Man, Play and Games for the People

Back with some more game studies theory where I take commonly taught text, grab the important quotes, and explain their significance for the non-academic and academic who needs a refresher alike. Last month I did Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens which is the oldest in the canon, and this time we’ll be looking at Roger Caillois’ Man, Play and Games which was inspired by Huizinga.

Caillois was a French sociologist who wrote Man, Play and Games in the late ‘50s specifically building upon Homo Ludens to create a methodology using games. At least in this canon, he seems to be the first to have clear classifications of games, separating from his predecessor who mostly detail with the vagueness of play and barely touched on games proper. And like Huizinga, Caillois cares more about what games imply about his chosen field rather than the construction of games themselves or any sort of discipline dedicated to them. So, let’s see what he has to say about games:



“The preceding analysis permits play to be defined as an activity which is essentially:

  1. Free: in which playing is not obligatory; if it were, it would at once lose its attractive and joyous quality as diversion;
  2. Separate: circumscribed within limits of space and time, defined and fixed in advance;
  3. Uncertain: the course of which cannot be determined, nor the result attained beforehand, and some latitude for innovations being left to the player’s initiative;
  4. Unproductive: creating neither goods, nor wealth, nor new elements of any kind; and, except for the exchange of property among the players, ending in a situation identical to that prevailing at the beginning of the game;
  5. Governed by rules: under conventions that suspend ordinary laws, and for the moment establish new legislation, which alone counts;
  6. Make-believe: accompanied by a special awareness of a second reality or of a free unreality, as against real life.” (pgs. 9-10)

In post-Huizinga texts, how a theorist decides to define play and/or games tends to reveal their agenda and show how they are building on those before them. Most of what we see here is pretty much lifted from Homo Ludens, with a small distinction. Caillois sees games as either governed by rules OR make-believe, not both. So not all games have rules according to him, and games with rules can only see make-believe as accessory to the experience instead of in tandem. This runs counter to many people that come after him, who believe all games have rules, no matter how obscured or loose. This division of rules vs make believe sets up his categorizations and the fundamental tensions he views when he takes a sociological perspective.


“After examining different possibilities, I am proposing a division into four main rubrics, depending upon whether, in the games under consideration, the role of competition, chance, simulation, or vertigo is dominant. I call these agon, alea, mimicry, and ilinx, respectively.” (pg. 12)

Here are the four main categories of the classification Caillois bases all his observations on. Agon comes from Huizinga’s ‘agonistic’ properties, basically referring to fair competition and honor. All competitive games fall under this category and anything involving conflict is read through agon. Alea covers all games of chance, including gambling, which is a hot topic we’ll get to. Mimicry centers around taking on roles, mostly characterized by make-believe and includes theater and all forms of acting. Ilinx, the one with the least amount of precedent, are experiences of intentional vertigo, from amusement rides to any sort of antic that evokes that cathartic loss of control. Caillois believed all games fit into one of these categories, and the categories interacted with differing levels of compatibility. Noteworthy is that agon and alea complement each other by virtue of being rules based and centered around the equal chances of success while mimicry and ilinx employ make-believe and suspension of the self. In true 20th century social science style, the former pair is associated with more ‘developed’ and Western societies while the latter with ‘primitive’ cultures and indigenous peoples of Australia, Africa, and the Americas.


“In general, the first manifestations of paidia have no name and could not have any, precisely because they are not of any order, distinctive symbolism, or clearly differentiated life that would permit a vocabulary to consecrate their autonomy with a specific term. But as soon as conventions, techniques, and utensils emerge, the first games as such arise with them: eg leapfrog, hide and seek, kite-flying, teetotum, sliding, blindman’s buff, and doll-play. At this point the contradictory roads of agon, alea, mimicry, and ilinx begin to bifurcate. At the same time, the pleasure experienced in solving a problem arbitrarily designed for this purpose also intervenes, so that reaching a solution has no other goal than personal satisfaction for its own sake. This condition, which is ludus proper, is also reflected in different kinds of games, except for those which wholly depend upon the cast of a die. It is complementary to and a refinement of paidia, which is disciplines and enriches.” (pg. 29)

There is a sub classification binary of paidia vs ludus, which is mostly forgotten after it’s described, but important to note because it seems to hold in language that exists today as what play vs games are. Paidia exists before any sort of codification of conventions while ludus is completely about the conventions. What strikes me as most interesting is how paidia seems indistinguishable from life at some level, that people from the outside wouldn’t really know you’re playing until focusing on the fact. Even though Caillois is strident about life and play being separated, paidia seems to somewhat flout this. I think paidia is used as the beginning phase of a game trending towards ludus, and a general timeline that Caillois makes, following Huizinga, of ‘primitive’ play to sophisticated modern games. I feel like ludus describes the main perspective in which the values of games are interpreted in contemporary discourse.


“In the confused, inextricable universe of real, human relationships, on the other hand, the action of given principles is never isolated, sovereign, or limited in advance. It entails inevitable consequences and possesses a natural propensity for good or evil.

In both cases, moreover, the same qualities can be identified:

The need to prove one’s superiority

The desire to challenge, make a record, or merely overcome an obstacle

The hope for and the pursuit of the favor of destiny

Pleasure in secrecy, make-believe, or disguise

Fear or inspiring fear

The search for repetition and symmetry, or in contrast, the joy of improvising, inventing, or infinitely varying solutions

Solving a mystery or riddle

The satisfaction procured from all arts involving contrivance

The desire to test one’s strength, skill, speed, endurance, equilibrium, or ingenuity

Conformity to rules or laws, the duty to respect the, and the temptation to circumvent them

And lastly, the intoxication, longing for ecstasy, and desire for voluptuous panic

These attitudes and impulses, often incompatible with each other, are found in the unprotected realm of social life, where acts normally have consequences, no less than in the marginal and abstract world of play. But they are not equally necessary, do not play the same role, and do not have the same influence.” (pgs. 64-5)

Here we see the qualities Caillois feels like the different classifications of games lend to societies during enculuration. This is what he means, to borrow from Huizinga, how play is lifelike but not life. Games are meant to create time and space to facilitate these impulses and that experience stays with people after they play games, but exerts itself in a chaotic manner in life. To Caillois and most games theorists, games are supposed to be safe and orderly spaces where we can indulge in lifelike experiences without consequence. What has been, and still is, vague is how games actually affect life while being separated from it, though he takes a decent stab at it.


“Games discipline instincts and institutionalize them. For the time that they afford formal and limited satisfaction, they educate, enrich, and immunize the mind against their virulence. At the same time, they are made for to contribute usefully to the enrichment and the establishment of various patterns of culture.” (pg. 55)

Huizinga saw the calcification of conventions from play as a plight of the modern man, but Caillois interprets this as how the values of play transfer to culture. Particularly interesting for people interested in power, the image of games disciplining human impulses into attitudes and aptitudes lends a lot to contemporary conversations around if and how politics manifest themselves in game design. This reads to me that games are ultimately always instruments and players trained through their mechanisms. Play is a wild force that must be cultivated into culture, and games acts as the translation process from this ‘primal’ state to a sophisticated one.


“It is certainly much more difficult to establish the cultural functions of games of chance than of competitive games. However, the influence of games of chance is no less considerable, even if deemed unfortunate, and not to consider them leads to a definition of play which affirms or implies the absence of economic interest.” (pg. 5)

Though it might seem to be a trivial point to most people, where Caillois disputes Homo Ludens the most is the treatment of gambling. Huizinga and by example theorists after him tend to separate gambling off from the rest of play since money is involved. I feel like much of Man, Play and Games is about how our perspective on games changes when games of chance are included. His logic is that games of chance might have resources exchanging hands but the net outcome of the game doesn’t result in a gain or loss. It’s seems like a lot of stretching to me, to try and have gambling games matter but still be inconsequential. Caillois has a couple case studies on gambling games in the appendix that are worth reading, and also kinda undoes his claim about gambling remaining inconsequential in my opinion, but I don’t find that a bad thing.


“Inasmuch as I am also convinced that there exist precise interrelationships of compensation or connivance in games, customs, and institutions, it does not seem to me unreasonable to find out whether the very destiny of cultures, their chance to flourish or stagnate, is not equally determined by their preference for one or another of the basic categories into which I have tried to divide games, categories that are not equally creative. In other words, I have not only undertaken a sociology of games, I have the idea of laying the foundations for a sociology derived from games.” (pg. 67)

And here is the main agenda of the book. Where Huizinga wanted to create a method of interpreting history from a cultural anthropology standpoint of games, Caillois wants to use games to create a method of interpreting societies. As far as I know, this still seems pretty unique and isn’t really used in games discourse too often. You see the classifications come up and their interactions, but in general parlance you don’t see games interpreting life, only life interpreting games. And though Caillois somewhat qualifies that there isn’t a one to one relation between the games preferred by a culture and the values of said society, he ultimately acts that way in his readings.


“Recourse to chance helps people tolerate competition that is unfair or too rugged. At the same time, it leaves hope in the dispossessed that free competition is still possible in the lowly stations in life, which are necessarily more numerous. […] To gamble is to renounce work, patience, and thrift in favor of a sudden lucky stroke of fortune which will bring one what a life of exhausting labor and privation has not, if chance is not trifled with and if one does not resort to speculation, which is partly related to chance.” (pg. 115)

Though I don’t really jive with how Caillois arrives to his method of interpretation, I have to say that what he does interpret is super relevant and surprising to see from a games perspective. He sees modern societies ruled by games of agon and alea and sees similar tensions from their differences in the values and problems we since in the world. Caillois believes that democratic societies value agon since it speaks to the values of egalitarianism, promoting fair competition for honor and wealth. But foiling this process is the presence of alea, which is the random force of nature that births people into different stations of life with different abilities. Even though society promotes equality through privileging competition and constantly undermines and devalues games of chance, alea cannot be fully erased and the idea of equality remains a farce since the accident of birth greatly determines people’s lot in life. Caillois observes that the disadvantaged rely on alea because they come to understand that the playing field isn’t even and true agon cannot manifest. Interesting implications for those looking at class and marginalization in games.


“Everyone wants to be first and in law and justice has the right to be. However, each one knows or suspects that he will not be, for the simple reason that by definition only one may be first. He may therefore choose to win indirectly, through identification with someone else, which is the only way in which all can triumph simultaneously without effort or chance of failure. From this derived the worship of stars and heroes, especially characteristic of modern society. This cult may in all justice be regarded as inevitable in a world in which sports and the movies are so dominant. Yet there is in this unanimous and spontaneous homage a less obvious but no less persuasive motive. The star and the hero present fascinating images of the only great success that can befall the more lowly and poor, if lucky. An unequaled devotion is given the meteoric apotheosis of someone who succeeds only through his personal resources—muscles, voice, or charm, the natural, inalienable weapons of a man without social influence.” (pgs. 120-1)

Caillois paints a fascinating image on identification and representation through this conflict of egalitarianism and the staying influence of chance. He sees identification as a sublimated form of mimicry that has been put into the service to maintaining agon, or its illusion. Because ultimately life isn’t fair and many people recognize that, the only way to keep people following the current social order is to use that element of chance is to glamourize the rags to riches storyline. So instead of actually being a system of fair competition for all, large portions of society try to replicate the situations that current lottery winners have, and eventually resign themselves to being disadvantaged.


“There is doubtless no combination more inextricable than that of agon and alea. Merit such as each might claim is combined with the chance of an unprecedented fortune, in order to seemingly assure the novice a success so exceptional as to be miraculous. Here mimicry intervenes. Each one participates indirectly in an inordinate triumph which may happen to him, but which deep inside him he knows can befall only one in millions. In this way, everyone yields to the illusion and at the same time dispenses with the effort that would be necessary if he truly wished to try his luck and succeed. This superficial and vague, but permanent, tenacious, and universal identification constitutes one of the essential compensatory mechanisms of democratic society. The majority have only this illusion to give them diversion, to distract them from a dull, monotonous, and tiresome existence. Such an effort, or perhaps I ought to say such alienation, even goes so far as to encompass personal gestures or to engender a kind of contagious hysteria suddenly possessing almost all the younger generation. This fascination is also encouraged by the press, movies, radio, and television. Advertising and illustrated weeklies inevitably and seductively publish pictures of the hero or star far and wide. A continuous osmosis exists between these seasonal divinities and their multitude of admirers. The latter are kept informed with regard to the tastes, manias, superstitions, and even the most trivial details of the lives of the stars. They imitate them, copying their coiffures, adopting their manners, clothing, preferences, cosmetics, and diets. […] It is obviously not the athlete’s prowess nor the performer’s art that provides an explanation of such fanaticism, but rather a kind of general need for identifying with the champion or the star. Such a habit quickly becomes second nature.” (pgs 121-2)

Coming out of nowhere, Caillios wraps up his application of a games sociology on Western society with the obsession of celebrity and the function stardom and heroics. It’s a really interesting premise since we see the values of games come full circle to dictate which games are fostered in our culture and how they are deployed. We can see contemporary games being used as escapes into heroic fantasies as a part of this process, where we can identify with achieving the success of agon in a system where it isn’t realistically possible. The other side of discussions around games training players to be in a society of capitalist labor now includes the pacifying element that encourages people to play along with the current system and its illusions. This implies that using games and their design as a critical lens actually has some legs, especially now that we live in a world of gamification and designed social platforms.


First anthropology, now sociology, next time will be philosophy with Bernard Suits’ The Grasshopper. Feel free to let me know if you use this or you find it helpful!


This article was community supported! Consider donating or being my patron so I can continue writing: Support

Proudly powered by WordPress
Theme: Esquire by Matthew Buchanan.