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”.


Play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing. We can safely assert, even, that human civilization has added no essential feature to the general idea of play. Animals play just like men. We have only to watch young dogs to see that all the essentials of human play are present in their merry gambols. They invite one another to play by a certain ceremoniousness of attitude and gesture. They keep to the rule that you shall not bite, or not bite hard, your brother’s ear. They pretend to get terribly angry. And- what is most important- in all these doings they plainly experience tremendous fun and enjoyment. Such rompings of young dogs are only one of the simpler forms of animal play. There are other, much more highly developed forms: regular contests and beautiful performances before an admiring public.

Play is free in two senses: it is freely engaged in (voluntary), and is also an expression of one’s freedom. Once, months ago, I actually expressed an odd problem with videogames in that they are not as evidently an expression of freedom- one can easily and happily cheat at a (non-video) game, because its rules are merely suggestions maintained in the little social bubble players maintain during play; in a videogame, though, rules are essentially physics. I will return to this later.

Play takes place outside of ordinary life. It is a separate world with its own rules:

All play moves and has its being within a play-ground marked off beforehand either materially or ideally, deliberately or as a matter of course. Just as there is no formal difference between play and ritual, so the ‘consecrated spot’ cannot be formally distinguished from the play-ground. The arena, the card-table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the screen, the tennis court, the court of justice, etc, are all in form and function play-grounds, i.e. forbidden spots, isolated, hedged round, hallowed, within which special rules obtain. All are temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.

Play has not only its own space, but its own time, with a beginning and end and perhaps with periodic breaks.

Play creates an order, through rules. Breaking the rules disrupts the order and may end the play. This order is connected to social groups.

Play’s sense of “seriousness” is contained. Play is trivial from an outside point-of-view but can be quite serious within the “Magic Circle”. Play is not engaged with outside values necessarily- it has its own internal ends.

Play-Communities (And Deviants)

Illusion literally means “in-play” (from inlusio, illudere, or inludere). The spoil-sport who ignores or breaks rules shatters the play-world by robbing the play of its illusion. The spoil-sport is different from the cheat (the “false player”) because the cheat “pretends to be playing the game and, on the face of it, acknowledges the magic circle”. The spoil-sport must be cast out because he threatens the order and fragility of the play-community.

In the world of high seriousness, too, the cheat and the hypocrite have always had an easier time of it than the spoil-sports, here called apostates, heretics, innovators, prophets, conscientious objectors, etc. It sometimes happens, however, that the spoil-sports in their turn make a new community with rules of its own. The outlaw, the revolutionary, the cabbalist or member of a secret society, indeed heretics of all kinds are of a highly associative if not sociable disposition, and a certain element of play is prominent in all their doings.

Play-communities can survive after a game is over. Not all phratria (clans, brotherhoods, etc) may be play-communities, but it “it has been shown again and again how difficult it is to draw the line between, on the one hand, permanent social groupings- particularly in archaic cultures with their extremely important, solemn, indeed sacred customs- and the sphere of play on the other.”

The exceptional and special position of play is most tellingly illustrated by the fact that it loves to surround itself with an air of secrecy. Even in early childhood the charm of play is enhanced by making a “secret” out of it. This is forus, 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.


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. The function of play in the higher forms which concern us here can largely be derived from the two basic aspects under which we meet it: as a contest for something or a representation of something.
These two functions can unite in such a way that the game “represents” a contest, or else becomes a contest for the best representation of something.


According to ancient Chinese lore the purpose of music and the dance is to keep the world in its right course and to force Nature into benevolence towards man. The year’s prosperity will depend on the right performance of sacred contests at the seasonal feasts. If these gatherings do not take place the crops will not ripen.

The rite is a dromenon, which means “something acted”, an act, action. That which is enacted, or the stuff of the action, is a drama, which again means act, action represented on a stage. Such action may occur as a performance or a contest. The rite, or “ritual act” represents a cosmic happening, an event in the natural process. The word “represents”, however, does not cover the exact meaning of the act, at least not in its looser, modern connotation; for here “representation” is really identification, the mystic repetition or re-presentation of the event. The rite produces the effect which is then not so much shown figuratively as actually reproduced in the action. The function of the rite, therefore, is far from being merely imitative; it causes the worshippers to participate in the sacred happening itself. As the Greeks would say, “it is methectic rather than mimetic”. It is “a helping-out of the action”.

Play and the Sacred

Even if we can legitimately reduce our ideas on the significance of primitive ritual to an irreducible play-concept, one extremely troublesome question still remains. What if we now ascend from the lower religions to the higher? From the rude and outlandish ritual of the African, American or Australian aborigines our vision shifts to Vedic sacrificial lore, already, in the hymns of the RigVeda, pregnant with the wisdom of the Upanishads, or to the profoundly mystical identifications of god, man, and beast in Egyptian religion, or to the Orphic and Eleusinian mysteries. In form and practice all these are closely allied to the so-called primitive religions even to bizarre and bloody particulars. But the high degree of wisdom and truth we discern, or think we can discern in them, forbids us to speak of them with that air of superiority which, as a matter of fact, is equally out of place in “primitive” cultures. We must ask whether this formal similarity entitles us to extend the qualification “play” to the consciousness of the holy, the faith embodied in these higher creeds. Ifwe accept the Platonic definition of play there is nothing preposterous or irreverent in doing so. Play consecrated to the Deity, the highest goal of man’s endeavour-such was Plato’s conception of religion. In following him we in no way abandon the holy mystery, or cease to rate it as the highest attainable expression of that which escapes logical understanding. The ritual act, or an important part of it, will always remain within the play category, but in this seeming subordination the recognition of its holiness is not lost.

Next: Play in different aspects of culture

Then: Excerpt from the conclusion (A summary)

Next Week: Caillois, “Man Play and Games”. A break from summarizing to tie some things up.