Johan Huizinga is really one of the great game historians. This Dutch philosopher pioneered the study of play and games (which I have started referring to as ludic theory, seeing how the mathematicians and the military men have already usurped the term ‘game theory’, which actually has little to do with games). On top of that he was a famous medieval historian – an area that is also my forte. I finally picked up his book, Homo Ludens, “Man the Player” and after awhile I had to keep reminding myself this as I read it. Don’t get me wrong, Homo Ludens is a great book, though it feels a bit dated and frustrating at times.
Anyone who has anything to do with ludic theory should have at least read the footnotes for the first chapter of Homo Ludens, “Nature and the Significance of Play as a Cultural Phenomenon”. Quite the mouthful, but also quite the significant piece of work. As the foundation block of the study of all things games, it is simply essential. Further, anyone who wants to be taken seriously should have at least read the first two chapters, (or preferably, but not necessarily, the whole book). In it, Huizinga forwards his thesis that play is an essential part of culture and that its creative and agonistic (competitive conflict) nature has been a driving force behind the development of culture.
Human culture is, in a word, played. By constantly forwarding the central importance of play to culture, and by continually discovering the play-element in many aspects of culture, he illustrates the seriousness and importance of play – without having to rely on the modern crutch of ‘it’s a multi-billion dollar industry so we should learn more about it [so we can get a piece of the pie]’ forwarded by corporate media. Play (and games!) should be studied because it is an underlying force in ritual, religion, law, and war – nearly all aspects of human society are somehow shaped by it. Far from being a trivial pursuit of leisure or a pastime of children, play is actually worth studying as an important cultural phenomenon with creative and competitive influences.
In his book, Huizinga supports this theory by drawing forth a myriad of examples and anecdotes from cultures all over the world, including riddles and contest in Scandinavian culture; games and competition, music and philosophy in ancient Greece; tournaments in China; and the drumming-match in Eskimo culture. Each example demonstrates the importance of play – and many of the examples, such as riddle games, judicial combat, the potlatch, and the kula, are interesting in and of themselves. To show the similarities between play and games, Huizinga also devotes an entire chapter to a cross-cultural linguistic history of words regarding play and games. It is through these anecdotes that Homo Ludens is perhaps its strongest.
However, Huizinga has become a bit inaccessible since Homo Ludens was written in the late 1930s. For one thing, though he addresses the issue of ethnocentrism in anthropology, he uses some language that is simply too insensitive in modern books on the subject. While this is excusable given the period in which the book was written, you may find it shocking if you read it today. In addition, some facts have been disproven, such as the argument that laughter is unique to humans (laughter has been observed in dogs, rats, and primates). Fortunately, this doesn’t significantly damage Huizinga’s argument.
I also feel Huizinga takes war far too lightly, particularly given the political situation of the time in which it was written (one year before Hitler invaded Poland; twenty years after World War I). War is by no means light business, not when the lives of human beings are at stake. Even when we discuss the presence of a play-element or agonistic element in war, we should not take war to be a game. When two men, or two thousand men, are ordered to kill each other, it is grave business, even when war is called a game of kings and princes by the foolish leaders who take it as such. If I take primary fault and disbelief in Huizinga’s argument, it is through his lack of seriousness towards war, particularly considering the dark and bloody clouds of global conflict broiling on his horizon.
Huizinga’s wide cultural approach to games and play is one that all ludic theorists should do well to incorporate, particularly when they are discussing the nature and definition of games. It seems to me that we would do well to produce a new study illustrating the field of activities in which the play-element may be found as it will help us learn more about our topic of study – games. It is of little wonder then that Huizinga’s Homo Ludens has become the foundation for this field, and was later built upon by Roger Callois and modern ludic theorists like Jesper Juul, Katie Salen, and Eric Zimmerman. Though perhaps a bit antiquated by today’s standards, the cross-cultural nature of Homo Ludens makes it an excellent cornerstone to any library about games.