Huizinga, Homo Ludens: terms

Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A study of the play-element in culture.

(Boston: Beacon Paperback, 1955 edition, text copyright 1950 by Roy Publishers by arrangement with Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd. (1949).

Personal Introduction

As I embarked on this reading project, I discovered notes on the blank end pages reminding me when I first read this work. Having completed two seminary degrees, working in congregations before returning for an M. Div. in connection to pursuing ordination. By the time I was accepted into ordination preparation, I had almost completed the M. Div. and had already been accepted into my doctoral program of choice. Now, nearly four years later, I was finally going before a committee for a final examination and approval or rejection to be ordained.


On a Sunday night I flew from Richmond VA (where I lived, worked in a congregation, and was researching my dissertation) to Dayton OH (where my sponsoring congregation was located). Monday morning I led worship for the committee and then was interviewed. Monday evening I had been informed the committee had approved my ordination, pending a call to a local congregation (which the church I was serving had already stated they would extend). I had a morning flight allowing me to arrive back in Richmond before lunch so I could get most of a day of research completed before teaching a class Wednesday morning.


I must have been reading this text when the flight was stalled on the tarmac. The captain announced we were being ordered back to the terminal, “probably having to do with some confusion we’re hearing about in New York.” Inside the terminal was chaos as everyone tried to make sense of the emerging news that two airplanes had been flown into the World Trade Center, another into the Pentagon, and another flight was reported missing.


I remember the confusion of the day, but not that I was reading his book at the time. But my notes have flight information, airline contacts, telephone numbers that I would need to call in order to be reimbursed for the cancelled flight.


Foundational Terms

In the forward, Huizinga says of the subtitle, he prefers “of culture” to “in culture.” When used for lectures in 1933: “Every time my {English-speaking} hosts wanted to correct it “in” culture, and each time I protested and clung to the genitive, because it was not my object to define the place of play among all the other manifestations of culture, but rather to ascertain how far culture itself bears the characters of play.”


Before detailing Huizinga’s play theory, a word needs to be said about Huizinga’s socio-historical context. When he speaks of culture he means north-central Europe. Huizinga is Dutch; this book originated as lectures delivered in England in the mid-1930’s. The original version was published in Switzerland in 1938, just before World War 2. Huizinga is writing at the emergence of cultural anthropology (citing in the first chapter Malinowski, Jensen, Frobenius), and thus is shaped by the early biases of the field – namely colonial paternalism to non-European cultures. Al though a product of his time, Huizinga’s embedded explicit racism cannot be overlooked.


Huizinga labels non-European cultures “archaic” and assumes they are less sophisticated and uncomplicated when compared to European industrialized culture. Observing “savage societies” reveals “rudimentary” cultural mechanisms Additionally, this establishing period of anthropological study was heavily influenced by Romantic philosophic notions that less-industrialized cultures are closer to a natural (purer) state of humanity. A similar claim is made for observing children, assuming they are purer than adults because they are not yet socialized by culture. These claims intersect in the use of Ancient Greece as an exemplar: a pre-industrial yet Western culture, at the “childhood” of civilization explicating (through Plato and other philosophers) it’s cultural mechanisms.


Despite these prejudices, Huizinga is modeling a sociology of knowledge process similar to that of the Frankfurt School Critical Theory: interdisciplinary examination (anthropology, sociology, psychology, history) of a articular cultural expression (play) and its role in shared meaning-making. Unlike Critical Theory, Huizinga is not using a (neo-)Marxist historical dialectic, not speaking against abusive power, nor advocating to adjust society for a more humane alignment. His interest is more Weberian: identifying how cultural mechanisms related to the phenomena of play shape shared identity.


Within these biases, Huizinga begins his work identifying characteristics of play:

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 … stress their difference from the common world by disguise or other means. (13)

And again, at the beginning of the second chapter (28), these characteristics in one sentence:

play is a voluntary activity or occupation executed within certain fixed limits of time and place, according to rules freely accepted but absolutely binding, having its aim in itself and accompanied by a feeling of tension, joy and the consciousness that it is “different” from “ordinary life.” (28)

Notice some of the characteristics are different and the sequence is different. Because Huizinga follows the second formula more frequently than the first, I shall use it to explore the meaning of key terms.


a voluntary activity

A better word might be “uncoerced” or “unrequired” activity: demanding someone play violates playing. We play, because we enjoy playing. For the responsible adult human, play is a function that could be left alone. Nevertheless, Huizinga will make two contrasting claims about play: it is neither required nor necessary, yet it is essential to society. We get these two sentiments in the following passage:


Play is superfluous. The need for it is only urgent to the extent that the enjoyment of it makes need. Play can be deferred or suspended at any time. It is never imposed by physical necessity or moral duty. It is never a task. It is done at leisure, during “free time. And yet, only when play is a recognized cultural function – a rite, a ceremony – is it bound up with notions of obligation and duty. (8)


Huizinga will return to the essential cultural quality of ritual as play immediately following this list of characteristics.


fixed limits of time and place

We step out of real life into the spaces of temporary pay activities so that we may be fully immersed in play. The seriousness of play requires our undivided attentiveness, and so place spaces are created to focus our attention and contain our behaviors. Initially, Huizinga suggests, play is apart from real life


“as an intermezzo, an interlude in our daily lives. As a regularly recurring relaxation, however, it becomes the accompaniment, the complement, in fact an integral part of life in general. It adorns life, amplifies it and is to that extent a necessity for both the individual – as a life function – and for society by reason of the meaning it contains, its significance, its expressive value, its spiritual and social associations, in short as a culture function. The expression of it satisfies all kinds of communal ideals.” (9)


For Huizinga, play needs a fixed playground determined before play begins. This is not spontaneous free-range improvised activity but rather a set patterns within scribed parameters which both hold the players within play and hold the world to remain outside play. This generates a sense of exploring possibilities within the boundaries, the consequences of which are related to being different than “real life.”


rules freely accepted but absolutely binding

For Huizinga, play creates rules, because sustained interaction depends on rules: as soon as the rules are transgressed, the play world collapses. (11) This transgression may happen by someone cheating – but this is forgivable because cheating demonstrates a desire to win the game even at the expense of departing the agreed-upon boundaries. The more unforgivable transgression is the “spoil-sport,” one who by withdrawing from the game shatters the game world revealing “the relativity and fragility of the play-world in which he (sic) had temporarily shut himself (sic) with others. He (sic) robs play of its illusion … Therefore he (sic) must be cast out, for he (sic) threatens the existence of the play-community.” (11)


Huizinga uses religious vocabulary to describe the spoil-sport: “apostates, heretics, innovators, prophets, conscientious objectors, etc. It sometimes happens, however, that the soil-sports in their turn make a new community with rules of its own.” (12)


its aim in itself

“You can deny seriousness, but you cannot deny play.” (3) Play does not have a secondary motivator: it is intrinsically rewarding. “All the terms in this loosely connected group of ideas – play, laughter folly, wit, jest, joke, the comic, etc. – share the characteristics which we had to attribute to play, namely, that of resisting any attempt to reduce it to other terms. Their rationale and their mutual relationships must lie in a very deep layer of our mental being.” (6)


But Huizinga is inconsistent, for he admits play may be an occupation (as in the arts or athletics) and his theory promotes play generating cultural order. (That will be addressed in the next post.)


feeling of tension, joy

About fifty years before Csikszentmihalyi identified flow psychology, Huizinga is describing total immersion in activity. “Any game can at any time wholly run away with the players. The contrast between play and seriousness is always fluid. The inferiority of play is continually offset by the corresponding superiority of its seriousness. Play turns into seriousness, and seriousness into play. Play may rise to heights of beauty and sublimity that leave seriousness far beneath.” (8) Huizinga is unclear if the immersion of the player transforms the game, if the game leads the player to immersion, or if the play space creates the environment for immersion. Regardless, “in this intensity, this absorption, this power maddening, lies the very essence, the primordial quality of play.” (2-3)


consciousness that it is “different” from “ordinary life.”

Huizinga is decades before Victor Turner’s investigation into rites of passage, yet invokes the concepts of liminality and communitas essential for such rites: a stepping out of “real” life into a temporary sphere of activity with a disposition all its own.” (8) In a much longer passage Huizinga writes

the feeling of being “apart together” in an exceptional situation, of sharing something important, of mutually withdrawing from the rest of the world and rejecting the usual norms, retains its magic beyond the duration of the individual game.” … This is for us, not for the “others”. What “others’ do “outside” the game is no concern of ours. Inside the circle of the game the laws and customs of ordinary life no longer count. We are different and so things differently. {This is a} temporary suspension of normal social life on account f the sacred play-season…” (12)


These terms lay the foundation for the remainder of the Huizinga’s work.


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