mimesis and play

Preliminary remark:

In what follows, the term 'imitation' (image, mimesis) refers not only to 'literal' imitation of existing reality,
but also to the suggestive imitation of existing reality or of worlds created by the artist himself.
For further clarification, see: 'Mimesis' and 'Mimesis and art'



Art is often understood in terms of play. The tradition is initiated by Kant (Kritik der Urteilskraft, 1790) and Schiller (Über die ästhetische Erzeihung des Menschen, 1793). It is continued by Herbert Spencer (surplus energy in 'Principles of Psychology', 1855), Guyau (Les problèmes de l'esthétiques contemporaine), Karl Groos ('Die Spiele der Tiere',1896 and 'Die Spiele der Menschen', 1899). It is renewed by figures like Huizinga (Homo Ludens 1938) and Roger Caillois (Les jeux et les hommes,' 1958). From a different perspective, and with a totally different - anti-mimetic - motivation, a new impulse is given by E.H. Gombrich ('Meditations on a hobby horse', 1963). In the same spirit, but rather inspired by the theory of the 'language games' in Wittgenstein's 'Philosophische Untersuchungen' (1953), Kendall L. Walton understands mimesis as a special kind of 'play' in 'Mimesis as make-believe' (1990).

The equation of art and play is also fostered by developments is the (plastic) arts. Marcel Duchamp - who, in 1925, had a shot at becoming chess champion of France, some ten years after he did not succeed as a painter in Paris - declared: 'All artists are not chess players - all chess players are artists''. The contention gets a new twist when, in the sixties, with the Wiener Aktionismus and Situationism, there is an increasing call for 'interactivity' in the museums. This movement gets a new impetus in the nineties, and finds its "philosophical" spokesman in Nicolas Bourriaud with his 'esthetique relationelle'( 1995).

Just like with proposals to understand art in terms of signs (see Mimesis and semiosis), we are dealing here with one of the many attempts at escaping from a definition of art in terms of mimesis (see Mimesis and art). And, just like the interpretation in terms of signs, also the understanding in terms of play is unjustified and hence misleading. Let us therefore assess the similarities, but above all the differences between art and play.


Let us begin with a definition of play: play is a behaviour that is performed in order to enjoy the capacity of being able to perform it.

The more difficult the task, the greater that pleasure. That is why play is comparative in essence. The player can compare his performances with those of himself or those of others. Play is then unfolding into a contest. The introduction of other players allows to raise the degree of difficulty: the players can hinder each other in reaching their goal, exemplary in football or chess. The degree of difficulty can be further increased by having the point of departure determined by chance (dices, cards, lottery....). The fellow players can be other people, but also computers (chess, computer games).

Many games are about intellectual capacities (quiz, riddle, crossword...) or 'spiritualised' bodily activities (eliminating pawns instead of human enemies, see below). Other games are primarily about physical prowess: motor skill (catch-me, hide-and-seek, rope-skipping), ball-games (rugby, basketball, football, hockey, cricket, tennis, volleyball, but also golf, bowling, jeu de boules, billiard, marbles). In the latter case, they often get the additional qualification of 'sports' - which does not mean that we are no longer dealing with games.


We could ask ourselves why people enjoy their competence and why they are out to show off their skills. That has everything to do with competition (within the frame of 'natural selection', but above all of 'sexual selection'): the importance of securing an advantageous position in competitive warfare. That applies in the first place for the naked ousting of competitors (not only individually, but also as a group, included as a state). But, since humans are cooperative on the basis of reciprocity (within the framework of the sexual and social division of labour), there is also the more refined competition through relative excellence in productive activity. Competitiveness is so important, that man seems to have developed the propensity to value his performances and to feel self-confident when the judgment is favourable.


From a social point of view, play can take two forms.

To begin with, there is the purely solitary enjoyment of one's competence. Competence can be measured by internal criteria (the beauty, the ease, the smoothness of the execution), but also by external criteria: comparison with the reminiscence of one's own performances or those of others. Comparison with reminiscences does not suffice to turn solitary play into a social undertaking. The activity is rather valued in itself, and, when the valuation is high, the activity is considered to be an 'art': the art of killing, the art of teaching, the art of lying and cheating, the art of seduction, and what have you. Duchamp's saying that all chess players are artists applies to all 'arts' in this sense. As soon as someone has mastered an art - when he has become an artist - he wants to demonstrate his skill before a public - think of the acrobat, the magician, the composer (Bach and his 'Die Kunst der Fuge'). Solitary pleasure unfolds to a performance before a public. Artists are often challenged to such performance - as when Frederick the Great challenged Bach to improvise a six-part fugue on a theme of the king's own invention - to which Bach responded with an whole series in his 'Musikalisches Opfer'. Play unfolds to a really social phenomenon - to a real contest - when the competing artists engage in a real trial of strength: - a contest.

To these two social forms of play correspond two social figures: the artist and the champion - say Bach versus Muhammad Ali.


In ordinary life, it is not always obvious to enjoy one's capacity, to show it off, or to put it at the test in a contest.

To begin with, not every activity can be performed at will: it is not always possible to wage a war, or the perform an operation when there are no patients, or to organise a demonstration when there is nothing to contest. Only a limited number of skills can be demonstrated at will: think of baking cakes or composing fugues.

Next, performances are not always comparable. To win a battle may be the result of chance or mere supremacy: only when two comparable parties are confronting each other is it possible to decide who the winner is qua competence. In other cases, the tasks are different: whoever gets the majority of votes, is the winner of the elections; but the candidates are not vying for the same voters with the same programs.

Finally, and foremost, there is a difference between the valuation of the product and that of the way in which it is produced. That there is a difference, is not so obvious, because the quality of an achievement can often only be assessed in the product: in the contest between Zeuxis and Parrhasios, only a comparison of the murals revealed who was the master illusionist. But the product is not always a reliable measure: the most skilled shooter not necessarily kills the largest prey. Where products are compared (wine fairs, comparative consumer tests), the focus is foremost on the value for the consumer rather than on the performance of the producer. That is why often the focus shifts from single products to the production as such ("the oeuvre"), as with Michelin ratings of the Nobel Prize in literature. But it is only when the original purpose is totally neutralised - when the performance serves no other goal than demonstrating prowess - that the focus is exclusively on the performance.

To value a performance as such, artificial tasks have to be invented, where any valuation according to external criteria is eliminated: hitting a target instead of game or enemies. Since external criteria no longer determine the performance, arbitrary rules have to be established: same tasks, same place, same time, same means. Thus, play comes to emancipate itself from real life. Relying on a somewhat old-fashioned, but nevertheless accurate terminology, we could call it 'fine play' - 'free from', 'pure' - as opposed to 'applied play' that is mixed with other goals. The play of seduction, the sport of killing, the kick of manipulating a mass, the stunt of composing a fugue, are examples of 'applied play', whereas the fighting sports, archery, football, chess and cards are examples of 'fine' play

Some confusion may arise from the fact that many forms of 'fine play' originate in 'applied play': think of archery that is originally meant to kill game or enemies. As soon as game or enemies are replaced with a bull's-eye, we are dealing with fine play. There is less confusion when games are from the beginning designed as fine games: just think of chess and cards - although it is mostly possible to trace an origin in real life (see below).


A widespread mantra has it that play is played 'for its own sake'. The truth about this contention is that, in the case of applied play, play is mixed with some external goal. But this approach suggests that play would no longer serve a goal when we are dealing with fine play ('disinterested', 'ohne Zweck'). In fact, the old goal is only replaced with a new one, or there is from the beginning only the new one.

Such misleading phrasing often tempts to the conclusion that playing for money would no longer be playing, since it would then have an external goal. That comes down to overlooking that to show off mastery is not disinterested at all: it is the central weapon in sexual competition - just think of Helen and the Trojan war. The real reward is often replaced with a symbolic one, which is no less erogenous: a cup or medals, or just money or points. It is not because the winner of a game is rewarded by sexual prestige, or by a real of symbolic prize, that he would no longer be playing: football remains a game, even when its champions often reap considerable financial rewards. With applied play, the reward is even double: the master cook enjoys the mastery of his cooking, and receives a considerable financial reward afterwards.


The problem with our definition of play as behaviour performed in order to enjoy the capacity of being able to perform it is, of course, that we cannot know what animals feel nor what motivates them. Still, it is impossible to deny the similarities between the artists who flaunts his prowess and the peacock that spreads its tail, or between fighting sports and the antagonistic displays of male animals.

A possible way out is to consider the rationality of the behaviour in question. In the case of the peacock, we are dealing with a behaviour that serves no other purpose than to demonstrate the overall 'fitness' of the animal - the counterpart to fine play in humans. A similar explanation applies to the adult cat that plays with a mouse rather than eating it. With a kitten, things are somewhat more ambivalent, since its play can easily be explained as a preparation for adult life. With antagonistic display, on the other hand, we are dealing with ousting competitors, however it may be ritualised. That would rather be the counterpart of applied play: demonstrating fitness by performing a behaviour that serves to chase competitors away.

Nevertheless, we may surmise that human feelings and motives do not emerge from nowhere. Just like we cannot contend that children play with balls to train their motor skills, or that they are quizzing to prepare themselves for their examinations, we cannot contend that kittens play with their tails because they are preparing for adult life. It seems more plausible that they simply enjoy their prowess.


As a solitary performance for a public, or as a contest (without or with a public), play is also a group constituting activity that unites players or players and their public. Such communal bond is the source of an additional communal pleasure.

Both kinds of pleasure have to be distinguished. Communal pleasure may come to prevail the pleasure from play itself - 'just another round for the sake of company'. This must be taken into account when studying the behaviour of the public or the supporters: they have from the beginning relegated their pleasure in performing to their heroes, and content themselves to admire their prowess. A victory contributes to the prestige of their idols, not to that of the supporters. They are only interested in belonging to a community (think of Greece and the Olympic games).

It is, however, not only play that unites people in a community: many other activities serve the same purpose. Many of these activities are 'applied', in that they resort to existing activities: think of banquets or socialising in pubs. Also art has its communal dimension: group specific ways of representing and group specific subject matter (styles). But it is not because art and play have a group-binding function, that they should be equated. Also styles of eating, clothing, living and so on are group-binding, but should therefore not be lumped together with play and art - a hint for Bourriaud...


We know now what play is. What, then, is art?

As we have seen, the term 'art' applies to many kinds of activities, so that we have to specify which activity is intended. It is not so obvious to include art in the series of 'the art of cooking', 'the art of healing', 'the art of driving and what have you, unless we were prepared to talk about 'the art of making art'. The problem originates in that the term 'art' is in fact an ellipse. In full, it should sound: 'the art of making images' (to be more precise: imitations, see: Mimesis and art) - and this term fits perfectly in our row. One of the reasons why the expression is never used in full, is that this is more than convenient in an age when a taboo on mimesis leads to pushing the borders of art ever further, so that in the end the museum is invaded by designers, non-verbal philosophers - and more and more also: players of all kinds.

It is obvious, then, that there is a fundamental difference between art and play. Whereas play is an activity whereby something is produced, art is rather a product. Art is about the pleasure in the image, rather than about the pleasure in making an image. Thus, play is clearly delineated, not only from images, but from products as such: from meals, clothes, cars, bridges, cathedrals and pyramids, which, just like paintings and sculptures, cannot possibly be called 'play'.

It can cause some confusion that some artworks consist of products that have to be executed - think of theatre or music - so that production and product are coexistent. It helps to remind that the making or executing of a symphony, a theatre piece or a film, is a behaviour that can be artful, but that the pleasure in making or executing is not the same as the pleasure in the symphony, the theatre piece or the film itself. Artists can elevate creation into an art, which can culminate in the conspicuous demonstration of competence - Bach's 'Kunst der Fuge'. Artists even proceed to engaging in a contest - just think of the story of Zeuxis and Parrhasios. Comparison is facilitated when the tasks are comparable: think of sonnets, haikus, fugues or symphonies. Like with other forms of applied play, the play element can become so predominant, that the original aim is lost from view: not all masterly constructions are equally interesting, and only great masters are able to find a creative contentual answer to severe technical challenges - think of Bach's Chaconne from the second partita for violin or of Beethoven's Diabelli variations. Anyway, how much the making of art may develop into play or a contest, the product - the artwork itself - is thereby not turned into play itself.

Only when we understand that the art of making images is merely one among many other arts is it apparent why also the playing of a game can be an art, without thereby becoming (the) art (of making images), as Duchamp would have it: the art of playing is something else than the art of making images.


It might seem, then, that there no confusion possible between art and play. And yet, art continues to be equated with play, if not subsumed under it. Three factors are responsible for such confusion. To begin with, the way in which things are classified is only inadequately mirrored in language - were it only for the existence of metaphor and metonymy. Second, there is a propensity to equate things which have only a single characteristic in common. And, finally, things do not always exist in pure form: they are mostly mingled with each other - just think of chemical elements. As we have seen, there is 'pure' and 'applied' play, but the entwining goes even further.

Let us examine how these three factors contribute to the confusion.


The term 'play' is also use to indicate that something is not 'real', but only a make-believe, a pretence.

Thus the actor is said to play Othello; someone who proceeds to regulate the traffic is said to 'play police"; someone who behaves like a boss is said 'to play the boss'; someone who dupes his friend is said to 'play a joke' on him; soldiers who are training with fake ammunition and fake enemies are said 'to play war'. In the same vein, the theory of games calls simulations of interactions between imaginary partners (war, economy, sociology, evolution) 'games', and Wittgenstein is talking of 'language games' when studying models of language use.

In all these cases, we are dealing with make-believe, pretending, simulating. And is this not precisely what art is supposed to do? To the extent that the simulating of, say, politicians is often called 'theatre'? Does this not suffice to subsume art under play?

To be sure, both the one who plays the boss and the one who plays Othello are doing an effort to make-believe. But that does not suffice to equate art with play. That would come down to equating the baking with the cake. No doubt, theatre is produced by actors who want to make-believe that they are a character. But different from their endeavour is its product: the emergence of Othello on the scene. The work of art is Othello, not the acting of the actor. We only get to see the acting and the actor, when we stop enjoying the artwork and begin to study the performance of the actor.

Add to this that make-believe is not the same as creating an image - as imitating. When Othello appears on the scene, we forget that he is merely an actor. That is not the case when someone plays the boss: nobody is prepared to believe his make-believe. The same applies to politicians who 'play theatre'. In other cases, there is no pretence from the beginning: when the teacher 'plays police' to help the children cross the street, we do not think for a moment that he would have been transformed in a real policeman. And this applies also to simulations of interactions: we know from the beginning that we are dealing with a mere simulation and not with the real thing.

Finally, the term 'play' in the sense of 'make-believe' only applies to arts that have to be executed - theatre and music. From a canvas, we cannot say that it 'plays the Mona Lisa', nor from the painter that he 'plays a landscape'. And that goes equally for the writer or the composer: they do not play a theatre piece or a symphony. Conversely, models of atoms or buildings are called plays neither: they are not executed like the simulations of the game theoreticians.

What can we learn from this analysis? To begin with, it is apparent that the term is not used here in the sense of behaviour that is performed in order to enjoy the capacity of being able to perform it - which does not prevent us from enjoying our ability in making believe. We are dealing with a metaphor. It is apparent why the term 'play' is chosen: in applied games, the player merely pretends to do something 'useful', whereas he is only out at demonstrating his prowess. Also many forms of 'fine play' have an element of pretence: fighters only pretend to kill an enemy, whereas they are only out at demonstrating their superior skills. There is a difference, hence, between play in the literal and play in the metaphorical sense. And from such play in the metaphorical sense, only that of the actor and the musician happen to result in an artwork.

It is apparent, then, that the metaphorical use of the term 'play' may lead us into a double trap. It may seduce us to equate art as a product with the production of art and other forms of make-believe. And it may also seduce us to equate 'playing the boss' in the metaphorical sense with 'playing chess' in the literal sense.


The term 'play' is also used as a counterpart to 'work', and may then refer to two nearly related oppositions.

In a first variant, play refers to a free activity, not dictated by any necessity (to survive, to earn money). In that sense, play is everything man devotes himself to in his spare time (in feudal times: often art).

In a somewhat different meaning of 'free from', any behaviour that is transformed to serve a new goal is 'free from' the old goal. In that sense, the poet is said to play with words when he no longer handles them as signifiers, but as mere sounds. In that same sense, Eduard Hanslick contended that music is not an imitation, but a free play with sounds.

Next, play in this sense is opposed to hard labour. In this sense, the term 'play' is used when we would say of Bach's improvisation of a 6-part fuge: 'to him, it is mere child's play'.

We are here equally dealing with a metaphor, whereby play is chosen as a model because 'fine play' is free from external purposes en hence from the seriousness of life (Spencer's 'surplus energy'). We should not let us get trapped by such metaphorical use. Not every non-compulsary activity is play in the literal sense - just think of enjoying or making art, which, especially in feudal times, was experienced as mere play in comparison with the hard labour of peasants. And, although art often owes it existence to such play in the metaphorical sense, art itself is therefore not such play in the metaphorical sense - were it only for the fact that it is not a productive activity but a product, like a cake.


Precisely because it is free, play is also the natural habitat of rules. It is not difficult to see why. Since it is not determined by some external goal, a new arbitrary goal has to be defined, as well as the means by which it has to be reached. That applies already for the pattern adopted when tapping with the fingers on the table, or counting the paving stones when stepping over a footpath. But is applies above all to fine play: think of the completely arbitrary rules of football or chess. Add to this the rules for the distribution of roles, and for the attribution of meaning to signs like pawns (see below).

Rules are not the privilege of games, however. To begin with, there are the rules that are called 'laws' because they are imposed by the state. Next, there are rules for the use of collective instruments like language, that are applied without being imposed by anybody. It is not so difficult to establish the rationality of linguistic rules, but that is not so obvious with rules of etiquette or convention, where the only rationality seems to be convention as such - which makes these rules resemble the equally arbitrary rules of a game.

Because fine play seems to be the natural habitat of arbitrary rules, rules governing other activities are often called 'the rules of a game' with the intent of emphasising the necessity to adopt them blindly, even if their rationality is not immediately evident. Thus, the rules governing war, justice, commerce, democracy, the use of words in diverse context of or simulations are often called 'the rules the game'...

And that brings us to another source of confusion. The expression 'rules of the game' only adds to the temptation to subsume the domains to which the expression is applied under the general category of play (Huizinga). Unjustifiably so: there is only similarity in parts, not in the whole. The generalisation is only metonymic: the other activities have only the rules in common with games, not the pleasure in the performance or in the contest.


We have seen that 'play' can refer to play in the literal sense or to play in the metaphorical sense of make-believe. We also have seen that this tempts us to overlook that the actor - otherwise than the man who plays the boss - also produces a product, an imitation - an image - of the imaginary Othello. The temptation is heightened by the metonymic shift from product to production that is inherent in the metaphorical use of the term 'play'. In the case of adult theatre, it is not difficult to resist the temptation. Things are different with pretend play of children - think of girls playing with dolls. Because children are the playing beings par excellence, we tend to consider all their activities as 'play', not only in the metaphorical sense of 'not serious', but also in the literal sense of a game. It pays to clearly demonstrate that pretend play is not some variant of play in the literal sense, but rather a primitive form of theatre.

Let us therefore examine the various stages in which pretend play unfolds to full theatre. In an initial stage, pretend play is a fantasy, a daydream,. In a next stage, children begin to perform the actions that conform to this fantasy, as when they move their arms as if they were flapping their wings. Such transition from fantasising to action threatens to destroy the inner experience. That is why children proceed to replacing inner representations with external perception of imitations. Most popular are the imitations of fellow players like a doll, or imitated objects like the car in the supermarket. The inner representation is then more easily combined with the perception of an imitated outer world. The child may even go further and take itself the appearance appropriate to the role it plays by dressing up and admiring themselves in a mirror. Thus, the immersion in an imitated world of images is completed. Let us remark that not every object that is used in pretend play is an imitation. The child that uses a broomstick as a driving wheel, resorts merely to a device that enables it to perform the act of steering. That holds equally for the broomstick between the legs that facilitates the performing of the movements of riding on a horse. Gombrich's hobby horse is in that sense 'a substitute for a horse' indeed - but nevertheless not an image of it. It is only the necessity to transform the outer world into a fitting representation that makes the child eventually resort to a genuine image of a horse. The imitated objects are not necessarily three-dimensional like dolls, cars, trains. Rather than in a three-dimensional car, the child can also resort to a screen on which a trajectory appears while it is sitting in a three-dimensional chair behind a steering wheel.

The necessity to transform the inner representation into a perceptible image is all the more urgent when there are fellow players. In that case, agreements have to be made - 'let's play witches!'. The children perform the actions that conform to the inner representation of their roles. They can content themselves with making the gesture with which the toad is thrown into an imaginary kettle. In a next phase, they proceed to using objects as a device that facilitates the performance of their actions: pebbles for toads. The facilitating devices can additionally be used as a kind of imageconjuring sign when children imagine their pebbles to be toads. In a further stage, children replace these devices with full images of objects, fellow players and environment: a real kettle to cook witch's soap with plastic toads in a dark cellar. Since they now are each other's public, they belong to each other's perceptible world: it no longer suffices to merely perform the appropriate actions, also the outer appearance has to fit in the picture.

In both cases, there is a continuum from inner representation to outer imitation: from playing rider by hopping up and down with the hands on imaginary reins, over using a broomstick, over sitting on a hobby horse with the appropriate clothes, to sitting on a hobby horse before a screen with the projection of a trajectory. In all these cases, we are dealing with mimesis - albeit an unspecialised version, whereby children are at the same time author, actor and public. With adults, this kind of primitive mimesis is replaced with real theatre with a strict division of labour between author, actor and public.

Although pretend play is often classified among the other forms of play, it is obvious that it does not belong in the same category as chess or football. A vague awareness of this is apparent from the fact that the qualification 'pretend' is added to the term 'play'. When a girl plays 'mother and child', it is not enjoying its prowess in performing the acts of mothering, nor is it trying to surpass competitors in 'mothering': it is just enjoying being a mother. Phrased otherwise: it is just playing a rudimentary form of theatre. Superficial similarities between ordinary play and pretend play facilitate the confusion. A child that is handling a steering wheel before a screen, can be either a player in a racing game or the participant in a pretend play where it imagines to be a car driver. Equally misleading is the fact that in both cases there may be 'roles': mother and child versus cops and robbers. It helps to remind that there still is a difference between ranks in the army and roles in the theatre.

We could ask ourselves why pretend play is so easily equated with play rather than with art. One reason is that 'art' always seems to refer to an artful image rather than to an unspecialised form of art like pretend play. That is also the reason why most people are not willing to call drawings of children 'art' - precisely therefore could they so easily serve as examples of anti-mimesis in the early twentieth century.

Children do not only imitate imaginary or real people. When they 'play' with sand, blocs, meccano or lego, they build castles, spacecrafts, animals and what have you. In all these cases, they are making images of objects - rudimentary forms of 'sculpture'. Here also, imitating can often turn into play or contest: when the stakes are to build the largest tower or the most complicated model. Although the result is a work of art, the focus is on the pleasure of being able to make it.


There is also the converse subsumption of play under art. Playing can be regarded as a 'mirror' of life. Already simples games are a mirror of life in that the player is dealing with 'difficulties that have to be overcome'. But it is foremost games where the players can influence each other's strategy and where the initial condition is determined by chance that can serve as appropriate metaphors for life. But we are dealing here with images in the metaphorical sense, like world views in philosophy, not with images in the literal sense of the word. Also the converse subsumption of play under art is hence unjustified.


The confusion caused by language, thinking, and the nature of things is only enhanced in that the false tracks seem to converge. Thus, the acting of the actor is not only play in the metaphorical sense, but also applied play in the literal sense when the actor focuses on the joy of performing. The performance itself is in its turn an 'art' - the art of acting - that results in the production of an artwork, the relish or the making of which is mere 'play' in comparison with hard labour. It seems as if there is a linguistic conspiracy intended to obfuscate every difference between art and play. In his Philosophische Untersuchungen, Wittgenstein describes part of this linguistic labyrinth. But, instead of showing us a way out, he concludes that there is none - contrary to what this text demonstrates. Let us proceed to untangle the third kind of confusion caused by the state of things:


After having disentangled all the confusions caused by language an thinking (metonymical generalisation), we have now to tackle the confusion caused by the state of things. As a matter of fact, many things are not found in a pure state: they mostly appear in often complicated combinations - exemplary in chemical compounds. We have seen how, like every form of production, the production of art may unfold to solitary play or to a contest. But there is more. Games are not always played in the real world, but increasingly in signified or imitated reality. In the case of imitations, play is often so entwined with (the) art (of imitation), that it seems to completely merge with it. The increasing contribution of sign and image is an important factor in the process of the transformation from original behaviour to play. Let us give an overview.

The most obvious way of transforming an action into play is to stop short of the original goal. Most martial sports content themselves with bringing the adversary in a position where he might be killed, but the killing itself is withheld. The same applies to sexual games: the play of seduction ideally stops short even of every bodily encounter.

A second method consists of replacing the original action and/or object and/or setting with versions that loose their original meaning through generalisation. An obvious example is the replacement of game or enemies with a target.

A third method is the introduction of signs. Signs may be used to replace players: the moves of the pawns on the chess board symbolise the movements of players on an imaginary field. The resort to symbols allows for replacing a single player with a team or a group - think of the formations in draughts, chess or stratego. Also action may be replaced with signs for actions: in draughts 'attacking' is signified by moving pawns over the squares of a board, and 'killing' by jumping over an enemy pawn; in chess 'killing is signified by jumping over a enemy piece or taking its place. The introduction of signs entails the signifying of the environment in which the action is taking place: square on a board as signs for a battle-field. Through such semiotisation the number of actions that can be transformed into play can be multiplied. The introduction of signs also entails a generalisation of actions: in the end, we are no longer dealing with ousting or killing, but with being superior as such, whereby superiority as such is in its turn signified by numbers (dice, domino, points) or by values (King, Queen, Jack).

A fourth and increasingly popular method is the introduction of images of existing of imaginary world. Rather than moving over paths in mazes that are signified by lines, we can also have an imitated player move in an imitated maze. The advantage is obvious: instead of having to shoot in an abstract target, we now aim at images of soldiers and have them bleed or explode. The introduction of images is a step that is often preceded by the introduction of signs: the abstract pawns of draughts are replaced with the rudimentary imitations of horses and towers in chess (see: motivation of signs). In many cases, the imitations are embedded in a signified environment (chess). The converse is also possible: in a game of goose, signified players follow a signified parcours, three stages of which consist of images of places. Monopoly is played with imitated money and imitated real estate in an otherwise signified world. In table football, players, field and goals are imitated. Even more mimetic is racing with an imitated car on an imitated racetrack, or shooting as an imitated fighter on imitated enemies in an imitated environment. Computers offer unlimited possibilities: real or imaginary enemies, unlimited kinds of action and destruction. Especially the environment can become really 'immersive' and pave the way for a transition to genuine mimesis (see below).

As long as images continue functioning in a context of signs, they function not so much as images sui generis, but rather as imagesigns. The chess player does not imagine fighting on a battlefield, even when surrounded by kings and knights. It is only when the figures become more and more lifelike and perform lifelike actions in lifelike environments in the so-called 'immersive games', that the player eventually finds himself in a completely imitated world rather than a signified or real world,

Not only the introduction of signs, but foremost the introduction of images widens the range of possible games. At the same time, play spiritualises: it is no longer played in a real world, but rather on a board or before a screen. It thus comes to partake of the additional dimension of make-believe (play in the metaphorical sense). Such spiritualisation does not affect sport, which continues to restrict itself to physical performances in the real world. That is why playing in a signified world is perhaps the most pure form of play: no longer physical on the one hand, but not yet evaporating into mimesis on the other hand.


However important the share of images in games might be, the images are never contemplated for their own sake. We are always dealing with a real player who actively intervenes in an imitated world. A proper understanding is hindered in that the player seems to be incorporated in the image itself, so that he eventually merely seems to contemplate his own actions on the screen as if he were playing the role of a hero in a film. Nevertheless, that is merely an illusion: it is the real player before the screen who pulls the strings of the puppet on the screen, not otherwise than the chess player who moves the pawns on the chess board.

That is not to say that playing in an imitated world cannot develop into the kind of pretend play that children like to play: the player might imagine that he is living in an imaginary world where he comes to fight imaginary adversaries. Play in the literal sense would then be transformed into an adult version of pretend play, where the player is at the same time the author, the actor and the public. The player would come to resemble someone who plays at the lottery and imagines to win jackpot. But, he can indulge his fantasy as long as it turns out that he is not the winner. For the same reason, the player can only feel a hero as long as he does not hurt on resistance - as long as he does not play. When he is defeated, the (imitated) reality breaks the spell: the apparent spectator is transformed into the real mortal before the screen who is put to the test. Only temporarily, then, can the player cherish the illusion that he is playing a role on an imaginary stage. Add to this that, otherwise than children in their pretend play, the player is not the author of the game, but only of his own reaction to situations that are prescribed in a scenario that is written by the author the game. There is, hence, no story that is invented and played by the player - and hence not such a thing as an 'interactive' variant of theatre or film. We are just dealing with real reactions (through an imitated player) to the imitated actions of adversaries.

Also the increasing role of signs does not turn play into art. The player does not imagine that he is killed or captured when a piece of his chess game is eliminated. The player continues to perform real interventions with signs for players, actions and environment.


Whoever does not recognise the fundamental difference between art and play, has to find the difference between art and art-games in superficialities: the examples in the literature are legion. The 'interactivity' is the source of much confusion here. Let us get things straight.

Play can be solitary or social. In the latter case, it is 'interactive', although the term is mostly restricted to games in which the adversary is a computer, especially when the adversary appears as an image on a screen. The term 'interaction' is the used to emphasise that the player is not a passive onlooker on the proceedings on the screen, but an active player, like in a chess game with a human adversary.

Things are different in art. An artwork is always a finished product that is consumed passively ('aesthetic contemplation"). An artwork does not become 'interactive' when it has to be executed - played - by an actor or a musician (or a reader). Neither does it become an interactive artwork when the consumer is also the author, as with the unspecialised mimesis of the 'pretend play' of children. To be sure: creation becomes interactive as soon as there is more than one author. That is the case when the player or the public have their say in how the score has to be played - think of Klavierstück XI by Stockhausen or of the Twenty-five Pages by Earle Brown. That is from the beginning the case with artworks that are the result of collective creation like film. But in none of these cases the public gives up its passive stance: it eventually consumes a unique version of the artwork as a finished product. There are cases, hence, of interactive creation or of interactive interpretation. But something like an 'interactive artwork' is an oxymoron - something like an interactive cake or interactive wine. End products are always consumed passively: consumers only interact with products that are instruments - think of cars, or of the images of adversaries on the screen of a computer game.

Nothing prevents us from using the term 'interactive artwork', as soon as we continue to realise us that we are dealing with an ellipse whose full version reads: an interactively produced artwork.


Play can make use of images without stopping to be play. That does not prevent images that are used in the context of play from being isolated as autonomous art works. And playing a game may go hand in hand with enjoying the images of adversaries and environments. There may well be gamers who play their 'art-games' in view of the relish of the images of heroes, landscapes and interiors. But that should not seduce us to herald computer games as the new art form of the electronic age - as a new kind of 'interactive theatre' or 'integrative film'. Even less are we dealing with new forms of sculpture or painting, as Coulter-Smith would have it.

Also elements from the unspecialised theatre of children or the specialised theatre of adults may be isolated from the theatrical context as art works in their own right. Think of the paintings of Picasso that served as backdrops in the theatre, but also of the dolls and hobby horses of children. Only the term 'sculpture' can makes us reluctant to consider these products as artworks - but eve since modern artists stopped to resort to marble, bronze and wood, this cannot be much of a problem. Also the model railroads can be regarded as a three-dimensional image on the same footing as the creations of Hans Op de Beeck. How much children regard their toys as three-dimensional artworks, is apparent from the fact that they use to display them, not otherwise than adults use to isolate African masks from their ritual context to exhibit them in museums. It will by now be apparent, however, that the broomstick that serves as a mere device to facilitate playing, does not belong in such real or imaginary museum. (Wherewith Gombrichs 'niam-niam substitute theory of art' is rrefuted).


Play is a behaviour that is performed in order to enjoy the capacity of being able to perform it. It may be enjoyed in isolation, staged before a public, or compared with that of competitors in a contest. Art, on the other hand, is the art of making images (imitations). Art and play are clearly distinct phenomena.

Confusion of both can arise from the fact that both are often closely intertwined: just like every form of production, also the creation of art can be experienced as a play, or unfold to a contest; and images play an often important role in many a game. Also language is rather misleading. The term 'play' is often used as a metaphor, and is then applied to the making of art (playing with sounds or colours), to the execution of artworks (music, theatre, novels and poems) as well as to the enjoyment and the creation of art (as opposed to work or seriousness). Finally, play and art are often equated because they have a property in common that is considered to be its essence. Thus, art and play, together with many other human activities are group-binding or governed by 'rules of the game' - but that does not suffice to lump them together. And there are countless forms of art - among them the 'art of making images' and 'the art of playing games'- which does not suffice to lump them together neither.

Some people plead for the release of art form its specialised status as an object of aesthetic contemplation and advocate a return to the spontaneity of pretend play of children, who are at the same time author, actor and public. But that does not mean that art would have become 'play', and even less that it would have become 'interactive'. It only means that art regresses to its unspecialised stage where the onlooker is a co-creator: the music that is played on interactive music installations of all kinds rather compares to the unspecialised improvisation of children rather than to the art of Bach's improvisation of a six-part fugue...

Next to the relapse of art in displayed reality, design, verbal and non-verbal pseudo-philosophy, there seems to a fourth way to evade the problems of mimesis: the relapse of art into play.

Stefan Beyst, January 2011


Arlene Tucker

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