Call for Papers | Between Social Discipline and Pleasure: The Politics and Practices of Play and Games in State Socialism | Conference at Max Planck Institute for Human Development, December 4–6, 2019. Call ends 2019-04-30


In the state socialist countries, millions of people played games. They played in barracks and schools, in millions of living rooms and children’s playrooms, in schoolyards, pubs, and private gardens. There were lots of board games and even a few computer games, produced by commercial and state-run companies; some were purchased, some copied, some modified or self-designed, and people played athletic games, too.

Games as a medium and playing as a practice of socialization and entertainment provide a fruitful object for a comparative analysis of “Political rule and authority as a social practice” (Thomas Lindenberger 2007) in the socialist countries up until 1989/1991. Transcending barriers of age and social strata, games are a place where the “laws of real everyday life are simplified” and “experimental actions” can take place (Max Kobbert 2010). Accordingly, games are media that communicate broadly accessible values and norms anchored in a specific moment in time. On the other hand, playing as a practice is an activity through which people grapple with, negotiate, learn, and experiment with these norms. Independent of all that, play is an everyday practice with the primary aim of providing entertainment, cultivating sociality, and producing pleasure. In this sense, play can be conceptualized in the words of contemporary history of emotions as an “emotional practice.” (Monqiue Scheer 2012). This perspective helps underscore why the development, control, and regulation of games for all ages was important for the state socialist countries, because playing games helped shape emotions.

For this reason, kindergarten curricula and pamphlets for teachers repeatedly emphasized the significance of games for the development of the “socialist personality.” But it would be a mistake to conceive of games as just one part of a larger set of educational media and institutions. After all, play always takes place in spaces imbued with rules and order. At the same time, play has the potential to simply be an occasion for pleasure and socializing, thus evading the limits prescribed for it as well as the authorities seeking to establish order through it. Thus, play can open space for “Eigensinn” (in Alf Lüdtke’s analysis of workers’ everyday life “denoting willfulness, spontaneous self-will, a kind of self-affirmation, an act of
(re) appropriating alienated social relations […] demarcating a space of one’s own”, Alf Lüdtke 1995), which can foster resistant, critical behavior just as it can foster behaviors that stabilize the status quo—after all, it is just a game, and thus, in contrast to reality, there were no serious consequences to be feared.

The aim of the conference is to compare and analyze the politics and practices of play in state socialism to shed light on a field (of power) where actors symbolically experiment with and negotiate forms of querulent behavior. Additionally it is the aim to conceptualize “Political rule and authority as a social practice”. Same types of gaming, games of chances, were defined as incompatible with socialist norms, mostly forbidden and could take place only in private spheres. On the one hand, the discussions will deal with the politics of play and the discourses that went hand-in-hand with the development and distribution of games; on the other, they will deal with concrete practices. Who played where and when? Which games were available? What kind of significance did traditional games have? Which new games supplanted them? Or did people continue to play them? Which groups preferred which games? Which significance did physical and group games have in the “dictatorships of education”? How was gambling regulated?

The international conference welcomes contributions on the history of game production in the socialist states and on the contents of the games themselves. What can be said about the position of the military and patriotism in game culture? We are also interested in aspects of transnational cultural history: How did people appropriate Western popular culture through board games and computer games and the other way around, and how was such appropriation judged by the authorities?

At the same time, the conference also focuses on games as places of pleasure and entertainment and thus aims to forge a new conception of the emotional history of play. Should the pleasure afforded by games be understood as a form of relaxed sociality, a desire for playful competition, as bolstering or developing lighthearted collective experiences, as an experience of the simple joy of testing out new things, or as nothing more than a strategy against boredom and thus as (in the terms of state ideology) a meaningful way to spend free time?

Contributions on these and the following topics are welcome:

    • Normative discourses and practices of the “educational dictatorship” concerning games in educational settings
    • Pleasure and entertainment in the context of education strategies and free-time activities
    • Efficacy of traditional games and practices of play in competition with new games
    • Development of emotions through social games (i.e. patriotism, assertiveness, etc.)
      History of production, distribution, and transfer of games in state-socialist countries
    • Construction of images of the enemy in the context of the Cold War
    • The collective identity formation versus individual games
    • Spaces of play: educational institutions, private spaces, partially public spaces such as associations, “Siedlerhäuser”, and pubs.

This conference is the first “Hermann-Weber-Konferenz zur historischen Kommunismusforschung“, which is an corporation with “Jahrbuch für Historische Kommunismusforschung“ (Yearbook of Historical Communism Research) and which is fully financed by “Gerda-und-Hermann-Weber-Stiftung“. The publishing of the conference contributions in the journal “Yearbook of Historical Communism Research” in 2021 is planned. Read more here. For that, the final articles should provide in summer 2020.

The conference languages are German and English. Translation is provided.

Please submit your paper proposals as abstracts (250 words) in English or German along with a short academic CV until April, 30st, 2019, to:


  • Juliane Brauer (MPIB)
  • Maren Röger (University Augsburg)
  • Sabine Stach (GHI, Warsaw)

Venue of the Conference: Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Lentzeallee 94, 14195 Berlin

Contact Email:

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