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  • The Smooth Spaces of Play: Deleuze and the Emancipative Potential of Games
  • Tauel Harper (bio)

The purpose of this article is to examine the capacity for play to create political communities and capacities. The act of play has been much maligned by political theorists as a diversion emblematic of false consciousness; however, I shall argue that the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari indicates that play has the potential to be emancipative—to not only produce new capacities in communities but also to undermine overt contribution to the axiomatic of capitalism. I shall present the argument that play can be seen to be conducive to positive political outcomes; as long as the right games are played in the wrong way.

I shall begin by exploring the ambiguity and suspicion which has surrounded critical theory’s historical engagement with play, where play and games were regarded as being a diversion from alienation and an element of false consciousness. I shall then contrast this with more contemporary attempts to recognize play and games as building political capacities. Using Deleuze and Guattari’s model of “smooth and striated” assemblages as the basis of machines of flight or capture respectively, I shall argue that the distinction between playing a game as a form of capture and playing a game as contributing to flight (or emancipation) relies both upon the type of game and the way in which it is played. Referencing a personal play experience with the game The Merchants of Amsterdam, I shall then investigate how the magic circle, the attitude of players, and even the game rules themselves work to construct smooth and striated spaces.

Play versus Politics

I would first like to demonstrate how games can be viewed as conducive to political emancipation. This opinion flies in the face of the views of most modern political economists, ranging from Adam Smith to Karl Marx, who generally suggest that the role of play in society is nothing but a distraction from more earnest, productive, or revolutionary pursuits. However, after [End Page 129] analyzing these perspectives, it becomes clear that they rely on an impoverished view of play, which is regarded only in terms of its material productivity.

The role of play as essentially being “non-productive” has given rise to suspicion about its social role in the modern period. Adam Smith listed playful activities such as performance and oration as amongst the most “menial” and worthless forms of labour. The basis for Smith’s criticism is the transient nature of such activities, which means they do not produce anything material which can be used as a continual basis for wealth creation (Buchanan 2008, 26). Furthermore the private nature of the act of play has raised concerns that continued distractions within the private realm distract from investment in the public realm, which is the realm of primary importance (Arendt 1958, 38). Whether, in the case of Aristotle, public engagement is constituted through personal expression or, in the case of Marx, constituted through engagement with the means of production, to be public, or removed from the private confines of the household, is an essential part of being a functional member of society.

This position is probably most forcefully articulated in Horkheimer and Adorno’s The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1979) where the hive-minds of capitalism are said to hone more distracting and encompassing forms of entertainment which are designed to divert attention from injustice and alienation. Play and games would undoubtedly be seen as the divine expression of such an industry, which contributes not only to distract from alienation but also to condition the worker:

Amusement under late capitalism is the prolongation of work. It is sought after as an escape from the mechanised work process, and to recruit strength in order to be able to cope with it again. But at the same time mechanisation has such power over a man’s leisure and happiness, and so profoundly determines the manufacture of amusement goods, that his experiences are inevitably after-images of the work process itself. The ostensible content is merely a faded foreground; what sinks in is the automatic succession of standardised operations. What happens at work, in the factory...


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pp. 129-142
Launched on MUSE
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