Homo ludens


Even at the start of these thoughts, it’s interesting to note that Caillois’s Les Jeux et Les Hommes could translate in much the same way into English as Homo Ludens, but that the English translation of Callois includes the words “and Games,” reflecting the ambiguity of the subject towards the relationship between games and play.

I’m also interested – but I doubt if anyone else will be – how my academic background leads me to question sources and translation as the first point rather than theory and argument.

Caillois is, of course, openly influenced by Homo Ludens {HL}, to the extent that Man, Play and Games might be seen as a development of this way of thinking. The use of categories such as competition and agony (agon in Caillois) come from Huizinga.

What is at first striking about HL is that at the time it was written, different standards of scholarship were employed: different footnoting procedures, different ways of alluding to writers. In this, it is no different, say, from the work of near-contemporary writers such as the medievalist Helen Waddell, who assume for example a different set of past reading and literacy skills than a modern author might expect. This, Huizinga happily quotes – without exact reference – from transliterated Greek text. A barrier, perhaps, but only a minor one.

HL is full of gnomic statements that beg quotation and often, challenge: “Holiness and play always tend to overlap. So do poetic imagination and faith” (1970 ed p163); “Lack of style is an intrinsic part of myth, “ (Ibid p 154); “Contest means play, “ (Ibid p 98).

However, his description (1970 ed p 154) of play is of most interest here:

“[Play] is an activity which proceeds within certain limits of time and space, in a visible order, according to rules freely accepted, and outside the sphere of necessity or material utility. The play-mood is one of rapture and enthusiasm, and is sacred or festive in accordance with the occasion. A feeling of exaltation and tension accompanies the action, mirth and relaxation follow.”

Note that quotation comes from the 1970 popular Paladin Edition, which tries to wed previous editions with Huizinga’s own translation.

Let’s try and explore this. The notion of being “outside the sphere of necessity or material utility” ties in neatly with Bruce’s comment (1991, pp 60ff) that free-flow play is an “active process without a product,” and “intrinsically motivated.” Huizinga is thinking of play as an adult process, but the same things apply in childhood; the division of “play” and “work” has been explored by writers such as Sue Cox and (with a powerful example, pp73ff ) Anne Cockburn in Cockburn and Handscomb’s Teaching Children 3 to 11 (2006), and in Moyles (2005) The Excellence of Play, the introduction to which by Janet Moyles provides an interesting breakdown of play theories.

Huizinga, like Moyles, Bruce and other writers, therefore places play in a product-free context, and yet is able to explore the curious thing that is nevertheless has strong links to games, to internally generated (or at least freely accepted) rules, and to an emotional engagement. He links play to literature – both creation and appreciation – (1970 ed p155), and describes his own society as seeing the rise of competitive games like this:

“Now, with the increasing systematisation and regimentation of sport, something of the pre play-quality is inevitably lost… the spirit of the is no longer the true play-spirit; it is lacking in spontaneity and carelessness.” (1970 ed  p 223-4)

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