Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture traces the method by which various cultures develop the notion of play and how play can be seen in almost every facet of civilization. War, religion, politics, sports, and even the arts contain elements of play that drive their production. He is convincing enough in this argument that when he gets to the point where he must establish when something ceases to be play, the answer is more about faith than fact.
There are a variety of scientific and anthropological explanations for play. A child at play is imitating adults, and the reason we engage in sport is to release excess energy. Huizinga points out that the common characteristic of anyone explaining play is that “play must serve something which is not play” (2). Play is an element that merges with something else. Linguistically the word “play” varies drastically from culture to culture. In ancient German, the word for play is an abstract concept that could reference a drinking competition or deciding how to kill someone. In English, i more clearly indicates the exclusion of “seriousness”. In other cultures, the word can be a reference for sexual conduct or a way of expressing laziness (40). Huizinga writes, “All peoples play, and play remarkably alike; but their languages differ widely in their conception of play, conceiving it neither as distinctly nor as broadly as modern European languages do” (28).