I am the Game Studies Facilitator for the #Metagame Book Club (http://bit.ly/metagamebookclub). This is my Week 1 Lecture on "Play, Games, and the Magic Circle," with discussion emphasis on Johan Huizinga's "Homo Ludens."
Live Video Lecture - The live recorded youtube video of this lecture is included toward the end of this presentation.
Join the Metagame Book Club - We welcome all educators interested in gaming in education, game-based learning, gamification, and game studies to join the #Metagame Book Club.
#Metagame Book Club (July 15 - August 16, 2014)
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"Play, Games and the Magic Circle" by Sherry Jones (July 22, 2014)
#Metagame Book Club
Track 1: Game Studies
Week 1: “Play, Games & The Magic Circle”
Game Studies Facilitator
Access Slides: http://bit.ly/gamestudies1
Guiding Questions 1
1. What are the functions of play according to Johan Huizinga? What is the
relationship between play and expression? What examples did Huizinga
offer that demonstrate the presence of play in human expressions?
2. How do Johan Huizinga and Eric Zimmerman define the “Magic Circle”?
Did your first Magic Circle moment occur during your childhood or
adolescent years? What rules were involved/created for that Magic Circle?
What made the experience magical or wondrous (or not) for you?
3. What are Roger Caillois’ critiques of Huizinga’s definition of play?
4. What does Roger Caillois mean by this statement?: “A game which one is
forced to play would at once cease to be play” (p. 6).
Guiding Questions 2
5. In terms of games, what does Roger Caillois mean by “rules themselves
create fictions” (p. 8)?
6. Jesper Juul argues that games can be defined by its common
characteristics. According to Juul, what are some of the characteristics that
define a game? Do you agree with his definition?
7. According to Miguel Sicart, what is the relationship between play, game,
and computation? Why are games important to the formation of the age of
5 Game Studies Texts on Definitions
What is Play?
● Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture by Johan
Huizinga (p. 1-20)
● Man, Play and Games by Roger Caillois (p. 3-10)
What is a Game?
● Ludology - Episode 79 - The Magic Circle (Interview with Eric
● "The Game, the Player, the World: Looking for a Heart of Gameness"
by Jesper Juul
● “Playing in the Age of Computing Machinery” by Miguel Sicart
Homo Ludens - A Background (Pt. 1)
● Homo Ludens (or, “Man the Player”) is highly
influential on play and game scholars, and is
regarded as one of the fundamental texts in the
field of Game Studies.
● Johan Huizinga (1872-1945), a Dutch Professor of
History at the University of Leyden, wrote the
profound book, Homo Ludens (1938), late in his life.
He is also regarded as a significant Cultural Theorist
due to his insights about the relationship between
play and culture.
Homo Ludens - A Background (Pt. 2)
● In the book, Huizinga does not discuss a taxonomy
of games, since for him, all games are pure spaces
with parameters to contain the free activity of “pure
play.” Games are spatial “boxes” that impose rules
to confine the non-material force of play.
● Huizinga attempts to define “pure play” by
identifying the characteristic of play, and to
demonstrate how play contributes to the formation
of cultures and societies.
“PLAY is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always
presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach
them their playing” (Huizinga 1).
Huizinga explores play as a primordial activity that contributes to the
formation of human culture. He uses the latin word ludus (which can mean
play, game, or sport) to refer to the activity of play. Although the term, play,
can be translated to either the latin term fabula (stories and fables) or lascivio
(rioting and wantonness), neither terms can encompass Huizinga’s concept of
“pure play,” an element of human culture that is not a part of any object and
cannot be logically analyzed as such. Huizinga uses ludus as a more accurate
term to refer to the entire field of play.
Play Is Immaterial
Prior to Huizinga, theorists have
attributed the ends of play to
psychological and biological
functions (needs, desires, goals).
Huizinga argues that theorists have
not addressed the heart of the issue,
which is what is play itself? He
proposes that play is an act that
lacks a material quality:
“In play there is something "at play"
which transcends the immediate
needs of life and imparts meaning to
the action. All play means
something. . . . the very fact that play
has a meaning implies a non
materialistic quality in the nature of
the thing itself” (Huizinga 1).
Play Has Aesthetic Value + Meaning
Huizinga argues that play does not just serve a biological function. Rather,
play has an aesthetic quality that has its own meaning value:
“All these hypotheses have one thing in common: they all start from the
assumption that play must serve something which is not play, that it must
have some kind of biological purpose. They all enquire into the why and the
wherefore of play” (2).
“They attack play direct with the quantitative methods of experimental
science without first paying attention to its profoundly aesthetic quality” (2).
The Essence Of Play Is Fun
The essence of play is fun, a term that cannot be logically interpreted:
“Now this last-named element, the fun of playing, resists all analysis, all
logical interpretation. As a concept, it cannot be reduced to any other mental
category. No other modern language known to me has the exact equivalent
of the English ‘fun’” (3).
“The very existence of play continually confirms the supra-logical nature of
the human situation. Animals play, so they must be more than merely
mechanical things. We play and know that we play, so we must be more than
merely rational beings, for play is irrational” (3).
Play Is The Root Of Expressions
Play is an activity that helps construct human expressions, such as language,
speech, and myths; Play is inherent in metaphors, which are inherent in
“Behind every abstract expression there lie the boldest of metaphors, and
every metaphor is a play upon words. Thus in giving expression to life man
creates a second, poetic world alongside the world of nature” (4).
“Now in myth and ritual the great instinctive forces of civilized life have their
origin: law and order, commerce and profit, craft and art, poetry, wisdom and
science. All are rooted in the primaeval soil of play” (5).
Cultures Are Sub Species Ludi
Huizinga uses the latin word, Ludus
(game, play, sport), to refer to play.
He argues that cultures are Sub
Species Ludi (i.e. culture are
subordinates to the species of
“The object of the present essay is
to demonstrate that it is more than
a rhetorical comparison to view
culture sub specie ludi” (5).
“The fact that play and culture are
actually interwoven with one
another was neither observed nor
expressed, whereas for us the whole
point is to show that genuine, pure
play is one of the main bases of
Play Is A Primordial Activity
Play, as a primordial activity that precedes the formation of culture, is not
subordinate or category of any form of human thought (such as expressing
the moral dichotomies of seriousness or non-seriousness):
“Play lies outside the antithesis of wisdom and folly, and equally outside
those of truth and falsehood, good and evil. Although it is a non-material
activity it has no moral function. The valuations of vice and virtue do not
apply here” (5).
“All the terms in this loosely connected group of ideas -- play, laughter, folly,
wit, jest, joke, the comic, etc. -- share the characteristic 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).
Play Element And Its Characteristics
Play-concept is independent of logical, biological, or aesthetic definitions. To
find play’s presence in culture, we can identify its characteristics:
“The play-concept must always remain distinct from all the other forms of
thought in which we express the structure of mental and social life. Hence we
shall have to confine ourselves to describing the main characteristics of play”
“Play is a function of the living, but is not susceptible of exact definition
either logically, biologically, or aesthetically. The play-concept must always
remain distinct from all the other forms of thought in which we express the
structure of mental and social life“ (7).
First Characteristic of Play -
Play is a free activity, or an act of
“All play is a voluntary activity. Play
to order is no longer play: it could at
best be but a forcible imitation of it.
By this quality of freedom alone,
play marks itself off from the course
of the natural process” (7).
Second Characteristic of Play -
Play does not belong to the real, but is an activity that transcends ordinary
life (has the quality of pretend):
“[Play] is rather a stepping out of "real" life into a temporary sphere of
activity with a disposition all of its own” (8).
“The consciousness of play being "only a pretend" does not by any means
prevent it from proceeding with the utmost seriousness, with an absorption,
a devotion that passes into rapture and, temporarily at least, completely
abolishes that troublesome "only" feeling” (8).
Third Characteristic of Play -
Play is disinterested, secluded, and limited:
“Not being "ordinary" life [play] stands outside the immediate satisfaction of
wants and appetites indeed it interrupts the appetitive process. . . . “Such at
least is the way in which play presents itself to us in the first instance: as an
intermezzo, an interlude in our daily lives” (9).
“Play is distinct from "ordinary" life both as to locality and duration. This is the
third main characteristic of play: its secludedness, its limitedness. It is "played
out" within certain limits of time and place. It contains its own course and
Play Exists in Spatiotemporal Worlds
Play is also limited/confined to
space, such as a temporal
playground or magic circle. (i.e. a
“The arena, the card-table, the magic
circle, the temple, the stage, the
screen, the tennis court, the court of
justice, etc., are all in form and
function play-grounds, i.e. forbidden
spots, isolated, hedged round,
hallowed, within which special rules
obtain. All are temporary worlds
within the ordinary world,. dedicated
to the performance of an act apart”
Play Creates Temporary Order
Play demands order and perfection.
“Here we come across another, very positive feature of play: it creates order,
is order. Into an imperfect world and into the confusion of life it brings a
temporary, a limited perfection. Play demands order absolute and supreme.”
“The profound affinity between play and order is perhaps the reason why
play, as we noted in passing, seems to lie to such a large extent in the field of
aesthetics.” (p. 10)
Play Creates Tension
Play creates tension, as it requires the player to be competitive within the
rules of the game:
“Play is ‘tense’, as we say. It is this element of tension and solution that
governs all solitary games of skill and application such as puzzles, jig-saws,
mosaic-making, patience, target-shooting, and the more play bears the
character of competition the more fervent it will be. In gambling and athletics
it is at its height. Though play as such is outside the range of good and bad,
the element of tension imparts to it a certain ethical value in so far as it
means a testing of the player's prowess: his courage, tenacity, resources and,
last but not least, his spiritual powers-his "fairness"; because, despite his
ardent desire to win, he must still stick to the rules of the game” (11).
Play Imposes Rules
Play has rules, and they cannot be
broken (or the game falls apart):
“All play has its rules. They
determine what ‘holds’ in the
temporary world circumscribed by
play. The rules of a game are
absolutely binding and allow no
doubt. . . . Indeed, as soon as the
rules are transgressed the whole
play-world collapses. The game is
over. The umpire's whistle breaks
the spell and sets "real" life going
Spoil-Sports - Rule Breakers
Spoil-sport, those who break play rules, can refer to anyone who withdraws
from the play-worlds (magic circles):
“[The spoil-sport] reveals the relativity and fragility of the play-world in which
he had temporarily shut himself with others. He robs play of its illusion -- a
pregnant word which means literally "in-play' (from inlusio, illudere or
inludere) . Therefore he must be cast out, for he threatens the existence of
the play-community” (11).
Spoil-Sports Can Form Their Own
Spoil-sports also exist in the world of high-seriousness:
“The spoil-sport breaks the magic world, therefore he is a coward and must
be ejected. In the world of high seriousness, too, the cheat and the hypocrite
have always had an easier time of it than the spoil-sports, here called
apostates, heretics, innovators, prophets, conscientious objectors, etc. It
sometimes happens, however, that the spoil-sports in their turn make a new
community with rules of its own. The outlaw, the revolutionary, the cabbalist
or member of a secret society, indeed heretics of all kinds are of a highly
associative if not sociable disposition, certain element of play is prominent in
all their doings” (11).
The Magic Circle
Huizinga offers the term, “magic circle,” to explain the characteristics and
functions of play in the communities of players. “Magic circle,” as implied by
its closed shape, is maintained in secrecy by all those within the circle.
“The exceptional and special position of play is most tellingly illustrated by
the fact that it loves to surround itself with an air of secrecy. Even in early
childhood the charm of play is enhanced by making a "secret" out of it. This is
for us, not for the "others". What the "others" do "outside" is no concern of
ours at the moment. Inside the circle of the game the laws and customs of
ordinary life no longer count.” (p. 12)
Ritual Is Serious Play
Huizinga argues that play can be serious, such as play-acts performed in
rituals of the sacred:
“We are hovering over spheres of thought barely accessible either to
psychology or to philosophy. Such questions as these plumb the depths of our
consciousness. Ritual is seriousness at its highest and holiest. Can it
nevertheless be play? We began by saying that all play, both of children and
of grown-ups, can be performed in the most perfect seriousness. Does this go
so far as to imply that play is still bound up with the sacred emotion of the
sacramental act?” (18).
“Can we now extend the line to ritual and say that the priest performing the
rites of sacrifice is only playing?” (18).