Hopscotch for Slow-Learners?

What if the Covid deception was engineered to exploit or embezzle the most primal human impulse of all, the desire to play — and if this is why humans have been persuaded to behave so childishly?

I recently stumbled upon the — at first sight unbelievable — phenomenon of a ‘leading Irish scientist’ (and opportunistic medical businessman) — who had been to the fore in brainwashing and bullying the public for the previous 18 months — launching his own ‘stage show’ about the ‘pandemic’. Professor Luke O’Neill (for it was he), who of course does not put quotation-marks around the word ‘pandemic’, featured in this year’s Clifden Arts Festival (the oldest arts week in all Ireland) with his extravaganza titled Keep Calm and Trust the Science.

So, what began life 18 months ago as an alleged existential threat to the lives and health of the public (85,000 extra deaths promised in 2020) is now the occasion of jokes and (since Prof. O’Neill fancies himself as a troubadour) presumably songs. And yet, even though members of the public had to display their vaccine papers to gain admission (to this or any of the festival’s events), and even though the country in general is still subject to medical martial law (at the insistence of inter alia Prof. O’Neill), those who say the ‘pandemic’ is a hoax, a ruse, a prank, a deception are silenced or dismissed, while the professor japes and sings ditties about the mortal danger facing the Irish people into what is beginning to look like the distant future.  

But, ruminating upon these facts, I had a second thought. What if there is more to this than mere contemptuousness?

Let us for a few moments set aside questions of ethics and good taste and pensively swallow the thought that the title of his ‘show’ — a parodic forging of a UK WWII rallying injunction and a keynote cliché of the recent media-promoted Covid bullying — seems maybe just in the slighted degree off for something as allegedly lethal as we are supposed to be talking about. Okay, before we do so, a by-the-way question: Does the title of the ‘show’ seem more closely aligned with (a) some deadly pandemic that threatens life so acutely that there is no choice but to inject children and adults of all ages with an experimental substance that is undeniably killing people in their thousands, or (b) a fake pandemic in which ‘deaths’ are falsified using a bogus test and rampant misclassification? In other words, does ‘Keep Calm and Trust the Science’ approximate more closely to solemnity or unconcern?

Hmmm. Methinks the lad doth caper too much.

At first perusal, the idea of an arts festival staging ‘shows’ about ‘deadly’ diseases seems both tasteless and mad. But then it occurs that there are obvious connections between ‘art’ and ‘artful’ (‘devious’, ‘sly’, ‘deceitful’, ‘sneaky’ et cetera); and ‘art’ and ‘artifice’ (‘pretence’, ‘ruse’, ‘trick’, ‘sleight of hand’, et cetera); and that the word ‘artless’ means ‘free from deception’. Seen in these terms, an arts festival is exactly where a conjurer of pseudo- science might be expected to turn up.

But, then, another thought: What if flippancy is so self-evidently the correct inflection for Covid, which is why it is the accent that springs spontaneously into the heads of leading protagonists? What would that tell us?

That Covid is, at some level, a kind of game? That this is necessarily part of the logic of its construction and implementation? That this aspect is self-evident to the leading architects and technicians?

It has not been widely remarked that the Covid cult, aside form its religious, tyrannical and hypnoidal elements, also has elements of play and performance. There are, for a start, those masks. There are the arcane rules which cannot be fathomed, only learned by rote. There is the ‘scoreboard’ on the Nine O’clock News, displaying the day’s (alleged) fatalities. Those who dispute the referee’s decisions are deemed to be spoil-sports, and sent for an early shower of abuse from the waiting disc-jockeys.


With these thoughts rattling around my head, I dug out Homo Ludens, the 1938 book about humans and play by the Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga. My intuition was something like this: What if, underneath all the elements that have been leveraged by the perpetrators of the Covid desecration — latent, manipulable fears; love of authority; susceptibility to propaganda; tendency towards groupthink; residues of religiosity and ritualistic re-enactment; propensity towards hypnoidal manipulation; covert masochism; et cetera  — there was something else, something even deeper, more fundamental, more primeval?

Like, for example, play? When you think about it, play might well suggest itself as a way of capturing people across the full spectrum of their imaginative existences, from toddlerhood to the Third Act, tapping into their most intimate interactions with other humans from the beginning, catching them in repose

Might Covid, in some sense — and this is a serious question — be a game? Are we being duped into playing it? Are we being played, literally as well as figuratively? Is it, in different senses, play or, perhaps, a play? Has the world been turned into something like a ‘pitch’, a ‘court’, a ‘board’, a ‘track’, a ‘ring’, a diamond’, a ‘magic circle’? Have we all, unbeknownst to ourselves, being recruited as ‘players’, and persuaded to engage in some kind of charade in which we behave in ways other than we might behave ordinarily, while believing a flimsy fiction because that fiction is the stuff of the game? What would be the meaning of such a turn of events?

To begin, what do we know of play?

Johan Huizenga, in Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, sought to distil the essence of play and demonstrate its importance to the evolution of human civilisations. He emphasised that play is a creative function of man.Unlike activities oriented toward survival, play is something ‘done for its own sake’. It is ‘spontaneous and voluntary’ and not a means to an end.

Nor is it itself an evolutionary mechanism. We share it with animals but take it to higher levels. It is not subordinate to any other act or activity. It has a special, inscrutable and somewhat baffling function in human experience. Play, by lacking a clear meaning, defies reduction. There is, in a sense, nothing in human culture that predates it.

‘The incidence of play is not associated with any particular stage of civilization or view of the universe,’ Huizinga outlines. ‘Any thinking person can see at a glance that play is a thing on its own, even if his language possesses no general concept to express it. Play cannot be denied. You can deny, if you like, nearly all abstractions: justice, beauty, truth, goodness, mind, God. You can deny seriousness, but not play.’

Play is ‘a voluntary activity or occupation executed within certain fixed limits of time and place, according to rules freely accepted but absolutely binding, having its aim in itself and accompanied by a feeling of tension, joy, and the consciousness that it is “different” from “ordinary life”. Thus defined, the concept seemed capable of embracing everything we call “play” in animals, children and grown-ups: games of strength and skill, inventing games, guessing games, games of chance, exhibitions and performances of all kinds. We ventured to call the category “play” one of the most fundamental in life.’

Play comes before everything: culture, art, civilisation. It is, says Huizinga, the very basis of culture.

‘Play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing.’ Play is not, Huizinga is careful to emphasise, an ‘instinct’, although he sometimes uses the word as a shorthand, enclosing it in quotation marks.

‘In play there is something “at play” which transcends the immediate needs of life and imparts meaning to the action. All play means something. If we call the active principle that makes up the essence of play, “instinct”, we explain nothing; if we call it “mind” or “will” we say too much. However we may regard it, the very fact that play has a meaning implies a non-materialistic quality in the nature of the thing itself.’

Play is, in several senses, ‘religious” and, in this and otherwise, transcendent: it aspires to the holy; it rises above ‘real’ life; it enables a ‘forgetfulness’ about real-world problems and difficulties while it is happening.

‘Summing up the formal characteristics of play we might call it a free activity standing quite consciously outside “ordinary” life as being “not serious”, but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings which tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world by disguise or other means.’

The ‘function’ of play in its higher forms derives from its role as contest for something or representation. These two functions, says Huizinga, can unite in such a way that the game ‘represents’ a ‘contest’.

‘Representation means display,’ he elaborates, ‘and this may simply consist in the exhibition of something naturally given, before an audience . . . The child is making an image of something different, something more beautiful, or more sublime, or more dangerous, than what he usually is. One is a Prince, or one is a Daddy or a wicked witch or a tiger. The child is quite literally “beside himself” with delight, transported beyond himself to such an extent that he almost believes he is such and such a thing, without, however, wholly losing consciousness of “ordinary reality”’.

Play, then, is not an add-on, a bagatelle for the diversion of children, but something close to the opposite: the very basis of human progress and civilisation. ‘We are accustomed,’ Huizinga cautions, ‘to think of play and seriousness as an absolute antithesis. It would seem, however, that this does not go to the heart of the matter.’

‘For many years,’ he insists, in his book written just before the world last fell apart in 1938, ‘the conviction has grown upon me that civilization arises and unfolds in and as play.’

Many of the elements of human life and existence that we think of as ‘serious’, even solemn, derive from play: law, religion, art. Like religion, magic and the law, play has its own marked-out spaces, possibly implying some sacred function or aspect: a ‘hallowed spot’. In a sense, play and religion occupy the same quarter of the imagination.

Play is steeped in ritual, but play came first. Under various headings — performance, dress-up, ‘let’s pretend’ — it exhibits quasi-religious characteristics. It is as though it might be somehow synonymous with the true meaning and purpose of life, for it retains the same aura of mysteriousness.‘Life must be lived as play,’ said Plato, ‘playing certain games, making sacrifices, singing and dancing, and then a man will be able to propitiate the gods, and defend himself against his enemies, and win in the contest.’

Huizinga concurs: ‘The spirit of playful competition is, as a social impulse, older than culture itself and pervades all life like a veritable ferment. Ritual grew up in sacred play; poetry was born in play and nourished on play; music and dancing were pure play.’  From this he concludes that ‘civilization is, in its earliest phases, played. It does not come from play . . . ‘It arises in and as play, and never leaves it.’

A civilisation, he writes, cannot exist in the absence of ‘a certain play-element’, for civilization ‘presupposes limitation and mastery of the self, the ability not to confuse its own tendencies with the ultimate and highest goal, but to understand that it is enclosed within certain bounds freely accepted.’ Civilization is rooted in noble play and cannot afford to neglect the play-element. Once the importance of ‘play-rules’ is forgotten, he says, a society falls into barbarism and chaos. ‘We might, in a purely formal sense, call all society a game if we bear in mind that this game is the living principle of all civilization.’

Play begins with a shrinking of the world — down to the ring, the field, the table, the ‘magic circle’ that becomes the entire world of the game. ‘For us the chief point of interest is the place where the game is played. Generally it is a simple circle, dyutamandalam, drawn on the ground. The circle as such, however, has a magic significance. It is drawn with great care, all sorts of precautions being taken against cheating. The players are not allowed to leave the ring until they have discharged their obligations. But, sometimes a special hall is provisionally erected for the game, and this hall is holy ground.’

Huizinga goes on to describe how play ‘moves and has its being’ within this ‘playground’ marked off beforehand either materially or conceptually, deliberately or at least as a matter of ready perception. ‘Just as there is no formal difference between play and ritual,’ he says, ‘so the “consecrated spot” cannot be formally distinguished from the play-ground. The arena, the card-table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the screen, the tennis court, the court of justice, etc., are all in form and function play-grounds, i.e. forbidden spots, isolated, hedged round, hallowed, within which special rules obtain. All are temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.’

Play, he says, ‘is an activity which proceeds within certain limits of time and space, in a visible order, according to rules freely accepted, and outside the sphere of necessity or material utility. The play-mood is one of rapture and enthusiasm, and is sacred or festive in accordance with the occasion. A feeling of exaltation and tension accompanies the action.’

Play derives from the depths of the mind. It defies the reductionism that man seeks always to impose on his own affairs, denying the wondrous nature of his situation. Its gratuitousness poses questions irreducible by logic or reason. And yet, even the most logical and reasonable humans like to play games.

Play is ‘pointless but significant’, in Romano Guardini’s words: it is not utilitarian, and yet it has purposes, many of them opaque and inscrutable. Play, according to Huizinga, belongs to ‘the highest regions of the spirit’, which is to say, among other things, that it transcends man’s capacity to understand himself.

In acknowledging play, he elaborates,’ you acknowledge mind, for whatever else play is, it is not matter. Even in the animal world it bursts the bounds of the physically existent. From the point of view of a world wholly determined by the operation of blind forces, play would be altogether superfluous. Play only becomes possible, thinkable and understandable when an influx of mind breaks down the absolute determinism of the cosmos. The very existence of play continually confirms the supra-logical nature of the human situation. Animals play, so they must be more than merely mechanical things. We play and know that we play, so we must be more than merely rational beings, for play is irrational.’

Play, being antecedent to everything else in civilisation, is all but synonymous with Being. It is irrational, and yet deeply intelligent. It is superfluous and yet fulfils some deep inscrutable need. It has no ‘function’ beyond itself and yet invades every dimension of human life. It is the opposite of seriousness, and yet must be taken seriously if it is to happen at all. When children play, it is always serious. But with adults this cannot be assumed, for they find it embarrassing to be observed doing things they no longer understand or believe in, and exhibit this tendency to drive things towards a face-saving frivolity, this achieving the opposite of the true play-spirit. But — perhaps — there may be mechanisms for dissolving such inhibitions, for returning the adult unwittingly to the fluidity of childhood?

Play, as Huzinga defines it, ‘creates order’. It is order. ‘Into an imperfect world and into the confusion of life it brings a temporary, a limited perfection. Play demands order absolute and supreme. The least deviation from it "spoils the game", robs it of its character and makes it worthless. The profound affinity between play and order is perhaps the reason why play . . . seems to lie to such a large extent in the field of aesthetics. Play has a tendency to be beautiful. It may be that this aesthetic factor is identical with the impulse to create orderly form, which animates play in all its aspects. The words we use to denote the elements of play belong for the most part to aesthetics, terms with which we try to describe the effects of beauty: tension, poise, balance, contrast, variation, solution, resolution, etc. Play casts a spell over us; it is “enchanting”, “captivating”. It is invested with the nọblest qualities we are capable of seeing in things: rhythm and harmony.’

It is in this way that the playing becomes ‘holy’.

‘The participants in the rite are convinced that the action actualizes and effects a definite beatification, brings about an order of things higher than that in which they customarily live. All the same this "actualization by representation" still retains the formal characteristics of play in every respect.’

Play is rarely purely ‘fun’ (a word without a direct translation to most other languages) though it provokes something akin to pleasure, perhaps satisfaction or enjoyment’. ‘Fun’ is an unstable definition. A tennis player, waiting for his opponent to serve, does not appear to be enjoying himself. He is tense, even anxious, possibly fearful or angry or frustrated. Yet, he is engaged in something that is instantly identifiable as play.

Nor does play necessarily lend itself to laughter: ’In itself play is not comical either for player or public. The play of young animals or small children may sometimes be ludicrous, but the sight of grown dogs chasing one another hardly moves us to laughter. When we call a farce or a comedy “comic”, it is not so much on account of the play-acting as such as on account of the situation or the thoughts expressed.’

Since much play takes the form of ritual, it is not observably light-hearted.‘Ritual is seriousness at its highest and holiest,’ and yet is an essential part of play. The joy it confers is not necessarily raucous and giddy. It can be quiet and introverted. It can also darken and become vengeful, neurotic, even hateful. It can be the jealous stab of the inadequate or the slow-burning satisfaction of the resentful awaiting his hour in the sun of revenge. ‘Frivolity and ecstasy,’ writes Huizinga, ’are the twin poles between which play moves’, but ecstasy can be born of the dark as well as the light.

Similarly, ‘freedom’, another of the essential characteristics of play identified by Huizinga. Freedom does not necessarily mean ‘freely entered into’: a particular school may declare sport compulsory yet the playing of it remains the source of great pleasure and satisfaction. Play generates its own forms of freedom, separate from and different to those of the ‘real’ world. ‘[P]ure play,’ writes Huizinga, ‘is one of the main bases of civilization, and communal play is the exercise of freedom within a structure of law and form.’ The rigidities of the magic circle and the rules create a strange contained kind of freedom that may only be experienced and observed in its place. It cannot be captured or transplanted.

At one point, without elaborating, Huizinga makes an intriguing suggestion:

‘But at any moment, even in a highly developed civilization, the “play-instinct” may reassert itself in full force, drowning the individual and the mass in the intoxication of an immense game.’ And this, too, has the capacity to move towards the light or the dark — towards play or ‘false play’, this being the tendency of rulers to tap into the play instinct of their subjects for a nefarious purpose, to unleash a ‘play’ so that the citizens may, in participating in its logic, lose touch with reality and become malleable.

Might something like this be ‘at play’ in the Covid exercise? True play has no ulterior motive, no point but itself. Man engages in it sometimes for reward, but that is never the primary aim. It is gratuitous, unnecessary, but not without purpose. Indeed, purpose is at the heart of play — a certain focussed goal is the point of every game: to put the ball in the net, to clear the highest raised bar . . . to ‘save lives’ . . . ?

And what if these — nowadays, eccentric — ideas of the hidden structure of culture were somehow to come to renewed official — or would -be authoritarian —notice? What if this most fundamental impulse or response was to be identified, latent and somewhat derelict, as betraying under-utilised promise and potential?

What if the whole world might be turned into a game? What if the aim of the game was to be defined as ‘saving lives’, but the purpose somewhat different?

But wait!: Perhaps, even ‘saving lives’ is not the ‘exalted purpose’ of the Covid game. It is the pretext, yes, but the tension and action of the game, 18 months into it, seems to reside elsewhere. In the beginning, we note, the ‘opponent’ was ‘the virus’; now, however, we might say that the opponent is the one who disputes the existence or gravity of the virus. The ‘object’ of the game, therefore, now resides perhaps in identifying and chastising those miscreants who refuse to play the game properly or at all. And this hints at a lower purpose, separate to the play and inimical to the true play-spirit. 

In the game, the ‘spoil-sport’ is someone who trespasses against the rules or ignores them. He may or may not be a ‘player’. Huizinga notes: ‘The spoil-sport is not the same as the false player, the cheat; for the latter pretends to be playing the game and, on the face of it, still acknowledges the magic circle. It is curious to note how much more lenient society is to the cheat than to the spoil-sport. This is because the spoil-sport shatters the play-world itself. By withdrawing from the game he reveals the relativity and fragility of the play-world in which he had temporarily shut himself with others. He robs play of its illusion — a pregnant word which means literally “in-play” (from inlusio, illundere or inludere). Therefore, he must be cast out, for he threatens the existence of the play-community.’

What, then, if the Covid deception was consciously engineered to exploit or embezzle the most primal human impulse of all, the desire to play — and if this is why humans have been persuaded to behave so childishly?

The objectives and rules of a game of Covid can seem inscrutable to the uninitiated. It will be noted that players are sometimes masked with cloth strips placed over their mouths, and tied to their ears. The masks are coloured, though to no discernible pattern, a pale blue being by far the most common. Occasionally, a player may wear two or more different coloured masks, though again the logic of this is opaque.

The players tend, in general, to move around one another, leaving approximately two metres in between, though sometimes more, often moving in very wide circles around the others, occasionally pausing to wash their hands using potions from bottles that are distributed haphazardly around the places where the game is played.

In queuing up outside various facilities, players tend to keep the same two-metre gap between themselves and others, moving forward one at a time, preserving the distance and tugging at their face masks, pulling them more tightly over their noses or down on their chins. Sometimes, a player who is not wearing a face mask, or wearing one in an unapproved fashion, will be accosted by another player or players, and a dispute will ensue. This, as noted, appears to be somewhat close to the nub of the game’s purpose, for it is here the players become most animated.

The rules concerning face masks are even more impenetrable than under other headings. In certain areas, for example, players must wear face masks when walking between one point and another, but may remove them when sitting down. In other situations, a player must wear a face mask while either sitting or standing, though may remove the mask to eat or drink. A player who deviates from the correct routine — for example, omitting to don a face mask to walk across a room from a doorway to a chair — may be loudly assailed by other players, and sometimes either debarred from the room or other area, or occasionally forcibly removed by uniformed referees or stewards. 

The routes and paths of the game are laid out with yellow markings — arrows, lines, symbols and other enigmatic signs. The players follow the general instruction of these signs, though somewhat haphazardly. Sometimes, on encountering and recognising another player or players, one player or more may engage in a jerky dance in which the participants touch elbows or clench fists and gently push them together in a show of mutual affection or solidarity. This appears to be the aspect of the game offering the most explicit ‘fun’ element, as the players giggle and titter as they touch fists or elbows. It is evidently forbidden to touch hands or mouths, though sometimes, as an alternative to elbow or fist contact, players may throw or blow kisses at other players. Generally this ritual involves one masked player and another, unless one player is unmasked but in an approved situation, such as holding a cup of beverage in the vicinity of his mouth.

But what, in the Covid game, equates to the ‘magic circle’? It is a good question, for at first sight the most ‘obvious’ answer seems to disintegrate the entire hypothesis, for has not Covid taken over everything? But this is not quite the case: The lines and arrows and signs and PA announcements appear to be total, but in reality they are still striving so to become. For the moment, they designate and partition separate spaces within the ‘real’ world, in a sense colonising them for the game, but this encroachment does not yet amount to the entire world. Though totalitarian in ambition, Covid is not yet total. The space of the Covid game is the State, which is seeking to intrude upon and conquer all space and time. This is an aspect of which the players are at best dimly aware, for in their minds the game is already total, as it needs to appear.

In the beginning, the Covid regimens stopped all other kinds of playing — singing, dancing, swimming at the seaside — and only grudgingly restored some of these on a qualified basis. By way of compensation, it created less familiar forms of ‘play’, which were not so recognised and yet seemed for many people to fill the gap. The Covid game is, in some respects, like a form of hopscotch for grown-ups, or perhaps for slow-learners: it marks out parts of the pavement and claims them, so that even when the game is in suspension, Covid remains before the imagination.

In a ‘real’ sense, then, the Covid illusion has this capacity to be at once real and not real. The intrinsic human attraction to play allows for a blurring between the fictional and the real, so that, like children, adults can engage in the game via a kind of quasi-total belief, while still seeing the rest of the world as separate — for now. This contains within its ‘logic’ the possibility that the ever-present hypnosis will allow people to return to ‘normal’ and regard the whole episode in the way they might a particular day’s golfing, or a pop concert, or a game of hide-and-seek with their grandchildren in the park. But they might just as readily come to accept the ‘game’ as permanent, as a new reality, a ‘new normal’. It all depends on who ‘wins’ — the believers or the spoil-sports.

This dualistic reflex is intrinsic to play. The player abandons himself to the game and the consciousness of its being ‘merely a game’ melts into the background. You might, then, observe that Covid represents ‘a temporary constriction or part-abolition of the ordinary world’, a concept which Huizinga says is ‘fully acknowledged in child-life, but it is no less evident in the great ceremonial games of savage societies.’ In both, the ‘real’ and the ‘play’ become part of the same magic circle. The players are like actors in a play. They know it is a play and yet they are utterly diverted by and immersed in the parts they are playing.

And yet they are always, in a certain sense, not playing. I watch my wife playing with her six-year-old granddaughter. They are playing Halloween games, and my wife covers her head with a sheet and pretends to be a ghost. Her granddaughter, who adores her Nana, watches her pull the sheet over her head. They are both laughing, close to hysterically. Nana, making ‘ghost noises’, approaches her granddaughter, her hands raised in the sheet. Reaching her, she brings her hands down as though to grab her granddaughter, who screeches for all her worth, but then instantly reverts to laughing. She is both in the game and not in it. She knows it is her Nana under the sheet, but also, engaging fully in the ‘let’s pretend’ dimension, which is a special capacity acquired in early childhood, she is in some sense ‘scared’. She sees the sheet, could call it by its name, yet momentarily believes it is something else. Huizinga’s words from another, more traditional context, seem to fit: ‘Whether one is sorcerer or sorcerised, one is always knower and dupe at once. But one chooses to be the dupe.’

He cites R.R. Marett, from The Threshold of Religion: ‘The savage is a good actor who can be quite absorbed in his role, like a child at play; and also like a child, a good spectator who can be frightened to death by the roaring of something he knows perfectly well to be no “real” lion.’

It is as though play accentuates some otherwise unremarked bifurcation of human responses, a flitting between the ‘play’ and the ‘real’. In the same spirit, we may ‘pretend’ to be afraid, ‘act out’ the emotion required by the script — because it is, after all, at some level a game. And yet, in a different sense, the emotion — of fear or rage — is somewhat ‘real’.

These quirks of play seem, too, to achieve some resonance with the function of the face mask in the Covid game, which somehow equates to the sheet over Nana’s head: Huizinga says: ‘Even for the cultured adult of today, the mask still retains something of its terrifying power, although no religious emotions are attached to it. The sight of the masked figure, as a purely aesthetic experience, carries us beyond “ordinary life” into a place where something other than daylight reigns; it carries us back to the world of the savage, the child and the poet, which is the world of play.’

The core of the Covid scam is a mechanism along these lines: It imbues intense belief at the same time as an agnosticism essential to everyday continuity. People believe in the ‘disease’, are ‘frightened’ by it, yet, believing that, if they follow the rules, they will remain safe, they are more afraid of those who are not afraid, for it is they who threaten to break the spell and bring perdition — or reality? — down upon everyone.

‘The play-mood is labile [constantly undergoing change] in its very nature,’ says Huizinga. ‘At any moment “ordinary life” may reassert its rights either by an impact from without, which interrupts the game, or by an offence against the rules, or else from within, by a collapse of the play spirit, a sobering, a disenchantment.’

Let’s ‘pretend’, then, that, wiring into the play ‘instinct’ in human beings, the plotters of our hypothesis have created a fantasy that finds its energy in the residual ‘pretend’ life of infantilised adults, and yet at the same time have weaponised all the real-life emotions of the ‘players’ in much the way that the participants in a savage drama, or the viewers of a horror movie, experience real fear and shock at things they are, at the same time, able to ‘see through’.

The player, once within and accepting of the ’magic circle’, accepts also the total logic of the game and is able to close out the ‘real world’ outside. A footballer may be carrying griefs or worries from his everyday life, and yet be able put in the performance of his life on the pitch. This facility, too, is leveraged in Covid. The sometimes opaque, complex or absurd character of the rules is as though designed to maintain the illusion. Here, in fact, the complexity/absurdity assists in focussing the player exclusively on the content of the rules, to the exclusion of logic or meaning. The game creates its own centre-of-gravity, which draws the players to it, maintaining the spell, keeping them in their trance. The ‘logic’ of the rules does not matter — the rules are there to support the coherence of the game, and cannot be analysed by the logic of the ‘real’ world. It is as though the rules are handed down by a superhuman force, a quasi-deity, all-seeing, foreseeing, all wise, who can be trusted to have the best interests of the players at heart at all times. If you play, you accept the rules in their totality; there is no point in not doing so. Footballers do not stop to argue the philosophy of the offside trap with the linesman; they accept it as a given condition of playing the game. It is something with no currency or traction in the ‘real world’, but that world has little traction or currency while the game persists, unless some sudden intrusion of reality — a bomb scare or a sudden pitch invasion — brings the illusion to a disgruntling halt. Even a sudden downpour at a football match has little or no impact. The players continue as though nothing has changed. In motor racing, rain provokes a pit stop and a change of tyres, but even then the continuity of the game is preserved, since the speed of the change may prove a vital element of the game. So it is with Covid: the labyrinth of rules provides a constant reminder of the game’s continuance, and also a distraction from real life, in which these rules do not apply. The game becomes a warm place of community, notwithstanding the hardships, a bit like a place of pilgrimage where you must remove your shoes and walk on sharp stones, or a triathlon where the players endure freezing water and wet clothes and yet remain focussed on the prize. Thus, the ‘fun’ of the game becomes likewise something particular to the play; to go around in wet clothes in the ‘real world’ is a definition of misery; in the game it is part of the joy. To lose your human autonomy but gain the camaraderie of the play-group in the mission to save lives and oppose ‘deniers’ is, on balance, not a bad bargain — especially when, between ourselves, you have no choice.

In the Covid game, there are two adversaries: the virus and the spoil-sport. The virus represents a constant, invisible threat, and the nightly scoreboards on the TV News allows the players an approximate monitor of how they are progressing. But they also must contend with the sceptic, who tries to break the play-spell by suggesting that the ‘game’ is not real, to jerk them back to ‘reality’ and spoil their satisfaction or, yes, in a certain darkly rapturous sense, their fun.

But why?

 — To create a context — a space and time — in which rules, regardless of logic or coherence, would be accepted unquestioningly. 

 —  To create a sense of order, albeit rooted in a kind of game, that might function as a ‘rehearsal’ for something more serious.

 — To create ‘teams’ which might, by opposing one another, serve to police the rules and thereof sustain the game through various trials of opposition or dissension, to ‘victory’.

 — To break the spirit of the ‘spoilsports’ by compelling them to  surrender and stop trying to break the spell of the game and, above all, to take the vaccine — so as to be re-admitted to the magic circle — the ultimate victory?

It is, of course, a travesty of play, just as it is a travesty of health, science and life. But that in itself does not gainsay the hypothesis that such a primal element of the human make-up might suggest itself to would-be evildoers as a means of drawing in and trapping humanity in the tangles of its own structure and dynamism. Clearly, they are well capable of such cynicism.

And nor is the thesis destroyed by the occasional discordance with the definitions of play as set out by Johan Huizinga. It may well be that the forms of ‘freedom’ afforded by the lockdown play do indeed liberate certain categories of the human from fear of death or sickness, reassure them that their government is in control (and how!), and enable them to enter into a, yes, cocoon of quasi-certitude as to their security and correctness, their moral uprightness and indeed superiority to more lackadaisical or truculent folk. This is the freedom of the bird in the cage, but this seems not to compute in the minds of most players.

Nor can it be said that there is much ‘fun’ as normally understood to be had on the lockdown frontline — venturing to the shops for milk and bread or trying to obtain a takeaway coffee without humiliating oneself along the average high street. The ‘fun’ to be had here is indeed perverted; it is the ‘fun’ of the sub in the master-slave BDSM scenario; albeit perhaps punctuated by the brief occasional moment of rapture when the sub finds himself temporarily endowed with the powers of the Master to chastise a random miscreant along the way. Huizinga says: ‘The joy inextricably bound up with playing can turn not only into tension, but into elation. Frivolity and ecstasy are the twin poles between which play moves.’

The hypothesis is not hermetically sealed. But the fact that such quantities as freedom and fun are perverted within the logic of the rules and the play does not take substantively from the likelihood that the overall architectures of the play-ethic and play-space have been appropriated for the most malign and misanthropic reasons imaginable. The overall structure of what feels like a metaphor, but probably isn’t, holds firm — the usurping of the most primeval and profound joy-making capacity of the human person in the achievement of his enslavement.

Huizinga sternly reminds us that this is not ‘play’, but ‘false play’. Having taken us on a journey through the history of play under numerous headings — law, art, poetry, philosophy, and more — he moves into the modern era, in which, he posits that the play impulse has deadened and declined, having been on the wane since the eighteenth century. He cites, as a primary example, the deterioration in the mode of dress among adult human males — once a primary element of the playfulness intrinsic to former reality. Such trends he traces to shifts in the forms of art, the emergence of Realism, Naturalism and Impressionism — ‘and the rest of that dull catalogue of literary and pictorial coteries . . . all emptier of the play-spirit than any of the earlier styles had ever been.’ Culture had ceased to be ‘played’. In some ways, he thought, these trends might have seemed to be corrected by the ascendency of sports in the twentieth century, but this was matched in reverse by an uptick in seriousness and professionalism. He noted one counter-cultural trend that proved the rule: the tendency of modern business to ‘instill the play-spirit into their workers so as to step up production’.

By the same token, he identifies in the early twentieth century modern moment a tendency he believes deeply antithetical to the play-spirit, resulting in what he deems ‘false play’. Of this phenomenon he gives a solitary example: where certain play-forms are used, consciously or unconsciously, to ‘cover up some social or political design.’

He does not elaborate, but it seems that here he is returning to the theme touched on earlier when he alluded to the danger of the play-instinct reasserting itself ‘in full force, drowning the individual and the mass in the intoxication of an immense game.’ Without doubt, it is this form of ‘play’ that we are confronted by in the Covid deception. And this can become dangerous precisely because of the ambiguity it fosters, whereby the aggression and ‘kill-element’ of the game may overflow into real life, where the cause of the higher purpose of the game transcends the petty concerns of the ‘real’ world, and the enmity of the play-area spills into the world of flesh-and-blood and truth and lies.

To the underpinnings of the ‘false play’ tendency he gives the name ‘Puerilism’, a form of childishness that lacked both the spirit of childhood and the associated true impulse towards playfulness. ‘According to our definition of play,’ he elaborates, ‘puerilism is to be distinguished from playfulness. A child playing is not puerile in the pejorative sense we mean here. And if our modern puerilism were genuine play, we ought to see civilisations returning to the great archaic forms of recreation where ritual, style and dignity were in perfect unison. The spectacle of a society rapidly goose-stepping into zealotry into helotry [slavery] is, for some, the dawn of the millennium. We believe them to be in error.’

The roots of this tendency he describes as ‘that blend of adolescence and barbarity which has been rampant all over the world for the last two or three decades.’ In this he is referring more or less precisely to the period of the First World War and what would emerge as the cæsura between two such conflicts. ‘It would seem,’ he continues, ‘as if the mentality and conduct of the adolescent now reigned supreme over large areas of civilized life, which had formerly been the province of responsible adults.’ He has in mind the vulgarity of public ‘yelling’, ‘the wearing of badges and sundry items of political haberdashery’, and ‘the whole rigmarole of collective voodoo and mumbo-jumbo’, all accompanied by ‘the insatiable thirst for trivial recreation and crude sensationalism.’ Nations had turned into ‘clubs’, to the detriment of friendship, loyalty, honour, humour, decency, fair play — these being supplanted by intolerance, suspicion, self-love, group-consciousness, and illusion. He worries, too, about ‘the entry of half-educated masses into the international traffic of the mind’, and the relaxation of morals and ‘hypertrophy of technics’ (the explosion of technology, one presumes) which accompanied this.

All in all, it is a pretty succinct diagnosis of the conditions that delivered us to the present moment, and which may have provoked in our would-be controllers the idea that a sudden cessation of human activity, accompanied by staged restoration of the play-spirit, might bring to the surface a lost docility and renewed rage for order.

Huizinga’s observations from his time, eight decades ago, are the conditions we now face in full-blown form, with the goose-stepping occurring in the form of phantom aspiration rather than — as yet — an audible martial reality. In this scenario, the play-spirit was ripe for renewal, albeit, just as predictably, in contorted form. Yet, the play is indeed, as by Huizinga analysis, mostly ‘false play’, rendering it difficult, as per his definition, to say where play ends and non-play begins. This is the core of the Covid trick: the creation of a world-within-the-world in which a logic has been planted that could be at once real and unreal, serious and not, in which the ‘virus’ may exist only in certain places, at certain heights and times, in a certain frame of mind — to infect or not to infect — or on TV only, where the scoreboard manifests on a nightly basis, but with sufficient impact to propel the game for another night and day. A sign of the presence of the ‘false play’ syndrome in the Covid ‘game’ would be the way the rules change al the time, purportedly for good and rational reasons but really both to fuel the sceptic on his unbelief and at the same time confuse the believer, so the two go with fresh vigour at one another’s throats.

The friend-foe (mis)understandings that have erupted in the Covid era spring also, without doubt, from the illogic of what Huizinga calls ‘false play’, for they are self-evidently contrived for the most malign of purposes, and orchestrated by propaganda on an hourly basis to create a breaking of the lines of the magic circle. But, in truth, there are hundreds of instances of bad faith to be observed in the daily operation of the Covid ‘game’, which has his ‘false play’ written all over it.

Real civilisation, as Huizinga reminds us, cannot exist in the absence of a certain play-element, which implies various indispensible qualities of civilisation: the limiting and mastery of the self; the player’s capacity to accept voluntary subordination to ‘the ultimate and highest goal’, which must remain distinguishable from personal responses or instincts. The human mind, says, Huizinga, can only disengage from the magic circle by turning towards the Ultimate. All man’s thoughts, acts, judgements, pronouncements are imperfect, and it behoves us to remember this. In play, properly ordered, man is safe from himself and his own flaws and darknesses, though only for a while.

Even more important to play than self-mastery and humility, is fair play, which as Huizinga observes ‘is nothing less than good faith expressed in play terms. Hence the cheat or the spoil-sport shatters civilisation itself.’

Telling play from false play requires a wisdom that appears to have flown the coop of modern society. Whether we have surrendered to the game or seek to stand outside it, we are all being played by the evildoers behind this current most fundamental attack on human life, mind and culture. At the most basic and banal levels, we are all being played off against each other so as to induce fears and hatreds with matching toxicities.

We are being conditioned to think that the other is our enemy, so that we will overlook where the true enemy lurks. This, above all, is what we need to see through: the working of the false play. Mistaking the false for the real thing delivers us into the path towards darkness, where all the villains are real and the screams are not followed by laughter.

When, as here, the ‘play’ is false, deceptive, it becomes a travesty of the ‘real’ thing, and what results is a perversion of something both primal and sacred, with enormous power to move the mind of man in the wrong direction. ‘To be a sound, culture-creating force,’ Huizinga warns, ‘this play-element must be pure. It must not consist in the darkening or debasing of standards set up by reason, faith or humanity. It must not be a false seeming, a masking of political purposes behind the illusion of genuine play-forms. True play knows no propaganda; its aim is in itself, and its familiar spirit is happy inspiration.’

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