Since I last wrote about Huizinga, I’ve pulled a few more chapters out of him that engage with the concept of play. Oddly, I’m increasingly drawn to Homo Ludens as a text that is less focused on play  as abstract idea and more focused on the player qua playing, and how in the right light everything seems to resemble play. This makes it especially relevant today in light of more contemporary figures using the word play in their own work, like Jacques Derrida and Giorgio Agamben.

philosophers-on-strikeFrom what I can understand, this is one of those texts that you excerpt in a “Video Game Academia 101” class, but having gone to a college where no such class was offered, I have no such select pre-selected selections to look at. I have to read all of it. So my notes are not only stupidly extensive on some chapters, but they’re extensive only about the things that I like.

For example, Chapters 2 and 3 of Homo Ludens are beautiful written. Additionally, they are relatively straightforward to anyone familiar with Continental philosophy. One might even mistake his work for something written in the 21st century, given how similarly it reads to your standard post-Heidegger obsession with using socio-etymological research to support ridiculous theoretical constructs. Of course, Huizinga is very much pre-Heidegger, and to say his work is self-critical in the same way would be a complete mistake. His associations are more in line with a Hegelian or Nietzschean archaeology than a Foucauldian one. Etymology is important, but it doesn’t upend historically Western ontology.

Chapter 2 opens with a really nice passage about the value of words in his research:

Word and idea are not born of scientific or logical thinking but of creative language, which means of innumerable languages – for this act of ‘conception’ has taken place over and over again. Nobody will expect that every language, in forming its idea of and expression for play, could have hit on the same idea or found a single word for it, in the way that every language has one definite word for ‘hand’ or ‘foot’. The matter is not as simple as that. (28)

Keeping in mind that we came close to defining what “play” is in the last chapter, he expresses some frustration at the thought that this notion of play is only so uniquely universal in the English language. In other languages, he tells us, the word “play” does not all-at-once include the playing of animals, children, adults, and contests, competitions, and playing pretend (not to exhaust even half of them) under one lingual roof. Instead, in many languages play is broken into components, or incorporated into words that are used for different aspects of play. Greek has a specific root for children’s play and specific words for contest and gambling. Sanskrit has different roots, also, for children’s play, gambling, an occupation, and a word, lila, which supposedly has an air of frivolity and metaphor. Latin, however, like English, seems unique in its use of the single word ludi to represent all types of play.

The Acropolis in Athens, Greece.
The Acropolis in Athens, Greece.

But just because the Greeks use multiple words for play doesn’t mean they didn’t have a word that could unpack the play-concept altogether. This good stuff lies in the Greek word αγων (agon), carrying a meaning of conflict or struggle. This agonistic component of play quickly becomes a central pillar around which to pivot his definition from earlier. At the beginning of chapter 2, although he shows a preference for the more general notions of play found in modern European languages (and, interestingly, Japanese, and the Semitic languages), αγων becomes crucial to his understanding of play at the higher levels of civilization, where culture has become disassociated from the play-concept that underlies it. And while I’m not usually a fan of the impulse to use etymology as argument, even I got goosebumps when he started to undress αγων in chapters 3, 4 and 5. Maybe that’s Greco-centric of me.

Known in English in its relation to the words “agony” and “agonistic,” αγων refers to contests, struggle, conflict. And while the Ancient Greeks had many names for play which referred to different acts, Huizinga zeroes in on αγων as one root of the play-concept. Like play, contests are “largely devoid of purpose,” and they are only interesting to people who are invested in it as players or spectators (49).  At the same time, contests are always a part of the play-sphere because something is “at stake”:

‘There is something at stake’ — the essence of play is contained in that phrase. But this ‘something’ is not the material result of play, not the mere fact that the ball is in the hole, but the ideal fact that the game is a success or has been successfully concluded.

This double edged sword — the simultaneous meaninglessness and meaningfulness of play, the lack of seriousness yet utter seriousness — rears its head again. Something is at stake, and yet the act is devoid of purpose. The claim that it’s “devoid of purpose” must be read to mean that there is no need for it, that the play is accidental in its final context. That it is play is necessary, serious, but that the rules are specifically those rules are “devoid of purpose.”

Pollice Verso, by Jean-Léon Gérôme
“It’s just a game, guys!”

At the end of Chapter III, “Play and Contest as Civilizing Contest,” Huizinga attempts to understand why the Romans called seemingly unplayful gladitorial combat “games,” or ludus, “with all its associations of freedom and joyousness” (74). Of course, the answer is that the Romans were acutely aware (read: lucky guess) that these battles in the Colosseum were examples of play. For Huizinga, play is not only pre-civilization, but is what he calls a “civilizing force,” something to which anyone with a background in po-mo philosophy is going to give the side eye. I’m going to can of worms the idea of play as belonging to the state of nature, but I’m sure that’s a whole six blog posts to itself. However, I think if we try to take what he says not as a pseudo-state of nature, but as a defining element of civilization, we may get closer to what Huizinga has to offer.

“Contest means play” (76).

Any contest is rule-laden, tense, and staked out in physical or metaphorical space. This is what he considers the “civilizing force” of play; the play-element of culture present from before civilization, as we said earlier. I read him as saying that the play-element is always-already present in human history, and that this presence is, although not exhausted, implicit in the Greek term αγων.

At one point, Huizinga points to a contemporary who argues that Greek life had a pre-playful phase (“heroic” age) and a playful age (“agonal” age), the former where the seriousness of war occupied the central tenet of Greek civilization, and the latter where contest and play dominated the Greek sense of self. Huizinga of course disavows any notion of a pre-playful era, and argues that the heroic age so highly spoken of was in fact just as agonal, just expressed in a different way. “Our point of departure must be the conception of an almost childlike play-sense expressing itself in various play-forms, some serious, some playful, but all rooted in ritual and productive of culture by allowing the innate human need of rhythm, harmony, change, alternation, contrast and climax, etc., to unfold in full richness” (75). For Huizinga, culture is enveloped and supported by play, and it is here that civilization begins: “We might, in a purely formal sense, call all society a game, if we bear in mind that this game is the living principle of all civilization” (101).

Here, I think, is where the concept of play as a “civilizing force” can be exploded into a much more interesting idea. Play is, as noted earlier, something set apart from the “real” world, a space occupied by the suspension of material needs and, in its place, the rules of the  game. It has rules, it has tension, it is contained within the magic circle. However, because play exists “before” civilization, which I will read as always-already present in civilization, it is impossible to separate the civil society from the play which it inhabits. While Huizinga speaks largely of the rituals that suspend material need, the sacred events, the potlatches, the contests, this is also largely evident in society at large. That a “game is the living principle of  all society” reflects the idea that there is no place outside of the game; there is no outside of play. Every place, one might argue, every aspect of society, is its own magic circle.

All of this barely scratches the surface of what he is actually saying on the subject, but illuminates what I find most fascinating.