War and game, a way of interpreting the world

Game is combat and combat is game”, affirms Johan Huizinga in his famous work Homo Ludens written in 1938. This chiasmus serves as the background to the essay War and game. Cultures of a paradox in the modern era (1) completed under the direction of Achim Küpper and Kristine Vanden Berghe who are both researchers at the University of Liege. Using the work of the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga as a reference, the book explores the links that exist between these two terms that are generally accepted to be opposites but which nonetheless have much in common. Could it be that there is an unholy alliance between them? The work develops what may appear to be a paradox, in our present era of modern warfare and its consequences of massacres and extreme violence. It also offers us an analysis of the respective evolution of these notions and attempts to shows how war and game have tended to become abstract terms over the course of the centuries. The essay deals with the following questions: In what way is war game and vice versa? What kind of war and what kind of game is involved? Chance and staged events are highlighted as essential links in the chain connecting the two notions thereby providing authentic historical, political, literary and media clarity.

COVER Guerre et jeuThe term war as used here should not be understood in its traditional sense but rather as denoting “conflict”. It is as much about the First World War and the Mexican revolution as it is about deadly confrontations between mere individuals. The term war should be “taken to mean complex multifaceted conflict”, states Achim Küpper, a postdoctoral researcher at the FNRS in the Modern German Language and Literature department of the University of Liege. Neither should the reader expect to read only about actual examples taken from history. In this way, it can be said that certain contributions to the present work ‘game’ with the reader to the extent that the staged conflicts emerge totally from the imagination of the author, or are used as narrative background. Conflict therefore enters the universe of the fictional or the virtual, much like game-playing.

In addition, a choice was made regarding the period to be studied. “We began where Johan Huizinga left off, with modern, systematic warfare which is itself much like game-playing”. Indeed, Huizinga concentrated more on archaic war opposing equal adversaries who had mutual respect for each other. This form of warfare has clearly nothing to do with so-called modern ‘asymmetric’ warfare which is to be distinguished from war between states and for which there are no ‘rules’. This essay gives us several significant examples of this type of war: The First World War and the different strategic plans imagined by Von Schlieffen by means of his Kriegsspiele (war-games); the Mexican revolution (1910-1917); the Second World War through representations of the Shoah as a game; the war in Iraq in 2003 not to forget the nuclear ‘game’ which, while not a war in itself, only has two possible outcomes: the success of the strategy of deterrence or failure. The result of the latter would be the outbreak of a new conflict.

The characteristics of game according to Huizinga

What is game? If we refer to the etymology of this word, we must associate the word game with entertainment. Game is different to war in that it is universally understood. It is as though the two phenomena are intrinsically opposite. Yet the first lesson to be learned from Johan Huizinga is the fact that game-playing and war are similar. In his work, he lists their common points.

Therefore, for example, game-gameing is based on “freely consented yet imperious rules”. It must be remembered that Huizinga concerned himself with so-called ‘archaic’ war which involved the observation of very specific rules. Therefore, Huizinga, a specialist of the Middle Ages, presents the war of yesteryear, primitive war, as ‘recreational’, leading to the supposition that while game-gameing may indeed be amusement, this does not rule out a fatal conclusion. Death can indeed be part of game-playing on condition that the two sides consider themselves as equals and have mutual respect for each other. A particular example of this would be jousting during the Middle Ages or gladiatorial combat. Kristine Vanden Berghe, professor at the University of Liege (Spanish and Hispano-American Language and Literature) revisits Huizinga’s reasoning on this subject in her contribution dedicated to the book Cartucho, by the Mexican authoress Nellie Campobello: “Archaic war respects all the characteristics of the game, it is embellished with all the decorative material of the tribe and therefore functions in accordance with categories of aestheticism. In addition, it is a free activity separate from everyday life: it is brought about by a declaration of war and ends when there is a peace agreement. The space within which it occurs is also a separate terrain which may be a clearing in a forest in the case of a duel, or a battlefield, etc. Finally, archaic war was regulated by a series of rules which had to be observed”(2). Conversely, Brigitte Adriaensen(3) reminds us of the incompatibility that, according to Huizinga, exists between ‘total war’ and game. She summarizes Huizinga’s thinking by the following sentence: “Total war is a sign of the general decline of human civilization, a decline that is particularly visible in the fact that game has become more and more marginalized in our culture.»

(1) Guerre & jeu. Cultures d’un paradoxe à l’ère moderne, under the supervision of Achim Küpper and Kristine Vanden Berghe, Tours, Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2014. The work brings together nine contributions from an international conference organized at the University of Liege in 2011.
(2) Kristine Vanden Berghe, ‘Primitive war, aesthetic primitivism and a child view’, in War & game, p. 127
(3) Brigitte Adriaensen, Game as a staged event of the ineffable. Recreational representations of war in didactic games, cinema, art and current literature in in War & game. Brigitte Adriaensen is a professor associated with Hispanic literature at the University Radboud de Nijmegen (Holland).

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