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.

Huizinga concludes everything in the section up by saying the following:

Summing up the formal characteristics of play we might call it a free activity standing quite consciously outside “ordinary” life as being “not serious”, but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings which tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world by disguise or other means.

Next Huizinga covers the issue of seriousness. Huizinga points out that play both moves below the level of seriousness and above it at the same time. Play can be utterly absorbing and entirely serious for the person participating in it. At the same time Huizinga says:

"The joy inextricably bound up with playing can turn not only into tension, but into elation. Frivolity and ecstasy are the twin poles between which play moves."

The final aspect of play which Huizinga deals with is the fact that play necessarily includes the consciousness that one is “only pretending.” The participants of play must know that this is not ordinary or real life for it to be play.

The ability to achieve success in play is also necessary. And that success must be able to be boasted about by the one who succeeds. On the other hand, in true play the success of the individual readily moves to the success of the group. In other words, everyone must be able to rejoice in the success of the individuals involved in the play act.

Next Huizinga moves on to various aspects of civilization and shows how they were born out of play. He starts with court justice and shows how trials are rooted in a play element in their beginnings and have been steadily removed from the play sphere over time. War also has much in common with play in its earlier incarnations. Huizinga states that with the coming of the “total war” approach to war that the play aspect of combat was lost. His point to this is show that without play civilization would not have arisen. Civilization may have moved beyond it play origins in certain spheres, such as in justice or war, but it was definitely born there.

Huizinga then moves on to other aspects of civilization which still retain their play qualities. Of poetry he says:

"Not only the elements of myth but those of poetry too are best understood as play-functions. Why does man subordinate words to measure, cadence and rhythm? If we answer: for the sake of beauty or from deep emotion, we are only getting out of our depth. But if we answer: men make poetry because they feel a need for social play, we are getting nearer the mark.”

And so, poetry is in its essence, play with words. And if this is the case for poetry, we can easily see that it is the case for music and songs as well. Huizinga later brings dance into the fold of play as well.

Philosophy is also an outgrowth of play. Huizinga shows how in its earliest incarnations with the Greeks it was first viewed a s a child’s pastime to argue philosophically and logically. Those participating in philosophical discussions were fully aware that the activity was fun and often argued as to whether it served any real point. Huzinga states:

"All knowledge—and this naturally includes philosophy—is polemical by nature, and polemics cannot be divorced from agonistics."

Agonistics are the competitive aspects of play. Anyone who has studied philosophy knows that the field is built upon intellectual competition.

Huizinga then moves on to modern “professional” sports and competitive forms of tabletop gaming, as in chess tournaments. Huizinga turns scathing in his condemnation of these pastimes. He states about professional sports,

“The ability of modern social techniques to stage mass demonstrations with the maximum of outward show in the field of athletics does not alter the fact that neither the Olympiads nor the organized sports of American Universities nor the loudly trumpeted international contests have, in the smallest degree, raised sport to the level of a culture-creating activity. However important it may be for the players or spectators, it remains sterile. The old play-factor has undergone almost complete atrophy.”

Huizinga sees the same thing starting to occur in some of the uber competitive card games or in competitive chess. What has happened in all these cases is that the level of seriousness has been raised to such an extent that they can not be said to have any aspect of childlike joy left in them. Their rules and techniques are studied and refined to such a degree that there is no spontaneity left in them. There is only the dry application of skill to a problem.

Contemporary art is analyzed by Huizinga and shown to contain play elements within it, in its modern incarnations since the 1800s and its democratization through the invention of photographs and easy reproduction.

Huizinga next shows that Science is not play due to the fact that it seeks to constantly engage with reality. Play must remain separate from reality and so does not apply to Science. Huizinga says:

By way of tentative conclusion we might say that modern science, so long as it adheres to the strict demands of accuracy and veracity, is far less liable to fall into play as we have defined it, than was the case in earlier times and right up to the Renaissance, when scientific thought and method showed unmistakable play-characteristics.

Finally, Huizinga turns to politics and says that modern politics have less and less of a play element within them. And then he pivots to the issue of war. He shows how modern war has long since ceased to be related to play as might have been said of ancient war. Huizinga says,

“But it is true to say that until quite recently war was conceived as a noble game—the sport of kings—and that the absolutely binding character of its rules rested on, and still retained, some of the formal play-elements we found in full flower in archaic warfare.”

Huizinga makes the point that war that is fought for supposed ethical reasons is, by definition, not playful because play can have nothing to do with ethical considerations.

This is a book that requires multiple readings with large breaks of time between each reading to fully digest. I first read the book almost a year ago and have been thinking on it since then. It's taken that long to grasp it solidly enough to write even this simple summary of it. Huizinga is stunningly eloquent, while being exceptionally dense in his presentation of the information. He packs a great deal of thought and meaning into every sentence. No words on the pages are wasted in this book. It’s an understatement to say that I am not normally one to highlight books or take notes. But this book forced me to do so. Reading the book in digital form on a kindle was extremely helpful due to the built in note-taking and search features. If I had had the book in physical form it would have been filled with sticky notes, even though I really hate using them. But this is the book that anyone interested in play or gamification must read. It is the foundational book to the whole field, and in my opinion, it has never been equaled.

The concept that struck me most forcefully is that so much of what I find meaningful in life is a modification of play, according to Huizinga. Poetry, music, and philosophy all find their genesis within play. Huizinga’s argumentation in support of this evolutionary structure of the immaterial is profound in its historical analysis. It’s hard to see anything but that structure after reading the book. I do find enjoyment outside of play as well, however. Science is after all not play. Nor is serving the needs of others.

Finally, teaching is also not play, although Huizinga does not mention this field. Teaching does not dwell within a demarcated magic circle. It affects the real lives of everyone involved in profound ways that go beyond enjoyment alone. Therefore, it cannot qualify as play. On the other hand, incorporating play elements into the act of teaching results in increasing the enjoyment of everyone involved. And perhaps this is the most salient point about play that Huizinga never really makes. If play is in fact basically Freedom incarnate within immaterial observable form, then adding it in to most things within real life provides space and distance from the strictures of the real world. Play allows us to emotionally escape the constant looming presence of responsibilities and fears put upon us in the real world. This then gives us the strength to deal with those responsibilities and fears. Jaak Panksepp, the biologist who discovered the mammalian PLAY circuit, emphasized strenuously in his work that Science has not yet been able to determine the actual function of play. There are a multitude of hypotheses, but no definitive answers. He did say however, that his most basic hypothesis was that play existed for the emotional well-being of the animals who had the circuit. With advanced intelligence comes the capacity for mental pain in a multitude of forms. Play seems to combat that pain to some extent. Mammals who play feel better. Reading Huizinga’s book and seeing that those parts of civilization which give the most meaning to life all have their genesis in an evolution of play, gives historical weight to this hypothesis.