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“From Play to Carnival” by Umberto Eco: Capitalizing on Play

Sofonisba Anguissola

Sofonisba Anguissola

This essay is included in the book Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism. It explores how society has taken the basic human need for play and twisted it into a commercialized commodity in a process that Eco refers to as “Carnivalization.”

Eco mentions Homo Ludens early in this essay, which is a book by Johan Huizinga and something I actually read in college. The book is critical in game studies and explores the role of play in society. In his book, Huizinga lists five characteristics that play must have:

  1. Play is free, is in fact freedom.

  2. Play is not “ordinary” or “real” life.

  3. Play is distinct from “ordinary” life both as to locality and duration.

  4. Play creates order, is order. Play demands order absolute and supreme.

  5. Play is connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained from it.

(Source: Wikipedia)

For those of you who are interested, here is a link to a free PDF version of Huizinga’s book:

yale.edu

When we consider these qualities that define play and then consider our society’s distorted sense of entertainment and the marketing machine behind the entertainment industry, it is evident that we are losing our playfulness as a species. What parent does not secretly lament the loss of freedom that their children have to go out unsupervised to engage in spontaneous and unstructured play? We placate ourselves by saying how we are keeping them safe and that the world is more dangerous now than when we were younger. But is that really true? There were dangers when we were young. We are just more afraid now, which is a result of media hype.

Eco talks about the various ways that play has been destroyed through capitalization. Television is the obvious one, but he also discusses the tourism industry, the ability to incorporate play into work hours, mobile phones which blend function with entertainment, shopping as entertainment, and religion. I completely agree with all his assertions regarding these carnivalizations, but the two that he discusses that really rang most true for me are sports and politics:

Sport has been Carnivalized. How? Sport is play par excellence: how can play be Carnivalized? By becoming not the interlude it was meant to be (one soccer match a week, and the Olympics only every so often) but an all-pervasive presence; by becoming not an activity for its own ends but a commercial enterprise. The game played doesn’t matter anymore (a game, moreover, that has been transformed into an immensely difficult task that requires the taking of performance-enhancing drugs) but the grand Carnival of the before, during, and after, in which the viewers, not the players themselves, play all week long.

Politics has been Carnivalized, and so we now commonly use the expression “the politics of spectacle.” As parliament is steadily deprived of power, politics is conducted on television, like gladiatorial games…

(Turning Back the Clock: pp. 74 – 75)

I personally hate watching televised sports, particularly because of all the commentary. I would much rather participate in a sport than watch others play. It almost feels like voyeurism to me. And as far as politics go, one of my main reasons for cancelling cable television is I just can’t stand the constant assault of political pundits who have turned politics into a spectator sport where it is our team against theirs.

The other day I went with my youngest daughter to a local game store to purchase a new board game. This store has a gaming area upstairs where people can gather and play games. I was encouraged by the fact that the parking lot was full and the place was crowded with people who were playing games for the sheer fun of doing so. I hope this is an omen of a shift away from media-controlled profit-driven entertainment and back to an emphasis on play for the sake of play.

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