Let me apologise beforehand here: this is going to be a long post. The ideas discussed here have been running around my head for quite some time. Because of that, and because of the theory text’s overlap with what I’m about to discuss, this discussion will have many different aspects, all trying to explain one inexplicable concept. Does this merit sequel hooking and foreshadowing? Shut up! (Also, the subheaders discussed below can all be read in isolation, so if you don’t want to read the whole thing in one go, just piecemeal it, you Millennial).
Pray tell, what is it you’re so busy with? What is it we’ll be discussing today? Same thing we discuss every day, Pinky – more or less – love. Vexing many authors around the world, informing most of the Western cinema and generally occupying the whole of human evolution, love has been discussed, chewed out, cursed and generally found lacking in any sort of theory behind it. Basically, what I’m saying is that love, especially for those ‘in’ it, is not something you can pin down; not something to be turned into a fairy tale format, to be stuffed down our throats and regurgitated again and again.
Is that some negativity I am smelling in your words? Are you claiming there is something wrong this many, splendored thing? Am I such a heartless sunovabitch?
I’m not, but are you? Love is fine. Stuff is cash. All cool with dat. I am fully aware of our inability to define this feeling/concept/industry. But it seems I am wrong in that. I am spewing negativity at the procedurality of love. This is a term meaning that something, a process or so, is governed by procedures – by standard lists of actions – creating a cookie cut response. Boy meets girl, love at first sight, fight, kiss in the rain. Sound familiar? Regardless of revisionist rom-com movies there is a still a cultural ideal pinpointing love into cookie-cutter shapes hardly anyone can live up to.
Love is great thing. Why limit us so much in determining what counts as it and what doesn’t. Also what actions are seen as loving and what definitely isn’t shouldn’t be up to cultural conventions (to an extent though: assholes who think hitting another is a form of love should be beaten over the head with a frying pan or rolling pin).
If only there were some sort of model that could capture the fickly, transformative, experimental even, nature of that which we call love.
Funny you should ask.
Remember that old goat, Dutch cultural scholar Johan Huizinga and his Homo Ludens? He talked about play and how play is actually what forms culture. In doing so he embraces play as an experimental, highly diverse and ever changing, personal force. I’m saying we should see love as a sort of play – less defined by rigidity or cookie cutters and more as something you happily indulge in with all you got; something that looks like a weird game to the outside world, but which redefines yours. I argue for some unlimited perception of what it means to love.
Well…good luck with that.
Huizinga defines play as follows:
a free activity standing quite consciously outside “ordinary” life as being “not serious,” but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings which tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world by disguise or other means (1955, 13; emphasis added).
The characteristics outlined here can be discussed separately, each giving a different account of what love is, how it should be approached and what can go wrong. I’m not saying this will make the world a highly loving and communal place, (on the contrary, I’m sure people will take offence and be total bitches about it), but it might just make more forms of love acceptable or understandable. And who knows, it might just spice some things up.
Huizinga sees play “first and foremost” as a voluntary activity (1955, 7). This means that you shouldn’t be forced into playing or that play shouldn’t determine whether you can have a life or not – like work does. If I’d kidnap you from your house and force you to play videogames, you most likely would not be enjoying yourself. Now think of love.
We don’t live in the Middle Ages anymore or some backwards countries where love is not a voluntary act. We don’t get hitched on contract, to some cousin or some lord. But at the same time, seeing love as play and therefore voluntary means that you’re not forced or required to love at all. There is no requirement of every man or woman to fall in or find love, no matter what peers or aunts on birthday parties may say (and some Darwinists might disagree with me, but you know, let’s not make this complicated). Love should be something you step into voluntarily; something you want.
Huizinga echoes this when he says that “play is a function which [man] could equally leave well alone” and it “can be deferred or suspended at any time” (idem, 8). Based on this idea, playing at love means that you should be able to stop doing it at any time. If you don’t feel like playing/love then you don’t have to play along. That being said, if you are in a loving relationship, you are engulfed in a game with its own rules and order etc. (as we shall see). When playing a game, you don’t suddenly stop. So based on these characteristics of play, we could say that in love you should definitely participate and engage with each other, but it shouldn’t feel like work; it shouldn’t feel like everything would fall apart if you do one thing wrong (depending on the thing…we’ll get to that). Just feel free and both agree to stuff, it sounds so logical.
Huizinga explains that play is like “stepping out of ‘real’ life into a temporary sphere of activity with a disposition all of its own” (ibidem). In play a stick can be a sword and a touch the most horrible thing in the world (I’m talking about tag…) – meanings are different from daily life. Love has the same impact on your perspective. Don’t people often refer to the feeling of walking through a cloud? Everything feels like you’re in a haze? Think of that scene from 500 Days of Summer. A simple walk to somewhere suddenly is a whole new experience. Dancing, animated birds, people seem happy – all elements you’d never see in normal life. But love (and play) let you explore this state of new reality.
This hazy view also changed meaning – just like the sticks and swords. Seeing love as play helps us understand why the stupidest little things matter to us and why, as people say, love makes us blind. Specific places can be rich in meaning (‘your’ place) and aspects of a person, which can be seen as mundane or off-putting, can become beautiful. It is as if they’re ‘not real;’ separate from what is conventionally considered attractive. Think of a mole somewhere in a neck. That can be very enticing when you’re in love. Think of ruthless ambition – it makes someone have a clear will and a mind of his/her own.
That being said, if you’re not playing anymore, if your love becomes a serious and mandatory affair, these changed meanings will vanish. Ruthless ambition then becomes stubbornness, a mole is a blemish etc. etc. Keeping a playful attitude in love will ensure that all those aspects of a person you once thought endearing and made you love them more will remain that way, instead of degrading into the things you hate most about a person. The changes of meaning wrought by play are that powerful, so keep on playing for God’s sake.
The strength of this separate nature is that “the expression of it satisfies all kinds of communal Ideals” (idem, 9). While Huizinga talks about how play can construct culture, love also forms communal ideas – an ‘Us.’ The joy (as we will see later) then comes from love’s power to be beautiful in its separateness. It is something that creates a new unit of social engagement – a couple. Keep this playful separation going at all time and love will permeate more aspects of your life – for, just like in play, meanings will change constantly, enriching your life in a social sense. While in general I hate this special snowflake bullcrap, keep the idea of love you share special and just like play, everything follows suit in change.
Space, Time and the Magic Circle
Huizinga identifies that “play is distinct from “ordinary” life both as to locality and duration” (ibidem). The newly defined meaning in being separate from reality gives spaces and times a very new dimension. Spaces get a special meaning – they become places to you (this is another theory to be discussed some other time. Sequel Baiting! Again?!). Some coffee shop becomes the first date spot. Some street corner the place of the first kiss. You’ll come to appreciate specific cycling routes more. Like play, love takes place in a specific place that gets redefined in the process. I mean…think of your bedroom….sure it’s good to sleep in but…
Love also has its own dimensions of time. Imma refer to my main man Albert E here:
Embrace that time and space will change in love redefines your surroundings and the time spent alive. Seeing love as play then offers certain explanations for how to get the most out of it, depending on awareness.
Central in this space-time alteration is memory. Huizinga calls play “a treasure to be retained by the memory … It can be repeated at any time” (idem, 10). As stand-alone elements of daily life play and love consist of actions redefining a place or an action. These action only occur in the present and can be repeated from memory only. As such, love transcends time. It takes place on moment but is forever inscribed in memory, further adding to the separateness from daily life. The fact that these memories are shared is central in both play and love, as will be show.
Huizinga is often cited for his concept of “the magic circle,” which is actually but one of many examples in which “all play moves has its being within a playground marked off beforehand either materially or ideally, deliberately or as a matter of course” (ibidem). As hinted to before, play and love are separate from daily life and redefine time and space. As such, it creates a magic circle of its own – a separate space in which different rules and meanings hold.
But his space, while mostly discussed as mainly spatial and temporal, is mostly social. As a couple you separate yourself from others. Even better, you don’t want anyone inside your magic circle – this is something of you two only. Within this circle is your new life together, anyone intruding on that is an asshole (examples to come).
This circle is however not, as many think it to be, completely separate from reality. As said before, it redefines reality and the degree in which reality is invoked there can differ per stance on love, just as it can in stances on play. Playing knights in a castle is closer to reality than imagining a box to be a spaceship. In love, conversely, not all people want the one night stand to be anything but that or any form of clarity when finding out who you’ve been dancing with all night, separating love and the magic circle distinctly from reality. So how permeable this magic circle is can explain different approaches to love and is central in balancing expectations. See the following examples:
- People looking for relationships: want their magic circle to blend with their life.
- Hook ups: No integration of circle into daily life, but arose from some overlap.
- One Night Stands: Completely separate.
- Cheaters: A circle within a circle – I hope you get lost in this case…
Love redefines space, time and social separation into hopefully a unified shared dimension. These changes are highly personal and should thus be shared or negotiated.
What is this you talk about? Order?! You’ve just said love totally throws a wrench into what counts as reality. Love is is chaos; the storm raging inside; paidiac flying of butterflies, that sort of stuff – ungraspable. But love, like play, according to Huizinga “is order. Into an imperfect world and into the confusion of life it brings a temporary, a limited perfection” (ibidem). The fact that love is called all those descriptions of entropy shows there is a unique order to it – an order of chaos. You have your own rules and means of communication that to the outside world may seem overly clingy or strangely abusive. But these forms of play; these forms of redefining reality through a shared separation creating memories, create an order in the lovers’ lives that holds true only for them. Some piece of nature? Good walking spot or god knows what. Hit some trouble? Have someone to talk to. Pull his/her hair? That’s a loving gesture instead of assault. (See Lusory Attitude as well). The world is redefined into an order only the lovers can understand and can play with. Huizinga, eloquent bastard, describes it as follows: “Play casts a spell over us ; it is “enchanting,” “captivating” (ibidem). Well said, man. Well said.
The order, which seems so antithetical to love or play, is made through rules according to Huizinga. Especially in the moments of passion what rules can there be said to exist? But there are rules, mostly unspoken, or way too logical, such as don’t cheat. Some of these are quite general, but most rules are personal – which is what makes the love game or the play of love so intimate. Each player/lover has his/her own rules – their expectations, baggage, boundaries, preferences – within which many forms of play can come to the fore. Think of Monopoly: sure it has rules but there are many ways this game can be played and many contexts the game can be played in. The Longest Monopoly game in a bathtub for instance lasted 99 hours – still the same rules, a completely different, probably more exciting experience. It is the act of knowing exactly what you can do with someone else that creates for a redefinition – a new order – in every situation.
But to enjoy that possibility it is paramount to get these rules straight – what does each of you expect? Where are the boundaries? How serious is all of this?. You can’t well play a game without knowing what you must do or what’s allowed. Learning the rules of play does not mean some lame discussion – though that can certainly help – it’s play that lets you experiment with these and find out what the rules are. Love is then for a large part experimentation – how does the other fit in my life; what order must I adopt. Seeing love as play then, and thereby experimenting, ensures that unspoken rules get confronted and unearthed. If this playful element is left out, and love treated like too serious a matter, these rules get, resulting in breach of the circle. Huizinga states: .” Indeed, as soon as the rules are transgressed the whole play-world collapses. The game is over. The umpire’s
whistle breaks the spell and sets “real” life going again” (ibidem). The order you two (or three, I don’t judge) built gets destroyed and both of you suddenly see your life upheaved with foreign elements, without any of the enchanting separateness. So don’t shy away from the baggage, don’t retreat totally into a world of magic, playing at love means consciously stepping into a circle together you must construct along the way – well informed and all. (This is more an argument of Miguel Sicart (2014) though…still, play).
Given these rules as formative for love and its forms, we can identify different stances towards these rules. Huizinga helps us identify different sorts of players depending on how they regard the rules.
Oh cheaters…I don’t have any love for them, only a slap full of theory. Cheaters are in general massive dicks or cunts. According to Huizinga cheaters “pretend to be playing the game and, on the face of it, still acknowledges the magic circle” (1955, 10). Cheaters in love thus manipulate, bend or break the rules in order to excel or for their own benefit, such as more sex. These degenerates are so bad because they disrupt the newly created order through manipulation of the rules. If found out the newly defined order is destroyed. This hits especially hard for this order was a product of two people based on memories and the redefinition of a world. Your life was changed because of this person, which now turned out to be a bad form of play leaving you on your own in no magic circle anymore. Oftentimes the cheater has created a new magic circle so (s)he is not hit as hard. Sucks.
Regrettably, Huizinga explains that “it is curious to note how much more lenient society is to the cheat than to the spoil-sport” (idem, 11). The problem with cheaters is that they’re always playing, just not with one person. They are separate from daily life constantly and are never pulled back into the non-play zone. As such, they are harder to confront with other rules and orders.
“Spoil-sport shatters the play-world itself… He robs play of its illusion” (ibidem). These are less accepted than cheaters. In love and play you have your own bubble replete with a new order to function by. If some asshat comes in he breaks this separateness – he tries to impose on your order you created with someone else. They don’t know how you work; they only know the order you came from. Some asshole telling you she’s no good, he’s hers etc; others telling you to get a room. These destroys the order you so carefully built and forces another one on you: the vanilla old version. This sucks even more ass, for you are forced to consider yourself and everything that has changed in the context of the rest of society where all of you places, memories and contacts are not as meaningful. That’s dreary.
Spoilsports are not always bad though. They can foreground what counts as ‘normal’, which can break the illusion but can also be healthy. Abusive relationships need to be punctured and cheaters need to be reminded what is proper. Usually they are brushed off, because these people don’t know the new rules.
“Spoil-sports in their turn make a new community with rules of its own” (idem, 12). These lovers can’t refer back to original order or the circle that isn’t magic. I suppose you could say Gay Marriage started out like this. Not necessarily spoiling the magic circle of others (unless some backwards Republicans are to be believed), these lovers simply played a different game that at first was not accepted. They also formed a new culture due to their different sort of play and love. Huizinga, you old goat, predicting all this stuff.
All these rules, redefinitions and shared orders results in a tension – another characteristic of play as well. This tension is always present: will this work out? Does (s)he like me? How will I tell her/him? Huizinga calls this tension “uncertainty, chanciness ; a striving to decide the issue and so end it” (idem, 10). In love you are tested as well of course. Something comes along that completely wrecks everything you usually work with – platonic love does that as well – it is up to you to master it in such a way that you can last; weather it for as long as possible. This requirement of mastery – of an uncertain ending you can influence – shows how love is, like play, an activity that you must spend time on. This doesn’t mean you can become a master of all kinds of love for as we’ve seen the rules are unique to each couple. Still, there are some skills you can learn to become a master in your own magic circle.
This perspective can explain specific love situations:
In unrequited love for instance you’re playing a multiplayer game on your own. No matter the skill you’re gathering, the outcome is largely decided, removing the tension from one side. Now you only get the tension of being in your own bubble while the rest of reality is out of tune – the rest is a spoilsport. This results in you constantly proven a failure or at least disrupted. Imagine that: you have a completely new order in which you understand the world, and it’s constantly proven wrong.
According to Huizinga play that “loves to surround itself with an air of secrecy … This is for us, not for the “others” (idem, 12). Being separate from daily life and from the normal rules governing ‘the others’ is part of the appeal. By being all secretive about it, not disclosing your relationship ensures “being apart together in an exceptional situation” (idem, 11). Playing is also more exciting if you’re being secretive about it – a game only you know; only you know the rules and others can’t really measure up to your skill. Huizinga links this to dressing up – To become another being within their world. In love this happens as well although not necessarily for a particular person. In love, people dress up to ensure their own position: you’re playing with the normal order.
Seeing love as play then means understanding it as an experimentative activity that can take many shapes. Seeing it as play offers the following understanding:
- Love is voluntary and shouldn’t be approached as a necessity
- Love redefines daily life through a different perspective
- Space, time and social separation take on a new meaning
- Love relies on a subjective order governed by rules that must be experimented with
- There is a tension governing the outcome
- It is made secret due to its subjective nature
While possibly just a whole lot of rambling, seeing love as play adds a more loose edge to it. It shows some gaps in which love can be found and worked on (pardon the phrasing). Still, I guess most of you’ll think that I’m overthinking love greatly, but that’s something I love…don’t you spoil-sport me.
This relation between love and play has been based on literature, my own convictions, empirical examples and hearsay. To really show the ontological link between the two, which I am sure can be illustrated, would require more definitions of play to be discussed (Sicart for instance) and theories on love to be compared. That might actually be an OK topic for a paper…
Sicart, Miguel. Play Matters. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2014.
Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. London: Routledge, 1955.