Homo Ludens for the People

Going back into academia means having a long book list for research and summer is reading time to for me. While being acquainted with game design, designers, and game studies, I haven’t actually read much in the canon that informs contemporary thought on games. If you hang around games academics as much as I do, you start to become familiar with the names and the books, and seeing that I want to have a thesis about games, I figured I might as well take the dive and read up on what is institutionalized as the main thread of thought about play and games.

I don’t think reading academic work is for everyone, though many concepts are useful. There’s this exchange back-and-forth between institutions and the populace, much like high and street fashion, and I think it’s useful to help give light to some writing so non-academics can use it for their own devices. So I’ll be sharing a highly curated list of quotes from my note-taking and contextualize it for those interested in thinking about games at-large.

The first is Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture by Johan Huizinga, commonly marked as the start of the canon on games. It’s actually about play, and this play vs games distinction matters, though it can all get a bit vague, for these first few books, until games usurp play, and video games take over games. Worth noting is that at the time of writing Homo Ludens Huizinga was definitely an old white man in the 1930s, and being an early 20th century old white man interested in anthropology gives Huizinga the license to have some unsavory opinions to the contemporary reader. Rather than this being a case to disregard the book, I think it’s a good opportunity to understand how particular attitudes were baked into thinking about games that go relatively unchallenged. With that said, prepare yourself for some old dead dude language. But without further ado, some quotes from Homo Ludens.



“When speaking of the play-element in culture we do not mean that among the various activities of civilized life an important place is reserved for play, nor do we mean that civilization has arisen out of play by some evolutionary process, in the sense that something which was originally play passed into something which was no longer play and could henceforth be called culture. […] Culture arises in the form of play, that it is played from the very beginning.” (pg. 46)

A good place to start is at Huizinga’s central idea, which is that play is something that came before civilization and culture, and that all formation of culture has its origins in the playing of our ancestors. Huizinga spends most of the book detailing how everything we understand as culture rose out of play, from war to poetry to law. Though you would have to read the book to follow his exact logic, he traces the history of both language and various vestiges of culture to playful acts that eventually got institutionalized into their current form. It’s interesting to think about play being this widely diffused force, to the point where everything can be thought of being play or at some time once was play. Furthermore, Huizinga (possibly paradoxically, as you’ll soon see) casts play as something that produces culture, and things that don’t aren’t play, which cites this general attitude to not include gambling in play studies since it doesn’t have the best reputation. But overall we leave this thinking how contemporary play could be producing culture, despite further complications he brings up later.


“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”.” (pg. 28)

If my reading shows me anything, it’s that everyone has to define play and/or games and it largely influences how they then talk about the subject. While I’m unsure of the true origins of defining games, Huizinga’s definition shapes everything that comes after him, something, if not all, of this is recontextualized for future writers’ purposes. This definition might seem like a no-brainer, but there are quite the few claims in here that narrow his focus despite how broadly he throws around play. First, we have play as a voluntary activity, one that a person must consciously accept to do, ruling out anything a person isn’t doing consciously or consensually. Along with being in a time and space that is separate from ordinary life, this definition eliminates looking at how people move through social systems such as gender and race as play, though the language of play exists in talking about those processes. Huizinga also sees play as a quite orderly affair, where the structure of play must be outlined clearly beforehand and delineating a sharp relief where the rules apply and when players return to ordinary life. Rules in particular will survive to live a long and overbearing existence after Huizinga, as well as needing a goal. We also see that main elements of play are the dual appearances of tension and joy, which characterize contemporary design imperatives pretty well. So that means if it doesn’t have the freedom to join or leave, bounds, rules, goals, tension, joy, and a separation from life, then it cannot be play, according to Huizinga. For the contemporary experimental creator and thinker, there’s a lot of conflict here.


“Not being “ordinary” life [play] stands outside the immediate satisfaction of wants and appetites, indeed it interrupts the appetitive process. It interpolates itself as a temporary activity satisfying in itself and ending there. Such at least is the way in which play presents itself to us in the first instance: as an intermezzo, an interlude in our daily lives.” (pg. 9)

I’d like to focus on the part about play being separated from life because it is the part I have the biggest beef with. According to this definition, if you gain or lose anything outside of play, such as money, influence, or anything with intention you are not playing. To Huizinga and many that come after him, play has to be for itself, it cannot be for some sort of practical purposes. So in Homo Ludens, professional players of games are working, not playing. Any type of creative act that is done for money cannot be play. Maneuvering social and cultural relationships and systems are not play, because there are actual consequences. The only thing one may seem to extract from games is honor, the distinction of being better. Play being consequence-free on life has implications for anyone who wants to create games for social impact. Whereas Huizinga sees play as an intermezzo in life, I see play more like a mezzanine, a vantage point, a plane of existence meant as a stopping point between two other destinations, not entirely distinct from its surroundings but also a separate feature with its own function. Elsewhere Huizinga codifies the term “magic circle” to describe how his idea of play is separated from life, and it is liberally used by games thinkers.


“The contrast between play and seriousness is always fluid. The inferiority of play is continually being offset by the corresponding superiority of its seriousness. Play turns to seriousness and seriousness to play.” (pg. 8)

Here starts the back and forth we will see forever about frivolousness concerning play and games. Huizinga essentially argues that play itself isn’t serious, but it is executed with seriousness. Since play is completely outside of ordinary life and has no real consequences, it itself can’t be serious, however he wants to account for the zeal we see in play, that players hold fast to the rules and put all their energy to achieving the goal. I feel like I’ve noticed waves and cycles of talking about play as though it is a serious pursuit to a frivolous one, often one wave that tries to utilize or mobilize games and the other that pulls it back over to the realm of leisure and uselessness. It is certainly a trend to watch whenever games come into the spotlight in broader current events or in politics. Huizinga also uses this binary to create an opposition between play and earnestness, and more notably, work.


“The player who trespasses against the rules or ignores them is a “spoil-sport”. 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, illudere or inludere). Therefore he must be cast out, for he threatens the existence of the play-community.” (pg. 11)

I found this passage most fascinating, mainly because I never heard a mention of the spoil-sport in theoretical terms. I was also struck by how Huizinga observed how society prefers the cheat to the spoil-sport, a metaphor that can be applied liberally to our culture. I’ve actually noticed this in games, where the willingness to observe the rules enough to break them is preferable than the one who doesn’t want to. There are games that build its entire premise around the cheat, like the card game Bullshit (or Cheat, appropriately), and I’ve noticed a formalist enjoyment of cheating as a design feature. But the spoil-sport isn’t really allowed to exist. Huizinga goes on to describe the spoil-sport as “the outlaw, the revolutionary, the cabbalist” (pg. 12) and muses that spoil-sports are needed movers and shakers for new play spaces. The spoil-sport strikes me as an image of the Other, and curious if it describes how the dissenters of conventional games are viewed. It is interesting to think about taking on the posture of the spoil-sport as an ethical or maybe even aesthetic intervention.


“The differentiation between the plastic and the musical arts corresponds by and large to the seeming absence of the play-quality in one as compared with its pronounced presence in the other. We do not have to seek far for the main reason for this. In order to become aesthetically active the arts of the Muses, or the “music” arts, have to be performed. A work of art, though composed, practised or written down beforehand, only comes to life in the execution of it, that is, by being represented or produced in the literal sense of the word—brought before a public.” (pg. 165)

Here’s the seed of how performance is thought of in games, though with questionable consistency. It is the non-technological jargon version of ‘interactivity,’ but also takes it a step further. Huizinga sees playful art as only the performance of the game, not the creation or existence of games themselves. It’s actually up in the air whether Huizinga would consider video games to be games, and whether the object itself is anything but a mere tool to create something else. This suggests game design as a term might be something completely different than what it is we do to manipulate contexts for play. However, this is also the precedent for player-centric design, that a game is only complete or ‘alive’ with a player. This has legs if we consider the object itself also a player, which as far as I know is a common stance in games academia.


“In the very idea of “style” in art, is there not a tacit admission of a certain play-element? Is not the birth of a style itself a playing of the mind in its search for new forms? A style lives from the same things as does play, from rhythm, harmony, regular change and repetition, stress and cadence. Style and fashion are more consanguineous than orthodox aesthetics are ready to admit. In fashion the aesthetic impulse is adulterated with all sorts of extraneous emotions—the desire to please, vanity, pride; in style it is crystallized in pure form.” (pg. 186)

I was gratefully surprised to see style and fashion make it into Homo Ludens and really enjoyed a passage where Huizinga obsessed over 17th and 18th century wigs as the pinnacle of modern play. It’s interesting to see his take on style vs fashion, where style is this pure play with form while fashion is lowered into the muck of social dynamics. This brings up the search for style in games, and how style itself is this play with one’s own form as opposed to a small variance on a play strategy. Style and fashion serve as a connection between play and life, because while one could easily see fashion as frivolous, it’s undeniable that there’s a bleed out of any sort of play-sphere and into life.


“[The savage’s] aesthetic sensibility has brought the modern man close to [the sacred play] sphere than the “enlightened” man of the 18th century ever was. Think of the peculiar charm that the mask is an object d’art has for the modern mind. People nowadays try to feel the essence of savage life. This kind of exoticism may sometimes be a little affected, but it goes a good deal deeper than the 18th century engouement for Turks, “Chinamen” and Indians. Modern man is very sensitive to the far-off and the strange. Nothing helps him so much in his understanding of savage society as his feeling for masks and disguise.” (pg. 26)

Here is where we get to the not-so-great part of Homo Ludens. Ultimately, all of Huizinga’s claims comes from casting certain people as primitive and uncivilized and observing their behavior to create the tenants of what play is. Throughout the book, those he calls savages, which are typically the native peoples of European colonies, are grouped with pre-civilized Western people and compared to modern children. According to Huizinga, those in civilized (read: Western) societies are estranged from play and yearn to have it back, explaining and possibly justifying the exotification of non-Western people by Westerners (worth noting the use of masks by early 20th century art as well). These sentiments are not left out of video games, an industry based on the promise of transporting you to another world which is yours to explore and conquer. Especially with a history of assumed Western players going to non-Western locales to play, it’s interesting to think about what could be interpreted as the ‘mask’ video games evoke on contemporary audiences. I think this tension is pervasive in contemporary games thinking and design.


“As civilization becomes more complex, more variegated and more overladen, and as the technique of production and social life itself become more finely organized, the old cultural soil is gradually smothered under a rank layer of ideas, systems of thought and knowledge, doctrines, rules and regulations, moralities and conventions which have all lost touch with play. Civilization, we then say, has grown more serious; it assigns only a secondary place to playing. The heroic period is over, and the agonistic phase, too, seems a thing of the past.” (pg. 75)

When reading anything, it’s good to find out what the aims of the author are in presenting their theories. It seems like Huizinga went through all of this to tell modern audiences that society sucks right now because we’ve lost touch with play. Throughout the book he details how first there was play and eventually traditions grew out of it and soon crystallized into institutions, resulting in us just following conventions instead of actually playing anything. He sees professional sports vacant of play and that we have basically become a rule-following society instead of our old playful one. We are a society of games instead of play. With this launches the struggle between play and games throughout the canon where over the past decade or so play has lost to games (predictably, Huizinga might say). Despite sounding a bit petulant about it, he does color a sinister tone to anything akin to the coming of a “Ludic Century.” And while this does come off as an angry old white man yelling at a cloud (he bemoans the preference for the ‘slitherings’ in popular dance over ballet), I think it’s worthwhile tracking how play has lost favor for games, and why.


“In the 18th [and 19th] century utilitarianism, prosaic efficiency and the bourgeois ideal of social welfare—all fatal to the Baroque—had bitten deep into society. These tendencies were exacerbated by the Industrial Revolution and its conquests in the field of technology. Work and production became the ideal, and then the idol, of the age. […] As a result of this luxation of our intellects the shameful misconception of Marxism could be put about and even believed, that economic forces and material interests determine the course of the world. This grotesque over-estimation of the economic factor was conditioned by our worship of technological progress, which itself the fruit of rationalism and utilitarianism after they had killed the mysteries and acquitted man of guilt and sin. But they had forgotten to free him of folly and myopia, and he seemed only fit mould the world after the pattern of his own banality. […] Culture ceased to be “played”.” (pgs. 191-2)

I will leave you with the passage that I find to be quite strange but illustrative of some tensions in current games thinking. Huizinga recognizes that work and labor have become a more central concern in modern life but somehow completely disregards Marxism. He is so absorbed in games and play being so ancient as to dictate our culture that contemporary ideas of social systems seem completely absurd to him. Also fascinating is his disdain for technology, which makes me more curious of what he would have thought about video games. This also brings up a strange dissonance with past ideas of play and life being separated; if culture is played, and that has a distinct effect on us, how can life and play be pulled apart? I’m thinking that we haven’t stopped playing, but theorists are off about what play looks like.


And there you have it, some quick and dirty Homo Ludens with heavy editorial. The next will Roger Caillois’ Man, Play, and Games. Until then!


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