Thursday, 3 February 2011

Review - Homo Ludens, J. Huizinga

1. Huizinga J. Homo Ludens: A study of the play element in culture. Beacon Press, Boston; 1955.

A lot of the books and papers I'm reading kept referencing this book, so I thought I ought to read it. It's been a bit of a struggle, frankly! The most interesting sections for me included chapter 1: Nature and significance of play, chapter 3: Play and contest as civilizing functions, and chapter 12: Play-element in contemporary civilization.

Chapter 1 includes good definitions of play, that are built on by Jesper Juul and others. Play is "non-seriousness" and is outside of "normal life". It takes place in a magic circle, with boundaries carefully built up and maintained in the game by the rules. Huizinga states that the rules are "absolutely binding and allow no doubt" (pg 11) - I'm not sure this holds for multiplayer (or maybe computer in general) games where the rules of the game are discovered as the players play, although it could be argued that the rules of the game as defined by the code are in place before play starts, even if the players don't know them all yet. If the rules are broken or have to be renegotiated the game has to stop for that to be fixed.

In addition to this he introduces the concept of the play-community, the group of players, which can become permanent after the game ends. Along with this is the idea of the 'spoil-sport' who refuses to play the rules any more, and therefore exposes the players to the fact that their game is just a game. The cheat is something different, who keeps the magic of the game going by pretending to play but secretly breaks the rules.

In chapter 3 there is some discussion about single player vs multiplayer. Social play (or multiplayer) is considered more "generative of culture" than solitary play. It's recognised that the prevalence of single player games is quite a recent phenomenon (not in this book, in more recent literature) that came about with the personal computer.

(There's a cracking quote too: "The passion to win sometimes threatens to obliterate the levity proper to a game." pg. 47 - could be relevant in terms of why people might be driven to cheat?)

Then towards the end of chapter 12 the following: "Civilization will, in a sense, always be played according to certain rules, and true civilization will always demand fair play. Fair play is nothing less than good faith expressed in play terms." I felt the chapter on the play-element in contemporary civilisation was rather reflective of it's time shortly after WWII, but this particular point could again relate to a nebulous concept of 'fair play' and how that is defined by the community.

Relatively few points for a book I really struggled with!

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