Jason Hawreliak received his Ph.D. in English from the University of Waterloo. His research examines rhetorics of heroism & immortality in videogames. Other research interests include multimodal rhetoric & the psychological function of digital media. He is essays editor for First Person Scholar.
Johan Huizinga remains a looming figure in game studies. Almost every discussion about games qua games and the ontology of play begin with Huizinga and for good reason. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (1938/1955) brought widespread attention to the idea that play is an inherent and vital component of culture. It demonstrated that play and games are not “trivial,” but in fact serve important ideological, psychological and religious functions. Indeed, for Huizinga play is largely responsible for meaning-making at large and it is difficult to imagine the field without Homo-Ludens. However, Huizinga’s role as progenitor has been both to the discipline’s benefit and detriment. Although his insights cannot be ignored, his characterization of play as an isolated, hermeneutically distinct bubble within the rest of “reality” (however fluid) continues to plague discourses on play. The idea of the “magic circle” seems to act like a lens which everything else passes through.
Although many play scholars are familiar with Homo Ludens, it is not the first time Huizinga explicitly takes on the subject of play. As a prolific historian Huizinga wrote a significant number of books before Homo Ludens and play pops up in many of them. But nowhere is play examined more closely in these pre Homo Ludens works than the little read talk-turned-book, In the Shadow of Tomorrow (1936). Although play only really appears in one odd little chapter, “Puerility,” this short chapter provides a revealing glimpse into Huizinga’s pre-Homo Ludens thinking on play.
By examining these early seeds of Homo Ludens, I hope we can more clearly understand Huizinga’s formulation of play and therefore ontological discussions of play as a whole. Furthermore, this is an important work for us in game studies because it may help us explain some of Huizinga’s famous ambiguity/ambivalence (perhaps best outlined by Hector Rodriguez). I wish I had somehow been able to read Shadow before Homo Ludens, as I couldn’t help but read the former through the lens of the latter. If Homo Ludens is Huizinga’s “adult” treatise on play, this chapter represents his adolescence. It’s illuminating to see how Huizinga’s thinking develops from this book to Homo Ludens, and examining this development may be useful for the study of play generally.
Spectres of War
Like Homo Ludens, Shadow reflects Huizinga’s interdisciplinary lean as it is incredibly eclectic. It is broken into many smallish chapters and each chapter is concerned with its own concept or idea, such as “Heroism,” “Apprehensions of Doom,” “The Decline of the Critical Spirit,” and “Science Misused.” Huizinga views “progress” as largely problematic in nature—as evidenced by his chapter, “The Problematic Nature of Progress”—and so we see some of Huizinga’s nostalgia for past, “pure” forms here. Though it’s eclectic, it never feels disjointed or off-focus. Indeed, Huizinga never veers from his central premise: if humanity does not alter its course of action (in the 1930s) things are about to go very badly for the world. Throughout the book it seems as if Huizinga sees the inevitability of WWII and so it is a bit eerie to read at times. It exists essentially as an unheeded warning.
Indeed, it is an odd little book and often comes off as woefully outdated. It’s in part a thinly veiled call for a return to Christian morality, which, he argues, has been replaced by relativism and the dissolution of Truth. This is not to say that it is “religious” in any denominational sense of the word—he sees religion as potentially positive or negative—but Christian ethics underlie a great deal of Huizinga’s observations. The fundamental problem, as he sees it, is humanity’s misplaced priorities: unlike earlier times, in which individuals accepted their “duty” to one another, Huizinga sees his time as characterized by the individual “will to live.” After the “Great War” people became disillusioned with the old codes and were more concerned with continued existence than morality. As a result, selfishness, greed, and individualism increased, all at the expense of community, altruism, and duty. (Every generation really does have its “millenials”).
Shadow was published as a book in 1936, but the material was originally presented as a talk in 1935. Essentially, it acts as a forum for Huizinga to rail against all that is ill in the world, which is primarily the rise of fascism in Europe and a seemingly perpetual global arms race. Huizinga is clearly concerned for humanity’s prospects, and as such it is written with a very distinct sense of urgency and desperation. For this reason it’s probably worth reading as a historical document as much as anything else, but my primary interest lies in its treatment of play.
In the “Puerilism” chapter we see Huizinga’s first attempt at a formal definition of play. It comes almost haphazardly within a broader discussion of individual and cultural development. He writes,
In the more incipient phases of civilization a large part of social life is carried on in the form of play, that is to say, within an artificial mental sphere governed by rules of its own and temporarily encompassing all conduct in a voluntarily accepted system of action. A conventional proceeding takes the place of the direct pursuit of utility or pleasure. (p. 176, emphasis mine)
At this stage it is as if play can be defined in a brief aside. Now, “mature” civilizations will outgrow this “incipient” stage, but immature, “puerile” civilizations (he means you, U.S.A.) do not. In Homo Ludens, Huizinga will retreat from this somewhat pejorative characterization of play in culture, and acknowledge its ubiquity in all cultural contexts. In Homo Ludens we see Huizinga take a big step back from the idea that the prevalence of play in culture is a sign of immaturity, and moreover, Huizinga grants play a much more permeable, fluid character than we see in Shadow.
Nevertheless, we still see here a characterization of play as a significant cultural component. As such, there is a great deal of carry-over from Shadow in Homo Ludens. For example, in the above quotation we witness the seeds of the “magic circle” concept Huizinga is so famous for: play exists “within an artificial mental sphere;” it operates according to “rules of its own;” it is only “temporarily” enacted, and it is a “voluntary… system of action.” These characteristics of play are all present in Homo Ludens. And just as Huizinga argues in Homo Ludens, the restricted space of “play” is not reserved for games alone.
Indeed, spatial and temporary boundaries lie at the heart of what Huizinga calls “true play.” As he writes in Shadow, “The most fundamental characteristic of true play, whether it be a cult, a performance, a contest, or a festivity, is that at a certain moment it is over. The spectators go home, the players take off their masks, the performance has ended” (p. 177). In other words, as with rituals, games must have a clear beginning and an end; they are not perpetual, or all encompassing, but operate according to their own systems set apart from “real” life. This is another way in which Shadow prefigures Homo Ludens: rather than seeing them as entirely distinct cultural forms, Huizinga views games and rituals as particular iterations of play. Again,
Where the play is holy this activity becomes a cult or a rite. Even if the rite or contests involve bloodshed the action still remains play. All such play requires a local limitation, the creation of a playground shut off from the world outside. Ordinary life is excluded from these precincts for as long as the play lasts. (p. 171)
Whether the play is “holy” or secular, safe or dangerous, it invariably exists as its own meaning system, “shut off” from everything else.
We see two fundamental tenets retained in Homo Ludens here: 1) Play exists in many forms, not just “games” as such; and 2) Play in all its forms is always cut-off from the “ordinary” world, spatially, temporally, psychologically, or phenomenologically. Play is voluntary, limited, closed off, and carefree. As soon as any of these conditions are violated, play is no longer “pure,” and for Huizinga it’s at this “contaminated” point that we arrive at “puerilism.” The idea that play can be “pure” or “tainted” in the first place lies at the heart of the matter for Huizinga; it is only through bastardization that play bleeds into non-play (and vice versa).
Huizinga sees puerilism as a dangerous and increasingly widespread phenomenon. He defines it as “the attitude of a community whose behaviour is more immature than the state of its intellectual and critical faculties would warrant, which instead of making the boy into the man adapts its conduct to that of the adolescent age” (p. 170). Here puerilism is a character flaw which treats games as serious things (e.g. professional sports), and serious things as games (e.g. military brinksmanship). The implicit assumption here, of course, is that play is separate from “real,” “ordinary,” or “serious” life. They should not mix. Puerility comes from collapsing this boundary, or flipping it on its head. The importance of this cannot be overstated in the context of Huizinga’s later writings on the magic circle. Although throughout Homo Ludens Huizinga qualifies his statements about the rigidity of the magic circle, his use of the circle metaphor itself belies these earlier thoughts into the idealized (Euclidean) purity of play.
Huizinga takes special aim at America’s puerilism and as he sees it this puerilism manifests itself in two ways:
On the one hand, activities of a professedly serious nature and universally regarded as serious… come to be permeated by the spirit of play and to bear all the characteristics of play; on the other, activities admittedly of a play-character come to lose the true quality of play because of the manner in which they are carried on. (p. 174)
American politics look like games and their games look like serious business. The sacred boundary separating work from play is immediately dissolved by the concept of “professional” sports, or in thinking that one nation “wins” an arms race. Huizinga is writing in terms of work/play, serious/fun, coerced/voluntary action, but we can apply these same principles to the games/art, or games/story dichotomies we are all tired of. In all cases we see a collapse of the magic circle, a contamination of play’s purity. Writing in the shadow of WWII, which must have looked increasingly inevitable, it is precisely the collapse of the magic circle which results in
the evil of our time. For nowadays play in many cases never ends and hence is not true play. A far-reaching contamination of play and serious activity has taken place. The two spheres are getting mixed. In the activities of an outwardly serious nature hides an element of play. Recognised play, on the other hand, is no longer able to maintain its true play-character as a result of being taken too seriously and being technically over-organized. (p. 177)
This “contamination” is what is really behind the current, woeful state of Huizinga’s world. Seen in this light, no wonder he never quite shakes the rigidity of the magic circle in Homo Ludens: everything depends upon it.
Although he recognizes that “To a certain extent something like this contamination has been present in all cultures as far back as we can see…. [I]t is the dubious privilege of modern Western civilization to have given this diffusion of the two spheres its greatest intensity” (p. 177). The collapse has led to “the prevalence of a state of mind which might be called one of permanent adolescence. It is characterised by a lack of sense of decorum, a lack of personal dignity and of respect for other and the opinions of others, and an excessive concentration of the self” (p. 178). People are too concerned with their own, individual wants and needs; they have either forgotten or rejected duty, altruism, respect, and deep reflection. In collapsing the magic circle, modern civilization has reverted to adolescence. Everything is all jumbled up, and Huizinga sees this as a cause for great concern. This is important because it shows that although Huizinga backs off from a consistently rigid definition of play in Homo Ludens, the circle metaphor retains the pureness of play described in Shadow.
In Homo Ludens, Huizinga modifies his play definition from Shadow, but only marginally. In Homo Ludens he defines play as
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. (p. 13)
This seems quite similar to the definition found in Shadow. Money shouldn’t enter into the mix and there are “proper boundaries” in place. However, throughout Homo Ludens Huizinga mentions early and often that play is incredibly porous and infinitely dynamic. Consider the following, typically Huizingian passage:
To our way of thinking, play is the direct opposite of seriousness. At first sight this opposition seems as irreducible to other categories as the play-concept itself. Examined more closely, however, the contrast between play and seriousness proves to be neither conclusive nor fixed… for some play can be very serious indeed. (p. 5)
And later, he acknowledges that “The contrast between play and seriousness is always fluid” (p. 8). So while Huizinga sees the magic circle as always already “tainted” to an extent in Homo Ludens, he often derides this as “puerility” in Shadow.
Strangely enough, this puerility is not necessarily a bad thing, Indeed, Huizinga’s hope is that the seriousness with which we afford play can actually satisfy humanity’s “competitive drives,” and thereby prevent a war which must have appeared increasingly inevitable. In Huizinga’s words, “Without competition there can be no culture. That our time has found in sport and sporting events a new international form of gratifying the ancient agonistic impulse is perhaps one of the factors which may contribute most towards the preservation of our culture” (p. 174). I suspect Huizinga had high hopes that the 1936 Berlin Olympics would smooth things over, that they would provide a release for the “ancient agonistic impulse” which he saw as an unfortunate but inevitable aspect of human nature. Again, this sense of hope unrealized makes Shadow a sad read at times.
This is very much a historical book and its context can’t be ignored. However, it remains relevant for contemporary cultural analysis in general and game studies in particular. I can’t help but think of possible manifestations of puerility in our own time, when politics have more to do with money and competition than sound policy decisions. Or to use a more pertinent example, when contemporary videogames depict war as heroic, fun, and consequence-free, not a brutal tearing of flesh by metal. These are modern iterations of the same puerility Huizinga railed against seventy years ago. And while I utterly reject his often essentialist rhetoric and rigid demarcations, I share some of the same concerns.
In the Shadow of Tomorrow is helpful in illuminating Huizinga’s overall thinking on play. Taking both Shadow and Homo Ludens into account, I think that he ultimately sees the magic circle model of play as an imaginary ideal. The “contamination” he speaks of in Shadow is never entirely kept out, nor can it be.. What is worrisome for Huizinga is the degree to which puerility is present, and the stakes at play. War should be treated very seriously. We should not take it lightly or allow our urges for personal and national heroism to blind us from its horror, and (all too often), its futility. Granted, Shadow often reads like an old-fashioned moral treatise, but for both historians and scholars of play it’s a worthwhile read.
Huizinga, Johan. In the Shadow of Tomorrow. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1936.
Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. Boston: Beacon Press, 1955.
Rodriguez, Hector. “The Playful and the Serious: An Approximation to Huizinga’s Homo Ludens.” Game Studies 6:1, 2006.