Saturday, May 5, 2018

Homo Ludens: why should we play?

Some years ago I watched six Dutch philosophers discuss play (like in games) on television. Apart from the fact that this was one of those curious TV programmes that wouldn't have needed TV imaging to be interesting (it was all dialogue with hardly any supporting visuals) it jarred something in me. What was my fundamental motive for playing?

Some classics were touched upon. German philosopher Schiller wrote  that "man only plays when he is in the fullest sense of the word a human being, and he is only fully a human being when he plays”. Schiller certainly took his playing seriously. He stated that only in play Man could unite his normally paradoxal aspects, like reason and nature, formal and sensual drive, freedom and necessity, passion and duty, sense and form. Only in play Man could be unfragmented and truly whole.

The Dutch historian and cultural theorist Johan Huizinga identified play as having 5 essential characteristics:
  1. Play is freedom.
  2. Play is not “ordinary” or “real” life.
  3. Play is distinct from “ordinary” life both as to locality and duration.
  4. Play creates order, is order. Play demands order absolute and supreme.
  5. Play is connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained from it.
While this is perhaps a bit too profound for me, I can acknowledge that play enables you to exercise your personality in its purest form, minimally inhibited by reality, practical considerations and social conventions. It is, after all, only play. Playing is indeed freedom supreme.

This is probably why we usually associate play with children and childhood. The inhibitions mentioned above weigh probably least for children who have not yet learned that a lot of things are impossible and fantasy is not real, like most adults know and believe. This is, we were told, why children play instinctively, imitating adult life as they view it, learning to be adults on the way, by stepping outside the real world into a fantasy that can exist anywhere at any time.

This seems to conflict with Huizinga's 4th characteristic as I tend to see freedom and order as opposite phenomena. Nevertheless I cannot deny we often encounter rules during play for the first time in our lives, when at a young age it is explained to us that we cannot pick up a football, kick a hockey ball or move 20 squares on the game board if we only rolled a 2. Not even when we would like to. That is not how the game is played, dear.

Still, even within the confines of these, often simple, rules we can still pretend to be merciless achievers, crush our enemies, see them driven before us and hear the lamentations of their... wait, where was I ?

Oh yes, living out fantasies. We can live out our fantasies outside the real, ordinary world and be the personae we would probably like to be if we could get away with it in real life. It would not surprise me if we would develop our character while playing as well. Making alliances, learning tactical and strategic skills and -last but certainly not least-  discovering the possibility of cheating are all very useful things to take with you on life's twisting, winding roads.

Adults usually do not play anymore. They do sports. Completely different as I am sure you will see. I had a dispute with a collegue of mine once who considered my wargaming hobby childish but thought nothing of running around on a field dressed in shorts hitting a ball with a stick. The same difference as fas as I am concerned. He really did not see sports as a form of playing, nor did he play hockey to become "unfragmented". He needed it to unwind and work on his condition. What's in a name, after all? And surely his sportsgame is as separated from ordinary life as is a cowboy-and-indian game played by 8-year olds.

No profit may be gained from it, states Huizinga. I struggled with that one. Nevertheless, losing a game may not gain you anything, it usually does not risk anything either.  So perhaps Huizinga means that victory may be a winner's only gain.

In any case, we do learn our children the importance of winning through play. While happiness, health and material well-being are important things in life, it does not hurt to be a winner to get to these prizes. So it is a useful trick to teach to your kids. However, since every game needs a winner, the other players will inevitably be losers. But that is allright dear, since it is only a game. Wait a minute: it is important to win during play, but when the game is over, winning is a trifle? This paradox is a concept most children find frustrating and bewildering.  Most counter it by not playing anymore, throwing the gameboard through the room or start again to win next time. Even while knowing that every game will have at least one loser and this might well be you. Adults in this situation tend to rationalize.

Still here is where I think the most fundamental lesson to be learned from playing is hidden. And that is that effort enables success, but only bears a relative relation to it. It is certainly no guarantee. Not a very modern way of looking at things I think. Some like to believe that success is a choice, failure a fault and every achievement - or lack thereof- a personal responsibilty one is immediately accountable for. But no matter what the skills, luck or capabilities of the player are, he will eventually lose at some point.

Playing teaches us that failure, learning from failure and improving oneself is an essential and unavoidable part of life and actually conditional for achieving anything at all. The essential and crucial attraction of playing is that this can occur without any serious consequences to yourself. Unlike real-life "games" where people get hurt by failures...

So people, let's play.

As often as we can.


  1. "play enables you to exercise your personality in its purest form" may be the most brilliant thing, that I have ever heard (or read) with respect to play. Also, I tend to agree with your thoughts relating to freedom/order, and profit from play.

    I suspect that "play" is different things to us as we age, serving different roles at different times in our lives. Likewise, the composition of play probably varies as much as the composition of our personalities.

    In any event, a great post, I appreciate you sharing your thoughts.

  2. I think play is all about story telling