Heterotopia & Play

A Rapprochement Between Foucault & Huizinga

Tobias Unterhuber is a PhD candidate and lecturer at the Institute for  German Literature at LMU Munich. He is also an editor and author for the e-journal Paidia. His research interests include game studies, gender studies, pop literature, economization of culture, literary and media theory.

Editor’s Note: First Person Scholar has paired up with Paidia, one of the first German-speaking journals for game studies. In the coming months articles previously published on our respective sites will be translated and cross-posted. Our hope in undertaking this process is to establish cross-cultural conversations on games and game studies.

What have gardens, graveyards, brothels and videogames in common? What might sound like the beginning of a joke for one, is in fact the introduction of a theoretical approach towards videogames which uses a concept popularized by the French philosopher Michel Foucault: the heterotopia.[foot]This essay is the translated and slightly improved version of my essay: “Heterotopie und Spiel – Eine Annäherung”. You can find the the original German version here: http://www.paidia.de/?p=2906 [/foot]

Michel Foucault’s concept of heterotopia originated in the 1960s and was – besides a short paragraph in Les Mots et les choses and an article in Architecture, Movement [foot]Cf. http://foucault.info/documents/heterotopia/foucault.heterotopia.en.html[/foot] – only explored further in a radio report for France Culture on December 7th 1966.[foot]Sadly, this report has not been translated into English yet. All quotes were translated by Thomas Erthel and myself especially for this article. My heartfelt thanks for his help![/foot] Nevertheless it was used extensively by academics in the fields of film, literature and culture studies  and there were also some ideas to make it fruitful for Game Studies, for examples look at Keith Challis’ Games as Heterotopias or at Gamereader.net. But I want to start with the basics and show, at least in sections, that the concept of Heterotopia is related with Johan Huizinga’s notion of play. Then, in a second step I want to focus on the question if the concept can be transferred and productively applied to videogames.

Not without reason both Foucault’s and Huizinga’s remarks begin with the children:

“Amidst all these different places [of a society] there are those which – in a way – differ completely from the others. Places, that resist all the others and that are in a way destined to erase, replace, neutralize or purify. They are in a way counter-spaces. Children know these counter-spaces very well, these localized utopias.”[foot]Michel Foucault: “Les heterotopies“, in: Die Heterotopien/Der Utopische Körper. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp 2005, p. 40. “Or, parmi tous ces lieux qui se distinguent les uns des autres, il y en a qui sont en quelque sorte absolument différents: des lieux qui s’opposent à tous les autres, qui sont destinés en quelque sorte à les effacer, à les compenser, à les neutraliser ou à les purifier. Ce sont en quelque sorte des contre-espaces. Ces contre-espaces, ces utopies localisées, les enfants les connaissent parfaitement.”[/foot]

Paidia is a platform for media-cultural studies oriented approaches towards videogames . Since its inception in 2011, Paidia gives dedicated scholars from various backgrounds the chance to conduce their thoughts and theories to the widening of the field. Contributions to Paidia can take the form of individual (double-peer-reviewed) essays as well as the contribution to periodical special issues.

One may stumble at first, what would count as a heterotopia following this definition. A derivation of the term might help here: other spaces. They are different from the rest because they transform space and so they actually are “mythical and real negations of the space we live in”[foot]Michel Foucault: “Les heterotopies”, p. 41. „[…]ces contestations mythiques et réelles de l’espace[/foot] Right now we can already find a similarity to Huizinga. The spaces of play which includes “the temple, the stage, the screen” (10) he says, “are temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart” (10). Foucault in turn mentions very similar places (“Les heterotopies” 44). But he begins with less solid, not yet conventionalized places that possibly can’t be conventionalized at all:

“And this is – on a Thursday afternoon – the parental double bed. On this bed you discover the ocean because you can swim between the covers. But the bed is also the sky because you can jump on the springs. It is the forest because you can hide in it. It is the night because you become a ghost under the sheets.”[foot]Michel Foucault: “Les heterotopies”, p. 40. “[…]c’est – le jeudi après-midi – le grand lit des parents. C ’est sur ce grand lit qu’on découvre l’océan, puisqu’on peut y nager entre les couvertures; mais ce grand lit, c’est aussi le ciel, puisqu’on peut bondir sur les ressorts; c’est la forêt, puisqu’on s’y cache; c’est la nuit, puisqu’on y devient fantôme entre les draps; […].”[/foot]

The one word that comes to mind and which Foucault doesn’t mention nevertheless starts to speak between the lines on its own: it is the word ‘play’. Because what else does Foucault describe than the unbridled play of children? So the play creates heterotopias which at least exist as long as the game continues. The magic circle of play is – from this perspective – just another expression for the temporary heterotipization which the play causes. Thus games are not heterotopias. But spaces of playing are. Interestingly enough spaces of playing – I intentionally don’t say game spaces or spaces of games because it could also mean spaces in videogames whose status is not clear to me at the moment[foot]Some clarification might be in order: In German there is only the word ‘Spiel’ for ‘game’ and ‘play’ that can mean all kinds of phenomena from board games (‘Brettspiele’) to videogames (‘Videospiel’) and a theater play (‘Schauspiel’). The act of playing can be described with the nominalization of the verb ‘spielen’: ‘Spielen’. This missing differentiation might cause some problems because it expresses a different understanding of game and play in general. In my translation I tried to acknowledge this differentiation. But it might be worthwhile to read the words ‘game’ and ‘play’ in this article as somewhat ambiguous and partly congruent.[/foot]– are in contrast to other heterotopias not place bound. There might be favored places of playing in a society, the game room, the football field or a paintball arena. But those places are not the exclusive ones in which we play as the parental double bed in Foucault’s text indicates. It would even be imaginable to apply the distinction between paidia and ludus to the possible types of heterotopias. Thereby we could distinguish between mobile heterotopias, the ones that have not yet gained a stable place in a culture and all such that already have an assigned space. All the more fascinating is the type of non-stable heterotopias because they are – more than the others – a form of transvaluation and reframing of the actually existent as they occupy other places:

“What we doubtlessly encounter here is the true essence of the heterotopias. They query all other spaces, namely in two different ways: either […] by creating an illusion which exposes the entire remaining reality as an illusion or, to the contrary, by creating another real space, in a real way, which is also perfect, meticulous and disorderly arranged like ours, badly ordered and tangled […]”[foot]Michel Foucault: “Les heterotopies”, p. 49f. “C’est là sans doute qu’on rejoint ce qu’il y a sans doute de plus essentiel dans les hétérotopies. Elles sont la contestation de tous les autres espaces, une contestation qu’elles peuvent exercer de deux manières: ou bien […] en créant une illusion qui dénonce tout le reste de la réalité comme illusion, ou bien, au contraire, en créant réellement un autre espace réel aussi parfait, aussi méticuleux, aussi arrangé que le nôtre est désordonné, mal agencé et brouillon […].”[/foot]

This questioning also transfers to heterotopias themselves since they are always at stake: Their own transvaluation can in turn be transvalued at any time as soon as the game ends or the playing is disturbed from the outside. With a modified quote of Wolfgang Iser: “In the game/play everything is always on the rocks” (350); one might claim: The game itself is always on the rocks. Its status is always endangered and so playing is a second order game, the game between game and not-game, between play and not-play. I think the same holds for heterotopias even though their conventionalization tries to secure its status. The cinema isn’t a heterotopia any longer if the film reel breaks or the other spectators stop complying with the rules. The graveyard is no longer a graveyard as soon as I start partying there.[foot]This might imply that the interruption of a heterotopia or a game is a form of desecration. This also goes together with Huizinga’s sacred earnestness of play. Cf. Johan Huizinga: Homo Ludens, p. 18.[/foot] The huge advantage compared to the unstable spaces of play is that these spaces can revert to their status of heterotopias once everybody starts complying to the rules again. The game on the other hand can neither rely that it will be continued nor that it is continuable. But at least it has the feature of repeatability (Huizinga 10).

We haven’t even really talked about videogames and still it has already been shown that a combination of the two terms heterotopia and play and in addition game can be fruitful especially for videogames. Admittedly the term heterotopia can’t be applied straight to videogames themselves – it is even questionable to what the space of videogames could be a counter-space as it is rather the simulation of space. Here we touch the debatable status of virtual spaces. What we can cherish is videogames being a visible representation of being located in a heterotopia. We see images of the spaces on the screen and, following the established perspective on the avatar-player-relation,[foot]Cf. Neitzel, Britta: “Point of View und Point of Action – eine Perspektive auf die Perspektive in Computerspielen”, in: Klaus Bartels u. Jan Noel Thon (Ed.) Computer/Spiel/Räume. Materialien zur Einführung in die Computer Game Studies, Hamburger Hefte zur Medienkultur, magazine 5, 2007, p. 8 – 28.[/foot] we are in front of and beyond the screen simultaneously.

To what the definition of heterotopia can be transferred very well is the playing of videogames. Because every time we pick up a controller, start a game, we create temporary heterotopias no matter where we are – even in public spaces whose status we torpedo by doing so. When we transform something we unsettle, as Foucault attributes to heterotopias (The Order of Things xviii). This perspective might provide us with a whole new outlook on the massive proliferation of mobile games. Because as Foucault remarks when he declares the ship as a paramount example of heterotopias:

Civilizations without ships are like children whose parents do not possess a double bed on which they could play. Then, their dreams run dry. Surveillance takes the places of adventure and the hideous police take the place of dazzling corsairs. (51)[foot]Michel Foucault: “Les heterotopies”, p. 52. “Les civilisations sans bateaux sont comme les enfants dont les parents n’auraient pas un grand lit sur lequel on puisse jouer; leurs rêves alors se tarissent, l’espionnage y remplace l’aventure, et la hideur des polices la beauté ensoleillée des corsaires.”[/foot]

Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. “Les heterotopies“, in: Die Heterotopien/Der Utopische Körper. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp 2005.

–. The Order of Things. An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Vintage Books.

Huizinga, Johann. Homo Ludens. A study oft the play element in culture. Boston: Beacon Press 2013.

Iser, Wolfgang. Das Fiktive und das Imaginäre. Pespektiven literarischer Anthropologie. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp 1993.

Neitzel, Britta: “Point of View und Point of Action – eine Perspektive auf die Perspektive in Computerspielen”, in: Klaus Bartels u. Jan Noel Thon (Ed.) Computer/Spiel/Räume. Materialien zur Einführung in die Computer Game Studies, Hamburger Hefte zur Medienkultur, magazine 5, 2007.

Post Image from Oh No by Cameron Kunzelman


  1. Thanks, Tobias. I really enjoyed reading this. Your work to relate the Foucault’s notion of a heterotopia to a concept of play that is not dependent on games made me think of the “lusory attitude” so crucial to play. Perhaps it is through maintaining a lusory attitude that the spaces of everyday life can be revealed as the constructions that they are in in this way challenged and re-imagined. It reminds me of Ted Friedman’s early work discussing how players take out of game entire structures of thinking that often clash with ways of making sense in the “real world.”

    • Thank you!

      I totally agree. A lusory attitude in everyday life – in my opinion that includes irony – can and will challenge the constructions of these spaces.

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