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THE NOTION OF PLAY can only escape the linguistic and practical confusion surrounding it by being considered in its movement. After two centuries of negation by the continuous idealization of production, the primitive social functions of play are presented as no more than decaying relics mixed with inferior forms that proceed directly from the necessities of the current organization of production. At the same time, the progressive tendencies of play appear in relation to the development of these very forces of production.
The new phase of affirmation of play seems to be characterized by the disappearance of any element of competition. The question of winning or losing, previously almost inseparable from ludic activity, appears linked to all other manifestations of the tension between individuals for the appropriation of goods. The feeling of the importance of winning in the game, that it is about concrete satisfactions—or, more often than not, illusions—is the wretched product of a wretched society. This feeling is naturally exploited by all the conservative forces that serve to mask the atrocious monotony of the conditions of life they themselves impose. One has only to think of all the claims détourned by competitive sports that are imposed in their precisely modern form in Great Britain with the expansion of the factories. Not only do crowds identify with professional players or clubs, which assume the same mythic role as movie stars and statesmen making all the decisions; but the infinite series of results of these competitions do not let their observers feel any of their passion. Direct participation in a game, even between those requiring a little intellectual exercise, ceases to be interesting as soon as competition for its own sake enters the framework of fixed rules. Where the idea of play is involved, nothing arouses so much scorn these days as the declaration that opens [Sawielly] Tartakower's The Chess Bible: "The game of chess is universally recognized as the king of games."
The element of competition must disappear in favor of a more authentically collective concept of play: the common creation of selected ludic ambiances. The central distinction that must be transcended is that established between play and ordinary life, play kept as an isolated and provisory exception. "Into an imperfect world and into the confusion of life," writes Johan Huizinga, "it brings a temporary, a limited perfection." Ordinary life, previously conditioned by the problem of survival, can be dominated rationally—this possibility is at the heart of every conflict of our time—and play, radically broken from a confined ludic time and space, must invade the whole of life. Perfection will not be its end, at least to the degree that this perfection signifies a static construction opposed to life. But one may propose to push to its perfection the beautiful confusion of life. The baroque—elegantly described by Eugénio d'Ors as "the vacancy of history"—and its organized beyond, play a major role in the coming reign of leisure.
In this historical perspective, play—the permanent experimentation with ludic novelties—appears to be not at all separate from ethics, from the question of the meaning of life. The only success that can be conceived in play is the immediate success of its ambiance, and the constant augmentation of its powers. Thus, even in its present co-existence with the residues of the phase of decline, play cannot be completely emancipated from a competitive aspect; its goal must be at the very least to provoke conditions favorable to direct living. In this sense it is another struggle and representation: the struggle for a life in step with desire, and the concrete representation of such a life.
Due to its marginal existence in relation to the oppressive reality of work, play is often regarded as fictitious. But the work of the situationists is precisely the preparation of ludic possibilities to come. One can thus attempt to neglect the Situationist International to the degree that one easily recognizes a few aspects of a great game. "Nevertheless," says Huizinga, "as we have already pointed out, the consciousness of play being 'only a pretend' does not in any way prevent it from proceeding with the utmost seriousness. . . ."
Contribution to a Situationist Definition of Play, Internationale Situationniste #1 (June 1958) — translated by Reuben Keehan
Strategic and Historical Games
In January 1977, the French Situationist Guy Debord founded the company "Strategic and Historical Games." This company had an immediate goal: to produce the "Kriegspiel," a "game of war" that Debord had already designed in his head years before. Inspired by the military theory of Carl von Clausewitz and the European campaigns of Napoleon, Debord's game is a chess-variant played by two opposing players on a game board of 500 squares arranged in rows of 20 by 25 squares.
"The surprises of this Kriegspiel seem to be inexhaustible," he confessed later in his book Panegyric. "I fear it could be the only one of my works that anyone will dare to recognize as having some value."
Although a commercial edition was to be released in 1977, it faced delays: “By the end of June, 1978…Debord finished drafting a written copy of the game rules. ‘I am sending you the rules soon,’ he wrote to Lebovici.’ The juridico-geometric writing style has cost me innumerable headaches.’ In 1978—but perhaps several years later—a hand-crafted trade edition was released. While it is unclear how many copies were produced, it is believed to have been a “very small number”: the game quickly sold out, and was not re-released for over two decades.
Ten years later in 1987, the game was mass-produced on cardboard with wood tiles. That year Debord and his wife Alice Becker-Ho published a book on the game, Le Jeu de la Guerre : Relevé des positions successives de toutes les forces au cours d'une partie, which was translated into English for the first time in 2007. The book is an annotated documentation of game play and includes appendices containing the game rules and strategy tips.
The (unbuilt) competition project for the National Collegiate Football Hall of Fame in New Brunswick, NJ, was a sort of religious building, or rather an architecture that expressed conceptual, physical and visual analogies between popular sport culture and religion.
The building was two things, really: a nave echoing the form of a basilica and an outside wall, largely higher than the rest of the building. Over the ceiling of the nave, a mural represented scenes of football players, manifesting the link to baroque churches and their angel scenes. Along the main nave, lower rooms were the equivalent of singular chapels and each one was dedicated to a famous football player. In Venturi and Scott Brown’s vision, the football players were “Saints in the religion of sports,” holy figures in North-American culture.
On the outside: a big straight wall was standing like a billboard and a parking lot just in front of it. People could walk to the museum or stay outside and watch all the messages and signs conveyed by an electronic screen of thousands of small lights. “It was the beginning of the information age, or architecture as iconographic and relating to signs rather than space” (Robert Venturi, describing the building in this video)
The front is made out of one of those flashing light board systems. And you enter in a really sexy way–up ramps and through an entry door that is the shape of a football. Behind that is a long nave with chapels in ranks like a giant Italian villa [basilica?]. There is a hierarchy of the football saints; great projections and movies on the vaulting of the nave show the great football plays, and in the chapels are relics like those of saints. Here they would have the sweatshirt of Knute Rockne–the actual object that is reflected in the movies on the vaulting and on the front, electric billboard. C. Ray Smith, Supermannerism: New Attitudes in Post-Modern Architecture (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1977), p. 190.
National Collegiate Football Hall of Fame in New Brunswick, NJ, by Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, Inc. (1967)
Designer: Bertell Ollman
Publisher: Class Struggle, Inc. (1978), The Avalon Hill Game Company (1982)
Bertell Ollman, then an Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics at New York University, designed this game in 1978 as a simple encapsulation of his views on capitalist society vs. the worker’s struggle. Superficially, it is similar to many other move-around-the-board-collecting-things games, but the Marxist rhetoric in the texts transforms it into – well, some kind of learning experience.
A few weeks ago, Tyler commented on Bertell Ollman’s Marxist rules for professional basketball. What Tyler didn’t tell you is that Bertell Ollman is also the author of the board game “Class Struggle: Game of Life in Capitalist America.” And yes, loyal Marginal Revolution readers, I own a copy and I’d like to tell you all about it.
The goal of Class Struggle is to teach people about how capitalism really works, at least according to Marxist theory. Each player plays a class (Workers, Capitalists, Farmers, etc.) because individuals aren’t the real players in capitalist societies. Each class moves towards the center of the board collecting assets and suffering penalties. The strategy is to accumulate as many assets as you can until the Revolution arrives. If you have the most assets when the Revolution comes, you win the game.
The game isn’t terribly fun to play, as one would expect from a game emphasizing oppression, unfairness and struggle. But much fun can be had reading the rules and the “chance” cards that give you assets. For example, the expanded “Full Rules” for deciding who gets to play the Capitalist class are designed to show players unfairness towards women and ethnic minorities: “Full Rules calls for the following: beginning with the lightest White male and ending with the darkest Black female, everyone takes turns with the Genetic die to see who throws capitalist class first.” I’m proud to say that I’ve won a few games, despite my modest disadvantage as a Latino male.
The chance cards are great fun. These two examples are for the Capitalist class:
- “You are caught feeling sorry for the Workers. Victory in class struggle comes to people who think about their own class. Miss two turns at the dice.”
- “Paperback edition of Marx/Engels Collected Writings (100 volumes) sweeps the country. Your days are numbered. 2 debits.”
These are for the Workers:
- “Workers finally understand that with America’s wealth and democratic traditions, socialism here will be different than what exists in Russia and China. A biggie–worth 5 assets.”
- “Together with your fellow workers, you have occupied your factory and locked your boss in the toilet. Capitalists miss 2 turns at the dice.”
These two chance cards are counter-Marginal Revolutionary:
- “All your propaganda says a person is free when the Government lets him alone. But almost everything one wants to do or have costs money, so only Capitalists are really free.”
- “You publish an ‘educational’ booklet to explain that in capitalism people–as consumers–vote for what they want with their dollars. You neglect to mention that in most industries, a few firms without any effective competition decide what to produce and what to charge, or that Capitalists who have the most dollars have the most votes. Give each class in the game 1 asset so they have money to buy your booklet.”
The box for the Class Struggle board game features Karl Marx arm-wrestling Nelson Rockefeller. They’re using their left arms, so of course Marx is winning. Inside the box, a pile of Chance Cards includes messages such as “You are treating your class allies very badly” and “Your son has become a follower of Reverend Moon.” The ultimate goal of the game is to avoid nuclear war and win the revolution.
When the game was released in 1978, the U.S.A. and U.S.S.R. were locked in the Cold War and the specter of communism was still scary to the average American. Even then, Class Struggle sold around 230,000 copies. Before it went out of print, it was translated into Italian, German, French and Spanish.
Just how did this game become so popular? The story begins with a quirky Marxist professor trying to change jobs and ends with him getting sucked into the very system he was trying to subvert.
Professor Bertell Ollman had been teaching at New York University for a decade when he was offered the opportunity to chair the University of Maryland’s political science department, pending approval from the provost. The possibility of a noted Marxist scholar heading up a university department was not one to be ignored by the D.C. press, and they hopped on the story with a quickness today’s political bloggers would appreciate. Maryland’s governor and state senators started weighing in, and the approval process slowed way, way down.
Around the same time, Ollman was researching board games, in search of a socialist alternative to Monopoly. As he discusses in his 1983 memoir, Class Struggle Is the Name of the Game, Ollman learned Monopoly was actually based on The Landlord Game, which was invented in 1903 by a Quaker named Elizabeth Magie.
The original version had a different message, however, and as late as 1925 the game included the following instructions: “Monopoly is designed to show the evil resulting from the institution of private property. At the start of the game, every player is provided with the same chance of success as every other player. The game ends with one person in possession of all the money.”
Of course the Parker Brothers version that inflames family arguments today has flipped the script, which left Ollman pondering just how he could make a game that gives players equal chances yet still teaches them about the inequalities of capitalism. Then came his breakthrough. “What if the players are not individuals, but classes?” he writes. “One could make capitalists and workers roughly equal in power, though of course the sources of their power are very different. The game could even explore these different sources of power, and when and how they are used. The game could deal with the class struggle.”
Ollman had his game, whose rules involve two to six players taking on the roles of capitalists, workers, farmers, small business-people, professionals, and students. They move around the board while dealing with elections, strikes, wars, and whatever the Chance Cards throw their way, including, “Yesterday you shook hands with Republicrat Senator Kennewater, and you believed him when he said he is the workingman’s candidate. Lose 1 asset for being so gullible.”
What Ollman didn’t have was any practical knowledge of small business, and the first run of the game was destined for dusty storage until a New York Post article picked up the story and attached it to the University of Maryland controversy. Articles soon followed in the Chicago Sun-Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Baltimore Sun. The Village Voice called the game a “shade prim” for saying marijuana and alcohol were opiates of the people.
The game was a hit, and Class Struggle started appearing on shelves alongside Monopoly. But Ollman soon learned getting orders was not the same thing as getting paid, and the Marxist scholar quickly became an expert in how small business-people get squeezed. Many radical bookstores never paid him for the games, and relations became strained with his initial investors, who also happened to be his good friends. Bad publicity followed when a small group of striking workers at Brentano’s Bookstore asked him to pull the game and then used his refusal to promote their own fight.
“Even my political commitment was beginning to fray at the edges,” he writes in his memoir. “I had always been delighted by each downturn of sales reported in the marketplace—‘People buying less junk,’ I thought. Now, the same news appeared somehow threatening. I caught myself thinking, ‘If the collapse of capitalism could wait just a little longer, until we got our business on its feet.’”
Success was always right around the corner, but the costs kept rising. When Ollman and his cohorts did not have enough money for the second run of the game, they seized upon a small difference in quality to refuse payment to the manufacturer. Lawsuits ensued. (A word of advice: Never go into business with a Marxist.) The University of Maryland’s provost punted the decision about the political science department to his successor, who denied Ollman’s appointment. More lawsuits. Ollman’s game was still selling, but the enterprise was sinking further into debt.
“Being broke is bad enough,” he writes. “Being broke and mistaken for a millionaire—by everyone but the bank, that is—is about as funny as coughing up blood.”
Ollman was grinding his teeth so badly that four of them cracked, and after three years of struggle, the professor and his partners sold the game to Avalon Hill, a company that specialized in war games. The game disappeared in 1994.
As for Ollman, he is still a professor at New York University, and when asked about the game’s legacy, he says:
“As long as there is a class struggle (and there certainly is in the U.S., where it may have gotten more intense, especially during the current economic crisis), there is a great need to help young people understand what it is, how it works, and where they fit into it. They are certainly not going to learn any of this from the mainstream media or in most of their formal education. The game could still contribute to this important work.”