The Grasshopper for the People

Welcome back for some more game studies condensed and contextualized for people outside of academia. Given the nature of canons, these works build pretty directly off of what came before them, and so you might want to check out the previous two posts I’ve done before getting to today’s, The Grasshopper by Bernard Suits.

The Grasshopper is highly influential in games studies and design, and especially anticipates/predicates so-called games formalists. Whereas Huizinga and Caillois were preoccupied with the cultural implications of games and play, Suits embarks on thoroughly defining games for its own sake. It’s unclear whether Suits actually cared about games as medium at all, since the reason he wrote The Grasshopper was more about the act of defining things, and reacted to philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s use of games as an attack on the usefulness of defining things. Nevertheless, we can see this as an origin point on many attitudes about what games are conceived, since every assumption about what games are came from someone else’s agenda.

Worth noting is that the majority of the book is written as dialogue between the characters talking out the process of defining games. It uses the grasshopper and ants from Aesop’s fable to relate the pursuit of defining games similar to envisioning utopia. For the most part I’ve grabbed whole quotes but I should say that because of this structure, the book is easily readable and takes you through every bit of rationale as a good philosophy book would.



“Let me begin, then, with the apparently outrageous assertion that there is no logical relation whatever between playing and playing games. […] I suggest that we ought to not concern ourselves with the word ‘play’ when it is used as equivalent in meaning to such words as ‘perform,’ ‘operate,’ or ‘participate in.’ Thus, we can play the violin, but this means simply to perform upon the violin. We can play a pinball machine, but this means simply to operate it. And, finally, we can play a game, but this means simply to participate in it. […] The existence of the expression ‘playing a game’ is not by itself a compelling reason for insisting that there is a logical relation between playing and playing games.” (pg. 220-1)

I’m actually going to start off with the end of the book to frame why I personally find The Grasshopper worth knowing about, that is, the fierce separation of games and play. Here, Suits posits that play is merely incidental in relation to games, more a hiccup of language than integral to understanding them. Since then there has been a disavowal of play, being something that is childish and too vague, for the preference of games as this idealized designed object. I imagine this was a popular stance when games studies was trying to differentiate itself for play studies, and game designers from toys and children’s activities. Now games are serious, professional, science-friendly. Suits did not necessarily mean for that to happen, more that he was sticking to his philosophical guns and needed to excise play in order for his definition of games to be sound. It’s worth keeping in mind as we read through the rest of these notes and when we think about how contemporary definitions are formulated in relation to play and the politics that arise from them.


“To play a game is to attempt to achieve a specific state of affairs [prelusory goal], using only means permitted by rules [lusory means], where the rules prohibit use of more efficient in favour of less efficient means [constitutive rules], and where the rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity [lusory attitude]. I also offer the following simpler and, so to speak, more portable version of the above: playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.” (pg. 43)

Here we have contemporary games studies boiled down to its essential core. There are many things that fluctuate in definitions of games, like whether or not there are rules or goals or the particulars of how players are involved, but there is a bedrock of this voluntary act of putting oneself in front of voluntary obstacles. Outside of this, such as involuntary play or necessary obstacles, completely upend thinking on games, or at the very least, aren’t considered to be relevant. Any connection to the real is disputed or at best garners highly ambivalent responses where games interact with culture, but by somehow being isolated from it.


“The attitude of the game player must be an element in game playing because there has to be an explanation of that curious state of affairs wherein one adopts rules which require one to employ worse rather than better means for reaching an end. […] Cutting across the infield is shunned solely because there is a rule against it. But in ordinary life this is usually—and rightly—regarded as the worst possible kind of justification one could give for avoiding a course of action. The justification for prohibiting a course of action that there is simply a rule against may be called the bureaucratic justification; that is, no justification at all. But aside from bureaucratic practice, in anything but a game the gratuitous introduction of unnecessary obstacles to the achievement of an end is regarded as a decidedly irrational thing to do. […] If playing a game is regarded as not essentially different from going to the office or writing a cheque, then there is certainly something absurd or paradoxical or, more plausibly, simply something stupid about game playing. […] I believe that we are now a position to define lusory attitude: the acceptance of constitutive rules just so the activity made possible by such acceptance can occur.” (pgs. 40-3)

Most profilc from The Grasshopper is Suit’s conception of the lusory attitude, which separates our day-to-day actions from games, that is, that feeling of entering what Huizinga called the magic circle, doing something useless for its own sake. This lusory attitude is valorized in conversations around positive aspects around games, getting players to exercise their imaginations and focus themselves in the pursuit to some (now elevated) goal. To be sure, Suits doesn’t believe in following rules for just following rules, so there is some sort of ‘use’ or need for the lusory attitude, though what that is is anyone’s guess.


“By amateurs I mean those for whom playing the game is an end in itself, and by professionals I mean those who have in view some further purpose which is achievable by playing the game. […] The attitude of amateur differs from these attitudes because he is motivated by a love of the game […] But although the attitudes of amateurs and professionals are markedly different, it is still the case that these differing attitudes are attitudes towards games, and not towards something else. […] If playing—rather than playing games—is activity which is always and only undertaken for its own sake, then ‘professional player’ is a contradiction in terms. On such a view we would be obligated to say that a professional athlete was not playing, but we would not be obliged to deny that he was playing a game. In the same way, while we would not want to say that a concert violinist was at play during his recitals, we would presumably want to grant that he was playing the violin.” (pgs. 154-5)

Suits follows Caillois’ impulses and aims to for good include games that are largely played for professional reasons or have some sort of gain in real life. Which is to say that professional football is a game but none of the players are deploying a lusory attitude. To be honest I’m not completely sure why this is such a contentious point for theorists, unless it’s just for this pursuit of a definition which real life is constantly trying to foil. There is this weird authenticity or purity at work in games studies that theorists aim to hold onto, and something like earning money completely ruins this purity somehow. I would say today that no one really thinks of professional players as markedly different from other players, but at the same time, that does reveal inconsistencies. This provokes questions regarding the opportunistic nature of games theorists and practitioners when it comes to how games are relevant connections to life and when they aren’t.


“It might be said that triflers recognize the rules but not goals, cheats recognize goals but not rules, players recognize both rules and goals, and spoilsports recognize neither rules nor goals; and that while players acknowledge the claims of both the game and its institution, triflers and cheats acknowledge only institutional claims, and spoilsports acknowledge neither.” (pg. 51)

Suits also continues the tradition of looking at the outliers of game players, with our old favorites the cheat and spoilsport joined by the newly minted trifler. While the former two are mostly the same just further pegged into a taxonomy, the trifler creates and interesting complication in way the many games pitch agency in games. According to Suits, triflers respect the institution of a game, going by its rules and customs, except they do not pursue established goals set out by the game. So if you’re playing RISK with your friends, where the goal is global domination, but you just want to take control of Africa so you can claim to be the new Nubian Queen and do nothing else, Suits would call you a trifler (trifling in slang is not wasted on me here). He doesn’t say it as polemically as this, but Suits ultimately considers a game, or at least a good game, one that has a goal in which the structure of the rules promotes you to obtain, so along with spoilsports and cheats (thought cheats are again sympathized with as being the most zealous of players), and professional players while we’re at it, triflers aren’t playing the game. It continues the lack of explanation by ‘formalist’ game theorists and designers on how cheating, mods, player-driven goals, and more are factored into tradition with something other than a handwave.


“The goal of participating in the game is not, strictly speaking, a part of the game at all. It is simply one of the goals that people have, such as wealth, glory, or security. As such it may be called a lusory goal, but a lusory goal of life rather than of games.” (pg. 39)

Here we have an interesting and short-lived turn regarding the application of play and games to life. For Suits life can be game-like and we can have a lusory attitude towards it but it seems that games are not the only thing one can be lusory towards. Because Suits is only concerned with defining games and not about games as cultural phenomena or their creation, we get to fill in the implications of thinking about our medium as either the games themselves or the attitude in which we approach things. At this point in time, the lusory attitude isn’t used to engage with life’s issues, rather games themselves are. Maybe it isn’t games that we really need to be concerned with in the first place? I think Suits would agree.


“I would define an open game generically as a system of reciprocally enabling moves whose purpose is the continued operation of the system. […] Heuschrecke thus correctly specified a game of make-believe as being ‘a reciprocating system of role-performance maximization.’” (pg. 146)

Here is where Suits addresses how games of make-believe fit into his definition of games, by turning the maintenance of dramatic effect into the goal of the game, separating it from performance in general through action-substantiated roles. To his credit, Suits at least questions why adults let go of open games and draws lines from preference for closed vs open games to capitalistic vs socialistic societies. These thoughts are still relatively untouched by most people in games who still valorize closed games and are more or less complacent as realms of business further mechanize games for profit. One would be hard-pressed to see the difference between open games and play at times outside of Suits’ very specific logic, but overall, inefficient means to an unnecessary goal stands as what’s allowed from the world of make-believe into games and what isn’t. Heuschrecke, by the way, is the grasshopper’s alter ego who has a scene of his own.


“H: You were playing a two-role, two-person, one-player game. It is also possible to play a two-role, two-person, one-player game where the person who is not a player (but, in effect, a device) provides you with dramatic opportunities with the conscious purpose of doing so. […] But the best way to get good lines is for your partner to be a player, because then he has a motive which is better than that of either of the others. The dupe is worst, of course, because he is least dependable, and most of the time he isn’t giving you lines at all but going about his own affairs. And the person who feeds you lines for some reward (or out of friendship or fear, it might be added), although we would expect him to be more constantly employed at his task than the dupe, is only indirectly motivated to provide the desired service. Only another player (or yourself as the other player) has a direct motive.” (pgs. 119-20)

Heuschrecke, or the grasshopper, shows how that games can indeed be played with unwilling or unaware participants, which differs from past theorists. Before, and with some after, everyone had to be within the magic circle to call what was going on play or a game, or else it’s real life and with consequence. As it turns out, open games can be played without the consent of all parties when those unknowing are treated like objects or devices rather than other players. Suits suggests these are poorly constructed open games because better ones would have another player who acts as a more active and intentional partner in perpetuating drama. Like most theorists, the deeper we get the weaker this life vs play distinction gets. Is there much use to keep the experience of the person playing an open game and the bystander apart? The only reason to is because Suits wants to reach a solid definition of games, no other reason. I feel the same impulse exists in games, that things are separated simply for the fact that a separation can be made, no matter how arbitrary that decision is. Given this example comes from ‘patients’ who didn’t know they were playing games, just that they enjoyed deploying roles, it seems like open games don’t require anyone to realize they are playing or in a game for it to be so. It really questions the need to hold onto this separation.


“S: But surely playing a part is the very essence of make-believe.

H: Playing a part is, yes. But playing what might be called a foreign or assumed part is not. One can also play, so to speak, native or proprietary parts.

S: What on earth is a proprietary part?

H: One way to define it is as follows: a part of such a kind that when one plays it, one is not conveying misinformation about one’s identity. […] Suppose that a Boy Scout […] dons his uniform and helps old ladies across the street. He is also playing a part, but it is his own part; that is, its performance conveys information rather than misinformation about the performer. […]

S: You are talking about role-playing in everyday life. […]

H: There are roles which enjoy a kind of objective or public status, so that they can be performed by different people for different purposes. They are in this respect like clothing. All kinds of apparel are for public sale, and I can purchase and put on something which correctly conveys my position in life, or I can purchase and put on something which misrepresents my position in life. For example, I can put on a business suit or I can put on the uniform of a full admiral. The only difference is that suits and uniforms are patterns of cloth and roles are patterns of behaviour.” (pgs. 121-2)

And on cue, roles that are used in games can include the roles we decide to have in life, through the requirement that the player, who may or may not know they are playing, is always trying to perpetuate their role through interactions with others. There’s a lot of implications on the rest of games when open games can basically pass for real life, or that the player can be ultimately unaware of their own playing. While Suits does his philosophical wheeling to serve his pursuit of definitions, I wonder how this can be used to press against convention and redefine convention and deployment of games outside of consumer entertainment products. It’s possible, though, that Suits was thinking of or anticipating LARPs and more formalized roleplaying.


“Our view of games occupies a middle position between two extreme positions which we reject: what may be called, on one hand, radical autotelism and, on the other hand, radical instrumentalism. Radical autotelism is the view that unless games are played solely as ends in themselves, they are not really games, that is, that amateurs alone are playing games. We have already rejected radical autotelism in arguing that professionals, too, are genuinely playing games. Radical instrumentalism is the view that games are essentially instruments, and we also reject that view.” (pg. 158)

To leave us off, we have Suits trying to complicate the use vs useless binary that games gets trapped in so often. He implicates basically all of games discourse, and even himself, since what is too autotelistic (something done for its own sake) and too instrumental is completely arbitrary. The only reason games would need to be completely for themselves is because there’s a value in separating them from life, and being instrumental is having some sort of end that amounts to something other the feeling of completing a game. I don’t know if any theorist has really addressed this deftly, it seems like something most don’t really want to deal with. At the very least it makes use have to consider aims like ‘for change’ or ‘education’ or ‘social impact’ when it comes to games, at least for Suits. It’s possible that the DNA of games from Suits and on resists proper use in areas outside of entertainment because of this attitude, and we’d need to revisit what it is about play and games we actually find to be at the heart of our practice to include them if these aspects are important to us.



And there we have it, another games theorist down. Let me know if these are useful to you and if there are any books I should consider for series. Until next time!

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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!


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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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