Yesterday, the most honourable of my footballing team-mates asked, rhetorically, why people got so worked up by the Chinese, Korean and Indonesian Olympic badminton players’ recent ‘cheating’. These players, if you’ve been living on the Moon for a few days, all contrived to lose a game in order to get a better draw in the next round. To my footballing team-mate, what the badminton players did was just a way of gaining a sporting advantage; there is, he said, no rule against what they did.
As we were talking, that part of my brain that stores all the weird and wonderful information I often don’t mentally tag with references, kicked in; except this time, I had mentally tagged my previous reading – Johan Huizinga wrote about cheating:
The player who trespasses against the rules or ignores them is a ‘spoil-sport’. The spoil-sport is not the same as the false player, the cheat [who] pretends to be playing the game and, on the face of it, still acknowledges the magic circle [of the play’s rules].
Johan Huizinga (1950), Homo Ludens (Beacon Press reprint)
In other words, Huizinga is saying that the spoil-sport tends to be treated with disdain; the false player, or cheat, is tolerated more because they only bend the rules. I’m going to let the word ‘cheat’ go in this writing here because Huizinga’s definition has more of a playful, positive spin than our current society’s model of ‘the cheat as a negative’. Instead, I’m going to use ‘spoiler’ and ‘rule-bender’.
So, were the badminton players spoilers or rule-benders? The interpretations are two sides of the same coin. To the players, they were rule-benders (let’s ignore the fact for the moment that, apparently, there’s no actual rule that says they shouldn’t play badminton in the way that they did). The players were bending the unwritten, or unsaid, rules of the game, i.e. you play to win, try your best. To the spectators, however, the players were spoilers. The spectators inside the arena had entered into a social transaction with the athletes: in this case they’d paid money to watch them, in the expectation that the athletes would try their best in return.
Perhaps my footballing team-mate, who hadn’t paid money in that social transaction and had been spectating from home, didn’t therefore feel the need to be ‘paid back’ in return. He was then free to have sporting empathy for athletes who were merely bending the rules. For him, nothing had been spoiled.
Now, what about children’s play? There are social transactions in place here too: the unwritten, or unsaid, ‘rules’ – the agreements that just get acknowledged, that seem to be inherently known, without needing to be outlined to one another at the start of, or during, the play. However, as soon as any unwritten rule of play is bent so far as to be seen as broken, then things change.
When the child-law of ‘finders keepers’ kicks in, for example (e.g. when a ball that Johnny drops gets taken away by Jimmy), Johnny sees Jimmy as a spoiler because Johnny’s making use of the child-law of ‘I got it first’. Jimmy’s invoking the child-law of ‘finders keepers’, so he’s just bending the rules a little bit by finding and – not just keeping but – running away with the ball as well. The spoiler and the rule-bender are two sides of the same coin in play.
I realise that this line of reasoning could be why I won’t say to any child: play fair. ‘Play fair’ means me coming down on the side of one child or the other. ‘Play fair’ means: (a) I’m drawing the line of what the unwritten/unsaid rules should be, making them into ‘said rules’; (b) I am, in effect, saying who shall be seen as ‘spoiler’; (c) I’m carelessly brushing at the intricate web of child-law, it having been diligently constructed over years and generations.
So, we come now to honour. What is this? You can’t make someone honour someone else, or be honourable. These are not written or said rules that you can impose on someone else. Honour is something that comes from within. The act of honour is something we choose to do because this honourable person is who we choose to be. My internal referencing system kicks in again at this point:
Last year, at the International Play Association conference in Cardiff, I listened to a presentation by Marc Bekoff, a leading American animal behaviourist. He was talking about morality in the animal kingdom and said that there are four basic ‘rules of animal play’: be honest; admit when you’re wrong; ask first; follow the rules. So, animal honour.
Being animal play rules, these are, of course, unwritten/unsaid rules. Animals play, and when any playing animal goes too far (is seen to be a spoiler) they tend to get thrown out of the group. This, says Bekoff, can have dire consequences because animals not in groups have a higher mortality rate. Animals, therefore, have an ulterior motive for honouring the four unwritten/unsaid rules of their play.
Children don’t like being left out either. There may not be the same consequences that animals face when children are thrown out of the group by other children, but maybe the same evolutionary mechanisms are still in place, hiding under the surface. That is, deep down, children may well have a feeling that being on your own is not a good place to be.
When the basic unwritten/unsaid rules of play are seen to be bent too far, or spoiled, it is a dishonourable act. Dishonour is treated with contempt.
Yesterday, as the spontaneity of a play session evolved into a full-blown affair of merging two gardens, creating a colourful sensory wind-blown fabric-strewn den-world, as neighbour-children came over to play, I found myself unintentionally acting dishonourably not once, but three times.
‘Gol,’ said Gack, standing at the wooden table, unable to reach the centre of it. ‘Helicopter’ (which was the toy he couldn’t reach). Of course, he wanted me to help him. I walked up, as if I was going to help, looked and said: ‘Oh right, yes’, before walking away. Gack shot me daggers. How dishonourable of me.
The eldest of the neighbours had wrapped himself up in the fabric and netting play (actually, and emotionally, I suspect). There was some rough and tumble. His shoe ended up on top of the parachute den, somehow, and he couldn’t reach it. He was not happy. I had not honoured the social play transaction.
Gack brought a chocolate biscuit to me and asked me to help him unwrap it. I was still caught up in the play. I unwrapped it and said thank you to him and pretended to start eating it. Gack was not happy at my action.
These might seem small things, but in three small instances I became a spoiler. I was fortunate to recover my worthiness of being honoured (perhaps by taking past good conduct into account, Your Honour).
When all is said and done, I can only look after my own actions, work on my own self, choose to be honourable or not, or try to rectify my dishonourable actions; I can’t impose on others that they be honourable, ‘play fair’, not be spoilers. When we impose our own ‘rules’ and expectations on children at play, we start to shape that intricate web of child-law into something less refined.
No matter how much I may not like the spoiling actions of the Chinese, Korean and Indonesian badminton players, it’s their own honour they’re affecting. In play, children find their own way too.
I shall be away from the screen for eight days now, to further find my own way. Playwork practice calls . . .