It is as if someone were to say: “A game consists in moving objects about on a surface according to certain rules . . .” — and we replied: You seem to be thinking of board games, but there are others. You can make your definition correct by expressly restricting it to those games.

– Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (*3)

What is a game? Is it based in rules? In space? In the social realm? What is play? Can you play by yourself? Is it good for you? Should we study it? Should we ignore it? Should we phase it out? Is it relevant? Is it natural? Is it important?

Wittgenstein, Ludwig
Ludwig Wittgenstein

In the mid-20th century, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein used the term “language-game” to describe the way humans tend to communicate in social spaces. We don’t just speak, we speak in patterns, about things, to people. We refer here, imagine there; simplify here, augment there. We make mini-languages to communicate in. A word or sentence does not need to correspond to any particular image/representation, but instead can only be interpreted by its use in that sentence or paragraph. In this way, language-games are, indeed, games: they are rule based, with limiting agents in their definitions and syntax, but they are smaller than the language they encompass, connected by their “resembling” themselves.

Of course, both before and after Wittgenstein, there were people who examined games and play. The most notable of the modern sociologists to research and examine the role of games in society was Johan Huizinga, a late 19th century Dutch historian, and among the first to lay out a comprehensive theory of play. Today I want to begin writing about his work, because a) I think it’s really neat, b) I need to take some notes for an essay I’m writing, and c) it’s something neat I can blog about.

Johan Huizinga

His theory comes to us in a book he wrote, first in Dutch, then in English, called Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. In the first chapter, “The Nature and Significance of Play,” Huizinga targets the messy relationship between culture, play, and animals. He begins with the relatively uncontroversial claim that animals play. This does not have to be an anthropocentric observation: my dogs play fight all the time. I know they’re playing because dogs have very sharp teeth. If they were actually fighting, they would be ripping each other’s throats out. It is a different spin on an activity that would normally be considered violent. When one accidentally gets hurt, the other backs off at the slightest yelp. Where does this tendency come from? Is it to blow off steam? Is it learned behavior? Is play itself taught, or only the specifics of play? Culture, Huizinga writes, is a product of society, and since animals can be found to play, play predates culture.

Additionally, Huizinga refuses to reduce play to it’s biological or psychological utility. This seems to be a tricky point of his, and one that might need some expounding. A biologist or psychologist can argue that play is for releasing excess energy, or winding down after work, but that doesn’t explain why we get so fired up watching football, or find pleasure in playing Tetris (both of which can be very stressful). The attempt to reduce play to a biological or psychological function is, to Huizinga, to miss the piece of play which seems so prominent: fun. All empirical or scientific explanations may explain why we play, but they fail to examine the “play-concept” – play-in-and-for-itself: “We shall try to take play as the player himself takes it: in its primary significance” (Homo Ludens, 4).

So what is play? This will become somewhat of an issue over the course of the book. While play needs a definition, it seems to elude any formal defining. Instead, Huizinga identifies several characteristics of the play-concept which will help people recognize play: Play is free (not compelled by material need), occupies a special space (“magic circle”), has rules/creates order, provokes tension, and often involves groups of people that share the experience (Huizinga, 12). In my post about Foucault and games, I could have utilized his point about rules, namely:

All play has its rules. They determine what “holds” in the temporary world circumscribed by play. The rules of a game are absolutely binding and allow no doubt. Paul Valery once in passing gave expression to a very cogent thought when he said: “No scepticism is possible where the rules of a game are concerned, for the principle underlying them is an unshakable truth…” Indeed, as soon as the rules are transgressed the whole play-world collapses.

This “play-world” exists in a specific place and for a specific duration. Play demands rules that are set-up in a specific time and place to be determined beforehand. “The arena, the card table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the screen, the tennis court, the court of justice… are all in function playgrounds” (10). The playground is a “limited perfection” thrust upon the world, cordoning off play from the “ordinary” or real. Not only is there a separation between play and the real, but there is also a social element, a disguising of the play world through masks and rituals.

I would like to return briefly, before I end this post, to the idea raised before that play cannot be reduced to psychology or biology. Late in the chapter, Huizinga returns to this notion by invoking the idea of the “Tyranny of causality” to describe the tendency to “explain away every advance in culture in terms of a special purpose” (16). He criticizes another scholar, Frobenius, for attributing play to a specifically purpose-less purpose, to a kind of cosmic “seizure” that grips the player. Instead, Huizinga wants to emphasize “the playing” which will, for him, eventually iterate into ritual. He wants to assume that the origins of play is the magic circle, the closure, which then slowly is absorbed and given acute purpose. Thus, the play itself avoids being assigned purpose intrinsically, and is instead co-opted later by society: “Ritual grafts itself upon it; but the primary thing is and remains play” (18).

Play cannot precede culture for the very same reason that culture cannot precede play: it is co-terminus with it. Huizinga’s argument about play is prescient of certain postmodern notions of hegemony without explicitly coming out and saying it: play is the iterating of ritual until ritual becomes the very object of sacred repetition. The playing animal exhibits a basic culturally informed attitude, but is also the very foundation of “culture” qua culture.  Perhaps I’m wrong, but Wittgenstein might say that play is always specific play, always play-as-such and never play. In the same way, culture is always culture-as-such, and never culture.