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.

 

The Profane and the Sacred

…In Huizinga’s view, people have an impulse to play that cannot be explained by other factors or elements of human society or nature. This creative (and for Huizinga, competitive) impulse has been critical to processes of societal self-consciousness and renewal throughout history. Because of this, contemporary societies should be careful not to restrict or corrupt the very activity that forms one basis of their existence. This general, and now problematic, connection between play and culture dominates Caillois’s writing.
Caillois critiques Huizinga’s work most directly in Man and the Sacred [..] in the form of an appendix added to the book in 1946. As mentioned, Caillois was much influenced by Durkheim’s (1965) distinction between the “sacred” and the “profane.” The profane segment of the world (really, most of it) includes those objects and activities that can be approached directly and treated instrumentally. In contrast, the sacred is that which stands apart—and above—the realm of everyday affairs. The sacred possesses an aura or power that makes it a dangerous force in people’s lives. For this reason, the intervention of the sacred into regular life must be monitored with extreme care, and profane elements must not be allowed to contact—and thereby pollute—it. Caillois focuses on the ambiguity and mystery of the sacred, the role of ritualized taboos in guaranteeing its purity, the way in which it is used to guide people through the life cycle, and (most interestingly, perhaps) the extent to which it is a transgressive or revolutionary force in societies. He develops this latter theme in his theory of the festival.

[…]

An initial difference for Caillois is that play is mostly about “form” while the sacred is profoundly about “content.” He explains that play is “activity that
is an end in itself, rules that are respected for their own sake” (2001a, 157). Said differently, no claims are made that the objects or actions of the playground are of any importance beyond the moment itself. In the same light, playing rules are recognized simply as artificial agreements that people make to behave in a particualr way during the event. The sacred, on the other hand, is “pure content—an indivisible, equivocal, fugitive, and efficacious force” (2001a, 154). Rituals are only best attempts at capturing and controlling this force. In other words, in play people themselves control the course of the events; in ritual, they subordinate themselves to otherness.

Caillois provides the best summary of his own distinction in the following. “Through the sacred, the source of omnipotence, the worshipper is fulfilled. Confronted by the sacred, he is defenseless and completely at its mercy. In play, the opposite is the case. All is human, invented by man the creator. For this reason, play rests, relaxes, distracts, and causes the dangers, cares, and travails of life to be forgotten. The sacred, on the contrary, is the domain of internal tension, from which it is precisely profane existence that relaxes, rests, and distracts. The situation is reversed” (2001a, 158). As he continues, play is a kind of “haven” where players themselves choose their level of involvement or “risk.”

Caillois notably denies Huizinga’s conception of play as forming communities and shrouding secrets- Caillois sees play as “exposing, publishing, and somehow expending” the secret and mysterious, which does coincide with common contemporary ideas of play as exploratory. He also notices that games of chance are missing from Huizinga’s conception.

Comparing Callois and Huizinga on Play

Despite his several criticisms, Caillois’s definition of play is similar to Huizinga’s. Huizinga (1955, 3–13) defined play as an activity possessing the following qualities: (1) it is voluntary; (2) it is different from ordinary affairs, especially in its disregard for material interest; (3) it is secluded or limited by special times, places, and cultural configurations; (4) it explores tension and balance within a framework of rules; and (5) it is characterized by secrecy and disguising.

I should emphasize that Huizinga’s definition of play—which assumes the competitive character of play and focuses instead on how it tends to emerge as a limited, orderly world—remains consistent with his attempts to safeguard settings where creative social interaction (and, ideally, cultural innovation) can occur (Henricks 2002).

Caillois’s definition has six elements. Play is

(1) free—that is, nonobligatory;

(2) separate—that is, cut off in the ways described above;

(3) uncertain—in the sense that the results are not known beforehand;

(4) unproductive—that is, an expenditure that does not create wealth or goods;

(5) rule bound; and

(6) fictive—that is, it is “accompanied by a special awareness of a second reality or of a free unreality, as against real life”

 

Characteristics of Play

Also notably, Caillois saw Huizinga’s difficulty in generalizingplay characteristics and applications as evidence of the fact that there are several kinds of games, and they do not behave like each other. For example, Caillois argued that games are not make-believe and ruled, but rather either make-believe (paidia – playfulness) or ruled (ludus – games). These two types of play form a spectrum, and this spectrum is still an important cognitive tool for modern practitioners. Paidia is anarchic, loose, imaginative; ludus is structured, determined, challenging.

Caillois further identify four essential play forms. I’ve linked more discussion on them from a blog by Chris Bateman, whose book “Imaginary Games” I’m currently reading. Agon (the competition, vindication of the will), Alea (chance, surrender to fate), Ilinx (vertigo- experiencing the tumult ex. rollercoasters, drugs, spinning), and Mimicry (role-play, imagination, mimicry). All four forms, representing human impulses, can also be corrupted in their instantiation when reality intervenes (which is interesting in its own right, but I may return to this). The four forms combine in varying amounts in different games. Like chemicals, they interact with each other in varying ways.

Forbidden Relationships:

  • Competition-Vertigo: Skillful manipulation is the opposite of willful dissolution
  • Simulation-Chance: Disguise is irrelevant to courting of destiny

Contingent Relationships (no enhancements, but interesting possibilities)

  • Chance-Vertigo: A sense of being possessed by otherness accompanying the receptivity to fate in games of chance
  • Competition-Mimicry: Competition is not altered fundamentally by by patterns of spectacle but do develop in ways that court spectators

Fundamental Relationships:

  • Simulation-Vertigo: Hiding from reality, dramatizing chaos. The organizing principles of pre-modern societies, according to Caillois’ framework.
  • Competition-Chance: Grappling with reality, asserting and relinquishing control. The organizing principles of modern societies, according to Caillois’ framework.