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Why the Eurovision Song Contest is an Example of Gamified European Politics,
An Ontology

It’s a knockout
If looks could kill, they probably will
In games without frontiers-war without tears
Games without frontiers-war without tears
Peter Gabriel

Even if you are not an annual spectator of the Eurovision Song Contest, you can hardly abnegate the ballyhoo this contest raises each year ever since its debut in post WWll Europe. The year was in fact 1956. Fifty years later, a very special edition of the contest was organized to decide on the most popular Eurovision evergreen ever. The result: Swedish group ABBA with its 1974 contribution ‘Waterloo’[1]. Surely the connotation of Waterloo as one’s place of perdition, historically speaking, the temporary downfall of the European movement, may be regarded as illustrative to common twitter about the ideological spirit of the song contest.

Over the years, the Eurovision Song Contest has become a near Habermassian Public Sphere of debate over the European Union and the values of its individual member states. And year after year, just before the contestants transfer to the arena of musical truth, commotion awakens as (semi-) Euro-political debate focuses on the relevance of the European Movement and matureness and chastity of the (seemingly) ever-growing list of participating countries. And although the owner of the contest, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), reports that the Eurovision Song Contest does not have a direct connection with the European Union[2], one may still question why, for instance, Israel was keen on joining in 1973, or Morocco contested in 1980 (just once). Can, or should, the Eurovision Song Contest be regarded as a gamified competition between cultures and good taste. And would those cultures be European? The contest may also be regarded as a Public Relations instrument for countries to show their virtues, any country that whishes to relate to the ‘E’ in EBU or EU, perhaps?

All in all, different discourses focus on the creation of specific values like image and reputation. Some discourses also indicate a division between what can be regarded as the ‘old’ or ‘original’ participants (the first members of the EBU back in 1956) and the second and later generations of participating countries, reaching way out of the European continent’s borders.

This paper explores the alleged political weight of participating in the song contest by addressing the topic of the level of gamification of the contest and its relevance for national politics; in what way is the Eurovision Song Contest an example of gamified (European) politics?

According to Deterding, gamification can be defined as “[…] the use of elements of game design in non-game contexts. This differentiates it from serious games and design for playful interactions” (Deterding, p.2).

Ein Bisschen Frieden[3]. About Politics and Gamification, a brief genealogy.

It was Plato who said that young people (mainly men in his days) had to be instructed in rhetoric, gymnastics and, what he called, organized games and play. As we know from Plato, the triad of these virtues was quite extended; apart from mastering the art of speech and writing through studying literature, poetry, fine arts and religion, men had to be able to control their bodies to the full, practicing it with athletics, dance, military exercise and gymnastics. Much of this exercise was indeed offered through organized play as Plato himself named these educational activities. Play (and Leisure) became significant conceptions in Plato’s thinking. In fact, Play may well form the basis of what today is known as the Socratic Method in education; a playful, interactive form of offering liberal arts, the practice of virtue, the discovery of truth and the practice of Philosophy.

Before Plato, it was Socrates who already proposed Metria Kai Phronimos Paidia; reasonable and sensible play (Timaeus 59d) and, as “Huizinga (1950) described, Socrates used several types of “reasonable and sensible” play to counter unlawful, unbounded play and thus established a new teaching method for philosophy; the Socratic method. In order to discipline unlawful play, Socrates employed specific kinds of “reasonable and sensible” play that closely resembled the two main types of unlawful play. Socrates’ play—false-play and play-false-seriousness were homeopathic, specifically designed to re-present or mirror and thus correct, unlawful play’s errors and lead students on to genuinely “serious” and important things. In the first place, Socrates used “pretend” or “ironic” play to teach about and, as in the case of Euthydemus, expose and discipline false-play” (Hunnicutt, nd).

Now it may seem a classical form of nitpicking but there is relevance in studying the origins of the Belly life of the conception called Play. Today it recognized that Game bears a different connotation than Play does. Different discourses all present a confusion of tongues, offering a fast diversity of nuanced differences of meaning in the conceptions of Game, Play, Gamification and Ludification. As we focus on the domain of Gamification (and its alleged effects of politics), I agree with Alex Gekker as he states in his footnote on page 9 of his master thesis: “Gamification is a charged term, as some game scholars see it as a legitimate cultural and business trend while others see it as a hyped buzzword that fails to recognize the futility of adding game elements to something which is not a game. I see it in line with Detering and his colleagues (2011) view, and consider it a logical continuation of games becoming the predominant cultural medium” (Gekker, p.9). And as politics are an integrated part of culture, we may assume that gamification is used in its practice. So, in any case, gamification in a more Jesper Juul’s related fashion, is not necessarily abided in this paper as we are not discussion any Game Design-related issues; Juul would focus on Game Design issues rather than abstracting it to the level of Games as a (political) tool, a means to achieve a specific goal.

In his 1938 Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga explored the role of Play or playing in different era’s, starting with Socrates en moving up to Europe in its Interbellum. A good example of an era in which playing and politics came to a perfect match, according to the writer, is the era of the French Revolution: “But [this] play-quality in 18th-century civilization goes deeper. Statecraft had never been so avowedly a game as in that age of secret cabals, intrigues and political filibustering which produced figures like Alberoni, Ripperda and Theodore Neuhoff, King of Corsica. Ministers and princes, as irresponsible as they were omnipotent and unhampered by any troublesome international tribunals, were free to gamble any time they liked with their countries’ destinies, a smile on their lips and with an exquisitely polite flourish, as though they were making a move on a chessboard. It was fortunate indeed for Europe that the effect of their shortsighted policies was limited by other factors, such as the slowness of communications and relatively inferior instruments of destruction. But the results of this playing at politics were deplorable enough, in all conscience” (Huizinga, p.186). We may, as a matter of fact, conclude that the addition of elements of play to politics lead to a deplorable state of morality although Huizinga never proclaimed this openly.

Agreeing or disagreeing to Huizinga’s political positioning, is a matter of individual preferences and are not to be regarded fit in an academic paper. Yet, Huizinga’s writings do set a certain tone of voice that cannot be disregarded as specifically the nuances in his notation are of interest to how we adapt to his thinking about the addition of play and playful elements to politics; a moral discussion may occur over the question if play and playful elements are allowed in a serious business such as politics as it affects society as a whole.

Perhaps it is another great thinker of the past century who may enlighten us on this rather balanced matter of acceptance of Politics as a Magic Circle of decision-making. According to Hannah Arendt, game and play is part of Conditio Humana, the essential being of mankind. For Arendt, Play is the opposite of work thus adding a new layer of thinking to our basic question about the gamification of politics through popular means, such as the Eurovision Song Contest:  “Whatever we do, we are supposed to do for the sake of “making a living”; such is the verdict of society, and the number of people, especially in the professions who might challenge it, has decreased rapidly. The only exception society is willing to grant is the artist, who, strictly speaking, is the only “worker” left in a laboring society. The same trend to level down all serious activities to the status of making a living is manifest in present-day labor theories, which almost unanimously define labor as the opposite of play. As a result, all serious activities, irrespective of their fruits, are called labor, and every activity which is not necessary either for the life of the individual or for the life process of society is subsumed under playfulness” (Arendt, p.125).

Arendt deploys a positive attitude towards the experience of play and playfulness but at the same time casts a rather gray shadow over the work ethics of her time yet she and Huizinga, as two representatives of the liberal ethics who withstood moral depression of totalitarian regimes of their days and kept close to the concept of Play, even Game perhaps, as a means of developing sensible culture in society. As Socrates said Μέτρια Και Φρονιμος Παιδια, (Metria Kai Phronimos Paidia); reasonable and sensible play.

The choice for the tittle of this section is not a coincidence. Ein Bisschen Frieden, sung by German sing Nicole in 1982, marked a possible playful attempt to break the cutthroat leash of the Cold War and unite all in a European dream that was envisioned by many – and in different social experiments as well – amongst many other playful examples, Ludwig Van Beethoven[4] as an expressive examples. Later in this paper, we will attempt to clarify whether the Eurovision Song Contest really contributes to peace.

Waterloo[5]. The Gamification of (European) Politics

In order to understand the essence of what Gamification is and what its impact is on society and, as a matter of hierarchy, politics as the ruling mechanics of society, one cannot but return to the thoughts of Johan Huizinga. At least that is my believe.

If we regard Play as a formal artifact of society then we must deconstruct it – analyze it – to eligible parts or characteristics that can be studied, understood and synthesized into plausible theory. In that sense, Huizinga mentions five characteristics of play: play is freedom as it is voluntary, play lets us step out of real life as it has its own disposition, play is limited in time and place (it has a certain spatiality, often referred to as the Magic Circle), play creates order as it has a certain outcome and play has rules and truths so there cannot be any doubt about the outcome (after Huizinga, 1938). The question now is if these (traditional characteristics of play are, or can be applicable to the domain of politics and if these assigned characteristics are sufficient to construe the significance of the central theme in this paper, the gamification of (European) politics. According to Alex Gekker, there is a global distraction “what makes the Casual Politicking perspective possible, welcomed and frightening all at the same time. Those who lament superficial nature of (mostly young) mass audiences’ engagement with politics should remember that many more fail to care or engage with it altogether” (Gekker, 2012).

Gekker, in his own juicy contemporary wording has attempted to define a conception, that of Casual Politicking, that is both attractive and descriptive. Attractive as it provides us with discourse that resembles the contemporary use of language in the realm of Gamers and descriptive as it refers to a certain connotation that frames the very realm; perhaps Gekker interprets our daily reality in terms of (casual) gaming, not games. In any case, his jargon suits today’s attempts to deepen and remunerate our current field of research.

The question whether politics are regarded as games however, is not a major issue in the context of this paper. The question posed is whether politics are gamified. This question is not really a proper academic one as it allows a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The underlying principle of the question however lies in the research theme of what the dynamics of politics are; do the five characteristics of play, according to Huizinga, apply to the daily routine of what must be regarded as the Idola Tribus[6], the sophism of the tribe, as coined by Francis Bacon in the early seventieth century: “Such then are the idols which I call Idols of the Tribe, and which take their rise either from the homogeneity of the substance of the human spirit, or from its preoccupation, or from its narrowness, or from its restless motion, or from an infusion of the affections, or from the incompetency of the senses, or from the mode of impression” (Bacon, 1620).

The dynamics of politics, as an object to think with, fits seamlessly in the domain of the concept of gamification of politics. Politics have been depicted as games for a long time and nowadays, the arena, the play rules, the name of the game and many other referrals to game-like situations, are still in every day’s popular discourse when addressing situations in which politics one way or the other try to have an influence on the thinking and behavior of citizens. One could even suggest that in this apparent playful environment – the game of politics – people find themselves out ruled by the forcefulness of what politics achieve; it is not all game and people are confronted with the harsh reality of what the playing rules, in this case the mechanics, imply. Let us elaborate.

The 2012 annual report of the European Broadcasting Union stated that the “[S]pectrum management, net neutrality, copyright reform and data protection remained high on the EU’s media agenda. In addition, the issues of media freedom and pluralism have won renewed interest, while hybrid television has captured the imaginations of policy-makers” (EBU, p.30). This citation seems to bear reasonable attention to technological developments and to the issue of media freedom and pluralism. The question raises what the EBU means by pluralism and also why that sense of pluralism is actually of such an issue. A third aspect of this citation concerns the hybrid television and the interest of the policy-makers.

Obviously, the EBU has more in its basket than only organizing the Eurovision Song Contest alone. There is a wide range of activities that include broadcast rights management of major public events (sports games, cultural highlights around the world and, not to forget, the broadcasting of the transcendent New Year’s Concert, staring the Wiener Philharmoniker and many Dutch flowers). So, why does the EBU do all of this work or better, what is the viability of the EBU and what is its standpoint in (European) politics? These questions are not stand-alones. They are derived from a more fundamental issue of the symbiosis of politics and media.

Politics, at least the tangible part of it, has always been mediated. No wonder. Politics, specifically the power structures of legislation, governance and law enforcement, have always had to do with the ‘laying onto the people’; policy was made and people had to life up to it accordingly. But legislation, the prime instrument for law-seekers, has not always been popular. And popularity is what politicians seek and the way to achieve popularity is by means of providing enjoyment to the crowds; bread and circuses, perhaps. And the instrument to do so is media. Hence, we step into the realm of Mediazation. As Gekker recalls Castells “So understanding mediatization requires us to accept the distribution of power over the fluid and non-hierarchical nature of post-modern globalized societies. Castells claims that these networks should not be understood as virtual, but rather as “a composite of the space of flows and of the space of places” (Castells, 2006, p. 250, cited by Gekker, p.17).

According to Gekker and based on the thinking of Castells, in the process of mediazation there are no impartial mediators. There is however a convergence that “leads to a new reality in which power is decided predominately within media space, following the loss of political legitimacy of traditional institutions one the one hand and the rising capacity of mass self-communication to facilitate projects of personal autonomy and social movements on the other” (Gekker, p.16).  So, if power is decide within the media space, then may we assume that the EBU is a power-seeking force that occupies media rather than taking the media, in this case the art of broadcasting, as its core business?

But let us by all means return to the kernel of the factual quest of this part of the paper: Waterloo, The gamification of (European) politics. In 1974, Swedish popular musical band ABBA wiggled its way into the charts of global immortal appraisal. It became number winner of the Eurovision Song Contest and commenced a career of unprecedented popularity. The winner’s song title was Waterloo, in the connotation of ‘facing one’s Waterloo’, recognizing ones defeat (in ABBA’s case, facing up to an unresponsiveness in grooming activities). Waterloo however, also bears a historical connotation of political (and military) defeat in the context of the European Movement; it was Napoleon Bonaparte who not only seeked absolute power for him and his offspring but also exerted to unify the European mainland into a wealthy and powerful entity to resist the presumed abuse by peripheral power forces such as Great Britain and Russia. At Belgium’s battlefield – without any scruples now referred to as the Magic Circle of Europe’s ultimate power game of 1815 – the self-proclaimed emperor met his ‘Waterloo’, his defeat, ending in an abased epilogue situated in far-away St. Helena.

A lesson learned from this epic European historical factum is the apparent lucidity of the convergence of power and unity, set in a décor of the three elements that, amongst others, are defined by as Dynamics, Mechanics and Aesthetics, amongst others by Hunicke, LeBlanc & Zubek (nd) and cited by Jesper Juul[7] thus defining that abomination in humanity as a gamified state of affairs (and by no means a game, as vaguely suggested by certain popular discourse, apotheosizing the romantic excess of cordiality and uniform; a myth of military grandeur so often chanted in songs of operettas as der kleine Gardeoffizier. Adieu![8]

The three basics of games (Dynamics, Mechanics and Aesthetics: DMA) as indicators for determining politics as gamified offers a certain framework for further study. We may for instance question whether contemporary politics are gamified; are there any signs of elements of gamefulness or play (DMA) in the political arena in Europe and is this question relevant and why? In the final episode of this paper, these issues will be deepened and argued.

Birds Don’t Fly[9]. Gamification of politics to the test.

Let us, for a moment, leave the European situation for a moment and focus on an apparently neglectable occurrence of a Palestinian singer winning the Arabian version of the immensely appreciated multimedia event Idols. Mohammad Assaf from Gaza won that Arab version of Idols and immediately he was announced ambassador of the Palestinian refugees by the UNHCR, the NGO dealing with refugees in warzones. Assaf was granted a diplomatic pass, allowing him to travel freely, without any intervention or laid on restrictions by the Israeli’s. Thousands of Gazanian Palestinians came out in the street to celebrate this deposition of the latent desire for peace; how can such a great singer be political? The United Nations were happy to have a compliant servant in their struggle for detent in the Middle East region. And not many other parties in the conflictious arena disagreed. In fact, apart from Hamas, there had not been any critique.

Meanwhile, Assaf has dedicated his victory to all Palestinians, not just those living in the Gaza strip but also those on the West Bank (where he travels to freely due to his diplomatic status). The Guardian, amongst many other media reported on this event, stating that “[But] the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and the former prime minister Salam Fayyad endorsed Assaf, and mobile phone networks offered cut-price texts for viewers to vote for him. Jawwal, one of the phone companies, said 8m votes had been cast for Assaf in the final by Gaza’s population of 1.7 million” and even one of Hamas’ leaders, “legislator Yahia Mussa posted on Facebook: “Greetings from the heart to the talented artist Mohammed Assaf”, adding that his victory was a gift to “the seized people in Gaza and West Bank, and raised the name of Palestine”” (Sherwood 2013).

It was Hector Rodriguez et al. who said that play is profoundly serious and refers to Huizinga as he enlightens that “The modern study of play can be traced back to the publication of Dutch historian Johan Huizinga’s groundbreaking study Homo Ludens(1938). Huizinga’s book describes play as a free and meaningful activity, carried out for its own sake, spatially and temporally segregated from the requirements of practical life, and bound by a self-contained system of rules that holds absolutely” (Rodriguez). If play is serious, is game then too? Let us recollect some definition.

Caillois says that “games are not ruled and make-believe. Rather, they are ruled or make-believe” (Caillois, p.127). An important distinction as a game tends to be regarded as a playful experience, as Huizinga suggests, without a direct purpose. Yet gamification of certain fundamental activities in every day’s life, politics being one, appears to be a reality (as it appears to have been since man started to note its history).

The question in this third part of the song contest setting of this paper, we ask ourselves if birds don’t fly. This is, of course, a bit of a gotspe as birds fly. It is most probably their most relevant and distinctive feature that they do. And, without even remotely trying to deepen the poetical truths of sing Anouk, the question about the birds relates to the domain of understanding relevances; there are (hidden) logics in presenting politics in a gameful manner.

Perhaps, gamification of politics is about trying to find stability in life; politicians facilitating people stability in return of power and people, citizens, offering politicians stability in return of that same stability.

In his classic study ‘The Logics of the Feeling’ Arnold Cornelis has provided deep insight in the hidden logics of our feelings (emotions). This logics is the bearer of the individual’s personal philosophy to find his way in life and provide answers to questions from the outer world; socialization and embedment in society are essential to mankind as is biding the laws and regulations that man has created to co-exist.

Cornelis distinguishes three layers of stability that each contribute to the embedment of human emotions that are fundamental to the sheer existence. They are the layer of stability of the Natural system, the layer of stability of the Social Ruling system and the layer of stability of the Communicative Self regulating system.

In the layer of stability of the Natural system man is called the hidden man. The hidden man does not steer himself. In this first system, man observes but does not learn by actively changing his environment. The human will and the competence to learn stay hidden. In this layer of stability there is significant difference with animals that are led by instinct. Man and society who live in the layer of stability of the Natural system are looking for emotions of security. This sense of security is found in the protection of parents and the safe world of stories and religions. This is a factual world – only what we see is true – and the adjacent emotions. Fundamental sense of security is the key factor.

In the layer of stability of the Social Ruling system, man is called the silent man. People learn to act in this layer. The structure for this acting is determined by the values and norms of the social regulation system. Laws, rules and measures surf as guarantee of equality (according to our laws, all men are equal). The central focus is rationality. In this layer scientific thinking develops as well as technology and the social organization of our society.

Several social worlds emerge, depending on what we do with the Natural system.  The Natural system is being incorporated in the Social system.

This social system does not offer people the possibility to self-regulation. Everything is regulated. People move within the framework of laws, rules and measures and the determined requirements, the imposed targets. This is the silent man who flows with the stream of rules of the social system. Emotions like equality and justice are important here. Emotions that are at the basis of discovery of new possibilities are simply impossible in this layer of stability.

The layer of stability of Communicative Self-regulation is the layer of the communicative self-regulating man. This self-regulating man transposes his emotions into a steering logics which will now be the object of communication. Through communication, the world of possibilities is opened. People in the social system discover that they need each other to learn and gain new insights. Reality is too complex to be understood by one alone.

Perhaps, this is where gamification as an instrument of politics comes in place and perhaps this is why a trivial playful event such as the Eurovision Song Contest may be regarded as an example of the attempt to playfully adapt to regulation (in order to find stability in inner emotion).

The logics Cornelis poses, deals with the process of socialization, the living together and the ruling – legislation, game rule – involved. Earlier I spoke of the DMA, the dynamics, mechanics and aesthetics that compose a game. And many games bear a social foundation. Let us end by bringing al these issues into the Magic Circle of the Malmö Arena, Sweden, May 2013. Bringing gamification of politics to the test: Do birds fly?

Good evening Sarajevo. Can we have your votes please? Conclusion and Discussion

The EBU mentions a certain brotherness in its mission statement as it bears the original thought in mind – dating back to 1956 – that Europe (and later other regions) could join through collective offering of culture through different media. Ergo, if the whole world would listen to a concert at the same time, a peaceful melting of ideas and cultures would be established. However, as it seems, a product such as the Eurovision Song Contest does not necessarily provide this value creation. The question if the song contest is a form of gamified politics has not been answered. No inquiries were made concerning the basic mechanics of the ‘game’ and the search for an outcome directed to a more fundamental issue regarding the quest for stability in one’s life.

Stability requires rules and regulation as instruments for socialization. It also requires dynamics, mechanics and aesthetics as prerequisites for defining the play rules and play ground.

Many aspects of interest have not been addressed. Issues like cheatability in admitting results (“and the twelve points go to Malta!”) or the assumed nepotism are all part of the game; the great make-believe of near universal fraternity.  But as it is, birds do fly, no matter what Anouk sings.


Deterding, S., Khaled, R., Nackle, L. E., & Dixon, D. (2011). Gamification: Toward a definition. Retrieved from http://hci.usask.ca/uploads/219-02-Deterding,-Khaled,-Nacke,-Dixon.pdf

Deterding, S., Dixon, D., Khaled, R., & Nacke, L. (2011). From game design elements to gamefulness: Defining “gamification.” Proceedings of MindTrek.

Deterding, S., Sicart, M., Nacke, L., O’Hara, K., & Dixon, D. (2011). Gamification. Using game-design elements in non-gaming contexts. Proceedings of the 2011 annual conference extended abstracts on Human factors in computing systems (pp. 2425–2428). New York: ACM. doi:10.1145/1979482.1979575

Caillois, Roger. “The Definition of Play, The Classification of Play”. In: Salen, Katie & Eric Zimmerman (eds.). The Game Design Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2006

Chomey, A. (2012). Taking the game out of gamification . Dalhousie Journal of Interdisciplinary Management, 8

Cornelis, A. (1997). Logica van het gevoel. Essence, Amsterdam-Brussel-Middelburg

Fenn, D., Suleman, O., Efstathiou, J., Johnson, N. (2005). How does europe make its mind up? Connections, cliques, and compatibility between countries in the eurovision song contest. Physica, 360, 576 – 598.

Gekker, A. (2012). Gamocracy: Political communication in the age of play. (Unpublished Master). Faculty of Humanities, Utrecht University, 2012.

Ginsburgh, V., Noury, A. (2007). Eurovision song contest. is voting political or cultural? European Journal of Political Economy, 24, 41-52.

Huizinga, J. (1980 (1938)). Homo ludens. A study of the play-element in culture. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Hunnicutt, B. K. ((without date)). Plato on Leisure, play, and learning. Reprinted from leisure sciences. Retrieved May, 17, 2013, from http://www.uiowa.edu/~lsa/bkh/200/platoarticle.htm

Juul, J. (2010). A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games and Their Players. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

McGonigal, J. (2011). Reality is broken: Why games make us better and how they can change the world. New York: Penguin.

Mayer, I. Towards a comprehensive methodology for the research and Evaluation of serious games. Procedia Computer Science, 15, 233-247.

Rodriguez, H. (2006). “The Playful and the Serious. An Approximation to Huizinga’s Homo Ludens.” Game Studies 6.1

Sherwood, H. Palestinians celebrate Mohammed Assaf’s Arab idol triumph. Retrieved June, 23, 2013, from http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jun/23/palestinians­mohammed­assaf­arab­idol?INTCMP=SRCH

Yair, G. (1995). ‘Unite unite europe’ the political and cultural structures of europe. Social Networks, 17, 147-161.

Zichermann, G. (2010). Fun is the future: Mastering gamification [Video]. Google Tech Talk. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6O1gNVeaE4g

Zichermann, G. (2011). Gamification – the new loyalty [Video]. Copenhagen: Gamification Co. Retrieved from http://vimeo.com/25714530

[1] http://www.eurovision.tv/page/history/congratulations-show, retrieved June 9, 2013

[2] http://www.eurovision.tv/page/history/facts-figures, retrieved June 1, 2013

[3] Winning song from Germany’s singer Nicole in 1982, http://www.eurovision.tv/page/history/year/participant-profile/?song=21082

[4] “Freude, schöner Götterfunken, Tochter aus Elysium, Wir betreten feuertrunken, Himmlische, dein Heiligtum. Deine Zauber binden wieder Was die Mode streng geteilt, Alle Menschen werden Brüder, Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt“, the first strophe of Van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 (also known simply as “the Choral”)

[5] The Swedish band ABBA won the contest in 1974, http://www.eurovision.tv/page/history/year/participant-profile/?song=20456

[6] I refer to http://www.constitution.org/bacon/nov_org.htm on this issue. The idolas or sophisms by Sir Francis Bacon (1620) are very worth while reading in his The New Organon or true directions concerning the interpretation of nature.

[7] http://www.jesperjuul.net/ludologist/mechanics-dynamics-aesthetics-the-whole-thing, visited June 28, 2013, 1.20AM.

[8] http://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Stolz

[9] Formal title is Birds, performed by Dutch singer Anouk who reached the grand final for The Netherlands where she reached the ninth position, http://www.eurovision.tv/page/history/year/participant-profile/?song=29483

Written by Kees Winkel

June 28, 2013 at 12:33

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Are Games Spatial?

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In this reflection I do not attempt to answer the rather capacious question of what a game really is nor do I necessarily address the topic of what the role of games in human life is. These highly relevant questions are filleted and attempted to answer by others. My question for this reflection is about the territory of games with the core question whether games are spatial and if they are and what spatiality is in relation to games; can we altogether talk about a game space and to what extent is that space physical or tangible? This question arose during a recent discussion about the Magic Circle, say the playground of a game as coined originally by Johan Huizinga in his Homo Ludens (1938) and developed by Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salen in Rules of Play (2003) as a game design tool and ending up in a metaphor that has transcended the original connotation given by the mentioned authors to a multitude as manifested in everlasting comment threads in blogs by authors like Zimmerman[1].


According to the introductory words in Huizinga’s 1938 Homo Ludens, “All play moves and has its being within a playground marked off beforehand either materially or ideally, deliberately or as a matter of course” (Huizinga p. 10). By choosing these words to distinguish the boundaries of a game, Huizinga also chose for a rather sacral phrasing of his description of what game space is or could be according to him. He speaks for instance of the consecrated spot, the arena, the temple and the Magic Circle, a choice of words with a rather esoteric jot to them, if not taken from cleric worlds. Interpreting this type of discourse, Huizinga appears to be a devoted follower of a near religious belief in the divinity of the greatness of the Game. In the very same introduction to his book, Huizinga employs superlatives to underline this believe and that is, by no means, to be reproved. In fact, as one of the first chroniclers of the phenomenon of games, Huizinga treats us with an in-depth understanding of the role and importance of games and gaming as he attempts to construe its relevance in life.

Let us be aware of the time frame, the Zeitgeist, in which Huizinga developed his insights. It was the end of the Interbellum and it was The Netherlands. All through Huizinga’s book, there are signs of his socio-political and economic engagement although the author never mentions the ensnarer by name. Huizinga’s thoughts (as expressed in the 1955 edition of Homo Ludens) like war itself might be regarded as a form of divination and in the absence of the play-spirit civilization is impossible do shed a clear light on the underlying philosophy of the Dutch historian when addressing the issue of the purpose, say the role, of games in human life; it develops civilization. Perhaps that is why Huizinga chose the rather pompously phrased conception of the Magic Circle as the metaphor for the playground of games, a metaphor that became an object of discussion decades later.


In the first sentence of his Jerked Around by the Magic Circle – Clearing the Air Ten Years Later, Eric Zimmerman (with Katie Salen with whom he rote Rules of Play in 2003 in mind) laments a definition for the Magic Circle as “[it] is the idea that a boundary exists between a game and the world outside the game (Zimmerman, 2012). According to the incited gamed designer, the Magic Circle is a design principle, a core game concept rather, just as there are a half dozen more. Zimmerman acknowledges the fact that he and his co-author borrowed the word from Huizinga as they also borrowed the term Lusory Attitude from Bernard Suits’ Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia to connote the specific attitude a player must have to enter into the play of a game. Apparently both conceptions were regarded as master concepts in the philosophy of Games as they grew out to overly exceed their original connotations and Zimmerman never anticipated that such conceptions (Magic Circle and Lusory Attitude) could ever have aroused so much discussion and confusion, let alone that it had ever been his goal to create such babel.

Zimmerman does agree however, that a game takes place in a certain space thus assigning space an important role in the whole conception, recognition and acceptation of a game. In fact, it is by far more a pondered idea than Hector Rodriguez who defines the Magic Circle as a spatiotemporal frame “which isolates their [the gamers] game from the more serious tasks of daily living” (Rodriguez, 2006). Otherwise, he does mention, “that within the Magic Circle, the rules of a game hold absolutely” (Rodriguez, 2006), therefore attributing at least this Huizinga thesis to the conception of Game. But what does that say about the spatiality of games? Are games subject to the notion of space? And what then is space?


According to Chinese-Americans geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, “space and place are components of environment” (Tuan, p.v) and there is a distinct difference between Space and Place: “Place is security, space is freedom” (Tuan, p.3) and as we know from Huizinga, play is freedom as well as it is a voluntary decision to play or not. Should we then better look at Place, as it appears to be more concrete, perhaps even more physical, tangible, then Space?

Again Tuan may enlighten us on Babylon’s tower of disarray as he speaks of children’s perception of Place: “A child’s idea of place becomes more specific and geographical as he grows. To the question, where do you like to play? a two-year-old will probably say “home” or “outdoors.” An older child will answer “in my room” or “in the yard.” Locations become more precise” (Tuan, p.30) and may eventually boil down to that cardboard on the table or rendering on the computer screen.

The two conceptions of Place and Space remain cause for confusion although the question whether games are spatial has not been cleared to our satisfaction. Tuan distinguishes two important notions that relate to Space: the spatial ability and knowledge of people. “With the help of the mind, human spatial ability (though not agility) rises above that of all other species. Spatial ability becomes spatial knowledge when movements and changes of location can be envisaged” (Tuan, p.67).

If we would decide that games are spatial, our decision would imply that games are about movement and location. That, at its turn, would imply that games deal with certain dimensions: “Spatial dimensions such as vertical and horizontal, mass and volume are experiences known intimately to the body; they are also felt whenever one sticks a pole in the ground, builds a hut, smoothens a surface for threshing grain, or watches a mound of dirt pile up as one digs a deep well. But the meaning of these spatial dimensions gains immeasurably in power and clarity when they can be seen in monumental architecture and when people live in its shadow” (Tuan, p.108). The question now rises whether we can decide on games having spatial dimension.


Huizinga also suggested that play is limited, meaning that it always requires place and time” ‘both combine strict rules with genuine freedom” (Huizinga, p.22). Perhaps it is in this limitation that we find reason to commit to agreeing the spatiality of games.


A last element of spatiality of games I would like to contribute is that of what Huizinga calls “the sense of limited mobility or freedom of movement” (Huizinga p.38) and it is in this detail that we may consider the spatiality of games as a (depicted) place for play. Already dimensions were mentioned as prerequisites for spaciality and now, on the very same page Huizinga quotes the President of the Netherlands Bank that, in the cause of devaluation of the (pre-war) Guilder, “in so restricted an area as is now left for it [the devastating quality of the Dutch economy in the late thirties of last century], the Gold Standard cannot play” (id.). How staggering it is to find quotations like these about playing space, availability of space, locative space, still after more than seventy years. It raises the question whether space is limited (as Tuan places Space between two extremities).


We play the game. We do so voluntary, often in a preset amount of time. We expect a certain outcome – a winner and thus a looser, perhaps even a certain sensation. We do so by obeying negotiated rules and we do so by agreeing on boundaries; if we step out of the collateral lines; we are not in the game any more and the game will be (temporarily) stopped. We will only restart the game play after we have re-entered the within the boundaries, the playing field, the space of which we have agreed the game rules to be applicable; the Magic Circle. Every game has its own disposition, its own character, its own sphere; it always obeys to prerequisites that are agreed upon before the game is played. One of those prerequisites appears to be spatial; space, game space as it is within its boundaries from where a game play commences or not, leaving those out of the boundaries as spectators. Or, are they participants as well?




Huizinga, J. (1949) Homo Ludens. A study of the play-element in culture. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, Boston and Henley.

Rodriguez, H. (2006). The playful and the serious. An approximation to Huizinga’s homo ludens. Games Studies, 6(1), May 2013.

Salen K. and Zimmerman, E. (2004). Rules of play: Game design fundamentals. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Tuan, Y. (1977). Space and Place. The Perspective of Experience (6th ed. 2008). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Zimmerman, E. (2012, February 7). Jerked around by the magic circle – clearing the air ten years later. Retrieved May 14, 2013, 2013, from http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/6696/jerked_around_by_the_magic_circle_.php


Written by Kees Winkel

June 18, 2013 at 10:16

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