) seem to generally embrace the set-apartness proposed by Caillois (2001) and Huizinga (1944) whom both make a clear distinct between everyday life and the stage at which the event is taking place. All these activities are somewhat set-apart from that of daily life (Sassatelli, Delanty & Giorgi,

2011). As such the rules at stake, the scale of measurement of performance is twofold; it can be measured towards the rules of the specific event, temporarily set apart from the normal order, and to the rules of society as a whole. Similar the audience that is evaluating the performance can be referred to as to the audience that is taking part in the event itself and as the society in general. To play here thus can address, explore and revaluate two very different levels. I thereby combine the rhetorics of power with those that address identity. This seems as a logical step as Sutton Smith himself notes that it is difficult to distinguish the rhetoric of power from the rhetoric of play (pp. 91). A chaotic and at first glance subversive event such as carnival can be a structuring force on a higher level. Similarly, to borrow an example from Sutton Smith, an event such as the Berlin 1936 Olympics might seem highly regulated were clearly disrupting and affecting societies as a whole. The nature of a specific event, weather it is sports, theatre of a cultural festivity thus relies on the way these two distinct sets of rules intertwine. Performance, such as the successes of individual sportsman during the 1936 Olympics, can empower a sense of community and thus acts as a subliminal force even if the result of this empowered feeling of communities leads to a world war. In another example, staged two years later after an intriguing history that starts in the same year as the Berlin Olympics, a German heavy weight boxer is contesting the American heavyweight Joe Louis for the world championship. The fight taking place in the New York Yankee Stadium is extensively framed as being between the Afro-American Louis and the Nazifighter Max Schmeling. Schmeling lost the fight in the first round and though he never did admit loosing on purpose it was very clear that he was not at all pleased with his status as Nazi-champion as he later notes that Looking back, I'm almost happy I lost that fight. Just imagine if I would have come back to Germany with a victory. I had nothing to do with the Nazis, but they would have given me a medal. After the war I might have been considered a war criminal (Schmeling, 1998). These examples not only represent a sense of community (weather the sportsman like it or not), they also show the complexity of different levels of regulation. The second rhetoric of power according to Sutton Smith is that of play as an individual expression of power, and here we find another issue that Carlson addresses as he states that: another essentially contested aspect of

performance involves the question of to what extend performance itself results from something the performer does and to what extend it results from a particular context in which it is done (Carlson, 2004: pp. 18). Till a certain extend this has already been discussed in both the example of Schmeling and the earlier example of the waiter that is performing his role. I will thus close the discourses on identity and the self for now with the suggestion that while people may be performing towards a variety of standards there is always something unique in the performance as the way a role is constructed is the result of the individual play with assumptions and the understanding of that role by the audience. The fifth rhetoric that Sutton Smith is discussing is that of the imaginary. Here both the idealization of play, the romantic view that has Sutton Smith is rooting in the historic era of the enlightenment and the spread of play, playful and more recent the ludic trough the domains of arts and culture are addressed. This rhetoric has lead to what Sutton Smith describes as: What develops in the twentieth century is a complex of ideas in which childs play and art are brought together with ideas about the imagination, about the child as a primitive, an innocent, an original, and, in effect, the true romantic, because he or she is unattached by the world and still capable of representing things in terms of an unfettered imagination (pp. 133). The central question here is weather the frequent use of play (and similar could be posed of performance) in arts, literature and media is blurring the broader understanding of the concept of play. Play here is not used in the same sense as when referring to other forms of play as it is acknowledged that the performer is at play in their work. Here thus the playfulness itself becomes the subject of the evaluation; as it is the esthetic quality of play that is the performed. Here a new possible essential contestedness emerges as Sutton Smith argues that there are so many different uses of play in the arts and literature that it seems impossible to contain all these in a single category (pp. 149). It is of interest that he provides a possible solution similar to the one that is argued here though he chooses to use a distinct in play and playfull rather then in performance and play. He supposes that Perhaps instead they are more subtle the ends of some continuum, one end of which has

play genres that are framed, follow the rules, and have relatively predictable expectations (as in games and sports) and the other end of which doesnt play within the rules but with the rules, doesnt play within the frames but with the frames, as in farce and comedy (150). As Sutton Smith applies this distinction to the staged play in a theatrical setting he rejects this solution by arguing that if the playful, witty, trickster person plays with the frames and the rules and defies conventional expectations, then that trickster is playing by some other rules. He who is breaking the play rules is being ruled by some other rules (150). Here a form of meta-communication emerges as the frame of the stage itself allows the actor to play with the rules, similar to Batesons notion that to play requires a form of understanding that, for example in animal play, a bite is not a bite (Bateson, 1955: pp. 325). The audience thus is assured by the context and the awareness of that the actor or comedian is only playing. The situation here is similar to that of the carnival discussed earlier, as a temporal frame is provided to not only play within the rules but with the rules of society as a whole, and thus similar in that there is an interplay between different regulating systems. One can perform within one while simultaneously be playing with the other. Thus for artists such as comedians, at least in western society, success depends largely on how effectively he or she is manipulating rules and playing with regulations. In the seventh and last rhetoric, that of frivolity, Sutton Smith turns to the assumed distinct between work and play. Here work is perceived as sober, serious, not fun, dreadful, while play is its opposite being a cheerful waste of time. Sutton Smith here poses that the frivolity of play is inherit in all the other rhetorics as in that each rhetoric involves an internal polarity between good play and bad play and uses the term frivolous for whatever kind is chosen as bad (pp. 204). The most dominant notion of good and bad play can be found in the rhetoric of play as progress, where play is organized and discussed in terms of the educational value and psychological practices. It can also strongly be found in the modern economical environment of the office where McKenzies perform, or else (2001) could be rephrased as play, or else as he argues that there is a paradigm shift in the way that work is organized. To be successful, he argues, organizations need to be creative and innovative thus incorporating play as a

mean of production. A distinction is thus made between those functions and jobs that require a certain creative play skill and those that are merely performing a routine set of tasks. Similar the rhetoric of the imaginary serves as the intellectual play of the scholar and the intellectual, dismissing the less sophisticated play of the masses. Here an interesting distinct can be found in the difference in academic research versus artistic research, where the second of course is valued as the lesser as it is inherently frivolous. Sutton Smith further argues that when considering the rhetorics of power and identity the play exercise evolves around power structures, where there is little attention for the play of the less successful or less dominant forces in society, as for example in sports the dominant play is that of the males while female sports are largely excluded from any attention. It is here that the suggested connection between play and performance can be of great use as it does not attempt to incorporate the one into the other thus neither emphasizing the measurable performance or ridiculing frivolity in play. To link these two concepts in this way does suggest a claim of the progressive quality in play; though it does by no means declare progression as its purpose. Play as I propose here could be viewed similar to natural variation where there is no predetermined purpose for play in the way that variations affect performance. That does not exclude the possibility of manipulating play into a desired direction.

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