The human being at play - Homo Ludens

Huizinga (1938) formulates the most radical theories about the nature of play by accounting for how social processes are basically controlled by the same processes as play.

Motivated by Buydendijk’s (1933) argument that animals play in exactly the same way as people and that all the basic elements of play are to be found in the animal world, Huizinga states that play is something other than just a purely physiological phenomenon or psychic reaction. Play breaches the boundaries of purely biological or physical reality and therefore becomes a meaningful function - because in play “something or other” plays a role which “gives the action meaning” (1963:9).

Play is therefore a great many things and an unequivocal definition is impossible. Play does, however, have two elementary basic motivations:

  • competition a race to reach a decision) and
  • demonstration during which something is produced (from new),

reproduced or copied (imitation).

More or less every kind of action includes play and play is part of all levels of life, visible or invisible, overt or covert.

Play is therefore a form of folk ritual, a cultural, symbolic common medium which reconstructs important or significant events on innumerable levels. In play, the events are “re-enacted” as rituals, cultural phenomena which sometimes even gain religious aspects, possibly even replacing the religious ceremonies of ancient times. In this context it is important to differentiate between the various “(play) ceremonial forms”:

  • Memorial ceremonial gameswhich re-enact the more significant historical events of the past - often with famous names in the leading roles. Examples: historical moments and cross-national symbols.
  • Response ceremonial gamescapture in particular current events of a traumatic kind, present-day events which are of interest to very large sections of the population nationally or in the local area Examples: royal funerals, disasters.
  • Recreational ceremonial gamesare copies of greater, more significant institutionalised rituals or events which overwhelm or postpone everyday time and space and become play. Examples here are carnivals, national football matches, the more important recreational public holidays, royal weddings, etc.
  • Transformative ceremonial gamesreconstruct and re-enact events containing social (cultural, political) events of special significance to the persons-at-play. These are events which in some way reorganise the day-to-day order of things in a local community, alter the way of life of groups or sectors of a community or which have brought about a re-interpretation of existence and daily life.
  • Examples on the individual level are weddings, births, loss of a close relative or friend. On the global level, the Apollo moon-landing, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

In his etymological studies, Huizinga compares the word play in a number of different languages: Ancient Greek, Sanskrit, Japanese, Chinese, Blackfoot Indian, Semitic, the Romantic and Germanic languages.

He lists the following:

  • light-heartedness
  • insignificant
  • competition
  • concentration
  • erotic play, coquetry
  • masked games, laughter and ridicule
  • fraudand simulation
  • taking risks

His broad (and more personal) definition of play is, however, tinged by his own contradiction. Apart from the words listed in his analysis, he also describes play as voluntary, fun, having its own time axis and characterised by its own rules and pleasures but he also describes play as differing from the demands of daily life. At the same time, he states, with reference to organised play (and sports) that:

“With increased systematisation and discipline in play, over time some of the pure play content is lost. This is especially apparent when players are divided into amateurs and professionals. The play group naturally splits off the players for whom the game has ceased to be play, “ because when a human being really wants to play, he has to play like a child!”” (1963:199)

In his descriptions of historical examples of “play”, he refers to examples of slanderous competitions which aimed to destroy the loser’s position in society, trials of suffering and perseverance as part of special rituals and ceremonies, tests of strength in the form of exaggerated and potentially lethal wagers, fights in the line of battle and fights to the death. Most classical Greek competitions were a fight to the death with the sole intention of demonstrating the superior nature of the competitive game and that the most bloody Roman gladiator contests were pure entertainment, toying with human lives, etc.

According to Huizinga (1963:52), the examples are intended to emphasise the meaning of the word because:

“Play is positive, seriousness is negative. Seriousness is defined as the negation of play and that definition is exhaustive, so seriousness is non-play and that’s that. By contrast, the meaning of play is in no way defined by “non-seriousness” and the definition is anything but exhaustive. Play is something quite unique and the concept of play is on a much higher level than the concept of seriousness. Because seriousness seeks to exclude play while play can very easily include the concept of seriousness within itself.”

Huizinga indicates, therefore, that everything he sees as play has two sides. If not, then it is not play:



There is, therefore, something completely contradictory and generally discordant about Huizinga’s description of the concept of play.



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