Posts Tagged ‘play’

The Ambiguity of Holocaust Games and “Suicide Bomber”: Training or Coping?

March 27, 2011

Several weeks ago, a YouTube video of children acting out a suicide bombing mission was discovered on YouTube. The video takes place somewhere around the Afghanistan/Pakistan border; the children were determined to be part of a pashtun, or religious school, based on their clothing. It has since been picked up by the press – days later by the New York Times, and recently again by the BBC. In the video, young children – some perhaps no older than three – enact a suicide bombing mission in a game that we shall refer to here as “Suicide Bomber”:

A brief synopsis: A child dressed as a bomber walks before a line of other children. He embraces his smiling friends as a final farewell – several of them grin at the camera. Then he proudly walks forward and confronts another boy dressed in white who, acting as a checkpoint officer, puts his hand up to signal ‘Stop!’ The first child lifts his clothes to reveal explosives and rushes forward towards the fleeing guard and three other boys in a cluster. One of the children (one of the victims, the boy dressed in yellow) throws up a huge cloud of dust and everyone collapses in a heap; the other boys rush up to see. The camera moves over them to focus on the faces and show the results of the attack. The child playing the bomber cannot contain his grin, but quickly becomes serious again. The music being played is a favorite war song of the Taliban about a young man going off to war and how good he looks while carrying his machinegun.

The press’ coverage has interpreted the video as training children to become suicide bombers. UNICEF and other groups according to the BBC have rightly condemned the video while a Taliban spokesman, though denying they produced it and saying he was “saddened” that the children were playing this game, gave a propagandistic response that “they should do it because this is a war that was imposed upon us.” The spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, stressed to the New York Times that they accept children as young as 18 to become suicide bombers, but this runs counter to reports and arrests of children – one as young as 14 – arrested for attempting to blow themselves up. So children suicide bombers is certainly something that our soldiers and the Afghan security forces are worried about, and – particularly given the recent trends in ‘serious games’ to teach soldiers and civilians new skills – is inevitably feared as a propagandistic training video. As the New York Times puts it, “the message is clear: This is something to aspire to.”

But is the “message” of this game really that “clear”? One of the things that strikes me about this coverage is that the play itself is ambiguous, and yet most people have accepted this as a training video. One thing that appears missing from the discussion is the critical and historical perspective.

Simply put, children play games in war zones all the time – play appears to be essential to a child’s well-being and as Brian Sutton-Smith tells us in his seminal Ambiguity of Play, the absence of play within children is a symptom of something terribly wrong with that child. Though is all too easy to think that play could not exist within such terrible circumstances it inevitably does – even within concentration camps.

George Eisen’s 1990 book, Children and Play in the Holocaust: Games among the Shadows describes and analyzes several types of games that were played in the ghettos and concentration camps. One of these was “gate patrol” where children would reenact Jewish workers returning to camp, trying to smuggle food in under the watch of other children playing as guards. Yet another was “Klepsi Klepsi”, or ‘stealing’, where one child would be blindfolded while the others would slap him as hard as they could and then when the blindfold was removed, playing innocent. The goal of the slapper was to escape punishment while the child who was slapped had to read the body language of the other children to identify who hit him.

Eisen describes these games as a reflection of the culture that surrounds them as well as an attempt to gain control over that environment:

Play provided the children with a “buffered learning,” an activity frame in which one could learn to be safe in an abnormal situation, without worrying about being out of control. Thus children took into their lives naturally even the death that surrounded them. In spite of their elders’ desperate efforts to shelter them from the atrocities, their games in the ghettos and camps reflected, inevitably, the surrounding horror.

Thus, “Klepsi Klepsi” might be seen as both a reflection of the brutality and conditions in which the children lived but also as a means of learning techniques that could help them, such as being able to identify who was guilty in a situation and how to hide guilt. In addition, it helped give the children an escape mechanism through imagination.

This puts “Suicide Bomber” in a slightly different light and highlights the ambiguity of the game. Is it, as the Taliban and the press want us to believe, a training video? Or is it the equivalent to “Klepsi Klepsi” and other ghetto and concentration camp games, as a means of finding means to cope with a horrible situation through the safety of play? The children in the video express joy and laughter, both at the absurdity of the situation and the presence of the camera. There is certainly an element of chaos within the dramatically billowing cloud of dust that would appeal to what Roger Caillois defined as ilinx, or vertigo, the form of play that finds joy in chaos, not unlike the dancing and tumbling of “Ring around the Rosie”. (Of course there is also mimicry present here as well through the costumes and reenactment, and this is where the concerns of the authorities lie).

Here it is important to note that the cameraman’s identity is unknown, though given height of the camera angle, it seems to be an adult man – probably the same person who added the Taliban song and posted it on YouTube. What is unclear, however, is whether the man is encouraging them to play this game or merely recording a game that was happening anyway.

The bottom line is that the play is ambiguous, and as a result, everyone finds their own interpretation, and the video put to serve the agenda of any party whether it be the Taliban, UNICEF, or police and security forces in Afghanistan. The one part of the discussion that is missing and that we ultimately will probably never know is what the children think of “Suicide Bomber”. If there is one thing that is clear about the video though, it is that the children of Afghanistan and Pakistan – and likely in Iraq as well – will play “Suicide Bomber” because terrorism is a fact of life for them.


Review of Roger Caillois’ “Man, Play, and Games”

June 11, 2008

There are several books which form the foundation of modern ludic theory, one of which is Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens (previously reviewed), the other being Roger Caillois’ Man, Play, and Games. I recently finished the latter book, and here is why it is still relevant in some places (and not so in others).

To begin, Caillois is building off Huizinga’s work, where he established that play is a central part of human culture and society and produces the creative instinct by which progress is made. Rather than being mere frivolity, play creates art, science, and culture. Caillois expands the concept of play by dividing it up into a table composed of the play categories agon (competition), alea (chance), mimicry (simulation), and ilinx (vertigo) and by the degrees of paidea (freeform, spontaneous play) and ludus (rule-based, structured play). These six concepts are important to our understanding of play and games, though today the ideas are more greatly refined.

Agon, alea, mimicry, and ilinx are all distilled forms of play. Agon is the struggle, the contest between two or more opponents to see who is better. Alea is passive reliance on chance, awaiting the throw of the die or roulette. Mimicry is the use of masks, of acting, of ‘playing at’ being someone else. Ilinx is the sensation of bodily movement, of dance and spinning, and of the roller coaster. Many games contain elements of more than one category (a game of Magic: The Gathering is based on the luck of the draw as well as the skills of the players) and even a supposedly ‘pure’ activity may be found to contain other elements (a player at dice will attempt to do anything in his power, any strategy to help ensure success rather than simply doing nothing). Paidea and ludus are also important in the study of rule-based games and ‘sandbox’ games like Sim-City (Gonzalo Frasca’s Ludology Meets Narratology is an excellent companion piece).

However, Caillois’ ideas become more controversial as he begins to apply them to the operations of society, and more importantly, to the evolution of human culture from primitive to civilized. Unlike Huizinga, who uses his descriptions of culture ot illustrate examples of games and play as being central to the operation of culture and civilization, Caillois uses them to define the natures of different cultures, with a clearly insensitive ethnocentric approach (though it’s not like Huizinga wasn’t ethnocentric either). While Caillois’s examples are fascinating (though not in as much detail as Huizinga’s), his attempts ot define cultures seem biased towards his concept of his own culture’s superiority. For instance, I doubt he would deign to apply his methods of analysis of masks and the bull roarer and their relation to mimicry and ilinx towards Christianity (he does not even discuss the subject).

The deepest error is his firm statements that the ‘primitive’ knows deep inside that the mask is a lie. It is akin to stating that the Catholic ‘knows deep down inside’ that the holy sacrament is not in truth the blood and body of Christ but merely wine. Indeed, it is spiritually so through the sense of allegory. The same is true of the mask. the mask and its representation of a god or spirit is serious business (and not simply because death and violence can result from its revelation to the uninitiated). The mask is truth, a representation of the spiritual, the intangible, even though there is really a mortal behind it. It simply operates under a different logical system than the visible and tangible – which is not to mean that the logical system of native culture is inferior to that of Western culture, but merely that this logic system is in its own respects incompatible with that of Western civilization, though some of its elements may be crucial to the nature of humanity.

As a result, I can’t highly recommend more than the first few chapters of the book, the two most important ones (the first two, covering agon, alea, mimicry, and ilinx as well as ludus and paidea) of which are reproduced in Salen and Zimmerman’s excellent Rules of Play Reader. I can recommend the first six chapters or so (the first four are the true meat of the book) as well as the second appendix, but I place the others at suspect. The second appendix is important for its descriptions of the history of game studies up until that time and also his debunking and criticism of some previous work on the subject.

Overall, Caillois is still relevant today, and the interplay of agon, alea, ilinx, and mimicry is still important to our fundamental understanding of games and play, though ultimately some of his work is dated and in other places better refined through modern ludic theory.

Children and Play

February 24, 2008

The New York Times has a good article on Children and Play. If you thought the study of play was something limited to a study of games, you’d be missing out a large group of ‘play theorists’ who study the scientific principles behind play. While we like to think that play actions train us how to perform important tasks as adults (how throwing a stick through a rolling circle makes us better spear throwers), this ‘play as training’ argument seems a little too simplistic (and may be why we’re not very good at making games to teach children adult skills).

Instead, new research is showing that play is related to the growth of the brain and cognitive abilities. John Byers from the University of Idaho found a direction correlation between the periods when young animals play the most and the period when the cerebellum was developing the most: both periods from a chart in the shape of an inverted U where developmental and play activity increases in early adolescence and tapers off in older juveniles (adult animals don’t play much!). Other research on lab rats has supported this correlation, suggesting that play impacts the development of the brain for adult social and living functions.

Of course, there are other things going on in the development of juvenile animals and children than just play including conversation and comfort contact. As a result, the brain development system is complex, and is aided by flexibility and redundancy, two strengths that help ensure there are multiple paths to a solution (though some are easier and more often-traveled than others). This follows neatly with my philosophy that one should create systems with a wide degree of flexibility and redundancy as opposed to constantly pushing to the limits and using just enough to get things done, something that makes a system rather inflexible and prone to collapse (this is why you set the recommended limit of performance on something like an engine far below its actual manufactured performance threshold).

Children and Play is a good article. If you’re more interested in the study of play, check out Brian Sutton-Smith’s The Ambiguity of Play and Johann Huizinga’s Homo Ludens.

Book review: Huizinga’s Homo Ludens (Man the Player) – A study of the Play Element in Culture

November 27, 2007

Johan Huizinga is really one of the great game historians. This Dutch philosopher pioneered the study of play and games (which I have started referring to as ludic theory, seeing how the mathematicians and the military men have already usurped the term ‘game theory’, which actually has little to do with games). On top of that he was a famous medieval historian – an area that is also my forte. I finally picked up his book, Homo Ludens, “Man the Player” and after awhile I had to keep reminding myself this as I read it. Don’t get me wrong, Homo Ludens is a great book, though it feels a bit dated and frustrating at times.


Anyone who has anything to do with ludic theory should have at least read the footnotes for the first chapter of Homo Ludens, “Nature and the Significance of Play as a Cultural Phenomenon”. Quite the mouthful, but also quite the significant piece of work. As the foundation block of the study of all things games, it is simply essential. Further, anyone who wants to be taken seriously should have at least read the first two chapters, (or preferably, but not necessarily, the whole book). In it, Huizinga forwards his thesis that play is an essential part of culture and that its creative and agonistic (competitive conflict) nature has been a driving force behind the development of culture.


Human culture is, in a word, played. By constantly forwarding the central importance of play to culture, and by continually discovering the play-element in many aspects of culture, he illustrates the seriousness and importance of play – without having to rely on the modern crutch of ‘it’s a multi-billion dollar industry so we should learn more about it [so we can get a piece of the pie]’ forwarded by corporate media. Play (and games!) should be studied because it is an underlying force in ritual, religion, law, and war – nearly all aspects of human society are somehow shaped by it. Far from being a trivial pursuit of leisure or a pastime of children, play is actually worth studying as an important cultural phenomenon with creative and competitive influences.


In his book, Huizinga supports this theory by drawing forth a myriad of examples and anecdotes from cultures all over the world, including riddles and contest in Scandinavian culture; games and competition, music and philosophy in ancient Greece; tournaments in China; and the drumming-match in Eskimo culture. Each example demonstrates the importance of play – and many of the examples, such as riddle games, judicial combat, the potlatch, and the kula, are interesting in and of themselves. To show the similarities between play and games, Huizinga also devotes an entire chapter to a cross-cultural linguistic history of words regarding play and games. It is through these anecdotes that Homo Ludens is perhaps its strongest.


However, Huizinga has become a bit inaccessible since Homo Ludens was written in the late 1930s. For one thing, though he addresses the issue of ethnocentrism in anthropology, he uses some language that is simply too insensitive in modern books on the subject. While this is excusable given the period in which the book was written, you may find it shocking if you read it today. In addition, some facts have been disproven, such as the argument that laughter is unique to humans (laughter has been observed in dogs, rats, and primates). Fortunately, this doesn’t significantly damage Huizinga’s argument.


I also feel Huizinga takes war far too lightly, particularly given the political situation of the time in which it was written (one year before Hitler invaded Poland; twenty years after World War I). War is by no means light business, not when the lives of human beings are at stake. Even when we discuss the presence of a play-element or agonistic element in war, we should not take war to be a game. When two men, or two thousand men, are ordered to kill each other, it is grave business, even when war is called a game of kings and princes by the foolish leaders who take it as such. If I take primary fault and disbelief in Huizinga’s argument, it is through his lack of seriousness towards war, particularly considering the dark and bloody clouds of global conflict broiling on his horizon.


Huizinga’s wide cultural approach to games and play is one that all ludic theorists should do well to incorporate, particularly when they are discussing the nature and definition of games. It seems to me that we would do well to produce a new study illustrating the field of activities in which the play-element may be found as it will help us learn more about our topic of study – games. It is of little wonder then that Huizinga’s Homo Ludens has become the foundation for this field, and was later built upon by Roger Callois and modern ludic theorists like Jesper Juul, Katie Salen, and Eric Zimmerman. Though perhaps a bit antiquated by today’s standards, the cross-cultural nature of Homo Ludens makes it an excellent cornerstone to any library about games.