Playing Politics

Sure, I studied media sciences so I know a lot about media. But I can’t just keep talking about media if I claim to be offering theoretical explanations for daily issues. I must stay on point to some amount. What topic is more on point than global politics? Am I able to say something about that. Yes, I guess I am, albeit in a highly oversimplified fashion. This should therefore be considered more of a rant with theory (you serious now, son? Second post and already making excuses. Quality is going down the tubes).

Quality aside, global politics is a matter many of us feel powerless in. The topics are huge and so many people start yapping about it that a proper solution becomes hard to find. Luckily, to that end, we have representatives to deal with these matters. This is nice…

Were it so that these representatives weren’t a bunch of pre-school toddlers in a sandbox. Sure, it may be a common analogy that world leaders are seeing the world as their personal playground, but I’m not talking metaphors here. I’m talking like actual childish behaviour. Think of the reality of the following phrases uttered by kids in a school sandbox:

It is as if they’re playing. Luckily, throughout history, playing has been something that has received a decent amount of attention. This raises the question:

Can play help us understand world politics and the underlying motivations?

To this end, the model of play by Dutch cultural scholar Johan Huizinga in his book Homo Ludens is insightful. He discusses how players of a game relate themselves to rules. While I won’t discuss his whole treatise on play, don’t worry, next blogpost will feature a lengthy discussion on that (seriously? Second post and already you’re sequel baiting? Don’t tell me how to live my life).

Cheats, Spoilsports and Outlaws

This small subheader sounds like a name for the followers or Robin Hood or some band of pirates somewhere. Regrettably, they all relate to world leaders. These are all names given to types of players by Huizinga.

For Huizinga – and I’m rushing through this a bit – play is separate from daily life, mostly due to different rules giving everyone participating a different understanding of the tools used, what is important and who everyone is. Huizinga however also says that play has no material outcome, which I bloody well may hope is not the case in global politics. So yea…it’s not completely the same as play, but it looks like it, SO HEAR ME OUT FOR A MOMENT, GUISE.

Huizinga states that rules “determine what “holds” in the temporary world circumscribed by play. The rules of a game are absolutely binding and allow no doubt” (1955, 11). In global politics the rules structure how its members cooperate and debate with each other. These rules save us from dictators and ensure a certain degree of democracy. Huizinga doesn’t even know how close to the truth he is in this scenario when he says that “as soon as the rules are transgressed the whole play-world collapses” (ibidem). In the most ideal case, nothing gets done because no one can come to an agreement. Worst case scenario: take the rule ‘We don’t fire nukes at each other.’ Break that and playtime is over.

Nice and all, seeing politics as play, but what does that show us about the interaction between parties. For that we have to look at the relation of the countries to the rules. This explains how some countries approach the whole shebang – what expectations, what effects, etc.


Most countries simply try to follow the rules. It is in their interest to keep the arena in which they have some measure of power intact. This gives most countries credibility, there’s little falling out between countries apart from some contests but in general it is as Huizinga says: “the feeling of being “apart together” in an exceptional situation, of sharing something important” (idem, 12).


The cheater “pretends to be playing the game and, on the face of it, still acknowledges the magic circle (idem, 11).” This means that they are fully aware of the rules but bend or break these, often without the others noticing, for their own benefit. If done well, these cheaters can excel at the game because they are still playing it. Some examples:

  • China:
    hohoho, the amount of rules China breaks is humongous. The biggest ones are of course human rights violations. It breaks these rules in such a way that they excel at production and achievements. Because of the breaking of these rules China is able to excel at the whole money-making/market business. I bet within your reach you’ll find something made in China. Look at how good they’re playing the game here.
  • The United States:
    The whole NSA, Snowden and Wikileaks business shows that the US are also big cheaters. Knowing fully well the rules of communication and privacy, they went along with it anyway. True, it made them the most powerful nation military and information wise, so surely they did benefit. The problem is that this rule breaking is presented as part of the game. We all want to be safe don’t we? Then you better let them cheat a bit…

Huizinga speaks of society being lenient to the cheat. They after all don’t cause that much trouble for they keep the system running. Given this leniency, lots of dirty tricks are pulled around the clock. Think of Germany playing with the rules of the financial system just to fix some bank crisis – at the cost of Greece. Then again, Greece just played the political rules to create a government full of yay-sayers. Cheaters abound, but the game goes on. So who cares….Damn.


Russia takes the cake in this category. Huizinga defines this as someone who “shatters the play-world itself” (idem, 11). By withdrawing from the game he reveals the relativity and fragility of the play-world in which he had temporarily shut himself with others (ibidem).” In other words: this is one of those assholes who disregards the rules, says that what you’re doing is not real and in general just ruins all you’ve been playing with. They just don’t listen to anything said within the game. Russia is great at this. Many countries keep telling Russia that what they’re doing in Crimea is bad, their stance on homosexuality is horrible and their military amassment is threatening. Russia don’t care. They just keep on doing what they’re doing. Being outside of the realm of play, no actions from within the realm of play work on them, for they don’t believe in them anyway. All these sanctions? Russia don’t care. They’re playing a different game. Huizinga explains that “he must be cast out, for he threatens the existence of the play-community,” explaining all the sudden beef with Russia (ibidem). The worst part is that they’re constantly claiming to stand for reality – telling other countries all hoity-toity how stuff should be done. Most don’t want to leave their power-play, especially not on Russia’s rules.

The spoilsport should not be disregarded in general though. “He robs play of its illusion” is something that the spoilsport also does (ibidem). The illusion of the game – it being great and all – lets cheaters have their way. Since the spoilsport is so aware of the rules, they can sometimes call the cheaters out. The FIFA debacle for instance saw the US overstepping their boundaries – breaking the rules – in their jurisdiction. Who called them out? Russia. Sure, no-one listened, because…Russia. But it was good that some critical notes were there.


“It sometimes happens, however, that the spoil-sports in their turn make a new community with rules of its own” is what Huizinga says about this category (idem, 12). So those people not listening to the rules and completely separating them from the rest, while sitting in their own bubble of rules, playing their own game, not needing anyone else to tell them what to do. I guess, IS and their ilk fit this category. They are hiding in a self-proclaimed bubble following their own horrible rules. They aren’t touched by any of the actions – weak thus far – taken by the players. This makes them seem untouchable but ultimately they are playing a completely different game. That said, Huizinga relates them to the revolutionary’s or heretics. They never last long…

Yea, yea, I know. It’s not as simple as this. But does it help us understand a bit better what is happening and for what reasons? Possibly. This does hold the illusion that eventually playtime will be over. I fear that tagging the wrong player might be the death of us all if the players are being such bitches about it.

Dit bericht werd geplaatst in Pseudo-Academia. Bookmark de permalink .

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