I finished Homo Ludens a few months ago but did not conclude my series on it. Really, that’s because the last half of Johan Huizinga’s study of play isn’t nearly as interesting as the first half (which is odd when you look the cool titles of later chapters). I was originally going to do a more in-depth analysis of the chapters, but that no longer seems like the best use of my time (I’m kind of sick of it). So instead, allow me to take these final paragraphs to go into what I liked, what I didn’t like, and what I’m excited to read more about in the future.

Play has elements that are serious, and elements that non-serious. The play-element can be captured in our most spontaneous actions, our desires to win praise and competition, and the most sacred rituals that build our culture from the ground up. Let me use one quote from the play and knowledge chapter as an example of Huizinga at his best:


The urge to be first  has as many forms of  expression as society offers opportunities for it. The ways in which [people] compete for superiority are as various as the prizes at stake. Decision may be left to chance, physical strength, dexterity, or bloody combat. Or there may be competitions in courage and endurance, skillfulness, knowledge, boasting and cunning. A trial of strength may be demanded or a specimen of art; a sword to be forged or ingenious rhymes made. Questions may be put demanding an answer. The competition may take the form of an oracle, a wager, a lawsuit, a vow or a riddle. But in whatever shape it comes it is always play, and it is from this point of view that we have to interpret its cultural function” (HL 105).

Like I said in part two, the form of play we’re most familiar with  are formed on a kind of agonistic principle. This isn’t to say all play is agonistic, but that play has at its foundation some component agonism. In play, someone is always at bat, and something is at stake. Contrast the game Tetris with making a puzzle on the kitchen table. While one can not complete the puzzle, there is no real time-limit: the magic circle is more physical, less temporal, and because of this the “fail” state if you can call it that is the disengagement from the circle forever, the “stopping” of making the puzzle. The form of Tetris allows the player to encounter a state of failure. Similarly, when one gambles, one gambles with something at stake, be it money, belongings, or pride. Sports often follow the same principles. There are winners and losers, or win-states and lose-states. (Does this make something like Dear Esther more like a puzzle?).

One example Huizinga will identify, dance, can illustrate this point. Dancing can be organized around competition, formalized, even built into an art-form, but it retains within it a play-element that occupies a magic circle — a special area designated for dancing. When you go to the club, sometimes you just want to dance, to dance spotaneously, to dance by flailing your arms around you and telling everyone you are “the jello man.” But the rhythmic movement is still a part of dance, dance exists in a particular location, it is at the club that this dancing takes place. There is no fail state for this kind of dancing, but there is for, say, competitive ballroom dancing. Dancing isn’t a game, but it does partake in the play-element.  There is something that bothers me about this, something that, for all the worrying Huizinga does about reductionism, may be reducitonist itself.

Huizinga appears more useful in the abstract than as a positive theorist. Where does “ordinary life” end, for our purposes, if not at the magic circle? Huizinga agrees that not every agonism is a game, but I would argue that the concept of the  “magic circle” is not so self-policing. Take the space race, where the USSR and the USA competed in a series of “games” in order to prove to the other who was the more powerful nation. These games included, “get an artificial satelite into orbit before the other,” “get an animal into space,” “get a human into space,” “get a human onto the moon,” etc. These might appear to be games to some, given that they are in no way related to the every day lives of normal citizens — there is something Olympic about them, even if there is an additional military application. There are rules involved, and goals, and yet there is one critical component that seems to be missing: there is no magic circle to speak of. The magic circle that is supposed to separate the game from reality isn’t there: the Cold War is reality, and the “space race” is one manifestation of a competitive impulse between countries. The space race is not a game in anything but its actual play-element, which should not make sense according to Huizinga.

“What’s good, Gagarin?”

Despite his best intentions, I would argue that every time Huizinga draws on the “play-element” he avoids coming face to face with play. He may claim that he wants to see an unencumbered play-concept, but in doing so he is actually just getting at a “notion” of play, in the Hegelian sense. What is especially frustrating is how he, and many others who have come after him, hide behind an inexcoriable straw man in order to maintain an elevated distance from play, trying to distance itself from the “function-theories” of play. Huizinga incessantly gestures toward the notion of the play-element being an aspect of human behavior, but does not want to engage with anything the play element could possibly serve. “It’s not a drive, it’s just play” — to which I reply, why does it matter so much what you call it? If you’re looking at play, then of course you have to engage the ludic, the incredibly human phenomena that seems to defy biological impulse. But that does not absolve you of any functionalist claims; it just identifies a new obstacle, the play-impulse, that it cannot hepl but feel powerless before, as if play requires an absolute freedom that, to put it bluntly, humans simply don’t possess.

Finally, I don’t know what it means for play to be free, despite all the time he devotes to this point. The tradition in post-structuralist  philosophy to use the word “play” whenever one wants to challenge a text’s meaning might be useful when examining Huizinga’s claim, but it also might corrupt the meaning Huizinga’s understanding of play with one which is fundamentally rooted in the 20th century and far too ontologically motivated. Where the 20th century “free play” associates itself with meaning and presence, Huizinga’s argument that play is free has more to do with the material conditions of play, and the players’s drive to play. What meaning there is exists in the game-world, not the play-element. In the playing of children, for example, with dolls or make-believe, the center of meaning is incredibly unstable, despite it’s (perceived) immediacy for the players. I may just be missing something, but I don’t see how play could possibly be free, even if it is rooted in the free, simply because Huizinga does not offer up a theory of freedom.

My primary take away is that his key concept is the “magic circle” and that the rest of it may be good cud for chewing. I’ve much more enjoyed Roger Callois as a theorist of games qua play, despite his more technical prose. There’s a lot of stuff in Homo Ludens that doesn’t sit right with me, that for whatever reason seems to conflict with my formal ideas about what descriptions one can give to play vs. the “ludic” experience vs. “games.” But I can forgive him that. What Huizinga gets absolutely right is that play, in whatever form it takes, will consume you entirely if you let it.

Huizinga, Johan. “Homo Ludens: an analysis of the play-concept in culture.” London: Routledge, 1949.