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The “ludic” citizen: play as an indispensable ingredient for citizenship

It is clear that with the emergence of digital and mobile technologies, our ideas regarding what citizen participation entails have changed profoundly. Interactive, networked, and cheap technologies have had a strong democratizing effect, thereby also increasing the potential to boost the degree of civic engagement. A relatively new field of research studies the role of play in this development, against the backdrop of the trend that has been witnessed since the 1960s in which daily cultural practices have become far more imbued with play. While play is often associated with games, scholars study it from a broader socio-cultural perspective as “free movement within a more rigid structure”. As such, play is valued for its potential as a problem-solving force.

The research has led to conceptualisations of the “ludic” (from the Latin word ludus meaning play) or “playful” citizen, as discussed in a recent open access book called The Playful Citizen: Civic Engagement in a Mediatized Culture. The assumption underlying the study is that play “is an important theoretical principle for comprehending new manifestations of civic engagement”. The research revolves around the questions of “how media and citizenship can converge in contemporary culture through the lens of play” and “what citizenship entails in our contemporary digital media culture”.

While play was traditionally reserved for a limited number of domains, the editors submit that play has left these traditional domains “and has pervaded domains traditionally perceived as non-playful”, leading to a broad and ongoing “ludification of culture”. Thus, games are no longer confined to the entertainment industry, but playfulness has penetrated the fields of work (presenting repetitive tasks in a playful manner) and school (edugames), but also the political domain by means of video games such as The Cat and the Coup and Darfur is Dying.

We have explained in a previous episode that citizenship has different dimensions and that conceptions of citizenship range from “thick” to “thin”. The editors of The Playful Citizen build on these conceptions by looking how civic engagement, which is described as “the extended involvement of individuals in a collective political decision-making process”, fits different views of citizenship. They conclude that since “technologies empower people to monitor issues collectively and act upon them”, citizens increasingly feel a sense of collective ownership of complex issues. This trend is very similar, in fact, to the promise of blockchain in that this new technology relies on collective ownership rather than coordination from one central point. The editors conclude that the triadic relationship of citizenship, media technologies and play in the digital age is increasingly becoming the driver of civic participation, seemingly at the expense of the more classic conception of citizenship as entailing rights and duties in relation to state institutions.

Author: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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