Man, Play and Games

Roger Caillois

Caillois, R (1958, Eng trans 1961), Man, Play and Games, Illinois, Free Press Inc.

Caillois’ Man, Play and Games is becoming increasingly popular, especially since his division of Games (see below) has found a resonance among game designers.

Beginning from Huizinga‘s definitions of play, which he dismisses as “at the same time too broad and too narrow” (p4), Caillois goes on to introduce the notion of games and play being inextricably linked.  “A characteristic of play is that it creates no wealth or goods, thus differing from work or art,” (p5), which means, for Caillois, that professional athletes &c are workers. His thinking has shifted, even here, into equating games with play, although this conclusion is not unlike Bruce’s comment in Time to Play that free-flow play is without a product.

His principal characteristics of play are that it is:

Free  i.e. not obligatory

Separate “ from other parts of life experience, with defined boundaries


Unproductive (see above)

Governed by rules –  by which he means internal rules

Make-believe – “accompanied by a special awareness of a second reality or of a free unreality,” (p10)

The division that Caillois employs in his descriptions of games (and he acknowledges that these classifications are not hard and fast) are:

Agon: Competition, struggle

Alea: Games of chance

Mimicry: Play in which the player becomes an illusory character (he points out the etymological links between ludus and il-lusion)

Ilinx: this last classification has intrigued gamers as well as students of children’s play, notably Marjatta Kalliala. It would seem in some ways to complement the work of Tina Bruce on free-flow play, in that, taking the place of mere illusion, the players are caught up in the play; Caillois’ examples are shamanistic, involving ritual which moves beyond mimicry to ecstasy.

Caillois develops these first classifications in Chapter VI, proposing a series of spectra, in which the various phenomena of games are represented and in certain circumstances overlap.

He returns (Chapter VIII) to his challenge to Huizinga by suggesting that chance and struggle  (agon and alea) take over in societies where the ecstatic is suppressed, where there is a sense of mathematical order to the cosmos. In this sense Caillois is close to the idea that free, creative play is something children find easier to do than adults, because the world they inhabit is one of continued creative uncertainty, but in introducing the notion that chance/competition games  (Piagetian games with rules, perhaps) as a higher form of game-play, he is also at variance with thinkers such as Bruce.

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