Johan Huizinga: Homo Ludens

[Readings] (01.23.09, 1:20 pm)

Huizinga is one of the original voices in the study of play and games. Homo Ludens is his study of play in culture. The work is taken primarily as an anthropology of play, and Huizing is strikingly broad in his examination of play in different cultures. Much study of culture and philosophy in the West has limited itself to looking at history in Greece, Rome, and then Western Europe. Huizinga does explore these, but also reaches out to India, China, Japan, and the Blackfoot Tribe. For someone writing in 1938, this indicates some appreciable cultural diversity. Huizinga is perhaps notable for his coinage of the term “magic circle”, but his work is deeper than normally credited. His understanding of play is also wrapped up in conflict, which is a point of contention between him and other scholars. The ultimate manifestation and function of play to Huizinga is the resolution of conflict, which in turn creates social order.

Nature and Significance of Play as a Cultural Phenomenon

This chapter opens looking to understand the role of play within culture. Huizinga notes that play is older than culture, it is spread beyond merely the human species, as animals play. Play is clearly important, but it is unclear as to why we do it. Play must serve a function so that we can play at all. Play is elusive when attempting to ascribe some form of biological function to it, as it rejects and expands beyond any attribution posed onto it. The idea or concept of fun is equally elusive. Both the ideas of play and fun are linguistically problematic, because they mean very different things across languages and cultures. However, play itself exists independent of any name assigned to it, and independent of our understanding. Play is supra-logical and irrational.

The goal is to approach play as the player might percieve it. Huizinga’s goal is to look at play as a special activity within a culture, to see it within its context, not try to understand how it is conditioned from the outside. Our culture is permeated with play, from language, to myth to ritual. Each of these involves negotiating between that which is imaginary to that which is real. Language is a system of reference, and linguistic signs are different from their referents. The signs are, in a sense, not real (not concrete, anyway), and they relate to concrete things in the world. Myth interprets the physical world by explaining it in terms of the divine. Ritual connects meaning and concrete practices with symbolic practices. All of these are systems of play.

Play is difficult to classify in relation to other concepts. Huizinga makes the claim that play is the opposite of seriousness, but this proves problematic. Play can be serious, but his explicit assertion is that “Play is non-seriousness.” (p.5). This is different from claiming that play is not serious. Other things that are non serious are also not play, such as laughter, the comic, jest, and folly. Play cannot be classified morally (as good or bad), not can it be classified aesthetically. Play eludes classification and determination by other terms.

Play is voluntary. It may be deferred or suspended at any time. It involves stepping out of the “real,”  and as such it is in a position of inferiority to the “serious”. Play and seriousness exist in a cycle, where the ordinary world is suspended when the play begins, and resumes when it terminates. Play exists inside everyday life, but apart from it, existing in a special time and space. In time, it begins, goes on for some duration, and then finishes. Afterward, it is over, but exists as a memory, and may be re-enacted. In space, play occurs in special consecrated grounds that are set aside for the play to take place. This enclosure is what defines the magic circle. Examples of these sacred spaces are the playground, the arena, the card-table, the temple, the stage, the court of justice, and so on.

Within the circle, play imposes new rules, and creates order. This is counter-intuitive, as play is usually what breaks rules, but within its space, the rules of play are sacred. Deviation or breaking these rules spoils the game. Within the space, the course of play is enchanting and captivating. It is enthralling that it creates another world and, for lack of a better phrase, opens up a new form of consciousness. However, within this, there is an element of tension. Within the scope of the play, something is at risk, or the players want something to “go” or “go off” or simply happen. The player has some sort of motivation and objective. Due to this motivation and the possible outcome, an ethical dimension arises in the play. Even though play itself transcends morality, within the scope of play, there is a moral structure, determined by the rules of play.

The moral structure connects the performance of the player to the player’s adherence to the rules. It is morally important to abide by these rules and still meet the goals. A player who is a cheat still operates within the space of the rules. Even though the cheat breaks the rules, it is in order to win. The person who ignores the rules brazenly and does not act to win is something worse (like the parent who dismantles the pillow-fort, or the dog who runs onto the soccer field), because they have violated the sacred order of the magic circle. Breaking the rules reveals the fragility of the play itself. Huizinga explains that play is robbed of its illusion, which literally means “in-play”. This is notable for several reasons. The first is that illusion is an interesting word for capturing the believability of the world of play, as compared to, say immersion. A player who experiences immersion may still be aware of the fact that the world is imaginary, whereas the player experiencing illusion is seeing the world of play as of foremost importance.

The Play-Concept as Expressed in Language

In this chapter, Huizinga looks at the terms for play as expressed in different languages and cultures. The uses of the terms for play are quite diverse. One of the earlier distinctions is between the Greek terms paidia and agon. The term paidia represents the childish sense of play, as in things that are non serious and lighthearted. The other term, agon, is about contest and conflict. This is the term Huizinga is primarily interested in, as it denotes contests and competitions which were of great importance in Greek life. Agon is, incidentally, the root that gives us “agony,” so its connection to games is of a much more serious nature.

Huizinga investigates several other languages, and finds that there is a large diversity in terms, but different terms separate the agon/paidia difference with some frequency. These terms are discussed on the Wikipedia page for Homo Ludens. At the end of the chapter, he examines the words for seriousness or earnestness in these languages as well, although this proves to be problematic as finding the opposite of play is difficult linguistically. Huizinga concludes with a point that helps clarify the relationship between seriousness and play.

Leaving aside the linguistic question and observing the play-earnest antithesis somewhat more closely, we find that the two terms are not of equal value: play is positive, earnest negative. The significance of “earnest” is defined by and exhausted in the negation of “play”–earnest is simply “not playing” and nothing more. The significance of “play”, on the other hand, is by no means defined or exhausted by calling it “not-earnest”, or “not serious”. Play is a thing by itself. The play-concept as such is of a higher order than is seriousness. For seriousness seeks to exclude play, whereas play can very well include seriousness. (p. 45)

Play and Contest as Civilizing Functions

Culture arises from play, but in doing so, it takes on the form of conflicted play. “The view we take in the following pages is that culture arises in the form of play, that it is played from the very beginning. Even those activities which aim at the immediate satisfaction of vital needs–hunting, for instance–tend, in archaic society, to take on the play-form.” (p. 46) The use of play is used in negotiating conduct within a group, or between two opposing groups. The agon form of play is epitomized in the contest, and it is frequently through these sorts of contests, that order is established within the culture. Winning and losing within a play contest is usually merely symbolic, but the meaning of the win or loss is interpreted concretely within the culture.

Play contests establish a social order. The stability of the society comes from a defined order, which is determined by contests demonstrating some kind of strength. The leader of a group would be the one who is superior in some form or another. Social heirarchy may be demonstrated through playful displays. I find this claim very odd, though. Within interactions, I would agree that these take on playful forms and the interactions may be seen as contests of some kind, but to argue that entire cultures are ordered according to this play seems far fetched. The rules for defining victory and the resulting order must be consented upon or at least accepted, especially for the victory to be connected to any kind of ethical or moral superiority in the culture itself. This would indicate the need for protocols to determine social order by these playful forms, but it is ambiguous as to what forms these might take.

Play and Law, Play and War

These are two chapters which explore both the practice of law and the practice of war as playful social constructions. They exist outside of the scope of everyday life, they operate in special environments where there are special rules, yet both are still serious with real consequences. Regarding war, Huizinga qualifies his claim by indicating that it is a cultural function only when the members regard each other as antagonists with equal rights.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorHuizinga, Johan
TitleHomo Ludens: a Study of the Play-Element in Culture
Tagsspecials, media traditions, games
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

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