Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture

In Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, written in 1938, Huizinga produced the first truly scholarly analysis of play from a sociological viewpoint. He analyzes play by comparing it as it appears in its various forms throughout all world cultures and over the course of human history.

First, he sets out to define just what play is. He determines that true play has three characteristics that set it apart from other activities. First, and foremost, play must be voluntary. There is no such thing as forced play. Play is in fact freedom itself. The second characteristic of play is that it is not part of ordinary or “real” life. It is a stepping out of the normal sphere of life into a temporal domain of its own. The third quality of play is that it is secluded and limited. It has a fixed duration, scope, and place. An essential part of this limiting characteristic of play is that it makes use of repetition and alternation. The other essential part to this limitation is the idea that play is limited in its location. It is confined to a play-ground area which has been set apart and agreed upon in advance. It is held within a "magic circle."

Another benefit of play that Huizinga brings out is that it creates order within a confused world. It is a “limited perfection”. It is a way to temporarily beat back the chaos and randomness that are such a part of life.

A social benefit of play is that it tends to create communities around itself. People who participate in play together tend to become bonded to each other. They set themselves apart through their shared play experience and draw a line between themselves and the rest of society who do not participate in the same play. Attendant upon this function of play is an air of secrecy.

This is for us, not for the “others”. What the “others” do “outside” is no concern of ours at the moment. Inside the circle of the game the laws and customs of ordinary life no longer count. We are different and do things differently.

Prince of Wolves book cover

This book, written by Dave Gross, was the first novel that was made in the Pathfinder RPG setting of Golarian. It came out in 2010 and started off the series of novels called Pathfinder Tales. As I’ve been playing Starfinder for some time now and am now getting into Pathfinder 2nd Edition, I thought it might be interesting to start reading the novels that are set in the Golarian world. Novels are the best way to stick a setting into your mind, I think. They certainly work better in that capacity than reading core rule books.

And so, I gave Prince of Wolves a try. It’s the story of a half-elf Pathfinder Venture-Captain Varian Jeggare and his Tiefling servant/ partner/ bodyguard, Radovan Virholt. They travel to Ustalav looking for a lost Pathfinder. Ustalav is sort of an eastern European gothic horror type area within Golarian with the requisite werewolves and vampires scattered throughout. The story itself combines aspects of mystery, adventure, and gothic horror in an effective way. Some of the horror scenes are quite macabre. There’s also a dose of humor mixed throughout to lighten the mood from time to time. The oddest thing about the story is that it is told from the two main protagonists’ viewpoints in alternating first-person chapters. Once I got used to the constant viewpoint change it worked well enough. Gross does a good job of giving both characters very distinctive voices. It quickly becomes easy to tell the two characters’ chapters apart by narrative tone alone. The end result of these literary ingredients was a good book. Good, but not great.

The book helped me solidify many Pathfinder setting tidbits in my mind, which was the point of reading it in the first place. So, it was well worth the read for me. I’d recommend the book to any adults or older teenagers playing the Pathfinder RPG.

Affective Neuroscience Cover

Jaak Panksepp (1943-2017) was a pioneering scientist in the neuroscience behind emotions in humans and animals. In his book Affective Neuroscience, he explained the science behind what exactly is going on in our brains when we feel various emotions. The book is cold, hard science written by an expert practicing scientist in the field. That means the book is not an easy read and its main purpose is to be used as a university textbook. This is not a science book written for popular audiences. I was mainly interested in one chapter within this book, as I had heard it referred to at various times by other people discussing the phenomena of mammalian play. Panksepp is the scientist who conclusively demonstrated that mammal brains have a separate PLAY circuit in them, and I wanted to get the information on that research straight from the source.

Panksepp lays out his evidence for a ludic brain circuit in chapter 15 of his book. He used rats to study play. By doing various brain experiments on them where he damaged various parts of their brain (I hope this is not allowed currently under modern ethical research standards), or administered various chemicals, he was able to figure out where in the brain play urges come from in mammals. Rats, and all mammals, love to play, particularly when they are younger. The only type of play rats show is, of course, rough-and-tumble play (abbreviated RAT play in the chapter). RAT play is easily observable and quantifiable in rat interactions and thus was a perfect subject for Panksepp’s investigations. A side note is that Panksepp found that rats also laugh, and that they do it a lot while they are playing. Humans obviously have more forms of play than just RAT play, due to our more advanced brains. But Panksepp is careful not to overstep the bounds of his actual experimental results with rats when discussing how play probably works in the brains of humans. He admits that he can not experimentally show where these alternate forms of human play come from in the human brain itself, but he does say his own best guess would be that humans also have the one PLAY circuit in their brains, just like rats and the other mammals do, and that those ludic impulses that it produces are being modified by the reasoning centers of the brain. He does not think that human brains have separate play circuits in the brain for different types of play since such a configuration would seem to be unnecessary. Regardless of his conjecture in this area, there are some interesting things he managed to determine experimentally about play.

Rise of the Dungeon Master cover

Rise of the Dungeon Master, written by David Kushner and illustrated by Koren Shadmi, is a graphic novel introduction to the history of Dungeons and Dragons. It’s meant to be informative to someone who has no previous knowledge of the history of the game. As such it might be a good book to hand out to a brand-new player in a game of Dungeons and Dragons. It would depend on the person though. The art is in black and white comic style and is very accessible. The story on the other hand is oddly done. The book is written in second person as if the reader were a character in various scenes of D&D history.

In chapter one, the reader is a con attendee in Lake Geneva in 2007. The reader is invited by Gary Gygax to play a game with him. The game of course is D&D and the reader is then given an introduction into what the game is. In the second chapter, the reader becomes Gary Gygax, following him from his early childhood years up through his early adulthood and his creation of the wargame Chainmail. Chainmail included fantasy creatures as playable soldiers in a medieval setting. In chapter three, the reader becomes Dave Arneson. The chapter follows Arneson in his early 20s as he meets Gary Gygax and then subsequently modifies the Chainmail system to create a game with fantasy creatures in a dungeon being fought by the players who control just one hero which levels up as he or she gains experience. In chapter four the reader once again becomes Gygax as he creates Dungeons and Dragons out of Arneson’s concepts and then forms TSR to sell the game. In chapter five the reader becomes Dave Arneson again, followed by several creators of early computer games based off D&D, from Will Crowther to Richard Garriot. In chapter six, the reader is at first William Dear, the detective who started the D&D satanic panic in the 80s. Then the chapter shifts and follows the satanic panic itself. In chapter seven, the reader first follows Gygax as he grows the D&D brand. Then the persepctive changes again to Arneson as he battles legally for credit in the creation of D&D, becomes a teacher at Full Sail in Florida, and sells off his remaining stake in TSR. In chapter eight, the reader becomes a 70s teenager who grows up to have a career in the gaming industry. The chapter covers Wizards of the Coast buying TSR and then releasing third edition and fourth edition. Chapter nine ends the book by covering the deaths of Arneson and Gygax, as well as the release of 5th edition D&D.

All told the book felt a bit disjointed to me, due to its approach of a changing second person perspective. It does provide a general overview of the history of D&D in a way that’s very accessible. There is a small amount of adult language in the book and so parents should be aware of that if they are looking to get the book for their children to read. If it weren’t for those couple of uses of adult language the book would be perfectly useful in an elementary school library’s collection, as it is written on a level that children of about third grade and up could easily understand. Due to that low level of content complexity, the book may feel rather juvenile to an adult reader at times. Thus, the book ends up in a rather weird hybrid situation of child-level complexity mixed with some minor adult content.

Art & Arcana book cover

Art & Arcana by Newman, Peterson, Witwer, and Witwer is a book that came out recently about the art of Dungeons and Dragons over the course of its history. It is lavishly produced in both a standard edition and a collector’s edition. The Eye of the Beholder: The Art of Dungeons and Dragons is a new independent documentary about the same subject, which is available on the various streaming services. Let me say up front that I highly recommend both to anyone interested in role-playing games or even just fantasy art. That being said, they should both be viewed critically with an understanding that the creators of these two takes on the history of the game are definitely long-time fans of the game. This needs to be factored in when analyzing them.

I started playing Dungeons and Dragons right after 5th edition came out to find yet another mentally stimulating activity to do with my own children. Role-playing tabletop games are a bonanza of high order thinking practice for their players. The way they jog creative impulses in their players is unparalleled in gaming today. And so, I highly recommend their use to parents and teachers. As a nerd who was born in the 70s and came of age in the 80s, I had grown up alongside Dungeons and Dragons, although I never played it in its real form. I had played computer games based on the ruleset of the game, however, and enjoyed them. So, I came into the role-playing tabletop hobby knowing tertiarily about the game, but not fully understanding what exactly it was all about (to say the least). I certainly didn’t have a solid grasp of its history. However, I also did not have decades of cognitive dissonance, protecting the game, built up within me from trying to defend the game against its critics. But I do love learning the history of things and it wasn’t long before I started researching the topic.

Dungeons and Dreamers cover

Dungeon and Dreamers, by Brad King and John Borland, is a history of the rise of computer gaming and its basis in the tabletop game Dungeons and Dragons. The book narratively recounts the life of Richard Garriott, a pioneer programmer of early computer games who is still making games today. Garriott created the Ultima series of computer role-playing games, which eventually led to Ultima Online, one of the first massively multiplayer online games. The book shows how Dungeons and Dragons was a major influence on Garriott and his games. Woven within the stories of Garriott’s life are stories of other computer game programmers, like John Carmack, Wil Wright, Willie Crowther, and Don Woods. Throughout the stories, the influence of Dungeons and Dragons is shown. The book chronicles the rise of the second wave of computer gamers who were not experienced with Dungeons and Dragons, but still influenced by the game’s pervasive hold on the first wave of game programmers.

The book also covers the controversy over violence in video games spurred by the Columbine shootings. In this section, it follows the story of Henry Jenkins, a media critic, who was called upon to defend violent video games before a Senate subcommittee. The book does a good job of covering the arguments that both sides were making, but it is obvious the author sympathizes with the side that feels the games are not what caused the shooters to do what they did.

The authors have put out a second edition of the book which I just got. In it they follow Richard Garriot through the failure of Tabula Rasa, analyze the success of World of Warcraft, and chronicle the rise and fall of Second Life. So if you are going to get the book I would be sure you are getting the second edition.

Playing at the World book cover

Playing at the World is a historical book, written by Jon Peterson, focused on the history of chess’s evolution into war games and from there into role-playing games. It is a scholarly approach to the subject done with great attention to detail and massive amounts of primary source research. The book is a fascinating read for anyone interested in modern gaming, and more particularly in role-playing games and their war game forerunners.

This book is the most thoroughly researched book out there on the history of the evolution of gaming. It helps that the author is quite eloquent, in order to get through the vast amount of ground covered in the book.

A very tiny thumbnail sketch of the of the history within the book follows.

Chess was used as a strategy training game within military academies and royal families for much of its early history. In the late 1700s and on through the 1800s it became obvious to various people that it was simply too unrealistic a game to adequately test the strategic mental mettle of future officers. Thus, came the attempts to make the game more realistic. More units were added. Terrain effects were added in. The grid system was eventually done away with in favor of more free form measured movement. Most importantly, the new mathematical field of statistics was gaining a foothold within military circles. Statistical analyses of past wars and battles allowed people to determine the exact percent probability various weapons and groups of troops had of success in battles based on a variety of circumstances. These statistics were eventually incorporated into the war games being played. This meant that dice needed to be added in to the games to model the various probability spreads. Previous to this dice had been viewed as merely the implements of gamblers, but now they became statistical tools in modeling the real world. These war games became ever more complex as they evolved. Eventually, most of them started to use referees whose job it would be to determine the validity of actions a player might want to take. In other words, in an effort to make the games as strategic as possible it was necessary to bring in a separate player whose sole job was to listen to whatever the other players could imagine attempting and then rule on its result in an impartial way. This process happened throughout the 1800s within Prussia for the most part. However, it spread from there throughout the world as other nations began to be interested in what Prussia was doing to train its military officers.

book cover

This book, written by the the late Stephen Hawking and his daughter Lucy, is a wonderful way to promote a love and appreciation for real science. Each of the five books in this series focus on a particular subject within the overarching Science branch of Physics.

The premise of book one is that an elementary school aged boy, George, has a scientist and his family move in next door. The scientist, Eric (an obvious fictional avatar for Stephen Hawking himself), has a daughter, Annie, who is a little younger than George, and a wife, Susan who is a music teacher. George has parents that are ecoactivists and have taught George to distrust Science and Technology. They use candles rather than electric lights, grow their own vegetables, are vegetarians who cook all their food from scratch (like broccoli and spinach muffins), don't use computers at all, and go on protest marches. At the beginning of the story George is embarrassed somewhat by his parents because he is made different from the other children at school because of them. Then George meets Annie and her father next door. Eric shows George that Science is amazing and not something to fear. He also teaches George that Scientists are concerned about the state of the planet (and working to help the situation) and that he admires George's parents for taking a stand. So George learns to be proud of his parents' foresight and comes to realize that he wants to grow up and be a scientist. George's parents eventually learn to accept Science and it's possible benefit to the planet and humanity. And of course everyone becomes friends in the end.

In order to accomplish all of these realizations on the part of all the characters in the story, the authors weave an amusing sci-fi plot complete with the world's most powerful computer (a quantum one), named Cosmos (able to create doorways into just about anywhere in the Universe), a comet ride around the solar system, an evil (or maybe not) scientist teacher, a black hole (which of course relies on Hawking radiation as a plot device), school bullies, and a grape-soda-loving escaped pig.

The book is interspersed with science essays that could be a bit over the head of younger elementary students and even sometimes older ones. They will be interesting for more advanced students however. It also includes many full color glossy photos from the Hubble. Science facts about the solar system and other cosmic objects are woven into the plot. Also incorporated into the plot is an understanding of how real science actually works and how scientists work together to accomplish it.

I've read this series to 5th grade classes and 2nd grade classes. Both ages of students loved the book and the following ones. My own children at ages 5 and 8 loved this series as well. I highly recommend the series to parents and teachers. Every elementary school library should have a copy of these. Also, the audiobook versions of these are very well done, although they take out all the science essays. They are dramatized with fun sound effects and voice acting.