In Portuguese, Capoeira is referred to as a “jogo”, or game. This fact is often mentioned and repeated, but do we ever stop and examine what this means? Or is it such a basic concept that we can grasp it immediately such that it needs no extra commentary? Would an examination of Capoeira as a game, or an area of play, give us deeper insights into Capoeira, into humanity, into ourselves?
Play is essential to most higher forms of life, and the higher you go up the evolutionary scale, the more it’s role becomes evident. All mammals engage in the activity, and the length and duration of play is correlated in some measure to what we would define as intelligence, at least as we recognize it. Play also is more associated with the learning stages of a given animals life, than when the animal matures. As animals age, play becomes less a part of life, until you get to the higher mammals, where play is an integral aspect of life from birth to death, although the depth of the play activity often becomes shallower.
Cats, dogs, dolphins, whales, primates and humans engage in play activity of some sort throughout their lives. We know this is the case, so it almost goes without saying that play is somehow essential to these higher types of life. Nature is not wasteful, and would not have creatures engage in something that saps their energy with no reward.
The brains of higher mammals are hardwired in some aspects to want to engage in play activity. Brains release endorphins during play activity which make it a rewarding and pleasurable thing to do. So what’s with all the fun and games, why are they so important that nature makes us want to engage in them, and what does this have to do with Capoeira?
This is Play
First question, how do we know that Capoeira is play? Does it meet certain defining criteria to call it such? Well, let’s take a look. First, Capoeira is defined by certain spatial realities. Games are always played in a definite spot. In other words, space is carved out of reality - whether in space or time, that are designated as “play” areas. Board games are played on a board. Sports are played on various fields. Games can be defined by time even without a spatial dimension - children engage in “playtime”, which may or may not indicate what they are playing or even where they are playing, but we specify a period for it.
All aspects of life, in fact, need a conceptual “space” carved out for it - think about it we have “dinner time”, we have “work areas”, we define events by time and place - weddings, funerals, and so on. Places of worship are considered “sacred spaces”, as are certain pieces of earth. And these spaces all have boundaries, some more porous than others, but boundaries nonetheless. And we all seem to get cranky or confused when people cross or blur these boundaries.
But back to the matter at hand - Capoeira is played in the “roda”, literally a “wheel”. A definite place is carved out, separate from reality to engage in this activity. Within this space we engage in Capoeira. The space itself has certain rules. It is always a circle of fellow participants, it is accompanied by music created by certain instruments - the Berimbau, the Pandeiro, the Atabaque.
The music dictates the game play. Capoeira played in a square, or to no music, while by no means impossible, detracts from how seriously we would engage in the activity. Our engagement in play activity is in part dependent on how we recognize the “sacredness” of the play area. This is not to say Capoeira, or even play in general is a religious activity, but rather to say that the believability of the game is related to the space we use to define it.
Capoeira played in a square would make no sense, and would distract from our engagement in the activity itself. Just like playing Chess on a Monopoly board would make us take the game less “seriously”. So we see that space is necessary to play, and Capoeira has it’s own space.
Capoeira play also exists in time, although there is no definite time for Capoeira. But there are times within the activity of Capoeira that dictate certain things - songs are sung, and responses need to follow. There are Chamadas, which break the flow of time in a game and thus, change the rules by inserting a different timeline into the ongoing game.
This brings us to our second understanding of play - Rules. Games have rules. We have made a separate space away from reality, and within that space different rules apply. And to play the game, we have to all recognize these rules (agreeing on the rules is a different matter, but we’ll examine this in the next paragraph).
Capoeira has rules. You are allowed to touch the ground with only your hands, head and feet. You enter and leave the field of play in certain specified ways. We all argue with rules, and sometimes the games we consider most fun have this element built into it. Part of the appeal of popular game like “Monopoly” is arguing about the rules itself - Can I build houses after I have a hotel already on a property? Do I get my $200 if I land on “GO” and not pass over it? And what exactly happens on the “Free Parking” space anyway?
I’m sure if you have played Monopoly at one point in your life, you have argued about these things during the game. It is even these discussions that are what we remember most about the game afterwards - not who won or lost (I am certain you recall the arguments vividly, without being able to recall how many times you have won the game).
Capoeira has more than it’s fair share of arguments about rules - which way to do a Volta do mundo, and so forth, without even talking about the arguments about the traditions of Capoeira itself (are traditions unspoken rules? Something to ponder.)
Is This Play?
I have been playing fast and loose with the terms “game” and “play” here, even though games are really a subset of the larger field of play. All games are play, but is all play, games? And Where does Capoeira fit in? A game? Or does it more comfortably fit in the larger activity of play.
We know that Capoeira is a game, and in a broader context, some kind of play, because it meets the general criteria for those activities - spatial or time boundaries, it has a different set of rules than everyday life. So we are playing the game.
If we show up on time, follow all the rules, and then go home exhausted and happy for the enjoyable experience, well then we just had a nice game of some sort. But did we “play”? And was the “play” worth the investment that nature makes for it? If all we do is engage in an activity and follow all the rules, then there is not much “humanity” in the experience, is there? Where is the creativity?
In fact, we would, and do, grow bored with games that allow us only to play by the rules used to define them - how excited do you get about playing Tic Tac Toe as an adult? Of course, children can be fascinated with a game of Tic Tac Toe, at least until they figure out all the possible outcomes that the rules allow. But once the space is explored, and the rules rule out any other exploration, then the game becomes practically an automated activity, and really can no longer be considered play in any meaningful way. More complex games, like chess, offer more freedom in the conceptual space the rules allow play within, sometime to such a degree that the type of play they offer is very deep and immersive. But does a game, even as deep as Chess, ever be more than what it is? In other words can the idea of Chess be played with itself? When games transcend their rules and open into the larger field of play is when we slide from operating under a “statement of play” into the “question of play”. What did that sentence mean you are asking yourself. It is about introducing uncertainty of meaning into the context of a game. If all the participants agree on the statement that “This is play.” during an activity, well then, you have a game going on. It means everyone shows up at the soccer game wearing their cleats, expecting to kick a ball around a field and into a goal. And everyone knows that when it is all over, well, it’s over and has no real meaning transcending the field of play. A soccer goal is a soccer goal is a soccer goal. A soccer goal is not anything more or less, or other than, a soccer goal. Why? Because we have all agreed on the statement that “This is Play.” beforehand. A soccer goal can mean nothing outside the field of rules that define it’s play. Ah, but what happens when we add a question mark to the end of that statement, when we make “This is play” become “This is Play?”, or better yet, “Is this Play?”. That means that we are playing with the meaning of the activities within the game, and that playing with meanings make things confusing, engaging and ultimately lead to creativity of the highest order. It means that the activity of a game may not mean what it would mean in another context, and we play with and within that paradox. This is where Capoeira transcends a game and enters into the larger and more meaningful area of play, and how it transcends the simple definition of a game. The game of Capoeira asks us to question and try to figure out how much of the activity is play itself, and where the boundaries end. Because we are engaged in the game with an opponent who is doing an activity that in another context would mean something else, and there are no rules telling him he can or cannot really mean what it is he is doing or not, means that we have to constantly check if the thing is what it really signifies, or is operating on another level of abstraction. You want a concrete example, I know. In Capoeira your opponent is throwing all types attacks at you. If you remove the Capoeira roda, remove the music, and find yourself walking down a dark street alone at night, and someone come up to you and starts throwing kicks at you, that means something different to you then it does in a Capoeira game, right? Now, back to our Capoeira game - the rules allow certain things, but there is enough elasticity in the rules of Capoeira that allows us to say that a kick is not a kick that is sometimes really a kick. Get it? Sometimes the other player is kicking just to engage in the rules and structure of the Capoeira game and have a good time, but maybe he is really ticked at you, or wants to assert himself, or is having a lousy day, or is just a plain old mean son of a bitch, and therefore the kick no longer becomes an abstraction of a kick, i.e. a kick that really isn’t a kick, but really becomes what it is - an attack against your body. There is nothing in the rules of the game that spells out beforehand what the intention of the action outlined by the rules will be. The intention of a soccer kick is known by the players to score a goal. Simple. The rules spell it out plainly, and everyone expects it because we know that “This is Play.”, and we have all agreed. However, There is no “goal” in Capoeira, nothing that the intention of a action as defined by the rules, is pointing towards or leading to. Someone could be actually trying to kick you…or not. Ambiguity is built in. Capoeira is an activity that constantly forces you to try to figure out how much is play, where play ends, and how to respond. It is entirely elastic, or at least good Capoeira should be. And great Capoeira puts us in a frame of mind where play blends into reality and back into play consistently. This paradox of meaning is what makes Capoeira so vital an activity to those people who take it up. It is this aspect that make it so “real” of an activity. And it is real, at least in terms we understand as human beings, because this type of play, “deep play”, where our immersion becomes deep enough, is exactly how we learn. Learning is play. Forget all those theories of learning by repetition, by rote. True learning, true understanding, comes form the activity of Play. This is the payoff that Nature has for the higher mammals for spending all the time and energy on play activities - it gives us a deeper and broader understanding of the world and contests we operate in because it lets us explore certain things with limited harm. Think about young lion cubs play fighting. They tussle about until one gets it’s jaws around the neck of the other. Now in a different setting, this would be the death blow, with the fangs biting deep into the neck. In a playful context, it is simply a friendly nip. But it does send a message and a lesson is learned, by both parties involved. But if you think about this for a second, somehow, both cubs had agreed before hand on the statement form of play, both knew that the bite that was given to the neck wasn’t a real bite, for if it was, death would occur. What Capoeira does, and what deep play also does is allow us to step up one level of abstraction when we play - to play not only within the context of a game, but to play with the contexts that the game is played in. As stated before, all games are play, but not all play is games. While Capoeira has rules, and is even called a “jogo”, perhaps it fits into a broader and deeper context. Not only do you have to figure out the intent of the other person with each of his attacks and counterattacks, this play is then placed in a larger context - that of playing with the socially acceptable conventions of the game. If your opponent throws a blow that you perceive to be a real blow and respond in a like manner, but was not seen to the other participants as his intent was to harm you, then your actual reaction (say knocking him to the ground, or kicking back and striking him hard) puts your standing (in understanding and responding to the game) lower in everyone’s eyes. You could be seen as the aggressor even though you were attacked! Knowing this, a player might try to get you so riled up to make you respond hard to a fictitious attack on his side to actually gain stature and notoriety among the other participants. However, if you are on the receiving end of an obvious attack, and fail to respond, you get your lumps and have to deal with the perception that you got caught by his attack. So not only do you play with the concepts of the rules of the game, but also play with the changing perception of those rules as seen by others, and your opponent. We are far away from a simple game of Tic Tac Toe, or even the complexities of Chess. In evolutionary biology, they are discovering that much of what is called intelligence comes from those species where there is complex and malleable social interaction. Primates have been observed to show actions and emotions that in humans we would call deception, misdirection and trickery. Such are tools of social interaction, morality aside. Capoeira is unique in that it is a game played by adults that let’s us explore this area of social interaction, which we all encounter everyday, but have little experience in playing with. As children, most are taught that lying and deceiving are bad, yet it is an essential tool of nature - from flowers and monarch butterflies to the highest level politician. True, there are serious consequences by those who choose to live by deception, but there is also much insight to be gained by learning how it is done to prevent it from happening to us. Capoeira is a method that allows us to explore these things in a “safe” context. We play not only with our own sense of intention, by that of the other players, and we even play with the conventions of the game. If we come up with a response to a situation that falls well outside the rules of the game, yet is perceived as a creative and imaginative response to the situation, well then it becomes a valid exception to already loose rules. Children, to an adults perspective, are immersed in playtime without boundaries. The line between reality and play is often so blurred as to be indistinguishable, at least to the child’s perspective. The question is why? Because Play is learning, and children have much learning to do. Not only about how things operate, but when and how to do things that are acceptable. Adults lose this ability to play at this level, or are socially conditioned to leave it behind. But we often find the most successful adults are those that keep the realities of this deep form of play alive in their personal and professional lives. Certain professions even embrace deep play as the sole methodology of learning. Airline pilots, soldiers, police, emergency workers all engage in deep play every time they train. Certainly the awareness of real world consequences infringe on their total immersion in their training, but the immersion of the self and body into their activity is certainly play. Think of your own experiences with things you have learned through and through and you will certainly discover that you have learned them through the process of play, whether you design websites (you play with code and graphics), build cars (play with the mechanical parts), or deliver packages (play with locations, directions). Think of the learning in your life that you were NOT allowed or inclined to play with, and those are the things that I bet won’t have stuck with you. What year did the Hundred Years War end? What is the Capitol of Montana? What is the Square Root of 325? Silly examples, but think of all the facts and figures you were required to learn in school as a child, that you learned by memorization and rote, and now have forgotten. You never played with those ideas, and thus never became vital to you or your understanding of the world. So to return to Capoeira. The initial question of this article was to examine what Capoeira means as a game, and what it means when we play it. As has been citied by Mestre Acordeon and Nestor Capoeira, the game was one method historically which slaves and the urban poor could invert social realities, thus playing with those concepts. It was a method to learn how to deceive and not be deceived, and how to keep from not deceiving oneself in the process. Capoeira is a serious tool that uses deep play, if we let it and truly love it, to play with many concepts. That is what allows and fuels so much debate about Capoeira. Capoeira is a game, it is whatever the mouth eats, it is treachery, it is liberation, it is life. It is all these things because through Play we can make it all of them, or at least we can explore all these aspects of it and make it something that we know through and through. To play the “jogo de Capoeira” without understanding that we are learning on the most fundamental level about what makes us human, about ourselves, is to miss the most vital point of it all.