You can describe the characteristics of play and you can define qualities of something that is not play, but it’s always going to be a loose concept.
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).
Huizinga acknowledges early on that play can never be strictly defined or categorized because it is intrinsically “distinct from all the other forms of thought in which we express the structure of mental and social life.” You can describe the characteristics of play and you can define qualities of something that is not play, but it’s always going to be a loose concept. Huizinga states that all play is a voluntary act, “play to order is no longer play: it could at best be but a forcible imitation of it. By this quality alone, play marks itself off from the course of the natural process” (7). Play is not focused around dominating others or seeking power, the primary goal is the desire to excel and be honored amongst one’s people (50). Play begins and ends, it can be repeated at any time, and it occurs within a designated space (10). Having a definitive win state is intrinsic to play and can only occur if there is a partner or opponent, “winning means showing onseself superior in the outcome of a game”. Victory can become a collaborative effort because the sense of success can readily pass to a group. If your team wins and there is a losing team, their fans can cheer or boo because all of the competitive elements still exist (50).
Huizinga then distinguishes between basic play and something that he calls higher play or “a contest for something or a representation of something” (13). Huizinga cites a discourse on Chinese history by Marcel Granet, who points out that ceremony and contest can be intrinsic parts of almost any activity. Crossing a river, the climbing of a mountain, cutting wood, or even picking flowers are all turned into ceremonial competitions that show the agonistic principle at work (55). Two groups get together and compete to see who can produce the most crops, climb the mountain most quickly, and so on. In this sense, religion and ritual graft onto play, changing the names and terms while the act itself still remains a competitive representation (18). An example would be the potlatch practice from the Kwakiutl tribe in British Columbia. The tribe is split into two groups, and they compete to see who can give the best gifts to the other. You can have a potlatch for anything: a funeral, an initiation ceremony, a new house, etc. The competition is to show how much of your own food and possessions that you can surrender and still get by (58). Religious salvation, acts of purification, baptism, or other spiritual cleansings are defined in this perspective as badges of honor that can be held out to the community. Like the athlete winning a victory for the fans, the play element acts as the foundation for more complex cultural exchanges.
Huizinga is quick to note that people have always referred to war as a game. What is important for him is noting when war ceases to be play. He comments that “all fighting that is bound by rules bears the formal characteristics of play by that very limitation. We can call it the most intense, the most energetic form of play and at the same time the most palpable and primitive….we can only speak of war as a cultural function so long as it is waged within a sphere whose members regard each other as equals or antagonists with equal rights; in other words its cultural function depends on its play quality” (89). Once you stop acknowledging the humanity of your opponents, it has ceased to be a game and becomes barbarism. He finds war to otherwise be very similar to play. Noble statesmen claiming to pursue justice or economic necessities are, more often than not, appealing to people’s sense of pride, pomp, and vain-glory (90). He distinguishes these sorts of conflicts from several examples of Chinese military conflicts which revolved enhancing the Lord’s honor more than actually winning. Many of the fights could have been resolved easily with a few sabotages, but these are avoided to keep everyone’s dignity intact (97). Nations at peace are still engaged in a game, competing through treaties and constant negotiations (100).
With their intrinsic connection to language, philosophy and poetry take on a generative function. Language and writing typically wear down the meaning of words and symbols into nothing through constant use. Poetry and play counter these more basic forms of communication by constantly infusing new meanings into familiar concepts. Philosophy began as a riddle game, which then melded with the ritual and festival. It slowly connects with higher play as it begins to study the nature of truth while simultaneously developing at a lower level as intellectualism and sophistical quackery. One is what we’d consider philosophy, the other is poetry extended out from the riddle games of old. Problems with philosophy begin to develop when a culture fails to distinguish between play and knowledge, like the Stoics thinking a word pun or grammatical pitfall is actually an intellectual dilemma (152). This continued de-evolution in the education process persisted as education turned into very rule based exchanges. You were either for or against an academic’s ideas. You had to cite previous philosophers or be rejected outright. Education suffered because the competitive element began to oust the generative function of play (156).
Huizinga claims that physical and solid arts are not play. They are meant instead to help facilitate play or serve a representational function. He explains, “If therefore the play-element is to all appearances lacking in the execution of a work of plastic art, in the contemplation and enjoyment of it there is no scope for it whatever. For where there is no visible action there can be no play” (166). The agonist impulse continues and drives art because of the desire to perform difficult, if not impossible, artistic feats is always there to motivate a person. Yet the object by itself is not play (169).
The final chapters of the book concern the slow dissolution of play starting around the 18th Century and continuing until 1938, when Huizinga was writing the book. Huizinga outlines how play has come to be cluttered with seriousness, rank, nationalism, pomp, and other technicalities to such an extent that it has ceased to be play. As noted above, once strict forms or order are applied to play it only becomes an imitation. War stops being play if you don’t respect your opponent. It is just imitating play to gain support for destructive purposes. Sports cease to be play because of the distinction between professional and amateur, the play spirit of “spontaneity and carelessness” is gone due to creation of a “true” player as opposed to the inferior casual one. It has ceased to be a culture creating activity because of its rigid rules (197-198).
Financial games like gambling or bridge are mostly sterile activities. Huizinga says that they do not “enrich the soul in any way, fixing and consuming a quantity of intellectual energy that might have been better applied. The most we can say…is that it might have been applied worse” (199). Commercial activity and business has begun to graft the concept of play onto itself by phrasing everything as a competition to outdo an opposing business. The play element warps business in this regard. Companies are bigger simply for the sake of being big, not because there is any real purpose behind their size. Huizinga condemns the rampant nationalism that adopts the competitive elements of play and turns nations into little better than “clubs”. Politicians are now more concerned with winning and outdoing their opponents than helping their own constituents, a trait he attributes specifically to America. He calls this blend of “adolescence and barbarity” that is developing in business and government, "puerilism" (205-207). The danger here is that while all of these things appear to be play, they are nothing of the sort. He summarizes his argument early in the text:
As a civilization becomes more complex, more variegated and more overladen, and as the technique of production and social life itself become more finely organized, the old cultural soil is gradually smothered under a rank layer of ideas, systems of thought and knowledge, doctrines, rules and regulations, moralities and conventions which have lost all touch with play. Civilization, we then say, has grown more serious; it assigns only a secondary place to playing. The heroic period is over, and the agonistic phase, too, seems a thing of the past. (75)
Huizinga ends the book by declaring that he is not trying to assert all human action to be play and that to do so would be a philosophical short circuit. He contends that “it is the moral content of an action that makes it serious…The way out of this vexing dilemma is only closed to those who deny the objective value and validity of ethical standards” (211). He explains that the only way to escape the unpleasant conclusion of seeing all life as a game is not through logical thinking but instead to turn towards the Ultimate. He cites Plato’s declaration that people are the plaything of the gods. He quotes the Book of Proverbs. We can be free of any concern about our conduct being mere play so long as truth, justice, compassion, and forgiveness have part in our resolve to act (213).
I got into a bit of an argument with various folks about my criticisms of this section, so keep in mind that I’m in the minority in my views. My problem is not with Huizinga’s earnestness or the necessity in condemning modernity’s version of play. As a Dutch historian in 1938, Huizinga is faced with a play culture that is slowly driving itself towards one of the most devastating armed conflicts in human history. It would be disturbing if he did not end the book as he did. What I seriously question is how good a job he does at getting the genie back in the bottle when he claims that modernity has “lost all touch with play”. Why does it stop being play if it’s a corporation or nation doing it instead of a tribe? How is dehumanizing an opponent not just a part of the competitive process? The problem with grounding the division between play and puerilism in morality is that you can’t have it both ways. If play defies organization or is destroyed by it as Huizinga asserts numerous times, then you can’t really deny its presence in any cultural function. Making the dividing line morality means that it’s just a matter of perspective.
To Huizinga’s credit, he predicted people like me would make these assertions and points out that pure logic will always leave “something problematical” (212). It’s essentially a leap of faith to believe that the play element ever stops because of order overriding its generative nature. I’m only interested in pointing out that the difference between play and seriousness has a lot more to do with who is talking than who is playing.