The most fascinating and profound studies on play I found by the Dutch lingusit and historian Johan Huizinga (1872-1945). He was one of the founders of modern cultural history, started out as a student of Comparative linguistics, gaining a good command of Sanskrit. He wrote his doctoral thesis on the role of the jester in Indian drama. Huizinga had an aesthetic approach to history, where art and spectacle played an important part. His most famous work is The Autumn of the Middle Ages (a.k.a. The Waning of the Middle Ages). interestingly, he reinterprets the later Middle Ages as a period of pessimism and decadence rather than rebirth.
In his book Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture Huizinga argues that play is one of fundamental drivers of human life, and is at the root of poetry, music, philosophy – even jurisprudence and war. “The spirit of playful competition is, as a social impulse, older than culture itself and pervades all life like a veritable ferment. Ritual grew up in sacred play; poetry was born in play and nourished on play; music and dancing were pure play….We have to conclude, therefore, that civilization is, in its earliest phases, played. It does not come from play…it arises in and as play, and never leaves it.”
Huizinga wrote his book on Homo Ludens (playful human) being a prisoner of Nazis. However the concept of Homo Ludens is completely different of the Uebermensch of the Facists. Huizinga predicted that Homo Sapiens would soon be replaced by machines and robots. Then there would be nothing left for humans but their feeling, their imagination and creativity. All the rest would be done better by computers. (and it is happening!)
Unfortunately there is no much information on this brilliant theory available in English (I found more in Dutch, German and Russian).
Here are the main conditions of a play by Johan Huizinga:
- The play takes place out of the real world (“within the regulated time and space”). It should be a place and time period where no other activity is possible (stadium, casino, theater, golf place)
- The regulating rules should be strict but willingly agreed upon. In the competitive games, where people tend to use the rules for their favour, there should be a judge.
- No other goals than the win should be aimed. The game is not there to create the material values (like backing bread, fixing cars, exploring the cosmos). The football player wants to make a goal, the casino player- to win a million and they are not interested in other things.
- And, finally – THE PLAY IS THERE TO BE ENJOYED! The play should be accompanied by the feelings of tension + relief -> enjoyment, as well as the feeling of “being in another world”, other than the regular life. This condition can not be forced, however any game will die out if there will be no such feelings.
In my life, I somehow had a difficulty with understanding a play since my childhood. I disliked theater because it was “not real”. I surely played some games, but always had a strong feeling of being in a game and not willing to take it seriously (which is a necessary condition for playing!). I even thought I have a problem of not being able to play. Until one trainer said that this happens to people who simply need high goals and vision to be led by. Otherwise they quit. That explained to me a lot 🙂
What I understand now:
- Life is indeed a play – a mega play, consisting of millions of virious plays
- It is the matter of knowing the rules of the game!
P.S. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture, from the back cover: “[The writer] assembles and interprets one of the most fundamental elements of human culture: the instinct for play. Reading this volume, one suddenly discovers how profoundly the achievements in law, science, poverty, war, philosophy, and in the arts are nourished by the instinct of play.”