The Rules of The Game

Exhibition Catalogue Essay

Fair Play, Danielle Arnaud, London, October 2001

Fair Play

Fair play. Sounds innocent enough... that 'play' aspect lending a misleading lightness. But the term as a whole is loaded, isn't it? 'Fair' is weighted with assumptions: not only of fairness itself - what are the rules that govern it? - but of the very possibility of fairness - can rules be equally applied to more than one party? These are the twin strands of 'fair', but 'play' is also a surprisingly complicated term. Not only is the activity of play deeply connected to social learning, but in order to play at all one must have a thorough grasp of the rules, and the better you know the rules, the more sinister a player you are.

The players of games

Play is as close to a universal in the higher animal kingdom as you can get; all creatures play. It is a crucial part of the learning curve for young animals as they begin to develop the skills required to survive later in life, when they have to provide for themselves and their own young.

This animal play has its rules, although they are never written down. And what are these rules? Usually pretty simple: fight, but do not hurt. Or: track, hunt and catch, but do not kill. The victims, or play-victims, are generally siblings and parents. Is this the reason for the lack of violent intent - family bonds? No, it's just that these opponents are at least equally matched, and violence on one part would probably lead to a violent response, and getting badly hurt is not a part of playing games. That comes later; it's what you're practicing for.

This 'universality' of play can reveal deep patterns. This is why Simon Moretti's constructions are strangely compelling. There must have been vast periods in human evolutionary history when a similar kind of manual activity - manipulating materials, basic toolmaking - was essential to survival. There are deep-lying skills of construction being tugged at here, which is why Moretti's sculptures will us to join in, make our own.

The same basic skills are seen in Judy Price's video of stone throwing, but here the activity is debased; the deliberate lack of apparent purpose turns learning-oriented play into a purely time-passing activity. This is precisely why it is so unsettling; the joy and exploration we associate with such manual play has been sucked out. The activity has become uncanny, as if performed by automatons.

We understand this basic idea of play as survival learning, but what about more specifically human play? From Stephen Poole's Trigger Happy [1] we know that the earliest human games that we know of broadly fall into two categories: 'athletic' contests, such as throwing spears through hoops, and games of chance, such as cards and dice.

Athletic contests are obviously related to the animal play we have already seen: springing from the need to develop survival skills. Such activities have now led to formalized sports: which are fun to play, but to an increasing constituency are now spectacle rather than activity - a different thing altogether. Though it's interesting to speculate whether sport's phenomenal viewing success relies on this same ancient and evolutionary appreciation of athletic skill.

Games of chance, however, sprang from something quite different. That was the belief that, through randomness (actually considered a kind of 'fate', rather than what we now empirically call 'random'), one could view the will of the gods: read the roll of the dice, turn of the cards, lie of the tea leaves, etc.

These games of chance also branched off into games which, although retaining an element of chance, increasingly relied on skill. A game of poker, for instance, uses randomness to a degree, but it is still broadly a game of skill; whereas the National Lottery, say, is entirely random. Eventually, some games were developed that removed the possibility of chance altogether, such as chess. But these games of skill did not teach athletic survival skills, they taught something else: strategy. These, as we'll see, were to become the new survival skills.

So play is still a learning thing, a useful thing, but why is it so useful? Because it flexes the imagination in a spirit of experimentation. Through play we learn limits, test limits, find new things and new ways of doing things. How, for example, can you understand the nature of a dandelion clock until you have blown on it? (Again, though, play is undermined: Ellen Bigge locks this once-only game of instant gratification into an unnerving cycle. Meditative and contemplative, but static: showing in negative the open-ended nature of play.)

While play is an act of learning, that learning does not necessarily end with the activity itself. What Jananne Al-Ani's Cradle shows us is that, in a game, we can learn about, create, and reinforce bonds between players. The layers of communication are incredible: verbal, visual, tactile, player to player, player to audience... All this from a piece of string.

We learn about the world of objects, we learn about each other. And this gives a feeling of confidence and a sense of control. What else could inspire Nicky Coutts' strange games of control over randomness? Fields of sheep rearranged to fit pre-determined patterns. A game of omnipotency. Should we be calling the psychiatrist? Of course not; the most popular recent computer gaming genre is the so-called 'God Simulation': Civilization, Sim City, The Sims, Black & White.

Is it odd that we should play games that simulate organizing a society? Perhaps it's only to be expected; after all, anthropologist Johann Huizinga argued in his 1944 book Homo Ludens [2] - a cultural history of play - that play underpinned civilised society.

Who are the rule makers?

We've seen that in the animal kingdom there are simple, play-defining rules. All play requires rules, even if they are made up as you go along. (This would be the first rule: 'Rules will be made up as we go along'.)

If we return to our history of gaming, we saw that early games - both athletic and chance-based - began with simple rules. But increasingly a more strategic, cerebral gaming emerged. When was this? Well, the game historian Brian Sutton-Smith suggests that 'games of strategy seem to have emerged when societies increased in complexity to such an extent that there was a need for diplomacy and strategic warfare.' [3] All of which would suggest that these new games of forward planning and strategy - chess being the most widely-known example - were still teaching survival skills; it's just that you now needed more than a good throwing arm and the luck of the gods to thrive.

In our strictly codified modern societies, there are a million rules for social interaction. We learn them (some would say we're indoctrinated with them) from an early age. They suffuse our mentality to such an extent that we barely even notice they're there. This is precisely what Marion Coutt's Royal Parks-shaped table tennis tables toy with. We may think we're playing, exploring the boundaries, but our activities are subtly proscribed by limits that we're about as aware of as a stick of rock is aware of the writing that runs through it.

Coutts' Ten Commandment-inscribed bowling pins, meanwhile, take the game into religious territory, showing that these ancient rules - which played a large part in defining our social codes - are seen as totally irrelevant within a secular society. A similar issue is raised by Effie Paleologou's images of eggs being blown for Easter. Here the potential of a living thing is transformed into a static, decorative object, all as part of a Christian celebration of death and resurrection. This Christian festival has, in turn, usurped pagan rituals that marked the transformation of nature as winter turns to spring - which, ironically, is probably closer to the meaning that Easter now has for our predominantly secular culture.

Of course, this is getting close to the terrain of psychology and psychoanalysis, but it's surely this area - where deep-seated logic manifests itself through thought and deed - that Frances Kearney is exploring in her series of photographs, 'Her Father's Daughter'. The silent rules of society have been absorbed by those portrayed, causing fundamental tensions as individuals' roles in the family - and hence the social rules that surround them - change over time.

And Bettina von Zwehl touches on such methodologies, but it's hardly her focus. 'An Anatomy of Control' allows children to take their own self-portraits within the strictly-bounded studio set up. Leaving aside the 'Mirror Stage' and the child's construction of selfhood, a viewer might ask what the children's looks reveal about the rules of the situation? More than the children might expect.

Food has its own myriad sets of rules, as Ann Jones shows. Eating doughnuts has never looked so soul-destroying as when Jones plays the childhood game of eating them without licking her lips. Where does this rule come from? Is it polite to wipe crumbs from our face because it looks offensive to other people, or do we do it simply because it is physically irritating? Here the instinct to wipe away annoying crumbs has been codified into 'politeness': a social rulebook that is fun to break, even if it's uncomfortable to do so in this case.

That we have rules at all is a signal that they must have been broken at some point. Why make a sin of murder if nobody ever murdered anyone? This is surely the dark side of play that Anna Fox and Alison Goldfrapp explore with their photographic series 'Country Girls'. That we don't quite know what is going on - are they playing, or dying? drowning or waving? - leaves us disturbed: too frightened to laugh, too uncertain to cry. The point is that we don't know if the rules have been broken or not, so don't know how to react. It's the limbo that's torture.

In fact, breaking the rules is not necessarily so bad. Georges Bataille suggests that breaking rules is actually a necessary way to reinforce them. [4] Bataille argues that festivals are times when we are allowed - in fact required - to break the rules. The thrill of the festival is the breaking of the rules. But if nobody knew the rule, then there would be no thrill. In this way we can understand that the celebration of the rule's transgression is actually an important part of cementing the rule. (The festival has meta-rules, which define when other rules can be broken.) This is surely the ultimate conclusion of what we have been looking at: the increasing codification of social rules that play defines.

Fair play, Sir

So we understand what the individual terms 'fair' and 'play' are - rules and learning - but what about their combined meaning? The term 'fair play', while it certainly carries the individual words' meanings, also has some rather peculiar connotations of its own.

'When I hear the words "fair play",' said Maryrose Sinn, illuminating her broken tea cup, 'I am immediately struck with how English it sounds ... It represents exclusivity, the insider rules; where conditioned cultural structures and rituals operate and exclude the outsider. Within that exclusivity exists comfort, complacency, security and privilege...'

And the reason that it sounds English is because it is rooted in English history. Judicial duels in medieval England, while at first glance were violent feuds, actually involved a strong element of play. They relied on rituals and rules, giving the acts a feeling of ceremony. The combat itself was often fought by hired duelists, and imaginative rules were drawn up to make a 'level playing field' between contestants, a man, for example, might have to stand in a pit up to his waist when fighting against a woman. While deciding judicial matters, duels were closer to sport or games than they were to true battles. Rarely were they fought to the death.

But more than simply English, 'fair play' suggests Victorian England: celebrations of upstanding morality within a decent society, alongside a rigid class system, the Empire, colonialism, and this idea of a level playing field. Perhaps playing fields only ever look level from the top.

An example of how revered this sense of fair play and competition was in the British Empire can be found in Salman Rushdie's The Ground Beneath Her Feet. [5] This passage is from the point of view of an Empire-supporting Indian, Sir Darius Xerxes Cama:

'For Mr. Ghandi personally he conceded a grudging respect but felt that if he could only persuade the great man to don flannels and learn the basics of the game, the Mahatma was bound to be persuaded of the tournament's value in honing that spirit of competition without which no people can take its place at the forefront of the world community.'

All this while the Mahatma considered the cricket tournament 'a communally divisive, anti-national throwback, in which men of colonialized mentality performed like monkeys for the amusement of the British'.

Linked in with this British notion of sportsmanship is its polar opposite: gamesmanship. They look like they should mean the same thing, but they don't. Sportsmanship is about understanding the 'spirit of the game', rather than adhering strictly to the rules or applying the 'letter of the law' in sporting decisions. Gamesmanship, however, is wilfully going against the spirit of the game: pushing the rules to breaking point, exploiting loopholes if they can be found. It's somewhat ironic that gamesmanship is usually found in professional sports, while sportsmanship tends to be found in amateur games.

Gamesmanship requires a deep understanding of the rules of the game, and it can be deeply frustrating to play against, especially if your knowledge of the rules is sketchy. This is precisely what Michael Guida and Mark Winstanley's Sex, Lies and Binary Logic, relies upon. The computer is asking you to play a game. You don't understand the rules but follow it's gentle prompting, assuming a sense of sportsmanship on it's part. But the computer, obviously, has a total knowledge of the rules, and the game proceeds to play you. It's aggressive gamesmanship becomes deeply disturbing.


What have we seen? Social conditioning. A culture of authority. The suspicion that 'fair play' really means injustice and stifling orthodoxy, what George Orwell describes as 'doublethink' in 1984. [6] It's funny that suddenly, when grasping the complexities of the term 'fair play', all of the works in the exhibition come together. The video where one player doesn't know the rules of the game, the photographs that could be schoolgirls' games or brutal murders, the ten commandment-bowling pins, the changing father/daughter relationships... these all start to suggest the dark layers of complexity that the term holds deep within it.

Perhaps one work is a good illustration of this because it's apparent simplicity belies a host of complex associations: Laura Malacart's video of birds and aircraft passing before each other in the camera's line of sight. It's a straightforward game, but the crude slow-motion and blurred imagery used suggests so many more sinister pieces of film: Scuds and Patriots colliding over the desert, 'amateur footage' that invariably illustrates disasters. As a viewer you will the bird and plane to collide, and it's an odd thrill when they do. And although it's just an oddly enjoyable line-of-sight observation, there is always the lingering suspicion that it means something more.

So while the works in this exhibition relate to the terms 'fair' and 'play', collectively they explore 'fair play'. In the tradition of the doublethink of Orwell - Eton graduate and former member of the Indian Imperial Police in Burma - 'fair play' is finally revealed as a term that means precisely its opposite.


[1] Stephen Poole, Trigger Happy: The Inner Life of Video Games, 2000
[2] Johann Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, 1944
[3] Quoted by Stephen Poole in Trigger Happy
[4] Georges Bataille, Eroticism, 1947
[5] Salman Rushdie, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, 1999
[6] George Orwell, 1984, 1949

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