Presence and Possibilities of Play?


In this blog, Center visiting scholar Robson Bello discusses his focus on play during his month of research. 

The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, in his important book Homo Ludens, defined “play” as an act of freedom, voluntary, and without necessarily material gains. Huizinga pointed out how play is an integral part of societies and impacted the regulation of law, the arts, and even the codification of war. He wrote this seminal work in 1938, in the midst of the rise of Nazi fascism, and accused the Nazis of a “puerility” that lowered the human spirit. The Nazis persecuted Huizinga who ultimately was forced into exile.

In my dissertation research, I studied the ways in which play has been appropriated by the culture industry and turned into a commodity. Sports, games, and toys have become objects for consumption, profiting from a human activity that is supposed to be free. Just think of the billions of dollars generated by sporting events like the World Cup or even video games that address various aspects of the social world. In this sense, capital dehumanized and reified play, turning it into a business.

During my stay as a Visiting Scholar at the USC Dornsife Center for Advanced Genocide Research, I was able to contemplate and explore the opposite phenomenon, the possibility that play had a humanizing effect instead of being dehumanized by capitalism, as I’d found in my earlier research. I wondered: in a dehumanizing environment like the Holocaust, did people play?

After spending a month investigating Holocaust survivors’ testimonies in the Visual History Archive, I am able to raise some hypotheses. Apparently, yes, especially children and young people played, in various ways, and play served many functions.

In most of the accounts of play, antisemitism appeared for the first time or in a striking way. Children who played with their neighbors were interrupted just because they were Jewish. Young people who participated in sports clubs and competitions were expelled after 1933.

One particularly interesting case was that of a survivor who recounted how, around 1935, he and a group of friends played soccer on a field for several months. On a certain day, the field had been used for an SA event, after which they left a Nazi flag raised. The survivor, along with his friends, didn’t care about the flag and went to play soccer at night. This angered the SA members and led them to take the players as hostages. Luckily, the survivor said, the police, who had not yet been completely incorporated into the Nazi Party, saved them.

Continuing my research, I discovered several accounts and documentation of play in the ghettos and concentration camps after 1939. For example, instead of playing tag, children played “Gestapo, policemen, and Jews,” mimicking their current situation. There was a whole community effort to create parks and recreational activities to improve the morale of the camp’s inhabitants, even when the situation was terrible. Play became a way to “cope” with the terrible situation they were in.

Often, play also became a form of resistance, as was the case with children and young people who took off their hats together, mocking the Nazi officer who thought he required this behavior from everyone he met.

These experiences demonstrate how play can be an “act of freedom,” as Huizinga put it in his classic work. Despite the horror, the humanity of the Jews was not extinguished. Their impulse to play, their desire for fun and distraction, persisted as resistance to totalitarian efforts.

Therefore, I ended up contrasting the dehumanizing perspective of play within capital, as I found in my earlier research, to the humanizing effort of the Jews within the Holocaust. This has led me to want to know even more than my initial meager questions, and perhaps it will lead me to a new research project in this area. How did people live and play in the face of horror?