I'm not competent to critique or even interact much with Homo Ludens academically. I read it because I'm interested in games, and people in the know cite Huizinga's book as the granddaddy of all games texts. Actually, he has little to say about games in the strict sense; his focus on play studies rather than technology (game design) or strategic decision-making (game theory).
What I can say is that it is a beautiful book, even in translation. It is rich in ideas, personal in tone, broad in scope, impressive in scholarship and radical in claims. Huizinga's central thesis is that the play-element 'of' (not 'in' as the badly translated subtitle suggests) culture is posterior to and generative of culture itself. Culture in its many aspects - law, war, science, poetry, religion, philosophy, art - bears the characteristics of play. Culture does not grow out from play, as an adult from the child; rather, culture advances "in and as play, and never leaves it" (173).
All I wish to do in this review is throw together some of Huizinga's main themes according as to how they struck me. Some of them seem contrary to the more contemporary game thinking I've encountered. Others serve as a basis for what modern games designers take for granted. Yet others have little relation to anything else in gaming literature anywhere. Let's see how these play out.
The Agon-y of Play Recent literature likes to portray a vision of games as positive-sum, win-win, 'infinite' endeavours in which everyone moves on together (e.g. James P Carse). For Huizinga, the essence of play lies in the ancient Greek word "agon", meaning contest, struggle or competition (30-1, 48). Play assumes an antithesis of two competing parties, striving and suffering in an atmosphere of tension in which something is at stake. There are winners and losers, superior and relative inferior (47-51). This "agonistic instinct" in play is an expression of man's need to fight (61), and it infused the Greek attitude to many activates outside warfare (89), such as litigation (76), art (169) and philosophy (155-6). Indeed, agonistic play lie at the heart of the Greek understanding of the cosmos, in the eternal conflict of opposites (116-7).
Seriousness versus Play Again, some writers contrast a play attitude with seriousness (e.g. Dan Pink). Common sense seems to agree. Huizinga does not. It has taken me a while to grasp what me means, but here's my understanding of it. Seriousness cannot be the dichotomy of play as that would assume a relationship of equality between them, albeit antithetically. Rather, play is a higher order concept than seriousness, existing at a more primitive and original level of life (119). Play can include seriousness (5-6), whereas seriousness can only try to exclude play (45). Play can operate both below and above the level of seriousness (18-19). In practice, the contrast between then is fluid (8); they form a continuum (110-111). Myth fails to recognise the distinction at all, living midway between the two (129, 131), as does music (159). The greatest human life is a blend of both (145) and the greatest times in history are driven by both e.g. the Renaissance (180-1, 191-2)
The Magic Circle (aka 'Virtual Worlds') The modern concept of a "magic circle" is as a line that encloses the virtual worlds created by digital media, including games and online social environments, from the outside/offline/'real' world (see Edward Castronova). Huizinga was the first to formulate it. He names the term and uses it to describe one of his main ingratiates in the definition of play: play is secluded, limited in space, a temporary world within the ordinary world, "dedicated to the performance of an act apart" (10) in which the rules of the game apply (11) and outsiders are excluded (12). This playground is identical in form to a sacred spot where rites are performed (20), a startling point Huizinga makes elsewhere (18, 25). The law court serves as a prime example (77), as does the field of war (210). Sometimes the circle can be literal (57); at other times, it can embrace a whole culture (134). We can only disengage our minds from it by "turning towards the ultimate" (212).
Masks (aka 'Avatars') Masks are made to evoke special emotion, to bring ordinary life to a standstill and make things 'not real' (21-2). When an ancient wore a mask, it was sign of withdrawal from the ordinary world. Wearing a mask transformed him into another ego, which "he did not so much represent as incarnate and actualise" (145). (Remember that avatar is the Sanskrit for incarnation.) Even today, when we attach no religious emotion to a mask, it still conveys the power of mystery, taking us beyond ordinary life (26). And that is its point: to emphasise the extra-ordinary nature of play, where the player takes another part and becomes another being (13, 77). If you are thinking 'super-hero' as you read this, you are right to do so (133 - also 75 and 101-2)!
When it comes to Huizinga's evaluation of the state of play in our contemporary world, it is probably fair to classify him as pessimistic. He contends that play and seriousness have become confused rather than fused together in a positive way. To illustrate his point, Huizinga focuses on an activity only mentioned briefly before (47): games. Many thinkers today wish to contrast games with play by defining games as organized play. Huizinga would have nothing of this; for him, play "creates order, is order" (10).
As games, particularly what we call sports, are taken with increasing degrees of seriousness, "something of the pure play-quality is inevitably lost...The spirit of the professional is no longer the true play-spirit; it is lacking in spontaneity and carelessness" (197). Moving in the opposite direction is business, in which commercial competition and rivalry, egged on by trading records, has turned capitalism into a sport (200). As for the quality of play commonly available and experienced today, Huizinga invented a new label for it: Puerileism (205), a blend of the adolescent and the barbaric. Ouch.
Huizinga cover a multitude of fascinating material from the play perspective, from secret societies and guilds (12, 171, 187, 203), to virtue ethics (64), from Heraclitus (116-7, 211) to creative writing (132 - see also 10). All of life is here. The publishers have classified it as 'sociology' but don't let that put you off. To read it is to engage in mental play with the author, and to engage with your own world in fresh ways as a result. Playful yet profound. No. Playful AND profound. As Huizinga has taught me, there is no contradiction, only shifting waves of seriosity on an infinite ocean of play.Read more ›
Huizinga's book remains one of the key texts on the centrality of play and playing in Western culture. His rejection of a purely developmental or psychological understanding of play (which was becoming popular at this time through the works of cognitive psychologists and evolutionary biologists), and boldly concieved structure which weaves together a case for 'play as culture' drawing on history, the arts and myths is a fabulous read. But Huizinga is very much a man of his time, and to get the most of this book, you'll have to look beyond some frequently reaccuring anacronistic clangers - the worst for me being conflating the ideas of animal play, child play and the play of 'primitives' as a somehow 'lower' or proto- form of play. There is very much a hierarchy of play suggested in this book, and the leisured classes writing poetry, wearing sky-high wigs* and constucting playful lives of wit, beauty and luxury sit very much at the top of that hierarchy.
The rather imperial elitism implied in much of Huizing's argument might be hard to look past, even when you take into account here was a (you get the impression) rather gentle-souled European academic writing at the dawn of Nazism and WW2, perhaps whistful for a more beautious age. Nonetheless this is a fascinating book, and an essencial read for anyone interested in how play shaped and continues to shape our culture.
*I'm serious about the wigs - see his 3 page rant mourning the demise of the 18th century French periwig, which he paints as the ultimate physical expression of the play culture. For me, his railings against the horrors of the French Revolution and it's wanton destruction of such 'play' (the luxury garmant trade, and vicious taxes which kept the monied few in this 'playful' lifestyle was at the expense of grinding poverty for the majority of pre-revolution France) make very awkward reading indeed. I don't think Huizinga is simply unaware of this either - elsewhere in the book he questions whether a modern society could ever accept the 'sacrifice' needed to keep a class of poets sustained within it.Read more ›