As well as being a serious student of literature and history, and the occasional listener to melancholy and sometimes merely strange music, I play computer games, most especially, over the last 10 years, world of warcraft. Or at least I do play them now, and over the last week have returned to playing world of warcraft. Before then I went through a long stretch of 4 to 5 years during which time I played this game only spasmodically and with a sense of shame and embarassment. I was concerned that I played too compulsively, and that the long hours in these imagined worlds deprived me of time to write and to read and to imagine.
I also wondered if I could marry my identity as a man of culture who performed a serious job in government with the night time playful sense who prowled forests and dungeons as a night elf. Gamer and poet and governor? That is a bit odd, surely.
But over the last week I have realised those different identities can co-exist well, and in a way that I am more happy and more fulfilled when I do play games. Returning to world of warcraft has been a kind of personal and artistic recovery. It returns a sense of play and adventure to my life.
I realise now that over the last five years I made the playing of this game into an embarassed secret, yet another addiction to overcome, yet another part of me to be hidden away in secrecy and surrounded by shame. My creative instinct to play was suppressed and put to shame in my silent self, and so I lost something important and suffered, if not for these reasons alone, some periods of deep depression.
Gaming and culture can wed, both within my personal life and within the wider culture. I am not saying that I like everything about gamer culture – a lot of which is male youthful exuberance. But I am saying that any strong culture has a strong element of play.
These reflections bring to mind the medieval historian and cultural theorist of the earlier twentieth century, Johannes Huizinga. During the second world war – in no less serious a time of dire catastrophe, if in the neutral territory of Switzerland – he published Homo Ludens: a study of the play element in culture (Yale have made a pdf of this treasure available online). There he asserted that humans need to be understood not only as the wise animals (homo sapiens), nor makers and producers in a remorseless economy (homo faber), but as Homo Ludens, Humans the Player.
Huizinga identifies five characteristics of play, and it is these five traits that make my list for this week – five reasons games and, more broadly, play add to culture (with thanks to wikipedia authors for their summary of Huizinga).
The list – five reasons play and games add to culture
Play is free, is in fact freedom. So by playing games we enlarge our personal freedom, and enrich our culture with that freedom.
Play is not “ordinary” or “real” life. By giving us a second life, games and their virtual reality bring into being the play of freedom, and the creation of culture. They make any ordinary life richer – they are the double realm.
Play is distinct from “ordinary” life both as to locality and duration. Play and games are not escapes, so much as the separateness, not of the sacred, but of the playful.
Play creates order, is order. And in order is the beautiful, of after Foucault where there is oeuvre, there is not madness but free expression of each person’s terrible strangeness.
Play demands order absolute and supreme. In playing games you are still subject to the supreme fiction; and the experience of playing the game is to reach for that order, not to dissolve into futility and abandonment.
Play is connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained from it. And equally all can play – there are no gatekeepers to play, only different orders of the game.
Let us all enjoy both play and culture.