Roger Caillois: Man, Play, and Games

[Readings] (03.07.09, 5:27 pm)

The Definition of Play

Caillois opens immediately in reference to Huizinga, that Huizinga’s concept of play is enormously influential and important, but also lacking. Huizinga’s work Homo Ludens was important in two respects: it sought to develop an exact definition of play, and it also attempted to establish the role of play as essential within culture. This aim is laudable, especially in the sense of legitimizing play and establishing it as a cultural foundation. However, Huizinga’s definition is both too broad and too narrow. The definition is too narrow because it focused entirely on competitive games, and conspicuously neglected other forms of play, most notably games of chance. Secondly, the definition is too broad because it describes the secret and mysterious as being in a sense equivalent to play practice.

Caillois gives a set of bullets that define the formal qualities of play. He gives an emphasis to rules in all kinds of play, and acknowledges that while playing with dolls and other forms of unstructured play do not have formal rules, they are still governed by a make-believe “as if”. This “as if” function replaces and is equivalent to the function of formal rules in other forms of play. I think that this is arguably a kind of simulative logic, that the rules of make-believe are the rules that govern the make-believe world. In childrens’ play, these are often very flexible and ephemeral, changing rapidly, but they do define a kind of boundary condition. At this point it is also important to make a note of the language, that the French word for play has the same root as the word for game, and they are not as readily distinguished as they are in English. What follow are Caillois’ formal qualities of play: (p. 9-10)

  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, ecept for the exchange of property among the player, 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.

The Classification of Games

The bulk of what I am interested in here are the rubrics of play given by Caillois. His classification divides play into four main categories: agon (competition), alea (chance), mimicry (simulation), and ilinx (vertigo). Alongside these categories is an axis denoted by the directions of ludus and paidia. Roughly, in Caillois’ terminology, ludus means an emphasis on rules, while paidia is an emphasis on playfulness, although there is a little bit more to it than that. All of these cross between the play and games of adults and children, as well as between physical and mental forms. The four categories are not meant as exclusive and inseparable, in fact, Caillois gives examples of many types of hybrids between the categories. They are well thought of as elemental, they are not components, but they dimensions of any given game or form of play.

Agon is the competitive nature of play, and it is the form to which Huizinga gave the most attention. Agon depends on competition and oposition, so races, chess games, fencing, and any televised sport easily falls under this category. The point of agon is to have one’s superiority recognized, and this superiority maintains a culturally endowed significance outside of the space of the game. In physical conflicts, violence or harm is not the object, but simply superiority. Games of agon frequently require training and investment, to learn and master the rules, and master one’s own power within the game.

Alea is the element of chance, and in these games, it is destiny that governs the outcome. In games of alea, the player is passive, at least in terms of affecting the outcome. Partaking in games of alea is a sign of courage, as one invests and risks, and then waits anxiously for the outcome. The player in games of alea thus has none of the professionalism of the player of agon. The most prevalent forms of alea are games like roulette or lotteries. Card games where the player plays cards are a combination of alea and agon, because elements of competition and chance are predominant. Caillois explains “Agon is a vindication of personal responsibility; alea is a negation of the will, a surrener to destiny.” (p. 18)

Mimicry is about developing and participating in an imaginary universe. Both agon and alea enable a world where the rules of the game are sacred, within which the game is self contained. Mimicry is about becoming another, to participate within this illusory world. Mimicry is about becoming another character and behaving as that character, temporarily shedding one’s actual identity. Mimicry is found in animal behavior, but in animals (especially in insects), the alternate character is integrated into the body, is essentially a mask that presents the creature as something that it is not. Human mimicry is found in ritual and performance, as well as in make-believe. The simulated nature of make believe is the essence of spectacle, and lives on in the eyes of the witnesses in addition to the players. Agon is inherently spectacular (as to prove one’s superiority, there must be witnesses to acknowledge it), and thus players of agon become celebrities. Sports stars maintain a role as-player even outside of the game when dealing with fans. Mimicry exhibits all the formal characteristics of play except for the element of rules. It can be seen to have rules, but these are the rules of performance, which requires maintenance and cooperation of the imaginary world.

Ilinx is a topic described by Caillois that does not tend to have nearly as much attention as his other categories. This is the element of vertigo, and the pursuit of vertigo. Sports of pleasure, where the goal is the bodily experience, are derived from Ilinx. The kinds of examples given by Caillois are games of spinning, voladores, and are associated with vertigo, panic, and hypnosis. I think that this category could easily be seen to include skiing, bungee jupmping, skydiving, driving cars very fast, sex, rollercoaster rides, drug use, mountaineering, dancing, and so on. The pursuit of vertigo from a lucid state is extremely common. Unlike mimicry, where the goal is to don a mask and participate in an imaginary world, the goal of ilinx is to touch a trans-sensual world at the limits of human perception through a visceral and bodily experience. Ilinx and alea are common in that they involve a submission of oneself to forces outside of one’s control. Gamblers often describe their experiences as being totally intoxicating. This can also be seen as a common thread with mimicry, where, having donned a mask, one submits oneself to that masks power (as described by Johnstone). Ilinx can be easily compared to the joy of immersion, where the goal is a sensually captivating experience of being in a world, often being lost within it.

Paidia is defined with some reservation and difficulty. Paidia corresponds to the basic level of freedom within play. Rules and freedom have an antithetical relationship, because play is dependent on rules, but simultaneously is about freedom from rules. Paidia is that dimension of freedom. It is tied integrally to the feeling of pleasure and joy. Pidia is spontaneous and wrapped up in the experience of sensation and response. Developmentally, childrens’ play is paidia (as the word paidia itself implies), but gradually it moves to take on rules, to structure the experience of play, and in doing so play bifurcates from a single activity into the many forms of agon, alea, mimicry, and ilinx.

Ludus works very differently. As defined, it is a desire to find amusement in arbitrary obstacles. This is a definition that leads to the sense of what games are, but the definition alone does not imply it immediately. The existence of the obstacle is what is intrinsic to ludus. The intensity of ludus defines the significance and importance of the obstacle, which leads to more structure. Caillois stresses that agon and ludus are not the same thing, though they may have correlation. There are two things that must be stressed about ludus. The first is that it is wrapped up in the idea of amusement. The amusement in overcoming the obstacle is integral. The imposition of an obstacle is not enough to make ludus; there must be pleasure as well. The second thing is that the obstacle is arbitrary. This arbitrariness becomes surprising sometimes when the absurdities of some games are brought to attention, for instance the restrictions on what parts of the body can used to touch the ball in ball games, or the role of the costume in theatre, or the significance of the roulette wheel in gambling. Ludus is how importance and meaning is endowed onto the space of objects within the magic circle and the world of the game.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorCaillois, Roger
TitleMan, Play, and Games
Tagsspecials, media traditions, games
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

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