Contribution to a Situationist Definition of Play

A photo of two boys playing football in front a "No Ball Games" sign.

A short text from Internationale Situationniste #1.

Submitted by Fozzie on November 26, 2022

Translated by Ian Thompson, April 2015. Proofread and Edited by Anna O’Meara & Mehdi el H.

One can only escape the linguistic and practical confusion that surrounds the notion of play by considering it in action. Two centuries of negation by the constant idealisation of production have led to the primitive social functions of play now appearing as nothing more than bastardised relics, as inferior forms derived from the needs of the current organisation of production. At the same time, the progressive tendencies of play have revealed themselves, linked to the very development of these productive forces.

The next phase of play’s advance1 seems to require2 the disappearance of any element of competition. The question of winning or losing, which has to date been nearly inseparable from ludic activity, appears to be tied to every other expression of competition between people in the appropriation of goods. The sense of importance in winning, which concerns concrete (or more frequently illusory) satisfactions, is the wretched product of a wretched society. The feeling [of winning] is, of course, exploited by every conservative force to conceal the monotony and the brutality of the conditions of life they impose. Simply consider the [social] demands3 détourned by competitive sports, which was most clearly established in its modern form4 in Great Britain, alongside5 the rise of factories. Not only do the crowds identify with professional players or clubs (which assume the same mythic role as the movie stars who live, and the statesmen who make decisions, in their place), but the endless sequence of match results also keeps hold over the passions of the spectators6 . Direct participation in a game, even in those requiring a certain degree of intellectual exertion, becomes uninteresting as soon as the established rules of play involve the acceptance of competition for its own sake. Nothing sows the contemporary contempt for the idea of play as much as the presumptuous observation which opens Tartakower’s “A Breviary of Chess” 7 : “Chess is universally recognised as the king of games.”

The element of competition must vanish in favour of a more authentically collective concept of play: the communal creation of selected ludic ambiences. The central distinction made between play and everyday life, which keeps play as an isolated and temporary anomaly, must be surpassed. Johan Huizinga writes, “Into an imperfect world and into the confusion of life, [play] brings a temporary, a limited perfection.” [8] Everyday life, which was previously determined by the question of survival, can now be rationally controlled (this possibility is at the heart of every conflict of our time). Play, radically breaking with a delimited ludic time and space, must invade the whole of life. Perfection cannot be its endpoint, insofar as this perfection signifies a static construction opposed to life. However one can propose to push the beautiful chaos of life to its perfection. Eugénio d’Ors considered the Baroque to delimit once and for all “the vacancy of history”, and the organised afterlife of the Baroque will hold a major place in the coming reign of leisure

In this historical perspective, play — the constant experimentation with ludic innovations — only comes into being alongside ethics and questions of life’s meaning. The only success which we can appreciate in play is the immediate success of its ambience, and the constant increase of its powers. In its present co-existence with the residues of the phase of decline, play cannot completely free itself from a competitive aspect, it must at least aim to provoke conditions favourable to living directly. In this sense it is still both a struggle and a representation: a struggle for a life measured by desire, and a concrete representation of such a life.

Play often feels imaginary, owing to its fringe existence in comparison to the oppressive reality of work, but the Situationists’ work is precisely the preparation of the ludic possibilities to come. One can thus be tempted to neglect the Situationist International inasmuch as one will easily identify in it some aspects of a great game. “Nevertheless,” says Huizinga, “as we have already pointed out, the consciousness of play being ‘only pretend’ does not in any way prevent it from proceeding with the utmost seriousness…”8

Translator's Note: As this new translation was being produced, I cross-referenced it to an existing translation made by Reuben Keehan, available on-line here. I would like to acknowledge the work done by Reuben Keehan, and the real assistance his translation provided. However all final decisions (for better or worse – which is for the reader to decide) in this translation are mine alone.

  • 1“affirmation” – literally “assertion”
  • 2“semble devoir” – literally “seems to be bound to”
  • 3“revendications” are demands/claims made on behalf of a group (eg strikers, protestors)
  • 4“qui s”impose sous sa forme moderne précisément” – literally “which established itself in it’s modern form accurately”
  • 5“avec” – “with”, “because of”, or “using”
  • 6“ne laisse pas de passionner les observateurs” – literally “does not let [up on] entralling/exciting the observers”
  • 7English translation of Tartakower’s book (George Rutledge & Sons, 1937)
  • 8both Huizinga quotes are taken from the English edition of “Homo Ludens” (Roy Publishers, 1950). “Homo Luden’s” was written in German, however the English translation was partially based on Huzinga’s own translation into English. Note that the grammatically awkward phrase “only a pretend” has been altered in the last quote for flow.