Universiteit Leiden

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From politics to psychology: the power of games and play

The Bachelor Honours Class 'Homo Ludens: Why We Play' combines games, theory, and practice. Students dive into all aspects of humanity in which games play a part and discuss them, both on a theoretical an experiential level: 'Occasionally, you touch upon what play is, but then it eludes you.'

'In this course we discover the many facets of play.' says Nienke Muurling. Together with Nienke van der Heide, she teaches this course. 'During each meeting, we examine an aspect of human life in which play is at play.' Amongst others, the classes focus on the political game, art as a form of play, the connection between play and psychological well-being, as well as play and its relation to the sacer ludens (the sacred game and religion).

Each week, a group of students prepares several games to play during the first hour of class to then discuss and reflect upon them by means of the literature. The students - both Dutch natives and internationals - yield from different programmes; from Medicine to Psychology and from Biology to Archaeology. For this occasion, they have come up with forms of play that combine alea, the aspect of chance, and paidia, the aspect of freedom.

Games and experiences at play

In the first game, everyone names an animal and has to pick a required feature of the animals named thereafter. For example, the animal should have feathers or be landbound. The die, the element of chance, decides who the next player will be. As the game progresses, it becomes more and more difficult to find an animal that meets all the criteria. The players experience that the element of freedom - to decide for yourself which required feature to add - becomes more restrictive as the game progresses.

In another game, everyone is free to add a rule after naming an animal. One of the students is considering adding a nasty rule, but she reconsiders as it can come to bite her later. She decides to impose the rule that everyone has to shout their answer. Another student comes up with the rule to change seats after anyone rolls an even number. He opts for a rule that is fun. Every person uses the aspect of freedom in a game differently.

Play in practice

Once you have developed awareness, says Nienke Muurling, you can see play all around you. 'Think about Ukraine, where they are playing a sinister game on various game boards. The game is mostly played on a political level, but the question of a ceasefire during the Orthodox Christmas celebration revolves around the sacred game.' Applying the metaphor of play to this case helps to further clarify what is going on - without the pretense of fully understanding it. Nienke Muurling: 'Occasionally, you touch upon what play is, but then it eludes you.'

During their field work, students put the metaphor of play into practice. They select a playing field in which to do ethnographic field work, such as the rituals in the international Church and the "game" of belonging, the political game in the Dutch House of Representatives concerning the Sinterklaas and Black Pete debate, and the storytelling game Dungeons & Dragons.

A different perspective

Outside of the classroom, too, students are taught to think differently. For example, a student employs gamification of everyday life; she gives herself rewards for doing things she would rather not do. Another student says that he takes himself less seriously. He recounts an incident where his phone fell in the street and two cars drove over it. Soon after he realised it was not so bad and it would be a funny story to tell. 'This course taught me to look at things that way.'

Text: Femke van de Griendt
Translation: Lucia Langerak
Photos: Eric van den Bandt

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