Play in contemporary culture

Just a coupe of loose reflection on ‘play’ in contemporary culture….

Saw an item about a week ago on local TV channel AT5 about a festival of BMX cross-bike subculture, called ‘flatlanding’. Young guys doing crazy stunts on BMX-ses. A lot of these subcultures, e.g. skating, surfing, rollerskating, etc. – could be called ‘playfull’ or ‘ludic’. (Mostly) youngster creating an own identity around a game. This brought to mind another thing I saw lately: more and more people are attracted by and involved in historical plays: e.g. medieval fights that are being performed by true armies dressed with harnesses, lances and spears. Mostly males between 20-40 years old that are busy on their free Sundays re-playing their own history.

This raises some questions:
To what extent is our contemporary culture filled with these playful elements?
How is the development of these playful cultural elements related to the increase of leisure time?
Who are these players? Are they by any coincidence the same demographical group as the majority of internet-users? Or has each group its own ‘game’?
What do these games mean for the players? To what extent are they a search for history and identity, or are they just ‘play’ as in leisure?

Yesterday I saw – via the internet – a programme called “Move your Ass TV” on new public television channel Llink about Krumping & Clowning. A group of Rotterdam urban youths come together once in a while to dance together and hang out. There is also a film made about it recently, called “Rize” of which I saw a traler a few weeks ago on the BBC. It’s supposed to come out half October in the Netherlands. These wild dancing styles are originally from the west-coast of the USA, the gang infested neighbourhoods of L.A. People were sick of these death-serious laws and rules of different gangs, that forbid to wear certain colours in some hoods, for instance. People started painting their faces, going out on the streets and dancing wildly. It has some references to traditional African ritual. It is also an inversion of the death-seriousness of everyday life in the LA hoods by clownesque dancing and facial painting. It seems mostly to be about forgetting about everyday life and misery, about letting go of aggression and frustration and boredom (‘release’ as Dutch party organisers ID&T call it).

This also seems a good example of ‘playful’ cultural elements that can be said to characterise much of our actual culture. This is – to a large extent – an inverse of everyday life with its structural, imposed, inescapable monotony and predictability. In ‘play’, people become their own agents again. The unpredictable, spontaneous “I” becomes prevalent again over the reflexive “me” (cf. G.H. Mead).
Nevertheless, this seems only part of ‘play’. In play, one is also giving up part of his individuality and becomes one of the group. Is it a (new) search for social bonding, along new lines perhaps?
And finally, there even seems to be a religious tone in a lot of these playful cultural elements: ceremonial rites, denouncing the ‘profane’ for the ‘sacred’ (cf. Durkheim). The Krump-dancers for instance stated “we’re not in it for the money, its all about the game”. So it is a self-referential activity (cf. Huizinga). A lot of these games have ‘rite the passages’ too: a staged event or series of activities that incorporate an individual into the group, and designate a breach with ‘old life’ and former status. But many people that are into these games have ‘normal lives’ too. Can it be said that they live multiple lives in parallel worlds? Which one is the ‘real world’? Or are they all ‘real’? Or is this distinction real-virtual becoming meaningless?

Interesting too, BTW, that these playful cultures are so rapidly being distributed worldwide. The mediatisation of (sub-)cultures is another topic :).

4 Replies to “Play in contemporary culture

  1. While your’e talking about structural imposition, did you pick up parkour as well?

    I only know of its existence via various online media so I don’t know how widespread it is (I’m pretty sure it is not a hoax). But it is an interesting sub-culture which combines near perfect self-control with a strong urge to follow different paths than the ones that you usually have to take.

    Parkour guys are quite keen on the movement not becoming too diluted with lamers or commercialized and the fun and spontaneity taken out of it.

  2. The mediatization and the free flow of information is crucial to the spread of these kind of niche cultures. Globally there might be a couple of thousands serious practicants who would never have gotten into it without the internet, and who would not know of each others’s existences without it.

    Some more links:
    Interview with real guys (talking about keeping it safe and real):
    Rotterdam practicant:

  3. Wow! The city as playgarden. I had heard of the phenomena before, but never actually seen it, nor knew that it had a name. Lots of influence it seems from mediatised genres (movie, sports) like martial arts, action movies, gymnastics, commercials, computer games, some moves even bordering on Jackass-kinda crazy tricks, although I reckon these ‘parkouristes’ despise doing uncontrolled moves and getting hurt for fun. Like you say, it seems that self-control is crucial in following a different path. An example maybe of the (visual) language of media/art becoming reality?

    The video in the links you give mention the film “Yamakasi” by Jean-Luc Bessson ( It appears that on the boards there is a brief discussion over what is ‘real’ parkour and what is not ( Disputes and contestations over “realness” are one of the essential features of a subculture, I think.

  4. o yeah: big companies are quick in associating themselves with this ‘neo-tribe’, as can be seen by all the logos on “community website”

    Interesting article on that same site about one of the founders of the movement, with attention for the way in which play and work are combined. Play and work were strictly separated in modern times, with its division of life. This is increasingly becoming blurred. One of the reasons is that ‘play’ is seen to bring in creativity into work, badly needed in the knowledge economy

    But Stephane is adamant that there must be the notion of ‘work’ in one’s training just as much as there is the notion of ‘play’: by ‘work’, he means the ability to turn off your thoughts and simply repeat each movement ten, twenty, a hundred times, until it is mastered. At times it must be hard, it must be demanding – otherwise no real progress will ever be made, and one will only ever be playing at Parkour. Equally, if there is no play, one will soon tire of the training and will likely not stick with it at all. The two combine to create proper practise, and must exist in balance to be most effective.

    Link to the article:

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