Shared Playful Politics

7 minute read

I presented some preliminary observations on playful politics at the Sharing the Play -seminar. Here’s what I talked about.

In 1938, Boston Curtis won a post of Republican committeeman for Milton. He had no election campaign, but neither did he have any opponents. The voters did not seem to be dissuaded by the fact that Boston was in fact a long-eared brown mule.

Putting Boston up as a candidate was the idea of Milton’s mayor Simmons, who saw the prank as a playful critique of the primary system – he proved that people really did not know who they were voting for. But Boston is not alone in his victory over the humankind.

In 1959, the rhino Cacareco won the city council election in São Paulo, Brazil. She won by a landslide of 100,000 votes, a record amount of votes for any candidate. Her campaign was orchestrated by a group of students, who printed 200,000 ballots with her name on them – but it was still the people voting for her that sealed her victory. One of the people voting for her commented that it is “Better to elect a rhino than an ass.” Boston Curtis might have disagreed.

Animals aren’t alone in running for political positions – the dead have also run campaigns from beyond the grave. In 2012, Charles Darwin managed to get 4000 votes in Athens-Clarke County Elections. He was running against the Republican candidate Paul Broun, despite being dead for 130 years.

Votes were also cast for “anyone but Broun”, “anyone else” and other variations of that sentiment. Unlike his animal peers, Darwin unfortunately lost the race to Broun.

I think these examples constitute what I’d like to here call playful politics, a playful approach to political participation or activism – in this case it was voters and one prankster mayor, but it could have also been anyone else interested in critiquing politics in a playful manner.

Now, I’d like to ask: what happens to playful politics in the digital age? How is the dynamic of shared playful politics changed?

I won’t go into much detail, but I think Anonymous is a good place to start. Anonymous are, as the name implies, a leaderless internet-based group without clear lines of membership. They have a very colourful history, but I’ll focus on one of their defining moments, Project Chanology, a long-term campaign against the Church of Scientology. The reasons why they became involved in protesting against the Church of Scientology are complex, but mostly revolve around the idea that Scientology is guilty of censorship, something Anonymous loathes.

In a campaign that lasted about two years, Anonymous attacked Scientology in a variety of ways, from the traditional – protests in front of Scientology centers – to the playful. Their use of Guy Fawkes masks was already theatrical, referring mainly to the comic and movie V for Vendetta, where the mask became a symbol for collective power.

It is probably not a surprise to anyone, that most of the protesting Anonymous did was online. They did denial-of-service attacks on, blocking access to their web-pages, leaked Scientology documents, published videos online attacking Scientology and used a technique called Google bomb to make Scientology the first result to appear when searching with the words “dangerous cult” – something that still happens.

Screenshot of a Google search taken 3.11.2015

But Anonymous also went to the streets, forming protests in front of Scientology centers. Around 7000 people protested in over 100 cities around the world, mostly in North America, Europe and Australia. During the protests, Anonymous chanted slogans like “we want cake” and “we want Xenu” (Xenu is the mythical alien Scientology believes in) and played Rick Astley’s “Never gonna give you up” from loudspeakers on the street, shouting “never gonna let you down” to the church. Much of what Anonymous did happened with a playful spirit, jokingly, and “for the lulz”, as they themselves put it.

Ides of March, Project Chanology, San Diego by Dan Tentler,

But as they playfully made fun of and criticized the Church of Scientology, they proved that what had seemed previously impossible – rising against a powerful organization with access to money, lawyers and a fearsome reputation – could be done with computers, masks and memes.

In an interview, a former Scientologist said about Anonymous opposing Scientology:

“It feels like we’ve been out in this desert, fighting this group one-on-one by ourselves, and all of a sudden this huge army came up with not only tons of people, thousands of people, but better tools…”

Tory Christman (Morning Edition, 2008)

For the purposes of the current analysis, two things in that quote are interesting:

  1. the sudden organization of a very diverse and anonymous group
  2. and the tools they used in their protests.

I guess this is the perfect place to recognize that a discussion of playful politics wouldn’t be complete without a discussion of memes. Rick Astley already came up, so let’s look at other ways they have been used politically.

I won’t try a complete exploration of memes here, so for current purposes it is sufficient to think of memes as shared cultural ideas that spread from person to person. Image memes are a popular type of meme. Let’s look at an example.

In November 2011, students of University of California Davis were holding a Occupy protest – I won’t go into detail, as I’m sure you’re all at least somewhat familiar with Occupy. During the protest the students formed a human chain, linking their hands together. When they didn’t comply with the police command to leave, one of the officers walked by the sitting students and sprayed pepper spray over them. This was generally seen as an overuse of force, and the internet reacted with widespread criticism.

That is how the Casually Pepperspray Everything Cop was born. The meme follows this general pattern: the cop, walking by, pepper-spraying something – in this case the US Constitution being written. The political message here is pretty apparent. Memes like this one became political tools for movements like Occupy that used the internet heavily in their organization and outreach. There is much more that could be said about the use of political memes, but for now, I’ll move on to the final example that uses playfulness in a different manner.

CAMOVER (2013) was a game-like form of protest against what was perceived as wide-spread surveillance. It was focused in Berlin, but spread beyond Germany to the rest of Europe and US. Apparently, Finland also had it’s own CAMOVER crew, active in the area around Helsinki.

The idea was simple: form teams, disable CCTV-cameras and video yourself doing so as proof. The one with the most points – that is, cameras disabled – wins. But it was less about the points and more about the politics.

The discourse around CAMOVER was clearly anarchist, and the tools used were more violent than in the previous examples, but the structure was explicitly game-like. The central tools for organization were similar to the Anonymous projects, with internet and anonymity being central. It was politics organized online, but enacted on the streets.

One of the ways we could try to understand the kind of activism I’ve been discussing is to borrow Neumayer et al.’s (2014) categorization of activism in the digital age.

Adapted from Neumayer et al. (2014)

They divide online activism on two axes:

  1. axis: the antagonism-agonism-axis, or whether the opponent is viewed as an adversary to be dissuaded or an opponent to be destroyed.
  2. axis: the civil disobedience -axis, or the readiness to engage in civil disobedience

On the bottom left side we have what is often labeled “clicktivism” or “slacktivism” and is often the focus of criticism against internet-based activism. The accusation is that those types of activities are more about making the activist feel good about themselves than having a practical effect on anything. Memes seem to belong into that category of politics, but as Neumayer et al. (2014) suggest, it might be more useful to understand that category as a question of identification rather than evaluating it based on practical effects.

Interestingly, both Anonymous and CAMOVER are both forms of online activism that belong into the upper right corner of the image, refuting the idea that all online activism would be “clicktivism”, without real political conviction or practical effects.

Playful politics

  1. is technologically mediated,
  2. is globally distributed,
  3. is often anonymous,
  4. has a low barrier of entry (and exit).

Now, based on these few examples, I’d like to attempt to connect these different strands of thought into a preliminary overview of playful politics. It seems that playful politics in the age of the internet is (1) technologically mediated, through the use of computers, smart phones and so on. It is also globally distributed (2), with communication technologies enabling like-minded people to share ideas over great distances. For example, Anonymous has members world-wide. Because of the technological mediation, political participation is possible while still staying (3) anonymous. Because of these qualities, this kind of political participation (4) has an exceptionally low barrier of entry, although it is also true that most people participating in this kind of political activity are probably not strongly committed to it.