Studying the Play: Journal #1

I’m officially one week into my Directed Study work plan, which means it’s time for my first Journal exercise. The exact structure for these is undefined, but the general idea is to “serve as responses to readings/media, research updates, or other project-related work.”

I’m currently in phase one of my plan, which is to focus on researching play. All my prescribed books have made their way from Amazon to my living room floor and are ready for consumption. I decided to begin with probably the most influential work in the whole field, Homo Ludens by Johan Huizinga.

Where to begin…First of all, it was a struggle to get through 200 pages of this book in a single week, since I’ve been reading closely, underlining and scribbling throughout the pages, and keeping notes in a separate notebook on any neat connections, further questions or research to pursue, and favorite quotes. For this journal exercise I’ll try to briefly summarize the book and then share some excerpts from my physical notebook’s jottings.

Homo Ludens makes a valiant effort to define play – or, as Huizinga puts it more broadly, “the play-concept” – as a fundamental building block of all culture. He posits that all aspects of culture today can be traced back through history and be found to emerge from a primal drive to be ‘playful’. He does clarify that play’s influence in today’s world (well, technically 1948’s) is just a vestigial sliver of what once was in more primitive cultures when humans lived immersed in concepts of myth, rituals, and gods. He examines a wide range of historical accounts from around the world involving origins and evolutions of words, historical accounts of ancient rituals and traditions, as well as poems, scriptures, and stories ranging from ancient Greece, China, and Native Americans. He goes into fascinating detail, and I’m sure I’ll be using this book as reference when looking more deeply into any given topic or time period.

The book focuses on several main categories of culture, attempting to prove play as a rich central factor in the development of each: Religion, Myth, Law, War, Poetry, Art, Philosophy are each broken down and analyzed. While it may sound at first like a ridiculous assertion to place play in such a high regard, I found myself really engaged and excited by all of this. He managed to put into words a lot of my feelings and helped ignite a lot of further questions for me. I may disagree with some minor points, but overall this has made me feel a lot more confident that he and I are asking valid questions! Here’s a key quote from the text:

“Culture arises in the form of play,…is played from the very beginning…Social life is endued with supra-biological forms, in the shape of play, which enhance its value. It is through this playing that society expresses its interpretation of life and the world.”

The strongest and perhaps most important connection in my opinion was between play and religion. He spends a great deal of time going into ancient spiritual practices and rituals. He makes a great argument for how the form of these ceremonies and beliefs match that of a game through its specially defined rules, confined space, sense of wonder and immersion, and overall feel of moving past the everyday experience into something more, something special. The key, he stresses throughout, is not that he is trying to tear down the significance of religion and myth in culture, but rather to elevate play as something much greater than it is generally considered. He stresses that the ‘play-concept’ can be deadly serious (think of duels, wars, and disputes) and revered (think of ancient Greek’s agonistic spirit, or the knight or samurai’s code of ethics). All in all, this was an excellent jumping off point for this project and has helped motivate me to press on.

Below are some quick excerpts from my notebook – enjoy!

Language: “plays in words” – poetry, metaphors **”sparking between matter and mind”**

Myth: *imagination

Ritual: Sacred rites, mysteries, etc. “in a spirit of pure play truly understood”**

Law & Order/Cultural Values: “all rooted in the primaeval soul of play”

**Sub specie ludi**

**Beauty and aesthetic!** –> can’t be reduced further

Key elements of play:

  1. Voluntary – freedom*
  2. “Not Real” // Pretending –> still can be serious (**flow!?)
    1. **Look into sexuality — he disagrees, interesting!
  3. “Disinterestedness” –> ‘outside of normal functioning’
  4. “Limitedness” –> bound
  5. Creates Order .–> RULES // why it can be beautiful*

Two Main Functions: CONTEST // REPRESENTATION –> religion? DRAMA as well.

great quote: “order, tension, movement, change, solemnity, rhythm, rapture”

-Play is NOT not serious: earnestness, solemnity, fervor can be key

***What is the opposite of play?

*Gamblers vs day traders: are they really “players” of the stock market, even if they don’t consider it to be one? Is the ludic attitude necessary?

*Ethnographic research must have evolved a lot since this book

**pg 100: “ALLL SOCIETY IS A GAME” –> “the living principle of all civilization”

Neat words to remember: levity. liturgy. jeopardy. thaumaturgy. plega! agon.


*Consider European “play” action re: circus arts vs US’s “spin/flow”

Most languages = [play-terms] <—> [“armed strife”] (think sword-play, war games)


Further Topic Ideas: (from throughout)

Ancient rituals – historian/anthropologist

Drugs! – Mind altering substances, think Michael Pollan

What inspired Huizinga?

Gamer scholarships today

Fortune telling – tarot card history?


Play *AS* a religion!? Could I make a cult?

Cats cradle games!


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