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Homo Ludens 2.0 (2012)

Homo Ludens 2.0: The Ludic Turn in Media Theory

Joost Raessens (Inaugural Address, Utrecht University)

Including those among you who do not engage in media studies will be familiar with today’s subject – the concept of play. Just open your newspaper and see how this concept imposes itself, both in word and image. Take for example the Dutch cabinet formation in 2010: “Formation rules out of date” de Volkskrant announces. And NRC Next points out that the “formation game is not played properly” and that the process shows signs of “rough play.” Imagery in de Volkskrant similarly uses the play metaphor to denote the political situation. Wilders is depicted as a puppeteer pulling the strings at whim while the political arena is reduced to his playground. Rules: No Muslims, no leftist elite and no judges. Closing time – or how long will this cabinet stay in power? – ask it to Mr. Wilders. A second example – this time from the field of media studies – is offered by the film Slumdog Millionaire (Boyle 2008). It is remarkable that this particular film was the big winner at the Academy Awards – the Oscars – in 2009. Suspense in the film largely depends on the format of a major television genre, the game show, and more specifically the quiz show: the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? At the beginning of the film we have an opening ritual that introduces protagonist Jamal Malik, which is followed by the actual game, the quiz, while the film ends with a closing ritual showing how the winner Jamal is congratulated by the presenter and handed a check with the amount of money he has won. Media scholar John Fiske calls this format of “ritual-game-ritual” (1987a, 265) an enactment of capitalist ideology. The suggestion is made that – no matter the differences – everyone would have the same opportunities. That differences in the standard of knowledge are often associated with differences in social backgrounds would thus be hidden from view. This is indeed how the film could be interpreted. The people in the film who in increasing numbers follow the show watch in amazement as Jamal correctly answers each new question yet again. But director Danny Boyle plays a double game. Ingeniously he interweaves the storyline of the quiz with the narrative of Jamal’s life. By thus addressing Jamal’s social background he manages to show the film’s audiences how this ‘bum’ from the slums gleaned his superb knowledge from the streets to win the quiz show. These two examples highlight most of the features of the play concept that I want to discuss today: the importance of rules, the idea that rules can be changed, the playful nature of cultural domains such as politics and media, the understanding that play is often less open than it looks (it is Mr. Wilders’s playground), the international popularity of game shows, the cultural significance of play, and so on.

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