plā′wėrk′ings, n. Portions of play matters consideration; draft formations.

Posts tagged ‘war’

Interactions and involvements within and around war play

Late one after-school session last week, in the post-‘clocks-go-back’ dark, I found myself stood on top of the six foot high or so box structure/recent addition to the playground, having been ordered to walk the plank by a boy with a cardboard sword, and up there with me I was sure I heard a younger girl tell me: ‘OK, you be the Buddhist.’ I laughed. ‘I’m not the Buddhist,’ I told her. ‘No,’ she said, repeating her actual words again: ‘You be the Baddie.’

For a good portion of the session, one of the dominant play frames had been some sort of war play. It tumbled around the darkening playground after maybe starting somewhere indoors with the inspiration afforded by some curvy lengths of train track, which became guns. I don’t know for sure how it started: I didn’t see the actual beginnings — often we don’t, and pinpointing the moment of ‘now’, which becomes ‘everything else’, is difficult. Before this, I had been closely observing, from a high up vantage point, the interactions and attempts at play of one particular older boy. He had annoyed some of his peers on the walk back from school, just by bugging them and pushing their buttons over and over, and when the children got back to the playground, he was still pushing and bugging. Perhaps he needed their attention and any attention is better than none at all. Anyway, I observed him almost exclusively as he wandered around the place, trying and often failing to ingratiate himself into the already established play frames that were taking place. He fell into one, was rejected, bounced off somewhere else, and the cycle repeated. Eventually, after losing track of him for a short while, I saw that he was playing war.

He seemed to have found a group and a form of play in which he was fairly accepted. The boys in the play made use of the train tracks (and other parts of the train set as grenades), and then they also used the rods of the old football table, an umbrella, and later cardboard swords and daggers. Some of the girls joined in. The play tumbled around in variations of allegiances and alliances. Inside, early on, I stood at the doorway to the playground, out of the way, and observed how one boy found himself surrounded by three or four others: they all opened fire at once and the boy fell dramatically to the floor. He got up and play carried on.

As the war play was taking place, as some children sat around the fire pit in the dark, as other children continued hoarding their office chairs and who-knows-what-else up in the hill-house, I was called over to the hammock swing by three girls. ‘Push us,’ they said. So I pushed and we concocted made-up lullabies (involving fallen baby birds) together. I tried to extract myself every so often, but every time I was called back. ‘Push us more.’ So on I pushed, and on we sung. Extracting oneself from the play is also a difficult thing: do it too soon and the play may break down, or the children may become dissatisfied; do it too late and the latter may also take place . . .

Earlier in the week, I was supporting an older girl with her play on the go-kart, which she was using down the slope where the zipline is. I was in service of the play, pulling the kart back up the hill for her. I did contemplate whether I should just say, ‘Hey, you do it’, but the moment was what the moment was. I pulled the kart up the hill for the umpteenth time and she paused to talk with other children. I went to pull the kart up a little farther, and to turn it round for the next ride down the slope, but the girl put her hand up and told me, forcibly: ‘No. You can just sit over there now’, or words to that effect. I felt like I’d overstepped the mark. I was in the play too long, even though I felt like I was in servicing mode. Maybe I was seen as part of the play itself.

Back to the hammock swing girls: in attempting to extract myself from the play too early for the children’s satisfactions, I found myself chased and physically pulled back to the swing. A new play frame evolved, and soon enough I was deeply in the play. I found myself variously captured and re-captured, marched off to some prison that the girls were making up the existence of as they went along, and then it felt like I was bridging two play frames at once, without the two really fully merging: the boys’ war play still tumbled around with shots fired and guns and swords interchanging in their hands, even though the objects themselves were the same ones; the girls who had captured me were, I felt, softly trying to be a part of that war play too.

At one point I was sat on the tyre swing, in between capturings, and a small group of boys came up to me with cardboard daggers. One put his dagger a few inches to my throat and told me not to move. What struck me immediately was the way that he played it: he wasn’t aggressive in his play, and he was respectful of the distance between his dagger and my neck. He played out his role of the moment and so did I. The girls’ capturings of me evolved into us teaming up against the unknown enemy. At first this was us all running and hiding from one particular boy (whether he knew he was cast as the aggressor, I don’t know). We hid in the shadows of the dark evening on the playground. It felt like the girls were trying to merge into the war play, but it also felt like their play actually ran parallel to it. Then we were clearly not being chased or sought by anyone. Maybe we never had been. The play shifted into swinging on the tyres. A colleague said to me in passing: ‘Playing are we?’ or words like these, and it’s this that made me realise that I was deeply in the children’s play, at their request and need, despite having tried to extract myself from it several times.

‘You be the Buddhist,’ one of the girls had told me, or so I thought I’d heard, in the middle of the depth involvement. Children tend to cast themselves as the ‘goodie’, I find, even when their play actions suggest otherwise. Perhaps that’s some sort of social indoctrination at play: only the ‘goodies’ can win. So, on another level, it’s amusing to think of ‘the Buddhist’ being cast in lieu of ‘the Baddie’. All this is an aside. What this post points to most is the war play of the children, to the play frames that come together but don’t quite merge, to the ‘self extraction’ of the playworker from the play, or to the attempts and failures of this, for various reasons.

It’s only play, some say. Sure: if you like.


The Olympics: ritual, politics, war and play

The Olympic torch passed through my town today. Apparently. On some level – indicative to some, perhaps, that I might have too much time on my hands – the Olympic Games trouble me. Why do people get so excited about it? What are the modern Olympics really about? Is it play?

Vicky recently wrote on her blog, asking whether professional football is play or work to the footballers involved. Perhaps it all comes down to a matter of perspective. A small tangent: René Magritte painted a picture of a pipe (‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’) and the title (‘This is not a pipe’) highlights ‘perspective’ to me: the artist is drawing our attentions to the fact that this is not an ‘actual’ pipe, but the representation of one. Marcel Duchamp, I believe (although I will stand corrected if need be), said that a work is a work of art if the artist says so. So, is play ‘play’ if the player says so?

What’s all this got to do with the Olympics? I need to work back through my three questions – but, before I do that, a little history (with a sprinkling of legend).

The first Olympic festival is commonly understood to have taken place at Olympia in 776 BC. There were three other Pan-Hellenic festivals, held every two or four years, also taking place in the area at this time: the Pythian Games, the Nemean Games, and the Isthmian Games. Pindar, a poet from the 5th century BC, claimed that Heracles initiated the Olympic Games in celebration of his defeat of the city-state of Elis and the killing of King Augeas. Or, if you prefer mythology, Pausanias (a Greek traveller), claimed that Zeus and Cronus fought over the ownership of heaven at Olympia; Zeus won and declared the Games to take place there. We can go back further, to before the first Games: in the Iliad, Homer described the funeral of Patroclus, and such funeral rites and honouring of the dead have been linked to the origins of the first Games. From honouring the dead to killing rivals and honour of the city-state, or to contest over ownership of other-worldly realms.

So, from ritual or mythology or acts of warfare, came the first Games. At that time, in the region we now know as Greece, city-states competed with each other for power and prestige. Sparta, a city-state set up for the perfection of war-skills, was dominant. The city-state of Elis had assumed control of the Games at Olympia, but Sparta muscled in. In the resulting alliance, Sparta took on the role of ‘protector’ of the Games (a way of advertising their power and prestige), whilst Elis had control of the religious aspects.

Out of this construct and background of city-state politics and war came the idea of the ‘sacred truce’, i.e. competitors from all parts of Greece and its colonies could come to the Games even during times of war. This was the way of things for many quadrennial Olympiads. The Games at Olympia continued right up until 392 AD.

Fast forward several hundred years. It’s interesting to note that, over the course of the modern Olympics, the ‘sacred truce’ has been spoilt on several occasions: the 1916 Games were scheduled for Berlin, but World War I put paid to them; the Antwerp Games of 1920 did not include competitors from the defeated powers of the war; the 1940 and 1944 Games were cancelled; in London, 1948, Japan and Germany were not present; in Melbourne, 1956, Sweden, Spain, Liechtenstein and the Netherlands boycotted as a protest against the Soviet invasion of Hungary, whilst Lebanon and Iraq withdrew over the Suez crisis; Mexico City, 1968, suffered from threatened boycotts by African and black-American countries and competitors, resulting in South Africa’s expulsion, in protest at apartheid; Munich, 1972, was marred by Palestinian terrorists’ attack on the Israeli compound;  in Montreal, 1976, African countries boycotted the Games in protest at the New Zealand football  team’s tour of South Africa; Moscow, 1980, saw protest by the United States and over 30 other countries regarding the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; in Los Angeles, in 1984, the Soviet Union and some of its allies reciprocated a withdrawal with claims of insufficient security; the 1996 Games in Atlanta were marred by the Centennial Olympic Park bombing; human rights activists called on the 2008 Beijing Games to be boycotted.

So, whilst the ancient ideal of the ‘sacred truce’ has been well and truly ignored in many modern Olympic Games, the old heart of the piece seems to run through it: that is, ritual, political machinations, warfare. In a word: contest.

In his book, Homo Ludens: a study of the play element [of] in culture (various editions 1938-50), Johan Huizinga claimed ‘contest’ to have the characteristic of play. ‘Like all other forms of play,’ he wrote (p.49) ‘the contest is largely devoid of purpose.’ By this he means that the contest gets enacted out, start to end, and beyond that, before and after that, the result doesn’t matter. ‘The outcome does not contribute to the necessary life-processes of the group.’

Except that the outcomes of contests such as war and sport and athletic prowess do matter: people’s reputations and honour and incomes can depend on the outcome of contests such as the modern Olympics. Yet, just like the perspective of whether something is art or not, whether some act is play or not, it only really matters to the person who’s doing it. Right? The Olympics only really, truly matter to the athlete.

So, why then do people line the streets in every town and city that the Olympic torch passes through on its way around the UK? (Or rather, an Olympic torch, a manufactured symbol with many other similar copies). Why do people get so excited about the ritual of watching a symbol pass by them for thirty seconds on the street, let alone the ritual of the Games itself?

Is it play for the spectators in the watching of the torch as it passes by? If it is play, then it’s with some irony that the play of a streaker yesterday has been brought up quickly by the legal system: ironic because the original Games were performed in the nude. That aside, is the play of the spectator the reason why the torch relay (and also the main event) is being embraced by many? If play is doing what you want to do, when you want to do it, where does the potential social obligation for watching this whole affair fit in? Of course, just because I don’t care for the Games, it doesn’t mean that others should feel the same way. I am slightly troubled by the unthinking embrace of the whole affair though: an embrace on the grounds of some form of nationalistic pride subtly being suggested to us (by the media and politicians).

Why do people get so excited about the Olympic Games? Genuine or subtle suggestion of nationalistic pride? What are the modern Olympics really about? Ritual, political machination, warfare, contest. Is it play? At some level, maybe. At another level – well, I’m not an Olympian . . .
[Historical source: Collier’s Encyclopedia]

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