“Seek, above all, for a game worth playing. Such is the advice of the oracle to modern man. Having found the game, play it with intensity – play as if your life and sanity depended on it. They do depend on it.”
(Robert De Ropp: The Master Game)
“As if their Gods fell into the dust.” This was my first reaction seeing the videos and photos of the devastated faces after the Brazilian football team’s 1-7 loss to Germany. (Sorry American friends, I’m from Europe, I can’t call football by the silly name ‘soccer’. Despite living in the city of the great New York Giants, for me, ‘football’ keeps remaining the game when the ball is being kicked by foot, not thrown or ran away with…) Anyway. Tuesday night and the following days, all the leading media was full of sad and weeping Brazilians, who said they “had lost faith”, were feeling “humiliated”, and going through “a personal tragedy”.
“Why? What’s the big deal? Wasn’t it just a game?” would I have asked some years ago when I was playing in the high school handball team. Now, older and less naive, I’m well aware that professional sports do not belong to the realm of play anymore.
But football as religion? That was kind of new.
Well, being patient with my handicap of having been born with a female mindset my father explained: when you are a real fan you put all your faith and trust into 22 year old athletes, who for 90 minutes make you forget all about your mundain worries, make you feel free and good about yourself, and when they win they transfer you to paradise. And when they happen to fail, that’s like apocalypse, your very existence is shaken.
My father’s remark reminded me of a some books that I had read years ago, which, interestingly, explore the similarities between the realm of religion, and the realm of play — both rooted in acient cultures.
Plato refers to human beings as “God’s playthings” in his work titled The Laws. Building on Plato’s thoughts, the Dutch Johan Huizinga creates his famous play-theory at the beginning of the 20th century. According to his definition “play is a voluntary activity or occupation executed within certain fixed limits of time and place, according to rules freely accepted but absolutely binding, having its aim in itself and accompanied by a feeling of tension and joy and the consciousness that it is different from ‘ordinary life’”.
To understand the essence of play (and that of religion) it is very important to remember the parallel presence of the notion of freedom and that of the idea seemingly contradicting it — the binding of rules.
The play itself begins with the players deciding on the basis of their free will that they will play. Then they establish the bounderies of time and the space to play on, and determine the compulsory rules to be applied by all of them. According to Elemér Hankiss, Hungarian scholar of sociology, the essence of play is actually nothing else but “spreading, multiplying our freedom by voluntarily limiting it.” He is giving the example of football in his book titled Human Adventure:
“The game begins by railing off a rectangular field from the world. In the moment the game begins, this field or ground becomes sacred: it is separated from everyday world by a magical spell, an impermeable, symbolic wall. The sacred rules of the game start to operate, and besides the break no ordinary, profane, earthly, mortal being is allowed to enter this sphere of the game in the following one and a half hours. Just think of that astonishment, indignation or fear when someone non-initiate is trying to enter, break into the field!
This world of the freedom of the game is originally created by a limitation.”
In religious paractice, too, by voluntarily accepting certain rules, the believer experiences his or her freedom expanded, not bound to the limits of the senses and those of the material world.
Huizinga explains that there are many other common elements in the realm of religion and the realm of play. For example both are formal, voluntary as well as totally indispensable from the point of view of practical life. But perhaps their most important common element is that the sphere of both play and that of religion are situated beyond the visible world, beyond rationality and the boundaries of everyday life, in a world where human actions are not determined by needs.
Every culture is based on sacred plays, Huizinga points out. The human being’s relationship with transcendence appears in acts of cults, in praying, singing and dancing. According to him, throughout history, in art, literature and sports everything that we now see as beautiful and noble games used to be a sacred games aiming to understand a higher reality.
Huizinga explains that just like many other cultures, Western civilization was born and lived “in the pirit of the play” for thousands of years. Circus games, triumphs and theater performances were all important parts of Antiquity. Middle Ages were known for its passion-plays, tournaments and masquerade of fairs, whereas comedies and festive processions flourished during the Renaissance. In Baroque fancy dress balls and operas became popular.
In these centuries people could still be engaged in playing.
In Huizinga’s opinion in the 18th century the rationalism of Enlightenment withered the spirit of play spectacularly. Since then, human beings have been practicing philosophy, arts and sciences in a “deadly serious” manner, and have been overly busy with encreasing their material wealth.
The modern man has stopped playing in its original, sacred and liberating sense. What we call “play” nowadays is, in fact, nothing else but entertainment and business. The data with the television viewer rates, the number of zeros in the players’ and managers’ salary figures, as well as the 250,000 poor people in Brazil who got evicted from their homes because of the World Cup could testify for that.
Well, whether we enjoy sports or not, Brazilians or not, I feel, it is important for us to do some soul-searching from time to time.
Are the “gods” we put our trust in worth worshiping?
Are the games we are playing are truly worth playing?
Jun 25, 2022
Radhapriya Chawla, ISKCON Toronto Communications