Monday, October 26, 2009

Homo Ludens: The Nature of Play

It's time to start a new book: Homo Ludens: A study of the play element in culture by Johan Huizinga (New York: Harper & Row, 1970). I have a new job—I am the coordinator for the Quality Enhancement Plan at Albany State University in Albany, GA—and this new book is related to that job. My co-coordinator, Tom Clancy, and I are studying the use of play in promoting writing within a classroom. We think that if students can learn to enjoy writing more then they will write more, perhaps even better. We'll see. Anyway, Homo Ludens appears to be one of the seminal books about play, a very serious, unplayful book about play.

The title of Chapter 1, Nature and Significance of Play as a Cultural Phenomenon, is misleading to me as it suggests that play is a phenomenon of culture, when actually Huizinga says that play precedes culture and that culture is rather a phenomenon of play. "Human civilization has added no essential feature to the general idea of play (19) … In culture we find play as a given magnitude existing before culture itself existed … The great archetypal activities of human society are all permeated with play from the start (22) … The object of the present essay is to demonstrate that it is more than a rhetorical comparison to view culture sub specie ludi" (23). First play and then culture. Play appears to be one of those basic boiling pots of mind and heart out of which we prepare the various stews of culture: law, war, poetry, myth, philosophy, business, religion, and art.

Huizinga carefully limits his discussion of play to its cultural aspects, ignoring psychology and physiology. However, he does criticize psychological and physiological explanations of play that incorrectly assume "that play must serve something which is not play, that it must have some kind of biological purpose" (20). For Huizinga, play is its own justification. People and animals play for the fun of it, and that is sufficient within itself.

He reinforces this notion of play as a discrete and fundamental characteristic of humans and animals when he notes that "this fun-element … characterizes the essence of play. Here we have to do with an absolute primary category of life, familiar to everybody at a glance right down to the animal level" (21). Play is not the opposite of seriousness, for some play is very serious, even deadly serious. It is not comedy, wit, folly, or jest, though it may share elements with those. Play is not an element of the great antitheses of wisdom/folly, truth/falsehood, good/evil, virtue/vice, beauty/ugliness. "The play-concept must always remain distinct from all the other forms of thought in which we express the structure of mental and social life" (25). In the end, then, Huizinga doesn't like any explanations about why we play, but he doesn't given an answer either. Basically, he just says we play because it's fun.

He moves from this magical beginning to note that play must have a mental aspect, and usually not rational. "In acknowledging play you acknowledge mind, for whatever else play is, it is not matter (21) … Play only becomes possible, thinkable, and understandable when an influx of mind breaks down the absolute determinism of the cosmos. The very existence of play continually confirms the supra-logical nature of the human situation" (22).

Once Huizinga has assumed the fundamental nature of play, he begins to describe its formal characteristics:
  1. Free: Play is free, "is in fact freedom" (26). It is a superfluous, not required activity that people engage in willingly or not at all.
  2. Extraordinary: In the sense "that play is not ordinary or real life" (26); rather, it "stands outside the immediate satisfaction of wants and appetites" and is "a temporary activity satisfying in itself and ending there" (27).
  3. Limited: Play is limited in place and duration. It has a playground and a playtime. "It is played out within certain limits of time and place. It contains its own course and meaning" (28). Hence, its close connection to ritual, which also takes place in a hallowed place and time.
  4. Orderly: Play "creates order, is order … The least deviation from [order] spoils the game," and hence the connection to aesthetics, for "play has a tendency to be beautiful" (29). All play has rules, and violating the rules ends the game.
  5. Tense: Play has a tension in that the player is trying to do something well or at least better than another player be it solving a puzzle, hitting a ball, or scoring goals. Play tests our prowess.
  6. Communal: Play often leads to groups of players or fans who define themselves apart from others, adopting costumes and colors and other secret markers.
Play, then, is "a free activity standing quite consciously outside 'ordinary' life as being 'not serious', but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings which tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world by disguise or other means" (32).

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