Homo Ludens

Homo Ludens by Johan Huizinga

Homo Ludens: a study of the play element in culture was written in 1938 by Johan Huizinga, a Dutch historian who lived from 1872 to 1945. His book suggested the instinct for play as the central element in human culture and examined the role of play in law, war, science, poetry, philosophy, and art. The title, Homo Ludens, translates to mean Man the Player.

In the first chapter, “Nature and Significance of Play as a Cultural Phenomenon,” Huizinga attempted to define and describe play especially as it relates to culture. Play, he stated, is older than culture, and he saw all human activities as playing where “…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.”1 He describes all play as voluntary and free. It is not “ordinary,” in other words, is an interlude to daily life, both in duration and location with certain limits of time and place. He points out the play itself isn’t serious, but it is executed with seriousness. Play demands order or the game is spoiled. There is an element of tension and solution that governs games as well as fairness, since all play has rules that underlies its success in keeping the game going. A player who breaks the rules is considered a “spoil-sport.” Play tends to build a community of players who enjoy secrecy, “dressing up,” and being together.

Huizinga sums up the formal characteristics of 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. It promotes the formation of social groupings which tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world by disguise or other means.”2

In the second chapter, “The Play-Concept as Expressed in Language,” Huizinga gave examples of words used for defining play in numerous languages. He concluded, “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.”3 His definition of play as seen in most modern European languages is defined in these terms: “Play is a voluntary activity or occupation executed within certain fixed limits of time and place, according to rules freely accepted but absolutely binding, having its aim in itself and accompanied by a feeling of tension, joy and the consciousness that it is ‘different’ from ‘ordinary life.’”4

Huizinga began chapter three, “Play and Contest as Civilizing Functions,” with these statements: “When speaking of the play-element in culture we do not mean that among the various activities of civilized life an important place is reserved for play, nor do we mean that civilization has arisen out of play by some evolutionary process, in the sense that something which was originally play passed into something which was no longer play and could henceforth be called culture…culture arises in the form of play, that it is played from the very beginning…It is through this playing that society expresses its interpretation of life and the world.”5 Throughout the chapter, Huizinga investigated the importance of contests and competitions as a form of play and the festivities that surrounded them in various cultures.

Huizinga continued his theories on the importance of contests in chapter four, “Play and Law.” He likened lawsuits to contests with the argument and counter arguments presented. Once again, Huizinga gave numerous examples of diverse cultures and their means to settle such contests.

Chapter five, “Play and War,” presupposed that “ever since words existed for fighting and playing, men have been wont to call war a game….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.”6 The antagonists contend with each other for something each feels they have a right, and the contest contains elements of honor, nobility, chivalry, and loyalty.

“Playing and Knowing,” the sixth chapter delves into looking at the verbal contests that have challenged players through the centuries. Competitions in knowledge and riddles met a specific need in superiority. “Doing and daring are power, but knowing is a magical power.”7

Chapter seven, “Play and Poetry” explored poetry as a function of play. “Poetry, in its original culture-making capacity, is born in and as play.”8 Social games of poetry and singing contests permeated many cultures throughout history. “All poetry is born of play: the sacred play of worship, the festive play of courtship, the martial play of the contest, the disputatious play of braggadocio, mockery and invective, the nimble play of wit and readiness.”9

Chapter eight, “The Elements of Mythopoiesis,” referred to the making of myths, the creation of an imaginary world of living beings, as being a mental game to speculate on the origin of the world and the things contained in it. This also included the personification of abstract ideas, both in literary and sacred contexts.

“Play-Forms in Philosophy,” this ninth chapter explored the disputing of ideas in public competition, where public speaking was a form of exhibitionism for showing off with witty dialog.

Chapter ten, “Play-Forms in Art,” described music as one of the most primal exchanges left in human civilization, where music is an immediate connection to emotions. Dance clearly has a playful element to it, and those who engage in music and dance often strive to better their abilities in competition with others.

The final chapters of the book, “Western Civilization” and “The Play-Element in Contemporary Civilization” noted the slow dissolution of play starting around the 18th century and continuing until 1938, when the book was written. Huizinga outlined how play had become cluttered with seriousness, rank, nationalism, pomp, and other technicalities to such an extent that it had ceased to be play. He felt that competitive sports had lost much of the play spirit that he felt was so important to culture.

Huizinga feared that play was being lost in civilization. “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.”10

  • 1. Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: a study of the play-element in culture. Boston, MA: The Beacon Press. 1950. p. 5.
  • 2. Ibid. p. 13.
  • 3. Ibid. p. 28.
  • 4. Ibid. p. 28.
  • 5. Ibid. p. 46.
  • 6. Ibid. p. 89.
  • 7. Ibid. p. 105.
  • 8. Ibid. p. 122.
  • 9. Ibid. p. 129.
  • 10. Ibid. p. 75.