Unnecessary Obstacles

Caillois introduced a spectrum from paidia (“play”, improvisation) to ludus (“games”, ordered, rule-bound, requiring skill or effort). To play a thing (or play with a thing) is to explore it in some sense. As I’ve noted before, to game a thing (eg. gaming the system) is more directed and manipulative. The relationship between play and games is complicated (and maybe contradictory). Generally, I usually argue that play is a broader concept and that games are a subset of play’s illusory disposition. Play as an attitude also applies to fiction, to social life, and to ritual. Instances of play are all optional, although there are social costs involved with opting in or out.

Bernard Suits once claimed that “playing a game is a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.”

In A Theory of Fun for Game Design, Raph Koster claimed that “Fun is just another word for learning” through interesting challenges.

Games might attempt to accomplish this by creating goals (put the ball into the hole), introducing rules (you can’t just pick up the ball- you have to hit it with a stick as few times as you can from where ever it stops), and sometimes introducing environments (in this case, literal terrain). Good feedback and a sense of mastery may drive the player to pit her skills against the challenge of the system and induce flow, which is a pleasure in itself. As skills increase, a game may be able to scale challenge accordingly (or, in more open forms of play, the challenge always existed and can now be realized by the more skilled player). Unlike some real-life scenarios, few games are constructed not to be playable.

Play cannot be forced, only afforded in a system, or encouraged in person.

I used the word ‘affordance’ a lot early on, but now haven’t really used it very much for a few months because I stopped explicitly talking about design. A functional affordance is a possibility for action, latent in the designed artifact itself but recognizable and actionable to the user. Knobs and wheels afford turning. Buttons afford pressing. The possibility for an action is clear just by encountering it- at least, for someone who has already mapped the mechanics of an artifact to an experience they recognize. A rhetorical affordance (a much less common concept) affords a narrative instead of a function. A diagram lifted from an old post:



Man, Play and Games

Roger Callois’ Man, Play, and Games (1961) is a direct response to Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, and largely builds off of it while editing a few key tenets.

The quotes immediately below are from an article I read for context on Callois’ background (Thomas Henricks, “Man, Play and Games- An appreciation and evaluation” [pdf]). It was hugely helpful in providing some context. Some papers from Man, Play and Games are available here, excerpted by an anthology for Rules of Play (2003), an influential tome hat almost acts as a first stab at a game design textbook, excerpting from various papers from practitioners and academics across time, and providing their own developed definitions of games, play, and design best practices. (I might write about Rules of Play later but no time soon.)

Caillois is known for his classifications of games and the ludus/paidia spectrum most of all. He mostly accepts Huizinga’s thesis but thinks that Huizinga went wrong in characterizing all play similarly and relating them to sacredness and mystery.

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Patterns, Moods, and Scenes

A not-quite-coherent ramble on a few disparate ideas that I suspect should be related. I haven’t connected all of the dots satisfactorily yet, and maybe there’s not much too it after all. I haven’t decided.

Publishing it anyway!



When I write, I might sometimes play a certain kind of music to change my state of mind. Often it’s sort of ambient, warm, buzzy kind of music- lately it’s been Kurt Vile, Real Estate, and King Krule. I listen to it not just because I enjoy it in some sense – of course I do, but I enjoy a lot of music- but I also get lulled into a state where I’m not even paying attention to the music really. It’s just sort of in the air. 

It’s not quite a science but there are obviously sets of music that I like but that are not appropriate for my writing mood. Some music is better for getting me pumped up to go running. Other music demands to be the focus of my attention when it plays, for lyrical or sonic reasons. Some music is useful for eliciting memories of some era or activity. For me, fuzzy/absent/over-simple lyrics are usually good for the writing atmosphere.

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Homo Ludens III

A last flourish on Homo Ludens, quoting the final paragraphs. I’ve got a few non-notes posts that are about ready to post, so tomorrow I’ll post one schizophrenic piece before moving on to briefly touch on Caillois’ Man, Play and Games.

Huizinga’s conclusions, on the human mind and spirit.

In treating of our theme so far we have tried to keep to a play-concept which starts from the positive and generally recognized characteristics of play. We took play in its immediate everyday sense and tried to avoid the philosophical short-circuit that would assert all human action to be play. Now, at the end of our argument, this point of view awaits us and demands to be taken into account.

“Child’s play was what he called all human opinions” , says late Greek tradition of Heraclitus. As a pendant to this lapidary saying let us quote at greater length the profound words of Plato which we introduced into our first chapter : “Though human affairs are not worthy of great seriousness it is yet necessary to be serious; happiness is another thing…  I say that a man must be serious with the serious, and not the other way about. God alone is worthy of supreme seriousness, but man is made God’s plaything, and that is the best part of him. Therefore every man and woman should live life accordingly, and play the noblest games, and be of another mind from what they are at present. F or they deem war a serious thing, though in war there is neither play nor culture worthy the name, which are the things we deem most serious. Hence all must live in peace as well as they possibly can. What, then, is the right way of living? Life must be lived as play, playing certain games, making sacrifices, singing and dancing, and then a man will be able to propitiate the gods, and defend himself against his enemies, and win in the contest”. Thus “men will live according to Nature since in most respects they are puppets, yet having a small part in truth” . To which Plato’s companion rejoins : “You make humanity wholly bad for us, friend, if you say that” . And Plato answers : “Forgive me. It was with my eyes on God and moved by Him that I spoke so. If you like, then, humanity is not wholly bad, but worthy of some consideration.”

The human mind can only disengage itself from the magic circle of play by turning towards the ultimate. Logical thinking does not go far enough. Surveying all the treasures of the mind and all the splendours of its achievements we shall still find, at the bottom of every serious judgement, something problematical left. In our heart of hearts we know that none of our pronouncements is absolutely conclusive. At that point, where our judgement begins to waver, the feeling that the world is serious after all wavers with it. Instead of the old saw : “All is vanity” , the more positive conclusion forces itself upon us that “all is play”. A cheap metaphor, no doubt, mere impotence of the mind; yet it is the wisdom Plato arrived at when he called man the plaything of the gods. In singular imagery the thought comes back again in the Book oj Proverbs, where Wisdom says : “The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his ways, before he made any thing from the beginning. I was set up from eternity, and of old before the earth was made… I was with him forming all things: and was delighted every day, playing before him at all times; playing in the world. And my delights were to be with the children of men.”

Whenever we are seized with vertigo at the ceaseless shuttlings and spinnings in our mind of the thought: What is play? What is serious? we shall find the fixed, unmoving point that logic denies us, once more in the sphere of ethics. Play, we began by saying, lies outside morals. In itself it is neither good nor bad. But if we have to decide whether an action to which our will impels us is a serious duty or is licit as play, our moral conscience will at once provide the touchstone. As soon as truth and justice, compassion and forgiveness have part in our resolve to act, our anxious question loses all meaning. One drop of pity is enough to lift our doing beyond intellectual distinctions. Springing as it does from a belief in justice and divine grace, conscience, which is moral awareness, will always whelm the question that eludes and deludes us to the end, in a lasting silence.



Homo Ludens II

A wide lens on the rest of Homo Ludens

The first chapter was really the entire thesis of Huizinga’s big idea about Play (which was dug into in the predecessor post). The remaining chapters attempt to shore up this thesis by example, looking at the histories and semantics of various cultures and their attitude towards play and ritual.

“Word and idea are not born of scientific or logical thinking but of creative language, which means of innumerable languages—for this act of ″conception″ has taken place over and over again.”

The second chapter of Homo Ludens is on the various words and meanings of play in different cultures. He notes that the general Latin term for play, Ludus, has not evolved into the Romance languages. “We must leave to one side the question whether the disappearance of ludus and ludere is due to phonetic or to semantic causes.” I could not work out a simple way to excerpt the survey usefully, so I’m lifting work from Wikipedia here. I apologize for this level of laziness. Let’s quickly move on to topics I’m more willing to write about.

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Homo Ludens I

Happy New Year!

I’ll be note-taking and synthesizing on play, ritual, and games in more detail. At the end of December I read some early influential works in “Game Studies”: Huizinga’s Homo Ludens and Caillois’ Man, Play and Games. They’re the kind of books that are referred to by many and read by few, which is too bad. I’ll start the year with some dry notes and quotes. For another project I’ve been cramming on the whole sort of curriculum in the field, hitting on anthropological studies, media studies, ludology proper, and some game design principles material. After Huizinga and Caillois, I’ll cut through Bateman’s Imaginary Games, introduce some Bogost, etc. Games won’t be the only thing I’ll be reading/writing about, but it’s something to start with.

First, a few posts on Huizinga’s Homo Ludens. Today I’m posting notes on the opening chapter, Nature and Significance of Play as a Cultural Phenomenon. Tomorrow I’ll post a sweep of quotes characterizing the rest of the book, about instances of play in culture. The day after that, I thought I’d post some of the conclusion of the book to wrap it up for the week.

Homo Ludens (1949) is Huizinga’s seminal contribution to a thread of anthropological/philosophical thought on the “play element of culture”. He intended to analyze the actions and significance of play in cultures and to characterize (though not strictly define) play generally. He aimed to show that “genuine, pure play is one of the main bases of civilization”.

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