It seems undeniable at this point that we’re living in demented times. Our political order is slowly dissolving around us. Huge portions of the populace involuntarily lead monastic lives and even then thousands of people are dying a day. GameStop is somehow a thing that people care about. What is happening? Why is it that on every side it feels like things are slipping away, and yet at the same time it feels like we’re caught in an interminable stasis? The answer, I think, is that we’re living in a cultural moment that has been overtaken by spoilsports. A large part of our polity just doesn’t want to be a country anymore. One of the most useful ways of thinking around and through our current political crisis can be found in Johan Huizinga’s discussion of cheaters and spoilsports in his book on play, Homo Ludens.
Huizinga lived, and died, in times that were more horrifying but eerily similar to ours. In the interim period between the two World Wars, in Europe, the proper order of things seemed to be slipping away. Problems were obvious, but there didn’t seem to be any way to resolve them within the normal operation of cultural and political life. At least not with the alacrity that those problems required. In one of his final books, called In the Shadow of Tomorrow, Huizinga worries that the elites of his era are too complacent and aren’t treating seriously the signs all around them that some terrible collapse was coming. For Huizinga this apocalypse was presaged by a general weakening of judgement and the ‘critical spirit’ brought on by, among other things, the expansion of ‘mass media’ in the form of radio. The normal structures of life were unable to handle the newly empowered and ‘informed’ public that had suddenly been provided with information but was rarely given the wisdom necessary to wield it.
Huizinga’s follow up to In the Shadow of Tomorrow was Homo Ludens, in which he outlines his theory of play as the force through which civilizations had always developed, and how the denial and denuding of that force was resulting in the civilizational decline he was living through. Though it is rarely understood or taught as such, Homo Ludens is in large part a meditation on the political and, more importantly, cultural antecedents of the second World War. Written quite quickly, it was published in 1938, the year which began with Germany’s annexation of Austria and ended with the Kristallnacht pogrom.
To understand the forces at play in our own times its worth looking at a smaller section of the first chapter of Homo Ludens in which Huizinga discusses, briefly, the important differences between ‘cheaters’ and ‘spoilsports’.
For Huizinga, all play takes place inside a community of players. These players set themselves and their play aside from the concerns of normal life, and for a limited period conducted themselves according to the particular order that gives shape to their play. This order determines their behavior, but it also determines who is inside or outside of the ‘magic circle’ of the play community itself. While the rewards of play are typically endogenous to the play activity, and meaningless outside of the community, it’s still the case that those rewards are coveted by players. In fact, the property of play that teaches people to value things beyond raw material gain is one of its civilizing functions, according to Huizinga. Still, where there are rewards there are those that value those rewards even above some of the rules of the community. These are the players that are susceptible to becoming cheaters.
Cheaters, for Huizinga, are those that break the rules. Perhaps because they so desire the rewards held out by the play community that they seek to furtively move around some of the fine print of its social contract. But whatever their motivations there is an important limiting factor for cheaters. Because cheaters seek the rewards of play they avoid taking actions that would threaten the stability of the play activity itself. Because play is set aside from real life; because it is its own ‘peculiar order’, it would make no sense for someone to seek its rewards while fundamentally undermining its existence. Without the play community the prize has no value or meaning. And so while cheaters will break the rules, they will not break them to the extent that the game itself might cease to exist. This is also why, Huizinga says, when a cheater is caught they can be punished, but leniency is possible. The cheater will accept their punishment as the price they pay to allow them to keep playing, and a community that trusts that the cheater still values the existence of the community is able to tolerate the cheater’s participation and hope for their rehabilitation.
Spoilsports are an entirely different matter. Unlike cheaters they have no interest in the rewards of the play community, and can be hostile to its maintenance, especially if they are trapped within it. Unlike cheaters, the reaction of the play community to the spoilsport must be swift and merciless. The spoilsport must be exiled. The violence with which the community responds to the spoilsport, while having space to tolerate the cheater, is because of the inherent fragility of the magic circle. Play is set aside from real life, and, importantly, has no intended purpose or effect beyond itself; it has no material reason for its continuance. The only thing that keeps play, and a play community, going is the agreement between all players (and cheaters) and it should keep going. The spoilsport threatens to bring the whole thing crashing down not because their actions might be against the rules, but because they are a reminder that the whole edifice of the game is built on sand. When one wants to discourage people from playing a given game the tactic isn’t usually to quibble with this rule or that, it’s to remind the players that what they’re doing is ‘irrational’ or ‘a waste of time’.
Huizinga says that the world outside of play has its spoilsports as well. Variously called ‘apostates’ or ‘heretics’ or, interestingly, ‘conscientious objectors’. On this website, in more innocent times, I wrote about how Huizinga’s theory of spoilsports is not purely negative. If spoilsports sometimes appear in society as a Guy Fawkes they are also sometimes a Copernicus. I suggested that game designers were, in a sense, organized spoilsports that looked at the magic circles available to them and refused to find a permanent home in any of them. Instead spending their lives erecting new and disruptive orders of play.
However, we are now living in an era bowled over by spoilsports, in both nihilist and Dada-ist forms. The reward structures of our society, always venal and inequitable, are now operating to undermine their own maintenance. The purpose of rules is no longer to structure our expression and reflect a common set of meanings and values. Rules are, well, just things to be gamed. And for one faction of our society where the rules can’t be gamed they can simply be denied. While on one side we have the barbarian hordes that find purpose only in their own will to power and the cruelty they can inflict, and on the other side we have people that are motivated by ideals of a more just and equitable society, for both sides the present order is intolerable. And the ‘middle’, such as it is, lacks any articulable set of values beyond stability and a conviction that anything else would be worse.
Now, I should be clear, I find the middle pretty persuasive. I think it’s probably correct that any radical change would be worse, even if it was intended to put us on the way to something better. But I also believe that even if the ‘middle’ is correct on the merits, it doesn’t really matter. And I believe this partly because of my interpretation of Homo Ludens.
The center cannot hold because there can be no exogenous justification for the maintenance of the magic circle, or else it isn’t really a magic circle. There can be no justification for society external to society itself. The political center of the country will continue to cast about for some set of rules that will rebind us to each other and reinvigorate our ‘union’, but that’s a fool’s errand. There is no change of rules that would make boxers more interested in playing chess other than ones that would turn chess into boxing, and that would displease the chess players greatly.
It also doesn’t matter that one side are the good guys and that the other is a cabal of snarling, racist cretins. At the moment neither is strong enough to exile the other from the play community, and it’s not even clear what ‘exile’ would mean in this case anyway. The historical treatment of apostates hasn’t often been a ‘separate but equal’ arrangement. For now, there are paltry options for getting out of this magic circle alive.
Very few people teach, and so even fewer people read, the final chapter of Homo Ludens, titled “The Play Element in Contemporary Civilization”. It can be read as a Grandpa Simpsons-esque rant that careens from the disparagement of the card game bridge to an aside about the intellectual errors at the heart of a materialist view of history. Huizinga was not a Luddite, but reading this chapter it can be easy to think that he was broadly disapproving of all the cultural movements of the early to mid-20th century. However, as someone that lived through World War I and was living through the prologue to World War II, it’s not unreasonable that Huizinga attempted to cast blame wide enough to match the scope of the horrors of the 1910s, 20s, and 30s. But what strikes me as most important about the final chapter of Homo Ludens is that Huizinga argues that ‘play’, the quality of human life that he believed was responsible for the emergence of civilization, and the practice on which all the rituals of human society were modelled, was dying out of the world.
In late 1944, after the start of Operation Market Garden, it was clear that the Nazi empire was inevitably going to be rolled up by the advancing Allied forces. When the winter came the Nazis had been pushed back across the Rhine and into the small city of Arnhem in the Netherlands. Huizinga, after being relieved of his post at Leiden University by the Nazi occupation, and after a short period of detention, had been allowed to live in a little village outside the city of Arnhem, a few miles from where the Allied front would eventually, temporarily, be stopped. He died during the winter of 1944-45, only a few weeks before Allied forces liberated the rest of the Netherlands and eventually defeated the Nazi regime.
At the end of Homo Ludens Huizinga turns to a hope that people would reach back to and find some kind of moral compass in order to direct their actions. Rather than relying on the brutal calculus of power and ‘efficiency’ he calls for people to remember and return to higher truths. There are, he seems to be suggesting, things that are more important than ‘winning’. On a first reading and with the awareness of the history that followed this can seem naïve.
For my part, I think that Huizinga was, in the end, re-asserting the points that were implied by his observations about spoilsports in the first chapter of Homo Ludens. Morality is, in a sense, the set of values higher than any of the other rules by which we play our games. Morality is not just a set of rules among others, but describes the set of agreements that make play, and by extension society, possible in the first place. Whatever tactics and stratagems that players may develop the unspoken agreement is that none of their moves should threaten the spirit of the game. And the spirit of the game is nothing more than the set of mutual expectations and understandings between the players, the highest and most basic of which is that the game is worth playing at all.
One of the things that has become obvious over the last several years in the United States, and in other parts of the world, is that we have a system that was built to deal with cheaters. It didn’t often do this well, and it frequently tolerated a certain level of cheating to the point where it just became part of playing the game. But the real vulnerability turns out to be that it has no way of dealing with spoilsports, or, as it’s called in the discourse, ‘bad faith’ and ‘shamelessness’. The system is so much at a loss that for decades it has pretended that some of its spoilsports are actually just cheaters, believing and hoping that with enough incentives these insurrectionists will eventually reform and become players in our grand, multi-ethnic, commercial republic. Or at least they might become just regular old cheaters. That would be fine too. But that obviously hasn’t happened.
What we can learn from Huizinga is the hard truth that this kind of behavior is not some exploit that can be patched out. Our problem is not that we simply need to re-establish the rules of the road or re-adjust our reward schedule. The system is at a loss in how to deal with this new threat because there is no way to design a system that can handle this kind of threat. The consistent undermining of its legitimacy from within works because once we as humans moved beyond simply scratching for our survival out on the heath, none of our systems have any ‘real’ legitimacy, no inevitable reason to exist, no bulwark to protect them, past the agreement of their participants. No arrangement of rules is going to keep a house standing when its inhabitants want nothing more than to have it come crashing down around them.
How this all resolves itself feels, at times, too terrible and immense to speak about . Perhaps we’ll luck out and the matter will be slowing ground away under the tectonic movement of legislative, judicial, and cultural compromises. After that it’s likely the best we can hope for is a revitalized and aggressive federalism. However, the specter of something much worse is looming. Like Huizinga we find ourselves standing and staring into the shadow of tomorrow, unable to make out the exact shape of its silhouette. Whatever happens, it strikes me that we probably can’t hope to find a ‘just’ solution. If this is ever going to end, if we’re ever going to find some peace, we’ll be lucky if we find a solution at all. What’s uncomfortably possible is that things will finally get to a point where all we’re really looking for is a way out.